Thursday, June 21, 2007

from Bodrum, Turkey: stones and soap

So this is Turkey.

Or is it?

What’s at the core of this place? Where is the real Turkey?

Ocean is all about impressions and in places such as Istanbul and Bodrum (and I'm warning, my impressions are only about these two), I am enchanted: here is a country that wants to fix itself. You feel the energy of progress. After a century of decline, you sense that all those millions out on the streets of Istanbul have had enough of wallowing. Move forward. Embrace secularism (for the most part), respect tradition, accept change.

As my Istanbullus seatmate on the flight here said – it’s all rather colorful, isn’t it?

In the morning I insist on going to a beach. I am no windsurfer, beach toad, or rubber raft paddler, but my God, we are on the Aegean coast. Let’s put our toes in the Aegean.

We get a ride to Bitez, a village further up the coast. A small cove, a stretch of sand – it’s a beach alright. And there are people and there are chairs and umbrellas and it’s all pretty, in a clumped together sort of way.


But wait, where am I, in France? Women, bronzing their breasts? In Turkey? I'm worrying whether I have crossed the line by wearing tank tops (it is so hot right now!) and before me, I have a row of voluptuously undulating female forms, exposed for the world to see?

We walk along the water's edge. On the surface, the shore is all tidy and indeed, the waters are clear and the beach is neat. But look closely under the water. Paper. Plastic. The spoils of a vacationing people.

We want to hike along the coast, toward the next village and the more secluded waterfront. It’s a nice little walk, up the hill, past rocky coves where young men bathe (always, there are 100 men for every woman out and about),


…and then the road ends in some private driveway and you can go nowhere at all. Find me a path! Don’t make me take the highway!

And this is so very real about Turkey: it’s a tough place to walk in. Yes, you can share a road with the cars, the dolmus, the motorbikes. But it’s no fun. It’s me against them and who wants this battle anyway?

So there’s the traffic issue. And will everyone please put out their cigarettes issue.

But how can you not smile at the pretty vines and flowers covering the simple homes...


...and at the calf, nipping at its itchy leg in the small shade of an olive tree?


And is there a friendlier, warmer people on earth?

Oh, such a conflicted nation! The Turkey of many faces. Humiliation and pride, all rolled into one. The feeling of poverty and the desire for success. Trash and litter under the rug, but such a clean rug for you to walk on!

Turkey is at a crossroads and I have great empathy for people and nations that are at crossroads, for the obvious reasons of my own past and my own shaky movements forward (always on the verge of a topple).

We go back to Bodrum and we pay our respects to the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus – one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

It’s rare that ancient history moves me. Three times in my young adulthood I had visited the Acropolis and three times all I could take from it were the crowds and the heat and the dust. And did I mention the crowds?

The Mausoleum moved me no end.

Imagine this: a taxi lets us out before a gate – as if to a private residence, on a side street of Bodrum. Where is it? I ask. My daughter nudges me. Here’s the small sign. It’s here, across the narrow street.

We pass a ticket window. A woman sits there, waiting, peering out at us, the sole visitors. A man goes in and out of the house – the caretaker? The guard? Her husband? Otherwise, there is no one around.

We knew that the Mausoleum had been destroyed by earthquakes, by pirates looting tombs, by careless excavations. We knew that there would be only the foundation, with a scattering of columns, stones and friezes.

So why is it that it feels so very real?

Across the street, the chant is starting at the mosque. It’s a sad wail and this is a sad place. Great beauty destroyed.


None of it is cordoned off. We walk between ruins of greatness. We touch it, we stare at it, we imagine the earthquake that caused the chariot to tumble to the ground.



Once the most beautiful of all beautiful structures..

036 broken, scattered. And yet – and this is no exaggeration – to be here is to feel more than a thousand years of history rush past you, from the laying of the first stone, through the tremors that brought it all down and the destruction that continued for centuries after -- all in one sitting.

We leave as we would leave a stately residence – through a gate, out onto the street. A laundromat across the street, with racks of clothes, drying outside. Yet another courtyard and another, with vines giving shade over a rickety table. Men sitting on wooden chairs, talking quietly. Cats – the cats of Bodrum, moving around places where there is food.

We come to the harbor where the Bodrum gulets sway against each other. Made of wood, cut after a new moon, because cutting it at any other time would invite worms. We read this, but we don’t know if it’s a folk wisdom or if it is the way of boats and timbers and things that sail.


An ice cream break. When your head gets too full of history and the heat pounds on you from all sides, it’s time for an ice
cream break. I pick "black mulberry" and "bramble."


The sweet juices of Turkish berries.

Revived, we begin the climb back to our hillside white haven, the one with an infinity pool where waters spill out and become one with the hill and stone.

A long pause follows in the cool, quiet waters up here, where the scent of jasmine and honey is strong.

In the evening, we pick a place to eat that is outside of Bodrum. We are given plate after plate of zesty salads and roasted eggplant, followed by pungent meats steeped in garlic, wrapped in pita, with mounds of creamy yogurt for dipping.

And such great baklava.

And Turkish delight with our espresso.


We wait for our ride home. Near the door, there is a display of soaps, locally made. I am dazzled by their fragrance – olives and mint and thyme. For the first time in Bodrum, I want to buy.

The waiter smiles. No, we can’t take your money. Why not? He nods to the corner where the owner sits with his friends. The owner tells me that you should have these. His gift for you.

This is Turkey. Where you go to sleep remembering only the good foods and good smells, the sun on your back, the black mulberry icecream and the gift of soap.

This afternoon we fly back to Istanbul and tomorrow, back to France.