Saturday, 4 September 2010

Sensless Acts of Beauty

To the Turkish people hospitality comes natural. It is effortless and spontaneous as the offer of a green apple on a train. No attachments seem to come with it, just a genuine smile from a old woman. We munch on the apple incredulous, this is not like home.

And it wasn't just a one off. In a patisserie we were treated to breakfast, the owner would not accept payment. In a gas station the manager who also happened to speak 5 languages refused to take money from us and gave us his phone number in case we needed any help. In the retail outlet of a cheese factory we were treated to a lunch by the staff. After a stormy night on the floor of an orthodox church (this was actually in Greece, but a thank you was due) the buffet breakfast we had in a serene four star hotel was offered to us by the manageress who missed travelling.

Very often people gesture us to approach. They wave and offer çay or melon or fresh walnuts as we whizz by. More often than not we do not stop. This is not out of rudeness but in the knowledge that the interaction will take time and we are trying to get somewhere. It is rare to want to stop when one's at cruising speed. But sometimes these offers just come at the right moment.

Approaching Iliç, a hot and sweaty day, our energies had long been spent. The landscape of central Anatolia is a joy to behold, but it also makes for a harsh environment to cross. Cycling over these mountainous steppe consists of mean climbs under an unforgiving sun and long distances between one waterhole and the next. Along bigger roads gas stations are frequent enough and it is rare to go for more than 20km without passing one. It pains me to say so, but petrol stations are these days our oasis: they provide a place where to sit in the shade, cold water, a little rest for our tired legs and countless sugary, caffeinated, fizzy drinks to quench the most burning of thirsts. Evil Cola never tasted so good, it works just perfect to strip our throats of the glacky road grunge.

Anyway, 3 p.m., very little water left in our canteens, a couple of handfuls of nuts and raisins for lunch, coffee and a packet of biscuits for breakfast. We are hungry, tired, grumpy and the bikes are squeaking and wingeing. We've been doing regular maintenance, but a glitch in the immortal rohloff and a couple of mistakes with chain changes are adding a layer of worry to our experience. Spent we arrive at the bottom of town. Well, not exactly the bottom of town, but the bottom of the very steep hill Iliç is perched on. We look up, forlorn, wobbly and quite unable to face one more climb. Two workmen sitting on the side of the train track we have just crossed wave at us. “Drink” they gesture.

The two sit us on the railway sleeper bench built next to their little shack, place a bottle of water and two glassed in front of us and then disappear inside. When they reappear they have hot çay, a large wedge of bread and a fat chunk of cheese. They rip the bread open with their hands and stuff it with the sheep's cheese. “Teşekkür, teşekkür ederim” we are so hungry we spend little time on ceremony. We devour the food and drink the tea, then drink some more. After the third or fourth cup of sugary black çay we start to revive. Here tea is served in two pots which sit one on top of the other. The pot above contains a strong black infusion, the one below just hot water. One pours a little very dark tea from the first pot into a small bell shaped glass then adds enough hot water to make it into a full cup. Turks add 2-3 sugar cubes to their small glasses, and drink it black. The tea is strong, very sweet and utterly addictive. One has to remember not to drink too much later in the evening or the night becomes a long and restless affair.


These two completely wrapped us under their wing. Together we went up to the town where they took us to all the shop we needed to visit to replenish our empty satchels. They were quite proud to show off the two foreigners who had come from Ingiltere on bisiklet. At sundown, after the muezzin called the end of the fast we dined together. The place was a workmen's diner where we stood out like two sore thumbs and ate very little as everything there was meat. A çorba (soup), some pilaf and a plate of kaymak yoğurt (crusty yoghurt, mmmmmh). Later we went to drink some more çay in a small tea house between two pools full of large carp. Cygnus watched over us.

We had less than five words in common and conversation was carried out in gestures, nods, shakes of the head or open palms and raised shoulders: “I have no idea what you re saying to me”. Mainly we all laughed when there was a glimpse of understanding, or lack of. Sometimes I wonder if language was such a great invention after all. In particular I am thinking of the constipated intellectual nodding in front of some self-conscious art. Do we gain much by looking at somebody's belly button fluff? I am not dismissing all communication, just wandering how much energy is spent to say very little. Laughing enriches my life. Simple but true human contact, gentleness, trust. This is the Turkish hospitality.