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It’s raining on the Sea of Marmara.  It’s raining and cold.  The warm cocoon of the ferry boat, on which we seem to be the only non Turks, is simply a reminder that it is raining outside, and everywhere.  It is cold and it is raining.  And we are heading to an island, Büyükada, about which we know little, and about which at least one Turk has asked, “Why are you going there?”

The windows are streaked.  The islands are not even dark blurs in the near distance.  Ferry, container ships, small natural gas tankers, criss-cross in the gloom, making their way to and from the Dardanelles and the wide Mediterranean beyond or to and from the Bosporus and the Black Sea which, when the water gets too low, becomes a lake.  They loom and slide by, close enough to spit at, it seems, the lens of the rain disordering the light.

Our rain capes are slung over the benches we are sitting on and we gingerly finger the small hot glasses of tea — ςay as it is called, with the ς pronounced as ‘ch’– brought to us by Mr. Ali Baba who rescued us at the ferry landing.  ‘No, you are at the wrong line; go next door.  Buy tickets at this machine,’ he took a 5 TL [Turkish Lira] note from my hand and bustled over, me following, wet, not knowing whether this was a scam or actual help.  He was the first of dozens of friendly and helpful Turks we encountered.  They added a new reason to travel – to be helped by friendly strangers, in sign language and broken English mostly, though we all learned a bit of Turkish.  Bir, iki, üç is one, two, three for starters….

Learning the JetonmaticHe pushed the crumpled note into a token machine we hadn’t noticed and wouldn’t have trusted had we.  It was spit back out.  He wrestled with it, stretching and smoothing it.  Tokens clattered into the bottom, and a 1 TL coin, the first of many we were to see.  Our friend Sue warned us:  don’t collect those, they won’t change them when we go home.  We were wet in our laughter: ‘Sue, we’re not going home for 21 days!’   I thanked Mr. Ali Baba for the two tokens — that would be about $1.60 each for a one hour ferry ride, not like San Francisco Bay where 32 minutes will cost a Lincoln.  ‘I have two more friends,’ I said, gesturing and using my fingers.  I gave him a 10 TL note.  More wrestling.  Several smoothings.

‘OK, OK!’  he assured me.  ‘Where you from?’  Those are the first words Turks seem to learn in English — not ‘What is your name?’  but ‘Where you from?’  The usual reply to my answer, ‘California,’ was “Oh, me, Los Angeles.’  Ali Baba had something else in mind.  Handing me the two additional tokens, he said ‘Come to my restaurant.  Near ferry, Büyükada.  He pulled a small glossy foldout out of his pocket; restaurant owners united.  ‘Here,’ he said underlining his name with his thumbnail. ‘See you later!’  We thanked him profusely and boarded, skidding on the wet pier under our pared down two-day packs, thinking we wouldn’t see him again.  But he appeared next to our seats, beckoning a cabin-boy and ordering the tea.

‘Good luck!’ he said. ‘Come to my restaurant.  Ali Baba!  Good.’ And off he went after making sure the tea had come and the boy been paid.

A young woman in the booth next to ours looked up from her books.  ‘How are you?’ she said in shy English.  We returned the greeting and began the inquiry.  She was commuting, daily, on the ferry, from university to the island just prior to ours, where her family lived.  She couldn’t afford to live in the city.  Tomorrow was her English exam.  When conversation fell short, she returned to the books. She asked for a few pointers.  What could we say?  We didn’t know what she didn’t know.  She sounded like she would do just fine; a heck of lot better than we were with our Turkish, Günaydın, Nasılsınız? [Good morning.  How are you?] To which, regardless of the answer, all we could do was smile and keep moving on.It is raining when we land.  It is Horses in the Cab Lineraining when we find ourselves at the edge of small city-square packed with wet horses in harness with their evil-eye protected phaetons. The necks are drooping and their noses plunged into feedbags.  The drivers look at us sideways, standing in small groups, smoking damp tobacco.  Not even foreigners would want a ride now.   It is raining when we find our way to the hotel, large and white on a slight hill, windows streaked with the south-easterly rains and dark.  The hotel lobby is enormous and dim. It isn’t night yet, no lights needed.  Ceilings rise 25 feet over our heads.  Turn of the century chairs and sofas are arranged in a salon Anna Karenina might have been comfortable in.  The reception counter sits in front of an old-fashioned honey comb of room key boxes.  A calendar is tacked to an otherwise bare wall.  A man in a glass enclosed small office, with a speaking and money-pass hole cut in it, looks up.  A young woman sitting in front of a  computer monitor says ‘Hello.’

There are four of us, I say.  “Yes,’ she says, and hands us our keys, as if we were the only guests for the day.  During e-mail negotiations from the United States, Bob, our room-booker had resisted sending all his credit card information.  Was that OK?  Would she hold the rooms?

‘Everything is understood,’ was the cryptic answer.  And it seems it had been.  The elevator can hold two people and two bags.  I go with the porter, the others walk up to the third floor on broad, carpeted, U turned stairs.  The rooms are lined along a large, white atrium in the center of the building.  Seagulls clatter across the glass roof all night long.  It is mating season and nests had to be built; glass is a tricky foundation.  The outside windows of the rooms look out at the Sea of Marmara.  It is still raining.  The green trees and pink walls between the room and sea are dripping through the balcony glass door like streaking water colors.  In the room is a single large wardrobe with five hangers and a door that slowly opens itself after being closed.  The ceilings are twenty feet above us, with a single ancient chandelier we can look at from our two polite twin beds, not close enough together to get a leg across.  The bathroom is tiled white and spotless, with a small, quarter circle shower stall, glass fronted.  Small, very small.  As Bob says, ‘Don’t drop the soap in there!’  Not a hook to hand a wet towel on.

It was raining when we got upAfter flying and transferring for 22 hours, it is time for a nap.  We can hear the rain on the roof above us until we can no more. When we wake, it is dark but not yet black.  It is dinner time, and still raining. Time to repay Mr. Ali Baba’s kindness with a favor to our time-turmoiled bellies.

We make our way down the wet streets, our capes grippered up and hats pulled low, waving off friendly invitations to nearby restaurants.   He is standing under the awning, glistening large dark letters — Ali Baba–  when we arrive, as if foreseen.  ‘My friends!’ he says and gestures towards a water-side covered eating area.  The sides are of heavy plastic.  Inside is heated with large, standing propane burners.  Other diners are at tables scattered around.  Tents like this are strung like a necklace of hope along the entire breakwater, from the ferry building to a wide inlet, several hundred yards away.  We’d been hailed several times on the way: ‘Good food!  Kebab!  Lamb.  Good fish!’ but we’d stuck to our return of the favor and found Ali Baba.

No sooner seated than an enormous tray of small dishes — called ‘meze’– is presented.  A glittering array of colors and implied textures we are to become very familiar with, and fond of, in the next weeks.  This is our first time — like Christmas morning at two years old.  ‘What are they?’ Lexie asks.  The waiter’s helper holds the tray while the waiter points, dish to dish, and tells us ‘aubergine,’ yoghurt with mint,’ ‘spinach with feta,’ ‘chicken kabob,’  We forget the first by the time he gets to the last.  We gestur at two each, and one for good measure.  The wine comes — white, chilled, Turkish, and good.

And then the main menu.  We gape.  Stuffed.  Ali Baba himself comes out to assure us that all the fish is fresh, and grilled perfectly.  And so it is.  Sea Bass, done to a turn, the bones lifted out perfectly, lemon and of course, a yogurt with dill, on the side.

Across from us sits a small family, a father in a short sleeved cotton shirt, and two children, a boy and a girl, about five and seven.  They are mildly attentive to the food; the boy prefers to conduct his own investigations of the other diners.  The mother is fully covered in black with a veil covering her nose and mouth, adorned by a small gold chain.  As she eats, she delicately lifts a corner of the veil, and lets it drop as the fork comes from her mouth.  I see her chin, flashing like a sexual beacon.  Like the old European novels of gentlemen unable to contain themselves at the sight on an angle in tight hose.  The more you cover them, the more they will be desired.  It must be true.  Fewer children are born in countries where bikinis and short skirts are commonplace.  You could look it up.

Turkish Coffee, Thrice BoiledAs the last shot of Turkish coffee is drained, leaving the dregs in the cup, not on the tongue, we lift ourselves up from the table, waving off offers of raki, the potent anis flavored drink, thank Mr. Ali Baba, who says ‘see you tomorrow,’  and set off for a tour of the town’s four streets, at night, their lights glowing modestly over fruits set out under awnings, fish on ice, and umbrellas handily set in round stands near the doors.  Everything is glistening from the rain.  Bending over gleaming tangerine-like fruit, rain drops down my collar.  The same three proprietors who had hailed us on our way to dinner, hail us on the way back to the hotel, signalling great meals in restaurants where no one sits.  ‘Where you from?’ one asks.  ‘Maybe tomorrow?’ says another.  ‘Maybe tomorrow,’ I say. Keep hope alive. The dinner we have just finished felt like it would last for several days.

We go to bed early, after short efforts at reading.  The light is dim. Our eyes heavy.  I get up to turn out the light, five paces from the bed, and count them in the dark to return.  We say our good-nights-I-love-yous and settle into unfamiliar beds.  It was still raining, the last I heard.


More to follow….

Thanks to Lexie Sifford and Bob Whitson for photographic presence of mind.