James In Turkey

J. Alan Burdick

© Copyright 2004 by J. Alan Burdick


The gravel road was pretty well maintained by the sweepers. They had been traveling for about four hours now, and there seemed to be a man with his broom made of twigs every 50 kilometers or so. The traffic was mostly ox carts and trains of heavily burdened donkeys, which moved out of the road to let the car pass. The last one had been particularly colorful. All the donkeys carried the red, yellow, and orange saddlebags filled with goods, the shell designed rump piece, and at least one large bright blue bead. The man of the house rode the lead animal, followed by a string of a dozen uninterested beasts, and then women walking with, or carrying children. The women would cover their faces as we passed, as required by county custom. Gold coins dangled from their headbands.*

Istanbul had been noisy and full of life, but now they were on the way to Ankara and their new home in a black Dodge sedan**. It would be 1952 before they would return to the states to live. James had traveled outside the states once before. It was a quick jump across the Rio Grand into Mexico and back, just long enough to buy some silver and return to safety. This was very different…James didn’t know how different yet!

“ We are in Bolu now, the turnoff to Lake Abant is coming up. We will be at the hotel in about an hour.”, his father said. ”We can wash up and eat a good meal of the trout they have there. Tomorrow we have only about 100 miles to travel from here. ”

 James concentrated on not getting sick, as the car climbed through mountains that soon became pine covered. At last, they rounded the last curve and a beautiful blue, crater lake lay before them. Mother quickly asked where the toilet was, disappeared at once, only to come back in a moment. This was her first encounter with a Turkish toilet, which has no stool, but is outfitted with places for your feet, and a water faucet to the side.

“Chester, I’m not sure I will be able to get up, once I stoop…so wait outside and I’ll call if I need help”.

 Supper was wonderful. The fish was fresh, the bread, white, but quite course, and a fine cucumber, tomato, and onion salad fixed with olive oil and vinegar. Father arranged for James to go out fishing on the lake with the men in the morning.

It was early. James, always an early riser, met the men at the dock. The boat was a round-bottomed wooden rowboat, brightly painted, similar to those he saw in Istanbul. The water was so clear that you could see down to the bottom at the shore (15 feet), but quickly got so deep so fast, that all you could see was the blue of the sky. The sun had not hit the water and wisps of mist rose from it. The men spoke no English, and he, no Turkish, so the instructions was all by signing. It was still and quiet, They fished about 50 feet down, using no poles, but only a line. There was a certain rhythm of pulls that were used…and they caught about 15 fish before the sun came out, and returned to the dock.

 Back on the road to Ankara, they met more trucks that day. The trucks were old and overloaded, and the tires showed a lot more wear than seemed safe. Ankara , itself, was a modern city with paved streets and German styled architecture . “Home” was an apartment building on Sumer Street in the newer part of town. There was a “western” style toilet, and a Turkish toilet as well, which pleased everyone. (James preferred the latter).

About a year later James spoke Turkish well enough to do the family grocery shopping. He and Landon (an American boy about his own age) got up in the morning and walked to the market place about a mile away. Turkish boys with large baskets on their backs mobbed them. The boys wanted to be hired to carry the purchases for the sum of 25 Kurus, about 15 cents. As soon as the choice was made, the others went off looking for other customers. The boys chosen were ragged, without shoes, but cheerful. Landon always picked the smallest of the lot and James just made a random choice. Now that the team was ready, shopping could start! James consulted his list.

 “OK, let’s start with the organ place, we need a heart and liver”

 This shop had organs ,hanging in the window, still attached to one another. A number of flies had gathered, and the shop keeper, took a hand sprayer and sprayed them with what smelled like DDT. James looked them over and chose his heart and liver. A short but lively session of bargaining followed, where James pointed out several “problems” with his choice. The final price was usually about a third to a half less than the demanded price.

 “ Now I need some white cheese and ripe olives”

 This shop was one of the upscale shops in which one did not bargain.

 Next they bought (all at separate places) a couple of chickens (live), beans, onions, rice, bread, gazos (local soft drink), olive oil, mutton, and some round rings of rough bread (sitmite) off of a boy carrying a tray of them on his head. The four walked home, and the bearers were paid under the watchful eye of Fatima, the family maid/cook/enforcer. Since Fatima spoke no English, and mom spoke no Turkish, James was the family interpreter. Fatima took the chickens, checked to see if they were fat enough, and then wrung their necks.

Every Monday morning, James got up very early and walked to the bus stop to catch the trolleybus. He went as far as the foot of the street that rose steeply up to the citadel that overlooked the city. Walking up the street he stopped at a “junk-shop” about halfway up. None of the shops were open yet, all had chains and iron shutters locked. James sat down on the pavement in front of the shop and waited. Soon an old man came puffing up greeted James, and opened the shop. The man was a Jew who believed that the first customer of the week determined the sales for the rest of the week. This gave James a big advantage in bargaining! As soon as he entered, he went to the large bowl full of old coins*** and pawed through them. James had two liras to spend…and should be able to buy four roman, Greek, or other coin. “Baba”, the term James used to address him quickly came to terms, and served up tea and a sweet pastry at the end. Once, James’ dad came with him, and carried on a conversation in Spanish (dads’ Turkish was poor) with Baba.

“ A very strange kind of Spanish. Baba told me his family fled here centuries ago from Spain. Turkey has always been more open-minded about people than others either in Islam or Christianity. They have always spoken Spanish in their home.”

One of the benefits of having a father who was a highway engineer was that James took trips on roads that others never traveled. For example, the trip to the northeastern part of Turkey started with a trip to Kayseri on a good road. They traveled in preparation for a rough trip, however. They had the political (elected) representatives from the areas to which they were traveling (3), two armed army soldiers, the head of the road mission and his wife, Dad and James, and drivers. They traveled in three dodge sedans, and two jeeps with winches front and back. From Kayseri (which is next to Mt Erciyes, an extinct volcano) they went to Sivas (and bought a rug in the market). The road to Erzincan (about 300 miles from Ankara) was rougher but on a plain, so the travel wasn’t hard at all. The plain continued to rise, and the country was fairly arid all the way to Erzurum.

 James felt a little shy about jumping out and peeing without rock or bush to go behind, so he was happy to see the city.

“Look. There’s a bridge that must have been built by Sinan”, Dad said happily. “That stone bridge is perfect in shape and function…it will last another hundred years or more….if they don’t have to blow it up!” The bridge was mined, guarded by soldiers, and had tank traps on both ends. As most cities in this part of Turkey, it was surrounded by Byzantine walls, and crowned with a fortress.

 The guards went through our papers carefully, but one of the Turks with us was the representative to parliament from here, so there was no problem. The group ate lunch (seven courses, starting with soup) and started on to Kars about a 100 mile drive. The seven course meal was a surprise to teenaged James!

 “You will be offered more, and they will be pleased to see you like it. Remember, however, it is polite to eat some of each course! “ ,Dad had warned him.

 “I doubt they will be able to serve me more than I can eat!”

 Wrong! The road got a lot more rough and full of curves.

 Kars was one of the most romantic towns in Turkey. High in the mountains, and isolated, it was crowned by a very large citadel that was made out of black stone. It is a Seljuk fortress (12th century) that had been used by the Russians before Turkey had taken Kars back. The Kur river had no bridge and ran fast, cold and clear. A jeep went across first, the cable unwound and attached to front of a sedan. The rear of the sedan was then attached to the cable on the other jeep…then the sedan (with nervous passengers) were winched across. The hotel was fine, but as Dad completed his DDT spraying of his bed, Shiref bey asked him (aside, so that none of the staff would know) to spray his bed too. The bedbugs were numerous. The toilet was, of course, Turkish style. The rooms were on the second floor. The toilet was unique in that the exit for the waste was directed down to a slanted board, and hence to the ally behind the hotel. The food was excellent! Rather than going up to the fortress, the Americans went shopping for kilims.

 The next day was one of the most difficult, traveling though mountains, on a bad road, with no bridges, but at last we got to Shiref beys’ home town…Hopa, on the Black Sea. The Black Sea coast is semi-tropical, lush, and green…beautiful. The sea was dark and quiet, with brightly colored fishing boats. The boats were curved from stern to bow, which had bright blue painted eyes.

 The group traveled from Hopa to Trabzon where James swam in the cold sea. A few small insects bit him, but after the long trip the swim was worth it. Or was it? By the time they reached Samsun, James had a slight fever. By the time they got back to Ankara, he was sick and the fever went ever higher. As they carried James to the ambulance Fatima sounded her ear splitting wail for the sick and dieing. James was in delirium for three days with sand fly fever.

 The trip was worth it.

 *According to my Turkish friends, things are very different now. A modern superhighway is built between Istanbul and Ankara.

** A part of the of the Marshall Plan American highway mission to Turkey

***Major change again….Turkey has strong laws against foreigners taking ancient things from the country now.

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