Sunday, March 04, 2007

The bitter sweet taste of Turkish Delight

We recently returned from a week in Turkey.
Right from the point of landing, Turkey is a land full of contrasts that leave memories tasting both sweet and bitter.We landed at Izmir International, a gleaming new airport as good as any medium sized airport in Europe and certainly more inspirationally designed than London's Gatwick where we caught the direct flight. That was the sweet.

Then came a mild dose of bitter. Most nationalities require a Visa to enter Turkey and this include the Brits. It is a Visa on arrival and consists of a sticker exchanged for cash. There is little attempt to pretend this isabout border control rather than revenue generation. Brits must pay £10 for their sticker or 15 Euros.Mrs. Donatella has a Russian passport and the rate shown was $20 or 15 Euros. Coming from London we had neither Euros nor Dollars but I foresaw no problem. Why not pay £10 which equates to the 15 Euros that Brits can also choose to pay ? The Turkish Bureaucrat collecting the money was having none of it. Brits can pay £10 or 15 Euros, Russians can pay 15 Euros or $20 but they cannot pay £10 ! After a fruitless "discussion" a Turkish woman suggested giving him a couple of extra pounds. 2 extra Pound Coins did indeed open the Turkish border ! The bureaucrat presumably accumulates quite a lot of "extras" which from planeloads of passengers must add up into a reasonable bonus.
Then we were met by the property developer we are buying a flat from. He is a cheerful sales manager to whom everything is generally possible. We were driven to our hotel in Kusadasi on the Agean. The next morning we visited our flat which was supposed to be "finished". "Finished" obviously doesn't fully translate as balcony railings on a fifth floor appartment were not yet available. A large hole in the bathroom ceiling where an extractor fan should sit was explained in terms of "letting bad smells out". This is obviously an eco home ! Other minor points remained and we all agreed that the apartment was not yet "finished".That aside we set about enjoying a week by the Agean Sea.

The weather was gently warm, the sea clear and the sky blue. All around a friendly people worked and played. Prices for the tourist are so much cheaper than Europe at the moment. Dinner, bed and breakfast at a 4 star hotel cost £20 a night for Mrs. Donatella and I.
We hired a car and drove to a nearby National Park. Unspoilt forests roll down to the Agean. The Greek Island of Samos lies a couple of miles away in the clear sea. Yet here amongst the sweetness of a rural idyll there are twangs of bitterness. The area was largely Greek until the mid 1920s. A Greek village is preserved as a tourist attraction. The leaflets explain that it is similar to many Greek villages in the area prior to "the exchange of populations in 1924". "The exchange of populations" is a polite term for successful ethnic cleansing. Like all such acts such as that which occurred in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s or the Sunni- Shia struggle of modern Iraq there is never truly one aggressor and one victim. It is shades of grey rather than black and white. Turks suffered atrocities in what are now Greek islands just as Greeks suffered terribly in what is now the Turkish Republic. The result was partition and a grudging peace. Life continued and nothing changes the past. The sun still shines on the Aegean but while it can look like paradise, ghosts whisper of something that was once lost.
The Aegean coast is truly historical on a vast scale. Ancient Greek settlements abound. The Pope visited Ephesus in 2006 following in the steps of St. Paul, 2000 years ago. The Virgin Mary is venerated by many in a small house reputed to be her final home. While the history is sketchy there is no doubtinh the scale of the history of the area. St. John is buried near to Ephesus and it was he that Jesus asked from the cross to look after his Mother. Pre-Christian sites such as the one-time world wonder, the Temple of Artemis also lay nearby.
Up the coast we drove to Izmir, a large city of 3 to 4 million people. Light Railways and tower blocks are sprouting up in the Springtime of a potential Turkish boom. This was once the Greek City of Smyrna. A scattering of mosques can be seen in this relatively secular area of muslim Turkey. Suddenly from behind a wall on a commercial road, Christian Crosses can be seen marking a Greek burial ground. In this instance the "exchange of populations" did not disturb the dead.

"The Father of all Turks", Ataturk, can be seen on the wall of almost every restaurant, office, hotel reception. He is the focus of the Turkish state. A strong army keeps unwelcome forces in check. Road blocks are relatively common either manned by the Police or the more paramilitary "Jendarma". The fear is often the Kurdish PKK rather than islamists although both have struck in Turkey in recent years. Nonetheless most of the people follow the spirit of Ataturk and extremism seems rare- certainly in comparison to muslim communities in London or Birmingham.
Shopping Malls, Starbucks, McDonalds all sprout beside main roads. On the country roads shepherds watch their sheep and donkeys are still used to transport produce. Stray cats and dogs abound. Alley cats can be seen "Top Cat style" in bins in at the back of apartment blocks. A few pampered pooches and moggies can be seen in the style of their spoiled and surgically de-gendered European cousins. However the majority of cats and dogs live and die intact in a more natural state than Europe.
Food is good and cheap and wholesome. It is quite accessible to English palates as their is little attempt to disguise good quality produce with excessive sauces or pickling.
Last but not least a visit to a men's barber is a memorable experience. Blades flash, flaming alcohol soaked sponges are used to remove an stray hairs from ears. There is much more attention to detail than a British barber and this I think is shown in the result !
Turkey is a large and interesting country. It is friendly to the visitor and is generally managing well in its traditional role as the bridge between Europe and Asia. While its history is certainly mixed, there seems much hope for its future. If their southern neighbours in Iraq could only learn a little "Turkish" the whole world would be a safer place.
The Greek island of Samos as seen from the Turkish coast. So near yet so far.........
The ruined Basilica of St. John at Selcuk, Turkey.

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