July 12, 2012
Flags carry a strange power. Apart from a wider, better-kept road, nothing in the landscape changed as I crossed the border into Turkey, through the same rolling oak and beech forests I’d seen since leaving the coast. The trees and the mountains, the insects and birds, looked and sounded just the same. But the appearance of the Turkish flag, the white crescent moon and star on a field of fluttering red — along with the frequent portraits of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, his eyebrows flared like a B-movie vampire prince — somehow shifted everything into a different reality.
I saw no other person for an hour or more, until I turned off the main road towards the village of Dereköy. At first, it looked much the same as the Bulgarian villages I’d passed through — tiled roofs and sun-bleached wooden walls, chickens and dusty roadside grapevine — apart from a white minaret instead of a church’s dome. Then suddenly, another world. I found myself following a group of women in long, patterned skirts, billowing trousers and brightly-ormanented headscarves to a small square lined with tobacco-exhaling men — only men, I noticed — sitting in the shade of corrugated roofs, tinkling tiny spoons in tiny glasses of copper-coloured tea, and yelling at each other amiably. I stood, bewildered, for a moment. There was nothing for it but to join them. Tea swiftly appeared before me and old men swivelled to take me in — dark, creased faces grizzled with white, pale blue eyes peering from under cloth caps, with expressions that were somehow a scowl and a smile at the same tıme.
I shook hands with everyone within range, noticing the graceful new gesture that accompanies shaking hands here — the palm of the hand pressed to the chest, as if taking the greeting to heart. One of them, a man called Nihat, spoke a little English. When I explained my journey, he said: ‘The Prophet Mohammed, peace be upon hım, says that a journey is good for the health — physical and mental.’ He told me he had done the haj to Mecca several years before. ‘What was it like?’ I asked. He thought for a long tıme, then said very sweetly: ‘Oh, it was super.’
I stayed for three cups of tea, and when time came to leave, no-one let me pay. ‘You are our guest,’ said Nihat. ‘This is our culture.’ On my way out of the village, another man stopped me, shook my hand, then gave me a bar of halva.
The road led east as I made my way slowly back towards the Black Sea. I walked through low green hills, planted here and there with unknown crops, my boots tacky from the tar melting underfoot. Every car and motorbike hooted at me as it passed, and I caught glimpses of curious faces and hands raised in greeting.
Another minaret announced Karadere, the next village on my route. Almost at once, I was back among tea-sippers, tinkling the spoon in my glass under the shade of grapevine. Old men seem to look older ın Turkey, and young boys sit and drink tea in the same way, watching and listening to the adults as if quietly studying how to be men. Apart from the halva, I’d eaten nothing since breakfast in Bulgaria, so used my few words of Turkish to ask where I could buy food. Immediately, one of the men went off and came back with a round loaf of bread, and another produced a lump of salty, rubbery white cheese, along with a photograph of a cow to illustrate its origin. ‘Thankyou,’ I said. ‘How much?’ Solemnly, they all shook their heads, spreading their hands out — nothing.
So far I’d only talked to men, and it was a relief, a few miles on, when two headscarved women called me over and asked where I was going. I explained as best I could, and they showed me the road with strident gestures — the right-hand road, the right-hand road — the left, they made clear with what sounded like warning, led back to ‘Bulgaristan.’
Two days later, I’d regained the Black Sea. The coastline is much wilder here, with dense forest hugging jagged white cliffs interspersed with long, sandy beaches stretching as far as the eye can see without a single parasol. Not that people don’t like the sea — my sense of altered reality struck again when I saw my first Turkish campsite. Turks doing camping is a phenomenon — they seem to pack the entire contents of their houses into cars and caravans and reassemble it on the beach, spilling out of giant tents extended with strung tarpaulins, hammocks, dining tables, chairs, real carpets laid out on the grass, ornate silver teapots bubbling on stoves, with washing fluttering on lines hung between the trees. Then they cement their claim on the territory with crescent-moon flags and Atatürk portraits flying from driftwood flagpoles, which makes it look like the coastal encampment of some nomadic army.
I found a spot to camp under a tree. Once more, I was overwhelmed by the amazing hospitality that has made my arrival in Turkey such a joy — my new neighbours delivered a table, a chair, and a watermelon. They stood around smiling as I ate, though from time to time I caught them regarding my lonely one-man tent rather sadly. I got the feeling they might have felt a bit sorry for me.