Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Turkish Delight

Recently I had the privilege of speaking at a conference in Izmir (the city that used to be Smyrna). Flying out there, I got to see Istanbul from the air, which was tremendously impressive, especially the view out over the miles and miles of tankers and freighters in the Bosphorus. At Izmir airport I was met by a grad student, who put me into a taxi instructing the driver to take me to Ege University Guesthouse. The first thing to greet anybody arriving in the lobby of Ege University Guesthouse is a framed photograph of Ataturk. So is the second thing. Then there is the desk. I won’t try to describe my impressions of Turkey, just a few of the events that enlivened my trip.

The conference began the next morning, a Wednesday. There was a shuttle bus laid on from the guesthouse to the Faculty of Letters (above the driver’s head was a portrait of Ataturk, this time in poster form). What looked like the full student complement of the English department had turned out as helpers to facilitate the conference. I registered and hung around, at a loose end, for twenty minutes or so drinking instant coffee from a paper cup. I’d always been led to believe that the Turks had invented coffee; why would they want Nescaf?

The plenary sessions were to be held in a lecture theatre that was draped with flags and pictures of Ataturk. We trickled in and took our seats. All rise for the national anthem. Speeches by heads of department, of faculty, of association of English Studies, British Council local rep, winner of English Studies in Turkey lifetime achievement award (an eminent emeritus who described the study of English Literature as giving sympathetic access to different modes of thought and feeling; not the way it’s done these days it won’t be) - half a dozen in all. Conference officially declared open. Then a break for more coffee. Then the first plenary lecture (very erudite) until lunchtime.

My own paper was in the afternoon, followed by more coffee, then a couple of TEFL papers (less of the thought and feeling, more the "How do we equip our students with the English they will need to do business?"). The day’s academic delights being over, there was a bus to take us to a cocktail party on the lawn of one of the few surviving pre-1923 grand houses, now the university's restaurant. Waiters circulated with a choice between wine and glasses of fruit juice spiked with vodka. Those wanting non-alcoholic drinks had to go to the bar and specially request fruit juice without vodka. I was on my third fruit juice before I discovered this. I chatted to an Azeri Professor of English from Iran, a lecturer from Van (half Turkish half Kurdish), and a lecturer from Hong Kong. With the exception of the medieval studies conference at Kalamazoo this must be the most international conference I’ve ever attended. On arriving back at the guesthouse I headed to the restaurant with the intention of getting some dinner but ended up just drinking beers with an American (a lecturer at an American university in one of the Emirates), and two Turks (one a lecturer in Turkey, the other a graduate student at Manchester). The American regaled us with stories of the depravity of the oil sheikhs amongst his students. He went to bed about midnight, then the Turks started debating modernization and the “Eastern question”. Talked till 2 in the morning. Very profound and enlightening conversation, if only I could remember much of it.

The next morning I dragged myself out of bed just in time to have a bite of breakfast before the bus left for the Faculty of Arts. After the plenary session I asked a student the way to the railway station.
“Where do you want to go?” he asked
“To Efes,” I said, having read somewhere that this was the Turkish for Ephesus.
“Ephesus?” he clarified.
“Yes, that’s right.”
“You can’t get there by metro,” he said, doubtfully.
“Well, I was thinking of going by train,” I clarified.
A cluster of three students consulted together. They called in others to canvas a broader range of views. A remarkably tall young woman turned to me and said, “You do know you can’t get there by metro?” I think I might have rolled my eyes. The consensus that emerged was that Ephesus by rail was a non-starter.
In the meantime another participant in the conference (with what looked like waist-length blonde hair) was telling me that she’d made the trip to Ephesus by bus the previous day, and that Turkish bus drivers were just so friendly and so helpful. In the end, one of the students volunteered to take me to a minibus stop that would get me to the big, out-of-town bus station, and wrote “How do I get to Ephesus?” and “How do I get to Izmir?” in Turkish on a piece of paper for me (I tried to get her to write “Please look after this bear”, but she didn’t think it would help). She even insisted on paying my minibus fare to the bus station.

Arrived at the bus station all right and got the minibus to Selçuk, the modern descendant of Ephesus (a sleepy-seeming place, certainly compared to Izmir). Journey time about 45 minutes by motorway. En route, the young man sitting in front of me asked to see my guidebook, translated parts of it into Turkish to entertain the person sitting next to him, and offered me a couple of biscuits and some handwash. Changed at Selçuk for a minibus that dropped me off only about a 15 minute walk from the site of Ephesus. Trudge, trudge, through the dust and heat (getting close to noon by now). Should have thought to buy a bottle of water somewhere.

Ephesus is a seriously impressive ruin. It's amazing how much of the Roman city is still there to be seen - two or three streets, an amphitheatre, a couple of gates, the shell of a Roman library, a scattering of ruined houses, a set of latrines, the odd bit of bath-house, and a few wells. There might be more Roman remains in Rome, or Trier, or a dozen other places, but in Ephesus they’re all together on a hillside, without a modern city in sight. And to have walked where St Paul and St John have walked! In a couple of the stalls lined up by the gates to the site I bought some gifts to bring home; in one sense I knew this must be the worst possible place to buy souvenirs, one of the greatest tourist traps of the Aegean, but it must mean something that these are gifts from Ephesus - surely? (And the prices weren’t bad by Belgian standards, even if I was getting ripped off by Turkish standards.)

Then I got a taxi from Ephesus to the putative house of the Blessed Virgin Mary - entry to the house is free, I was informed, but there’s a municipal charge on access to the grounds (hmm). I’d made especially sure to pack my rosary beads for the trip, but had somehow managed to leave them at the guesthouse. Luckily, in the chapel there was a prie dieu with beads provided, so I wasn’t reduced to counting on my fingers. Prayed the Glorious Mysteries while a coach-load of Japanese (or possibly Korean) pilgrims filed through, each in turn bowing to the altar and taking a candle to light (in the trays provided outside). Lit a candle for a friend’s intentions, posted a couple of postcards, and got the taxi back to the bus station.

I arrived back at Selçuk bus station just in time to get the bus to Izmir bus station, where I asked a number of people what bus to get to Ege University. After some consultation I was put on a bus, and told that the driver would tell me where to get off. After driving around through thick traffic for what seemed a very long time, the driver shouted something and another passenger told me that he was saying it was my stop. So I got off, and found myself at a gate bearing the inscription "Ege Universitesi" and then some other words in Turkish. Nothing looked familiar, but I had been told that Ege University had a large campus so I assumed this was just a different entrance from the one I was used to. After wandering lost for a while, approaching a number of people who didn't speak any more English than I speak Turkish, I found a helpful young medical student.
"Could you tell me the way to the Faculty of Letters?"
"The Faculty of what?"
"I don't understand"
"Literature, History, Languages?"
"I don't understand"
He got out his mobile phone, which had an English-Turkish dictionary in it, and suggested I dictate the word to him. He looked it up, consulted with a young lady, and then said,
"Follow me!"
I followed him. He took me into a building that wasn’t the Faculty of Letters, and to the office of a distinguished-looking silver-moustached gentleman, who had three different framed portraits of Ataturk on his office walls. I take him to have been the dean of the Faculty of Medicine. He explained that I was at Ege University Hospital and Medical Faculty - a different place entirely from Ege University Campus. He offered me a seat, and made a brief phone call. Ten seconds later his phone rang, he spoke again briefly, and passed it to me - it was the head of the English Department.
"We are having an international conference, is it about that?" she asked.
"Yes, that's right, I'm one of the speakers."
"I'm very sorry not to have met you. I should really attend, but with so much teaching to do, and getting ready to go to Bologna next week, I really haven't had the time."
"Well, I'm sorry to disturb you when you're so busy. It's really nothing, I just got off the bus at the wrong part of the university, and now I'm in somebody's office."
"And you're having trouble finding the faculty?"
"Yes, that's right."
"And are you supposed to be giving your paper now?"
"No, I gave my paper yesterday."
"Oh," she said in surprise, "So yesterday you could find the faculty, but not today?"
"Yesterday I just got the bus from the guesthouse," I said, somewhat defensively.
"Well I wish there was something I could do to help, but I'm teaching in ten minutes."
"Oh, please don't worry - now that I know what's happened to me I'll find my way somehow." (This brought a laugh from the man whose office I was in.)

So I thanked the dean of the faculty of medicine and took my leave of him. It was too late by this time to rejoin the conference group at the Faculty of Letters, so I got the metro from the University Hospital into the centre of town, sat on the waterfront for a while, near an Ottoman clock tower and a pretty little mosque (see photo), and wandered through the bazaar, which was an experience in itself.
After much wandering amazed, and briefly making the acquaintance of a number of friendly dealers in leather (their merchandise, not their attire), I bought a small loaf of bread and some fruit as a very late lunch. A picnic on a bench outside the Roman forum (which was all locked up by then) was followed by a walk to the main railway station to get the metro back out to the university suburb.

Just by the railway station I passed a barber's shop, and paused thinking "I could probably do with a haircut, and it's likely to be cheaper here than at home." Even as I paused, a barber dashed out and took me by the arm, sat me down, wrapped a sheet around me, and set to work. After a while he indicated that I had dandruff. "Yes, that's right," I said, nodding. He whipped a pot of smelly, oily stuff out of a cupboard and applied it to my head with a paintbrush. Then he shaved my chin, jaw and neck with a cut-throat razor, waxed my nose and cheeks, put a lit match to the hair in my ears and nose, gave me a cup of tea, rinsed the ointment out of my hair, put some sort of gel in it, massaged my shoulders, arms and hands, cracked my knuckles, seized my head and jerked it so my neck cracked, and charged me 50 euros (which I'd guess would be 60 or 70 American dollars).

By the time I'd got back to the guesthouse I was exhausted, but also hungry again. There didn’t seem to be anybody from the conference around, so I dined on kalamar alone, and just after I’d finished eating, my lunchtime companions from the previous day arrived. We enquired about one another’s day. By the time I’d finished telling them about mine one of them was doubled up in stitches with laughter, and insisted I share the story with a group of other people I’d never met before. Perhaps I should just have stuck to “I got lost and had a haircut”.

The third and final day of the conference was relatively uneventful. The plenary session in the morning went on far longer than scheduled, so there was very little time to go out for lunch - tagging along with one of my drinking companions from Wednesday night I found myself with half a dozen Turkish colleagues having lunch in the staff canteen (I seemed to be the only foreigner there). The meal was very basic - some stewed vegetables, some rice, and a bowl of cold yoghurt and cucumber soup - but nice enough. As it turned out, I would have had much longer for lunch than foreseen (not that I would have preferred to eat anywhere but in the staff canteen), since the afternoon session that I was planning to attend started half an hour late: there were supposed to be two speakers, but one (an Iranian) didn't turn up, and neither did the person supposed to be chairing the session. The speaker who did turn up was a Chinese lecturer, who I gather teaches Translation Studies at one of the technical universities in Beijing. She waited patiently while student assistants phoned around on their mobiles trying to find an alternative chair. I volunteered my services, but they seemed to think it was necessary that the chair be someone from the host institution, or at the very least the host nation.

That evening there was a "gala dinner" to celebrate the end of the conference, and it was a remarkable meal, in a restaurant near the top of a steep hill looking out over the bay (at the very top was the fort). There was even dancing, which I was almost sorry I couldn't join in.

We got back to the guesthouse about 2 in the morning, and I had to be up at 4 to get an early flight to Ankara (to transfer for a flight to Brussels). The previous afternoon (between the end of the conference and the depature for the dinner) I’d asked at the desk of the guesthouse whether they could arrange for a taxi at 4.10 the next morning to take me to the airport (no problem), whether I could pay by visa without knowing the secret four-digit code, since I can never remember the number (no problem), and whether they could give me a wake-up call a little before 4 (no problem).

Well, they came through on the wake-up call. But when I tried to check out, there was a problem paying (their machine would, after all, only accept payment by visa with a secret code), but in the end it turned out I could pay by debit card; by the time that was sorted out it was 4.20 and I was surprised there was still no sign of a taxi to take me to the airport. I asked about it and was told they'd call a taxi right away. It would only take 10 or 15 minutes to arrive. Twenty-five minutes later it was there, and the driver wanted to know where I was going. At the fourth or fifth attempt he grasped the word "airport" and took me to it. I paid him and he drove away. I dashed in and discovered that even though I'd stressed "domestic terminal", and "Ankara", I was at the international terminal. It was now after five in the morning, a little more than twenty minutes off boarding time. There was a single taxi by the terminal, but the driver was asleep with his seat down. When I knocked on the window he frowned and waved me away without opening his eyes. I walked as briskly as I could manage to the domestic terminal, arriving with less than ten minutes to boarding time. I was amazed that they let me check in. Even more amazed at having to wait forty minutes before the boarding gate opened. Would my suitcase make it? From my window seat I saw it being loaded on to the aeroplane. Oof.

Ankara, like Istanbul, I saw only from the air. Seen from above, the most noticeable things are the enormous blocks of flats on the edges of the city. An improvement on shanty towns, at least. I had about three hours to wait between flights, but resisted the temptation to explore the city by taxi - having tempted fate enough for one day.

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