Living Like a Turk!
It was sad to wave Kathryn off at Bodrum Airport. My bank balance was, however, delighted! I was doing this trip in the wrong order really with a bit of expensive luxury in the first third followed by ever diminishing expenses.
It was onwards and upwards as this was the day I began my home stays, and I was both nervous and excited. I pride myself on being an unconventional traveller. Never, ever call me a tourist! Me and The Sun Readers are like chalk and cheese in that department! Well in most departments, if I’m honest! I like to think of myself as a traveller from a bygone age such as the Victorian times when travel was carried out to broaden one’s horizons with regards to art, culture, history and literature as well as explore spectacular scenery. I hope I didn’t just hear you call me pretentious!!
I have been doing home stays for a long time and its cousin house exchange. For me it is a great way to get down with the locals and, on this occasion, live like a Turk. Okay, that could be challenging as my Turkish is currently up to only about ten words but, luckily, most of my home stay hosts speak good English.
When my children were small and before Richard was a teacher, I joined Women Welcome Women World Wide (5W). Some of my oldest friends, who I still visit on a regular basis are members, for example, the wonderful Barbel Ingrid of Germany and the Ghulam family of Switzerland.
We have also spent many years doing house exchanges to all four corners of the world which is closely related to home stay. Some people said, “Why would anyone want to visit Basildon?”. Cheeky beggars! Don’t they know we’ve got a Grade One listed building in the town centre? Okay, it’s a 1960s monstrosity but it’s a rare example of a 1960s monstrosity, no less! As I went on to point out, we live only 30 minutes by train from one of the great cities of the world, our wonderful capital city, and have good links to other places of interest. We are still in touch with Tommy and Donna with whom we did our first house exchange in 2002 and we visited them in Idaho where they have moved from Northern California, the location of our house exchange, last year. Tommy said he’d moved his guns out of the house for the duration of our house exchange! Never a dull moment in this game!
When we spent a year living in the beautiful Clare Valley in Australia in 2005, where I did a teacher exchange, I organised home exchanges with all the other exchange teachers in South Australia. We went all over the state!
In January, when I headed off to South America, I joined Couch Surfing, as recommended by Nancy, an American 5W friend, and I’ve never looked back. I need to give a shout out here to my amazing hosts there who gave me the time of my life. Thanks again to Stefi, Leandro, Zoe, Rosa, Silvana, Ricardo, Lucrecia, Barbi and Matsi.
When I was planning Turkey, I wanted to spend some time doing some home stays but in the new normal that is Covid 19, the landscape had changed and it was a big ask to invite a stranger in to your home in such uncertain times. Despite this, I had some wonderful die hards who said, ‘Yer! Sod covid! Come any way!’
Home stay is not for everyone. You have to be a particular sort of person. Primarily, you must be:
A risk taker
Flexible and adaptable
Open minded and keen to learn about other countries and people
Prepared to give back in return for kind hospitality (I try to help my hosts practise their English)
Too tight to spend out on a hotel
A bit mad!
I think I get on well with my home stay hosts because we are like minded. Many of them have been hosted by other kind people and want to give back. In addition, I always invite them to stay with me.
In South America, I travelled by bus but now I had a car and a sat nav. Sadly, my sat nav couldn’t cope with Turkish streets. It could get me to the general area but not to the front door. My hosts sent me google maps, photos and written instructions but it was still trial and error which led to lots of driving around, stopping to ask for clarification and kind people who lent me their hot spot to contact my host to guide me in. It’s about six years old so that may have something to do with it. With hindsight, I wish I had bought a Turkish SIM card at the start of the trip so I could have had internet as a back up. You live and learn.
Tolunay, my first home stay host, was delightful and her English was excellent. We got on very well and I soon felt she was a kindred spirit. She is a metaphor for her city, Izmir. She is an admirer of Atatürk and a strong supporter of women’s rights which means she doesn’t like the current president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan!
Tolunay is a gifted musician and teaches piano as a peripatetic teacher. She has a collection of traditional Turkish instruments and she played the drum for me. When she played it, it was beautiful and melodic; when I played it it sounded like the noise made by a toddler bashing away on a toy drum!
Tolunay’s son, Yahiz speaks fluent English because he lived in Canada. He is currently waiting for the pandemic to end so he can continue his studies, probably in an Eastern European country. In the mean time, he’s improving his scores on computer games. Sound familiar?
Green Olive, a very large black cat, was head of the house hold. Green Olive clearly hadn’t sanctioned my stay and he wasn’t impressed! He gave me the disdainful look that cats are very good at and took up residence for much of the time I was there in the bathroom door way. The first time I encountered him there, I tried to nudge him out with the door. He ignored me and didn’t budge! I tried with my foot. He ignored me and didn’t budge! I went to pick him up but one look from him made me retreat. I just used the bathroom with the door open!
Tolunay and I walked round the Gulf of Izmir and had lunch overlooking the small coastal fishing boats so typical of the eastern Mediterranean. We took a passenger ferry over to central Izmir which has a famous clock tower and visited the historic Kemeralti Bazaar; little sister to the Grand Bazaar of Istanbul.
Tolanay suggested we take the car ferry over the Gulf of İzmir rather than tackle the ring road round the city of Izmir, Turkey’s 3rd largest city. This seemed like a good idea as on my arrival in Izmir I had sat in my first Turkish traffic jam for several hours. It was giving me horrible flash backs to the M25, the London ring road, affectionately known as the biggest car park in the world. I was, however, concerned about the cost. The Isle of Wight car ferry back home is notoriously expensive. My mum and dad never stopped going on about it but ironically, having left the island to go to university, it was normally me who was splashing the cash to return to visit. They and the rest of the island were triumphal with ‘I told you so!’ when The Isle of Wight County Press, the most read local newspaper in the world, worked out that the space tourist who paid millions for his trip to the space station paid less mile for mile than the cost of the island’s car ferry. This story went in to its archive along with other important ‘Breaking News’ stories such as when I came 3rd in a donkey derby and was crowned East Cowes Junior Carnival Queen, complete with photos of me sat on a water lily on the float.
I needn’t, however, have worried because when Tolunay and I drew up to the car ferry booth, instead of it being a wad of cash it was only £1.60, a fraction of the cost of the Isle of Wight ferry. Once on the other side of the Gulf, we headed down the peninsula to Urla a pleasant town full of local hustle and bustle. We sat on the bustling square and bought tissues and a painkillers from a disabled man trying to make a meagre living.
I was now driving like a Turk after 4 weeks on Turkish roads. It’s a matter of survival! That isn’t to say my blood pressure wasn’t still constantly high but I was being much more assertive. If you indicate and wait for someone to let you in you’d wait for ever! You have to just zip in there! Oh and use of the horn! I’d gone from perhaps once a year at home to once every ten minutes here. I obviously still abstained from the dangerous aspects of Turkish driving like driving 2 centimetres from the car in front!
The roads continued to be a comedy show! As I left Izmir, I drew up to a junction and waited in what I thought was a queue of traffic waiting to get out on to the main road. I waited patiently and waited and waited. It occurred to me after a minute or two that there was a strange lack of activity. I drew up next to the car in front of me which was empty and soon realised that they’d turned the whole junction in to a car park! I had to back up and go in another direction! At home the traffic wardens would have had a field day! There would be tickets, clamps and tow trucks galore! The Izmir Council clearly doesn’t realise what a trick it’s missing.
On my way north I stopped at another jewel in the crown of Turkey’s rich ancient treasures, Pergamon. After only a few days of using our 15 day Museum Cards, Kathryn was whinging like a teenager so it was nice not to have her whining in my ear. I got a chairlift up to the spectacular hill top location and it had all the bells and whistles of the other stars of Ancient Turkey: elegant columns, enormous amphitheatre, temple, agora, alter and acropolis.
I was surprised to see a German coach trip. They were everywhere. Who let them in? I thought they were banned. Turkey is a popular destination for Germans, our German friends, Sabine and Helmut, go every year; but in my entire three month trip these were the only Germans I encountered. I don’t know why they bothered. Most of the ancient city of Pergamon is in Berlin! Yep! In the Berlin Museum of Pergamon. Here you’ll find everything they nicked in the nineteenth century. At least the British Museum isn’t so obvious about its booty or it would be called ‘The Museum of Precious Artefacts Stolen from Around the World’!
As I made my way in to the sanctuary I encountered a bunch of poncy German Millennials making a film at the other end of a long and narrow hallway, no doubt You Tubers who want to make a quick buck in an already crowded market. They had music, wigs and props. They didn’t like me popping up in the back ground of their ‘Oscar’ winning performance and they put their hands up and shouted ‘move out of the way!’ Move out of the way? No chance! I paid to get in here to look round an ancient site and I wasn’t about to be pushed these prima donna princesses! I could see they were a bit taken aback that I didn’t immediately comply. They switched to polite mode so I agreed to move to the dark, dingy, spider ridden alcove. Five minutes later, once the music subsided, I emerged from my exile and wandered on and past them. We had a pleasant chat about what they were doing and about Berlin where they hail from.
My next stop was Güre, a small place on the coast further north. Here I stayed with Gönül who is similar age to me, and her Mum, Emine, in their holiday home. They normally live in Istanbul but had stayed longer on the coast owing to the prevalence of the pandemic in Istanbul. As it is only a few hours drive from Istanbul, it is a popular hotspot for Istanbulers who want a coastal holiday home. Gönül and I wandered along the attractive promenade nearby which has been gentrified since the days when it processed olive oil. The processing plants have now been turned in to wine bars and restaurants.
Gönül Is a retired accountant, having retired in her early fifties. She is an adventurous solo traveller and told me some impressive stories about travelling through Central Asia. She has a daughter, Dersu, who went to a French language school in Istanbul and is now studying architecture in Paris.
Gönül’s family are from the Kurdish minority. I get the impression it’s not easy to be a member of the Kurdish minority in Turkey. Gönül doesn’t speak Kurdish as she grew up in Istanbul so she can lay low if she wants to, I guess. They follow the Alevi religion which is a form of Islam. It’s like being a baptist which is a branch of Christianity. It is described as ‘mystical’ on Wikipedia which makes me determined to get Gönül to take me to a service when I return to Turkey.
One day Gönül and I had a day out that took us to the famous ancient ruins of Assos that, romantically, look out over the Greek island of Lesbos. Equally romantic was the classic Ottoman Bridge that arched its way over a river nearby. These beautiful bridges are scattered all over the former Ottoman Empire. Lunch was a fish burger served from a small coastal fishing boat in the local harbour full of other colourful fishing boats and equally colourful fishing nets. You don’t get fresher than that!
On our return we visited several old villages in the coastal hills. It was a bit like a Turkish version of the Cotswolds, all stone cottages and town squares but think mosques rather than churches. Nearby was a superb view point with sweeping views of the mountains and coast, alongside an alter to Zeus where animals were slaughtered.
Beach wear is definitely a metaphor for Turkey. There was no nude or topless bathing but there is an eclectic mix of beachwear. Some women wear skimpy bikinis and some are in head to toe burkini. I was intrigued to see that a woman in a burkini could be next to a husband in budgie smugglers!
When I drove my homestay hosts some where in my hire car, I told them to let me know if I started driving on the other side of the road, as we do in the U.K. The look of horror on their faces was a picture until they realised I was joking. Worked every time! It’s not hard to stay on the right side in a local car that is left hand drive but they haven’t seen me in our right hand drive car abroad where it takes much more concentration! I have driven on the ‘wrong’ side a few times there but I kept that incy wincy detail to myself!
I really got in to the Turkish soap opera that is on every night. It’s set in Istanbul and puts Eastenders to shame with love triangles and intrigues to make you blush! I am desperate to know if Mustafa is going to get off with the beautiful Zeynap with the long legs!
The boring weather at last got more interesting. I’m not complaining about it being boring. Blue sky, warm and sunny every day is fine by me rather than the wet and grey of England! It reminds me of when we lived in the Clare Valley, Australia in 2005. The weather was so boring there that rain made headline news on the odd occasion it did rain. It also made me realise how much we rely on weather in Britain to make small talk. When I met someone I hardly knew in the toilets at Clare High School, where I was an exchange teacher, I panicked about what to say in the absence of “Isn’t the weather dreadful!”.
Anyway, back to Turkey’s weather, it became quite windy for a few days and I read that there was a hurricane passing through the Mediterranean. This was a new one on me! I always thought hurricanes hit the Atlantic not the Mediterranean. According to The Daily Express, which we all know has an obsession with not just Lady Di but also the weather, Cyclone Lanos was a freak Mediterranean storm known as a medicane. It’s epicentre was the Greek Islands and it certainly did wreak havoc with 3 dead and devastation across the region. Luckily for me, Turkey was only on the fringes of this weather event and it was soon back to boring blue sky and sunshine!
Just as my binoculars went winging their way back to the U.K. with Kathryn, on the basis that they would be too heavy to carry when I did the Lycian Way Walk, the bird life suddenly started to get interesting with a smorgasbord of exotic bird life on offer. Large flocks of flamingos as well as pelicans and storks everywhere! It was frustrating not to be able to get up close and personal! My binoculars are small but not light. I made a note to invest in a small and light pair for future trips.
I went to many colourful markets known as bazaars. One that stood out was a gypsy bazaar I went to with Gönül. The women’s headscarves were as colourful as the array of fruit and vegetables on sale. Gönül took her trolly bag and loaded up with the peppers, olives, tomatoes, potatoes, you name it! I always thought the one fruit and veg stall at Basildon Market was good value for money with bowls of goodies costing a pound each but I think Gönül got a whole trolly full of stuff for a pound a.k.a. ten Turkish lira.
On my way to Istanbul I went via the infamous Gallipoli. I got good views of the famous peninsula from the boat as I crossed the Dardanelles. My first stop was the memorial to the victors. Yep, Turkey, not Britain or France, and not even Australia and New Zealand who devote far more time and energy to the conflict. In fact, they go on and on and on about it! When I was an exchange teacher in Australia, they got the Pom teaching Australian Studies! I still haven’t worked that one out! I came clean and told the kids I knew little about Australia. I resisted adding, ‘that you couldn’t get on the back of a postage stamp coz there ain’t exactly much to know, is there?’ Before anyone gets antsy, they were very rude about England, especially our sporting achievements. Shame for them it was 2005, the year they lost the cricket ashes to England! Anyway, getting back to the point, one of the units was on Gallipoli and the Anzacs who were fighting as nations in their own rights for the first time. In April every year there is a national holiday and Anzac parades throughout Australia and New Zealand. You can’t move for Mel Gibson look a-likes!
The Gallipoli area is similar to the Second World War Normandy and 1st World War north east France and Flanders memorials and graveyards. The Turkish Memorial is, of course, big and bold. The enormous stone memorial can be seen from space and there are some very impressive statues and large stone friezes depicting their victory, ongside the graves. It was busy with Turks paying their respects.
I drove on to the French Memorial (which rises up impressively out of a pine forest) and graveyard. It was, by contrast, totally deserted. I had to check myself as I started to gloat; it is, after all, a place of remembrance for young men who gave up their lives in a horrendous battle and it’s not their fault they’re French! Mind you, the ghosts of those French soldiers got their own back because ten minutes later, I was drawing up to the British Memorial which was also totally deserted! Even the famous Anzac Lone Pine cemetery only had one lone visitor and that was me. Nearby was an area where you could walk around the trenches where the Turks and Anzacs faced each other. That really did feel haunted.
The museum had an interesting array of memorabilia and artefacts but most moving was the statue of a Turkish soldier carrying an injured Anzac soldier to safety.
Trying to find Münevver and Ahmed’s place in Istanbul was not easy. The photos of their place looked like something out of a holiday brochure with a balcony looking over a large swimming pool surrounded by attractive gardens and walkways. Where I ended up was a dingy, seedy part of town. I went in to a corner shop for help but he didn’t have any internet access and spoke no English. The young man at the bakery round the corner spoke some English and took me to the phone shop next door where he explained my dilemma. They hooked my up with a hotspot and I rang Münevver. The trouble is, Münevver doesn’t speak any English so I had to pass the phone to the guy at the phone shop to explain in Turkish that there was this weird English woman who had popped up in his shop, and ask if she could please come and take her away. Or something like that. Luckily, I couldn’t understand a word. “Ten minutes,” he told me via google translate. I went to wait in the car outside and as it was late by that stage, he shut up shop and disappeared. Ten minutes became fifteen and fifteen became twenty. Just as I was assuming that there had been some lost in translation and I was wondered what on earth I would do now, the wonderful Münevver and Ahmed came out of the darkness to rescue me and transport me across town to their very plush apartment which definitely had a whiff of Trump Towers about it!
Münevver and Ahmed spoke about ten words of English and I was still only up to about ten words of Turkish. My next homestay host had arranged for me to stay with them because she would still be at her holiday home. Did it matter that we couldn’t speak each other’s language? Not a jot! They were so warm and wonderful that it just didn’t get in the way. Visual/non-verbal communication and on-line translation was all we needed and we didn’t stop talking! I loved them and they made me feel incredibly welcome. We had long chats about Britain, Turkey, family, politics, royalty, you name it! I was even able to have a laugh and joke with them. Ahmed is a successful business man whose company deals in traditional Turkish tiles. He supplies hotels and offices throughout Turkey and the world. When I revisited the main sights of Istanbul for the day, having last been there on my trip, 29 years earlier, I visited the beautiful Topkapi Palace, former home to Ottoman Sultans. As there are many tiles throughout the palace, I jokingly asked if he had supplied the palace. It took him a while to get where I was coming from. You could see, “Doesn’t she realise how old it is?” going through his mind but eventually he realised I was joking and saw the funny side.
Rumeysa, their delightful teenage daughter, was the most proficient English speaker. Her English was a bit like my French, German and Spanish. Okay but far from fluent. She was, however, able to help out with translation. In addition, she had a friend who was fairly fluent and who popped round to practise her English. We all went out together to a beautiful Ottoman Bridge and to the Galata Tower area. Near the tower, men had taken over the street to pray and a classic old tram wound its way down Istanbul’s equivalent of Oxford Street.
The most exciting aspect of my trip to Istanbul was an earthquake that shook the apartment where I was staying. It measured 4.2 on the Richter Scale. My third earthquake of the year! Luckily, it was not strong enough to do any damage like the 1999 earthquake in nearby Izmit which was 7.6 on the Richter Scale and killed a staggering 17,000 people; or the earthquake that occurred later in my trip in Izmir which was 7 on the Richter Scale and caused significant damage and loss of life with the death of 117 people. It was unnerving to know that I had visited the city only about 6 weeks earlier.
I’m really getting in to Turkish coffee. When I said “it’s hot and strong” I got some ‘inappropriate’ comments from Jemma and Gemma on the equally inappropriate‘Jayne’s Holiday’ Group Chat! Tolunay gave me a lesson in how to make Turkish coffee and I had Turkish coffee brewed on hot sand in several places. It felt very exotic and as if I was in a ‘Nights of Arabia’ story. Rumeysa, Münevver’s daughter, told my fortune using the coffee dregs. You turn the cup upside down and it creates patterns that are used to tell your fortune. Unfortunately, mine didn’t involve winning the lottery or meeting a tall handsome stranger. There was something long. Obviously my journey. Something beginning with‘A’. Probably my son, Andrew! And complications. Definitely my son, Andrew!
It was a pleasant surprise that Münevver would accompany me to Samsun on The Black Sea where we would stay in her close friend, Gülçin’s holiday home. As Münevver doesn’t speak English and I don’t speak Turkish, a long journey could have been a strain but thanks to our good friend google translate and non verbal communication, we were fine. Her husband, Ahmed said he had done the journey in 7 hours but google maps suggested he must have been speeding for most of the journey! It took me 10 hours of driving!
We stopped in the beautiful Ottoman town of Safranbolu. The Caravanserai, a beautiful building which served as historic Silk Road accommodation, has been turned in to a cafe and hotel. In addition, the centuries old mosques and historic Ottoman houses made me feel as if I was in a museum.
After staying with Tolunay and Gönül who, like me, are in their fifties, I had a spell staying with members of the Selfie and Instagram generation. Both Münevver and Gülçin were delightful, warm and friendly and couldn’t do enough for me but they were totally hooked on social media. Whilst they are both mums in their mid thirties, they had more in common with my daughters in their early twenties. In fact, they were far worse. The whole time was devoted to whirling and twirling for the perfect shot. My up to date i-phone was pressed in to service and I was, of course happy to oblige. They then selected the best shots from the 1,746 taken and airdropped them to themselves. I try not to think about how long it took me to delete 1,700 photos!
Gülçin’s English is excellent as she used to be an English teacher until she gave up to become a stay at home mother. Selim, her charming husband, who I only met briefly when he returned from business abroad, deals in an eclectic mix of goods, exporting to rich people in Kyrgyzstan and Sudan. He spends much of his time there, taking deliveries and organising exports and imports. The small number of rich people in those countries can’t access the kind of goods we take for granted easily. I’m guessing that exporting from Turkey, whose currency is weak, is much more cost effective than from Europe or North America.
Gülçin was the very proud owner of an electric car. The Mercedes EQC 400/4 Matic was one of only five in Turkey. Her husband, Selim, had bought it for £95,000 as an investment. It had already gone up in value to £130,000 and he had a buyer for it. Now a car in my book is a piece of metal with four wheels that gets you from A to B but even I have to confessed to being impressed. It’s the first electric car I’ve ever travelled in so that was an experience in itself. Gülçin generously drove me and Münevver around in it. On one day we went in to the mountains to a spectacular view point that looked over a Kizilirmak River winding its way down to the Black Sea. We had brunch up there and, of course, took lots of instagram photos in the shadow of an enormous Turkish flag.
On our return we stopped at the ancient site of Asarkale, a Byzantine Castle and Hellenistic rock tombs. I had my heart in my mouth as Gülçin backed the expensive car up a steep dirt track. A narrow hole in the rock looked like the entrance to a cave but was, in actual fact, ancient stone steps leading up through a tunnel to another level. Up we went but as we ascended and as Gülçin and Münevver sought out the best instagram angles, I felt my pulse rate rise. Once at the top, I had those school trip risk assessments in triplicate that you have to fill in to detail what you will do if a student twists an ankle or grazes a knee, swimming in my head. The steps were very worn and there was no hand rail, in view of the fact that it was circa 8000bc. My guess was the rock was quartz so it had become very shiny and definitely a slip hazard. I had visions of it becoming a helter shelter and me being carted off in a Turkish ambulance having broken my back! In addition, I noticed that Ilgin, Gülçin’s delightful daughter was in flip flops and had her phone in her hand so no opportunity to use both hands to save herself. I advised her to put the phone in her pocket and to take great care going down but mum Gülçin was already half way down clicking selfies and instagram shots. She is a very caring mother but the health and safety just didn’t register with her on this occasion. I think the steps would be blocked off in the health and safety world of the U.K. I am pleased to report that, despite a few extra grey hairs, I lived to see another day!
As we drove back, Gülçin turned up the volume and we turned the expensive electric car in to a mobile disco. The Turks shouted out their favourite music stations and the car used voice recognition to change channels. Mind you, it wasn’t that good because it when I shouted “bbc Radio 4” it failed to find it! I was hoping for an episode of ‘The Archers’!
In the middle of my stay, Okay (pronounced Ocheye), Gülçin’s charming 23 year old cousin turned up. He’d been working as a swimming instructor in Istanbul and also working his way through a string of older women, some of them Russian. His English was so good that I could experience his chat up lines first hand. As an older woman, all be it, one old enough to be his mother, he used his charm on me. “Anything for you, Jayne!” he’d say, along with using his trade mark and engaging smile. Mind you, his Casanova days were numbered as he was about to face military service which is compulsory in Turkey for men. “What are you going to be doing for the next six months then?” I asked. He shrugged. He hadn’t even googled it!
We went in to Samsun the next day to see a boat which is a re-creation of SS Bandirma, the boat that Atatürk travelled on from Constantinople, as Istanbul was known then, to Samsun in order to set up the nationalist moment that led to an independent modern Turkey. When Gülçin handed Okay the keys to the expensive electric car I was shocked. It costs an arm and a leg to insure anyone under 25 years old to drive any car in the U.K. This is probably because of propensity of young men in Okay’s age group to wrap cars round trees. That said, I couldn’t fault Okay’s driving and when we got back to Gülçin’s holiday home I asked her if I could take the car for a spin round the block! She readily agreed!
I was interested to get the views of my homestay hosts on the contentious issue of Northern Cyprus. When I was in Argentina, I was interested in the views on The Falklands Islands. I knew enough not to use this name for the islands which are known as Las Malvinas and to steer clear of my view that they are British and that the Argy Bargies (thanks to ‘The Sun Newspaper’ for that phrase) can butt out. The Northern Cyprus Question was easier to explore as I don’t have any actual skin the game. It’s a fight between Turkey and Greece after Turkey invaded the island in 1974 and took over the northern area. I don’t claim to know much about the conflict, apart from the fact that Northern Cyprus is not recognised by the United Nations. It is rumoured to be the most scenic part of the island. I have visited Greek Cyprus but Northern Cyprus is hard to travel to because you can only access it via Turkey. Tolunay, my first homestay host has a Greek boyfriend who she met on the internet. They travel together but both still live in their home countries. Covid-19 has meant they haven’t met up for months now. I expressed my surprise at this union, knowing the animosity between their countries and she said it was not a problem on a personal level which was good to hear and is so often the case. When I asked her, however, if they agreed on the issue of Cyprus, she admitted that they did not! She explained that Turkey had the right to invade because it was defending the rights of Turkish speaking Cypriots. This sounded like a simplification of the issue to me, having spoken to a friend, Paula, whose father was of Greek Cypriot origin. She said that family members had to flee Northern Cyprus after the invasion and give up property that was then occupied by Turkish Cypriots. I think there are moves to rectify this but it is clearly a very complex issue.
On a lighter note, Gülçin and family boarded a flight in Bulgaria to Jordan for a holiday. Turks are banned from entering Greek Cyprus so it was a surprise to all when, because of bad weather, the flight was diverted to Greek Cyprus and four Turks ended up in Greek Cyprus. Most of the passengers on the flight were put on a bus to a 5 star hotel for the night but no one knew what to do with the four Turkish passport holders. After much debate, common sense prevailed and they held their passports at the airport and gave them paperwork to allow them in to the country. Gülçin said her kids were very much in favour of Greek Cyprus thanks to the 5 star, all inclusive experience!
My first two hosts, Tolunay and Gönül, both in their fifties, are divorced. Metropolitan Turkey is clearly very westernised and this is a further sign that it is modernising. Women are clearly asserting their independence. Gülçin told me that a friend of hers had a husband who refused to let her go anywhere on her own but when she threatened him with divorce, he realised he had to change.
My next homestay host was Ruta in Ordu, also on The Black Sea. This would be my most easterly stop. Ruta is Latvian and met her husband Selam, an orthopaedic surgeon, on the internet. They speak English to each other and their own languages to their son Emre who at the age of ten speaks three languages fluently! I played lots of board and card games with Emre who is bright and engaging but, like all good ten year olds, cheats like mad!
Emre attends a private school and has returned for three half days a week but I’m afraid Münevver and Gulchin’s children who attend state schools have not returned. I was concerned to see they appear to have been on a perpetual holiday since March as there wasn’t much evidence of home learning. At this stage, British children had been back in school for about six weeks.
I walked in to Ordu along the Black Sea. The eastern half of Turkey is supposed to be less developed but there was no sign of that here. It was modern, metropolitan Turkey to its core. Like Samsun, it also had a cable car which went up over the city for fabulous views of The Black Sea, city and surrounding mountains. The day after, I went with the family for a scenic drive round an attractive peninsula that juts out in to The Black Sea. Sunset over The Black Sea was a cracker which we watched from a cafe high on a cliff.
I met Nazan and Özkan Pînar by chance. Ruta had recommended a nature reserve and I travelled from the Black Sea up in to the attractive mountains. The mountains here are much greener and more lush than the rocky, arid mountains of the Mediterranean. It was suddenly a different side of life in Turkey and far removed from the modern towns and resorts I had mostly frequented. It was not unusual to round a bend and find a herd of cows all over the road. After several hours, I realised I was lost and pulled over to a view point overlooking a reservoir nestled in the mountains. Nazan and Özkan were having a ubiquitous tea in a tulip glass, brewed in a pot over a wood fire. They didn’t speak any English but were able to indicate that they were going to the nature reserve too and that I could follow. 30 minutes later, we were going through back streets and I wondered if there had been a ‘lost in translation’ but, true to their word, 40 minutes later, we arrived at Ulugöl Nature Park. They paid to get in and when I drew up to pay, I was waved through. They had paid for me. I tried to repay them but they wouldn’t hear of it. As if this wasn’t generous enough, after I’d had a walk round the lake and a look at the noisy frogs, they came and found me and invited me to eat with them at the lakeside restaurant. We shared little language but could show each other photos of our children and discuss where we live and my trip through google maps. They said they were heading back to Ordu so I could follow them. It was like a mystery tour because we suddenly stopped in the middle of nowhere, deep in the countryside. It transpired that it was Nazan’s parents’ house. As we took off our shoes in the porch, I noticed huge sacks of hazel nuts. The area is the hazel nut capital of the world. Hazel nut trees spread as far as the eye can see, clothing every hill and mountain. I will never be able to eat Cadbury’s hazel nut chocolate again without thinking of it! We were treated to Turkish coffee and Turkish delight and I came away with a huge bag of hazel nuts!
Gülçin offered to accompany me part of the way to Ankara. She said, ‘Come for breakfast and then I’ll come with you as far as Amasya, another attractive Ottoman town. It was lovely to have company but there was method in her madness. She was travelling to Antalya with her husband but the electric car had to be charged for 3 hours at a shopping centre and she wanted to avoid a long wait! As time started to tick by, we reached the shopping centre. ‘You must eat with us!’ insisted Gülçin! I stressed that I must be quick, conscious that I had a duty to my next homestay host in Ankara not to turn up in the early hours. I drove on for several hours with flashing lights on the road on every bend really doing my head in. It must cause more accidents than it prevents! With the usual struggle to find Sumeyye’s flat, I arrived about midnight but Sumeyye was very gracious about it, even though she had work the next morning!
Sumeyya stood out from my other homestay hosts because she is a devout Muslim who wears a head scarf. She is from Batman in eastern Turkey. I’m so jealous! When asked, “Where are you from?” I’d love to say Batman! She wears a headscarf and prays five times a day. This is hardly surprising as her dad is the local imam back in her home town. My other homestay hosts who were all secular women predicted that Sumeyya would be anti Ataturk and pro Erdogan, the antithesis to them. And guess what, they were spot on. Sumeyya thought Ataturk was a drunk and a vagabond. On the other hand, she accorded Erdogan rock star status. I gave it a day to gauge whether she could cope with me challenging her beliefs and views and satisfied that she could I gently questioned attitudes to woman. I don’t think I made any dents in to her entrenched views but she heard me out! When I tried to take a photo of her at the flat where she didn’t wear her headscarf she panicked and rushed off to put it on before I could take the photo. We had a photo together in headscarves!
Sumeyye works for Red Crescent, a humanitarian organisation which is the Muslim world’s equivalent of The Red Cross. She lives with three other young women, one of whom also works for Red Crescent. Süreyha told me an interesting story about being part of a Turkish humanitarian convoy to Gaza. A Palestinian friend asked her to visit his family as he can’t travel to Gaza as if he does, he won’t be able to leave. He gave her cards and presents to deliver but when she asked for an address he said there are no street names in Gaza. He just had to describe how to get there. She found it to be very biblical, as portrayed in media images. To add to the drama, her return to Turkey was delayed by the 2016 coup in Istanbul. She had to stay in a hotel in Tel Aviv where she said she was eyed suspiciously because of her headscarf.
When Sumeyye got home from work one day we had ice cream and I became her agony aunt. She told me she was in love life with a man at work. She realised she was attracted to him when he wasn’t in the office for several weeks because he was self isolating. I asked her if he was aware of her feelings. “Oh no,” she said. I advised her to give him some hints about her feelings, and whether she thought it could develop in to a long term relationship. Unfortunately, she thought this would not happen because her contract was due to end in a few months and she would probably move back to the east of Turkey where she would have an arranged marriage. Whilst this seems very alien to me, she explained that at the age of 28 it would be helpful for her parents to introduce her to suitable men who she could turn down if she wished. More shocking to me was the fact that she wanted six children. I took a deep breath and explained that being a mother of three was bloody exhausting so if you double that it just doesn’t bear thinking about! President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is, of course, encouraging women like Sumeyye to have larger families in the hope that they will vote for him!
Ironically, Sumeyye lived within walking distance of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s memorial. It is on a hill that is visible from all over capital and occupies an enormous area. The large, rectangular, towering stone structure had a whiff of communist and fascist architecture to it, if you ask me. Atatürk’s body is interred in a simple tomb in a huge hall. People bow their heads and leave flowers. It added to my feeling that Atatürk is seen as a god by many people in Turkey. He clearly had a very positive impact on the country. Not only was he a First World War hero, but he was responsible for victory in the War of Independence, returning a sense of pride to the region after the collapse of the Sick Man of Europe as the Ottoman Empire ended. In addition, he made Turkey a secular country, improved the rights of women, dramatically raised literacy levels and introduced surnames. What’s not to like? Well according to Gönül, he wasn’t prefect. She acknowledged his achievements but said he wasn’t an angel. He was heavy smoker and drinker, and he had a poor relationship with his wife whom he divorced.
The Atatürk Memorial was a very uptight sort of place. I managed to get in to trouble about four times in the hour I was there. I approached the first entrance I came across but was shouted at very aggressively and a man appeared with a machine gun which he aimed at me. “So this is not the entrance then,” I said, backing off. “Any chance of some directions?” At the actual entrance I didn’t see the hand sanitiser you had to use. Once in, I sat on some steps to read my guide book and I got moved on by a guard. Finally, I was amused by the guards who, whilst they stood to attention on guard duty throughout the complex, had their uniforms smartened up by colleagues. It didn’t go down well when I photographed this!
Doing home stays is a big advantage when it comes to insider knowledge. The Lonely Planet Guide is useless with regards to these hidden gems. They show me the best views, quirky museums, local markets and scenic walks/drives. Sumeyye did me proud. Not only did she take me to a cafe with a great view of Ankara, especially by night, and for a cycle ride round a lake, we also visited a doll museum. I was interested to see that Sumeyye didn’t seem to be offended by the fact that none of the dolls looked like her, a dark haired and brown eyed Asian female who wears a headscarf. There was the odd black doll but most had blue eyes and blonde hair.
Sumeyye went to a university in Sarajevo in Bosnia because headscarves were banned at universities in Turkey. I found this rather shocking. I mean, live and let live. Erdogan has over turned this but it was too late for Sumeyye. Whilst I was there, we met up with some Bosnian couch surfers who she was in touch with because of this connection. I travelled around Bosnia last year with Kathryn so I got in on the act too! Robert and Miran were there to make a YouTube travel documentary and they were accompanied by Robert’s partner, Ena, a dentist. I asked if they were married and when they said no, I joked that the restaurant with a stunning view over the skyline of the capital would a good place for a proposal! Miran interviewed Sumeyye for the YouTube film which also involves him break dancing around the world.
In Ankara, I had the large apartment to myself during the day because all the house mates were out at work. This was the first time I had the luxury of the place to myself. Don’t get me wrong, I am not complaining about the time and attention my other homestay hosts gave me, none of whom worked, but I was travel weary after moving on average 3-4 days for two months so it was an opportunity that I made the most of, normally treating myself to a lazy morning before going out.
Smoking is much more common in Turkey than in the U.K. Four out of six of my homestay hosts smoked and whilst it is not permitted to smoke in restaurants, they definitely bend the rules to a much greater extent than in western countries. In Ankara there was a large covered area where most people were sitting. Sumeyye and I had to move several times to avoid smokers at the next table and eventually we retreated to the small inside area but even there we were affected by drifting smoke. Sumeyye looked surprised that I had such an aversion to smoke and admitted that she smoked. It was now my turn to be surprised. I questioned why a devout Muslim who would not drink alcohol would smoke. She explained that Mohammed objected to alcohol because it controls your body but this is not the case with smoking. I begged to differ and suggested that if smoking had been invented when he was around, he may have warned against this disgusting habit too!
Driving whilst on a mobile phone is another bad habit that I guess the Turks share with much of the world. They hadn’t heard of ‘hands free’ and would make calls, receive calls, text, google and order a kebab whilst driving.
It only rained about three times in my three months stay in Turkey but when it did and I was driving it had a dramatic affect on the Turks. Some put their hazard lights on and some drove ridiculously slowly. I was not surprised. In the U.K. we have much experience of driving in the rain. Drizzle, horizontal, driving rain, you name it! You don’t bat an eyelid at appalling conditions that mean you aquaplane and can’t see more than about two feet in front of you because of all the spray being kicked up by other vehicles. When we were in Spain, however, staying with our Spanish friends, I was in the passenger seat next to Ma Paz who was driving when the heavens opened and we found ourselves travelling through torrential rain. Now it was horrible conditions that required you to slow down and drive carefully with considerable concentration but I was interested to see that poor Ma Paz was clearly panicking and under significant stress. What was a regular occurrence at home, resulting in one taking it all in ones stride, was a rare event in Spain.
When I visited Turkey in the nineties we did a long overnight bus trip from Istanbul to Antalya. I have a very clear memory of waking up as the sun came streaming in to the bus to a dramatic luna landscape. Having now driven all over western Turkey and not come across said luna landscape, I was starting to think I’d dreamt it but as I travelled southwest from Ankara, all of a sudden I was enveloped by a luna landscape. Dry, arid and colourful hills that had imprinted on my mind all those years ago. I was glad to see I hadn’t been doing mad!
My final homestay host, Ayfer, lived in Dalyan with her husband, Nihat and five year old son, Ata. I found their home easily but Ayfer had reassured me that if I got lost I just had to mention Nihat’s name because everyone knows him. This was my second visit to Dalyan as Kathryn and I had visited it earlier in the trip on a brief stop between Fethiye and Marmaris. Ayfer’s house was a palatial mansion with large balconies and a swimming pool. I immediately assumed that they must be loaded but looks can be deceptive. In normal years they rent the house out to British tourists and moved out to a house that comes with Ayfer’s job as a teacher. They rent the palatial mansion out over the summer period and make as much money as Ayfer does in the entire year. British teachers aren’t well paid but they’ve got nothing on Turkish teachers! Nihat is a house husband.
Ayfer’s family are from a local village and it is clearly a garden of Eden. Large bowls at their house were over flowing with apples and tomatoes harvested from the village. In addition, one evening they were sat on the floor pickling copious amounts of village vegetables and they made a large batch of pasta; both needed to see them through the winter. One day they had a large family gathering of three generations for breakfast and they, of course, in true Turkish style, made me feel like part of the family.
Ayfer’s five year old son, Ata, speaks English. Impressively, she employed an English childminder who spoke English to him. Children at that age are like sponges and when I read English stories to him and asked questions to check his understanding, he got the lot! Ata is named after the great man himself, Atatürk. It is illegal to use the full name so a shortened version is as close as you can get. I wonder how many poor kids will be named Boris or Donald?
Kathryn and I got fleeting glimpses of loggerhead turtles on a boat trip but a far better way to see these rare sea creatures up close and personal was at the Turtle Hospital where there were loggerhead and green turtles that had been injured by boats. It was very sad to see them trapped in tanks rather than in the sea but the hospital, which runs on charitable donations, did a grand job of nursing them back to health and, where possible, releasing them back in to the wild. One had a blanket on its shell and I asked if this was because of damage to the shell. This wasn’t, however, the case. It was unable to dive and needed to have weights on it to assist with diving. In addition to the magnificent medium to large turtles, they had some very cute baby turtles. It’s on my bucket list to see cute baby turtles in the wild but this is more than compensation for now.
Thanks to a top tip from Ayfer and Nihat, I drove up to Bozburun Tepesi Radar Station where the view of the Iztuzu Beach spit and the labyrinth of canals which create stunning patterns was sublime. I bumped my way up the steep dirt road. Don’t tell the car hire company! As suggested by Ayfer and Nihat, I parked up and walked about 600 meters to the summit. Here I met two men who had an old banger but who had gone all the way. They had their camp chairs out with a plentiful supply of beer but their bonnet was up because of over heating. They told me the view from the other side was even more impressive.
The next day, I got the car ferry over the river. It was a two car ferry and took about five minutes! I struggled to find the view. I tried to follow Ayfer’s directions and trundled my way up a dirt track that looked promising but as it went on and on, I made the decision to turn round. I hadn’t encountered another soul and if I broke down, there would be no one to help me out. Once back to the paved road, I continued on in the hope that I would find the way up to the view point. Ten minutes later, a man flagged me down. I don’t normally pick up strangers when I am driving on my own but he was desperate. He’d been told he could walk back to civilisation but he was in the middle of nowhere and it would get dark very soon. He was a French traveller called Jean and instinct told me to take pity on him. I gave him a lift and I think he was more nervous than me because he kept telling me to ‘slow down’. I don’t think he travelled in cars very often and definitely not in Turkey because if he thought I was driving erratically, I had nothing on Turkish drivers! One hour later, we got back to town and he treated me to a glass of wine. When I told him I was going to walk the Lycian Way, he told me he’d swum it! I’d heard everything now!
Having failed to find the view point, Nihat and Ata accompanied me the next morning and it was well worth it with the swirling patterns of the estuary forming a beautiful work of nature.
At times Dalyan felt like Little Britain. As I walked in to town on my first day, the tell tale signs were there in the form of boards adverting a full English breakfast and news stands with ‘The Mirror’ and ‘The Mail’. Once at the cafe where I had a coffee, everyone was English. Yorkshire, estuary and Geordie accents were the order of the day!
It was also a tourist rip off spot! When Kathryn and I enquired about a boat trip to see the turtles, his starting price was taking the mick! When I went to the Turtle Hospital I took a bus so I could walk along the spit and get a water taxi back to town. The trouble was, I missed the last water taxi. One of the private boat operators said he could take me back for a fiver but I’d have to wait for an hour. I settled down and read my book until the couple who had paid a fortune turned up. I made my way to get on the boat, at which point he doubled the price. I told him he could stick his boat where the sun don’t shine and returned back down the jetty, knowing it would be a struggle to get back but I was seeing red and refused to be taken for a ride on his outrageously priced boat. Luckily, he realised he’d met his match and he called after me. As I’d calculated, tourists are a rare breed in Covid 2020 so he couldn’t afford to turn up an extra fare.
When I first arrived in Turkey they were squaring up to Greece over gas reserves. In the spirit of never a dull moment, they were now poking their noses in to a dispute on their eastern border between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Looking at the map and talking to my homestay hosts, I realised that this massive country has some seriously bad dudes as neighbours. Not only do they share a border with the mad mullahs of Iran, they also border war torn Iraq and Syria. In addition, Bad Boy Vladimir Putin is just across The Black Sea!
In the build up to Brexit, I distinctly remember Nigel Farage of the U.K. Independence Party saying that if Turkey was allowed in to the European Union then we would have 80 million Turks emigrating to the U.K. Whilst I knew at the time that it was an outrageous claim, I fear that many were fooled by it and it influenced the vote to leave. I can categorically state that I doubt 80 would want to swap Turkey’s equally developed metropolitan areas and impressive infrastructure, not to mention its superior climate. We do nick their engineers and the rural areas are undoubtably much poorer so this` may encourage economic migration but, overall, it was definitively a big fat lie!
It was much to my surprise when I found out that Boris is a celebrity not just in the U.K. but also in Turkey! Apparently, he’s practically Turkish! I know, who would have thought it! I knew he was born in America and with that hair and a name like Johnson, he has to be related to such Viking personalities as Boris the Red Bloodaxe but Turkish heritage, that was news to me. According to my well informed homestay hosts, his paternal great grandfather was a bigwig in the Ottoman Empire. He kept that one quiet from Nigel Farage!
As I ended my homestays, I reflected on the incredible hospitality of the Turks. I knew from my last visit that it is part of their culture to welcome guests with open arms and do all in their power to give them a stay to remember. My 2020 hosts had not disappointed. I owed a great dept of gratitude to Tolunay, Yahiz, Gönül, Emine, Münevver, Ahmed, Rumeysa, Eymen, Gülçin, Selim, Çağan, Ilgin, Okay, Ruta, Sedar, Emre, Ayfer, Nihat and Ata. Their kindness will be for ever imprinted on my heart.