Break­fast in Datça

Geist - - Features - Jeff Shu­card

It’s a balmy June morn­ing in Datça, un­til quite re­cently a pop­u­lar hol­i­day des­ti­na­tion on the beau­ti­ful Aegean coast of Turkey. My friend Doug and I are wait­ing for our break­fast on the spa­cious pa­tio of a sea­side ho­tel, gaz­ing out across the bay to the moun­tain­ous pro­file of Rhodes in the dis­tance. We are both weary from an­other late night of per­form­ing in lo­cal mu­sic clubs and badly in need of that first life-restor­ing cup of cof­fee. At our age there is a con­sid­er­able price to pay for stag­ger­ing in at dawn, but we would not trade this ex­pe­ri­ence for the world.

Our waiter is a young man named Ah­met. He doesn’t speak a word of English so we get to prac­tise our ba­sic Turk­ish with him. We come equipped with our mini English-turk­ish dic­tio­nar­ies and he pa­tiently in­dulges us as we stum­ble through the rigours of Turk­ish grammar. We ask him about him­self, where he’s from, about his fam­ily, his in­ter­ests, his dreams. He tells us his par­ents have a small farm; he hopes to get a job in the Mercedes fac­tory and start a fam­ily of his own. He’s a sweet kid and one morn­ing brings us a jar of honey, a gift from his mother. We are hum­bled by this and ask him to give his mother big hugs and kisses from us. We look up hug and kiss in the dic­tio­nary. Our pro­nun­ci­a­tion stumps him at first, but then he gets it and laughs.

Ev­ery morn­ing of our two-week stay here, Ah­met takes our or­der of cof­fee and the tra­di­tional Turk­ish break­fast plate for two, and ev­ery morn­ing he never quite gets it right. There is al­ways some­thing he for­gets to bring us. One morn­ing it’s the milk for the cof­fee; the next, the salt and pep­per; the next, spoons or nap­kins. Af­ter the first few days of this rou­tine, we be­gan mak­ing bets on what he will for­get next. Doug is good at this. He’s al­ready up twenty lira on me but I’m de­ter­mined to even the score.

It’s not as though Ah­met has much to keep straight these days. As im­prob­a­ble as it may seem in a coun­try with a 2.5 bil­lion-dol­lar-a-year tourism in­dus­try, we are the ho­tel’s only guests—and, as far as we can tell, the only for­eign vis­i­tors on the en­tire penin­sula—per­haps the en­tire coun­try. Such is the dis­as­trous state of tourism in the new au­thor­i­tar­ian Turkey. Af­ter the ter­ror­ist bomb­ing of Atatürk air­port in 2016, the failed mil­i­tary coup and the sub­se­quent im­pris­on­ment of thou­sands of jour­nal­ists, hu­man­i­tar­i­ans, teach­ers, in­tel­lec­tu­als and artists as en­e­mies of the state, any trav­eller who fol­lows the news is staying away—ex­cept Doug and me. The en­tire Turk­ish tourist trade, it would ap­pear, is down to just us two and our very mod­est bud­get.

It is sur­real be­ing the sole vis­i­tors to this par­adise, sit­ting here in the sweep of empty rooms, ta­bles, de­serted beaches, cafés. Per­haps we too should have heeded all the warn­ings and stayed home. But we are not tourists and we are not here just for a good

time: we are here to play mu­sic with our friends, to be with them, no mat­ter how bad (or good) things are. Even if there are risks in­volved, we have no sec­ond thoughts about our de­ci­sion.

Where is Ah­met? He is nowhere in sight. Hope­fully, he’s in the kitchen pre­par­ing our cof­fees. I know bet­ter than to make any neg­a­tive as­sump­tions about his in­tel­li­gence. His in­abil­ity to get our break­fast or­der right, much like ev­ery­thing else in an au­thor­i­tar­ian regime, is more about what I call “pre­tend­ing,” the in­au­then­tic be­hav­iour of peo­ple co­erced into be­com­ing some­thing they are not. With the cre­ation of the repub­lic in 1922, Atatürk de­manded of Turks to mod­ern­ize overnight, to erase the eight thou­sand or so years of Assyr­ian, Hit­tite, Ly­cian, Ly­dian, Greek, Ro­man, Byzan­tine and Ot­toman his­tory of these Ana­to­lian shores from their con­scious­ness and be­come one with the demo­cratic in­dus­tri­al­ized West. What an au­da­cious un­der­tak­ing! Now the cur­rent au­to­crat is or­der­ing them to tear all that down and re­turn to an equally in­au­then­tic fan­tasy of na­tion­al­ism based, os­ten­si­bly, on ar­chaic con­cepts of chastity and aus­tere Is­lamic val­ues—mega­lo­ma­nia feeds only it­self.

In be­tween these two man­dates was eighty-some years of fit­ful growth, con­fu­sion, a pro­longed cul­tural am­ne­sia and al­most no one get­ting any­thing right at any level of en­deav­our: Atatürk’s Turkey was a ma­chine for which its op­er­a­tors were given no in­struc­tion man­ual. The past au­to­crat built and filled ho­tels; the present one has now suc­cess­fully emp­tied them. Some­where in the fu­ture, I feel, a new vo­cab­u­lary must be found, one in which all cit­i­zens will be al­lowed and en­cour­aged to find their own way of be­ing, of re­mem­ber­ing and of cre­at­ing lives that are truly their own.

As we await our cof­fee amidst the dozens of empty ta­bles and lounge chairs, we de­cide which miss­ing break­fast items we will bet on this morn­ing. Doug goes with the nap­kins and I choose the salt and pep­per. We wish each other good luck.

A lone fig­ure ap­pears on the pa­tio. It’s Mert, the ho­tel man­ager, stop­ping by to say hello. Of course, he has lit­tle to do these days. It must be stress­ful for him, for ev­ery­one in the trade.

“What’s go­ing to hap­pen?” Doug asks him.

“We don’t know,” he replies with a shrug. “Wait, as al­ways. This is Turkey. We are al­ways wait­ing.”

“For a fu­ture?” I say.

“Yes, a fu­ture would be nice,” he smiles. “Un­for­tu­nately, fu­ture is not a lux­ury we have in this part of the world.”

Ah. Now, here comes Ah­met car­ry­ing a large tray. We ap­plaud his ar­rival. Ah­met sets the tray down and places the var­i­ous dishes of feta, to­ma­toes, olives, sliced cu­cum­ber on the ta­ble be­fore us. Ev­ery­thing he lays out on the ta­ble is fresh, from lo­cal farms and or­chards. Our jar of his mother’s honey is al­ready there.

We mon­i­tor the ta­ble. This is the fun part of the process, try­ing to de­ter­mine what is miss­ing, to see who has won to­day’s bet. Fi­nally, Ah­met is fin­ished. He stands back and of­fers us a smile. We look it all over. Ha! Where are the salt and pep­per shak­ers? I think I’ve won for a change!

“Do you see what I see?” I ask Doug, self-sat­is­fied.

“I’m afraid I do,” he con­cedes. “Prob­lem var mi?” Is ev­ery­thing okay, Ah­met asks in Turk­ish.

“Mukem­mel,” we say. Per­fect.

“Thanks Ah­met, just lovely.”

Ah­met thanks us again and leaves us to our meal. The bread, the tra­di­tional lavas, is piping hot, right out of the oven. I break off a piece and spread some of the de­li­cious honey over it. The best things en­dure.

Jeff Shu­card was born in Paterson, New Jersey. He at­tended the Min­neapo­lis School of Art and Fran­co­nia Col­lege. Af­ter a decade of for­eign travel, he set­tled in Van­cou­ver for twenty years and worked in ed­u­ca­tion and mu­sic. Now he lives in Nanaimo, BC. Read more of his work at geist.com.

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