Breakfast in Datça
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.