The Importance of Being Somewhere Else-A Preamble to the Turkish Travel Diary

Travelling southwards on Turkey’s Aegean coast I remembered two articles I’ve recently read, both concerned with topics related to how we travel these days. The first one was an analysis of how our travel pictures, especially of the ’insta-variety’, all look the same- right now I can’t find the particular article for the life of me (I plead guilty to sloppiness, as ever), but it came out in the trail of a video and an Instagram feed highlighting the matter. And it’s not that I am pointing fingers here, I recognize many of the stereotypes in my own shots, spiced with tinges of regret when I miss an opportunity to shoot something I knew would be click-baity, envy when someone does it better (as in, more norm compliantly) or simply the itch to find something, anything, worthy of being posted. I then become aware of my frivolous ways and feel slightly guilty over that, for a change, try to take actual pictures instead and then suddenly I see a coffee mug on a patterned rug and I feel exactly as five year old who was told not to pick at the bloodied scab on her knee, she herself recognizes the fact that it would hurt like hell, and yet she extends the finger and once she touched the slightly loosening edge of the scab, nothing can stop her. The only thing worse than spotting the mug on the rug is of course staging the mug on the rug and doing it slowly enough to have the coffee go cold, so you are stuck with a perfectly banal picture some fifty of your followers will like, often as an automatism, and a nigh undrinkable beverage.

In a happy and unexpected turn of events, I did manage to re-locate the second article, the gist if which is that although we travel purportedly to discover new places, we end up looking for the same things (which we then Instagram in the same way) and this in turn leads locals of essentially anywhere to try and cater to our needs so popular travel destinations may at one point look like what Winnie the Pooh described as an enormous big nothing. Since the writer of the article seems peeved by acidic coffee, which I personally like to the degree that it was discovering it that made me accept coffee as a possible beverage in the first place, I can only recommend he follow in my footsteps along the Turkish Aegean coast mentioned at the beginning of the post, particularly on the stretch ending at Izmir, which happens to be the less touristy one. Or at least less prone to be visited by the international insta-horde, even if not fully immune to the shortcoming of our times, as demonstrated by the young girl forced by her mother into a ‘modest’ beach-side T-shirt sliding the sleeves down long enough to take a selfie in which she looks like wearing only a swimsuit.

The coffees are however strictly of the un-acidic sort, mostly Turkish, but often Nescafé or other non-brand soluble sort, which in the era of being hectored over the origin of your beans sounds almost revolutionary. Coffee is however secondary to tea which is drunk in quantities that would probably plunge the nation into insomnia if they hadn’t by now grown immune to it.  A lot of this tea is consumed by men sitting in tea houses doing absolutely nothing, or by men sitting in front of shops looking like they are on a break between two important tasks, a break which however lasts the whole day. Some of the tea must also be drunk by women confined to homes and offices doing the menial jobs which keep the country running. When they are actually doing something, the men may be on their way to, from, or arguing about a game of football-stores catering to the fans of major teams have an array of goods surpassing even the warehouse type affairs of Western giants like Barcelona or Juventus, churned out by Turkey’s vast textile industry. A vast industry which makes foreign brands almost unnecessary and hardly present in smaller towns, yet remains constantly in touch with major trends, as demonstrated by a sudden apparition on Frida Kahlo on every second T-shirt.

Now that we mentioned clothing, let us not forget the shoes, and more particularly the slippers which constitute another axis of Turkish life and regulate its rhythms: shoes being rigorously confined to the outdoors, they are often piled up outside flats with the owners swooshing inside in one of their many slippers. Generally, everything seems to be in large quantities: there are neighbourhoods in Istanbul selling essentially one item, say chandeliers, there are stalls by the side of the road selling mountains of melons and others selling an infinity of plastic buckets and garden gnomes. There is nothing particularly dodgy about garden gnomes, reviled as bad taste in other lands: the Turkish aesthetic has a tolerance for the manifold and the haphazard which sends minimalist sensibilities into tilt, yet after the thousandth boxy shaped concrete block with thermopane windows you start to wonder whether they could actually become the picturesque nostalgia of the future. My acidic-coffee-lover-insta-compliant self say not in a million years, but after my sixth tea doubts start to creep in. I may even consider taking a dodgem ride in a Luna Park, a multitude of which dot seaside resorts and not only, or eat something as outlandish as kokoreç, which Gastro Obscura qualifies as Greek, but then the Aegean coast is one of endless and sometimes bloody confusion, with the remains of Troy and Pergamon being counterbalanced by wartime memorials to the victories which lead to the creation of the modern Turkish republic.

As we’d travelled in the wake of Victory day, August 30, which marked the end of the of the Greco-Turkish war, we also bumped into Atatürk, everywhere, in all shapes and sizes, from giant posters covering entire buildings to his signature on cars and yes, his watchful blue eyes piercing you with their gaze in restrooms, where you finally had to give in to the admission that he looks iconic, particularly on a red background, as we all know the red team almost always wins, except the national team lost to Russia while we were there, only to later redeem themselves with one of their typical snatched from the jaws of catastrophe last minute victories against Sweden.

The best bits of a journey thus lie somewhere off the map of what we already know or assume (often confusing the two) and can’t be accurately rendered visually to others- the best we can hope is to take a picture or two which might feel evocative to others as well, though in a way which will never match the wealth of associations we ourselves connect to it and that the picture we have taken will reflect the idiosyncrasies of one unique moment, rather than fit a constructed pattern. Then there will be a storm over the Dardanelles, with bolts of lightning arching down towards the sea, while the sky on the European shore is still pink with a clear summer sunset and I will again wish my lens was as flexible and as sensitive as my eye. But it isn’t, so the only thing I can promise myself after all this is that I will take less unnecessary pictures of mugs and rugs and pay more attention to the fleeting instants when I am somewhere else

PS: As hinted to by the title, there will be more detailed accounts of our trip, as soon as I drink enough tea to get all my thoughts together.

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