My Grandfathers Killed the Armenians

A broken headstone, lying next to a tomb at the old medrese, a former religious school, in Bitlis.

A Turkish teacher from Izmir who lived at the hotel where I was staying showed me pictures of old Armenian grave stones which he pulled up on his iPhone and which he said were from somewhere nearby, but he wasn’t sure where.  An employee at the hotel said he knew, and would take me there at 2:00pm when his shift ended.  So there I was at 2:00pm, and he wasn’t. So I sat and drank tea with the teacher while listening to Aerosmith and Bob Marley on his laptop. He drank beer that he kept out of sight on the seat next to him, smoking cigarettes and fingering his prayer beads.

The hotel desk clerk, with little else to do, wandered over and joined us. He was a man of about 60, with tobacco-stained teeth, and he was Kurdish, as is just about everyone else in this town who doesn’t work for the government.  The teacher asked him if he knew where the old Armenian tombs were.  No, he didn’t, but he did know what happened to the Armenians.  He rattled off his story, accompanied by much smiling and chuckling, about his mother’s father and his father’s father and how they had killed the Armenians.  I looked puzzled, wondering if I had misunderstood, and looked at the teacher.  He laughed and drew his finger across his throat in a cutting motion.  I turned back to the desk clerk,  and asked: “Why?”  The teacher answered for him and said: “Because they were dangerous.”  I turned back to the desk clerk and asked again, “Why?”  So he started explaining about how the Kurds and the Turks and the Armenians and the “Rum” (an old term for Greek) all lived peacefully together.  But then the war — World War I — came and the Russian Army took Bitlis and the city was largely destroyed. The Armenians, fellow Orthodox Christians with the Russians, started fighting on the side of the Russians. And so the Kurds, including his grandfathers, began killing the Armenians.  “And are there any Armenians left around here anymore?”  “Oh yes”, they both assured me, but now they’re Muslims.  “Why?”, I asked yet again.  “Because they were afraid”, said the teacher, as his friend mimed the act of pointing a rifle.

Just then an old man with a cane came into the hotel and asked for money. The two men I was sitting with immediately reached for their pockets, but I was faster, and gave the old man a couple of coins.  He thanked me, and started to leave.  One of the men with me called out and said “You know this man here is Christian, right?” The old man gravely thanked me again, and left.

I believe that my brain, already spinning, began to get dizzy at this point.

The Turkish government still remains unwilling to admit to much of this, over than that “it was war” and there was killing on both sides.  What makes this very strange is that these events took place a century ago, they happened under the rule of the Ottoman Empire which is no more, and a good deal of the killing seems to have been done by Kurds.  Within the current borders of Turkey, Armenians once lived in much of the same territory as Kurds. In today’s Turkey, of course, it is the Kurds who are the oppressed.

So, the Turkish government has several ways to, if they chose, put distance between themselves and responsibility for these long-ago wartime massacres of Armenians while admitting nonetheless that they happened — but chooses not to.  Turkish schools teach the children a very one-sided version of events, while focusing mainly on the Turks killed by Armenians, while Turkish museums tell a similar story, as in the museums in Erzurum and Van.  This of course infuriates the Armenians in Armenia and throughout their world-wide diaspora, and has done so throughout the history of the Turkish Republic.

Nationalism can take many strange and twisted forms and it’s hard to see much good in it.  In this part of the world, as with everywhere else humans live and have ever lived, tribe goes to war against tribe.  As they do, yesterday’s oppressors often become the oppressed, and vice-versa.

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Bitlis: Musings on street scenes, conversations at the tea house

When I checked into the Dideban Hotel in Bitlis, not far from Lake Van, I realized that my sore throat had actually become a cold.  So, tea was the only thing for it.  Leaving the hotel, I strolled down the street until I came to the first tea house with empty table outside and not too many smokers in my immediate vicinity.  It didn’t take long to find one, since the main industry in town appeared to be these very tea houses.

I had barely sat down when an old man with a cane came shuffling by, paused to welcome me, find out where I was from, smile, and shuffle onwards again.  The day was grey and intermittently rainy here in this town deep in its steep sided valley, with a huge fortress looming over the town.  Looking at the people on the crowded sidewalks of the street, it struck me how the clothing of the people here was also almost uniformly some shade of grey or black.  The only splotches of color were provided by the headscarves of the women: floral patterns for the poorer peasant women, more abstract patterns for the better dressed, more prosperous-looking women.  Almost no men in Turkey wear hats, and this town is no exception.  The closest thing to a hat is the woven skullcap worn by older Turkish men, usually those above 60 or so.  Once upon a time, in the early days of the Turkish Republic in the 1920’s, men’s hats were a hot political issue.  As part of Ataturk’s policy of westernization and modernization, he banned the traditional headgear, the fez.  The fez was itself a feature of a modernization program of 100 years earlier, when the sultan decided that the turban was holding back the country’s development.  Yesterday’s cutting edge hat had become an embarrassment and an obstacle to progress in the mind of President Ataturk, and it had to go.  Not all Turkish men were willing to give it up so easily, no doubt because it had become a symbol of the old Turkey that Ataturk was trying to sweep away and that the conservatives sought to hold onto.

Ataturk soon broke the opposition by hanging a few of the hold-outs who insisted on the fez.  They died for their hats. And so Western hats began to be worn, especially by those who had any close dealings with the Turkish government.  Today, Turkish men prefer to simply do without.

My musings about the politics and fashions of headgear was interrupted by the passing of a noisy, honking wedding motorcade.  In the lead was an SUV with open back door and a man holding a video camera pointed at the car following behind carrying the happy couple, their car covered with ribbons from bumper to bumper.  More honking cars followed, with colored scarves held out the windows by some of the women.  Behind, several mini-buses, packed with revelers.  In short, a typical American wedding motorcade, with the exception of the presence of more minibuses than cars.  Apparently, American wedding customs transported here to this small Kurdish town by TV and movies have trumped the centuries old Kurdish wedding procession customs, whatever they may be or have been.

As I sat and finished my second cay and got up to leave, a man walked up and invited me to sit at the next table and have some tea.  Not one to pass up the opportunity to talk over tea, I sat down for a third cup.  In Turkish tea houses, the outside seating usually consists of low stools grouped around small, low tables.  They are always in clusters, since men like to drink and smoke in clusters.  There are no women in these places, of course.  Soon our table had a couple more people, who mostly sat and listened to this exotic creature from the U.S.  Most of the questions come the man who had invited me, the owner of the grocery store next door. He peppered me with questions: “Are you married?  How many children do you have?  What do you think of Obama?  Will he win the election? What is the monthly wage in the US?  Do you think Iran is powerful?  What work do you do?  What kind of book is it you are writing?”  Sometimes he asked questions I didn’t understand, and if I still didn’t understand after asking him to repeat it, I pretended to be a politician holding a press conference or participating in a debate, and simply answered a different question instead.  (This approach generally seemed to work fine throughout my Turkish travels.)  The only awkward moment, other than the many awkward moments caused by linguistic confusion, was when he asked me if the Jewish lobby in the U.S. was strong.  “Yes, it is very strong”, I said.  “But, there are only five or six million Jews in the US in a country with over three hundred million total population”.  I mentioned that my wife was one of them, and he didn’t pursue it further.

The grocery store owner was a Kurd and said that he had served in the army.  I asked him where, and he said Hakkari, with an odd smile.  I think the smile referred to the irony that he, a Kurd, was supposed to be helping suppress a Kurdish guerilla movement.  This was the first time I had heard that Kurds could serve in the army in the east, since everyone else I’d discussed their military service with said that ethnic Turks served in the east where the Kurdish problems were, while the Kurds were sent to the western part of the country. Trying to find out what his politics were, he was either evasive or I simply didn’t understand.  I asked which was the most powerful party here in Bitlis, and he said the ruling AKP.

Afterwards, I went for a long stroll down the main street of the town, along the river.  The ratio of tea houses to restaurants seemed to be about 10 to one.  It was a poor town, and if a man without much money wanted to go into business, a tea house required very little capital to do so, much less than a restaurant or retail store.  Small restaurants are everywhere in the more prosperous parts of the country, but this was not one of them and there were few travelers to bring in money from outside.  While townspeople couldn’t afford to eat out, they could afford a glass or two of tea, since each one cost only one lira (about US$0.60).  The tea houses were well-patronized, especially on an evening like this one where there was a soccer game starting at 7:00pm.

The river was a small one and, even in the evening darkness, I could see that it was a prize-winning example of litter and pollution. Without enforcement of any of those pesky environmental regulations that kill jobs, this town was killing its river.  Rule of law has a long way to go in Turkey, and it could be seen everywhere simply by how people tossed their trash everywhere without a second thought.  Countries with lots of litter are always countries with shaky rule of law.

Saving the sights of the town for the daylight hours of the next day, I went to one of the very few restaurants I could find.  No menu, just give the order to the cook on the way in — there’s seldom much of a choice since restaurant menus tend to a great sameness.  The waiter upstairs was Mohammed, and he was very attentive and friendly.  He was quick to scoot across the room and flick away the cockroach he saw me observing on the wall next to my table.  I was not sure if there actually were cockroaches in Turkey, but it seemed in the same family.

The sound of the muezzin’s call could be heard from the nearby Ulu Camii,  a sound soon drowned out by the cheering of the soccer fans in the tea houses up and down the street.  It was Turkey’s secular religion competing against its, uh, religious religion.

Mohammed soon wandered over again to exchange the usual questions about where I am from, family and work.  He was intrigued with this idea of writing, especially as he saw me writing in my little blue notebook, my favorite travel companion. He wanted to know about the things I wrote about.  “Everything I see and everyone I talk to”, I said, “including Mohammed and his restaurant”.  He seemed pleased by this, and urged me to write more.

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A Kurdish Cotton Farmer

The man next to me on the bus from Van was not Batman, but was from the town of Batman a few hours away.  At first I thought he was old — the gnarled hands, the missing teeth — but as we talked realized that he could very well be younger than I was.

I asked him a few of my usual questions about the wider world, about what he thought of the war in Syria and the mass arrests of Turkish army officers, but he clearly knew and cared little about these matters.  He asked me what I thought of Obama, and then I asked him the same question.  He seemed to be of mixed feelings, so I asked him what he wanted Obama to do for Turkey.  “Not Turkey”, he said, “the whole world. We need peace, and that’s what I want.”

We turned to matters closer to his daily life.  He was a farmer, he said, and cotton was the main crop he raised, though he also grew a variety of other items including the tomatoes and cucumbers that are part of every meal in this part of the world, whether included in the order or not.  As we talked, I regularly consulted my dictionary to look up Turkish words that until now I had not found much use for: farmer, cotton, crop, irrigation canal …  He was fascinated by the dictionary and the Turkey guide book, and eventually started thumbing through them himself.  Quite possibly he had never laid hands on this type of book before in his life.  He asked me how many years of education I had and, feeling self-conscious, I told him 16, knocking some time off for good behavior.  He told me he had two years of school.  Shortly afterwards, he mentioned he had a brother who was a lawyer.  I asked if that was his older brother.  No, he said, “I am the eldest”.  Then he rattled off the occupations of his siblings, including not just a lawyer but also a teacher.  Not very tactfully, I asked why it was, then, that he was the one in the family with only two years of education.  He paused, looked at his hands, and said that in the old days it wasn’t as it became later.  There were very few schools, and he was the eldest of six.  The schooling was in Turkish, and he only spoke Kurdish when he started.  No doubt he struggled and had parents with other priorities than keeping their eldest in school.  So he went to work very young.

I asked him what type of work he expected his four children to do, all of whom were still in school.  First, study, he said. Then, university.  Then, go to Istanbul to work.  Why Istanbul?, I said. “There is no work here”, he replied regretfully.  Then he pointed to his shoes and said: “They are from Istanbul”.  Then he clutched his jacked and said: “Also from Istanbul.  There are no factories here, so there is no work.”  He had no illusions, or very few, about what it would take for his children to have lives radically different from his own, however little he knew about what kind of work they might actually do.  The price would be that they would be utterly different from him, and he would seldom see them in a city that was many hundreds of miles away on the other side of the country.

He said his children would write me, to the address I had given him.  We said goodbye and he got off the bus to change to another one, in Tatvan.  I got off to stretch my legs after the three-hour ride, and for the first time noticed military attack helicopters flying overhead.  There’s not likely to be much work in this part of Turkey as long as the violence here continues, even if it’s invisible to the urban foreign traveler like me.

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Akdamar Island: An Armenian Church and History through Turkish Eyes

Akdamar Island’s 10th century Armenian Orthodox Church of the Holy Cross

The five of us stood under an almond tree in an ancient cemetery on Akdamar Island, next to the most famous Armenian Christian church in Turkey, munching on the nuts. I was with a group of young Turkish teachers from Van — one of whom taught English and spoke it very well.  One of them had thoughtfully provided the almonds for our snack by climbing into the branches of the tree and shaking it vigorously.  Since we had been bonding for a while during our ferry crossing to get here from the mainland, I thought I should chance a risky question about a difficult subject: “So, what do you think of the story about the Armenians who were slaughtered in this part of the world in 1915, during World War I?”

I had braced myself for a less than friendly reaction to this question, but I should not have worried. ” Yes”, came the answer, “We have heard about this.”  “What do you think happened?”, I probed.  “As we know, there were a lot of people killed here at this time, both Turks and Armenians, at the time of the war with the Russians.  The Armenians were fighting on the Russian side, and we were defending our country against both of them.  Many were killed.”  “How many Armenians do you believe were killed?”, I asked.  The four of them conferred with one another.  “About 80,000”. I said that on the Armenian side and among historians who have studied the subject, the estimate is closer to 1,000,000.  They didn’t believe that.  “And what about on the Turkish side?”, l inquired, looking for insight into how they saw the balance of injustice in this tragedy.  Another huddle followed before they answered: “About 80,000, around the same number as the number of Armenians.”  “How did the Armenians die?”, I pursued. “The Ottoman government was relocating them to safer areas, and they died during the trip”, came the bland explanation.  Since this seemed like an awfully high attrition rate for supposedly moving civilians to safety, I inquired as to how they thought the Armenians died from merely being relocated.  “Most of them died from weather conditions, and some were of course killed by the Turks.”

A large red Turkish flag flew above Akdamar Island on that breezy day.  As always, the victors write their own histories. Sometimes, the losers never get to write their own at all, but in this case, the Armenian losers have indeed written their own, and it bears little resemblance to that of the Turks.  The Armenians call it genocide; the Turks call it war.  Maybe not surprisingly, to this day the border between Turkey and Armenia remains closed.

Akdamar Island is in Lake Van, about an hour’s worth of travel by mini-bus and boat way from the city of Van itself.  Van was the scene of fierce fighting during World War I which left most of the city a smoking ruin when it was taken by the Russians and then re-taken by the Ottoman Turks when the Russians bowed out following the Bolsheviks’ armistice with the Germans in 1917. The Russians then turned to killing each other in their own civil war instead of Turks, Austro-Hungarians and Germans.

As for the Armenians, some fought on as guerillas for a while on their own, but they too were eventually defeated.  Most of the surviving Armenians eventually fled across the border into the Armenian part of what became the Soviet Union.  Today, there are few Armenians left in Turkey, mostly in the Istanbul area.  For all practical purposes, this people that lived in eastern Turkey (then the eastern part of Anatolia within the Ottoman empire) for two millennia is no more.  It is primarily their churches that remain, many converted into mosques.

Fresco inside of the Church of the Holy Cross, Akdamar Island.

What draws the tourists to Akdamar Island, Turks and foreigners alike, is the Church of the Holy Cross, built in 921 A.D. The outside of the church is covered with superb, well-preserved, slow-relief carvings on the outside of the church walls that show Bilblical scenes such as Adam and Eve in the Garden, Jonah and the whale, and so forth.  Exploring the inside of one of the side chapels of the church, I ran into one of the women from the teachers’ tour group and asked another question: “Why do Muslims come to an Armenian Church?”  She replied, reasonably enough, that she came for the same reason that Christians come to visit mosques: to see and to learn.  She said however that she couldn’t understand much of the symbolism of the frescoes in the church and of the carvings outside.  This then turned into a mini-catechism session where I and Bill, another US traveler  and also a former Catholic altar boy, answered her questions about the significance of the sign of the cross, holy wine, the various sects of Christianity, baptism, and the like.  I hope we did our catechism teachers proud — and in a 10th century chapel at that.

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Van after the 2011 Earthquake

Shipping containers in Van, which house the people who lost their homes in the 2011 earthquake

The shuttle bus to downtown from the bus terminal dropped me off on the main street in Van.  As I got off, I asked the driver where the Hotel Bayram was.  Just down the street he said, gesturing to the street we were already on.  After walking several blocks, and not seeing the hotel, I asked a likely-looking person standing on the sidewalk. “Closed”, he said.  Normally I would have been skeptical about this kind of “You can’t get there from here” answer.  But knowing the date of the killer earthquake here a year ago, and that the edition of my Lonely Planet guide book was earlier than that, I thought he was likely correct.  Just three years ago, I had the same experience when trying to find a hotel in a town in coastal Peru, again with a Lonely Planet edition that came out a few months before the earthquake hit.  It seems I may bring bad luck to hotel keepers in geologically active areas.

I soon found another nearby, the Buyuk Assur Hotel.  I asked an employee there what had happened to the Hotel Bayram.  “Fell down”, he said, using his hands to mime the action. Then he rattled off the names of the other two big hotels that had also been destroyed or damaged and had shut down. It seems that the best way to gain market share in a local hotel market is to make sure that your hotel does not fall down in the earthquake when your competition’s hotels do.   Knowing when I don’t have any bargaining power, I didn’t haggle very much about the room price, and checked in.

Later in the afternoon, I climbed up to the massive fortress that overlooks Van and the large lake to which it gave its name.  From a distance, it’s hard to tell that the city and its surrounding towns lost over 600 dead to the earthquake that also left many thousands homeless.  The only sign of the disaster that you can see from the fortress heights is the thousands of white shipping containers in tidy rows that cover hundreds of acres of land, in various locations around town.

There are 10,000 of these containers converted into homes, I was told by the man with whom I had dinner that evening, who lives in one of them.  Nahit, a manager for a telecommunications company, has spent a year in his “container home”, including a scorchingly hot summer living in what amounts to a large steel box, and said he was more than ready to move out — as he will be doing in two months. As for his house, it was a write-off.  His office, just a block or so from where we had dinner, is a modern and still quite new-looking glass and steel affair housing the Turk Telekom offices.  I had walked past this very building twice, earlier the same day.  Only because he pointed it out and only if you looked closely did you see the cracks, broken windows, and other tell-tale signs of massive damage.  It remains closed.  While he wasn’t injured in the quake, losing both his house and his workplace on the same day was tough.

We walked a little ways further and my dinner companion pointed out the site of the Hotel Bayram where I had been intending to stay.  It had completely collapsed and only some of the rubble remained.  Checking news reports later, I found that 20 people had been killed in the collapse of the hotel during an after-shock, when it was full of journalists and aid workers, several of whom were among the victims.  I felt grateful to have a hotel room, and a quite decent one at that.

The city is still recovering, he said, and while there’s a lot of construction work, overall there aren’t many jobs in other sectors, and lots of people have left for big cities elsewhere in Turkey and abroad.

Still, I was impressed by how fast the city had been rebuilt.  I passed multiple cement factories on the way into the city this morning, and there was both repair work and new construction going on throughout the city — dust was everywhere — and even at the ancient fortress.  Back in 1999, a major earthquake near Istanbul that killed thousands seemed to leave the government so paralyzed with inaction that the populace was outraged.  Even foreign governments that sent rescue and aid teams seemed to react more quickly and energetically. The Turkish government kept claiming that its teams couldn’t reach the disaster area due to destroyed roads.  Since the press,  foreign government agencies and NGO personnel seemed to be quite able to reach the disaster zone, no one bought this argument — least of all the Turks.  The Turkish government lost so much credibility that, arguably, the disaster followed by disastrously poor rescue and rebuilding efforts was the key factor that brought the regime to defeat in the next national elections.  Those same elections brought the current prime minister and his AKP party to power.  They seem to have learned from the errors of their predecessors, and did not repeat them in Van.  Shades of Hurricane Katrina and the U.S. government’s response, perhaps?

A partisan note to the Van earthquake tragedy is the reaction to it by some people elsewhere in Turkey.  A group of Turkish soldiers were killed in a Kurdish guerilla attack by members of the organization known as the PKK, shortly before the earthquake.  When a TV journalist said, on air, that the earthquake was divine retribution for this predominantly Kurdish city and its presumed support for the PKK, there was both widespread outrage and some voices raised in agreement.  Even in a shared tragedy caused by natural disaster, some people couldn’t find their sense of compassion.

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Germans in Turkey and Turks in Germany

 I was sitting in a waterfront restaurant in Sinop on the Black Sea coast when I heard a diner at the table behind me speaking a pretty reasonable facsimile of Turkish, after the waiter had addressed a few words to him in German.  I turned around and asked him how he was enjoying his dinner, and we struck up a conversation.  Volker, a middle-aged German from Frankfort, was traveling by himself around Turkey.  It turned out that he had been studying Turkish for two years with a Turk residing in Germany, taking lessons once a week.  This was a completely novel event in my experience.  You just don’t meet many German tourists who have studied Turkish, let alone for two years, and let alone ones who are computer programmers in their 60’s who work for a bank.  Volker proved to be a most unusual kind of traveler: a man who spoke English, Spanish and basic Turkish, and had at one time or another learned pieces of assorted other languages as well.  He was a language buff who could explain the subtle differences between all the different ways of pronouncing the letter “r” in about a half-dozen different languages.  He was perhaps the most serious student of “r” that I had ever met, I told him.

Volker liked to travel solo while his wife remained happily at home.  He had made an effort throughout his years as a father to ensure that his four children had a personally and directly experience that their life in Germany was a privileged one, and that the other 99% lived a life much closer to the financial edge.  As a result, all of his children had lived abroad, and two of them were still doing so — a most cosmopolitan kind of family. Volker was the sort of man who would strike up a conversation with an 85-year-old Turkish fisherman on the docks, as he did the day we talked, as well as stroll into Turkish tea houses on a regular basis and chat with the men (there are only men in such places) who hang out there.  He found that the Turks in Turkey were perhaps even more open-minded and “Westernized” than the ones living in his own country, and thought that the differences between Germany and Turkey might be fast narrowing as the older and more conservative generation died off. He said he never would have guessed this if he had based his decision solely on the Turks he had known in Germany, who were hard-working, but isolated from the mainstream of German society and often very conservative in their ways.  In Germany, they are the small minority who is not fully accepted by the majority; in Turkey, they are the confident overwhelming majority in their own land.

We had a great conversation over after-dinner raki and çay.  At one point, he mentioned that his Windows laptop had just died on this trip, and that its demise was the last straw for him — he was switching to an Apple iPad or Mac.  I asked him why, and he told me that Windows machines were just too complicated.  All he wanted was for his computer to just work, without having to worry about any detail of the operating system, installing updates, or house-keeping details such as performing back-ups.  This man was a COBOL programmer, highly technical, and a German of the older generation.  I decided that if such a man was switching to Apple, then its stock could not have hit its peak.  Afterwards, I went back to my room, logged on to my online brokerage account, and canceled my “sell” order for Apple stock.  There is only at best a thin veneer of rationality to my investing decisions.

The following morning, I met another German (a couple, but he says little and she does all the talking).  She knew little Turkish, but was astounded at how different Turks here are from those she knew at home.  “It is perhaps our own fault because of the way we treat them”, she said, “but in Germany they are separate from us and somewhat suspicious of us.  Here, they seem far more open.  All it takes is a smile and a “merhaba”, and you can talk to them easily.” She echoed the theme that it is all about who is host and who is guest, who is majority and who is minority, and who is in control.  Here, they are the welcoming hosts in their own house.

She also told me a remarkable story about how her family had fled from this part of the world, from just across the Black Sea in another port town, Odessa in the Ukraine.  In 1940, shortly after the start of World War II the year before when Germany and Russia invaded Poland, her grand-parents took their eight children, including her father, and started to walk towards Germany across the Balkans.  They had been in their little village in the Ukraine near Odessa, called Landau, for generations.  These were the Germans who had come to the Russian Empire at the time of Catherine the Great, who saw it as a way to accelerate economic development and increase the power of her rule.  The German immigrants clustered together wherever they went in the Russian empire.  The village of Landau was purely German-speaking, and given the same name as the village in south-west Germany where her family ancestors had come from.  In 1940, they read the writing on the wall and knew it was time to go back to their homeland, that things were going to get very bad in the Ukraine.  The grand-parents and their children walked across war-torn eastern Europe during World War II for over two years, barefoot even in the snow.  They suffered so much from the cold that she said several of her aunts had no toes, having lost them to frostbite during their trek.  Her grand-parents’ health was broken by this experience, but the children survived, though they never received much education.  Her father, who was 10 at the time they left, had only completed only three years of schooling.  Still, he became a baker and later a chef, and the family all did well and thrived.  Now, when they have a family reunion in Germany with all the descendants, over 100 people show up and dance on the tables.  Her family’s emigration story is a story of survival and of thriving in a new land.  I think that knowing that story probably gives her a better understanding of the Turks and of their struggle in Germany.  It was very moving.

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On the Road to Sinop, Without the Little Old Lady

The coast road from Amasra to Sinop on the Black Sea is beautiful, with mountains that rise up to 5,000 feet or so, clad in evergreen forests.  There are clouds resting on the mountain-tops, and the air is fresh and cool when we stop at a couple of villages for the requisite quick cigarette break.  The villages have a few old wooden Ottoman houses, but mostly the buildings in these villages are made of reinforced concrete.  The Ottoman houses are all quite ramshackle: the wood is unpainted, and the boards that have been used on the sides of these structures are all quite short.  Short unpainted boards warp badly as they age and dry out, so the effect is that these old houses look as if they are about to fall down — as indeed most of them probably are.  I don’t know why they used such short pieces of wood. I thought at first it was just a shortage of long enough lumber because of the lack of large trees, but having seen the Black Sea forests I am not so sure.  Perhaps they developed their building techniques in areas that had only stubby trees, and they never adapted to this new more forested environment.  In any event, the Ottomans did not build their public structures with wood, only the houses.   Buildings such as mosques, schools and the like were always much more substantial and made out of stone.  In some countries, you see private wealth and public scarcity.  In the Ottoman era, it seems to have been the reverse: public wealth and private scarcity.  This is one of the differences between democracies and monarchies, I would guess.

Because there is no bus that follows the coast road the entire way and that leaves soon enough in the day to get me to Sinop in daylight, I have to go inland to Kastamonu, which is back up on the dry Anatolian plateau.  It is remarkable how quickly the vegetation thins out as we climb and draw further from the coast, and soon enough we are back to the more typical arid and almost treeless landscape.

Between the round-about bus routing and the cigarette stops, this is not a fast way to travel this coast.  I change buses at the terminal in Kastamonu, and we go on towards Sinop.  The bus stops for another cigarette break, and this one is somewhat longer.  A group of passengers, the driver and his assistant all sit down together at a long table of a roadside cafe to have a glass of tea, and the driver invites me to join them.  I make conversation with the woman across the table from me who soon gets my background information.   I also learn she is a retired nurse who has a married daughter in Canada, in Mississauga.  It takes me a couple of attempts to decipher her pronunciation of the name of that city, a suburb of Toronto.  We soon bond when she discovers my other identity is that of a Canadian and that I went to university in Toronto.  She loves Niagara Falls, and I am once again surprised at how small our world has become.  Here I am in the middle of nowhere having tea, and talking to a woman about Mississauga and Niagara Falls.

The bus driver refuses to allow me to pay for my tea, and I reflect that in my decades of travel, no bus driver has ever bought me tea. Chalk up another one for Turkey.  I forgive him for smoking on the bus. This is another cultural quirk I have observed on several buses in Turkey: the driver along with his ticket-taking and water-serving assistant flout the no-smoking rule, but the passengers are absolutely required to observe it.  There may be some deeper cultural significance to this fact, but I try not to read too much into it about respect for the rule of law.

In contrast, there is considerable respect for the elderly in Turkey, where family ties are so important.  This respect can take many forms, of which I will cite just one example here.  As our bus travels from Kastamonu to Sinop, back once again into forested mountainous country, we come to a fork in the highway, and take the one leading to Sinop.  An old woman sitting at the front of the bus loudly erupts in protest, and the bus quickly comes to a stop by the side of the road.  I am sitting too far back to hear the details, but after a couple of minutes, it becomes clear that the woman has quite different ideas about the route that the bus is supposed to take than the driver does.  He remonstrates with her, but she does not relent and neither does he.  So, the driver, his assistant, and the elderly woman all get off the bus.  She is wearing a purple, floral-patterned kerchief covering her head and shoulders, a heavy blue wool sweater, and an ankle length dress.  She waddles as she walks.


The bus driver quickly flags down a passing car taking the other fork, but it soon departs again, without taking the passenger. There is surprisingly little traffic on the road, and he does not attempt to flag down any other cars.  The driver gets on his cell phone as the three of them stand at the fork of the road, and I assume he is trying to arrange transportation for her.

There are over 15 passengers on the bus.  The minutes drag on.  Soon, every male passenger on the bus and one woman get off to gratefully smoke cigarettes.  I get out and take pictures of the bus and passengers and of the beautiful mountain scenery.  I ask one of the smokers what is going on, but he has nothing much to say other than that there is a big, big problem.  Soon, the smokers move on to their second cigarette, and then a third.

Eventually, the bus schedule wins out over the cultural imperative to not abandon little old ladies next to the highway when they get on the wrong bus.  I hope someone is on the way to pick her up.  The driver and his assistant pick up the woman’s bag and packages, pile them up in front of the road sign at the fork in the road, and we all get back on.  The bus resumes its travel to Sinop.

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