Paradox and the Turkish Seaside

September 28, 2008 | 5 min read

A brief series on my recent Mediterranean trip. Part three: Bitez.

I first heard it when we were walking down the red brick path that separates the sand from the beachside bars and restaurants (Full English Breakfast, anyone?) in Bitez. It was a buzzing, wailing sound, undulating and crackling. “That’s the adhan, the call to prayer,” Emre told me.

Perhaps I’ve listened to too much NPR and my mind has become too attuned to the cross-cultural juxtapositions that are meant to be thought-provoking to the conscientious citizen of our globalized world. Perhaps I’m just a flaneur. But I couldn’t help but file away as a key moment the dissonance between what I was seeing and hearing. If I was going to write about this trip, I was going to write about this.

And, well, here we are.

But it wasn’t all nearly so revelatory as that. This leg of our Turkish trip was a fairly standard beach vacation cut through with many moments reminding us we weren’t in Fort Lauderdale. It was a beach vacation with an element of surprise.

Lauren and I landed via ferry in Bodrum, the beachy hub of the region, and, met by Emre, took the “crazy bus” to Bitez, a few bays down a long peninsula that is pocked with resorts. Ours was Ambrosia, a pretty standard place save for the mosque-like dome that roofed the lobby.

hotel

In Greece, we had done some serious eating, but in Turkey our consumption shifted into overdrive. I don’t think we ever saw a menu. Emre and his parents would order for the table in Turkish and then the food would just start coming, course after course in many cases. In Bitez and Bodrum, we would get our first taste of kebap (the preferred spelling of kabob over there); pide, the Turkish version of pita, topped with finely chopped meat or cheese and baked; kadaif, a sweet cheese-filled pie with a top crust of crispy, finely shredded dough; and seafood of many kinds.

And then of course there was the raki (pronounced rok-uh), which was not unlike the Greek ouzo but a touch less sweet and consumed in a rather ceremonious fashion. Also joining us in Turkey were our friends Roland and Heather. Roland and I (and Lauren) went to college with Emre, who became somewhat notorious for introducing his fellow students to this unique Turkish beverage. But the ballet at the Turkish dinner table is a far cry from our college tradition of swilling glasses of raki between beers from the keg.

Like the Greeks and their ouzo, the Turks take their raki with ice and water, but whereas the ouzo, in our experience, was more of a self-serve operation, raki is the domain of Turkey’s attentive waiters. First they go around the table pouring a few fingers of raki into each glass. Then another round with a bottle of water — unless you don’t take water, as was the case with Roland and Emre, sometimes to their detriment. Then around a third time with a bucket of ice, dropping a cube or three into the glasses. Upon contact with the ice, the raki (like ouzo) turns a milky white, hence its nickname, Lion’s Milk.

The ice and water chill the raki and take the edge off, and you are left with a smooth, anise-flavored beverage. When your glass is empty, the waiter returns promptly with the raki, then water, then ice (if you pour in the water or ice before the raki, the liquor will crystallize), unless of course you don’t take water, a fact the waiter is supposed to remember from the first round on. In Turkey, the waiters were plentiful – restaurants sometimes seemed filled with them – and except at the most “modern” places, all male.

Bitez offered ample comforts. One day, we walked along the beach around Bitez’s cozy bay, passing many resorts and restaurants to a point of land jutting into the water. At the top of the slope were a few covered bar areas and below were several terraced landings with umbrellas and chairs which led out to a dock and the water, where swimmers occasionally thrashed about.

Emre and his friends played backgammon (I would have to wait until later to challenge him) and we all drank bottles of Efes, the national beer. Later a man came around with a platter ringed with lemons and piled high with glistening black mussels stuffed with rice. We crowded in and he served us one by one around the circle, expertly flipping half the shell off and scooting it under the mussel and rice mixture but above the other half of the shell. You would use the extra shell like a spoon, making it a messy, but incredibly fresh and delicious finger food. We would see these midye dolma vendors several times both at the beach and in Istanbul, but it was hard to imagine eating the mussels anywhere but in that setting.

mussels

If the beachside resort was nice, the boat trip we took was amazing. Emre’s parents arranged for it: a 70-foot boat, ours for the day, sailing from cove to cove. The Aegean, once you get into the narrow bays and inlets of the Turkish coast, is so sheltered as to be nearly perfectly calm. It is also crystal clear, very salty, and remarkably fizzy. Splash around and you feel like you’re soaking in a glass of soda.

boatside

If there is a vacation ideal that I could conjure up, it would very closely resemble the eight or so hours we spent on that boat. Upon anchoring, we would dive from the side of the boat into the sea, floating around, buoyed by the saltiness. Then it was back in the boat as we sailed around a barren cape into another unspoiled cove. At lunch, we each had a grilled, whole bronzino and a selection of mezze. In the afternoon, we had tea time, with pastries and coffee. Emre says you can do this for five days at a time, sleeping on the deck of the boat. I can’t even imagine.

sunset

Emre has touched on Turkey’s complicated politics over the years on this blog. It lay in the background of his series called “Barracks Reading,” in which he discussed the books he read during his compulsory army service. Every male in Turkey must serve in the army, though the location and duration varies. Emre’s army service was short and kept him out of harm’s way, a result of his living in the west, having the means to pay some fees, and having a full-time job that he needed to make sure he got back to. That Emre is, as anyone would be, conflicted about this has come through in his writing as well.

Our bartender at Ambrosia, a very friendly young man who promised and delivered a bunch of green mandarins that grow locally to Emre’s mom, had recently completed his military service in the southeast, battling Kurdish separatists. It was hard to imagine the guerrilla warfare going on on the other side of the country as we sat late into the night at the beach-side bar, sipping our drinks.

We would get another reminder that Turkey is at war as we waited for our plane to Istanbul at the Bodrum airport. Heads turned as a well-dressed man became extremely agitated, shouting at airline workers in the small concourse. Emre translated for us. The man had found out that morning that his brother had died in the southeast; he had missed his flight to get back to his grieving family; he was distraught and devastated.

The concourse fell silent as the man yelled. Around him, Turkish and other European travelers looked and then averted their eyes. The ticket agents who were the target of his rage calmed him down. Then slowly, people began talking again, their thoughts turning back to getting home after their vacations.

See Also: Part 1, 2, 4

created The Millions and is its publisher. He and his family live in New Jersey.

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