I made generalizations about men in Turkey, until I cycled through. Two different stories of being hosted (1,700 words).
By the garbled voices reverberating from minaret loudspeakers, by the bodies occupying the chairs of warm pubs in winter—where bars were allowed—and by who permitted me to do this and not that, I rarely forgot that whatever each day would bring in Turkey would be brought by men. Riding my bicycle east to west in the winter of ’15/16 was a two-month man study.
Men interested me more than the landscapes or the food. I feared them, and fear is one perversion of curiosity. I had a strong conviction to cycle across Turkey by myself, and I’ll suggest that this arose from wanting to prove these fears wrong. As much as time warps memory, it’s unlikely I wanted to prove them right:
No part of me wanted to be thrown off my bicycle by a man in Turkey, as had happened to another cycling woman. Nor did I want to be murdered by a man in Turkey while hitchhiking, the fate of another woman—a foreigner, so the story received a lot of media attention. One or two of these stories sweep away thousands of good stories, which are usually non-stories, because they aren’t sensational. These horrors clung on even though I knew they were both isolated and expansive: isolated incidents in any country, and ones that disproportionately affect women in every single country.
In the first draft of this post, the opening paragraph ended with ‘men of warm-hearted, welcoming and dignified actions were the norm in Turkey.’ And they were. That truth is the most palatable one, but it’s not the only one.
Another truth is that my most memorable interactions with men were complex. If I made a pie chart, dividing the emotions that each situation created, would this be impervious to distortion? In the pie, slivers of frustration coloured grey, brown for confusion, red for anxiety. These colours and the extremes they represent squashed in between fat wedges of blue for courtesy, green for respect, and beige for totally unremarkable.
I was spontaneously hosted after my first day cycling in Turkey. Six weeks later I was hosted again, the night before I put myself and my bike on the bus. This serendipity excites me, that the country would say both hello and goodbye to me in this manner. And comparing these two experiences is one way to talk about the complexities of interactions with men.
Pungent liver dinner, a stove devouring wood, two gentle boys, a husband’s vodka-slurred coaxing, a meek wife and my growing disdain.
The stove did what it could to make the eating room that became the sleeping room comfortable. Still, it was cold enough to remain in my rain gear. The husband’s wife was in a headscarf and I was new to Turkey. I kept my fleece hood on, imitating her.
I had just emerged from Georgia and these borderlands confused me. The settlement’s mosque and the people’s words punctuating a quiet afternoon all fit with what I thought Turkey might be like. But the vodka reminded me of Georgia—or at least the former Soviet Bloc. Now looking back, the drinking also had a Turkish twist. Islamic norms weren’t eliminating drinking, they just confined it to the home, a private space within which to be public.
My hood was to come off, the husband fixated on this. The wife and I were being simultaneously harassed, this attention on me voiding respect for her. It became difficult to imagine that his requests were to make me feel comfortable, and weren’t just in pursuit of seeing more of me. Later, his coaxing was in pursuit of him and I being together. This took few words to convey.
He never touched me and the experience was more bizarre than it was scary. It seemed as if he was indicating that we should leave the house, his wife and his kids, into the dark cold night. What, to board a bus bound for the southern coastline, for a holiday tryst? First of all, wrong season. What started as confusing became annoying and then finally became nothing. His intoxication put a quota on how many times he could repeat the same sloppy messages before he passed out on the couch.
When his two sons looked me they rarely spoke, just smiled with closed lips and big eyes. For them I was also the centre of attention, in a way that I was humbled by. The wife puttered around, more mumbling than speaking, tense words floating on tense air spiked with wood smoke and the tang of organ meat.
Once the couch near the stove was smothered in blankets it became my bed. I felt little conviction to change into my purple thermal pyjamas that hug my legs ankle to hip. Sleeping in rain gear isn’t so bad.
In the morning, the husband’s bleary eyes complemented his newfound reservations. After he left for work or who knows what, I went out to ruin the snow’s sparkly skin, bursting the crust under my boots. To see me off the wife wrapped herself in frumpy sweaters that seemed inadequate for the chill. I pressed some Georgian lari into her hand, no Turkish lira yet in my possession. This was all the subversion available to me. If the husband had seen me off, I wouldn’t have given him anything.
Where it can, the western stretch of the D010 hugs the Black Sea coastline. But Turkey plummets so abruptly into the depths of the sea that in many places the road jolts up into the hills, searching for the next opportunity to return to sea level. I was in these hills on a dreary afternoon. All was grey, skies matched asphalt, the tones exacerbated by my gloomy mood. Cold hills meant slow going and that flat places to camp would be scarce or too public. How easy it was to forget that cold hills are preferable to hot hills, for me anyways.
A perched settlement appeared on the left. Its wooden houses with roofs slick with rain clustered around a tea house. Many countries have exclusive male clubhouses, tea houses are Turkey’s. I was allowed into this one, to drink tea from small cups curved like transparent pear-shaped women.
Have you ever prematurely decided on the answer to your question, rendering the asking insincere? I asked to camp, expecting yes and receiving no. The platform outside the tea house was off limits to me and the men suggested no alternatives, neither homes nor guesthouses nor parks nor mosques. I was on my own, just like how I wanted—right? My sense of entitlement ill-equipped me to rejoin the gloom.
Tea houses hide Turkey’s diversities: at a glance they are ubiquitous but contain men with different attitudes. My next chance to try again appeared sooner than my fog of pessimism had prepared me for. I only had to follow the curves of a few ascending bends before I saw the next one, and stopped crying.
The owner and I sized each other up under an awning being pelted with slush. Running out of daylight, I got to the point: ‘tent…cadir…here, please, lutfen?’ He answered so nonchalantly that I worried I had explained myself poorly. Here too camping wasn’t permitted, in a different sense: he invited me home, to a two-story nearby, framed by large deciduous trees.
And eventually I headed there. Across the road, down the driveway and up the wooden steps to share pumpkin dumplings and quiet conversations with the mother, daughter and son. The grandparents walked over for a visit. They threw their arms around one another, public affection that shocked me into glad laughter as they posed for photos.
What to make of the husband, who returned home late and left early?
We were all together only briefly. When he arrived: more dumplings, more conversations that smushed together whatever words were understood by all of us, the woeful overlap on our Venn diagram of Turkish and English. It sounds like the effects of nostalgia, to speak of the harmony at home when he was there. In the stupefying warmth of the stove, the company felt easy. It was as if this atmosphere had wafted over from the tea house, where I’d spent hours warming up and drying out.
Here is where I learned most about the owner-husband: In a single large room crowded with men in the colours of trying to stay warm. Brown, blue, grey, black, coats, slacks, hats, scarves. My eyes blurred them together into dark huddled masses as I entering, glancing at everyone and no-one.
An omelette with bread was plunked down in front of me with tea, and then more tea. Other than that I was free to people watch, be lost in my thoughts, feel welcome. The owner was on his feet constantly, frying-serving-responding-giving change. The thing that stays with me the most, what I liked the most, were his reassuring smiles directed my way. In them, I saw both sincerity and mischievousness.
Back in the borderlands steeped in vodka all those weeks previously, I’d thought the man had his issues. What is the observer to do, besides feel gratitude, maybe an uncomfortable gratitude, for the window into unvarnished lives? The last night was simpler. In the morning, I simply felt sad to leave—this man, his family, Turkey, and Turkey’s men.