The hills of Gallipoli are mostly silent these days, rising from the sea and quickly spreading and rolling out into farm country.
In mid-summer, it gets very hot quickly as you move inland. Vast tracts of mustard-colored sunflowers pass by the coastal road, giving way to olive groves further on. The dusty air evokes the past, the dead patriots buried in the large cemeteries over on the peninsula.
But my wife and I were in no mood for battles. We were on holiday, a short getaway from work and the thousandfold hassles of our life back in Istanbul. Our destination was Bozcaada, an island off the coast. We’d taken a bus from the city, stayed overnight in the seaport of Çanakkale, and were now on an express ferry out to the island.
It was one of those mornings at sea where the light keeps changing, at times bright – almost too bright – and then somber, gun-metal grey. In that moody, shifting atmosphere, the distant hills of the Turkish mainland and the Gallipoli peninsula take on a colorless, opaque quality. The burning-off morning mist shimmers, as if reflecting the expired blue sighs of stray ghosts.
Passing through the Dardanelles, the high bluffs of the Turkish coastline rise like walls of a fortress on both sides of the sea channel. There the echoes of the war still sound faintly, and whisper in the roadside towns, where you find visual reminders – statues of the great Ataturk, the cannons and flags, the plaques, and out on the peninsula, the battlefield sites and the great cemeteries.
Since antiquity, the Dardanelles have been vital for shipping, for travel, for commerce, for war. It’s no wonder, in that respect, why the Greeks and their Western allies wanted this strip of water, and the land around it so badly, and why the Ataturk-led Turks died by the millions to hold on to it. It’s prime real estate, something that civilizations through the ages here have always been ready to fight and die for.
These days the channel is as busy as ever with mainly container ships, on their way up to Istanbul and further on to the Black Sea, or else south to the Mediterranean, to the Middle East and Africa and points beyond. Back in Istanbul, we see them passing through the Bosphorus every day. And we see war ships more frequently than we’d like, bound for Syria, site of the region’s present conflict.
“What are you talking about now?”
“Nothing, my love. Nothing.”
Yes, I do think aloud at times, to the annoyance of my wife Özge. She has been after me to be more focused on the practicalities at hand.
The ferry is crowded. Everybody is preoccupied with anticipation of our impending arrival.
“What was the name of our hotel again? Can you check?”
Blinking back to the moment, I scroll through the search history on my phone, and hand the phone to my wife. She calls to confirm our reservation. The hotel is about two kilometers away from the landing dock, so there’s the question about whether we should walk or if taxis are available.
“Nobody answered,” Özge said, ringing off with a sigh. “Baby, you need to help with these things, too! Why do I always have to organize everything?”
“We’ll be OK once we get there.”
“How? Are we just going to magically arrive?”
Bowing to my wife’s incisive logic, I resolved to collar the first local in sight upon arrival.
That moment wasn’t far off. Once we came out of the Dardanelles, our island Bozcaada was waiting, like a last sentry standing post before the great sea beyond. The strange mixture of sunlight and receding mist draped the island in a veil of glamour and mystique.
To the right a great stone fortress commanded the view, as well as a small harbor. To the left lay rows of houses blended into the dusty-olive hillsides. Everybody poured out onto the iskele, moving in the direction of the town, suitcases and children in tow.
“Let’s ask this guy,” I said, pointing to someone who appeared to be a taxi driver. He was a big-chested local wearing a cowboy hat and black shades.
A conversation in Turkish ensued between my wife and the local, who introduced himself as Yaşar – the famous “Kartal Yaşar,” of Turkish football fame. (A while later, he did in fact show us some black and white photos of himself and his team back in the 1970s). His legend notwithstanding, Yaşar nowadays seems more a retired local busybody and eccentric – but he was harmless and meant well.
Waving off the hotel we had booked (but fortunately not pre-paid), the Eagle assumed the role of host and ushered us through the small streets, past open markets and pleasant cafes, to a modest white-colored pension five minutes’ walk from the dock. We entered a freshly swept patio, surrounded by a well-kept garden with tables in the shade of pomegranate trees.
The lady of the pension proved to be every bit as chatty and helpful as our retired football legend. Everybody on the island looked sunny and easygoing, like most people along the coast. We sat in the garden and had tea, while our hosts filled our ears with every thing we could possibly ever want to hear and know about what to see and do on the small island. It was very Turkish, as my wife reminded me with a wink. They can almost kill you with kindness.
At any rate, we soon had our room sorted for the night – pricey but we expected that, it being an island and all.
“Let’s go, baby,” my wife whispered, taking my hand under the table.
Evidently, our host Yaşar had informed the pension lady that he was standing by, ready to take us around anywhere we wished to go. We ducked out the back door and did our best to disappear through some ivy-draped backstreets.
“Are we running out on him?”
“Oh God,” Özge said. “We have to or we’ll never get rid of him!”
We found a small bus that was taking people out to the beach on the far side of the island. The bus was hot, sweaty and cramped, but it was short ride, like 15 minutes. Getting away from the center, the island quickly opened up into farmland, olive groves mainly, with neat white houses isolated like villas or plantation houses.
Arriving at the beach, we looked down at the bathers, many of them lying under umbrellas or else splashing around in the calm, bright sea. At last, we had arrived. Spreading our towels out on the chairs, we found room under the umbrellas. While my wife read, I popped open a couple bottles of Efes beer, and together we settled down to our holiday.
That evening back at the hotel, we freshened up and headed out again. In the twilight, Bozcaada feels like it is at the furthest end of the universe. The air is warm and filled with music coming from the different cafes. The people sitting at the tables outside, or strolling the narrow, cobbled streets, are the only people left. The rest of the world is very far away.
“It doesn’t feel like we are in Turkey at all,” Özge said, surveying the idyllic streets.
“Does it feel more Greek than Turkish?”
“I don’t care, so long as it doesn’t feel like Turkey.”
Holding hands, we walked feeling together, tired and happy from our day at the beach.
“Yaşar called the pension while we were out,” Özge said.
“He says we owe him a pack of cigarettes. Because he smoked a whole pack sitting and waiting for us to come.”
“So remember, we have to get him some cigarettes.”
We wandered over to the Greek end of town, down streets that looked soothing in the vendurous dusk; past the clock tower that looks out over the island. Past the many wine shops, the local children playing with dogs, reposing cats, old people sitting outside and watching the arrival of evening.
We settled on a wine cafe that serves the local reds and whites, and offers tables that look out at the glass-smooth Aegean and the nearby fortress, lit up by the moon overhead.
The next morning, when we left, we did make sure to get Yaşar’s cigarettes, and left them with the pension lady.
“What are you thinking about now?” Özge asked. She’s got her sunglasses on, but I can see the twinkle behind them.
“Nothing, baby. Nothing.”
We were back on the mainland, on the bus, heading back through the rolling countryside. That’s right, nothing. You’re not supposed to think about anything, especially not war, while on holiday. But something about the Dardanelles, the hills of the Gallipoli peninsula – something about this part of the world just has a way of doing that to you, even if only in a peripheral way.
We slept, the kind of sleep a bus offers. Most of the people slept, or played with their phones. Our thoughts traveled back to our beach on the island, to the swimming, to the tremendous meze display at the restaurant above the beach where we had lunch, the smoked aubergines, the diced cucumbers and walnut servings, the calimari. The wine at the cafe near the fortress that night.
As we slept, the green landscape, the farmlands outside Gallipoli rolled on by, breathing in the unquiet past.
James Tressler, a former Lost Coast resident, is a writer and teacher. His latest book of stories, “Inside Voices,” can be found at Lulu.com.