I ever think, as I watched the planes taxi-ing out on the runway that
autumn day at the San Francisco airport in 2004, that I was staring
out at the next fifteen years – perhaps even the rest of my life?
God knows, I did feel something, a kind of drop, a terror, an exhilaration. I was bound for Europe. Then what? All I knew at the time was that I wanted an adventure. That I needed an adventure.
Well, I didn’t get an adventure. Instead, I got a macera.
That’s the Turkish word for it. Like its English namesake, the macera (pronounced maj-era) involves an odyssey, a search, a journey into an unknown country. Like the halay, a traditional Turkish dance, the macera goes round and round, long into the night.
On the plane over the Atlantic to Prague, I was excited, nervous. A Hungarian businessman sitting next to me was more than reassurring. “You are a very lucky young man,” he said. “Don’t worry about anything. You will love Prague.”
Over the next few years, I made every possible effort to take that advice. I drank Czech beer in Prague pubs, admired the lovely Czech women strolling up and down the broad Wenceslas Square. I hiked in the Rabbit mountains near Poland, had homemade slivovice with Slovaks in Nitra. I enjoyed a few lapdances from beautiful Russian girls, and had at least two mobile phones stolen or lost, along with so much money, in the dizzy, ecstasy-fueled nightclubs near Müstek.
But Prague, and Central Europe, as it turned out, was only a way-station, a beginning. After several years, circumstances forced me back out on the road again, bound for Istanbul. That long bus journey deserves its own story. I have a passing memory of seeing a Clint Eastwood poster at a dirty bar somewhere in Serbia, passing one solitary night as the lone guest of a hostel in Sofia. I even found myself eating fresh apples at a police checkpoint at the Bulgaria-Turkey border (yet another story).
Initially, when I left America, I was still a relatively young man, leaving America’s shores for the first time (aside from a lost weekend in Tijuana as a sailor, but that doesn’t count). In those days, I was in search of some new identity. Vaguely, I saw myself as a citizen of the world, a lonesome traveler, an international. “Expat” is the convenient term, but that word, with its 1920s Lost Generation associations, never sat well with me (even if I did play the part fairly well, especially the part that involved lots of drinking and dissipating in sidewalk cafes, and of course, I wrote.). In Paris, I felt like a bystander, late to the party. In Rome, in Florence, and even in New York, with my wife, I felt like merely a tourist, passing through.
In my travels, I encountered many people, from every corner of the globe. I never thought of America as “the Old Country,” the way our ancestors used to. Maybe that reflects some essentially American quality – that we as Americans can never imagine ourselves wanting to be anything else. While I was living in Europe, like many Americans I had the desire to get in touch with the ancestral roots.
Being of German-Irish stock, I did feel something when I got off the train in Dresden, and later when I swilled pints of Guinness in Dublin. There was a connection, but only to a point. Tell a German your father’s side is German and they are polite; tell a Dubliner your mother was Irish and he regards you in a way that suggests the poor woman may have lied. Point is, you were always a visitor, a guest, Camus’ stranger.
Here in Istanbul, the years have passed quickly – ten years since I first arrived.Turks occasionally tease me, say things like, “You are Turk now, not American. You are enişte.” Especially since my wife Özge is Turkish – at times they seem almost too anxious to adopt me, to claim me as their own. But I am not a Turk, just as I am neither German nor Irish, just as after five years in Prague, I never thought of myself as Czech.
And the same goes for my occupation. I left America as a journalist. The idea was that I would teach English just to keep myself afloat in Prague, in Istanbul, whereever, long enough to write a great novel. Or at least be able to make a living at writing.
Well, some ten books into it, I have yet to produce a great novel, and I have yet to make a living at it. Teaching continues to pay the bills. And a university teaching position at that – how did that happen? You know how it is: back in school you always looked at the teachers, the professors, as on the other side. You were on one side, they were on the other. You may have respected them, even loved them, but you never imagined yourself as becoming one of them.
These days, at the university, I occasionally catch glances from the students, glints of a strange recognition in their 18-year-old millennial eyes. “James, why did you come to Turkey?” they’ll ask aloud. Silently, the question is “Why aren’t you in America?” Other times, it’s like my former self, a ghost, is looking back at me through a hall of mirrors, asking: How did you ever wind up here? And a teacher besides. And old! You used to be one of us, the young and brave. You were never going to stop or slow down or settle. When did you lose your courage, your taste for life’s sweet adventure?
In answer to that last question – I have not, I hope. Every morning, as I walk along the streets in our neighborhood of Sultantepe, gazing out at the ships passing in the Bosphorus, at the lights of the great city and the historic mosques, I am reminded that I live in Constantinople – a cross roads of adventure, culture and history. In that early morning splendour, there is no room for such morose self-reflection, pondering of one’s fate, for the ancient city is Fate itself, or close enough.
And It seems to like you (touch wood).
And each night, as we sleep in our quiet, cozy apartment, the sound of my wife Ozge’s breath beside me, the warmth of her touch, reinforces that feeling. She reminds me of exactly who I am, now and forever, and it’s not such a terrifying feeling, as it might have been long ago. And we have our holiday in Switzerland later this year, so the caravan moves on.
At the school, a student approaches me in the hallway with an anxious query. And I’m able to provide some kind of direction. They thank me and head off in their youthful hurry, and for just a second, it occurs to me that maybe the student might remember that conversation some 20 years down the road when they find that they themselves (gasp!) have become a teacher.
Anyway, as the years continue to hurtle on, I can only hope that it’s all like an Erik Satie composition, a satisfying jerky lilt to the empty beauty of the universe. Or an Antonioni flick, where the ending provides no closure, but only keeps opening up.
Does it matter?
Like the halay, we just keep dancing, round and round, deep into the night – hopefully with someone we love.
James Tressler, a former Lost Coast resident, is a writer and teacher. His latest book, “Strait Fiction: 10 Bosphorus Tales,” is available at Booklegger in Eureka and Northtown Books in Arcata.