My wife Ozge and our son Leo have been spending the past few weeks at her parents’ summer house on the South coast of Turkey. The idea was to get them out of the city, especially after the past few months of lockdowns. A bit of coastal air and the small town atmosphere would be good for them.
Back in the city, I found myself alone at the flat. Our online lessons at the university were winding down, but I needed to be in the city until we finished. For the first couple of days, it was great. I felt like a bachelor again. I could drink beer, watch old football games and not have to get up to help with the baby every ten minutes.
But I soon got bored and lonely. The spring term ended, and I was on holiday. I missed my wife and son terribly. So Ozge booked a flight. I could spend a few days with them, then come back so that our cat Ginger did not starve.
I’ve always liked traveling, seeing new places. But I’ve always found airports a chore. Now, it was the first time I was traveling since the pandemic began. I’ve scarcely ventured beyond our neighborhood in months. I got a taxi, knowing it would cost a lot to take me all the way out to Sabia Gokcen airport, but it was faster than the airport shuttle and would give some peace of mind.
The taxi driver swerved out onto the highway, accelerated, and we zipped along past Umraniye and Atasehir. Whole new skyscrapers, which had been under construction the last time I saw them, were now gleaming and complete. I felt like the guy in Fitzgerald’s story, “The Lost Decade.” Well, this has certainly been a lost year, at the very least (or has it?).
At the airport, I got my bags and had a cigarette before venturing in. It was startlingly quiet, missing the usual airport hustle and bustle. The security check in was a marvelous breeze. There was no queue at all, and I passed through and was at the check in desk in less than two minutes. The vast interior was echoey, silent. Most of the shops and cafes were closed, except for a McDonalds, a Burger King and Starbucks.
Masks were of course required, and the robotic overhead voice frequently reminded us, in Turkish and English, to maintain social distancing. But because there were so few people, most of us let them slip to around our necks. There were hand-washing stations here and there, so you could give your hands a quick dose of lemon cologne.
I went out to the smoking terrace. A half dozen other smokers sat at comfortable distances from each other, and we looked out at the bright afternoon sunshine and the planes out on the tarmac. “Usually one finds the world at the airport,” I mused. “But these days most of the world is at home, and we here are but a few stragglers.” You felt like you were part of some pack of hoboes back in the old days, looking for a train to jump, huddled together around a campfire barrel for protection against the hostile world outside.
The plane arrived on time. It was more crowded than I expected. Wearing the mask wasn’t as uncomfortable as I thought it would be, and it was a short flight. An hour later, we touched down at the Gazipasa airport, the sun just beginning to set over the Anatolian countryside, with its rich green palm trees and banana farms bathing in the humid, fragrant eventide.
“For social distancing,” the stewardess announced, in Turkish and English, “Please exit the plane one row at a time.” Of course, as soon as the door opened, most of the passengers stood up and virtually ran for the exits. I looked at the guy sitting next to me and said, “Turks!” and he understood and just shook his head.
The next few days at the summer house (OK, it’s an apartment, but we gently refer to it as “our summer house”) were pleasant, dull. Anamur is on a windy cape, the seas warm and turquoise colored, and we went swimming in the late afternoons. The beach was a bit more crowded some days than others, but nothing like those college party beaches in Florida that we’ve read about. There was enough beach and sea to have space. We wanted to get Leo in the sea, even though he is only six months old.
The first day he cried and was afraid, but the second time we just let him touch the sand and let the waves bathe his little feet, and he soon got used to it. By the end of the week, Ozge was carrying him into the sea and holding him – in the late afternoon the sea is warmed by the hot sun enough so that it is very mild and pleasant.
Other times, when the others were back at the apartment, I went to the beach alone, with a few beers and my phone for company. I enjoyed sitting alone, drinking beer and watching the 1996 World Series, reliving the days of the Yankees coming back to beat the Braves in six. A couple of young Turkish guys passed by and heard the sounds of the baseball and were curious.
“Where are you from?” they asked.
“America, oh! Donald Trump! A great president!”
To be polite, I just nodded. I had absolutely no interest whatsoever in having a political discussion. I mean, I was vacation, come on! Fortunately, my wife came onto the beach at that moment and rescued me. Seeing she was Turkish, the two youths were a bit impressed and greeted Ozge with youthful deference, and then left us alone.
Leo was back at the house, having a nap while his grandma prepared dinner. We sat together, like in the early days of our marriage, just looking out at the late afternoon sun, and the warm sea. Out beyond the horizon you could see the blue shape of Cyprus beneath a haze of fog or clouds. We felt good being together and out of Istanbul, out of our apartment.
“Look,” my wife said. Nearby, a mask was lying in the wet sand. It looked inappropriate or offensive there, almost as if it were a used condom or hyperdermic needle. Well, it was the only one we saw, and the rest of the beach and the sea were clean and peaceful. Maybe the mask lying there nakedly in the sand was some kind of symbol, a reminder that you can’t hide from the world under a beach umbrella. But we were not hiding. We were not even sitting under a beach umbrella.
Presently, we entered the sea together, the water brilliantly calm and refreshing. After so many months of just sitting around the flat, it felt good to use familiar muscles, to feel the sea on your skin and breathe the fine mellow air.
Later, on the way back to the apartment, we ran into a neighbor, an elderly man with a faded tattoo on his weathered shoulder. He had seen us with Leo at the beach those first few days, gently exposing him to the sea.
“I would just toss him in!” the old man said, illustrating this parental wisdom by making a manly throwing gesture.
“Eski okul,” I replied. “Old school.”
He laughed, understanding. “Evet! Eski Okul!”
We thanked the neighbor for his advice and headed back to the apartment, where supper was ready on the terrace.
It was time to go. I needed to get back to Istanbul to check on the cat and the apartment. Ozge and Leo were going to stay a couple more weeks, then her sister was going to drive them back to the city. Ozge loaded my suitcase with some of Leo’s things, and in the morning, I kissed my wife and Leo goodbye, thanked Anne and Baba, and headed downstairs to catch the service bus. It was a two-hour drive to the airport in Gazipasa.
The bus was not crowded. We all wore masks as the bus set off into the Taurus Mountains, following a winding road that looked out at high cliffs and the deep waters of the Med. We passed banana plantations and roadside cafes, palm trees and peanut farms. Everything was a humid, deep green color, and the trip went quickly. I would catch the 11 a.m. flight and be back in Istanbul by lunchtime.
But it was not to be. We were standing at the gate, waiting for boarding announcement, when suddenly a PA voice was saying something in Turkish I didn’t quite catch. People were uttering things and exclaiming, looking confused and disgusted. Then the English announcement came: The flight had been canceled due to fog in Istanbul.
Feeling desperate – stranded at the airport, two hours from the house in Anamur – I anxiously followed the other passengers over to a ticket desk. A staffer there spoke English. There was an evening flight to Istanbul at the airport in Antalya. If we wanted, we could get a bus there – it was two more hours west along the coast – and then we could catch the evening flight. Or we could wait until the next morning.
Well, there was no way I was going to stay 24 hours at the Gazipasa airport. I called Ozge and let her know, and she said the airline had already called the house. “Baby, I’m so sorry!” she said. She sounded pissed and worried. “Fog, my ass!” she added. “Please be safe. Wear your mask, wash your hands. You know, ….”
After about an hour, all of the passengers who wanted the evening flight loaded onto the bus. It was full. One woman began shouting very aggressively about the lack of social distancing. An airport employee tried to calm her, but she just shouted louder. The rest of us were annoyed. I mean, the airline had handled the situation rather efficiently, I thought, given the circumstances.
Finally, the airline employee reminded the woman she could always rent a car, which is what she ended up doing. Nearby, a covered woman, who had complained about being seated next to a male passenger, got up and joined her, and we saw them set off in a rented white sedan. Damn, I thought. I missed a trick there. Maybe I could have offered to pay half and gone in on the car with them. Oh well …
We set off for Antalya, heading west along the coast, passing the city of Alanya and all the white hotels and palm trees along the beach. The shop signs were in Turkish, English and Russian, a reminder that this stretch of coast is very popular with Turkey’s giant neighbor to the North. The further west we drove we entered an inland stretch, where we stopped for a toilet break. Getting off the air-conditioned bus, you were nearly knocked back by the heat. It had to be over 100 degrees, which was a shock from the windy shores of Anamur.
After two hours, we arrived at the airport in Antalya. As it had been in Istanbul, the airport was very quiet, most of the shops closed, and there was plenty of space for social distancing. We still had several hours until boarding time. It was deadly dull, sitting there. I had no book to read, and I had to save my phone charge, so I couldn’t pass the time by watching videos. What a day! How the hell had I ended up in Antalya? I had always wanted to see Antalya but not like this. It felt almost like you were in the land of the virus, unable to get passage back to that safe place you call home. Home! I just wanted to go home.
Around five o’clock the check-in desk finally opened (online check-in is not available these days). My bags checked, boarding pass sent to my phone, I headed upstairs to find the gate. Upstairs it was better. There was a smoking area, and a bar. I asked the waitress if I could take my beer out to the smoking terrace. She said, sure. The beer cost 38 Turkish lira (The same beer can be bought in the supermarket for 15 lira). I didn’t care. I felt I had earned a drink, so I paid the money, took the beer and went out to the terrace. The beer tasted nice, and I began to feel much better as the time for departure drew closer.
Finally, the boarding call came. Some of the passengers I recognized from the morning at Gazipasa, and they recognized me too. We had almost become bonded, in a passive, unacknowledged way, in this strange, hot Anatolian corona-era odyssey. OK, maybe it wasn’t going to take ten years to get home – but in the time of corona, it had at times felt like it.
An hour later, we began to descend into early evening Istanbul. You could still see traces of the fog that had sponsored our predicament. On the ground, I nearly ran to baggage collection. As soon as the two bags appeared, I snatched them and hurried out to the exit. I flagged the first taxi I saw. “Uskudar!” I barked. He nodded, popped the trunk for my bags, and we got in and set off.
We cruised back along the highway at a comfortable 75 mph, passing the lit buildings and skyscrapers, until we got closer and things became more familiar and suddenly we were in Uskudar, and a minute later he was dropping me off in front of the flat. Home! It felt miraculous to see the steps out front, the hilltop street as quiet as always. I tipped the driver an extra 20 lira just for being a blessed taxi driver and he had not tried to rip me off.
“Iyi aksamlar!” I said, wishing him good evening.
“Iyi aksamlar!” he smiled and got back in his taxi, disappearing around the bend.
Downstairs in the apartment, the cat, Ginger, meowed. She was safe and sound. There was even still a bit of food in her bowl and plenty of water. Five days. She had survived her own ordeal (or maybe she was glad to finally have the place to herself – who knows?).
“Hello, cat!” I said. I called Ozge and let her know her cat was alive and well.
“And what about you?” she joked.
“Yep, I think I’ll survive.”
Insallalah. God willing. Touch wood. Yes, it was good to be home. But it had also been good to get away, to see my wife, to have wonderful meals out on the terrace in the dusk, to see my son Leo meet the sea for the first time, dipping his little feet into the Med. Some risks – and some odysseys – are worth it. Plus, I knew I had a story to write the next day, whenever I decided to get up.
There are, as of this writing, 205,000 confirmed cases of coronavirus, in Turkey, with 179,000 recoveries and 5,206 deaths.
James Tressler, a former Lost Coast resident, is a writer and teacher living in Istanbul. His most recent novel, “Somewhere Near Centerville,” is available at Amazon.com.