An old man gestures enthusiastically at us as we roll through his village. ‘Çay?’
Every village seems to have a social club, a room where men of all ages hang out and drink the strong, sweet, black sugary stuff that I will now forever associate with Turkey. We smile and lean our bikes up against a post, glad of the excuse for a break.
He brings us two steaming hot glasses of çay and we try to talk to each other in the very little common language we have. We usually get as far as our names, where we are from, and where we are heading. This never fails to kick off an intense debate about which route we should take, and everyone has a strong opinion. I love these encounters. They have shown me how incredibly welcoming the Turks are. They are so generous with their time in a way that we so rarely are these days back home, because of our need to be perpetually busy.
Chairs are pulled up in front of the wood burner for us, and we are immediately accepted and made to feel at home. They often insist on feeding us and not uncommonly, when we say we are camping, someone will offer to put us up for the night in their home.
The first time this happened we were well on our way into the heart of rural Anatolia. This part of Turkey is known for its traditional conservatism and you might therefore think that the people would be less welcoming to western visitors. You could not be more wrong! We had been wild camping for five consecutive nights, and it had been raining on and off the whole time. That particular day, in mid-April, we had taken a mountain road, climbed 800m and – to our surprise – it snowed. Wet through, we descended through a beautiful misty valley along muddy tracks through houses made from stone and mud bricks.
I had long lost the sensation in my fingers and toes. We stopped to fill up our water bottles at a village fountain, contemplating cooking another camp stove meal in the rain. Two men appeared from the building in front of us and invited us indoors for a harmless cup of çay.. we were at a low ebb and very glad to get out of the cold. Before long we were eating homemade bread, cheese and olives, and it seemed most of the men in the village had turned up. We were shown a room where we could stay the night. Someone brought in an electric heater, and then, with a young lad helping him via Google translate, one of the old men insisted that we come and stay at his home instead where it would be warm, and have ‘kahvalti’ (traditional Turkish breakfast) with his family in the morning. I don’t think I could find the words to describe how grateful we were at that moment!
It was dark when we arrived at their timber framed house built over a garage where their cows were sleeping for the night. We were warmly greeted by our host’s son and daughter in law and his 4year old grandson, without a seconds hesitation, despite them having no inkling that we were coming. They offered us the customary post-dinner plate of fresh fruit. Then they made us up a bed in their living room. In the morning we were presented with an enormous spread of food; bread and cream, honey, olives, cheese, tomato and cucumber, fried suçuk, homemade buns and cakes..and of course an unlimited supply of strong black sugary çay!! On leaving all we had to offer in the way of a thank you was a packet of smoked almonds and a postcard..but we sincerely offered to repay the favour if any of their family or neighbours visits the UK.
I used to think the Brits drank more tea than any other nation, but I was definitely wrong. The Turks have taken their çay out onto the street. On every corner there’s a samovar on the boil and a boy carrying a tray of those delicate, tulip shaped glasses. And more often than not a glass of çay is shared between strangers. It’s an entry point for conversation, a simple message of friendship and hospitality. We often joked that if we accepted every offer of çay we would never get very far!
Coming from the UK, at first it’s hard not to feel overwhelmed or even suspicious of these constant invitations. It’s not normal in our standoffish culture! To us, the questions can seem intrusive and sometimes downright rude – Where are you from? (ie you are clearly not from here!) How old are you? Are you married? Why don’t you have children?! How much do you earn?!!!… But we quickly realised that people are just very open and genuinely interested in eachother, and never afraid to strike up a conversation with a complete stranger. Their questions come from a desire to understand you even though this understanding needs to fit within very rigid expectations of gender roles, family, and financial status. I often wished we could take these conversations further and find out how strongly held these expectations were, to learn from or to challenge. But having only really mastered a handful of Turkish words (which I have to confess are mostly food-related!) sadly we lacked the language skills for anything deep and meaningful. For us, the lasting image of Turkey is the importance of relationships, and the warm hospitality we were shown, no matter whether it was on the frenetic streets of liberal Istanbul or in a tiny village in deepest, conservative Anatolia.
Although it is a cliché, Turkey really is a melting pot of opposing belief systems, cultures, and politics. There is a real presence of both secularism and religion, the traditional and the modern, and these identities are not neatly divided by communities or by families, they most often seem to coexist within individuals!! A classic example of this was our very generous couchsurfing host in Erzurum. A 30something, highly educated veterinary surgeon who was a practising Sunni Muslim and tarot card reader who held a firm belief in the protection of the evil eye amulet!
The referendum on whether to grant Erdogan sweeping new powers was held during the week we stayed in Istanbul. We felt a deep unease about the campaign and it’s outcome, and the inevitable direction in which Turkey’s national politics is now heading. However, in contrast to this we can’t help feeling cautiously optimistic for Turkey’s future. Although I’m sure it isn’t always the case, we witnessed friendships between people with widely differing backgrounds and we saw opposite lifestyles happily coexisting. We repeatedly experienced (through endless glasses of çay!) the openness and interest in others that Turkish people seem to innately possess. Of course there is a huge gulf between what is happening on a political level, and real, everyday life. But we were really struck by how society seemed to function with such amazing diversity. And surely this counts for something?