Day one: There’s Ergin, a retired Turkish naval officer, guiding the tourists from Kusadasi to Ephesus. He stands at the front of the bus and offers his impassioned credo of the equality of all Turks and rejection of the designation “Kurdish problem.” Rather, “the terrorist problem.” His big blue and white golf umbrella bobs up and down ahead of his group through the remembered streets and lofty skeletons of Roman ruins. Ephesus today is not where Ephesus was. Sand between the Apostle Paul’s toes was a mile away. A silted mile inland grows beachless grass from where sandals touched down from ships whose passengers transmitted the news about Christ.
Near the end of this tour, someone asks about the small bird boxes high up on the trees. The boxes are about the size of the bluebird boxes in Kentucky. Ergin just hears “birds” and replies, “Storks.” Then understandings mesh and both laugh about the “microscopic storks” (Ergin) or “storklets” (tourist). Ergin actually doesn’t know what or for whom the boxes were for.
Back on the Olympia Princess, the amateur ornithologist and her spouse stand at the aft railing. She has a mild whim, a fantasy, to hurl herself over the rail into the Aegean. So blue, and the ship’s wake a wide white cleft as far back as the horizon. Could she throw her green eyes away, and when they sink, join the society of octopi, fish and eels? She’d be a kinder concierge than Poseidon, and practice winking back at Argos. Then, make of herself a mirror to show all clouds one fine side of themselves, and tick off ships and boats as they cross wakes with today, with Helen and Odysseus, with John the Revelator, and Paul the preacher.
It’s a tricky sea here to navigate. All the visible land indicates how mountainous the terrain below is. Near Troy as well, flat planes of Ilium go far inland, from the silting of the river. Three boats in queue wait turns to head into the strait, the Dardanelles. Once through, ships head east in the Sea of Marmara. On the northern shore, the Çanukkale Martyrs Memorial commemorates some 253,000 Turkish soldiers who were at the Battle of Gallipoli, April 1915 to December 1915 during the First World War.
Do not ignore the ground on which you have walked,
It is not ordinary soil.
Reflect on the thousands of people, who lie beneath
Without a shroud.
You are the son of a martyr –
Do not hurt your ancestor,
Do not give away this beautiful motherland,
Even if you have the whole world.
Mehmet Akif Ersoy,
Turkish National Anthem
Day two: The husband decides to join the group tour of Istanbul. A conservative but progressively thinking man whom it had taken some effort to blast off from his native continent. He’s a historian and will profit from the sights and explanations. The wife as usual likes to set out on her own, but at dinner on the cruise another female tourist warns, “Oh no. You can’t do that. The mosques are filthy. A single blond woman can’t walk alone in the streets.”
Altaic languages: Turkish, Mongolian, Manchurian, Japanese. All one really needs to know to begin connections in any new region is how to say Hello, Thank you, and It is beautiful.
The blond, however, some time since, has developed a passable Henrietta Stackpole/Isabel Archer persona for her forays through European cities. Some 25 years ago she hesitated due to similar warnings about Italy, and accepted Kamal, eager young Tunisian fellow, as companion. Milan. Venice. Florence . . . by Rome she’d had it. One evening at the youth hostel, she was taken with a young Scotsman who recited Robert Burns ballads. Afterwards, Kamal sulked and complained. With a modicum of guilt, she said goodbye. After all, he had seen her through until she found her feet among the Eurail Pass gang.
This all adds up to her visit to the cruise director’s office for a second opinion about free ranging in Istanbul. All present for the exchange would have said Duh had they been teenagers. “Turkey is a modern country,” the director proclaims as she hands over a photocopy of elementary Turkish phrases.
The fish seller’s joke confirmed this. The evening of arrival, husband and wife stroll down the wharf and over and back on the Galata Bridge. “Meribah,” she says brightly to anyone making eye contact.
“Have some fish, have some fish,” offers the first person they meet. The broiling smells are tempting.
“But I have no money,” she pleads, which was scantily true, since they had left their stash on the boat.
“Oh, you must be Russian,” he flashes back. As they pass him again, returning to the ship, he remembers them. Apologizes just a little, says “Welcome,” and that it is fun to joke with them.
Day three: True to personality styles, the man sets out on the tour of the city: Hagia Sophia, Topkapi Palace Museum, Blue Mosque, while the woman sets out on her own.
A small billboard outside Hagia Sophia proclaims:
OLD & NEW
CARPETS & KELIMS
SORRY WE’RE OPEN
Inside, the space under the huge dome is dark, lights not turned on today. Again, a reminder of Italy where, in Venice, it was hard to see in St. Mark’s Cathedral. Sometimes, in an actual place or in the presence of a famous statue or painting, do others get oddly wistful for the solitude and manageable experience of contemplating colored illustrations in a book? However, The Orthodox Liturgy by Hugh Wybrew, read last spring in preparation for this day, makes it possible to imagine the empty vastness full of hundreds of lit candles, processions, chanting, incense, and believers. The Orthodox Christian church Justinian built on this site in 537 remained for 900 years, then after the conquest in 1453, the Ottoman Muslims tweaked it into the sultans’ grand mosque with huge panels of calligraphy inside and turrets outside. Now it is a museum of the Turkish Republic, designated so by Ataturk in 1935. All prayer since then is incidental.
Back outside in the daylight, electronic singing rises and falls in air raid warning pitches, rebounding among the six minarets of the Blue Mosque. The tourist shelters under a grape vine trellis, where an outreach agent of Caravan 60 Carpeting spots her. Does she want to see the Blue Mosque? He will guide her. Waits patiently while she wanders around inside the most beautiful of buildings. Brilliant swelling womb inside a sky-daughter! And here there is light! In her socks she circles round, arriving at the small enclosure for the women. Kneeling on her haunches, she has no focused prayer except gratitude.
Afterwards, the Caravan 60 guide leads her away and soon delivers her to Ahmed. In a reception room, he seats her on what feels like a throne and serves a glass of hot apple tea. Then the presentation of diamonds, rectangle, crosses and linear borders of crimsons, royal blues, greens, turquoise, black and gold in wool, silk and cotton. “The carpet is the windows of the soul,” Ahmed announces. These myriad windows are woven by women in village co-operatives. Alas, the tourist has been entrusted with no more money than for cafés and small souvenirs, and no credit card.
As she leaves, she stops to greet the beautiful Nezaket Ates, who is weaving near the shop’s front picture window. The tourist asks if she may photograph Nezaket, and if she will write her name in the travel journal.
Outside again, there is enough currency for her to buy a small sample of Daoud’s perfumes. On the way back down to the port, she takes a detour to Çi Çi’s Water Pipe Café, where she does inhale: something apricot between sips of a Sirma soda, as she reclines on a couch near another one, where two young backpackers from Marseilles chuckle.
Pillows, carpeted divans, hydrangeas and bloomless rose bushes in pots welcome guests. Soft rock music all around and hanging laundry above. His café, Çi Çi says, is the navel of the world. On the west side of the Golden Horn, everything is material. On this side, the spiritual, the beautiful. “The heart of the world is in Mecca. The brain of the world is Jerusalem.” He flourishes his Koran. It falls open to the passage that our woman has been waiting to hear — and has always heard — for more than half her life:
And when you withdraw from them and that which they worship except Allah, then seek refuge in the cave, your Lord will spread for you his mercy and will prepare for you a pillow in your plight.
There have indeed been many times of withdrawal and refuge, and will be more in days and years ahead. But today, almost splendid as her wedding day, is a day of engagement. In the market, a parrot in a cage catches her dazed attention. His owner sweeps out from his booth, perhaps essaying to sweep her off her feet: “Oh your eyes! How full of soul are your eyes, full of soul. You must let me give you a coffee.”
Plenty other vendors are around. She’s safe enough to sip and purr: “You must teach my husband to speak English.”
The fourth day, Olympia Princess heads back west. He and she have one more day to bump heads and bodies inside their tight berth. Back up on the top deck, she composes the second or third poem she’s ever tried in French. Later on her friend DeDe will correct the grammar.
dans la mer de Marmara:
tous les poissons commes ça,
ils portes sur ses têtes les fezs.
Ses yeux –
ils sont glacés,
parce que le Turkish café
plus fort qu’Ataturk.
Look there – aha!
in the sea of Marmara
all the fishies in our wake
wear fezes. Gosh. For pity’s sake.
You can see their eyes are
all glazed over. Coffee’s far
more strong than Ataturk.
That’s what’s driven them berserk.
Her body, meanwhile, must go on. Set it outside the cabin door with baggage for home, where, left to ride the arabesques of the living room’s blue Turkish-patterned carpet, she and the man watch DVDs and scratch cats’ ears. Some moments, now and then, her soul refills with sea.
Vickie Cimprich’s poetry collection, Pretty Mother’s Home – A Shakeress Daybook (Broadstone Books, 2007) was researched at the Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill, Kentucky with the support of two grants from the Kentucky Foundation For Women. http://www.broadstonebooks.com/Vickie_Cimprich_Page.html Her work also appears in The African American Review, Bigger Than They Appear: Anthology of Very Short Poems (Accents Press, 2011), Dappled Things, The Merton Review, The Mom Egg Plainsongs, Poetry As Prayer: Appalachian Women Speak (Wind Publications, 2004) and The Register of the Kentucky Historical Society. She lives in Northern Kentucky with historian John Cimprich.