I have just been on a family holiday. That meant Douglas, who will be 15 in May, Rowan, who is about to complete her first year at university, Ailsa, and I headed off for just over a week in Turkey. We decided to go there because my brother, Derek, who moved to Istanbul with his family about 18 months ago, has chucked in his – very unsatisfactory – job and will be leaving in early July. They are thinking of moving to Cape Town, where he intends to start a consultancy company.
This means that we are unlikely to see them much so we decided to go to Istanbul and spend a bit of time doing family bonding. My sister Gill also went over for Easter, so the entire family were there!
It was fascinating, the family dynamics alone made the visit worth it. Given the huge number of miles I had clocked up on KLM it was easy to book airmiles tickets, (in business class as well) and we flew over on Tuesday 7th and returned on Wednesday 15th April. Turkey was not at all what I had expected.
The flight over was uneventful, other than the fact we arrived at one am. However we whisked through getting visas and passport control. Our luggage was among the first pieces to be delivered. A quick journey and we were able to check-in to the hotel in the centre of Istanbul and fall into bed.
On our first day we arranged to meet Derek and Gill for lunch, a cruise on the Bosporus, a drive up the coast and then, horror of horrors, the school musical play in which my eldest niece had a starring role. I am a reluctant spectator of even my own children’s school plays. I end up going to Waterford School end of term events every time we have a governor’s meeting at the school. I say to the head, ‘Laurence I don’t want to sit through this play/performance/dance’. He responds, ‘You have to, you are a governor”. So not only do I see the performance but it is also from the front row. It was fun though and Emily performed well.
After the lunch and cruise we got in his monstrous SUV and headed out into the Istanbul traffic, which was a nightmare. Derek explained the Zen of driving in Istanbul. According to him involves patience, being calm, allowing people to push in front of you because you will push in front of others. He was Zen-like. We drove up the coast, had a cup of Turkish coffee, think sweet black mud, and you will have the picture. I really like it and drank copious quantities over the holiday! After this we headed for the school, the play starting at 7 pm. And we hit traffic. The minutes ticked away. It was apparent we were not going anywhere fast. Zen began to disappear and the driving became more aggressive and intolerant.
The trip was in three parts, Istanbul for three nights, then down to Ephesus, (to be strictly accurate the village of Selcuk about three kilometres from the ruins of Ephesus) for three nights, and finally back to Istanbul for two nights. It was an astonishingly interesting trip and well worth it.
The themes were traffic, ruins and history, hospitality and family dynamics. The traffic in Istanbul was quite horrendous. Derek is an optimistic soul. On the Friday we were flying from Istanbul to Izmar the nearest airport to Ephesus. Derek kindly offered to take us to the airport. We had to leave by 2 pm. He said that this would not be a problem. He had to bring his family in to the city for an appointment with the police to sort out residence issues and all the family had to present themselves in person. He had set up an appointment for 11.15. His wife pointed out that the children had to go to school for maths tests which could not be missed therefore they were unlikely to get to the police in time. He was confident they would make the appointment, and he would then be able to deliver us to the airport in plenty of time. His family greeted us on the run to their appointment at 12.30. The Zen view had now been replaced by a Tom and Jerry like freneticism.
We took a taxi to the airport, which cost an arm a leg and some hip. I sat in the front seat watching with horror as the meter ticked up, and occasionally asking the driver to slow down. Not, of course expecting the fare to be any less, but just wanting to be alive to pay it. Coming back we were picked up by the hotel shuttle, a huge Mercedes bus, and spent nearly two hours travelling back to the city. There was a 10 kilometre tailback to get onto the bridge across the Bosporus, there are only two bridges joining Europe to Asia. By contrast in Selcuk it was possible to meander across the main road. When we hired a car Rowan felt confident enough to drive, and was very happy to do so, because she was legally allowed to!
In most countries one has to be over 21 to drive an hire car and I had thought it would be the case in Turkey. She went: ‘nyah nyah’.
The hospitality was superb. Every airport pick-up was there on time and the vehicles were clean and comfortable. The first hotel was just OK but the boutique hotels in Selcuk and Istanbul were comfortable and roomy and the staff friendly and helpful. At one café we had just a drink each and were given biscuits by the proprietor. He noted how much Rowan enjoyed them and gave her the rest of the packet. Of course her blue eyes and charming smile may have helped. Over the time we were there we only had one meal where the service was poor, and that was not the fault of the waiter but of the kitchen. The food was uniformly good.
We went to many shopping areas and while the shop owners and assistants were keen to sell they were polite and to the man were not overly pushy. And in that sentence is one clear downside of the country, I left feeling it is hugely chauvinist and possibly even misogynist. There were few women in the shops or the service industry anywhere we visited. The men were highly visible and clearly have enjoyable lives (outside the home at any rate), spending time in cafes and bars, which are male dominated.
Throughout the visit I had a sense of history and humanity. The ruins of Ephesus, a major city of Asia minor, and an important port until the harbour silted up was once home to 200 000 people. What remains is impressive, temples, houses, public areas and even a public latrine, seating up to 16 people. There was no evidence of privacy between the holes in the marble. Perhaps defecation was a communal, and even enjoyable, activity in those times, the guidebooks do not elucidate on this interesting issue. There were two stadia built into the side of the hills, in an economical design, making maximum use of local topography. In one’s minds eye one can visualise the plays, performances and meetings that must have taken place there.
In Selcuk is an Ottoman castle; the ruins of a basilica built for St John the apostle, which would have been the sixth biggest cathedral in the world if it were standing; and the pagan temple of Artemis. Ephesus is just three kilometres outside the village and a little further away is the little church marking the site of the house reputed to be where Mary Magdalene ended her days. One has to feel sorry for Joseph, who fades out of the story completely – mind you with omnipotent in-laws who could blame him!
Ephesus apart from being home to St John, and the destination of Paul’s letters to the Ephesians, was also the site of one of the early synods which defined Christianity and what was accepted in the bible. Istanbul, too, has many sites worth visiting and I shall have to return. The children do a museum at a fast trot and then complain of being bored.
So what do I conclude? I need to spend more time processing what we saw and did. I need to try writing some more word pictures. While away I finished reading the excellent book by Oliver James, Affluenza, and began Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s thought provoking, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable. Both books are about the human condition and where we are at the beginning of this century. Seeing the historical sites in this context was eye opening.
I am incredibly fortunate to be alive now, to have my opportunities to travel, and be with family and friends. In this unequal world we are extremely privileged and we need to be aware of this and try to give back in other settings if we possibly can. I know that I do not do all I could or indeed all I should but at least recognising privilege and having a sense of fun and pleasure at the experiences we have is a measure of humanity. At least I hope so. And so until I next sit down and write a plane letter let me sign off.