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  • This edited excerpt of a 1996 memoir carries on from Anatolian Air to describe my first encounter with my fiancée's family when we set down in Antalya, Turkey one chilly November night.


    The city of Antalya sits on the southern coast of Turkey sheltered in a cusp of the Mediterranean Sea. A port, regional capital, and (then) home to 250,000 permanent residents, it is also a major tourist destination whose population more than doubles in peak season. Visitors from places like Germany, Russia, Israel, and Japan flock there to swelter in excruciating summer heat for reasons I can't explain. But we arrived as winter approached, when the city chills out.

    The first thing I noticed upon deplaning at Antalya was the air: it smelled of the sea, not of petrochemical byproducts. Stars blinked above us, and the orient horizon cradled a nearly full moon. We descended the mobile staircase and walked to the terminal, entering a room with a 50-meter luggage conveyer rumbling down one wall. The moving belt was set up to dump its contents in an ungracious heap in the far corner of the arrival hall. Our bags were about the last to be produced, which gave me time to note that not one suitcase got to the end of the belt and tipped onto the floor before someone grabbed it. Whoever had designed that baggage belt must have understood that Turks would never give their luggage time to pile up, so why make unnecessary arrangements for impossible eventualities?

    Aygül pointed to a knot of people standing beyond the glass doorway near the luggage drop. They were all waving, apparently at us. Then, when our baggage showed up, several pairs of hands materialized to heave it away. The hands belonged to Aygül's dad and her brother-in-law, accompanied by his wife (middle sister Ayşegül) and their daughter (Irmak). Aygül's youngest sister, Aysel, rounded out the welcoming party. Everyone hugged and kissed each other twice. Aygül's dad Seyfettin, a handsome and fit 70-year-old man, locked me in a big bear hug and greeted me with "Merhaba! We welcome you to Turkey!" looking genuinely glad to meet me. "And this is a Turkish kiss. Do not forget it!" he added, kissing me on each cheek. I squeezed his shoulders and kissed him back. Then the rest of them gathered round to kiss and hug me and naturally I reciprocated. As our group left the terminal, my tensions started to sublimate into the cool night air. I was in Allah's hands now.
  • Aygül's relatives had expected us to arrive at the international terminal, so we had a good hike back to their cars. We walked leisurely, conversing. Almost everyone was chatting up Aygül, rattling on in breakneck Turkish. But brother-in-law Levent walked beside me, asking me questions in pretty good English. Did the trip go well? Was I tired? What did I think of Turkey so far? Stammering and still in shock, I tried to be polite and not use big words. As it was easy not to use them but hard to find any that didn't sound stupid, I kept my answers short. As we approached the cars, I accepted a Marlboro Light he offered, and lit ones for us both. We dragged on our cigs and talked mostly about the weather. I soon learned that he is my bacanak, and I am his. That's one of many Turkish terms that pinpoint familial relationships. It means a man who marries into a family, as he had and I expected to.

    The party was breaking up. Levent and his family drove their sedan home to their flat in Antalya. I was deposited in dad's station wagon with Aygül and Aysel to head down to their home in Kemer, about an hour away. Before taking leave, Levent and I hugged and kissed. Only this time, our lips met, surprising us both, as I later learned. But at the time, we both assumed that this was the other's intention. Even though it wasn't, we sort of bonded. And when we next met—at the hotel where he works—we joked about our gaffe, the way guys do everywhere, it seems.

    Seyfettin chauffeured us down the coast highway in his city car, a little Renault five-speed station wagon. All our luggage and four people somehow fit inside. Aygül and I sat in back; sister Aysel rode shotgun. The two girls talked nearly nonstop, with me begging an occasional translation when I thought I was being discussed, or butting in to ask their dad to describe the areas we were passing through. He replied in terse phrases that I sort of understood (he speaks basic English). We motored along a divided boulevard toward downtown Antalya, through a floodplain dotted with factories, warehouses, humble markets, and sundry residential units. As we progressed, I started to smell Istanbul again, at first faintly, but as we entered the city center it was definitely deja pu all over again, but it didn't last very long.
  • Smog lingered through downtown, skulking around a procession of high-rise apartment houses. Soon fresh sea breezes broke through as the city fell behind and we started climbing the coastal range, turning south toward our destination. The two-lane road was well paved, but rumbling lorries and dawdling drivers slowed our ascent of a series of hills that hugged the sea. Even in darkness I could tell this was a majestic route. After 15 minutes of tearing past trucks and dodging oncoming traffic, Seyfettin pulled the car over when a police roadblock loomed. One cop played a flashlight over us while another one exchanged a few words with our good shepherd, then motioned us on.

    One reason why Aygül's dad had no problem at the roadblock is that he's a retired Turkish Air Force non-commissioned officer; he's got photographs, uniforms, a jeep, and a 45 to prove it. He's intense but cheerful, hard working, and very sure of himself, but enjoys life a lot and loves to talk, as they all do and much more than I was used to. Police roadblocks like this one were not uncommon, I was told, as police were intent on interdicting PKK insurgents. As PKK guerrillas hardly come to the Antalya area, the roadblock demonstrated how seriously the government takes the Kurdish separatist movement. While no foreigner could tell by walking the streets of a Turkish town, the political situation was delicate when we were there, following a national election that left no majority—only a plurality for the insurgent fundamentalist Welfare Party, with which few other parties cared to form a new government.

    Fifteen minutes later we reached Kemer. When the wagon pulled up at her garden gate, Aygül's mom Safiye was anxiously awaiting us. She ushered us through it and up the steps of the stucco house the two of them had built from plans drawn up by Aysel, and where they had resided for the last ten years in increasing comfort. The two-bedroom bungalow is one of their two retirement homes. We lugged suitcases inside, shedding shoes in the foyer. After the requisite merhabas, Safiye handed me slippers and motioned me into the parlor, where a roaring wood stove and a groaning dining table greeted us, and Safiye instructed Aygül and me to eat. Spread across the table were salads, braised vegetables, rice pilaf, köfte (football-shaped meatballs), and piles of crusty bread. It was late and I wasn't particularly hungry, but I made sure to sample everything and was not disappointed.

    Soon it was midnight and I was eager to retire. Sayfiye stashed me in her bedroom in the back and then she and Seyfettin joined Aygül in the parlor to sleep on sofas and thin mattresses. The next day we would go to their other house, only 10 km as the crow flies but many more clicks and 900 m higher via unimproved roads that wind up the mountains that form a rugged backdrop to the coastal town. I briefly contemplated what I had gotten myself into as sleep quickly overtook me.

    TBC…

    @image: Aerial view of Kemer, Turkey (unknown date) from kemerholiday.com showing 2,366m Mt. Olympos (Tahtalı Dağı) and the Taurus (Toros) range. Kemer is 40 km south of Antalya. Kemer means bridge; the town was named for a Roman arched bridge that spanned the river Xanthos (Eşen Çayı) several km upstream, remains of which still exist.
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