The Great Theater. The Arcadian Way. The Library of Celsus in all of its weather-beaten glory. Two thousand five hundred years of tradition and myth, pondered and reinterpreted for more generations than I could fathom. I could feel the weight of time pressing warmly against me, the oceanic feeling that I craved above all else since first learning about the ancient Greek and Roman worlds.
“I’ll see you next Tuesday,” my professor said, and the fantasy abruptly stopped. I was back in WLH 114, thousands of miles away from the real Ephesus. My sole consolation was in thinking of the future. In one month, I would be on a plane to Turkey, where I could visit the site myself.
At this point in my life, Turkey was a relatively familiar place to me. Thanks to a government grant I received before my first year at Yale, I had spent three months in Ankara learning the language and gaining a familiarity with the country. (“My family isn’t crazy, they’re just Turkish,” is how I liked to sum up my key takeaway, reflecting on my upbringing that was light on punctuality and heavy on superstition.) My Turkish was sufficient enough to get by, and, if worst came to worst, I was confident in my charades. I understood the air kisses, and I could name at least five varieties of hand cologne. Best of all, I now had family with whom I could stay: a distant uncle in Izmir and a Turkish-American aunt in Karamürsel. Moreover, my grandparents had returned after spending 40 years in the United States, trying their hands at living in the country for which they had longed.
It was they who came to get me from Istanbul Atatürk Airport in the second week of March. They arrived in a clunky blue van, not unlike a more somber “Scooby Doo” vehicle. In the front seat was someone I had never seen before. The man, a salty sailor type, wore a blue vest and had a white beard that obscured the cigarettes in the vest’s front pocket.
“This is Nejat amca,” my grandfather told me, using an honorific that translates to “uncle” but applies equally well to general uncle types. “Merhaba amca,” I introduced myself. “Thank you for coming to pick me up.” He turned to his right, meeting my gaze.
“They told me your Turkish was better,” he said, grabbing his lighter from the middle section.
The four-hour wade through Istanbul traffic brought us to Nejat’s house. It was a place that conformed to all of the tropes of Turkish interior design, from the blue-patterned fritware to the ever-present evil eyes. Over my three-day stay, the house was in almost constant darkness, with the exception of the permanent blue-white stain of television static on the back wall. Sick with a bad cold, I lay on the throw-decked living room couch, pen in one hand and tea in the other, drawing new itinerary after itinerary in my stark red notebook, generating each and every route I could take across my journey through the ancient world.
On the evening of the third night, my family and I sat at the dinner table and prayed before dinner commenced. In English, I explained my plan to my grandparents: I would leave the next day on a bus from Istanbul to Troy and Bergama, after which I would take more public transit to Izmir. I could see Ephesus from there, and I would have time to loop back up to the north for five days in Karamürsel, where my Turkish-American aunt stayed, and another four in Istanbul, the city that had occupied my fantasies for so many years. Following up with Nejat amca in Turkish, I thanked him for his hospitality and simply told him that I would leave early in the morning to catch my bus from Istanbul.
“Cancel your bus,” amca said in gruff, smoke-stained Turkish. “We’ll drive you.”
I stood along a crystal blue coast, staring at a 20-inch horse-shaped bundle of sticks and ropes. It wasn’t the actual Trojan Horse, of course, but a model in the seaside town of Çanakkale. With the exception of the tourist trap archaeological site of Troy, it was the closest glimpse of antiquity that I had gotten in the six days that I had been in the country.
In the itineraries I had drawn, the idea was to have reached Ephesus — over 200 miles away — by the next day. Instead, Nejat amca kept us stranded in this town of pastels and palamut, thinking it worthwhile to spend yet another additional night in our tacky Trojan hotel. The ocean air, he argued, was good for his lungs. I was tempted to shoot back with something else that would be good for his lungs.
The one constant of the trip was that, when driving, Nejat amca would take a smoke break every 30 minutes. The interludes were always the same: He would pull over to the side of the highway, reach for his lighter, exit the vehicle and lean up against the van, cigarette in hand. More often than not, he would FaceTime his sister. My grandparents, who sat behind us, would open the sliding doors for their chance to say hello, joining in the reunion as I stuck my nose in a book.
The monuments came and went. In Bergama, Nejat amca drove us up a frighteningly steep, muddied hill to get to the visitors center at the base of the ancient city of Pergamon. I left the vehicle along with my grandma, who happily walked alongside me as I skipped over 2000-year-old steps. I held tight to my audio guide, trying to hit all 24 selections in the narrow slot of time we had left. When the hour and a half was up, we returned to find Nejat amca smoking conspicuously close to a “No Smoking” sign. He asked if I wanted to see the hospital in town. It took me a few moments to realize he was talking about the Asklepion, built by the Greeks over 2300 years ago.
If there was one perk to traveling with Nejat amca, it was the unscheduled deviations from Route E87. He was no scholar of Asia Minor, but he had a sense for coastal hotspots. In Küçükkuyu, we took advantage of the off-season silence, eating two meals of whole fish in one day and window shopping in between without seeing a single tourist. Further south, we veered off the coastal cliffs into a quaint, gravelly courtyard. Dogs pawed gleefully at our van as we backed into a crudely defined parking spot. Ten minutes later, a man poured a stream of sweet Turkish coffee from a copper cezve into our tiny, crackled fritware glasses. The ritual could have taken place any time in the past several hundred years, and I was living it.
Yet for every instance of slow living was an instance of slower travel. By the time we arrived in Izmir — which would mark our jumping-off point for Ephesus — I was five days behind schedule.
We stayed in the home of a distant uncle and aunt of mine: Altan amca and Eslem yenge. They were the types who spoke fluent English and sent their children to American summer schools, having spent years doing business and visiting family in the country. Their home was decorated with knick knacks from across the globe: brightly colored Anatolian rugs, florid impressionistic paintings of Paris and even a Neopolitan creche. Dinner was served at 7:30 p.m. precisely, a remarkable departure from the “Turkish time” I had been on. I retired after drinking my way through a too-tall glass of raki, the clearish anise-flavored national beverage, slipping under a cream-colored duvet and falling asleep.
For all the comforts of this new place, I couldn’t get over the time I had lost up to this point. Five days! When was the next time I would even be in the country, let alone have the time I had over my spring break? Where was the urgency?
Our plan — to my disapproval — was to visit Ephesus on the third day of our stay in Izmir. Eager to start the day off right, I went downstairs to the kitchen at 8:00 a.m. Eslem yenge entered soon after, surprised to see me. We had a cordial conversation about Izmir in English as she prepared breakfast, slicing fresh cucumbers, tomatoes and feta. I eyed the stovetop copper kettle, embossed with elegant floral and geometric patterns. She offered to make me tea before leaving to start her workday.
Alone for the next three hours, I took to my journal and books. Eventually, Nejat amca sauntered into the kitchen wearing the same zip-up vest he’d worn for the past week.
“It’s noon,” I said. “Don’t you think we should have left by now?”
“What’re you worried about?”
“Well, we’ve been here for three days and haven’t seen any of what I wanted to see, and Nur teyze in Karamürsel won’t stop texting me asking where I am, and for the past week our day hasn’t started until it was more than halfway over.”
He chortled. “Relax. Your old rocks aren’t going anywhere.” He pulled the pack of cigarettes from his front pocket and walked into the gazebo one room over.
I pulled a chair from the kitchen table and sat with my hand across my forehead. Between thoughts, the decor of the kitchen caught my eye. Porcelain teapots lined the tops of cream-colored, gold-trimmed cabinets. Each pot’s pattern diverged from the last, but there was a noticeable linearity to the display — a stark, unsettling orderliness. These people — my hosts — knew “the system” and appreciated it enough to bring it back to their home country. It was the type of house where plans were made in advance — and where an impromptu road trip might be out of the question. And that’s what stuck out to me. After more than a week with Nejat amca and company, this whole way of doing things felt unnaturally foreign.
We left for Ephesus at 2:00 p.m. Dark clouds obscured the mountains on the way to the excavation site. By the time we reached the main entrance, rain poured down, creating a muddy reflecting pool out of the parking area. Without an umbrella on hand and not wishing for my grandmother to get soaked, I considered my options. Little booths of 50-cent trinkets lined the way to the entrance gate. Since we pulled up, enthusiastic vendors had placed buckets of umbrellas outside of their shops. I picked the closest one and sprinted from the vehicle.
Under a made-in-China oriental-styled awning, I negotiated in rushed Turkish. I haggled my way down to 30 lira and opened my wallet, only to be stopped by Nejat amca, who had apparently hobbled over, soggy cigarette in hand. “That’s garbage,” he told the man. “He’s not going to give you more than 10.”
I looked at amca, who looked at the vendor. The vendor shrugged, and I handed over my bill.
I eventually made it to Karamürsel, albeit with half the time I had initially planned. I arrived in Istanbul with only 18 hours to spend in the city. It didn’t keep me from attempting to stick to a truncated version of my itinerary. I stormed the Grand Bazaar, Topkapi Palace, Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia, capping off my final afternoon having Turkish breakfast with a Yale friend, seeing everything without seeing anything. The pictures were good, at least.
Nejat amca, who had by then returned to his Istanbul abode with my grandparents, had offered several days ago to drive me to the airport. We were to meet south of the Galata Tower, along the road. I didn’t have cell service, but Nejat amca said not to worry, he would find me. I stood at the edge of the Istanbul Modern in the fashionable Karakoy district, my hiking backpack marking me as just one of the many transient visitors to this forever city. Fifty minutes after our agreed meeting time, a blue van emerge clunkily from a downhill slope ahead of me. I could vaguely make out the strong white beard that framed Nejat amca’s face through the darkened front window of the van. He yelled something and pointed forwards.
After several hours we were back at international branch of the airport, having retraced our steps through Istanbul traffic. There were the expected tearful hugs with my grandparents, the we’ll-be-back-here-soon’s that were commonplace on these types of events. I put on my backpack and turned my attention to Nejat amca. Speaking in Turkish that I had rehearsed, I thanked him for his extreme generosity and kindheartedness. The trip may not have turned out how I had planned, I said, but that was okay. There is, in fact, some value in spontaneity.
He laughed and pulled out his lighter. I wouldn’t have expected anything else.