The school I work for hasn’t given its teachers a raise since the Ottomans were in power, I’m pretty sure, but they’ve recently started on a campaign of keeping the teachers sweet by offering “treats” to the high performing ones. Last month it was a night at a ski lodge. I didn’t go because I dislike skiing, or for that matter, any winter sport that requires me to be outside shivering and wiping my perpetually running nose on my coat sleeve for any length of time, and also because I wasn’t invited. I seldom fill out my registers properly.
This month the “treat” was a trip to Yalova, and when Merve, the lovely new HR person, invited me at the last moment, (I’m still not a good register filler-outer so one assumes there were vacancies) I thought for half a second and said, “hell, yes.”
Night in a hotel on the company dime? Don’t mind if I do. Long soak in a thermal spring and maybe a trip to a hamam? Oh, twist my arm.
“Great!” Merve said. “We’re meeting at 8:30 tomorrow morning. Don’t forget to bring your swimsuit and your pyjamas!”
Next morning I woke up with that long-forgotten “no school! field trip day!” feeling, and threw some things in a bag and ran. I was there bang on time, which was a complete waste of an hour and a half of my life as we did not leave until ten.
“This is why I hate going anywhere with large groups,” I observed to Jenny, as we stood on the sidewalk, very sleepy, somewhat stultified and a little grumpy, waiting for the charter buses, murmuring things yabancı murmur to each other when confronted by a particularly good example of the Turkish laissez-faire attitude towards planning. We would find ourselves baffled again and again over the next 30-odd hours, by decisions which to our poor displaced American minds made absolutely no sense.
Figure 1: We drove to Yalova.
Yalova is a Thermal spring town across the Marmara from Istanbul. The fastest way to get there, (see above map) is by ferry. If you don’t take the ferry you have to drive halfway around the freaking Marmara, which is a SEA. Had I left my home at 8:30 and traveled by myself, first taking a train to Pendik or Kartal, and then hopping on a ferry, I would have been there by 12:00 at the latest. Leaving at 10 I imagined we’d be there by one-ish, plenty of time to explore the town and take a dip in a spring and chill out.
But we DROVE.
Figure 2: We stopped for lunch, perhaps twenty minutes away from Yalova, half an hour from our hotel, in a shopping center.
Now, free food is free and I’m not going to complain about it, but having mall pizza and a börek (that would, TMI alert, give me the trots within a few hours) from a cafe attached to what is essentially a Turkish Target, when we were half an hour from a town that I bet your bottom dollar had great sea food, is… confusing. I’m not complaining, mind, just confused.
It takes quite a while to get thirty people’s orders, and then get their food to them. Having been served fairly quickly, Jenny and I got a little restless and, with a few other teachers, wandered listlessly around the Target. When we passed the wine aisle we both stopped short.
“From how our day’s gone so far, I think we’re going to need this,” she said.
“Those are very good prices,” I agreed.
“Oh I don’t think you should get that,” one of the other teachers said. “We don’t know if it’s allowed in the hotel.”
Jenny and I looked at each other in alarm and held a whispered conference when the teacher had wandered out of earshot. We agreed that it might not make the best impression to crawl back onto the bus clanking bottles in front of our coworkers and bosses, and that if the hotel was, in fact, dry, we should be discreet about smuggling in wine, but,
“I mean, we’re going to Yalova. It’s a proper town. It’s not like we’ll be in the middle of nowhere. There’ll be tekels.”
Figure 3: We didn’t go to Yalova. We went to the middle of nowhere.
We were lured there by a promise of a trip to Yalova, all expenses paid, but our hotel was 6 clicks outside Yalova and surrounded by farms. Really quite charming, or so it would have appeared to me had we not just passed up the opportunity to buy wine.
The inside of the hotel looked rather as though Liberace had thrown up on it. Everything that could glitter, glittered. Even the faux marble in the elevator had huge flakes of faux gold embedded in it. The columns, and there were many columns, were covered in disco ball tiles. The carpets were all red. The furniture, for any of you ‘bulers, was I swear to Christ all from Bağdat Street.
Jennie and I poked our heads our back, where there were several pools filled with sick-green winter water, looking all forlorn in the late afternoon winter light. One of the pools had a decorative bridge built over it.
“This is all very champagne wishes and caviar dreams,” I murmured to Jennie. She’s quite a bit younger and didn’t get the reference.
We went back inside and while Merve was dealing with the interminable check-in process, and the other teachers and staff members wandering aimlessly around or taking pictures of each other, we got down to business.
“Definitely not a bar on this floor,” I said.
“What about that room?”
“Nope. Already checked. It’s a conference room. I think it’s dry but let’s check downstairs.”
We quickly trotted halfway down one of the twin grand staircases to the basement level, where a quick glance showed there was only the spa, the pool and a gym. Shit. We turned around and almost banged into a grinning concierge, who, in his very best English, (which consisted of saying “Please!” while gesturing broadly) coerced us downstairs and showed us the gym, (yep, there it was. It was definitely a hotel gym) and then the indoor pool, (which had water in it, as a pool should) and (we tried to make an escape after the pool but got hauled back with desperate “PLEASE!”‘s and arm wavings) the spa. We thanked him politely and started walking back up the twenty whole stairs to the lobby but he insisted, with much more arm flapping and “PLEASE!”ing that we take the very fancy elevator.
“We just got tour raped,” I observed out of the side of my mouth.
Figure 4. Apparently the whole point of the trip was to go sit in a hotel.
Though we got there late, there still would have been time to go exploring and actually see Yalova, but that wasn’t the plan. The other teachers put on their swimsuits and went down and hopped in the pool and… that was it, I guess. That’s why we’d come.
I did a few laps and then told Jenny I was off on a mission. She stayed behind to try to bolster Turkish/Yabancı relations which failed rather miserably when none of the other teachers would speak English with her. I got dressed, grabbed my bag, and as nonchalantly as possible “went out for cigarettes.”
Apparently, as soon as it was realized I was off the premises, waves of alarm went through the rest of the group.
“It was like,” Tara said later, “what you were doing- taking a walk- was really transgressive.”
“That’s so ridiculous! I’m thirty(none of your business) years old!”
But in the meantime, I picked a likely direction and walked down a dirt road until it ended. I turned right since it was the only thing I could do, and walked past farms and swanky, gated retirement houses, past sheep and chickens and huge, uncurious dogs, past scabby village children and old Turkish women laden with shopping, until I got to a semblance of a village. I passed one cafe, which did not sell beer. I poked my head into the local gas station, and into two tekels, but no dice. I wandered up the road, and then wandered back again to the gas station where I said in my best Turkish to the attendant, a friendly looking guy, “I want to buy wine.”
“Oooooh,” he said sympathetically. He gestured up the hill. “Gökçedere, iki kilometer.” He gestured down the hill. “Yalova, altı kilometer.” He shrugged apologetically. I thanked him and headed up the hill. Gökçedere at a mere two kilometers wins!
It didn’t take me long to figure out that there is a robust minibus service running between Gökçedere and Yalova and to hop on one. It took me past an insane amount of new development, (who in the hell is going to live in those flats? Where would they possibly work? Or are they for retirees?) into a charming little town full of twisty streets and charming, old-world sights like a man riding a horse with a huge old wooden saddle on it, leading another horse loaded down with kindling and a bright orange chain saw.
I got off as soon as I saw the familiar and oh so welcome blue Effes sign, and bought two bottles of wine. It cleaned me out to my last thirty kuruş of cash, so I walked back, which was actually all downhill and very pleasant. Gorgeous country side. Really, really pretty.
Back at the hotel no one could quite believe I’d gone out for a walk by myself, and Jennie could not quite believe I’d found booze. We opened the bottle in our hotel room and poured two generous glasses when there was a knock on the door.
“Shit! Shit!” I shoved the bottle into the closet and Jennie hid the glasses under her bed. We opened the door and there was a teacher there to tell us dinner was at 6:30 sharp. We closed the door behind her and retrieved the glasses from under the bed and collapsed with sighs into the wing chairs when- there was another knock at the door. Back the wine glasses went under the bed.
“I feel like I’m in high school,” I said.
The rest of the evening passed strangely. When we went down for dinner, (I was, I admit, still wearing pool gear) everyone was wearing some variation of jeans or sweatpants except for 6 women who were dressed up like Russian prostitutes, with tons of make-up and prom curls and tight/shiny/leopard print everything. We had a meeting beforehand to congratulate teacher’s who’d excelled, and to talk about how we’re going to strengthen relations between Turks and Natives. The second half of the meeting was entirely in Turkish, but evidently quite amusing. Jennie and I played a game on my phone until it was over.
“Why have you been talking to just each other all day?” the baby teacher sitting next to me asked at one point. “We’re all here together but you and Jennie just keep to yourselves.”
“We can’t be a part of your conversations if we can’t understand them,” I said. “We all speak English, but no one seems to want to. Even if we’re in the teacher’s room, or at lunch, I might get a few sentences in English for my benefit, and then everyone’s back to speaking Turkish. ”
“I never thought of that. I guess it’s just easier for us.”
“Yeah. No shit. But it’s also just a wall of sound for us, we can’t understand a damn thing, and we feel excluded. So we talk to each other.” I shrugged and returned to my plate of inoffensive but unexceptional chicken with greasy rice.
“Why don’t you know more Turkish?” He persisted.
“You know, you’re right. I should know more Turkish. But even if I’d studied it hard the past year, I wouldn’t know enough to keep up with you. And I do try to speak it in school, to everyone’s benefit. But the fact is, we all speak English, and if you want to include us, you have to speak English.”
After dinner there was an awkward dance party where they played lots of traditional dances that we don’t know, and Gangnam style, and some thing the kids are doing these days called the Harlem shuffle. At one point there was talk of going into town, but no one could quite put a plan into action, (get on convenient minşbus. Get off when it gets to town. Find a bar or a restaurant. Go inside.) So someone put on Gangnam style again the dance party, (the drry, brightly lit dance party) awkwardly shuffled on.
As soon as it was polite we left, retreated to our balcony and soaked in the SILENCE. No car sounds, no human sounds at all reached us up there, behind our gaudy, faux grecian balustrade.
“You know, under different circumstances, this would actually be an awesome getaway. I mean, it’s in the middle of nowhere but GodDAMN this quiet is nice. ”
“Yeah. If we took the ferry instead of driving…”
“…and came with a bunch of friends…”
“…and a box full of booze…”
“…and actually went out and hung out in the town during the day. Like, actually went to a hot spring, which is the whole point of this place, isn’t it?”
“…the pool’s actually really nice….”
“…this place can’t be expansive….
“…let’s come back.”
“Yeah, and do it right.”
Figure 5. The next day we left at noon. We took the ferry and it took us two hours to get home.