In the Summer before I turned 18 I lived in Japan for a few months, with a family of 5, all boys 9-13 years old, in a one-bedroom apartment. This was Kumamoto, a province far to the south, a different island from Tokyo and different in more ways than I have room for here. Perhaps another time I'll write about this experience, but I bring it up because it was, and this is the only word I can think to use, a magical place in such a rare and special way that only a few other times in my life I've felt.
My American peers and I, language students, were virtually the only foreigners we ever saw. The isolation was brutal, especially when, a week in, I developed a lung infection and saw a fever of 105. The temptation to pack it in and go home ran high and my phone bills were well into triple digits. But one by one, each of us fell in love with the rolling hills, the lush, unspoiled greenery, the ancient traditions without irony and pretense. Climb a mountain, and a weathered sign at the top would unceremoniously list people's names that had climbed the mountain every day their whole lives, five thousand, ten thousand times. There were no theme parks, no gift shops, just a simple country life stretching back generations.
The only word I can use is haunted, in the way that the hair stands up on the back of your neck when you stop and touch a piece of stone that almost seems to buzz at all the hands that touched it before. I don't mean, of course, to imply anything metaphysical, but some places and things are just brimming with so many stories and lives that it overwhelms belief.
My parents and I took an early flight from London to Istanbul on a very modern, giant 777. On the way I watched a movie called "The Invention of Lying" with Ricky Gervais that was so incredibly funny and true and sad that I spent the next few days referencing it in conversation what felt like every ten or fifteen minutes. The food: decent.
When we arrived in turkey the staff of the airline made it seem so deadly urgent that we follow them around the airport that it spooked my parents and I badly enough to stand around in a circle at the connecting gate and stare at each other like we may be arrested and shot at any time. This was, in retrospect, ridiculous. In Izmir, a man picked us up at the curb and then drove us to our hotel 2 hours away like the back of his minivan was on fire.
Kusadasi (my keyboard lacks the necessary squiggly lines) is basically a cruise-ship port. During the tourist season, it must fill to the brim with seafaring russian and japanese tourists, but in the off season it was a sleepy town.
We made one crucial mistake that first night: we walked down to the first restaurant at the end of the block from our hotel and ordered some random food. It turned out to be the most popular place with the locals and was spectacular. Fresh fish, caught the same day, presented like a work of art and cooked to order. Fresh salads and bread. Good local wine. Raki, a very strong local liqour so strong that it needs to be cut with water, which renders it a milky white.
This mistake would become clear as the next day we were swept up into a vast and well-oiled machine of the local tourist industry. Bus drivers and tour guides and hotel works workers in a perfect waltz of hustling Americans from one site to another, stopping off at dreadful buffets serving giant tubs of bland caricatures of local food. Explanations of these sites were recited verbose from some tour-guide manual (in some cases literally read verbatim off english signs in front of us) and were basically the extent of their english skills - questions were often ignored completely.
I don't mean this in a bad-review-on-trip-advisor kind of way, it was all basically what we expected from a budget tour package and much more a source of amusement than anything else. We gritted our teeth and went along with the tour-bus. Nothing, nothing, nothing could blunt how spectacular these sites were.
These arrangements got made largely without my input, as history is a big interest of my parents' and I was happy to leave the planning to them. With the help of a travel agent, my Dad more or less picked out a handful of sites, Greek and Roman ruins mostly and the travel agent crafted an itinerary. By and large, these were commonly visited sites, so we ended up on a group tour.
But on the third day, some glitch in the tourist equation sent us off on our own, on a grueling 3 hour minivan ride with our own guide. We were bound for Aphrdesias, far inland from the other sites and much more remote. When we arrived, we were literally the only tourists there, but the place teemed with Turkish schoolchildren and local politicians. We had somehow stumbled onto a festival of some kind - ironically, we would find out later, celebrating tourism. Old ladies were baking bread on the lawn for lunch and kids ran around wearing fez with painted-on moustaches.
I felt it again then, for the first of a few times, walking around those ruins. Haunted, by pleasant ghosts. Maybe it was the remoteness, the isolation, but to see these stones carved so meticulously by a faceless person two thousand years before and then dug up and set on the ground where they once stood was nothing less than spooky. Water had seeped in, cracked the marble. Time had wiped the faces from carved figures. Things have changed: even the sea is gone. But these stones are still alive. It stirred something deep.
All of these places did, in their own way.
In Pergamon, the city on top of the mountain, ruins that overlook a modern city sharing it's name, we listened to the minarets call to prayer from an ancient theater.
In Miletus, we walked through a field of red poppies and across the unearthed foundations to see a reflection of some columns in a pool.
At the temple of Apollo, the columns were bigger than two people could fit their arms around and a hundred feet tall. In Troy, they dug into the earth and showed us where thirteen different cities were built, one on top of another. Whether or not Achilles and Hector fought and died here, a few hundred-thousand others lived and died here. The numbers are easily said but stand in that place and touch the walls and tell me you don't the weight of all that history.
Every time we thought we would be completely sick and tired of looking at old stones in piles, this place would shock us.
And after a few days, we were sorry to go. Not sorry for the mediocre food, or the bedgrudging tour guides or the chatter of fellow tourists, but sorry to leave the atmosphere of the country.
Story time: friday night I was bound and determined to find somewhere to go out and interact with the natives, so to speak. There turned out to be only one bar open and lively so I talked my way in and got a beer ("Efes", the only beer in Turkey, which comes in "dark", "light" and "in a larger bottle.") A veteran, at this point, at walking into bars along where I don't know anyone, I just sat and watched the crowd. A couple awful DJs were spinning a pretty typical set: hip hop, when all the guys would dance with each other and the girls would ignore them, and Turkish music, when everyone in the entire postal code would mob the dance floor. I ended up making friends with the promoter and his 5 roommates, who knew basically everyone there. I think they were a little miffed at how much I could drink and still be relatively sober.
Observation apropos of nothing: Turkish people are the most even-tempered, drama free, reasonable people I've ever met. Serious, hard-working, dependable and utterly unflappable. I had no idea, especially given their proximity to, oh I don't know, Greece? Afghanistan?