Under the lights
The darkness of the night
Splendor of history
Noise, din, and traffic
Bustles with travelers
Traveling great distances
To speak the same language
On a night like this, I relive each moment. When lights flicker in the distant darkness, shadows scale high walls, and the muted din of traffic lies like a flimsy blanket over the city. They trigger in me sweet memories of another day, when I sat on a tiny plastic patio chair, out on the terrace, looking out at a city not my own. An alien city swathed in an alien darkness.
And shimmering in them were lights. Like tiny fireflies. Pouring on to the streets from the mighty strait of…
“Bosphorus.” Mehmet grins, his trimmed pointed beard bobbing. “Many, many stories here.”
The strait of Bosphorus forms part of the boundary between Europe and Asia, connecting the Black Sea with the Sea of Marmara. Ancient empires have thrived and been laid to ruin at its banks. Glowing mosque spires and glimmering ferries are what you see these days. None the less splendid, let me tell you.
There are eight chairs in a row. He is on the first maybe because he owns the motel where we stay. He prays five times a day but lives his life like a playboy. An east-west hybrid, my mother would’ve said.
“Me next?” Kadri asks, chewing her stick of gum.
I look at her unsullied eyes and flaxen hair. How old is she, like seventeen?
Gosh! They actually start traveling that early in her country.
“Ah no no. My mum, she kill me, you know.”
Then what made her travel all the way here?
“I love Istanbul. See it on TV. Marvelous.” I think that is her favorite word. She uses it often. “Before university, we want to see the world.”
But she is not alone. With her has come…
“Maria. From Zagreb, Croatia.”
“Yeah. We been traveling two months together. One day we be like aargh getaway, you’re bugging me.” They hug. “But I love her.” Awww, that age. There is so much to love.
Not everyone is moved, though. The Englishman is eager to tell his story. He is small and scrawny. Mouse-like.
“Alan Nickman. 32” He coughs. “I’m doing my Ph.D.”
Why is he here?
“I took a six-month sabbatical, offering to teach English in Istanbul.” He grins. “I’m learning Turkish instead.”
We laugh but I secretly envy him. Making a choice like that in my country is not easy.
“I’ve to get back soon.” He adds, regret in his voice, “Money is running out.”
Next, I point to
“Clara Eberhart from Düsseldorf, Germany.” She is tall and stately. “I came to study few years back and now…” She steals a quick glance at Mehmet and smiles shyly. “I come every few months.”
She is 35. Don’t her parents’ worry and gripe?
“Oh! They do.” She laughs. “But I’m happy. They see that.”
“Lan from Nanjing, China,” She says timidly. “My husband died last year. Forty years we are married.”
I look at her in surprise. She couldn’t have been more than…
“Fifty-five.” She says smiling. “I’m happy to travel. I’m afraid that… Europe is… free…and easy.” She shrugs. We breathe out together. In sympathy. In admiration.
“The first time…” Clara murmurs, “…is always hard. For anyone. Anywhere.”
Ekrem helps Mehmet run the motel. Gul Jennet (Paradise of Roses) the place is called. He knows sparse English; so he learns a few words every day and practices on us.
What did he learn today?
“Divorce, Earthquake, foul.”
Words he would probably never use in real life. I titter.
You should learn instead…
“Love, dream and travel.” Kadri and Maria intone.
We shout into the world. “Love, dream and travel.”
First words you should learn in any language.
Now it is my turn.
I am thirty, I tell them. I’ve a wayward gene because I can never be still. I came to Europe to discover a world I thought was new. It was, in terms of how people looked, how cities were built, languages they talked, the food they ate. But human values and cultures, they were not so different.
The world is more familiar than odd. That is a comforting thought.
Kadri opens a bottle of Raki.
You are too young to drink, I protest.
But they mock me cheerfully and fill their glasses taller than mine. We sing like Cossacks and a dog barks into the night.
Now some days when I am lonely, I go to the terrace, rest plastic chairs one after the other in my mind and talk. My neighbor walked on me the other day and shook his head in quiet dismay. But what does he know? He has never been away.
(This story is fictional but the experiences are real)