Forgetting my sunglasses for my three week trip to Turkey was not smart, even if it was typical. My wife Brenda had packed another pair, however. She pulled them out of the backpack/suitcase that we had carried around the Camino three years earlier. “Wear these.”
Even being a beggar in this instance did not stop me from being a chooser. “I can’t wear these,” I protested. “These are ladies’ glasses. I’ll look like one of the sultan’s eunuchs.”
That was about all that I could say that I knew about Turkey; that it was once ruled by sultans, and that castrated eunuchs took care of said sultan’s harem. Oh, and that the Greeks and the Turks disliked each other intensely, going back even before the times of the Trojan horse. I had learned that during my first trip to Greece with my wife, back in 1988. We had just gotten on a bus in a hot coastal town and were setting off into the mountains. My wife and I were sitting in the front seats, opposite the driver, in order to get a prime view of the upcoming countryside. The bus driver climbed aboard and started the engine just as the last passenger, an old man in his seventies, took his seat directly behind the driver. He leaned forward and quietly whispered something in our driver’s ear. I could hear it, but of course I didn’t understand a word of the language.
The bus driver understood it, of course. Even as he pulled out of the parking spot he started yelling at the old man, sometimes turning completely around in order to make sure that the old fellow could correctly hear every syllable. We started to climb, but the driver’s anger only seemed to fuel itself as we climbed the switchbacked road which wasn’t encumbered by any guardrails. The old man sat quietly with a straight and expressionless face, completely unaffected by the Pandora’s box which he had opened. I wasn’t quite so calm. I looked over at the steep cliffs we were mounting and tried to steer my eyes away from the abyss, hundreds of feet below, where we were most likely to end up. The bus driver’s diatribe lasted a good twenty minutes before he finally calmed down and the old man had not said another word, sitting silently in his seat without any change at all to his placid demeanour.
I regained my breath, and then turned back in my seat to speak to the young guy behind me. We had talked together in the ticket line before boarding the bus. He was Greek, but could speak English quite well after spending a couple of years in the United States. “What did the old man say?” I whispered very softly. I didn’t want anything to set off another ranting rage.
The old man said, “Your mother is a Turk,” was the reply.
So that was what I figured I was getting myself into. The slaughter of the Aussies at Gallipoli during World War I, the massacre of the Armenians at about the same time, the 1970′s movie Midnight Express about two young Americans put in a Turkish prison, my own nightmarish experiences with Turkish toilets in France; the Turks should surely fire their press agent. But what I saw and experienced of the Turkish people during the past three weeks changed my outlook entirely. My trip was a wonderful experience. But there’s an old expression that I first heard when I was just a young kid and that I didn’t fully understand until I had gained some experience with the passing of time. Like most old sayings it’s probably judged too politically incorrect to blurt out anywhere within earshot of anyone under fifty years of age : “Beware of Greeks bearing gifts.”
To which I will add an adage of my own making: Beware of Turks selling carpets !
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