It’s a big weekend at George House. Yesterday evening I arrived back from a walk to find the yard full of nylon dome tents, in a panoply of vibrant colours, and vast numbers of Turks occupying every corner of the pension. My writing platform had been commandeered, as had the three platforms beside it. Every bed in every cabin was, according to Hassan, occupied. Turks filled the dining room and the shower block was overrun. In fact, there were so damn many of them, I was almost afraid to look under my bed.
Hassan, unsurprising, was run off his feet, dashing here, there and everywhere, a frantic grin contorting his face, as he sought to satisfy all manner of requests and ensure that his newly arrived guests were happy.
‘Very busy today,’ he called, somewhat unnecessarily, upon catching sight of me, before speeding off to answer a summons from the kitchen.
A few days earlier Hassan had given me warning of the cataclysm heading our way. I was eating breakfast, head down, as usual, over my latest batch of scribbles. The head man’s smile when he at last caught my attention was uncharacteristically diffident. In his voice I thought I detected a note of uncertainty – almost as if he wasn’t sure how I would react to the news – as he explained that he was expecting a large number of guests this weekend. ‘Public holiday,’ he added hastily, before I could ask. ‘Turkish people everywhere. I tell you now so you be ready.’
I subsequently discovered that 23 April was Independence Day, celebrating the opening in Ankara in 1920 of the first Grand National Assembly. The event took place in circumstances that were fraught. On the losing side in the First World War, the Ottoman Empire was in the process of being opportunistically carved up by the victorious Allies. The French occupied parts of southeast Anatolia; the Italians were in place along the southern Aegean coast while the Greeks, carried away by their dumb-headed Megali Idea, had assumed control of the city of Izmir prior to storming the hinterland. The British had taken charge in Constantinople, where they made a puppet of the sultan, Mehmet VI, and formed a clientele government. On 19 March they placed the city under military occupation. Dissenting parliamentarians were unceremoniously carted off to exile on the island of Malta.
Others fled to the east, where resistance was brewing. At its heart was Mustafa Kemal, the saviour of Gallipoli and, by war’s end, the Empire’s only undefeated general. The collaborationist government had appointed him a military inspector, assigned with the task of dismantling the numerous guerrilla groups fomenting in northern and central Anatolia. Kemal went off boldly but, upon arriving at his post, promptly turned around and began organising the very resistance he was supposed to squash. He was duly relieved of his commission, then recalled to Constantinople and finally, when this didn’t work, a warrant was issued for his arrest. Rather unnecessarily, one would think, given the circumstances, Kemal responded by sending in his resignation. Incensed by his arrogance, the parliament went step one further: they condemned him and his co-conspirators to death in absentia.
Needless to say Kemal wasn’t executed. Which was just as well because he had a lot of work to do. History records that he not only succeeded in confounding the British, French and Italians and chasing the Greeks back across Anatolia, eventually driving them into the sea at Smyrna (which his rampaging troops subsequently burnt to the ground in retaliation for Greek atrocities committed on the Turkish population). He also went on to eject the sultan, abolish the caliphate and create a secular Turkish state, with secure, if somewhat volatile, borders, virtually in his own image. These were astonishing feats, particularly as by all reports he was compulsively womanising the whole time and slowly but surely drinking himself to death. He managed this final achievement on 10 November 1938, the anniversary of which is nowadays celebrated as a national holiday.
It was good to know what all the fun and games were about. Sad to say, however, there wasn’t an alcoholic drink in sight. Everywhere I looked people were quaffing tea, throwing it down with gusto from little tulip-shaped glasses which they filled from an overworked urn in the dining room. Returning hot and sweaty from my outing I was momentarily tempted to follow their example; but then, returning to my senses, I went to the fridge and got myself an ice-cold Tuborg instead. This I drank, with great pleasure, sitting hunkered down on the bed in my cabin writing emails while the evening cooled and the guttural sounds of the Turkish language resounded all around me.
I must admit that, ever since Hasan had informed me about the weekend, I had been quietly dreading it. The calm and peaceful atmosphere of George House was one of the qualities I valued about it most. Yet now, finding myself in its midst, I felt oddly sanguine about the occasion. There was a nice holiday vibe around the place, a bit like Weekend at Bernie’s only without the corpse.
To cope with the crowd Hassan had decreed that there would be two sittings for dinner that evening, one at six and the other at seven-thirty. I was in the second draft and arrived in the dining room to find tables occupied and a long line of people waiting for food. The atmosphere was very jolly, though in a restrained Turkish way. People trooped in and out of the room, all of them merrily swigging tea. Over a second Tuborg I amused myself observing those around me, being impressed by the lovely, smooth, olive-skinned features of the women and the long hooked noses, large dolorous eyes and drooping moustaches of many of the men. People nodded and smiled in my direction, but displayed little inclination to talk – not, I sensed, from lack of interest in my person, but rather out of a natural reticence of manner accentuated by a lack of proficiency in the English language.
Hassan, I was pleased to see, was beaming. Things were obviously going well. At one point he appeared behind me and, giving my shoulders a friendly massage, said, ‘Eighty-one people tonight at George House. Eighty Turks and one Australian. You are very lucky, I think.’
Fortune certainly appeared to be on my side when from out of nowhere a young man sat himself down opposite me at the table. In appearance he reminded me of a Turkish Doctor Evil, the head villain from Austin Powers, albeit with a wad of jet-black curls slicked down on his dome-shaped head. A pair of female sidekicks, neither of whom spoke English, materialised on either side of him. Each had a plate piled with chick peas and rice. Grinning at me evilly over his own heaped plate, the young man asked where I came from and expressed surprise when I said that I was Australian. He found it hard to believe, he said, as he systematically picked apart a chicken leg, that I had come all this way simply to walk in the Turkish countryside. As he spoke he gazed at me searchingly through narrowed eyes and a ripple of unease disturbed the surface of the lake of Tuborg in my belly. Hmm, I thought to myself, maybe he thinks I’m a spy?
I assured the young man that, strange as it may seem, I had indeed come all this way to enjoy his country’s landscape (which I gushingly referred to as ‘stupendous’). We then advanced to other topics. I learned that my new acquaintance was a chemical engineer who worked at a sugar factory in Ankara. I was surprised to hear him describe the Turkish capital as a ‘beautiful city’ and declare it his ‘number one place in the world’. His enthusiasm was at odds with various guidebooks I’d read, all of which wrote of Ankara in less than glowing terms: bland, boring, functional at best, were the sort of adjectives I remembered. Out of curiosity and inspired also, I suppose, by an unprecedented third Tuborg, I asked the man what his number two place in the world was and watched, mesmerised, as a rapturous smile came over his face. He paused for a moment or two, as if savouring a memory. Then, caressing the word in his mouth as one would a particularly tasty morsel of lokum, or Turkish delight, he said, gently and lovingly, ‘Bodrum’ – at which point I almost fell out of my chair, recalling my experiences in that tatty tourist trap on the Aegean coast.
The young man’s two companions were smiling and nodding enthusiastically, which seemed to suggest that they shared his opinion. Briefly I had a vision of the three of them gyrating at Halicarnassus, the self-proclaimed ‘largest disco in the world’ which overlooked the old fortress of St Peter. I gulped down a mouthful of beer and tried not to laugh.
Later a bonfire was lit in the yard and around its leaping flames the crowd formed a large and contented circle. Dark eyes glowed in the firelight and glasses of tea were emptied. From somewhere in the midst came the mournful strains of a saxophone. It sounded funny somehow, not really Turkish, as I sat a little apart on my own in a velvety darkness lit by the fluorescent green glow of fireflies. The music went on for some time, but then all of a sudden the player – who was certainly no Charlie Parker – put down his instrument and from out of the ensuing silence came drifting, soft, ethereal, and more than a little melancholic, the sound of people singing. The song was lovely and haunting and as the fireflies flickered around me I felt my body relax and a smile of unalloyed happiness spread across my face. It was just as if I had been spirited away from George House by some benevolent djinn and dropped in the midst of a nomad camp on the central Asian steppe.
This morning I had to wait ages for a cup of butter tea and then rumble for my eggs, olives, tomatoes and soft white cheese. Recently, though, a whistle blew shrilly, three times, in the yard. There was a great stir and now the group is gathered in a circle, everyone armed with daypacks and walking poles, reverentially listening to their leaders outline the day’s schedule. Amusingly, scattered about here and there some of the less athletic-minded individuals can be seen gulping cups of tea and frantically puffing on last cigarettes. Well may they be wary, for the morning is fast heating up…