January 24, 2007

Turkish tea

We’d spent the morning driving through the rocky, hardscrabble beauty of the Bey, a range of Turkey’s Taurus Mountains. Erhan, our driver, maneuvered our microbus up and down the February snow-spattered mountain swells and through the streets of terra cotta-roofed towns like Derekoy and Karamanli. Cows grazed in yards, men in plastic chairs lined sidewalks, smoking and rubbing prayer beads, women in billowy pantaloons called salvar stooped to sweep porches with handleless brooms, and boys walked fields of just-turned black soil, casting seed from flax bags slung across their shoulders.

Our group was small. Besides Erhan there was Yesim, our guide, who’d been married a year but had been on the road leading so many tours that she’d spent only 60 days total at home with her husband. Her charges this trips were me, my son, Adam, then seven and proudly sporting a Tintin in Istanbul sweatshirt, Bob and Estheta, a retired couple from Long Island, and Jan and Rose, puckish seventysomething friends from Pennsylvania who’d been globetrotting together for 30 years. They delighted in just about everything and enjoyed pinching Adam’s cheeks. We were a well-traveled, glass-half-full lot, and we bonded quickly.

Up in the mountains, the bus door had jammed open, its hydraulic workings kaput, and Erhan had roped it shut against the February chill. This worked for us but violated the tour company’s safety code, and it fell to Yesim to get the door fixed.

“Toilet stop,” she said, as Erhan eased the bus into a tiny paved lot in front of the Kulcuoglu Restaurant. “We’ll be here for fifteen minutes.” We weren’t fooled. Yesim told Erhan to take the bus to a repair shop in Denizli, the nearest city. It was 11:30. At three that afternoon, Erhan would reappear, door still kaput – he couldn’t find an open garage – to collect us.

The restaurant was technically closed. Tourist season began in March, and we were a month early. The owners, an extended family of grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles and teenagers, were busy readying the place, washing floors and windows, scrubbing toilets, mopping halls and stairs. They weren’t prepared for guests, but, consistent with the hospitality we’d been shown since landing in Turkey, welcomed us as if we’d been eagerly awaited.

We weren’t five minutes inside their door when the first tray of hot apple tea appeared. One of the owners’ black-haired daughters came from the kitchen bearing a metal tray of small, clear glasses filled with the steaming, honey-colored beverage. We stood in the hallway sipping the sugared drink, toasting serendipity.

While Yesim stayed downstairs and worked her cell phone, rearranging our itinerary to accommodate what she (and we) knew would be a sizable delay, we followed the father up a worn wooden staircase to a cavernous dining hall, empty except for stacked tables and chairs and a squat iron stove, quiet and unlit, that sat in the middle of the room. The father pushed a table and six chairs next to the stove, then fed it from a woodpile by the stairwell. We knew wood was scarce here, and his kindness warmed us before he struck the first match. As the blaze began to hum and crackle, the black-haired daughter mounted the stairs with the second of what would, before the afternoon was out, be a half-dozen trays of apple tea.

The family got on with its cleaning, and we sat, in coats and hats, wondering how to entertain ourselves. Adam, veteran of several global circumnavigations and no stranger to having time to fill in strange places that move at slow paces, rummaged through his Lion King backpack and produced the tiny deck of playing cards he’d been given on the British Airways flight we’d taken from Boston to Europe.

Jan and Rose beamed with simultaneous delight when they saw the cards. They clapped and rubbed their palms together. “Gin rummy!” said one or the other or both. They reacted to the lilliputian cards printed with winking, bulb-nosed cartoon airplanes fished from a vinyl Disney bag by a seven-year-old as if a vision of Our Lady of Atlantic City had just descended into the dining hall of the Kulcuoglu Restaurant. “Gin. We’ll teach you,” they said, reaching for the deck.

The gin rummy experiment was short-lived, as Adam had the attention span of, well, a seven-year-old, plus an already-established favorite card game: “Let’s play Crazy Eights!” I gave Adam a big thumbs-up, Bob and Estheta laughed and told him they loved Crazy Eights, and Jan and Rose pinched his cheeks and told him to deal them in.

For three hours, we huddled at a table by a snapping stove fed with precious wood by a gracious host, playing Crazy Eights with teeny weeny cards and enjoying sweet swallows of hot apple tea, raising a glass now and then to bus doors going kaput in unexpected places.