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A funny thing happened on the way to writing this post: while compiling the pictures from our digital photo archives, I realized I had almost no photographs from our summer in Izmir in 2010. How could this be? I wasn’t the shutterbug I am today, but it was my first time in Turkey! You’d think I would have taken some damn pictures! And the weird part is – I remember taking pictures! So where were the photos? I searched and searched and searched. I even powered up old iPods and iPhones hoping to find some Turkey pics stashed in their flash. Nada. And then it hit me. My phone was stolen in March of 2011 in another far-off land. On that phone was the photo record of our summer in Izmir. I managed to find two pictures that had made their way onto Facebook, but most of that summer exists only in memory. This post won’t have many photos, but the story continues, nonetheless.
Our reason for visiting Izmir in that summer of 2010 was twofold: I would get to meet Handan’s family, and she would look for a new job. Turkey was a better base of operations for the job search, as the jobs she was seeking were all in the Middle East, Europe and Asia. This would not only make our move easier, but her phone interviews could be conducted in accommodating time slots. When we were in the states, she had to take a few business calls in the middle of the night. It’s hard to impress when you’re bleary-eyed and caffeine-deprived.
That summer in Izmir, we lived with Handan’s sister in a villa by the Aegean Sea. Here’s a map of Turkey with Izmir circled, followed by a map of Izmir with the region we stayed in circled.
Handan’s parents also live in Izmir. They are just a few minutes by car, or about 20 minutes by foot along the bay. We would take this path almost every night after dinner.
Handan’s mother would visit us most days while we stayed in the villa. She is a stern woman, a shrewd negotiator and big in the local commercial real estate game. She intimidated me. Therefore, it was with great trepidation that I prepared Turkish coffee for her and Handan one afternoon. Turkish coffee is prepared differently than coffee in the States or elsewhere. First, the coffee is ground much finer than any machines are capable of achieving in America. The Turks use special equipment to grind the coffee so fine, it is almost like talcum powder. It is then brewed in small copper pots by mixing a spoonful of coffee with a spoonful of sugar (if desired) and a small amount of water.
The coffee is served in small cups, like the ones pictured here from my Savory Turkish Cheesecake recipe.
I prepared the coffee in the kitchen while Handan and her mother socialized out back on the porch. It was a hot day, and sweat poured from my brow. Heat and fear kept my sweat glands busy that afternoon. I measured the coffee: two cups called for two spoonfuls of grounds. I poured them into the pot. They both wanted their coffee with sugar, so I reached over next to the stove where the jars of sugar and salt and spices sat, grabbed the sugar jar and spooned two heaping teaspoons into the pot. I measured two small cups of cold water, and poured them into the pot. I stirred the mixture well, then placed the pot over the gas flame and waited while it heated. When it started to boil around the edges, I pulled it away from the flame until the bubbles subsided. I put it back over the flame until froth started forming in the middle of the pot. If the froth built up too quickly into a rolling boil, I pulled the pot out of the fire. This is how Turkish coffee is brewed – slowly bringing the coffee to a boil and letting it build a dense head of froth. When the froth had risen to the top of the pot, the coffee was ready. I poured a small amount into each glass. The first pours have the most froth, and that is the most desirable part. I then portioned out the rest of the coffee, pouring a small amount into each cup, back-and-forth, until the cups were full. I put the cups on a serving tray, and with great gravitas, carried them to the porch. I served my mother-in-law first, and I served her the cup with the greatest amount of froth. This is a sign of respect. I then served Handan and retreated to the kitchen to make one for myself. Moments later I heard my wife call for me.
My guts churned and my eyes stung with sweat. I rushed back to the porch and saw my mother-in-law with puckered lips, gabbling something in Turkish.
“Babes, you made these with SALT!” Handan said.
I became dizzy as the blood rushed from my head in an attempt to flee my body as rats would jump from a sinking ship.
Handan was laughing, but I kept a wary eye on the mother-in-law. My life hung in the balance. I gathered the cups, muttering lame apologies, and scurried back to the kitchen to fix my grand faux pas.
What I didn’t know at the time, what Handan only told me after her mother had left, was that salting someone’s coffee carries a grim meaning in Turkey: you are not welcome here. Get out.
My mother-in-law remained wary of my Turkish coffee for a time, though I have brewed my way back into her good graces with several properly-made cups.
Shortly after the Salted Coffee Incident, I was out on the same porch preparing to move a glass table outside while Handan and her sister were in the kitchen making dinner. It was a breezy evening, and we wanted to eat outside where it would be cooler. The table was custom-made, with a large piece of smoked glass, about 4 or 5 feet in diameter sitting on a wicker frame. I figured I would pick up the glass piece and carry it outside, then return for the base. The glass was very heavy, but not so heavy that I couldn’t carry it. I didn’t feel like there would be any problem, so I started toward the door. And then it fell. To this day, I have no idea how it happened. One second I was carrying a large, heavy piece of smoked glass, and the next second there were approximately 30 trillion pieces of smoked glass scattered over every square inch of the stone floor of the porch. It was impressive: the glass didn’t just crack or even shatter – it seemed to blow apart at the molecular level, sending fine glass sand into all corners of the room.
Once again I stood there, muscles paralyzed, brain scolding me and demanding to know what the hell just happened, blood trying to escape my soon-to-be-dead body. I called out to Handan in the kitchen. I didn’t need to. One of my nephews had already sounded the alarm. The troops were on their way. I gulped and awaited my fate.
Handan and her sister arrived on the scene, and to my everlasting amazement, Handan whooped with joy. I looked at her with wide eyes. I looked over at Nalan, my sister-in-law. She was smiling and saying something to Handan in Turkish.
What. The. Hell.
Turns out some Turks believe that accidentally breaking glass dispels any negative energy that has built up in a house. Whereas we in the States get our britches in a twist if we shatter a wine glass, Turks welcome it. Thus, when I broke that 100 pound glass table, I probably dispelled all of the bad energy from the whole damn city! What was a disaster in my eyes was cause for mini-celebration to Handan and Nalan. Relieved, I asked Nalan where she kept the crystal.
Occasionally Handan and I would walk to a fish restaurant on the sea located just a few hundred yards from the villa. Here’s a picture of the restaurant I found online on a Turkish website.
The fish here is excellent. Really, it is excellent everywhere in Izmir. Local fishermen sell their catch each day from the docks to restaurants and individuals alike. Unlike in America, fish in Turkish restaurants is sold and prepared whole, and diners usually select the desired fish from a case before dinner. Here is one of my surviving photos.
The way the fish is prepared differs too: they are rubbed with olive oil, seasoned with salt and roasted whole over a wood fire. The best fish I’ve ever tasted has been in Izmir.
Another dish this restaurant excels at is called tereyağlı karides, or shrimp sauteed in garlic and butter. It was my favorite light meal, and I’ve recreated the recipe here on the blog: Shrimp, Garlic and Butter: Turkish Style.
Back on the job front, things were not going so well for Handan. Globally, large-scale construction and infrastructure projects were declining. We did have a flame of hope for a project in Hong Kong, but as Handan was speaking with the recruiter, the connection went bad and the call dropped. She never heard back. By August, we were starting to despair. We were living on charity from her family and we had no prospects.
As I’ve mentioned, Handan is a civil engineer. She generally works for project management companies that have been hired to oversee large-scale construction projects. Her father is also a civil engineer. In the summer of 2010, he worked for a large Turkish construction company as country manager for Afghanistan. At that time, the lion’s share of his company’s revenue was coming from Afghanistan. When the U.S. Military needed a runway built or a road laid down or some military buildings erected, they counted on the help of Turkish construction firms. The Turks were a natural choice to partner with the U.S., as they have large and modern construction companies and good engineers, many of whom can speak English. They also have vast networks in Afghanistan and Turkmenistan for local labor. Many Afghans can speak at least some Turkish, so the Turkish construction companies acted as a sort of middleman, dealing with the American client on one side and the local Afghan labor force on the other. Handan’s father worked out of Kabul.
He was back in Izmir visiting us and mentioned that if Handan couldn’t find work anywhere else, he was in need of a Quality Control manager for one of his projects. Since I was now with Handan, he said he also had a job for me, working in the Health and Safety department. When Handan suggested that we may have to take jobs in Afghanistan, I popped like a Champagne cork.
“Are you f@$k&#g kidding me?!?” I screamed. “I’m American! Do you know what they do to us over there?!?” I continued ranting like a man-child for some time. Handan, to her credit, just listened, only saying, “Babes, we have no other choice.”
“Dammit!” I yelled. “Just a minute.” I left the porch and went to the kitchen. I opened the freezer and retrieved a bottle of vodka. I picked two glasses from the cupboard and walked back to the porch. I poured two glasses of vodka, one much larger than the other. I drank mine. I placed the glass on the table and sat down. I ran my fingers through my hair and exhaled the breath I’d been holding all summer.
“Okay. I’m good with it. Let’s go.”
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