My wife and I have just returned from Tunisia. We had a fabulous time at the wonderful ‘Les Orangers’ hotel, Hammamet, and will no doubt return one day, as some fellow guests have done for years. However, going back isn’t always a blessing, as we discovered a few years ago on a return visit to Turkey.
On our very first visit there, sometime in the late Nineties, we dined out regularly at a little restaurant tucked away on a narrow, winding country road in Turunc, a small coastal village only just opening up to tourism in those days. The restaurant was owned by Ibrahim, and we have fond memories of his hospitality and the wonderful conversations we had with him over long lazy lunches and dinners. His chicken, roasted in a dish, was to die for, as was his platter-sized pitta bread and the simple but refreshing white wine that he would serve in carafes which just kept coming. No matter how large the meal, the cost would always be just a few pounds, and, in the end, we visited him at least once a day, despite having already pre-paid the meals in our hotel, a bit further down the steep road to the bay.
When we left for home we promised Ibrahim faithfully that we would return someday and come to visit him for old times’ sake. It was meant seriously, too, but you know how things are: you mean to do something and never quite get around to it somehow. So three years had passed before we went back to visit him again. Here is my diary entry for that day.
May 11th 2001
Today my wife and I are off to Turunc to see Ibrahim, shoot the breeze, and taste, once more, his legendary roasted chicken.
Turunc is just a short boat ride away from Icmeler, so we stroll down to the harbour area at about 10.30 to catch the small water dolmus that ferries folk between the two resorts. There is a road now, spectacularly sinuous as it climbs up and down the mountainside, but it is quicker to get the boat for all that.
As we near the harbour area, a few Turks are seated by the side of the path selling boat trips. After over-exposure to countless “Only Fools And Horses” repeats, they have all adopted, when dealing with the British, a curious Cockney accent that even Dick Van Dyke would disown as too over the top:
“Cheap as chips!”
“Gor blimey, guv’nor, me plates of meat are giving me jip today, innit?”
“Look at me brochure, mate. It’s lubbly jubbly!”
The invitation to peruse the brochure is, of course, merely a way of trapping the unwary tourist into a full-on sales presentation, so we wave politely and shake our heads. In the past I have been known to pretend to be from somewhere in Eastern Europe, feigning incomprehension and speaking gobbledygook in order to avoid the dreaded spiel. Nowdays Turkey is inundated with Eastern Europeans, so I guess I’d be found out. I’ll have to be from somewhere a bit more exotic and hard to understand. Alabama, maybe.
The crude signs above their heads bear names like “Captain Sinbad”, “Captain Jack” and — I promise I’m not making this up — “Captain Bullshit”. Yeah right. Like I’m going to trust my life to a guy called Captain Bullshit. “Remember the name,” shouts the guy to my retreating back, “it’s Bullshit!” As if I would be likely to forget.
Strolling a little further around the harbour brings us to a jetty, alongside which are parked, sorry, moored, dozens of smallish boats. I really ought to be better versed in maritime lingo seeing as my paternal grandfather was a trawler skipper out of Lowestoft most of his life, but to be honest I don’t know a scow from a schooner. I don’t even know if I just made scow up, or if there really is a boat called that. I’m okay with the most basic terms, such as “pointy end”, but I would probably mistake a poop deck for a public toilet.
We pay the salty old sea dog camped at the booth an inordinate number of Turkish Lira and he gives me a ticket. To my disappointment he does not say “Garrrrrrrrrrr!” or “Thank’ee lad!”, but he does tell us that our boat is parked first on the left.
We jump on board — literally, since there is no gangplank — and install ourselves on the slightly damp seat that runs down both sides of the boat from pointy end to blunt bit at the back. A sheet of blue plastic provides basic cover from the sun, but offers not much protection from the waves, should the weather get a bit squally. There is room for about twenty or so people, but the boat is only half full when it chugs out to sea at eleven o’clock precisely. As the rocky coastline slides past, the captain, a piratical looking guy who you wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of, puts on his tape of traditional Turkish sea shanties. First up is Dolly Parton, then Shania Twain. “Garrrrrrrrrrrr!” (Boat owners here seem unable or unwilling not to share their music with us. Within just a few trips we have been treated to such diverse delights as Celine Dion — the Titanic theme: very comforting — Robbie Williams, Eminem, and, for the kiddies, Li’l Kim, rapping about the joys of cunnilingus.)
The boat bobs along happily enough, pointy end first, which I’m told is normal. In a little while the familiar scenery of Turunc swings into view, its buildings spreading as lichen up the hillside. It’s still a very pretty little place, but already we can see it is much more developed than when we were last here. Before the road was built, a few years back, the only way you could get to Turunc was by boat, or, I suppose, parachute. It was a popular mooring place for gulets and yachts, but the village was left pretty much unspoiled. Ominously there is now a large blue water slide at the far end of the bay.
A lot can change in three years, and we hope that Turunc hasn’t decided to follow in the footsteps of its near neighbour Marmaris, which passed the Baked Potato Stall event horizon many years ago. You cannot walk for more than twenty yards along the seafront at Marmaris without being confronted by yet another Baked Potato Stall. It seems to be a local obsession. Despite this, no one can agree on the correct spelling for potato, so each stall offers a variant: “Patato”, “Petata”, “Potota” and so on. Perhaps that’s why there are so many: they keep opening new ones until one day someone spells it “Potato”, which event will signal the End of Days.
As we sail into Turunc harbour, the captain’s tape machine is blaring out “Road To Hell” by Chris Rea. A bit harsh, I feel.
Despite obvious evidence of new-found prosperity, a plethora of touristy shops, bars and restaurants, plus a new statue on the quayside of a man on a horse (Atatürk, I assume), Turunc has still managed to keep its charm. There is an undeniable feeling of community here. Everyone says hello to you as you walk down the street, and you don’t feel that they’re just trying to sell you things. They seem genuinely pleased to see you. Whether you buy or not it is all the same to them, and that, frankly, is a much better attitude to selling in my view. The in-your-face school could certainly do worse than to study these traders for a while.
Whether any of those who wave and say hello actually remember us from the last time I don’t know, but in those days, too, the same friendly greetings came at us from all sides. Feeling right at home, we stroll around the village, reacquainting ourselves with old haunts and remarking upon new additions. My wife’s eyes take on a familiar gleam as she spots the jewellery shop in which she once bought a ring. I can feel a sharp pain in the credit card coming on.
By now it’s lunchtime, so we decide to wander up the little road to Ibrahim’s restaurant, and be greeted as prodigals. The restaurant is still there, with a new wooden roof replacing the old thatched one. A large ornamental fountain made of big, flat, round stones set in a tall mound of concrete is another change; not altogether for the better, if truth be told. At root, though, it’s still the same small establishment, nestling dozily on the hillside amongst myriad wild flowers. We enter with a feeling of fond expectation. A waiter greets us warmly and bids us sit.
“How is Ibrahim?” I ask.
“He is here. You know him?”
Yes, we say, very well
The waiter smiles broadly. “I will get him. He will be pleased to see old friends.”
He disappears and returns a moment later with a chubby man whom I don’t recognise at all. My wife is looking puzzled too.
“Yes,” he says. It’s clear he doesn’t recognise us, either. Awkward.
It is Ibrahim, though. It’s coming back to me, now that I’ve seen him. It’s strange the tricks memory plays on you. I had him a lot older and thinner, and with a moustache. My wife, too, had stored a totally different image of the man we once met and dined with daily for a fortnight.
“Er…we stayed here before, about three years ago…”
He is not a good enough actor to feign recognition, but he nods and says, “Welcome…it is good to see you again.” He shakes us both gravely by the hand.
“And who the fuck are you, by the way?” he doesn’t say.
Lunch is quite strained. I think Ibrahim feels obliged to sit with us and make small talk, but somehow we don’t recapture the old relaxed feeling of companionship. The meal, roast chicken of course, is different too, I think. Or maybe our rose-coloured minds had rendered those old meals sublime in the same way they had skewed our recollection of Ibrahim himself.
When we get up to go, I feel a strange sense of sadness, as if we have lost more by going back than if we had just kept the memories instead. Ibrahim goes into his office, and returns bearing a little tourist map of Marmaris and Turunc, which he gives us as a parting gift. We thank him and head back to the harbour, our day unexpectedly diminished.
When we get back to the hotel I turn on the television in our room to discover that Douglas Adams, author of ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy’, has died at a stupidly young age. What remaining joy the day might have contained is immediately sucked away.
It’s like the man said: the past is another country.