Historically, I have always been a bit of a physically stand-offish person. I never really understood ritualistic hugging and kissing between friends and acquaintances, and have routinely felt a little awkward when it comes to greetings and farewells; never quite sure what to do with the obligatory kisses and hugs. Needless to say, when I moved to Turkey, I was a little unsure about how to react to the ritualistic handshake followed by kisses on both cheeks. That was, until yesterday. After the wondrous surprise birthday outing that several of my old students planned for me, I was hard-pressed not to shower my affections on each of them.
When one of my students suggested we have a picnic for my birthday, I assumed we would spend the day relaxing and hanging out at the beach with a few sandwiches and some fruit. I never imagined the celebration they had in store. I was greeted at my door by a student at 10 am bearing Starbucks. From my apartment, we picked up two of my girlfriends and made our way out of the city. We left Istanbul and began our journey to the countryside. The golden fields unfolded before us, rolling over hills and valleys, stretching out in one giant yawn to the perfectly clear horizon.
Half an hour later we were greeted by 2 more of my students at the gate of a beautiful summer house. Making our way up the marble steps to the apartment, I was still al little unsure of the plan. When we entered the enormous flat, we were immediately given slippers and guided to the terrace, where a beautiful breakfast spread was revealed to us. We were asked to sit down as students clambered around the kitchen bringing hot cups of coffee and tea, and pouring fresh juice into our glasses.
One of my students had spent hours cooking traditional Turkish pastries from scratch, and another student had brought sinfully delicious treats on behalf of his mother. My doting students filled our plates as we ate, not allowing us to lift a finger: “today you will get fat,” they joked. We gluttonously consumed fresh bread and butter, honey, chocolate spread, olives, cheeses, vegetables, pastries, eggs, coffee, and tea. When we were finished, the man of the house insisted we relax in the garden gazebo while he cleared the plates and tidied the kitchen. Our efforts to assist with the clean up were in vain. “Please, go downstairs to the garden,” my student said as he ushered us to the door.
We were led to a gazebo in the garden, furnished with couches, pillows and blankets, and it was there, sheltered from the blazing sun, that we lay around all afternoon listening to music, playing games, drinking coffee, eating fruit, having our fortunes read in coffee grounds, and practicing our Turkish. We spent hours communicating in broken language, bravely catapulting over the language barrier. We had full conversations using only hand gestures and nouns, and giggled at each other’s terrible sentence structure and verb conjugations: “Today is holiday” exclaimed one of my students, “no adjective, no verb, no noun… only speaking.”
The afternoon lazily stumbled through puffs of apple-flavoured tobacco and delicious bits of dark chocolate, and when we were sure it couldn’t get better we were once again, asked to join them on the terrace. As the sun set, we ate enough grilled meat to feed a pack of lions. I couldn’t have imagined a more beautiful way to enter my thirties, and as we were leaving our new friends, they humbly thanked us for our company. Yesterday, Turkey revealed itself to me as a peaceful land of affectionate gestures, and today I reflect on the memories and rejoice.