The Cave Churches of Göreme

About two and half million years ago in the center of what is today Turkey, Mount Erciyes erupted. The resulting layers of ash and lava formed a rock soft enough to carve out, a natural resource well exploited by the Christian community of the 4th century. These followers of St Basil of Caesarea (modern day Kayseri) took advantage of this natural resource to dig churches out of the very rocks of Cappadocia, but not just churches. Over time whole extensive communities had carved homes and workshops and refectories and stables from the soft rocks. And when enemies approached and threatened these early Christians, they responded by digging down. And down. Forming whole cities beneath the surface of the earth, 36 in all of varying sizes and depths. Kaymaklı—the subterranean city we visited this time around—is comprised of eight distinct layers with an abundance of rooms connected by nearly 100 tunnels. I love Cappadocia. It is a fantasy realm come true.

The Underground City of Kaymaklı

More of my photos from Cappadocia from 1994:



I carved a moment in time
with the finest words I could find,
and yet the voice fell flat
hardly deserving of the attention
I had hoped it to garner.

So I sat in the autumn stillness
cradling a cold whiskey sour
while the sun sank behind the trees
and the words continued to race
frantically around in my head.

The chill air was heavy and still
as the pointless echoes sank,
pooling at the base of my heart,
even as orange and red and yellow
seamlessly streamed across the horizon.

When the beaded glass was empty
I set it down clinking beside me
and waited for the words to come
but there was only silence now,
and I smiled at last.

Sunset over the Aegean (Turkey 2011)

the bats

I still remember the bats.

I arrived back home one summer
exhausted from the journey,
shuffling through the day,
and when evening fell
and the light waned in the sky,
there was a shuffling overhead.

I went upstairs and sat on the balcony
overlooking the Aegean,
a thin strip of land in the distance
reminding me how close I was
to Greece, lights beginning
to appear across the water.

It was a peaceful moment
one I could not have replicated
without the weariness—
my thoughts were sluggish
my skin enjoying the warmth
of another Turkish summer.

Suddenly there was a flapping sound
just above me, and then another
and another, and I stood and watched
as leathery creatures took flight
from beneath the very eaves
of my otherwise quiet home.

More and more they appeared
dancing and bobbing overhead
weaving wildly amongst themselves
snatching at the intrepid insects
that arose in the dusk—
a feeding frenzy.

The second night I came prepared
to the balcony, camera in hand
ambitious to capture the moment,
but the weary light was unfriendly
and my efforts remained
quite pathetically unrewarded.

On the third night, I decided
to simply sit and watch
and enjoy an experience
that I knew would never come
back in Utah where I spent
the rest of the year.

But they had already grown
weary of rudely intrusive me,
and my patience brought
me nothing more than sight of that
thin strip of land across the water,
and lights that barely twinkled

as I quietly watched.

How I spent most of my time on that balcony.

Audiobook: Istanbul: Turkish Travel Phrases for English Speakers.

25 June 2019

I am pleased to announce the release on Audible of my first Audiobook. It was a pleasure to return to Turkish–a language I have not had much of a call to use for sometime now–to assist Sarah Retter in the production of Istanbul: Turkish Travel Phrases for English Speakers. The Best 1.000 Phrases to Get Around when Traveling in Istanbul. This is a very useful travel book for English speakers visiting anywhere in Turkey, not just Istanbul, phrases to use while shopping, going out, renting a car, doing business, and so on. It is available on Audible here. Happy travels, all. İyi yolculuklar.

Yeniliğe Doğru

I find as the years have passed that time teases me to tremble with needs, with desires, with fears, seldom allowing me to treasure a moment of true peace. But through a blessed heart, through the love of another, I have at least discovered how joyous such peace can be. It was in gratitude for this blessed gift of peace that I wished to share these videos and images I captured near Çeşme in Turkey, accompanied by the beautiful and hopeful sounds led by one of the greatest voices in Turkish music, Sezen Aksu.

It occurs to me that a translation might help, although I could never do justice to the verses of the master Mevlana:

Her gün bir yerden göçmek ne iyi
How good it is to move from a place everyday

Bulanmadan donmadan akmak ne hoş
How fine it is to flow unsullied, unfrozen

Her gün bir yere konmak ne güzel
How beautiful it is to come to rest somewhere everyday

Bulanmadan donmadan akmak ne hoş
How fine it is to flow unsullied, unfrozen

Dünle beraber
Along with yesterday

Gitti cancağızım
my love has gone

Şimdi yeni bir şeyler
Now new things

Söylemek lazım
must be said

Ne kadar söz varsa
However many words may be

Düne ait
they belong to yesterday

Şimdi yeni bir şeyler
Now new things

Söylemek lazım
must be said

Save Yourselves!

I know, I know – nobody particularly enjoys a complainer. And at this moment, being on vacation, what do I have to complain about, right? In fact, it is being – and eating! – here in Turkey that reminds me rather sharply of precisely what I have to complain about in terms of my life back in the United States.

Enjoying dessert with my daughter after a meal of köfte, pita bread, and stewed tomatoes and peppers along the marina of Çeşme.

Bear with me.

My diet has changed quite a lot over the years, an experience I imagine many of you share. Growing up in suburban America, food was quite simple. My mother was too distant from her Scottish heritage to know much of anything other than simple American foods, fried and stewed, supplemented by a growing number of frozen meals you could pop in the microwave and have done with. I should at least be grateful that this disconnect actually saved me from having to endure haggis and black pudding for much of my life. However, it did leave me with a taste for little else besides what her limited skills could provide from her upbringing in Arkansas: fried okra (which I still love), corn bread, baked beans, and an occasional steak, which was when my father stepped in to help out with the grill.

Moving to San Francisco was one of the smartest decisions I ever made. A welcomed escape from the dullness of Salinas, California. And an incredibly stimulating introduction to cuisines of the world. To pay the bills while in college, I took a job cooking in one of S.F.’s thousands of restaurants and treated myself to nibbles of the dishes I was preparing there, including rack of lamb with a garlic spinach sauce, and curry cream shrimp and scallops over pasta, and a chocolate pecan pie with Devonshire cream that was to bloody well die for!

Not much complaining yet, right? Okay, here we go.

Burger King stands testament to a declining cuisine at the entrance to İstiklal Street in İstanbul.

When I left the U.S. to live overseas, I was so very ready to experiment and explore. For five years I studiously avoided the growing number of McDonalds and Wendy’s and Subways popping up everywhere and went only – and I mean only! – to small family-owned restaurants and lokantas. And I was in culinary heaven! Always fresh breads from local bakeries, and fresh yogurt spooned out of tins, and fruits that tasted like fruits, and vegetables that you could identify for what they were from nothing but a quick smell – while your eyes were closed.

Have you tried smelling vegetables in U.S. stores? Not only lacking in true flavor, but bereft even of the appropriate scent. Stand in the produce aisle of Wal-Mart or Smiths or any major chain and take a whiff. You might as well be standing in the stationary aisle.

Living back in the United States, I quickly began to suffer. Gained weight quickly, esophagus burning, becoming addicted to Tums and chewable Pepto, and thinking nothing of it – that this must be what life and aging are supposed to be like. When I became a Crohn’s Disease patient, I was forced to re-evaluate many things about how I was living.

And eating.

My days in the U.S. now include delicious salads and juicy fruits and frequent omelets so long as they include lots of peppers and tomatoes lightly sautéed in olive oil.

One of my favorite salads of tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, cheese, walnuts, and raspberries.

As for life here in Turkey: indulging in fruits and vegetables and eggs and milk from local farms. And loving it!

But since arriving, I’ve been in the stores, picking up essentials and even grabbing some things one can easily find in the U.S., mainly to please my eight-year-old daughter. Who insists! And so here’s the thing that leaves me frustrated and bewildered: even packaged and junk foods here taste different. I’m tempted to say … better! Nesquik chocolate mix actually tastes like chocolate, while Nesquik in the U.S. tastes like flavored sugar. Cheetos here tastes like cheese, while cheetos in the U.S. tastes like flavored salt. Salça (tomato paste) here tastes like tomatoes, while tomato paste in the U.S. tastes like flavored chemicals.

And we let it happen.

We allow ourselves to fall into these traps of processed foods so harshly flavored with additives and sweeteners and salt that we become addicted to it all. Expecting it with every meal. Expecting to find lumps of sugar and shakers of salt on the table … just in case there’s not enough in the dishes we eat. Which are quite likely filled already with more sugar and salt than we could possibly need. And yet we still add more.

We allow this to happen, you know.

The food industry encourages it all, stuffing their pockets while we stuff our mouths with their crap. And the government defends the food industry in its ongoing efforts to keep us in a perpetual state of obesity and steady decay. Which justifies the immense wealth pouring into the drug industry to preserve us (not cure us) from the crimes of the food industry, while the ME industry gleefully looks the other way, refusing to see the truth of what we are doing to ourselves and our children. Preferring instead to stare at our iPads and iPods and Xboxes and wii’s, giving our tap-texting fingers more exercise than they need while the rest of our bodies receive none, continuing to expand and fold over and over into eventual over-stimulated over-medicated oblivion.

In the face of all of which, as I eagerly plan out my eventual and permanent return to the Old World of my ancestors, finding security and harmony with my beloved in a small village in Europe, I have to say this one last thing on this subject to you all, my fellow poets and bloggers, after which I will go back to writing poetry: save yourselves, my friends. Because no one else will.

Playing with the Wind

Not been easy, finding the right place to play my ney since coming back here to Turkey (especially here in Çeşme, such a windy location). Which is funny, since this is the homeland of my ney. In which case, what possessed me to play the ney in something like a Celtic lament? Ah, the mysteries of travelling. It’s not so much that you never know what you’ll find when you get there. Rather, you never quite know what you’ll find in YOU once you get there. That’s one of the things I love most about travelling. How it teaches you about yourself.

A Turkish proverb: İtin duası kabul olsa gökten kemik yağar.

Okay, here goes—thought of the day. In proverbial form.

Yes, another Turkish proverb, which comes to my mind the more I follow the news. News of radicals ruthlessly erasing the lives of others in their paths. News of businessmen efficiently re-ordering millions of workers in just the right direction so as to raise the profits of the already ponderously wealthy. News of politicians promising heaven in a rhinestone-encrusted ziplock bag.

With all that in mind, this is the proverb that comes to me today:

İtin duası kabul olsa gökten kemik yağar.

Which literally means, “If a dog’s prayers were answered, the sky would rain down bones.”

In other words, if the selfish scum of the world had their way, there would be no world left for the rest of us to enjoy.

… Go ahead, tell me I’m wrong.

Livaneli and the dark side of Turkish cinema

“Manşetlerde siyaset var, ekranlardaki ana haberlerde de öyle. O onu dedi, bu bunu yaptı. Her gün usandırıcı biçimde sadece siyaset konuşuluyor. Haberler yetmiyor, bir de tartışma programları devreye giriyor. Bu durum normal mi? Yatıp kalkıp siyaset mi konuşmalıyız? En önemli sorunumuz bu mu? Bence değil.” (Zülfü Livaneli)

In a recent article entitled “Hayat mı daha önemli siyaset mi?” (“Is life more important or is politics?”) Livaneli notes how Turkish media concentrate so much attention on politics, politicians, political events, the rise and fall of parties and leaders. Meanwhile, they largely ignore issues that are of immediate and long-lasting concern to the well-being of the people, issues of infrastructure, health, diet, traffic problems, violence against women.

Livaneli is, as usual, right on target. But why should this be so? In a society that has been recognized as the one nation in the world with the largest number of distinct publications for following the news, why is it that such a narrow focus should emerge in these media? Why is it that Turkish society is perpetually obsessed with football champions and political machinations? The life of a political scandal is long indeed in Turkey, validating as it does the assumption of many Turks that something important is going on “there”. Yet what is happening “here”?

That is the gloomier side of Turkish culture. Last night my wife threw Semih Kaplanoğlu’s Bal (“Honey”) into the DVD player and asked if I wanted to watch it. I demurred. “It’ll probably be depressing,” I suggested, and I was not in the mood for such a film at that moment. I knew nothing about the film beforehand; I had simply made a guess based on past experience. … And I was right.

Turkish cinema has excelled at three types of films over the last half century: melodramatic arabesque, slapstick comedy, and most recently brooding tragedies. And yet, the dark side of Turkish cinema is undoubtedly … well, beautiful. Bal is a beautiful film. I watch a fair amount of foreign films, and my own Turcophile tendencies aside, I would still argue that there is something astonishingly real about the dark side of Turkish cinema, more real and more captivating than in comparable films of any other nation. It is a compelling journey into the futility of life and the inescapability of fate.

But where does this come from? Why do so many well-crafted Turkish films seem to focus on the otherwise faceless masses trudging through life only to be spat upon by neighbors and figuratively dismembered by a pitiless bureaucracy? Because that is the “here,” and in the “here” Turks tend to perceive an impending gloom, a sense of foreboding that something bad is about to happen. Or has just happened. Or is still going on. This life, in other words, is at the mercy of often merciless others.

And if that is what life is like, then why attend to it? Why gaze helplessly at what cannot be changed in my life, which is an implicit recognition of my helplessness? Why not instead focus on the “there”, the other world of the rich and powerful, of politicians and players? If Turkish media spends, as Livaneli suggests, an inordinate amount of time talking politics, it may very well be because there are so many people in Turkey who prefer not to look at themselves and their more immediate concerns. Because that way leads inexorably to depression. And surrender.

George Ellington on Galata Tower in İstanbul (1992)

Turkish proverbs

My apologies for the rudeness of this particularly colorful proverb, but I just had to share it. You see, I was chatting recently with someone about how willing, even eager, people are to go still deeper into debt, so long as it means they can keep up with the latest expensive gadgets and games, the popular gizmos, the chance to text a friend sitting across from you while watching a music video and downloading a movie at the same time.

I was reminded of this pricey addiction to our high tech yet even more highly superficial wonderland–why save up money to travel around the world when you can more quickly and conveniently view trimmed and trilling snippets of it on YouTube?–when I came across this proverb today:

Ayranı yok içmeye, atla gider sıçmaya.

“He has no yogurt to drink, yet he uses a horse to go take a shit.”

In other words, he hasn’t got a penny to his name, yet he still tries to show off.