Herodotus wrote: "I have been all around the world and realized that the most beautiful part of the earth and the most beautiful sky of the universe are in lonia.” Strabo, in the 1st century BC, insisted that the most beautiful city of Ionia was Smyrna. I try to keep this in mind as we land in Izmir, the modern city that once was Smyrna, whose initial settlements date back to the third century B.C. Heading south in our rental car along Turkish highways that could be just outside Madison, Wisconsin, for all I can tell, it finally hits me that those trees dotting the hillsides are figs and olives, and the blue that is sometimes visible in the distance is the Aegean Sea. Wine dark it is not, unless your wine is azure. Troy is north of here. Road signs point the way to modern Turkish towns and villages and ancient Ionian cities. My sister’s village lies just beyond the ancient city of Priene, once a seaside port, now perched high among the hills as the seacoast retreated.
Eski (old) Doganbey (Doe-ahn-bay) is the tiny village in which we will live for the next two weeks. It was once filled with Turkish Muslims and Greek Orthodox peoples, living and working side by side, until the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923 which sent the Greeks to Greece and brought many Greek-speaking Muslims to Turkey. Then the town was abandoned, and the new population built a new Doganbey down the mountain, nearer the sea. Now, as we drive up the gravel road, there is sunlight and shadow on the hills, covered with the grey green of Athena’s olives and bare fig trees. My sister’s house is restored, as are many others, but between them are old stone houses with black windows, the blind eyes of a deserted village. An almond tree blooms outside my sister’s dining room window, visible over the old stone wall.
Canan (Jahnan) is my sister Joan’s name in Turkish. She calls me Selene. Jet lag has finally caught us, and we are up all night burning the decorations. After burning the logs her man of all jobs Mehmet left for us, we try keeping the fire going by burning all the dried flowers she had put up for Christmas when they were last here. It feels like a ritual, burning the Yule log or killing the Yule King to make way for Maia.
Spring is coming to these hills. The sun rises on a bright blue morning. Canan goes to town on business, so I put on my hiking boots, gingerly stuffing my right foot into a nearly unlaced boot once again, and leaning on the jaunty red cane, I set out to explore the village. The sun is warm on old stone, and even the empty holes look inviting. An abandoned mosque rears a single minaret into a clear blue sky. Black cattle graze on the hillsides above the town, and I must be careful to close the gates when I come to them so the cows don’t wander off down the road. Men are working on the foundations of one old house perched on the side of a steep gully, but they are the only people I see until, rounding a corner past the mosque, a small woman hustles toward me with a big smile.
She is, I discover, Birsel, wife of the artist Ahmet, and after some hasty sign language, I follow her into one old house which apparently is her absent husband’s studio, filled with scenes similar to those I have just witnessed outside. She invites me for tea – “Chai? Chai?” She speaks no English. I speak negligible Turkish. “Evet, evet,” I say. “Yes, yes.” We go back outside under the trees where she sets up a small table, complete with tablecloth, and plugs an electric teapot into an outlet hanging from a low-growing limb. I take it this is an afternoon ritual. Conversation is completely impossible, so we just sip tea and smile at each other, as at a delightful acquaintance. Understanding dawns for a moment, when she offers me lumps of sugar. “Bir? Iki?” “One? Two?” Ah! I understand. “Iki,” I say, and then proudly begin to count to ten in Turkish. She joins me. “Sekiz, Dokuz, On!” “Eight, nine, ten!” we finish triumphantly. Then smile at each other again, once more at a loss for words.
A deus ex machine, a god from the machine, saves the day, as it always did in the ancient Greek plays. This time it took the form of a young Turkish god – um – zoologist, who helps to run the local museum and who does speak a spattering of English, arriving for tea with his co-worker, a lovely young Turkish anthropologist. Soon after, Mehmet arrives to escort me home. Apparently he considers me a responsibility, in Canan’s absence, and needs to be certain I am safely home when she returns. Tessekur ederim, I say. “Thank you.” And he escorts me home past orchards starred with tiny white daisies.