I arrived in Bodrum on a drizzling, overcast evening. After finding some reasonable lodgings (enjoying the $1 to 3.5 Turkish lira exchange rate following the pain of the euro in Greece) I wandered into a nearby fish restaurant for my first truly Turkish dinner in almost four years, ordering hamsi (sardines), mushrooms, fried zucchini, and spicy ezme spread, washed down with a tall glass of the Turkish national spirit: rakı an anise-flavored liquor similar to ouzo and arak. Needless to say I enjoyed my meal.
The next morning came bright and sunny, and I hopped on a bus to the small provincial capital of Balikesir, where I had taught English at the local university for two years between 2011 and 2013. Many things had happened in Turkey since that time, something I was immediately reminded of while passing through gendarmerie security checkpoints both on the way into Izmir and into Balikesir. I had previously encountered highway checkpoints in the southeast of the country, near the borders with Syria and Iraq, but this was my first experience seeing them in the western part of Turkey. Though given the attacks in recent years, it is certainly understandable. I also happened to arrive just a couple of weeks before the referendum on changing the government to a presidential system, and campaign posters and vans blasting advertisements for one side or the other from roof-mounted loudspeakers (more for ‘yes’ than ‘no’) were everywhere.
Finally in Balikesir, I was very happy to see that there was still a lot of life in the streets and all of my old haunts (the place where I used to buy bread, the local pide restaurant, döner stand, etc.) were all up and running. There was a discernible difference in the mood, however, with people appearing a little more withdrawn and melancholy compared to four years before. Despite this, Turkish hospitality was alive and well. It was a wonderful feeling to reunite with old friends and start speaking my rusty Turkish over innumerable glasses of çay (tea). I visited my old apartment, strolled through Atatürk Park, and played several rounds of the classic Turkish pastime of backgammon with former university colleagues (while, you guessed it, drinking tea).
I also had the opportunity to visit a couple of the university campuses where I taught: the NEF education campus in the middle of the city, the main campus about 10 kilometers outside, and the vocational campus located in Bandirma, a smaller industrial city north of Balikesir hugging the shore of the Sea of Marmara. I met a couple of my old students in Bandirma for çay; I had helped teach their first year of preparatory English before starting their major program, and now they were just about to graduate. It was great to see their progress and to learn that one student had been inspired to study abroad in Poland for a semester through the Erasmus program. From Bandirma I caught the evening ferry to Istanbul, crossing the breadth of the Sea of Marmara back to the timeless city that had first introduced me to Turkey many years ago. I would spend most of the next week there preparing for my long anticipated trek along the Black Sea coast.