The Home Stretch: Bodrum-Budapest-Cluj-Istanbul-Salt Lake City-Bozeman

Friday, July 24, 2015

Back in the days when I was working as an English teacher in Istanbul, I used to spend 6-8 weeks traveling every summer. One year I made my way through Turkey, Syria, Jordan and Israel before flying back to Istanbul from Tel Aviv. On another occasion I flew one-way up to Moscow, then made my way back to Istanbul overland through eastern Europe and the Balkans. The trips got longer and more grandiose with each passing year up to 1999, when I flew from Istanbul to New Delhi, then traveled overland--albeit skipping over Burma--to Beijing before flying to Budapest and traveling back down to Istanbul. 

Macedonia was one of the places I enjoyed visiting in the 90s

Then graduate school happened, and the nature of my travels changed. No longer was I moving on from town to town with my backpack from my base in Istanbul. Instead I would fly to a city, rent an apartment, and then research in that city's archives and libraries for the next several months. In this way I spent exactly half of my time abroad--mainly in Turkey and the former USSR--between the time that I started my MA in 1999 and began working as an assistant professor at MSU ten years later. 

This summer has been something of a hybrid of these two sets of experiences. About three weeks has been spent researching--in Istanbul and Kazan--while another couple of weeks were spent writing and relaxing in an apartment I rented in the south of Turkey. The rest of the time was spent mostly on the road. 

Bodrum Boogaloo

After getting back to Istanbul from Russia at the end of June, I spent the better part of a week in the city where I lived between the ages of 23 and 30. Even though I've spent a fair bit of time in Istanbul on pretty much a yearly basis since leaving to start graduate school in 1999, I always feel a lot of nostalgia for the 90s when I go back there. I visit the neighborhood I used to live in and talk to the shopkeepers from my time who are still around. I still have good friends from those days and others that I meet up with when I'm in town.   

Back in Istanbul


The original plan this summer had been to travel up through Bulgaria and Romania before heading up to Budapest, where my daughter lives. Indeed Hungary--my daughter grew up in Szeged--was the focal point of most of those trips I took through the Balkans in the 90s. This year the idea was to do something similar, but when my plans to meet up with a friend in Bucharest fell apart I decided to call an audible.  Suddenly, heading down to Bodrum seemed like the most logical thing to do. 

Bodrum is a town on the Aegean coast of Turkey. The town of Bodrum itself is kind of a scene, but the cool thing about the Bodrum peninsula is that there are lots of different places to go. Each town has its own personality. In the 1990s and early 2000s I stayed in Gümüşlük a few times--it's more of a quiet and romantic spot. Right after I finished my PhD I spent a week with my daughter in Ortakent, which is a popular beach area with lots of hotels and restaurants. Gümbet is ground zero for obnoxious British tourists on cheap package holidays. Türkbükü is more upscale, with fewer foreigners and more Turkish summer house owners. Yalıçiftlik is a weird contrast between super luxury monster hotels and funky little cafe/motels on the beach. Every town is different, and almost all of them are easily accessible by minibus so you can go to a different beach--and see very different types of people--every day, if you want to. 

I rented an apartment located between Turgutreis and Akyarlar, an area that I knew almost nothing about when I first saw the advertisement on AirBnB. After six weeks of shuttling between Istanbul and various points in Russia, the idea of staying in one place for a while appealed to me. Frankly, I wanted to do a little bit of work, and renting an apartment seemed like the best way to maybe get a little bit of stuff down every once in a while between trips to the beach.

Turgutreis isn't the place that first springs to most people's minds when they think of Bodrum. It's about 45 minutes away from the city of Bodrum, and after Bodrum itself it's the biggest city on the peninsula. It's a little town in its own right, rather than a beach community like Ortakent or Türkbükü. Most of the people there are Turkish families, many of whom own summer houses in and around Turgutreis, so there are relatively few foreign tourists around. In other words, it was just the sort of place I wanted. 

My apartment was located on the seaside road that goes from Turgutreis to Ortakent and Bodrum, a few kilometers outside of town. The apartment had a gorgeous view of the sun setting--Turgutreis, I learned, is famous for this--and the housing cooperative that it was a part of owned a little sandy beach on the other side of the road passing in front of it. 

View from my terrace

Bodrum was cool. I got a fair bit of work done, and also spent a lot of time by the sea. In some places--like Ortakent, Türkbükü, and Yalıçiftlik, the water is incredibly clear. You can see fish swimming below you and little rocks and shells on the bottom of the sea and it seems like the water is only ten feet deep, but then you learn that it's actually forty. The water is cool, too--very refreshing. 

All in all, my time down there was refreshing, too. The previous six weeks had been tiring, and it was nice to stay in one place for a change. Mainly, I'm glad I got to swim in the sea. As a child I grew up spending my summers on Lake Michigan in an area that still stands as the most beautiful place I've ever seen. After being accustomed to fresh water, swimming in the Aegean or the Med is incredibly easy--you just hold your breath a little bit and you float like a buoy. Every time I go swimming in Turkey, I spend literally hours in the water every day. I feel like a human life raft. 

Of course, now that I'm used to swimming in salty seas, I sink like a stone when I go to Lake Michigan. 

This year I usually stayed at home in the mornings and wrote, but in the afternoons I'd spend about 3-4 hours a day on the beach, with probably at least half of that time in the water. In the evenings I'd meet up with my friends or else go hang out in Turgutreis, which is a sweet little place.

Onward to greater Habsburgia...

On Wednesday of last week I got up at six, made my last Bodrum breakfast--olives, white cheese, watermelon, bread, and tea--on the terrace, then headed down the hill to the minibuses. I was headed to Bodrum. Then Istanbul. Then Budapest. 

I sat up front with the driver during the 45-minute ride into Bodrum, but I could tell he would have preferred to have one of his buddies sit up there. And he had a lot of buddies. Given the early hour, most of the riders on the bus were hotel employees on their way to work. The driver seemed to know all of them, and chatted with them in a slang that I could barely follow. For the last time, we took the long ride along the coast, with the gorgeous blue of the Aegean to our right. It was amazing--this whole place. 

From the Bodrum bus station I caught the airport bus, then caught my flight to Istanbul. After a few hours at the airport, I caught another flight to Budapest, arriving at around 5 pm. From the Budapest airport I took a shuttle bus to the apartment where I'd rented a room for the next four nights. 

I first visited Budapest in 1992, and have probably been there something like fifteen times over the year, so I didn't do a lot of sight-seeing. Instead, I was traveling there to visit my daughter, who's been living there since she finished high school. 

The Danube, Budapest

When I wasn't hanging out with my daughter, I was working on my Hungarian. Even as recently as a few years ago my Hungarian was still quite good, but now it's gotten very rusty, especially as I now speak to my daughter pretty much only in English. I'd started learning Hungarian back in Istanbul in the mid-1990s, when my daughter was a small child and the only means I had for communicating with her was in her own language. After taking an intensive summer course at Debrecen University in 2001, I managed to kick things up several notches, and visiting Hungary on a pretty regular basis also helped. By the time my daughter was a teenager, I'd become proficient enough to to argue with her in Hungarian. 

So during my free time in Budapest I sat at cafes and bars, writing in my diary in Hungarian, looking words up in my dictionary and writing them down in my vocabulary notebook, just as I'd done in the old days. That's actually one of the nicest things about being finished with the book--I feel like I actually have the time to get back to things like this that I love. And I do love working on language proficiency. 

Something else that I did in Budapest was visit the grave of Gabor Szabo, one of my favorite jazz guitarists. Szabo died in 1982 and I only discovered him this past year--I was buying records on Superbowl Sunday and found his album "Macho." I'd seen his name in passing before and had often wondered about him--a Hungarian who had recorded in the US in the 1960s through 80s. I bought the record without any idea of what the music would be like--I don't have a smartphone or anything else that would have helped me to listen to the album a bit before buying. When I got home, I was pleasantly surprised--"Macho" is an amazing album. 

Over the course of the spring semester, I bought five or six more of his albums--mostly at Cactus Records in Bozeman, where someone was apparently unloading a bunch of them. As the months passed, I fell in love with Szabo's music--both the good and the bad. So while in Budapest I wanted to pay my respects. 

I got out to
Farkasréti cemetery on Friday morning. Somewhat foolishly, I'd kind of assumed that there would be a map of famous graves, or that at least people would know where Szabo was buried. So, I'd headed out there without any idea of where to look for him. After asking a couple of the dudes working at the cemetery--who'd basically waved vaguely in a direction and told me they thought he might be somewhere over there--I wandered around for almost an hour. It was like looking for a needle in a haystack, of course. But then I remembered that I was living in the 21st century, called up my daughter, and asked her to check the interwebs for information on the exact location of his grave. Within a minute I had my answer. 


It was still a little confusing, but thanks to the coordinates that my daughter had phoned in, I now knew where to look. After a few minutes of wandering around in Szabo's section, I looked up and saw his name. I'd bought some flowers at the entrance, and went and filled up the little plastic vase next to his tombstone with water and put the flowers in it. After about fifteen minutes or so of sitting on a little bench next to his gravesite and thinking about the good times that I associated with his music, I headed back off into town. 

A Taste of Cluj

On Sunday morning of this week, I headed out early from the apartment where I was staying in Budapest and got on the metro. From there I went to the Népliget bus station and boarded a minibus to Cluj, Romania. 

Sunflower fields forever: en route to Cluj

Why Cluj? Well, this had something to do with the plans I'd cooked up at the beginning of the summer. Originally I was going to spend a few weeks in Bulgaria, Romania, and Budapest, and fly out of Cluj back to Istanbul. Well, now the only thing that had changed was that I had spent that time in Bodrum in Budapest. My flight from Istanbul to Budapest had been one-way, so now I was going to use the ticket out of Cluj to get back to Turkey. 

The trip from Budapest to Cluj was pretty comfortable and lasted about seven hours. I'd bought a seat in a minibus that accommodated nine people, plus the driver. It was a good service for $20--the bus was air-conditioned, and the driver and my traveling companions complimented me on my Hungarian, which I appreciated. And it got me into Cluj--which is located in the mountains of Transylvania--at around 4 pm. 

Back in the 90s, I used to spend a lot of time in these parts. With my daughter living in Szeged and me in Istanbul, I tended to travel through either Romania or Yugoslavia to get back and forth to Hungary during those years. So, I probably traveled through Romania about fifteen times or so then, and visited just about every region of the country en route. 

But the last time I'd been to Cluj was in the mid 1990s, and the most recent occasion I'd visited Romania at all was in 1999, which was kind of a crazy trip. I was just about to start graduate school, and had spent the previous five months traveling through Asia. From Beijing I'd flown to Budapest--an awesome and beautiful trip with hardly anyone on the plane--and at five that evening, a Sunday, I was in Budapest. In the morning I'd awakened in a sweat-stained flophouse backpackers' hostel in China, then contended with people literally pushing me out of their way in the airport. In the evening, on the other hand, I found myself strolling down an absolutely silent street in Hungary, walking past an old lady wearing a big floppy hat and walking a little dog. The steps of the dog and the chirping of birds were all that I could hear. From Budapest, I'd headed down to Szeged the next day, and then traveled quickly through Romania and Bulgaria to Istanbul, arriving on August 15, 1999. Two days later there was a powerful earthquake in Istanbul that killed about 20,000 people. Three days after that I flew back to the US to begin studies at Princeton.

Anyway, that was the last time I'd passed through Romania. On this occasion, too, my trip would be brief--with just one night in Cluj, and then a flight the next afternoon to Istanbul. Still, it was pretty--I've always liked Romania, though it's definitely a lot more tourist-friendly now. There are a lot more tourists these days than there were back in the 90s, but on the bright side it's way easier to find a great meal at a restaurant. 

My hotel in Cluj was right around the corner from the home of Doina Cornea, who was a professor-dissident under the Ceausescu regime. Passing by her house reminded me of visiting Andrei Sakharov's apartment in Nizhnii Novgorod earlier this summer. As was the case with Sakharov, Cornea lived under constant surveillance by the authorities. People like this were obviously limited in what they could do, but their willingness to stand up to authority, in the face of what must have seemed at times like impossible odds, is something I find really inspiring. Even in the most corrupt and seemingly 'totalitarian' systems, the bravery of certain individuals shone through. This behavior was noticed and understood by others who didn't act until the regime showed signs of weakness, but who then did go out in the streets once it seemed like it would be okay to do so. That's one reason why we ended up seeing so many dramatic revolutions all at once in 1989. And I think those revolutions owed a lot to folks like Cornea.

In Cluj I walked around a fair bit in the afternoon, and had a super dinner and drinks in the evening. The next morning I met up with a friend for breakfast, then caught a taxi to the airport en route to Istanbul. In the Cluj airport, techno music was blasting in the departures lounge that featured little more than a small bar. I'll miss eastern Europe.

Back in Istanbul, feeling Salty by the Lake

All summer long, Istanbul had been my HQ, my base, my organizational center. In a lot of ways, it's been that for me on a more general level for the past 22 years, in fact. This summer I left a lot of my stuff there, and over the past two-plus decades, I've invested a lot of my soul in that city as well.

Now, riding the second leg of my Cluj-Bucharest-Istanbul itinerary, I was heading back to spend a final two days in the place my erstwhile colleague Thomas Goltz calls the City of the Sultans.

View of the Golden Horn as I leave town



My flight from Istanbul back to Bozeman included--I'd bought a very cheap ticket--an overnight stop in Salt Lake City. After all, as my Dad said when I told him I was spending a night in SLC, I hadn't yet visited enough places this summer. After flying from Istanbul to NYC, I changed planes at JFK and got to Salt Lake City at a little after 11 pm. My flight to Bozeman would be 23 hours later. 

I stayed in a sterile little hotel near the SLC airport. But it was cheap, quiet and a friendly place. When I gave the guy at reception my credit card and he saw where I lived, he said "Bozeman, isn't that where the university's at?" I said yes, and when I told him I taught history there, he said "Kewl!" 

I slept well on Wednesday night, going to sleep a couple of hours after arriving in Salt Lake. That's the thing about traveling west: I'm so tired from the trip (I never sleep much on planes) that I crash right out when I arrive. It's usually evening anyway when I arrive in North America from Europe, so despite the time change I tend to get at least several hours of sleep the first night, then wake up at a normal hour in the morning.  

I left the hotel at noon, then took the Trax--Salt Lake City's light rail system--down to Sugar House, a district of town that was billed as "hip" and "alternative" according to some online information I'd found. It was okay--there were some interesting-looking places to eat and vintage clothing shops, as well as a used bookstore and a good coffee shop. I had a good lunch. It was nice.


But mostly, my first day back in the US was spent the way a lot of first days back in the US have gone during the course of my life--wandering around in a bit of a daze, feeling a little out of sync. Like in most places in this country, there just isn't much foot traffic in SLC, even in a supposedly "hipster" area like Sugar House. Most of the other people walking around with me on the broad, often treeless boulevards were the same sorts of people who are normally carless in America--those who have no choice. 

Mainly, I found myself killing time, waiting until I had to head to the airport. Despite having spent the last two months on the road, the is the first time I can remember feeling this way since I left Bozeman at the end of May. When I'm in a place like Turkey, Russia or Hungary, I always feel like I'm learning something or improving myself somehow, even if I'm just waiting for something. Here, I just walked around, had some more to eat, then hopped back on the Trax. I thought about a suggestion my friend Gordon had made to me my last night in Istanbul, that I should knock on people's doors and talk to them about my religion. 

I was ready to get back to Bozeman.   

Business offices of Church of LDS

It was 11.30 pm in Bozeman. The driver wanted to have several people share a taxi, a practice that traditionally has meant a discount for the driver, but apparently no longer does. Anyway, I was initially psyched because I thought the presence of two others in the cab would save me some money, so despite my fatigue I had no complaints in waiting. But I was pretty exhausted--my trip back had started almost 48 hours earlier, between the actual traveling and 22 hours in Salt Lake City. 

We waited perhaps 15 minutes for another customer who had ordered, but didn’t show. Then, we pulled off, with the guy in the backseat berating the driver. Then he turned out to be Turkish--I suddenly felt a little like I was in Istanbul again. And yet I was just happy to getting back to my own place. 

The air is cool late at night in summertime here. The weather is sunny and clear and beautiful and warm during the day, and gets a little chilly at nice. It's great. 

There was some mystery as to where my house keys were. All summer I’d secreted them away in a special pocket of a bag of mine, occasionally checking in on them. Somehow, in the over-thought way that is typical of any project to which I’m afforded too much time, I’d managed to put my keys elsewhere in my bag, which I'd checked with my house keys inside them.  This, I should mention, was my first time on a plane.

Conducting a quick search at the Bozeman Airport, I was stumped as to where they'd be. Already trying to psyche myself up for a search through my bag to find my keys, I came home to find a mountain of moldy newspapers on my front porch. That's a lot of Bozeman Daily Tattlers to contend with at one time, even under the best of conditions. 

But soon things got better. The key issue was quickly settled, and then I started unwrapping the souvenirs I’d bought for myself and others. A big back of Turkish Rize tea (the valises full of onions and potatoes are coming next), an Erkin Koray record, coffee cups and other small Turkish stuff, and a sauna hat that I purchased outside the bania that I went to in Kazan, the “Kombinat Zdorov’e." It’s now atop the Kemalist Christmas tree that graces the foyer of the Borderlands Lodge.

Elektronik Türküler was his second record

After two months on the road, it's nice to be back home. There's a lot to do, but it's nice to know that I've still got a month or so or vacation left before the semester begins.

More photos, links, and analysis can be found, as usual, in the Borderlands Lounge

Order your copy of Turks Across Empires at the OUP website or on Amazon

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