Interlude

Kars smells like dust and freshly baked bread. Like cigarette smoke. Sometimes, like cloying baklava syrup, or the tartness and musk of strong cheese. When you pass the abandoned houses, it smells like mildew and rust.

It smells like lilacs.

On the edges of town, it smells like mountains. The sharp farm smell of cows, grazing sheep.

A grey-blue storm cloud rolls in slowly, lilac lightning illuminating it in flashes. And the smell of rain and lilacs. For a moment, I am surrounded by lilac on all sides, filling all my senses.

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Tea with foreigners

Recently, C. and I drove out to the flat green fields on the Kars outskirts for an evening walk. It’s a late but accelerated spring, here, and every walk reveals new wildflowers that have sprung up overnight. I couldn’t name any of them, except the pearlescent yellow ones that remind me of my childhood in Moldova, but I couldn’t help picking a bouquet.

A sampling of wildflowers

A sampling of wildflowers

We followed the field boundaries up to a low rocky ridge, views of the valley opening up just as the sun was setting. Despite warnings from the occupants of the nearby house about it being “dangerous” for us young women to be walking about near dark, we felt safe and content up there on the rocks. Two dirty-tan Kangal dogs sat at the base of the ridge, their backs to us, keeping an eye out for intruders. When the sun set and we finally came down, the dogs walked with us to the whitewashed house. We had meant only to wave goodbye to the concerned residents, then walk to the road and be on our way, but the friendly women at the door pressed us to come in for tea.

Tea and sunset

Tea and sunset views

It was hospitality mixed with a curiosity about these foreign women suddenly on their doorstep. Although we were on the road to Ani, a relatively popular tourist site, we were decidedly untouristlike in our destination – a walk in the fields off a dirt track. In a single room heated by a metal stove, we sat on cushions and drank tea with rough sugar lumps as our hosts peppered us with questions. These are the situations that always make me acutely sad not to know Turkish – my few words make it possible to follow only the general gist of the conversation, and to say hardly anything at all. Still, our hosts insisted that C. translate the questions to me, instead of simply answering for me. And did I learn a new word, an answer to a common question: “Bekarim (I’m single),” I offered, in my accented Turkish, a designation for anyone who isn’t married or at the very least engaged.

One of the bearlike dogs lay protectively by the doorway. Geese and goslings waddled by. Our host refilled our glasses surreptitiously. The women joked about the two light haired, round cheeked little boys playing in and out of the house – “don’t they look like tourists?” They offered that we spend the night – “We don’t get many foreigners here, maybe once a year!”

“Oh, so you’ve met other foreigners before?” C. asked.

“No, never!” they laughed.

The man of the house quizzed us about really being American: “What is Obama’s wife’s name? How many children does he have?” C. had the right answers as proof.

We declined offers of dinner, more tea, a place to sleep, and headed out after handshakes with the men and embraces and two-cheek kisses from the women. It was peaceful to walk back in the warm dusk, feet sinking in the soft plowed earth, bellies full of tea.

Kars by foot

My office is now my home. Or rather, my home is my office. Technically, the living room is the work space… unless we are having a meeting in the kitchen while chopping vegetables. Or writing to do lists on the front porch, during a tea break after gardening.  As much as I love working on the kitchen couch, or watching our house cat walk across my desk to get a better look at the chickens in the yard, it can feel claustrophobic to spend days here. So I take long meandering walks, and explore this corner of the world I’ve landed in.

Back in California, I would walk my favorite trails on weekends, to the oak groves in Shell Ridge and the lagoons in Briones. I would listen to music or podcasts as I scaled familiar slopes and followed winding creeks, resting my eyes on fuzzy green hills and valley vistas after a week staring at spreadsheets and emails on a screen.

Here in Kars, every walk I take feels new. Gone is the initial apprehension of walking through town – I don’t understand much more Turkish than I did 3 weeks ago, but I feel surer in my steps as I map new routes to the looming castle above town. 45 minutes from my house door, and I am looking over Kars and the still snow-capped mountains surrounding it. Below me, the colorful new buildings interspersed with crumbling stone houses;  an old Armenian church, now a mosque; fruit vendors, tea parlors, barbershops. I can walk down to the town center again, passing the decaying old hamams and the popular  tea garden, or take the long road behind the castle and follow the river back to town, bright bursts of green trees hiding old ruins, purple and yellow wildflowers blooming as spring finally reaches this high plateau.

Kars street scenes (more @ktuchinskaya on Instagram)

Kars street scenes (more: @ktuchinskaya on Instagram)

I walk past my favorite abandoned building, brick and blue-painted rooms filling with spring saplings. I cross a rickety bridge over a brown river as teyzes in headscarves corral playing children. Past men with lined faces drinking tea in tulip glasses, individually wrapped sugar cubes in pomegranate-shaped jars on each low table. Past endless cheese shops, with their neat rows of round yellow cheeses and shelves of local honey; past hair salons, dried-fruit stores full of heaped apricots and hazelnuts, stores selling shining new teapots and saucepans adorned with swirls and roses. I walk past a former Russian church, now with minarets instead of onion domes, as the cacophonous call to prayer starts up. I pass a fruit and vegetable market, the first greenish stone fruits starting to come in; at the corner, a man selling ducklings out of his duckling-yellow car.

As sun and fluffy white clouds alternate with rainclouds, I walk in the other direction from my house, as well, not into town but into the extended village of Kars outskirts, muddy alleys and fields and cowherds. Closer to home, a herd of sheep grazing by the train tracks, an errant turkey, a flock of skinny chickens pecking at garbage heaps around a crumbling wall. Behind them, white minarets and white flowering trees stark against a deep blue stormy sky. I walk around the cemetery as the rainclouds are broken up by a pink sunset, past kids biking by with multicolored geometric shapes bedecking their wheel spokes, past stray cats, past groups of chatting women or men strolling arm-in-arm, who stare at this oddly dressed single woman walking laps through the alleys, trying to turn at unfamiliar corners each time.

Human connection

Recently, my Facebook friends have been passing around an article by a man who gave up the Internet for a year. It’s a very honest, somewhat vulnerable article about man who wanted to resolve big questions about his identity, but found the answers unsatisfactory. He discovers that the novelty of anything wears off, and that once past the initial elation of having made a major change, his withdrawn personality again dominates his interaction with the world. It seems obvious, with 20-20 hindsight, that it was not the Internet making him feel socially isolated – his choices were. After 6 months of being a better self, he retreats once again, finding equally mindless analog activities to dull his boredom.

I never believed that technology has some awesome power to turn us into mindless Facebook zombies. A “like” or a text message can feel like a rush, and each day without contact like a personal rejection. Facebook amplifies our audience for petty grievances as well as petty victories. But in the end, we are still people interacting with other people. Whether it’s comment trolls, or your friend who cannot put the phone down during lunch, their behavior is unlikely to improve in the absence of technology – at least not radically, and not permanently. The digital world is populated by people, good and bad, and being a good human affects both of those spheres.

Recently, I was taking a BART train home and witnessed an episode that left me hopeful about humanity. A young woman sitting across the aisle from me was slowly coming unraveled. At first just tremors in her hands, nervously adjusting and readjusting her hair; some ragged sighs, then quiet tears through heavy mascara. I was consumed with my own sad thoughts in that hour, and felt too emotionally poor to reach out. Instead I watched her working hard to keep her distress contained, as it slowly broke her down. Just as she was on the verge of sobbing, a woman from the middle of the train got up and sat next to her, asked the sobbing woman’s name, and if she could help. I did not hear the conversation details, and didn’t need to –the phrase that reached me, repeated several times, was “thank you so much, this is just what I needed”. The Good Samaritan did little beyond paying attention, listening, then nearly missing her stop to continue being supportive.

It’s as if that reaching out broke the floodgates of other passengers’ concern. They had been pretending, as I had, that it was, at best, not their business, and at worst, not their problem. But as soon as that first helper got off the train, several passengers offered cell phones, advice, even a hug. Maybe they felt guilt for not helping earlier, and seeing someone else’s kindness was like holding up a mirror. Maybe it just made it somehow ok to “meddle”.

I want to remember that evening – that it’s ok to help, and to connect, online and off.