Now I had one week to spend in Turkey. Although Turkey is an amazing country to visit, I had spent a total of one month exploring most corners of the country four years prior and so didn’t feel to pressured to sightsee.
I opted to take refuge three hours south of Istanbul in Bursa, a mid-size town known for its textiles and auto parts production. It is not on the tourist trail and so a good place to experience an alternative taste of Turkey while I nursed my cold and minimized my Turkish Lira outlay.
I wandered Bursa’s centre in the evening void of any agenda or direction. Momentarily inspired, I entered a ‘cultural centre on the main drag’, appropriately named – Ataturk Caddesi.
There was a cool art exhibition. I spent several minutes browsing the frames in attempt to decipher the contest prompt or theme. My best guess was that artists were told to: ‘create a caricature of the irony of consumerism’.
My monopoly on the display was soon broken by the entrance a young woman. She was will dressed and walked around snapping shots of cartoons with her iPhone. We exchanged smiles and as quickly as she arrived, she was gone.
At this point, she introduced herself – Banu Cicek.
We zoomed through covered markets with men hustling almonds, cheese, diamonds and scarfs. Banu interrupted their monotonous sales pitch on three different occasions to assertively inquire as to the whereabouts of a big courtyard. Each time we walked away from a shop keeper-cum tour guide, he had a look of part confusion, part shock and part admiration for her style painted on his face.
Soon, we followed the courtyard, an open space sheltered on four corners by ancient walls and a massive tree whose matriarch-like canopy protected the top layer. We sipped apple tea and talked.
About half an hour later we paid and left the courtyard. I asked when she had to leave for the theatre. She was very casual about any time constraints and refused to offer a time. This suited me fine. I figured that she would soon take off and that I would find my way to the theatre later after dinner and a quick shave.
No sooner did I mentally hatch my plan when she answered a phone call. Her pupils dilated with urgency. The entire cast was waiting for her in the team bus and she needed to arrive immediately.
She grabbed me and we half-walked, half-jogged 500 m to find the idling bus. As we mounted the stairs, she whispered to me, “I will tell them that you are a foreign friend that I know through Inter Nations”.
On one hand, it made sense that she showing up on the bus with a random foreign dude wouldn’t fly, on the other hand, I had no clue what Inter Nations was. I prepped my smile and nod routine.
The bus was ¾ full. As we sat down together, giggles erupted from the back and Banu began deflecting comments in rapid Turkish. The tone was playful. After all, I had stepped into a sea of drama professionals.
We drove out of town and arrived at a modern-looking complex. En route Banu informed me that the show would commence at 20:30. Upon arrival the troupe did a sound check. She left me briefly, but soon returned with a slightly concerned look on her face – the auditorium was much bigger than they had anticipated and they weren’t sure that their voices would carry well.
She led me outside. I told her that I would leave her to prep, find some food and return in time for the show. The only outstanding matter of business was getting me into the event. Earlier she had offered me free admission without a second thought. Earlier I had told her that I was happy to support the group. Also earlier I had assumed that they were a small struggling artist band. After seeing the complex and learning that the group had dates booked for the play all over Europe in the spring, this premise was debunked and I had started to question my willingness to pay for a seat.
She insisted that she was my guest that that I need only tell the box office that I was a friend of Banu Cicek. Pleased, but slightly skeptical I set out to find dinner.
Just before I left the complex grounds, I was overtaken in stride by four young Turks and one mean-looking dog. One in tight jeans and greasy hair asked me if I had any cigarettes. The habitually casual demand seemed uncomfortable in this context. Before descending the staircase to the street I pulled out my phone and pretended to receive a call. The group passed me in the light. My suspicions were endorsed as I was joined at the top of the complex stairs by a security guard who had witnessed the exchange. He sternly communicated on his radio to the guard posts below. I idled a few minutes. We exchanged looks of mutual understanding. Soon he looked at me and without cracking a smile nodded. This was my indication that the coast was clear.
I continued to the street. The prior moment was a good reminder that I was no longer on the tourist drag of Sultanhamet, Istanbul. Turkey is a safe place, but you can encounter shady characters everywhere. I would not favour myself alone against four guys and a dog in a dark corner.
I found a hole in the wall restaurant willing to serve me tost – cheese and tomato sauce (and sometimes salami) in between two pieces of toasted bread.
I had some time to kill so I caught up on my journal writing while munching the sandwich.
Shortly before 8:30 I wandered back to the pavilion. With a resigned sighed of here goes nothing I approached the box office booth. I would attempt to explain using simple English and my fingers that I am a friend of Banu Cicek’s, that I should be on a list and that they should give me a free ticket.
The blank stares that greeted me where not all that different from when I normally demand entrance to an establishment as a result of ‘being on the list’ – usually a drunken bar escapade back home.
But, I was determined. Noticing the poster of the troupe advertising the act plastered knee-height on the box office I signalled for one of the ticket masters to come outside. Rolling his eyes, a man eventually obliged. I tapped my finger at the picture of Banu on the poster. And said ‘my friend’ – a phrase every other Turkish male seemed to want to tell me on random street corners, normally signalling to me in the process. After a few more seconds of gesturing followed by a stream of instructions barked at a fellow attendant, I was handed a small ticket and led towards the entrance.
The show lasted approximately two and a half hours with a fifteen minute intermission. It was impressive. Although I didn’t understand a single word of the spoken language, the performers were talented and so I was thoroughly entertained. Banu had mentioned before the show that the acts were all commentary on contemporary Turkish politics. Any disappointment I felt at my lack of appreciation for the subtleties in the play was off-set by my recurring thoughts of ‘It’s a casual Tuesday night and I am witnessing a modern play in Turkey as a guest. Cool’.
After the show, the troupe quickly changed and was set to return on the team bus to Istanbul. En route they would stop for a midnight snack a roadside restaurant. Wishing to not overstay my welcome, and expecting that their meal would not lead them via Bursa-townsite, I told Banu that I would find my way home from the theatre. She insisted that I was welcome to join and that they would eat in downtown Bursa I agreed to join.
Seated in the restaurant I communicated with some of the other performers as I sipped tripe soup. English didn’t really flow, but their acting skills came into play and we communicated with relative ease.
Bellies full they departed for Istanbul and I walked home to sleep. Banu had given me her contact details and suggested we explore a part of Istanbul together on Sunday. I was pleased we agreed to be in touch. I had a new Turkish friend and a locally famous one at that.