Mediterranean Blues and Aegean Thoughts

“Give the ones you love wings to fly, roots to come back and reasons to stay.” the Dalai Lama XIV said and even though I have always loved how this short quote manages to express so many things, I only understood its true meaning for myself during this summer. Having attended school in Hong Kong for two years, it goes without saying that sometimes I do things that are very Asian. Up to this summer my cultural identity resembled a… well… salad… made up of different and colorful ingredients that were German, Turkish, Greek, American, Italian, Mexican, Hong Kongnese, Thai… you name all the places and cultures from which I adopted attitudes, beliefs, traditions, gestures and in which I lived in long enough to feel that way. When I first meet people, with the purpose of keeping things simple and avoiding confusion, I introduce myself as German-Turkish or Turkish-German (does it matter which one is first?) always feeling like that introduction is very limited and only gives away two things out of the many that make up my identity: the fact that my parents are Turkish and the fact that I was born and raised in Germany.

Now, I am definitely not the only person on this planet feeling this way. Looking at many people in my generation and the international community you will find many individuals whose definition of identity is even more complex than mine. Take my friend Kelsey for example, whose dad is half-Mexican, half-Filipino and whose mom is half-American, half-Chinese. And now add all the other things I previously mentioned about myself to her identity salad. Or take the ridiculously cute children of a half-Turkish, quarter-German, quarter-Tanzanian family that I met in the airplane. They live in South Africa, but grew up in Kenya. 😀 To me this is one of the most beautiful forms of love: interreligious, intercultural, intercontinental!

But I am straying off topic right now 😀 So, yes, how does all of this relate to my summer vacation and the Aegean sea? To say it in simple terms: during this summer vacation I realized that I feel more Aegean than anything else, a strange feeling, considering that both my mother and father were not born or raised along the Aegean coastline. Some people might argue that you cannot identify with a certain place if you have not been born there or raised there or even if “by blood” your heritage is from one place you cannot claim its identity because you grew up elsewhere (such a strange way of putting it) I respect that opinion, but to me and I believe to many people of my generation, identity is defined by much more than simply place of birth or schooling.

Ever since I was a toddler my family has been going to the Aegean coast for summer. I cannot refer to it as “vacation”, because that somehow makes me feel as if we went there as tourists, which is not the case. My mother – a proud child of Istanbul – fell in love with the Aegean in her late teenage years, a love that originated from my grandmother who had attended the former Istanbul Girl’s School for Fine Arts and projected her Thessalonian-Greek roots upon her interest for Hellenic theater, crafts and culture. That in the end, resulted in her traveling all over the scattered islands of Greece and Turkey in the Aegean to witness the beautiful traces that the fallen Greek, Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman empire had left there. In the end, my mother saved up all her money to buy a tiny little house with just enough space for all four of us near Izmir. This house looked like it was going to fall apart when we first bought it, but it was the constant sound of waves hitting the shore, the view of the distant island of Samos and the lovely neighborhood it was situated in, that made us fall in love. Over the past 15 years it has become our home base for the summer, perfectly located in roughly one hour proximity to all the pearls of the Aegean: Bodrum, Cesme, Ephesus, Kusadasi, Alacati. I had never realized how much I actually love and appreciate this place until I came back from Hong Kong.

The beauty of traveling and spending most of the year away from “home” (wherever that may be) is that once you come back, you see many things differently and your appreciation of certain places that once seemed unnoticeable rises infinitely (well, so does your criticism). I love Asia from the bottom of my heart, particularly Malaysia and its people will forever have a huge chunk of it. The sun, the stunning landscapes over and under water, the delicious food. I also love Europe, its crazy variety of people, sense of living, architecture. Ok, I realize that I am going to make a declaration of love to all continents here 😀 The world is simply a beautiful place with so much diversity, that I am afraid I will not be able to experience all of it.

So yes, between all the breathtaking places I have seen, cultures I have been lucky and privileged enough to be a part of and lifestyles I have experienced, I realized this summer, that the Aegean sea and everything it comes with has captured most of my heart and soul. It’s funny that it took me more than fifteen years of spending summer in the same geographical region, months of traveling around the world and a conversation with an old man to realize that (I will disclose the contents of this insightful conversation at a later point, please bare with me)

In history classes, the Greek, Egyptian and Roman empires were my favorite chapters. The Odyssey used to be one of my favorite stories and I gave my first workshop about Alexander the Great. I first cried when I read about the fall of Troy and later watched the movie. The first short stories I wrote all had female heroines closely resembling Ephesian amazons. My love for archeology and the ocean had its first sparks after snorkeling around sunken temples near Izmir and seeing the stunning collection of artifacts in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin. I could go on forever.

I met a an old man this summer, his skin was of the same texture as parchment, kissed by the sun but covered in wrinkles as witnesses of a tiring life, but the fine lines around his eyes bearing proof of the many joys and happy moments he got to experience. In his tiny little boat he seemed friendly and much more approachable than the many men waiting for tourists to board their gulets (traditional two-masted or three-masted wooden sailing vessel) Hence, I asked him for directions to the small café by the seaside at which I was supposed to meet my parents. He looked at me and asked me where I live. A question that I instinctively replied to with a surprised “why” He smiled and stated that my Turkish was excellent, but that my clothes gave away that I was not from around here. I told him that I was born in Germany but had just gotten back from a long stay in China. He squinted his eyes, intrigued by my answer, then gave a long and thoughtful look to the water that was softly splashing against his wooden boat. “Have you been to many places in the world so far?” he asked. “A few” I nodded. “How old are you?” he asked. “19” I replied shyly. He smiled again, this time closing his eyes and facing the sun. “You know, it is not very common for young Turkish girls this age to go so far away and live there on their own” His statement was cheeky, almost as if he seemed to challenge my lifestyle in a friendly way, with no judgment attached to his realization. “I know” I responded. “Do you like the sea?” His question seemed like a kind request made out of curiosity. Oh, if only I had words for how much I loved the sea. “More than anything else on this planet” I replied with giggles. He seemed genuinely happy about this answer. “Good. Because it will always take you back here.” He pointed one of his wrinkly fingers at the space between the boardwalk and the water.

“Where are your parents from?” he inquired. “My dad is from Ankara, my mom is from Istanbul” “Ankara…” he sighed with revulsion. “There is no ocean there. It feels like you are in a prison made of rocks and buildings” The way he said it made me laugh. So I was not the only person feeling this way about the capitol. “Oh, I know. I don’t like it either!” I said. “I could never live anywhere where there is no ocean. At least not for long” “You don’t seem like an Istanbul girl. Or like an Ankara girl.” he exclaimed. “No. You don’t” It almost felt like he was thinking out loud and so I just watched him with an amused smile while he continued contemplating which city seemed to match my “vibe” (the Turkish word used by him would actually be translated as “air” or “aura” but I struggled with finding the appropriate word in English, as neither of these three capture the essence of its meaning in Turkish) “You know, you look like you are from Izmir. Well, you, not your clothes.” He laughed. “In fact, yes, you have an Aegean vibe!” He clapped his hand with excitement about this realization. I could not stop giggling. “Well… I definitely feel more Aegean than anything else. In fact, if I had to choose a Turkish city I would be from, it would be Izmir!” I proclaimed with a huge smile. And then it hit me. Bam! Like a slap in the face – I had just given a simple, few worded statement of where I “feel” I was “from”! I hugged the old fisherman thanking him from the bottom of my heart and ran off in excitement about this realization of self (only to run back and ask him for the directions!) It was a strange feeling, but nonetheless relieving in some way – finding an answer to a question that has been bothering you for years is probably amongst my my favorite feelings in the world.

The lovely old man and that intriguingly random conversation we had made me realize that the feeling of being Aegean is stronger than any other ties I have to places around the world. My choices of food, lifestyle, cultural identity, history, future. Everything. And yup, if I had to retire and choose a place to live in for the rest of the world, it would be an island in the Aegean with a small white house located on it, a lush garden with fruit trees and flowers a sailing boat with a set of dive gear and the endless sunshine.

In the spirit of the quote by Dalai Lama, the Aegean gave me roots to come back to and many reasons to stay.