Life in Turkey has always had its dramas and tragedies. I’ve lived here during military coups, curfews, terrorist attacks, devastating earthquakes and the arrival of millions of refugees. But then I was a worried witness. Now, I’m a direct target.
I receive a reassuring text message from the Ministry of the Interior addressed to a Valued Senior Citizen. As I’m a precious part of the community, I should stay home and look forward to a brighter, more hopeful tomorrow. This means: not leaving my house for any reason – no exercise, no shopping, nothing.
Now what ?
Here in Izmir I have a group of Turkish, British and American friends. Much of our professional lives were spent together teaching English literature to attentive students. A powerful, creative team, we loved nothing better than a challenge or a problem to solve.
We’re still on task.
Saturday afternoon, and we gather for a Zoom ‘department meeting’.
'Did you know,’ I say, ‘studies have shown some people would rather give themselves electric shocks than be left alone with their thoughts?’
Smiles flicker across the patchwork squares of on-screen faces.
‘But we’ll be fine,’ I say.
‘We’ve got rich internal lives,’ Marie adds.
‘We’re not dead yet!’ says Elvan.
Alone in her high-rise apartment, Elvan is lifting the layers of her life. She’s back in the political turmoil of the 1970s, reading letters: those from her husband written during his two years in prison; her own, written to support him when she could barely support herself. She lived with their two children in what she calls Dead End Street. She was often cold and hungry. Sometimes, all she could afford to buy from the corner shop was a loaf of bread and a lettuce.
‘Although it was different, it was still a lockdown for both of us. But we survived!’
Elvan raises a glass of water, with ice and lemon, towards the screen and we join her - coffee mugs, bone-china cups, long-stemmed wine glasses - in a toast to survival.
‘And let me tell you,’ Elvan continues, ‘this book isn’t about misery although there's plenty of hardship. My writing’s about strength I didn’t know I had. And hope too, hope I knew I had to encourage.’
She takes another sip from her glass.
‘One thing though, don’t expect me to include the romantic bits. I’ll keep those to myself. Introspection has its boundaries!’
After a pause she adds:
‘Though I might read some to you all later:
‘Şerefe!’ We applaud in time-lagged chorus. ‘Cheers!’
I imagine Elvan, a doctor’s daughter who went to the best schools and universities in Turkey, will depict how her life was turned upside down during turbulent times. Her stories will take us to that damp room in Dead End Street where, sitting cross-legged on the carpet by the wood-burning stove, a cast of squabbling relatives and supportive neighbours will share warm-hearted and humorous anecdotes.
In Marie’s screenshot we see she’s knitting.
‘Getting ready for Christmas,’ she grins. ‘What colour hat do you want?’
‘Now I know the world’s gone mad. You? Knitting?’ I reply. ‘Don’t you have enough to occupy your mind? What about your content writing for that website, the Facebook updates and Instagram posts?’
‘I need time to clear my mind.’
‘Why so mysterious, Miss Marple?’
Agatha Christie’s grey-haired armchair detective, once said,
‘Sitting here with one’s knitting, one just sees the facts.’
Marie, tall and elegant, is staying at home to protect her vulnerable husband. She’s not solving a village murder but reflecting on the British-French-Dutch-Italian community in Izmir she married into.
‘I’ve heard the stories, read the letters, seen the photographs and studied the archives.’ she says. ‘I’m wondering which thread will unravel into a gripping tale. Meanwhile, who wants this red hat?’
I imagine a thick novel set in the merchant’s warehouses of Izmir, in the gardens of their country villas and by the harbour where the tall ships sail in. It will be the story of at least three generations of families living through wars and kidnappings, feuds and love affairs. I know writers don’t like to be told ‘Here’s a good idea for your next book,’ but I think Marie will have to work in at least one murder.
Kate, who also lives on her own in her sixth-floor apartment, has structured her lockdown life - shopping, exercise, leisure, online socializing.
‘I needed a purpose though. This is all so mindless!
Suddenly she disappears from view, her screen picture an empty black square.
‘She’ll reconnect in a minute, I expect,’ Marie says. ‘What about you, Fiona, how’re things?’
‘Well I’m impressed listening to you and Elvan. A total lockdown’s not great inspiration for my travel blog.’
‘You must have something new to add,’ I say. ‘You’re probably the only person who’s been quarantined in three countries, one after the other. Then, when you'd completed your days, found out you’re an elderly person who can’t leave home!’
We all appreciate the irony.
Fiona has just finished fourteen days of enforced seclusion at her home in Izmir, after fourteen days of self-isolation at her daughter’s house in Vienna, after several weeks of lockdown in Florence, where she was teaching.
‘One lockdown is much the same as another. The only difference? In Italy I looked out at a vineyard, in Vienna I could glimpse the river and here in Izmir there’s the sea.’
‘There’s your blog! Views from my quarantine windows!’
Kate’s name pops back up on our screens, then her face and finally her microphone connects.
‘So there I was this week,’ she continues, ‘doing my exercise, thirty steps along the corridor, turn, thirty more steps, turn, when an idea hit me. I found my purpose!’
‘I’m going to take Mehmet’s memories and match them with the events in the war. The stories of his childhood and how he ended up in Turkey are definitely worth saving for the grandchildren.’
Kate is referring to her late husband, who fled the Crimea with his family during the Second World War.
‘I want them to understand how events they learn about as history reach out, through their grandfather, to their lives today.’
I imagine a dramatic story of survival: days drifting in a barge on the Black Sea, the dangerous train journeys, a bomb blast that shattered his leg, his five years in camps in Germany woven together with the advance and retreat of the German and Soviet armies. A story of adventure and opportunities.
‘Mehmet never thought his life was extraordinary,’ says Kate. ‘It was just the way it was.’
‘I understand that’, says Elvan. ‘One day, if our grandchildren ask how we managed our days of isolation, we’ll shrug and say, ‘It was just the way it was.’’
‘But there’ll be our writing. Proof of our vitality!’
We take a while waving goodbyes. The faces of my friends disappear, and I stare at the empty screen. I click on my folder of photographs of my six-month old grandson. There he is, content and happy, smiling at me with love and trust that everything in his world is fine. How is he going to know me, except as a face on a video link?
I open another folder, Coronavirus 2020, and scroll down to continue my writing: Week 7.
Now where was I?
Oh yes, in lockdown.
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Half a lifetime ago, Helen settled in Turkey. Finding work as a language and literature teacher, she developed her fascination with style, structure and story. Now, as a content editor for a textbook publisher, she targets grammatical structures and vocabulary for language learners. In her own writing, however, she seeks to understand unexpected incidents and the people who live through them.