Story by Kelly A. Bancroft
Photos by Joy Christiansen Erb
Men dash through crowded cafes, carrying trays of tulip-shaped glasses filled with tea. Shopkeepers arrange counters lined with tea-filled glasses decorated with nazar boncuğu, the evil eye said to deflect negative energy. Women in their homes greet guests by pouring from stacked pots filled with the fragrant liquid.
In Turkey, it’s all about the tea, or çay(pronounced chai), a sign of friendship and hospitality. It is both the presence and the spirit of çay that remains a rich memory of my trip to this ancient country.
It’s been almost three months since my return to Youngstown with my traveling companions from YSU’s College of Creative Arts and Communications. For a week and a half, our faculty group explored Turkey under sponsorship of the Niagra Foundation, an organization that aims to foster civic conversations and sustained relationships among people of different cultures and faiths.
Our host, Murat Gurer, executive director of the foundation’s North Ohio branch, ferried us by plane, boat and bus as far south as Sanliurfa and as far west as Izmir, beginning and ending in Istanbul. The goal of our travel was simple: To foster goodwill between our cultures. We did so over meals and çay with families and new friends, during visits to schools and homes, and through the unexpected alliances we made with many strangers. Everywhere we went, the people we met were friendly and curious.
A young boy trailed us at Sanliurfa’s Pond of Sacred Fish, birthplace of the prophet Abraham, his English surprisingly good. “Why aren’t you in school?” we teased. He laughed, knowing exactly what we meant. Children and teachers at an elementary school invited us into their music class and scrambled to be photographed with us, especially with the two tallest of our group who were regularly mistaken as pro-basketball players.
“I was pretty surprised by their perceptions of us,” said Adam Earnheardt, associate professor and chair of Communications “I had this notion that there would be some animosity toward Americans, especially when we got out of Istanbul. But I was totally wrong. They seemed interested in building lasting, meaningful relationships with us, in education, business and beyond.”
For me, the warmth of çay and the hospitality of the Turkish people were highlights of our visit, along with the unseasonably mild weather and the constant sense of being far removed from our own culture.
One of my favorite recollections is of a businessman who invited us to his private establishment late one night for çay. Following him through shadowy passages barely wide enough for motorcycles, we soon stepped through a doorway opening to a vast seventh-century palace transformed into a café. The owner and his family proudly showed us the former underground wine cellar and bathhouse before serving çay in an intimate space adorned with carpets and pillows. Though they spoke little English – and we spoke even less Turkish – we enjoyed each other’s company for a long time that evening.
“I was completely blown away by the generosity and enthusiasm of the people of Turkey,” said Jeffrey Tyus, associate professor of Communications. He remembered meeting two staff members from a Turkish school at a combination guesthouse/school dormitory where the YSU faculty group was staying. “We spent the next four hours attempting to communicate,” he said. “Showing images on the iPad helped to bridge our communication barriers. To this day, we communicate with one another every day via Facebook – a long-distance friendship that I hope we can sustain until we meet again.”
Randall Goldberg, an assistant professor of Music, recalled another meeting with educators at a private Turkish school that inspired the traveling faculty members to consider a return trip with their YSU students. “It would be amazing for our students to experience life there,” Goldberg said. “It was particularly magical. It felt like we were in some place really different from America. It wasn’t hot, but the sun magnified all the historic sites we visited.”
Exploring the cities, tasting the delicious, authentic cuisine, shopping at bazaars and watching coppersmiths, leather workers and bakers at work are all favorite memories for Joy Christiansen Erb, associate professor of Art. “It is hard to describe the experience,” she said, “but ‘glorious’ and ‘enlightening’ are two words that come to mind.”
We sailed the Euphrates, where we could see the remains of a flooded city beneath the turquoise waters, and a few climbed the steps of the 25,000-seat Great Theatre of Ephesus. We touched the blue tiles of the Sultan Ahmed Mosque and wandered along the moon-like landscape and underground cities of Cappadocia. Some of us wrote personal requests on scraps of paper and tucked them into the “wishing wall” beside the Catholic and Muslim shrine where the Mother Mary purportedly spent her last days.
And while we sipped çay among carpet makers and potters, educators and children, in living rooms, guesthouses and cave cafés, we imagined what future educational and cultural exchanges might happen between YSU and the Niagara Foundation. Certainly, our visit demonstrated how warmth and hospitality can become fertile ground for growing dynamic conversations and relationships.
This was the third trip for a YSU faculty group under the auspices of the Niagara Foundation, and I know it won’t be the last. I am certain, too, that the next YSU group lucky enough to travel to Turkey will enjoy cup after cup of çay as they form lasting remembrances.
I thought I’d conclude with Associate Dean Cary Wecht’s comments, because she captured the beauty and emotional impact of our trip so well.“My memories of Turkey are dream-like, filled with the tastes of fresh tea and perfumed foods, the smells of the spice bazaar, musty caves, fresh pottery, and roasted chestnuts,” she wrote. “Exotic images linger of grand mosques, magnificent rock and land formations, ancient art and ruins, pristine coastlines, and undulating cityscapes with their noble minarets against the night sky. I hear the beautiful prayer calls, luring shouts of market vendors, and the laughter of my colleagues. What a lovely dream it was.”
Editor’s Note: Kelly A. Bancroft teaches composition in YSU’s English Department and at the English Language Institute; Joy Christiansen Erb is an associate professor of Photography. Here’s a link to a photo collage from the faculty group’s summer trip to Turkey.