“If one had but a single glance to give the world, one should gaze on Istanbul.”
Alphonse de Lamartine (French Poet, Writer and Statesman, 1790-1869)
Tomorrow morning, if all goes well, my wife and I will load our daughters into a taxi at 5:30 am, and we will begin the trek to Istanbul airport, and then to Paris, and then home.
For the past two summers, we've made this same journey, but this time will be different, because we won't be returning to Turkey, or so we believe, except for whatever brief visits we make in the future. In other words, we're going back home.
Like most journeys, it's one of mixed emotions. It sounds banal to say, but I'll miss living in Turkey, and miss Istanbul in particular. To continue with banalities (why not?) one of the strongest impressions I've gleaned over the past few years is that of the "small world." I don't mean in the cultural sense, much less in the spiritual sense. I'm, talking about the extent to which people actually keep bumping into old acquaintances from around the globe.
For the past twenty-five years, my friend Robert has followed a pattern of working and travelling, working and travelling, all over the world. He has lived in Atlanta, Seattle, Sacramento, several cities and towns in Arizona, as well as Botswana, New Guinea, Costa Rica, Switzerland, and now currently in New Zealand. He's bicycled across the US at least three times, as he has over much, if not most, of the world. So he's been a lot of places and met a lot of people, but even he was a bit weirded out when, while walking the crowded streets of Ho Chi Mihn City, he heard his name called, and turned to see an old friend he'd first met in Costa Rica. One of those things.
Robert and I met forty years ago, in Miss Shropshire's first-grade class at James L.Riley Elementary School. We lost track of each other a few years later, then became friends again in high school, and on into the present.
Since we've both lived in a variety of places, we have, since the 1980s, gotten together in Wyoming, where I worked summers as a college student, in Montana, where I was for about six months a unemployed bum, in Switzerland, where Robert was teaching at a boarding school, in Rome, where I had free use of an apartment, but mostly in Atlanta, where Robert was either working or killing time before of after one of his multi-year global jaunts.
As I mentioned, Robert now lives in New Zealand, but tomorrow, like me, he'll be arriving at the Atlanta airport. Totally unplanned, sheer coincidence. I knew he was considering a flight home sometime this summer, but we happened to book our arrival on the same day. It will be good to see Robert again.
An Irish colleague of mine, who lived for a time in Saudi Arabia, ran across a fellow Irishman, and as people will do, they got to talking about where they'd grown up. It turned out they'd both come from the same smallish town in the west of Ireland. Having established that coincidence, they then got to talking about which neighborhood of the town, then which street of the neighborhood, then which address of the street they'd grown up at, on, or in.
As it happened, they eventually realized that, several years apart, they'd both lived in the same house, in fact occupying the same bedroom of this same house. And my colleague assured us (this story was told at a party) that the stranger he'd just met was not pulling his leg, as he was able to describe in considerable detail both the odd configuration of the room and the pattern of the paper that my friend and his mother had hung on the bedroom walls so many years before.
Our first year in Turkey, we lived in Ankara, and most mornings, as I waited for the campus service bus to take me to my office, I'd see the same cluster of people, with schedules similar to my own, waiting at the bus stop. Once or twice previously, I'd had occasion to speak with one member of this group, an American History professor. Though I liked him well enough, I tended to avoid conversation with him because his evident shyness made chatting uncomfortable for everyone involved.
So in the mornings, as I waited for the bus and observed my fellow bus patrons, I happened to notice that this same history professor, named Tim, seemed unusually at ease chatting with an older guy, also American, who taught in the College of Education.
On one particular morning, the older guy mentioned that he'd come to Turkey simply to avoid the boredom he'd felt after retiring from the university where he'd taught in the States.
"Where was that?" asked Tim.
The older guy answered that it was the University of Puget Sound, though he'd spent most of his career teaching at Florida State University.
"That's interesting," said Tim, "I grew up in Tallahassee."
Like the two Irishmen in the story above, they then began to discuss neighborhoods, streets, and so forth.
"How old are you?" asked the older guy.
"Forty-one," Tim answered.
"Hmm, maybe you went to school with my son," the older guy commented, to which, in reply, Tim asked, "What's your son's name?"
When the older guy answered Tim's question (and let me make clear that I am really truncating the conversation, which was now taking place on the bus), there was a moment of rather compelling silence.
"He's your son?" Tim asked.
"Yeah," the older guy said.
"He and I were best friends in middle school. I was at your house every day playing basketball. I remember you teaching us how to shoot the ball, and taking us to practice. I remember going fishing with you in the summer."
"My God," the older guy said, "You're Tim ******."
And then the recollections began in earnest. I'd never quite heard, or overheard, a conversation like this before. I wondered afterward if they hadn't, on some level, felt that they knew or were familiar with each other, even if they were not consciously aware of any such acquaintance. I kept thinking about it for days.
One last tale:
At the same party where my Irish colleague told his tale, Jimmy, another guest, told what is perhaps the strangest variation on this theme. He'd been doing some cabinetry work for Janice, a woman who lives here in Istanbul and whose husband teaches at my current university. (She and her husband both once worked at the university where I attended graduate school, but I didn't know either of them then, so that hardly counts.) Anyway, when Jimmy was finished working for the day, she offered to give him a ride home, but said they would first have to go, via taxi, to the shop where her car was being repaired. She'd drop him off on the way back.
While she paid for the work done on her car, Jimmy stood outside the garage, smoking a cigarette. As he gazed at the traffic, from across a busy street of several lanes, a man in greasy cover-alls slowly emerged. As Jimmy told it, he had the look of a long-time heavy drinker, a man ill-at-ease in some way, and he'd had to gather himself up before crossing the street.
When he got close to Jimmy, he said, in Turkish, "I know you."
Jimmy, who speaks little Turkish (like most of us), started casting around for someone to translate. About that time, Janice walked out of the shop, and again the man said, "I know you," from which point, Janice translated.
"Seven years ago," the man said, "Every morning, seven years ago, I saw you walking through Kings Cross Station. 8:30, every morning."
Jimmy was puzzled.
The man said,"You'd stand like this." He imitated Jimmy's posture. "You crossed your arms this way." The man crossed his arms just so. "I'd see you smoking a cigarette like this." He pointed to Jimmy's hand, which held a cigarette. "I know you, from London, seven years ago."
Jimmy hardly knew what to say.
The man then nodded to emphasize the certainty of his point, turned, and made his way alone back across the street.
Jimmy never did learn the man's name, nor why he'd once lived in London, nor why, in the year 2000, he'd been at Kings Cross Station everyday.
But Jimmy did acknowledge that every morning, seven years earlier, he would in fact arrive at Kings Cross Station at 8:30 in the morning, and the first thing he'd do, upon ascending the station's steps, was to light up a cigarette. And that in fact the man was right, Jimmy did fold his arms in just that way.
I hope to see my friends from Turkey again someday.