We are now five or six days outside of Istanbul and are heading east along the Black Sea. Leaving the big city behind, we’ve rediscovered Turkish people’s unbelievable hospitality, whether in the countless teas they offer us (it’s practically a second word for hello), in the way they drop everything to help whenever they can, or just in their beaming smiles and frantic waves from the side of the road when we zoom past. As a Londoner who desperately avoids eye contact on the Tube like everybody else, this behaviour comes as a very welcome shock! Our night in the fire station a few days ago works as quite a good example of how things have gone so far:
We’d set off early that morning from our previous sleeping spot, which had been the first floor of a quiet building site in a small coastal town. Not our Plan A for a place to stay to be honest, but it had started to pour with rain in the evening and at that point floorspace indoors suddenly became very appealing. So it did for half a dozen stray dogs it seemed, who fought it out amongst each other for control of the ground floor. Certainly added excitement to the evening, as Turkish dogs are both big and bloody vicious. We somehow managed to retreat upstairs and barricade the stairs off amid all the commotion, the barks and the thundering rain, even marking our own territory by peeing emphatically on the landing. Still, having survived the night it seemed foolish to stay for round two, so we sneaked off and pedalled hard on our way the next morning. So it was that we arrived at 3pm in a town called Alapli, where we intended to spend the night.
Enter Mehmet, a thirty-something bloke who had spotted us from the town’s tea garden. Sat with a bunch of mates, he waved us over practically before we’d brought the bikes to a halt. Tea first of course, which comes bitter in tiny glasses and needs at least two sugars. Then we talked. It turned out that Mehmet, recently unemployed, had decided to turn his life around and learn English. He’d done it all from CDs on his own and spoke very well: he quickly became our table’s translator. So we spent the afternoon chatting away and he introduced us to the most important teahouse game in Turkey, a tile game which is a sort of variation on rummy. The men seem to while away their afternoons smoking, drinking tea and playing round after round of this game, called Okey!, letting the women do all the serious work. Anyway being keen to gamble with the local regulars we quickly accepted to playing a best-of-21 set – Mehmet and his mates kept letting us win and ordering more tea as prize money. This set extended into the early evening as the heavens opened again and it poured with rain to remind us of England.
In fact we were both too engrossed in the tiles to notice the light quickly fading, which is a pretty basic mistake if you consider we had camped our whole way across Europe: we knew from the few times we’d done it that looking for a camping spot in the dark was about as fun as it sounds! Mehmet translated the swear word we had both just let out, to the amusement of the table, who asked what the matter was. We explained. An excited debate began around the table in Turkish – mates were dragged in, phone calls were made and people actually began fiercely arguing with each other about how best to help us out. So much so that when we left for the police station – somebody knew somebody in the force, it seemed a good idea – a whole troupe of spectators/fans/old men accompanied us, forming a little parade around our bicycles in the narrow streets of the town.
Tea was served. We were in an office with about 15 bystanders who between them had explained our situation to the two young coppers across the desk. Asking for tea had been their first and only move since the end of this explanation, and now we waited in a slightly awkward silence for the chief of police, who was apparently in a meeting.
Various policemen floated in and out (some in incredible tie-shirt combos) and each time we were introduced with a double handshake and an emphatic thumbs-up. Then after a while (it was completely dark outside at this point) clearly the chief walked in: suddenly teas were put down and everyone jumped to their feet. Silence. The chief walked through the tunnel that our fans had formed and stuck out a hand to us, unsmiling. We tried another cheesy travel magazine smile back, but this one was met with an indifferent business-like exterior. Pinstripe and black shoes I could see my reflection in. “Football team?” the chief asked. Lobby replied instantly, “Manchester United.” Another long silence. It felt like the breath had been sucked out of the room as everyone held theirs, waiting for the chief’s reaction. He studied us in our grubby lycra, face giving nothing away – until the corner of his mouth twitched. “Okay.” he said slowly, and walked back out of the door. Apparently this answer was all that had been needed, as we were then hurried along to our next destination: the fire station. I wondered what would’ve happened if Lobby had said Man City.
Mehmet explained that we had needed the chief’s approval to stay the night in town without being officially checked into a hotel, and that we were now off to spend the night at the fire station with one of his old mates. He apologised for not being able to host us himself, explaining that he lived with his parents. Were we hungry? More phone calls. So when we arrived, not only were we introduced to the entire brigade and given a tour, but the head of the local political party showed up to shake our hands and our takeaway dinner arrived in a police car. Not bad for a game of tiles in a tea garden!!! We were swiftly shown to the showers (which ironically had no cold tap – some really do like it hot) and spent the rest of the evening chatting with the brigade. Mehmet, something of a hero figure, stayed around until the end of the brigade’s midnight shift to translate. We can confirm that there were no fires in Alapli that night as we slept undisturbed in the mess room until the morning. After eating the breakfast spread which was laid on by our firemen hosts we cycled away eastwards, wondering if this kind of luck could possibly hold.