Tea (çay – pronounced chai) is abundant in Turkey. I’ve never seen a more popular drink in any country I’ve visited. Tea is more than a drink here, it’s a way of life, for some it is their life. Tea is served in small glass cups on glass saucers. It comes with a teaspoon and two sugars. The use of glass is so that people can check the colour of the tea. The glasses are small so that the tea is always drunk hot. When I say they drink a lot of tea I cannot overstate this fact. “My father drinks 2.5 litres a day,” one friend told us. 40-50 cups a day was a fairly common amount. That’s 18,000 cups a year, almost a million cups in a tea drinking lifetime. A quarter of a million pounds spent on tea! That’s a lot of tea… 50 cups is 100 sugar cubes a day! We think we drank about 5 cups a day on average. From 10 sugar cubes a day, being the healthy cyclists we are, we cut down to 1 per cup, unless it was very strong. After finding out that a single can of Coke has 17 sugar cubes in it we became decidedly less concerned about the sugar in our tea! We drank tea for breakfast, lunch and dinner, as well as in between meals. We drank it in shops, garage forecourts, construction sites, on farms, in the police station, fire station, everywhere. Tea is prepared on a special stove with a dual pot system – one for tea and one for hot water to dilute the strong, bitter tea. Whilst engaged in tea drinking, overlooking a beautiful sunset with local friends we found that the tea had run out. No problem I said, just pour the hot water into the teapot. This was met with a frantic waving of hands, a look of disgust and a loud “No!” as if it was either a ridiculously stupid idea or hugely offensive… They take tea seriously!
At times of problems or issues (the tüp field, the police station) tea was always the priority. It was as if this small vessel of cherished nectar could resolve all the problems of the world. Why were more conflicts, wars and political issues not resolved with a cup of çay or two? “Çay” would often be the first word out of someone’s mouth, well before “hello”! The singular word encompassed everything “Hello, how are you? Come in. Sit down, take a rest.” They only needed one word. Tea went hand in hand with Turkish hospitality, they were synonymous. Whilst attempting to buy WD-40 in a hardware shop we were promptly given tea as we waited. Stopping to get directions in a petrol station we were again given tea. On one day we did feel we would never get our mileage done as everyone seemed to be inviting us over for tea. One man even chased us down the street because we wouldn’t stop! It became a running joke, but it continued and several times an hour we were pulled over with waves and shouts of “Çay! Çay!” We could never refuse!
Tea houses are fascinating places consisting of felt covered tables surrounded by a clientele of only men, who either engage in watching television together, playing Okey (a Turkish tile game), cards or backgammon. Women are so clearly not expected that there are only urinals in the bathroom. Having already learnt the basics of Okey we were challenged to prove our newly developed skills against real opposition when we stayed overnight at a tea house in the Turkish mountains. Two Brits against two Turks. Winning a game reduced your score by 2 points. Both teams started with 20. First to 0 wins. The game began lightheartedly. We didn’t believe we had a chance, they knew we didn’t. After winning four of the first six games and winning with double points in the first game the Turks were rattled. We were loving it! For fear of shaming their nation our two opponents were subbed out and replaced by some big dogs. This made it much tighter, but somehow we managed to push our way through to our first competitive win! A huge achievement and a big upset! Our second competitive match came only a few days later on the Black Sea coast. We were challenged to a game by some university students. We reasoned that they would be well practised, having lots of free time for tea and games. We sat down under the dim lights. The small table surrounded with other students spectating. I sat facing Nick, the pride of a nation was at stake once more. We told them we went to Cambridge. They seemed a little agitated. We joked that we were British Okey champions. They shuffled in their seats. The tiles were cast into the middle face down and rattled loudly as they were mixed up. The first hand was dealt. Nick and I played deliberately and methodically, the Turks were impatient and wanted a faster game. The first game went our way, as did the second. In the third game I won with double points in only half a dozen rounds. They both looked stunned. My phone rang, so I left them to sit there, jaws hanging. I came back to find Nick being bullied in the fourth game. Once again reunited we went on to win all but one game. We called it an evening and said it was time to go, even though we were having a great time! They conceded and mumbled between themselves about us being British champions. “That was a joke,” we told them, “this is the second time we’ve ever played!” Flabbergasted, the pair of them and all spectators, we hopped onto our bikes leaving them stood in a line, watching us disappear into the blackness.
As our Turkey adventure drew to a close we reminisced about our time in this fantastic country. “One last half kilo of baklava before we cross the border”, I said. Nick took no persuading. We found one last baklava shop in the final town. Counting out our coins we managed to scrape together enough for a box. We walked across the square looking for a place to sit and eat our sugary delight. We sat at a small table looking into the square. “Çay?” a man approached. “Sorry, no money.” “No problem”, he said. There we were, baklava, tea and the warmth, hospitality, kindness and generosity that epitomised our Turkish travels.
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