The fish is fresh from the lake, the vegetables fresh from the garden, the cheese fresh from the goats. Mustafa and I are preparing dinner in his home in the small town of Civril, Turkey. We have spent the day at the beautiful Lake Isikli and its surrounding villages. We hiked to waterfalls; we talked with fisherman; we hunted down shepherds (for the cheese). An exquisite day untouched by the flashes of other tourists. I feel as those I am the only American to have ever walked these trails.
I met Mustafa, a 26-year-old social worker, through Couch Surfing – a social networking and hospitality exchange website – while trying to find a host in Istanbul. My request generated an unheard of 300+ responses (a testament to Turkish hospitality), including one from Mustafa. His generosity, welcoming nature, and proximity to Pamukkale – a geologist’s playground – sold me. I decided to take a break from the crowds of Istanbul to see another side of Turkey.
Mustafa and his roommate, Ramazan, share a two-bedroom house outside of Civril with no neighbors in sight. Vegetables grow in the garden; almonds can be picked from the trees; mountains emerge on the horizon. While my time in Istanbul was incredible – particularly due to the generosity of my host, Dogus University, and Istanbul Traffic Control – it was equally intense. I find respite here. I am incredibly grateful to Mustafa and Ramazan for their invitation.
Unfortunately, Ramazan was unable to join our adventures around the lake, and I have yet to get to know him. He works six days a week as an agricultural engineer. Tomorrow (Sunday) is his day off. Tonight, he will get home in time for dinner, and we will get a chance to talk. Sort of. Ramazan does not speak English. He has never left Turkey. He has never met an American… until today.
The vegetables have been chopped, the salad is prepared, and the fish is ready to cook. The front doorbell rings. It’s only Ramazan – he is just letting us know he has arrived. Mustafa goes to the door to greet him. I linger in the kitchen. The front door opens; Turkish banter wafts through the hall. They come to the kitchen.
Ramazan and I introduce ourselves and sit down at the kitchen table with Mustafa in between us. The fish is cooking. Our simple introductions have exhausted our shared vocabulary. He knows I am a traveling American; I know he is an agricultural engineer. He turns to Mustafa and says something in Turkish. Mustafa turns to me. He would like to ask you some questions. Is that okay?
I nod and smile, not quite knowing what will come my way.
The questions begin, and they won’t soon desist.
…Why did Bush invade Iraq?
…Why are American presidents so aggressive towards other nations?
…Why does the US get involved in the affairs of other nations?
…How would Romney differ from Obama in international affairs?
…How do Americans perceive Islam?
…Why would it matter if Obama was a Muslim?
Each question comes to me through Mustafa, each answer goes back through him to Ramazan. And then comes another question.
I feel the weight of my words. Their importance far exceeds that of any I have written for an exam or spoken in a class debate. There, my words determined my grade; at this kitchen table, my words determine a perception of a nation. To these two young men, I am representing the United States of America. I have become an ambassador by default.
While the intensity of this conversation is a first, the situation itself is not. I have found myself in similar (though diluted) dialogues in every place I have visited. New friends, acquaintances, or hosts inevitably ask me about American politics – usually centered on health care or the election. The frequency of these topics necessitates a focused effort to avoid recorder responses.
As a traveler, I am trying to immerse myself, to experience life in another way, to begin to understand other cultures. Yet, I also bring my own cultural identity. I represent my town, my university, my nation. In accepting this fellowship, I have inadvertently accepted the role of representing Saint Louis, Vanderbilt, and the United States.
The question-and-answer session has lasted almost an hour. The fish has long been ready. I take a sip of water as my last answer is translated. I try to read Ramazan’s face for his approval (or disapproval). Like all the rest, his response is imperceptible. He says something in Turkish.
Mustafa turns to me; I brace myself for the next question. He likes your answers.
We break bread.