The Castle in the Sea

Many summers of my childhood in Turkey, we visited Kizkalesi–or as we called it, The Castle in the Sea, and I recall hearing the story of how a princess was hidden there by her father after receiving a warning that she would die by snake bite. In the story, a snake, smuggled in a basket of fruit, found its mark, killing the princess. When I heard the story I was enthralled by the fantastical idea that a castle would be built out in the sea to protect a life. Though the story is likely fiction, this castle is a bookmark in my childhood memories, alongside images of my sister posing her head above a headless Roman goddesses’ marble sculpture in Ephesus, and watching a fisherman beat the lifeless body of an octopus against jagged rocks to tenderize it before cooking it at the restaurant only a few feet away.

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Turkey, and the beautiful people who make up that country, fill my memories and beg me to come back again and again. It is raw and unapologetic in its daily life–in the nosing of cars (even when their light is red) into any available, or unavailable, space, in the sprawl of animal intestines on a rural fence, during the holy time of Ramadan, in the ruins that peek out and are found at the end of an ancient Roman road, butted up against newer cement roads lined by diesel trucks.

I visited Kizkalesi after graduating from college, taking a kayak out into the Mediterranean, my friend paddling nearby, working my way to the castle that seemed to float like a lily pad on the water. And though it appeared close, it took a long time to get there. Out of breath, I pulled my kayak up against the craggy rocks supporting the castle, dragged it up onto the side, and began to climb through an old castle opening, walking into the inner space, completely empty except for a few seagulls, and wondering about the people who had lived there or worked there way-back-when. Lower level openings revealed old storage rooms, their ceilings long since caved in. I began to climb the crumbling rock steps of a corner turret, looking through the slit window openings at the modern beach town on shore, when a man approached me–no clue where he’d been hiding–telling me I needed to pay to look around. Remember what I said about the unapologetic thing? Well, it would not have been beyond reason to assume this man had no right to collect money for castle visits, but that he had seized a money-making opportunity charging unsuspecting tourists. I mean he didn’t have so much as a name tag to prove his right to demand an admission fee. Anyway, back to the castle: Wearing only a bathing suit and an awkward smile, having no money to my name at that given moment, I explained in my broken Turkish, “Para yok,” (meaning ‘no money’), hoping that the man wouldn’t insist and then hoping he wouldn’t do anything bad to me since I was the only human, robed in only a tiny bathing suit, inside the castle. My friend was snorkeling nearby, providing me with zero assistance in warding off possible creeps. Finally he gave up, probably deducing I was telling the truth since I was pants-less and purse-less and pocket-less, with no other apparent hiding places for cash.

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I decided to join my friend after that, snorkeling off the side of the castle, floating above a minefield of black, spiny sea urchin. But the time stamp, though short in the grand scheme, is pressed into my memories, lovely and floating and timeless held up by tiny, thorned sea urchin on a shallow, pale, seabed.

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Turkish Rug Shopping

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Red and blue patterned rugs, spiraled and ornamented with knots of black

Rolled out and stacked high in the center of the room like a floor painting

My parents tell Nergiz which patterns and colors they love

And the young boy of maybe 9 or 10, gathers each new option,

hefting one on a shoulder and dropping it in a scatter of brilliance on dusty cement

Unfettered they drape the floor like paint, draped for us to admire, hopefully to buy

And more rolling out and more talking, more bargaining on price

rugs stacking higher and higher in the space between us

 The smell of moth balls and cay fills the room

I sip my tea, brought on a copper tray in a diminutive calla lily cup,

sweetened with 2 cubes of sugar and stirred into a blur with a tiny silver spoon

The rough rug presses into the backs of my legs as I sit perched like a bird on a scroll of art

and heat hangs in the air

Everyone smiles and laughs and sips tea

A hand-woven Turkish rug is ours,

a time capsule of that day in Adana

at Negiz’ rug shop, tucked into the alley outside base,

hidden like treasure

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Lemon Cologne

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Traditional Turkish Cologne Lemon Freshness and Hygiene for image 0
Limon Kolonyası

I’ve heard the sense of smell is the strongest, like a line that tugs you right back to another moment all jam packed will the feelings from that moment too. I experienced this years ago when I managed to locate a metal spray can of Aqua Net in preparation for an 80s themed party–I was dragged back, maybe kicking and screaming a bit, to those days when it was all about bang height and backward teasing and spraying, spraying, spraying the whole mess with half a can of Aqua Net, then blowdrying to shellac that crap in place. I had all the feelings all of a sudden: the insecurity of middle school and wondering whether Heather managed to pass my note to the cute boy in Gym class and dreading the shirtless scoliosis test all the girls had to be given in the locker room, standing smack dab in front of a panel of judges (aka: our female teachers) with clipboards and stern expressions.

Well, recently my sweet sister found and purchased something intricately woven into my memories of living in Turkey, both when I was in 2nd, 3rd and 4th grade, living in Adana (in southern Turkey), and again during my high school years living in the capital of Ankara. What she found connected all those moments spread across my childhood and pulled me back in to afternoons eating Iskender with my family, leaving the restaurant greasy and satisfied, but then being stopped at the door by the waiter and told to open our hands to have them baptized in tangy, clean Lemon Cologne. Those memories bring about different feelings–the happy kind. The ones that make me stop and just enjoy the sweetness. I’m reminded of hospitality and beautiful, messy culture, of wide, unfettered smiles and streets crowded with spices and rugs and boys kicking a soccer ball through the crowd while the man in the miniaret cries out in prayer.

Sometimes when I need to remember, when I need to clear the mess, I just douse my hands in lemon cologne and take a deep inhale, and I smile.

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Cigarette Borek

In Turkey, when I lived there as a little girl, it seemed to my childish mind that everyone and everything smoked.  Men flicked ashes onto the sidewalk outside a spice stand with hues of orange spice like pyramids held in burlap sacks, women in headscarves, taking a break from the day’s work, exhaled snaking clouds, smoke curling in front of a wide grin and a belly laugh, old men played backgammon and took turns puffing on a hookah.  Even the vehicles smoked, diesel trucks belching into the flow of traffic, taxis honking and puffing black as they nosed into the flow of traffic, an arm slung out the window holding a pinched cigarette, the men yelling “Allah” and ignoring the color red on the traffic lights.

Yes, smoking seemed as embedded into Turkish life and culture as coffee is in America today.  So it’s no surprise that there is a food called sigara borek.  Translation:  cigarette borek.  I have no doubt that such a dish with such an off-putting namesake might not be embraced whole heartedly in my country.

Sigara Borek: Crisp phyllo rolls filled with feta and scallions - a delicious Turkish appetizer recipe

But, trust me, despite the name, it is delicious and not cancer-causing (at least as far as I know–but if you smoke a pack of these babies a day, all bets are off).  So, what is involved?  Phyllo dough, feta cheese, scallions, parsley, eggs and pepper–all part of my list of foods I can’t live without.  Here’s a great recipe with some lovely pictures of cigarette borek from a site called (photo courtesy of this site).  Check out this old favorite of mine and maybe try making it at home.  Trust me, they’ll go fast! 

But keep an eye on the boreks once you pop them into the oven, or you might find your oven smoking like a big, blue, Turkish worker’s bus.


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Scene in Blank Verse

The palest morning blue sky greets me

Gulls gliding over like white m’s,

crying against the wind that moans through the shutters of the houses

clinging for dear life to the cliff-side

The clouds are crystal clear white but they try to

Define their edges with silver light

He hands the warm mug to me, offering a grin and eyebrow raise

That says he knows how I handle mornings and is proud I’m here in front

Of the window watching the sky before the small hand has reached the six

His skating-pond-grey eyes dance with light and

He lifts his coffee to his upturned mouth

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Isleham road winds like a cobblestone ribbon, dropping off

to ribbons of white, dipping on a ribbon of sea-glass blue ocean,

My ancient castle tells ancient tales and laughs at my own age,

so devoid of words like wisdom and experience,

snaking a ribbon of fear against ribs extended with the climb

salt tickles my cheeks and tells me a story about a queen standing here, hair flying,

on a cliff that gives way to hostile grey rocks below,

hammered by navy blue hands and feet

She stands there and looks out at her opposition and smiles

And a stout woman, here and now, sits on her chair, knee-high hose sausaging

below her plump knees

and she cackles and gossips and flicks a spark off her cigarette

A folded Globe newspaper spreads its wings and flaps against the stiff breeze

smelling of kelp and decay

Fish and chips folded in newsprint crinkle in my hands and I pinch off the briny gift

soaked in malt vinegar and history

A ribbon of courage turns my head to the sea

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The Ride to School

The kapici sags in his plastic chair,

“guarding” the lives–stacked high in the shabby building–with boredom

and indifference

He is not a bad man, just old and beyond a time when he might have been heroic


He flicks his cigarette onto the ground, then takes a drag,

his eyes squinting at me as I pass

and the smell tickles my nose and burns my eyes


Cold glass cools my palms as I press the see-through door

to go out to the sidewalk and then the street

My footsteps ricocheting on pavement

And I hold my breath as dad starts the car,


a roar of sound jerks my nerves like a prod

I saw him from above, looking down from my vantage of the living room window,

As he knelt to reflect the underneath of our very American van with a hand mirror


But we are alive

as we drive the new route to the school on base,

at the new time

we fight to live through this old fight

Chinning the air with our false courage


I swallow the fear that creeps up my throat like battery acid,

the road blurring beyond the blunt nose of the Chevy

until the guard shack comes into view

And I breathe relief,

Back sinking a fraction against my seat


Dad salutes the MP wearing navy blue at the gate

And I smile through the tinted window

Nothing was stolen today,

Save the childish sense of security that can’t be retrieved,


But that flew away the day the war began

A million years ago

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Tasting Roses

Ankara was a place of smells that I drank for two years

I was quickly intoxicated, and now remember, especially, the scent of miniature roses

The woman with the head cloth and dark skin and plastic sandals

Would bring bunches of them

In big, blue buckets,

Carrying them down to the market-place early in the morning

Before competing smells could intrude

Roses were cheap, and often I would treat myself ,

For just 1000 Lira a piece to four or five,

And would press them to my nose as I walked through the city

I would grip the long stems, inhaling that first clean breath, thorns in my hands,

Not even feeling them burrow there,

And I would let the leaves caress my cheeks, nose, mouth,

The centers opening like clams as I walked,

Revealing the pearl–a pink, soft center

Day after day, I would wander through the crowds going nowhere in particular,

My roses replacing the old familiar smells of ekmek, Delight, exhaust, and body odor

All the time I was breathing in the centers, the petals kept falling back further; still

Nothing could stop me from drinking the smell of miniature roses,

Nothing could make me loosen my hold and release the thorns from my skin

Sometimes, I would even return to the market-place as it was closing down,

Out of breath, roses hanging limp heads over my white grip,

The sound of the man in the minaret calling everyone to worship,

Just to see if the woman with the blue buckets had thrown any unsold roses on the

Pavement that I could collect and walk away with,

And again, pull my air from their life

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Memories spring up from the strangest of places, of moments and hideaways I’d temporarily forgotten.  One is the view from our maid’s roof.  I could see the whole village from there.  Dirty rooftops, laundry lines pulling from roof to roof, as if the line was never-ending and connected, with little blue sweaters and head scarves hanging there.  Women sat on the roofs and made bread or bulgar and chattered or sang that familiar Turkish song that sounds like crying.  Men’s voices sang too, from the tops of minarets (they sang in rounds, it seemed) the sound traveling too slowly from minaret to minaret to be in sync.  On the dirty streets, children played soccer in little plastic sandals.

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Sleeping over at Aynur’s House


Sleeping over at our maid, Aynur’s, house always thrilled me and sort of scared me at the same time.  I remember having to take three buses to get there.  Get on, ride deeper into the city.  Get off.  Wait.  Get on again, the security of the Air Force base moving the other direction.  The last bus was small and beat up and the people bounced around inside with blank faces.  I tried to act brave and would stare at their faces out of the corner of my eye, trying to imitate.  Aynur was close by but quiet this evening and somewhere else in her thoughts, and I wondered if maybe this was my fault somehow and then wished I didn’t look so American and wished that Aynur would laugh and grab my cheeks like she usually did.  The bus stopped, the hiss of the breaks ascending above the silence, then lurched forward and we all shifted and staggered, then found our footing again as it barreled carelessly down the small streets.  It smelled like body odor and bread and my stomach growled.

Aynur’s house was a second story apartment–peeling white paint and chickens running around out front.  She kicked at them and said, “Git!” and we walked up the steps, that had no rail, up to her dirty metal-doored home.  Her son Mustafa and her daughter Cheedem came out grinning and Aynur asked them something in Turkish and she frowned as they answered shortly staring up at her; then they went inside.  I guessed it had something to do with her husband, only because that was the only time she frowned that I could recall.  She had shown me their wedding pictures the last time I was over and all of the pictures had finger sized holes poked through above some man’s body.  They were pictures of Aynur smiling, beautiful in a white dress and hair piled on her head, held there by shiny pearled pins, make-up on and nice shoes (I had never seen her like that) beside some body wearing a suit but no head.  In her broken English, Aynur said something about him being bad and we laughed about the holes, but I knew we didn’t think it was funny, neither of us.  I didn’t really understand it all and was a bit annoyed because I never had seen his face and he was never there those nights I slept over.

Aynur put me to work helping to prepare dinner.  I was to peel the potatoes.  She scolded me for peeling so much off and grabbed the potato out of my hand, picked up one of my thick peels from the bowl, then threw the peel in and showed me how to peel it close and thin.  I angled the dull knife against the skin and looking at her paper-thin peels, then began again, determined to do it as well as she had.  Aynur chopped tomatoes and cucumber and smiled at me now and then as she watched my peels get thinner and thinner.

Later we sat together on the floor and ate quietly, me, Cheedem, Mustafa and Aynur– all greasy-lipped and chewing.  They sometimes talked in Turkish and I pretended to understand but really just guessed from their faces and the way their voices moved.  When I wanted to speak, I signed and used facial expressions and sometimes I jumped around the room and acted things out.  I knew how to say  “yes” and “very good” and “very bad” and remember feeling sure this night when I said, “Very bad!Çok fena!”  Looking at those poked out heads, “Çok fena!” and made a face of disgust at Aynur’s very bad husband.

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