This is one of three travel books Michael Pereira has written about Turkey in the sixties. The others are Istanbul, Aspects of a City, published in 1968, and Mountains and a Shore, published in 1966, about his trip in southern Turkey. He also has a novel set in Turkey, When One Door Shuts, published in 1969, which I have yet to read. Another travel book, Across the Caucasus, is about his travels in further northeast in Georgia, which was back then part of the Soviet Union.
The author is fluent in Turkish language, culture and history. There is extensive material on the history of the region with the Turks (Turkomans, Seljuks, and then the Ottomans), Russians, Georgians, Greeks, Armenians and Persians, in particular about the Russian-Turkish wars of the last two centuries, including the politics and the battles. He explains how the borders finally ended up with the way they did between Turkey, Russia-Soviet Union and then Georgia, Azerbaijan and Iran.
He travels with his companion Tim, in parts of Turkey many people would not visit -except for Trabzon itself which is well-known- either on foot or by public transport thus constantly talking to locals. From his explanations of Turkish phrases, he must have been really good with the language. (At this point I am jealous. How do people learn a foreign language so well? What is the trick, really? Is there a natural language skill like some people are naturally gifted for music or for math, are some people natural language learners?) He can come up with idiomatic expressions and differentiate between different accents. His command of Turkish gives him access to people, especially children (boys) who hike with the author and play the role of guides in some places. His journey is so different than today’s Instagram trips with many colors, but not much soul. After arriving at an inn following a very long hike, instead of going to eat immediately, they choose to chat with the owner of the inn.
We could have gone out straightaway, of course: we were certainly hungry enough. But I have always found, and Tim agrees, that it adds enormously to the pleasure of travel if one takes the trouble to get to know the people amongst whom one finds oneself. I say “takes the trouble”, because it is much easier, especially when one is tired, just to smile and say hello and go one’s way. To keep to oneself, in fact. It is hard making conversation in a foreign language to total strangers, particularly in country districts where the local dialect is often difficult to understand. But it pays – a hundredfold. For merely to see is not enough. To understand, one must talk. (p177)
The trip ends in Trabzon, a rather big city today. It was the capital of the Pontic-Greek Empire of Trebizond which split from the Byzantines around the time of the Latin Sack of Constantinople and was later absorbed into the Ottoman Empire. The personal importance of the city for me is that my grandfather’s family parents most likely came through this port after being expelled by the Russians through 1864-1867 as part of their Caucasus campaign. I was planning to visit the city this Summer, but will have to wait a little more. In the last chapter of the book, the lyrics of a song about Trabzon is given. At some point the lyrics have been updated with akçe replaced by para, both meaning money, and hamsi balık, the local sardine of the Black Sea, being replaced by güzel kızlar, pretty girls. Here is the song:
In this book we see a country trying to lift itself up from poverty, the government working to connect remote places, people with hope but not enough resources. Much of the time they are surprised by two Englishman appearing in their remote villages but also flattered by their interest in them and their country. Turkish hospitality (and curiosity about strangers) is always prevalent. I was so impressed by his writing and his personality as a traveler that I tried to find out more about the author. Unfortunately, Google does not know everything. I could not get any information apart from the list of his books – which I already had- and several short reviews of his books in British newspapers when they were published. There was no obituary and his name is pretty common. Eventually, I contacted the publisher who re-published one of his books, Mountains and a Shore, in 2015. I learned that he has passed away in April 2019. I am keeping my fingers crossed for any more information I can get.