The man with the bitter tea

I woke up to breakfast with my Turkish hosts. I went back to bed. I had stayed up late studying Norwegian. I wonder if I unconsciously do this to sabotage my real work, building in excuses for my lack of productivity, for my accumulating failures.


I woke up again. Cranky without apparent explanation. I walked to the beach and opened a book a girl once gave me. The first of two. Both very thoughtful. I tried to remember if any other girl had ever given me a book. None had given me two, anyways. I am a fool. Books are what I want to be given, after all.

It was artful and witty, as I remembered. On a beachside patio a Turkish man was chilling in sunglasses and a leather jacket, attending to four pairs of lounge chairs on the pebble beach, one actually occupied. I had my pick of empty tables.

His çay was bitter and strong. He practiced with me, özel, a word I see often — the çay was özel, he claimed. I agreed with him though I felt the opposite. I sat there enjoying the sun. When the çay was nearly empty, he asked if I wanted a refill. I drank three bitter glasses in all.

He began asking me questions. I told him I was an English teacher. I am staying at a hotel. What was the name? I forget. (Explaining AirBnB was beyond my energy). How many students did I have? Twenty-five. He seemed very happy with this. He complimented my Turkish. I said some more things badly.

I was absorbed in the book a girl once gave me, transcribing words I did not know. He was unfazed by my engrossment, or didn’t notice it, interjecting his questions. I decided to leave. This is Turkish hospitality and I should be glad for it, I scolded myself. Still, if I don’t get a lot done today, I would run the risk of real self-loathing.

Another man was crossing the beach with a tray atop one shoulder. The man with the bitter çay called to him. The tray was full of lemons and mussels, their shells full of cooked rice. I watched this as I packed my books. I hoped he would not offer me some. Instead the man with the bitter çay bought me one.

The first rule of Istanbul is to never buy the mussels on the street (whose shells are full of rice). They are almost always days old and, besides that, were not even good when they first came out of the sea. But, you say, you were at that moment, in full view of the sea. If I sprinted maybe I could be immersed in cold water. Maybe my mind would refresh. Maybe clarity would revisit.


Last year I met a restaurant owner and chef in Bodrum. She made incredible pizzas at night and served decadent Turkish breakfasts until four in the afternoon. She didn’t have the best location, tucked behind the main boardwalk, a generic seafood joint better positioned on her corner was doing endless business. Bodrum is seaside, but that joint had all its seafood trucked in from Istanbul and fish farms a few times a week.

“There are only like five fishermen left in all of Bodrum,” she explained. I paraphrase but don’t exaggerate. We laughed together about the first rule of Istanbul. No seafood on her menu besides salmon marked “(from frozen)”.

The man with the bitter çay bought me another mussel. I ate it dutifully. A third mussel paraded from the seller’s hand. I needed to extricate myself! Three glasses of bitter çay and three mussels with rice in the shells. Both men seemed pleased with themselves. I thanked them and left. I kept thinking, it only takes one bad mussel, as I walked up the cliff towards Antalya.


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