Friday, September 2, 2016

Friday, September 02, 2016 - 1 comment

Deep Breaths of Home

“I don’t get to come up here all that often, but when I retire, we’ll fix this place up and this is where we’ll live.”

Ömer Abi led us through the skeleton frame of the two-story house out onto the unfinished cement balcony.  The orchard sloped away from the house in a tangle of unkempt grapevines and apricot, mulberry and walnut trees, the last of their leaves clinging to near barren branches.  Fading traces of autumn’s glory graced the foothills of the mountains across the valley from us while their peaks had been newly dusted with the first snow of the harsh Eastern Turkish winter.

“I’ve lived a lot of places in this country - they never station a policeman in his hometown.  But for me, no place is as beautiful as here.”  His eyes shone with pride.  “You could be from the ugliest place in the world - the desert, or somewhere with nothing but dirt and rocks, but if that is what you grew up with, if that is what you are used to, then no matter where you go, you always long for that dirt and those rocks.  That’s what’s beautiful to you, because it’s in you.  It’s home.”

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

There’s an actual word in Turkish for “someone who lives far away from home” - “gurbetçi.”  It’s always pronounced with a bit of wistfulness in the voice, and the inevitable response to hearing that someone is a “gurbetçi” is a look of sympathy mixed with longing.  

Over the last couple of years, I’ve done dozens of interviews with gurbetçiler for my book project, tentatively titled “The Scent of Home.”  Some people I interview have a hard time at first coming up with words to describe their hometowns.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard the phrase “It’s just your average village in Anatolia.”  But when we get to the “smell” questions, suddenly their memories are unlocked and their faces get animated.  “Whenever I smell bread baking, it’s like I’m five again, sitting beside my mom as she cooked yufka over the fire in our back garden.”  “My grandpa always smelled like goats.”  “There was this one brand of lemon-scented hand wipes my parents always used to wipe our faces...” 

The idea for the title came from a conversation with my old language helper when she talked about visiting her “hometown” as an adult.  She’d only actually lived there until she was three, but it was her father’s home and therefore hers, too.   She got this sweet, little girl smile on her face as she talked about the smell of the dirt in her grandparents’ garden, and how as soon as she smelled it, it was familiar, like home.  And she instinctively knew that was the soil she’d been formed from.  That it was a part of her, and she of it.

Last month as I was “retreating” on Bowen Island, I made a discovery about myself.  Well, actually, it was something I already knew, but it was confirmed deep in my heart.  It hit me one morning that weekend, as I sat nestled into a groove in a fat log in a little cove on the south side of the island under a cloudy gray sky.  I was watching the dark waves roll and tease the barnacle-clad shore.   My revelation:  I am British Columbian to the core.  

I may have lived outside of Canada for going on half my life, but this place is home.  It’s in my bones.  

I’ve lived half an hour from the Mediterranean for the past nine years.  And all that turquoise water is gorgeous - don’t get me wrong.  But honestly?  It doesn’t do much for my heart.  But give me rocky shores crowded with pine and fir trees, seagull laughter and the tangy smell of kelp and seaweed tossed in the black waves, and even if - or maybe especially if - it’s sopping wet with rain, I’m the happiest of campers.

I can totally echo Ömer Abi’s sentiments - no matter where in the world I roam (and I’ve roamed a LOT), no place holds a candle to British Columbia.  And I think anyone who’s been here would agree - it’s a whole lot more than a sentimental attachment to my own version of his “dirt and rocks”.  This place is all kinds of gorgeous.   

BC Day happened to fall while I was away on Bowen, and that day, my inner Vancouverite was spoiled rotten with more local beauty than my heart could handle.  

I started the day with a run around lilypad-draped Killarney Lake on a trail that winds 4 km through wet, mossy forest.  And it was the alive-est I’d felt in ages.  I love my dirt-road route back in Turkey.  (Nothing like a herd of sheep to cheer you on!)  And the path in the park behind my elementary school where I usually run when I’m home in BC holds its own special memories.  But that day, as my feet pounded the soft earth, as I burst through glistening spider webs and ducked under low-hanging pine branches and powered up hills stair-stepped with gnarly tree roots, I kept thinking, “I wasn’t built for dodging cracks in the cement and walkers on cell phones and tiny dogs in sweaters - I was made to run here!”

That afternoon, I tried something I’ve wanted to do for years and went paddle-boarding around Snug Cove and Dorman Point.  (Super fun to be “standing up on the ocean”, though next time I think I’ll try someplace a little calmer - the waves from the passing speedboats and ferries had me on my knees more often than my feet!)  Then I headed across the island to Tunstall Beach and, after a quick dip in the chilly water, I let the fading sun warm me dry, settling in to watch all the other brave British Columbians who haven’t had their skin un-toughened by that spoiler of a Mediterranean Sea swimming and paddling and wave-jumping until the sky turned dusky and the cool air sent me in search of some hot soup.

And then came the crowning moment of my already perfectly British Columbian BC Day.  After supper, I climbed the hill behind the retreat centre to watch the last glow of sunset make its way across the North Shore Mountains.  And as I sat and drank in the twilight beauty, from stage left appeared a deer.  He (she?  Perhaps I’m exaggerating my British Columbian-ness if I can't tell the difference!) wasn’t shy in the least and spent the next twenty minutes poking around in the bushes, not minding that he had a spectator as he enjoyed his dinner.

Since that day, I’ve been increasingly aware of those moments that make me think, “I am from here.  This place is in me.”  So often it’s smells.  That oily railroad track-ish scent down at the wharf in Steveston.  (And the accompanying foul odour of fish that have spent too long on the dock on a hot summer day...)  Seashells that have been baking in the sun for awhile.  The way the logs and the sand smell at my favourite spot on the dyke.  And then there’s the warbled cry of a loon over the stillness of Glimpse Lake in the early morning.    The sparkle of raindrops clinging to a fern and the soul-awakening scent of wet tree bark.  The feel of my kayak paddle skimming the still water of the Fraser on a quiet evening.  The quivering of a lakeshore alive with a million tiny frogs.   The curious sight of those little “worm piles” in the tidal pools at Centennial Beach.

I adore my “second home” in Turkey.  The “red and white” in my blood is a tumbled mix of maple leaf and crescent and star.  (Or thick Turkish coffee and maple syrup.  Except I’m not real big on syrup.  So, maybe Turkish coffee and...poutine gravy?)  But for this “gurbetçi”-girl, there are no “rocks and dirt” like the rocks and dirt I came from.  Especially when those rocks and dirt are mussel-jeweled boulders and Pacific-kissed sand.  And if there’s a seagull laughing overhead and the smell of seaweed cooking in the sun, well...that’s just about heaven.

Nefesim memleket kokar
Nefes alırım, ciğerlerim memleket dolar.
Rüzgar bir selam getirir diyarımdan
Sıla özleminden ciğerlerim ağlar.

The air I breathe smells of my homeland,
I breathe in and my lungs fill with home.
The wind brings a greeting from my land,
And my insides cry with homesick longing...

~ Şaban Daş, Turkish poet


Great piece Jamie! I'm so with you there. But then it seems it's hard to drink in the fullness of the beauty of our 'memleket' unless we've been away for some time.
Agree, you dodging tiny dogs in sweaters seem out of place. Hahaha!