Trabzon is a historically important and modernly abandoned city on the Black Sea coast of Turkey, or Turkiye for you cultural elitists out there. The city has an incredibly rich history, however, as is common with most currently impoverished shadows of former cultural glory, most of the people and articles dealing with Trabzon hide themselves in its past, while cheerfully dismissing its current state of operation. Suffice to say that about five minutes after the Ottoman Empire joined World War I on the side of Germany, 21 Russian battleships bombarded the thriving port city and reduced many of its most precious sites to rubble. After a few days of what is most often described by Turks as glorious resistance to their oppressors, the city was taken and manhandled by Bolsheviks. I imagine that the troops were very happy to procure one of the hazelnut capitals of the world for the motherland though.
After the Treaty of Lausanne the city, its women, hazelnuts, and tobacco were regretfully returned to the newly formed state of Turkey. The post war years saw a resurgence of these popular cash crops. Unfortunately, during World War II, while thousands of warships, submarines, and aircraft carriers were turning the Black Sea into an inner-city community pool during a sweltering day in July, the safety of Trabzon’s precious cargo, leaving through what was historically a thriving commercial body of water could not be guaranteed and the standard of living in the city plummeted.
While the reforms during the past few decades have made Istanbul, Ankara, and the tourist locales of Izmir, Marmaris, and Antalia thriving international cities, most of the wealth has bypassed this nigh forgotten corner of the country.
Enter the American idiot.
I came to this touching little mega-hamlet during my whistle-stop
tour of Turkey with a Turkish friend. We were visiting a college student there, and stayed in his apartment for nine days. The plan was to head to the Kackar Mountain
range to camp out for a few days with a scenic view of neighboring Georgia
; however an act of god flooded the entire range and destroyed a good section of the single road leading to the summit. Ironically reminiscent of the major act of god
in which a pre-historic naval vessel filled with a carnivore's dream buffet
supposedly went to ground on a nearby Turkish mountaintop.
During my prolonged stay I was able to haphazardly discover many of the cities most charming, and most depraved spots. The most important piece of advice I can give to any haphazard traveler planning to chance across Turkey is this: go on a diet right now. Drop some weight before you get there, because if you miss a single breakfast, lunch or dinner, it is a tragedy. Trabzon’s bakeries are unbelievable; the restaurants deliver fruit that is so fresh that I was unable to eat a single tomato in the US for a month after I got home, because they seemed so tasteless. This is the land of the gyro, and we are the land of the Big Mac, their really isn’t a culinary contest.
Trabzon also sports a geological phenomenon that I have only since seen in Japan, mountains rolling straight into the water. Maybe some of you see this all the time, but you don’t see it on the East Coast. Grafted into the largest inhabited mountain in Trabzon is a giant sign in block white letters. It was constructed in either a mocking, or genuine mimicry of the infamous HOLLYWOOD sign.
Among the things to do, is to find a tea house somewhere on the side of said mountain, have some wonderful Chai Tea from an old fashioned tea set and play chess. A word of advice: sit with your back to the mountain, it gives you a more dignified air if you’re getting pummeled and you can dejectedly look at the sea while pretending to formulate strategy. For instance, I prefer Queen 8 to suicide 14.
Also as a general travel rule for Americans, if you’re playing a game or learning a game in a foreign country, especially one within bombing range of a current US war of aggression…lose. It makes you look more hapless and amiable.
Should you feel the urge to take in an American movie at any of the theatres,you will find all the films in English with Turkish subtitles for those of you learning the language through Sin City or Batman Begins. However, if you don’t speak Turkish, do not go to the movies to see an indie flick from Mexico, no matter how interesting the poster is, even if you have three Turkish friends translating the lines for you, it gets tedious after the first hour.
If you do decide to go shopping, you can be almost guaranteed that the product you buy is of stellar quality. Trabzon’s material and craft industries are still dominated by an apprenticeship system. Many trades and businesses have been passed down for many generations from parent to offspring, and unlike businesses in the US they have no intention of hiding the beauty or sweat of their craft from their customers. Almost all of the work done to create or repair any practical or artistic item is done within view of the shop windows, or even outside the boutique itself. Fathers, sons, wives, and daughters work in a nuclear harmony through all the gray and dusty streets of the city.
The Turks are also renowned for their hospitality. It helped that I was traveling with a Turk, but everywhere we went we received a lavish welcome, a fistful of food, and all the Turkish coffee we could drink before the caffeine content severed the nerve connections to our brains and we began playing a rousing game of who can punch the most holes through this wall. On one particular night, my friends and I were invited to dinner at the apartment of a lovely young lady named Shelale, whose name translates to waterfall in Turkish. The meal was unbearably delicious, but the location of the meal was by far the best part of the evening. She lived on the 10th floor of an apartment building in “downtown” Trabzon. We sat outside and had the meal on the roof, as the sun was setting.
Now for those of you who are Muslims or simply mystically enlightened, you know that sunset is one of the most important times of prayer for Muslims, and if you live are or travelling within range of a Mosque at sundown, you will hear the call to prayer.
The call to prayer is haunting and musical under the worst of circumstances, but being above most of the city, we could follow the call from Mosque to Mosque, minaret to minaret, and then follow the sound telescoping and bouncing around the mountains before floating out to sea, like radio broadcast condemned to the empty vacuum above the atmosphere. Bearing that in mind I will usher into the reason for this bloviated story of Trabzon, as an introduction to the poem about my time in the city:
In Trabzon the streets bleed into the Black Sea,
which isn’t black, more the color of a vast bruise
below the flesh of the horizon.
It is the color of every small city,
the color of used cars and used clothes.
Families live in the revolving door
of generations, spilling into the same
jobs, the same marriages, the same
dreams as their parents.
Thousands of seagulls drift upwards
with the fireworks that accompany
a wedding reception.
Their wings flicker like snow
suspended in the distance;
their squawks become white noise
against the moonlit screen of clouds.
We play Turkish monopoly on a rooftop,
the hat pays rent to the battleship,
and I look into the face of a girl
whose name translates to waterfall,
when the sounds of seagulls bursts
into a wave of Arabic song.
I follow the sounds of a wrinkled voice,
beseeching me to praise the creator of all things.
The call to prayer comes in stereo,
the desert God’s dirge bounces
from the mountains and surrounds me
for a time, before it fades
into the watery bruise of the sea;
black now under the half moon,
which lolls in the night sky,
a picture on the chalkboard
smudged by an absent minded teacher.
Thinking of old classrooms my gaze wanders
to the windows, to the sky, to the water;
and I see a train of lights along the coast.
The moisture rising from the water turns
the lines of streetlights and houselights
into a procession of flickering torches.
The landing strip for an angry mob,
at the climax of an old horror movie.
Coming for the monster who thinks
there is poetry in daily struggle.
The hat lands on a square
and my friend translates my monopoly directions
on the back of a card that reads: