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Florence in Words

Nine and a Half Turkish Lira

Yesterday I couldn’t imagine what made my handbag so heavy, and today I found hidden in it nine handsome Turkish liras and one slightly smaller marked “50,” indicating half a lira. And immediately I thought, I must want to return. Silly? Probably so, but the response is also an indication of how remarkable I found the trip, and for many reasons. After a bus tour of Northern Scotland some ten years ago, I had eschewed bus or “group” trips altogether. What changed my mind about trying again was the label Smith College: Smithies, I reasoned quite sanely, wouldn’t accept boring. And Smithies were themselves not likely to be boring. It was not much of a gamble, therefore, as I look back on my decision to take it on, despite my age and knees.

One of our gulletsInside the gullet cabin
One of our gullets
Inside the gullet cabin

Yes, the weather was hot, but it was also brilliantly stable. No clouds, no rain. Yes there were two days of mostly bus (out of 14), but even those days were spaced with a stop every two hours for some combination of rest rooms, lunch, shopping, or sights. And the important variant to the bus was a four-day excursion on gullets, small, elegant ships that travel the Aegean’s turquoise coast comfortably. For those four days, the group of twenty-four was divided into two and the two ships sailed together to various spots from which the whole group could hike to sites, or swim in the very salty sea.

Alice in the cabinOn the gullet deck
Alice in the cabin
On the deck of the gullet

I’ve left for last the best features: our Turkish guide, our Smith College faculty presence, the sparkle of the Smithies (plus their four husbands and a few friends), and my time with Alice Jackson-Wright, my daughter. Back in New York, Alice summed up the whole in her pithy style: she enjoyed the physical and intellectual challenges. That’s one way of describing our trip. Our guide, Nur Ali Dogan, wanted to give us not only Turkey’s national history, but the pre-history of Turkey’s geography, now cared for and made part of Turkey’s national culture. If one read in advance, it was not a surprise to find that Troy and Ephesus were not archeological locations in Greece and Italy, but in Turkey. These sites and many others, including a great Roman bath and several theatres were not being restored in Rome but in Turkey.

Our guide, Nur Ali DoganEphesus
Our guide, Nur Ali Dogan

Wherever we went, we were not alone, and this was only June. The crowds were impressive, and I remember saying, when we were walking in Ephesus, that I was heartened to see so many people, young and old, interested in the history of ancient cultures. I held on to that bubble for a while, until various people said that the motivation was religious, even sectarian, for St. Paul had written one of his epistles here. We argued about this on and off.

The Ephesus theatreEphesus
The Ephesus theatre

I will always remember Ali’s ability to plan interesting days, to help those who could not easily traverse deep steps and rocky ground, and to find rare shady gathering spots in which he could speak reams of information without notes. He saved for long bus rides historical and sometimes political narratives, as well as short films. Always, he was teaching. Always, we could sense his pride in Turkey.

Alice at the busLunch time
Alice at the bus
Lunch time

All this would have been sufficient, but there was also Professor Nancy Sternbach, a scholar of Spanish literature and culture with special ties to and interest in Turkey. She offered two lectures, the first of which was preparation for the stunning second. First, she described her interest in the history and politics of displaced people, including the intellectual journey that for her connected Spain’s expulsion of the Jews with emigration to Turkey. Then, in a second lecture, this one on our final lengthy bus ride, the connection became personal, even visceral, as Nancy reported on searching for her roots and finding them, in person and photo, in a deserted, remote Turkish town. Her story, now a manuscript in search of a publisher, is as much thriller as memoir.

Ali and Nancy, my daughter Alice, and many of the Smithies, and even one husband, helped me to and through many of the archeological sites and even into and through the mosques and museums. From time to time, I was sorry that I had not made this trip ten or twenty years ago, when my knees were in better shape. But no regrets: This was a journey of a lifetime.
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