Chivalry Lives in Turkey

By Nektaria Petrou

While doing research on the southeastern coast of Turkey, my husband and I made a Sunday morning trip to Gözne, a little village on the slopes of the Taurus Mountains. Like naive tourists, we travelled the fourteen miles of precarious mountain roads from the city of Mersin in a taxi, but we had the good sense to tell the driver not to wait for us when we arrived. With no idea how we would get back to our hotel in Mersin, we climbed a wooded cliff to the town’s medieval Armenian castle, explored the ruins of a fortress that had once controlled the Cilician plain, and admired a stunning view of the blue Taurus foothills and the hazy Mediterranean beyond.

Hungry after our descent to the village, we looked about for a place to eat and were dismayed. There was only one restaurant: a grill-house with a meager menu and a dining room full of flies. We sat down, wondering how we would manage to communicate and hoping that we would not get food poisoning. An English-speaking customer came to our rescue within seconds. She helped us order our meal, which turned out to be the best spicy kebabs, pita bread, and tomato and pepper salad that we had ever had.

Later on we wandered among the grassy alleys, cypress-lined gardens, and stuccoed cottages of the modest village that, in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, had been the summer retreat of Mersin’s wealthy Christians. Having thoroughly explored Gözne, we returned to the hole-in-the-wall restaurant where we had lunched and asked the same lady, who was still drinking tea, if she knew how we could get back. She related our question to the owner. “The bus passes in twenty minutes,” he replied. “Sit down and I will call you when it comes.” He insisted on treating us to tea and not letting us wait outside, saying that he would personally ensure that the bus did not leave without us. Sure enough, twenty minutes later we heard the joyous honking of an automobile horn, and the restaurant owner ushered us outside and onto the bus.

At first there was sitting room for all, but as we continued to make stops on our way out of the village, some were obliged to stand. At each stop, the young conductor would usher a few single men off the bus, seat any boarding old folks, disabled persons, women, and children, and finally let the men back on. Then we would continue down a winding mountain road with a steep precipice on one side and no guard rails. Every time we stopped for more passengers, many of whom were transporting pickled vine leaves and other preserves to relatives in town, the conductor would repeat his seating process. By the time we reached Mersin—to our surprise, as we fully expected the overloaded bus to take a fatal tumble down the mountain—not one able-bodied man was left seated, and not one had complained of being ousted from his place.

Even more interesting was the way money was handled during this trip. The conductor did not bother himself with collecting fares before passengers got into the bus because his seating work was more important. As soon as we resumed our descent, people would pass money forward to him, hand to hand through the packed bus, and the change would be restored to its rightful owner in exactly the same way. No one tried to avoid payment, nor were there any attempts to pocket someone else’s change. Absolute honesty seemed to be the most natural thing in the world.

Now, whenever I hear a snooty restaurant hostess telling someone with a broken leg to go wait outside, whenever I encounter someone who is too busy to give directions, or whenever I notice a public transport passenger avoiding payment of a fare, I take refuge in my many memories of Turkish chivalry, helpfulness, and honesty. I am comforted by the fact that, at least on the other side of the globe, knights in shining armor still exist.

As a postscript, I must add that we did not get food poisoning: even in mountain villages with insect issues, Turks are scrupulously clean with food.

Copyright © 2014 Nektaria Petrou