By George Dearsley
We’ve all been there, haven’t we? You are in a foreign country and some strangers approach you. You immediately think: “Whatever they are selling, I’m not buying.”
That’s how it was for me nearly 50 years ago when a group of youths sidled up to me in Istanbul.
Only this time they opened my eyes to the kindness, beauty, history and eccentricity of a country that has totally beguiled me ever since.
I was just out of university on a trip that eventually took me and a pal to Japan.
The lads later introduced me to a 14-year-old boy, Levent, who spoke good English. We became like brothers and we now live opposite each other in a traditional Turkish village called Kaplan about 90 minutes’ drive from Izmir.
People here use horses and donkeys more than cars, which are expensive and chickens roam free. But astonishingly the village boasts three excellent restaurants, one of which has been reviewed in the New York Times.
Spain’s top chef came two years ago and made a television programme there. That’s typical of the contrariness of this country. You never know what to expect.
That was certainly true when I was arrested in Istanbul as a spy in 1974 when Greece and Turkey were at war over Cyprus. I was later released.
The love affair with Turkey that began with that chance meeting I have now documented in a book called Twelve Camels For Your Wife.
The title is something an Istanbul nightclub owner whispered to me as a belly dancer sashayed on our table in the 1980s.
At the end of that decade my wife Carolyn and I bought a holiday flat in a seaside resort called Şile near Istanbul. It was perfect for our two young kids.
But ten years later we awoke at 3am to one of the biggest earthquakes ever to hit the country. It was 7.6, more than 17,000 people died and 250,000 were made homeless.
Luckily the epicentre was 80 miles away and although our building shook like a washer on full spin no one was harmed.
Although we only came for a month at a time we became mini celebrities in Şile.
Through the owner of a leading hotel, Carolyn and I, along with genuinely famous Turks, judged the town’s beauty contest for three years.
There was uproar one year when a Swedish girls’ football team turned up to train for a tournament on the beach topless. A crowd of several thousand spectators quickly gathered but unfortunately for them the police shut the session down.
We would spend hours looking out to sea from our top floor balcony. Then one day, another first, a sea plane landed. People got out and went into the town.
A few hours later it tried to take off. Something went wrong and it sank, right before our eyes.
I rushed into town to be told that on board was Turkey’s most famous criminal, now wrapped in a towel and sitting forlornly on a jetty.
When he was later jailed a friend of ours who serviced his speedboat took us out for rides in it.
Seven years ago we decided to move to Turkey full time.
Levent had moved from Istanbul to the Aegean area, opened a bed and breakfast place and told us about a nearby property for sale.
It needed a lot of renovation but the plot was 2000 sq m and contained three buildings and numerous fruit trees.
A run-down, sixty-square-metre garage in Stoke Newington, London, was sold around the same time for six times what we paid.
The weather is wonderful, the food exceptional, the pace of life slow and the cost of living about a third of that in the UK.
I have travelled extensively in Turkey and visited most of the major sites, which are breathtaking.
But it’s actually the hospitality of the people that I find most enchanting and endearing.
Many times repair men and women have refused to take payment for small jobs and the number of kindnesses done to us over the years has been humbling.
This was one of the reasons that kept me coming back. Most people are dirt poor but they will go out of their way to help you or share what they have.
For the majority life is very hard yet they are invariably smiling and find humour in the most prosaic things, even when they go wrong.
Ramazan, the time of fasting, starts on April 12 and it ends with Kurban Bayram, a bit like our harvest festival, when Turks traditionally slaughter a sheep or a goat and share the meat with family, friends and the poor.
Last year more than 70 locals, including my next door neighbour, had to go to hospital with self inflicted knife wounds after accidents. But they all laughed about it.
Whether you are a holidaymaker or are thinking of living abroad I try in the book to explain the culture, habits and customs of Turkey, from camel wrestling to circumcision and from greasy wrestling to crazy driving.
And invariably there’s a funny story involved. Or a funny character, like Danny the London Jew sentenced to death for smuggling 5.5 kilos of cannabis, who later became a celebrity in jail, wrote a book and on his release after 12 years opened a business called The Cockroach Hotel.
The night he tried to promote one of his guests as a star musician in an up-market restaurant near Bodrum is one of the funniest situations I have ever witnessed, akin to the Only Fools and Horses episode when Tony Angelino sings “cwying”.
Twelve Camels For Your Wife by George Dearsley is available by clicking this link.