Waves from Somewhere Else

Tonight was an evening that had to be captured, somehow, so it can be pulled out from the deep cabinets of our past on special evenings, when old friends are around, like that dusty bottle of wine you’ve been saving for just that occasion.

Han, Sila and their parents took us out again, this time to the town of Ortakent, where they used to go to Hamide’s fish restaurant out on the beach. She just had three tables, and an odd collection of chairs to go around them. No menu, of course – you went, and she made you whatever had come back from the sea that day. Back then, “Samdan” was the finest and most expensive restaurant in Istanbul; the locals called this ramshackle little place on the beach “Hamide Samdan” in its honor.

But things change. Han marveled at the smooth brick roadway leading out where there had been only gravel before. Hamide Samdan now has an official name – “Kosem” – and a parking attendant.

The diminutive Hamide still runs the place, toddling among the rows of linen-covered tables set in the sand at water’s edge, but she has a swarm of waiters to do the footwork. She seems to take pride in making sure everyone knows she’s in charge.

We’re in the “overflow” seating; we called to late for a reservation (“A reservation? At Hamide’s?!?” – Han is incredulous), but were too late. Han’s family knows everybody around here, though, so Hamide set out an extra table for us.

The sun has just set as we descend upon our table, four feet up from the water above a stone retaining wall holding back the water of yet another heartbreakingly beautiful bay. Candles are being lit on tables at other restaurants – all new – on the waterfront.

A foursome next table over decides to move their table closer to the water for a better view. Hamide shuttles over and warns them, cryptically, that they’ll get soaked when “the tsunami comes” in a few hours. We all exchange puzzled glances, look out at the quiet sea and shrug. Wooden sailboats bob gently offshore, and planets are visible in the dark blue sky above; food is on the table, and there are more important things to worry about.

Again, the food is spectacular. Grilled octopus, dolmas, stuffed peppers, and fish in so many wonderful ways I can’t think of how to do justice with a mere description. We drink, we talk, we eat. The kids are all plugged into a computer game that Serhan is driving (as the oldest and most technically-savvy, he’s emerged as the gentle ringleader of the young’uns). We look up at the sky and remark – “Remember how we said that some day we’d come to Turkey with you, and that the kids would keep each other company while we got to enjoy life?” This is it; it’s happening right now, and it’s everything we’d dreamed.

Then, almost imperceptibly, we realize that the sound of the waves has changed: they’re actually crashing against the retaining wall. The table at the edge has gotten sprayed by the last one, and is trying to stifle nervous laughter. The next wave hits, and a wall of water rises some four feet above the wall, then crashes down in place, soaking the forewarned foursome. Another wave is coming, and they’re on their feet, trying to move the table back from the edge. One of them loses a shoe in the receding waters.

We’re concerned enough to shout for the kids to get back – NOW – and start shuffling our own possessions to keep them dry. The waves are coming at roughly 10-15 second intervals. They hit the wall and length of the beach with a crash, and recede. Hamide mutters something that reads like a Turkish “I always tell them, and they never believe”, then goes back about her business.

After about three minutes, the waves subside, but we’re locked in fascinated conversation – where, in such a quiet bay, do these waves come from? Every night, apparently. The wake from a distant ferry, improbably amplified by the bay’s serendipitously parabolic shape? Some Bay-of-Fundy-like tidal phenomenon? We’re baffled, but Hamide doesn’t seem to care terribly much. She warns customers, the waves come, they get wet – why should this be any more complicated than “Beware of Dog”?

An hour later, the waves come again, briefly, but the meal is otherwise uneventful. One more note about food (I promise!): Halvah, with walnuts, fresh from the oven. It’s made on premises and baked to a bubbly fondue-like consistency, into which you dip pieces of bread, and wonder if it’s sacrilege to think that this might just be better than chocolate.

We made a half-hearted attempt to walk some of dinner off, strolling along the shore. Where there had only been beach at Han’s last visit there are now beach clubs and internet cafes. The constant waves of change have crashed upon the shores of Ortakent, and showered it with tourism. But halfway into our walk, the disco music stops suddenly. A generator or transmission line has failed somewhere, and the entire beach goes dark and quiet. Pedestrians and candle-lit diners cheer and whistle, as though this were a fireworks show.

We look up to see the stars overhead clearly, for the first time in the absence of the restaurants’ neon and halogen glare. Two thousand years ago, village elders on this beach lamented the passing of old ways, and the raucous, careless ways of the new generation. As did the generation before them, and as we do now. The stars look down at us patiently. They’ve been watching this beach for a long time, and know that this too shall pass.

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