Winter blew in a few nights ago; I think I actually heard it arrive. We have been having damp and chilly days for a few weeks, but still the sun would come out and warm us and it would feel like summer. But a few nights ago the wind started howling in an entirely new way around my windows. My apartment is on the top floor of a building that sits on a hill overlooking the Marmara Sea and there is nothing between me and any winds blowing in. In the summer the wind was strong, but these winter winds are different, almost brutal.

Even though I’ve visited in October and in February this is the coldest I’ve known it to be and everyone is saying we will have a cold and stormy winter. I don’t think the leaves change color here, so it’s rather gray when it rains, but some of the vines growing on the old stone city walls are turning bright red.

I’ve gotten so used to the flora (aloe, geraniums, squat palms) and fauna (feral dogs and cats, pigeons, huge ravens with gray heads) here that it’s strange to see something that reminds me of home. For example bittersweet grows abundantly across the street from the courthouse I pass every day. It soars high up the stone wall above the cistern, breaking away from the wall about 20 feet up and drooping heavily over the cobblestone street and sidewalk. The only bittersweet I’ve known grew along the fields and forests of eastern Pennsylvania and we used to have to climb through thick bushes and brambles to collect the few meager branches.

I was walking beside the Blue Mosque a few days ago, lost in thought as I looked for the station and the old train that runs along the Marmara. I wondered if I would be able to find the station and if I found it if I could figure out how to pay and get to the train I needed when I smelled summer. It was cold and I was bundled in my scarf with my cold hands in my pockets, but suddenly I smelled freshly cut grass and then heard a lawnmower. They were cutting the grass around the Blue Mosque and if I smelled that here before this it didn’t make an impression. On this particular day it seemed very strange because it was so cold and dreary and it’s a smell I associate with hot, humid weather and pounding sun. And it was strange because it’s not a smell I associate with any city but with American suburbs. Maybe that freshly mown grass was the last vestige of warm weather because the season seems to have turned for good.

I love all the changes of season and can’t wait for the first snowfall. Right now I spend a lot of time looking out my window at the sea, which is often iron gray, a color I hadn’t seen before the last few weeks. I watch the storms rolling in. One minute the sun is streaming in my window, warming my fluffy carpets and tile floors, but I know that will change in a few minutes because I can see the streaks of rain out over the sea, just beyond the ships in the harbor. The view from my window changes almost every week. Now I see choppy white waves that weren’t there before. I few weeks ago some small islands appeared, way out, that I couldn’t see in the haze of summer and this weekend a land mass appeared far behind them for the first time.

But just when I am mentally prepared to hibernate and find myself dreaming up new projects I can do in the warm comfort of my apartment while the winds howl outside, the winter retreats. Today I am sitting outside in the café without a coat. It’s sunny and supposed to go up to 68 degrees. So I have put aside my indoor activities for the moment and am enjoying the sunshine and warm weather while I can.

Out in the cold

It’s a quiet Sunday so the pedestrian walkway is quiet, the bazaar is closed so there is nowhere to “pedest” to. But I am at my usual table at Coffee World. It’s a huge café, seats for 40 outside and 40 inside on the first floor alone, but there are only six of us here now. I think we are outnumbered by the staff.

Which is OK, because the staff is busily scrubbing the walkway. It’s an endeavor that seems to demand quite an effort. There’s a scrubber with a long-handled bristly scrub broom, three guys carrying large watering cans and buckets of water from inside, and a supervisor, pointing.

It seems the idea is for the scrubber to scrub, and then the guys with watering cans chase the dirt down the cobblestoned hill, row by row, until the water flows into one of the planted areas that sprout in the center of the walkway. The supervisor seems to be pointing out areas that need more attention, although to be honest, they look like pretty clean cobblestones to me.

So here I am, wasting time, or filling time, or hoping for some kind of bolt of lightning that will tell me what I’m supposed to do with my day, and, oh yeah, my life. Instead of casting around for the thing I CAN do, maybe I should be thinking about what I WANT to do. It’s a gray day and I’m feeling dissatisfied and directionless. But I‘m easily cheered up, because I sneeze, and one of my nice waiters teaches me the Turkish equivalent of “bless you”, which is, spelled phonetically, “chok esha”. He tells me it translates to “much life”, and I teach him how to say and spell “sneeze” and “bless you”.

A few minutes later a new waiter comes out to ask me if I want to come inside, if it isn’t too cold for me out here. There’s such a fear of the cold here, the slightest draft is seen as an enormous risk to your health. One of my students was even concerned because I was drinking cold water when I was sick, she thought I was damaging my health by not drinking room temperature water.

This widespread fear of cold is somehow connected in my mind to the Turkish habit of never being alone. Actually, I can’t decide if it’s a need or a habit, because it seems to be such a part of the fabric of life. I never feel judged because I do things alone, there’s just sometimes a blank look of incomprehension when it comes up. An assumption that I live with someone, am going to that place with someone, that I must not have understood the question, or they don’t understand the answer, when I mention doing things on my own.

The problem is I’m starting to think they’re right, I don’t want to do everything by myself. I still need time alone to recharge and retreat and de-stress, but more and more I find myself envying the support system that seems to be built in to the culture here so that there is always someone to go shopping with or go to dinner with. Of course as my friends and I agree we already feel that if we died alone in our apartments our absence would be noticed more quickly here than at home in the US so maybe we are moving in the right direction.