Authenticity in travel, taking in a culture on its own terms, has become an increasingly implausible endeavor, but it’s still a popular aspiration. Ostensibly brave and sophisticated travelers dream of vacationing like the locals; travel magazines cater to this dream by reporting on locales where there will be no foreigners, where you can sip your raki with, and like, the natives. These travelers want to be protected not necessarily from the scarier versions of a foreign land but from other tourists. (“Exclusive” escapes indeed.)
In Turkey, my home for more than a decade now, I still enjoy this form of voyeurism, too. The country is a place of many subcultures, one of which is rooted in coastal living, along the Aegean and Mediterranean. Turks from Istanbul have long migrated down the Aegean coast in the summer months, where many of them, both the wealthy and middle class, own homes. Here, unlike the stiffer, more conservative interior of Anatolia, the country’s laid-back Greek influence is evident: love for the heat, the sun, the sea, sitting outdoors around a table for hours, multiple generations of family eating meze and drinking beer or raki. More conservative families might seek out expensive Muslim-friendly resorts, “halal tourism” or “tesettur hotels,” where the dining options are free of alcohol and pork and private sections of beach are set aside for women.
I used to tell myself that I wasn’t afraid of earthquakes. Then, on April 21, 2013, at about eight-thirty in the evening, I was at my desk when everything began to move. Unfastened windows and doors opened and shut. Outside the front door, the heavy mirror that hangs by the elevator swung wildly back and forth. The building itself was groaning like an old wooden sailing ship caught in a storm. Should I run down the six flights of stairs, or should I stand inside a doorframe? I trusted the building to hold up even as I knew that I could be killed at any moment. Then blessed stillness and silence returned. Outside, sirens were wailing. I ran downstairs. On two landings, elderly neighbors were standing inside the steel frames of the service-elevator doors; they smiled as I passed. When I reached the lobby, Marcelo Ebrard and his wife, Rosalinda Bueso, were coming back inside from the sidewalk. Ebrard, who had just finished his six-year-term as mayor of the Distrito Federal, as Mexico City was then still called, was living in his brother’s apartment, on the fourth floor; he and Rosalinda were in their bathrobes.
Ebrard had installed a seismograph in the lobby, which usually gave about a minute’s notice before a quake. In the past, the doorman had called up to warn us so that we could start running downstairs. Later, after Ebrard moved out, taking his seismograph with him, a city-wide alarm system, with eight thousand loudspeakers, was introduced. Ebrard and I had become friendly. I once asked him whether he thought our building was safe. “It should hold up,” he said. “But my advice is, don’t buy an apartment in the building.” There were more quakes later in 2013 and in 2014. My subletter, a young Parisian, told me that new pieces of the wall and ceiling had fallen off with each one, and that living there made him feel afraid.
If ever there was an English national literary treasure, he must be Edward Lear. In polls, including a recent one for National Poetry Day, The Owl and the Pussycat is often voted our favourite poem. Anyone who has ever doodled a limerick, of any tone or topic, pays homage to his genius. As well as timeless nonsense such as The Jumblies, there’s also his art – brilliantly studied paintings of exotic creatures in far-off lands; luminous desertscapes; antic sketches of men with birds in their beards – work that puts him in a class of his own as an important Victorian artist.