Nov 14, 2012

Tormented by politics in the Dodecanese

For all the gloomy politics and doomsayers of Greece, the Aegean Islands just off the Turkish coast (the Dodecanese -twelve- islands) are still a great escape. It's not only beating the crowds of mainland Turkey that drew Turks there on a long religious holiday. But it is the comfort of feeling at home since the food and the people are very similar. Yet, it is still different given the religion, language and architecture, not to mention the inertia that Greeks seem to have adopted towards government and public life in general. In fact, this inertia drove us at times mad as we seem to have increasingly low tolerance for non-customer oriented service mentality. 

View from hotel room at Pedi Bay, Symi, Greece
while Coldplay's Paradise plays in the back.

Kali Strata cafe/bar at Symi Island.

Kali Strata bar's famous cushions at Symi.

One of the most picturesque Dodecanese islands, Symi can be best described as a mixture of Portofino and Dubrovnik. Like all Dodecanese islands, it has an interesting historical heritage: it belonged to Ottomans, Italians and then to Greeks. It is protected by geography: due to the ferry schedule, it takes an entire day even from the hub of the Dodecanese -Kos island- to get there unless you are on a private boat.  The ferry lands right at the clock tower, where we are picked up by our host who drives us to Hotel Taxiarchis located in the quieter Pedi bay. He sais if he knew we were coming from Datça, literally right across Symi on the Turkish side, he could have picked us up by boat:-). Pedi is 15 minutes away from the downtown area of Symi and involves a steep walk but is worth for its views. As we walk down, we spot Kali Strata, a cafe/bar where on the cushion covered steps you can enjoy coffee or better drinks with the sunset while overlooking the yachts at the harbour.

Streets of Symi Island, Greece.

There are many options for dinner in Symi's downtown. We deliberately avoided the huge, crowded and overpriced Manos that greets visitors at its prime location. Instead we ate in the back streets, at Meraklis and Naeira, both of which serve extremely delicious food. Another option at night is to walk to the other bay Kolonaki. Hotel Aliki, an extremely charming boutique hotel, operates a resturant called Vaporetta. We could not eat there but saw two Turkish tycoons doing so with their entourage so we assume it must be good given also the charming looks of the boutique hotel. Very close to Vaporetta is a sea side bar called Tsati, not only romantic but also where waves can wet your feet while you sip your coffee. What ever you eat at Symi, do not miss the Symi shrimps which are small and eaten with their skin and the mastique ice cream.

Symi island, harbour, Greece.
Picture: Sinan Güngör.

Swimming options are good at Symi. One day we walked down to Pedi beach and took a boat to Aya Nikola for €5. Another option was to take a boat tour for €35. You can enjoy excellent beaches such as Aya Yorgi or the Monastery. Indeed, this small island has so many monasteries everywhere. During the boat tour we ran into a Greek man who was originally from Istanbul. He was dying to speak Turkish with us and after small talk, the unavoidable subject of politics surfaced. Our friend had to run away from Turkey in 1978. He told us it was still hurting him to have left home. He told us how he did his military service in Central Anatolia and how he was beaten countless times during it, for being Greek/Christian. He mentioned the notorious "citizen, speak Turkish campaign" and the beatings he witnessed during that time for speaking Greek in public. Because of that, he still felt nervous when speaking Greek in Istanbul. He said he realized that all of this changed now and wanted to know what we had to say to all this. What could we say? Turkey's sins are so overwhelming and widespread, it catches you in unexpected moments like this and torments your soul.

Aya Yorgi beach, Symi Island.

Aya Nikola beach, Symi island.
Picture: Sinan Güngör.

Symi at sunset,
Picture: Sinan Güngör.

Sensing our sadness, our friend started criticizing the boat owner for serving ouzo without water melon, a must in Turkey. "These Greeks cannot learn this!", he said in desparation. He also complained about his second wife, from mainland Greece as opposed to his first Greek wife from Istanbul. Except the language and the religion, there were no similarities between them. Besides, mainland Greeks were not religious enough. Whether Turks could contribute to the Greek economy by visiting more? We said that only when the visa was lifted. He added: "we do not want the headscarfed ones though". It was so interesting to note how his identity shifted back and forth during the conversation, finally ending with the Kemalist Turkish one:-).

Views from Aegean Tavern, Kalymnos island, Greece.

Telendos rising as viewed from Kalymnos.

Next day, we headed to Kalymnos which is not as picturesque as Symi but is a sponge island and is one of the best rock climbing spots of Europe. We stayed in the back of the island at Myrties Beach with a wonderful view to Telendos island that was rising like a volcano. Without the breakfast our newly renovated room cost €40. Turks never sat foot on this island but only taxed it while Germans seem to have occupied it during the Second World War. It joined Greece as late as 1948. Due to the recent economic difficulties, about 7000 people seems to have left the island for the United States and Australia. 

This man on Kalymnos says:
"we were Italian once".

Kalymnos island is full of sponge shops like this.

In the two nights we stayed in Kalymnos, we dined at Aegean Tavern at the Massouri beach. The mezes, main courses, price, decoration, view and service were excellent. Amid this atmosphere, just like in Symi, we were all of a sudden again faced with politics when our waiter started speaking Turkish with us. He was from Lebanon but his family's origins were in Adana (southern Turkey). In other words, he was Armenian. I figured that his family must have escaped either during the pogrom in 1909 or the genocide in 1915 but he was graceful enough not to mention all this and to just put it as: "my family is from Adana". In fact, he may not have spoken Turkish with us and revealed his identity. But just like the Greek guy from Istanbul, he was dying to speak with us. Is this a version of the Stockholm syndrome I wondered. I am unsure whether I would continue speaking the language of the country that my forefathers have been kicked out with no apology or compensation after almost 100 years. After these two incidents that just bursted in the middle of my Dodecanese phantasies, I wonder whether there may be any peace or an escape from politics for a Turk. Maybe not. Maybe there shouldn't be until we can do more than bowing our head in shame.