For my Labor Day holiday—one of the precious few days off we workaholic Americans get—I decided to take the seven-kilometer journey across the straits from my home in Cesme, Turkey to the Greek island of Chios. I knew that I might be taken for a tourist who lost his way somewhere between Santorini and Mykonos; instead I found that seven kilometers can, in some places, mean a world of difference.
The differences were clear on paper at the outset. Turkey is a large country, looming over the island with its population of more than 70 million Muslims. Greece is a small country, home to 9 million Christians—Chios itself is only 51 thousand people. The Turkish flag is crimson, emblazoned with the Muslim symbol of a star and crescent. The Greek flag is blue, adorned with the white cross of Christianity. The colors themselves are worlds apart, as we Americans know well from the endless arguments among blue-staters and red-staters that sometimes cloud our own visions of “democracy”. Sitting outside the island’s main bus station shows the relative geopolitical positions of the two countries. Greece is primarily a sea power, in contrast to modern Turkey, primarily a land power. Here there is no plethora of coaches readying to take travellers six, seven, eight hours overland as there are in Cesme. Instead, transportation is provided by the massive iron giants of Hellenic Seaways and NEL Lines.
Yet the similarities were equally clear upon arrival. Across the straits old men sit in coffee houses echoing with the familiar, almost rhythmic, rattle of dice rolling across the backgammon board while the TV shows Olympiakos playing it out on the grassy fields of a far flung stadium in metropolitan Piraeus. Back home in Cesme old men play the same game, with the same sounds, in similar smoky coffee houses but with Galatasaray playing out the dreams of thousands far away in metropolitan Istanbul. The raki changes to locally produced ouzo, the Doner becomes Gyros, Pork is added to the familiar chicken and beef, the pages of the sports paper are written in a different alphabet but the betting odds are still the same—2.2 to 1 for Atrimitos to defeat PAOK of Thessaloniki.
But then there are the subtle differences, those that can only be noticed when sitting in any of the numerous watering holes that dot the seaside along Leoforos Aegeou—Aegean Avenue—looking out onto the Turkish coast. They are similar—in concept only—to their counterparts in Turkey looking back out onto Chios. I ask for a Jim Beam and coke which, according to my menu, is 6 Euro. In Cesme, it is the equivalent of 15 Euro—for the same tall glass of coke, whiskey, and ice. The waiter shows me two bottles—one Jim Beam, the other J&B scotch. Much like the nuanced differences in question here, these two are subtly different. One is Bourbon, the other Scotch. I nod to the Jim Beam and the waiter retreats. In Turkey, Jim Beam and J&B are the same—both whiskey—and rarely have I been asked the difference. Yet here—7 kilometers away—it is noted that these are two different things. When the waiter returns, I am presented with a 500ml bottle of ice cold water, along with a question: Would I prefer potato chips or peanuts? I choose the peanuts, and with that I have received two items free of charge that would have added to an already inflated bill in Turkey. Water, in Turkish clubs and bars, often costs up to 5 Turkish Liras, 2 Euros. The nuts would be around 10 Turkish Liras, or 5 Euros. Yet, seven Kilometers away, both are complimentary.
In the cafes, groups of young girls come and go, sitting down for a few drinks here and there. They have no men with them, but they don’t need them for a good night. Back across the Chios Straights, in Cesme, you won’t find women in a bar without male companions. If they drink, alone, they risk being branded loose at best. And it only gets worse the farther inland you go. So, in 2012, young women are living two distinctly different lives on either side of a seven kilometer wide strip of sea.
Where do these differences stem from? Is it that Greece is a Christian country, with a culture of alcohol when Turkey is a Muslim country, with no such culture? Or is it that in Turkey—as the country undergoes rapid growth—a bar is more often seen as a place to show off ones new-found wealth, as opposed to being just a watering hole in which to wile away the hours on the Aegean? Whatever it is, the differences are all too notable.
During the day I search out one of my passions—a football shirt. I track down the local stadium, take a few pictures of a windswept turf field, and talk to the two people I find—a father and son, from New York City. After all, the United States is home to between 1.5 and 3 million people of Greek descent.
“I once scored an amazing goal here, 30 yards out—the keeper had no chance,” says the father proudly, while his son looks on, no doubt thinking of a different kind of football. He doesn’t know Greek, but that doesn’t mean he too isn’t conscious of the differences that 7 Kilometers can bring. When I tell him I came from Cesme, he tells me his view.
“Turkey is good. You can get Diesel jeans there for 100 or 150 Euros—here, they are more like 250.” Such is the difference between a windswept island and the towns and cities sitting on the fertile Anatolian plain.
Later, in front of a local betting office (below a fan club of far-flung AEK Athens) I get another lesson in the nuanced differences 7 Kilometers can provide. I ask a kid who looks about my age about the possibility of finding the local team’s soccer jersey. He asks where I am from—and I tell him.
“America. My friend is in America. It’s good—there are jobs—no jobs here, with the crisis.”
“I can take you to get a shirt though—we can go to the Panathinaikos club. I don’t have anything to do, since I’m unemployed” he says casually, taking the final, frugal drags of his cigarette. I get on his motorcycle and after a few blocks he realizes that the club won’t be open. I ask why.
“Siesta—they are closed from 2 to 5. We can go after 5”.
I get off the motorcycle, thanking him and telling him that my boat leaves at that time.
Walking away I think about the Turkish workday—5 days a week and a half day on Saturday. To me, it is no surprise that Greece is in the dire economic straights that they find themselves in. Even if the past, and all the democratic traditions that go with it, belong to Greece, then future belongs to Turkey, with a large number of young people willing to work. It might be 7 Kilometers, but the different attitudes towards—and opportunities for—life are clear for all to see.