"Make Friends With Your Seatbelt"
We start climbing the hill and she jerks the car into the left lane.
"I'm going to pass him!" our hapless driver says. By "him", she means the long semi truck in front of us climbing a steep incline.
"Don't pass on a hill," Delal cautions in a voice far calmer than mine would be.
"Because you can't see what's coming."
"I can see fine! The road is empty."
"No, I mean you can't see past the hilltop."
"But there's nothing there!"
"You don't know that." She still sounds so calm. "Just get back into the right lane please."
Our driver reluctantly jerks the car back into the right lane, just as a truck crests the hill.
"See?" Delal says as it passes us with a violent whoosh.
"See what?" our driver says (she's looking at the satellite navigator screen). "Uf! Why is this guy going so slow!"
We're heading back from Eastern Thrace, known as Trakya in Turkish, with one of Delal's old college buddies, Edibe, who, though she's had a driver's license for a few years, has not driven all that much and learned little from what driving she has done.
Trakya is pretty, or would be if not for all the industrial buildings. The green hills roll away on either side of the road, empty of trees but filled with yellow flowers, and also with factories of all kinds--sugar, chocolate, metal. Poplar trees line little dikes that flow between the fields. A welcome center for a flour factor flashes advertisements--come buy direct from our store!
We are coming back from a wedding in the town of Luleburgaz, which is right in the center of Thrace near the Black Sea. The third member of their college group, Sinem, has just gotten hitched.
Luleburgaz is not famous for much. Bulgarians seem to like to fight there. There was a great battle between them and the Byzantines several milennia ago (which they lost), and more recently between them and the Ottomans back in 1905 (which they won). The area is still full of Bulgarian refugees--mostly ethnic Turks who've come to Turkey to escape anti-Muslim prejudice, or who are just trying to find a better life. Partly because of this, there are a lot of blond heads and blue eyes in this area of the country, and reportedly a fondness for alcohol as well.
"The bride's father started drinking early this morning," the bride's brother-in-law proudly explained. "He took a seat at the head of his table early today and guest after guest has come in to congratulate him and, of course, have a drink. He hasn't gotten up at all except to go to the bathroom maybe. At this point, maybe he can't get up!" This might explain why he was such an enthusiastic dancer later at the wedding. The bride herself got ready for the stress of the wedding with a glass or two of raki. Her mother even makes her own wine.
Sinem's childhood home is located in the village of Turgutkoy about a ten minute drive from town. It sits in the middle of sugar beet fields. When we arrive, some old men are sitting in the yard playing a drum and a shepherd's kaval as several young men dance in a circle. Thracian folk dances with influence from the Balkans, no doubt. The family are outside in lawn chairs chatting. The bride is inside putting on the last touches to her make up and gown. The groom is inside, too, helping out. There is no taboo about him seeing the bride. Though I'm about to explode from overeating, the bride's mother gives us each a bowl of helva--one must always offer something to guests even if it's your daughter's wedding day.
There are a few lingering traditions that families here observe. The bride leaving the house is an extremely important event, for instance. When the time comes, the family shuts her up in the living room and refuses to let her out. (In the old days, this indicated her modesty) The groom's parents have to lug themselves inside and lure the bride outside with promises of gifts or money. These days, it's only a token offering. A sheepish looking older couple totters into the living room and knocks quietly on the door where the bride is holed up--these are the groom's mom and dad. After a moment, the in-laws answer and ask what they have to offer for their daughter. The mother of the groom presses something into the hand of the bride's mother. Everyone is grinning--this is all just for play and they feel kind of shy about it.
Outside it's so green. Orange sunset sky. Green sprouts pushing up out of the soil. Apricot trees and mulberry trees and a soft, cool breeze.
On the whole, it's quite difficult for the groom to extract the bride from her house. The dancing boys have moved into the driveway, and they will not move until the groom has paid them off. They circle and circle to the crooning kaval as the groom climbs out of the car and offers them a fiver. Not enough. He pulls out a ten. They keep dancing. (In the end, this becomes a problem. They demand a hundred lira, which the groom says is ridiculous and refuses to pay. We scatter them with our cars, but then the follow us to the wedding, where they lure about the cars, making vague threats until someone threatens to call the police. 'Druggies' Sinem theorizes.)
The wedding itself is held in a "wedding salon" back in the town of Luleburgaz. There's a table up front draped in gold and white cloth where the couple will sign the marriage certificate. There are no best men or brides maids, no ring bearer or flower girl, not much pomp and circumstance at all--just two witness who watch the signing. The couple emerge from a room simply marked "Bride's Room" to a blasting electronic song with a throbbing disco beat and disco lights. Everyone cheers as they take their seats. The court official, a woman in this case, presides. She asks the bride if she accepts the groom. When Sinem says "yes", the DJ plays a flourish on his electric organ that makes it sound as if she just won the showcase on the Price is Right.
After the signing, the picture taking begins. Two white ribbons are draped over the bride and groom's shoulder's and then relatives and friends line up to pin money or gold to them. While this is happening, the surly teenage waiters take time enough away from their cell phone chats and serve up the cake.
"Whatever you do, don't eat the cake!" Delal warns. "It's almost always nasty." She's right. I've put erasers in my mouth with more flavor.
After cake, the dancing begins. A Gypsy drummer parades around the room with a drum, rocking the room to Gypsy 9/8 rhythms and local songs. (The 9/8 rhythm is popular with Greeks, Balkans, Turks, and their local Gypsy populations. It's also called the karsilama--meaning "face to face" for the dance you do when you play the rhythm. It's the beat belly dancers often use--and I find it very difficult to dance to, but Delal can really get down. The bride's male relatives really go to town, raising their arms like birds' wings and kicking out the steps. The bride hates dancing. You can see it on her face--the resigned desperation--but she is obligated to keep it up for the next two hours to entertain her guests.)
The dancing serves a double purpose. No one throws a bouquet or garter here--here, the bride writes the names of her single friends on her shoe. Whoever's name is rubbed out after hours of compulsory dancing will get married soon. Delal's name is missing only one l at the end of the night, which I'm told, means she won't get married for another four years (four letters are left).
After the party is over, we repair to the bride's house for Champaign. The groom smokes cigarette after cigarette, explaining, "I was a nervous wreck." The bride is busy pulling hair pins out of her carefully coiffed hair. One after the other. She emerges with 44 in all. We count them.
I don't know how we end up riding back with Edibe. There is a promise of breakfast by the sea near her house and perhaps a swim. She lives in Silivri, on the Marmara Sea just west of Istanbul. In the hills east of Silivri we see a real live Gypsy camp--they have spread their tents over the plane like in the old days and women in brightly colored clothes are cooking something that sends steam billowing into the air. I stare out the window at them. One of the Gypsy mothers stare back.
"Watch the road!" Delal shouts.
I look forward as the car jerks right. Edibe has her face on the screen of her navigator which is telling her to "Veer Right Now!" as we whiz past the turn off at ninety miles per hour. A billboard says "Remember, Seatbelts Are Your Best Friend." What timing! I fasten mine.