Last night, in Rome, as we set out for dinner at 7.45, it was 19 degrees. That’s more or less how it has been up to now. Today as I headed back up the motorway, it was eight degrees, with pounding rain and gales which felt like they were blowing straight off snow, and which had strewn the roads around CdP with large chunks of vegetable debris.
I had a message this morning from my friend SD who’s in the US, describing the autumn colours in New England. Here, trees are barely on the turn. We had grown used to this endless autumn – wet, certainly, but so warm that even in the evening you wouldn’t think of taking a coat out with you. If the cold goes on, we won’t have colours at all. The leaves will shrivel and drop – a shame, but I think I’ll take the warmth.
On the car radio, a meteorologist was talking of tropicalizzazione. There is nothing gradual any more, no such thing as gentle breezes or soft rain. We have turned into a country of extremes. Not, of course, as extreme as the Philippines. Every time I check the news my blood runs cold. But no half-measures nonetheless. It’s more noticeable by the year.
The warm autumn temperatures were much the same last week in Turkey. Oh no, not last week: last week passed in a whirlwind of gardens… but not mine, unfortunately. In Alaçatı, on the peninsula west of Izmir, the sun shone brightly, and L plunged into the sea. He emerged very swiftly. In Istanbul, it was perfect: just right for some strenuous sightseeing.
I can’t remember when we were last in Turkey. I think C was about seven, which means it was 16 years ago. It was a different country then: poor, and ridiculously cheap (it’s certainly not that now) and very much part of the developing world. My developing-world measure tends to be the amount of garbage-strewn dust piled up along the sides of roads – simplistic I know, but telling. There’s none in Turkey now: the highway system is shiny new and far smoother than, say, in Italy. Whereas I measure dynamism by the expressions and attitudes of the under-30s on the streets: where Europe’s youth is slack-shouldered and cynical-looking, Turkey’s (like Delhi’s) is animated and heading places. This is clearly a country not dragged down by our dull, dull crisis.
Yet some parts of Turkey, flush with success, do seem to be making attempts to shoot the country in the foot. Not long ago, legislation was passed letting girls wear headscarves in school. Oddly, around Alaçatı I don’t think I saw a single headscarf, if not on very old ladies harking back to other times. (I suspect that in truly backwards rural areas, they are easier to spot.) In Istanbul, they are not uncommon, and in the streets of the very conservative surburb of Fethiye – we were there for the spectacular mosaics of the Chora church – there was hardly a woman who wasn’t be-scarved, and plenty hidden in full niqab. ‘Twas ever thus there, I expect, but in school at least, the young girls were forced to show themselves. Now they can be kept concealed at all times: sad. And while we were in Istanbul, four women MPs wore headscarves into parliament for the first time since Attatürk banned them in 1922. I find this disturbing not so much because they did it, but because it’s an issue. If the society were truly enlightened, it simply wouldn’t matter. There’s a lot of baggage to be worked through there.
Istanbul is a delight. I worked up a theory there that if you have lived in one power-hub of the ancient (Roman?) world, then the others feel like home too. Or at least, feel very un-foreign. I admit that this theory is based on Rome and Istanbul alone, but it holds there. There’s a wry self-assurance and a muddling along with the vestiges of importance that unites them. C says the same thing applies to Jerusalem; now I feel I need to go there to check. Where else? Nowhere else which has been constantly lived in and developed since holding quite such international sway.
The Turks are innately stylish in their interior design, with a colour palate of earth tones and earthy greens and blues which I love. Without being showy about it, they care about animals: even in the city all the stray cats look sleek and the dogs, though often grubby, lollop about in pairs or packs which are smiling rather than threatening. I find the Turks wonderfully warm: when you smile at them on the street they smile back, rather than suspecting you’re some kind of madwoman and edging away as many Romans would. And they value food in a very down-to-earth way, eating and snacking and knocking back freshly squeezed pomegranate juice on street corners.
They don’t obsess about their built heritage. In fact, they rather neglect it. I don’t remember having this impression about Pergamon (Bergama) when we went there all those years ago. But Ephesus, which we visited this time, is certainly lacking any kind of archeological rigour – save for the remarkable straggle of terraced houses built into a hillside and admirably excavated and preserved by Austrian archeologists. Elsewhere bits of masonry are piled higgledy piggledy and other bits are stashed in heaps off the track beaten by huge gaggles of day-tripping gawkers. I suspect the ruins must have featured in some South Korean soap: I can think of no other explanation for the numbers of Korean groups lining up for photos in front of the library of Celsus.
Since our return I have been rushing. Driving and rushing. With the kind of horribly early starts which leave me reeling for days afterwards. Clients feel winter’s icy breath on the back of their necks and want to get things done, now. I have been working here and here. And I’ve been seeing potential new projects – near Orvieto, in the Val d’Orcia, and one as far away as the Garfagnana though with the distance, I don’t this last is going to work out. What I haven’t been doing is battling my own weeds. I will get there… once the cold sets in.