“We smoke so much because we’re always stressed. Turkey is a very stressful country.”
So says Ömer, one of the bartenders at Beer O’ Clock, where I have spent far too much time and money. Beer O’ Clock is just one of the thirty bars, Irish pubs, and Meyhanes (traditional Turkish drinking establishments) that crowd Barlar Sokak, Eskisehir’s imaginatively named bar street.
The motif of Beer O’ Clock makes no sense. It is decorated like an old western saloon, but exclusively plays heavy metal – mostly Turkish, interspersed with a little European and American. It’s all Greek to me. They even entertained my request to put some Birthday Party on the rotation, a rare injection of St. Kilda’s punk scene into central Anatolia. The bar is cramped and humid, and one of my friends remarked that she felt like she was in a hamam (a Turkish bath/ sauna). I also hate metal.
And yet Bar O’ Clock is the perfect bar: cheap, littered with regulars, and staffed by an incredibly friendly group of twenty somethings. No matter how crowded they are on a Saturday night, they’ve always proved willing to take the time to shoot the shit, albeit in a fractured combination of Turkish and English.
When I ask Ömer what he studies at Anadolu University, a gargantuan institution of close to two million students (including those enrolled in distance education) he laughs and tells me journalism. “For journalists in Turkey, the better you are at your job the more likely it is you’ll go to jail.” Ömer is also a devoted Galatasaray supporter, whose 4-0 upset loss to Trabzonspor provoked incessant, light-hearted bullying from the manager, Mahmut.
While many in Eskişehir support the big Istanbul clubs, many more can be seen sporting the red and black colours of the local team, Eskişehirspor. Embroiled in spending cap controversy and underperformance in recent years, the club was relegated out of the Süperlig (the premier division in Turkish football). The general woeful incompetence and mismanagement of Eskişehirspor naturally endeared them to me as my club of choice, mostly because of my self-flagellating relationship with my beloved Fremantle Dockers.
Eskişehir literally translates as ‘old city,’ but aside from some Ottoman era mansions that have been repurposed as museums and theatres, there is very little about it that appears old. Much of the city’s heritage was destroyed in the Turkish War of Independence, in which it served as a staging point for Atatürk’s rebellion against the invading foreign powers. Eskişehir’s crucial role in the establishment of the modern Turkish state is worn like a badge of honour, with an entire museum dedicated to the city’s revolutionary history. Formerly a major producer of meerschaum (a glass used in pipemaking) the city’s modern face is very much that of a thriving centre of education and culture.
Much of the credit for this remodelling is owed to the long-term mayor, Yılmaz Büyükerşen, who is certifiably eccentric. Some of Büyükerşen’s achievements include significant contributions to the arts and sciences, being the only professional wax sculptor in Turkey, and inexplicably building a huge, Disneyland like castle in a park outside the city centre. It is absolutely bonkers. Eskişehir is a pearl of progressive politics adrift in the sea of conservative Central-Anatolia, a triumph for an increasingly closeted Turkish liberal tradition.
Weird fuck-off huge Disneyland replica aside, Eskişehir is beautiful. Its canals frequently sport couples on gondolas, locals having picnics on the banks, and my personal favourite: young people getting really really drunk next to deep bodies of water. My fear of drowning is only trumped by my love of cheap, awful Turkish plonk. There are also dozens of well-organised public spaces, parks, museums and monuments, all of which contribute to making Eskişehir the most liveable city in Turkey.
My apartment, where I have lived for the last two months, is not beautiful. It is run by the perpetually surly Orhan Bey (Bey being the Turkish equivelant of Mr.) He is the quintessential Turkish man: loud, chauvinistic, and smoking what I’ve worked out to be two packs of cigarettes a day. Aside from the occasional cough, he shows no sign of slowing down. I fear he may live forever. Three times in a row, when I’ve made basic requests of him i.e. “Can you fix the washing machine/ call a plumber/ not be a shithead etc.” he’s acknowledged my request by bringing me more and more rugs with which to decorate my apartment. For a whole week I had three Turkish rugs, no washing machine, and a busted toilet.
Other notable characters in my Eskişehir life include Recep, the town drunk and beloved icon of the Barlar Sokak streetscape. He looks about a hundred, drinks from morning to night, and cheerfully greets everyone he passes, occasionally pausing to cry out “SEVIYORUM” (I love you) to some as of yet unidentified ghost from his past. His incredible commitment to alcoholism puts my mild dependency to shame. Recep is known and loved by all.
Women here are inexplicably, universally beautiful, strong willed and funny. While there are certainly fewer women sporting the hijab in Eskişehir, those that do co-exist seamlessly with their unveiled colleagues. Girls in tank-tops and shorts escort their hijab wearing mothers across the street, and intermingle with veiled classmates in coffee shops. Turkish girls dye their hair, drink, drive modified sports cars and smoke with an intensity that rivals their male counterparts. All of them make fun of my broad Australian accent, to varying degrees of success. I am endlessly perturbed and amused by the sheer number of hijab wearing girls on Turkish Tinder.
Turkish men are on the whole considerably less attractive, and deeply territorial. I am reminded fondly of a few nights ago when a goofy looking punter, interested in my attractive female friend, followed me to the bathroom and insisted I leave the shitty nightclub we’d stumbled into, sans my friend of course. A tinder date threatened to turn hostile when a friend showed up to pick up my date, and then shoved me with enough force to warrant a visit to the Match Review Panel. I witnessed a furious brawl outside a teahouse, the type frequented almost exclusively by older men. I wasn’t sure what the source of the commotion was, but I saw a man in his sixties, apparently the Turkish brother of Trainspotting’s Francis Begbie, throw a head high blow at his companion. I have to stress, they were drinking tea at three in the afternoon. Something must have gone horribly wrong in the afternoon tea process to turn this moustachioed codger into Andrew Gaff.
I should emphasise, when they’re not throwing tea-frenzied king hits at one another, or trying to negotiate me out of my companions, Turkish men have a real, easy-going friendliness and good humour to them. While smiling at people in the street is, as in many parts of the world, seen as unusual, yelling greetings to acquaintances a whole block away is not. Being invited to drink tea and play backgammon with a perfect stranger, three times my age is a healthy distraction from the Australian cultural phenomenon of being called a cunt from a moving car.
In spite of my dank, hot apartment, well rugged but poorly furnished, and Beer O’ Clock’s weird aesthetic, and Turks wearing graphic tees that sport English slogans that make no sense (“Welcome to F&*k City… I’m the Mayor” being the most obscure), Eskişehir is a place of enormous character, with a sort of perceptible heart normally reserved for grander cities. It is contained to just a few neighbourhoods; a world away from the sprawl and bustle of Istanbul’s population of 20 million. While I cannot overstate how disturbed I am by Sazova Park’s jarring Disneyland reproduction, I love Eskişehir as much as I’ve ever loved anywhere, after a meagre two months of living here. I doubt it’s on anyone’s travel itinerary anytime soon, but if you ever find yourself drugged and abandoned in central Anatolia, head to Eskişehir.
For all sad words of tongue and pen, the saddest are these: “Welcome to F&*k City, I’m the Mayor”