Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Turkish delights

It is a gloriously sunny day when I arrive in Turkey. 

There is a gaiety in the air that brings out a lightness in people, an infectiously warm feeling that wraps itself snuggly around me and pulls the ends of my lips into a carefree smile.

I have surprised my friend Cansu with adroit geography skills that lead me to our meeting place faster than she expected, and every so often, she casts me looks that give away how impressed she is.  I act nonchalant, as though I am in the habit of manoeuvring my way through strange cities all the time, but I can’t hide my pleased face for long on the drive back to her family house.

She is rattling away in her bubbly way, bright smiles lighting up her face with every sentence, so that even though I am slightly distracted by the shops and people along the pavements, I chip in often so she doesn’t cotton on to that fact.

It had only taken a single phone call, this spontaneous Sunday trip.

‘I’m bored. I have no idea what to do with myself this afternoon.’

Her tinkly laugh had rang down the line, and the invitation had been prompt. ‘It’s my dad’s birthday and there’s a family barbecue. Everyone will be here. So come!’

I go.

I smell it before we walk through the front door; a delicious aroma wafting through the house, playfully assailing the senses with ticklish charm. A slow growl ripples its way through my stomach, announcing the presence of a hunger I hadn’t yet been aware of.

In the kitchen, Cansu bends down and kisses her grandmother. ‘Nene, bu is arkadasim’dir,’ she says, motioning me closer. Grandma, this is my friend from work.

I return the gentle smile creasing a face lined with years gone by.  She is sitting on a low stool with her walking stick by her. As she reaches up to me, I notice her hands first, wrinkled with age. But her grip is strong when she folds me into a welcoming hug, and for a moment I remember my own grandmother in Ghana. I hold on to her a little longer and she kisses my cheek softly as I let go. She doesn’t speak much English, but in her warm gaze I feel like I’ve had a profound conversation with her.  She releases me, and we go through the kitchen to the back garden.

Juicy lamb ribs are sizzling on the barbecue, and the smell makes coherent speech nigh impossible. Hussein, Cansu’s father, is standing behind the grill wiping his brow, his satisfaction apparent. He is smiling before we’ve even exchanged names. ‘I hope you like food, because there’s plenty here!’ he says in greeting. I laugh at this line delivered with such paternal impatience, as though I were one of his own, and walk over to greet him properly.

Voices can be heard from upstairs.

‘That'll be my brother and his friends,’ says Cansu, rolling her eyes good-naturedly.

We bound up the stairs towards the noise. Jay is tall and handsome, with eyes like his sister's. They crinkle easily in laughter. We've each heard a lot about the other, and so even though it is our first meet, I launch effortlessly into teasing him. 

'I hear you're learning to drive as well? What makes you think you can beat me to it, huh?' I challenge. 

He cocks his head to the side. 'Oh yeah? Whichever one of us passes their driving test first, buys the other a car. Deal?'

I smile. 'Deal.'

Hussein calls us down to sample what's on offer. The dining table is bursting with delights and flavours. Bulgur pilaf, lamb chops, mushrooms and pitta bread are sitting side by side with hellim (cheese), cacik (yoghurt side), humus and salad. And more dishes are making their appearance as we grab plates and help ourselves. I enjoy my first taste of hellim so much, Cansu's mother gifts me with an entire pack.      

 No stranger to eating with my hands, I tuck into the food to the last lick of fingers that may well be bitten in utter abandon and pursuit of that final morsel.

The sun shifts and casts a late afternoon glow, and I realize I am not in Turkey. 

I am in the north London home of my Turkish friend. Here, I feel as though I have walked into a scene I know very well: the stacks of plates that tell of a meal well-enjoyed, the banter and cacophony of criss-crossing conversations and the accompanying exasperation of trying to be a part of each one, the unshakeable feeling of family bonding, of ties that bind in unbreakable ways.  

It is a beautiful time. And I know I will always remember with warmth that Sunday in April when I gate-crashed a Turkish barbecue and left with a pack of hellim.

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