The flat of plump purple fruit stares at me from its inclined position on the familiar shelves of Harvest Wagon in Toronto’s tony Rosedale neighbourhood. It wasn’t there yesterday and seems to have appeared out of nowhere, exotic-looking and vaguely suggestive. Within seconds though I’ve come up with several reasons why it will never be mine: cost ($5 each!), practicality (it would get crushed before I got it home), and intimidation (how does one eat a fig?).
But one fact remained; I wanted one.
When I moved to southern Turkey in 2006, I noticed all the things Turkish people didn’t have. Reliable electricity and water, sidewalks, public libraries or even libraries in schools. Houses were relatively sparsely furnished and cracked walls and peeling paint often went unrepaired for years. I’d moved here from Canada, one of the richest, most developed countries in the world. How lucky Canadians are, I thought. How poor Turkish people are, I thought.
Still, life in Adana was lovely and I often felt like a princess. Restaurant tables filled with meze, several attendants hovering nearby ready to replace a near empty plate with a clean one, brushing sesame crumbs off the white tablecloth. The fish, the kebab, more hot bread, arriving just when you think you couldn’t eat another bite.
And the lingering. Meals that lasted hours. The endless delicate glasses of tea with lumps of sugar on the side. A musical troupe appearing and the reedy clarinet, the irresistible and dizzying drum, the singing, winding its way between tables. Again and again, time stood still.
For years, I was unable to reconcile these opposing aspects of life in Turkey. On annual trips back to Canada I would jump at the chance to go to the supermarket and would spend hours pushing my enormous cart up and down the aisles as if feasting my eyes on fine art. I would drink tap water with a thirst I hadn’t known even in Adana’s sweltering summer. I would walk through my dad’s suburban Toronto home barefoot wearing a t-shirt in the middle of winter.
But over time I grew to appreciate the bounty of local Turkish produce and stopped craving imported foodstuffs. I could live without sweet potatoes and the tahini here was fresher than anything you could find in a Toronto health food store. Instead of complaining about the unreliability of my municipality’s tap water, I bought a water filter so I didn’t have to use plastic. And when natural gas pipelines were installed throughout the city, I celebrated. Despite the winter temperatures in Adana never dropping below zero, locals suffered through the winter as the lack of central heat and insulation meant their concrete walls absorbed the damp and chilled their bones.
I remembered that even in Canada there is poverty. Poverty so extreme that people are hungry, people are homeless. And people are lonely.
And I realized financial wealth and abundance are not the same thing. Not at all. Abundance is a mindset, an attitude, a way of looking at life. In many Turkish cities, people escape the heat by spending the summer at the seaside. No summer house? You rent one. No money? You set up a simple tent out of a blue tarp and wooden poles and spend a week or two camped on the beach. No car? You take the dolmuş. There are no excuses not to enjoy life.
In winter, if you don’t have central heating, you set up a soba in the middle of your living room and burn wood or coal and are toastier than anyone else in the city.
And if a group is gathered over meze or tea, you don’t worry about your to-do list or your early morning the next day. You enjoy the moment.
Back in the mahalle where my husband grew up and where his mother still lives, there is not a homeless person in sight. Many households support unemployed family members and it is not uncommon to see three generations living under one roof. But meals are always plentiful. And there is always a bed available, even if it’s on a sofa, a balcony or a roof. And growing next to a cracked concrete driveway or over a cinder block wall are fig trees. Gnarly and determined and resilient. Their fruit hangs ripe for passersby and there are no limits as to who will do so. A young boy with plastic flip flops on his feet, an elderly woman in her şalvar, and me. If the fruit is really ripe and the skin thin, I’ll pop it into my mouth without peeling.
This post originally appeared on Expat Sofra on May 27, 2019. Cecile Popp is a contributor of Expat Sofra: Culinary Tales of Foreign Women in Turkey. The book will be published by Alfa Books of Istanbul this summer.