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February 13, 2012, Monday

Tea with a twist of the new

Sometimes it takes the ultra-modern to bring us closer to the past. So it was that last week a video clip from YouTube started to circulate via Facebook (Kapadokya 1962). It showed life in Göreme as it had been 50 years ago.

That video was a revelation. There were the great clouds of pigeons that people had told me about swirling above the fairy chimneys. There was the young man scrambling up what looked like an impossible rock-cut “ladder,” then squeezing himself through an opening barely bigger than himself into one of the pigeon-houses to gather up the precious droppings that were used to fertilize the fields.

There were the women preparing yufka (paper-thin bread) in each other’s houses to see them through the winter. There were the chickens that everyone used to keep. Most astonishingly, there were herds of cattle so vast that they stirred up great clouds of dust. Now it’s unusual to see more than one cow at a time. Certainly I’ve never seen a herd of them around here.

The physical appearance of Göreme had changed out of all recognition, of course, with the dirt roads all asphalted and every available piece of land now built on. Just a few things seemed unchanged. Watching the builder inserting the keystone into a kemer (arch), I found myself thinking that he was still building in much the way men had always done, albeit with a liberal helping of cement stirred in along the way.

It was a Göreme I just about recognized from 10 years ago, but one that I think will seem like ancient history in another 10. Then this week I’d gone to take tea with neighbors. Quietly, even that’s a custom that seems to be on its way out. “Oturalım [Let’s sit],” women seemed to say on a daily basis in the past. Now, though, with many of them working even in winter, sitting seems to have lost much of its appeal.

But here we were, gathered together once again, in what seemed a timeless way. The cave room seemed little changed. The walls were still plain white, the décor the same mix of calendar, clock and plastic flowers. We were tucked up, all of us, on the sedir (bench seating), and most of the women were busy with their knitting and crocheting. One of the younger women had just become engaged, and the hostess proudly showed me the gifts she’d bought for her fiancé’s parents.

But even here modernity was creeping in. Soon the bride-to-be and her friend were lining up their phones to sync photos of her engagement from one to the other. Then suddenly a voice rang out in the room. It was the 85-year-old grandmother of one of the girls who had been taken into hospital. Someone had persuaded her to commit her memories to the phone’s recorder, and we sat spell-bound as she regaled us with vaguely bawdy stories of her youth, her cackling laughter inviting us to join in the mirth.

It was a wonderful moment, the old and the new perfectly meshed together. Why aren’t we recording all the old people like this? I found myself wondering. Soon their wonderful memories of the real troglodytic lifestyle will be gone beyond recall, leaving only the sanitized version offered by the hotels.

Pat Yale lives in a restored cave-house in Göreme in Cappadocia.

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