A breath of fresh air

A breath of fresh air

October 15, 2009, Thursday/ 15:45:00/ THERESA DAY
Caterina Scaramelli's earliest memories of Turkey are of bus journeys around the country with her parents when she was small.
Her enthusiasm for Turkey is contagious and at 22, added to studies at the London School of Economics and Boğaziçi University, she's also researched festivals in the Kaçkar-- a range of mountains along the Black Sea coast -- and has been behind the scenes at Cornucopia.

Will to communicate more important than courses

It's rare to come across independent Italian travelers in Turkey -- Scaramelli is from Italy -- but back in the '90s, there were even less. “More Italians are visiting İstanbul and the west coast these days but tend to stay in groups,” she highlighted, adding: “My parents are different. We first came to Turkey when I was 3 and all fell in love with the country. Every year we visited somewhere different, but we had some favorites: Kadir's in Olympos [the old place], Gümüşlük and Patara. My mother studied Turkish for four years in Milan so her Turkish is very good, and my father picked up enough to get by.”

Does being from a Mediterranean country mean that Turks are more comfortable with her than, say, with “cold” northern Europeans? “They consider Italians to be their European cousins,” she observed, “and emphasize points we have in common, such as big families, politics, bureaucracy, cuisine and virtually ritualized hospitality. Nobody has ever mentioned that Italy once thought of annexing the area around Antalya [probably no one ever took it seriously]. Many of my fellow students in İstanbul this year were German, however -- quintessential northern Europeans -- but they had no problems in Turkey. I've lived and studied in different places and I've never found a dominant culture that exists as much as it's talked about; we're all individuals. Relationships are what matters and the key to fitting in. Communication and language are probably more important than our origins, or at least the will to communicate. Plus, the culture of conversation in Turkey means that cultural differences are brought up, discussed, made fun of and, eventually, downplayed and put aside.”

There are things she hasn't gotten used to about Turkey. “Space is socially divided, and as a young woman my movements are restricted,” she remarked, adding: “Then there's ‘gossip': I found I couldn't keep anything secret from people in my neighborhood in İstanbul. I also go for a run every day, which few Turkish girls do, and I've also found that there's a very different conception of the body and a different interpretation of well-being and comfort here compared to Italy.”

By the time she was 7 she could politely order ice cream in Turkish, but what is her Turkish like now? “I learned some two years while volunteering on a Tatuta [organic] farm near Amasya, and I've also taken Turkish courses,” she explained, adding: “I've learned the most from my many Turkish friends both in Turkey and London. In the Kaçkar last year, I didn't really have any problems communicating as everyone repeated things slowly for me and we used a lot of body language. I left saying ‘çilise' instead of ‘kilise,' to the amusement of my İstanbul friends. I tried to learn some Laz, but it's a very difficult language, and all Laz speakers speak Turkish, anyway. Few people in Turkey speak Italian, but I once met an old man in İstanbul who could because he'd worked in the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland for 12 years. Turkish migration to Italy is very recent, and I haven't met any returnees yet.”

It's not possible to talk to an Italian without thinking about food, so how does Scaramelli find Turkish cuisine? “Both Italian and Turkish food is delicious,” she noted, adding: “For example, pizza in Turkey is usually thicker than Italian pizza or hyper-expensive, but ‘pide' is delicious. It's a linguistic disaster looking for Italian food in Turkey, anyway: the Turkish word for ‘pasta' is ‘makarna,' but in Italy ‘maccheroni' is just one type of ‘pasta' and then, of course, ‘pasta' in Turkish means ‘cake!' I really like eating at small restaurants in Turkey as the food is both delicious and cheap. Like Turks, Italians like to cook from scratch, and we also use a lot of olive oil and vegetables.”

Local culture alive and well in the Kaçkar

Scaramelli spent two months in the Kaçkar last year researching local festivals through a British Institute at Ankara (BIAA) grant.

Why did she focus on festivals? “I wanted to get to know the locals, and as every village has a festival to celebrate the freedom and vitality of the summer months in the high pastures [‘yayla'], I realized that would be a good way to do it,” she explained, adding: “In the past they were for people working on the yayla, but as many locals have migrated to big cities, they are now also a way for returnees to maintain a connection to the area and their fellow villagers. Young people learn the local highly energetic local folk dances, and boys challenge one another to ‘karakucak' [wrestling]... The locals are strongly connected to the mountains and ready to defend them from environmental damage, such as that caused by dams.”

There are many types of festivals in the Kaçkar, ranging from village affairs to ones organized by cultural associations in İstanbul. “One of the best known is the ‘Kafkasor' festival near Artvin, which attracts large crowds of locals, returnees and tourists,” she pointed out, adding: “The main event is bullfighting, but that has little to do with the Spanish ‘corrida': It's not man against bull but a test of strength between two bulls, like ‘karakuk.' Places like Ayder organize festivals between the two: There's a mix of locals and tourists with both a festive atmosphere and a family feeling. Many festivals in Black Sea coastal towns are also sponsored by local municipalities with amplified pop music and candied apples. Those organized by cultural associations -- include folk music concerts, visits to old houses, demonstrations of local skills, walks and talks on environmental issues...”

Travelers could go to the larger festivals but the smaller ones are more community-orientated with three or four generations having fun together; an invasion of tourists would be like lots of people turning up for Christmas dinner uninvited, she highlighted, adding: “Plus the smaller ones would be meaningless to people who don't speak Turkish or are looking for a ‘show.' Some tourists have discovered the larger ones in Artvin, Ayder, Barhal and the Kafkasor, but they have a specific reason for going and haven't bought a cultural event from a travel company.” Her favorite was a small village festival between Yusufeli and İspir on a small plateau surrounded by forest and mountains. “I loved the hospitality, being fed large slices of börek and playing with the children,” she said enthusiastically, adding: “At times I just wanted to sit down and think, be on my own, but someone was always sent to make sure I wasn't bored. There were some young people from İstanbul there as well who, despite their long hair and black T-shirts, took part in all the folk dances.”

So what did people there make of a young Italian woman asking them lots of questions? “They were more than happy to talk about their family history and share what they know about the festivals,” she explained, adding: “When I mentioned ones they'd been to or heard about, they got very excited and told me how great they are. As for my research findings, firstly, I'd like the people I interviewed to read them and give me some feedback. Then I'll make them available to anyone who's interested and also hopefully use them to help improve life for people in the region. In Turkey farmers are generally looked down on, but in the Kaçkar I saw pride amongst the villagers, together with the frustration of not having enough income. There are many ways in which this could be alleviated and I'd like to work on that.”


While many of us merely read Cornucopia, a magazine about Turkey, Scaramelli spent this summer helping out at their İstanbul office.

So what is Cornucopia's niche? “It's impossible to situate the magazine among travel, history or architecture magazines,” she observed, adding: “It's more like a small book. It can't be compared with lengthy and arid academic journals, either, even though its writers are often academics themselves. I see articles in Cornucopia as a journey into intriguing aspects of life, culture and history in Turkey; some are secret pearls waiting to be discovered, while others are subjects represented to the public with great attention to detail and accompanied by splendid photos. Cornucopia is a great travel companion, whether the journey is real or imagined. It's published three times a year and distributed both in Turkey and worldwide with around 18,000 copies sold each time.”

As the theme for the most recent edition was the Kaçkar, she also contributed a couple of short pieces. “One was about folk music in the Black Sea region,” she highlighted, adding: “Luckily, I have many friends who are musicians and ethnomusicologists, and that also happens to be my favorite kind of Turkish folk. The other introduces Kate Clow's article about a selection of hiking routes in the Kaçkar. I also reviewed three books, interesting novels set in İstanbul which accompanied me in my exploration of the city's humors.” There are also features on İstanbul's first impressionists and the city of Kars and a profile of Uighur figurehead Rebiya Kadeer as well as regular columns by people like Andrew Finkel, Azize Ethem and Berrin Torolosan.”

Asked about her favorite Cornucopia articles, she replied: “It's hard to say as I've rarely been bored by any of them. The content is carefully selected so that articles complement each other but there's always a surprise waiting for readers when they turn the page. The magazine is elegantly edited, and its great photographers are as valuable as the writers. The magazine's contributors are people whose involvement with Turkey is too varied to be generalized, brought together by a passionate curiosity about different places, regions and people in Turkey and the country's history. There are also a lot of very informative pieces which are always superbly written, a rarity in non-fiction writing. The articles are quick and thrilling to read.”

Scaramelli enjoyed helping out at the magazine, but what are her future plans? “I'll definitely continue to collaborate with Cornucopia, but I won't be in the office; from October I'm based in London again, but I'll also be going back to İstanbul and -- back to the Kaçkar. I'm applying for graduate studies in social anthropology. I'm also drafting a research project on economic and cultural changes in the Kaçkar and along the Black Sea coast, with an emphasis on ecotourism. I hope to produce something that will have some practical implications.” Asked where she thinks she'll be in 10 years' time, her reply included Turkey, of course. “Ideally, I'll be living a semi-nomadic life, working in different countries -- One of those places will be Turkey because I now feel bound to the country,” she emphasized.

For info about: Cornucopia, visit, Organic farms in Turkey (for volunteers and guests), visit

The British Institute at Ankara, supporting research in Turkey and the Black Sea region, visit