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Chapter 22: My Little Swedish Girl

Mardin, Türkiye. May 4-5.

Staying by local hospitality is like having a blindfold while eating from a box of chocolate - you never know what you will get. In Mardin, I had been accepted by a man who had made hosting into a sport, to judge by almost 200 past travelers. Upon arrival it was evident that accumulating references had become a grind to him, and not one he was too passionate about (he had already forgotten where I was from when we met). Less socialising meant more time to write, so as long as I had a roof over my head I didn't mind. He told me that a Brazilian would also come to stay the next day, and he sent me the contact so I could help receive her. I did some writing, met up with local students Selin and Elçin at a café and planned for a day of sightcycling. For someone used to getting around cities by bicycle, perhaps the biggest advantage of bike touring is that one never has to figure out how to get around within a place since the local transport is included.

Mardin compared to Midyat felt mostly like a quantitative upgrade. Amount of idyllic cafes and guesthouses, notable events if documented history, number of churches and monasteries and of course packs of tourists. Old Mardin, sitting on the mountain with view all the way to Syria and beyond, is beautiful, well worth a visit, possible to explore in a day and covered by countless travel guides on and off the ether. I much enjoyed the oriental structures accompanied by live music and Kurdish dancing on the streets, but encountered nothing aside the curated tourist experience.

After the day of touring I again met up with the girls at one of many restaurants looking out over the southern plains. We were joined by "her", the "Brazilian" traveler that was to be my roommate. It turned out to be Erik Flekander, an Australian man with a Finnish name. Now, I would generally consider myself quite relaxed when meeting strangers - I get a lot of practice as it happens on a daily basis with my lifestyle. Still, it was remarkable to me just how at ease I felt as soon as he introduced himself and started talking. When Selin asked him how he enjoyed Mardin so far, he simply replied "well, you know, I've been in the city for about...." - he looked at his watch - "an hour and a half. I just put my bag at my host and came directly here, so I really don't know yet, but I'll get back to you tomorrow on that."

The reason I smiled widely at this, outwards and inwards, was not so much for what was said (although the irony in asking for opinions on a city at the time of arrival never gets old) as it was for all the time it had been said before. In virtually every city I had visited, this exact scene had played out only with me as the newly arrived, but without any other foreigner to understand my perspective. It dawned on me then that Erik was the first international tourist I had spoken to since my first day in Iraq more than a month before. Here was someone that not only could imagine my position, but one who actually shared it himself.

From that moment I could finally let go the tension of keeping up with a foreign culture. No matter how normal it becomes to be an outsider, there is a small but constant drain of energy to analyse, and to adapt. I had just met Erik and didn't even know of his seasonal ski instructor lifestyle, working one winter in his home country and switching hemisphere to Europe or Japan for the next. But I knew on the spot that he is like me, whatever that means. Somehow, it took a man from the other side of the world for me to finally feel not foreign but familiar, and to realise how much I had missed that. Needless to say, we got along well.

I told him of how he sadly didn't look like a Brazilian woman to me. He handed his cell across the table. "Hey, you have to look at this." It was a message from our host.

"Anyway, my place is the office, the main home office, I have 2 beds, the big bed is mine, the single bed is for the guests. Today, my little Swedish girl bought the bed, you are left without a bed ;)))"

Luckily, there was another man in Mardin who showed true hospitality. Celil Korkmaz stopped me on the street and invited me for breakfast on the first morning, and I returned with Erik on the second. Celil certainly had not received travelers by the hundreds, as evident by his flabbergasted face when I was too stiff to sit and eat the local way, but also by his unmistakable excitement. When a man is shaking his arse and humming to the tunes on the radio while doing the dishes, you know he is having a good day. Whether he invited me because he was in a great mood, or having an international guest lifted his spirits remains unknown. Either way, I often find myself lucky to be around people when they are genuinely thrilled. In particular, those that have initiated the connection on the road seem to be their very happiest selves when I come visit, and it looked like the act of gifting is to Celil the highest form of meaning life has to offer. Perhaps he is right.


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