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Chapter 31: Russians

Anamur to Antalya. May 21-26

Antalya is perhaps the most known region in Turkey among visiting foreigners, second only to Istanbul. As expected, starting in Antalya and continuing throughout the last stretch in Turkey, there would be more tourists, more sites and attractions of known interest and harder to make deep connection with locals. I didn't mind this too much, as more tourists also meant more options for accommodation, making it easier to plan ahead. I was behind my estimated schedule and I felt that my story arch for Turkey was ready to be wrapped up - fewer meetings of significance was not a major problem. Thus, after making friends with a Japanese woman and a Russian man on their homestay workaway, as well as a splendid lagoon visit, I didn't mind finding a deal at a tourist resort in Alanya and rest my legs for while.

By this time, bringing up the cell to use the translator was routine, so I was not surprised when the receptionist didn't speak english. I was, however, more surprised when she knew even less Turkish. I had come to a hotel that seemed to only target russian tourists and that was the only language the receptionist spoke. I found this amusing but not discouraging, and eventually checked in for two nights at a very reasonable price given the location and facilities.

In this age, one is hard pressed to find a western or northern European whose mental images when hearing "Russia" or "Russian" is anything else than those of war, their president and their neighbouring country to the west. Apart from select few curious and well traveled acquaintances, I cannot recall a single time that a westerner spoke of anything related to present day Russia with a positive tone. Given my nature, this alone makes me all the more interested in what is by far the biggest country in the world. I also find it peculiar that the view in Turkey seems to be very different. Not only are there plenty of Russians there, being in close proximity and accepting Russian passports, Russians seem to be socially accepted, appreciated even (in my experience, westerners typically regard Russian tourists with similar disdain as they do their country of origin). Interestingly, Ukrainians are greeted with equal enthusiasm. It seems that in the minds of most Turks, neither Russia, Ukraine, or their peoples primarily evoke images of conflicts, nor is engaging with them conflicting to imagine.

When Turks guess my nationality, the two most common picks are German and Russian. I even recall after someone guessed wrong this way, they added "You look Russian" to explain their reasoning, meaning no offense. If anything, the suggestion seemed to be thought of as a compliment. I cannot for my life see that happen in a western country, Sweden least of all, the Mecca of silent judgement. In my home country, "You look Russian" would be similar on the scale of insults to "You look like a terrorist" or "You look like a pedophile". You might think it, but you just cannot say it.

Obviously, there were not only Russians around me in these days. I stayed with a busy Bosnian in Side, another ancient city with fantastic ruins, most of which is accessible for free and some visible through thick glass floor below the "new" old town. In Antalya city I stayed with locals Aziz and his nephew Murat. Aziz was an astrophysicist, working the summers on university programs in the United States. Murat was a Jack of all trades, teaching maths and working as a diving instructor while pursuing acting in theater on the side. They were wonderfully deep and diverse characters about whom one could write a book on its own. For this little chapter though, I will focus on the Russians for as fate would have it, I was not done with them.

Antalya truly is a stunning city with its old town, seaside cliffs and pink oleander flowers in full bloom. In places of beauty, especially one with romantic restaurants and cafés full of couples, being alone can feel all the more aching. After a few hours of sightseeing while my hosts were busy, I was eager, desperate even to hangout with somebody, anybody. I was lucky and got to meet up with Elena, who's real name is something else. She was from the mountainous Altai Republic, a state with borders to Kazakhstan, China and Mongolia. She has typically been spending a few weeks per year i Turkey in latter years, and would go back to Russia only a few days after our meeting.

She told me that she had become used to judgements and aggression from Europeans as of late and had started to avoid western crowds to stay out of trouble and assault. "But perhaps", she said hopefully, "you swedish people are a bit less aggressive?" I stopped for a moment to think, to imagine the scenario. It was probably true that direct abuse from Swedes was unlikely, unless perhaps they had a very personal connection to the ongoing conflict. No, Swedes would have their own way to show their position, and their derision.

"You would probably not be attacked" I said after a while, "but you would be judged." I know very well the looks, the silence, the talks behind the back, the fake smiles and the busyness of my people. There are exceptions as always, but l am quite confident that the general experience for Elena in a Swedish community would be anything but pleasant. It is not only the current conflict that make us wary. The fear of Russia has always been present under the calm surface, and we haven't had enough Russian playmates, colleagues or neighbours to experience, to feel, that they love their children too.

In the evening I would have been alone had I not again got in contact with Elena - but a different one, this time (same real name, same alias here). She had tried to move both to Germany and to Turkey but immigration bureaucracies and family emergencies had always forced her away. The mother was dead, the father turned to booze after the passing of his wife and Elena, not seeing any hope for her in Russia, must now balance or choose between focusing on her future and tending to her past. That choice might sound simple to Swedes and others from most progressive societies, as we easily neglect our elders by leaving them alone or put them in retirement communities where their society engagement and influence are minimal. Russian culture is much different from ours in this regard. Elena has had a tough few years, and I don't envy her current situation one bit. Yet, hope remains while the company is true. That evening, I was happy for her company to be me, and my company to be her.

In these meetings, I didn't focus on the geopolitics of the day as that is the one thing we do see from Russia in mainstream western media. When such topics arose anyway, I found myself sometimes agreeing, sometimes not, but never once doubt that they spoke their honest truths, and that those came from hearts beating of fierce love, battling with severe pain. I would have shown their faces here had they not wished to remain anonymous if I wrote about them. For that, for everything they said, thought, felt or dreamed of, for whatever their kinsmen have done or not... I really can't blame them.


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