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Slowing down for Turkish molasses

Slowing down for Turkish molasses

This essay appeared in the Fall 2013 issue of Gastronomica magazine. Click here for a pdf version.

The heat doesn’t faze Sevim, my seventy-year-old mother-in-law, even though it’s already sweltering at six o’clock in the morning. ‘‘Buraya,’’ here, she says, dragging a stained neon-blue tarp under a tree heavy with mulberries. Twelve feet above, her octogenarian husband balances on a branch and waits for the signal. ‘‘Tamam,’’ okay, Sevim shouts, and Muzaffer begins shaking the bough. The leaves rustle and, suddenly, hundreds of the white du¨ t shower down, the plump fruit landing plippity-plop-plop on the plastic sheet.

‘‘Look out!’’ squeal my two sons as they dodge the fruity confetti.

June is pekmez, fruit molasses, time in Bes¸ikdu¨ zu¨ , the eastern Black Sea town in Turkey where my family is spending the summer, sans Hakki, my husband. In his birthplace, a hillside hamlet, men bob and weave through the berry-laden branches, taking care not to dislodge the ripe fruit before their wives say the word. Down below, the women sweat over enormous copper pans, pressing, stirring, and boiling the fruit’s juice until it thickens into a tangy, tawny molasses.

Pekmez has sweetened Turkish dishes since the eleventh century. Typically made from mulberries or grapes, ‘‘the healing syrup of Anatolia’’ is rich in iron, calcium, and potassium. Rural housewives like my mother-in-law believe molasses can cure colds, treat anemia, and even prevent cancer. Postpartum moms fortify themselves with pekmez mixed with water. At breakfast, Turks scoop it up with bread or, in my husband’s case, slurp it down by the spoonful.

With its bittersweet, slightly burnt flavor, homemade mulberry molasses can take some getting used to. I could say the same thing about Bes¸ikdu¨ zu¨ . Despite thirteen years of marriage and yearly visits to my in-laws’ rambling three-acre homestead, I’ve yet to acquire a taste for rural living `a la Turka. To my New Yorker sensibilities, life on the Silk Road is bucolic but backwards, and best for little boys gone wild.

Glancing up from my dictionary, I catch my sons skidding barefoot through Sevim’s harvest.

‘‘Stop that!’’ I scold, as my seven-year-old leaps onto a mound of mulberries. ‘‘You’ll ruin grandma’s pekmez.’’

But Sevim just sighs and adjusts her pink-and-black floral kerchief. She crisscrosses the corners at the base of her neck and knots the scalloped ends across her forehead.

‘‘Ne yapalim,’’ she says, and hoisting a bucket of berries onto her hip, pads over to me in her black rubber galoshes.

Confused, I mentally rifle through my rudimentary Turkish. ‘‘Yapmak’’ is ‘‘to do,’’ that much I know.

Before I can figure out what she means, Sevim dumps her haul onto the table, and starts picking through it, tossing out leaves, twigs, and overripe fruit. Gingerly, I poke my fingers into the heap. It’s sticky, slimy, and teeming with bugs.

‘‘Yuck,’’ I think, flicking an earwig off my wrist. ‘‘This is going to be a long three months.’’

My mother-in-law has worries of her own. The month before we arrived, a carload of holidaymakers drowned in a freak ferry accident. In the finger-pointing fallout Rahman, the head of Port Security—and the husband of Sevim’s eldest daughter—was arrested, presumably for negligence. Six weeks later, Rahman still hasn’t been formally charged, and no one knows when, or whether, he will be released.

‘‘How’s it going today?’’ Hakki asks when he calls one day in August.

‘‘Same as yesterday,’’ I deadpan. ‘‘Except now she’s picking grapes.’’

At noon Sevim teeters atop a rickety wooden ladder. Clusters of blue-black muscat grapes spill from a wicker basket. Half a mile down the rutted footpath that leads to her house, the clang of metal on bedrock booms like a metronome. Soon, the city will raze her prized decades-old arbor to make way for a new modern road.

I wonder aloud about the fate of the mulberry trees. Will they be cut down too?

Sevim shrugs, and, wordlessly, empties the basket into a copper tub, before sliding her bare feet into two plastic bag booties. Hitching up her skirt, she climbs in and starts stomping the grapes. She sloshes around a bit and then, ankle-deep in the purple slurry, turns to me and smiles.

‘‘I don’t get it,’’ I tell Hakki later. ‘‘Her son-in-law’s in jail. The town’s about to lop off half her land. But your mom just keeps making pekmez.’’

‘‘So?’’ he asks. ‘‘What else can she do?’’

At dusk a pungent aroma rises from the grape pekmez. Sevim squats on a tree stump, skimming the froth. Steam billows from the roiling syrup and for a moment she vanishes. Then, through the haze, I see her ladling molasses into a shallow bowl. She tips the dish sideways, and an amber film spreads across.

‘‘Tamam,’’ she says. It’s ready.

She pads into the house and returns with three smaller basins. Together, we tilt the heavy pan and the piping-hot molasses flows like lava.

After, Sevim leans the empty basin against the mulberry tree and motions for me to sit. A layer of caramelized sugar coats the pan. Grinning, Sevim traces a curlicue through it and then, with a flourish, licks her finger.

Suddenly, I am overcome. My fiftieth birthday is two days away and I’ve been brooding about growing old and losing my father two years before.

‘‘I miss my dad,’’ I stammer, biting back tears.

Sevim is silent for a moment. ‘‘Ne yapalim?’’ she says, looking up at the sky. He’s gone.

Then, at last, I understand what she means: Ne yapalim translates literally as ‘‘what-can-we-do.’’ But it’s not a question; it’s a mantra of acceptance.

I nod and watch her fill a jar with pekmez. As it falls from the spoon, it folds over on itself like ribbons of freshly blown glass. Then a lone bubble floats slowly to the surface.

Loss flavors every life, I realize. But serendipity does too. The wise heart embraces both.

Across the valley, the slate-gray sky pulses with lightning. By morning the last mulberries will be gone, swept away by the storm.

Catching Sevim’s eye, I point to the clouds. ‘‘Ne yapalim,’’ I murmur, and smiling, bring the pekmez to my lips.

What’s been your most eye-opening travel experience? I’d love to hear.


A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to…

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to…

Several years ago I hit a one of those big life milestones…you know, the kind where you add a zero to your chronological age. Yes, I’m a bit vain so you’re not getting any more details than that. 😉

Anyway, to mark the passage into a new phase of my life, I resolved to walk part of the Camino de Santiago, the centuries-old network of pilgrimage routes that extends across Europe and ends in the city of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, Spain.

Kitted out with backpack, walking stick, and a brand new pair of hiking boots, I chose the most well-known route, the Camino Frances, which begins in Saint Jean Pied de Port, France, and crosses through several Spanish provinces. 

One evening about two weeks into my walk, I was chatting by phone with a friend in the U.S. when she asked if I’d done any early morning walks.

“No, why?” I asked.

“Oh, I just imagine it must be so spiritual, to be walking out under the stars, being out in nature in the pre-dawn,” she said.

Truth be told, it had never even occurred to me to walk in the dark. Rising early in the wee hours of the morning is customary on the Camino. But that’s more out of necessity and expediency. As anyone who’s walked the Camino in the high season knows, the early bird has a much better chance of snagging a cot in the albuergues, the dormitory-style accommodations that dot the Camino. Sleep in and you may end your day with sore feet, heat exhaustion, and no place to sleep. 

So, yes, waking up early was already part of my Camino routine. And, yet, venturing forth before daybreak intrigued me. What would that be like?, I wondered. Might I discover something else on the Camino that was invisible in the daylight?

So that night I resolved to rise before dawn so I could experience the Camino while the rest of the pilgrims slept on. 

To help orient pilgrims, and direct them toward Santiago de Compostela, there are waymarkers along Camino. The scallop shell is the most iconic symbol and waymarker. Typically painted in yellow and blue, the scallop shell appears on crumbling walls, the sides of buildings, and often literally under your feet on the path. In some provinces, the scallop shell is accompanied by a yellow arrow pointing the way east to Galicia.

Having spent several weeks on the Camino, I was pretty adept at spotting the waymarkers. After ten minutes I had left the city and my cozy cot behind. The world was eerily silent; even the birds had not yet awoken. I was feeling proud of myself (okay, maybe a bit unsettled by the total silence) and rehearsing what I’d tell my friend about my bravery. I strained my ears for the sound of nocturnal creatures and heard nothing. I gazed up at the sky, ready to marvel at the constellations, but the clouds obscured all.

Feeling a bit deflated, I entered a tiny village and made my way to small plaza with several paths and streets radiating in several directions. Peering around in the dim, actually, nearing non-existent light I couldn’t find a scallop shell or an arrow. I stumbled around a bit, shining my headlamp around corners, down alleys, and scanning the roundabout. And still, no waymarker.

After stumbling around in the dark for a bit, the voices in my head started panicking. “What kind of a dumb idea was this? How stupid to be out walking alone?! I mean, what did I really expect to find out here, anway?”

Then, another voice, one that many pilgrims hear, whispered in my subconscious, “Remember. The way is always there. Just pay attention.”

That was when I turned and saw it – smack dab in the center of the roundabout, a mere three feet away, stood an enormous statue of Saint James. Staff in one hand and a scallop shell danging from his waist, the statue’s free hand was raised and pointing.

I was so surprised, I burst out laughing.

What a wonderful timely lesson. No, I didn’t experience the awakening I’d gone looking for that morning. I had been too busy orchestrating my own adventure and trying to will some grand discovery that would serve as pilgrim bragging rights.

I nearly missed the very magic of the moment.

Fortunately, and of course, the waymarker and the message been there all along.

They always are, aren’t they?

Want support with your own personal wayfinding? Click here to learn about my “North Star” and “Pilgrimage” coaching packages.

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A world with a view

A world with a view

I think I caught the culture bug from my grandpa’s View-Master.

You know, the plastic stereoscope with the little round cardboard disks of 3D photos. My grandfather had a whole stash of reels – all about natural history and geography and architecture – with titles like “Tulip Time in Holland” or “Africa – Cairo to Capetown”.

On summer days when it was too hot and humid to be outside, my granddad would crank up the a/c and we’d spend hours looking at the View-Master.

The forests of giant sequoias in California. 

The Seven Wonders of the World.

The Hanging Gardens of Babylon. 




Everything was so big and magical and different. I was only 3 or 4 but I was hooked on travel.

Nowadays, you can get customized viewers and reels to suit just about every fancy – a talking Dora the Explorer, Disney classics, Nascar racing and countless others.

But, none of that stuff was around when I was first introduced to the View-Master.

That’s a good thing. Because my life might’ve turned out a lot differently if my grandfather had been into Huckleberry Hound.


What about you? What (or who?!) got you curious about the wide world and other cultures? I’d love to hear.

What’s it like over there in Turkey?

What’s it like over there in Turkey?

People ask me that question a lot.

They ask when they find out that my husband is Turkish. Or when I talk about spending the summer with our kids in Turkey. Or when I mention that I’m going there for work.

Or when some Hollywood starlet says something like, “Oh, I thought Istanbul was a town.” (Yeah, I know, I winced too.)

And, you know what? I still don’t have a good answer.

Because, summing up Turkey, or any other country or culture, for that matter, is basically impossible.

It’s like asking a mom what labor’s like. (Okay, it’s not that extreme.)

Still, when you’re talking about a country as big, as diverse, and as old as Turkey, there aren’t any simple, succinct answers.

But that doesn’t stop people from having questions.

The Top 3 Questions I Get Asked about Turkey

Over the years I’ve field a lot of questions about traveling in Turkey. Here’s just a sample:

Do you wear a headscarf when you’re there?  

Nope. Sure, if I’m visiting a mosque, I’ll put on one out of respect. But, in my normal goings-about, I’ve never worn, or felt pressured, to don a headscarf. 

Is it safe?  

There’s something about Turkey that makes some people very nervous. And it’s not just Americans who get the willies. Back when I lived in Madrid and was heading out for my first trip to Turkey, a well-meaning Spanish friend tried to talk me out of going. “What if you’re kidnapped? Or tossed into a Turkish prison like that guy in that movie Midnight Express?”  Considering that I wasn’t a) a top model or b) a drug dealer, I wasn’t too worried. Twenty-years and two kids later, I’m even less so.  

Is it true you have to walk several paces behind your husband?

Heck, no! And I don’t see my Turkish female relatives plodding along behind their spouses either.

Curious about Turkey and want to learn more? Then consider joining me on a “Wander & Wonder Day Trip”. Contact me to learn about the custom walkabouts I offer in Istanbul and other locations in the U.S. and abroad. 


The # 1 Reason that Cultural Fluency Matters

Ever been to an aquarium?

It’s such a cool experience, watching the aquatic parade. 

The sharks glide by.

The sea anemones do their funky slow-mo dance.

Even the guy in the wetsuit fits right in — Okay, maybe not him.

But you know what I mean. The whole aquarium thing just, you know, works. 

What do fish have to do with culture?

Culture is like the water in an aquarium. And we humans are the fish.

As we paddle along, culture keeps us afloat. It’s the shared values and beliefs we live by, the rituals and traditions that say “this is how we do things here”, the taboos that tell us what behaviors are out of bounds.

For people born and raised in the U.S., culture is things like:

Just Do It © or “Been There, Done That” (values)

Always singing the “Star-spangled banner” before a ball game.  (traditions)

It’s rude to ask someone how much money they make. (etiquette and taboos)

For someone from Japan, culture might be expressed this way:

You always accept a business card with both hands and study it carefully. 

When you’re a guest in someone’s home, it’s rude not to eat all the food your host offers. 

Is either one of these cultures better than the other?

Nope. They’re just different ways of being in the world.

Are these differences ever cause for confusion?

You bet.

That’s because, like the fish in an aquarium, we’re all immersed in our own culture and that can make it hard to see, let alone, understand how the world might look to other fish, er, people who are from another culture. 

But, as long as you’re safe in your own cultural waters, life usually goes swimmingly.

Something Smells Fishy Around Here

But let’s say you have a change in life circumstances.

You decide to study abroad or you’re assigned to a global team at work.

Or maybe, like me, you fall in love with someone from another culture.

Now you’re in unfamiliar, maybe even murky, waters.

Out of the Fish Bowl and Into the Fire

Getting dumped out of your cultural fish bowl, whether by force or by choice, is shocking, to say the least.    

After all, you’ve got a whole new set of cultural behaviors and norms to sort out.

Which leads to lots of questions and maybe even some frustration.

Why can’t I get a straight answer from my Korean colleague? 

My Spanish girlfriend is never on time! 

This meeting with our Brazilian clients is really dragging on. What’s with all the chit-chat?! I mean, let’s get to the sales pitch, already! 

Ever felt this way? No worries, confusion, frustration and exhaustion are part of developing cultural awareness.

But, if you want to stay afloat — be happy in your new home overseas, get along with your colleagues or make your cross-cultural romance work —  you’re going to have to learn some new strokes. 

Three Tips for Staying Afloat in Cross-cultural Seas

  1. Resist the urge to succumb to stereotypes. Sure, it would be easier to just label the other culture as “lazy”, “crafty”, “just not like us” or any number of unflattering adjectives. But does that really make it easier to get along?
  2. Educate yourself about basic cultural differences. Read books. Ask questions. That way, you can anticipate where misunderstandings might arise and you can build on cultural traits that you and your new friend, colleague or soul mate might share.
  3. Remember to take off your own goggles. Pretend you’re an anthropologist and try seeing your own culture as someone from another culture might. 

Need support navigating your cross-cultural relationship? Could your team use some training in effectively communicating across cultures? I offer coaching and training for individual and groups. Schedule a consult with me and let’s explore how I can help.

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