Lesbos, in search for the past
WILCO VAN HERPENWhile living in the Netherlands, what I noticed was a lot of young second or third-generation Turks were constantly looking for their roots. Many of my Turkish friends who are living in the Netherlands sooner or later tried to find out more about the village their parents or grandparents used to live in. It is not only Turkish people abroad who want to learn about their roots. I got married in 2007 to a Turkish woman, Gonca, and learned that her ancestors came from the Island of Lesbos. After the population exchange in 1923, Gonca’s grandfather and his family had to leave the island and started a new life in Burhaniye. So we planned a trip to Lesbos Island. She (and other Turkish people who directly or indirectly had to deal with this population exchange) is also very curious about her roots.
One of the questions asked by all Turkish people within five minutes after talking to them will be “Where are you from?” This might seem to be a strange question, but actually they are asking: Where did your ancestors come from? Turkey is a complex country with a lot of minorities. We have Laz people, Armenians, Greeks, Kurds, people from the Caucasus and etc., and to be able to “place” someone, Turkish people want to know where their ancestors came from. I heard this question while living in the Netherlands; I still hear this question while living in Turkey every day. It is essential for Turkish people and there is no bad intention whatsoever. The question is being asked so they can get a better idea about the person they are talking with. When they know where they come from, without asking any other question, you, directly, get an answer on many questions that otherwise had to be asked. It is hard to find a “pure” blood Turk, 99.9 percent of Turkish people have family ties with other countries.
Travelling for me, especially as a kid, was always very exciting. I clearly remember the time we went to Italy for our holidays. I must have been eight-years-old and was excited at every border we crossed. There was no Schengen, so every time the customs would stop you, check the cars, papers and passports of the people and then you could continue your trip. At the border, the customs stopped us and asked if we had anything to declare. Of course the answer was no, what could an innocent family coming from the Netherlands possibly bring (or smuggle) into a country like Italy? It must have been in 1971, Italy was a country with serious economic problems. The customs checked out our car and let us go. It was when we arrived in Rimini and my father started unloading kilos of salt when my mother found out that my father actually had smuggled salt into Italy. (During that time there was a shortness of salt in Italy and a friend of my father had asked if my father could bring him some salt). Traveling was still exciting during those times. During another holiday, we were almost at the final destination – Portoroz in Yugoslavia. But before entering Yugoslavia, we had to pass the checkpoint. Guys with big guns, and even a machine gun, were guarding the border. It was so exciting for me as a young boy. This excitement of passing the border actually never left me. It does not matter how much you travel, customs always manages to give you an awkward feeling.
Entering Turkey always gives me the same feeling. I know I have nothing to hide, I know my papers are okay, but always, there is this little voice in my head that talks to me. “Wilco, maybe there is a problem with your residence permit” or “Wilco, maybe this time you brought too much Gouda cheese to Turkey.” Anyway, this time it was about leaving Turkey in order to go to the Lesbos Island in Greece. Everything went very smooth until all we wanted was an international insurance paper for our car, the so-called green insurance. One telephone call and a couple of days later, the new insurance paper for the car arrived. We were ready to go to Lesbos Island.
We were early, but already cars were parked in front of the gate at the customs of Ayvalık. Going with a car from Turkey to a Greek island is quite some experience. First you have to go to the customs with your entire luggage. Unload the car, walk to the building, wait in the queue. The customs checks your papers, stamps the passport and then all the luggage has to go through the x-ray. The next step is the clearance of your car and that’s where it started to get interesting for us. There was something wrong with the insurance papers; we did not have the required papers according to the man at the customs.
Was this a joke? Was he serious? Well, it turned out he was not joking and it turned out that he managed to change my feelings about customs. All the feelings about the customs that have been building up during my life were gone once I boarded the ferry that would bring us to Lesbos Island. So what exactly happened?
Traveling abroad with your car you need the green insurance paper. The head of customs looked at our papers and told us we did not have the necessary documents for the car. There was just one solution: buy new insurance here in Ayvalık. It was a Saturday afternoon, most of the offices were closed by now, but we managed to find one company that was willing to help us. In the meanwhile, all the passengers at the ferry had to wait for us. Time passed, but the man who was sent to the insurance company did not come back. The captain of the ferry slowly became very impatient; he should have sailed off a long time ago… The head of the customs office did not take the captain’s words seriously, “The captain is allowed to sail away once I give the clearance so do not worry, we will work something out for you,” he said. “You [talking to me] drive your car on the ship so once my man returns the ship can go right away.” While I tried to get my car on the ship, it was already loaded with cars and there was no space anymore, the man from the customs returned with yet more bad news. It was not possible for us to get the insurance papers because there was a mistake on the official document, so my car had to get off the ship again…
In the meanwhile the captain of the ferry was about to explode. “If you do not board within five minutes I will sail off without you” was his message, sent by one of the crewmembers. Since the car was already registered to be out of the country, this was another problem that had to be solved.
Finally, all the paperwork was done and we were able to board the ship. This was most probably one of the most stressful border crossings I have ever experienced in my life. Turkey can sometimes be a difficult country when it comes to the willingness of the police or customs to help you, but here I had a beautiful experience that once again showed me why I like to live in this country. Turkish people, sometimes quite fatalistic, utter the sentence: “Burası Türkiye” (this is Turkey) and yes, I agree, it is Turkey here; everything is possible.