Another Immaculate Conception

Billboard from an Anglican Church in New Zealand

When it comes to social issues, readers may think I’m a bit of a one trick pony – gay this, gay that, blah, blah, blah. In fact, as a bleeding heart pinko liberal, I come equipped with a range of predictable views on a range of predictable issues. People who feed and water me will attest to this. Apart from the fairy thing, I rarely use my blog as a platform to spread the liberal word. This isn’t why I started it. But (yes, here comes the ‘but’) there’s one thing that caught my eye recently that I just can’t resist commenting on. It’s been reported in the New Civil Rights Movement, an American online magazine, that Arizonan women are now legally pregnant two weeks before conception. Even though I agree with a woman’s right to choose, I’m not going to wade into the whole American abortion debate. It’s a divisive issue that stirs up an enormous amount of emotion on both sides of the argument. However, isn’t this all getting a bit daft? In effect, this means that a virgin can be pregnant (Hallelujah, it’s a miracle). Why stop there? What about those wet dreams of our teenage years? Or don’t we boys count?

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Tuscan Turkey

Tuscan Turkey

Charlotte and Alan fancied a day trip and invited us along for the ride. We decided on a pilgrimage to The Virgin Mary’s House (or Meryemana – Mother Mary, in Turkish), near Ephesus followed by excursion to nearby Şirence. We travelled the now familiar Izmir road arriving at Selçuk for a tasty and inexpensive pide lunch. Replenished, we ascended the mountains to Meryemana (or Mary-enema, as Alan calls it).

Completed in 1950 in neo-Byzantine style on 7th century foundations, Mary’s gaff is a cute, unassuming little bungalow, now a consecrated church but with the character of a shrine. It’s the centre piece of well-tended park overlooking a pretty wooded valley.  We entered the house reverentially and gazed upon the small effigy of Our Lady. It felt contrived to me. I have little time for religion and give more credence to the tooth fairy. Outside in the courtyard Liam lit a candle as is required of a fallen Catholic.

There is scant biblical evidence that Jesus’ mum found her last resting place there (before her Assumption, of course). This hasn’t stopped the place becoming a side show on the bible tours circuit or various popes cashing in on the act with papal sponsorship. Naturally, there’s the obligatory tacky gift shop selling Chinese made plaster figurines and vials of holy water. Liam procured a small woodblock icon of the Madonna and child that is now proudly displayed on a shelf in the loo.

Onwards to Şirence, a small village perched high on the hills above Selçuk. Surrounded by vineyards and orchards set within a serene Italianate  landscape, Şirence had been a Greek populated settlement until 1923. During the exchange of populations between Greece and Turkey the inhabitants were told to pack their bags and leave for Athens. After being left to rot for decades, the village has re-emerged as a bolt hole for wealthy Turks attracted by the fine wood-framed stucco houses that clutch precariously to the hillside. Despite teeming hawkers serving the mob of tourists, both Turkish and foreign, the village retains a real appeal. We grazed at the stalls, drank beer, sampled wine and infused the charm.

We thought of  dropping in on fellow jobbing blogger and good egg Kirazli Karyn who lives only a spitting distance away but we didn’t want to descend unannounced and mob handed.

Communal Crapping

Image: Thomas Depenbusch

Selçuk is a handsome town, host to a fine museum and spitting distance from the wonder that is Ephesus: world heritage site nominee and arguably one of the most impressive open air museums anywhere. And, since we were in the vicinity anyway, it would have been rude not have a look around the imposing ruins. Ephesus (or Efes to give the place its Turkish name which is also happens to be the name of Turkey’s favourite ale), was one of the most sophisticated cities of antiquity, adorned with grand civic buildings, marble-clad pavements, street lighting and home to the Temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Sadly, just one lonely, forlorn re-assembled pillar remains of Artemis’ once vast shrine rising up precariously from a mosquito-infested bog. What a lunatic hadn’t destroyed by torching the place, the Christians had finished off. The rest of the city is a magnificent affair and in impressively good shape after decades of excavation and partial reconstruction. We had decided to drop in at just the right time of the year. As Turkey’s second most visited attraction (after Sultanahmet – the old city – in Istanbul), Ephesus is best avoided at the height of summer when the unforgiving sun and the rag-tag of camera-toting tourists conspire to make the place Hell on Earth.

The city was of immense significance to the early Christian Church. St Paul wrote his Epistles to the Ephesians (to damn them for their debauched ways I suppose, having never read them) and the Virgin Mary is reputed to have lived out her dotage nearby. It can be reasonably argued that Christianity, as an organised religion, was born in Ephesus. Not a lot of people know that.

We hired a guide but soon wished we hadn’t. A serious academic type, he droned on about the fine and upstanding Ephesians: civilised, cultured, always kind to their slaves. We fancied the alternative history, the salacious version, where the same fine and upstanding Ephesians visited the hungry whores via the secret tunnel connecting the great library to the brothel. After the sombre tour, we paid off the guide and re-roamed the ruins unescorted. Something not to be missed is the public latrine. The Romans were particularly fond of communal crapping, artfully combining conversation with evacuation.

Having had our fill, we returned to the car and journeyed back south but were unable to resist another detour, this time to Priene. Built on a natural escarpment high above the Meander River flood plain, Priene is the most complete Hellenistic site in Turkey. Whereas Ephesus overawes with its monumental scale, Priene seduces with its intimacy and superb aspect. We loitered a while as the sun began to set over the Ege bathing the ruins in a soft warm light.

It was time to top up the tank, so we pulled into a service station. Such establishments in Turkey are a joy, belonging to a gentler age, with staff on hand to fill your tank and sponge down your dusty windows. In fact, it wasn’t that long ago when a friendly chap with a cheesy smile and handlebar moustache would fill your car as a lit fag dangled from his gob.

In the Beginning

In the beginning there was work and work was God. After 35 years in the business, the endless predictability made me question the Faith. Liam, on the other hand, was neither bored nor unchallenged but was routinely subjected to the ephemeral demands of a capricious boss, a soft and warm Christmas tree fairy with a soul of granite – Lucifer in lace. He feared for his tenure. I feared for his mental health. It was the 30th May 2009, Liam’s 48th birthday, and we were enjoying a romantic meal in Soho. As the booze flowed the conversation turned to ‘What if?’ Thus began our Great Adventure.

We began to hatch our audacious plot to step off the treadmill and migrate to the sun. Turkey sprang instantly to mind since we had just returned from Bodrum – a chic and cosmopolitan kind of place attracting serious Turkish cash, social nonconformists and relatively few discount tourists. Liam loved it and, after many years visiting the western shores of Anatolia, I needed no convincing. All I had to do was sell my house just as property prices were in free fall. All Liam had to do was agree a financial settlement with his ex on their jointly-owned property, something that hitherto had proven more difficult to resolve than the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Against all odds, I sold my house and its contents to a God-send of a neighbour and, after some emotional horse-trading, Liam finally achieved a reasonable settlement on his own property. Implausibly, we both secured voluntary redundancy from work. In my case, it happened with such an indecent haste that I sensed they were glad to be rid of me. Well, the axeman was stalking the Town Hall corridors looking for prey. It mattered little since it all added to the purse. Our remarkable run of luck convinced us that someone was looking down kindly upon us. Liam attributed it to the Virgin Mary.

We turned our attention to where in Turkey we might settle. The obvious choice was the narrow western coastal strip tucked beneath the vast Anatolian Plateau as it is the most attuned to European sensibilities. Turkey beyond this is the genuine article, a magical land of sweeping landscapes, drenched in drama and culture but far too foreign and exotic for a couple of mature, bourgeois, gay boys from the Smoke.

Bodrum was the bookie’s favourite, an urbane, liberal oasis where we could live safely and unmolested. We briefly entertained the notion of living in Kaş on the Turkuaz Coast where we had honeymooned. Kaş is a sparkling Bohemian jewel, surrounded by a pristine hinterland that has been mercifully spared the worst excesses of mass tourism. But, its glorious isolation, protected by a wilting two hour drive from the nearest international airport, means that the town is effectively closed out of season and lacks those dull but essential full time services we all need to live in the material world: banks, supermarkets, hospitals and the like. We cast our eyes along the map. The coast running south-east of Kaş towards Alanya has been colonised by the Germans and Russians and the string of major resorts running north – Fethiye, Marmaris, Altinkum and Kuşadası – attracts legions of bargain basement Brits. It was no surprise that the odds on favourite won by a mile.