Aegean off-season

Thanks to the generosity of a colleague, since mid-March I’ve been staying in the İzmir peninsula of Çeşme. Here I have enjoyed the picturesque coasts and olive groves of the Aegean. Don’t let the intoxicating blues of the sea and the blinding white sand fool you, though: it’s still freezing here.

When summer comes to Turkey’s major cities, the middle classes and the wealthy flock down to the Aegean and Mediterranean coasts. Those who are fortunate enough to own summer homes settle in for the season while the rest of us go into debt for one or two weeks of “vacation”—however long our budgets and our work schedules permit.
 
We’re still a long way off from summer. Just a few days after Nowruz, celebrated on the spring equinox, it snowed in Istanbul. Thanks to the generosity of a colleague, since mid-March I’ve been staying in the İzmir peninsula of Çeşme. Here I have enjoyed the picturesque coasts and olive groves of the Aegean. Don’t let the intoxicating blues of the sea and the blinding white sand fool you, though: it’s still freezing here.
 
But I’m not the only one enjoying the beach and the blues while wrapped tight in a scarf, hat, and puffy jacket. Surveys have shown that increasing numbers of former city slickers are choosing to stay on the coast or the countryside through the off-season. For the first time in decades, İstanbul is experiencing negative-population growth as those with the means to work from home or start new businesses are escaping the city.
 
The COVID-19 pandemic has taught residents of İstanbul, İzmir, and Ankara the benefits of slow living. For my generation, the idea of owning a summer home—let alone a regular home—is a distant dream. Yet not too long ago, having summer home on the Black Sea, Marmara, or Aegean coast was a solidly middle-class possibility. Spending the summer with one’s family had fallen out of fashion with young people who preferred vacationing with friends or international travel. But now increasing numbers of both the young and the retired are choosing year-round to trade the city, where every person you brush against in the crowd is potentially exhaling droplets of coronavirus, for the coast.
 
It is a cliché to say that life is healthier out here, but it’s hard not to feel that it’s true. The Aegeans are particularly proud of their region’s food. The neighborhood fruit and vegetable bazaars offer incredible produce at cheap prices: kumquats, mandarins, tomatoes that actually taste like tomatoes, olive oil that actually tastes like olive oil, a variety of unique cheeses I’ve only seen in Greece, and of course a whole variety of wild greens. You see both suburban and village women coming to the coasts to pick these weed-like greens that are the region’s delicacy.
 
But the off-season is still the off-season. My neighbors are a handful of retirees, construction workers, and wild packs of dogs. The retired school teachers in the building next door came for the fresh air and the calm. The pandemic is no time to be an elderly person cooped up in apartment building. As for the construction workers, they are here fixing the streets and infrastructure, and doing remodeling and repairs of summer homes. By May these calm streets will be packed with summer residents and holiday-goers crammed into little cars with water toys and barbecues. For now, the true masters of this land are the dogs. They roam through the newly repaved roads in rival packs. Unused to the sight of humans, they either growl at the unsuspecting passer-by or else bound up to them wagging their tales and looking for a little love. 
 
The downtowns of Çeşme and Alaçatı are more bustling. The bars and cafés were reopened in late winter. At that time the baristas, waiters, and other service workers who had been waiting in their hometowns for the COVID-19 restrictions to be lifted came back to their jobs. But now come Ramadan, the cafés and restaurants will be closed once again. I spoke to a waitress at one of the many wood-fire boutique pizzerias that have opened in the area. She told me that she and her co-workers had left their homes and started renting rooms here expecting that they would be working throughout the season. With all the establishments closing again in less than two weeks, they are both out of a job and stuck paying the rent. The off-season is about to get even more quiet.
 
But by the time the Ramadan holiday is over and the COVID cases begin to taper down, the economy will once again become the pressing issue. Restaurants and bars will re-open, the baristas will again serve their lattes, and the flocks of tourists and year-round residents will resume their people-watching. Despite the destruction wrought by mass tourism, giant resorts, and construction projects, the Aegean preserves much of its charm. Those are get the chance to take advantage of these charms in the off-season are lucky indeed.