Summer in Istanbul: the sweltering heat, sticky humidity, irritable crowds. It’s no wonder that practically everyone harbors dreams of escaping the city, at least temporarily. While a city is populated as Istanbul does not empty out in the summer as much as Rome or Athens, some are lucky enough to flee.
Those with ties to the provinces return to their villages and towns. The wealthy escape to their summer homes on the Prince Islands, the Aegean, or Mediterranean. Others might have a family home, purchased in better economic times, located on the Marmara or Black Sea coast. For everyone else with the privilege of skipping town and enough disposable income (or credit cards) to get willingly ripped off, there is “vacation.”
Mass tourism is a relatively new phenomenon, exploding in Western Europe and North America in the 1950s before spreading to the rest of the world. Think of middle-class families packing into a humble automobile with beach toys and ice chests, settling into a chain hotel, and getting red-faced sitting for too long under the scorching sun.
While those who prefer boutique hotels, organic jams, and wine tastings might think themselves exempt from the crudeness of mass tourism, it only takes crowding onto a bus or ferry boat to realize how truly unoriginal we all are, our tastes shaped by market niches.
This summer of 2020, after months of being urged to remain home, everyone has vacation on their mind. Yet with a pandemic raging within Turkey and without, people are now worried about their health as much as their wallets. When deciding where to go, one has to think like the crowds one wishes to avoid: “Where can I go that everyone else won’t be?”
This year—foolishly—we chose Bozcaada and Assos: Çanakkale province’s most boutique island and tiniest coastal getaway, respectively. It seems everyone else had the same idea. Bozcaada was swarming with city folk like ourselves while the antique port of Assos, even with its tiny carrying capacity of a five hotels and one restaurant, was far more crowded than usual.
Joining this urban exodus gave me the chance to examine some popular clichés one hears on summer vacations, clichés which are even more ridiculous in the time of COVID-19.
First, there is the cliché about fresh air: “How can people stand staying cooped up in the city in their apartments. The air in the city is so polluted. But here, breathing this fresh air, it feels like you can taste and smell everything again.”
You might have heard these kinds of conversations at a beachfront restaurant or a hotel buffet, or you may even have said similar words yourself, bringing your smoggy car to a once remote Aegean town.
The language of fresh air is even more ironic today since we are all, ideally, wearing masks. COVID-19, we know now, is primarily spread by the tiny water droplets humans expel when coughing, sneezing, talking, or drunkenly singing at a meyhane. The very air we breathe has become potentially lethal. Despite this, amongsst proponents of the benefits of fresh air, one sees various levels of health-consciousness.
One can gauge one’s awareness of the pandemic by how they wear their mask. There are those who wear their white mask properly over their nose and mouth in all crowded spaces. While the presence of surgical masks gives a beach bar a particularly apocalyptic decorum, it is certainly the best way to go. Fresh air should also be corona-free.
Then there are the chin-wearers, usually mustachioed uncles who should be far more concerned about what they’re breathing in given their advanced age and history of heavy smoking. There are also the fashion-maskers, whose flimsy masks with floral or paisley designs do little to protect them, but definitely make the pandemic more stylish. Then comes the most recent batch: those who wrap their masks around arms or wrists. In so doing, they avoid seeming completely oblivious to the global pandemic while also maximizing their intake of the Aegean coast’s fabled freshness, corona and all.
Aside from fresh air, there is the cliché about connecting with nature: “I’m sick and tired of the rat race. Being immersed in nature really changes your sense of what matters in life. The best thing to do is to quit my white collar job, buy a little house out here, raise vegetables in the garden, and perhaps open a little pension hotel.”
I’m also guilty of having such thoughts, but my vacation experience quickly disabused me of any sense that “returning to nature” is easily achievable in our day and age.
While on Bozcaada, we decided to go watch the famous sunset of the island’s secluded western coast. Yet packed in like sardines in the dolmuş and then nearly stampeded by the army of selfie-takers as we laid out our wine and snacks, it became clear that you must seek out a truly remote and inaccessible location if you are to have any illusion that it is “nature” that you are connecting with and not other city-dwellers.
Then there is the most painful and realistic of clichés: all good things must come to an end. The same is true of vacations. Though we now had our doubts about fresh air and nature, we did leave the coast relaxed, pleasantly sunburned, and a few pounds heavier (another important cliché in Turkey is that “the sea makes you hungry”).
Yet the journey back to the city was itself enough to put a smoggy cloud of anxiety over our post-beach bliss. Leaving Assos (where, incidentally, one can eat the most exquisitely prepared sea bass), we boarded an intercity bus in the town of Ayvacık. The medium-sized, Çanakkale-based bus company responsible for our journey seems to have taken the language of “fresh air” a bit too literally, for neither the driver nor the attendant deigned to block their access to holy oxygen by putting on a mask. What is more, the bus still contained the trash of previous passengers left to waft in the open air.
When we politely raised our concerns about this situation, we were given a variety of excuses before being yelled at by the driver. Eventually, we had no choice but to leave the bus, seek out a company willing to comply with the Ministry of Health’s regulations, and rue the day mass tourism was invented.