Every summer, as I unlock the door of the summer house that I share with my parents and my sister, I am gripped by the scary thought of turning into my mother as I age. My younger version would have preferred short stays at hotels, weekends in an Airbnb in some strange city or any sort of holiday that was short and adventurous; definitely not the staycation at the same beach that I have been visiting since childhood.
Then I console myself that it is not simply me aging; the Turkish summer houses made a comeback during the pandemic. Just see the ads for beach rentals or the number of friends who announce that they are going to the family summer house.
The summer houses, which bring together several generations under the same roof, are the remnants of the time described in the family sagas of Reşat Nuri Gültekin, di Lampedusa and others, before the faith in the nuclear family set in. Unlike the large konaks or mansions of the old, however, most of these second houses are crammed little boxes crammed together in the semi-gated communities. The Aegean peninsula of Çeşme, where I have spent part of my 50-odd summers, is home to hundreds of such communities, known as “site” in Turkish. The older, worn-out sites built in the 70s and the 80s have claimed prime spaces by the sea; the newer ones, with their boxy, frighteningly chic houses that are doubtless some young architect’s folly but totally unsuited to the climate, are often slightly away from the seafront.
Ours is a modest one that is a stone’s throw from the beach and consists of sixty twin houses, a small park and a market ran by a family from the Black Sea and can whip up a perfect muhlama - a dish of eggs, flour and cheese. The site is a lesson in seven degrees of separation: I met the daughter of our closest neighbor and her German husband in Paris. I discovered some ten years ago that the neighbor on the right was the mother of my university crush; her daughter-in-law is a friend from high school and the neighbor at the back is the ex-husband of a friend. My sister’s best friends also come back here in summer and on those occasions, my sister, a powerhouse in her university she works in, turns into a giggling teenager.
With the pandemic’s ground rules, such as working from home and a twitchiness to stay in hotels, the summer houses got a new breath of life all around Turkey, as beautifully described last year by Gonca Tokyol’s “The Return of the Turkish Summer House” in Inside Turkey. At the end of the article, one of the residents of a site in Datça, Sibel Belli, tips a jar of water onto the road - a gesture to which them a good journey and a swift return- as her young neighbors leave. Then she declares that large families staying together in summer houses is “the new normal.”
To me, it hardly feels new… or normal as we, with our double or triple dozes of the jab, slowly acquir the courage to go out.
When you are little, a crowded summer house is a constant party; as you become a teenager, you start complaining about sharing a room; of “not having a single locker of your own” and the lack of privacy. Throughout my twenties and thirties, I have opted for holidays in hotels and resorts with friends. Both my sister and I rediscovered the cottage at the end of our thirties. Wisely, we time-share. After settling in Izmir half a dozen years ago, the task of “opening up” and “closing down” the house naturally rests on me and somehow, my own stays in the house extends until mid-October. My sister’s family travels from Istanbul to pass the August heat by the sea and my two nieces take surf lessons and play basketball with the kids of the site. My parents come out for a week or a month, but mostly prefer to be there when their grandchildren are there.
Occasionally, the three families all come together for a weekend or two, which is delightful, lovely, noisy, chaotic, and, above all, short. The materfamilias, my unyielding mother, hints, none too gently, to my sister and me that we do not know how to run a household. My sister, the inheritor of my maternal side’s iron-will, does exactly what she wants with studied deafness to my mother’s advice and I resort to my old teen-age habit of retiring behind a book. Our husbands, too wise to be caught in the crossfire, watch soccer games on TV or pretend to go out for an errand. The summer houses, from the traditional to semi-modern households, live on female labor and domestic inequality, which might be precisely why I can never bring myself to love them in the first place.
For the most part, though, we wisely stick to our separate timelines; and each family, with totally different needs and tastes, arranges the house in its own way. My sister reinstates on the porch the huge, easy-to-wash plastic table of six, which I’ve banished to the back of the house, and moves my wicker table and chairs indoors. When I take over from the house again in mid-September, the wickers go back outside; my father’s beach shoes, my mother’s tea kettle and my niece’s bicycles are tucked away. During my time-share, my husband stays in town for work during the week and I, alone Monday to Friday, alternate between writing and being the perfect beach bum.
So I walk every day on the same beach, which has filled out in the last 40 years, just like the bikini-clad figuresof the residents. The no-man’s part on the seafront, where daring teen couples used to exchange kisses in the dark, is now a chic residence (which was initially built as a hotel but later mysteriously and possibly semi-illegally transformed into a residence), with a carefully-raked beach and a no-strangers-can-tread wooden deck. Two Filipino nannies build sandcastles with two kids, while their mothers, with gold hoop rings and Vakko-caftans, enjoy their coffee a safe distance away. I glance at them with a mix of amusement and envy. Perhaps residences - this midway solution between a hotel and a summer house - will be the future normal?