One day during my mother’s visit our first spring in Ankara, she and I sat outside drinking tea, and eating borëk down the street from where we lived. Borëk are the savory stuffed pastries made with yufka, or what we know as phyllo dough in the States. My father has memories of his Hungarian grandmother rolling out the same dough on her round kitchen table until it draped over the sides.
We were sitting at the cavernous (and always nearly empty) traditional teahouse near the bottom of our street, Kırlangıç Sokak, which we called Swallow Lane in English, after the swift-flying migratory songbird. Teahouses in Turkey somehow felt more Balkan to me than either Middle Eastern or Western European. The one on our street in Ankara reminded me in spirit of the Tatiana Café in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, on the boardwalk where I used to sit with friends and drink cheap beer and peel and eat shrimp sometimes after a day on the very grungy beach.
Two curious squat brick shacks were built into the side of the hill between the Swallow Lane teahouse and the playground at the bottom of our street. I never could decide if anyone had ever lived in them, or for what purpose they had been built, but we often took our children to the playground there. Like most in Turkey, its ground was covered in big stones, but it had a fine jungle gym and chain-link swings. It was also the one bit of open space in the area.
At the teahouse, we were worlds away from the trendy House Café, an Istanbul import like Big Chef and other restaurants on fashionable Filistin Sokak, the street that runs perpendicular to Swallow Lane at the bottom of the hill from where we lived. The interior design in these restaurants was completely modern. One, called Tribeca, had a black-and-white photo of the Brooklyn Bridge plastered on the whole of the restaurant’s back wall and served bagels, though with toppings I’d never seen anywhere before, such as chicken. The House Café had chandeliers hanging from its ceilings, wooden farm tables, and large potted palms. All the restaurants on Filistin had timers on their restroom lights, a major contrast to the hole-in-the-ground toilets one so often finds at gas stations driving through Turkey. And the House Café itself played loud house music on Friday nights on its patio outside, often with a live DJ, like in Istanbul. Once we were there with friends and a smiling college-aged kid was wearing stilts and greeting customers. Another time my friend Heleen and I noticed the lyrics to one of the dance tracks playing – Ah-llah is ah-may-zing to me – and looked up at each other simultaneously, surprised.
“What a thoughtful tradition,” my Mom said when we were at the teahouse about the pashmina shawls all Turkish restaurants provide when you sit outside, and I agreed, wrapping myself against the chill. A small fountain burbled on one level of the outside seating area, and very attentive formally dressed male waiters carried small round trays as they walked around, mostly in need of something to do.