Going Local: Is It Possible, as a Foreigner, to Experience a Country as Its People Do?


For many Turks who were born outside of the major cities, it’s also a summer ritual to drive, fly or take the bus to their memleket, or hometown. In the mid-20th century, millions of Turks migrated to Ankara and Istanbul; many now make summer returns to see family, to attend to their hazelnut farms or orange trees, to get some fresh air, to reconnect to a simpler life. If you are a foreigner living in Turkey, you have no doubt benefited from these excursions; the gifts from returning friends come in the form of delicious, unfamiliar cheeses, startlingly sweet tomatoes, buttery olive oil.

Those who remain near Istanbul for the season drive to the Black Sea coasts to swim or take ferries to one of the many islands in the Sea of Marmara, which laps up against the city. A century ago, the other side of the Bosporus counted as a popular place for vacation homes. This past summer, I was invited to Sedef, one of the Princes Islands in the Sea of Marmara that few people visit. I assumed it was so sparsely populated and tiny that day-trippers had no way of getting there. For a day and night I stayed in a home that had been designed by a relative of one of Turkey’s greatest poets, heard only Turkish on the stony beaches, watched brave kids jump off rocks into a body of water that somehow seemed exotic precisely because it was not. On Sedef, the forests were still lush, the homes modest, the people longtime Istanbul families; it was a snapshot of the less ostentatious, early Republican era. But even here there remained the same problem as you would have in Kalkan: Was I seeing Turks in their native land as they saw themselves, or was I seeing what I wanted to see?

This question has always been central to photography. As the critic Teju Cole has asked in these pages, when it comes to capturing another, can “the truth of a given community … only be delivered by an insider?” He goes on: “Sympathy is often not enough. It can be condescending. But taking on the identity of others, appropriating what is theirs, is invasive and frequently violent. … Combined with intuition, scrupulous context and moral intelligence, it has a chance to become truth.” For this fall’s Voyages issue, whose theme is families and friends vacationing in their homelands, some of the photographers charged with capturing them this summer were foreigners, some were countrymen. Is there a difference in the way they — or we — see their subjects? In some posed portraits, like those by Mark Neville in Odessa and Mamadi Doumbouya in Guinea, the subjects seem to present themselves as they would like to be seen by the world; traces of pride, even defensiveness, can be read into many of their faces. In others, like those by Newsha Tavakolian in Iran or Moises Saman in Japan, the effect is the opposite: a glimpse of a trip that otherwise would have been enjoyed privately.

Implicit in the thrill we get from our peek into this personal experience is the mystery of choice: Of all the places in the country that people know best, what motivated the Italian or Chinese or Iranian vacationer to choose this particular place? Was it a spiritual, aesthetic or economic decision — or any kind of choice at all? The photographer Massimo Vitali, whose settings are Italian riverbanks, says, “In the past few years, particularly with the economic crisis facing the country and much of Europe, many Italians, particularly locals, have started to steer away from the beach and seek refuge and a bit of quiet in the hidden natural treasures of the Apuan Alps and the Apennine Mountains.” Sim Chi Yin’s subjects told her that they went to a giant water park with a “Pirates of the Caribbean” theme because it was close to their sweltering, landlocked city, Chongqing, where many never get to see the sea.

Photo

The Kadikoy shore is splashed by spray from the Sea of Marmara (2009).

Credit
Photograph by Carolyn Drake/Magnum Photos

Almost all the photos, however, share at least one theme: family. One of Neville’s Ukrainian subjects said something revealing: “We usually go to Lanzheron beach every day. We live in a village called Velykodolynske, near Odessa, and when my husband drives to work, he takes us to the beach with our daughter. I love to be there. I love to watch people, how they behave and what they do. I love to watch how my daughter learns to communicate. When I was a child, my parents were taking me to the sea every day, and I am trying to do the same with my daughter.”

That reminds me of something I noticed when I visited the United States recently and was invited to a friend’s house on the North Fork of Long Island. She grew up going there as a child, and she now went with her own children. All sorts of rituals were involved, including, of course, the very basic one of leaving New York City to go out to the beach together. It was a living tradition and not a restrictive one that was endured more than embraced, which is how I always thought of tradition. Instead, this was about something that becomes more important as you get older: preserving the memories of childhood, of easier times.

For a long time, I never understood why so many of the people I grew up with at the Jersey Shore never left the Jersey Shore. In our youth, once we were old enough to work, we participated in its tourist economy: lifeguarding, checking beach badges, serving French fries at the corner burger place. On our few days off during the summer, what was our greatest pleasure? Going right back to the beach as beachgoers. That wide, white sand beach — coveted by many a North Jersey and New York native with funny accents and wearing too many clothes — eventually became part of the landscape to me; I never thought of it as a special place. But so many of the kids from my childhood still go there, now with their own families, and it is only after being away for two decades that I realize that the pull of the Jersey Shore is as much about remembering and retasting the unfettered past as it is the quality of the sand or the beauty of the water; it’s about romance and innocence.

Vacationing in your own country, with your own people, with your own family, is often a means of maintaining a connection to your youth — an attraction I expect has long been felt by people all over the world. These days, every vacation seems like a different kind of escape as well, from the terrorizing headlines of the news: climate-change-driven weather catastrophes, terrorism, reckless world leaders, the feeling that you are somehow living in every scary corner of the globe simultaneously. Getting away while staying close to home — vacationing local — surely brings with it a higher level of comfort. You can see it in the pictures on these pages: the delight and the whimsy, the silliness and unguardedness. The lack of concern, however brief, about the fate of the world extends to how others might see them. I was especially struck by this in Vitali’s photographs of Italians retreating into the countryside, portraits of hard-earned intimacy and, in a country besieged by tourists, privacy.

This summer in Turkey, many of the wealthy escaped to Greece or Cuba, but many others ventured only as far as Ayvalik or Kilyos. Come fall, everyone will be back in Istanbul, and the vacations will be smaller. What has always enchanted me about this global city — and amused me when visiting friends from abroad asked me where they should go to avoid the tourists — is that in a place as grand as Istanbul, there seems to be little difference between the two. Turks like to drink tea on the Galata Bridge as much as tourists do. I doubt any of them ever get sick of looking at the Hagia Sofia. Fathers take their young children on the Bosporus cruise as their fathers probably once did before them, not because they want to be tourists, but because some places in the world are so magical that, if you can just quiet the worry in your mind for a few blissful seconds, your own home can feel like a fantastic voyage — your authentic habitat; your real life, only better.

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