17 Sep The Holiday Rep: my adventures in Turkey
The ad in the Guardian newspaper read: Holiday reps required in Turkey. Some of the many perks include: free accommodation, free uniform, discounts on local tours, and shagging as many locals as you like. Ok, it didn’t say last bit but it might as well have. I found out pretty soon that the main reason to become a holiday rep is the rampant selection of horny locals who prey on you from the moment you step foot in their village.
Young Turks stare unashamedly; they undress you in public with their dark brooding eyes, and are not shy to chat you up on the street corner. It is the most chauvinistic, shocking thing to happen to you if you’re a self-assured, confident woman, and yet the most wonderfully exciting thing to happen to you when you’re twenty-something with low self-esteem and in dire need of male attention.
The first thing I have to confess is that I had no idea where Turkey was. Or why it would be considered a holiday destination. It might have been well known to the Brits as a vacation spot, but for an African girl it sounded ludicrous that anybody would go on holiday there. Plus, it was 1998 so I couldn’t even Google it!!! I just liked the description in the ad about the ‘sparkling clear waters on the Turquoise coast.’ That sounded amazing. Besides, my job as a live-in carer in Kent was coming to an end so the idea of swopping suppositories for sun cream and taking off to foreign lands was highly appealing to me. Now I’d just have to find out what being a holiday rep entailed.
The two-day intensive induction was held at the company’s HQ in London, after which we, the new recruits, flew to Istanbul. We arrived at some ungodly hour of the morning as all cheap charter flights do, and then made our way via taxi to our final destination, which was a good six-hour drive from the airport. The next few days were spent taking us around all the major historical sights of Turkey, and all of the tourist resorts where we’d be based. What a spectacular job this was turning out to be!
I got assigned to an office position in Hisaronu, Olu Deniz, which is located near the seaside town of Fethiye, on the southwest coast of Turkey. I worked alongside a cockney girl named Alison, who had done a few seasons before so she knew exactly how things worked. I couldn’t have asked for anyone better, and especially loved her thick London accent. Alison was responsible for teaching me a typical Cockney expression, ‘off your trolley.’ Here’s how you’d use it in a sentence: ‘Hey Kelley, you ‘ad a right lot of drinks in you last night. You were off your trolley.’ It was the cutest thing I’d ever heard, and to this day I use it with fondness and recall Alison and our drunken evenings in Turkey.
Then there was Kerry, from ‘somewhere up north’ – Sheffield I think – and she was a hoot. Northern girls bring the fun, I tell you. They’ll also drink you under the table. Luckily, in my twenties, I had staying power. If you had to ask me to sum up my Turkish working experience I’d say: we worked, went to the bars, worked, flirted with Turkish men (okay kissed a few…okay slept with a few…okay married a few) danced in the clubs, worked, drank, and soaked up the sun on our days off.
The perpetual party atmosphere made it seem less like work and more of a holiday, though, and that’s what I loved about it. Apart from the naff green Bermuda shorts we were obliged to wear, we had it made. Alison and I shared a two bedroom upstairs apartment in a brand new villa, about a twenty minute walk to work; I learned to drive on the opposite side of the road in a company car, and clearly recall taking out about twelve side mirrors of parked cars on the side of the road, when I went flying through the village one afternoon.
I couldn’t believe I was being paid to live large in one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been to – the beaches were stunning; the food was yummy (lentil soup a firm fave); the markets abuzz with haggling and bum pinching (another firm fave); a trip in a local taxi (a dolmus) more hazardous than smallpox; and everything was DIRT CHEAP! The Turkish lira was worth a wheelbarrow of pounds so we could live very comfortably. In fact, like all twenty-somethings, you only needed booze money to be completely content with life. Well, booze money and boys…
Fact # 1: All men in Turkey are called Murat
Murat #1: My Boss
His name was Murat; he was our Turkish boss and the owner of the hotel where we were based. He was a smarming man (smarmy and charming at the same time). He had dark hair, brown eyes; he was short, slightly tubby, but walked around with a warm, confident smile that could catch you off guard if you didn’t watch yourself; a cross between Marlon Brando and a bull terrier. He was extremely friendly (as you’ll discover in a moment), and would often treat us to lunch, or drinks at the bar in the evenings – a very generous man. And, like most seemingly friendly, generous, got-a-bit-of-cash-to-throw-around, Mafioso-types, he had no hidden agenda. None at all. There was no way he wanted to get into any of our pants. No siree bob. Which is why, when he came back from a trip and left a bottle of expensive Issey Miyake perfume on my desk, I thought nothing of his motives. And why, when he invited me to his place for dinner, I graciously accepted.
Alison eyed me up and down, ‘mate, are you fick or what?’ I told her I didn’t know how to say no, he was my boss after all; if I didn’t go he’d give me ‘the look’ until I caved in. Alison knew ‘the look’ well – Turkish men on the prowl had perfected the ‘come to bed’ eyes, although they weren’t so discreet about it. In Murat’s case, it was confusing because he was a great conversationalist too, and good fun, so I decided ‘what the hell…’
When I arrived at his apartment (he lived in the hotel so Alison knew exactly where I was if I didn’t come home – remember, no cell phones those days!), I removed my shoes as per the Turkish tradition, and slipped on a pair of house shoes. Even though I didn’t consider this a ‘date date’ there’s something distinctly unsexy about two people getting to know each other for the first time whilst shuffling about in comfortable house slippers. Kind of a mood killer.
Murat was the perfect host. He had made a lovely dinner, the whisky and wine kept flowing, and the conversation wasn’t terrible. I felt a bit awkward, though, because I really wasn’t attracted to him and kept wondering what the hell I was doing there. I planned to make my escape soon, but then he ushered us over to the couch. Shitfuckers! Not the couch! We all know what happens on THE COUCH!!! The word ‘no’ not being in my vocabulary yet, I agreed to sit just for a bit – ‘I really must get home soon…I have to walk back and it’s getting late, and dark…’
Murat offered to drive me home. Fuckadoodles. But then I started to relax because all he did was turn on the TV. I became engrossed in some bizarre Turkish soap, the horrendous overacting highly entertaining, which is why I didn’t notice when Murat sidled ever closer to me and…. wait for it…stuck his tongue deep inside my ear and wiggled it around.
A normal reaction from a person who doesn’t want a foreign tongue in their earhole would be: ‘Good God, stop that!!! That’s disgusting, you lecherous pervert.’ And you’d run out of there and hightail it all the way home. Did I mention I was a young woman with daddy issues? Okay, good. Then this will make perfect sense to you if you can relate. I just froze, paralysed with anxiety while his wet, warm tongue darted about in my ear like a lizard trying to snatch an insect. It was such a violation; I mean, what happened to a first kiss and then a tongue probing? Why the other way around? Was this Turkish foreplay? It was repulsive, and I had to make an excuse and get out of there fast. Who knew where else that tongue was headed?
I eventually found the courage to whip round and flick his tongue away. I smiled meekly and told Murat that he was moving a bit too fast for my liking, thanked him politely for dinner, and stood up, hoping he’d get the hint. He wanted to know why I didn’t like him, and I made up some excuse that I had a boyfriend back home and it really wasn’t him, and he was lovely but I really thought it was just two colleagues having dinner, but could we please still be friends blah blah blah…in other words, I lied.
It worked. I excused myself and told him it wasn’t necessary to drive me home; I was happy to walk. He seemed relieved by that. As I left his apartment I suddenly felt a bit sorry for him; he wasn’t a bad sort, really. As I got to the staircase I heard footsteps running behind me. It was Murat. Ah, I thought, poor love struck guy; he’s come to convince me to stay. What a little heartbreaker I am. When he reached me he touched my arm gently, looked down at my feet and said, ‘Give me my slippers back.’
Murat #2: My Turkish delight
Falling in love with Murat #2 is a bit of a blur. If I think about it really hard I’m sure I can remember how I met him. It had to be at one of the many bars we frequented around town. What I do recall very clearly is that the guy was seriously HOT!!! He was tall, with a muscular slender build, that infamous dark olive Turkish skin tone, and brooding eyes. What is it with Middle Eastern men’s eyes that make you feel both violated and ecstatic in equal measure? (Another topic for therapy I guess).
Now for the amusing part: Murat was my summer fling, my holiday romance but only knew a total of four English words, and I knew even less Turkish ones. I could say ‘good evening’ – iyi aksamlar – and ‘hello’ – Merhaba. Not that helpful when you’re trying to strike up a relationship. Neither of us even bothered getting a dictionary to make any kind of effort; we just spent our time smiling and nodding awkwardly at each other, and pointing randomly when trying to explain something. Murat was a sweet, gentle-mannered and considerate guy, and he found me incredibly funny, which I loved. He’d laugh a lot at me (that’s a good thing right?), but mainly we had a physical relationship, which is kind of what happens when you don’t speak the same lingo. And kind of what happens when you are a holiday slut, I mean rep…holiday rep!
Fact # 2: Toilets in Turkey – the big stinker
Here is something you’ll not find in a holiday guide on Turkey and Greece (at least not back then): it is not permitted for anyone to flush toilet paper down the toilet bowl; you must do your business, then place it into a small waste paper bin that has been provided for you. I was HORRIFIED the first time I found this out on a trip to Greece when I was twenty-one. I don’t mean to ruin the Greek island-hopping tour you’ve planned for next summer but it’s true, so be glad you heard it here first because nobody bothered to tell me.
Foreign toilet experiences are already icky, especially the ones when you walk into the cubicle and you’ve know idea what to do in there: grow a plant or take a pee. I mean, sometimes there are all sorts of hosepipes and buckets like it’s harvest day in the country, and sometimes I’ve been met with just a hole and no accessories (and by accessories I mean wiping materials). I could write an entire book on all my toileting experiences, except I still want to meet a lovely man someday and don’t want to have to explain why I wrote a novel on latrines on our first date.
I clearly recall an occasion when my mom and I visited friends in Paris. It was really awkward because they were the parents of a friend I’d made years before: he could speak English but his parents not very much. They kindly showed us around the city, but I was desperate for a pee and kept saying ‘wee wee’ at which they stared blankly trying to make sense of what I wanted (it didn’t even come out as ‘oui oui’). I’d even studied French at school for five years, so it was incredibly embarrassing that I couldn’t remember ‘le WC.’ Eventually we made it back to their apartment – the size of my Ikea wardrobe – and discovered there was no toilet in the apartment; you had to climb two floors in the building to find it.
I made my mother go with me. When we finally found it, after winding our way through some dark, dank passages, we came to a door and pushed it open. Then we both just stared at a pitch black hole in the floor in total amazement. What the hell was this? A secret well that led to some underground tunnels in Paris? If you think I’m fussy about where I place my delicate bottom my mother was seriously squeamish: she wouldn’t even let you share her sandwich because she hated the spittle of another person, so expecting her to crouch down and pee in a dark hole in the floor was her worst nightmare. There was only one thing to do while we both squatted over a dark hole in Paris and gratefully squeezed out some urine – laugh until our sides ached.
To this day, I am incredibly grateful to live in a home with decent plumbing and to have the privilege of putting the loo paper down the bowl. My big lesson: Don’t ever take your toilet for granted if you have a good one: kiss the cistern after you’ve flushed, because it is a rare pleasure to have good plumbing, and i wish this for everyone on the planet.
Right, back to Turkey…
You’re probably wondering two things: what did my job entail as a holiday rep, and when will this damn blog end? Good news on both fronts. I’ll tell you about my job and then you can go back to your life. If you think you’re bored, I had to write all this stuff down. I’m exhausted – time for a quick nap, twenty minutes at the most.
2 hours later
My job at T-Holidays involved room allocation: I was responsible for making sure that our guests were allocated the right room at the right hotel for the right amount of time. Since they were all coming on package holidays it wasn’t too difficult except that we managed at least ten different resorts. I loved it!!! I get a rush from organizing and problem solving the way some people do from rock climbing. My brain loves juggling and fiddling until everything makes sense and is in perfect order – I attribute this to the German blood on my mother’s side.
Occasionally, I’d also take guests out on excursions, such as guletting and markets and to the hammam, and on local cruises. I wasn’t the best person for those, though, because I did not have my sea legs. Even on the calm, Mediterranean Sea I recall taking a group of guests out for a beautiful afternoon cruise then having to excuse myself during my welcome talk while I upchucked for the remainder of the trip. Good thing most of my job was done on land.
For anyone who has ever worked in the hospitality industry, you know that everything about the job is fabulous except for the guests. A lot of them are whiny, demanding, and self-centered, and because we specialised in upmarket holidays, our guests felt even more entitled to moan about everything. Luckily, that was Kerry’s department and being the charismatic Northerner she was, she was great at diverting any major dramas with just a few ‘y’all right duck’. But we had all the usual nightmares of course: stubborn hoteliers resisting making any changes; aircon units not working in the height of summer; the hotel renovations not finished on time; the promise of a seaview turning out to be a view of building rubble at the back of a storeroom…
And of course there were the lovely guests, too. The ones that made it worthwhile; usually older couples who were well travelled and found the odd mishap to be ‘a jolly mistake’ and no reason to get your knickers in a knot. Three months into my six-month stint as a holiday rep, I got a phone call from Gillian at T-Holidays Head Office:
‘Kelley, you’re doing a great job there…’
‘Thanks. I love it here!!! I have made so many friends; I’ve got the booking system down pat; I know the area so well, our sales are up; I’ve even got a cute Turkish boyfriend here.’
‘Oh no, you didn’t make the fatal mistake of getting a Turkish boyfriend did you? You know they only want you for your British passport, don’t you?’
‘I’ve heard that rumour, but my guy is different. Anyway, we’re not that serious; it’s just a holiday romance.’
‘That’s good, because we’re transferring you to Greece. You leave on Monday.’
I stood on the pavement outside the hotel, waiting for my transfer. I was heading to Bodrum, where I’d get a hydrofoil across to Rhodes, and then a flight to Athens, and another ferry across to the island of Cephalonia. Alison and Kerry hugged me tight while I sobbed and told them how much I was going to miss them. I’d told Murat # 2 the day before, and he had looked very sad (I wasn’t sure if he was going to miss me or his chance at obtaining British citizenship). Even Murat #1, my boss, looked downhearted about my leaving. He’d have to find other foreign ears to probe.
As for Cephalonia, Louis de Berniere’s “Captain Corelli’s Mandolin”, was a bestseller at the time and based on the island, so I had great fun reading it and pointing out all the various landmarks. The island was so beautiful it hurt your eyes; I worked with a fun team in the office, and I had a stunning apartment – every night as I drifted off I could hear the soothing sounds of a mandolin playing. But…it wasn’t Turkey. What can I say? It just wasn’t Turkey. There are certain places that get under your skin when you travel; it’s the people, the smells, the memories, the vistas, the sounds, the food, the whole damn lot that leave an indelible print on your being. Turkey is one such place. I’ve not been back since I left that day, but my soul longs to return.
Update: Last I heard Kerry married a Turkish man that she met during our season, and lives there with him. I’ve never heard from either of the Murats, and am sad that Alison and I never stayed in touch. My short season in Turkey was one of the most memorable times of my life. Am I glad I answered that funny little advertisement in the paper? Hell yes! Sometimes you just need to take a giant leap of faith.