“So, where you from?” the bartender asked me.
“Texas—Austin, actually,” I replied.
“Welcome to Bursa,” he said. “Call me Nick, it’s easier to pronounce than my Turkish name.”
“Pleasure meeting you, Nick,” I said.
“What’s your drink?” he asked.
“Scotch on the rocks,” I said.
He set down the warm, cloudy potency swirling in a glass; syrupy and smoky like water from a peat bog.
It had been weeks since I’d last had a drink. Lost in the wilds of Eastern Anatolia. A place of veiled women, teetotaling men, and epic landscapes guaranteed to make anyone drunk at the sight.
“What are you doing in Bursa?” he asked. “Business or tourist?”
“A tourist,” I said, “although I like to think I am a writer.”
“From Austin, then, yes? So, do you like the blues?” he asked.
I sipped my drink, looked into a bar filled with smoke and Turkish men and smiled.
“Of course,” I said.
“Chicago Blues or Texas Blues?” he asked.
“I like them both, but Texas blues are in my blood. I grew up watching Stevie Ray Vaughan, the Fabulous Thunderbirds, Chris Duarte, Eric Johnson, and Ian Moore.”
“What about Johnny Winters? ZZ Top? Bonnie Raitt?”
“Damn,” I exclaimed, “you do know your blues, don’t you?”
“I lived in Houston for a few years in my early twenties and fell in love with ’em,” he replied.
“Curious, why the blues?” I asked, “What about Turkish music?”
“I love Turkish music,” he said enthusiastically. “I’m a Turk! Another drink?”
“Not yet,” I said. “Been in Anadolu too long.” The scotch seared my throat and cleared my sinuses. I lit up a smoke. “So, what is it you like about the blues?”
“It’s kind of like Turkish music—it shares a similar feeling, emotion, as you would say in English. The blacks in your country had good reason to create this music and its feeling still lives in its sounds. It’s a feeling we have in Turkish music too, we call it, ‘hüzün,’” he said. “Do you know this word?”
“Melancholy,” I said. “A kind of worldly sadness.”
“Exactly,” he said. “Of course, Turkish music is very different from the blues but the essence is the same.”
I thought back to the long bus rides across the epic landscapes of Anatolia. To buses filled with old matrons in headscarves, wiry gaunt-faced farmers, lemon cologne-scented air, and the winsome sounds of Turkish ballads.
“Indeed, Nick, Turkish music is hüzün,” I said.
“Any favorite songs, you want to hear?” he asked. “I have quite a catalog here at the bar.”
“‘Little Wing’ by Stevie Ray Vaughan? Or maybe, better yet, ‘Voodoo Child (Slight Return)’?”
“Absolutement,” he said, smiling, and walked over to the computer plugged into a monstrous sound system. The sugary opening licks of “Voodoo Child” dripped off the walls of the bar. I took another drink, feeling the fog clouding my better judgment, and sang along with Nick.
I didn’t mean to take up all your sweet time, we yelled. I’ll give it right back to you one of these days. The other bar patrons gave us no notice, too busy watching BeÅŸiktaÅŸ clobber Ankara in a futbol match, our singing drowned out by howls of “Gooooooooaall!” If I don’t see you no more in this world I’ll meet you up on the next. Don’t be late! Don’t be late.
We both laughed.
“Another drink?” Nick asked.
“Sure,” I said.
I sat for a while thinking about the last three weeks. An element of hüzün colored my reminiscences. It had been an amazing journey. Just as moving and healing as Lake Toba in Sumatra, Indonesia months before, but entirely different in temperament. Emotionally I felt more centered than at any time in the last three or four years. Actually, more so since 2002. A new sense of purpose had grown within me too, no longer the man I was three, four, or five years ago. And I realized sometime between ÅžanlÄ±urfa and Sivas that I was finally free of the past, looking forward to the future, a future of my own making, free of old fetters and chains.
Equally important was the knowledge that sometime between Delhi and Diyarbakir the grieving process of my divorce ended. When this occurred I wasn’t quite sure, but the anger and the sadness just drifted away. Perhaps it was the muck of Delhi that did it. Or maybe it was the peaceful lapping sounds of the water on Lake Toba. Or maybe it was just time. I didn’t realize it had even happened, so subtle was the change, until a few days ago.
“Any other requests?” asked Nick, pulling me out of my reverie.
“How about you play something you like,” I told him.
“Tamam (Turkish for okay),” he said. “I think you’ll like this one. It’s one of the best American songs about hüzün I can think of.”
Out of the speakers I could hear Bonnie Raitt’s voice say, “I’d like to bring out a friend of mine who wrote this next song, John Prine.”
A bigger smile has never crossed my face. The first time I heard “Angel From Montgomery”—the live duet with John Prine and Bonnie Raitt—was back in the summer of 1989 and its impact on me was immediate. I knew the old woman in the song, all dreams of thunder and a lightning of desire in her youth. But in the song she’s a middle-aged woman, looking back on her life with a rueful wisdom, wishing she were an angel who could fly away, but no matter how hard she tried “the years just rolled by like a broken down dam.”
Nick and I sang the chorus:
Make me an angel that flies from Montgomery. Make me a poster of an old rodeo. Just give me one thing that I can hold on to, to believe in this living is just a hard way to go.
Nick smiled, but there was a sadness in his clear, green eyes. “We all want to escape, don’t we?”
“Yes,” I said, nodding my head slowly.
“Maybe someday I will again,” he said.
“I hope you do, Nick.”
I was lucky. I managed to fly away. Here I was in Bursa, close to completing a year-long journey around the world, my life richer and fuller than I had ever imagined.
I tried to pay the tab but Nick refused.
“One more drink for my honored guest!” he demanded.
He poured two shots, lifted his glass and shouted, “hüzün!”
There was a tipping back and a setting down, followed by gasps and grimaces. We said our goodbyes, both knowing we would never see each other again, but happy in the poignant moment.
In the night outside, Ulu Dag, that great green menace of a mountain, shouldered its way into view, lit by spectacular tendrils of lightning. And then the city shuddered under dreams of thunder.
Drunk, I stumbled uphill into the rain.