We don't plan birthdays or anniversaries. There is something about the expectations built into "big days" that means they almost never live up to what one thinks they should be.
Some years we remember them, and wish each other a "Happy". Other years the day slides by without notice, buried beneath our To-Do lists and the day-to-day grind. And some years, not by design, a great day just happens to coincide with "the" day.
On our second morning in Van we went out for breakfast (because that's what you do in Van, which is known for its breakfasts) checked out the cheese market (a wonderfully smelly hive of activity), then wandered back to our hotel, wondering what to do with the rest of our day. Van is not a small city but has only a few sites of interest within the city limits. Lake Van seemed the obvious destination.
Plus, there was trout.
One disappointment (if you can call it that) associated with this year's driving tour of Turkey's southeast and east was the lack of stands, restaurants, and holes-in-the-wall advertising alabalık (trout). Dave and I love trout. The first time we drove across Turkey neither of us spoke a word of Turkish, but we taught ourselves to recognize the word alabalık on a sign. On that trip we made numerous spur-of-the-moment stops to feast on grilled trout by streams, overlooking herds of sheep, on the shores of lakes. In short, we ate a mess of trout over a blissful few weeks. We were looking to duplicate that experience this year in the east.
Alas - eastern Turkey doesn't lack for streams and rivers and lakes and trout farms, but we found the sort of knock-up roadside trout grills we remembered to be in short supply. By the time we reached Van we hadn't eaten a single fish. Then, tracing Lake Van's southern shore on our way into the city after a 5-hour drive from the Mesopotamian hilltop city of Mardin, we saw restaurants and stalls sporting signs emblazoned with: alabalık, alabalık, alabalık, alabalık.
So, with trout on the brain, we got in the car and retraced our route to the shore -- which on that morning, a Monday, was empty. Similarly empty restaurants complicated our effort to identify the one serving the best fish. We stopped at probably the fifth place we saw, an ugly hulking double-story affair that had seen better days. But there lakeside tables, and several were occupied. We ordered ... well, you know what we ordered. Two butterflied fish cooked on a griddle with leaves of rocket (classic Turkish accompaniment to grilled fish) and lemon for squeezing.
The weather was perfect -- turquoise skies with cottony clouds, dry, warm-but-not-sweaty in the sun and a touch cool in the shade. The fish was good. It wasn't fantastic, but it was fresh and well-prepared. A good alabalık lunch.
As often happens when we take to the road for an extended period, neither of us were thinking dates. It suddenly occurred to me as we were finishing our fish that it was the 14th. I told Dave, and we agreed that it was pretty cool to be eating trout with a view, in a country that we'd been wanting to re-visit for a long time, on our twenty-fourth -- entirely unplanned. Not a bad anniversary, even if we'd both forgotten it.
We got back into the car and continued east, to catch the ferry to Akdamar, a small island about 15 minutes from the shore of Lake Van known for its abandoned Armenian church. On the way to the ferry we passed another trout restaurant. It was small, kind of cute ... and P-A-C-K-E-D.
"That's the one!" we cried, almost in unison.
"Oh maaaan, that's the one!" repeated Dave, with more than a hint of regret in his voice.
But hey, it was our anniversary. If there's a day in the year that we can justify repeating the same favorite meal within 4 hours, we figured, our wedding anniversary is certainly it.
But first we had to work up a facsimile of an appetite.
So we caught the ferry to Akdamar, walked around the island, and toured the beautiful, and sad, church. We spent a long time inside, admiring the faded wall murals and wondering what would move someone to build a church on an unoccupied island.
We chatted with some friendly folks from Van and elsewhere in Turkey (Van and its gorgeous lake draw plenty of domestic tourists),
and ended up hanging out with 3 of them. (Bonus: the next morning these guys took us out for a killer Van breakfast).
We sat by the water for a while
and watched the sun begin to fall towards the velvet hills beyond the shore,
before catching the return ferry.
Driving back to Van, Dave pulled over to capture the spectacle of a sheep herder leading his hundreds of charges across a busy four-lane highway. (He didn't hurry. Trucks and cars just stopped.)
And it really, truly was The One, so fresh and beautifully prepared -- dusted with red pepper, moist inside its crispy seared skin, served with charred spicy green peppers, roasted tomatoes, cucumber, and sliced onion rubbed with sumac and salt.
There was also excellent cig kofte (tender hand-formed bites of bulgur, raw lamb, red pepper paste, and chopped parsley to eat wrapped in lettuce with a squeeze of lemon) and ezme, a spicy-tart dip of finely chopped tomatoes and fresh hot peppers soured with pomegranate molasses, and flat bread, and a good chopped salad.
We ate and watched the sun set and toasted 24 years with bottled water (no alcohol at this place, but then again we had a drive ahead of us), then headed back to Van in a crisp summer twilight -- sated, sunburned, tired, and feeling lucky to be in such a lovely place, with each other.
Gorgeous weather, a beautiful lake, a ferry ride (we love ferries!) new friends, being in Turkey again, the luxury of traveling for pleasure rather than work, and two grilled fresh trout each. On the day, all by accident.
We couldn't have planned a better wedding anniversary if we'd tried.