We began noticing them on the drive from Inebolu to Sinop: single-story timber structures raised from the ground, supported by what look like rough-hewn cocktail tables of the sort you might find in a Wild West-themed cowboy bar.. Storage facilities of some sort, we reasoned, something along the lines of the rice barns that dot the landscape in Thailand and Indonesia.
Turkey's Black Sea coast is corn country (though plenty of wheat is grown there too). In autumn almost every rural house is festooned with bunches and garlands of drying cobs. These "corn barns", which we later learned are called ambar in Turkish (a generic term for "storehouse"), were used by farmers to dry and store their harvests of corn (and other crops) while waiting for their turn at the village mill. Set up high above the ground, their crops were safely out of the reach of the wild boar and other animals that roam the Black Sea's pine-carpeted hills. Now most of them sit empty.
We were bug-eyed after days of gray skies,confined by unceasing rain to our hotel room or one or another of Sinop's harborside teahouses. When we finally woke to a weak, tentative sun we dressed and hurriedly breakfasted, jumped in the car and hit the road.
We drove inland, away from the sea we'd been staring at for the better part of a week, and traced a two-lane blacktop deep into a bucolic valley. Here and there were the tiniest of villages comprising a single bufe (always well-stocked with freshly baked bread) and a handful of cottages. Plumes of smoke rose from roadside gardens, signalling pekmez in process. We pulled off the road not once but four times, to find mothers and grandmothers hovering over mammoth metal kazan (cauldrons), cooking down kilos and kilos of apples, pears, mulberries, figs and grapes into liters and liters of fruit molasses over wood fires.
Alongside a river slicing through a not-quite mountainous range trees were hinting at autumn, flashing bare limbs and spots of saffron and yellow. We breezed by a mid-sized town and kept on, beyond the point at which the road became a pitted dirt track. Lured by the vista around the next corner and the next we climbed and climbed, cautiously negotiating hairpin turns, always on the lookout for heedless Turkish drivers.
There were ambar, plenty of them, and we slowed and gawked at each one; by now we were a bit obsessed with these structures. When the road narrowed to nearly impassable we stopped at the base of a hill crowned by an especially handsome specimen and got out of our car to take photos.
While Dave was shooting a window on the facade of what we'd taken to be an abandoned farmhouse opposite the ambar a shutter banged open and a red kerchiefed head popped out. We were assaulted with a half-growl, half-shout: Kimler? Kimler? Ne yapsiniz? "Who's there? What are you doing?"
I shouted back that we were just taking photographs of her ambar. She looked dubious and slammed the window shut. A few moments later she popped out the farmhouse's entrance and, puffing loudly with arms swinging, toddled over to the gate.
"It's gorgeous! He's a photographer," I said, indicating my husband and the corn barn, trying to explain why we'd hiked up a hill and onto her property. She glared at me from beneath thick formidable brows, scaring me a little. My Turkish is no match for an angry teyze. But then suddenly the clouds parted. Her face didn't soften, exactly, but she invited us in for tea.
She invited us into her beautiful beautiful wooden house. Later her husband told us it was built of beechwood by his father, over 60 years ago. We entered from the dim ground floor layed with stone, a storage area for tools and bags of recently harvested walnuts and hazelnuts and, long ago, cattle and sheep and chickens.
Ladder stairs -- the steps, made of 2-inch thick boards, so solid underfoot -- led to an entry area. To the left was a curtained kitchen nook recently updated by the woman's son, with a marble countertop, new sink and taps and a handcarved wooden bench. Two bedrooms lay straight ahead. One was empty save for a cloth spread over the floor covered with drying corn kernals. The timber walls were hung with old kilim and thick cotton cloth.
Habiba -- after a while I gained the courage to ask her name -- led us into a sitting room brightened by two windows -- one with a fine view down the hill up which our car had just snaked -- and directed us to a low cushioned banquette running along one wall. Outside it was cold enough for gloves and a hat and heavy wool socks. Inside, the room was toasty warm from a wood-fired stove set within a five foot-high blackened hearth. She left us there to admire the timber walls, gleaming from age and smoke, and returned with a metal canister of water and a container of tea leaves.
Habiba told us about her family, three sons and a daughter, all grown and married and living in Istanbul. Grandkids too, and they all converge on the village every summer to take in the fresh air and cool temperatures. As she talked Habiba loosened up a bit. She was 64 or 65, she said, she couldn't be sure. She'd grown up in the area, she loved these hills: "Allah allah, you should see it in springtime!"
We must eat something, she insisted, even though it was past lunchtime. We danced the dance of Turkish hospitality, declining while she insisted, and finally giving in. While Habiba was in the kitchen her husband Kazim returned home. Opening the door to find two yabanci drinking tea in his sitting room he stopped short, then graciously and quickly regained his composure. He offered us more tea.
Kazim and Habiba set up a low folding table in front of us, laid it with a flowered cloth and set it with plates of food. Kazim ate with us (Habiba demurred, saying she'd already eaten): tomatoes, long green mild chilies, fresh cheese and gently pickled romano beans that Habiba warmed in oil over a burner on the wood stove. Tea for Kazim, orange Fanta for Dave and me.
As the three of us ate Habiba pulled hunks of bread from a big loaf she kept in a plastic bag on a shelf near the door. She carefully peeled warm hard-boiled eggs and placed them on our plates.
Kazim told us about growing up in the house, how he was seven years old when his father built it with his own hands. He described a village more populous than it is now, the mosque just minutes from their door crowded with the faithful every Friday afternoon; it's closed now. He described the mill down by the river where his father and the village's other farmers took their corn to be ground into grits and flour. How his mother made meals in the hearth that now houses the modern wood-fired stove, and how as a boy he listened to the family's cows and the sheep and chickens moving beneath the floorboards as he drifted off to sleep. Every autumn, he said, the ambar was stacked to its rafters with corn and other fruits of the harvest.
He and Habiba adore each other. It's lovely to see. When she checked his watch and pulled a sack of pills from beneath her sweater -- ''I was in the hospital last month, for few days," she murmured -- Kazim watched her worriedly. When we heard the clank of a jerryrigged oil can bell, hung just outside the house to scare animals away from the garden, Habiba shook her head, smiling sideways at Kazim, and said "That's his work." He shrugged his shoulders, hung his head, then smiled and winked at her. They both laughed.
Every year in late autumn the Habiba and Kazim slaughter their few chickens, pack the carcasse up along with bushels of hazelnuts and walnuts from their own trees and board an overnight bus to Istanbul. There they stay for the winter, shuffling between their children's houses. Not willingly -- when they were younger, Kazim told us, they stuck out the cold and snow in the old house. But it's impossible now. "There's no taxi, no bus to go into town. Sometimes no electricity. It's too isolated. We enjoy Istanbul but ...."
After finishing our lunch we stayed for two more glasses of tea. Habiba looked tired and Kazim began clucking after her; it was time to leave. The couple walked us downstairs, Kazim taking quiet but obvious pride in the fact that Dave stopped every step to photograph his house's wooden beams and planks and its storage area, where the baskets Kazim and Habiba use to collect walnuts and apples hung on hooks jutting from the walls. He understood why we'd been drawn to the ambar. "Yes, it's beautiful," he agreed.
Neither Kazim nor Habiba wanted their photograph taken. "We're too old and too ugly!" she cried, shooing Dave away but laughing when he tried to convince her otherwise.
"Come back in the spring, in May, after we return from Istanbul," Habiba said us as she urged a bulging bag of black walnuts into my hands."This place in the springtime, oh! You can't imagine how wonderful. Like heaven on earth."