2012 was good to us.
We traveled to interesting places. We shopped for, cooked and ate delicious food. We made new friends and met up with old ones in Turkey, in Malaysia and other parts of Asia, in the United States. We had some career successes. We wrote and photographed for publications we've enjoyed working with in the past and received commissions from new (to us) ones. We started projects that we are passionate about, made decent progress on ongoing work and have new challenges to look forward to in the New Year.
I didn't have as much time as I would have liked to have had to be here in this place, writing on whatever I felt like writing on. It's always refreshing to be here (literally -- often I am here when a deadline looms but the words won't come). But that's because I was busy writing elsewhere. And as a freelancer I will never complain about that.
I could spool it all out for you, the pretty-high highs and the stratospheric highs, along with the wheres and the whos and the whats. But sometimes those posts feel boast-y. That's what archives are for.
Instead, I'll share a story that encapsulates what, at the beginning of 2013, we are most grateful for in 2012: kindness. From friends, from family, from virtual (as in -- Twitter, Facebook) acquaintances, from good editors and incredibly generous colleagues, from all of you who come here, whether to read or to just look at the photos, from people whom we've never met face to face but hope to know better in the coming year. From perfect strangers.
In the middle of 2010, after an absence of over a decade, we reacquainted ourselves with Turkey, a country we first visited in 1998 and formed an immediate, inexplicable bond with. We have been back many times since, and will be there again in about a month.
If you asked me what it is about Turkey that entrances us so, I would tell you: the wide open spaces (since we spend most of our time way out east, on the road). The breathtakingly beautiful landscapes that can change dramatically in just three hours on the road. Mountains, rivers, expanses of green. The food, so rich and layered and, out there, so surprisingly unlike what most non-Turks (and even some Turks) imagine Turkish food to be. The incomparable markets and the quality of fresh ingredients. The ease of getting around. The seasons! We love Penang, enough to put money and time into renovating a shop house in George Town, but we need balance. Turkey works.
Mostly though, it's Turkey's people. There are bad apples everywhere, of course. But generally speaking, in no other country have we encountered such warmth, generosity and kindness. Nowhere else have so many people invited us into their homes and into their kitchens, to sit at their tables, to tour their farms or their orchards, to enter their workshops. Nowhere else have we been offered, so often and out of the blue, beds for the night.
A couple of months ago we were driving on a lovely little stretch of the Black Sea for that anchovy story. We'd just eaten lunch and Dave was scouting for photos, scenes appropriately fishy. We spied a harbor full of gir-gir, or fishing trawlers, parked our car and got out to investigate.
No anchovies, unfortunately. The fishermen were unloading levrek, a type of bluefish, and small bonito instead. We circled the harbor on foot, stopping to watch three men building, by hand, a wooden trawler, and then continued to the end of the pier where four fishermen in rain slickers mended a net.
It's painstaking work, closing the holes in a net, and requires bare hands that won't fumble the needle. The sky was leaden and spitting drizzle. It was cold, windy and raw. The fishermen worked away, heads down and silent, sometimes smoking, while Dave photographed their labors.
"Where are you from?" asked one. America, we told him. He broke into a huge smile. "America! Ohhhhhh." He stopped his mending and extended his right hand, to Dave and I both, while placing his left hand over his heart. We shook. His hand was like an iceberg.
"Hold on!" he said. He ran to a nearby boat and jumped on board, then reappeared. "For you. Levrek! We just brought them in," he said, extending his chapped red hand. It held three fish.
Oh no, we couldn't possibly, we told him. And we couldn't. We didn't have a kitchen. But he insisted -- "Just take them to a manggal (the outdoor barbecue joints that line stretches of the eastern Black Sea coast) and cook them there!" the fisherman said -- and we relented.
We thought he would just plop the fish, whole, in a plastic bag. And that would have been enough, more than enough. Instead he proceeded to clean them.
He hauled a jug of water from the galley and filled an aluminum tub, then placed a wooden board on the ship's railing. He scaled, gutted and filleted the levrek with more care and precision than I have ever seen a fishmonger or cook display anywhere, ever. Everytime he plunged his hands into the tub I shivered, imagining how cold the water was.
We chatted while he worked the fish. He was from Persembe, a small town up the coast. Yes, fishing is hard work, but he likes it, he told us. "I like to be on the water." The anchovies were late this year, he said, and it would be a small catch. No one knows why. But the season's ongoing bonito haul was epic.
After not too long, ten minutes maybe, he handed us a plastic bag of beautiful levrek fillets, explaining that he had cut them crosswise so that they would cook faster and more evenly on the grill. Then he rejoined his mates over the net, and we said good-bye. I forgot to ask his name.
Baffling and wonderful and, sometimes, ovewhelming, this kindness that strikes out of nowhere like a lightning bolt. Is it a very American thing to feel an urge, a need, to reciprocate? Sometimes we do, when we're able. Often we're not, and we can't help but feel sad about that.
I don't know where it comes from, this outsized Turkish hospitality that is so often offered in expectation of absolutely nothing in return. It's something we are grateful for as we enter a new year. Something, perhaps, to aspire to.