In Turkey, tea is at the center of everything. It is the reason for gatherings, the propellant of business deals, the bandage for wounded friendships. It is drunk everywhere, and constantly. Even the smallest towns have tea houses dotted across their centers and outskirts.
Tea is the glue that holds together Turkey’s social fabric. It is the answer to the country’s nervous tic, the excuse by which everyone assembles for whatever they really want to talk about. It is the timer that dictates how long meetings run, but there is no end to how many can be ordered. 10 or 12 cups of tea a day is not unusual. The temperature of a conversation, the trust, the comfort, is seen as much in how fast a cup of tea disappears as the shiftiness of eyes. It’s about twice the liquid volume of an espresso, but the Turks can make it last forever. Some never quite finish it, a gesture of comfort, as if they wanted to let the moment hang for eternity. Chris and I still drink ours too fast.
Chai, as it is called, (spelled çay) is so central to life that communication networks are built around it. Each business in the center of a Turkish town has a direct intercom to the tea house. This is not a phone. It’s an actual cable stapled to the their roofs under the rain gutter, crossing the street wrapped around another wire, and going directly to a speaker behind the kettles that looks like it has been in use for decades. The orderer will give a brief tap for static first, the way soldiers gave warning taps on their radios in Vietnam, and then mutter brief orders when a tap is returned by the tea house employee. Five minutes later, a boy runs over carrying a tray with the tea order. It comes in small, pear shaped glasses, two sugar cubes on each saucer, a spoon. They never spill somehow, the boys are too good at carrying the tray by a knob at the top of bell shaped handles.
Chris and I first witnessed this in the town of Vize, in Thrace, by one of our best couchsurfing hosts yet, Ufuk. It was a weekend, which meant Ufuk could take a break from his duties as head accountant for the cement factory next to the town. We spent the day wandering the streets, getting the local’s tour of unmarked roman ruins and old ottoman bath houses. After the tour, tea. Two or three refills at his favorite tea house, one of the important ones with all the wires running to it.
After dinner a brief respite at home, we went back out for Saturday night on the town. At the tea house. Ufuk’s friend’s joined us, three men he’d known for longer than I’ve been alive. We spent the evening laying back in our chairs and playing hearts. Each of us drank at least four of the small glasses of tea, and maybe some Ayran, which is watered down yogurt with salt.
The tea house was an exercise in minimalism. It was tables with mismatched chairs and velvety purple tablecloths, a few pool tables in the back. There were few decorations on the wall, but there was a portrait of Ataturk, and the whole place was lit by the long fluorescent lights I’ve seen over cubicle farms. What wasn’t scant was conversation. The men talked about everything and nothing. The tea house is the man’s domain, and they talked about their lives and politics and money and the crappy hand they just got dealt.
Or sometimes they didn’t talk and just played, watching the cards fly over the table or the dice roll on the backgammon board. Sometimes it was so quiet all I could hear was the clink clink clink of the small metal spoons as they go round the glasses, mixing in the melting sugar cubes. Some clinked again before they drank, hitting the bottom of the glass against the saucer, a different clink that added melody to the spoon’s music. It seemed designed to provide a soundtrack for the pleasant nothingness, where nothing needed to be said. The quiet never lasted long. There would be some uproarious laughter that came from nowhere and the conversation would get going again and the clinking would be lost in a blend with the expressions.
One had the sense that the tea house was a place of therapy. It was the place where men, and specifically men, got away from it all. They did it all without a drop of alcohol—this is not a country of big drinkers. The teahouse is a special place because it was so central to life. More central than the cafes in the villages of western Europe. It was not a place you went when you wanted a sip of coffee, or to say hello to your neighbors. It was a place, it seemed, that the men were expected to be.