The man that prepared our lunch sits to play the bağlama in front of the refrigerated display case. He is young, in his twenties, with slightly sunken cheeks and evidence of an acne-strewn adolescence. He is very tall and has dark, floppy hair and a solemn look in his eyes. Next to the shop’s proprietor, a jubilant man named Refik; this man is as shy as can be. Refik owns Nazar Börek Gözleme, a local lunch spot in the center of Göreme, a small, picturesque village in the region of Cappadocia, Nevşehir province. We were about to be serenaded in this tiny lunch spot, by none other than the prep cook.
He begins to tune and strum the bağlama while Refik still chats and charms the crowd. We are three tables eating lunch. The guitarist begins a melody; a song is recognizable. He then begins to sing in the clearest and most soulful tenor, his brow even furrowing in his effort. We are shocked and stop eating. Refik likes this; he knows this boy is talented. Refik begins playing the drum, joining in on the chorus singing back up. We are entranced by this young man’s voice, astounded that we are eating lunch in a Turkish diner, being serenaded by our twice-talented cook.
Their next song nearly makes us dance. We nearly dance (over lunch of soup and gözleme)! Instead we tap our feet, attempt to clap in rhythm, something we clearly didn’t do because the prep busboy tried to get us to follow his lead. Again, we are shocked by the depth of this voice.
They play one more, the Belgian woman behind us attempts a dance; the clapping is spirited beyond anything a lunch counter normally sees. The songs are upbeat, sung with heartfelt and melodic lyrics, and they are sung because they are beautiful, not for charm or entertainment. I write and scribble in my notepad, floored by this truly genuine display. Everyone has put their forks down. We are all speechless, mouths agape in awe.
They eventually put the instruments aside and resume their places and roles in the restaurant. It is as if it never happened. My friend and I are still too stunned to talk about the tiny desk concert we just experienced, or in our case, tiny deli case concert. The cook goes back in the kitchen. Refik makes the rounds, clearing plates, chatting about the food. He speaks English with us (Turkish with his employees, French with the Belgians) and explains that he’s also fluent in Danish, Swedish, and German. He says he’s working on Chinese, and I can’t tell if he’s joking.
Feeling as if these men can obviously do anything, we ask Refik to tell us where to go to see a cave church. He leaves the restaurant, lifts a postcard from the shop next door, and comes back. “I will send you to my parent’s house, they live in a cave. I was raised in a cave. I am a cave man,” he jokes. He draws a map, complete with following rivers and continuing on after the road ends, and tells us to find the fairy chimneys we see on the post card. He circles the church (second to last from the right), circles his parent’s house (center), and shows us his old house (second to the left). His parents hold the key to the church, just go there and meet Fatma and Hasan. “They will make you some tea and show you in.”
We make our way to the dusty road past busting grapevines and go deeper into the Mars-like landscape. We cannot believe our continued good fortune. Each step in this journey becomes more and more fabled. These fairy chimneys jut out of the landscape like torpedoes. These are the reason that this area has been protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The chimneys are formed from centuries of erosion over volcanic deposits, forming not only the giant torpedoes but a surrounding ring of mountains that look like smooth but deeply ridged sand dunes. The entire place is tan and turns the most beautiful colors in the sun. The chimneys, and the carved houses in the mountains and the underground cities have largely been used as religious safe havens over the years. The ancient region of Cappadocia, now largely recognized as the current day Nevşehir province, has been inhabited in one way or another, since 400 BC. Over years of conquest and occupation, the area was used for refuge from religious persecution, for Christian worship, and for protection from the elements. Now, what remains of these formations are used as homes, hotels, relics, and tourist attractions, in addition to a few remaining as mosques. It is a singular experience to hear the call to prayer coming from a 2,500 year-old piece of volcanic ash, now shaped a bit like a submarine.
We climb the stairs to the tiny doorway, and sunlight streams in from above. This cave, thousands of years old, was carved and painted 1,500 years ago by Christians, making it a tiny place of worship. The paintings are still clear, although obscured by the etchings and graffiti of bored kids. The art portrays Jesus and Mary, prophets and wise men, horses and animals. There are the top supports of pillars coming from the ceiling like stalactites, with no pillars below. We sit on the one remaining stalagmite base and take in our surroundings. We were, Julia and I, raised with and without, respectively, the influence of religion in our lives. I think we have slightly different experiences in this church.
I climb up to the second level, peering out of the carved windows. This is an incredible view. I watch the sun flirt with the mountain in the distance, the atmosphere changing color. I listen to the wind whipping and singing against the mountains. Julia joins me, eyes wet and without words. The weight of our circumstance is unbelievable, unforgettable. We nearly freeze as we watch the sun set; it snowed the night before and this night was no warmer. We climb down eventually and make our way silently to the house.
Fatma greets us, speaking perfect English, and serves us chocolate ganache-filled biscuits we’ve come to love and apple tea. We sit there for an hour, chatting and warming ourselves by the fire. The kid in me keeps reminding me that I’m sitting in a cave with cave people. I try not to giggle or think about The Flintstones. I take a photo of Fatma and Hasan sitting on their carved wrap-around and pillowed couch, surrounded by rugs she has made. It may be the best photo I’ve ever taken.
We comment on Fatma’s woven booties, which we know are homemade. She spreads out her collection of doilies, lace napkins, embroidered tablecloths, scarves, children’s vests, and booties. We each buy a pair of booties and hug our new friends goodbye, using the booties as mittens for our cold walk home.