My first moments on foreign soil were a curious admixture of terror and fascination, as I viewed the strange new world that was speeding by the cab’s window and tried not to focus on the terrifying ordeal of the drive itself. Our driver was an amiable young Turk who, only moments into the ride from the airport to downtown Antalya, had told us his passion for weekend racing.
“No worry, my friends! I’m very good driver,” he screamed over the whine of the engine and the wind. “I do rally on weekends!”
And to emphasize his point he jerked the wheel around a bit and made a few manic lane changes, narrowly avoiding a variety of obstacles: other cars, mopeds, a tractor, certain death.
“Jesus!” said Ricky, seated next to me in the back. “We’re never gonna make it…” He was already sweating in the early morning Turkish heat, and I saw him shut his eyes, likely praying to whatever weightlifting gods he believed in: Dear Hercules, deliver us now from this cab ride, so that we may live to lift again…
“In Germany I drive on autobahn,” the cab driver continued, telling us about his upbringing in Berlin. He was grinning madly, staring at us in the back seat for far longer intervals than I was comfortable with. “I drive very fast. Cops point me: Stop! My taxi license was take away three months!” The grin continued and broadened into a laugh. “Very fun.”
Oh boy. Perhaps I ought to do my own praying. Again I looked out the window, trying hard to take in what I was seeing and impart some sense to it. Beyond the highway that was bringing us into the traffic of the downtown was an expanse of dry land and clear sky. The businesses and signs along the road were fascinating in their unfamiliar banality; until those moments I had assumed that a traffic sign or a gas station or even a delivery truck existed in only the formats I had grown accustomed to in America, as though such things were set in stone by natural laws. Yet here they were in new permutations: ordinary objects existing in ways that, to me, were extraordinary. So that’s what a Turkish semi truck looks like, I marveled. Who knew?
Even the journey had been surreal. I stepped into a big metal tube on one side of the Atlantic, in a place I’d called home for my entire life, and a little over a dozen hours later I stepped out of another metal tube and into an entirely different world. Perhaps our minds aren’t built for that kind of speed. In time it was something I’d grow accustomed to, but in that era switching whole cultures with such apparent ease was entirely novel.
Ricky, sensing my wonder, tapped me on the shoulder and pointed out his own window. “Pretty cool, huh?” he said, smiling.
I nodded, dazed and jet-lagged and overwhelmed. “I still can’t believe I’m here.”
I’m not sure Ricky believed it either. Since the phone call telling him of his spot on the World Team he had jumped back into training, against all reason and against the protests of his own body and against the advice of several around him. All this despite his status as an alternate, and thus unlikely to lift, and despite having to pay most of his way.
“What the hell’s he going to prove?” Russ had asked when he and I were discussing the matter. “He won a medal at Nationals at a hundred years old. He should be happy with that. Now he’s going to spend all that money and beat himself up in case someone much younger gets hurt? In the off chance he gets on the platform?” he asked. “I just don’t see the logic.”
I’m not sure any of us saw it, and I wonder now if even Ricky discerned some logic or order to his actions. Sometimes we continue to do things not because they’re reasonable or right, but just because it’s what we’ve always done, and will continue to do. The force of habit is as strong as any other motivation, even if it’s a far less romantic one.
My own motivations for going were divided. In part I genuinely wanted to support Ricky and watch world-class weightlifting.
“Sure ya do,” Pete had said in response to this, when I told him I was thinking of going to Turkey for the competition. He smiled at me and winked.
Pete’s gaze stayed with me.
“Also, you know, Libby’s on the team,” I admitted to him.
“That’s the spirit!”
Was I following her to Worlds hoping to rekindle something dead and buried? Quite possibly, yes. I knew it was foolish but I did it anyway, with the insane reasoning of someone who thinks the remedy for a bad decision is another bad decision.
The only issue was getting to Turkey. I had already dipped into my meagre savings to cover rent and living expenses in the final months leading up to Nationals, when I’d cut back on working. A trip across the Atlantic would require nearly all the money I had left. Yet I was committed to going without considering any of these logistical concerns; making some sort of sacrifice seemed ordained, in a way. Without thinking, I went to the bank not long after Ricky and Libby learned of their spots on the team and transferred most of my remaining savings into my checking account, leaving just enough to prevent the former from being closed. I felt I’d already given almost everything to the sport, and there seemed so little of value outside it that I was only too happy to give the rest.
Unaccustomed as I was to international travel, I also waited until the last minute to get my passport—thus spending even more money to expedite the document. With that in hand, and my flight purchased, I felt as though I was taking on a task whose enormity I but dimly comprehended. As the trip neared I began to appreciate what I’d agreed to.
Naturally, I was terrified. I tried convincing others from the gym to come, but my efforts in this were unsuccessful. Only Nikos was going, both in his capacity as a personal coach and as a jumping off point to visit family in Eastern Europe.
“Good luck, buddy,” had been Pete’s sendoff when he drove me to the airport. “Keep an eye on Puj and tell me all about it.”
A day later and I was in Turkey.
Ricky nearly leapt from the taxi when we pulled up to my little hotel, which was located down a series of narrow stone roads built for foot or animal traffic but certainly not automobiles. I was booked at Özmen Pension, a place right in the heart of Antalya’s old city, itself nestled within the much larger modern city. I planned to check in, get a rental car, and then drive over to the competition hotel, where the athletes, coaches, and organizers were staying.
Just beyond the pension, a quick walk, was the Mediterranean, vast and ethereally blue, cradled by the rocky coastline of Antalya. Even Ricky couldn’t help but be impressed, as he stumbled out of the cab and into the warm September sun.
“Christ,” he said. “Lookit that.” He laughed, apparently already forgetting the near-death ride. “Ain’t exactly the Jersey Shore, is it?”
I paid the driver and looked. No, not quite the Jersey Shore. Far too clear, that water, for one thing. And those colors. I’d never seen blues like that before, neither of the sky nor the water. I’d never known such colors to exist in the real world. Was this what the sky looked like without an ever-present haze of pollution?
The manager of the pension, a friendly young guy named Aziz, was able to book the car rental right from his office. “Is no problem,” he said. “I get you very good car. American car?”
“American?” I said. “Aren’t there any Turkish cars? Something a little more local?”
He hesitated. “You no want Turkish car.”
“Okay. Whatever you can get. Thank you.”
While we waited for the car we sat and enjoyed a cup of tea and Aziz chatted with us to pass the time.
“You are American? Where you are from?”
“New Jersey,” beamed Ricky, as though the name carried a weight equal to that of a major city.
Aziz looked as us, a little confused.
“It’s by New York,” I said.
“Ah, okay! New York, yes. Very nice.”
“You been to New York?” Ricky asked.
“No, never. I like to go.”
“Ever been to America?”
Aziz shook his head. “No. Maybe someday. Maybe California. See Arnold Schwarzenegger!” He thought for a moment, then said, “Governor, no?”
Ricky laughed. “That’s right! He’s the governator.”
“You like him?”
“Of course. He’s the best. Who don’t like Arnold?”
“And Bush? George Bush?” asked Aziz, slightly hesitant.
Ricky waved a dismissive hand. “He stinks. I didn’t vote for him.”
This seemed to please Aziz, for he smiled at us. “Yes. He’s maybe not so good. What you are here for? Holiday?”
“Weightlifting,” said Ricky. “The World Championships.”
Ricky set the small glass tea cup and saucer on his knees and mimed the actions of a snatch and clean and jerk as best he could. “You know, like Naim Suleymanoglu? You know him? Halil Mutlu?”
“Yes, of course. Everybody know them. You are here for weightlifting?”
“Very good,” said Aziz. He turned to me: “You are sportsman? He is coach?” And he motioned to Ricky.
I laughed, even as I felt the sting of wishing it were me lifting at the Worlds, rather than Ricky. “No, I’m not competing. I’m just here to watch. He’s competing.”
“Him?” Aziz said. “Wow. He is old man, still compete…”
“Hey!” said Ricky. “What’s the supposed to mean? Too old?”
“No, no,” said Aziz, waving his hands and trying to avoid offense. He thought for a moment. “Maybe little old. But very big. Very much muscle. Good luck!”
Ricky grinned and gave a thumbs up in thanks and took a sip of tea.
When the car arrived I wondered if a vehicle of Turkish provenance would have been preferable. It was a tiny Peugeot, the size and engine of which made me question whether it could handle someone built to Ricky’s scale.
“What the hell is this?” he asked. “It’s tiny.”
“It’s fine,” I said. “It’ll get us where we need to go. That’s all that matters. Very good. Thank you, Aziz!”
“Yes, you are very welcome!”
“Now, can you tell us how to get to the Hotel Moscow? Outside the old city?”
“Yes, yes, of course.” He thought for a moment. “I draw a map. Here, I show you.”
He drew a map on a small square of white paper. When he finished it looked to us like nothing more than a few squiggles, seemingly set down at random. Ricky and I studied it in the car as though trying to decipher some ancient script.
“Did you understand any of that?” Ricky asked, turning the little square of paper in case some other viewing angle would reveal the map’s secrets. All I recognized for certain were arrows, indicating points where—in Aziz’s own words—“always you are going straight.”
I waved at Aziz from the car and smiled and gave him a thumbs up. He was so friendly, so willing to help, that I couldn’t dare to convey anything other than pure gratitude. “We’ll figure it out,” I said, putting the car into gear and easing off the clutch and praying that the engine wouldn’t stall out under Ricky’s weight.
But to my amazement the directions worked. It was a little confusing, and at one point we asked the driver of a nearby car if we were going the right way, but it all turned out to be more or less exactly as Aziz had said. And afterward, in looking at the map with its unknowable scribbles, I swore I saw the pattern, and that it was, in fact, the route we had taken. Somehow.
“I never woulda believed it,” said Ricky, as we pulled up to Hotel Moscow, one of the competition’s official hotels. “That Aziz guy’s okay, even if he did say I was old.”
[more to come…]