I've mentioned in one of my recent blogs what a wizened old prune I've always been. Even as a seventeen year-old I could pass for fifty-five. Nearly. Well, I could easily buy bottles of Martini for my then-girlfriend and her mates, who were all fifteen at the time. It felt furtive but drinking the sickly sweet shite felt oh so good. Well, not drinking it, obviously, but its effect. I didn't know any better. It was the summer of 1987. My family had gone to Malta and left me alone for two weeks. What the hell else was I supposed to do with a houseful of fifteen year old girls?
Now that I'm 637 (and a half), I thought that this furtive feeling was just a distant memory. But in Turkey, "the system" reduced me to clandestine pickups of bags of booze just like the olden days. I took to downloading some vintage Terence Trent D'Arby tracks from YouTube just to make it all feel genuinely teenage again.
As far as I can see, Turkey has an odd relationship with alcohol. Although the country itself is officially secular, the vast majority of Turks are Muslims and, according to the Koran at least, Muslims don't drink. Now, Turkey is known in the west for offering a fairly relaxed sort of Islam, certainly not the kind of place that's going to stone the missus if she looks suggestively at a donkey, but does this relaxation extend to alcohol?
There are lots of establishments in Turkey that advertise the fact that they sell their expensive booze. Outside of Istanbul, restaurants rarely seem to sell it. Even those outdoor cafés that do sell it, like those in Bandirma, never had anyone visibly drinking it. Supermarkets almost never sell it either (I've seen only two that do in the whole of Turkey and one of those was in Istanbul) and neither do most corner shops. But if the bright blue logo of Turkish brand Efes or the easier-to-miss gold of Tuborg is shown around a corner shop's logo, then it's an off licence. And yet I seem to be the only person who goes into these places. Here's the procedure:
1. I walk in. The shopowner looks guilty. He never smiles (which is unusual for a Turk).
2. I walk to the beer fridge. The shopowner has already located and opened a black - always black - carrier bag.
3. If there does happen to be anyone else in the shop, especially someone under eighteen, he is now sniggering, as though I am buying a stack of Gusset Munchers porn mags or something worse, like Model Train Enthusiast.
4. The beer quickly goes into the black plastic bag and the financial transaction is carried out with the utmost haste. I leave feeling guilty for reasons I can't fathom.
The black bag
As a side note, during Ramadam (or Ramazan in Turkey) even this is not always possible because some of the off licences stop selling alcohol entirely, which sort of makes you wonder why they don't just take a month's holiday.
And so I'm puzzled. If I'm the only person buying from these shops, then how do these shops make any money? They can't just have set up with the knowledge that I'll be passing through town, lovely though that thought is. If they have, they've certainly overestimated how much I can drink, although if they reduced their price I'd be prepared to give it a go. Like I say, I'm puzzled.
UniCycle50's Facebook page now has at least five Turkish Likers. If any of you can give me more information on this topic (without incriminating yourselves if that's a possibility) then I'd love to know.
The black-bag-as-cloaking-device in itself is odd. While cycling I've popped into such an off licence and bought only a can of Coke and then you get an innocent white carrier bag (that is, if you don't tell them in time that you don't need a carrier bag for a single can of Coke), a white carrier bag that is probably hand-stitched from the hymens of a thousand virgins. So the black bag doesn't hide that you've bought some naughties; it merely highlights the fact. But maybe that's the idea. Maybe it's the black bag of shame, the mark of Cain, the Judas sack.
None of this affects me now. I've moved on to Bulgaria where the opposite is the case. This afternoon I was sat on a lovely, sunny terrace drinking a decent pint for 66p. Whereas Turkey usually sold a bottle of rubbish blended whisky for €50 (I kid you not), here a large bottle of schnapps is a tenth of the price. Alcohol here is so cheap and so plentiful that I might just end up dead in a gutter. If that happens, please would someone pop around and cover my face with the black bag of shame.