Our hearts resemble houses constructed by our parents. When we’re young and something breaks they repair the damage. As we get older we learn how to maintain and protect our own houses. First we have to learn how to welcome guests. We may deliberately allow them to enter our intimate lives. Some stay a short time and others stay longer. Some may damage our home or even steal from us. Still, in the end we each need someone to love our home and to become a part of it. Ralfie was a good guest in my home; one who stayed for quite a long time.
After a number of infrequent hook-ups in my early 30s I met Ralfie, a German guy. We met on Istiklal Avenue as many gays do in Istanbul. After a nice dinner at a good restaurant near Galata Tower, we went up to his room. It had a view of the Golden Horn, a place many Westerners find magical and a view I experienced every day while taking a ferry to and from university where I was a student. About 16 years older than I, Ralfie was a smoker and a night owl – not a great match. But I was horny and he was drunk. I stayed overnight with him and even though it was not the best sex I’d ever had, it was okay. We met several times after that while he was visiting Istanbul. He was frank and sometimes harsh but always thoughtful. I could confide in him.
At that time, I really didn’t want to continue with short-term hook-ups and had even grown tired of Turkish men. So many seemed to be products of old-fashioned and screwed up family dynamics in which women are imprisoned in the role of motherhood and are never free to be out in social life. Sons grow up to be like their barely present fathers and become imaginative husbands to their mothers. Most fathers in Turkey stop caring for their children after puberty, assuming they have fulfilled the social requirements expected of them. In the end emotionally stunted boys are taught never to express love and passion for fear of appearing un-masculine; they treat their mothers less as human and more as holy creatures. I was not like that. I wanted to show joy in life. I wanted everyone to hear my laughter and see my tears.
After Ralfie returned to Germany, we kept in touch for months. Soon after he left I arranged a trip to Barcelona and told him about it. He said nothing. He wasn’t jealous. I thought maybe he didn’t want to date me and I was confused about the line between a relationship and just being friends. After my return from Barcelona we chatted on Skype. After several conversations, he said, “Let’s try to date.” My first steady relationship began.
With the rapid growth of low-cost air travel in Europe, I was able to afford more frequent travel and see Ralfie regularly. Our affair became more intense. In summers he flew to Istanbul and stayed at least a week. We booked a small bungalow in Bodrum, a hot spot for travelers in Turkey. The nightlife there was vibrant and the bays in the Aegean Sea were naturally beautiful. In some of the rocky coves, gay men cruised and enjoy the taste of tanned skin. However, we were loyal to each other and never visited these spots.
Each Christmas for several years I flew to Germany where I was invited to his family dinner and his friends’ winter party. They were all generous and respectful of our relationship. At one of their ‘lottery parties’ the extravagant and funny host informed the many gay guests, ‘Guys, grrrrllls, we have a special guest from Istanbul tonight.’ He conducted the evening like an episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race. As the special guest, I felt important.
Over those years the places where we met varied, depending on where I was able to purchase cheap airfare. We met in Paris, Nice, Rome, Amsterdam, Madrid, and other European locations. For each trip one of us would wait in an airport for the other; we’d then take transit into the city centre, visit historical monuments, and other sites. The facade of our relationship seemed perfect.
Managing a long distance relationship can be unbearingly challenging. There are many obstacles that get in the way. For example, the frequency of sexual contact diminishes – perhaps as quickly is it might for a married couple awaiting the birth of their child. For me, frequent sexual activity is a vital ingredient. Another hurdle is the visa application process for which one has to prepare many documents from one’s employer, banks, and government. Further, there are many too many intrusive questions from my family and colleagues given their knowledge about my low wages and the poor exchange rate between Turkish lira and euros where, in 2017, one euro equals five Turkish lira.
Ralfie thought that age difference was a problem between us. He often told me, ‘I am looking for my retirement package but you are looking for a new job.’ He said, ‘I don’t have much time left to go to bars to dance until sunrise but you always want to have sex in naked parties.’ I let him go to bars alone and I secretly went to bars and hamams to satisfy my sexual desires. Still, until that time I thought the challenges of age differences between us had been resolved.
There were cultural differences between us, as well. He grew up in a small quiet city and he works in a somewhat larger city of only 580,000. Gay social life in Germany seems to be dormant and calm unless one lives in or visits Berlin. Further, Germans are able to travel frequently on holidays for sunshine and parties. My life was completely different, having grown up in Istanbul, a lively metropolitan area of 20 million people. For me, days off were for meeting up with new friends and exploring new destinations within Istanbul. At that time I was still in the early years of tasting the pleasure of gay life. Ralfie had already experienced it fully and was more interested in a quiet domestic life at home.
As we met in different places around the world, frustration, discontent and verbal aggressiveness between us increased and the number of times we had sex decreased. We stopped sleeping in the same bed entirely when visiting each other.
Generally, he did not enjoy the older European cities I adored while visiting him there. When he was visiting me in Istanbul, I compromised and visited with him the congested Middle Eastern cities he admired.
In looking back at our relationship, what he really seemed to want was what some older European gays often to seek: illiterate, young, muscled, handsome men to marry and bring to Europe. Meanwhile I was looking for someone with whom I could go to the gym, discuss meaningful issues, and attend naked parties and Pride events in Europe. In Turkish there is an idiom: If someone is out of your sight he or she will not remain in your heart. I did not necessarily believe that but I did realize something for the first time. If your life does not match easily with someone else’s life, it’s not likely to work out in the long term. I understand and can appreciate how some people are able to extend their involvement with partners living elsewhere by accepting open relationships. I deeply envy them.
The end of our relationship as lovers was blurry for some time. Ralfie and I finally broke up after seven years together and managed it amicably. We’ve now become great friends. Occasionally we travel together; we’ve recently been to London and Frankfurt. Ralfie still likes visiting Turkey, so much so that it is now his second home. I once told him, you really fell in love with Istanbul, not with me. It was an unfair contest to pit me against my country!