Many of my friends know that in my vanished youth I worked as the architect for archaeological excavations in southern Italy and Turkey. The Turkish job offer was a bolt out of the blue from Harvard’s Fogg Museum. For a century the museum has supported work at Sardis, about 95 kilometers inland from the Aegean coast.
Prior to my departure I received a package containing various supplies with instructions to include them in my baggage. The one package that concerned me was a kilo bag of crystallized restoration glue. it looked exactly like a bag of crack cocaine.
I called the excavation director who reassured me that everyone had a package of the glue, unavailable in Turkey, and that we’d all have letters from the U.S. Consul in Izmir explaining our work and the supplies that supported it. When it came, I put the letter in my passport cover knowing that a single twenty-something with a backpack full of crack prob-ably wouldn’t fair very well at customs. And I didn’t.
Jet-lagged and stubbly, I certainly looked the part of a spoiled American college kid with a recreational pharmaceutical habit. Not surprisingly, once my backpack was opened I was hustled into a small room full of very large Turkish policemen. I pulled out the letter and handed it to the most senior look-ing of them. Unfortunately nobody spoke English. I tried Italian which at least one of them could man-age. An English speaker finally joined them, read the letter, and waived me to release, after what I can only describe as an extremely personal close inspection.
Later in the season I went to Ephesus on a free weekend and hiked miles of that magnificent collection of classical ruins. I was staying at a wonderful little inn with a courtyard café with a fountain. At the end of the day I was sitting at the rim of the basin when the innkeeper handed me a Roman coin. Is gift! He grinned. I said I couldn’t possibly accept it (really, a guy on a dig with a hot coin in his hands?) Is gift! He repeated. You can’t violate a host’s generosity in Turkey without creating very deep offense. What to do?
I looked at the coin and saw that is was a late period bronze, not very valuable, maybe worth six or seven dollars. I was already in some dossier for the airport incident, how could I leave the country with a hot coin, probably washed out of the site I’d just visited? I looked at the dark water in the fountain basin, made a wish to Poseidon, and tossed it back-ward over my shoulder.
- Michael Guarino