The Life of The Great Melt – What Hides Beneath the Snow in Kars
A toxic cocktail of dust, coal, petroleum, burning garbage, fog, smoke, and air strangles me as I walk through Kars at sunset. Outside of the lethal bubble of fumes that encapsulates the city, my blurred vision distinguishes the smooth lines of a pristine landscape that looks like the moon. It is surreal, martian terrain that suggests thin air and icy famine. A small blur, a fox whips its head out of the snow like a curious character from the Little Prince, but too hungry to linger, it dives back into the icy crust of the steppes. If the land out there is the moon, here in Kars, it is sandy red Venus, the houses burping with rising smoke and heat, a lethal venom that slithers through my nose and down my throat.
These are the times of the Great Melt. The Great Melt is when temperatures in Kars consistently rise above zero, the sun shines blue, the snow stops falling, and the residents of Kars both emerge from their homes in relief and disappointment. Relief, because the long cold winter is over. Disappointment, because the waning snow and the cracking ice reveals the damage of yet another season. With the snow, Kars is cold, beautiful, sleepy, and covered. With the melt, it is dusty, potholed, broken, exposed.
Last summer, we all took off a week of work to stand beside the mayor’s new road construction projects, our arms crossed behind our backs, proclaiming about what should be done differently. These same roads have now been reduced to a toxic dust of crumbled asphalt and flaky mud, turning the insides of all of our noses black. At dusk, the danger of air pollution reaches its zenith, and with their heads down and their shoulders hunched, the people of Kars mutter all the way home to their dinner tables where they draw up a list of everything that could be changed to make this town better. “New roads! No more asphalt, use stone! Repair the windows. Build-up the public parks. Add an ice skating rink! Subsidize renovation of the old houses! Use up the empty lots of the city! TURN ON THE TRAFFIC LIGHTS!”
Kars is a trap for the romantic. So many of my friends – young Turks, idealists, radicals, pessimists, staunch liberals, leftist, nationalists, environmentalists – everyone comes here for a different reason, but in the end, it is the greater potential of this place that drives us. We walk down the streets and look forlorn at the crumbling buildings, fantasizing about their Russian, or Armenian, or Azeri, or Greek, or Turkish builders, who once exited through their massive doors wearing furry winter hats. This city was once the height of luxury, an important military holding and trading outpost. But as it was passed like a hot potato between Russia, Armenia, Georgia, Turkey, Iran, Byzantium and the Ottomans, a sense of responsibility over the incredibly rich history here seems to have been covered by snow and time. And with each passing year that no one repairs the old buildings, they slouch deeper and deeper under the weight of the snow. Then comes the Great Melt, and they emerge with their sad hanging doors and collapsing roofs, imploring onlookers, “have you really forgotten us?”
Inside my body I want to yell, “NO WE HAVEN’T! YOUR HISTORY IS SAFE WITH ME!” but I know this is a lie. I don’t have the millions of dollars it would take to renovate this city. Many have tried before me, wooed by the buildings’ romantic plea. But I know they were crushed by the bureaucracy, by the weight of time, by the lack of results. During the Great Melt, I walk around the city in the early hours of the day before the snaking arms of toxic fuel can find me, looking for my new home, nibbling on homemade cheese. I make plans in my head about what I will do, what I can do, but before the day is over, I am coughing and hacking like the rest of Kars. My side aches, my eyes are droopy. I notice all the cheese shops have closed, everyone is going home early, consumed by spring sickness and exhaustion. My friends and I curl up on couches, pounding cup after cup of lemon, honey, mint, tea, ginger, cinnamon, pepper, pomegranates, and soup. When we all awake, when the Great Melt is complete, and spring is truly upon us, we will face the damages of winter, the lure of potential, and that fire that burns within us – to save the environment here, to restore the city, to provide opportunities in the villages, to build cleaner roads, to turn on the traffic lights – one by one we will do it. Because for the captured souls who are dawn to this place, we cannot truly live in peace with the alternative.