“I heard you’re abroad.” The prompting statement I’ve come to expect. This time from one Mrs. T, middle school science teacher. Kind smiling face. Feeling obligated to make some kind of conversation while my little sister finishes picking ripe eggplant from the middle school garden.
“Yes. I’ve been living in Istanbul for more than three years now,” I say. Generally, there is one of two reactions – awe or worry. (Is it safe?)
And on cue- “Wow, what is it like? It must be so wonderful.” She looks expectantly for me to confirm. And, I know what they’re expecting-the Ottoman orient viewed and written through the eyes of western travellers for hundreds of years. Waking every morning to the sound of the azan, I stumble barefoot across plush carpets decorated with pouting tulips, vines curling in the strands around the soles of my feet. Then arrive at my balcony, where tea, dates and figs wait on a silver platter. The bazaar below has begun preparations, sellers of glass, gold, perfumes, soaps and further on dates, nuts, fruits and cheese. And out across red rooftops the sunrise golden on the surface of the Bosphorus. Ships already beginning passage between the European and Asian sides of Istanbul, and curving around the Golden Horn. The morning spent eating and popping little squares of Turkish delight. Lounging on divan pillows all silk and satin and furs.
What a pretty picture, which would surely see my mid-section soften into what the Turks call the Simit (belly fat appropriately-named for the bagel-type snack sold everywhere in the city) on women and “Turkish muscle” on men.
But let’s debunk. One: while there may be old-money families with such luxuriant life-styles or some of the new business and artistic elite, views of the water, Bosporus or Marmara, come with an eye-popping price tag and who has time to lie around all morning getting fat from the best treats. In any modern city, for most of us, life starts early and goes long into darkness, with time spent in transit and out with friends away from our minuscule abodes. I have had students, lovingly nicknamed the Bahdat street housewives after the exclusive street they live near and spend their days shopping and eating salads on, whose mornings I imagine unfold exactly as the one described above. Only add chats on their latest model iPhone and private lessons at the exclusive gym. Only dollars accepted, no lira here please. And of course visits to the hairdresser, an occupation mostly male and dotting every street, have replaced the hamam baths for preparing one to look presentable.
Not me. No my morning like so many Istanbullus begins around 7 a.m. to the sound of the neighborhood dogs having a morning scuffle, and in total darkness in winter. No sunrise. Across glued-on ‘wooden’ floors, bare (because the real price of those famous plush carpets also causes physical pain), I slip across to my French window to check the weather and admire the panoramic view of another apartment building. Cement painted green, windows with curtains closed, some lights on of others preparing for the day. Cola, cheese, and eggs refrigerate on a windowsill. Then after a stumbling-in-and-out shower, I might have time to make a quick breakfast of egg, cucumber, and tomato. But usually grab it from the bakery on the way to my work. I am lucky. Generally, there’s a service bus to my job on which I sleep or watch morning go from gray to blue. But others stand and sit squashed together in their morning commute. Yes, it’s another glorious and orient-mystical day in the great city where East meets West. Because Burasi Turkiye, in English “Here is Turkey,” or more specifically, here is Istanbul. And it’s just the way things are in the city that we love and hate.
Burasi Turkiye. Not from Turkey? No Problem. Any traveler or newly made expat soon becomes familiar with this phrase by order of repetition. In any unpleasant situation, when tempers are on edge ready to erupt, someone will sigh and offer this phrase to those standing in the general vicinity. It magically soothes the tension. Turks and those in the know also sigh and grin sadly. Nodding heads, they bear the difficulty. It used to make me fume but after my first year here, I’ve found this cure-all phrase makes me laugh in culture shock situations, which at first arrival caused stress, tears, sleeplessness.
So it is with loving humor for Istanbul I relate this most poignant Burasi Turkiye tale. A Thursday in February and it is cold from an insistent wind. My friend and I had walked around Eminonu all afternoon, visiting the spice bazaar, taking pictures of pickle and fish sellers. Temperatures fell off with the sunset and despite the hot sahlep, a thick cinnamoned beverage made of powdered orchid root and milk, I was well frozen through to my insides and ready to go home as quickly as possible. I made my way to the platform and sidled into a space at the edge with a small crowd already awaiting the arrival of the tram. Red faces, scarves wrapped up to noses and hats pulled down over foreheads, we waited. One tram going the opposite way passed. We looked hopefully up our track but nothing. The platform population continued to grow in number and impatience. Another Zeytinburnu tram and still more waiting.
After fifteen minutes the platform was full, and the tram finally appeared. On approach we gauged passenger count, also full on the train. As the doors opened a mob glued itself around the doors and me in the middle. Annoyed huffs and nasty words popped from the crowd under the squeezing force. Some attempting to exit the stuffed metal box and the chilled outer crowd to enter formed violent funnels in two directions. Force pushing at my back, making me push those in front. In the entrance of the tram we crowded. Packed like sardines is not enough to describe. I could not take in a breath, someone’s overweighted backpack had tucked under my ribcage and a woman molded against my back. The last one in got pinched by the closing doors. The anger simmered slowly and boiled by the fight to enter, as I tried to maneuver to breathe. Everyone was trying to look anywhere but in another pair of eyes. We take off from the platform and the tension expands. I have a feeling as if a balloon is expanding and expanding and I know becoming overextended. The latex thinning, helium stretching the shell to light bulb shape. Someone is going to start a fight, a tiny frightened voice says from inside my head. The feeling left is slightly nauseous. But two minutes in, one woman chuckles robustly, looking knowingly at her friend. ‘Burasi Turkiey.’ The friend laughs and like a droplet into a puddle, the laughter and nods spread, albeit below still slightly annoyed eyes. Ah yes, only in Turkiye, especially in our beloved Istanbul. The famous hot Turkish tempers were satiated, the air suddenly let out of the balloon.
Simit, red meat, white cheese, and baklava the Turks simply can’t do without. But more than anything else without their black tea and cigarettes they simply couldn’t make it through any given day. In fact, I am pretty sure that an integral part of their body-water ratio is actually tea and that their lungs somehow need cigarettes to function properly. Giving proof to the saying, “Smokes like a Turk.” Now let’s be clear about exactly what I mean. This is no quaint British milky tea in porcelain and flowered tea cups served on silver trays. After brewing, the tea color turns from faint honey brown to golden red, and is drunk steaming hot from glass cups fitting nicely in hand.
Tea gardens dominate every street, the outdoor terrace the most crowded in all seasons. Here a continuous change of tea glasses and ashtrays keep the patrons going. They may sit for minutes or hours rolling down the conversation list from football scores to politics. Playing backgammon. There are old men sitting outside any number of pharmacies and parts shops on kindergarten-sized twine stools, smoke curling at the lit ends of a Marlboro and steam dancing from the freshly filled tea glass. The local tea boy runs from shop to shop carrying the precious liquid enclosed on a silver tray. Keeping everyone fueled and also running to the local bakkal (corner shop) to buy another pack for anyone who’s run out. There’s a joke called upon in refrain if anything takes longer than usual to finish or get organized or arrive—“Well they must be taking their cigarette and tea break.” Men, women, even children, everyone drinks tea.
In my first year of teaching in Istanbul, a family hired me out of an ESL institution to give private lessons to their 9-year-old son, soon to move to Germany and a full English school. Little Kaan, an average well-off child on his summer vacation. Spent most of the lesson period pounding around the apartment bouncing and kicking soccer balls and imaginary fighting mythical creatures of huge power based on an Americanized anime series which he begged me to let him watch every fifteen minutes saying, “It’s English, it’s English, teacher.”
It couldn’t be helped. We had to trade off one English activity with the anime, and any time sitting Kaan spent fidgeting in his seat, seeking out distraction. Saying he was an energetic child would be a grand understatement. Perhaps, I witnessed the secret of this endless energy one morning around their family breakfast table. The parents invited me early to share their morning meal in the condominium which served as interim house before heading off to Germany.
A typical Turkish spread, hard-boiled egg, tomatoes, cucumber, white cheese, and of course lots of bread with any number of condiments from chocolate to fruit. This all washed down with glass after glass of Black Sea region brew. While the parents and I attempted to make Kaan speak English, the housekeeper/cook refilled the tea cups and set down a large one for Kaan as well. How culturally naïve I was, imagining Turkish children had a nice glass of orange juice or milk with their breakfast. He took four cubes of sugar in his glass, relishing the tink tink of the spoon against the concaved curve of the glass. And gulped it between bites of a chocolate layered slice of bread.
I was very excited about this, very enthused. And just before my two hour lesson, too. He smiled at me, as if he knew, the sugar already pumping him up for his very own English teacher. I smiled back, took a piece of bread with some chocolate too, just to even the playing field, and thought to myself, oh well, Burasi Turkiye.
And this brings us to the subject of the much beloved and praised Istanbul public transportation system. More specifically the private vehicles of the trade called either mini-bus or dolmush (meaning stuffed) – yes the name describes it well.
They believe we don’t know where we want to go, these drivers. Like shepherdless sheep – a population of confused individuals looking for a little inspiration to shove us in the right direction. A race of humans full of wanderlust looking for a little guidance. So, they push and urge us to let them captain the journey to the next destination. How? By pouncing on the bystander (standing in thought or maybe walking at too slow a pace)–as stealthily as an elephant charging through the dense forest they come. Let me illustrate. On the aptly named minibus road they search for their passenger-prey. A main artery passing into the furthest reaches of the Asian side of Istanbul and parallel to the coastal road. Grocery stores, cafes and a number of restaurants border the road, and further off homes and schools. The road carries a heavy amount of foot traffic.
After a stressful work week, disgruntled students and vulture manager hovering over my back, I feel the need for a cup of coffee and the establishment’s famed chocolate spoon, which really, in the end, it is all about. My colleagues and I continually go for the chocolate spoon for celebration or relaxation; the chocolate spoon heals all.
From my apartment, just far enough from minibus alley to hear the faint call of their manic honking, I walk the couple of minutes to the street and move along with the traffic flow toward Coffee World. The walk will help the stress, I think. It’s Saturday evening in early spring, but not raining. Most people will be walking the Marmara coastal board-walk a couple blocks down. On my planned path though, families with young children on the way home for dinner or coming from the grocery store loaded with supplies for tomorrow’s late brunch and the rest of the week’s lunches. People smoking on café terraces, fleece blankets around shoulders.
How peaceful it would have been. But only a half block into my forty-five minute walk, the street peace breaks. A tentative, high-pitched peep, repeated five times successively like a stuttering song bird. I cringe. Another stuttering call, this time right up next to me. I avoid eye contact. Prey should always avoid looking into the face of the predator; act like it’s not there and maybe it’ll just go away. But I can feel him looking and trying to mind manipulate me, the other passengers looking too. Someone exits a nearby bakkal and then onto the bus. Satisfied he continues down the road, merrily stalking the next victim.
But it’s not over. Every two minutes coming up behind me at crash worthy speeds the minibus driver blasts his horn, like a pickaxe between my shoulder blades, demanding I board. “Who would ever choose walking over this?” he says. A variety of species exist, identifiable by their varying calls. Short and loud, usually younger, faux leather jacket behind the wheel. Stuttering toot–softer a more grandfatherly type. Long and piercing the long-timer, brainwashed by hours in traffic leap-frogging with cars. All have the same effect. A cringe starting at the neck and passing all over. By the time I arrive at Coffee World, my muscles tense and heart rate fluttering, I am cursing the drivers. Every single one like part of a hive mind, targeting me on the street.
Two hours of coffee sipping, reading and, of course, the chocolate spoon have me relaxed again. But on the way back, even though tired and with another early morning class tomorrow, I walk defiantly. Not going to give them the pleasure of conquering me in their cat and mouse play. This time on board another minibus running the main European side artery from pier to business districts, my work to home route, even more excitement awaits. As an example of the species. This one’s young, mid-twentyish, a spiky gelled haircut, making the top of his head look something akin to the back end feathers of a chicken, except black and shiny. Jeans and knock-off brand name shirts. He’s got a cell phone pinned between his shoulder and cheek, talking to his kanka (blood brother) about what he plans to do after finishing for the day, something about tea and backgammon with so and so. While on the phone, he is using his knee to keep the wheel steady and hiding a sneaky cigarette by his leg with left hand. Taking money for the fare behind him with his right hand and handing back change. These drivers have the best simple arithmetic skills in the city, given all they do while calculating cost and change.
And during all this multi-tasking, he lives his eternal dream of rally racing. Traffic is half way between what in Turkish is called opened and closed. Heavy to me from my countryside background. He speeds up, the force pulling passengers heads back. Comes up behind a city bus with two private cars vying for the space. He pushes through them inches on either side. Then slides his away around the back end of the bus, as if suddenly becoming water, almost painting the sides of the bus with scrapes. An impatient moment behind another slowing bus coming into a stop, then he bullies a taxi out of a lane to pull around.
The passengers look at us, we look at them, the same bored faces–near collision is a matter of course. We run up along the bus and snap in front before a motorcycle passing around the other side can. Then a human, pedestrian getting out of a taxi parked two far off the curb, gazelle leaps out of the path. I look back, and he’s straightening his suit coat, walking away. Always like this, always; so no one squeaks or squeals. In fact, half the passengers rest their eyes or are fully sleep in their seats. Heads and bodies sway with the brake and thrust of the machine, side to side with the pattern of car hopping. All the seats are full, a grandmotherly woman with four bags of shopping and some students. Four standing, business types in shiny suits, cellphones in hand.
A work van jerkingly stops, avoiding hitting the BMW in front of him. Our driver makes a sharp break and curse. No one tells him he was following too closely behind. The forces of physics send one of the businessmen into the arms of his fellow pencil pusher, foolishly holding his blackberry and messaging instead of holding one of many readily available poles. Amid grumbled apologies the two men manage to separate. No one actually vocalizes the famous phrase, it’s just understood.
It felt cheeky. We two, my friend Can and I, stood on the flowered welcome mat just down a flight of stairs from my apartment door. The mat reads Hoshgeldiniz (welcome) but my neck to full face blush is coming on. Ah, Mer, was this really the best idea. It’s my conscience always there for me when I need it.
It was summer and hot. Temperatures lingered in a damp high 70s even though the sun had set. Night but no one sleeping. In the swelter of mid-day the building and neighborhood were strangely silent, people in air-conditioned offices or shopping malls or sitting unmoving in front of a rotating fan. Teetotaled on heat and combinations of fresh fruit and mineral water. At night, everyone is home again. The sunset meal passed at 8 o’clock after hunger finally returned. The building echoes alive. Someone’s watching a TV series, the jingles of the latest chocolate advert followed by a kitchen cleaner. The dog always on the street corner is barking, probably some cat prowling too close. Children playing street football also audible through the walls and open windows. And an uncomfortable heat left over from the day makes sweat slip between my shoulder blades.
I can observe all this because the embarrassment and fear pump some unknown hormone into my system spiking my senses. I rethink and rethink. A bad idea, a really bad idea, but it is too late now. We have buzzed the bell, can’t remember who but we’ll probably blame each other later. I can hear the muffled sound of inner life, voices getting clearer and nearer. The door swings inward and open. There she is. Much like I’ve seen her in passing or coming back late from my work, one of her two sons at hand. Very much the Turkish housewife. Unremarkable, but friendly. Still keeping her girlish skinnier figure, which most Turkish girls seem blessed with. I am most definitely fully flushed in the face, which only makes it worse.
“Hello, I live upstairs in 14,” I say in my half-built Turkish. “My name is Meridith and this is Can (pronounced Jahn).” Conveniently forgetting he speaks Turkish fluently as he’s a native, my companion has left everything to me it seems.
“Yes, Yes. I see you often. You run.” She says more but this is about as much as I can understand. My Turkish friend still playing dumb.
“Yes. That’s me.” Then I try to explain, that I often hear her son playing guitar from my balcony and my friend just got a new guitar and we were wondering if he could just help us with tuning it because I used to be able to play but I’ve forgotten it’s been so long since my last lesson. The words collaged together from my limited vocabulary and with much gesturing to demonstrate.
Her reaction comes immediate and unexpected.
“Come. Come.” She ushers us inside not allowing even a beginning of a no. She explains, that her husband had a late meeting at work and hasn’t returned home yet. Then explains her son’s love of guitar, how much he practices, his desire to enter the Istanbul conservatory. All the while leading to the living room and seating us in the place of honor. An exactly placed love seat, embroidered cotton on the arms and back. Her youngest son pays little attention sitting on the rug covered floor approximately three feet in front of the TV. This time a Coca-Cola advertisement comes on. An extended family meal around a 2.5 liter bottle, long table covered in Turkish dishes. They are outdoors, as is customary in summer.
Our hostess still stands and calls for her son, waits; but the commercial seems to bring her back to herself.
“Would you like something to drink or eat? Please have something to drink and something to eat.”
We politely refuse, miming full stomachs but thank you, thank you. The offer is continued, obviously will be continued, as Can indicates with widened eyes, until accepted. So, we give in. The son arrives with guitar in hand mother exiting into the kitchen, with host duties temporarily taken over by her teen. He shyly speaks English and begins to show the tuning routine to Can. Ten minutes later fruit and tea arrive on a silver tray etched with flower designs. Little dessert plates and napkins and a finger-sized fruit knife for cutting the pear-like produce.
She sits on the adjacent couch, and we begin the question-answer routine, Can and son firmly distracted in shop talk about guitar basics. We perform an amazing Turklish show, the languages mix and match and somehow form a kind of conversation. Where are you from in America, why did you come to Turkiye, do you like it, where do you work, it is a typical field of questions. All the while I am attempting to balance my fruit plate on knee and cut the bulbous flesh of my fruit. The plate tilts toward left and right, the knife slips off the tough skin, no sharper than a plastic implement. I envision a scene–me the fool of physics. A hard downward thrust fended off by the unyielding fruit, the knife plunges to one side cracks the plate. Shards and food spill to the hand-made plush carpet and humiliated I try to quickly pick up the evidence of my clumsiness. But on downward thrust knock the tea over which stains both couch and carpet with irrevocable brown tint. The drama deepens as we are thrown from the house, having destroyed some great-great-great aunt’s dish.
But that doesn’t happen. I deflect conversation with a question about her son. And as hoped the topic sends her off on both sons, distracting enough. When she turns away to motion toward the little one, I will the knife to cut and the fruit finally gives, a slice falls to my plate. The whole feat accomplished rather lady-like on my part, I tout to myself. Pinky held up, no loud smack of metal on porcelain.
She continues to talk and entreat us to stay for more food, this time ice cream, and when refusals finally get through, implores us to return again. It’s the first taste of Turkish hospitality for me, a bit like being a POW instead a Prisoner of Hosting, it takes a while to extricate one’s self from the clutches of the host or hostess. We manage to shorten good byes to fifteen minutes, from couch to door.
But I had survived and imagined I had been prepared for the next time. Even with advice from well-seasoned friends. And I should’ve listened to my colleague’s advice. Eat slowly, eat very, very slowly. Louise told me. And small portions if you can. Very, very small. And Lou’s the expert. Married to a Turk with in-law meals under her belt. But, no. I’d been here three years and I was sure I knew.
It started with a student continually insisting I come to meet her family the entire semester. The American teacher became a topic of family conversation, and they’d insisted enough, I finally consented. Ozlem met me at the ferry port of Bandirma. And I had prepared, by eating next to nothing all day. We took a bus to the streets up town through residential districts and arrived at a four story green building inhabited completely by her family. Aunt on the first floor, grandparents on second and parents on third, and I was informed everyone would be popping in for dinner with me the object of fascination for the evening’s entertainment.
Ozlem’s parents met us at the door, neither having English but welcoming nonetheless and more and more excited each time I attempted my Turkish. The usual guest slippers and offers of drinks, Ozlem seated me at the large kitchen table already covered with Turkish mezes (olive-oil based foods on small plates). They offer a gift, which I dutifully thank them for several times. And then the eating begins. First drinks and mezes while the rest of the family comes one-by-one. I kiss the grandparents’ hands and kiss cheeks with the aunt. Then after meze, soup, a necessity in any proper Turkish meal. After the main meal, Chupra, my favorite Turkish fish, and vegetables. This all served with mounds of bread, fresh from a corner wood bakery. I am full, completely, but it is time for dessert. Turkish coffee, mini chocolate éclairs and baklava. They insist I try one of each. My stomach, at this point, has begun to push uncomfortably against skin and waist band. But I believe I have survived, I have conquered the Turkish family meal. All courses finished. But, it was not to be so.
As Ozlem explains, it is tradition now to watch a TV series, which are appropriately called movies as they last at least 2 hours per week. And while watching of course eating, sun flower seeds, walnuts, and hazelnuts. All washed down with more tea. I can’t stop it from happening, there’s no time. Ozlem and mother are already sitting on the floor with newspapers cracking nutshells. They fill little bowls passed to me first and continuously. Go slow, go slow. I keep telling myself, but each time the bowl arrives, I feel obligated to take at least one piece.
After an hour, I begin to talk about leaving for my bus, begging mercy. I must rise early, and it is getting late, 10:30 pm by now. I notice the father in the kitchen preparing something, I know another dish. Again I push, look how late it is and I am all alone. Being conscientious of a woman on her own so late, they relent. And I in turn relent to a ride to the bus station. Waddling onto the bus holding my stomach as another victim—a POH. Burasi Turkiye. No guest can go home with an empty stomach; indeed their stomach should have expanded at least two sizes before they pass back over the threshold.
Tulip petals have half-fallen. In Emirgan Park, the remnants of April’s tulip festival fight against the cool winds of late spring. Sharp points of Ottoman tulips outlive the softer edges of the Dutch variety, planted in multi-colored patterns and designs. The original picture starts to lose shape as the petalless, while still standing, resemble some strange alien vegetable-green stalks and bulbous head. We start to feel summer heat from the sun, under the constant wind. It’s a renewing energy. Children run crazy around the park in t-shirts and shorts, playing football and tag, just like in any other city. Families and friends sit around homemade picnics, cloth ends held down with stones. Tea boilers and cold mezzes on Turkish cotton. Others take pictures of the last of the tulips for this year.
It’s a respite from the city. Growing, self-devouring, and rebuilding. Construction and demolition visible from the cranes against sky in every view. The city tries to balance from ancient to globalized world and enlarge for the 17 million and growing population. We look for those green parts to relax, drink tea, and watch the moody Bosporus. Living in frustration and in love with Istanbul.