Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Wednesday, September 14, 2011 - 2 comments

Being Turkish is My Day Job

Here's a little insight into the identity crisis I live with daily..... :)

The course assignment for "Working With Transitions" was to write a chronology of what I did in a day, and then weave in another story from the past that an event/moment from that day triggered. I found it slightly awkward to include all the details of what I did and ended up skipping the evening cuz it was already long and that would have been unrelated. But...I like the final result!

Being Turkish is My Day Job

The music of little girl shrieks outside my window pulls me from the sweetness of my day-off slumber. I smile listening to my next-door neighbours’ kids bid their father farewell as he roars off to work on his motorcycle and roll out of bed, ready to embrace what I hope will be an uneventful day.

The Saturday fruit and veggie pazar opens around 8:30, and I always try to get there as early as possible to beat the crowds and get this errand out of the way so I am free to enjoy my day off. I load up the French press with some Cafe Verona, the strong aroma carrying with it the promise of a good day of lounging. As my coffee brews, I head back upstairs to get dressed. The question of, “What shall I wear to the pazar?” is always a dilemma. While there will be plenty of modern Turks there sporting jeans and t-shirts, my desire to blend in with the masses causes me to choose a pair of şalvar, the baggy, patterned pants that form the bottom half of the uniform of nearly every woman in my village. I draw the line at the crotch-to-your-knees version and opt for the more citified style, which look more like a pair of floral print pajamas than a skirt that has been sewn shut at the bottom. Today I go the extra mile with a knit sweater vest in hopes that it will counteract my blue eyes and get me in and out of the market without the barrage of “Where are you from?” and, “How did you you learn Turkish?” that can turn a quick veggie-run into an all-morning event.

I down my breakfast, strap on my helmet and zip off to the pazar on my electric bicycle. My journey takes me past several friendly faces – my language helper’s husband setting up chairs at his restaurant, Gulizar Abla putting whole chickens on the spits in the roaster at the butcher shop. A good third of the people I pass on the road are riding a scooter just like mine, though the blazing blue helmet my western conscience forces me to wear likely detracts from my “local score” considerably.

It’s early enough that the vendors are still setting up their stalls at the pazar, and several of the aisles are blocked by trucks piled high with potatoes, onions and trays of shiny cucumbers. At this hour, one must constantly be on the lookout for back-up lights so as not to meet an early death as a şalvar-clad pancake. I dodge a couple of stray tomatoes tumbling from the peak of a perfectly formed pyramid as a farmer artistically arranges his greenhouse-grown jewels. My toes are safe as the cart-toting teyzes – innocent old ladies in appearance, but often deadly behind the wheels – have yet to descend on the market. I make my way from stall to stall, sampling strawberries and squeezing kiwis, until I’ve checked everything off my list.

When it comes to getting in and out of the pazar quickly as an undercover Turk, I really am my own worst enemy. All those perfectly arranged rows of apples and colourful bins of nuts and dried fruits are too much for my photographer’s eye, and I can’t resist snapping a few shots. The camera, of course, cancels out the sweater-vest, and my cover is now blown. After a few minutes of chit-chat over what a Canadian girl is doing living in this village, and the obligatory photos of the grinning boys at surrounding stalls eager to be made famous “in America,” I make my way back to my bike. With several kilos of fruit in the baggage compartment, greens and onions swinging from both handlebars, and more stashed precariously between my feet, I set off for home.

Once home, I toss a load of laundry into the washer, and I get started on cleaning and putting away the produce, eager to be done with my domestic duties so I can get on with relaxing. After grabbing a quick bite, I hang my laundry out on the line, will the sun to shine long enough to dry my sheets by bedtime, and head up to the terrace to read. As I settle in with a history of the Ottoman Empire, I notice dark clouds gathering in the distance. It’s not long before it starts to drizzle, and I race down to rescue my clothes from the line before they are soaked. Having creatively hung my laundry from every available knob and railing, I make myself a cup of tea, head back to my spot on the balcony and settle in with my book.

Pulling my hood up over my head, I am determined to defy the impending storm – after all, I am from Vancouver. Rain is what we do best. But as the tempo intensifies and the individual drops merge into puddles covering every inch of the freshly squeegeed tile, I am forced to move under cover.

Resituated under the overhang, I sit back and inhale the scent of the storm, and a thought crosses my mind: “Perfect day for a Black Sea rain.” It is one of those moments where my nose recalls a memory before my brain does. The smell takes me back to a day eight years ago, long before I’d learned to speak Turkish or had a clue how to make grape-leaf wraps, when I was just a starry-eyed tourist, falling in love with the nation that would later become my home.

“Şemsiye,” the Antique Man said, pointing to his umbrella, and then gestured out the window of his shop to the downpour drenching the world outside. My friend John and I had formed one of those “phrasebook-and-sign-language” friendships with him the day before as we browsed through his trinkets and treasures, and he had invited us to come to his house for dinner. The deluge that had descended upon the Black Sea town of Safranbolu seemed like reason enough for a cancellation to me, but as a local used to the region’s wet weather, he seemed unfazed by it. So off we went.

By the time we had walked to the bus, ridden the short distance to the Antique Man’s house, and made a mad dash for his front door, all three of us were soaked to the core and shivering. His wife greeted us with the customary kisses on our cheeks as if we were beloved relatives she hadn’t seen in years, and then hurried us in to their cozy living room and sat us down beside the hissing woodstove. She rattled off a string of Turkish words to her teenaged son who was standing shyly in the corner, and he disappeared into another room, returning a few minutes later with some of his clothes for us to change into. The sweats I was handed were several inches too short, and I felt awkward and silly, but I was grateful to be dry, and when I saw the feast she’d prepared for us, I forgot all about my hairy ankles.

What followed was a golden evening of Turkish home cookin’, endless cups of strong çay, black-and-white family photos, and labourious conversations huddled around the dictionary, punctuated by celebratory laughter when we finally got our point across. As we donned our own clothes, long-since dried over the fire, and headed for home, I marvelled at the way this nation embraces its guests – even ones that show up on the doorstep looking like drowned rats.

The chirping of a bird jars me from my reverie and for a moment I am siezed by “day-off panic” because the bird’s song sounds remarkably like my doorbell. I groan, not wanting to put down my book and put on my hostess face. When I realize it is, in fact, an actual bird, I laugh at myself, struck by the fact that to a Turk, an unexpected guest is a joy and an honour, while to me, the sound of the doorbell on my day off is something I dread.

I picture Antique Lady’s smiling eyes and the way she fussed over us and treated us like royalty instead of the soggy North Americans that we were. She was thrilled to have her life interrupted by a couple of strangers. I realize that, no matter how perfectly I might serve my çay or how many pairs of şalvar I own, I still don’t have the heart of a Turk when it comes to unannounced guests.

Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the revered founder of the Turkish republic, once made a declaration that is etched on plaques and statues of him in every town square in the nation: “Happy is he who calls himself a Turk.” I wholeheartedly agree, Mustafa Kemal.

Just not on my day off.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Saturday, September 10, 2011 - No comments

One More Cup

My blog is feeling neglected. Any spare time for writing these days goes to trying to finish up assignments for the travel writing course I'm taking, and sadly, even from that, I have very few finished pieces to post on here. They all seem to have filed for permanent residence status in the land of The Polishing Process. (I do promise more frequent entries as I make this more of a priority.)

To keep your appetite satisfied, though, I realized I never posted my (not winning) entry for the Travel Writing Scholarship Contest I entered several months ago, so for your amusement, here it is. The 500 word limit was a huge challenge for me, and I hated having to whittle out a lot of the more colourful details, but in the end, I think I'm okay with the finished product.

One More Cup

The ease with which the teenaged boy simultaneously poured precisely the right amount of tea from the pot in his right hand and water from the one in his left suggested that the lack of a daughter-in-law in the house had given him years of practice at this normally female task. Inhaling the steaming comfort emanating from the tiny tulip-shaped glass, I wondered if Laura and I should be trying to make a quick exit before we became candidates to fill the position.

Four hours earlier, we had set out on my recently purchased electric scooter for a picnic in the pine-scented sanctuary of Kurşunlu Falls on the outskirts of Antalya, Turkey. The pleasant journey took us past greenhouses gleaming in the late autumn sun, bearded men tottering towards midday prayers, and aunties knitting on porches, evidence of their culinary prowess spilling over the waistbands of their colourful şalvar. The return trip, however, had turned into a “foreign damsels in distress” tale when the bike ran out of power six kilometers from home. Like circus clowns in blue helmets, we entertained the passing locals as we wove and wobbled our way a little further down the road, Laura furiously working the “emergency pedals” while I gripped the handlebars and fought hopelessly to keep us from veering into traffic to our death-via-tractor.

To our relief, salvation appeared in the form of my bike’s black twin parked in front of a rundown shack at the end of a dirt lane. Where there was a bike, there must also be a charger! Dispersing chickens as we struggled into the overgrown yard, I sheepishly asked the boy who greeted us if we could plug in long enough for it to get us home.

With a flurry of electrical cords, bowls of sunflower seeds and chalky dried chickpeas, both we and the bike were set down to rest on a cushion of humble Anatolian hospitality. The collection of old couches and vehicles being devoured by the yard gave the impression that this family wasn’t the cream of this village’s crop, and yet their reception made us feel like we were sitting at the sultan’s table instead of on a sagging porch with plastic tarps for walls. The diminutive headscarved matriarch, having apparently trained her four sons uncommonly well, made sure the youngest kept our teacups filled. While their heavily accented Turkish, peppered with unfamiliar colloquialisms and unconjugated verbs, was a challenge for my Istanbul-trained ear, their friendly conversation made us feel more like welcome neighbours than imposing foreigners.

Two hours later, amidst repeated offers of more tea (but thankfully no offers of marriage), we thanked our rescuers and mounted the bike, wanting to make it home before night fell, and with it our reputations. But when, a kilometer from home, the needle dipped towards empty again and I made Laura get off and walk, she was wishing we’d stuck around for just one more cup...