Sunday, December 18, 2011

Sunday, December 18, 2011 - No comments

So It's NOT Just a Western Thing!

In my language lessons the past few months I've been reading through a book called "Bir Zamanların Istanbulu" - "The Istanbul of Another Time." It explains in colourful detail the daily life of "old Istanbul" in the days after the Ottoman Empire crumbled and the Turkish Republic was being shaped. It's slow going, as each page has at least ten words for me to look up, many of them Ottoman and no longer in use. But for someone like me who has a huge crush on the Imperial City, it's a treasure trove of fun information. It covers topics such as which areas the various ethnic groups lived in, how household staff were organized, superstitions and legends, coffeehouse life and how marriages and festivals were celebrated back then.

Just today I learned that in the hamam (Turkish bathhouse) there were various patterned wraps worn to distinguish workers from customers, and people of one station or religion from another. I also learned a very useful phrase - "postu sermek." It literally means “to spread out an animal fur” and carries the connotation of a guest staying on and on with no apparent intention of leaving." Having been held prisoner by many a guest who was too comfy on my couch for my liking, this new vocab elicited an amused groan.

Last week, my language helper Ayşe Abla** and I were reading from the portion of the book about "misafirlik" - the rules and traditions surrounding visits and the receiving of guests. Books like this are always both enlightening and guilt-tripping, because they reveal how far short I fall from the high standard of “the Turkish hostess.” If Turks are famous for anything, it's their hospitality, and that is one of my favourite parts about living here... but it comes with its difficulties, too. While I may have learned “the right way to do things” (and believe me, there is a “right way”) I cannot say I adhere to the Turkish belief that “a surprise visit is more of a blessing than a planned one” or that “it’s up to the guest when they come, but it’s up to the hostess when they leave.” (As a guest, I’ve been held captive by that one on many occasions, and as a hostess I’ve often wished it worked in the “Go, go!” direction and not just the “Stay, stay!” one.)

I often marvel at how delighted my Turkish friends are when I show up unannounced, because I often have quite the opposite reaction, though I try not to let it show. Don't get me wrong - I love my neighbours, and I genuinely do enjoy showing love through hospitality. But sometimes putting on a second pot of tea while talking about recipes and ingrown toenails when I have a million things that need to be done by the evening is just unbearable. To my shame, I'll even admit to (once or twice) working in my room with the lights off and ignoring the doorbell if I'm in the middle of something I just have to get done. Apparently the task-oriented side of me is still very Canadian.

Loosely translated, here’s a sample of one portion we read in my last lesson:

“The host or hostess is obliged to greet a guest with a smiling face. Sometimes a guest may arrive in the middle of a day when you have so much work to do, you don’t even have time to scratch your head. You have a mountain of laundry on the go, you are in the middle of dusting and vacuuming, and your daughter and son-in-law are fighting up a storm. But they mustn’t let it show on their faces. Even if they’re out for each other’s blood, they must smile like they’ve just had a cup of sweet punch.”

The message is clear: guests take precedence over anything else you might be doing, and saying, “I’m not in the mood for company,” really isn’t an option.  No matter what’s on your to-do list for the day, you must open the door with a welcoming smile, invite your honoured guest into the parlour and give them all your attention, just as if the queen had popped in for tea.

So here’s the kicker. Just as we’d read this bit and I’d begun to tell Ayşe Abla what a bad Turk I am because I of the way I cringe when the doorbell rings in the middle of a crazy day, there was a knock at her door.

“Just leave it,” she said. I continued with my reading.

“Ayşe Ablaaaaaa!”

“Are you sure you don’t want to get it?” I asked. “I don’t mind.”

“It's Güler.**  I saw her as she came down the lane. If I let that woman in, she’ll interrupt our lesson, talk my ear off for half and hour, and criticize everything in the room. I’m not in the mood. Just ignore her - she’ll go away.”

Again , “Ayşe Ablaaaaaa.”

Finally she stopped calling, and we assumed she’d given up. Just then, Ayşe Abla told me to look out the window to where the Güler Abla was coming up the side of the house. “It’s reflective glass - she can’t see us. All the school girls use this window as a mirror to fix their hair on their way out.”

Güler Abla approached the window and, apparently not convinced that no one was home, called out again, “Ayşe Ablaaaaa!!!!” She knocked on the glass. Seeing the guilty look on my face, Ayşe Abla reassured me, “Don’t worry, she can’t see us.”

I turned to look just as Güler Abla cupped her hands over her eyes and leaned forward to peer through the glass. Whipping back around, I whispered through my teeth, “Now she can!”

Her eyes mischevious, Ayşe Abla slid her 60 year old frame ever so slowly lower in her chair and whispered “Don’t move! She’s looking at the back of your head.”

We sat there, frozen, until she finally either understood the situation or assumed we were pieces of furniture, and then dissolved into giggles as she walked away.

We laughed until our sides hurt, and when I finally caught my breath, I asked her, “What was that about never sending a guest away?”

“There are always exceptions,” She winked. Now, back to our book.”

**Names have been changed.