Monday, November 19, 2012

Monday, November 19, 2012 - No comments

There's No Taste Like Home

I wonder if you can go to jail for illegally bringing pistachios into the UK.  I eyed the drug-sniffing customs dog warily.  I’m going to get arrested over a baggie full of pistachios, and they aren’t even mine.  The worst part is, I don’t even like pistachios.  

“You’re sure you don’t have any food in there, right?”  I pointed to her duffel bag, the one I’d tied onto my suitcase so she wouldn’t have to carry it.  “Like meat or cheese or fresh fruit or something?”  I could just picture them opening her bag and finding it full of mandarins (“From my garden”), pomegranates (“They’re in season, you know”) and bottles of the salty yogurt drink ayran (“They don’t sell it in England and my daughter misses it so much.”)

She clucked her tongue and raised her eyebrows.  “Just pistachios.  And hazelnuts.  And dried figs.”

They’re going to ask me where I got the pistachios, and I’ll have to tell them, “That lady gave them to me.”  And they’ll ask how I know her, and I’ll have to tell them how I just met her half an hour ago, and that she gave me this little bag of nuts and told me to put them in my backpack.  They’ll ask why I ignored the warnings about carrying things in for other people and I’ll tell them it was a gift and they’ll open the nuts and find cocaine inside the shells and I’ll never see daylight or my mother again.

It all started when I was standing in the “other passports” line at Gatwick Airport.  They asked if anyone spoke English and Turkish, and I stepped forward and was hired on the spot as (Un)Official Translator for Turkish Teyzes (aunties/old ladies).  

She wore a long brown coat and a matching headscarf, tied under her chin in the village way.  There was a large mole on her right cheek with a long hair growing out of it.  She looked terrified.

“Could you please ask her how long she’s staying?” the immigration lady asked me.  

She had an open ticket.  “One month.”  Her accent was thick, from the east.  “Maybe two.”

I translated this back.

“Who is she visiting and what do they do here?”

She told me she was visiting her daughter and grandkids.  “My son-in-law is unemployed.  He used to be a barber, but....he’s out of work.  You don’t have to tell her all that, do you?”

I winced.

Back and forth we went.  Why didn’t she have a return ticket?  Had she been to England before?  Did she understand that her visa would expire in March and she absolutely could not overstay it? 

“I’ll need to call her daughter.  Does she have a phone number for her?”

She did.

“Could you tell her she can just go sit on that blue bench over there while I call and then I’ll come get her?  I’ll process you quickly and then you can go on through.”

I looked at her, gripping the paper with her daughter’s address on it tightly, apprehension in her eyes.

“Is it okay if I wait with her?  I think she’d feel better that way.”

And that’s how I ended up sitting in “the pen.”  We took our seats on the blue benches in the roped off area set aside for those who are “questionable.”  So this was what it felt like.

“Where are you from?” she asked me.  

“I live in Turkey.  But I’m from Canada.”

“Near Pazarcık?  Oh, I have relatives there!  Who do you know?”

“’s a big country.  I’m from Vancouver - on the far west side, by the ocean.  Do you know where that is?”

She just stared at me.

“Where’s your hometown?”  I asked her.  


“Oh, I’ve been there!  Great ice cream.  What did you bring your daughter from Maraş?  I’m sure she misses the food there. ”

“Well, we live in Antep now.  I’m coming from there, not Maraş.”

“Gaziantep?  So you’re bringing her pistachios, then?”

She brightened.  “Yes, pistachios.  Help me unzip this, will you?”

I helped her with the zipper on her duffel bag.

She pulled out a plastic LC Waikiki shopping bag, and there they all were.  Little baggies of pistachios - probably a dozen of them.

“Here, take one.”  She held out a baggie.  “You’ve been so kind to me.”

“Oh, I couldn’t.  Your daughter should have them.”  And I don’t really like them anyway.

She laughed.  “Look how many I have!  Take it, take it.”

I took it.

“They’ve been in the freezer and now they’ve thawed, so they’re a bit wet.”  

Great.  Wet pistachios.

Not wanting to be rude, I gingerly extracted one from the bag and followed her lead, squeezing it to set it free from the soggy outer skin, then cracking the shell between my teeth and eating the nut inside.  Not terrible, I suppose, but I certainly prefer roasted to raw.

“Here, take the rest with you, for your family.”  She tied up the baggie and handed it to me.

I glanced around, sincerely hoping we weren’t breaking some law by eating raw nuts here, in the immigration hold.  All the officials were busy with other travelers and didn’t seem too concerned with us.  I accepted the baggie and shoved it into the side pocket of my backpack.

I was grateful that, at least, the people I was going to be visiting used to live in Turkey.  I could pawn the nuts off on them.  It would probably make them feel nostalgic.

“Where did you say you were from again?  A village near Pazarcık?  Maybe you know my relatives.”

“Um, no.  I’m from Vancouver.  It’s in the western part of the country.”

“How far is it from Gaziantep?”

Here we go.  This is going to be one of those conversations where I have to explain that you can’t take a bus to Vancouver from Turkey.

“Uh....maybe 24 hours, depending on how long the layovers are.”

She squinted at me.  

“You know, it’s just north of America.”

More squinting.  

Then, all of a sudden, the light went on.  

“Oh, you said ‘Canada!’”  She slapped her knee.


“I thought you said ‘Kandilli!’  Canada!  No, I don’t have any relatives there.”

Ten minutes and several pictures of the grandkids later, the immigration lady returned and told us she had spoken with the son-in-law, who was waiting outside, and that we were free to go, but would she please be sure to buy a return ticket next time to avoid the hassle.  

She promised she would.  “Who knows?  There might not be anyone here to translate for me next time and then I’d have to sit on those blue benches all day!”

I shouldered her heavy duffel full of all those wet pistachios and set off, teyze in tow, for the baggage claim.  

“You shouldn’t carry something this heavy, teyze!”

“Yes, and I have rheumatism.  But my daughter does love pistachios....”

We collected our suitcases, by now the only two going round and round on the carousel, and headed towards customs.  

“What are the dogs for?”  she asked.

“You know, they look for drugs and stuff.”

I shifted her duffel to my other shoulder and eyed her big red suitcase.  I prayed that these dogs liked wet pistachios as little as I did.

Imagining how it would look if things went south and I was the one holding the bag containing the illegal edibles, I decided being up front was a better approach.

“Excuse me, sir.”  I motioned to one of the customs officers.  “I was helping this lady at immigration - but I don’t know her - and she’s got pistachios in her bag.  Is that okay?”  I left out the bit about them being fresh off the tree.

“Just pistachios?”

“And some other nuts.  But no cheese or anything - I asked.”

“No, love, that’s fine, she can take them through.”


When we got to the front of the line, my little teyze started heading for the escalator.

“Ma’am, please stop right here,” said the customs lady.

“Hold on!” I called after her in Turkish.  “You need to wait!”

She kept walking.

This is the part where she uses her selective hearing, leaving me to stand here with her duffel while the dogs discover what’s really inside!

The dog barely gave her suitcase a sniff as she passed and then aimed his nose at me.

Here we go.....

I lowered the duffel nonchalantly.

He sniffed it once, disinterested, and then moved on to the bag behind me, which must have had sausage links inside it.  I exhaled.  He clearly preferred pork products to my apparently legal wet pistachios.  I didn’t blame him.

I caught up with my teyze at the top of the escalator.  She had just caught sight of her grandson and had begun to squeal.  

I deposited her safely with her son-in-law, who shook my hand and thanked me profusely for taking care of his wife’s mother.  She kissed me on both cheeks and asked if they could drop me off anywhere, but I assured her I was fine with the train.   

As I headed towards the station, the sound of her grandson’s giggles fading into the distance, a rumbling in my stomach and the prospect of an hour-and-a-half journey sent me into Marks and Spencer to grab a snack.  

As I perused the dizzying array of ready made salads, sushi trays and wraps, I caught sight of something that made me smile out loud, if such a thing is possible.  Cranberry and Wensleydale cheese sticks for 60 pence each!  We’ve got nothing of the sort in Turkey and it’s something from home that I love.  I grabbed four sticks and headed to the check-out.

Sitting on the train, I carefully unwrapped the first of my treasures and took a bite.  Amazing.  I imagined a Turkish woman who was about to have her whole year made by the arrival of a blue duffel bag full of wet pistachios and I smiled.  

I knew precisely how she felt.