Saturday, March 5, 2016

Saturday, March 05, 2016 - No comments

Salt for the Soup

**It's been almost two years since my Turkish sister's wedding, so this is old news.  But after posting a few weeks ago about the addition of Baby Girl to the family, I realized I'd never shared this piece I wrote about the night before the wedding for a writing course assignment.  So, enjoy the prequel!


I plopped myself down on top of a large cardboard box on the street in front of my Turkish family’s apartment.  The box was stuffed with a fraction of my “sister” Didem’s Marcosesque shoe collection.  The mid-day August sun beat down on my back.  “Last one!” I declared.

Didem’s fiancé Bülent glanced at the trunk of his Qashqai, stacked to the roof with the sum of his beloved’s earthly possessions.  

“Are you going to let me pack that box or what?” he asked.

I grinned and stuck out my palm.  “For a fee.”

Didem slipped her arm through Bülent’s and smiled sweetly up at him.  

“She’s right.  I may be an only child, but she's the closest thing to the sister of the bride.  It’s tradition...”  Bülent shook his head in defeat and grinned.  He pulled his wallet from his back pocket.  All cards, no cash.

“Buy you coffee later?” he asked.


Didem’s mom, Yüksel, came out and joined us on the street.  Bülent crammed the box of shoes into the back seat, leaving just enough room for Yüksel and I to wedge ourselves in amongst the suitcases.  Didem slid into the front seat and waved up at the apartment building.  “So long, house!”  She glanced in the rearview mirror as Bülent pulled away from the building.  “Mom, no crying, okay?  I’m still sleeping here tonight, remember.”

Yüksel smiled, wiping a tear from her cheek.  

As we turned off their street, I thought of Didem’s henna party the night before.  We had held candles and danced in a circle around her singing, “Don’t let them carry me off to a faraway place in the high hills....I’ll miss my mother, my father and my village.”  The traditional song, meant to make the bride-to-be cry as she leaves her family, played over in my head as we made our way across the Bosphorus bridge.  Didem wasn’t moving to another city, but she was moving to another continent.  She’d grown up living in five different houses in the same Asian side neighbourbood, and now she, her clothes, a good twenty-five pounds of make-up and hair products, and the last of the wedding gifts were making the journey to her husband’s neighbourhood in the “high hills” of Avcılar, on Istanbul’s European side.

The trip took an hour and a half, and we spent it going over the to-do list for the day.  “Bülent will drop us down at the shops to get the last few things we need for the house,” Didem said.  He’ll go find out what time the couch is coming and then we’ll all head over and put everything away.  We’ll have to do some cleaning, too, so it’s all ready for tomorrow night.”  She laughed giddily.  “Tomorrow night!”  Bülent maneuvered expertly through the crush of cars, one hand on the wheel, one hand intertwined with Didem’s.

“What time are we going to Kuzguncuk tomorrow?” I asked.  I’d be shooting their wedding portraits there.

“Bülent will pick us up from the hairdresser’s at two...ish.    That’ll give us like two hours before his family comes to pick me up for the wedding.”

I bit my lip.  “When I went to scout it out, there were three or four different brides there - I hope we won’t have to wait in line for the good spots.”  

“It’ll be fine,” Didem said. 

“Tonight I still wanna get online with you and get an idea of what you want.”  I’d been hounding her about a shots list for a month.

Inshallah,” she replied.

I checked my phone.  Just after two.  I’d come along on the assurance that we’d head back over to the Asian side by five or six.  I wanted to be sure I had plenty of time to go over the shots list, check all my gear, and get enough sleep to get me through photo-documenting a bride and seven primping bridesmaids in a beauty salon, a photo shoot in my second language, and a wedding that was sure to last into the wee hours.  We had taken off much later than planned and I hoped there wouldn’t be too much cleaning to do...

Bülent deposited us females in Avcılar’s shopping district and we entered a housewares shop.

“So, what do you still need?” I asked Didem.

“Well...laundry stuff.  A bathroom garbage can.  Bath mats, an ironing board.... I want to get a nice set of Turkish coffee cups.  And we don’t have any tea cups yet....”

“I wanted to buy you something today,” I said.  “How ‘bout if I get your tea cups?”  Life in Turkey pretty much revolves around drinking tea, so I figured that would be a meaningful and useful gift.

“You don’t have to buy us anything...”

“I only have one sister!” I said, and I pulled out a saying I’d learned in a recent language lesson:  “I want a little of my salt to be found in your soup, too.”

“Aw, my beautiful seester!” she said in English and kissed me on the cheek.  

On the way to the teacup section, Didem got sidetracked by some little angel statuettes that she declared to be perfect for her living room.  I could see this was not going to be a quick shopping trip.  

“Do we really have to buy all this stuff today?” I  whispered to Yüksel.  “It’s already four...”

“Well, the wedding is tomorrow, so this is the last chance.”


“In Canada don’t you go out and buy all the stuff the bride and groom need?” Yüksel asked.  I explained online registries and how most couples didn’t open their gifts until after the honeymoon.

“So, I guess people don’t end up with three pressure cookers like Didem did, huh?” Yüksel asked.

“No,” I laughed.  “But I guess it takes away all the surprise of people choosing things they think you’ll like, too.”

“For us the important thing is that both families get to help put the house together.”  Yüksel said.  “It might not be the colour the bride would have chosen, but it’s special because it came from her aunt or her sister.  In the old days, Didem would have been working for years sewing lace on the edges of towels and crocheting doilies....”  We both looked over at Didem, with her bleached-blond hair and her short, strappy sundress, and we burst out laughing.  

“Good thing she didn’t live in the old days!” I said.

An hour, several hundred Lira and multiple warranties later, we were at the Japanese Bazaar - Turkey's version of the Dollar Store. Didem was outside on the phone with Bülent, who was at the furniture store.  Yüksel and I were looking at shelving paper options when Didem stormed over, hand clenched around her iPhone, fuming.

“It’s not ready,” she said through pinched lips.

“The couch?” I asked.

“The couch.”  She put her hands on her hips.  “It should’ve been done by now!”  Her voice rose a few decibels.  “I’m getting married tomorrow!  How can you get married without a couch?”  Another customer turned to look.  Didem stalked between rows of coat hangers and serving trays painted with pastel tea cups and cartoon cats.  “We ordered it more than a month ago, remember?” 

I remembered.  Long hours of visiting store after store with two sets of inlaws-to-be, reclining, feeling fabrics, testing throw pillows.  It had been the middle of Ramadan, all the store employees were grouchy from fasting and there was no water to be found.  I felt dehydrated just thinking about it.  

“When they delivered it, the L-shape was the wrong way, so we had it made again.  Then they told us it would be ready after the Sugar Festival.  Now they’re saying it’s not done yet ‘cause everyone was on vacation during the festival...  Arghhhh!!!”

Yüksel patted Didem’s shoulder.  

I smiled weakly and held up the two rolls of shelving paper in my hands.  “Polka dots or the Taksim trolley?”


We pulled into Bülent and Didem’s apartment complex just after five.  Bülent had collected us (and our armfuls of shopping bags) and taken us to the furniture store where, not surprisingly, Didem’s tearful appeal had failed to produce a couch.  We lugged all the boxes and suitcases from the car up to the twelfth floor apartment.  The furniture was already set up.  There were small appliances waiting to be unpacked and several rugs rolled up in the corner of the living room, but beyond that it looked like the place just needed a good mopping.

The fridge was empty.  My stomach had been complaining hungrily since the Japanese Bazaar and my low blood-sugar level warned me not to start climbing any stepladders anytime soon.  We decided to wait for the food we’d ordered from the complex restaurant before tackling the job of organizing the house.

“Wanna see my cooking stuff?” Didem asked.  I nodded.

“Here are the pots and pans.”  She pulled open the bottom drawer and I was blinded by the gleam of stainless steel.

“Does this mean you’re going to learn how to cook?” I asked.  

She stuck out her tongue.  “Look at this egg thing.”  She held up a frying pan with six individual grooves in it.  “Bülent’s mom gave it to me.  I have no idea how to use it, but it looks cool.  Here’s my spice rack.  I picked that out myself.  And here’s the baking stuff you gave me when we got engaged...”

Bülent entered the kitchen, telephone in hand.  “Change of plans,” he said.  “My mom’s bringing over Arnavut böreği for supper.”  The dull ache in my temples sharpened.  I love Bahriye Hanım’s flaky meat-filled pastries, but they’re not exactly something that can be whipped up in a jiffy...  Bülent called to cancel our food order and we all got to work.  Yüksel started arranging the newly purchased coffee and tea cups in the kitchen cupboards.  Bülent, now stripped down to his wife-beater, whistled as he installed the flat screen TV on the living room wall.  I was assigned the task of putting shelving paper in the hutch.  Didem flitted between the three of us, looking a little lost.  The shelving paper turned out to be more than my hungry self could handle.  After multiple attempts at smoothing, which only resulted in bubbles and crooked edges, I carried the remaining sheets into the kitchen in defeat.  

“If you want a happy sister for the rest of this weekend, someone else has to do this.” I said.

Didem hugged me.  “Forget it.  You can hand Mom glasses instead.”

Yüksel was standing on the counter, trying to fit in more glasses than a person could use in a two-dinner-party weekend.  “Are you hoping to only wash dishes once a week?”  I asked Didem.

“No, we have a machine.  I like choices.”  

After the kitchen, I moved on to the entryway closets.  They were still full of a bunch of Bülent’s brother Serdar’s stuff from when he had previously lived there.  Running shoes.  A couple of jackets.  His niece’s water wings.  I replaced them with Didem’s mountain of shoeboxes.  

It was at this point that I started to ponder an escape.  I wondered how rude would it be to bow out before Bahriye Hanım arrived with her börek?  It was just after six.  I could take the Metrobus and be back on the Asian side in just over an hour.  I’d still have a few hours before bed to get my head in the game for pictures the next day...

No sooner had I begun to map out my betrayal than the doorbell rang.   Food!

Bülent opened the door and welcomed his mom and Serdar.  “Where should I put these?” Bahriye Hanım asked, holding up two plastic shopping bags as she picked her way through the clutter in the foyer.

Straight into my mouth,” I thought.

“Mom, why’d you go to all this trouble?” Bülent asked.  

“Just a few things I thought you might need to get started.  Some of my own salt for your soup.”

Yüksel winked at me.

Didem kissed her mother-in-law’s cheek and started pulling items out of the bag.  Dry beans.  Lentils.  Sugar.  Salt.  Another dozen tea cups.  Nothing that looked or smelled remotely like börek.  

“We just came to drop these off and pick up the last of Serdar’s stuff.  I’ll go make the börek now and bring it over when it’s done,” said Bahriye Hanım.

“I am going to die,” I thought.

They left and we got back to work.  I assembled the new vacuum and started sucking up the fine dust from Bülent’s drilling, tossing IKEA plastic wrappers and stray cardboard into a garbage bag as I went.  I found an ancient fruit snack at the bottom of my purse and it temporarily put some spring back into my step.  

When I finished the living room, I joined Didem and Yüksel in the bedroom.   “Honey, you’re the tallest of us,” Yüksel put her arm around my waist.  “Can you pull down those sacks from on top of the wardrobe?”  I climbed up on the bed and wrestled down two large cloth bags.  Didem unzipped the first one. 

“Hello my loves!” she said, pulling a pair of white bathrobes.  “Feel how soft these are!”  She rubbed one against my cheek. 

I eyed the full suitcases in the corner and the empty wardrobe shelves.  I surveyed the piles on towels and linens on the bed.  My stomach grumbled.  I was out of salt and this soup still had a long way to simmer.

“I was thinking,” I said.  “By the time we eat and get home it’s going to be like ten or eleven.  You have to be up early to go to the kuaför.  You don’t want to be a puffy-eyed bride for pictures....  What if we just get everything to where it’s ‘good enough’ and then go home and get some sleep?  You’re only going to be here one night and then you’ll be in Bodrum all week anyways.”

Didem plunked down on the bed beside me.  “I’m coming home to this house tomorrow night as a bride.  I don’t want boxes and dirt everywhere.”

“Yeah, but can’t we just make the bed and make sure you have somewhere to sit?  When you get home from your honeymoon, you’ll have plenty of time to figure out where to hang your bathrobes.....”

Güzelim,” said Yüksel.  “My beauty.”  She said it in that gentle tone that I’d grown so accustomed to over my eight years as her “Canadian daughter” - the tone that kindly said, “I know this isn’t how you do it in your culture, but in Turkey...”  

“It’s tradition,” she explained.  “Everything has to be ready before the wedding.  Of course we wanted to have it ready sooner, but Serdar took his time moving out....”

“He was supposed to be out before the end of Ramadan,” Didem said narrowing her eyes.  “The couch was supposed to be here by then, too.... But, here we are, and we’re going to finish this!”  She slapped both of our legs and then in her most commanding voice said, “Back to work!” 

It would be dark soon, so there was no way they’d let me make the trek back across to the Asian side alone at this point anyway.  Besides, if I left, while it might earn them a more alert photographer the next day, it would only make for a bride and groom who got to bed even later because they were down a pair of hands.  I started folding towels and walking through the neighbourhood for the following day’s photo shoot in my mind.  

A few minutes later, Bülent poked his head in.  “Mom’s on her way - come get the table ready.”  I practically danced down the hall to the silverware drawer.  

Didem put tea on while Yüksel and I set the table.  Bahriye Hanım and her famous börek arrived just as the tea finished brewing.  She bid us “Afiyet olsun” - “bon appetit - and headed home.  

“We apparently have like twenty tea cups now, but no tea spoons,” Didem warned us.  “So you’ll have to use the ends of your knives.”  We laughed.  Bülent tore open the foil börek package, the steamy aroma of meat and spices wafting out.  Didem began to fill our tiny “thin waisted” glasses - one third strong tea, two thirds hot water.  It was a motion I’d seen her do a hundred times before as she refilled our cups during the TV and sunflower seed nights that were our routine during the months I lived with them and on every visit for eight years since.  

But this time she looked different.  The teenager I used to know - the one who wanted to hurry up and refill our tea so she could get back to texting - had been replaced by a woman.  A woman who in twenty-two hours would be a wife.  I could feel the tears coming.  

“Hang on,” I said.  “We need to take a picture!” 

“No, I’m a mess!” Didem protested.  

“This is a historic moment,” I said.  “It’s our first family meal in your house.”  

As soon as she saw my wet eyes, hers filled up, too.  “And my first pot of tea in my own house.”

Now Yüksel was sniffling, too.

“You girls!” Bülent scolded jokingly.  “Quit crying and take the picture so we can eat!”

We devoured our dinner as the sun dipped below the horizon for the night and a sea breeze drifted through the open window.  And as my hunger faded, so did all thoughts of Metrobus-escapes.  I’d been totally focused on having my own stress-free wedding weekend instead of being the sister Didem needed me to be - not the organized, well-rested Canadian sister, but the down-to-the-wire, treasuring-tradition-over-sanity Turkish sister.  I could live off of caffeine and prayers tomorrow.  Tonight, I was going to polish that house until it was worthy of a bride.

By eleven-thirty, we’d found homes for the day’s purchases, arranged the linens, and merged two single suitcases into one married wardrobe.  While Yüksel gave the kitchen floor one last good mop and Didem and Bülent closed up the windows, I snuck into the bedroom on a little errand of my own.  On a sheet of notebook paper in the prettiest letters I could manage at that late hour, I wrote out a Turkish wedding blessing and placed it on the white lace coverlet.  “Bir yastıkta kocayın,” it read.  “May you grow old on the same pillow.”

A few minutes later, having finally declared the place fit for a bride and groom, we all made our way to the door and started putting our shoes on.  Saying she’d forgotten something, Didem slipped back to the bedroom.  

“Awwwww.....”  She came out, showed Bülent the note, and threw her arms around my neck.  “İyi ki varsın, my sister,” she said.  “I’m so glad to have you in my life.”

“Me, too.”  I hugged her back. 

Darısı başına,” she said with a wink.  “May it be your turn next.”


We piled into the car.  As we left the apartment complex, Didem pulled up the Istanbul traffic website on her phone and then let out a long sigh.  “All red all the way to the bridge.”  

Bülent cursed.  

“Bülent, seriously, you have to get up so early tomorrow.  Decorating the car, going to the barber...”  Didem looked at him sternly.  “Just drop us at the Metrobus stop.”

“I didn’t just get that house ready for my bride only to have her get kidnapped on the way home by some crazy person in the middle of the night the day before we get married!”  Bülent merged onto the highway.  He turned on the radio and Didem rubbed his neck a bit and then curled up and went to sleep.  

Two kilometres before the Bosphorus Bridge, we hit full on gridlock.  At one o’clock in the morning.  

“Accident?” I asked.  

“Nope,” Bülent sighed. “Just Friday.”

It was after two by the time we limped up the three flights of stairs to my family’s apartment.  

“Text me when you get home safe,” mumbled Didem as she hugged Bülent goodnight.

I flipped on the light in Didem’s room, plugged my camera battery into its charger and headed for the bathroom.  Eyeing my tired face in the mirror, I thought, “I’m gonna need a lot of makeup tomorrow.

Didem and I normally shared her room when I came to visit.  It had been that way ever since the days of our first laboured, phrasebook conversations.  Since I’d arrived, she found the sticky August nights unbearable in her windowless room, so she’d been sleeping on the couch.  There was only a single bed in there now, so it was just as well.  I was grateful for the privacy, and the lack of cigarette smoke.  But tonight, I was going to miss her.

I tiptoed into the living room.  She was already asleep on the couch.  No sheets, still fully clothed.  I bent over and planted a kiss on her sweaty forehead.

Tatlı rüyalar,” I whispered.  “Sweet dreams.”  It was one of the first phrases she had taught me.  She opened her eyes drowsily.  

“Are you sure you don’t wanna sleep in your bed one last time?“ I asked.  “I don’t mind the couch.”

Didem leaned up, kissed me on both cheeks and then settled back onto the cushions.

“It’s your room now,” she whispered, and then closed her eyes and fell back asleep.