Note: “Efendim?” meaning literally “My lord?” is the question asked on the following occasions:
1. When answering the phone.
2. When you didn’t hear what someone has said.
3. When a truly absurd thing has been done/said.
Istanbul is only a two-hour bus ride away from me. This is both essential and detrimental to my mental health and overall well-being.
I’m not a hard and fast ex-pat, thrusting myself into the culture; there is no risk of me going native. But, I like to think that I offer my new acquaintances a better view of Americans. We don’t all go around sporting teevas and tube socks, some of us are aware of the differences between the MHP and the AKP, some of us know to cover our heads and remove our shoes in a place of worship. Some of us can navigate the dolmus. These are my badges of honor, and they are the recognized social currency here.
This past weekend, it was a friend’s birthday in Istanbul. This always offers me the chance to escape the ‘dağ, if for a night, and to make the acquaintance of ex-pats who enjoy patting themselves on the back for living full time in Turkey. When they cast me a commiserative glance, offering a hand of friendship in the midst of this perceived insanity and foreignness, I balk at the gesture.
Now don’t get me wrong, Istanbul is not New York, Paris or London, to be sure, but it’s fun to remind these ex-pats that they do not in fact live in Turkey.
I should also say that Tekirdağ is not Yozgat, it is not Bayburt, it is not Iğdir. I do not live in Batman or Diyarbakir. I do not live in Kirklareli. What makes Tekirdağ so comical is that it is almost near Istanbul, but it is still so far.
Case and point: the current yardstick used in the measurement of Tekirdağ’s modernity? Burger King. Upon arriving, my new friends and colleagues pointed out the two (count ‘em: TWO!) Burger Kings to prove I had chosen my location well. They aren’t backwards villagers—they have Burger King.
My point being, while I may refrain from gorging myself on fast food, I am not roughing it.
Whenever speaking to a new acquaintance, my job and location in Turkey are bound to come up. Because I spend the day talking in some pidgin language with my beginner Turkish students, my social skills have suffered. When I speak with someone who doesn’t require the grand pantomime and song and dance I typically must employ to make myself understood, the flood gates open and the little glimpses of my life come tumbling out tend to shock and horrify
On Saturday it all started well, I spoke about our flat, which by the good graces of my university comes rent-free. It is perched on a hill overlooking the Marmara. The downside is that the enormous and active international shipping port obscures our view. There isn’t a morning where I am not awoken by the sounds of chains lifting cargo, trucks carting supplies and foghorns tooting hello/goodbye.
Quaint, my new friend thought, but then the story took a turn for the Turkish: This past week we had the good fortune of playing host to a cruise ship. A cruise ship of cows. A cruise ship of cows whose stench descended on the city and refused to dissipate. So rather than smelling of coal or the local spirit known as raki, we had the putrid stench of bovine refuse wafting through the cracks in the windows and seeping into my hair and clothes. While my new friend’s eyes widened and he gulped down the wine remaining in his glass, I carried on unabated.
On Saturday morning, while I sipped my coffee in the living room, I heard the familiar sound of the local simitci, the simit seller who happens to be a 13/14 year-old gypsy boy. What makes him particularly interesting is that he sounds like a goat. He comes bleating down the hill “Simiiiiiiiiiiit! Simiiiiiiiiiiiiit!” For months we thought he was in fact a goat, which in a city of 130,000 should be relatively unexpected, except that this is Tekirdağ. Up the street we have a rooster that sounds sunrise well after the sun has risen, we have horse-drawn carts driven down the highway by 10 year-old boys, we have old men who sell, kill and pluck chickens on the street corner.
My new friend mumbled something about getting a refill, and never came back. But I wasn’t finished
Yesterday my (American) colleague and I braved the gray weather and headed to a tea garden. While sipping tea out of our miniature, curved tea glasses, we noticed two cats eyeing a large black trash bag. Moments later, a man opened the bag and pulled out a three-foot long shark. He showed it off to his friends, gripping it by the tail fin wriggling it back and forth, mocking its demise as it dangled limp and lifeless. The other patrons continued to sip their tea. We sat there, aghast.
Sometimes we benefit from these little oddities: yesterday we met a neighbor for the first time and, thirty minutes later he appeared in our doorway with two plates of food: lahana sarma (cabbage leaves stuffed with rice and ground meat) and ispanak böreği (spinach rolled pastry with cheese) both still piping hot.
Most of the comical things I experience are those so small and so subtle that they’re hard to explain. Like, today the toilets in our wing of the building aren’t working. “Eh, you know” our boss told me, “it’s a new building.” Yes, I am aware. So shouldn’t the toilets work?
There’s also the daily standoff between my colleague, whose desk is less than organized, and our cleaning lady, whose very existence is predicated upon her ability to create and maintain a spotless Yabanci Diller Yuksekokulu (Foreign Language School). Every day the kindly lady picks through my colleague’s desk like an overbearing parent, peppering my colleague with questions, Is this trash? Is this? How about this? Do you need this? And, like clockwork, my colleague fends off the woman’s attempts at orderliness.
These are the things that make up my life here; these are the things that leave me in stitches.
Efendim? I ask myself rhetorically.