Turks and Tampons

I recently sent a piece over to Perking the Pansies blogger Jack Scott. He’s on holiday and was looking for other Turkey-based bloggers to fill the gaping hole left by his absence.

 

My third Guest blogger is Alexandra from Death by Dolmuş. Alexandra is a Yankee lass who teaches in Istanbul. She writes about the quirky side of life in the ancient city and has a mild obsession with public transport. Alexandra also publishes an amazing photoblog. If you don’t like discussions about women’s itty bitty parts, don’t read the following (oh, go on).

Alexandra

There are strange things that occur in Turkey. I am pretty on top of most of it, but from time to time things do catch me off guard. I’m unfazed when a man brings a 12 foot (4 meter) ladder into an over-packed dolmuş(roughly 5 meters long itself.) I’m unfazed when my bank calls to ask permission of my employer when I wish to close my account (obviously a mere mortal like me can’t be trusted with such a serious decision.)

I was caught off guard when my colleague, a punk, riot-grrrl feminist with red hair (not Irish red, but like, the color red) and combat boots, moans to me, doubled over in pain, ‘Gahh, I wish I hadn’t left the window open last night.’ It had been a sweltering 80 degrees (25 C) and I couldn’t understand what that had to do with her abdominal pain. ‘The wind, the night air, you know, it gives me cramps.’ Efendim?

Now, I’m fairly certain that cramps are caused by your uterine walls contracting to expel the lining. But, you know, who can say for certain…

I was constantly appalled by the lack of knowledge these university educated women displayed about their own bodies and the science contained in them. I know Freud thought that hysteria (that vague, female-ish complaint) was caused by a ‘disturbance’ to the uterus, but I’m pretty sure somewhere in my 6th grade sex-ed class, I remember learning something different…

As I was moving out, I had an enormous amount of tampons that my roommate and I had hoarded like we were preparing for the apocalypse. God knows when we would be able to find tampons again, so every time we ventured out of the Islamic Republic of Turkey, we bought up the store like they were going out of style.

Not having space in my luggage for 47 boxes of Tampax Pearls, and with the confidence that I could pick some up any time nature called at my nearest pharmacy (that’s a chemist’s for you Brits), when back in the US, I decided to give them away. Because honestly, who doesn’t like free tampons? Apparently, Turkish women.

So that’s how I found myself, on my last day of work, sitting in a locked office with my colleague, demonstrating how to use a tampon. I unwrapped it, showed how the applicator worked, as she dissected the tampon I had handed her, checking that the string was in fact well secured at the center. I extolled the tampon’s virtues: you can go swimming! (Her face lit up, what do you mean? She asked in disbelief.) You can wear white pants with no fear! Thinking back to all those tampon commercials of my youth, you can go shopping with your fresh-faced friends and laugh to your heart’s desire while spinning around in circles to demonstrate your new-found freedom!

Bikini babes

I’m used to getting those looks. The: Ooh, look at her, she’s foreign isn’t she. I’m ethnically British and Danish. So sue me. I haven’t gotten to the bottom of it, but I feel its fair to say that the “Staring is rude” adage I was brought up on simply never worked its way into Turkish culture. I’ve had grannies gape open mouth at me while their children grab at my blonde hair. No shooing, no “that’s rude”, no look but don’t touch. After living in France I got used to the zero personal space thing, but something about people grabbing my hair or immediately trying to speak to me in German or Russian… well… its annoying.

Now, I can happily feel bad for myself, but I had nothing compared to my equally “bizarrely” colored colleagues in other parts of the country. One friend on the Black Sea was so frequently pursued by men thinking she was a Natasha that it became a running joke. Another (also on the Black Sea) had her number somehow taken and became the subject of lewd and incessant phone calls that only ended when she pressed charges and put the man behind bars. Another friend sported an afro when her braids grew out and was the subject of similar unwanted touching. There was one story that stood above and beyond all of this.

While celebrating in May down in Antalya with the 50-some odd other Fulbright teachers, we swapped horror stories. One theme came up several times: waxing. Turks hate hair. Which sucks because as a people they’re fairly hairy. In a culture that typically faces sex and body issues with shaming, I was shocked to find that getting waxed… down there… was a common activity for women unmarried or not.

I went with a trusted friend who speaks beautiful English to the hairdresser (where they also will remove your hair). While waiting for her to finish, I watched as hoards of women had their eyebrows threaded. Another, who wore a headscarf, had her scarf decorated with flowers and sparkley things before a fancy event. When it was my turn in the waxer’s lair, I asked my friend to explain that I just wanted a bit of a trimming of the hedges. You know… just for a bikini. She looked at me with clear confusion. I forgoed further innuendo and flat out said, no brazilian.

She explained this to the waxer who looked at me fascinated. But why wouldn’t you take it all.

This story was met with laughter by my other American friends who had not gone with a friend who could advocate for them. While we all spoke decent Turkish by May, there is still vocabulary that would flummox me, and this was absolutely one of those situations. One friend explained how the woman flipped her over and had her doing something resembling yoga poses, then climbed up on the platform with her brandishing tweezers to ensure every last bit was gone.

Then came the winner: Our red-headed friend explained how, when she arrived in the room and took her place on the little platform, the waxer had stared, gaping open-mouthed. “Yes,” she wanted to say, “yes the carpet does match the drapes.”

Adım Alex.

 


Alex de Souza is the bain of my existence. Never mind that I’m not the biggest of Fenerbahçe fans, this man’s name tormented me throughout my time in Turkey. Who is Alex de Souza, you may ask.

Well, he is one of several athletes who I discovered over my time in Turkey, the first being former Boston Celtic player Semih Erden, the questioning would go:

“Where are you from?”
“Boston.”
“Ahhh Semih Erden!!! Boh-ston! Boh-ston Celti-h-kssss!”
“Oh, yes, he plays for the Celts, yep.”

I go by Alex, which can at times create a bit of confusion, it being a typically male name (I am not male). In Turkey, I encountered a whole other level of curiosity.

“Alex, mi?” (Alex?)
“Evet, futbolcu gibi.” (Yep, like the footballer.)

I once tried to explain that my name is the Anglicized version of Iskander. That seemed to confuse them even more since Turkish has no female version of the name (I suggested Iskandera several times to confused looks and shrugged shoulders). And, because Turkish names tend to fall into one of two categories (1. Qu’aranic names 2. Turkic language names) mine, like many foreigners’ was a bit of a comedy.

This isn’t the first time that I have encountered issues with my name.  It has always been a source of interest. Its about as WASP*y as it gets: Alexandra Snow Hallowell. Either its my middle name: Snow (no my parents weren’t hippies, its a family name), or its a “Oh, you’re Alex, I was… ahh… expecting.. well never mind.” No, I’m not a guy.

I’ll never forget when the recently arrived Swiss exchange student point blank asked me, “Alex? But isn’t that a boy’s name?”

Obviously not.

So, Alex de Souza. Watch your back.

 

*For you non-Americans,

WASP is an informal term, often derogatory or disparaging, for a closed group of high-status Americans usually of British descent with a Protestant background who supposedly wield disproportionate financial and social power.