I’m down to my final week here in Istanbul, and I find the prospect of departing for parts unknown (or known, whatever) exceptionally bittersweet. I’ve missed you all a great deal while I have been gone, but this is city and country whose people are so vibrant and festive and welcoming, it will be hard to leave them. I’ll give you one last travel story to explain what I mean.
I spent last weekend in Izmir with my first ever Turkish teacher, Ferdane Denkçi, her husband Süleyman and her mother. I arrived early in the morning on a Saturday, but Süleyman was still there at the bus station to pick me up. Ferdane was at home preparing a massive and delicious Turkish breakfast for me to eat upon arrival. They then packed up everything and prepared, assuring me that all I needed to do was “Sit comfortably”. Ok. If you insist. They took me to the beach for the day and out for dinner. Probably one of the most difficult things, if not the most difficult, about being gone from home for an extended period of time is feeling like you are no longer a member of a family. I feel the most homesick when I’m traveling, getting into the airport and everyone is there with a sign and a name and I walk past, catching the next bus, to catch the next ferry etc etc until I arrive alone at my dorm room. I love the independence that being here has given me, but I do miss having someone waiting for me. Izmir was a wonderful reminder that I am part of many families, and that even though I may not see all of my far flung relatives very often, we still care for each other. Ferdane’s mother embraced me as a full member of the family within about 20 minutes of meeting me. She invited me to visit her in Istanbul, wanted to take pictures with me as well as Ferdane in Kuşadası after our lovely day of relaxation, and the next day at Kemeraltı, the shopping district in Izmir, introduced me to shopkeepers as her daughter. One poor shopgirl kept looking from Ferdane to me, and finally said, “Are you really sisters?” at which point we laughed and explained the relationship. The shopping trip was very successful and I was pretty popular overall. Izmir does not get nearly as many tourists as Istanbul and very few of them speak Turkish. Even fewer go to Kemeraltı, which isn’t a tourist market. It’s where you go to get some new towels, a tea pot and some fake Converse. Every time I opened my mouth and Turkish came out, everyone was ridiculously pleased. I felt vaguely like a performing animal, but perhaps they enjoy the praise too. I felt fully immersed and engaged in the Turkish culture, integrated into the fabric of life here.
Süleyman asked me Sunday evening after our mangal, or barbeque, what the biggest difference was between Turkish and American culture is. I had to stop and think for a moment, but then I knew. Americans can be incredibly time oriented and often are in our everyday interactions with strangers. Turkish people aren’t. The focus is always on the person. This probably contributes to everything being late all the time, but all attention is focused on whoever is being worked with, rather than the 20 appointments afterwards, which I do appreciate (except when I’m waiting).
Case in point, on the bus to Izmir, or more specifically at Alibeyköy bus stop in Istanbul, I got to witness a rather interesting cultural event and how Turks are focused on the person, rather than the clock. I was sitting waiting for my bus to arrive and I notice a couple of young men arrive doubled or tripled up on motorbikes, making quite a racket, trying to pull tricks etc. Then a tiny van pulls up, unloads like it’s a clown car, and they start blasting music. In this particular case it’s Thrift Shop by Macklemore, which makes me laugh, because American pop music is everywhere. I’m trying to figure out what the heck is going on, because really, I wouldn’t pick the bus stop for my Friday night rave with my friends. All of them are pretty loud, singing and chatting. They’ve gotten out some fireworks too. For a couple moments, I’m a little nervous, wondering if rather than a rave, this is going to collapse into a riot. They seem pretty happy for a riot though, and it’s a mixed crowd at the bus station at 11pm so I don’t know what they would be protesting about. Then they start tossing one of their group up into the air and catching him. I’m worried for his safety, because some of his compatriots seem more than a little bit drunk, but nothing happens. Then the crowd around me starts talking, they finally know what’s up. The young man in question is leaving for askerlik, or his 2 year required military service. Every man in Turkey does it at some point and now is this young guy’s turn. He’s on my bus as it turns out. His friends crowd around the door and sing a song to him as he gets on, joking and laughing with him until the last possible moment. He’s about my age, I’d say, but the new recruit looks younger than that and a little deer in the headlights, as though he’s not sure what he’s going to do away from home for two years. There is something sweetly naïve about him. We pull out from the berth and I think that’s that, but his friends have arranged themselves at the exit, sitting on each other’s shoulders. The bus driver calls the young man up to the front, and he stands at attention while his friends sing to him one last time, lighting fireworks and unfurling a Turkish flag with Ataturk superimposed on it, the founder and protector of the republic. The bus and the entire bus station stop and wait while this young man’s friends, who number a good 2 dozen, give him a real send-off. Everyone was willing to wait, because this was both an important and terrifying part of this young man’s life. Everyone understood it and accepted it and our patience was our contribution to his send-off, to let him know that his sacrifice is appreciated. A few days before a bomb had gone off in Reyhanlı Turkey, killing 50 people at a market and the dialogue with Syria is spiraling out of control, so this young man may indeed have sacrifices to make. But for the night his friends just want to wish him well.
Süleyman told me after I mentioned this dichotomy between the States and Turkey (and I’m not saying that people aren’t important to other people in America, but we value punctuality often above building relationships, it’s a difference in what is construed as rude and acceptable), that I was doing important work. He caught me a little off-guard, but I was glad that he said it to me. I try to explain sometimes the incredible importance of being a cultural ambassador in other parts of the world, and representing not just women or MSU students but also Americans when I travel. Most Turks have never had a real conversation with an American, and so my job is to win hearts and minds with my broken Turkish, my quiet demeanor and my attitudes towards laughter love and life. I do my best, but it’s good to hear that what I do, and what I want to do with a great deal more of my life does make an impact. To hear it from Süleyman’s lips confirmed for me what I’ve always felt in my gut: it is valuable work and there aren’t enough people doing it.
Another interesting point about the weekend, it was Turkish only. Every interaction I had for more than 48 hours was in Turkish. I spoke Turkish with Ferdane and her family, on the bus, with waiters and vendors and all the rest. And I did pretty well for myself. I hadn’t seen Ferdane for almost 2 years, so she and Süleyman were blown out of the water by my improvement in Turkish, which was incredibly affirming for me. Earlier in the week I had my first experience where I listened to Turkish and understood it, but it didn’t register as a foreign language. This is a strange and wonderful feeling once you realize that it’s happened, because you know that your mind has completed all the circuits and your brain has accepted this new tongue into the fold. I’ve had it happen in Spanish, but never since then. I am still not fluent in Turkish, but I know that I can be. My mind is ready for it; I just need to get some more vocabulary and colloquial expressions under my belt. I feel so much more confident than when I arrived 4 months ago that this is possible though. In turn this has confirmed one last point that I want to leave you with. I know that I’ll be back to Turkey. Perhaps not this year or even the next, but this nation has captured my heart and I know that no matter what, my life trajectory with circle back to it, and to this city that I love. The life of this city fills me with awe, lifts me up when I am down and gives me the confidence to keep working. Görüşme üzere Istanbul, until we meet again.