How to survive a dinner in Turkish, when you don’t speak it


    Twelve years into this relationship, I am proud to say that I have mastered the alphabet, learned hundreds of words, can order a meal for myself and make basic pleasantries, but yet also appalled at myself as I have not made the rest of the language a priority for the relatively small time we are in Turkey each year. I am also lucky to have a family in law who speak English, which has spoiled me.

“You just sit on your hands and listen,” was the advice I received from a sage elder when talking about how to handle such situations as prolonged Turkish language dinners. And indeed, I (along with Kenne the Queen of Manners) agree with this…but let’s get into the niggeldy piggeldy details about exactly HOW to survive.

As the night begins your earnest smile will be true and steadfast. Go with this flow as long as possible – ride it like a wave. After 12 years of this, I usually get the basic gist of what’s being discussed and perhaps you will too. Look at each person as they talk. Curb your impulse to ask if the group is talking about this or that as the conversation wanes before shifting, it is annoying. When your husband does translate in a summative way, don’t ask questions or try to add to the conversation belatedly- it’s just too awkward. 

When people do make an effort to include you, rejoice despite your exhaustion and pay careful attention, they are being kind! Give it your all – this is your moment to shine. You will not have too many of these as the night goes on. Don’t expect your husband to translate – it is just too much and this is his time to reconnect with his friends and family. In other words, be a good little wife and mean it. There is a time and a place for this – and you are here.

When your hostess invites you to accompany her to choose the meze (tapas), be honored but don’t show off your knowledge of Turkish food words because she will think you want all of those meze and that will not help your case around not being an obese ravenous American.

If as the wave of willingness to focus on the conversations is cresting, a Turkish acquaintance of your host’s comes over and greets and talks to everyone but you, don’t take it personally, even if you have met her five times before at the same lokanta (restaurant). “Turks,” M. Says “are shy if they know you don’t speak Turkish, they don’t know what to say to you – or if she should speak Turkish to you.” Try to accept these words which feel a paltry excuse for something Ms. Manners would faint at. Smile, do not seethe quietly, it is unbecoming.

As the focus wave begins to diminish, and you begin to feel cross eyed in the face of so much concentration, engage more intently on catching the few words you do understand. Count them, hypothesize on their connection, make rhymes, but keep watching each person speak. And consider getting some Botox to smooth your emerging frown focus wrinkles on your forehead. Make mental notes of commonly-occurring words that need to make it onto your flash cards at home. Make a mnemonic device to remember them when you get home.

By now, the meze will have arrived and you can focus on serving yourself one bite at a time without dropping any olive oil on the tablecloth. This gives you a break from the tennis match that is watching words come out of the mouths of your dinner companions. For extra good measure, you can serve a few bites to the other guests, starting with your husband. Feminism be damned.

Once the focus wave is no more, and you have finished fantasizing about the Botox you will need to fix the new wrinkles you have gained from trying to glean bits from all the talk, whatever you do, do not yawn. When you do feel one coming on, don’t flare your nostrils too much as you breathe it in, or you may be caught out. Try not to look away from the table’s conversation mates and hope that the main course comes soon so you can focus on de-boning a whole grilled fish in a ladylike manner, or some such. Shift in your seat to stay awake and hope that Kahveçay (coffee – tea) will come soon to wake you up. You can also excuse yourself for a bathroom break. As the night drags on, appreciate the friendly but surruptitious pats on the leg from your husband who is saying in code “sorry, I know this is hard.”

As the night winds down, roll out all of the pleasantries you know for thank you, delicious food, etc. and renew your Rosetta Stone subscription ASAP (or your Valium prescription at the very least!). But most of all, keep on trying! You’ll be back for another round in a few hours!

Posted in Cross-cultural learning moments, Gendered moments, Turkish Food!, Turklish Moments | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

The Karagöz puppets recover from Bayram Driving madness


    Let me sit down here, have a glass of herbal “island” tea, catch my breath and tell you of the events of the last few days leading up to today’s Bayram (holiday in Turkish). I’m the sole human (or puppet) standing, M and the Karagöz oyunları are all konked out in the Bozcaada breezeway. I think Tiriyaki the opium addict puppet finally smoked them all under.

In Turkey, there is Şekker Bayram just following Ramazan (as it is spelled here). It lasts 4 days or so and there is a big tradition of getting the hell out of dodge and home to family in the countryside as soon as it starts. It is such bad traffic that the next day statistics are reported – 38 dead, 234 injured nationwide. 

As our neighbor Bilge Teyze said this morning after getting four calls on her cep telefonu in a row, “forgive me, but it is our Christmas.” To give you a sense of the madness that this particular Bayram (known in Arabic as Eid-al-fitr) brings, look at this morning’s newspaper!

 From Hurriyet Daily News – one of three English language newspapers in Turkey.   You’ll understand my fatigue when you learn that we drove from Istanbul to Bozcaada in that madness. What normally takes 6 hours took 12.  At one point we were lined up for the ferry from the European side to the Asian side of Turkey. Look on a map of the Dardanelles and find the town of Eceabat, that’s where we were. 

Upon learning that the wait was circa 12 hours for a ferry, we decided to retreat to a better line (better waiting prognosis, that is) in Gelibolu up the coast 13 miles. As we drove against traffic, we had multiple almost head-on collisions with cars skipping the line and driving down the wrong side of the road. 

At one point, M. had a “conversation” with one of the head-on people (as in our cars met head-on full stop) that ended in some of the most creative language I’ve ever heard in Turkish. M. was in a Don Quixote role – trying to get people to drive correctly in a culture that prides itself on finding its way around obstacles despite the law. 

Needless to say, I spent 12 hours either anxious at his car encounters, bored to tears in a line waiting or covering my eyes at the driving shenanigans going on.

Let me finish my tea before Karagöz wakes up and finds some trouble for us to get into!

Posted in Cross-cultural learning moments, On Islam and Muslims, Turkish destinations | Tagged , , , , | 6 Comments

Learning Türkçe: Rowing in vain?


 Sometimes you try and try but you can’t get what you want because you are beating a dead horse and your endeavour is futile.

In Turkish, the same concept is expressed with a different metaphor:

“Boşa kürek çekmek.” 

It literally translates as “to row in vain.”
For example: “Yükselmek için yıllarca çalıştı durdu ama sonunda boşa kürek çektiğini anladı.”

These days, twelve years into my relationship with M., I feel the rowing in vain feeling all the time when it comes to language.

I have hundreds of Turkish words that materialize easily in my mouth – but only two or three basic sentences. Verb conjugations stymie me. Rosetta Stone’s fantastic program has given me a leg up, but I’m still only partially in the boat that I’m trying to row, in vain.

Perhaps I should just forget my dream of learning basic conversational Turkish…be a realist and just smile in my silent non-understanding through tea time conversations and bazaar bargaining bouts.

Karagöz mocks me when I think in this way – “yes, forget it, you only visit for a month per year now anyway.”

But then, Hacivad Bey kicks Karagöz out of the way in those moments, saying “but how nice it would be to engage in charming niceties during your visits!”

And of course Kenne, the Queen of Manners et Alia, she says “you don’t want to be an ugly American, now, do you?”

Esma, the hippie puppet takes a different tact, saying “you could equalize your relationship with M. by having more Turkish in common instead of your language, English.  This would be equitable, fair and respectful.”

And so it goes with each of the puppets weighing in on what I should do and how I should feel about this sticky (for me) topic.

M. says he doesn’t mind if I learn Turkish or not…but I think he would secretly be proud if I did.  I suppose I’ll only be able to make the jump if I row my heart out and head for that grindstone with my nose!

Posted in A Karagöz puppet battle, Visits from the Karagöz puppets | Tagged , , , , | 7 Comments