On comfort in a foreign land – or – comfort in a cabbage leaf


Bassin, Inner harbour in Maastricht, the Nethe...

Image of Bastion Hotel near Bassin in Maastricht via Wikipedia (in the corner, to the right of the photo)

It is 2 a.m. and I am wide awake.  I am in some anonymous hotel room in Maastricht, in the lower tip of the Netherlands near Brussels, jetlagged to beat the band.  My neighbors are drunk and puking, from the sound of it, all to the tune of what sounds like a football/soccer re-run.  It’s been a long week, with bad health problems and students to see, but I decided to keep my commitment and so I flew to Europe today, with just enough time to finish my preparatory work for a short course I am teaching at a University over the week to come.  More attuned to the presence of the shadow puppets in my life, I wasn’t sure what they would do about my trip.  As these puppets started appearing once my relationship with M. began, I figured they are mostly interested in guiding me on what I have called my “road trip through cross-cultural marriage.”  What I have learned so far is that just like me, little shadow puppets from the Ottoman era who inhabit my head in the form of personifying different cross-cultural messages, well, they have jetlag too. If you are new to the blog, you can read a bit more about this madness here.  BUT, they are still very much a presence.  They didn’t like the airplane much, felt that the dry, circulated air was not ideal for their wax-papery complexion, but they were in high gear upon arrival.

Location of Maastricht in relation to Brussels

Now, Karagöz is trying to spin, but is wavering, much like a spinning egg at the end of its glory, when dizziness and gravity get in the way.  He is about to peter out, just in time to fall off of the top of the television.  Hacivad is not much better, although he is still in his favorite lotus-like position, his body gave up the ghost and he is snoring, his little wax-papery head smooshed onto the hard silver plastic of the alarm clock next to my bed.  The chorus of little dancing ladies, you may ask, what of that band of babes?  They emerged from their usual haunt in my purse, and are splayed about in exhausted sleep, circled together over on the leather chair by the window overlooking the canal.  Finally, Karagöz’ slurred speech wavers down and out just before he falls from the television down onto the ruby-red carpet, out like a light.  And here I am, all by myself in this foreign land, and whilst peppermint tea is some comfort, I am missing the comforts of home some…but let me reflect on the day, and how I got to this awake and pensive spot.

Let us start early this morning, circa 8 a.m., as I was exiting the plane in Brussels and looking for my ride to Maastricht.  Jangling with anticipation at the thought of experiencing a new place they had never been to before; all of the shadow puppets were involved in presenting me with a range of excited utterances, all at once:

Karagöz and Hacivad went at it with this: “Will there be waffles? I think not chicken and waffles like in the southern United States, dummy, waffles with something Belgian, but what is that? You are so shallow; maybe this is some American creation, like French fries?  We want waffles, we want waffles!  And some chocolate! Belgian chocolate.  You idiot – cacao isn’t grown here, the Belgian chocolate moniker belies the colonialistic hegemony of cacao production and consumption in this globalized age.” 

Kenne and Khadijah went at it with this:  “You don’t want to LOOK or APPEAR to be American, remember, you are working on the assumption that people will think you are a dumb American.  You should have worn the other scarf, that coordinates, but doesn’t match, so you fit in a bit more, you are too monochromatic today.  BUT – you didn’t wash your hair, so that may make up for it.  What kind of stereotype about Europe and bathing is that?”

An early Zap Mama recording

Celebi and Hacivad went at it with this:  “Will we see the famous musical group Zap Mama and their zap Bebes? Or wait, are they Belgian or French or both? You American idiot – Belgium and France are not the same thing! African immigrants go to Belgium as well as France, you know, don’t you?”    

Slinging my backpack over my shoulder, I hoofed it over to the driver with my name on a card, dodging and wobbling through the crowd.  I let those puppets argue it out and just ignored them.  I was happy to see a woman driver.  I soon met several others ready for the hour-long journey from Brussels to Maastricht for a short course in management (vs. public policy, my area) – a woman from Tanzania and a couple from Afghanistan.  Breaking into my usual mode, I chatted about my approach to Kenyan chai with the Tanzanian and my Nepali-influenced approach to chai with the Afghanis.  We joked and laughed and compared notes on the way to the van.  I kept having to swipe Kenne out of my mind though, she was dropping her wax-papery scarf down over my eyes every time I looked at the Afghani man, saying something like “don’t look at him, he will think you are being forward, just focus on the woman, this is more appropriate, don’t give the wrong message.”  I wondered if Kenne was being a bit over the top, but I remembered how my friendly greetings to local amjas (uncles) went over like lead balloons in the village on Bozcaada.  Hmmm, I thought, better safe than sorry.

A bit of the Belgian countryside, verdant

“Here, Madame, let me put your luggage up,” the van driver said, hoisting my backpack off my back and maneuvering it up into the boot in one fell swoop.  “Now the rest of you, please place your suitcases flat on the bottom of the van, please.”  My eyebrow went up, she had helped me, but not the folks who were “obvious” immigrants.  After my eyebrow went up, the stomach acid started to hit, how to handle this situation?  Karagöz, of course, jumped in with his opinion, and before I could even consider it, I was helping my fellow travelers hoist their (many) bags up into the van.  The van driver seemed bemused at this.  “This number of bags, this is against the rules!  We have a one-page handout of the rules for this van – and you have not read it you people!  You always come with so much, and what am I to do?”  Clearly studied in managing these micro-aggression moments, my travelers just hauled their bags, rolled their eyes and joked through it all.  I yearned a bit for the comforts of New England where sometimes, but not always, these micro aggressions at least take on a different form, more masked in a sense of respect or at least propriety.  Suffice it to say, the hour-long drive was a wee bit uncomfortable, with Hacivad waxing on and on about the need to see love in all, despite bad behavior (Hacivad is ever the Rumi-quoting fanatic).  After she dropped my fellow travelers off, I was subjected to a torrent of nationalistic, anti-immigrant rhetoric that I will not deign to repeat.

Wish I could walk in heels on cobblestones, but alas, not possible!

Shaking this experience off – with more success than the shaking off of my jetlag – I decided to walk around the city.  Putting on my most cobblestone-friendly shoes, I set off, winding along through the markt (main square) and many shopping streets – finding myself befuddled at the plethora of wig shops around and also very hungry all of a sudden.  Seeing that part of my boot had come apart, I stopped at a cobbler I happened upon, asking to the best of my ability in French and English if he could fix my shoes – he seemed put out, and shooed me on.  As I bought a few bottles of juice and snacks for the hotel room, my attempts at Flemish (from the guidebook) were giggled at – not in a “we’re laughing with you way.”  This reminded me of the brilliant Jack Scott’s commentary on his perfect Turkish pronunciation when ordering a coffee in Bodrum, only to be both understood and ignored in favor of his native-speaking companion.  Hysterical and deeply frustrating experience when one approaches the world with such good intentions as this.  In any case, momentarily undeterred, I continued my attempts at Flemish in order to buy some bubbling brown apple pastry from a street vendor in the central markt area, but was generally met with a brusque grumble and a sticky wax paper package and not enough change.  As I tried to assert my rights, based on the sign for how much the item cost, Karagöz, who made terrible fun of me, I blushed, and ended up just walking away.  

A comforting Turkish meal in Maastricht

Coming around to my senses, I ceased my one-person cross-cultural exploration effort with the help of the noontime bells and stopped my meanderings by walking into Capadokia, a Turkish lokanta in the Maastricht markt by the Stadthuis (nevermind that they were all from Edirne, near Bulgaria vs. eastern Anatolia, where Kapadokya actually is).  This little lokanta held promise of some comfort – at least I could use some of my Turkish here in this place.  And what I found was comfort indeed.  While my Turkish is pretty terrible, I know many words – and many many for food and food interactions.  Between their English and French and my Turkish and English, we learned a great deal about each other.  Before long, the chef was sending me special off-menu items from the kitchen, to which I knew to respond “cök güzel” (akin to “how delicious”) and after a furtive text to M. back in the U.S., the addition of the phrase I always forget – eline saĝlik – “health to your hands!” 

Who knew cabbage could be so comforting? Lahana dolmasi - super spicy and delicious

As I walked home to the hotel, I thought, how is it that in some ways, my connections to the much-maligned land of Turkey bring me more connection and comfort than the Dutch who founded New York where I lived so long?  Thus is life in the globalized era – and on this solo leg of the cross-cultural road trip known as my marriage.