Just another çay bahçesi (tea garden) in Anatolia – Or is it?


A group of Armenian elders hanging out in a tea garden (Image by Liz Cameron)

Anyone who has spent much time in Turkey – especially in the more rural parts of Anatolia – has very likely seen all of the çay bahçesi (tea gardens) with older men hanging out drinking endless glasses of tea. The symphony of glass clinking on china is not at all muffled by discussions of politics, what’s in the newspaper, community affairs or farming – and certainly gossip.

The tinkling clinks of spoon to glass weave in and out of the conversations – sometimes I try to measure the tenor of the argument of the moment by the speed of the spoons swirling sugar around – and the resultant metal-on-glass bell-like sounds.  While watching (or sitting in) these tea gardens, I have grown used to the fact that it is rare to see a woman, other than a server (or another expat) perhaps, at these tables.

In fact, when traveling Turkey with our 13-year-old niece, she picked up on this gender disparity immediately.  She was quick to point out that it was unfair that in the countryside, the older men sat in the tea gardens while the women old and young work in the fields in the hot sun.  We wondered where the young men were – working in the city? It was both an interesting and painful exercise to support our niece in discussing why this was so and how this does and does not play out in different countries and regions.

Dunkin Donuts logo

Dunkin Donuts logo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Now in the United States, it is NOT common in my experience to see groups of men sitting in a tea garden. First of all we don’t have tea gardens. We do have things like the Dunkin’ Donuts empire – with plastic pink and orange franchises on seemingly every corner.  Inside these stores, you will likely see hard plastic pink and orange laminated tables and seats ready to be hosed down from jelly stains and powdered sugar smears, not very comfortable.

In our individualistic culture, occasionally you may see two people sitting and talking over coffee and a doughnut – and probably they are in the older generation. I say that because our generation and the one after ours are likely gulping coffee and gobbling donuts in the car on the way to the next appointment or bit of work.  So, therefore, I would not expect to see a group of men sitting in Dunkin’ Donuts – or a group of women either. Maybe some of you have seen them, but I have not.

So, it was with great surprise that I saw this group of men sitting in a Starbucks coffee shop in the middle of a Target superstore. As I waited for my green tea latte, no sugar, all of a sudden I heard the familiar strains of Turkish – and what I have come to know to be Armenian. You see, although they were speaking Turkish to one another, they were also speaking Armenian – it was a half and half situation.  In a flash, I realized that the Armenian immigrants who live in the town near me have created a new tea garden. They have transported this Anatolian and perhaps European tradition right here into the Target superstore in my backyard.

Upon the realization that we had entered an ersatz çay bahçesi in Target, of all places, all of the Karagoz puppets living in my brain were aflutter.  To see such a familiar sight made some of them homesick. Even though this is not what those puppets were used to in the Ottoman court, since they are time traveling puppet troupe, they have seen many old men in wool sweaters and caps in the midst of summer sitting in çay bahçesiler all over Anatolia. M. insists that this manner of dress allows their body temperature to match that of the blazing heat – and thus create an equilibrium in which it is comfortable to exist.  I just don’t get it. And right here in New England, these men were dressed very similarly although it was the winter – but it was damn hot in that store.  The similarity parallel score was high (if there is such a score).

In any case, as I waited in line, I tried not to look at them directly, but I felt proud to understand a few of the Turkish words they spoke. My guess is that these were Armenian refugees who had emigrated to the US through Turkey and given their language skills, had lived in Turkey for sometime. We know some Armenian shopkeepers in this town for whom that is the reality.

As the puppets (and I) watched, one of the çay bahçesi gentleman shuffle up to pick up his second cup of coffee. “What an Americanization! No çay? Horrors” exclaimed Kenne, the puppet known as the Queen of Manners and the Maintenance of Ladylike Behavior, before stomping back to the car. As he took his coffee refill from the barista, I had a strong urge to greet him in Turkish. But I could not bring myself to do it. And as I blushed in my etiquette-driven inability to speak my Turkish, it occurred to me that it might be offensive to speak in Turkish to an Armenian given some of the politics in that community against Turks.

Turkish-Armenian relations are strained in many ways – and in this neck of the woods, one never knows what one may be walking into re: political landmines. For example, we often see the neighborhood billboard covered with Armenian genocide reminder posters as we go about shopping for our olives, white cheese, simit, sour cherry jam and the like.

So I did not speak with the man, I just let it go, and I just enjoyed watching the group. For me, observing this aspect of Anatolian Turkey has become familiar and even comforting in some odd way, despite the gendered-ness of what the çay bahçesi seem to represent. But, then the unexpected happened. As I turned to walk away with my green alien-colored tea drink, it was with great surprise that I noted the presence of a shorthaired Armenian-speaking woman at the table – I hadn’t noticed her before as she was tiny, hidden by a tall man seated to her left.  It looks as though not ALL of the traditions made it across the ocean after all.

Maybe next time, I’ll say hello.

The Karagöz puppets visit the Registry of Motor Vehicles – Kenne faints from shock

registry of motor vehicles boston chinatown red tape

The puppets felt at home with all of the red tape – Turkey is well-known for its bureaucracy and red tape – but they did not some surprise to see the American flag up – Zenne said, nervously, “that’s a bit more Turkish than American in a government palace.”

You know those pop culture images of the absent-minded and pre-occupied professor that you come across once in a while? Well, that’s me. Some, including my beloved M., might just say with a diplomatic air that I am not “the best at details of life.”

And this, dear readers is what led me to stand for almost 2 hours in our local Registry of Motor Vehicles in order to pay a late fine for a ticket I paid late. But no, this is not going to be a raging against the red tape machine kind of post – it is just a post acknowledging that I must be better at minding the details so I don’t subject the Karagöz puppets to the shock and awe campaign that was our experience today.

After obtaining various forms, permissions and stamps from floors 1, then 4, then 1 and finally 2 (the puppets swaying along on my shoulders, purse and hair the whole time, unphased), I set in to wait.  Checking my trusty-dusty iphone, thanks to some pirated Internet as the dratted thing has stopped locating telephone signals altogether, I noted that the Registry of Motor Vehicle’s website indicated an average wait of 1 hour and 7 minutes.  Realizing that I was in for the long haul, with no place to sit, I ambled up to a wall-leaning spot and commenced to chat with whomever seemed most willing to chat back.

Kenne, the Queen of Manners and Maintenance of Ladylike Behavior, while approving of gentle small talk, was simultaneously unsure about whether it was OK to speak with some relatively *confused* and *unseemly* people.  She’s a bit snobby, you know, in case you haven’t noticed.  Esma, the hippie puppet, decided that she had had just about enough of Kenne’s racism and classism – and kicked her out of the open window where she landed on a geranium plant perched on the ledge.  This was, mind you, a relatively rare expression of violence from the otherwise pacifist-oriented little vegan puppet.

Striking an unusually friendly allegiance with Karagöz himself, the base, crass and generally just plain rude puppet, Esma and Karagöz proceeded to feed me lines for all of the interesting conversations I began to have as I ended up helping people fill out forms, gave a distraught woman a kleenex, engaged in collective bitching and moaning with the other middle-aged ladies standing about on sore feet for too long, and the like. The puppet troupe, meanwhile, was so used to waiting around in lines, that they pulled out their books, newspapers, lace-making and the like, and got down to business.  Karagöz raised the question of a bribe for getting to the front of the line – and the entire troupe reminded him we were in the U.S. where this was not so common out in the open as compared to Turkey.  He settled down to observe the crowd, cackling madly at the gangy-gang boys with their low-slung pants and high-minded attitudes.

Yehuda Rebbe and Hacivad Bey nodded approvingly, in a somewhat pedantic and well-meaning white dude kind of way, saying things like “it’s good that you are communing with the masses, m’lady, you need to feed your mind outside of that Ivory Tower you usually reside in.”

Snorting his discontent, Karagöz guffawed “that building you work in – the one with all of the mold? That is HARDLY an ivory tower – oh look – another interesting person is approaching you!”

“Hey there,” a fellow waiting woman said, “you have the number before me – how long you been waiting?”  Sensing a lady who really liked to chat – I extended the small talk and eventually also helped her to fill out her forms.  We commiserated about the challenges of changing one’s name post-divorce and our resolve never to take another partner’s name (in my case, that will be null and void on the Turkish citizenship front – no choice!).  We tried out different leaning positions with attention to the variance on how sore our feet were.

And after about fifteen minutes of this back and forth (punctuated by the puppets’ confusion about how to interpret her southern U.S. accent, most of which I ignored), things got interesting.  Not only was Kenne limping across the floor from where she had climbed UP the geranium and over the window sill where she could jump back inside – fuming all the way.  Kenne shot me a warning look as she trudged back towards me, ignoring Esma the whole way, “don’t be to sure too much chatting is a good thing – and I have heard a few too many curses from you today, m’lady, in this plebeian conversation of yours.  Who do you think you are, a longshoreman?”

Just as I was processing Kenne’s concern, and whether I was going to give a damn – I noticed that the white ladies in the room (that is to say, the other middle aged white ladies like me) were moving away from me – and the woman I was talking too.  Tuning back in to my new friend, I realized she had started to pontificate – some might just say rant – about the “organ donor” poster on the wall.

“I’m tellin’ you, honey,” she said not even in a sotto voce tone, “I wish I could do that organ givin’ thing – you know people needs it – but I’ll be mother-f*d if what I see happening to other people happens to me – I needs mine!”

Intrigued and remembering the infamous Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment, I pressed her for more, saying “what do you see happening to other people?”

“They have they organ donor box checked on they ID card – and they not too sick – but then they go into the hospital for some little some such and BAM – they dead! I think them hospitals goin’ after them organs!  I knew a lady done sold her ankle bone for $10,000 – you know them organs go for lotsa money!”

“I’ve heard about that, yes.  I think there is a big market for organs – like black market -”

“Girl, I ain’t talkin’ about no black market – I am talking about Boston Medical Center! You know all they Black ladies – they went in to get them some hysterectomies – and they gave those lady bits-” she paused, as if to catch herself

“to White ladies?” I ventured – sensing she didn’t want to say it to me given our skin color difference and the fact that we didn’t know one another from Eve.

“yes, them White ladies got the Black lady bits when they couldn’t have no kids!”

Before I could think, I just said “that’s f*d up!” to which she guffawed, slapped me on the back and said “that’s right, girl, it’s f*d up aight,” further shocking the shrinking White lady gaggle around me.

It was only at this point, that I noticed the kicking of my shins, and looking down, of course, I saw that it was Kenne kicking away in furious anger at my crass and rude behavior – with some semi-half-hearted kicking going on by her handmaiden, Zenne…:you-must-stop-immediately!  Your grandmother and granny would ROLL in their graves!”

Before I could send a mental telegram to my manners puppet, my new real-world friend and waiting companion, Kenne was in for the biggest shock of all.  The animated southern lady downed her Dunkin’ Donuts coffee and announced – “You know why I got this small coffee, right? It helps you do the poo – and I gotta go – y’all know where the bathroom is?”

Giggling inside, I pointed the way to the bathroom just as Kenne fainted from shock at the notion that a lady (or not much of a lady but still) would announce her bowel movement in public.  Karagöz just pointed out that she’d do a lot better with a Turkish coffee.

I’m not sure how it all turned out, as they called my number about then, and I was off to resolve my fee and move on with life.

Just another day of observing life with my puppets.


I was brave enough to document the cup my friend was holding before she made the scandalous comment (in the words of Kenne, still not recovered by the crassness of the American plebes).

Last night in Bodrum Part II: Dodging Breeze snakes and coffee bullets

A captivatingly thick and sweet bullet of Turkish coffee

Snakes of warm breeze slid around me, curiously disconnected from one another.  I felt them swoosh up and down my arms, my palms flat on the table in front of me as if about to play a child’s slapping hand game.  My demitasse coffee cup was upside-down on the saucer it belonged to.  A smudge of muddiness marred the perfect flip-over, but I ignored it.  My coffee bullet was wending its way through my bloodstream.  Mrs. X. spoke the same words again…“Now,” Mrs. X. said, “I’ll tell you what I know, you tell me what you know.” She was referring to my boyfriend, M., her husband’s brother.  We were to leave Bodrum tomorrow after a couple of weeks that ranged from relaxing and interesting to trying and confusing.

Khadijah shook her wax-papery head with all the grace that a Karagöz dancing puppet can, their loose limbs akimbo on a stick.  “Here we go, the old ‘we’re all women argument,” she sighed, “usually I would buy right into that, but now, I feel the breeze snakes. You’ve got to watch for the breeze snakes. What does she want to know – or is her world that small?”  The bullet of hot coffee had cleared my rakı fogginess – and I had to respond to Mrs. X., not to mention  Hacivad, Karagöz, and all the other puppets waiting for my response.

“Does it really have to be about secrets?” I coughed the words, and they stumbled out of my mouth in between the breeze snakes.  My mouth did not want to cooperate.  The puppets all put their chins in the palms of their hand, waiting for more.  “I mean,” I gulped, feeling the coffee grinds left in my teeth, “I mean why?”  Leaning in, the breeze snakes transported Mrs. X.’s Turkish coffee espresso breath towards me faster than the gleam of her chemically whitened teeth through the dark night.

“You know, don’t you,” she spooned the words towards me softly, “you know he doesn’t want to have children?”  Only Karagöz let out a little tiny whoop before covering his mouth again to see what would happen next.  Delivering what she thought was new information, she lurched back into her armchair quickly, and watched for my response along with the chorus of dancing ladies, hands covering mouths in shock.  I knew what they did not know, namely, we had already had the “what about children?” talk.  I knew that M. loved kids, but felt so strongly about zero population growth that he did not feel good about having his own biological children. I didn’t know how I felt about that yet and it would be a while before I did.  Did she want to hurt my feelings? Did she want to warn me?  Did she think I would not already know?  Would I ever understand her motivations?  Probably not.  I settled on her thoughts about wanting me to know.

I had grown up around my mother’s strong commitment to the zero population growth movement, thus the adoption of my sister, I suppose (or was it vice versa?).  I was mixed on the idea myself, and although it was way to early in the relationship to be deciding about whether to have children together or not, I could already tell that the notion of zero population growth was not going to go down well in this family in Turkey.  I felt the breeze snakes sliding back, as if in a tide, behind Mrs. X., as if ready to strike.

Taking the straightforward Yankee approach, I blurted out “Yes, I know about all of those views of his, we talk about it.” I didn’t know what else to do.  Before I could get the words out of my mouth in their entirety, I felt the hurtling swath of breeze snakes hit me full force – “but it is your right to have children! This is not fair to you!  I hate that he does this, it is wrong, what is wrong with him?” I could see that Mrs. X. and M. resided on different planets and that it would just always be that way.  One oppositional and non-traditional to the extreme (even without wanting to be, sometimes) and one caught in the gerbil wheel of a wealthy lady’s expected life (wanting to be and something told me also not wanting to be).

Hacivad stepped forward to jump up on my shoulder, a friend in the storm of breeze snake tides.  “M’lady, you just need to stay cool, calm and collected, you are facing a moment of cross-cultural conflict – your reality just cannot be computed in her reality.  Kids are wanted – expected – she will not understand.  Just let it be and focus on what is important.” Drawing on his zen-like calm, I channeled some inner wise woman with my final comment – some kind of wise woman that knows inside this woman in front of me, surrounded by breeze snakes, had her own crosses to bear.  “I suppose we all have strange or difficult things to deal with in the men we choose, don’t we, Mrs. X.?”

Before she could answer, I felt the warm bounce breeze that surrounds M. swagger over my way.  M.  had broken free from the clutch of middle-aged male observers looking over the balcony at their sons, dancing with arms akimbo in the air.  Swashbuckling up to me, M. galumphed into the seat next to me, throwing his arm around me.  Only I knew that he had promised to leave me alone with Mrs. X. as little as possible after the obesity comments at what I referred to as “cement beach.”  Watching the breeze snakes slither away, Mrs. X. touched the top of my coffee cup in defeat.  “It is ready to read,” she said with the empty, deflated voice of a tired middle ager at midnight.  I felt equally so.

Taking the cup into her right hand – the left one unduly occupied by a Marlboro cigarette covered in bright pink Chanel lipstick – she craned her neck to the side and peered into the bottom of the tiny cup.  “I see mountains and a goat,” she said with question marks abounding “you will have many difficult mountains to climb, but the goat climbs them easily.” Laughing – she stood and bent over to kiss me on the forehead before walking to join her husband in watching their son dancing below.

Hacivad turned to me at the same time as M. with dually quizzical airs.  “It sounds like the closest you will get to a blessing to me,” Hacivad whispered.  M. just kissed me on the cheek and said “it’ll be good to get back on the road together.”

After the breeze snakes retired for the night