Kenne, the Queen of Manners and Maintenance of Ladylike behavior – hits the rakı!

This is Kenne, the Queen of Manners and Maintenance of Ladylike Behaviors, including etiquette, mind you
(Image is -Proper Ollie: Manners in Minutes · Sculpture by J.Seward Johnson)

It’s a rare thing to see Kenne at a loss for words, but it did happen this summer, if you can imagine it.

Kenne, as you may recall, is the puppet Queen in charge of Manners and the Maintenance of Lady-like behavior (including, tabi canım, etiquette). You can read more about who she is by clicking here.

In any case, Kenne is well-known as the member of the Karagöz puppet troupe that sounds off (some say pontificates) on all matters etiquette at just about any moment – opportune or not.

My beloved M., as usual, was the target of Kenne’s sharp tongue on the etiquette front this summer. Now it is important to note here that I am a lady trained in etiquette by both grandmothers as a child (“a lady of sorts!” Kenne sniffs, insisting that I have lost most of it). You see, I had to sit through numerous etiquette courses during the summer – in the moldy basement of the local Episcopal church my Granny was a member of – in lieu of swimming at the local bay beach…it was torture. BUT – as Kenne is happy to point out – eventually, I bought into it for a time.

And so there we were, this past summer, when Kenne’s fury hit full force. We were in the hospice with my Father, with Kenne hovering nervously around my head, as I learned that my husband, my dear M., had been asked not to spend the night in the hospice anymore. We were all taking turns staying with my Father in his last days, and M. had taken the first shift. As our private nursing assistant left for the night, she told M. “be sure that he is turned every 2 hours.”

Being the Turkish military trained soldier and deeply-caring golden-hearted man that he is, he took this instruction to heart. As he told me later, he could barely sleep, afraid he would not hear the alarm to wake him at the next 2 hour mark, to make sure that my Father was turned. At the three hour mark, with no nurses in sight, M. went to advocate – and then again at the 4 hour mark.

In good Turkish tradition, I now learn, M. took what he thought was a respectful approach to the situation – an approach others described as loud and confrontational. “Excuse me, sir,” he said to the nurse, “it is my understanding that (my Dad) is to be turned every 2 hours – but it has been 4 – could you please turn him? Isn’t it in your chart?”

In his mind, I am sure, he was being firm but respectful. But unfortunately, M. comes across as loud (Kenne adds “and often boorish”) all the time. Without getting into the poor handling of this matter by the hospice – and the subsequent good handling of the poor handling – M. did not spend any more nights but was a valiant supporter of those of us who did – bringing food, a blow up bed – and the dog, who brought comfort to many.

Over the years, I have come to realize that M. has no awareness of how loud he is – and cannot hear the tone of his own voice in the context of a given moment. When I heard that M. was not invited back, I had a sense of just what had happened. Since then, I often say “sweetie, I am sitting right next to me, you don’t need to yell.” My artfully positioned placements of Miss Manner’s Etiquette Tomes, such as the one in the picture to the left, are usually rebuffed.

“When,” M. rightly says, “will your family just accept me for who I am – don’t they see how much I love you and care for you and them as well?” The tone issue always raises the specters of bad conversations past – proving that without directly processing through it, it is sometimes hard to let bygones be bygones.

Early on in our relationship, I found this tone of voice issue to be very painful…and during the years when my family approached the idea of M. with trepidation (after my first, failed marriage to another foreigner), this issue came up on a number of occasions. My sister, for example, complained that he and my Italian brother-in-law were “too loud and competitive” while playing, of all things, a word game. Later, she said “I am sure it is the macho, Turkish culture.” I felt crestfallen that M. is seen through what I believe is a stereotyped lens. Thankfully, she has gotten to know him better since then and I hope has seen that macho is one of the LAST words that should be attached to my M.

What she is right about, I have come to realize however, is that there is an element of Turkish culture that IS involved in this – namely – the use of a loud tone of voice. In Turkey, I find that loud tones (I might even say “yelling”) are ever-present – and when you couple that with what our niece calls “the Turkish lack of a personal space bubble” – it can be oppressive. I often awake in the morning to M. talking with friends or family on Skype – in other words – I wake as the tone is so loud. Before I understood much Turkish, I thought something drastic must be happening, or a major fight – but with time – I realized that ALL conversations were loud – not even due to the potential vagaries of Skype Internet connections.

And this is where Kenne comes in. The night after I learned that M. was banned from the hospice during the night shift, I turned to Kenne for advice. “Kenne,” I ventured, “what is to be done here – am I missing something?”

SIlence. (I am thinking – “THIS NEVER HAPPENS! Where is the shrill shrew of a lady, already?”


Surprising everyone, even her nervous nelllie like a bowl of quince jelly puppet handmaiden named Zenne, Kenne sat down, slapped off her proverbial high hat, and reached for the bottle of iced rakı that Tiryaki had on hand. Not knowing quite what to do, as usual, Zenne began to wring her hands and fan her lady – hoping that this would help to regain composure and the proper practice of ladylike behavior. It didn’t, unfortunately, do a whit of good.

Now back to that iced bottle of rakı provided by our resident addict. You may recall that Tiryaki is the resident narcoleptic, opium-addicted puppet, if not, you can read about him by clicking here. Seeing that the impossible was becoming possible – Tiryaki opened his eyes wide to observe it – the unthinkable – Kenne consuming a not very tek (small) glass of rakı - but rather going for a straight shot out of the bottle.

Taking a deep swig of the potent anisette-like alcohol, she seemed to enjoy the swish of the milky-looking liquid in her oh-so-proper mouth. After what looked like a heavenly swallow – as if the chains of years of proper-ness were bursting simultaneously – Kenne tilted her head back in repose. But it was not to last.

“Terrible!” Kenne cried out with true nail-scratching horror “Now that I have placed my lips on this bottle of rakı I must finish the whole thing!” To this knowledge, Zenne fainted. The little chorus of dancing ladies just creeped up and dragged her off, like some reverse body-surfing activity.

After several more attempts to ‘do her duty’ and finish the bottle, Kenne was finally able to address my question. “Well, m’lady,” Kenne half-hiccuped, “I really don’t know what to tell you. Even in the Sultan’s court, the louder tone of voice was de rigueur – and in the Grand Bazaar – well – obviously! I just don’t understand how to handle this – what’s right at home is not right here, and it is hard to re-wire the brain. What to do? What to do? And especially as it was in a good effort on his part – and the hospice staff should understand that the family members of people at the end of life may be upset!!”

As I look back on her drunken, slurred words, I realize that the question is this. Co-existence in a culture where American norms are presumed by many to be untouchable – well – it is a challenge. Where is the line between what people should acculturate to – and what the dominant society should accept? In my experience, being in a relationship and marriage with this Turkish man, the ideals of acceptance and cross-cultural understanding often fall by the wayside in favor of a dominant society preference. Is this fair – in some instances probably yes. In some instances probably no. It is a lot easier to talk about cross-cultural acceptance when we are abroad, I am guessing, than in moments that are located squarely in the grey area. I wish all sides could compromise a bit more in the moments such as these…let’s hope for the best. Kenne, clearly, is undone by it all.

The more she drank, the more she confused herself, rambling on and on…until finally, Tiryaki laid out his cape for her to rest in, and she fell into pickled-cucumber-like inebriated sleep. I didn’t stick around to see what she was like the next morning, but suffice it to say, there are no easy answers when it comes to cross-cultural communication.

Skype vs. Sufi whirling for our Turkish-American “marital moments” of woe

As with any couple, we have disagreements. OK, and we have arguments that are, ahem, occasionally heated.  I am sure many of you can relate? Well, add to that two mix two different culturally imbued communication styles – and you get what another American wife in a Turkish-American marriage refers to as a “drive-by” moment.

Let me explicate – the tagline for this blog is “A road-trip through one Turkish-American marriage with backseat-driving Karagöz puppets,” you know, sort of like a drive-through? A drive-by, in gangstah parlance is a shooting.  I *howled* with laughter when she made this comment in my blog a few days ago.

Esma, the hippie puppet, steps in at this point and reminds me that what I really need is to go on a retreat with a bunch of female Sufis and whirl myself to peace and love (such as the women are in the above left photo, dancing in Bursa as pictured by Hurriyet Daily News). She may be right, this tiny little puppet, but she isn’t married to M. in our most challenging moments. And as he might say back to me, Esma isn’t married to Liz (me) in hers! On a more serious note, I am sure I could learn a lot by joining the Sufi search for love…and maybe the time will come for that. Who knows.For now, I take it as a well-deserved suggestion to get back on the path to peace.

Yes, this is part of life with a partner, arguments, the need for patience and good communication. BUT – I write today with some good news. Skype may be of assistance to us all in slowing down and listening to one another – and checking ourselves when “triggered.” This winter break, I spent some time with our dog down in Provincetown while M. was in the city working. We spoke on Skype each night. We were in the flux of making a decision about something big – and were having some disagreement moments.

But I started to notice something important.Usually, I fly by red flags I set up for myself when making an argument – probably unduly influenced by all of the courtroom arguments I used to have to make as a forensic social worker in New York City in my past career. But here, in the quiet of Provincetown, sitting at the dining room table on Skype, I was able to catch myself a slight bit more by noticing that “red flag” that tells you to slow down your speaking, lower your voice, check the attitude and filter the tone in the voice as a deep ravine is around the corner and you are about to flip over the guard rail (i.e. argument hence!).

Fast forward to last night, we got into a murky marsh around a difficult issue we have not been able to resolve about the use of space and the management of time.  I almost suggested that M. go upstairs to get on Skype while I logged on in the living room so that we could try arguing virtually – almost. :) I tried whirling a bit per Esma’s suggestion, but I got dizzy and gave up. I don’t mean to treat a sacred Sufi rite lightly, but giving it a whirl was all I had at that frustrated moment.  I managed to just leave the whole topic well enough alone until the conversation was ready to finish, but it was tough to do it.

Today, it resolved itself (for now).  We had a wonderful resolution conversation and made some next step plans.  One of the things we realized was that when we get tense – M.’s ability to comprehend the larger context in English (although he is almost fluent) flies out the window and I get impatient.  I need to accommodate this more.  We need to slow down.  We need to do better about listening – and putting things on the table.  What couple doesn’t? It’s been a tough week, full of my flu, the struggles of a young friend of ours we are very worried about – and all the usual as well – work-family-choices-in-life.

[Side note: Kenne the Queen of Manners and Proper Ladylike Behavior is wailing in the corner with rage – she is horrified that I would even DEIGN to argue with my husband – not a lady’s role, she tells me. She tells me to use my Granny’s line “Whatever you say, dear,” delivered with a slight bit of disdain. Esma just tells me to meditate more. Hacivad Bey reminds me that relationships are all about the process, Skype or no Skype, whirling or no whirling.

So, cross-cultural couples out there, what do you have to say about how culture – and language – filter into your arguments? Let’s break the barrier of talking about what is REALLY challenging – seems to me so many cross-cultural relationship discussions don’t step into the gap…