It is 10 a.m. and the sun is beating down on the waxy leaves of the pomegranate bush outside – I can almost see the heat waves emanating from the leaves themselves. I thought that only happened from inanimate objects…like rocks. It is really hot here, and this Yankee New England rose is wilting before noon.
I am still in my white, cotton nightgown that my stepmother kindly bought for me back at Lord & Taylor in Boston just one month ago. The demure oyster blue and white as white can be seersucker robe is nowhere in sight. I can’t even fathom even three quarter length sleeves in this hair-dryer heat, to quote Jack at Perking the Pansies (a fabulous blog about two gay expats from the UK living in Bodrum, Turkey). It is 2004, and we are sitting on Bozcaada, in my boyfriend’s family’s summer home. It is a rustic spot way off the beaten path. We are facing the northern Aegean sea and I am feeling pretty damned lucky to be there.
We are sitting in the breezy spot between the fifty year-old pines, the tallest around, enjoying fresh peaches. It’s the kind of thing you do when you are in love and there is nothing else to do but listen to the breeze, feel the sun, eat juicy peaches and commune with one another in your nightgown or pajamas. My boyfriend is cutting and peeling them, feeding them to me one by one. We don’t even need to remark on how much we are enjoying the silence of crickets in the grassy field next door, the sound of eucalyptus branches scratching the skin of the roof ever so slightly in what breeze makes it that far along. Along the frame of the screened window to the bedroom, the entire troupe of Karagoz shadow puppets are looking a bit wilted in the heat. Some are snoring, some are sweating bits of their waxy exterior before they move into the shadow as the sun passes along their ledge.
Looking out to the Aegean, my boyfriend instinctively licks his fingers, glazed with fresh peach juice like a sunrise, and remarks how his friend Ahmet (name changed) who lives on the island always says there is no place like this particular spot between the pines on the island. As I ask for guidance on how that sentiment would be worded in Turkish, I hear the soft crunch of pine needles and a hoot of laughter, it is Ahmet himself who finishes the sentence, picking up where my boyfriend left off. Karagoz awakens and jumps to attention, singing ” uh, oh, spaghetti-os, whatever that means.”
“Crap,” I think, the blushing onset of panic rising up my neck to my cheeks, “I am stuck.” I am sitting in the middle of the garden in my reserved, long white cotton nightgown that is not only somewhat transparent in a few spots where errant peach juice has landed, but does not hide well the fact that I have no bra on. Karagöz screeches out from the nightstand with an ‘I-told-you-so’ sound to his voice “shoulda bought that bullet bra, woulda come in handy just about now, eh?” He cackles and commences spinning around. I always wonder how a flat, wax paper puppet can spin so well.
I will him a grumpy brain wave, saying”It’s a nightgown, for goodness sake, and while I may be a Yankee, I am not puritanical when it comes to surviving the heat. Bras be damned.” Khadijah and Kenne, two other shadow puppets, are on my shoulders, shaking their fists at Karagöz and rooting for me, as he is on their last nerve. They do, however, hasten to tell me to hurry up and get into the house in case any of the neighbors are about. Karagöz grins, remarking “even THEY know you are at risk of being an ugly American right now, take heed!”
Meanwhile, the etiquette instinct part of my brain is freaking out. That part of my brain is hardwired from the classes my Granny made me take during the summer months in hopes I would be a debutante like my mother (despite the fact that she hated every moment of it). The etiquette portio of the brain is signaling me to stand up, to greet Ahmet with a firm, respectful handshake and to ignore the fact that I am standing on the patio in my nightgown. Some other part of my brain, perhaps the trying-to-be-Turkish part, feels that I will be too exposed. As my brain short-circuits, I curse myself for not wearing the damned robe. All of this preparation for an auntie who might be shocked at the wrong nightgown – I didn’t prepare for guests who just walk in, unannounced. This will be the first of many incidents of “just dropping by” which I come to learn is totally normal and accepted in Turkey. I still haven’t gotten used to it as I write this, eight years later.
Feigning an excuse in English that Ahmet will not understand anyway, I twist the fabric of my nightgown in my hand, holding it away from my body, hoping he will not notice that I am in a nightgown and have no bra on. “Maybe it looks a bit like a kaftan?” I wonder silently, with a wan smile, “What do I have to be ashamed of? I am in my home, and I should not be ashamed of my body. ” “Oh honey,” Kenne says, you have so much to learn about this country.” In the split second it takes me to dash away from the patio, my mind is reeling with questions. Is this disrespectful in Turkish culture? Am I going to be seen as a harlot or some such? Does he know we are not married? Does it matter? Why does it matter to me? I don’t care that we are not married. Should I care that anyone else does? Should I not care in America, but care in Turkey? Why do people always “just show up? I think this is so rude…I don’t think I can get used to this. I am not sure about this Turkey business, I don’t know if I can do this. Why can’t I? I have to, if this is the guy for me. Oh dear.”
Ignoring Karagöz , I quickly place Khadijah and Kenne on the marble-topped bureau as I enter the bedroom and frantically toss on a tunic and long cotton pants. I put on shoes as well, just to be safe. Then I wrap my messy hair up in a lavender scarf with white embroidery, turban style. My boyfriend always refers to this as a “mihraje moment,” using what I think is the Turkish word for the Maharajahs, or ruling elite of ancient India. I know he will think I am trying to “do” some form of Turkish dressing for etiquette’s sake, but my hair is really an oily mess at the moment – I was trying out olive oil as conditioner as I was out, and it backfired. All in all, I’m feeling pretty much a wreck.
Then things get interesting. My boyfriend calls out to me – “canım” – he says, meaning “dear.”
He is using a sweet tone that smacks of guilt -and just then he has switched to English – “will you, um, will you make some tea for us?” His voice cracks a bit and he turns his head as if to say – “sorry. Sorry to ask you this, I am not sure I feel right about this either, but I am sort of in a bind here.” I realize that he feels he cannot leave his guest to make the tea – and serving tea is a requisite – I have gathered that by now, along with the fact that tea is indeed the beverage of choice although all we hear about in the states is Turkish coffee. Khadijah motions me over “he wants you to make the tea, you know, you have to serve it.”
Of course, I answer in the affirmative, not wanting the bubble of curious resentment and odd feeling to show in front of our guest. “Didn’t it say in my guidebook never to embarrass your husband or contradict him?” I wonder. Kenne scoffs at the book “any woman should know that they should be serving the tea to their husband, no doubt.” Khadijah says, “we have to do what we have to do – nightgown, olive oil, bra or not and I suppose that is a good rule for anywhere, not just Turkey. And not just wives to husbands, pitching in when people just stop by.” “Why Khadijah, I thought you were a 14th century Ottoman era servant – this is sounding pretty much like a feminist humanist to me.” Khadijah winks at me and motions me along to the kitchen.
Entering the kitchen, with three puppets nestled in my turban at various angles, I realize that I am supposed to make tea the Turkish way – involving double-boiling, and lots of hot water with the potential to burn me in between teapot transfers. Turkish tea-making involves two teapots. I reach into the recesses of my Yankee toolkit, and squarely grab for that age-old item, the stiff upper lip. Well, here I am, in someone else’s kitchen, the lady of the house for the time being, and it is my time to make tea. “Not a big deal,” I whisper, I have made tea all my life. It’s just that this time, I’ll make it the American way -with a teabag.” Khadija, Kenne and Karagöz all faint simultaneously. Hacivad shows up on the back of the stove and explains that this is not acceptable behavior, even though I am an American, the tea MUST be double boiled. I recall my mother’s insistence that tea be made “properly” with water at the full boil. Taking stock of the situation, I realize that I have only seen my boyfriend make the tea a couple of times, and I had better not try this. I suppose I surrendered to the teaching-old-dogs-new-tricks phenomenon, but I find myself just heating the water up to boiling and pouring the water into a cup with leaves, then straining it out. “I wonder if they will be able to tell the difference.” My three puppet friends are still knocked out cold, although Hacivad is fanning them with a napkin he has taken from the table. He is intent in his efforts to revive the trio.
I take some comfort in setting up the perfectly round, rimmed plastic red tray that my boyfriend’s aunt uses for teatime. It is sun-whitened but tried and true. On it, I place the traditional Turkish tea delivery mechanisms – tulip-shaped clear glasses that are maybe an eighth the size of the mugs I choose for tea at home. Placing each one on three delicate tea glass saucers, I search for the small, aluminum spoons that accompany the glass items. Each spoon has tulips somewhat indelicately stamped onto it. I can see that they are the hardware store version of spoons, not a finely hewn set. I imagine the machine that was created to do the stamping in some fabrika in Anatolia. I see that the tulip image is a clinging remnant of the Ottoman empire’s fascination with that flower and it’s shape. A mini part of history that I would not have caught without reading up on some of the Sultans. “This is no time for waxing poetic about the Sultans!” Hacivad cries, “you must get on with serving the tea – I hope you will follow the tradition!”
Having no idea what that tradition is, I add a bowl of paper-thin slices of lemon onto the tray next to the rectangular sugar lumps that I used to feed the horses with my Grandmother, Verna. My hands go through the motions as I remember the feeling of the coarse tongue of the horse on my hand where the sugar is. I pour the once-boiled tea into the glasses. Before long, I realize that the red plastic tray island is fully inhabited. Silencing the ladies who are now sitting up, holding their heads and alternately cluck-clucking, tut-tutting and poo-pooing with an alacrity that belies their displeasure at the once-boiledness of the tea, I make my way out of the kitchen as the door bangs shut behind me in the breeze. I enter an unknown territory.
Karagöz alights my shoulder with his usual twirling, “you’re gonna fall, you’re gonna spill.” My hands start to shake as I descend the two stone steps to the breezy spot as the ladies hold their breath from atop my turban. The black tea sloshes up to the rim of the tulip-shaped glass on the left, but limits itself from going farther. I wonder how Ahmet is perceiving all of this. I know that my husband’s guest is liberal and has devoted himself to his girl’s education, but I also note that my husband’s friend is being studied at not looking at me. It has been explained to me that this is a sign of his friend showing him respect.
In the village streets, traditional men will not look at or talk to a wife and her husband for this reason. It has taken me a while to understand why my good-spirited “iyi akşamlars” (good evenings) are not responded to in the village, but I am getting the picture. This village existence is so very different from my experience in Istanbul with my husband’s family and friends – much less my own Cantabrigian streets. I remember that Ahmet did, however, greet me warmly when we arrived on the island, inquiring about my family though he does not know them and they are thousands of miles away, asking how I liked the island, and other pleasantries. As with the country as a whole, there is still somewhat of a schizophrenic schism between old ways and new ways, west and east.
I serve the tea, and within moments, I can tell they know the difference – Ahmet is pronouncing it very light tea indeed, and I can hear “Amerikan” in there with the laughter. I am caught in my duplicitous effort. Karagöz and my boyfriend simultaneously say “Busted! You only brewed it once!” My boyfriend calls me over, thanks me, and tells me he’ll commence teaching me the right way to do it for next time. I am happy at the light touch he offers to fix the moment – but not so happy at the idea of being the tea girl. I smile and plan to bring the issue up later. For now, it has to wait. At least I didn’t serve it with milk in front of guests.