The year is 2004. The day is indiscernible between sunshine, jet-lag, enjoying a visit with my boyfriend’s family and on-again, off-again culture shock. It is mid-afternoon, and I am tanning and reading just steps from the Aegean in a gated community near Bodrum, Turkey. We arrived here near Bodrum after a twelve-hour car journey through Anatolia, my brother-in-law at the wheel the whole time. It was a fascinating drive, and I got to know my boyfriend’s brother much better on the way. As the comfortable BMW wound its way through the hills and down towards Bodrum, great swaths of white chalk-looking cottages dotted the hills all over. The sun was setting, which added a honeyed glow to the landscape, already quite dry and arid looking from afar. The Aegean soared out in a horizontal gesture, clear and blue with an aqua tinge…I hadn’t heard from Karagöz, Hacivad or any of the others in the shadow puppet troupe since my Bursa lunch, so I just focused my attention on seeing what would come next.
It took me a few days to get used to the machine-gun wielding guards that traverse the perimeter of the place on a half-hourly basis. I have met a few of the judges and military officials that live here, which I think explains the presence of the hard core security. All were very pleasant and have greeted me in English despite my attempts to use my new Turkish greetings and general niceties. Most of our days were spent by the water in a cement-dock-beach with reclining chairs and tea service. My main challenge in meeting the people around the community was how to engage in shaking hands while simultaneously trying to keep my cotton cloth wrap around me, unlike my svelte sister-in-law who parades about in her bikini. I feel like the modest one, the unfashionable Yankee who is a little pudgy. It is not what I expected, that’s for sure, and I feel a bit dumb about expecting that people would dress, now reality is sinking in, and I am shocked at how wrong my guidebooks are, at least about this type of Turkish community.
I have already realized that having only ONE bathing suit is not going to cut it. I must have *at least* two, I am told by my sister-in-law, one for the morning, one for the afternoon. I always just washed mine at lunch at home, and dried it in the sun before returning to the beach in Cape Cod, Massachusetts. This explanation does not cut it with my sister in law, who let me know where I could buy other suits in Bodrum town when we went to the beauty salon one day. I emerged with a new haircut, and otherwise pretty much hairless, in pain and somewhat in the throes of post-traumatic stress disorder over an intensive waxing experience nothing like anything I had ever endured before. I think it was better that the aestheticians spoke no English, as I really did not know when the pain was about to radiate after their lightening-quick wax strip removal gestures were but a motion memory. The chorus of dancing ladies I first met in Bursa did make one appearance during that time – they called out to me from the purse in which they have enjoyed residing, saying “we all have to do it, this waxing, ‘close your eyes and think of England,’ isn’t that what they say in your part of the world?”
Although happy to hear the compliments from my boyfriend’s family upon returning from the salon, it was clear that major improvements had been made despite the fact that my hair was still salt-and-pepper, much to their dismay. I didn’t know quite how to think about that nor did I know how to handle my boyfriend, who rolled his eyes at all this, encouraging me to “just be yourself, i don’t care about all of this.” I desperately wanted to fit in with the family and feel comfortable, but this was a losing battle. There was a massive disconnect between the “real sized and shaped” women outside of the gates – and inside of the gates of that community – if you don’t count the hired help. It was gruelling for someone as body-conscious as I am.
Clearly, my insecurities are running wild, despite my boyfriend’s almost constant efforts to remind me that he likes me as-is, etc. The chorus of lady dancers have been calling out to me from my purse – telling me “be proud of your curves – look at all of us belly dancers” and “this new generation of Turkish women, no idea what the skinny movement is all about.” It has helped some, but not much. Karagöz has, as usual, been whipping things up into a frenzy in my mind, saying things like “she thinks you are fat, just sit on her hat, send her a rat if you don’t like that!” and “work it girl, waddle around here just as you are, pudgy and proud! You’re here, you’re queer (to them) and they can get used to it!” Hacivad, on the other hand, just keeps quoting Rumi to me, specifically this phrase “Let yourself be silently drawn by the stronger pull of what you really love.” I have succumbed to insecurity for the moment, and have tuned Hacivad out of my mind some in my efforts to fit in. My brother in law tells me that I will tan soon in an effort to be kind.
So, here I am, in richy-rich land, surrounded by gorgeous, petite, skinny and tanned Turkish women, doing what I can to feel confident in my almost six-feet tall, pale, somewhat-overweight-but-not-too-much-I-think body. I am reading a fascinating political history of modern Turkey and try to lose myself in the details and the pronunciation of words to the best of my ability. Ever the earnest academic, I try to make conversation with my boyfriend’s family about Turkish politics, but this appears to fall flat each time, so I save my questions and observations for late night check-ins with my boyfriend and opt for learning about the latest Istanbul gossip, fashion trends and family intrigue from my sister-in-law, with whom I spend time strolling around the nature trails around the compound in the early evening.
Trying to suss me out for sure, my sister-in-law peppers me with questions that I try to answer to the best of my ability. “Yes, I was married before, but divorced, yes, the divorce is final.” “No, not all Americans eat two hamburgers for dinner.” “No, I don’t condone the amounts of obesity in the U.S., and no, I am not considered obese there – I could stand to lose a few pounds, though.” “Yes, I was raised in a Christian church, but I have no problem with Islam.” “Yes, I know that (my boyfriend) does not want to have children because of his zero population growth beliefs” and “well, actually, I like my salt and pepper hair just as it is, but thanks for the suggestion!” I am assisted in response-crafting pretty much constantly by the silent troupe of dancing ladies who jump into my pocket or hang off of my earrings if I don’t bring my purse along for a walk. “We are your stand-in girlfriends,” they chorus, “until you get more comfortable around here. We’ll help you strategize your answers and remind you not to eat too much food around the family.” Although I find some of their comments antiquated and unhelpful, I am grateful for their perspectives – and just for their presence during a confusing time where I feel as though I am “trying on” this new family’s lifestyle, so different from what I know of my boyfriend back home. My boyfriend is understandably wanting to catch up with his brother…so I am trying to give him space. Between bikini shopping, salon visits, books and the dancing ladies narrating my every ethnographic observation, two weeks fly by without too much incident. Karagöz and Hacivad sleep most of the time, letting the chorus take the lead as I try to figure out the navigation of bikinis, body hair, books and body image.