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.
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.
- Turkey’s Armenian community on alert after attacks (dailystar.com.lb)
- The 1915 Armenian Genocide – Why Is It Still Denied By Turkey (And The U.S.)? (theblaze.com)
- Turkey Displeased With Pope’s Statement On Armenian Genocide (eurasiareview.com)
- Assembly: lessons of inhumanity must never be forgotten (panarmenian.net)