Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Ordinary encounters I won't forget

"Çekme! Çekme!" Though I couldn't see the source of the voice as I squinted into the low sun, which had been setting ever so beautifully on one of Ayvalık's old cobblestone streets, the message was clear: Don't take that picture. I lowered my camera. "Çekmiyorum," I called back. I'm not shooting. Afraid of what faux pas I might have committed or what awkward situation I might have stumbled into, I approached the woman who had called out to me. She wasn't angry at all.

"I just look so ugly in my house clothes, I didn't want you to take my picture," she explained (in Turkish), laughing. The heat of the early summer day still hung on the street and like many other residents of the old part of town, this thirtyish woman was sitting on her stoop to stay cool, chatting with people as they passed by. She invited me to sit and I spent the next two hours or so amidst the ongoing neighborhood conversation, meeting her teenage son as he sped by on his bike, answering curious onlookers' questions about where I was from, getting tips on which beach to go to, sipping juice, and finally joining my new acquaintance and her equally friendly daughter and mother (pictured) in the courtyard of their home, talking about the differences between Turkish and American culture.

I recalled this experience from my first summer in Turkey this past weekend, while taking another trip to the relaxing seaside town. No matter how frustrated I get with my halting progress in Turkish, chance encounters like these remind me of how glad I am to be making an effort to learn the language, something that has served me especially well -- in terms of both practical and entertainment value -- on trips out of Istanbul, where the people I meet seem ever interested in chatting with the foreigner who has somehow not found herself in Cappadocia or at a Mediterranean resort. If not for Turkish lessons, after all, I never would have been able to joke with the bored attendant at Saklıkent Gorge about his time working in Bodrum, where all the middle-aged female tourists seem to be on the prowl for young men. Nor would I have been part of the gem of a conversation my friend Matt and I found ourselves engaged in last year at Göbekli Tepe, an archaeological site outside of Şanlıurfa.

I don't remember how it happened, but somehow one of the guys showing us around decided we would be a good audience for his conspiracy theories about how Israel is trying to take over Southeast Turkey. Which is rich in, uh, watermelons and pigeons? Trying not to get too engaged in this one, we demurred, saying a few wishy-washy things about how there are good and bad people in every country, etc. etc. When he started asking about our family's religious backgrounds, I thought we'd be in for more of a tirade. But instead he seemed delighted, summing up the encounter as if he had discovered the secret to global peace: "Look at us, me a Muslim, you a Jew, and you a Christian -- all together! If only the whole world could be like this."

NOTE: People make the place, wherever you go. Check out other Lonely Planet travel bloggers' encounters around the world with interesting locals -- from teenage village girls to famous astronauts -- in the Blogsherpa Blog Carnival: Travel Encounters, hosted by Camden Luxford of The Brink of Something Else.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Bebek varsa...

Like many other things in Turkey, this one seems very strange the first time it happens and then quickly becomes routine: You bring a small child into a restaurant or cafe, the waiters (yes, men) will almost invariably start to coo over him, ask to hold him, and then walk him around the premises, completely disappearing from your sight, before eventually returning the child, likely along with some unsolicited parenting advice.

Having a kid in your social group certainly gives foreigners some different insights into the local culture -- in our case mainly the nosiness, overblown health concerns, and different gender expectations that can characterize certain groups of Turks. Like the way men here are often both very macho and extremely affectionate with each other, the sight of a hipster young man (carefully askew hair, elaborately detailed jeans, too-tight T-shirt with some kind of grammatically incorrect or just slightly odd English-language saying on it) making googly eyes at a baby on the ferry seems dissonant at first, but is also incredibly sweet.

Turks also generally don't hesitate to pry into your private business, especially if there is a child involved. We all got a good laugh for many weeks (OK, months; we're easily amused) out of an evening when our little friend Davey was wailing inconsolably at dinner and one of the guys in the group decided to walk him around the neighborhood so his mom could actually eat a few bites of food. He came back a bit shaken -- as Davey continued to cry, women apparently started scolding our friend who was carrying him, saying accusingly, "Where is that baby's mother?!" One even offered to let them come up to her house so she could take care of the bebek properly.

Perhaps due to some odd differentiation between health concerns and safety ones that I still fail to understand, young Davey's parents were also often harangued by their neighbors for not having him bundled up tightly enough. So often were they greeted thusly when they stepped out of their apartment, they took to swaddling him in hat and jacket even on a warm spring day, then removing the extra garb once they got a few blocks away from the prying eyes. But in the same neighborhood, children play until all hours on the street, sliding down the oiled-slicked hills on flimsy pieces of cardboard, careening at the last minute away from cars screeching around the corner. Apparently that's not as dangerous as the possibility of catching a chill.

NOTE: Turkey's not the only place where travelers + children = interesting experiences. Check out other Lonely Planet travel bloggers' accounts from Fiji, Korea, Portugal, Uganda, and more in the Blogsherpa Blog Carnival: Kids Around the World, hosted by Glennia Campbell of The Silent I.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

DIY Mangal

Every 4th of July in Amerikastan, we'd pack up the car and drive out to the suburbs of Sacramento to celebrate the holiday the way it was intended -- with a yard full of kegs and BBQ grills, fireworks in the street, dips in the pool, and the neighborhood on parade. Although (or perhaps because) I'm a die-hard city girl, I loved these excursions to the 'burbs. Last week, I think I may have found the equivalent experience in Istanbul.

First, you go to the store and buy as much köfte (meatballs), sucuk (beef sausage), chicken wings, and cans of Efes as you can carry. Then you walk up to Taksim, take the metro to 4. Levent, and then hop on a bus to Sariyer. (More than one bus, if you do it incorrectly.) Stay on as the bus turns away from the sparkling waters of the Bosphorus and cruises down the neighborhood's main drag, past the dusty little otogar and the dilapidated local sports "stadium," and then down a very unpromising-looking industrial road before hopping off by the sign saying "Çırçır Suyu Sosyal Tesileri." You may feel like you're walking into a construction site, but don't give up hope.

At the end of the road, there's a leafy, secluded patch of land, full of trees and picnic tables where you can set up your goods while the men working there bring you the fired-up mangal (grill) and all the plates and silverware you'll need for just 11 liras a person. And they'll clean up after you too. Just make sure not to get roped into letting the roving band of musicians play for you. They sound a lot better from a safe distance, when the neighboring group of raucous picnickers is paying their tips.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Maç manyaklik

I've worked at a Turkish newspaper long enough that I've pretty much stricken the word "soccer" from my vocabulary, but when the World Cup rolled around, I didn't spare much thought to all the fuss. Still, when the televisions clicked on at 5 p.m. on the first day of the matches, and looming deadlines couldn't tear any of my coworkers away from the screen, it was hard not to be a little curious. The international nature of the game intrigued me -- Turkey wasn't in it, and neither the U.S. nor England had much hope, but my Turkish, American, and British friends were still riveted. I was amused by the idea that referees had to monitor for swearing in 17 different languages. And there was definitely something satisfyingly cosmopolitan about watching the Australia-Germany match in Turkey while my Danish friend explained it all to me.

Football's still a lot more fun when Turkey's playing, though. Not long ago, I took a visitor down to Nevizade (a popular street for meyhanes and other nightlife) to watch the final match of the Turkish Super League. Bars had set up televisions on every floor, each wall-to-wall with people. The narrow street was nearly impassable due to the throngs angling for an over-the-shoulder glimpse at the screens. When fans of Fenerbahçe (a team I like to think of as the Yankees of Turkish football, and not really in a good way) mistakenly thought their squad had emerged victorious, they set off Roman candles amid the tightly packed crowd, causing the paranoid mind to look frantically about for an escape route from the fire-fleeing stampede that was sure to ensue.

Two years ago, Turkey took a shockingly successful run at the European championship, a development so big around these parts that even I couldn't ignore the nighttime screaming, wailing, and gunshots as our boys progressed through the competition. I watched what turned out to be Turkey's last hurrah at a large and absolutely packed çay bahçesi (tea garden, although this one also served beer) on the lovely Aegean island of Bozcaada, drinking Efes and trying to follow the action on the outdoor screen with the aid of a guy I'd met on the beach, an amusing exercise in that he spoke basically no English and my sports vocabulary was pretty much limited to "takim" (team) and "bayrak" (flag). No matter, I quickly learned to chant "Türk-i-ye, Türk-i-ye!" with the best of them, and that was all that mattered.

NOTE: Check out other Lonely Planet bloggers' takes on World Cup watching all around the world, from Spain to South Korea, Berkeley to Beirut.