Tag Archives: Turkish men

The Boogie Started to Explode

When my daughter was two, her developing speech couldn’t quite articulate the words hair clip. Instead, what came out of her mouth was hippie kip.

Naturally, charmed by our creation, Byron and I started copying her words, and in no time at all, a hair fastener, in our household lexicon, was always referred to as a hippie kip.

Eleven years later, with that two-year-old now heading into the homestretch of middle school, I can be heard on windy days telling the kids and Byron–spitting out the words through a mouthful of hair–that I sure do wish I had a hippie kip stashed in my purse. Admittedly, that thought generally finishes with me noting that I’ve left my purse at home and then, after rubbing my dry lips together, asking the assembled crew if anyone has a lip balm I can use.

What with all of my dry lip assuagers being at home in my purse.

Then I usually announce that I’m hungry. At this point, I ask Byron to go buy me some food.

Since all my money and credit cards are at home. In my purse.


Suffice it to say, I rarely have anything, much less a hippie kip, on hand when I need it, and subsequently my family is well accustomed to watching me cough up hairballs (through parched lips, as my stomach growls). They don’t bat an eye; they’re used to it: we live together. And that’s why we speak the same language. Indeed, most households are rife with specialized words and phrases, a unique familyspeak only insiders can understand.

We have friends who have a word for the leftover crumbs in, say, a pie pan–those random bits that don’t comprise a full serving but which are worth scraping out with the tines of a fork or pinching out with the fingers. The word they use for this pinch of bonus delectablity is schnibbles. These same friends (both with strong environmental education backgrounds) can be heard asking their kids, “Do you want limpets for lunch?” when they’re referring to this:

I hooted when I found out about limpets because, in our house, we have a special name for a related Annie’s product:

Our name for this box of yummy stuff is bunny hats. As far as we can recall, one time when the kids were little, the grocery store was out of regular bunnies (aka limpets), and so, in a stroke of parenting genius, we convinced them that the hats the bunnies wear are equally tasty. To this day, both kids believe shell-shaped pasta noodles double as hats for forest creatures.

We’ve also taught them to call pasta covered with pesto sauce green noodles.

Thusly educated, they will be standouts on their college campuses.

Picture them marching into the cafeteria during Orientation Week and requesting heaping plates of green noodle bunny hats. They’ll be rushed by sororities, drafted onto the best ultimate frisbee teams, and awarded premature honorary doctorates.


Oh, but there’s more.

After the members of my family watched the following video,

…the phrase “Worry about yourself” entered into heavy rotation around these parts. A few weeks later, the kids then had a visit with their wee cousin–of an age with Miss “Worry About Yourself”–and came home using the cousin’s special phrase for nearly every question she’s asked. In response to most queries, she replies, “Maybe you’d like to.” For example: “Say, Toddler Cousin, it’s dinner time. Could you put your toys away before we eat?” Her response? “Maybe you’d like to.”

What’s charming in a toddler is less so in kids over five feet tall, as it turns out, especially when you’ve just told them it’s their turn to empty the dishwasher.

Family shorthand evolves out of shared experiences, but it also comes from sheer proximity. When you live with someone, you start to speak a common language. I have any number of usages that would confound an outsider but which my nears-‘n-dears can follow easily.

Were I to say, “Hey, Paco, have you seen my putrescent egg thingie?” he would know immediately I was referring to the bottle of deer repellant spray that I use on the most-besieged flowers in our yard, a bottle I’m remarkably good at setting down in random garden spots and then wondering where it went.

As well, Byron knows that my brain refuses to remember the correct name for the Summit brewing company’s Horizon Red Ale and that I will only understand what he’s talking about if he uses my special name for it: “Red Hook.” Sometimes at beer o’clock, he asks, “Would you like me to pour you a Horizon–you know, the one you call Red Hook?” Before I can answer him (YES!), I actually have to reframe his offer: “You mean, would I like a Red Hook, which the rest of you insist on calling Horizon Red Ale?”

One time, the kids and I walked to the neighborhood ice cream shop, and on our way home, as we meandered through a block of local businesses, a member of our group announced a need to speed up the pace because–how to put it genteely?–that group member’s colon, spurred on by something delicious and chocolatey, had taken a notion. We needed a toilet, and we needed it sooner rather than later. At the moment the “let’s walk faster” announcement was made, we were passing the office building of a chiropractor named Dr. Daniel P. Dock. Of course, because there was no adult present in the group to shut down unnecessary bowel talk, our conversation quickly shifted from the announcement of “Could we walk faster? I need the bathroom” to “Don’t you think the name Dr. Daniel P. Dock sounds like a great euphemism for pooping?” Since that day, therefore, the words “I need to make a visit to Dr. Daniel P. Dock” mean, in reality, pull. the. car. over. at. the. next. gas. station. and. I. mean. hit. the. brakes. NOW.

Examples of family-speranto are endless, particularly after our intense year of togetherness in Turkey, a time when we gathered phrases and words unto ourselves in more than one language and in a variety of memorable situations. When Byron sees a phone call coming in from me, he still answers it with the Turkish “Efandim!”, and we still drop the word komshu (“neighbor”) to indicate we’re in the presence of a greedy soul who’d negotiate a fee before saving a four-year-old from drowning.


Komshu there had barely finished entwining me into that headscarf of hers before she shouted “TEN LIRA!” It was a long year of dodging her overtures on our way from the house to the bus.

It should come as no surprise, then, that my all-time favorite bit of Family Code Talk was born in Turkey, albeit in English.

There was this day, you see,

a day when we’d sent Allegra out of the house as Canary in Coalmine, to check the path for offending komshu. Our aim? To get from the house to the bus without being sold a significant bill of fare along the way.

After dropping to all fours and scuttling along the roadway like crabs, we made it to the village square unaccosted, boarded the bus (aka dolmush), and made our weekly ride into the nearby city of Nevshehir.

They have a mall in Nevshehir.

It’s a big deal.

In this mall, devout Muslims and bewildered Americans alike can explore an earring store, a toy store, an underwear store, some shoe stores, a sausage store, a couple of coffee joints, a Burger King, a liquor store, an electronics store, and a place that makes all kinds of baked potatoes, including ones with pickles and kernels of corn ladled on top.

With such a variety of shops, all topped off by a comprehensive food court, the mall is hopping.

Clearly, a place like this needs lots of employees. I mean, someone’s got to heap the pickles onto those baked potatoes, right?

On the day in question, one mall employee was hard at work clearing up after food court patrons. He wiped tables, swept floors, tossed trash. He wore a beige shirt with a name tag, and he was, to put the finest of points on it, the ultimate service worker. He couldn’t have been happier.

At first, we didn’t notice him. The kids and I had our faces buried in baskets of Popeye’s chicken, and Byron was lapping the last bit of lamb off his Turkish pizza. More than likely, we were exchanging congratulatory tales of komshu dodged.

Hearing our English, the table-wiping employee began tightening his orbit around our table. The moment Byron lifted the last bite of pizza off its plate, Mall Employee Man eased in for the grab, reaching for the cafeteria-style tray nestled between Byron’s elbows. Quickly, Byron reached out, trying to find the right combination of words and gestures to indicate that he wasn’t done, that he still wanted his drink and the napkins that were on the tray.

Yok, lutfen. Sag olun” (“No, please. Thanks”), Byron squeaked out, as Mall Employee Man attempted to ease Paco’s tray out from under his half-eaten meal. Under his breath, Byron advised Paco, “Just grab your chicken and drink, if we can’t stop him from taking your tray.”

Feigning surprise, as he’d been quite obviously eavesdropping for some time, Mall Employee Man said, “You speak English? I speak English!”

Quickly replaying the last few minutes’ family conversation in m mind, I heaved a sigh of relief when I realized we hadn’t been discussing the size of Mall Employee Man’s mustache (fair to middlin’, but a ‘B’ for effort) or trash talking the Flock of Seagulls-ish haircuts of the Young Turks at the table next to us.

And, yes, our familial unit does spend an inordinate time on follicular-based conversation topics.

With no need to feel sheepish for having bashed his ‘stache, we straightened into the posture of Friendly Foreigners, ready to engage our interest in this man’s English abilities.

“Did you learn English in school?” I began.

“No. Well, little bit. When young. I learn real English England. I live England seven years.”

Picking a bit of lamb out of his teeth, Byron also picked up the line of inquiry: “What were you doing in England for seven years?”

“I have cousin England. I go England work cousin restaurant. Turkish restaurant. I kebap English people.”

“That sounds very interesting,” my English teacher self continued encouragingly. “It must have been good to have family there and to have a waiting for you.”

“Well,” Mall Employee Man replied, his face suddenly becoming less animated, more grim, “it maybe not so good.”

Always a fan of a wrench thrown into the works, I leaned in as Byron asked, “So it was not a good experience for you in England?”

“Ohhhh. It too much fun. Too much fun not good,” our new friend explained. “I have friends. I go out night. I go out all nights. I no sleep then I work. Seven years. Too much. I need come home.”

So much story fell between his broken sentences; our kids only heard that Mall Employee Man hadn’t slept enough in England. Thanks to the nine-kabillion decibel mosque speaker across from our house in the dusty village, they hadn’t slept enough in Turkey. From a child’s point of view, his story was simple.

For Byron and me, however, Mall Employee Man’s experience in England was rich. The story that fell between his broken sentences smacked of women and booze and 3 a.m. yelling in an alley. As I imagined a young Turkish man discovering London’s streets in the late-night hours after bone-numbing shifts washing dishes, the sounds of glass breaking and tires screeching filled my head.

There was a moment of silence there in the food court that day as we screened our respective mental movies of MEM’s years in England.

Recalling those years took a toll on Mall Employee Man. His shoulders sagged a bit; his middling mustache drooped. Resting onto our table the cafeteria trays he was holding, he slumped forward, taking a break from the weight of memory. Then, slowly,

with all the weariness of the world compacted into a single gesture,

he lifted a meaty paw and wiped it across both eyes, exhaling dejectedly.

His face was woebegone, desolate–haunted by visions of Funkytown, Bad Girls, A Celebration That Lasted Throughout the Years–as he spoke again. Summing up his seven years in England and the mark they’d left on him,

he began, “I leave England because…”

before uttering the phrase that our family still uses to describe overwhelmed senses; exhaustion and limpness; the desire to crawl home and hide under a soft blanket:

“…too much disco.”

Of Tesbih and Testes: Then It Got Personal

As I wrote this one, I realized my complaints about Turkish men got revved up on a day when I felt defensive and angry on behalf of a friend. Now that I’ve written the post, however, I have to concede that the vagaries of relationships aren’t always culture specific.  Money and disappointment are the bedrock of many a break-up, no matter the citizenship of those involved.  What’s more, as Depeche Mode so succinctly sang in 1984, “people are people,” no matter where they live or how they cook their chicken. 

Wait:  those last are my lyrics.


It took me a minute of digging through my bag–nope, that’s a gum wrapper; nope, that’s a bandaid; nope, that’s a bottle of keyfir; nope, that’s a slimy mass the origin of which I don’t want to contemplate–to unearth the ringing cell phone.  Fortunately, bleating cell phones are standard collateral noise in an Internet cafe, so none of the 22 adolescent Turkish boys around me so much as glanced up from their first-person shooting as I scrambled to hit “talk” and gulp out a breathless, “Hello?”

“Hi,” said a muffled voice.  “How are you?”

It was my excellent pal, Jessica, an American woman originally from Pennsylvania, a woman who had fallen in love her first year at university with the sole Turk on campus.  In short measure, she was taking private Turkish lessons, they were engaged, then married (with ceremonies both in the U.S. and in Turkey), with her racing through her studies to graduate before they went to live in Germany where he had gotten a job.  There, while he worked, she took Turkish classes taught in German, which meant every assignment was completed with her tiny 4′ 10″ frame surrounded by a stack of dictionaries.  First, she would look up the instructions in German and translate them to English.  Only then could she apply herself to deciphering the Turkish.  After more than a year in Germany, Jessica and her husband moved to Turkey and had a baby.

It was on the baby’s first birthday that Jessica finally allowed the accrued disappointments of her marriage to find purchase.  She spent the day of the party hustling around Istanbul, baby in tow, buying gifts and favors, picking up a cake from the bakery her socialite mother-in-law insisted upon, and as she returned home and opened the front door while juggling baby, collapsed stroller, bags of presents, and cake, her phone rang.  It was her husband, calling to let her know he wouldn’t be home to help set up for the party.  To let her know he wouldn’t be at the party.  He just didn’t feel like it–even though the guests were all his relatives.  Jessica should just entertain them all properly and “do the woman thing,” and he’d be home later.

The sound of his phone hanging up was the sound of the marriage ending.

Roughly a year later, the single mother of a toddler, Jessica started playing tavla (backgammon) online in a Yahoo game room used by Turkish players.  She found the table chat a good way to practice her Turkish, and the company of other adults, even faceless, cyber adults, felt like a social life.  After a while, she and one other player began communicating outside of the game room; eventually, she agreed to meet him.  As is the case with most hopeless romantics, love happened fast.  They dated.  He loved Jessica’s daughter.  He told her he loved her.  They got married.

Approximately six months later, Jessica was hunting through their apartment, looking for a piece of paperwork she needed.  What she found were documents indicating that the name she’d been calling her husband wasn’t–as the Turks would say–otantik.  His real name was something else entirely.  Why would he lie? Why would he live under a pseudonym? Why this out-of-nowhere deception?

Because, as came tumbling out shortly thereafter, he was a member of the Turkish mafia.

It took months for Jessica to extract herself from the marriage, months when she had to call upon her own powers for deception, strategizing, and lies.  When she tried to leave her husband, to get a divorce, he reacted with frightening anger, intimidation, threats; he was not only possessive, he was dangerous.  Thus, once she realized he was having her followed, she changed her appearance and started living as a “covered” woman, wearing headscarves and trench coats, changing which hand she wrote with, confiding in the director at the elite school where she worked, who then arranged for her to live on the closed campus patrolled by security guards (tangentially, the guards gushed every day to Jessica Hanim that she had never looked more beautiful than when she was covered). 

Managing to keep tabs on her, Mafia Husband became increasingly demanding and threatening and unhinged, and even as Jessica tried to dodge the people tailing her but failed to elude him completely, she came up with a plan to obtain the divorce.  In Turkey, if a court case is called in front of a judge, and one of the parties isn’t present, that party forfeits the ruling; although such hearings can be rescheduled, after time, the no-show party is out of luck.  What Jessica did, then, was fool Mafia Husband into thinking she would be unable to attend a series of court dates.  First, she convinced him she had to be in Greece for a school-related conference (going so far as to find colleagues who had fridge magnets and chocolate from their own travels to Greece that they didn’t mind handing over in the name of a fine deception; she gifted these travel mementos to him once she “got back from her trip”).  Another time, she told him her grandmother in the States was ill and that she would have to be in the U.S. on their next court date.  So possessive was he that he insisted she call him from the States and give him updates on her family, her daughter, her trip.

This proved particularly tricky, seeing as Jessica never actually went anywhere.  She stayed right there in Istanbul the whole time, which meant that she had to time her “calls from the States” around the daily Calls to Prayer.  If they were chatting, and she realized it was nearly time for the prayer to sound, she would hurriedly cut the conversation short–before he realized she was in the same city as he.

The upshot of her ruse was this:  because he was convinced that she was out of the country, Mafia Husband didn’t bother attending the court dates.  Jessica–cagily–did.  In this fashion, she won the sought-after divorce.

Before the divorce, while still in the process of making herself harder to detect and follow, Jessica also sold her vehicle and bought a new car.

A man named Kerem sold her the car.

After she bought the car, there were a few insurance issues Kerem had to follow up on.

For Jessica, that was as good as a proposal.

Oh, all right.  It was more complicated than that.  While there had been an immediate chemistry between her and Kerem on the car lot–vroom vroom–the circumstances of their subsequent dating were, indeed, complex (When better to strike up a new relationship than while eluding an angry mafia husband? Jessica’s ability to subvert downbeat drama with a diverting overlay of romance is akin to the band on the Titanic striking up “Nearer My Got to Thee” while that maudlin Kate Winslet floated by on a huge mahogany door).

The complication came when, shortly after the car lot romantics started seeing each other, Kerem’s father was diagnosed with a brain tumor.  In the face of his illness, the family froze.  They heard the doctors talk but didn’t ask questions; they knew something terrible was happening but couldn’t figure out how to react to it.  Into this familial paralysis stepped Kerem’s new girlfriend, the goal-setting, plan-making, information-gathering energetic classroom teacher /administrator.  After sitting in on one family meeting during which Dad’s diagnosis was discussed, after watching the entire bewildered family shuffle out to the car, blowing their noses into hankies, Jessica lingered behind.  Catching the doctor in the hallway, she started asking questions.  “So,” she began, “with this diagnosis, what exactly is his prognosis?  What will his course of treatment be? What can the family do to participate in this process?”

When the family recognized her ability to be proactive in a medical setting, Jessica’s role in caring for Dad quickly grew.  The tradition in Turkey is for a family member to stay in a patient’s hospital room for the duration of the treatment; there is a special bed/chair in the room just for this individual.  In the family hierarchy, Kerem was the natural choice to stay with his father and help with Dad’s personal care.  Too broken up to imagine assisting his father in this way—and perhaps, in post-game analysis, unable to  face stressful situations with grit–Kerem turned to Jessica and said, “I can’t do it.  I can’t.  Will you?”  Pathologically unable to shirk a duty or shrug off a request, Jessica gladly stepped in, thusly beginning months as Dad’s primary family caretaker.

By the time Dad passed away, she had become a vertebra in the backbone of the family, and the only logical next step was for her to marry Kerem.  If they’d been through life and death together, marriage seemed the best affirmation of that intensity.

Things started out well, with a honeymoon in Cappadocia and the simultaneous conception of their son.  Adding to the heightened feeling of that first year, as well, was an expensive car crash (a metaphorical sign that Their Vehicle of Love required a fair bit of tinkering under the hood), which resulted in a money-making idea:  Jessica’s appearance—for 18 nights—on the Turkish equivalent of television’s “Deal or No Deal?”  During most of the episodes, she was a player in the background, waiting for her name to be called, carrying out the requisite mundane chat with the host, but once she moved into the role of Active Contestant, she strategized well, ultimately walking away from the show with 71,000 Turkish Lira (roughly 48,000 U.S. dollars—this, in a country where the average yearly income is $12,000).

This money literally changed their lives.  It fell from the floodlights just when Kerem had been laid off from his job selling cars, just when the administration at Jessica’s school had changed for the worse.  With that money, they could do something big.

They decided to move to Cappadocia, the land of fairy chimneys and side-slanting light. It seemed the perfect place to slow down, start over, raise their family. 

Easily, Jessica snared a teaching job at a private school in one of Cappadocia’s larger cities.  Although she would only earn 20% of her Istanbul salary, it seemed doable.  Together, she and Kerem would also open a car rental agency; while Jessica lobbied for them to put half of her game-show winnings into savings, Kerem argued that if he was kept on a leash, financially, they’d never be able to see what he could have achieved.  He needed all the money so that he could do it right.

The logic of this argument set up a marital dynamic wherein Jessica could be “selfish” and insist on restricting her husband’s dream, or she could be “supportive” and give him everything, if that’s what his success required.

What Jessica might have learned, had she and Kerem dated longer, had they experienced a courtship that was about discovery of each other rather than rescue of his family, was that Kerem wasn’t financially savvy, nor—despite his traits of being honest and hardworking—was he cut out to be his own boss.  These realities ran smack into the inbred dysfunction of Goreme village, and Kerem flailed as he learned who would take advantage of him and who he could count as an ally.  Unfortunately, his wife’s advice and feedback on his decisions felt like more of an attack, and at some point, Jessica realized Kerem couldn’t perceive her as an ally unless she was cheering his every move, unquestioned.  At that point, “our business” became “Kerem’s business.”

…except when he found himself financially hamstrung, having been taken too many times by the duplicity of native Cappadocians, overwhelmed by the logistics of money-in/money-out, and handling a fleet of cars powered by little more than an attitude of It Will Work Out So Long As I Don’t Stop to Think About It.  Half a year into the new business, having burned through the game-show winnings, he begged Jessica to avail herself of the low-interest loan offered by the bank to teachers.  Once again, he looked to her for rescue.  This she did, completely conflicted between her personal reluctance to accrue debt and her heart’s insistence that she be a supportive spouse.  She took out a personal loan and handed over another 10,000 Turkish lira to Kerem’s business.

The consequence of this desire to boost her husband’s chances was a sticky dynamic wherein Kerem struggled to come up with the monthly loan payment, Jessica spent several weeks each month pushing him to find the money, and gradually it dawned on Jessica that sacrificing her own financial soundness and sense of peace for the sake of her marriage was untenable.  If her romantic history had taught her anything, it was that the impulse to help, to save, to rescue had a limited shelf life when not reciprocated. Every time Kerem told Jessica he couldn’t quite find the money to pay back her debt—yet always scratching it together at the last minute—the fine print on the expiration date became clearer.

Her marriage was starting to feel like spoiled goods.  The financial stress served to highlight Kerem’s continual absence from the family and his inability to treat her with care and thought.  However, rather than act precipitously, Jessica put herself on a six-month plan, during which she would bide her time, see if Kerem could right himself financially and start showing up for their relationship.  At the base of it, though, Jessica had switched to a mode of self-preservation; at the base of it, Jessica felt the kind of disillusion that renders a marriage terminal.

As fights began to break out more frequently and Kerem began to come home later and later each night, his schedule completely unpredictable, Jessica made a plan for how to save herself.  With all the game-show money gone, an extra 10,000TL loan to her name, and her dramatically-reduced salary carrying the entire family, she decided that, if her Plan B were called into action, she would need to move back to Istanbul to regain financial empowerment.  Cutting and running with the kids was unacceptable to her, for she remained empathetic to how unjust it would be to leave Kerem behind, choking in the dust of Cappadocia, when the move there had upheaved his life as much as hers.  Hence, throughout the next school year, she would start highlighting how much better life had been in Istanbul, pointing out the increased career opportunities and proximity to his family.  Additionally, she had an unprecedented conversation of confidence with Kerem’s mother and sister, laying out the bones of the problems and asking them to aid Kerem’s transition back to the West Coast and some new career in any way they could.

Pretty much, she would return Kerem from whence he came and, once he was settled in to a steady life, she would wish him well, hopefully establishing an amiable enough climate that shared custody would not be a problem.

In the meantime, as she began positioning herself to carry out her long-term plan, Jessica had no desire for her home to feel hostile; she wanted a haven, a place where something like harmony—no matter how illusory—allowed for more peaceful co-existence.  One night, after another evening of a late-night return home, behavior accompanied by abrupt responses and anger, Jessica angled for a détente:  Kerem’s every word had become defensive, his exasperation with her presence palpable, but Jessica defused their standard dynamic by noting quietly, “It seems, at some point along the way, we forgot how to be friends.  Could we try to put our grievances on pause and just remember what it was like to be friends?”

That moment of diplomacy worked beautifully; it stopped the thrust and parry they’d become accustomed to and, because the proposal had no pretense of being a cure-all, it freed them to do just one thing:  soften their edges.

However, despite her predilection for marrying Turkish men, Jessica is no fool.  She just wanted to cool things off so that she could more realistically gauge the marriage’s potential for survival.  What she knew absolutely was this:  she worked full time, was always the parent on duty with the kids, dealt 100% with household matters, and financed all the bills; in contrast, Kerem worked long hours—hours that made it impossible for him to be present in family life—yet had never contributed a kurush to their coffers.  Jessica had told Kerem he had six months, in terms of her dwindling patience, to start pitching in some money.  She did not tell him he had six months, in terms of her dwindling patience, before her more-complicated Plan B, the one involving relocation and divorce, would be activated.

So there she sat in her life, this amazing, generous, gracious friend with whom my family spent every major holiday in our year away from home, a woman whose mixed-up childhood (which merits a post unto itself) had primed her for an adulthood focused on two things:  finding True Love and helping people in need.  And that—in case you were searching for the recipe–is how a cock-eyed American marries three Turkish men before the age of 35.

It’s also how that same cock-eyed American finds herself engaged in a process of self- examination stemming from brutal honesty:  “Okay, so if I become a woman who has been divorced three times, and I’m the common denominator in each of those failed marriages, then what is it I’m doing that doesn’t work?  If my approach to each marriage has been devoting myself unflaggingly to doing everything right, then somehow what I perceive as “right” is actually something that’s very wrong.  What is my part in all this?”

Smack dashingly in the middle of this self-analysis came the day when my phone rang in the Internet café.  Her voice was muffled, hard to hear.  “Hey, honey, are you feeling sick or something?  You sound congested.”

“No,” Jessica said, starting to sob.  “I’ve just been really surprised today, and I can’t stop crying.  Can you talk?  I am just so bewildered.  I just didn’t see it coming.  I feel like it’s all broken, and I didn’t know what to do.”

Earlier that day, one of the few weekdays during the school year that she had off, she had been at home, cleaning, when Kerem had called, agitated, nearly breathless.

“I have to pay the bank 3,000TL by 5:30 tonight.  I have a credit card debt that they’re calling in, and it’s 3,000TL, and they want it by 5:30.”

Having extracted herself from his business affairs some time before as she attempted to preserve the peace, Jessica hadn’t known about this credit card or this debt.  She was sideswiped. Devastated.

To her credit, her childhood and previous relationships had served as a kind of boot camp in Methodical Reaction When the Rug Is Yanked.  Thus, when Kerem blubbered, “I don’t know what to do. I don’t have the money. Can you go to the bank and take out another teacher’s loan for me?”, Jessica’s response was immediate.  Whereas mere hours before she’d still been hosting herself in a game of “Done, or Not Done?” with regards to her marriage, she knew which suitcase to pick in this round:  the one with a big NO stenciled on the side.

Relatively compassionately, though, Jessica tempered her NO with—unsurprisingly—a Plan B.  “Come home.  Let’s see what we have that you can sell.”

Shortly thereafter, Kerem—former professional football player cum car salesman cum private business owner, husband on his second marriage, father to a toddler—showed up at their house, the rent on which Jessica paid every month, and helped his wife remove all the jewelry from her body, including her wedding ring.  Then they went through her jewelry box. Although utterly devastated, Jessica’s attitude was, “He’s taking back the jewelry he gave to me, for our wedding, anniversaries, special occasions. He bought it for me in the first place.  He can have it back.”

Added to the pile of jewelry was one item of Kerem’s: a tesbih (string of prayer beads) made of gold. 

She gave all she had.  He gave what little he had.  It still wasn’t enough.

(on a literal financial level, he raised enough that day to pacify the bank and get them to set up a payment plan for him)

The situation could only have been more painfully fraught with symbolism had the scene been shot by Ingmar Bergman in black and white with a hand-held camera on a misty island with a beach full of dead seals during the autumnal equinox.

Indeed, Kerem gathered up the pile of treasures and, gushing with gratitude, assured Jessica she was the best wife ever, that he’d never loved her more.  Naturally, the fact that these sentiments were issued as he rushed out the door to the Turkish equivalent of a pawn shop diminished their impact.

For Kerem, that occasion of coming together as a couple reanimated his commitment.

For Jessica, not so much.  In fact, she was so disconcerted by the knockback of the morning’s events that, for once, she was bereft of the energetic wherewithal that usually fired her gut.

She was flattened.  She was tangled.  She was invested.  She was done.  She was there for him, and she was gone.

We wove our girlfriend hearts together over the phone lines and had a good cry.

Not at all healed but feeling a new kind of clarity, Jessica decided to stick to her original Plan B, the basis of which was to give Kerem until September to turn things around, and if things hadn’t changed significantly, she would proceed, over the course of the next year, to position herself for a “family move” back to Istanbul.  After that, they could part fairly.

Within a month of selling her jewelry, Kerem was talking about becoming a partner in a Cappadocian hotel.  When pressed, he couldn’t really spell out how his investment in the partnership would yield him a monthly income.

Within a month of her jewelry being sold, Jessica had taken the kids to visit family in Istanbul.  During that visit, she not only laid some groundwork with Kerem’s female relations for possible future developments,

she also passed a jewelry shop and spotted a ring that caught her eye.  Damned if she wasn’t tired of looking at her bare ring finger a hundred times a day,

she went in

and bought herself a new ring,

one that makes her smile whenever she looks at it

because she knows she gave it to herself—a kind of personal convenant

…which is, ultimately, the best possible marriage she could ever make.

Of Tesbih and Testes: Scrubbing Away the Next Layer of Disgruntleds

I’m floating in the most pleasant Limbo right now.

(don’t tell the Catholics what a delightful place Neither Here Nor There can be, lest they stop baptizing their newborns and, thusly, put a crimp in economics of the christening gown industry)

We’re back in Minnesota, having wrapped up our Turkish adventure (see www.layingfallow.com/turkeyblog for a final post written in situ), and I’m amazingly calm and breezy. Not yet in our house, which is rented out until August 1st, we’re staying at my aunt and uncle’s retirement compound about half an hour outside Duluth, our luggage stacked in the sewing room. Over the past week, we’ve taken care of errands like applying for utilities, transferring a car title, and returning a rented viola. Other hours have been spent gabbing in the neighborhood—which is only slightly creepy seeing as we’re not technically living there—and catching up with sleepovers and playdates.

And Groom does like him a playdate.

The journey home was long, starting at 3:30 a.m. Turkish time and ending the equivalent of 9 a.m. the following morning, Turkish time (1 a.m. Minnesota time). The highlight of our flight from Istanbul to Chicago was definitely not the seven-hour stretch where the flight attendants and their carts of food and water disappeared entirely but, rather, the two hours when I watched the eerily-accurate movie CEDAR RAPIDS. In balmy Chicago, we and our eleven carry-on bags–weren’t we cagey in slipping that many by the airlines? We got a good 120+ pounds of goods home that way alone–had to retrieve our nine suitcases (total weight in those: 211 kilograms) and, after passing through customs, stand in long lines to recheck and resecuritize, all before sitting, delayed, on the tarmac…which allowed extra time to realize my first culture shock: my seat mate was able to communicate with me. A lot.

I had warned my cousin, who was to pick us up at the Minneapolis airport, that I’d probably burst into tears at the sight of him. But nay. It was simply great. He and my in-laws met us at the baggage claim, they having already retrieved several of our distinctive duffels by the time we got there, after which we sloshed out into the swamp that is July in Minnesota and stood in the airport parking lot, having a giddy tailgate party as we dove into the care package of food sent along by my cousin’s wife. Slamming a Surly beer, eating a bagel with cream cheese, fondling a PEOPLE magazine with Kate Middleton on the cover, I forgot my fatigue.

Of course, during the ensuing three-hour drive home, the fatigue came crashing in, to the point that I found myself cradling both kids’ chins in my palms, in an effort to keep their bobbing heads from giving them whiplash.

And in every day since then, as I’ve pushed back on the jet lag, finished out teaching two online summer classes, met up with friends and family, driven around this lush, green, clean city, I’ve just felt fine. There has been no melancholy; there are no pangs of transition, no sense of being overwhelmed by the significance of what we’ve done. It’s all been good. Just good. Really good. I’m happy to be here; I was happy to be there. I like it here; I liked it there. I was fascinated by what we experienced there; I’m excited to see what we’ll experience here.

Perhaps when we move back into our house, it’ll hit, and I’ll find myself sitting on the floor outside my closet, surrounded by boxes, wailing, “I’d. give. anything. to. hear. the. Call. To. Prayer. right. now.”

Until the day that I wipe my tears with corrugated cardboard, though, I’ll just carry on with the current feelings of “It’s cool. Whatever it is, it’s cool.”

My one regret, in fact, is the fact that I didn’t round out my posts about Turkish men while still in Turkey…because now that I’m Stateside, sitting in a recliner chair, my belly full of pork chop, listening to my uncle play Mexican Train dominoes with my aunt,

I’ve kind of lost touch with my rile.

Fortunately, I had pretty much lost touch with my rile before we even left. Sure, I was annoyed with the gender dynamics I’d observed, but I also felt like I hadn’t fully processed what I’d seen, and I was still trying to untangle the knot of my impressions before I could form a fair opinion.

Here is what I knew:

When I yelled that I was fed up with Turkish men, that impulse was, more accurately, a hard-won acknowledgment of a deep cultural socialization in Turkey (and surrounding countries) that offends my values.

In traditional Turkish village life, the men hang out with their buddies and call it “work,” and the women hang out with their galpals and do genuine work, and pretty much, in that process, neither gender seems to pine for the other.

I’m the one who minds; ergo, the lesson of all this gender analysis might be easier than anticipated: that the most significant thing visiting other cultures does is project our personal values into stark relief. Maybe experiencing another culture isn’t so much, ultimately, about absorbing that culture—maybe it’s more about learning our own borders.

The extent to which the inequality of genders rattles my cage hit full intensity six weeks ago. Interestingly, the acme of my pique was reached only when I met an American woman–someone well-integrated into expat life in Cappadocia, someone with graduate degrees, someone warm and natural and lovely, someone who teaches at a university, someone with a sharp humor…someone who felt familiar to me before I ever met her. In the way that Facebook can facilitate such things, we were friends before we were ever friends.

My identification with her—and months of “liking” her updates–primed me for a bit of emotional careening around as I observed her and her husband the night I finally met them in person.

Here is what I knew: a Turkish husband, hereafter called H., who lives much of the year in Goreme because he works at his family’s restaurant and wants to live in Turkey; an American wife who lives and teaches most of the year in England, there single parenting their toddler except during the months when H. comes to live with them (he has been avoiding his mandatory military experience in Turkey for a few years and, consequently, must spend at least 6 months each year out of the country). To their surprise, Lovely American Wife has turned up pregnant with their second child, so now she’s eyeing a future wherein she is married but largely single parents two kids and works full time—unless she decides to leave her tenured position and the UK and move to Goreme.

On the night I met them, Lovely American Wife had jetted to Cappadocia with their not-yet-two-year old and significantly pregnant tummy for a three day weekend. At a welcome party for her, Turks and expats congregated; it was a really nice gathering, but as the evening wore on, I got increasingly frustrated as I watched the mothers of toddlers on full-time duty while the fathers of toddlers played guitar and drank wine. I was outright exasperated when the fathers of toddlers took a break in the courtyard to get stoned before occasionally following their kids around on one of the upper terraces. At the end of the evening, pregnant Lovely American Wife, wrestling her rightfully-melting-down child, asked H. repeatedly to finish up his guitar riffing so that they could head home. He agreed to go—but first he had to finish his glass of wine. Ten minutes later, Lovely American Wife again said, “H., we need to go.” Gesturing to his newly-filled wine glass, H. showed her that he couldn’t possibly leave until it was drained.

For me, inside my head, this was the point where a vehement and huffy redhead started stomping around the padded cell where she lives, hollering, “Listen, TURKISH MAN, I know your guitar is fun to play and that you like to drink wine and have a little toke out in the courtyard and all, but howzabout we play by some Grown Up Rules, you know, what with having the wife and kids and all? Howzabout you start acting married to the woman with the belly across the room who’s trying to console your 20-month-old who just flew from England to see you for the first time in months? Howzabout you stop stepping out with your guitar and your pot and step the eff up? How about that?”

It took quite some days for my annoyance to calm into something rational. When that finally happened, I was able to admit that the dynamic between that husband and wife was actually not my business—if the way they function works for them, then that’s all that matters. All I really could take from that evening was that it highlighted my own values in ways I hadn’t considered before.

Specifically, that evening drove home two things that matter intensely to me:

1) If you are the parent in charge of a toddler, and you are hanging out with that toddler on a rooftop terrace that has no railings, don’t be stoned;

2) If you are married and you’d like your spouse to feel that you love her, choose her over your wine and guitar, for coming in third place behind alcohol and strings will never inspire your wife to pump her fists in the air and shout, “Yee-haw! That’s like being a bronze medal, and at least I edged out the Russians!”

All of this values reflection reminds me, too, that my relationship, my life, my expectations are the anomaly. I’m married to a man who’s as near to a woman as I could find but with the equipment I require; he’s been our stay-at-home parent; he’s the one who handles huge chunks of the logistics of our lives; he never so much as pours himself a cup of coffee without checking first to see what I might need. Because of who he is—and because most of the men in our circle of family and friends are similarly thoughtful and participatory—I’ve been able to forget that they aren’t necessarily representative and that our dynamic isn’t the only way of being.

As I muddled through my reactions to that night of wine and toddlers and meeting a new friend I already felt I’d known for ages, we also got busy with wrapping up our time in Turkey, the combination of which, fortunately, kept me from writing my planned diatribe about The Pot Pappies.

Because, you see, letting some time lapse meant that Lovely American Wife not only went back to England, but she also had time to return to Cappadocia (to spend the month of July with her husband and family in Goreme), all before I’d written a word. With her return, I was able to spend more time with her and enjoy increased feelings of comfort with and appreciation of her chosen life. In short, I got to see H. some more, and my second impression was radically different from my first. The second time around, he was quiet and gentle and omni-present; after we all had dinner together, it was he who cleared the table and carried everything into the house; it was he who toted the toddler on his shoulders as he did so. By the time we headed back to Ortahisar that day, I was left feeling sad not only that I wouldn’t have more face-to-face time with Lovely American Wife, but I was equally sad that I wouldn’t have more time to get to know H.

So how, then, to frame my impressions our first meeting, when I sat down to write about it? As I contemplated the interesting assignment of how to compose a skewering that ends with redemption, I was simultaneously emailing with Lovely American Wife, and she was sharing with me all the writing she’d done over the seven years that she’s been connected to Turkey, and suddenly the whole thing felt weirdly disingenuous. Deciding to come clean, I admitted to Lovely that I’d been trying to write about her and her husband—out of a place of frustration. From there, the floodgates opened, and we wrote back and forth, with her passing on her insights and me forwarding my blog address. By the end of the exchanges, I was ready to ditch Groom, bop H. on the head, and marry Lovely myself.

What she did for me, as we emailed back and forth and then talked in person, was lend my half-baked observations some sense. What I could only begin to observe and process in a year, she had been wrangling with for much longer and in much more intimate ways.

In her completely Lovely fashion, she gave me permission to share her words about gender and division of labor and Turkey:

“I have spent the past 7 years wrestling with all of this, and like you, I like to try to process the world through other people’s experiences so I’ve collected a LOT of data on the whole Gender in Turkey Thing. It’s kind of been my obsession, in fact, as a Western Liberal Feminist Female, to get to the bottom of this whole alien culture we see around us and most importantly, to decide how I feel about it. Your posts reminded me of all the thinking and hand-wringing I’ve done and still do on a weekly basis! I’ve gone through I don’t know how many stages of Anger, Grief, Denial, Blah Blah Blah and all I can say all these years later is: Everything Is More Complicated Than It Looks; and also, the dimension you often need to think about is time, not space. My current theory is this: what you see around you has nothing to do with Turkey or Islam. It’s the way big chunks of the entire world used to be until remarkably recently. For example, your first impressions of Ortahisar were EXACTLY the same as my first impressions of Italy when I backpacked alone there in 1988; except the men really were awful and lecherous and took every opportunity to hiss, catcall and shout obscenities at every woman who passed by. But basically it was identical: all the men sitting in the main square of the village publicly doing nothing, and all the women at home doing housework. I’m told that Italy has completely changed now, and so has Spain; Turkey is just some ways behind. I’m sure Western Turkey was the same as Ortahisar, too, til 10-15 years ago.

Anyway. The other thing I’ve finally figured out there’s a whole generational dimension too, that takes longer to notice. Yes, the men sit around doing nothing all day; but think about it, most of the guys you see sitting around in the tea house have businesses to run, a pension, a carpet shop, citrus storage plant, whatever. Who is running the business? Not the women; they’re at home, like you point out, doing the laundry. It’s the TEENAGE BOYS! Look out for them around the village, doing errands on the scooters, minding the shop, delivering the glasses of tea, carrying huge bundles of stuff up and down the road. They get pulled out of school at 12 or 14 and put to work, and they bust their butts during all those “carefree” teenaged years, dreaming of the day when they can put their feet up and get someone else to bring them the tea. H. tells me than when his family rebuilt the restaurant, his father made him do it, stone by stone. And think again about those “old ladies” sitting on the back streets of Ortahisar; they’re often not that old, only in their 40s and 50s, and I can tell you, a lot of them don’t spend more than 2-3 hours a day doing housework, and some of them don’t do any; they get their daughters-in-law (gelins) to do all of it. Again, it’s the young women and teenaged girls who are doing most of the actual work, and they can’t wait to have children who are old enough to take over so they can put their feet up. So, yes, the gender segregation thing is totally real (and still drives me crazy too), but I’ve come to the conclusion that the distribution of labor is more complicated than it looks and often has more to do with age than sex.

And also I laughed at your fantasy conversation between Ortahisar Village Man and his wife, telling her to sit down and relax while he stirs the lentils. I’ve waited for years for H. to say these things to me and guess what, I’m still waiting…but it stopped bothering me when I realized that this kind of overt caring and sensitive behavior almost doesn’t exist in Turkey (although it happens sometimes between women). As you might have noticed when waiting for a dolmus or trying to get served at a busy market stall, the rule of law here is Every Man for Himself, and people mostly just do what they want for themselves. If someone is walking over you, it’s your own responsibility to fight your own corner. Neanderthal, yes, but that just seems to be the way it is here. My experience with H. is that Turkish men are capable of immense kindness and generosity, but it happens randomly, without any flagging up or fanfare, and if I want him to treat me extra nice for some reason, then I have to ask for it. But then, most men are like that, aren’t they ;)”

Later, Lovely American Wife added more:

“After I sent you that last message, I thought again and realized that I sounded like an apologist for rampant sexism, like I’m trying to let some of these sexist pigs off the hook. I just want to reiterate that YES, a lot of this stuff is just plain old-fashioned gender stereotyping about “man’s work” and “women’s work” and women in Turkey often get a raw deal and are abused and treated like chattel. And every time I get off the plane from the US or the UK I spend a few days fuming about it. And yes, having a husband who was raised in this environment does bring up a lot of challenges that most American or British women wouldn’t have to face. But honestly, it’s been such an interesting experience because it’s made me really examine my own ideas about gender and equality and work and to ask questions that I never needed to ask before. For example:

– Why is it than even at Western parties, men and women often migrate into separate groups?
– When I see a bunch of guys sitting at a tea house playing backgammon, it makes me furious, but how much of that is just the Protestant/Jewish work ethic thing I was raised with? Why is it so important to be seen working all the time? Why not just do as little as you can get away with? (My Victorian Literature specialist friend says this has a name, as a type of status symbol: Conspicuous Leisure).
– Yes, many women here are beaten and constantly reminded of their lower status by their husbands; but then many men here working for other men experience exactly the same thing, and so do sons by their fathers. Isn’t the issue here really a deeper one about Human Rights, one that needs to be addressed across society as a whole?
– Why do so many of my American and British women friends complain that even though they work full time, they STILL end up doing most of the housework and childcare while their husband plays tennis or watches tv? Isn’t that even less fair than living in a society with clear and unambiguous gender roles? At least no-one’s pretending.

And so on. Oh, and if you want to try to address the issue of The Appeal of the Turkish Man (worthy of a whole ‘nother series of articles) aside from the obvious draw of the romantic and melodramatic that a lot of women fall for, here’s why I actually married H.. Because he was totally 100% committed. For the 2 years before we got married, I noticed how he took care of me and his whole extended family without a minute’s hesitation. If it was 3 in the morning during a snowstorm and I woke up with a pain and said I needed to go to the hospital, then boom, we’d be in the car in 2 seconds. If my mother or friend needed help getting a pension, he’d spend an hour going around town negotiating to find her a room. If I wanted to invite 12 people over for a barbecue, then boom, he’d be all around town buying food and making the fire and making it all happen. There was never any discussion of what the boundaries were or what his role was or whether or not he had “commitment issues”- he’d just always be there for me (or anyone close to me), without hesitation. Being with him makes me feel like part of this big web of people taking care of each other, and as an American from the suburbs where we didn’t know most of our neighbors’ names and half of my family wasn’t speaking to the other half, it feels good. So that was the appeal for me. In a (functioning) Turkish family, if someone needs you to help them, then you just put down what you’re doing and do it. No discussion, no debate. To me this is the upside of being with a Turkish man, and it was a feeling I never got from any of my Western partners (all 4 of them). I’m not saying all Turkish men are like H., but that kind of solidity made putting up with all the other stuff worth it. Ok, maybe it’s my “job” to make tea in the morning, but it’s his “job” to take me to the hospital at 3am, or my mother, or my friend, or our neighbor. It’s not exactly the same as “security”- I know I can always earn my own living and do fine on my own- it’s more a part of feeling embedded in a deep, interconnected social/family network with my husband at the center, making it all work. I guess for me that’s the whole appeal of Turkey, too, and I think you’ve had a few tastes of what I’m talking about!”

Thus, as I sit here, back in the United States, floating blissfully in Limbo, one thing is abundantly clear:

thanks to the topic of Turkish men,

I fell into Big Like

with someone who loves one.


While there is plenty of room in the world of Words on Paper for therapeutic, ranty, jabby, disjointed stream-of-consciousness freewriting, I generally think the best writing comes from a place of control.

As a reader, I appreciate feeling that the words I’m absorbing have been crafted deliberately, have been given time to gel, have undergone some review, have purpose and ration propelling them.  This is why I adore writers like Philip Roth, who wrote, with masterful control, “The only obsession everyone wants: ‘love.’ People think that in falling in love they make themselves whole? The Platonic union of souls? I think otherwise. I think you’re whole before you begin. And the love fractures you. You’re whole, and then you’re cracked open.” This is why I adore writers like Alison Bechdel, who wrote thoughtfully of her family’s dynamic, “It was a vicious circle, though. The more gratification we found in our own geniuses, the more isolated we grew. Our home was like an artists’ colony. We ate together, but otherwise were absorbed in our separate pursuits. And in this isolation, our creativity took on an aspect of compulsion.” This is why I love writers like Wallace Stegner, who wrote, with admirable intelligence, “You can plan all you want to. You can lie in your morning bed and fill whole notebooks with schemes and intentions. But within a single afternoon, within hours or minutes, everything you plan and everything you have fought to make yourself can be undone as a slug is undone when salt is poured on him. And right up to the moment when you find yourself dissolving into foam you can still believe you are doing fine.”

Alternately, it is the lack of craft, gel, and purpose that sometimes makes me screech at Facebook updates.  The spontaneous brain vomit behind such social media often forces me to smear my fingertips, sludge-like, across the monitor.  When I read an update from a high school “friend,” and it reports “Cute puppy!” above the photo of a dog that apparently strikes this “friend” as–what is it again?–cute, I am annoyed.  Similarly, I have to rub my temples slowly when I read a post consisting of the words “Pull! Hit!” and wonder how this revelation of a nebulous personal past time is supposed to provide readers with a whit of satisfaction.

So there are writers who work and rework their words before releasing them to an audience, and there are writers who spew thoughtlessly, slime-ing their readers with a thick green coating of verbiage, and although I prefer writing that exhibits restraint and discipline,

currently, I find that I want to write about a topic that has me so keyed up my opening line on the subject reads, “ARghaghadlfkafdaglkhaghghghghghghgdsklfdsjlkfjdfsdlkjdsaaaaaagggghhhh.”

I know you’re thinking that I lifted that line from Portnoy’s Complaint, but you’re wrong.  Quite proudly, I tell you that I just composed it, right now, all on my own–with no deliberation, forethought, or care.  In fact, any time I try to start typing anything on this topic, my fingers naturally pluck out yet another bit of jarring scream-babble that reads, “BWAHAHAHAHAHAHwoeriweoizzzcxlkcvjlkjaharrraghahghghghghgh.”

My lack of control on this subject has been convincing me I’m not ready to take it on.  Because my emotions run high on this topic, and I am tacking towards it from coordinates of judgement and condemnation (and, thus, unfairness), I’ve been telling myself to give it time, to let my thoughts gel, to let my emotions settle–until I can beach myself on a more objective island from which to consider my subject.

On the other hand, writing from a place of high emotion could be cathartic and exactly what I need to do to release some of my pique and get rational again.

Hence, I’m balancing on a fence called Hmmmmm.

What is this topic that has me fluffed with umbrage?

Turkish men.

Even after much revision of BWAHAHAHAHAHAHwoeriweoizzzcxlkcvjlkjaharrraghahghghghghgh, the only polished opening sentence I’m able to come up with is this:

I am so fucking over Turkish men.”

That opener indicates I’m in complete control and ready to turn out some fine thinking, right?

Hmmmmmm.  Or maybe I need another couple of days.

Or years.

Maybe a decade or two.

What do you think, Readers?  If that opening sentence gives you an indication of my level of control on this subject, am I ready to write?  Or do I need to go up to the pharmacy first and have the nice man behind the counter give me some mood-numbing pills?

And, hey, wait:  if the man behind the counter at the pharmacy is nice, and he helps me feel better, doesn’t that undermine my thesis that Turkish men are crazy making?

Climbing back up onto my Hmmmmm fence now.