Occidentally on Purpose

“Occidentally on Purpose”

Returning to Turkey after a few weeks away caused in me neither joy nor dread; it was just the next thing we were doing. I did discover, though, that it was jarring to hear Turkish again after readjusting my ear to more familiar languages. Within a couple of hours, though, I felt happy to be back “home,” where we can have more control over food, heating, clean clothes–and where the kids are occasionally in a different room.

Now, a quarter of our way through this year abroad, when I have a feeling for the culture already but have recently stepped outside of it, there are a few back-in-Turkey-related thoughts tumbling around my noggin that could come in handy for the teeming masses of you who plan to come visit (Riots at the Passport Office!). Based on my first three months in the Near East, I can file the following reports:

Observation: If I’m in a hotel in Istanbul, I will be awakened at approximately 3 a.m. by some miserable sod’s retching. The sounds of repeated heaving into the toilet will last until nearly 4 a.m. Once the drunkard/sick person finally collapses into bed, I will remain awake until the early-morning Call to Prayer, after which I will lapse into fitful sleep for 45 minutes before giving up on further rest. This unsatisfying sleep experience will cost me more than $100. Of no consolation is the hotel’s breakfast of shriveled olives and soggy cucumbers.

Actually, having now stayed in three hotels in Istanbul, I can admit that this is true only 66% of the time, for in only two of the hotels was my sleep disrupted by The Barfing. At the third hotel, no one actually vomited, but a Dutch girl in the next room did prove her race’s ability to achieve multiple peaks of pleasure. Loudly. Her example makes one muse, “How fortunate to have a notion of how Van Gogh must have sounded!”

Recommendation: Istanbul in all its forms causes the senses of visitors to be overwhelmed. Bring industrial-strength earplugs.

Observation: Turkish plumbing is abysmal. Because of this, most women in the know: roll up their pants before entering the ladies’ room (one way to keep clothing dry when wading through a ½” of standing water); prepare to squat over a hole full of the previous “tenant’s” emissions; anticipate no available toilet paper, and after they pull a stash out of their bags, remember that they can’t toss it into the toilet, as the pipes can’t handle any matter beyond fecal; count on zero paper towels for drying their hands (which clearly demand some no-nonsense sterilization after what they’ve just been through); and are certain, during their three-minute visits, that at least one of their fellow restroom visitors will heft her feet up into the sink (for religious ablutions) and scour unthinkable, dark, grainy matter only partially down the drain. It would be infinitely more logical for such women simply to take off their shoes and wade through the standing water, of course, as a means of abluting. For this rich experience, bathroom visitors will pay roughly $.70 per visit.

Recommendation: Cauterize your bladder before voluntarily entering a busy public Turkish toilet.

Observation: I had to tone down the expectations of my grown-up tastebuds, as the wine in Turkey is made by non-drinkers who simply mix all the varietals into one big batch (but I do thank, nightly, the Muslims who kept up any production after all the Christian boozehounds were sent back to Greece in the early 1920’s), and the java is lame. In fact, it’s hard to find coffee in Turkey that isn’t Nescafe. This is particularly troubling if one has just come from a place like, say, Italy or France that esteems good beans.

Somehow, though, despite European influences in the Western part of Turkey and the presence of famed “Turkish coffee,” instant coffee has achieved widespread acceptance and is what one is given on the plane, pays for in a restaurant, and finds at the grocery store. If ordering a Turkish coffee, one should be aware it generally isn’t made the traditional way, which is a fairly intensive process, and so the quick, tourist-oriented version will be bitter and leave the mouth full of grounds. The best option is to have tea, which is served by the liter in every possible venue and is the basis of all hospitality.

This ubiquitous tea, however, is Lipton, so don’t go getting excited.

Recommendation: Much energy will be saved if you shut up and drink what you’re given. This is, not incidentally, how I first tried sloe gin.

Observation: There are no screens on the windows, and flies abound, at least in rural Cappadocia where sheep and donkeys staff the Neighborhood Watch Program. Even now, in November, we’re awaiting the hard frost that will zap the annoying buzzers to oblivion. Because we enjoy the sensation of fresh air (and, per previous observations about abysmal plumbing, have to let some of the bathroom stink escape our environs), we open the windows for brief periods. Resultingly, there are usually a hundred and twelfty flies somsersaulting around the house. As a rule, I make myself go kill 83 of them in the kitchen before bed, but yet and so, I still have been awakened every single morning in our house being dive bombed by whining dive-bombing insects.

Recommendation: Learn to sleep with a sheet over your face. The feeling of vague suffocation that accompanies this technique, plus industrial strength earplugs and a liver soaked with bad wine, all help you wake up in just the right frame of mind to appreciate a steaming mug of Nescafe.

Observation: Village women wear trousers called “salvar,” loose pants a la M.C. Hammer in his “Can’t Touch This” era. Such pants make up for in practicality and comfort what they lack in visual appeal. Even better, they feature an elastic waist and are one-size-fits-all, which would make them a perfect gift for all one’s female family members back home, from 300-pound Grandma Mabel to 98-pound Cousin Tiffany.

Recommendation: Buy ’em.  One-stop souvenir shopping frees up time for fly swatting.

Observation: People in more refined countries—shall we use France again?—drink quality wine, toss toilet paper in the loo and bid it au revoir, sport tight and chic clothing, gaze upon manicured lawns through screened windows,

and treat visitors matter-of-factly at best, with scorn at worst. The feeling they convey—the feeling we in the United States convey—is mild interest underwritten by clinical detachment. In France, in the U.S., in England, in most places I’ve traveled to, I can ask a question and have it answered. I can express a need and get directions as to how I might fulfill it. Mostly, people treat each other with a “Here’s the information, and good luck with that, then.”

In contrast, our first night back in Turkey, when our worn out family checked in to the hotel in Istanbul (so charming before the vomiting began!), I asked the clerk behind the desk if there was anywhere nearby we could get a couple of beers to drink in the room. Taking one look at my frizzed hair and slumping posture, he replied, “Beer? Of course. But you must let me get it for you. I will go get it. You go to your room and take some rest, and then I will bring you beer.” Moments later, his colleague realized we would need to be on the shuttle to the airport at 7:10 the next morning and that breakfast wouldn’t open until 7:00. “I will go in early and put out the breakfast. Come at 6:50, so you can have some food before you fly.”

The next day, after only a few hours’ sleep followed by an early-but-then-delayed flight back to Cappadocia, we pulled in to the main square in Ortahisar aboard the airport shuttle van. It was just past lunchtime, and the early-morning breakfast was long digested. Our heads were drooping, our spirits were flagging, and our hands were raw from dragging our bags across continents. Before my foot hit the ground, the owner of the liquor store, Murat, a man who’s declared we have to ask for our purchases in his store in Turkish so that we learn the language, had come over to wish us “Ho? geldiniz” (Welcome!) and to offer, gesturing at our luggage, “Can I help you?” Even though it meant he would have to leave his store unattended or close it up, just to drag a suitcase for us, I was fatigued enough to say “Sure.” At that same moment, though, one of the local benign crazies, Mithat, came over and started wrestling three pieces of luggage towards the lane leading to our house. Waving off Murat and all words of thanks, Mithat said, “You are tired. I can help. You are tired. It is nothing for me.”

As we rolled and trudged down the street, following Mithat’s perky steps and inhaling smells of sheep manure, we were spotted by our neighbor, who has so little English she can only communicate by hollering the Turkish for “Neighbor!” every time she claps eyes on us. “KOM?U!” she squalled. “Ho? geldiniz!” As usual, she continued with a long stream of unintelligible well wishes, and I returned her greeting with “KOM?U! Ho? bulduk!” Seeing me loaded down with bags and thus unable to exchange our habitual Turkish kisses, she glanced down into her hand at the handful of pumpkin seeds she’d been snacking on. Pressing all eight of them into my palm as a spontaneous gift, she insisted that I take them home to enjoy after my long journey. Simultaneous to her wishing me good eating, a second voice echoed down from two stories up. It was Hulya, another neighbor, calling out “Ho? geldiniz!” as she batted the dirt out of hanging carpets and attempted to keep her toddler from toppling down the staircase.

Once in the house, Mithat deposited our bags, wished us a happy return home, and backed out. We set to opening the windows so that the crisp autumn sunshine could offset the cold staleness of the long-empty rooms. As I shoved and yanked against one poorly-constructed window, I noticed our landlord’s mother, one of her arms well swathed in bandages, sitting out in the courtyard in her salvar pants, plucking dried grapes—now hefty raisins—off their branches. Within an hour, we had a bowl of the raisins on our kitchen counter, a “Ho? geldiniz” gift from her. “I fell,” she told my husband in Turkish he could decipher. “My arm is cracked, and I will get plaster on it. Enjoy the raisins in good health.”

Recommendation: Come to Turkey.

All you’ll need are


a brave bladder,

nondiscriminating taste,

mosquito netting,

a love of elastic waistbands

and an ability to accept hospitality so unalloyed

that it dwarfs your bumbling attempts to express gratitude.




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