Strangers in a Strange Land, Part III

Are you ready?

Learning to navigate speech and the congested roadways.

We had arrived at our new home on Turan Gunes Bouevari in Oran Sitesi on the outskirts of Ankara, a city of over 4 million sitting at an altitude of over 3,000 feet, overlooking the Anatolian Plain of Turkey.  I could step out on our balcony and see the neighborhood around us beyond our gated entry.  It was late afternoon on a pleasant day in June.  If I closed my eyes, I could almost imagine being back in the states.   Although I felt tired, I couldn’t imagine yielding to unconscious sleep until I explored our new neighborhood.  I convinced our daughters to take a walk with me.

I smiled at the guards as we left the protected environs of our building grounds.  They graciously acknowledged us with a nod and a wave.  I could see a hot plate behind them supporting a double chambered metal teapot that appeared to be well used.  The girls and I navigated the uneven sidewalks and made our way to the small commercial center nearby.  There was a hairdresser, a druggist, and a small supermarket.  Perhaps I could pick up something for dinner.  We walked in and I was overwhelmed.  Nothing was in English.  I had hundreds of thousands of Turkish Lira, but had no idea what they equated to in dollars.  I could hear talking around me, but didn’t understand a single word.  If only I had learned some Turkish.  I felt myself shrinking.  A woman approached us, in her 50s or 60s, dressed in more traditional garb.  Horrifically, she was talking to us.  I shook my head and shrugged.  In response, she raised her voice.  Walking over to Caroline, our oldest, she touched her blond hair, evidently in some admiration as she continued to repeat the same words, which were not becoming any clearer to me.  After a few more moments, her hand went to Caroline’s face as she vigorously pinched my daughter’s cheek.  Caroline looked alarmed.  What now?  Thankfully, after a few more pronouncements and an exasperated look at me, she retreated.   I approached a woman behind what looked like a deli counter that displayed items that were not really familiar to me.  “Do you speak English?” I asked her.  She replied in Turkish.  I was effectively shut out.  We left the store without making  a single purchase and hastily retreated to the apartment.  I was close to tears.  This was a disaster.

Don’t lose heart; this is not the end of the story, but the beginning.  It was time to put my big girl pants on and embrace my new home.  As we settled in that summer, I signed myself up for a beginner Turkish course at the Office of Defense Cooperation facility where my husband worked.  Slowly, but surely, I begin to communicate and understand.  When the girls went to school in the fall we urged them to take Turkish rather than the traditional Spanish or French.  After all, we lived in Turkey, not Spain.  I tried out my rudimentary skills on our Turkish guards and was rewarded with hot chai (tea).  It was amazing how just a few words in Turkish could bring down a seemingly impenetrable wall.

As we ventured more into the city, I began to use my Turkish everywhere with modest success.   It was always appreciated.  We really enjoyed visiting the old citadel in the heart of Ankara, traversing the narrow winding roads lined with shops looking much as it had for centuries, with the addition of motorized vehicles of course.  One afternoon, our family found ourselves in a shop filled with kitchen supplies, including the ubiquitous tea pots.  I heard the owner say to me “Turk chai guzel” which translates to “Turkish tea is good.”  Wanting to show my full appreciation for the merits of the national beverage, I responded enthusiastically, “Cok guzel!”, “very good!”, and didn’t understand his somewhat surprised look.  David nudged me.  “What?”  I asked him.   “He said your Turkish was good,” he replied (“Turkceniz guzel”).  I had just paid myself a lavish compliment on my paltry knowledge of a dozen words of Turkish — I was just a little mortified.

Speaking of Turkish tea, it is an art and a primary means of sharing hospitality.  Early in my time in Ankara, we developed a relationship with a local rug merchant.  He graciously brought a rug to our apartment so I could try it out.  I graciously offered him tea.  He accepted, but recoiled when I took out the Lipton tea bags (in a Turkish labeled box) and promptly rescinded his acceptance.  “You need proper tea,”  he admonished me gently.  Then ensued a quick lesson.  Tea must always be brewed in a double chambered teapot; you must use the right loose teas grown in the Black Sea region and blended with correct proportions.  The process takes about 25 minutes, so needed to be started early.  Somehow, my earlier offer of a tea bag was looking more like an insult than true Turkish hospitality.  I learned my lesson.

My next hurdle in learning to live in Ankara was driving.  Our car didn’t arrive for several weeks, and we relied on taxis (taksis), and learned to effectively ride the dolmuş.  Taxis were plentiful and relatively cheap, but I much preferred the dolmuş experience.  Unlike buses that stopped at predetermined bus stops, the dolmuş (notice the similarity to dolma, a stuffed appetizer?  the dolmuş indeed was a stuffed conveyance), traveled a certain route and would stop to pick up anyone who hailed it.  Likewise, stops were at the discretion of the passengers, who would simply pull on the cable to let the driver know.  Fare was very inexpensive and I gradually built up the courage to sit toward the front, where effectively passing payment and delivering change was a required skill.  From my seat on the dolmuş, I would have the perfect vantage point from which to observe the teeming traffic below.  Small cars and large articulated buses would vie for scarce pavement.  There were no defined lanes, so it looked like a form of short track skating, with each vehicle effectively defining its constantly shifting travel space.  Wider boulvari would yield to narrow sokaks which were lined with parked cars, often up to three across.  Traffic circles were defined by flimsy rubber circular structures, controlled by traffic lights.  It was amazing to watch a band of vehicles six across, cars, dolmuşes, and buses, all start at the same time and funnel into a sokak that only yielded a single lane.  Cars appeared to have great flexibility in their maneuver options.  Whether it was triple parking, backing up for hundreds of yards, or traveling the wrong way, the only caveat was to make sure the flashers were on.   The prospect of navigating Ankara as a driver was so daunting for some of our friends that they never attempted it.  It wasn’t long after our car arrived, though, that I decided to brave it.

I left the safe environs of our parking lot, waved optimistically to the friendly guards, and ventured into the unknown.  It wasn’t long before I found myself breathing heavily, as I narrowly missed side swiping a parked car.  As I drove closer the city, I found the lack of lanes extremely disconcerting.  Every time I adjusted the position of the car, I was met with a corrective and loud honk from a Turkish driver.  I responded by moving even more slowly, not my usual driving style.  Cars swarmed around me thick and furious, as if they smelled the proverbial blood in the water.  When I reached my first roundabout, I was last off the mark and took a deep intake of breath as an articulated bus swept in front of me as if I were a mere annoyance.  As the honks and irritated faces around me grew more frequent, I longed to get home, but I no longer knew where I was.  Finally, I found a relatively quiet street in an unknown neighborhood and pulled over.  I had a map, but without knowing where I was, it did me absolutely no good.  My Turkish was not sufficient to ask directions.  I would never be found.  Gingerly, I ventured back out into the jumbled maze of side streets.  Don’t ask me how, but I gradually found my way to familiar surroundings.  So as not to be distracted by the havoc I was wreaking, I pretended that each honk and hand wave was someone welcoming me to Ankara.  Believe me, I was very welcomed that day.  In fact, one man was so excited to see me that he pulled over, got out of his car and was raising his fist as I drove by.  Yes, I am a crazy American, and a woman to boot.  You’re absolutely right.   A mere hour after I left, I was pulling back into our complex, grateful to stop the car and hear the engine grow still.  I wanted to kiss the ground.

But this too was just an adjustment period for me.  I gradually learned to navigate the Ankara landscape and developed the assurance that was needed. I could do anything I wanted, but it was confidence and the “bi daka” (“bir dakika” means one minute) finger that were respected.   I learned to turn in front of another car while simultaneously extending my hand with a raised index finger out of my driver’s window. Confidence equaled respect and yielding of the required space.   One day I was driving in the city with another military wife when we found ourselves on a narrow residential street lined with six-foot trenches.  The end of the street was blocked by construction equipment.  Apparently my only recourse was to put the car in reverse for 200 yards, not a maneuver I was the least bit confident in executing;  I had a clear picture of my little car nose up at a 45 degree angle.  Instead, I stopped.  “You’ll never get out this way.  You need to start backing up,” Ann said as one of the construction workers started walking our way.  “Not yet,” I told her.   I opened my window to a burly laborer who told me the very same thing in Turkish Ann just had.  I would need to back up.  In response, I smiled sheepishly and shrugged my shoulders, cocking my head to the side in the universal sign for helplessness.  He regarded me for a moment, then turned his attention to his co-workers.  “Just wait,” I said to Ann.  Sure enough, after a brief conversation, they moved the barricades and powered the steam shovel aside to let me through.  “See?” I told her as I confidently pulled up to a round about.  “Now why are these drivers being so rude?” I asked in some irritation as cars were driving straight toward me.  “Because you’re on the wrong side of the roundabout,”  Ann replied simply. So I was.  No problem,  I put out the bi daka finger, the traffic parted, and I swiftly and accurately merged into the flow.  It really was simple when you knew what to do.

Long before I ventured onto Ankara roadways,  puzzled at the total lack of traffic management, we had asked a Turkish friend why there were no lane markings on city roads.  “Lines? We need no lines,” he retorted proudly in some disdain at the question, “we are professional drivers.”  To his point, I found learning to drive in Turkey was indeed an advanced course in self transportation.

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