We are in Bodrum to spend our wonderful winter break. But, I fell ill. And from this came out this beautiful story by my husband, Allen Milewski (who wrote the earlier Bensu story).
Soup Shopping in Yalikavak by Allen Milewski
Here was my big opportunity! And, I couldn’t pass it by.
I have been traveling to Turkey for 17 years now. I have enjoyed every trip immensely and have learned a lot about this fascinating country. But, what I have NOT been able to do is learn Turkish. Oh, I have tried from time to time. I have invested in Rosetta Stone, Pimsleur and a heaping handful of other language tutorials. I have learned words here and there, but never enough to feel comfortable conversing. One year, I actually worked very hard at studying- Rosetta Stone, I think it was- and excitedly arrived in Ankara ready to converse. But, I was sorely disappointed when I realized that the phrases I had learned were not the ones appropriate for conversation- at least for intelligent, adult conversation. An example…..
Fellow at dinner party: “I could have predicted that Turkey’s exclusion from the EU would actually improve its economy, as compared, for example, with Greece.”
Me: “the ball is under the table”
Fellow at dinner party: “although, of course, short-term monetary fluctuations can’t tell the entire story of domestic economic success”
Me: “the boy has a green shirt”
The real reason for my inability, I think, is not some cognitive shortcoming. Instead, it is my wife. It is Nuray who is always there, handling arrangements, explaining what I need, answering questions, getting things done and just generally making life so damn easy that I don’t actually have to know anything. This makes her a perfect person to have along with you on a one-time tour. But, her wonderful helpfulness makes learning self-sufficient Turkish communication nearly impossible. We all agreed that if I wanted to really learn Turkish, I should be on my own- with plenty of chances to experiment—and yes, to fail.
But on this recent trip, there was a difference. Nuray fell ill, with… well, something. Maybe it was pneumonia, maybe whooping cough from the grandkids, maybe just a flu. But, the end result was that she was consigned to bed for 1+ weeks while I had to run the daily errands necessary for life. So, here was my opportunity!
Each day I would venture out of our residence in Gokcebel, and walk to the Dolmus (minibus) stop for a short ride to Yalikavak. Gokcebel, I suppose would be considered a suburb of Yalikavak, and both would be suburbs of Bodrum. But, the word suburb seems so inadequate here- we usually use the term to describe tracts of ranch houses set in calculatedly winding streets with made-up names like “Old Mill Lane” and “Sunny Valley Drive”. But, this was the Bodrum peninsula with hillsides blanketed with whitewashed, box-like, stone houses on haphazard roads built more to connect groups of people than to fit some developer’s plan.
I will admit that I was nervous – making this trip alone. The advantage was that I had done it several times before… but always with Turkish supervision. I knew the stops, the prices, the general scripts to follow. That helped, but not enough to quell the nervousness entirely. There was still plenty of room for confusion and calamity. Nonetheless, I started out toward the Dolmus with the excitement of the first day of school.
The first stop on my list was the Turkcell mobile phone store, which is directly across from the Dolmus lot. My task here was simply to add 100 Lire to our mobile phone’s account. I was ready with the only phrase needed: “yuz lira” means one hundred Turkish liras, and the rest would be taken care by my handing them the phone. It was made even easier when I noticed that one of the counter workers was a fellow who had fixed our WIFI hub several days earlier after I accidentally “reconfigured” it. He saw me enter the store and immediately came over with a smile that said “I had better wait on this fellow right away because there is no telling what he has broken this time”. Despite the embarrassment, I did appreciate being recognized and it occurred to me that I was probably recognized by many of the shopkeepers. Yalikavak is a small town and as Nuray and I had walked around in the past doing our various errands, I imagined that many shops were already used to our patterns.
I tried this theory out at my next stop: Cingiloglu, which is, hands down, the coolest food store around. I guess you might call it a delicatessen (or even charcuterie), although it is not exactly. It features some of the most special offerings of Turkish cuisine: cheese, yogurt, olives, honey and the most wonderful jams ever.
My list said to get feta cheese so I walked to the counter confidently and said “beyaz peynir”. As I looked down at the refrigerator case, I anticipated a problem: there were seven or eight different types of feta. Inuits, I am told, require many words for snow and so it stands to reason that Turks’ labels for feta are many.
The store manager asked me some questions, apparently trying to narrow things down, but my blank face and empty eyes quickly told him it was pointless. To the rescue came one of the workers who must have recognized me because she immediately went to a particular cheese and took out a large chunk. She clipped off a corner with a large knife and held it out for me to taste. After I approved, her expression asked “how much” and I measured out 4 inches with my thumb and forefinger. Bingo! Mission accomplished, again with the help of familiarity.
My next stop was going to be more difficult. My list included several household items that I thought I could get at the local hardware store. I had not been in the store since last summer, so I didn’t think I could count on being recognized. Worse, hardware items are just harder to describe- maybe because there are so many. I found a couple myself and then negotiated some electrical tape by telling the shopkeeper “Elektrik” while spiraling one hand in a circle around my outstretched index finger. I’m not sure the finger was understood to be wire as I hoped, but the whole act worked and resulted in a roll of black shiny tape. The final item was the hardest. I wanted something to nail to the bottoms of our wooden, kitchen chair legs to let them slide more smoothly along the tile floor. I’d seen such things made of teflon in the U.S.. This would all be easier if I could remember the word for “bottom” or “slide” or even “chair”, but I could not- neither could I see a sample chair within reach to use as a prop. Think about it: how would you describe this item? I resorted to half sitting on an imaginary object, getting up, moving that object back and forth and mouthing a scratching sound while making a face. The shopkeeper winced a little, but after trips to the caster section, then the tile section and then the paint section (not sure why), I was shown an assortment of chair-leg-slider-caps or whatever you want to call them. Again, success!
As I left the store I reflected on whether it would be easier to sign up for a class in mime or learn more Turkish. But, I didn’t have time to decide, because the final item on my list was right next door. Days earlier, Nuray and I had stopped at this café for Su Borek (oh my god, this is good!) and cay (tea), but we asked if we could do a take-out order of chicken soup. Turkish cafes are not typically set up for take-out, but I’ve found Turks in general to be some of the most amazingly accommodating people on earth. I’ve seen restaurant waiters carry a table out 100 yards onto a beach and then happily carry food and dishes back and forth just to please a patron who felt like being near the sea. In this case, the solution was a large glass jar, carefully sterilized and filled with the most delicious soup- all wrapped in a bag for safe transport.
My job was to get a refill of soup to take home to my sick wife. I had starting using the term “Esim Hasta” (sick wife) as early as the Cingiloglu stop, and even though I had gotten it from Google Translate, it appeared to work. So I tried it again while holding up the empty jar. No problem- they had already remembered me and filled the jar to the brim.
I left the store with all these purchased items carefully packed into my backpack but realized that I still had ten minutes before the next Dolmus would take me home. So far, I had stayed on-script, running my errands in places I already knew. But, with all this success, I decided to explore a street I hadn’t been on before. It featured several municipal buildings around a lovely town square made of black and white beach stones stuck edgewise into the concrete to make designs. It was on this square that a dog came up to me and started barking furiously.
Dogs in Turkey seem to be of a totally different breed than in the U.S. where they are often nervous, barking creatures that have nothing better to do than run around, as if on caffeine, and try to grab food off tables. To say that Turkish dogs “run loose” is true, but misleading, because their running is usually a calm walk or trot related to some dog-life goal. Dogs in Turkey have a life of their own. They interact, sleep, greet each other and sometimes fight. But, all this goes on separate from humans. In fact, they most often don’t even seem to notice the humans around them and that is why I was concerned with this dog barking at me. I swung around and started to walk back in the direction of the Dolmus, but the dog followed me and kept barking. He was joined by another dog and then another and soon I was being followed by an entourage of four barking dogs. Was I somehow in the wrong territory? Were they chasing me out? Terror started to grow. I walked faster and noticed that there were now six dogs including a really large one. I pictured having to make a break for it and leap into the Dolmus with biting dogs hanging from my legs. Why me, I wondered.
Then it occurred to me: I was walking around with the smell of fresh, sweet chicken soup pouring out of my backpack! These dogs weren’t in attack mode. They were in “hey man, what smells so good?” mode. They weren’t so much dangerous as curious and tantalized. I would have loved to unpack the soup and share it with them then and there. But, I clearly couldn’t do that, so I waived my arms in a “its all gone” kind of gesture and they gradually dropped away into their own lives again.
I made it back to the Dolmus, and sat down, wondering if the soup would attract as much attention there- it didn’t.
The trip was a success. I made all my purchases. More important, I learned that this was not so hard – I was already recognizable as part of a community that would try to help me if they could.