Monday, December 27, 2010

"Compulsory"


Responding to the waving arm of a village woman clad in the traditional clothing of shalvar pants and long white head scarf, the dolmus driver pulled over.  As the door to the mini-bus rolled open, the woman leaned inside and asked in Turkish, "Is this the bus to Urgup?"

"No," responded the driver, "This is the Nevsehir bus.  The Urgup one is coming along soon."

"Ah, okay," the woman said as she removed her foot from the step, backing away from the bus.  At that moment, a buzz went through the first two rows of seats, amongst other traditionally-garbed women. Suddenly mutters of "Not the Urgup bus?" and "Going to Nevsehir?" and "Whoops, wrong bus.  Lemme off!" accompanied the bustle of several other women packing up their bags, re-adjusting their scarves, and making for the door.

Not even rolling his eyes with the exasperation to which he was due, the driver waited while they disembarked, wished them a good day, and propelled the dolmus back into gear. 

As it turns out, Groom and I sorely lack that kind of placid lenity.  We are card carrying eye rollers, in fact, and our club privileges kicked in during those few rustling moments of "whaaazuh?" and "huzzabuzz" and "wherewegoin'?"  In fact, by the time the last woman had slipped her feet back into her sensible slides and exited the bus to wait on the roadside for the imminent Urgup dolmus, I actually had to take off my glasses and rub my eyes for a second.  Feeling a bit wonky, I blinked real hard-like until focus was restored. Then I dared a glance at my husband and gasped.  Who knew he was so damn cute? 

Such are the dangers and benefits of Acute Ocular Elliptoid Circumvolution.  The eye roll--that bewitcher!--dupes one into certainty of superiority...even when one has been having a quiet cry over a plate of toast while bemoaning belly fat mere hours earlier.

Once Groomeo and I stopped with the eye whirls, we marshaled the energy to speak.

"How come," I choked out, "every time we get on the bus,"--and here I stopped to wheeze a bit, simply for dramatic effect meant to punctuate nothing--"this happens?"

Running with it, His Groomishness chimed in, "I know.  We're here in the village, picking up people who have lived here their whole lives, heading to one of two possible destinations, and there's this vast confusion about which bus to get on.  Women hop on, get to chatting about how their knees ache, only to discover six minutes later that they're on the wrong bus..."

Seeing my moment, I broke in with a, "...WHICH IS SO WEIRD, WHAT WITH THE DESTINATION BEING PRINTED ON THAT BIG OLD PLACARD IN THE FRONT WINDOW AND ALL..."

'Tis true.  The dolmuses from our village either head to Nevsehir, or they head to Urgup.  In the front window of every dolmus is a big sign that says either "Ortahisar-Nevsehir" or "Ortahisar-Urgup."  Even I, legally blind, myopic bi-focal wearer, can decipher the six-inch letters when the bus pulls up.

So, as they kids these days acronym so effectively, WTF?

Although I can lay out myriad explanations for this syndrome of the ladies not knowing what bus they're getting onto--theories that range from Women In the Middle of a Good Gossip Are Oblivious to Vehicles...to They Are So Sheltered and Well-Watched After That They've Never Had to Pay Attention for Themselves--

the reality is all too easily explained:

Until relatively recently, Turkey's requirement for mandatory education was built around five years of primary education (now students are required to finish out 8th grade, however). Factor into that a lack of busing, families that didn't approve of educating girls, and overcrowded schools that offered half-day sessions so that a second set of students could come in during the afternoon hours,

and it's amazing that these women are able to find the bus stop at all.


As the slightly-emptier bus rolled towards Nevsehir, and Groom and I reviewed our notes about the history of compulsory education in Turkey, Girl piped up.

"So, wait.  What are you talking about?"

Quickly, we briefed her.  In a final parental attempt to drive home the scope of this issue, I said to her ten-year-old self, "So basically, a whole bunch of people in Turkey, unless they were lucky enough to have special intelligence or a family with the means to send them on, stopped going to school after 5th grade.  Think of it this way:  imagine how much you wouldn't know if this year of school you're doing right now were your last, if you never again had to sit down and get your head around fractions and decimals, if you never again had your brain spin in the face of simple versus complex sentences, if you never again got to learn anything academic.  Imagine if 5th grade were the end of your learning.  That's what we're talking about:  people for whom 5th grade was the peak."

For just a beat, one perfect beat in 4/4 time,

Girl was silent.

She looked out the window at the garbage blowing in the wind.  Her eyes took in the crumbling houses, already eroding although only half-built.  She flashed back to hours spent in waiting areas, times when we muted the collected crowd by opening our bags and pulling out books.  She recalled that these hours in waiting areas took place in a governmental building to which her parents were required to make repeat visits because, with each visit, different workers offered up different versions of "I don't exactly know the answer to your question.  I need to make a phone call," and when the phone call ended, said worker offered up an entirely new explanation of what needed to happen.   Her active brain remembered all the times the cash register at the grocery store indicated we owed 12 lira, and when we would hand over a 20 lira note, it would take a minute of finger counting under the counter before change was made. She blipped to the street repair outside our house, when the entire lane was dug up to fix some pipes and then, a week after that job, dug up again to fix a few more.  And, of course, she riffled through the many instances of women getting off the well-marked bus once they realized where it was headed.

That single beat later, Girl's sponge of a brain--so ready to absorb any input--had processed the information about Turkey's former educational requirements, and her eyebrows shot up.  Matter-of-factly she noted,

greeted by our hoots of laughter,

"Well, that sure explains a lot."

Friday, December 24, 2010

"Hippy Hollyday"

At the start of December, we made an advent calendar, a way of counting down to the Big Day.  Each of us took a little time to paint, draw, and glue our contributions. 





Groom's little cartoon panels were my favorite addition to the calendar, so I asked him to scan them in and compile them.  If you haven't been visiting his blog of our time in Turkey, do head over to http://www.layingfallow.com/:



In the last few weeks, as we've counted down the days, opening a new door on the calendar each day, we've also gotten together with new friends and made crafts, done some secret shopping, mailed off letters to Santa requesting specific gifts (Paco sent Santa, under separate cover, a question:  "What is your favorite kind of cookie?"  Santa replied a couple weeks later, surprising us with a note tacked to the fridge:  "Sugar!"), and put up the most hilarious fake Charlie Brown Christmas tree ever.  As someone who doesn't particularly like the tree-mounting and tree-undoing aspects of the holiday, I was delighted to hang only a handful of ornaments on a tiny little bit of Not Much.


And now it's Christmas Eve, and Paco swears he won't sleep at all tonight.  I assure him, in a vaguely threatening tone, that Santa doesn't come unless kids are asleep.  Our Girl is several years past Santa belief, so we anticipate she'll conk out nicely.  As Paco riddled out how Santa is going to get down one of our chimneys, what with them being blocked by soba pipes ("Oh no!  Santa is going to get sucked into the soba pipe and get burned up!"), it occurred to us that, because we have two tons of the stuff to fuel the sobas, there has never been an easier year to put a lump of coal in someone's stocking.

Note to self:  line stocking with plastic bag.

------------------------------
For our pagan-leaning family, the celebration is as much about The Solstice and sharing gifts and appreciating darkness and light and eating cookies as anything else.  However, despite my heathenish spirit, I find myself contemplating the power of Christ:

This week, as we sat in a government building in a city near our village, filling out form after form, walking from one office to another, paying fees, getting help from some friends with translating, chasing down our residency permits, we heard a voice ask our friend Gulcan, in accented English,

"These people you are with, where are they from?"

Gulcan answered, "They're from America."

I lifted my head from an application form and saw a beautiful seventeen-year-old girl sitting a few chairs down.  While she had the exotic coloring and bearing of a Middle Eastern female, she wore a cross around her neck.  This poised teenager continued, "If they are from America, why are they here?"

Gulcan filled her in:  "They are applying for residency permits so that they do not run into any visa problems in the next few months."

"No," clarified the girl, "I mean why are they in Turkey?"

"Well," Gulcan told her, "They want to learn about the country and culture and learn some language."

The girl, still a bit confused, gave a small chuckle.  "So they came here on purpose and left America?  Are they Christian?"

Gulcan checked in with me (because it was nearing the end of the work day, I kept at my task of hurriedly copying down passport numbers onto four forms before the offices closed) on the religion question and then explained, "They are not religious. They will go back to America after some months here, but, yes, they chose to come here.  Why are you here?"

At that point, this girl gestured to her family, who were sitting all around her, "We are Iranian, and we are Christians.  We had to leave.  With secrecy and great difficulty, we have made it into Turkey and have gotten this far.  Now we are trying to get a refugee status so that we can be safe and try to make some money.  Our goal is to get out of Turkey and one day, God willing, get to America.  All we want is to get to America so that we can worship freely.  That's why I can't believe there are people here today, in this same place, who left America on purpose."

To her everlasting credit, Gulcan (the owner of an inn) moved closer to the girl, wrote down her phone number, and, in a complete "there's room at the inn" moment, had a quiet conversation about being paid under the table.  

That day, as the lights overhead flickered off--the workers were trying to clear the building--we turned in our paperwork to get permission to stay in Turkey, and this Iranian girl and her family turned in their paperwork to get permission to stay in Turkey.  

Eventually, our year here will end, and we'll head to America. 

Eventually,

and this is my wholehearted Christmas wish for these Christians on the run,

so will they.

Monday, December 20, 2010

"Unleavened Barn Raising"

Only five months later can I comprehend the shock that overtook me when we arrived in Turkey. Had we first stopped in Istanbul, the landing might have been softer and felt more gradual in terms of West-to-East, but since we flew straight to Cappadocia (one hour flight from Minneapolis to Chicago; ten hour flight from Chicago to Istanbul; one hour flight from Istanbul to Kayseri; one hour shuttle ride from Kayseri to Goreme) with only small lulls in between each leg, we showed up in this Land of the Past feeling tired, excited, expectant...and found the place vibrant and laid back and full-of-more-yet-less and crazily-foreign and HOOOOOOOOOOT.

Indeed, I only feel just now that I'm recovering from that August heat and the weird, off-kilter sleep deprivation. It's like the 110 degree temperatures, unrelieved by air conditioning, sauteed any rational or predictable reactions. Even now, still in the midst of the experience, I can look back on August and think, "Who was that woman, stumbling around the broken cobblestones, attempting to orient herself and hone in on some sort of context while mopping the sweat out of her armpits? She was a leeeetle bit scary."

In significant ways, I'm still that woman, but at least now I'm wearing long sleeves and the odd pair of mismatched socks. Perhaps more importantly, the sleep deprivation has eased since I generally wake up for about half an hour with the first Call to Prayer and no longer have to count myself as Awake for the Day Starting at 4:30 a.m.

But here's the part of the process in which I'm reveling: we're at the point of acculturation where we can say there are things in the villages of Cappadocia that we know we'll miss intensely once we return home.

Trust me, the Call to Prayer at dawn is profoundly not one of them. Nor are the aggressive flies that triangulate their trajectories straight towards our retinas.

However, we've come attached to this volcanic, tufa-rocked, accordion-pleated, beige, hollowed-out landscape in ways that alter our heartbeats. We've had our breath arrested by the beauty that lives inside simple souls who may struggle to write their names but who would never leave us standing on the sidewalk in the rain, waiting for a ride that isn't going to show up. We've seen our historical compasses become re-aligned around a region that has been more continuously inhabited than most others, that has hosted Hattians and Assyrians and Hittites and Phyrgians and Lydians and Persians and Romans and Seljuks and Ottomans and Turkmen. We've felt the whap of our jaws hitting the ground as we've peered into the thousand-year-old cave rooms beneath our 400-year-old Greek home. We've felt our knees weaken from the basket-view of several hundred meters high, inside the vantage point of a hot air balloon.

We've eaten fifteen kinds of peppers. We've seen women in their fifties who only recently have adopted a head scarf as daily wear--because they are certain, under the current government--that their sons in the military may live to see another day if they, as Mothers, adhere to conservative Islamic notions of dress. We've seen families making pottery in the same shops as their great-great-grandfathers. We've been touched by the attentive way young men in their twenties take stock of who is stepping onto the bus, hyper vigilantly moving their seats so that women and older men are assured of a place to sit down. We've spent long stretches of time in the nut and dried fruit shops where the owners scoop out sample after sample, insisting that we have at least a taste of every single of the seven varieties of hazelnuts. We’ve stretched our arms to the ceiling with delight when we step into one of our two heated rooms and feel the warmth smother the chill of the kitchen tiles.

And.

We’ve grown a little addiction to a thing called yufka.

Circular, several feet across, thin enough to see through, yufka is an edible purse. Fill it with cinnamon, sugar, and walnuts, and it’s breakfast. Stuff it with cheese, and it’s lunch. Roll it around ground beef, and it’s dinner. Swipe in some Nutella, and it’s dessert.

Swaddle an infant in it, and he sleeps through the night.

Oh yea, it’s amazing stuff. Along the lines of phyllo-meets-tortilla, yufka is a versatile staple of village cuisine. It can be bought factory-made, in a package, or from a specialty shop where capable men wielding long wooden dowels roll the stuff out and sell it by the kilo.

But it’s best of all when made by the village women themselves, which we found out first hand one Sunday afternoon when we stopped by our friend Christina’s house. Her courtyard was full of women—her landlord’s family plus neighbor ladies, all working together for several days to lay in the year’s supply of yufka, stacks a few meters high—

Rolling, patting, clacking, chatting, stoking, cooking, flipping,

and sharing.








By virtue of standing around and watching, we each scored a huge, warm, hot-off-the-griddle piece of yufka folded into a wad of newsprint.

Moments later, though, back to tending their fires and sharing gossip, the women swirled around their communal task, hardly noticing us in the corner,

wiping the melted butter off our chins.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

"Saturated"

Every. single. day.

I think anew,

"I don't foresee ever getting over this place."


















All of these pictures were taken within four minutes' walk of our house. Just imagine the delights if one were feeling particularly hardy and ventured a five minute expedition.

Friday, December 10, 2010

"Open Book, Open Wallet"


At twenty-six, with a newly-minted graduate degree in hand, I got a full-time job teaching writing at a four-year university.

My salary was $17,000 per year.

It wasn’t for nothing that one of my esteemed college professors characterized the teaching of composition as “working in the armpit of the university.”

However, having never been quite sure that English majors ever earned any income at all outside of what they made behind the wheels of taxis, I thought $17,000 seemed fair enough compensation for 60+ hours of work per week plus the bonus Emotional Hardiness Training that came from reading student essays which asserted “people with AIDS deserve what they got.”

It’s like I was overpaid, really.

After three years at that university, my pay (No benefits! No retirement fund!) ballooned to almost $19,000 per year. Because I’d struggled to make rent and often exceeded the budgeted $25 per week for groceries, my credit card debt was on par with my salary.

Realizing I was on a slippery slope, financially, I made the move to Minnesota and the community college system. I was hired into that system with a 90% raise.

So there I was, twenty-nine, a slightly-tarnished graduate degree in hand, having just scored a huge raise, suddenly hitting the national average salary—for high school graduates.

Because I never graduated from high school, though, it was impossible to gauge what a reasonable compensation for my years of study and time in the classroom should have been. None of the “predicted income by education level” charts had a column for Graduate Degree Sans High School Diploma. Moreover, it seemed presumptuous to imagine that following one’s inclinations and enjoying one’s work assured a higher tax bracket.

Now, fifteen years later, that 90% raised salary has grown by another 75%, and if you’re able to parse out those percentages, you’ll know the upshot is that, well, I’m more fortunate than most but less fortunate than many. Work in the fact that this Average-ish Salary also supports three dependents, and you’ll understand why we eat a lot of lentils and keep the thermostat set at 56 degrees.

In the States, all I have to do is tell someone I’m an English teacher, and they immediately have a sense of the lifestyle that affords: comfortable, but Lamborghini-free. Pretty quickly, I know anyone spending time with me isn’t after the dosh.

In Turkey, however…

It’s occasionally disheartening to know that the welcome we receive has undertones of “Money. Gimme some of your money. Money. How about the money?” Now, I don’t necessarily mind this attitude when I’ve willingly entered a place of business; fair enough, really. And I get that our income, while nothing major in the U.S., is well above the average Turk’s. I get that much of the eye contact aimed my way is more about “You can help me with a cash infusion” than “You look like a really interesting person I’d like to talk to.” Despite this, it was still hard to stand there as my friend Pamm got vastly overcharged by a Turkish businesswoman whose shop I have patronized faithfully. Still, it’s hard to contact a young Turkish woman who said she’d be happy to give our family Turkish lessons (“Even though I’ve never taught Turkish and couldn’t really explain the grammar; but I could help with vocabulary and answer your questions”) and hear back from her that she’d be glad to teach us for 50 Turkish Lira per hour. Contrast this number with the 25TL charged by the professional potter who gives our kids lessons that last for several hours, “until we feel like we are done.” Ultimately, when smacked with blatant overcharging, my nose gets out of joint, but I also realize it’s to be expected because tourism trains people to get what they can from the yabancı (foreigners). I also have a snortle (the sound emitted when a nose joint is out of alignment) over the idea of my hard won average American income as admirable.

It’s just that, as much as I understand that Turks want our money, there’s unexpected stuff that keeps sideswiping me. Most surprising is that the sideswiping comes from the expats…who, one would think, might serve as havens from the experience of “Money. Gimme some money,” who might provide the welcome and comfortable counterpoint of making us feel like bona fide fellow human beings.

Who knew my most startling lessons this year would come from attempting to navigate expat culture? Compared to icy British blondes who can’t be bothered to return a “hello” at intimate dinner parties; compared to Kiwis who can’t get through an evening without multiple bottles of wine (each); compared to married couples who make a life’s game out of deceiving their partners; compared to the general “junior high didn’t work for me the first time around, so now I’m doing it again as an adult, and I’ve decided I’m a power player this time” modus operandi of many expats—

a culture of isolated women who cover their hair so that only their husbands are privy to The Reveal; who rarely leave the street where they live; who never get behind the wheel of a car…feels positively honest and sensical.

Cuz, Poodles? The expats is kind of crazy (and trust me, I generally like me some crazy; my only requirement is that The Crazy be accompanied by a dose of self-honesty and deprecation).

Over the last few weeks, after several expat social interactions during which it became clear my role was to listen, nod, listen, say “That’s amazing,” listen, try to insert a question asking for more detail, and then listen, I got a little sad. I realized that I’d met these people a handful of times, spent hours in the same room with them, yet I wasn’t sure they even knew my name. I was fairly certain they had no idea about what I do for a living. I was completely positive that they had no interest in any personal history I might bring to the table, that the role newcomers are cast into here is to reflect back to the actors an image of themselves that they are purposefully creating. They perform; we are to applaud. At the end of one such evening, freshly tapped out of standing ovations, I left the dining area and walked into the living room, where Groom was attempting to amuse the kids—you can bet no one was talking to them!—and whispered, “Wow, I don’t believe I’ve ever felt so socially useless before. Mostly, I’ve realized I like you, and that’s about it.”

We had a little moment there, when we realized we were far enough into trying to be “open” and “friendly” that we could make some decisions about the ways we would spend our time during the rest of the year. It was time to implement a policy of Social Winnowing.

How fortunate, then, that we’d had some genuinely fine evenings with one particular couple—first meeting at a party, then having them over for dinner, then spending an afternoon at their place, rounded out by the menfolk having a lovely morning hike together. Quickly, it had gotten to the point where they invited us to take some time this winter—“One, two, three weeks; whatever you like! You’d only need to cover electricity and incidentals. Since we’ll be leaving soon for our travels, just email us if you’d like to use the place”—and have a stay in their house down on the Mediterranean while they spent a few months sailing around the Middle East. After the third time they mentioned this possibility, Groom and I decided it would be a great mid-winter option and that we should avail ourselves of the offer.

So I emailed them this past week and said we’d love to take them up on their proposal, would be happy to cover all related expenses, and hoped to firm up some dates. A day later, the reply came in: “Lovely! It will be 100 lira per night, along with 100 lira for the cleaning woman, which you can leave on top of the fridge before you go. Just let us know which weeks you’d like to be there.”













That silence you read in the empty spaces above represents my reaction. There might have been a tiny gasp, too.

I still remember so well the years of making $17,000, praying I didn’t get sick because I couldn’t have paid the bill, thanking the nice check-out guy at the grocery store for letting me take my bananas and lettuce even though I was a dollar short (“Don’t worry, sweetie: you’ll get me back next week when you come in”),

that I forget to see myself as I am here. When I read that email, I had forgotten my role as—laughably, really—Bulging Wallet.

Yea, okay then. So no staying in their house. And sure as hell no more morning hikes. Plus, maybe there was a little bit of stomping around for a few days, accompanied by mutterings of, “I just don’t like anybody here. If I were back at home, where there are more choices of company, you can bet your Mastercard I wouldn’t have most of these people in my life. Let’s further the strictures of our Social Winnowing Policy so that we now adhere to If You Wouldn’t Make the Cut Back Home, You Don’t Slide In Here, Either, Horace.”

The beautiful thing about a snit is the way it gets pulled up short mid-wail: you’re standing there in your crib, shifting pajama-clad feet back and forth on your mattress, batting the musical mobile out of your eyes, peering over the edge of the bars, about to hurl a glow-in-the-dark caterpillar towards the diaper changing table, when Mommy walks in with a ‘Nilla Wafer,

and, sheepishly, you let the caterpillar drop to the floor with a soft “plop.”

This is just what happened to me mere days after my “I don’t like anybody here” funk. ‘Nilla wafer crumbs dotting my chin, I emailed with a lovely woman (hi, Vicky!) who had left a comment on this blog about the dearth of books in English in Cappadocia (and, even more, the dearth of book sharing amongst expats with control issues). We met at a café so as to pass her a bag of books but, more importantly, to compare experiences and Talk Life. A day later, I took a phone call from a delightful German anthropologist. He and his Turkish wife invited us over for dinner. He insisted on picking us up, as “I have wheels, and you don’t.” That evening, they fed us an amazing meal, engaged us in conversation, offered to help us in any way they could. Two days after that, we got a call from a Turkish doctor, a woman who wondered if we’d like to go to a jazz night with her and a friend. They picked us up, spread a feeling of good humor, introduced us to a little-seen subculture of music and nightlife, bought the kids chocolate, refused our offers to buy them something to drink,

and went far in redeeming our belief that we are more than walking Lira Notes.


----------------------------------
Having written about some of my disgruntlement to our friend Christina, she who just returned to The States after 7 years in Turkey, I received the following wonderful, helpful, spirit-bolstering reply:


Honey, honey, honey. Turkey took me by the ankles, turned me upside down, and shook me like a son of a gun when I first arrived. It can be hard, hard, hard. Every expectation, co-dependent habit and belief system clattered from my pockets to the ground. And then it twirls you around by those ankles until you can't stop giggling, puts you down, and gives you that pony you always wanted. It can be full of love, joy, and laughter.

I think there's a wall that has to be hit. You let go of all the expectations you didn't even know you had, play with the bag of seemingly broken and half missing marbles, and make yourself up a completely new game. Call on your faith, whatever that is. Doing this with 3 other people makes it sooo much easier, you have your island - and sooo much harder, because you're an island for them and its harder to make those slashing adjustments when they feel like they come up. Remember your favorite piece of art from home and "Hang in there" babe.

Consider your family a handful of beautiful agates that have been thrown into the polisher for refinement - turning your worlds around and upside down. I guarantee you'll all be shinier and even more beautiful people at the end of your journey.

-------------------------------------------------

Indeed.

But I’m going to maintain to the finish that it shouldn’t cost even the roughest agate 100TL per night to sleep in an empty house while the owners sail the Red Sea.

Friday, December 03, 2010

"Songs of Experience"

The (semi) Romantic poet and artist William Blake is certainly no Mary Oliver to me, but I do enjoy the fact that he could invite someone over to "look at his etchings," and he'd actually have something to show that visitor upon arrival that was, you know, etched. I also like that he taught his wife to read and write--and that his peers largely regarded him as mad.

Even more, I appreciate that his writings--although they strike this modern reader as a bit simplistic in some cases--explore the idea that it takes oppositional forces to create something that is Whole. Blake wrote about innocence and experience, heaven and hell, corporeal and spiritual, ultimately making the case that you've got to have the two sides to have anything at all.

I agree, yet this year in a new environment is highlighting the fact that many don't. Maybe it's natural for inhabitants of a leisure culture, but it does seem like a lot of caring people want every day to be "good," want every thing to be "a great time," believe that if something is periodically flat or unhappy then maybe it should be rethought.

I've been mulling this over in regards to our experience here because I'm very, very glad we have days that are challenging. If we started out with "it's so beautiful here" and then moved to "the people are amazing" before ending with "we've never had more fun," then we'd be having a one-dimensional experience, free of layers or complexities. In other words, I'm really grateful that I feel sad and lonely sometimes. I find it delicious that, especially when so much of my life is "set," I get to feel constantly off balance here.

The thing is, the tough days make the happy, wavy days all the richer.

When it comes to the melancholy that has set in each time visitors from the States have left us to return home, it's a beautiful bit of heart piercing because it means we have people we love, and they came to share in our adventure, and they had compelling reasons to return home. It's wonderful to feel bereft when they leave. Because an empty heart means we've been very, very lucky.

This is just how I feel a day after our good friends Pamm and Ed have left us to fly back to Minnesota. They came, and each day was sun dappled and conversation filled. Then they left, and we felt empty, missing their laughter and wonder and card playing. The pull of opposites, reminding us of the abundance of our lives, was positively Blake-ian.

Friday, November 26, 2010

“Principium Contradictionis"


Our Minnesotan friends Pamm and Ed have been touring Turkey the last week or so and are on their way to spending a few days at our house. Based on Pamm’s quick emails of update, I’d say they’re getting the full Turkish experience, wherein everything they expected hasn’t been delivered, which then makes space for them to be surprised by what delights them. More than anything, for good or bad, they’ve been struck by some glaring inconsistencies—which we, after four months here, make us nod our heads knowingly. For Pamm, she couldn’t believe that they were staying at a luxurious 5-star hotel that only served instant coffee. For us, we have remarked that:

--The tenet of Islam pertaining to purity and cleanliness apparently extends only to the body (ritualized ablutions are a part of every prayer and must follow all intimate relations, not to mention the ubiquitous use of Lemon Cologne, an 80-proof rubbing alcohol poured over one’s hands multiple times a day) because it is no rare thing to see a man in a skull cap cradling his prayer beads as he tosses an empty cigarette pack to the ground. Recently, on a landing next to the mosque across the street, someone tossed out six rusty stove pipes. At least it's a place where their disintegration will undoubtedly be hastened by the blistering decibels of the Call to Prayer. The entire landscape is littered with empty olive oil cans, plastic bags, rotting squash and loaves of bread, broken ironing boards, unwanted bed frames, shattered beer bottles, partially drunk liters of Coke, cracked cinderblocks, abandoned shoes, dead trucks, and ripped hoses. The first time I gave Groom directions as to how to find a nifty ancient church that I’d stumbled across, a key point to those instructions was, “When you encounter the big pile of mildewing sweaters in the middle of the road, you’ll know you’re on the right track.”





--Our 70-year-old neighbor who wears at least one, if not two, headscarves at all times and is always covered from head to toe in modest draping handed my husband the gift of a bowl of home-dried raisins covered with a newspaper. On that sheet of newspaper was a scantily-clad Warrior Goddess model with her Fierce Lady Bosoms exposed to the readership--and to raisin eaters who can’t help but imagining they’re chomping into nipples with every bite.

--Turkey, in particular the Cappadocia region, is one of the most continuously-inhabited pieces of land on the planet, a fact that might lead one to expect a that modern-day Turks would have a command of history and an elevated civilization in terms of music, art, literature. However, and with many exceptions, most Cappadocians rarely read (outside of the newspaper), think of mass production as the height of art, and have never touched a musical instrument. Even more surprising is the disconnect between the evidence of previous inhabitants and the knowledge of who they were or what they were doing. Certainly, there is a general sense of the various eras of history (the Hittites, the Phrygians, the Byzantines…), but those seeking a comprehensive archeological explanation are stymied more often than not. When our family hired a spendy nationally-licensed guide for a day tour around the region (we knew he was the real deal because he sported an ID card on a lanyard), he earned our respect due to his unwillingness to fabricate facts, as so many of the unlicensed guides do. When we toured the underground city of Kaymakli, which is thought to extend for eight stories under the earth, the guide was well able to shine his flashlight and point out rolling stone doors, rooms where fires had been used heavily for cooking, spots where grapes had been stomped…but as to the overall purpose of the underground city, he, like all authorities, was uncertain. Such cities might have been built for protection from invaders. Or possibly for storage. Or maybe for some-time usage. Or, alternatively, for long-term usage. Perhaps in the winter. Or summer. In truth, the lack of certainty about these underground cities is refreshing, as too often archaeology seems to lean towards the satisfactions of pat storytelling over the ambiguities raised by science. On the other hand, when the guide pointed out a doorway full of sand and noted, “It’s thought there are many more levels below this one which have never been touched or looted, which might be full of eye-opening artifacts, but no one is certain,” it was all I could do not to holler, “Give me a shovel and a month, and I’ll make a huge dent in deciphering this joint, Mustafa!”

As we exited Kaymakli, Groom pointed out, “We seem to run into this again and again here: it’s like the realization that something could be opened up for tourism took priority over the need to figure out the place first. If each site were properly excavated, made sense of, and then packaged into presentable information for visitors, we wouldn’t always walk away with more questions than we came in with.”

Of course, he was an anthropology major, so it’s in his training to crave pottery shards.

What surprises me more than anything is that this country existed under refined Ottoman rule for hundreds of years, and then the forward-thinking Ataturk came along and “modernized” things, yet there’s not a bookstore to be seen for three hundred kilometers.

--The men wear suit coats when they work in the fields. (I know this can be seen in countries around the world where formality intersects with the need to hoe, but it still makes me wonder why the ill-fitting suit coat can’t be hung from a nearby tree while the hoeing takes place)

--We live in a region that’s just emerging from subsistence living, yet it’s amazingly hard to find a whole grain. Semi-relatedly, can we just take a minute here to chuckle over the fact that it is possible to find brown rice (par for the course, it’s nearly inedible) in a few Turkish stores, but it’s called “diet rice”?

--The New York Times ran an article last summer touting Turkish food as a “world cuisine,” but our experiences in restaurants have been, by and large, deeply unsatisfying. Or, as my pal Pammy put it in email, the food “beggars description.” Fortunately, she didn’t let that daunt her and went on to attempt description of the challenges of tourist food for a person with a deadly allergy to anything in the nightshade family: “One night the only thing left on the buffet after the Germans and Russians went through that wasn't smothered in eggplant or bibers (peppers) was french fries, spaghetti noodles, and white rice with some fragments of honey drenched desserts and bread. All cold and all bad.”


Ultimately, highlighting contradictions begins to feel like condemnation, and that’s not my purpose. In point of fact, I feel defensive of Turkey and think pretty much everyone’s lives would be richer for having experienced it.

What’s more, as soon as Pamm half joked that Turkey leads with contradictions, my first reaction was to agree…but my second reaction was to think, “Yea, but what place isn’t? Personally, I come from a country where physical fitness is an obsession but where obesity rates are rising. Riddle me that one. Then there’s the fact that the U.S. prides itself on individualism, yet its most popular sports are football, baseball, and basketball: team sports one and all. And how about the trend of environmentalism which is laughable when pitted against the millions of cars on the roads? What about loudly-protesting Christians who spend more time in Walmart than reading to the blind? Want me to show you a ‘foodie’ in the drive-thru line? How about a doctor whose income trumps the Hippocratic Oath? Volunteerism for pay?”

This whole discussion highlights the intangible gains of travel: it reminds us that nothing makes sense, that there is beauty in the gaps between “should be” and “is,” that logic is inherently illogical when pitted against humanity’s vagaries.

In sum, it can be a drag.

But it’s also really, really fun.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

"...gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder"  ~G.K. Chesterton



Dear Aunt Ethel and Uncle Frank:


Thank you so much for the lint remover. I didn’t know such a thing existed! Maybe because I’ve been really busy combing my feathered hair with a huge plastic comb under the disco ball at Skate City! Before your gift, I didn’t realize how much all my sweaters needed de-pilling! And trust me, since it’s 1980, I have a serious number of velour and cowl-necked sweaters that need shaping up before Pat Benatar will ever ask me to be in one of her videos!


So thank you for the most radical Christmas present ever, except for when my mom gave my sister and me matching teddy bear nightgowns last year, and do you think she knows I’m 13 now? Enuf of the good times; gotta get to de-pilling—


You better watch out--you better not pout! Because video killed the radio star!


Love,


Jocelyn
-------------------
Clearly, even though Aunt Ethel and Uncle Frank are, in fact, real, and they did give me a lint remover one time, I never actually wrote this particular thank you card.

Number one, I hardly ever went skating at Skate City except for every weekend, and, number two (haha! “number two”!), I never genuinely wanted to be in a Pat Benatar video, unless you count “We Belong.” Oh, plus “Love Is a Battlefield.”

I can’t be faulted. You saw the gloves La Benatar wore. You saw that toilet paper-looking skirt. Without question, you would have elbowed me in the solar plexus—(wherever that is! But remember that grade school song about the cat on the roof top, “Señor Don Gato,” who was trolling for the lady cat that was “fluffy, white, and nice and fat,” and that song had “solar plexus” in the lyrics, which was a pretty hilarious thing to be singing out loud in elementary school?)—to take over my role in the video, if it meant you got to wear a toilet-paper skirt, too.

Bitch.

Soooo. My point was that I never wrote that thank you card, but at the same time, that’s exactly the thank you card I wrote for about 15 years. The idea that every gift deserves a formalized expression of thanks was inculcated into me, gently, at a young age, by my mother. Christmas would come. Gifts would be opened. I’d spend the next three weeks scratching out one painfully-wrought line after another until the space inside the card was full enough that I could sign off. Virtually every thank you card I wrote throughout adolescence started with a salutation followed by “Thank you for the _______. I will use it ________.” Then I would vamp for a few lines and get the hell out of there so I could meet my friend Joni at the mall for an Orange Julius.

It was only when I stopped feeling the pressure to write thank you cards that I became truly grateful. There are several ways to read the previous sentence, but what I mean is this: when one sidesteps the burden of engraving gratitude in response to something gifted at least partially with the expectation of receiving thanks, what emerges is room for Real.

If I am not clawing at wrapping paper and simultaneously strategizing, “I hope I can whip out a thank you note by next Monday because I have essays coming in that afternoon, and I can’t even pretend to be excited about a doily Kleenex cozy when I have 50 papers to mark,” then I am free. I can like the gift. Or not. I can send on a note at a later date. Or not. I can feel what I feel, with no obligation to the exhausting politeness obliged by etiquette.

Rather, I can wait three months and then pen a long note full of random nothingnesses, ending with a “You have no idea how profoundly the book you gave me has affected my thinking. With one quick trip to Barnes & Noble, you set something in motion inside of me that won’t find answer for years to come. Because you were thoughtful and invested something of yourself with me in mind, I will never be the same.”

Alternately, I can wait five years and never go beyond hanging my jaw open at the fact that someone saw a poster of a kitty hanging onto a tree with the words “Hang in There” on it and thought of me.

I can allow my reaction to flow, unadulterated, unconcerned with proper form, out of my heart.

Which is exactly why I’m finding it so difficult right now to placate the pounding within me that demands I shape into words some of the most boundless, heartfelt gratitude I’ve ever experienced. That the recipient has no desire for my thankfulness makes its expression all the more natural.

You see, the person who gave direction and inspiration to this sabbatical year for our family has just left Turkey and returned to life in the United States. Last Spring, when four different possibilities for living abroad had fallen through, and we were feeling discouraged and without hope, we followed a random connection and sent a woman named Christina an email, telling her that we were willing to head most anywhere, but with children in tow, we’d feel profoundly more willing to plop down somewhere if we knew we’d be greeted with a welcome and some help with the transition. Traveling “blind” is an easy part of the adventure as a singleton, but with young kids, we hoped to leap towards a tightrope underwritten by a safety net.

Within ten hours of our initial email to Christina, we had a response, full of enthusiasm and willingness to be our go-to gal. In that first message, she combined wisdom (“I think anyone who wants to spend extended time here needs to be prepared to be relaxed, easy going, persistent, and ready to learn a whole new concept of what those things even mean.”) with zest (“…choose Cappadocia, it's fantastic!”). Her attitude felt like magic; we bought tickets to Turkey within days. Later, when the time came, and we showed up in Cappadocia, it was Christina who met us at the airport in a huge van she’d booked specially to help accommodate our luggage. Because our arrival happened at night, in the middle of a heat wave, she had us in the pool at our pension within two hours of landing while she hoofed off to buy us gözleme (a kind of village food—sort of like huge tortillas stuffed with spinach, cheese, potato, or Nutella) for dinner. In the ensuing weeks, she let us stay at her house, worked her every connection to find us a home, introduced us to sixty-eleven people, taught us to negotiate the transportation system, helped us outfit the house with furniture, and, most importantly of all, made us feel seen in a place where we were invisible.

In recent months, seven years after she first moved to Turkey, Christina had been realizing that part of her personal journey required leaving the Near East and re-meeting the places, relationships, and Western culture she had willingly left behind in her mid-thirties. Quite astutely, she framed this step by saying that she had been feeling as though she and Turkey been running hot and heavy with each other for some years, but at the same time, they had started getting the sense things were over between them and that it was time to find the courage to end the relationship, an act that required self-honesty, a certain amount of melancholy about good times past, and a willingness to look forward to a bidding future.

I knew how spot-on her decision was when even my inner Raging Toddler could only whine sleepily that she. didn’t. want. Auntie. Christina. to. leave. Mostly, my awake adult self had to applaud—had to support a healthy decision made by someone I loved. So we helped her toss things into the trash can, marched away with her bottle of vanilla extract (among seven hundred other bits and bobs), and only cried a little bit the day before she left.

What I didn’t know how to communicate to her, as we stood near the trash can that last day, exchanging Turkish kisses and American hugs on the eve of her departure while intermingling tears, was a proper thank you. What’s more, in this case, unlike with the lint remover, I was buffeted by a tempest of gratitude that I couldn’t tame into a tidy note—although no one would have appreciated a Pat Benatar reference more than Christina, Fellow Child of the ‘80s.

How to articulate the feeling deep in my gut?
----------------

If I were 13 again, my best effort would probably yield little more than a

Dear Christina:


Thank you for the motivation to move to Turkey. I will use it for the rest of this year.


Before your gift, I didn’t realize how much I was ready for a perspective shift! And trust me, since it’s 2010, and I listen to mainstream news sources, I have serious perspective issues that need shaping up before Jon Stewart will ever ask me to be on his show!


So thank you for the most radical sabbatical year present ever, except for when I gave birth to Paco last time around, but who wants to have a baby every seven years, especially when she’s in her forties? Enuf of the good times; gotta get to listening to the Call to Prayer—


You better watch out--you better not “Maşallah”! Because Allah had his ekbar!


Love,


Jocelyn
-----------

In point of fact, that immature note does the job.

By the time I was 30, I could have added in:

P.S. You have no idea how profoundly the confidence and welcome you gave us has affected my thinking. With one quick email from Turkey to Minnesota, you set something in motion inside of me that won’t find answer for years to come. Because you were thoughtful and invested something of yourself with me in mind, I will never be the same.
---------------

However, 43-year-old Jocelyn also insists on one further post script:

P.P.S. You know how you always talked to ten-year-old Girl like she was your best friend, and you couldn’t wait to be with her? You know how you always insisted on getting in Paco’s face when he was feeling scared and shy and out of his element—on giving him both a bad time and Turkish kisses? You know how you provided me with a much-needed external processor so that I had the solace of a girlfriend? You know how you were able, so often, to be the Person in the Know so that Groom didn’t always have to? You know how you hollered down that slimy cab driver after he cheated me for double the fare? You know how you, on the sly, ordered out for a birthday cake for Groom’s early 40th celebration? You know how you found closure with people whose personal damage had caused them to cut you to the quick? You know how you went on that yoga retreat and suddenly realized that you’re on the verge of meeting your new self for the first time? You know how you embraced our wayward little family and launched us on a year of discovery? Once you know all that, then there is only one thing I can say:


Teşekkür ederim, sweetpea.
------------

Now enjoy Madison. Enjoy the hot water coming right out of the tap. Can’t wait to see you next year. We can go roller skating and comb our hair under the disco ball at Cheep Skate together. I’m totally asking you to be my partner for Ladies’ Choice.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

"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 “Hoş 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. “KOMŞU!” she squalled. “Hoş geldiniz!” As usual, she continued with a long stream of unintelligible well wishes, and I returned her greeting with “KOMŞU! Hoş 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 “Hoş 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 “Hoş 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

earplugs,

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.

Saturday, November 13, 2010


Then


Now

Begging the forbearance of long-term readers here, as I re-run a post from one year ago, originally written in honor of my tenth wedding anniversary. Now, as we hit #11, here it is again.
-----------------------------------------------------

"Bestill"


My dad was the person who taught me to be comfortable with silence. We could get in the car and drive for twenty minutes without a word being spoken. While his and my mother's relationship ultimately cracked under the weight of that silence, for me, the daughter, his quiet felt benign, reassuring, a safe place to be.

Even more, when he did speak, his words carried weight. A handful of my favorite memories, in fact, center around moments when he engaged in verbal expression. One time, after I'd won a forensics tournament out of town, returning from the meet late at night, I left my trophy on the dining room table. By the time I woke up later that day, my dad had left me a note, telling me he was so proud, he was "busting his buttons." Another time, after I'd behaved badly, he sat across from my hungover self and told me he was "deeply disappointed." Many years later, during the night when a bat flew into my house, and I had a fairly apeshit "I'm all alone, and the bat is trying to kill me" meltdown for three hours in the bathroom, I managed to grab my phone (with the bat only gnawing off one of my fingers above the knuckle as I reached for the receiver) and call my parents, over a thousand miles away. When I sobbed and sobbed that a killer beast was out there, and all I had were tampons for friends and nail files for weapons, my dad, casting about, counseled, "What you need to do is try to reach way down inside yourself now and find something you don't think you have. Dig deep, and you'll find something you need." He was right. We hung up, and I dug deep, finding inside myself the numbers 911, which I punched into the phone with great bravery.

Perhaps my fondest conversation with my dad occurred about a decade before his death. Chatting on the phone, we stumbled across the subject of my sister and me and our many differences. Trying to qualify the nature of the differences, my dad remarked that my sister took after his side of the family, where a certain dourness and pessimism sometimes manifested itself. “She reminds me of myself,” he noted, continuing, “and you don’t. You’re more, well, effervescent.”

There it was: one of those moments we hope for with our parents, those moments when they give us a word, an adjective, a feeling of being seen, and it signifies everything. It signifies that our parents see us as separate, as differentiated beings, that they have thought about us, that they have taken stock of us, that we are far enough away from them that the space has cleared everyone’s vision. Because such words, such adjectives, are born from the lifelong process of symbiosis to independence, they have power. Plus, anytime someone describes me to myself, I believe him.

It wasn’t even so much that I wanted to think of myself as “effervescent”—although it was a welcome label—but rather, it was more that I wanted to think of my dad thinking of me that way. Sometimes, from then on, I effervesced just for him.

It surprised me, then, to learn—repeatedly--that a pipping personality didn’t reap greater rewards, in the larger scope of the world. Certainly, I didn’t expect to be voted into office on the Effervescence Platform, nor did I expect the medical field to approach me, asking me to donate to the Effervescence Transfusion Bank. But I did think being smiley and liking sunshine might have snagged me a boyfriend.

Fer damn crap smeared on a thrice-read Jane Austen novel.

Oh, all right.

I did date a guy through my 20’s, and then I truly, madly, deeply dated another guy—one who left my two liters of effervescence out on the counter with the cap off and made all the bubbles go flat. He de-carbonated me in a way that no one ever had before, not even the boys on the high school bus who moo-ed at my sister and me.

He made my sizzle fizzle.

And then my grandma died, and the doc found a lump in my breast.

I was thirty-one.

Thirty-one wasn’t my favorite year.

Fortunately, I still had girlfriends who called, just when I was pacing the circle of my small kitchen for the 123rd time in an hour, gnawing on my cuticles, and they opened with, “Oh, honey. I just heard. Talk to me.” Even when I would have to set down the phone to grab another handful of Kleenex, they would stay on the line, shouting things like, “From the amount of snot you’re emitting, you do seem well-hydrated. And that’s something, right?” Also, I had family who knew how to circle ‘round gently and never look me straight in my teary eyes. Instead, they gave me food and invited me to participate in the yearly post-hunting butchering of the deer, and they talked at and around me.

Eventually, the molasses movement of seconds turned into minutes finally adding up into hours and days, and then months went by. My grandma was buried; the lump was benign; the former boyfriend had a new girl.

Just after the new year, one of my hunting cousins sent me an email, asking if I’d like to drive North to come visit them and, by the way, if I would be at all interested in letting him serve as my “agent in the field,” romantically.

Flattened, completely without zest or hope, my response was worthy of my father’s side of the family: “Go ahead, if you want to, but I won’t expect anything from it.”

Turns out my cousin already had someone in mind, a 28-year-old guy he worked with in a very small town of about 300. One day, sitting in the office, looking across at this 28-year-old, my cousin started musing, “How’s Guy ever going to find someone in this bohunk town?” A moment later, he thought back to Thanksgiving and the deer butchering and the conversations we’d had, which resulted in, “For that matter, how’s Jocelyn ever going to find someone in the bohunk town she’s living in?”

His head swiveled back and forth, and his thoughts rammed into each other. He approached Guy, who agreed, “Sure, you can be my agent in the field. But this cousin of yours, since she lives more than five hours away, she’d have to really knock my socks off for me to start seeing her.” Fair enough. Next, my cousin approached me.

It was agreed: I’d drive the five hours North and, while visiting my cousin’s family, meet Guy. In the past, imbued with effervescence, I’d greeted any opportunity to meet a potential partner with gusto and a knee-jerk, involuntary planning of our lives together. This time, I didn’t think much of the whole thing.

So we’d see.

That February, over Presidents' Day weekend, I visited. I got to hold my cousin’s baby a lot and watch his 4-year-old ice skate. One afternoon, we swung through the campus where Cousin worked. As we drove away, he said, casually, “Oh, that man back there who was leaning down, talking to people through their car window? The one in the red hat? That was Guy.”



Cousin, perhaps, didn’t understand that such information would have been welcome, say, two minutes earlier. Cousin is a man.

That night, the guy in the red hat strolled into Cousin's house, there for The Meeting, there for dinner. He carried a six-pack of homebrew.

I liked him already.

In short order, I learned that Guy not only wore a red hat and was quite tall. I also learned he really liked making bread, reading the Atlantic Monthly, and running on trails. I learned that he was an anthropology major who'd minored in Environmental Science. I learned that his Desert Island food would be cheese (dropped from a helicopter once a month, to supplement the fish and coconunts he would be living on otherwise); his Desert Island album would be Van Morrison's Moondance; his Desert Island book would be some sort of reference book, all the better if it contained maps.

I learned that, while the idea of him hadn't infused me with bubbles, the reality of him was creating a few tiny pops.

Dinner lasted five hours. As soon as he left, my previously-cool cousin and his wife, who had discreetly retired to the kitchen 8 feet away after dessert, were all nerves. They gave me all of thirty seconds after the door closed behind Guy before yelling, "SO? SO?????"

My response was positive, but guarded. He seemed nice. I would see more of him. If he wanted to.

But all the little broken pieces inside of me weren't quite realigned yet. I wasn't going to put myself forward this time. I couldn't take another dashing.

Fortunately, a few days later, Guy asked my cousin for my email address. It had been mutual. Apparently, his strongest first impression of me was that I had a lot of hair. He thought he "could get lost in it."



What ensued was a modern epistolary courtship. For three weeks, we sent messages back and forth, discovering that writing is an excellent way to get to know someone: the small talk is non-existent; the conversations get to meaty matters right away; there is no body language to read or misread, no annoying laugh to cringe from.

After three weeks, Guy announced he was ready to "jump off the comfortable dock" and into the potentially-frigid waters of face-to-face. Thus, during my Spring Break in March, I headed North again, for our first real date.

As we sat in a dingy bar, having burgers and beers, conversation flowed. Snow fell.

Like 14" of it.

When it came time to take Guy to his house before driving back to my cousin's place, my car got stuck. In the snow. At Guy's house. He didn't seem to mind. His roommates were friendly. I stayed over.

I had no choice.

What I learned in those days of my Spring Break was that Guy liked to listen to me read aloud--and if that's not an activity of the infatuated, I don't know what is. He also proved that he's very good at snogging.

And, about three days in, after he'd had a bath one night, Guy came back into his bedroom, where I lounged. "Brrrrrr," he exclaimed. "My feet are cold!"

"Why are they so cold? You just got out of the bath tub," I noted.

"They're freezing because. you. knocked. my. socks. off" was the answer.

Suddenly, right then, right there: there it was. The effervescence was back, the flatness banished.


It was all going to be all right.

Not too long afterward, as I stared very hard at the ceiling, I admitted I had fallen in love. He had the right answer.

By the end of my Spring Break week, five days after our first date, we had talked about what kind of wedding we wanted.

Four months later, one July morning, as I slept on a futon on the floor, he crawled in with a plate of pancakes and a Betsy Bowen woodcut entitled "Fox on a Journey."

And he asked me to marry him.

In quick order, we planned a wedding for the following May.

In even quicker order, like, the night we got engaged, I got pregnant. Three months after that, I had a miscarriage. Four days after that, we found out I'd been carrying twins, and one was still hanging on.

We moved the wedding to that November 13th, not nine months after we first played the Desert Island game over dinner. Guy became Groom right there at the environmental learning center where I'd first not-quite-spotted-him in his red hat. The bleeding from the miscarriage had stopped three days earlier. I sobbed through the vows.

Four months later, Jocelyn and Groom became Jocelyn and Groom and Girl.

All of that wonder unfolded in 1999. Not given to dreaming about the future before then, I have since been granted beauties I couldn't possibly have imagined.

He likes to touch me. He likes me to touch him.
He cooks dinner every night.
He has been our stay-at-home parent since Girl was born.
At promptly 8:00 every night, he brings me a drink.
He is unfazed by my random bursts of tears.
He is whimsical. He is dry. He is perceptive.
He sees that my ability to talk to people is as valuable as his ability to do everything else.
He likes to play cribbage.
He knows how to give me directions that make sense, like "go straight until you see the big rock shaped like Richard Nixon's head."
He moves to foreign country and ends up drinking tea with the guys who deliver our drinking water.
He deciphers the public transportation system in every major city.
He draws pictures that say what words can't.
He takes my ideas and makes them happen.
He still brews beer.

Like my father, he is gentle. Like my father, he has a thousand-watt smile.

Like my father, he is given to quiet, most comfortable in stillness.

Thus, eleven years in to the marriage, we often sit and watch the world flit by

holding hands in companionable silence.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

"You Know How People Broadcast Images of Glowing Fires on Their Television Sets, Rather Than Sitting in Front of an Actual Fireplace?  Right About Now, I'm Left Feeling We Could Have Broadcast Images of The Eiffel Tower on the TV, and Our Kids Would Have Enjoyed It Just As Much"


So let's see: 

one overnight trip on a bus from Cappadocia to Istanbul;

a day in Istanbul of visiting an ancient church with tremendous golden mosaic remnants on the walls;

one night in Istanbul;

five days in Paris, replete with macaroons, The Eiffel Tower, The Louvre, an on-and-off bus tour of the entire city, some hours at Sacre Coeur watching buskers perform, a trip around Monmarte to view artists at work, an afternoon in the historic and jaw-dropping spaces of Versailles, an after-dark hangout in front of Notre Dame so as to watch the shadows dance amongst the gargoyles and filagreed architecture, shopping along the Champs Elysees, repeat visits to street crepe stands, a passle of hours in Paris' floral park (a place featuring no less than four playgrounds), unlimited passes to public transportation;

a trip under the English Channel;

a night near the station where Paddington Bear gained legend;

three nights in a hotel with a swimming pool and breakfasts of Rice Crispies and Cumberland sausages;

two days of rides and fireworks at the much-hallowed Windsor Legoland;

another night in London to sleep in a room with bunkbeds and then take in the science museum, ride the London Eye, and visit the home of The Queen;

another trip under the sea by train;

multiple experiences with Subway sandwiches, KFC chicken, Starbursts, Skittles, Ritz Crackers, tortilla chips--all tastes of home not experienced in Cappadocia;

another night in Paris, during which the final Hannah Montana episode is watched;

then again to Istanbul for some big city hustle;

finally a flight back to Cappadocia.

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In reflecting on the trip in its entirety, the kids are in agreement: 

the coolest thing of all was the toilet on the Eurostar train through The Chunnel.  See, you flush it with your foot, by pressing down on a button on the floor. 

And. that's. just. awesome.

Totally better than Versailles.

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Put another way:

for less than a quarter of the cost of the whole vacation, we could have installed a new toilet in our house, one that flushes with a press of the foot, and given the little buggers a daily thrill surpassing an up-close-and-personal view of The Mona Lisa.


Having kids redefines Buyers' Remorse.