Thursday, August 26, 2010

"Paging Mr. Rogers, Mr. Mustafa Rogers"


“Hallo!” called a voice from inside the courtyard.

My daughter and I were heading out to the manav to hunt down fruits and vegetables, so without breaking step, I called back “Hello!”

After this call and response, there was a rustle inside the courtyard, and a body came flying out to the street; it was a typical village woman, reminding me vaguely of my grandmother and great aunts, and she was determined to make contact. In a more typical Turkish greeting, she kissed both of my cheeks and greeted me with “merhaba” followed by a string of Turkish words, unintelligible to me except for “çok” (pronounced “choke”), meaning “very.” When she paused for breath, all I knew is that I’d been given a “howdy” and a “very” with a whole bunch of effusiveness sandwiched in the middle. In some fundamental way, I’d met a communicator of my own ilk.

Leading with my best Friendly Public Face, I attempted to ask, through exaggerated mime, if that was her house inside the courtyard. When she invited us in for “çay” (pronounced “chai”), I was certain it was—either that, or she was a cok comfortable squatter. My answer to her—because, MERHABA, this is Turkey—had to be yes. Our elbows firmly grabbed, we were ushered into the courtyard and told to sit down at her fly-cloaked table. Moments later, a bowl of cut-up tomatoes was set down. Darting a look at my daughter, I gave her the “Remember: it’s always your job to make a dent in the hospitality tomatoes in this country since Mom doesn’t like them, and in return, I’ll let you hand me all sorts of other ‘gross’ stuff under the table, ‘k?” look. Shortly thereafter, a bowl of stale bread fried up in eggs joined the tomatoes, and, feeling a piece of the stuff being placed into my hand under the table, I regretted our deal. On her third return to the table, the enthusiastic neighbor announced that her name was something sounding like “Jan-da-reh” and, in the unexplainable way of words + gestures, managed to convey that she knew we had more people at home, and so we needed to go get “Pa-PA.”

A bit breathlessly, Girl ran across the street to get Paco and Pa-Pa, returning with them in tow. At this point, there were four bowls on the table, all beset by flies--an unavoidable reality (unavoidable so long as the modern technology known as “screens” remains untapped) in this region in August. Finally, after her extended bustle, Jan-da-reh sat down, panting. In short order, we learned her husband’s name is “Hassan,” and she has five children, all living far away and in different towns, and that she is the proud owner of the donkey that goes into ear-splitting spasms on a two-hour schedule. Every few sentences, she used a word that sounded like “komshu”; later, I looked it up to discover it is komşu and means “neighbor.” Yes, yes, we were definitely soaking up A Very Particular Kind of Neighborliness and feeling warmed inside by being told, by somehow understanding her Turkish, that we should come outside her gate everyday and call “Jan-de-reh! Jan-de-reh, çay, çay!” and have a regular sitdown with her.

Suddenly, it seemed like we might forge some connections in this new village, that we might feel less alone and adrift, that we might discover meaning through people this year.

And then the headscarves came out.

Beckoning me to her and holding up a scarf edged in beaded lace, Jan-da-reh lassoed my skull with a deft touch, wrapping the ends around my neck. She stepped back, regarded me, and clapped her hands with delight.

Feeling mature enough not to mind being her plaything, I smiled and acted Natalie Wood in West Side Story. Turning to my husband, Jan-da-reh asked him if he didn’t think I was a regular “Fatima.”

Feeling mature enough to play along with my attempt at feeling pretty, Groom nodded and smiled appreciatively at the make-over she’d wrought on his harlot infidel of a wife. Why, with me all scarved up like that, he could see the benefits of having a modest woman at his side. One so modest would bring acclaim to his name, raise up some hearty children, and fry up some fierce egg bread!

Mostly, I rued the fact that I couldn’t point out how jarring it is to drape an aging bookworm in a tablecloth. I also rued the fact that Jan-da-reh called out the universal word of “photo” and tossed Girl back out into the street to retrieve our camera from the house.


You know what’s more jarring than a bespectacled English major capped by grubby linen? When that same Hamlet reader is told that the head scarf ONLY costs 20 lira, payable upon exit through the gate.

Unsure of the proper cultural response to this unforeseen business proposal, Groom and I launched into the couplesspeak made up of frantic eye-catching and hissed whisperings of, “Do we have to buy it? If we don’t, do we get stoned?” At one point, I decided we had to make the purchase in order to assure good neighborly relations, and so I murmured to Groom, “My mom could wear this over her shoulders to the country club or something. I’ll just give it to her as a present.” Groom still wasn’t certain, looking properly discomfited.

And then the beaded necklaces came out.

Quickly snapped around each child’s neck, the necklaces were much praised by all, many thanks were uttered…and then the price of five lira each came out.

Somehow, at the same time, Jan-da-reh also threw some of the Turkish mainstay called “pekmez” (basically, a molasses made out of grapes…terrific stirred into yogurt or put on bread) into a jar and ladled three teaspoonsful into my husband’s mouth.

Oh, yea, and by the way? Five lira.

Fortunately, Our Delightful Neighbor’s pushiness hit a critical mass with me, one that allowed me to overcome the blight known as Minnesota Nice. We stood up to leave, offering up many thanks for the food and tea, at which point we declined any and all opportunities to support her donkey’s need for feed.

Looking crestfallen, Jan-da-reh attempted to lay guilt upon our heathen souls, but we pushed past her, out into the street, where the manure-tainted air of her donkey’s tethering post served as a welcome relief.

Two hours later, our friend Christina arrived in the village for a visit; as we stood in the street, chatting, Jan-da-reh bubbled out to shout a loud HALLO. Christina, an expat of seven years in country, had a quick exchange with her before turning to us to say, “Oh, gawd. That woman. I should have warned you about her. She does this thing where she lures tourists in and then sells them crappy overpriced socks, which they’re willing to pay for just to escape her clutches. A couple years ago, she was even on the news, bragging about how she does this. If she ever comes near you, run.”

Equally reassuringly, when we retold the story to another expat, this one with twelve years (and three husbands) in country, she was shocked and could only utter, “But. that’s. so. rude. How dare she? Don’t worry: that wasn’t anything that could have been a cultural violation on your part. She’s just awful, that’s all.”

In a simple world, the story would end there, with everyone condemning Jan-da-leh as a greedy viper. However, and I actually like this best of all, she remains completely undaunted. It’s as though she gave us a run, and we set down a boundary, and now she’s free lay the hell off.

Tonight, as we sat outside the wine shop, having tea as guests of the owner (and doesn't he appreciate our business?), she breezed past with a plate of lemon cake, probably meant as a donation to the iftar meal (the night time dinner that breaks the fast during Ramazan) that is offered up for men who don’t have families. Blowing us huge kisses off the tips of her fingers, she slowed down long enough—not to call out an ensnaring “Hallo,” but rather to break off a chunk of the cake and place it onto our table. Babbling away, she gave us a “merhaba” and a “çok,” and in between, there flowed a stream of words that managed to mean both

nothing

and

everything

all at once.


Thus was our introduction to the concept of “komşu” in our new home.

22 comments:

Jane said...

Oh Jan-de-leh, you unrepentant rip-off artist. Sounds like you handled her.

Jenn @ Juggling Life said...

The "ugly" one in this story is definitely NOT the American!

Jane said...

To clarify, it sounds like you (Jocelyn) handled her (Jan-de-leh).
Perhaps in your next encounter you could give her some American trinkets, or even better the photo of you all together, and then ask for your 10 lira.

Jeni said...

Why does this whole sales transaction thing kind of remind me of the Dutch buying Manhattan from the Indians for the equivalent to $25 or some such figure like that? Maybe you can sort through your belongings and find a couple trinkets here and there and then, return the favor by inviting her to your digs for tea and crumpets and then, adorn her and tell her you accept Visa or Master Charge. Just a thought ya know, sort of. A new spin on the export/import business perhaps?

alwaysinthebackrow said...

I've been gone for a few days, so I just read a bunch of your posts together. It is fun to see how all of this has come together for you....pension with and without slimy marmot hairs in the drains, friend's home, amazing villa with courtyard and braying donkey (poop included at no extra cost!). Love it all. Wish I were right there with you. Of course, I would be having more than the back sweat, and would not look nearly as wonderful in a headscarf as you.
Keep up the adventurous attitude. Soon it will feel like you've never lived anywhere else....I think.

heartinsanfrancisco said...

It crossed my mind that there is probably a good reason (or twelve) that her children all live in faraway places. It sounds as if you soaked up more local color in her fly-infested house than needed, but every country has its pushy guilt mongers. And you look utterly fetching in your virtuous head schmatta, Jocelyn. The red hair is a nice touch.

monica said...

Jocelyn - Jandeleh: 1-0 :o)

You look almost Turkish with that scarf -- you just need to grow a moustache and you're all in!

gawd, your kids are so cute!

Deborah said...

Jocelyn, I have never been drawn to reading science fiction or fantasy, but boy oh boy I am riveted by descriptions of a life completely foreign to mine.

You're funny as always - I laughed at the exchange bargain you struck with your Girl - and Minnesota Nice is exactly what many Canadians struggle with. When to 'Just Say No' (thanks, Nancy) and never mind what black thoughts other people mind have about us.

In my view, Turkey is definitely harder than Sicily would have been, but it will be as enriching, if not more so. I'm very glad that you've got Christina to reassure you of your normalcy - it's so easy to lose all your social/personal/cultural bearings in a foreign country. I am fascinated by what you're living, and delighted that your humour is surviving the (relative) hardship of your present life. You're in my thoughts daily, and I do mean that.

haphazardlife said...

I can't help but wonder about all the rumours and talk going on about the Americans living in the village.

Becky C. said...

I was hoping for a scarf moment but didn't expect it so soon! Heck even the annoying neighbors have their charms, and at least she didn't seem offended by your boundary-setting. Of course that just means she still thinks she can sell you more stuff but, hey, that's what enterprise is all about! I must say she chose well, picking up the green in your shirt and eyeglass frames. It suits you! Love how both you and Groom have such a positive attitude about this. Your lucky children are learning so much just by watching you handle things. Thanks for letting us peek in!

diane said...

She's a sly one. I love her I think.
How was the cake?

ds said...

You handled this as well as it could be handled, I think; she would have terrified me out of every lira I possessed. At least you & Groom were able to stop her.
She bears you no ill will--just don't cross her threshold again (as if!).

Great lesson in cross-cultural...economics...not even a headscarf can dull your wit!

geewits said...

Wow. That's a crazy story. And you just got there. I can hardly wait for the the rest of the year.

lime said...

ah yes, the white skin and english speech mark you as outrageously wealthy, of course, so you are a mark for all the hucksters in town.

her look of pride in the picture says it all.

SmitoniusAndSonata said...

At this rate , you'll shortly find yourself leasing the donkey and having private cookery lessons !

secret agent woman said...

This is the ONLY thing I dislike about foreign travel. And I do love visiting new places. But my God, I hate the constant push to buy things.

kmkat said...

I think the headscarf will be a great accessory when you [eventually] return to the college classroom. Scare the heck out of your students!

Logophile said...

Aaaah yes,
intercultural xplorations are so much fun, hm?
Well played, Joc, well played.

Green Girl in Wisconsin said...

Oh, now that is funny stuff! You're going to push some American crappe on her, right? Tell me you will! Gosh, at first I thought ALL your neighbors might turn out to be so pushy and all-consuming and I was afraid for you! How funny to find out she's the exception to the rule!

Minnesota Matron said...

What a fabulous, exhausting, challenging adventure!

Pam said...

Fun post Jocelyn! Love your adventures!

Midlife Jobhunter said...

What must those kids of yours be thinking? Your adventure has begun and I'm a tad behind. Will catchup.