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.

15 comments:

Jenn @ Juggling Life said...

It's fine for us to criticize our home and families, but let someone else do it . . .!

Em said...

Each of your posts helps create a fascinating portrait of Turkey. It seems like both an exotic, wonderful place...and a place to be avoided. I love each of your updates and your observations.

And you are right, the same kind of conundrums present in Turkey are evident in the US...just swap one obsession or belief for another and the irony is still there.

Vicky said...

I live in Urgup and share your frustration about reading matter. I met a (very stupid) Swiss woman who also lives here and I hoped she might have brought some books back with her on her last visa hop. I told here that I was so desperate to read anything in English or French that I would cry for joy to read a Cornflake packet in English. She looked at me weirdly and said "But you can find Cornflakes in Goreme". Whatever.
Great blog - am enjoying following.

alwaysinthebackrow said...

Travel opens the mind, and you can begin to wonder at what you find. This is why I wish every American child had the opportunity to travel around the world. Your children are gaining so much for their future as world citizens. To be able to see others without judgment.....wow, what a difference that could make in our world and this country.

actonbell said...

Great post! I'd love to see Turkey someday, though if that happens, it won't be the in-depth experience you're having. I'm getting a sudden Elvis Costello earworm, when he sings, "I hear that travel broadens the mind, 'til you can't get your head out of doors." heh.

You make such fascinating observations. It's impossible to live without contradictions, and they are so prevalent and OLD that it's easy not to see them. I'd add to your list our love of privacy that collides with our love of internet sites such as facebook.

The underground city tour sounds most intriguing. And I agree with your husband. It seems a shame that more time and money could not have been put into showing the wonder and beauty of such a national treasure. And it's really sad, about all the trash that's marring the countryside.

Of course, we have both situations right here at home.

ds said...

I agree with you: what's "really real" is the stuff you find in the gaps, not the surfaces.

Perhaps that's true of the unexcavated underground city (such a cool notion!) also. Imagining what could be in those rooms might be much more interesting to your hosts than what they would actually find...

Or not.

Deborah said...

Ah, yes, contradictions. this reminded me of my Vatican experience - being refused entry because of my bare shoulders, while my daughter with her extravagant cleavage sailed right through.
Greece is untidy like Turkey - to the point where it makes Italy look like Switzerland! People would seem to be entirely unconscious of the litter they create.

here's a little something I read today that made me think of you:

Writers experience the world and themselves in a unique way. We look for meaning. We see it even when we are not paying attention, which is seldom because, as writers, paying attention is what we do. We are scribes to the ticking of the days, and we have a job to do. We are not at peace unless we are doing it.
We recognize irony, we look the abyss in the eye, and we pause to honor beauty, while others are fighting to change lanes or raising a glass to… nothing at all.
That comes from Larry Brooks, at storyfix.com, btw.

And now that you mention the suit coats, yes! What's with that?? I so enjoy your take on things, and your critical and affectionate eye. I do hope these are traits you are passing on to your children. Silly me, of course they are.

geewits said...

Good point! And the more you know, the more questions you have, which pretty much defines life.

secret agent woman said...

If it weren't very different, there'd be no point in travel.

(But I'm cringing at the nipple-biting image. Gah.)

Green Girl in Wisconsin said...

There is so much humor in hypocrisy. During my sojourn to Egypt, I was also stunned at the TRASH on the ground--everywhere. The litter was amazing. And such a beautiful place, too.
Your observation about the artifacts and excavations had me chuckling--so did the raisin nipples. Ha! I'm reading "Lipstick Jihad" right now, which is set in Iran, and so many of the same contradictions take place there. One wonders if any civilization is pure of them?

monica said...

Ah yes , the world is such a wonderful and complex place... the one about "what you see is what you get" isn't always " the whole truth and nothing but the truth"...

and spending time abroad in a strange ( in all aspects) country like you do, sure can be an eye opener... for you for sure, but for us blog followers too :)

Mother Theresa said...

I'm still giggling over the nipple-raisin newspaper thing :D

What would any country be without its contradictions? I'm sure there are many here, but I've been here so long that I can't even think of a single one right now. Maybe I need to go to Turkey too...but I'm not sure I'm ready for that. ;)

Midlife Jobhunter said...

Incredible essay. Incredible experiences your family encounters each day. I'd send you a Big Mac if I could.

Will be most interesting for you, and your readers, when you return and look back on this year. Much different than living in it, which will also make your present day observations valuable. Oh, how wonderful the ability to write.

Meantime, I'm thinking my travels have been much too tame.

lime said...

ah, your summation makes me so proud. i ultimately expected nothing less than seeing turkish inconsistency propel you to examine where it exists in our own culture. bravo. it is quite a lesson, isn't it?

Pam said...

Seems like you might be ready for outback Australia Jocelyn,resplendent with a very ancient culture and respect for the land,but with its fair share of litter, roaming dogs and old suit jackets worn in the heat.
There are so many contraditions in this country that one wouldn't know where to start. I am still disappointed that Australia fell through for you, but it has given me a chance to see Turkey through your eyes, and am enjoying every minute of it.
I think one of my most bizarre travel contradition experiences was the kitsch available at Lourdes in France,ie ashtrays where you could stub out your cigarette on the face of Our Lady of Lourdes, after you'd lit it with the Virgin Mary cigarette lighter. Such a beautiful place too - simple in it's history of a (maybe)miracle in a rock grotto (depending on your belief system) but a contraditory big rich church placed on the site. Strange isn't it!