Friday, February 25, 2011

More than five months ago, my husband and I realized how aligned were our impressions of Turkey (this was terribly unusual, as our association up to that point had been typified by dramatic quarrels). Realizing that it could be fun to take the same subject, having me write up my usual drivel and having him come at it with his graphic talent, we decided to run with the idea of a vaguely-coordinated effort. Although it's taken some time to get to a final product, we do have one. You see it below: my post and his illustration on the same topic; we each churned out our own creations without looking at what the other had done. If you have a tidge of extra time, you can see the same over at his blog, but with his drawings first and my carrying on at the end:


"Uniform Lack of Quality"


We moved into our house in Duluth nearly seven years ago and immediately began ruing the choices of the previous owners. There was the orange shag carpet covering the entire main floor. There was the peel-and-stick faux tile they'd laid in the kitchen, stuff that would grab on to the bottom of a bare foot and become a temporary flip-flop. But what really irked us was the bathroom.

Here's a little life lesson that's only really sunk in for me in the last 15 years: you get what you pay for.

With bathrooms, as with shoes, it's worth shelling out for quality rather than congratulating oneself for saving money and then ending up with a cheap toilet that grabs on to one's buttocks and becomes a temporary tushie flip-flop.

I mean, speaking of toilets and shoes or whatever.

In our Duluth house, the first year was spent dealing with a toilet that clogged with the faintest trickle of urine; with a tub that drained so slowly we wondered if Yanni had left off playing at The Acropolis in order to depilate in our shower; with a sink that dripped with the predictable constancy of Homer's Penelope.

With each repair that we made, we moaned about the cheapskate previous owners, sometimes summoning their ghosts by holding a Ouija board up to the cracked medicine cabinet mirror and laboriously spelling out, "W-O-U-L-D I-T H-A-V-E T-A-X-E-D Y-O-U O-V-E-R-M-U-C-H T-O S-P-E-N-D F-I-V-E M-O-R-E D-O-L-L-A-R-S O-N A P-R-O-D-U-C-T T-H-A-T A-C-T-U-A-L-L-Y C-A-M-E I-N A B-O-X W-I-T-H A R-E-C-O-G-N-I-Z-A-B-L-E B-R-A-N-D N-A-M-E O-N I-T?”

Then--replaying current history here--we made the choice to leave behind the small woes of our Duluth lives and hie off for some adventurous months that would be chock full of New, of Special, of Not My Problem.

We call that choice Turkey.

Unfortunately, we undermined the "leaving behind small woes" part of the choice by renting a house in Turkey.

Turkey is a country that falls on the Continuum of Development at a point called We Have Not Great Amounts of Money and We Love Plastic. A similar attitude can be seen in Central American countries, where an agricultural tradition has rubbed up against an industrial world, where people working with their hands have seen that life is immensely easier when there's an indestructible plastic bucket in the kitchen rather than a breakable clay pot. All the better if that plastic bucket is bright pink.

What’s more, because of where it is in terms of development, Turkey's workaday Allah is the plastic bag. Seen blowing across the countryside, wadded up in the trunks of cars, tied onto bicycles as flags, lazing around trash-strewn ruins, breezing out of every shop (even if one has merely purchased a pack of gum), plastic bags are both worshiped and ubiquitous—the perfect complement to all those pink plastic tubs, in fact. Tubs &; Bags are like Flatt & Scruggs, creating an aura of banjo music for all the Jethros, Ellie Maes, Mustafas, and Hayriyes twanging around the hillsides.

Despite its many uses, plastic doesn’t elevate the tone of a place or, ultimately, actually make life better.

The New Testament delineates it quite clearly: “Thus crap begat plastic, and plastic begat trash, and trash begat junk, and junk begat headaches.”

It turns out this line is the same in both the King James and the Qur’an. Junk gave us trouble back in our Duluth house; junk gives us headaches in our Ortahisar house. The upshot is that crap plastic trash junk, in its global applications, does not make for low-maintenance homes.

As it turns out, though, the cheap junk in our Ortahisar house completely trumps the cheap junk in our Duluth house.

Mostly because there’s this thing in Turkey named Every Last Bit of Our Plumbing Is Plastic.

As in, the pipes used to transport water to a sink, to evacuate a toilet, to drain a shower…are PVC.

Compounding this is the fact that the toilets in our house aren’t actually attached to the floor, even though they have holes where screws could go. Unattached, the porcelain is easier to move--so that when a significant leak runs out the back of the toilet and across the bathroom floor, the repair is straightforward. A person just tips the toilet forward, which then exposes the plastic pipes that need fixing. This is not unlike what one would see beneath a toilet in The States, but in The States there’s also a wax ring sealing off potential leakages. In The States, the toilet is moored to the floor so that the movements of users don’t cause the plastic pipes to crack. Not so in Turkey. Here, the toilet moves with every wipe-related lean, which, in turn, stresses the plastic pipes, which, thereafter, crack and release smelly runoffs. Most likely, the toilet isn’t screwed to the floor because the floors are made out of cement or stone, and it’s hard to drill a screw into cement or stone…

you know

unless you have the right drill bit.

Which is to say don’t get me started.

On the positive side, though, a constant breakdown of fundamentals in one’s household does create situational language lessons. By this, I mean that Groom had to learn how to say “I’d like to buy a hammer, please” mere weeks off the plane. This was before he knew how to say “Nice to meet you” or “That looks suspicious; will it make me ill?”

However, soon after we rented the old Greek house in Ortahisar, Groom tired of language immersion school in the hardware store. He hated spending several hours each day looking up vocabulary, walking around town, taking apart and reassembling bits of the bathroom. Even worse was when we’d report the problem to our landlord, who, quite responsively, would avow, “I’ll send my friend over. He’ll fix it.” The thing about Friend is that he’s the one who designed and installed the bathroom; he thinks the place is pretty nifty and that we should stop abusing the place through frequent urination. If we hydrated less, the bathroom would remain infinitely more intact.

Startlingly quickly, the exhaustion created by Plastic Failure and I’ll Send My Friend Over eroded our will into a preference for endurance over action. For example, we no longer expect hot water from the sinks…or necessarily out of the shower. When the kitchen sink started acting up, we had no problem shrugging and accepting, “Well, turning one of the handles still makes water come out. That’s good. Two handles are overrated. Let’s just leave that one valve stripped or blocked or whatever. If we fix it, we’ll just have to fix it again next month. At this point, it’s already habit to drop our brightly-colored plastic tub into the sink, fill up the little kettle on the counter to heat water, and do the washing up that way.” We don’t even blink anymore at what a time and energy suck it is—because there are no traps in the drains—that the kitchen sink is constantly clogged. We have a little teaspoon that fits just perfectly through the holes in the drain, so we do some poking around to dislodge bits of lettuce, and, with only a few minutes out of each hour devoted to the task, the trickle of cold water is draining again, just fine.

In this way, we have become Turkish. We look at the plastic, watch it founder, and shrug. Then we drink tea.

Our brains remain American, though. Even as I’m taking showers that veer from frigid to burning, my brain is pushing for an answer to the pounding question of why, why, WHY: “What in Smyrna is going on here? How can we be on a chunk of land that is one of the most inhabited places on the planet—that has had civilization after civilization come through—that had Romans, those masters of bathing and plumbing, on it two thousand years ago—that was ruled by the refined Ottomans—that seems as though it might have benefitted from all the layers of peoples and ideas—that seems as though it would have discovered copper (or some sort of hygienic) piping for the ‘potable’ water? What is going on here?”

Then I learned from a local anthropologist that the late-arriving inhabitants of Cappadocia (the Turks showed up maybe a thousand years ago and are, in some ways, still radically Middle Aged) had little means of benefitting from those who came before. According to him, the Turks who currently populate the landscape swooped down from Turkmenistan and discovered towns like Goreme, with all its cave homes and fairy chimneys, sitting abandoned. With the option of free housing in front of them, they discarded their nomadic lifestyles and settled in. Once I learned this tidbit, I started postulating that what we’re seeing now is the result of nomads settling; if a population’s cultural traditions are based around constant movement and not investing in a place permanently, then maybe they lack the context to question plastic household infrastructures.

Naturally, an easy answer can never be the whole answer.

Not soon after we started musing about the consequences of long-term wanderers settling down, we also started realizing that the issue of poor plumbing runs deeper than people on the backs of animals dismounting and cracking their backs with relief. Even further, we started realizing that we constantly see things analogous to poor plumbing, but in different areas of life. Grocery stores, too, feel like a riddle. Why, no matter the store or city, can we predict the products that will be for sale? Why does every store have exactly the same fourteen kinds of cracker, and why are none of these crackers actually very tasty? And on the roads: why does everyone drive rinky-dink tin can white Renaults? And why does every scrub brush’s handle snap off the first time I try to clean a plate?

Why, in this country of beauty and amazing architecture and admirable tolerance and consistently kind souls, is there so little variety in products, and why are the available choices so crappy?

Consulting each other in the befuddled manner common to couples in their second decade, Groom and I agreed it had to be more than a function of nomads deciding they wanted addresses.

The best explanation we’ve found so far is, indeed, historical—but more recent. To avoid writing a textbook on Turkish history (which would be even more riddled with errors than my descriptions of plumbing), I’ll condense things into a broad overview: Turkey sided with the Germans in World War I; that didn’t go so well, and after the war, Turkey became part of the spoils of victory, which meant that it was divided up amongst the victors; the Turkish people didn’t dig this action, and therefore they were delighted when a charismatic visionary named Mustafa Kemal (later renamed Atatürk, Father of the Turks) grabbed at power on the basis of reunifying and restoring his country. After Atatürk worked to modernize and secularize Turkey in the 1920s and 1930s, he wasn’t about to take any risks when World War II reared up, and so he kept Turkey out of the thing, opting instead to keep Turkey neutral and isolationist. A major side effect of this decision, coupled with worldwide shortages, was that Turkey came into its Industrial Age relying solely on homegrown factories and products. While such times can drum up new kinds of ingenuity, another reality is that such times also ask people who don’t really know what they’re doing to do things nevertheless, which begets limited and inferior products, which begets a citizenry that doesn’t know how to expect more, which begets a place that is perfectly satisfied with fourteen kinds of tasteless crackers and toilets floating around the bathroom.

If I could go back in time and have a sit down with Our Man Atatürk, I might--in addition to congratulating him for his hard-won republic--counsel him that, no matter what he feels he has to do during World War II,

he should consider bringing in scientists, designers, and manufacturers from, say, Germany in the 1950’s. I wouldn’t ask him to turn over the running of Turkish companies, oh no. But I would urge him to allow them to do some training and consulting, particularly in the realms of home construction and mass production.

Unfortunately, my time machine ran out of AAA batteries last week, so it’s up on blocks for the present (if, in fact, there even is such a thing…). Drat. Now I can’t have that chat with Atatürk. Consequently, Groom and I will continue to marvel at all the shoddy quality, most notably in the awe-inspiring bit of magic that Turkish workmen conjured when they plumbed our Ortahisaran toilet and bidet. Somehow, in a way that defies all logic but could potentially be remedied with the installation of a one-way valve, they rigged things up so that the water in the shower is often cold, yet the water in the toilet is often near boiling.

Hence, and with significantly less tragedy than the Greek/Turkish population exchanges of the 1920’s,

if a toilet user hasn’t been paying attention to the queer warmth of the porcelain that day and, unthinkingly, turns on the bidet for a quick cleanse,

it brings on the most unexpected language lesson of all, a chance to shout out with great force and conviction:

"Tuvalette çıkan borusudan simsicak su çıkıyor!" (The bidet is scalding my bunghole!)

(we're struggling to get Blogger to display the comic here in any readable fasion; it's much easier to see at

Thursday, February 17, 2011

"In Which I Delve So Deeply Into Lady Crap That I Alienate My Sole Remaining Male Reader; Truly, It's About to Get Girly in Here to the Point That Even Mentioning Futbol and Pork Won't Salvage the Situation, So I'll Merely Thank You, Dogged Male, for Hanging on This Long, Especially Through All Those Posts That Pissed on and on About Chocolate and Shoes"

A fleeting highlight of my early adolescence occurred when, one Halloween, a tipsy door-opener named Randy (a high schooler) squinted woozily at my Pippi Longstocking costume and slurred, "You're so cute. So cute like that. Pippi. Cute with freckles. Yer hair braided over a hanger so it'ssss all sticky-outy. Pippi girl. Cute. hic  Hey, so, cute Pippi, lemme just give you a little kiss on the cheek here for being so freckle cute with that red hair, you Pippi girl."

Stepping forward in a state of shock and with no small awe at the hugely glamorous thing my life had suddenly become, I allowed his request. And then then he did it: he lobbed a kiss with a hic in my general direction.

It was my first such experience but certainly not my last.

That moment stands out, however, as one of the few times in my young life that anyone resembling a peer complimented my hair.  Mostly, the orangey stuff topping my noggin served as a liability--as did my preciocious puberty, bifocals, and penchant for quoting The Good Earth in the midst of dodge ball tournaments.

So there I was, a big ole carrot-topped Montana clunker with boobies and cramps and an astigmatism and ponderous knowledge of Chinese courtyards--

not exactly anybody's idea of kissable (unless it was a holiday, and he was drunk...which, not incidentally, is also how I received my second kiss, for Santa surely do like to tipple the leftover nog).

Absurdly, the feelings of ugly that take root in adolescence prove impossible to weed.  Even after I hit college and started to hear that my hair was pretty, even after some part of me genuinely started to believe my hair might be something like a gift, even after a big part of me went so far as to love my hair,

a knock-kneed Pippi still lingered inside, wishing she didn't have to plan her parties all alone.

Well, guess who took Pippi to an Italian salon today and raked those dumbass ugly roots straight into the compost?

(If you can't guess, then I believe our conversation here is over.  Might I recommend you pick up a copy of some Pearl S. Buck and amuse yourself with that instead of reading on?)

Yea, that's right.  Jocelyn was feeling blah about the whole Jocelyn look, so Jocelyn both took to referring to herself in the third person AND took herself, quite spontaneously, into a salon located on a cobbled street in Florence...

...whereupon she reverted to using the first person when the three women in the place managed to convey with their limited English that my. hair. is. to. dye. for.

According to their chatter,

no Italian has my color

all Italians want my color

I have never dyed

they all dye

and still I get to have my color, but they don't

and everything on my head is bella, bella, bella

and the truth is, all I ever wanted when I was growing up was dark hair and olive skin (okay, plus a date with Steve Perry or Daryl Hall)

and to be thin and sophisticated and know how to dress

and these women had all of these things,

but still I got to be the bella of their ball--

and at the end of an hour and a half, during which I'd urged them, "I just want something different, so do anything you like," and they enthused, "Meravigliosa!" and "Grazie!" while shearing huge amounts of what they termed "copper blond" off my head (to make a wig, I have no doubt; it looked like a fluffy dog named Lucille Ball had died on the floor by the time they were finished)...

I felt the slightly-cowed Pippi inside me toss her shoulders back and decide it was time to hoist a horse over her head before cleaning the kitchen by skating across it with scrub brushes tied to her feet.

This thing had happened.  I would never have known at age 12 that it could.

But I went to a chic place full of women I envied,

and they wanted to be just like me

and it was healing.

as would have been a date with Steve Perry, I hasten to point out

The chatter of black-clad Italian signorine today assured that the next time a drunken Randy attempts a Halloween peck, I won't step forward with acceptance into his lurch. Rather, my Pippi will choose to step away, turn her back on the desperation, and head to the next house. After all, they might be giving out mini-Snickers instead of sloppy snogs.

The photo gallery:

'Scuse my case of The Shinies. We'd been out in the rain for nine hours by the time these pix were taken...Normally, Pippi would have insisted on a quick buff of powder, but she was too busy scratching Mr. Nilsson's tummy to care.

The 97-pound stylist today told me she was going to cut my hair "in the Italian style," and I do rather think--to my delight--that my head came out looking like a gnocchi with a few oddball patches of bucatini dripping asymmetrically down my cheeks. What a meal I'd have been for A Deserving Randy. Alas, it is only one special Groomeo who gets to appreciate the crazy bowl of pasta that tops my skull (and the wine-soaked meatballs inside of it).  I'll be sure to hand him a napkin after every tipsy kiss.

Friday, February 11, 2011

"Nice Day for a White Wedding"

"You make a beautiful white wife," declared the 22-year-old clerk behind the counter, as he rolled each of my purchases into rose-festooned tissue paper before placing them carefully into the bag.

Confused and simultaneously flustered, I felt my brain start to spin.  Me?  A white wife? In what sense?  Was he commenting on my general pastiness and overall demeanor of good wifery? I was, after all, presenting skin less olive than most Turks' and wearing all the plantation's keys on a chatelaine around my waist.

Or, rather, did he mean, em, that I could be a beautiful white wife for him?

When I opted for a studiedly neutral response of, "Pardon?  I don't understand," he repeated his statement--"I say you make a beautiful white wife"--and blushed from head to toe, casting an embarrassed gaze at the counter.

Before buying time with another "Pardon? I don't understand," I quickly took stock of the situation:

--a young man in a liquor store was very friendly, helping me find the wines I was after, offering to help me carry my armful to the counter

--the same young man then struck up a conversation about how he has been in tourism school and loves tourists

--said young man then went on to ask about my profession; when I replied with "I'm an English teacher, and I have to tell you your English is so much better than my Turkish.  I'm impressed!", he responded, "My English not good. You can help me sometimes?"

--I had showered that day

--Young Turks do not mind a foreign girlfriend, no matter how creaky her knees

--he was telling me, red-faced, alternately averting his eyes and then looking at me expectantly, that I'd make a spectacular white wife

The evidence all stacked up.  Clearly, this was a proposal

But how to extricate myself?  I continued playing dumb--thereby further convincing him of my desirability as the female in his life--and repeated, "I'm so sorry.  Pardon? I do not understand" while craning around to find my Groomeo.  If only I could get him to come into the store and be Very Tall next to me, the entire scenario would be reframed, and the need for a response would fade.

Alas, Groom's fine form was leaning against a wall out in the corridor of the mall, his posture indicating that he was well settled into the mental state known as I Am Dreamy And Zoney As I Stare At People Walking By

Dang.  He had no idea I was doing wild "hep me, hep me" body language a mere twenty feet from his blanked-out state.  Fortunately, though, my white self and his spacey self were clever enough about eleven years ago to produce a very on-top-of-things Girl.  Quickly noting my "hep me, hep me" body language, she hied into the liquor shop and sidled up to my right hip just in time to hear a repetition of the exchange between my fiance and me.

"I say you make beautiful white wife."

"PARDON?  I really don't understand."

Emitting a sigh that sounded only the tiniest bit like exasperation, she stage whispered, "Mom.  He's telling you that you're buying a beautiful white wine.  See the bottle he's wrapping up in that weird flowery tissue paper? He's saying it's a good choice."


So he had been looking embarrassed because he was trying out his tourism-school English on me, and I hadn't understood?

Not because he was laying his heart and intentions out on the counter?


As he continued the laborious process of wrapping each item in tissue paper (the six cans of beer, each rolled up with the kind of care and love I'd been basking in mere moments before, took a lifetime--a lifetime of half-expressed wishes and arrested possibilities), I rustled around in my wallet.  Now I was the embarrassed one.

How silly of me to have thought he'd want me for white wife

when it's obvious I have such aptitude as bloodshot boozehound.


(Speaking of me and wine:  we're leaving tomorrow for ten days in Italy, so keep your eyes on the breaking news coming out of Europe.  I'm pretty sure our antics will show Mubarak how one really goes about getting the attention of a crowd.)

Monday, February 07, 2011

"Warm Slab"

When last we met, arctic explorer Robert Falcon Scott was penning his final words of "It seems a pity but I do not think I can write more,"

yet I was just getting started.

So, to re-cap, there is a design norm in modern Turkey that aims the shower head over the toilet. In turn, scatologically-inclined people must grapple with a compulsion to dry off the toilet before feeling comfortable enough to drop their nethers onto the hole and peruse a few articles in The New Yorker. Of course, since Turks in general haven't cultivated the habit of reading, they simply wipe down the toilet, or not, so as to feel comfortable enough to do whatever it is a person does when sitting on the toilet and not reading. As a written word lover, I'm uncertain of what this is. Would it be staring? Yes, probably staring. In my experience, Turks are remarkably adept at The Stare, clearly drawing upon thousands of minutes of focused practice that could otherwise have been occupied with ingestion of typeset.

In sum, toilets in Turkey are wet. People with pelvic needs either get wet or set themselves to drying the porcelain whilst clenching their legs together. Then they read or stare.

Or play solitaire on the wall in front of them, if it's a magnetized wall, and they have magnetic cards.

Or have a chat on their cell phones, genteely covering the receiver during moments of audible strain.

Or plan menus. No matter the day or recipe, it's probably true that they need to get yogurt. Or white cheese. Maybe some peppers. Cucumbers. Plus a passle of them shriveled olives.

Eternally, any mental picture of shriveled olives must needs be superseded by a thought of "Hey, Caesar, it's time to wipe, and not the toilet."

Yes.  This is what I've learned in the past six months. First, there are olives, and then you visit the bathroom, and then there's a general wiping down.

This is how it is. I've got it, er, in hand.

When we moved in to our inn-sitting job at the fairy chimney, therefore, the bathroom in our room felt very familiar:

See the shower head?  See the toilet?  Like that.

Fortunately, all the rooms at the guesthouse have in-floor heating, including the bathrooms.  Already, then, the bathroom in our room was superior to what we'd experienced elsewhere.  The joint might get wet all the time, but thanks to the heat in the floors, the wet takes care of itself pretty quickly--it's absorbed into the rustic red clay and dried up by the warmth.

Don't go waving your hands in the air, though, and keep your high kicks to a minimum:  the toilet seat isn't heated, so the porcelain still ails with water.

But somehow, it's better.  As an added bonus, we can put wet mittens and hats on the bathroom floor, and they dry in no time.

Verdict is:  we have stumbled into an okay Turkish bathroom.

HOWEVER, if you want a seriously groovy bathroom, just walk out the kitchen door, across the courtyard (careful of the 120 pound St. Bernard; he really likes lasagna, so if you look at all like a limp noodle, you'll be privy to the kind of wet that only comes from a bath in dog spit), and enter the guest room called Battal. 

Because Battal has a hamam-style bathroom.  A big one.  As in, there's room for a toilet well away from the shower (which is built into an old tandoor oven pit).  Furtherly cool is that there's the heated floor, plus a heated slab designed for post-ablution relaxation.

It doesn't take the clever inn-sitter more than a few days to figure out how to crank up the heat in the hamam bathroom, take a hot shower, follow it with a sit bath wherein bowls of warm water are tossed over the head, and top it off with some vigorous exfoliation and laid back slab time.

According Muslim tenets, men can take up to four wives.  According to Turkish bathroom laws, Jocelyns can take up to two husbands.  I already have me a Groom.  Now I have me a Hamam.  Put them together, and I have something sounding ever-so-appropriately like a "groom'em."

Here.  Meet my new beau; admire his features:

Dry toilet smiles a welcome.  Fish tank is placed in wall for easy whimsy.  Two rolls of toilet paper are well able to keep pace with even the most extended visit.

Bathroom shelves are carved out of the local tufa rock.  Homely wooden chair is conveniently located nearby to assist with emergency toenail clipping.

Antique pictures from Ottoman times hang on the walls.  Elevated traditional hamam footwear rocks so hard that, in comparison, today's Croc sandals seem even more an oppugner against nature.

Two panels of marble separate the toilet from all other water sources.  Two panels of marble keep marshal the warmth towards the bathing area.  Big red clay slab beckons.  Saucy thing.

Visitors to hamams past serve as role models for how to kick back languidly in the presence of multiple exposed breasts.

Rectangular indentation is a perfect perch for filling copper dishes with water and then dumping the contents over the head.

Marble sinks don't drain but serve as repositories for water of all temperatures.  A ewer here; a copper pot there, and before you know it, you've forgotten that your family had a nine-day tour to Egypt planned for this week, a tour that has collapsed in the face of citizenry in revolt.  Tour gets cancelled?  Visit Hamam.  He washes away all tensions.  He helps you find the peace of mind to plan a consolation trip to Italy, departing this Saturday.

Shower hole (former tandoor oven) can be filled with water and used as a tub or used for a quick baptism into the religion of red clay.

Loofah scrubs clean both backs and attitudes.

All of the outfitting in the room is authentic...

the same stuff used in a harem hamam hundreds of years ago...

even conjuring up images from thousands of years before that, of a Magdalene washing the feet of a carpenter she fancied.

Well washed, heartily scrubbed, warmed to the core, visitors to Hamam run their hands over his fine paneling as they exit,

marveling at how right a bathroom can feel when wet and dry know their places.