Prosecards from the Edge (of a Continent)

A running commentary on my life in Izmir, Turkey...and other thoughts.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Family Matters

You don't have to live long in Turkey to get the impression that the triumvirate of football, friends and family are among the most sacred factors of Turkish life. Of the three, family reigns supreme. Family members keep in close contact with each other, provide emotional and financial support, coddle the children, and show a deep respect for their elders. Relationships are highly important, and there are far more words in Turkish for family relationships than exist in English. An older brother, for example, is an ağabey, an older sister an abla. There are different words for maternal and paternal uncles and aunts, and on and on and on. For the foreigner, trying to remember them all can be a challenge. If family relationships are important, so too are the forms in which those relationships are played out. Custom and ritual, long dead in the good old U.S.A., are very much alive here today -- even here in Bostanlı, the most "Western" part of the most "Western" city in the country (excepting, perhaps, Istanbul). Women may wear miniskirts and hang out in bars, but the rules that govern social behavior when it comes to family remain intact. On important holidays, it is always the younger people who visit the older ones. Children kiss the hands of elderly people and press them to their foreheads. There is a much stronger sense of 'what is expected' from each family member in his or her particular role than there is in American society.

Recently Levent's niece (yeğen) and her college sweetheart decided to marry. These days young people, particularly in the west of the country, tend to decide for themselves who to marry; this does not, however, necessarily free them of the obligation of going through the ritual of parent approval. Therefore, when M. announced her engagement to O., it's was the duty of O's family to make the journey from their home in Kuşadası to the wintery climes of Kayseri to meet M's parents. This was a formal visit, expected by tradition, seen as the official seal of approval on the engagement. Following O's parents' visit to Kayseri, it then became the duty of M's parents to make a reciprocal journey down to Mediterranean Kuşadası to formally visit O's parents. Since Kuşadası is a mere hour from Izmir by bus, we were encouraged to tag along.

I'll be honest: I dreaded it. A weekend of sitting and trying to talk in a language I struggle with, with people I have nothing in common with (yet) filled me with an intense urge to come down with the flu. But remembering my mother's oft-repeated words of advice 'Just go; you might meet someone,' I sucked it up and packed my bag. If nothing else, I figured, I would get a huge amount of Turkish practice in one short weekend. And the beaches around Kuşadası aren't too shabby, either.

We arrive in the afternoon, picked up from the bus station by M, O and O's brother F. We stuff ourselves in the car, do the customary Turkish devil-may-care careening around blind corners on the wrong side of the road, and screech to a stop before a lovely house on the side of the hill. Off to one side there stretches the startling blue of the Mediterranean as far as the eye can see; before us, flowers in a riot of color drape themselves over the garden walls, their scents intoxicating.

We are welcomed by a middle-aged, matronly-looking woman who magically produces out of thin air (or so it seems) enough house slippers for all of us, in exactly the right sizes. I still can't figure out how Turkish hostesses always manage to do that. We are ushered through the house and out onto a serene terrace overlooking the garden, which in turn overlooks the sea. The parents of the young couple are already there, the women sipping tea, the men working on rakı and fruit. Levent is offered rakı, and to my dismay, tea is proffered to me. I must look chagrined, because at some point the tea is withdrawn and a glass of rakı is poured for me, too. I love the pungent anise, the way the drink goes cloudy when mixed with ice and water, the wonderful way its flavor pairs with fresh fruit, how it cools you on a warm day. To say nothing of its powers of easing awkward social situations. Sipping on it, I have the very distinct feeling of acting like a yabancı (foreigner) -- Turkish women, on the whole, don't drink rakı, especially not in the presence of family -- but after a few guilty sips I realize, "Hey! I am a yabancı! I get to do this!" And the guilt vanishes. Or most of it, anyway. Still, I do frequently struggle with this feeling of being uncouth. At restaurants, it is quite common for waiters to offer rakı to Levent, and then suggest sodas or fruit juice for me. Stubborn me, I keep insisting on drinking with the boys. Ahh, well.

The afternoon starts out well. I immediately like M, the bride-to-be, and we talk about college, foreign languages (she is fluent in Russian and studied in Moscow), work and travel. My Turkish is flowing remarkably well. Slowly food starts to trickle out of the kitchen. The lady of the house appears with long, shiny green peppers, tomatoes and a chopping board, and sits at the table and works at chopping as she talks. There is not a lot of talking, and there are frequent silent periods where there is no sound but the breeze in the trees and the musical tinkle of spoons in tea glasses. I like the pace of things here, the communal working and talking and eating, the lack of hurry, everything in its own time. The day slides onward into dusk. Levent and I sneak out for a walk down the long, long hill to the marina, where we admire the ships in the light of the setting sun. Hatching feverish plans to buy or steal one and sail off into the sunset, we make the long climb back up the hill, to where they are surely making the final dinner preparations. O's younger brother F is beautifully attentive, and I think to myself what a well-mannered young man he is. Constantly on the lookout for empty glasses, chilled shoulders crying out for shawls, grills that want lighting, chairs that require pulling; do we have these people in my country any more? I cannot honestly remember any...

The grill is lit, and my journey into bliss begins. The lady of the house brings from the kitchen a platter of delicate pirzola, tiny lamb ribs with large sections of fat that crackle and sizzle on the grill and take you to a nirvana-like place when you put them in your mouth. Mr. I., our host, applies them delicately to the grill, and when they are done moments later we devour them, interspersing bites of pirzola with sips of raki, stuffed grape leaves, salad, and snippets of conversation. I draw breath and take in the smells, the tastes, the sounds. It is a festival of the senses; I am purring with contentment.

Soon an enormous platter of fish appears from the kitchen. They are mackerel, fresh from the sea -- not farmed. This is a luxury in these days of depleted fish stocks and exorbitant prices for 'wild fish'. They are plied with olive oil and salt and laid gently on the grill, where their scent mixes with the pirzola, the lilacs on the garden wall, the sea air...the evening wears on, and the conversation is still lively and enjoyable, if slowed somewhat by the food. The cooked fish make their appearance, and we make tender approaches to them with our forks, discovering succulent, cooked-to-perfection white flesh inside. We eat in near silence, I think because we are all lulled into a peaceful place by the wonderful food and setting. At this particular moment, I think to myself that I could happily accept death, should it come my way now.

Eventually, slowly, the meal draws to a close. Plates removed, chairs pulled back, raki reinforcements brought in. The men are drinking heavily; I, wisely, limit myself to a couple of glasses (the guilt has done its work). The conversation has lost the momentum it had before dinner, and suddenly and inexplicably it starts to feel forced among the women, and slurred between the two paters familia. Friends and neighbors started popping by, seemingly out of the blue, and it is at this point that the evening takes a turn towards the comical.

A tall and slightly unsteady man makes an appearance on the terrace. He is welcomed by our host and presented to us as a neighbor and a good friend. He is a doctor, apparently. It is not long before we figure out that the good doctor was already roaring drunk long before he arrived. His speech is slurred, his remarks inconsistent and often incomprehensible (and not just to me), and his odd behavior induces an increasingly deep and awkward silence among the guests. At one point O makes a remark about the doctor's dog (who is sleeping in the backyard and has recently given birth to puppies). Because the father of the puppies is unknown, O refers to them as piçler, Turkish for 'bastards', and the doctor takes great umbrage. What follows is at least an hour of indignant slurring on the doctor's part, defending the honor of his dog. He becomes verbally aggressive towards O, and it is all that the rest of the guests can do to stage an intervention and ward off fisticuffs. It is awkward, to say the least.

We have all had quite enough of the unwelcome doctor. At this point a woman arrives with her family for a visit. Apparently she is a very close friend of our hostess. Picture the scene now: 10 of us are seated around the table on the terrace. Three are drunk and slurring, and seven are speechless with embarrassment and discomfort. Our hostess arrives on the scene with her friend, and there ensues a ritual of greetings of hilarious proportions.

New Arrival (to person sitting at table nearest her): Nasılsınız? (How are you?)
Person sitting at table: Iyiyim, teşekkürler. Siz nasılsınız? (Fine, thanks, how are you?)
New Arrival: Iyiyim, teşekkürler. (Fine, thanks.) Then, looking to the next member of our party, she begins again:

New Arrival (to next person sitting at table): Nasılsınız?
Person sitting at table: Iyiyim, teşekkürler. Siz nasılsınız?
New Arrival: Iyiyim, teşekkürler.

This is repeated a grand total of nine -- NINE -- times. By the time it gets to me (I'm the second-to-last to go through the drill), I am all too aware that our new arrival is fine, just fine, thanks. I fleetingly wonder, do I really have to ask? Couldn't I just ask for something useful instead, like, say, her name? But not wanting to be the infidel foreigner who comes in and disrupts local customs, I dutifully perform the ritual and discover to nobody's surprise that the woman is, indeed, fine.

The group makes its way to the salon, leaving the drunken doctor and our host on the terrace. We sit in silence, the women maintaining impeccably upright posture and pleasant, if somewhat vacant looks on their faces. Nobody seems to have much to say. Occasionally a remark is passed, to which stock responses are uttered, as if on cue.

In his essay about "The Horrible German Language," Mark Twain wrote that you could get by in German with just two words -- "schlag" and "zug". I'm not sure I entirely agree with Mr. Twain on this point, but I think his idea could be transferred and applied much more effectively to Turkish. All you need to get by at a Turkish tea party is three words: nasılsınız? (see above), inşallah (God willing), and maşallah (God protect, said especially when talking about children).

So the conversation in the salon, as much as I am able to grasp, goes something like this:

A: We'll come visit you in Kayseri in summer, inşallah.
B: Inşallah. Look, here's a picture of my brother's children.
A and chorus of others: maşallah, maşallah.
B: (Seeing F for the first time that evening) "F, merhabalar, nasılsınız?"
Iyiyim, teşekkürler. Siz nasılsınız?
Iyiyim, teşekkürler. You should come and visit us sometime.
F: Maybe in July, inşallah.
Inşallah. How are your sister's children?
F: They're fine and healthy, maşallah.
Chorus of voices: maşallah, maşallah.

The comical takes a turn for the ugly when our host enters the room, staggering himself and supporting the drunken doctor on his shoulder. The doctor is plopped on the couch next to me, and we all sit there, tight little phony smiles on our faces, teacups frozen in mid-air, wondering what to say. S, the brother of the bride-to-be, says something sarcastic to the doctor which I don't catch, but is probably well-deserved. The doctor reveals an ugly side to himself when he responds with a comment questioning the purity of S's blood. At this point the father of the bride -to-be starts quarreling with the father of the groom-to-be, the one defending his son against the slur, the other defending the doctor friend. The young couple look mortified, justifiably. Our hostess flips out and begins screaming at her husband for letting the doctor in in the first place. The doctor's wife arrives and tries to pull him off the sofa, but needs a little help. Everyone has a deer-in-the-headlights look, and its all we can do not to race for the door when the groom-to-be announces that he'll take us to our hotel when we're ready.

It was a day that started out as a poem, slid briefly into comedy, and nearly ended in tragedy. It pains me to think of the poor young couple who wanted nothing more than for everybody to get along for a day and a half. The ritual was maintaine
d, but its seriousness forgotten, our host preferring to get sloshed with his neighbor than attend to his guests. I had started out feeling wistful, wishing we had all the traditions, rituals and obigations that bind one another in Turkish society. I left thinking that maybe Turkish people don't really love these obligations any more than Americans love them -- we have just been quicker to throw them off. Maybe it's a universal wish to escape the mantel of obligatory visits, courtesy to strangers, and saying the right thing, and this was one little glimpse into that. One thing is for certain: the young people were non-drinkers before the weekend started, and in light of the evening's events will most assuredly stay that way.


At 9:26 PM, Blogger Hope said...

Kate, this was simply wonderful! It so reminded me of times in Italy!

At 9:48 PM, Blogger Kate's Blog said...

Why, thank you. I only hope that you mean the good stuff, and that in Italy you didn't have to deal with drunken doctors verbally assaulting the family! ;-) Ahh, me...what I wouldn't give for more pirzola. :-)

At 7:52 AM, Anonymous Mum said...

The way the day ended in near-disaster reminded me of the stories one always hears about catastrophic family get-togethers at Christmas or Thanksgiving. There's something about compulsory attendance at any event--but perhaps especially at afamily event--that seems to bring out the worst in people. (In this case the doctor wasn't a relative, however, nor was he required to attend the what's his excuse for boorish behaviour, aside from an excessive fondness for raki?)


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