Prosecards from the Edge (of a Continent)

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

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Outsider Days

There are days when you want to cry -- when nothing works and everything seems to be conspiring against you; when you try to ask for help, you find that you can finally (finally!) formulate the questions, but it doesn't do you a damn bit of good, because you can't understand the torrent of verbiage that gets thrown back at you. You are helpless, an infant unable to get its simplest needs met, and all you want to do is jump up and down and scream. Nothing makes sense. Everything is done the opposite of how it would be done in your own country. You can't make heads or tails of things -- there's no comprehensive city street map, no yellow pages, no map of bus lines, no names on the bus stops, no address lookup system, no way to find anything except by asking, asking, asking. Asking, and not understanding the answer, because the answer is never simple. Seemingly straightforward yes/no questions become opportunities for monologue, and in the end you step away from your interlocutor with a bemused look, none the wiser and a little more desperate than before. And as your desperation mounts, whatever language skills and common sense you have acquired gradually melt away. You feel so very lost, you start to wonder if you are of far below average intelligence, and the worst of it is that you don't even know a soul to turn to who would understand what you are going through, this half-life you are living, this constant feeling of 'outsiderness'. At least twice a day I get asked 'Siz yabancı mısınız?' (Are you a foreigner?) ("DOES IT MATTER???!!!!" I want to shout back on the bad days.) It is draining to be a perpetual foreigner, to never quite understand the what's and why's of anything. To miss most of group conversations. To be so slow formulating your reply to what someone has said to you that they lose patience and start to talk about something else, or look at you as if wondering whether you're not the sharpest tool in the shed.

I am on my way to work. I decide to take the bus instead of the ferry, because the bus goes nearly door to door. A kilometer or so from my stop, the bus collides with a taxi. We come to a dead stop; the police are called, everybody waits. A few people get off the bus. I hesitate, wondering how soon we will be underway, whether I should seek alternate transportation. The bus and taxi are blocking the entire road, bringing rush hour traffic to a dead stop and giving rise to a cacophony of horn-honking. Finally the police arrive, survey the situation, and the bus pulls off to the side. Traffic begins to flow again. A dolmuş (shared taxi) stops. I ask the driver if he's going to Gazi Boulvarı...the reply is a rapid-fire torrent of words that nearly sweep me away. I had been expecting just a nod or the Turkish 'no' -- a click of the tongue and raised eyebrows. Certainly I had not anticipated this. Unsure, I thank him, close the door, and watch as he drives off. Other buses come, all with unknown numbers and unheard of destinations. Is anyone going where I'm going? I start to panic. I'm teaching in 15 minutes. But somehow I am suddenly linguistically paralyzed, and the paralysis is metastasizing and seeping into my physical being. I am frozen on the sidewalk. I finally manage to ask an elderly man how to get where I want to go...again, the response is a cascade of words; my reply an 'excuse me?', and again, the fire-hose response. And then a pause, and the eternal, blasted question: 'Siz yabancı mısınız?' Repress instinct to strangle.

I don't know why it never occurs to me to ask people if they speak English. Mostly they don't anyway, but the interesting thing is that it never occurs to me. I bumble on in their language, not understanding their responses, growing increasingly desperate and probably not any more polite. Perhaps feigning total ignorance of the language would actually get me further...reverse psychology is a handy tool, I find -- remove the pressure, watch the ability to perform come rushing back.

Five minutes later, I inquire with yet another bus driver. Is he going my way? He responds with an answer I can understand - that single downward tilt of the chin that means 'yes'. Relieved beyond reason, my panic dissipates and all the Turkish I have learned and suddenly forgotten comes rushing back. Without hesitation or grammatical mistakes, I say, "I was on the bus that had an accident. Do I have to pay again?" A click of the tongue, an upward thrust of the chin is his very understandable answer -- no.

The day is somewhat saved as I rush into my class. The relief is immense, and yet there lingers a gnawing kernel of long can I live like this, an impotent outsider? That it will end in an extreme -- triumph or utter disaster -- seems certain.


At 12:41 AM, Blogger Hope said...

Hi Kate!

I haven't heard from you for a bit, I hope you are fine. I do so understand this situation, I DO. Let's catch up on e-mail soon and I can commiserate with you.

Hang in there girl, tomorrow will be a better day!

At 10:54 AM, Blogger Kate's Blog said...

Dear Hope, thanks for the empathy! It's very welcome. :-) Sorry I've been incommunicado...time seems to be moving at warp speed these days, and I simply don't know what happens to it. I'll definitely get an email off to you today! -K

At 11:26 PM, Blogger mary jane said...

Kate, My dad lived in Turkey and can completly understand yur feelings. I have only been able to travel to Mexico and with my limeted Spanish would be in the same fix.
Hang and there and be tough.
My thoughts are with you.

At 2:07 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mary Jane, where was your dad living in Turkey? Thanks for all the encouragement and good wishes -- they are much appreciated. :-)


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