Prosecards from the Edge (of a Continent)

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

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Fifteen Minute Walk

Not a breath of wind, and at 9:30 a.m. it's already uncomfortable. The bay is still and glassy, the humidity coming off of it clinging to the skin and inundating clothing. A grungy brown layer of smog hovers overhead, trapped between the ranges of mountains on either side. It is so thick that I can scarcely make out the buildings on the far side of the water. Out on the waterfront, not a living creature moves. Even the seagulls are not airborne today -- they are out there on the bay, buoyant statues bobbing on the surface of a great, gray mirror. My limpid, dirty, sweating city is not at its finest today. After fifteen minutes, I abandon my exploratory foray and head back to the comfort of my cool, dark house and life-giving air-conditioner. A quick peramble, a swift diagnosis, a speedy retreat: me -- Groundhog of the Aegean? The thought makes me giggle. At home, I change clothes for the second time and slice some ice-cold watermelon. There will be other, better days.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007


It's hot. Offensively hot. Sit-and-don't-move-a-muscle-and-still-feel-sweat-trickling-down-your-body hot. A heat wave marched in yesterday like a besieging army, and everyone is suffering. Temps reached a sweaty 41 C (105 F) in Izmir yesterday, where at least we have the benefit of the sea breeze to make us feel a little cooler. Inland, people are not so lucky. In the ancient city of Ephesus, about 90 km from Izmir and slightly inland, a whopping 60 C (140 F) was recorded. At a gas station yesterday, I saw a bewildered, tousle-feathered dove wandering in dazed circles, looking completely disoriented. Is he ill, I wondered? It's the heat, said the gas station man. Dogs and cats lie comatose in shade, suffering. The only relief that evening brings is the merciful disappearance of the sun -- otherwise, there is no relief, not even the usual cooling breeze; just hot air, and the mingled smells of diesel fumes and honeysuckle.

Tomorrow is supposed to be the peak of the wave. In this suffocating heat, my thoughts can't help turning to the end of the world...what will it look like? Is this how we will end -- incinerated? When the sun is burning holes in your skin and the heat is so intense it makes even your eyeballs ache, it is easy to imagine being cooked to death. Slowly; frogs in a pot. I imagine a time in some not-too-distant future when mankind will go underground, when we will be like the early Christians of Cappadocia, who escaped their enemies by retreating to deep, cool cave cities and networks of dark tunnels. Only we will be fleeing nature, not man... On the earth's surface, the heat will be deadly. Searing, violent storms will waste an already desertified landscape while we huddle below. And there in the depths, I can imagine the first generations of refugees languishing in the dark, their faces tilted skyward towards tiny windows of light, weeping for the beauty of a lost world...for the memories of cool streams and grass beneath their feet and trees and birdsong. They will pass these stories on, and perhaps their children will also feel a pang of longing. Eventually, dark, flickering cave life will be all that is and ever has been, and these cave children will be unable to conceive of anything else. Maybe then it won't be so bad; it is, after all, change and loss that pain us most.

Am I painting an unreasonably gloomy picture? Maybe. I do have a knack for seeing the dark side of things. But still...everything is cyclical -- life and death, the rise and fall of empires, the flourishing and decline of our natural world. Inevitably, the wheel turns. It is pure delusion to imagine we can stop the wheel through our own artifice, try in all the myriad ways we may to achieve immortality. It is a bittersweet truth, but one I can live with, because it seems somehow philosophically right. There is a kind of melancholy beauty in these circles of life, death, rebirth. We will end. Something else will begin.

The real pain and anger I feel comes when I look at the ways in which we needlessly accelerate the cycle. We have raped and otherwise taken for granted the mother who gave life to us. When I see factories erected in flagrant violation of emissions laws, or no emissions controls where there should be; when I see buses and trucks belching exhaust and witness the absolute, holy supremacy of the automobile; the insistence of the wealthy upon their own complete comfort at the expense of the poor and the planet; when I see people and countries focused on short-term wealth over the long-term livability of the Earth, and disposable goods produced with no thought as to how and where to dispose them, while the gasses generated during their production ceaselessly thicken our atmosphere; especially when I see all this as I stand sweating under an increasingly merciless sun, and think of how much better we could do if only we had the will to do it -- it puts a strange, unswallowable lump in my throat. These blistering days are more than just 'hot'; they are burning reminders of great folly and short-sightedness that are speeding the demise of our lovely blue home. A peaceful death in old age of natural causes is one thing; philosophically and emotionally it is relatively easy to come to terms with it. But a needless accidental death from overdose -- that's what we're doing, isn't it? Overdosing our world? -- is a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Having a Fit -- A Minor Awakening (Postscript to 'Beyond Help')

Today was a breezy, sunny, beachy kind of Saturday. The obvious thing was to get out of town and hit the beach in Çeşme or Ilıca or Alıçatı. A phone call here, a phone call there, and I was on the ferry to Üçkuyular and then hanging out on the curb while I waited for friends Lisa and Janetta. Promptly at 10:00 they swooped up, I tumbled in, and we peeled off, headed down-peninsula to an up-and-coming 'boutique' town, a famous bazaar, and an endless white beach with jaw-dropping crystal-clear turquoise waters.

The bazaar was first. Shaded and calm, the earth's bounty quietly glowed on display tables. Artichokes that had flowered a vibrant purple, zucchini blossoms (stuffed and fried they are to die for), succulent lemony basil plants, strange curving cucumber-like things that I had never seen. With a bit of effort we managed not to buy, knowing we had a long hot day before us that would be death to the veggies.

Around the bend, the clothing bazaar began. I felt myself go a little distant, tune out from the general goings-on. My friends dug enthusiastically through piles of gauzy summer things. I joined in for a while, but didn't feel optimistic, grew bored, tuned out. I resisted efforts to get me to look at things. Buying in the bazaar is a crap shoot -- no mirrors, and you can't try things on or return anything (not for a refund, anyway) and given my previous experience even in stores where I had been able to try things on, I was generally pessimistic about the whole undertaking.

Fortunately, I have persistent friends. A hint, a nudge, a prod, a foot-stomp, and there I was, slipping on a skirt it would never have occurred to me to try on. Fearful of the results. Blindly needing to rely on friends' judgment. Reassured by the fact that they seemed to be making a critical assessment...and finally, delighted when the verdict was positive. Amazingly, I left the bazaar with three new items of clothing.

The rest of the day was spent in a glow of well-being that persisted over grilled chicken salad, through a chocolatey profiterole swamp, onto the glowing white beach, and into the marvelous aquamarine water.

Floating on my back and contemplating my toes, rocked by the gentle waves, I couldn't help reflecting. Sometimes collaboration is good. Being helped is good. And sometimes, people can help you better than you can help yourself. Today, my inner grouch was quieted, for a time at least. I rode home in the back of the car drowsy and content, covered in sea salt and the happy feeling that in the grand scheme of things, other people might actually be the best thing you can ever do for yourself. I just hope I can remember that.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Beyond Help

I am admittedly a bit of a rugged individualist. Okay, more than a bit. Truth is, deep down in the marrow of my bones I am simply not a collaborating, working-together-is-more-fun kind of person. I like to arm myself with the knowledge of how to do something, and then do it -- myself. Or arm someone else with the knowledge and let them do it -- themselves. Maybe it's because my experiences in trying to get things done as a group have often been negative. There are sacrifices of efficiency, dilutions of purpose. And only rarely have much-ballyhooed benefits like 'additional perspective', 'sum of whole being greater than the parts' etc. actually made an appearance. This doesn't mean I'm right, of course. The world is full of people, we are social animals, and logically, cooperation seems like a no-brainer. Still, it's hard to fight one's own nature. And mine, like it or not, seems to be 'go it alone.' I wish I could work with people better, actually...if nothing else I think it might bring a bit more savor and richness to the tapestry of my life. But like I said, ideals are one thing; changing your basic nature is another.

It's not easy to find a good job in Turkey -- or any job, for that matter. Simply the fact of having a job is something most Turks are thankful for, and it has been my experience that people don't often indulge themselves in asking the all-American question, 'Am I happy?' Happiness is a luxury most people cannot yet afford. Although unemployment is high, it could be a lot higher were it not for all the boutiques, supermarkets, gas stations, photocopy shops, etc. alleviating the situation by employing dozens of service staff waiting to meet the customer's every possible need. At restaurants, and at most shops, staff typically outnumber patrons. Said service staff lurk like lions on the veldt, waiting to pounce on unsuspecting customers and 'assist' them the moment the tips of their noses darken the doorstep. Don't even think about making a photocopy YOURSELF, putting gas in your OWN CAR, hunting for clothes or makeup or even shopping for wine at the supermarket ("Try this one! It's great with red meat!") ON YOUR OWN in this town, pardner. Why do it alone, when there are lots of friendly, desperately helpful, bored people standing around waiting to do it with you?

Let it be known that as a rule I hate shopping, particularly clothes shopping, and particularly clothes shopping in a country where the women my age are all half my size, both vertically and horizontally. Petite and willowy -- precisely what I am not. Pants are the worst of the morale killers. I have been assured that the sizes here are the same as in Europe, so presumably if you wear a size 38 in Germany, size 38 in Turkey is just what the doctor ordered. If this is true, then God help me, I must have gained at least 10 kilos somewhere along the way without noticing it. Many are the humiliations I have suffered trying on sizes I thought would fit, only to find I couldn't get them over my knees. Psychologically this is rather bruising, and the reason why I am down two to about three pairs of threadbare pants and eagerly awaiting my next trip Statesward.

Enter helpful shop assistant into the already dismal equation. It is the variable which inevitably turns my merely discouraged mood into a downright murderous one. I walk in the door, and my path is immediately blocked by a smiling, impossibly willowy salesgirl with a wicked 'you WILL be helped' gleam in her eye. Is she welcoming me or barring my further progress into the store? I'm already dreading this task and anticipating its futility, and this is definitely, definitely not helping. She says something to me that, in my instant transformation to Shopping Grinch, I either cannot or will not understand. Eyes down, I charge left in a swift swooping maneuver, hoping to get around her. She is too quick for me, moves and again blocks my way. Does she have basketball training? The way she's sticking with me as I dodge left, then right, I could easily believe she was a candidate for the Turkish national team. I pause. I look her in the eyes. Trying to remain civil, I tell her in very clear Turkish 'I just want to look around a bit.' Which to me is another way of saying "please leave me alone until I need you." But in Turkey, I am beginning to suspect it has a different meaning. I think that sales assistants occupying those oh-so-hard-to-come-by jobs must be under tremendous pressure to help, and if they are not dogging your footsteps throughout every moment of your shopping experience, they (and perhaps their bosses) might feel that they haven't really been doing their job. You just want to look? Wonderful! I'll just look with you! Grr... Rationally, I can understand why it is the way it is; I can even empathize. Emotionally, I can't help it -- it still drives me up the wall. The thing is, I don't feel there is anything whatsoever these helpful people can do for me that I can't do for myself -- except perhaps highlight the fact that I am beyond help, and intrude upon my personal space, which I am rapidly realizing is a lot bigger than most Turks'. (Note: A colleague of mine reported that on a recent shopping trip she gave in and let the sales assistants 'help' her. She has my kind of all-American, athletic physique, and therefore a snowball's chance in Izmir of finding something that fits. The expedition ended, reportedly, with the salespeople finally bursting into gales of laughter at the ridiculousness of Turkish-woman clothes on American-woman body. To her credit, my friend was able to laugh along...something I might have had trouble with. Chalk it up to her Irish heritage and my German?)

So I'm pawing through a pile of Capri pants, determined this time to avoid the mortification of trying on 'my size' only to find out that the thigh section actually doesn't even fit over my kneecap (or my big toe). I'm going two sizes up this time, minimum. And there beside me, standing so close I can identify her brand of shower gel and what she had for lunch, is my helpful salesgirl, insisting that I step aside and let her find me my size. Frustration is running high. Number one, I don't know my size; and her repeated inquiries on this point are making me crazy. Probably they don't even sell my size here...I'll have to go to one of those 'büyük beden' (large sizes) shops I've seen around the neighborhood. (They cater to Turkish women over a certain age who seem to undergo this miraculous overnight transition from goddess to shapeless lump with breasts that dangle below the waistband. I still don't understand at what magical point that happens.) Number two, she's forcing me to speak in a language that I'm clearly not fluent in or comfortable with, and despite this continues to speak to me and get frustrated with me when I'm not able to communicate well with her -- adding to the already uncomfortable situation. Number three, if I did know my size, where's the point or efficiency in my standing back and letting her do exactly the same work I'm already doing -- i.e., sifting through a pile until I find what I'm looking for. And I'm even being a model customer -- not even disheveling the nicely folded piles! I smile as sweetly as possible and continue on my mission. At last finding the object of my quest (a size umpteen), I triumphantly grab it and make a beeline to the changing room...

Only to be ambushed by disappointment. There are no mirrors. No mirrors!!!! Except the public one outside the changing cabins, of course. Oh, how I loathe this kind of changing room, designed expressly to give helpful salespeople something to do. No one buys without consulting mirror, mirror on the wall... therefore it's a given that helpless victims will wander out in search of the mirror, only to be pounced upon and offered unsolicited advice. I know, I'm being far too testy about these things. Get over it already, I hear you saying. Would that I were so evolved, but no can do. Part of it is that I don't care to have some stranger peeping at me in something that could look absolutely ridiculous before I know how ridiculous it looks. Forewarned is forearmed. Another part of it, I guess, is that I really do feel quite capable of looking in the mirror and seeing for myself whether something looks good, without resorting to the two cents of a 'sales professional'. And so, determined to do this alone, I gingerly pull the curtain an inch aside and scope out the landscape. The coast seems to be clear; no predatory salespeople in sight, no one currently ogling self in mirror. I inch the curtain a bit further open. Just as one leg has nearly made it out of the dressing room, I spot my salesgirl galloping towards me with all the fervour of a raging bull. The leg does a quick retreat, whisk goes the curtain. I stand there, sweat beading on the brow, breathing heavily. I wait. It occurs to me that this is ridiculous and an utter waste of time. Still, I will not parade myself in front of this salesgirl in my possibly too-tight rear-end-emphasizing pants so she can try not to laugh and ask me if I want a bigger size. Anyway, what's the point? She might tell me it doesn't fit (which I can see for myself). In this case she'll offer another size which very likely doesn't exist, and even if it does, still won't fit, because it's about the proportions, not the size per se. (If I were to find a pair of pants with thighs big enough, the waist would be a cavern.) Alternatively she'll lie and assure me that it does look good, which will be transparent, too. Stubbornly, I continue to lurk behind my curtain. I will not be gawked at.

A minute later, another foray is attempted. A peek, an all-clear, a swift curtain tug, a leg...and a half...and again the raging bull routine, the quick scurry of retreat and the whisk of the curtain. A sigh. There must be easier ways to shop. Finally I hit on the brilliant idea of sending the Boyfriend out as a decoy. The ruse is successful -- he manages to distract her for the 20 seconds I need to sidestep in front of the mirror, do a full pivot, and decide in the negative before lunging back into the cabin. Despite having gone up two sizes, the thighs and rear are still wetsuit tight. Another sigh. I leave empty-handed, salesgirl giving me a look that says (justifiably) 'weirdo' .

* * *

It's hard when you're weird about stuff like this and you wish you'd just get over it and chill, but you can't. It would be nice to think we can be whoever we want to be. But I guess there are aspects of our personalities that are more difficult to control than we might believe.

Another time after I had had my bag stolen with my favorite makeup items in it, I decided to hit the local cosmetics joint and get some new lipstick. Again the tragi-comedy. I say 'just looking' (read: 'go away'), they acknowledge the comment, then proceed to follow me so closely that a couple of times they actually step on my shoes. This time it really feels like lions in the veldt -- me the glassy-eyed gazelle -- because there are three of them triangulating around me. One ringleader, two wing-people. Is this really necessary? My inner curmudgeon starts getting its dander up...what do they think, I'm going to steal something? That I'm blind? I'm trying to look at the lipsticks but the 'helper' has mastered the knack of positioning self between me and the items I want to look at, so I'm not terribly successful. Finally, exhausted and suffering neck cramps from trying to see over her shoulder, I am forced to figure out how to tell her what I'm looking for -- in Turkish. Good for the language practice, I force myself to think, mentally smiling between mentally gritted teeth. She proceeds to select the same lipsticks that the unassisted me would have chosen. She then, in an act I am incapable of understanding, demonstrates these on her own skin. It's killing me. Not only do I have to go through an intermediary that I don't need, but I have to watch the colors being tested on someone with a decidedly Mediterranean complexion, whereas mine is decidedly not. This routine continues for a while, with me finally somehow achieving the small victory of getting her to put it on my skin. Still, my 'flustration' is rising at having to gesture wildly over the salesperson barrier to indicate the location of the ones I want to look at, or worse, struggle to remember how to say things like 'copper cream' in Turkish. But the writing is on the wall: there is no way this is going to happen sans intermediary. In the end, just to get out of there, I buy one. It's sort of OK, but I probably wouldn't have bought it had I been left to my own devices. I leave feeling annoyed and like a class A idiot because I have let a salesperson get the better of me, and my purchase is as much out of guilt (after all, she has invested so much of her time demonstrating the things) as anything else.


Clearly, my work is cut out for me. First, I've got to get my silly notions about independence and do-it-yourselferism out of my head. It ain't gonna happen, not in this country anyway. Second, when helped, I've got to figure out a way to bind and gag my inner grouch, convince myself that hey, this could be fun, and then roll with it. They really do mean well, I know that -- it's just a culture thing. And if they want to laugh at the ridiculousness of Turkish pants on an American behind, why can't I just laugh with them? Shouldn't be so hard. Should it?

Working on it, one day at a time...

Friday, June 01, 2007

A Summer Dance

Over here, summer is making tentative inroads into spring. It performs a lazy kind of cha-cha, two steps forward, one back; one day you're certain summer has taken up permanent residence, but the next day spring, with its short-tempered chilly gusts and flitting clouds, charges in and retakes its throne. Still, summer's army makes its inexorable advance...toes fight free from closed-toe foot boxes and begin to make more frequent and less furtive appearances in sandals; long-sleeves almost imperceptibly creep up, giving way to three-quarter; three-quarters to T's, and one day the eye comes to rest on the pile of silky, sleeveless tanks waiting breathlessly to be taken for a spin in the soft, sunshiny air.

The sea is calmer these days, the wind gentler; the angry wild whitecaps that crashed over the breakwater weeks ago seem to have spent their fury. Am I imagining things, or do even the seagulls scold each other in more dulcet tones these days? My tiny tomato plant seedlings are doubling in size nearly daily, prompting Jack-and-the-Beanstalk fantasies. They stretch their tender leaves out off the ledge of my (unhappily) east-facing balcony, soaking up every last drop of sunlight before it vanishes over the top of the building at midday. It is a mellow time -- before the heavy, sweating months of July and August, but beyond the chill of winter and spring. White gauze curtains sway drowsily in an afternoon breeze while birds twitter in the pomegranate tree of the garden below. Street animals doze in shaded doorways. Their faces are not yet overtaken by the look of suffering they will acquire some months from now, and if one is prone to anthropomorphizing, one might be inclined to believe that they are thinking 'This is the good life. Sigh...With all this fur, August is gonna be a killer.'

In the open air market and on pushcarts on shady street corners, where vendors perched on tiny stools sip tea and wait, ruby-red cherries have begun to make an appearance. The melons are arriving, too...not yet the dripping, unbelievable sugary sweet they will be a month or two from now, but still good, and eagerly purchased and consumed after months of winter privation. Lemons are cheap and abundant. We bought a sackful, and I made fresh lemonade. I sit on the balcony at our tiny table, sipping the sweet-tart brew, listening to the man in the streets below hawking his wares (Simit! Gevrek! Boyoz!) and tapping away at my aging laptop. The serenity is lovely, makes one overcome with drowsiness. More breeze, more birdsong, the casual sounds of carpets being beaten out on balconies across the way, the clatter of teacups from the apartment downstairs, the distant horn of the ferry about to depart. Uykum geldi, they say in Turkish. My sleep has come.