Prosecards from the Edge (of a Continent)

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

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...


At 12:30 AM, Anonymous Julia said...

Merhaba :) I was surfing the net, reading through other yabanci blogs, trying to find notes of other experiences and confirm my suspisions that I am not the only Amerikali often in awe of turkish culture and after a few clicks of the mouse found myself here, at your blog. I love this post about the difficulties and frustrations of shopping and the hawk-like behavior of the sales reps...I can very much relate and have told my Turkish boyfriend on many occassions "tell her I AM JUST LOOKING" (gritting my teeth), which of course is no help. Anyway, just wanted to say hello and thanks for making me feel a little less crazy and giving me a few good laughs. Hope you don't mind if I pop in from time to time and read what you've got to say!

Julia in Kirikkale


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