Cultural Immersion Confusion

This weekend, we didn’t swim or tread water very elegantly, but we didn’t sink, either!  And we are ready for more.

We have been lamenting our lack of basic Turkish conversational ability after 12 intense weeks of studying Turkish.  We have been so dedicated and focused, that when our friends get here next week and later in May, I can’t wait to become a tourist in Istanbul.  We have studied at Tömer, a branch of Ankara University.  We’ve been well versed in grammar, in such detail that we have learned esoteric ways of writing Turkish for newspapers, but we haven’t gotten to future tense yet.

In our last two classes, we will be tested, and we know we will fail.  We contemplated bailing on the test, but have decided it won’t hurt us to cram for it, just for fun.

We must be forced to speak the language to Türks, without the option to speak English.  Our Turkish friends converse with us in English.  This weekend, however, we had to do our best to speak Turkish.  It began with our arrival home on Thursday evening.  Our landlady was in her car in the front of the building and in Turkish invited us for kahve or çay.  She said she would contact her daughter, who was the prior occupant of our apartment, as well.  I wasn’t clear where we would meet.  I asked nerede? (where) a couple of times (nerede?, and nereye?, and neresi all mean where, and I honestly don’t know how to use them), and was still not sure, so I said “Bizim Ev?”  (our home).  She said “evet” (yes).  Fine, we set it for Pazar (Sunday) at birde (1 pm).  I wasn’t clear if it was in our apartment or hers, and I wasn’t exactly sure which apartment in the building she lives in.

Friday night we had expat friends to dinner. They have lived in Turkey for many years and speak Turkish.  I asked them what sort of plans they thought I had made with Neriman.  My understanding was our landlady had invited herself to our home, but I didn’t believe it, thinking it odd.  Linda confirmed that Neriman meant it to be at her own apartment, and that we should take a small sweet.  We could ask the kapıcı (doorman) which was Neriman’s unit.

For Saturday night we were invited to the home of a class friend’s Turkish mother-in-law for dinner.  Arne, who’s German from Munich, and his Turkish wife speak German and English.  Arne is struggling with Turkish as we are, and Semin (his wife) and her mother Hikmet agreed that what we have learned isn’t what we need first.  Hikmet speaks very good English, way much better than our Turkish, but we still need a decent level of Turkish to be able to converse well with her.  So, our language chops, such as they are(not), were exercised last night.

Hikmet is a very interesting woman, who has traveled.  She is outgoing, with a career and life full of stories.  We got the gist, but would have loved to understand better.  One unfortunate tale, she was in New York City last year with a Turkish friend,  at a subway stop near Wall Street waiting with heavy luggage to go to the airport.  The train was delayed and by the time it finally came, the station was full.  When the doors opened, her friend boarded ahead of her and a young African American woman behind started screaming at Hikmet that she was rich and shouldn’t be using the subway.  She was pushing Hikmet’s big suitcase and yelling in her face.  No one in the car reacted.  Eventually Hikmet entered the car, and the train moved to the next station, the woman yelling at Hikmet until she exited there.  After that, the predominately white passengers were solicitous and helpful to Hikmet, but no one intervened during the incident.  Hikmet tested an interpretation on us…”have black people in the US now become aggressive because they have been emboldened by a black president?”  Given the profile of passengers and the stop where she was waiting, we felt Hikmet was the victim of a crazy woman, and we hated to hear the story.

This morning, we had a couple of hours before we had to head upstairs for kahve/çay. I prevailed upon Jim to go out in the rain and find a small box of candy.  It being Sunday, I wasn’t sure what he’d find, but our favorite little gift place, Ҫikolata Dükkan (Chocolate Shop) a couple of blocks away was open, and so we felt properly prepared to visit our landlady.

The little shop is as cute as the package.

The little shop is as cute as the package.

We have an L-shaped salon, with an area for TV viewing, the dining table, and then another sitting alcove.   For entertaining we use the alcove area which has a great sea view.  I wanted to test if switching the furniture between the seating areas would serve our usage better, so we moved it all around, distressing Lucy and Rita in the process.  (Since  the chaos of moving out of our California home, the necessary vet visits, the plane flight and the month in Cihangir before settling here, they get nervous at the slightest hint of change.)

The Marmara Sea at night. The big sehpa (coffee table) holds a lot of meze for appetizers.

The Marmara Sea at night. The big sehpa (coffee table) holds a lot of meze for appetizers.

I had just gone to change clothes to walk upstairs, when the doorbell rang at 12:50.  Oops.  I opened the door and there stood our landlords all dressed up with a gift in hand.  I clearly didn’t look ready, and I said “Merhaba. On dakika.”  (Hi, ten minutes).  They gave us 20 minutes which was enough time to change clothes, set up the samovar for çay and arrange the cake we had bought for Friday night dinner when I didn’t remember if I’d asked our friends to bring dessert, which they did.

This servant offers hot çay all afternoon

This servant offers hot çay all afternoon

Neriman and her husband Selatin don’t speak much English. Their English proficiency might be less than our Turkish.  So we bumbled along, and here is what we learned, accuracy unknown:  Lucy barks all the time if we are not home, and it’s been worse in March and April than January and February.  So we determined that we must leave all of the windows closed when we leave her in the house.  We don’t want to get evicted from this place we love.  (Lucy probably is making sure we go back to California).

We learned that their granddaughter, Lara, who goes to school at University of Virginia is graduating this summer and she and her mother Figen, are going to tour America.  Then the whole family is going to Bodrum on the Mediterranean coast for a wedding of a family member here in the building.  I found the words to ask if Neriman has a new dress.  Yes.  Later in June they will go to their summer home down the coast where they will garden and fish.  I asked if the building would be boş (empty).  No, just a few folks leave.  We’ll be here holding the fort too.

Lucy and Jim now share the little sofa in front of the TV.

Lucy and Jim now share the little sofa in front of the TV.

Having to fly solo, without any translator, is the best practice we can have.  We don’t think we got an “A” in hospitality.  For one thing, there was that awkwardness at the door.  Then they wanted filtre kahve ,which they called American coffee.   I didn’t ask how they preferred it, although I did understand that she wanted süt (milk) and şekirsiz (no sugar). I did consider what to brew, and since Türk kahvesi is strong, I decided that’s how they would want it.   In hindsight, I remembered that our tutor orders filtre kahve weak, and, I think, with milk.  I learned how to ask what I would like, but not what she orders for herself.  What I offered Neriman was what I like: kahve sert olsun çok az süt olsun (Dark coffee with a little milk). They did not want tea, and I’d made enough for the four of us for a couple of hours of non-stop drinking – which the samovar facilitates (tea IS what we do in Turkey after all!).  Neriman commented on the strength of the tea I was drinking, calling it kırmızı (red). In the ensuing conversation I ascertained that she likes weak coffee and tea.

We learned that there are Americans living on the top floor.  The wife is Mexican (which is the Americas) and doesn’t speak English.  We aren’t certain if the man does – but we decided to leave a note in their box.  We are here a lot, and we’ve never seen them.

I also learned that I need to ask many more questions about tea and coffee preferences.  The samovar takes care of that if people pour their own – the pot on top is very strong, and one adds water to the glass to taste, sometimes 10:1 water:tea, I read somewhere.  On Saturday night we learned that dropping by unannounced is very Turkish.  When we were meeting to rent our apartment, Neriman would offer us çay or Türk kahvesi. She’d phone her maid who would bring down fresh beverages and wonderful little nibbles. Clearly she had them on hand.  I know her standards.  We didn’t meet them.

I hope we get another chance with Neriman and Selatin.  Maybe we won’t because we are just tenants; or because we are such horrible hosts, clearly not worth wasting time on.  The cake was not fresh, it didn’t taste good. The coffee was too strong…

Having to swim under our own power in the language arena was great practice, and I hope we can do it with them again.  They brought us a lovely housewarming gift, and we have a box of chocolates to eat. Also, we tested the new furniture arrangement much sooner than we expected to…it works well. Afiyet Olsun.

Swimming in Molasses

To write a kompozisyon, even in Turkish, can be utterly absorbing.  We wrote several mini-essays in Temel (basic) 1 Turkish language class. Once graded, we öğrenciler (students) compared how many red correction marks, and the direction of the emoticon’s mouth our instructor, Elif, had drawn on our papers.  Poor Jim got quite a few sad faces. 😦  I got a lot of question marks; Elif didn’t understand what I was trying to say.


I  stayed away from Google Translate, which is useful to get a quick general understanding of a word or sentence in another language, but causes Turkish öğretmenler (teachers) to roll their eyes.  Even when I chose the first entry in the paper dictionary, however, it often wasn’t a word Elif recognized.  Maybe she has a small Turkish vocabulary?  🙂


In one kompozisyon, I attempted to complain about being assigned to write it during one of the four breaks we get during four hours of class.  I called her a taskmaster – but she didn’t recognize the word.  I explained to her later that it wasn’t a BAD thing, just a TRUE thing.  I’m hypoglycemic, I need my food fixes or function miserably.  That particular break was the time I liked to order tost— a ubiquitous Turkish grilled cheese sandwich– from the kafeterya.

We are decompressing after our first 80 hours (in 4 weeks) of lessons, not yet sure what we learned.  Ankara University’s Tömer yabancı (foreigner) language school is supposedly the gold standard of Turkish lessons.  Foreign students wanting to apply to Turkish universities value the Tömer certificate.  It may not have been the best choice for us, although our Turkish teacher in San Francisco recommended it.  The Tömer program lays in a strong foundation in grammar, and its graduates will ultimately be very literate.  We, however, can’t verbally communicate much more than on day 1.

I did learn the word dayı.  The name of the boat our stuff is on, the Mustafa Dayı V– still slowly churning its way to Istanbul 16 weeks after we handed over our boxes–refers to Mustafa’s maternal uncle…or maybe Mustafa IS the maternal uncle…and does the shipping company have five uncles or five boats named Mustafa Dayı?  (The boat hasn’t been sailing for 16 weeks, but we’ve been waiting for our stuff since we’ve been here and still have at least 2 weeks to go, aargh).


See how it is?  Turkish can be elegantly efficient.  For example, ‘he’, ‘she’ and ‘it’ are all “O”.  This is why Türks speaking English will often confuse genders.  (Heck, so does Jim when he is talking about our pets in English.  For him all dogs are ‘he’ and all cats are ‘she’, irrespective of the individual animal’s gender. We’ve had a male cat but never a male dog).

All Elif has to say to one of us struggling to answer a question during ödev kontrol (checking homework) is “ödev var mı?”  (is there homework?).  The var mı? question is particularly streamlined.  If you want cheese in a grocery all you have to say is “peynir var mı? The answer will be “yok” (there isn’t) or “var” (there is) and it will be handed to you, or you will be lead to it.  Easy peasy. 

On the other hand, Turkish can be appropriately Byzantine.  Here’s how it goes.  There is one way to refer to the time of day nowSaat kac?, and another way, Saat kacta? to refer to what time an activity will start.  There is no AM/PM, you absorb that in context, but where in English it is 10:40, Türks have to subtract 20 from the next hour, so it is 11 minus 20.  Maybe it makes Türks better at math than we are?  While we don’t need to learn genders in Turkish, we do have to learn different words for younger and older siblings, maternal and paternal relatives etc.  Verbs are nuanced too.  There is one verb for “playing” ball and another for “playing” an instrument.

Evmorfili, the Greek class member created this diagram for the times.  Parts of it are "Greek to me". :-)

Evmorfili, the Greek class member created this diagram to learn talking about time. Parts of it are “Greek to me” — see the red, yellow and blue headings.

Lurking in my memory as the longest English word is Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious. Wikipedia shows it as the 4th longest word, coined in 1964 (movie Mary Poppins), with 34 letters.  We did not learn the longest Turkish word in Temel 1, but it is easy to see the potential for sentence-long words.  Sort of like Turkish home cooking – fabulous stews that are never served alone, but are complete meals themselves.

Evmorfili cleaned up her diagram!  I still prefer the first one...I know where to find what I need on it!  This one is Classical though!

Evmorfili cleaned up her diagram! I still prefer the first one…I know where to find what I need on it! This one is Classical though, isn’t it?

Turkish words grow by suffixes.  For example, I can say, “Ben anlıyorum”, which means, “I understand”.   To turn something negative or into a question adds one or more suffixes.  Ben anlamıyorum.  (I don’t understand).  Ben anlıyormuyum?  (I understand?).  Ben anlamıyormuyum?  (I don’t understand?).

This is only a single tense and a single vowel harmony form. Vowel harmony is an interesting concept.  It is what makes the Turkish language sound like it does.  When I was here in 2010, I was asked if Turkish sounded like Arabic. At the time I answered no, to me Turkish sounded like a mix between Japanese and Eastern European languages, not that I’ve heard much of either of those.  I found it syncopated, lyrical, and complexly layered.  ( )

Simdiki Zaman, "current time", present continuing tense, in case you wanted to know.  This was ödev assignment.  I actually know this.

Simdiki Zaman, “current time”, present continuing tense, if you want to know. This was ödev assignment. I  think I actually learned this.

Vowel harmony changes the suffixes of verbs depending on the word’s spelling.  Also, to keep the lyrical cadence, nouns next to each other get modified.  For example, A sport salon (gym) becomes spor salonu. The kebap salon becomes kebap salonu.   With the city ferries, those wonderful white lumbering boats of varying vintages that ply the Marmara and Bosphorus loaded with commuters, Şehir (city) Hatlar (lines) becomes Şehir Hatları, ending it on the upbeat.

Turkish QWERTY keyboard.  An additional wrinkle.

Turkish QWERTY keyboard. An additional wrinkle.

When I questioned things we hadn’t yet learned after noticing them in my homework, Elif replied “yeni (new) gramer (grammar)”.  One class we were learning how to talk about before and after (önce / sonra). Suffixes are added to a noun before the words önce or sonra.  Verbs, however, require different suffixes for önce vs sonra. I asked when grammar would cease to be yeni, meaning by when would we learn all the rules?  Elif said, “Temel 12”.

So, this is what the last month has been like.  Should you want to know, the longest Turkish word, according to various Internet sources is 70 letters long. It is Muvaffakiyetsizleştiricileştiriveremeyebileceklerimizdenmişsinizcesine and means: As though you are from those whom we may not be able to easily make into a maker of unsuccessful ones.  The saying makes sense in Turkish. Google “longest word in Turkish” and you’ll find the genesis of the word.

Görüsürüz. (See you.)

Disclaimer to this and all posts where I talk about language or culture:  What I write might be wrong.

The Real Istanbul

Dikkat (warning)!  I have not visited the accommodation written about in this link, but based on the description, this is exactly where I would stay if I were visiting Istanbul.

When we visited last May to scope out where we wanted to live, we stayed in a similar, though not quite as colorful, neighborhood. It was lovely.  You wake up to the sounds of a real place.  And, as this article says, it will be a shock to the Western senses — because it is so “foreign”.  But, why else do we travel?

I will go check this place out when I have time — when I am not in 5 days/week Turkish lessons.

I have so much to tell you on this blog, and I’m keeping notes, but for now, I must go back to studying.  Jim and I have been “cleared” to move forward to level 2 Turkish.  But, we certainly don’t know level 1!  Tömer’s 80 hour/month level 1 is way above our ability to absorb.  It has moved so fast…with so much material, and so much homework.  We feel it is worth the investment, and that the earlier we learn Turkish, the more we will enjoy our stay — but yikes!  We will hire a private tutor for level 2, as well as attending class.  We’ll never keep up otherwise.

Blog readers, you are on my mind…don’t give up on me!