The Prince and the Pigeons

In spring and summer, when school is out, seeing boys dressed in all-white suits with faux fur-trimmed flowing capes and plumed hats is a common sight. We were on the Hippodrome in Sultanahmet, the U-shaped Byzantine promenade which Constantine renovated and used as a horse-racing track, watching a boy dressed as a king.  His cape became his wings as he swooped with the pigeons on the square.

Wings unfurled, he's ready to fly.

Wings unfurled, he’s ready to fly.

He was in the midst of celebrating his circumcision.  That which might be discussed between expectant parents and then quietly dispatched by an infant’s pediatrician in the US is a rite of passage in Turkey.  

Ready for launch.

Ready for launch.

Though the tradition is evolving, many Turkish families observe the event to some extent.  Rural and religiously conservative families may continue the practice of actually  performing the circumcision during the festivities, with the newly minted little man resting on a fancy bed in a corner while being distracted by gifts and sweets.  The Sünnet marks the first step in a boy’s road to manhood.

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Though urban or secular parents may choose to circumcise their sons at birth, some still host a traditional party when the boy is of age, generally between the ages of 4 and 12.  A single son celebrates at 6 or 7, but  financial economy may dictate a shared event for multiple sons, at younger and older years.  Municipalities and political parties may also host circumcision parties for less affluent constituents.

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The religious procedure is called the “first joy” as a step into religious life.  The urban and secular , may debate carrying on the tradition, and parents may choose to circumcise so their boys conform socially.  Some grown men reportedly remember their circumcisions as scary and painful.

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The traditional event can include a parade astride a pony or car followed by all invited guests and passersby, gifts, dressing in ceremonial finery, a feast, and generally being the center of attention. Celebrations may continue over a few days until the boy has healed, or in the days prior to the event the costumed boy may visit, kiss hands and collect gifts.

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I love the pageantry of the fashion apparel and the excuse for celebrating, but as a bystander watching a costumed boy, I can’t know whether the deed is done and he has nothing to worry about, or whether the kid is blithely racing around showing off without a clue as to what comes next.  Knowing what might be coming for an unsuspecting little one makes me cringe.

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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.

Turkey in the News

There are two stories in the news now that Americans are reading.  One is the stabbing death of a New York woman at the end of her solo stay in Istanbul, and the other, the unfortunate suicide bombing of the US Embassy in Ankara, yesterday.  I followed the Sarai Sierra story and was sad and disappointed, but not surprised given the amount of time she was missing, that she was found dead.  I feel for her family, I can’t imagine their pain, they must be living a nightmare.  May she rest in peace.

Colorful Ottoman screens in the patio at  Kybele Hotel, Sultanahmet.

Colorful Ottoman screens in the patio at Kybele Hotel, Sultanahmet.

The 1978 movie Midnight Express formed my generation’s impression of Turkey.  A true story of an American jailed for trying to smuggle hashish out of Turkey in 1970, the movie was scary.  Billy Hayes, the prisoner, who escaped and wrote the book, later criticized the movie for its portrayal of Turkish people.  He understands that the filmmakers had to change his story to tell theirs, but complained that they showed no good Türks.  He apologized to Turkey for his portrayal in the book and said he actually loved Istanbul and got along great with the Turkish people until he was arrested.  He conceded that people arrested in the US might not be thrilled with America either.

Street musicians on a rainy day in Moda, Kadiköy

Musicians performing on a rainy day in Moda, Kadiköy

Americans who read the news and ascribe some bad news to define an entire culture might consider what people in other parts of the world think when they see headlines about events in the US.  More than one person from this side of the world has told me they believe there are frequent mass shootings all over the US.  Unfortunately, given the news I’ve read since I left on 04 December, it is easy to believe the same thing.

A winter Saturday's recreation despite gray skies.

A winter Saturday’s recreation despite gray skies.

I’ve been living in Istanbul now for two months.  Admittedly, I am on my honeymoon with the place, but my disappointments are few.  I can think of two at the moment, 1.  I struggle to hear the call to prayer.  I wanted to live with it, to learn its cadences.  Turkey is a secular state.  Istanbullu are busy people – they work very hard.  I have heard it said that the call to prayer is loudest in the tourist areas…in residential areas, people want to sleep in. Because of the society’s secular identity, a Turkish friend has called Turkey “Islamophobic”.  2.  My other main concern is the very uneven streets.  Cobble-stoned streets are charming, but very hard to walk on.  This old city, appears to lack the OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) regulations of home. I’ve gone flying off my feet a few times, which is alarming.  In each instance Turkish passersby rushed to my assistance, and my pride took the greatest bruise.   I hope I will become more fleet of foot with time.

Internattonal guests from the US (Jim and I) and Israel in a Turkish homel

International guests from the US (Jim and I) and Israel at a Turkish dinner party.

I love the place and the people of Istanbul.  It is a huge metropolis, so I most closely compare it to my experiences living in Manhattan.  However, there is an equal or greater engagement with nature in the parks compared even to suburban Foster City, California where we last lived.  There are feral cats and dogs all over Istanbul, and they are fed and cared for.  Türks may not take them in as pets – although many do – but they will cover a box with plastic to house a street dog, and reverse its direction when the wind changes.  Butchers provide scraps.  Residents and shop keepers put out food. Few of these “homeless” animals are afraid of humans.  The dogs and cats frequently seek a petting. Even the very noisy, ubiquitous crows are not afraid of people; I can walk right up to one sitting on a park railing.  There is enough food for everyone, in affluent neighborhoods at least, and there is a pleasant harmony among humans and other species..

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There are odd contradictions, though, with some Türks being afraid of Lucy when we are walking her on leash in a crowd. Lucy also gets annoyed by the street dogs stealing her ball, but they are social and want companionship and to play.  Lucy and a local dog and I were walking together.  I felt sad the other cold rainy day when I had to shut our building’s front door in his face, after letting Lucy in.

A cat hotel in Cihangir.

A cat hotel in Cihangir.

Watching ferries sail swarmed by seagulls is a funny sight, reminiscent of flies swarming a horse.  People feed them off the front and back decks.  It is socially taboo to throw bread into the trash, so it makes its way to street animals and birds.  And, I’ve been told that spring is kitten season!  I will love that!  The engagement with nature extends to the ferry stations too.  Waiting for a ferry, I noticed a woman in the station with a cat on her lap. I assumed she was traveling with her pet, but saw no carrying case.  As I walked out to the pier, I noticed other felines lazing among the waiting passengers, and realized the cat’s lap was temporary.

Getting rid of day old bread on the commute to Europe.

Getting rid of day old bread on the commute to Europe.

A culture as nice to animals as this one tells a different story than the headlines of horrific events.  Merel (see prior post  https://2istanbul.wordpress.com/2013/01/27/running-with-scissors/ ) and I both walk  alone in the dark.  It is necessary to get around.  Both of us pay attention and are careful, and we both feel it is as safe or safer here as unescorted women than it is in our own countries of the US and Netherlands.  To go to my life drawing group’s evening meetings, I have to walk around the construction at Taksim Square.  It is dark and uneven, so I stay close to others and walk purposefully.  Places that would seem forbidding at home, frequently here are just normal walking routes that are not lit as well as I would like.  In all big cities in the world, one has to pay attention.  Even in suburbs in California, unless I have Lucy with me, I’m less comfortable walking alone at night than I am in Istanbul.

Following the ferry.

Following the ferry.

There is gentleness, helpfulness, and a civility among the people here that I don’t see in the US, in big cities or small towns.  It is not nirvana, not perfect. We are all the same, however, under the skin .  Istanbul is very comfortable to live in.  I find it magnificent, and captivating because of its beauty, society and historic civilization.

A metal bed in the sun makes sense.

A metal bed in the sun makes sense.

I visited Istanbul in 2010 for a conference, traveling home August 7.  On August 8, a German tourist celebrating her 50th birthday and wedding anniversary with her husband was killed in San Francisco crossfire between teen-aged gangs. The Germans had just arrived and were looking for a restaurant in which to eat dinner, before 9 pm at night.  Union Square is a central tourist hub in San Francisco, supposedly one of the safest locations in the city. Ironically, a week earlier, I had been referred by a US friend to verify the safety of her American friend’s prospective travel to Istanbul.  To her questions, I could only reply “if you are not afraid to travel to San Francisco, I wouldn’t be afraid to travel to Istanbul.”  Bad things happen in good places, and one may arrive at the wrong place at the wrong time, anywhere.