When I returned to Turkey after a month-long trip to the States, it turned
out there were many people who'd missed me wildly: the peanut vendor on the
corner; the eggplant roaster from the big communal oven down the street; the
man who sells me arugula every week at the bazaar. In particular, there was
an older Turkish woman in my apartment building who nearly fell over with
the force of the wail she let out when she saw me again. She grabbed me,
told me how much she'd missed me, said that she'd been worried she'd never
see me again. And then she added, her voice trembling with emotion, "I feel
this so strongly because I love you."
At least I think that's what she said. My Turkish is still a little iffy,
but "I love you"—Seni seviyorum—well, I was pretty sure that I knew that
And so, even though I sometimes freeze when telling my mother or my husband
or my best friend I love you, I didn't hesitate with this woman. I held on
to her, looked her deeply in the eye, and said in what I thought was near
perfect Turkish, "I love you too."
I wanted to add, But who are you? Have we ever met? What's your name?
But that seemed rude and as if probably such questions would break the spell
of the intimate moment we'd just shared. And besides I would have had to
say all of that in Turkish. So instead I tried to nod profoundly as I
looked at her closely burning the image of her face into my brain for future
It's not that all sixty-year-old Turkish women look alike to me, though
there is a similar style and demeanor to the older peasant women who live in
the city where I live. They, like the woman into whose eyes I was gazing,
wear the traditional baggy peasant pants—þalvar—usually consisting of
brightly colored flowers on a dark background. A tee-shirt or sweater of no
particular design or color, and with no apparent imperative to match the
pants below, covers their usually ample top. The prettiest part of the
ensemble are the headscarves these women, out of modesty, wear in the
streets, simple yet colorful cotton scarves trimmed with intricately
crocheted lace around the edges. You learn quickly in Turkey to distinguish
the different meanings of the headscarves: the richer, silk headscarves
worn by women as a symbol of political and Islamic conservatism versus the
simple cotton headscarf, like the one that my old/new friend was wearing,
symbolic of nothing more than a woman's adherence to her village tradition.
This older woman and I talked for a few minutes in the lobby of my apartment
building, though, given my sketchy Turkish, how much we really communicated
is still a mystery. And then, as if to taunt me, she said a phrase whose
meaning has been eluding me for months now (and I've consulted both a
linguistic expert (my Turkish teacher) and a cultural know-it-all (Kenan, my
husband)): Seni bekliyoruz. Literally this means, We are waiting for
you, but its exact interpretation is much trickier.
I first heard this phrase from another neighbor, the naggy one with the
whiney voice (even I can tell a whiney voice in Turkish). One night at 8:00
p.m., Naggy Neighbor knocked on my door and asked me to please do the dishes
more quietly because her husband was sleeping and their bedroom wall abutted
my kitchen wall. Turkish women, she claimed, wash their dishes much more
quietly than American women. At least I think that's what she said. Later
in a friendlier encounter, Naggy Neighbor said to me, "Seni bekliyoruz,"
which I interpreted to mean, "Stop by my house any time. You are always
welcome." Kenan confirmed this interpretation, but the invitation was
vague, and I was still smarting from the loud dishwashing complaint, so I
felt no obligation to see it through.
Thus, when my newly-beloved neighbor said to me, "We are waiting for you," I
replied, "Thank you, Ms. Neighbor. You are so kind." Let me explain the
Ms. Neighbor part. First, there's no distinction in Turkish between the
title for a married and an unmarried woman, hence the Ms. Secondly, Turkish
language and culture demand a certain formality that in English would seem
absurd, and one way towards achieving this formality is to use titles when
addressing people. For example, my colleagues at the school where I teach
call me Ms. Pier, and I call them Ms. Hülya or Mr. Selahattin, even though
we are more or less the same age and hold the same rank. The titles are
added to a person's first name, but if you don't know a person's first name,
as I didn't with my neighbor, you can use a noun describing the person, such
as Ms. Manager, Mr. Eggplant Roaster, Ms. Doctor, Mr. Vegetable Seller, Ms.
Having, I believed, adequately fulfilled my Turkish politeness requirement
for the day, I (politely) explained to Ms. Neighbor that I needed to get to
the market before all of the arugula was sold out. "Okay," she said. "Go
quickly. But don't forget, we are waiting for you."
The next morning when I left the apartment to run some errands, I ran into
Ms. Neighbor again. (It occurs to me only now that perhaps she was stalking
me, or the Turkish older peasant woman equivalent of stalking, which I
suppose would be sitting around waiting because there wasn't much else to
do.) She was very anxious to talk to me, and as she talked, I perceived
immediately a change in the verb tense as she exclaimed. "Yesterday, we
waited for you!"
"You waited for me?" I said. "I mean, you really waited for me?"
"Of course, we waited for you! I told you we were going to wait. And you
Since living in Turkey, I fear that rather than learning the appropriate
customs, I have perfected the art of the Turkish apology. So I said
immediately, "Ms. Neighbor, I am so sorry. I believe that I misunderstood.
I didn't expect that you were really going to wait for me. Ms. Neighbor,
what can I do to make up for this horrible and terrible crime that I have
That is at least what I tried to say.
Being a truly faithful lover, Ms. Neighbor barely blinked before she said to
me. "What are you doing this afternoon?"
"Nothing," I said. "Shopping. Yoga."
"Okay," she said, "Then we will wait for you this afternoon."
"You will really wait for me?"
"Of course," she said. "This afternoon."
"This afternoon?" I decided to repeat everything she said to make sure that
"Yes. Around six."
"Evet, altý gibi!" Yes, around six.
Then she told me that there was someone in her house who speaks English
fluently, her cousin. She told me that I shouldn't worry, that her cousin
would help us to communicate. It seemed like an odd set of circumstances,
to tell you the truth, so I poked around a little bit. "Your cousin?" I
said. "Your cousin speaks English and will be there this afternoon?"
"Ha ha," she replied. "You are so funny!" She doubled over in laughter, as
if I were the world's most comic person. "How could my cousin speak
That is exactly what I was thinking, I thought.
"My daughter." She annunciated each letter of the word to make sure that I
understood. "K-ý-z-ý-m. My daughter speaks English! One of them at
least, the smart one." (Kýzým my daughter, kuzen cousin—they weren't
too far off, so I felt only minor shame at my mistake.)
"Okay," I said, "this afternoon."
"We'll be waiting for you."
In the seven months that I've lived in Adana, a sprawling, dusty city in
southern Turkey at the frontier to eastern Turkey, I've achieved a certain
amount of fame in my neighborhood just by the fact of my foreignness. Adana
doesn't attract many tourists or foreign visitors (it's not after all Paris
or Barcelona; in fact, it's a little bit like how I imagine Fresno to be.)
It's not that Adana doesn't have sites to recommend it: a sixteen-arched
stone bridge built by Emperor Hadrian in the second century; the third
largest mosque in the world, boasting the highest dome in Turkey; and my
favorite, the Ulu Cami, or Grand Mosque, built in the early 1500s out of
black and white marble. Truthfully though, Adana doesn't have enough to
attract visitors seduced by some of Turkey's better known attractions:
Sultanahmet in Istanbul; Ephesus on the Aegean coast; or Cappadocia in
Although it's the fourth largest city in Turkey, Adana, as the more
sophisticated Adanites like to tell me, is nothing more than a big village
(a very big village, by last count surpassing 1.3 million inhabitants), a
village that's experienced a population explosion in the last twenty years
as peasants from neighboring villages migrate to the city. It's a busy
place with booming textile and agricultural industries, lots of traffic, and
not much charm. In the summer months especially, Adana is miserable—hot,
humid, dusty, and suffocating with temperatures often climbing past 105 and
no beach or breeze in sight. On the plus side, Adana is famous for its
spicy kebab, aptly named Adana Kebab, and þalgam, a drink that takes some
getting used to, a sour concoction made from the fermented juice of the
Anatolian black carrot. Personally I like Adana because it's off the beaten
track. Way off.
Some days in Turkey, I move gracefully through my life, easily exchanging
pleasantries with the members of my community, successfully managing all of
my daily tasks, talking and laughing with the neighborhood kids who've
started to call me Aunt (of the three words used for aunt, they use the word
teyze, the best kind of aunt there is, the word reserved for your mother's
sister). My biggest success so far in Turkey language-wise was the day I
took the car to the mechanic, got an oil change, and had a burnt out
headlight replaced, all while speaking Turkish!
I was not having that kind of day on the day that my neighbor was waiting
for me. In fact, I was having a rather bad day on the cultural/linguistic
front. Earlier in the day, I'd decided to take on one of Kenan's weekly
chores and buy the cheese. Every Thursday and Friday when the bazaar sets
up down the street from our apartment, an old peasant woman (bearing a
startling resemblance to Ms. Neighbor) sets up her table on the corner where
she sells her homemade cheese: sheep, goat, and cow cheese, some of the
best cheese in the city, I've been told. I looked up the word for sheep,
koyun, decided to forgo goat cheese, and I already knew the word for cow,
inek. (Warning: Inek can also mean nerd, so be careful if using it on
people, though of course, even in English calling someone a cow wouldn't be
When I approached Ms. Cheese Maker, she looked at me sternly, squinted her
eyes and barked, "What do you want?" I stammered and stuttered suddenly
tongue-tied, as I searched the language compartment of my brain for the
correct words and phrases to use, the ones that I'd been practicing for the
last half an hour at home.
Because the people in Adana are so unaccustomed to foreigners I can often
elicit kindness in strangers just by fumbling around in Turkish and making
an issue of my otherness. Ms. Cheese Maker, however, was having none of my
I'm-a-foreigner-be-nice-to-me attempt at charm.
"What do you want?" she barked again, louder this time so that people from
neighboring stalls looked over.
I stammered again and then finally managed to get out that I wanted half of
a kilo of sheep cheese. Did she have any?
She sighed wearily. Of course she had sheep cheese. Why wouldn't she? She
was a Cheese Maker after all! She weighed out half of a kilo, giving me
time to prepare my next request. "Inek peyniri?" I said. "You have some
cow cheese?" Again she nodded and I asked how much it cost. Five million
lira for a kilo (about $3.50). I pointed to what I thought was the cow
cheese and said, "Okay, a kilo." She said, "Tereyaðý." Butter. "Yes,
yes," I said. "Your cow cheese is very buttery. I remember. Yum. Yum."
I even patted my stomach for emphasis, hoping that stomach patting was a
universal sign for good food and didn't mean something in Turkish like, It
makes me sick. I pointed to the particular brick of cow cheese that I
wanted, but for some strange reason, Ms. Cheese Maker didn't want to sell me
the cheese, and I had to be pushy. "A kilo please. A whole kilo. That one
right there. Yes, that one. Please." Finally, she shrugged her shoulders,
weighed the cheese and handed me a bag with both cheeses inside.
Closer to home, I stopped and bought some pide, Turkish flat bread, fresh
and hot, just recently taken from the fires of the stone oven. My mouth
watered at the thought of my impending lunch, a few slices of cow cheese
sitting atop the hot pide, some Turkish tomatoes and cucumbers on the
side, my mother-in-law's home-cured olives topping off everything.
When I got home and set about making lunch, well, you wouldn't believe just
how buttery that cheese was! Unfortunately, I'd bought a solid brick of
butter instead of cow cheese, which I realized immediately Ms. Cheese Maker
had been trying repeatedly to tell me.
On the plus side, that was some of the best butter I'd ever tasted, and it
went nicely with the hot pide.
* * *
Learning Turkish is not like learning French or Spanish, which in comparison
sound and act a lot like English. My first month in Turkey, I stumbled upon
a program in French on the television, and it sounded so familiar, like an
old friend, that I was five minutes into it before I realized it was in
French and not English.
Kenan claims that I've been learning Turkish for fifteen years, since the
day we first met in a smoke-filled jazz club in downtown Berkeley. But that
is an exaggeration and a deliberate falsehood with spikes aimed at the heart
of my linguistic achievements (fluent Spanish; enough French, Italian, and
Portuguese to get myself into trouble in various spots around the globe).
The truth about me and Turkish is that I only decided to really study
Turkish eight or so months ago when it looked like we were really going to
live in Turkey for awhile.
And anyway, I blame Kenan for my bad Turkish, as one tends to blame one's
spouse for things as disparate as letting the milk sit out all night and
squandering one's youth. It's become a cruel accusation I fling at him
during the rare fight that sparks up between us: "You. You," I repeat for
emphasis, "have done nothing, nothing, to help my Turkish."
"Without me," he says, "there would be no Turkish." He means I know that I
would have had no impetus or reason to learn Turkish or fall in love with
Turkish culture if I hadn't met him. I don't say it, but what I think is,
I would have ended up here somehow. This, and by this, I mean Turkey and
Turkish and strange encounters with neighbors in the hallway, was always my
A common misconception amongst Americans about the Turkish language is that
it uses some other alphabet or script. (A related misconception is that
Turks are Arabs, which they're not.) Like many things in Turkey, the
history of the Turkish language is complex, intimately connected to the
political and social history of the area. If I were living in Turkey
pre-1928, it would be true that I would have had to learn the Arabic script.
(Sometimes with my head buried in various Turkish language books as I
curse the very language that I'm trying to learn in the language that I'm
trying to learn, I'm thankful at least for the historical change.) The
Turkish language that existed in 1928 had diverged down two distinct paths:
Ottoman Turkish, an elite written language used by only a small percentage
of the population; and spoken Turkish, at the time considered a vulgar,
gutter language, used by the rest of the population. To help address the
massive illiteracy of the time, and to try to return Turkish to its roots,
the Turkish language reforms of the 1920s decreed that the spoken language
be the language of the country. In 1928, in a bold attempt to aid this
effort (and frankly to help in the modernization and westernization of
Turkey), Atatürk, the founder of the modern Turkish republic and ubiquitous
cultural icon, ordered that the Arabic script be abandoned in place of a
modified Roman alphabet. An alphabet comprised of 29 letters, 8 vowels and
21 consonants was developed to codify the sounds of the Turkish language,
and teachers spread out across the land to teach people the new alphabet.
Within months the conversion was complete, and publishing in the Arabic
script was outlawed.
The Turkish language of today is so different from Ottoman Turkish that
modern Turks can't easily read or understand texts from that period,
including Atatürk's speeches. It's hard for me to imagine not being able to
read texts published in English eighty years ago, and I often wonder if the
loss was worth it. Originally, before the Turks were overtaken by the Arabs
and converted from their native shamanistic religion to Islam, and before
the Arabic script was imposed on the language in the 10th and 11th
centuries, Turkish was mostly written in another alphabet, the Uigur
alphabet. Sometimes, I console myself with the fact that the Arabic script
was an artificial imposition on that system, and then I don't feel so bad
about the imposition of the Roman alphabet.
Turkish is variously described as either elegantly simple or bewildering,
and I suppose it's both. For me, the most beautiful thing about Turkish is
also the most difficult: vowel harmony. Each of the eight vowels in
Turkish, a, e, i, ý (that's an i without a dot, which orthographically for
writers of English is almost impossible to do), o, ö, u, and ü, is
classified first as either a front vowel—the tongue is forward in the mouth
close to, but not touching, the front of the roof of the mouth—or a back
vowel—the front part of the tongue is low in front with the back part rising
up towards the back of the roof of the mouth. Secondly, each vowel is
classified as either a round vowel—lips rounded and slightly forward, like a
pout or a French person's mouth before speaking—or nonround.
Furthermore, Turkish is an agglutinative language, meaning that words and
phrases are put together by adding suffixes to base words. The suffixes can
be grammatical as well as meaningful, and there is a suffix for almost every
imaginable situation: for making a word plural; for indicating possession
(two suffixes in fact, one for the possessor and one for the possessed); to
indicate profession; to make a noun an adjective or an adjective a noun; and
many more. You can, it seems, endlessly add suffix after suffix after
suffix to base words creating ridiculously long words that are also phrases.
My Turkish books love to give examples of this, and the most outrageous
example offered in my Lonely Planet Guide to Istanbul is
Afyonkarahisarlýlaþtýramadýklarýmýzdanmýsýnýz? Translation: Aren't you
one of those people whom we tried, unsuccessfully, to make to resemble the
citizens of Afyonkarahisar? (A sentiment, thank goodness, I'm unlikely to
express very often.)
When you set about adding suffixes to base words, you don't need to know the
suffix only. That would be too simple, and you wouldn't be harmonizing the
vowels. In most cases, you need to analyze the last vowel of the word to
which you're adding a suffix or the vowel of the last suffix that you added
(Is it a front or back vowel? Round or non-round?), and then you must
adjust the suffix so that the types of vowels match—or harmonize. For
example, depending on the last vowel of a word, the suffix to indicate the
first person possessive "my" can be either '–im' (front, non-round vowel);
'-ým' (back, non-round vowel); '–üm' (front, round vowel); or '-um' (back,
round vowel). Unless of course the word already ends in a vowel in which
case the suffix is simply '–m'.
Are you still with me?
The point that I'm trying to make is that there is a lot one needs to
remember when putting together a word or a phrase in Turkish. Vowel harmony
makes it easier on the mouth, but as far as the brain goes, it can wreak
havoc. Usually by the time I've finished all the mental gyrations necessary
to complete a word or phrase, I've forgotten what it was I was trying to say
in the first place.
Most pure Turkish words don't deviate from the rules of vowel harmony
requiring that a word be comprised of similar kinds of vowels. For example,
deniz—sea—I can guess (correctly, it turns out) to be a native Turkish
word because the '–e' and the '–i' are matching vowels. Þair, poet, on
the other hand, I guess to be from somewhere else because the '–a' and the
'–i' are non-harmonic. I imagine that þair is Arabic or Farsi since
Turkish borrowed around 30% of its words from those languages. When I look
it up, I'm right, the word is Arabic in origin. (If I were ever to learn
Turkish well enough, and if I wanted to take on Arabic or Farsi, at least
vocabulary-wise, I'd have a head start.) Turkish, like many modern
languages, took a few words from French: þöför (driver); kuaför (hair
dresser); and mersi (thanks), among other. And some modern English words
that have spread around the globe have snuck in to Turkish too: þort
(shorts); tiþört (T-shirt); hamburger; film. My current favorite
Turkish borrowing is zikzak (zigzag), which Turkish took from German, a
word in frequent use nowadays to describe the path laid out by the EU for
Turkey to achieve full membership.
An English speaker hoping that throughout its long history of borrowing
words from other languages English might have tapped Turkish and stolen some
vocabulary will be sorely disappointed. Offhand, I know of only a few
English words that come from Turkish. Caviar from the Turkish havyar,
horde from ordu, today meaning army but originally meaning any royal
residence or camp. And of course, there's the most famous word of all that
spread from Turkish to many other languages, English included: yogurt, from
the Turkish yoðurt. As any Turk will proudly tell you, Turks gave the
world both the word and the food, and if you're a yogurt aficionado, it's
worth a trip to Turkey just to taste some good home-made yogurt from the
people who invented it.
Everyone tells me, and my Turkish grammar books proclaim, that at a certain
point vowel harmony comes naturally and you don't even need to think about
it! That assertion, I am beginning to suspect, is a language fairy tale
told to foreigners when first embarking down the Turkish language-learning
path so as to keep them trudging along through the mud and the snow to a
clearing up ahead.
* * *
As the afternoon wore on, I started to dread my visit to Ms. Neighbor's
house. I was nervous about my ability to understand and speak Turkish, to
correctly harmonize the vowels, to remember the polite phrases that are so
much a part of the communication etiquette in Turkey. Fundamentally, I
feared that I was too shy for the situation and that sitting at home,
listening to and trying to decipher CNN Türk was more my style.
Finally, in an attempt to embolden myself for the adventure, I imagined that
we'd drink tea together, the woman, her smart daughter, and I; that we'd
share a Jane Austen-like afternoon in the gloaming. I performed a simple
yet elegant visualization of the event: a quiet late fall afternoon,
sitting around sipping strong, honey-colored tea sweetened to perfection as
we shared knowledge and interest in each other's lives, in each other's
cultures. As a last resort, I remembered the military-like advice my father
used to give me when I had to do something that I didn't want to do: "It's
good training!" he'd say. And so when the time came, altý gibi, around
six o'clock, I mustered up the courage that I needed and headed downstairs.
In the dark hallway on the second floor I found Door Number 2 and knocked
tentatively. It took a moment, and then Ms. Neighbor answered the door,
surprised I thought to see me there. She ushered me inside, with the usual,
Hoþ geldiniz—A pleasant welcome to you—to which I responded with the
usual, Hoþ bulduk—Pleasant I've already found it—and then, as is customary
in Turkey, she offered me some house slippers in place of my street shoes.
When I was house-ready, Ms. Neighbor opened the door to the sitting room
where a coal-fired stove glowed softly in the background and the rest of her family sat.
They did not seem to be waiting for or expecting me at all. In fact they
were so not in the process of waiting for or expecting me that they were all
kneeling on the floor, leaning back on soft round pillows around a large
raised copper tray half-way through eating dinner. I felt that I'd been
tricked and I looked at Ms. Neighbor accusingly as I said in Turkish, "You
weren't waiting for me! I'm interrupting dinner. I'll come back later.
Please," I begged, "let me come back later." I didn't relish the thought of
being trapped in a room with a Turkish family eating dinner.
"No, no," she said, scurrying to find a place for me and gesturing for me to
sit down. "We are always waiting for you. Please sit down and eat." I
decided there and then that my original interpretation of Seni bekliyoruz
as a vague and indefinite invitation was correct and that any concrete plan
I thought we'd made was just my neighbor's attempt at polite conversation.
But alas, it was too late to do anything about my realization at that
moment. There wasn't any room around the large dinner tray, so I found
some space on a nearby couch where I sheepishly sat down.
When Ms. Neighbor offered me a plate of food, I said in Turkish, "I wasn't
expecting food. I thought tea maybe." She insisted, thrusting a plate full
of fresh warm dolmas—stuffed grape leaves and stuffed eggplant—into my lap.
I've been known to go weak in the knees for a good dolma, and it would have
been rude, in fact it would have been downright uncivilized, to refuse her
food, so I accepted, saying okay, thank you very much. "Taman, taman. Çok
"I love you," Ms. Neighbor said to me again as she rejoined her family
around the dinner tray and I sat alone on the couch with the dolmas heating
up my lap. This time around, I didn't reply to her sweet cooing, deciding
instead to bide my time and see if I really loved her or not.
As is typical in Turkey, the family was engrossed in watching the television
during dinner, and no one talked, to each other or to me. In fact no one in
the room even looked at me as I tentatively tasted the dolmas on my plate.
At first being ignored made me feel uncomfortable, but then I decided to use
it as a chance to check out Ms. Neighbor's family unnoticed. Inside Ms.
Neighbor wore her headscarf loosely on her head and I saw that it covered
shoulder-length grey hair, tied back behind her head. Neither daughter wore
a scarf, and the youngest daughter, the pretty one, who I thought might also
be the smart one, looked closely at the TV and occasionally at her mother.
The older daughter, the one whom I later on call meraklý—nosy or curious
depending on how you say it—watched TV and occasionally attended to her
father who sat next to her. Mr. Neighbor, I discerned immediately, had some
serious health issues going on. He was rail thin, his breathing labored,
and he coughed and wheezed, speaking only in the softest of raspy whispers.
I had a sudden thought that he might not make it through to the end of
dinner. The visualization I'd performed earlier started to turn sour on me
as I imagined him having some sort of fatal attack while I was there, and in
the confusion of the moment, it was I who accompanied him to the hospital.
It was I, suddenly the Florence Nightingale of Adana, Turkey, who held his
hand as he took in his last breath on earth.
When you're half deaf and dumb to the language around you, you have a lot of
time to let your imagination run wild.
Silently, I ate my dolmas, barely chewing, as I quietly monitored Mr.
Neighbor's breathing. It seemed to settle down to a fainter rasp as the
evening wore on.
The TV blared news of the world—Bush, Iraq, Tayyip Erdoðan, the Prime
Minister of Turkey, Turkey's impending discussions about its EU membership.
No one said anything for what seemed like an eternity, but was probably only
five or six minutes. And then Ms. Neighbor turned to me and said in
Turkish, "I love our prime minister Erdoðan. I love President Bush." The
two men aren't favorites in my household but I tried to smile and I said,
"That's nice." She must have understood the expression on my face, because
she added as a consolation, as most Turks do when talking about American
politics: "I loved Clinton too."
At least, she has diverse tastes, I reasoned, and I trusted that even the
smart daughter didn't speak enough English to understand what I was
thinking, so I said it out loud: "Ms. Neighbor, you are your own personal
Haight-Ashbury in the '60s Love Fest!" She smiled, nodded her head, laughed
at my English, and then went back to eating and watching TV.
Finally dinner was over, and at last what I'd really come for: tea. As if
choreographed, at the same time the whole family stood up and moved from the
corner of the room to various spots on the two couches where they sprawled
comfortably. We all sat for a moment, looking silently at each other until
the older daughter got up to begin serving tea in the lovely tulip-shaped
tea glasses for which Turkey is famous. The younger daughter's English was
on a par with my Turkish, and I could tell that she felt as if she were
letting her mother down when her limitations became obvious. Between the
younger daughter's English and my Turkish though, we managed to chat and
learn more about each other. There was a son who was finishing up his
obligatory military service in the west of Turkey and another daughter, a
dentist, who lived ten or so hours from Adana in the resort town of Antalya.
There was a granddaughter and when I asked if they had any pictures, a
whole new avenue of communication opened up between us.
They showed me pictures of the granddaughter, the soldier son, the two
daughters with whom I was having tea on a recent trip to the snow. There
were endless pictures of the family's village house three hours from Adana,
where, they told me repeatedly, they'd be waiting for me all summer. They
were surprised to learn that I was married and lived here with my husband
since they thought for some reason that I was here by myself. At some
point, they asked me how my husband and I communicated with each other, but
I misunderstood the question and thought they'd asked how I communicate with
the neighborhood kids. I said that we communicated by pointing to things
and asking their names. I told them it was a very slow but enjoyable
process. They seemed so surprised, appalled really, that I realized I
needed to ask them to repeat the question. On the second time around I
heard the reference to my husband, and so I quickly cleared up the
confusion, telling them that Kenan and I have spoken English together for
years, that at this point his English is as good as mine. They assured me
that someday my Turkish would match his English, that already I had a good
foundation, a nice, or as Smart Daughter said, "cute" accent. They offered
the appropriate encouragement one needs to keep going.
Half-way through tea, Curious Daughter started in on her questions. I tried
to remember that the kinds of questions she was asking—How much money do you make? How much does your husband make? How much rent do you pay? What does your father do? Is your husband's family rich? How come you don't
have children?—were acceptable in Turkish culture even though in English
such inquisitiveness would be considered rude. I couldn't answer her
though, too American to divulge such private information. So I used my
language handicap to my advantage, and pretended that I didn't understand.
In the true spirit of a helpful Turk, she didn't let up. She insisted, she
rephrased, she gestured artfully to try to help me understand. When it was
impossible to pretend any longer that I didn't understand her questions, I
resorted to playing the role of an ignorant wife, as if such practical
matters as my husband's salary or the amount of rent we paid were matters
that didn't interest me (though in truth I handle the finances in the house
and know pretty accurately every penny we take in and expend).
When my head was about ready to explode after two hours of intense
concentration and effort, I decided it was time to leave. They tried to
entice me into staying longer with a fresh pot of tea and some sweet baklava
on the side, but I insisted and rose to say thank you and good-bye to all.
Ms. Neighbor led me the door of her house where I put my street shoes back
on, and then she kissed me on each cheek and told me to come over any time.
Every night, in fact, for dinner, she said, she'd be waiting for me. I
returned the kindness, saying back to her, "Ms. Neighbor, Ms. Neighbor, you
are very nice. Please, you must come by our house sometime, anytime. We'll
be waiting for you."
She smiled and said, Okay, thank you.
She hasn't shown up yet, but if my doorbell rings, I'll be waiting.
* * *
The day after my unexpected dinner with the Neighbors, I asked Kenan, who,
after all, had first taught me the meaning of Seni seviyorum—I love you—to
explain its various uses. "I hardly know this woman," I said to him. "And
yet she says to me, 'I love you.' I don't understand. Does Seni
seviyorum have some other meaning?"
*"Seni seviyorum,"* he told me, "is complicated."
"Love," I said, "usually is."
"It can mean," he continued, "I love you or I like you very much. It
I was seriously dumb-founded. *What kind of a language is this?* I thought.
"But... But... What a minute." I protested helplessly. "There's a big
difference between the two." I had a sudden imagine of a young Turkish
girl, in the bloom of first love, standing in a field of daisies, plucking
petal after petal after petal trying to discover the truth of her beloved's
heart: He likes me very much. He doesn't like me very much. He likes me
very much. He doesn't like me very much. It didn't work. It wasn't right.
I was so distraught over the explanation that for a moment I thought of
leaving Turkey and my Turkish lessons behind me. I thought of going
immediately to Paris or Rome, where I was pretty sure you didn't use the
same expression for 'I love you,' and 'I like you very much." But I suppose, as with most linguistic expressions, it's all in the way you say it.