Finding Love (and Thanks) in a Hopeless Place
As a child, every year around Thanksgiving, I’d be asked by my classmates, “do they eat turkey in Turkey?? Haha!” To which I would respond, fuck you, Jimmy Porter, I hope you grow up to disappoint your children.
No, I wouldn’t. I would respond, “Well actually, ‘Turkey’ is pronounced ‘Turkiye’ in Turkish, and the word for the bird ‘turkey’ is ‘hindi’, so what you’re saying really doesn’t make sense if you think abou-…”
I didn’t have many friends as a child.
It wasn’t until I was 30 that I finally decided to experience Thanksgiving in Istanbul, and learn once and for all if they ate any turkey. Here now is a long overdue collection of random notes I took in the end of November 2014, during many shared meals with family, strangers, and entirely too many stray cats.
November 22 — Istanbul Atatürk International Airport
- The Istanbul airport appears to have invested heavily in a technological upgrade at customs. We enter a large hall of kiosks, all with completely circuitous, nonsensical instructions. Within a minute, my father begins sarcastically clapping, declaring “Turkey, ladies and gentleman!”. Like many others, we give up and enter a long queue for manual processing, where I attempt to haggle down the price of a visa.
- Outside the airport, my dad lights a cigarette while we wait for my cousin to pick us up. A man walks by sweeping the floors. My father flicks his lit cigarette at him, which the man dutifully cleans up without missing a beat, despite his pants almost catching fire. Neither appears phased by this.
- We stop to get gas, which in Turkey translates to meeting the station’s owners, drinking a few glasses of tea over 2 to 14 cigarettes, and discussing your latest physical maladies. We forget to get gas.
Keşan, a town 3 hours west of Istanbul — dinner
- In Turkey, it’s perfectly normal at a nice restaurant, to order a liter of 80 proof alcohol to the table with kids, grandma, and only six people drinking — two of which are driving.
- At breakfast, I leave a bite of bread on my plate. My grandma warns that if I leave bread on my plate, my betrothed will leave me. I eat the bread.
- As a perfect follow up to a nice meal, we begin discussing my cousin’s divorce at length. We cover the perils of marrying quickly/a jackass, yet within the same conversation, they remind me that their travel visas expire in a couple of years, and that they’ll only come back to America if there’s a wedding to attend…! [smiling broadly and nudging me]
- It’s only time before we turn to our next favorite conversation — who got fat recently (and the less interesting — who got skinny). A few years ago, my brother lost about 30 lbs. My aunt describes his previous size as like a “pehlivan”, or a “large greasy Turkish wrestler”.
- I get Turkish Elidor shampoo in my eye. Pretty sure this stuff is made out of acid.
- The town of Keşan is heated by coal. The air is so shitty, I’m fairly certain it’s healthier to breathe through a cigarette.
- Over tea, my grandma recounts how sadly, she and her brother stopped talking as of a year ago, over a real estate dispute. He threatened, “if you show up on caller id, I’ll never answer.” She is 89 and he is 93.
- Time to visit my distant, recently-widowed aunt! We take my uncle’s car, which inexplicably can only be unlocked from the trunk. No one asks. (And no one goes to a mechanic.)
- We’re seated on my aunt’s stiff couch, the silence only cut by sounds of sniffling and an all-female refrain of condolences. My father turns to me and whispers, “…you can kick your brother when you get home…”
- Turns out I’ve met some of these women, when I was a small child. One tells me, “Wow, you got pretty. You had those huge legs as a kid! Huge!!”
- At one point, the woman embark on a Four Yorkshiremen-like sketch of one-upmanship: “When we were young, we washed everything… even diapers!” “At least you had water. We had to go to the well!”/“We made baklava from scratch.” “So did we. We used almonds we picked ourselves.”
- One woman describes the convoluted roads of a nearby town as “like an Arab’s hair”. This is apparently a popular metaphor to describe anything messy.
- Before we leave, I use the bathroom. The gorgeous apt has multiple bathrooms. They all stink.
- I love that restaurants in Turkey have really no-nonsense names. My dad and I pick up some takeout from a place called “Meat Restaurant” (Et Lokantası).
- I wake up with what can only be described as dysentery.
- My grandma is sad that I am sick. “You know why you’re sick? Because the women said you were pretty, and so you got cursed by the evil eye.”
- I have barely moved. My grandma’s favorite soap opera is on. Soap operas are the same in every country. An excerpt:
[angry beautiful man on phone] “Is she there? What happened? Was there a problem with the train??”
[beautiful depressed woman on other end of phone] “She didn’t get on the train.”
[beautiful man] “What?!?”
[beautiful woman] “She’s not moving to Ankara.”
[beautiful man, now enraged — extreme close up] “What is the meaning of thiiiiiiiiiis???”
- We change the channel to a show that’s called “Hom Ofis”. It’s a thrilling show about a man who works from home.
- Finally, we find the Turkish “The Voice”. One contestant really nails it, and all four judges fight over her. She tells her entirely too Middle Eastern story: “I started singing at an early age. My parents kept telling me ‘stop singing! You’ll never succeed! Give up already!’ [sighs, shrugs]”
- My incredible aunt presents me with a cake she slaved over, right before my dysentery set in. I eat an obligatory slice, and begin writing my will in my head.
November 26 — returning to Istanbul
- I can’t sleep. My intestines are trying to escape. I go on facebook. My friend has shared with me a video of Kate McKinnon doing an impression of Angela Merkel. The prospect of watching this is the only thing keeping me alive. I click on the video, and get an error saying it is not playable outside of the US. I continue writing my will in my head.
- My uncle is up. “You know why you’re sick? You took a shower 3 hours before you left the house in the cold the other day. Should’ve waited 5… should aaalways wait 5.”
- We get in my uncle’s car. There’s no room for luggage because the trunk is inexplicably filled with five spare tires.
On the bus to Istanbul
- My intestines are trying to escape.
- The woman behind me appears to be teaching her 4-year-old daughter how to sigh.
Istanbul — my cousin’s apartment
- I’m in fetal position. I’ve officially lost 2 kilos, which I can only assume is equivalent to 63 pounds.
- My wonderful father rushes out to get me medicine. He describes my symptoms to the pharmacist. “You know why she’s sick? Her feet got cold.”
- My aunt calls. She asks how I’m doing, and offers medical advice: “Eat a spoonful of coffee grounds.”
- My grandma calls. I can only hear my dad’s side of the conversation: “Yes we know… yes, a spoonful of coffee grounds…”
- I eat a spoonful of coffee grounds.
8:00pm — large family dinner
- I’m in fetal position on the couch, and overhear my relatives: “You know why she’s sick? She’s not used to the germs here because she doesn’t visit often enough.” Despite the heavy dose of guilt, this is actually the most scientifically sound assessment yet for the cause of my condition. This pleases them immensely.
November 28 — the last night
- I feel slightly human again! To celebrate, my cousin takes me out to a nice restaurant with a friend. We order a liter of 80 proof alcohol to the table.
- I’m on the street corner with a crowd, singing The Cure in English but with an unexplainable Turkish accent. Something about this seems so right.
- I have my arm around a stranger, and am eating shellfish from a street vendor. My transatlantic flight leaves in 3 hours. I finish up my will in my head, and say goodnight.