Part of the fun of having guests is watching how they react to Turkey. Their impressions mingle with ours, deepening and enriching our experience of the place. I have already mentioned nephew Jonathan’s joking confusion about which continent he was on. Angela was so impressed by Istanbul that she is calling it the best city she’s ever visited (even though we apparently missed its most elegant shopping street, Bagdad Caddesi, tucked away on the Asian side). Greg loved the dramatic Turkish flag, a white crescent and star on a red background, and has quite aptly re-named the Bosphorus, “The Boss.”
Life continues here, an uphill climb of Things To Learn. Today is my three-month anniversary and, although we are nicely settled in an apartment and neighborhood, I sometimes find myself losing heart. The problem is not homesickness, nor is it quite culture shock. It actually stems from my growing engagement, my interest in learning to function well in this huge, sophisticated, foreign place. A few personal characteristics stand firmly in my way.
At my age, I have built up a great deal of pride, and I dislike being wrong. Faced with this enormous new challenge, it has been easy to convince myself that by simply watching and observing, I can learn how to master it. After an observation period, I will surely be able to proceed smoothly and seamlessly, maintaining my reputation for competence.
But gradually I’ve come to realize that what I’ve really been doing is hesitating, hanging back, putting off any true adjustment. For example, in my first two months here, I drove a car only twice.
So I resolved to dive in and start doing things for myself. This past Friday afternoon I gathered my courage, walked down to The Boss, and hopped on a bus, my first ride alone here. My destination: historic Istiklal Avenue in the heart of the city, formerly an elegant embassy boulevard, now a vibrant shopping venue.
As the bus made its way south along the sea road, we passed the Four Seasons Hotel, where 3M put us up this past January, and I felt a surge of pride. Only nine months ago I was cushioned in luxury, quite timid about venturing out to peek at the neighborhood surrounding the hotel. Now I am learning to navigate the city on my own.
I reached Istiklal feeling relaxed and confident, spent a few hours shopping, and made it almost all the way home via bus before switching to a cab (from now on, it will be a game to come and go solely by public transport. Giving up and taking a taxi will be considered cheating!)
That outing boosted my confidence, but I know that while trying to make progress, I will have to make some mistakes. Yesterday, I was on my own again and, despite riding the Old City tram several times with others, a long line of people formed behind me as I struggled to put 1 ½ Turkish Lira into the machine and push the right buttons to produce a token. But I finally know how to do it!
After I returned, I did something else I’ve been pushing myself to do lately: read and decipher as many words as possible on packaging and signs. Standing in the small corner of my kitchen that serves as a laundry room and squinting at a white plastic bottle, it dawned on me that the product I’ve been using for the past two months to bleach clothing (same color packaging as Chlorox; found next to laundry detergent at the grocery store; fairly effective) is actually a cleanser meant for countertops and toilet seats.
I hate being so stupid!
I also dislike asking for help. Something in me feels that doing so at age 55 is shameful, a sign of failure. I know it’s illogical, but constantly being in need of assistance plays into my worst fears about becoming old and incompetent.
After three months, what do I long for back home? I knew being away from friends and family would be difficult, but email has gone a long way toward staving off the “bottom-has-dropped-out-of-my-life” culture shock I felt during my other, pre-computer, years overseas.
I miss television, especially Project Runway. We do get CNN and the BBC here, but little other English programming, and there are problems streaming U.S. programs to a foreign country. My laptop “knows” I am in Turkey and refuses to let me download most American TV shows.
I miss having Mexico next door. I miss donuts, danishes, pies and cakes; desserts are the sole area in which Turkish cooks don’t seem to excel. I miss losing myself in a movie, and I miss having a large number of books at my fingertips. I miss reading a morning paper with my coffee. Oh, for the Sunday New York Times!
I miss getting in my car and zipping around, although driving with Umit often lifts my spirits. I end up smiling because I’ve had to be pleasant to someone else, and we’ve found things to laugh about.
“You have helped me a lot,” Umit commented the other day. He was referring to his English capabilities, improved through our daily talks. His announcement shouldn’t have surprised me, but it did. Apparently in my stumbling and bumbling first months here, I have made a positive impact on someone. His words made my day.