Quiet please, I'm thinking.
Having not written for some time now, and also as we are currently celebrating Bayram (holiday), it seems an appropriate time to put pen to paper and catch up on where things are. It was on this very balcony that I first started my blog four months ago so it seems appropriate that I pick up again sitting here in the weaker October sun. The summer sun is unrelenting.
Selecting interesting content is tricky enough at the best of times, even more so now that I actually have a full-time job teaching English, so taking advantage of free-time is a must. Teaching is a demanding job and the hours that myself and the other teachers work are irregular; they are also subject to change at the last minute and that keeps one on one’s toes. Apart from being demanding teaching is also very rewarding, when things go smoothly. Though I am only employed to teach English I do find (depending on the level, ability and curiosity of the students) that I often veer off into philosophy, history, and occasionally politics. We have been warned off subjects such as politics, religion and other culturally sensitive subjects, but I was never very good at following protocol. That being said I am cautious about what I say and to whom I say it. Seeing a student’s face light up when a point hits the mark is worth the risk as far as I am concerned though I may think differently if I am turfed out of the country.
My employment package includes Turkish language lessons but learning this language is not as easy as one might think. Of course we are in the early stages but already I have found that this is a flat language, meaning that the rhythm is regular and intonation exists only slightly if at all. Probably just as well really since music here draws from a broad palette and the cuisine varies massively depending on the region from which it comes, best leave the vocal gymnastics to the Spanish and Italians.
Iyi bayram lar,
In the heat of the Istanbul summer it is important to do all one can to remain cool, so yesterday I had my hair cut short again. This may sound like a normal, run-of-the-mill task: pop down the local Barnett-chopper; snip, snip and Bob’s your auntie, then off home with you. But this is Turkey, baby. When you get your hair cut here, like so many things, it’s quite the experience.
Last time I was stitched up like a kipper (fifty notes for a thirty minute job) so I figured I’d try something a little different this time. Someone I know, who’s lived here a while, recommended a guy (Ahmet, I think was the chap’s name). Twenty notes, not including tip, and he’ll sort you out good and proper. At least this was the understanding I had going in. In his defense, the fact that it cost quite a bit more (fifty notes again) is mostly my own fault, but this is not a tale of woe or high-priced shenanigans. No, this is a tale of fear and stupidity, and perhaps a study of how easy it is to lose the run of one’s own mind from time to time.
Ahmet, for that is what we shall call the fellow, had nary a a word of English. I believe I have touched on this in a previous post, the fact that English is not the lingua franca, as it were, which is good news for any aspiring English teacher. Nor do I possess the required Turkish language skills, that will no doubt be necessary as time unfolds. But my buddy who recommended this fellow brought me there and, one can only assume, explained the situation. Into a battered old barber’s chair I jumped, grinning like an idiot, as I used my three Turkish phrases to appease the Master; ‘hello’, ‘how are you’, ‘I am good’. Happy days!
The haircut passed off without a hitch, there’s really only so much that can happen to the top of one’s head. Ahmet offered me tea, I politely declined, unintelligibly I’m sure. He went on to offer water, milk, coffee and some other things that I also insisted I could live without. Then it happened, he asked me if I wanted a shave. Of course, still grinning like an idiot, I said ‘lutfen’.
There are few things in this world scarier than a well-built fellow standing over you with an open straight razor, even if he seems the cordial sort. From the moment I agreed to have my face relieved of its grubby stubble and accumulated detritus I regretted my choice. But one can’t simply up and run like a bat out of hell, one must see it through. So there I sat, Ahmet lathering me up with the greatest of care. He set up the straight razor, must have seen the crazed fear in my eyes, then got cracking.
Every time I swallowed I imagined that blade slicing through my Adam’s apple. I recalled that scene from Dumb and Dumber, the one where Jim Carrey uses the open ketchup pack to freak out the barber, and I stifled a laugh. ‘Don’t laugh’, I thought. ‘You’ll anger him and he has the blade, and the upper hand.’ I’m not sure if it was the heat but I sure was perspiring.
The feel of a really, razor-sharp blade is something special. It is unique. Some blades are sharp, others are pretty sharp; I don’t know what Ahmet’s deal is but that blade felt about as sharp and fine as any edge I’ve had against my skin. Hardly a rasp as it moved over my face, chopping all those little hairs it met with and felling them like tiny trees. When he finally finished, after delicately shaving my upper lip and contorting my visage into all kinds of shapes, he was done. With the shave at least. In Turkey your barber thinks nothing of manhandling your head, as though for the time he’s in charge of it he can do what he likes. In truth, were one to contest his right to do so, frictions would likely ensue.
Without so much as a by your leave Ahmet placed me head first in the sink, face down of course. Running water over my freshly shaved jowls he washed me like a baby. I hardly had time to take a breath before he enthusiastically freed me from any stray hairs. I won’t go into all the details but my head has never been cleaner. In fact, he was so thorough, I was half expecting him to brush my teeth.
I’ve been thinking about Belgium again, now that I’ve left that country, to try and figure out what it was about living there that I really didn’t like. There were many things that bugged me – excessive car horn usage for one, high taxes being another – but there was, more specifically, a feeling of being downtrodden that I have not experienced anywhere else. Most people are aware that Belgium has a reputation for being boring, and there was certainly an element of that, but I think it was/is the general acceptance, nay inclination, for the general populace to play victim. Many countries have had it bad, suffered famine, war, pestilence, and gotten on with it. There is something about the Belgian psyche that seems to revel in malaise.
I say this because, living in Turkey for the best part of a month now, I see again how helpful and considerate people generally are, and want to be. The Irish in my experience will, as a rule, often go out of their way to help you, if they can. They will also go out of their way to mess you up if you cross them, but that’s another story and not a theory I suggest testing. The English, for all their faults (and they have many), are a fairly considerate bunch, unusually good humoured as well as being disinclined to upset your day if it can be avoided. For the ten years I lived in London I found them motivated, hard-working and optimistic, if somewhat racist, opinionated and overly self-assured. Yes they had an Empire, yes it spanned the globe, but more importantly that day has long since passed. Deal with it.
Now back to the Turks. First of all, in case anyone may be in any doubt, the Turks do smoke more than anyone else alive, in my honest opinion. They smoke like it’s going out of fashion. I have been known to spark up quite regularly and I have had my dalliances with quitting too, but even I draw the line these days at chain smoking and early morning cigarettes. The Turks have no such foibles. They will spark up first thing in the morning, last thing at night, straight after they have extinguished the preceding cigarette, all that good stuff. But when it comes to helping or being friendly they certainly take the biscuit. Having come here straight from Belgium and the 5 years of my life I spent there, I had gotten more than used to bad service, limited choice of providers, poor excuses for shoddiness or tardiness, and a general lack of respect for basics of exchange, ‘I pay you for the services/goods you provide and in turn you treat me with professionalism’. I could tell you stories about this that would make your hair curl but maybe another time. When we called for an electrician recently, in Istanbul, we were told the guy would be with us in 10 minutes! I’m sorry, what was that? 10 minutes? Holy crap. I shit you not, the guy was here in 5, and he was helpful, polite, considerate etc. The corner shop down our street will deliver water to your house (drinking water generally being delivered in plastic containers from a trusted source), as well as bread, cigarettes and other assorted goodies. This takes some getting used to after my Belgian experience.
Another thing I quite like in Turkey is how individuals will refer to any female older than themselves as abla (big sister) or abi (big brother), in the case of an older male. I really think this contributes to a culture of respect, which is evident in the way one is treated in stores, cafes, bars or restaurants. I am well aware that the Turks don’t have the best reputation in many parts of Europe, though my wife would argue that this is because these are the descendants of families who moved there and never integrated whilst also not progressing with the rest of Turkey, They are now stuck somewhere between being European and Turkish, some dark and uncharted cultural no man’s land. Suffice it to say I am finding the adherence here to old world manners quite charming, and I don’t even mind being a yabangee (foreigner). Let’s see if this continues.