merhabas and metro tickets


Crossing the Sea of Marmara from Istanbul to Bursa, 36 hours after having departed from Dulles. The smell emanating off of our collective group can only be described as “ripe.”

I am currently writing from a very comfortable couch in a quintessentially, Turkishly furnished living room, floor #2 (which is actually the third) of an apartment complex situated in the heart of Nilüfer, one of Bursa’s three main districts.  I have been here (in Bursa, not on this couch) for about all of one full day, and I have four main observations to make about Turkey at this point in my two-month visit:

  1. The heat here is aggressive.  I mean, it feels like I’m walking through Satan’s pit in the afternoon as I meander aimlessly through the city.  In fact, the first phrase I’ve learned in Turkish – çok sıcak – roughly translates to “this heat is really f***king aggressive.”  And my learning it wasn’t even deliberate; it was because I heard it from literally everyone in a 50-metre radius.
  2. I am very tall for this country, apparently.  Very tall and very broad for a woman, especially.  The Turks are a petite people, and my feet hang off the edge of my bed when I sleep.  It’s not particularly bothersome; more amusing than anything.
  3. Gluten intolerance is not really a thing that Turks understand.  I have explained to my hosts on three occasions that I cannot eat bread and they continue to apologize incessantly for not buying more than three fresh loaves for every meal.  The gesture is incredibly sweet, of course, so I can’t be too upset.  And anyway, I choose to indulge when it’s sitting in front of me on the table so my compliance is also probably the primary factor in their continuing to feed it to me.  Whatever.  YOLO.
  4. Bursa is, to me, very much a blend of Valencia and Karachi.  Which seems fitting, really, given that Turkey is historically the crossroads between east and west.  It has the same charm that Spain offered – tidy shops untidily lining crooked alleyways; narrow, winding cobblestone streets traipsing off in all directions; beautiful apartments hidden behind utilitarian building walls – and the same rushed, hectic feel of Pakistani traffic, bustling bazaars, and marketplace aggression.  I kind of love it.

Before I go on, though, let me rewind.  I realize I never really explained what the hell it is I’m doing in Turkey in the first place.  (The question I’ve heard most frequently, without a doubt, since I stepped foot off the plane at Atatürk Airport.)  Well, I’m here on a language study scholarship, along with about 20 other students, living with a host family as I study at TÖMER until the end of August.  I spend 20 hours of the week in class, a few hours with a language partner, afternoons visiting historic sites and centers of culture, and free weekends exploring Bursa’s tea gardens, bazaars, and döner kebap shops, all with the end goal of grasping some sort of proficiency in Turkish.

That all sounds wonderfully romantic, I’m sure, but let me tell you, the entirety of my first two days has been devoted to figuring out how to order a bottle of water and buying a metro ticket.  The first Turkish phrase I’ve actively learned is Türkçe bilmiyorum, or “I don’t know Turkish,” if that’s any indication of how well this “grasping of Turkish” is going.  Mostly, it feels like I’m here by accident, like a feral cat they accidentally let into the litter of purebreds and now can’t get rid of.  Most of the other highly impressive students – ranging from undergraduate sophomores to third-year PhD doctorates – have had at least a semester’s worth of language courses, though many have actually lived in Ankara or Istanbul for months, working to perfect their fourth or fifth language.  Meanwhile, I am still mixing up my numbers.  And by “numbers” I mean I only know how to count to five.  And by “count” I mean I can kind-of-sort-of repeat after someone else who is counting to five.

Today I met my language partner — a very sweet 20-year old student named Merve who has been hired to be my friend and emotional support as I battle with internal mental breakdowns over the course of the next 8 weeks — and when I told her I didn’t know any Turkish outside of merhaba, she laughed nervously, akin to someone who is hoping they’ve just been told some sort of sick joke born out of an American sense of distressingly dark humor.  She does not speak any English.  In case you’ve forgotten, I do not speak any Turkish.  We spent two and a half hours communicating via hand gestures and crudely drawn sketches in my notebook.  It was fun.

I feel well and truly out of my element.

Okay, okay.  I must confess.  In all honesty, I’m not nearly as horrified about this situation as I’m making it out to be.  There are a few other beginners here in the same boat as me, so at least there’s solidarity in our crippling anxiety.  Plus, having embarked on my last study abroad program with 8 years’ worth of language fluency at the time, this ordeal is quite humbling.

Sitting here, now, reflecting on a whirlwind of a past few days, call to prayer soothingly echoing in the distance, there are too many positives to focus solely on my (I hope) irrational fears about stagnant incompetence.  Bursa is a gorgeous city: winding, colorful roads; views of houses littering rolling green mountains in the distance; amazing smells of fresh bread and kebap from every street corner; a truly inspiring sense of purpose.  It’s quite remarkable, really, how peaceful it is despite the bustle so widespread in the fourth largest city in Turkey.  My host family is lovely beyond words, and that alone has already made this entire venture worth it.  My first night in town was spent staying up until 2am, forgoing much-needed sleep to drink chai and nibble on peanut brittle with my host sister while chatting about Turkish politics and terrible Western pop music.  The first night of, I’m sure, many similar nights in the next two months.

And I mean, it’s been one day.  I haven’t even started courses yet.  (First day tomorrow.  Thank god for an actual textbook.)  As many misadventures I’m sure are to follow in the weeks to come, there can only be more triumphs to outweigh them. After all, there’s no possible way for me to leave this country knowing less Turkish than I do currently.

Also, I’ve finally gotten a grasp on the Turkish alphabet, so what formerly looked like sophisticated Wingdings now looks like legitimate lexicon.

So you know, all things considered, I’m feeling pretty good right about now.

Lots of love from Bursa, darlings. xx

Bursa, part II
Bursa, part III
Istanbul, part I
Bursa, part IV
Bursa, part V

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