languid musings over ramazan pide (or: a day in the gastronomic life)

Some days, I’ll trek over to the misty cafe (dubbed thus because there is a constant spray of mist falling from the overhead canopies that is rather enjoyable and gives the illusion that I’m doing homework in some sort of Alice-in-Wonderland-esque rain forest complete with a steady supply of backgammon) after class to spend a handful of TL on buzlu salep and a few minutes of casual chat with the favorite garson (‘the’ because he is everyone’s favorite garson), after which he’ll tell me how wonderful my Turkish is (it isn’t) and give me a free çay, and I generally feel quite good about the way my life is going.

Other days, I’ll be lying face-down on my too-short bed, day dreaming about dinnertime (because I’ll have — of course — forgotten to withdraw more cash from the ATM and spend my last handful of TL on buzlu salep at the misty cafe instead of on an actual lunch), before my host mother comes in, holds a 5-minute conversation that is 100% one-sided while I listen and nod and say “evet” and “tamam” a lot as if I actually understand whatever the hell is coming out of her mouth, after which she stares at me knowingly before coughing up a lung from laughter (at me, not with me) and shaking her head in dismay.

When she leaves, I realize I still have no idea what the hell was coming out of her mouth and pay for it in full when the entire extended family comes over while I’m sporting 36 hours’ worth of bed head and sweat stains.

I then deal with the embarrassment by eating my body weight in Ramazan pide and paying for it with trips to the hastane emergency room.

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(I’m only sort of kidding about that. I don’t really believe it was from the gluten. They told me it was some kind of viral infection. In any case, I got to see the inside of a Turkish hospital [very clean!] and realized that if I didn’t have fluent Turkish-speaking Americans here with me, I would have probably died of old age anyway from the speed at which it would have taken to mime my ailments to the technicians.)

Aside from frustrating adults and children alike with my lack of actual Turkish language skill, things have been generally excellent. Class continues to be severely necessary a joy, and reassurances about aforementioned lacking Turkish language skill in marketplace and cafe meanderings are unfounded lovely.

The once-daily nausea — stemming from anxiety, internal panic attacks and mental breakdowns, and sheer elation — has finally subsided, meaning that I can actually experience Bursa as a wannabe-Turk rather than a scared-shitless-foreigner. Most afternoons are now spent strolling through the markets after class, eating too much food, buying too many things, and aggressively avoiding checking my balance.

(I have, somehow, convinced myself that Turkish lira are as easily expendable as Monopoly money. Let it be known that TL are, in fact, not so.)

Çisil was working late this week, so I decided to take some time to write. Applications for graduate programs and study abroad opportunities, a few pages for the cookbook here and there, too many emails, a bit of the blog. Lounging on the couch in the living room, sprawled over the bed with my feet hanging off the edges, sitting outside at the balcony, peering over the screen at the mountains in the distance with a bowl of Bursa peaches at my fingertips.

Now, it’s nearing 10pm on a Saturday night, and here I sit, writing in place of sociable alternatives. After a long week, I’m happy to stay in, curled up on the sofa in Seyhan Anne’s company as she flips between Turkish dramas and terrible gameshows, Çisil pattering about the house in the background, flopping down beside me every few minutes in rounds of rapid-fire Turkish and laughter that rings as warmly as church bells.

It is decidedly lethargic, almost indulgently so. And that’s exactly how I know that I’m very, very happy.

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Days are long, here in Bursa. (After fasting last week, I can say it with great conviction.) Long, and lightning fast. Each one feels like a week, but seems to go by in mere minutes. It’s truly a jarring experience, to go to bed knowing that I’ve been here a month, having learned so much it’s as though I’ve been here for a decade, and feeling like I stepped off the plane just last night.

I’ve been here long enough that I’m stepping to the beat of my own rhythm, which is, truly, lovely. Most days I’m woken up by the sun streaming through the open windows of the balcony outside my bedroom. It’s much nicer than the alarm, set for 07:30 during the week, that I feel like throwing off of aforementioned balcony after nights that I’ve stayed out a bit too late (also let it be known that my use of digital time is, beyond pretension, an effort to correctly read time on all my Turkish assignments). I’ll then stay in bed a bit too long, take a 3-minute shower in haste of my procrastination, and run out of the house without breakfast in a frantic attempt not to miss the bus. (Which is typically exactly how I go about my mornings in the States, so it feels quite like home.)

On the rare days that I do get my arse out of bed when I should, I’ll patter about the tiny kitchen, the only one awake, gracelessly opening cabinets in drawers in search of silverware to put together a breakfast of sorts. It usually ends up being a few apricots, sliced and chopped, topped with a few spoonfuls of thick, unsweetened yogurt. (Also typically how I take my breakfast in the States.)

It’s the weekends that I live for, though, as far as Türk kahvaltısı is concerned. If any of you have had the past fortune of eating Turkish breakfast, you will understand in full when I say that it is a most transcendent experience. Both elegant and unpretentious, it is the definition of pleasurable simplicity. Çisil will put the spread together on the balcony table while I’m in the shower, after we both sleep in shamefully late and it’s nearing noon by the time we sit down. Ours tends towards the savory side: plates heaped with cheeses and clotted cream (beyaz peynir, cow’s milk kaşar, and kaymak, typically); bowls of chopped tomatoes, cucumbers and parsley; briny and salty black and green olives; a basket of thickly sliced, yeasty white bread; eggs scrambled with fried potatoes, tomatoes, and hot peppers; Bursa’s famous peaches (şeftali), mulberry jam and, if Seyhan Anne’s been in the kitchen, homemade sour cherry preserves; and an endless supply of steaming çay.

A few weeks ago, we visited a small village at the foot of Uludağ, Cumalıkızıkfamous for its meyve reçel (fruit jam) and Türk kahvaltısı served at all times of day. There, our breakfast-for-lunch seemed to stretch on for days as we passed around saucers of candy-sweet figs soaked in honey, plates of crisp gözleme stuffed with spinach and cheeses, platters of eggs, perfectly cooked, and cigarette-thin sarma (grape-leaves rolled around different fillings), eating ourselves into food comas in the best way possible. I plan to return at least once before my stay here is up, ready to stuff myself silly with no regrets, and perhaps a few jars of jam to take back as souvenirs, along with the general Turkish breakfast tradition.

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Weekdays, though, see light mornings. After a small breakfast (or none at all), I walk about 10 minutes along the main road in Nilüfer, Fatih Sultan Mehmet Bulvarı, to the metro station a few paces beyond the FSM Camisi. It’s a rather surreal journey, walking past such a magnificent mosque twice a day, as though it’s become a fixture in my morning. The metro ride to the main district takes all of 10 minutes, followed by a 5-minute stroll to the language institute.

(Admittedly, I’ve been taking the bus to a different metro station as of late, and my walk from the station to the institute sees a few extra minutes and a few more near-death experiences as I cross ruthless traffic with a spectacular limp. I may or may not have re-sprained my ankle somewhat. But, you know, I’m on a constant stream of medication these days as it is, so my left leg feels mostly like this excess limb that I can no longer feel rather than one engulfed in fiery hot pain. The directors of the institute are convinced that I will die before my 8 weeks are up.)

Class goes for 4 hours, four 50-minute lessons interspersed with 10-minute breaks (wherein I refill cups of çay and the occasional bottle of Ayran), though our time together feels more like an extended conversation about politics and linguistics than a language course. 13:00 hits well without my realizing it, and I find myself done with school for the day. It has become routine — for most students at the institute, now — to walk two blocks to a tiny lokanta for lunch, the one M Bey introduced us to all those weeks ago. The food has proven to be the best that I’ve had in Turkey thus far — kebaps grilled over sliced potatoes, eggplants sautéed to perfection, tangy yogurts with spinach and parsley — though my meal of choice is their bowl of perfectly seasoned mercimek çorbası (lentil soup), wedge of lemon squeezed on top and a spoonful of dried chili flakes stirred in. The owners — Cengiz Bey and his daughter İrem — have taken to giving us çay gratis after our meals, though sometimes we drink two or three cups without realizing it if we’re lost in conversation.

Free afternoons are spent strolling through the old city, weaving between outdoor street vendors, running my fingers through colorful scarves soft as silk, carrying homework to the misty cafe for an hour or two of review and a glass of buzlu salepSalep — a heady, sweet Turkish drink made from milk and orchid flour, popular during the Ottoman period — is typically drunk during the winter, steaming hot and warming from head to toe. These days, it can be purchased iced, and I think of it as the Turkish horchata, if horchata tasted 100x better and I could drink seventeen glasses of it in succession without fear of vomiting.

(I am, in fact, obsessed with salep.)

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By 15:30 or 16:00, I either embark on a few hours of solitary shopping — a dangerous endeavor for my wallet, to be sure — or back toward home if the weather is particularly sıcak.

I’m always amazed at the sights of wagons carrying mountains of plums and grapes, crates overflowing with hazelnuts and dates, bakeries showcasing wooden slabs piled high with pide (a rich, naan-like bread made during Ramazan, often topped or filled with cheese or meat, and basically the Turkish version of glutinous perfection) as I make my way back to the metro. Narrow alleyways are perfumed with the scents of fruit and earth, dizzying in intensity, particularly these days of Ramazan when many vendors are themselves fasting. It’s truly impressive.

I typically have dinner at home, with Seyhan Anne and Çisil on nights when she’s not working late, but the few times I find myself in the city when sunset paints the sky in oranges and reds, the normally auto-crowded roads are comparably deserted, Turks at home or seated deep inside cafes and restaurants for iftaar. Bursa turns into what looks like a post-apocalyptic cityscape, perfectly fit for a season of The Walking Dead, uncharacteristically silent and still as the azan rings richly from the very stones of the streets.

Haunting, truly.

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Evenings pass by in a blur of exhaustion and anticipation for dinner, usually with me lying on my bed in semiconsciousness, mind stretched to the limit from difficult new Turkish, as the fan aggressively blows cool air at my feet. Sometimes I’ll sit out on the balcony, reveling in Bursa’s evening breeze with a book (in English, this time) or a sketchpad, scrawling away the straight lines of the buildings and balconies scattered along the mountainsides until Seyhan Anne calls at me from the kitchen.

“Sabeen! Akşam yemeği için gel!”

Contrary to initial belief, I am eating much less meat here than expected. Barring my first week — during which I ate iskender kebap twice in the span of three days and legitimately thought I would have a heart attack — I eat meat in quite small quantities, and often go full days as a vegetarian. Though Seyhan Anne isn’t the most inspired of Turkish cooks (I know of some here whose Turkish families grow their own produce and mull their own wine), she prepares plates of salata (typically chopped tomatoes, cucumbers, and green onions in a dressing of lemon juice and a heaping bunch of fresh, chopped herbs) and pots of barbunya (navy beans stewed in meaty tomatoes, chopped carrots, and what must be half a jug of olive oil), and I revel in the ability to eat lightly (choosing also to ignore the sheer quantity of olive oil entering my body on a daily basis) to offset the amount of dondurma I eat during the week.

I suspect much of it has to do with the fact that there are no men living in the house, and the very eastern, macho need for animal flesh is decidedly absent.

(I am also 100% okay with that.)

On free afternoons, Seyhan Anne will prepare some of my favorites: biber dolması, sweet peppers stuffed to the brim with rice and minced meat, topped with tangy yogurt and lemon juice; karnıyarık, eggplant fried to perfection, sliced, and filled with spiced ground beef; İnegöl köfte, melt-in-your-mouth meatballs served on toasted pita with a side of seasoned baked potatoes.

Yesterday I made the decision to strictly give up gluten for my second month here, to avoid any further trips to the hospital but mostly to prevent the inevitable weight gain. The thought makes me want to weep.

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Despite my culinary interest, I haven’t had much by way of dessert here in Turkey, which I’m sure many would consider something close to heresy. I just haven’t had much opportunity — after dinner, Seyhan Anne will usually come to my room with a plate of sliced fruit or dondurma (which I find to be thicker and chewier than American ice cream, almost marshmallow-like in texture and pleasantly sweet), and I’ve become too fond of the fruit and dairy to turn to any sweeter alternative.

Even still, Turkish delight is my sweet of choice when drinking Türk kahvesi, the richly bitter, oppressively dark Turkish coffee, grounds leaving patterns and stories on the bottoms of ceramic cups for fortunes. Çisil, Hanne, and I have spent several afternoons sitting on the floor of the living room, crowding the coffee table with cups of kahve and plates heaped with lokum, fingers sticky and powdered white from the treats as we laugh over my teaching them how to correctly pronounce obscenities in English.

Sütlaç is a personal favorite of mine as well — cinnamon-freckled sweetened milk, thickened with rice flour and grains, and broiled in ceramic bowls until the tops are chestnut brown — though I’ve always been deeply partial to rice pudding of any sort. Most recently, I had the chance to indulge in kadaif (shredded pastry noodles wrapped around chopped nuts and drenched in sugar syrup) and etimek tatlisı (slices of bread soaked in sugar syrup, layered with slices of custard) after iftaar at Merve’s. Both delicious, though benefiting greatly from the bitterness of Turkish çay, which has become such a staple at every meal that I fear my blood may just turn into Turkish tea one of these days.

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It’s nearing midnight now, and my writing has been interlaced with plates of salt-seasoned corn, sliced peaches, a few cups of tea, and excellent conversation. Seyhan Anne, despite finding my efforts to speak her biggest source of hilarity in decades, has been the most praising of anyone here, telling me how far I’ve come since my first week, relying less and less on her Turkish-German dictionary to give me translations (which, 99% of the time, I do not understand anyway, since my German abilities are equally minimal. I’m starting to think she views me as a sort of illiterate-to-somewhat-socially-functional personal project). And after a day spent in a nearby village, İznik (or Nicaea, if I want to continue the pretension) and an evening eating too-much-food, I think I’m ready for a good 10 hours of sleep.

(Mostly, though, I’m looking forward to a massive Turkish breakfast when I wake.)

A Sunday spent in Bursa tomorrow, lounging about in obscene idleness with language notes, and perhaps a stroll down FSM for peaches and çay, before I’m back into the fray on Monday.

More to come in a few days, darlings. I hope you’re enjoying the lazinesses of summer just as well. xx.

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

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