Kars, to a different soundtrack

Another evening, another walk. My talisman against homesickness: listening to familiar music as I walk through unfamiliar places. No indie rock for me – I crave the musical equivalent of bubblegum and Doritos, Rihanna and Lady Gaga in my ears as a protective bubble from Turkishness when I am feeling particularly far from home.

The rain-washed Kars streets take on a surreal tinge to an American pop soundtrack. A playground is empty of children; instead, a man with a generous potbelly sits on the swing, surrounded by his flock of geese. Unminded geese and goslings wander the streets; in the winter, they will become Kars’ signature dish.

A boy rides uphill over cobblestones, trying to balance lumpy bags of apricots on his handlebars. A Turkish man with white hair and a sun-weathered face passing a blue gate, carrying bulging bags of bread. A group of construction workers are firing up a metal teapot on the street corner. Music echoes between houses, strings and flutes and twanging. I pass a party: a line of women, pinkies linked, dancers at the ends of the line waving handkerchiefs. The men stand to the side, drinking tea.

Yards are ubiquitously furnished with outdoor couches and armchairs. Patterned carpets are hung to air out on stone walls. Dominoes of cow dung patties for stove fuel are laid out to dry in neat rows, stacked into pyramids. Each dumpster is topped with a stray cat.

After following a trash-filled, weedy ditch, I turn at the river, flanked by miniature forests of thistles. When I can go no further on the soggy path, and not wanting to double back, I take a shortcut uphill through someone’s backyard, where I am accosted by 3 curious boys. I’m a tourist, I tell them, which doesn’t assuage their curiosity in the least; instead, as I let myself out of the yard, they follow, stage-whispering to friends and family members about this lost foreigner. Soon I have an entourage of children that follow me to the edge of the neighborhood. They pick roadside flowers, dragging them out by the roots, collecting a prickly bouquet for me.

The sun drops below the rainclouds, saturating the houses and lighting up the rain puddles. The white minarets are black against the sunset as I turn back home.

Starting over, in Turkish

I have studied Turkish for 2 months and lived here for 1. It’s an ongoing challenge:

A month into living in Kars, listening to the flow of Turkish speech still feels like drowning in a river, grabbing on to the driftwood of the few words I recognize. This is simultaneously exhilarating and deeply frustrating. Out of the stream of this incomprehensible language, I manage to catch familiar words, which feels like a minor miracle. But then I am stuck holding the orphan words with no context. The stream keeps flowing by and drowns me once again. Continue reading…

“Out of sight, out of…?”

A little over a month ago, when I wrapped up my life in San Francisco and moved to eastern Turkey, I knew that as long as I had an internet connection, I would never be too far. So what if I wasn’t there in person? With Facebook, Gchat, Skype, I would not forget or be forgotten, and if I was a bit remote for a while, so much the better for an eventual excited reunion.

I like living in Kars. Our house has a large kitchen, a sunny porch, chickens pecking in the yard. A castle overlooks the town center. Summer weather is mild, fresh produce is plentiful, and the hikes outside of town are painfully picturesque. I take many photos of the beautiful surroundings and of my travels further abroad. I enjoy my work. And yet… I cannot help the occasional sinking feeling that comes with realizing that I am quite far from my community. After two months studying Turkish, I can barely hold a simple conversation, limiting my socializing to the 3-4 English speakers in Kars, all connected to my company – a wonderful, but small, group. My narrow bridge to my US friends is through my computer.

A rainy afternoon in Kars

A rainy afternoon in Kars

Community is not just about physical closeness; it is about shared experiences. Despite responses to my Facebook posts, there is a frequently a sense of disconnect with the world I’ve left behind for these few months. Perhaps because my life here is so different that few people feel equipped to make small talk about it. Perhaps because they feel that they already know what is going on, seeing the photos.

Sometimes the illusion of connection, aided by Facebook, is so strong that it feels irrelevant that only a handful of people have a complete picture of my life here. “Didn’t that sunset photo of the castle get 20 ‘likes’? See, people care about me!” But Facebook is a false and selective medium of communication. I do not post pictures of minor daily annoyances, of the ankle-deep mud nor of our unsteady house appliances. I do not complain of the discomfort of not being able to take evening walks in a Turkish city without being stared at. I do not talk about the isolation of not speaking the language, the difficulty it causes in completing even simple daily tasks. I enjoy the challenge, but living here is not a cartoon of an adventure – it’s life, with all its difficulty and complexity.

This is not the first time I have felt emotional distance, caused by the physical. Living abroad in Spain at 16 for a year, I communicated with the now-quaint AIM Messenger with friends back home, who stayed up late just to chat with me once or twice a week. I spoke on the phone only to my parents, and rarely. There was no Skype, no Facebook, and I did not own a digital camera. I sent postcards and real printed photographs and emails. When I felt lonely, I read books, I talked to my host family, I daydreamed. Now, when I feel lonely, I log into Gchat and hope that someone is up late or up early. But conversations are dissatisfying when I cannot talk openly, when the answer to “how are things going over there?” is expected to be “amazing!” It is only rare close friends who ask that question honestly and expect a more nuanced answer.

It is hard to explain why I am here, and what daily life is like, and what cultural differences emerge. Problems and questions that plagued me at home do not disappear simply by moving to a new place, but in conversation they become secondary to the superficial exoticism of living in a new county. Explaining that takes work, and so does listening. I am not innocent – I, too, have lapsed in communicating with friends who move away, because of the amount of individualized effort it takes to be in touch with their new life. So I hold no grudges. But, stronger than ever, I feel I am overdue to write a batch of personalized emails. From this side of the world, I see that Facebook is no longer enough.