Close encounters with absurdity in Eastern Turkey

Living in Kars is, in many ways, not so different from living in small towns anywhere. The language barrier exotifies things, sure, but in general, no truly radical culture clash happens. We even have a Burger King. Sure, it’s flanked by döner and baklava shops, but there it is, just like home! Sometimes, though, things happen that make you shake your head and go, “only in Kars”. Things in this category include: laundry hung out to dry on picturesque ruins, or the nearest mosque gate; the nearest mosque actually being an old Russian Orthodox church with minarets sticking out of it; or the occasional sheep or goose ambling through town, with or without its owner.

For example, today our yard was infested with cows. To clarify, errant farm animals have long stopped being newsworthy in Kars, but, aside from a few scrappy chickens, our yard is empty of wildlife. This morning, however, I glanced out the window over my morning coffee, and saw the two muddy behemoths strolling through the yard, methodically eating every green scrap in their path, and heading straight for our garden – and worse yet, for our cat, which was out on a leash on the clothesline (that may require a separate story; in short, the cat likes to escape and measures must be taken…).  I bolted out of the house in my plaid pajama pants to shoo the cows away from our glorious zucchini bushes, and to rescue the cat, which has no sense, and continued lounging about in the grass, ignoring animals that could crush it with one hoof. Luckily, the cows were pliable and complacent and slowly, slowly, allowed themselves to be steered beyond the gate.

If the cowherds had known my feelings about cows, they would not have threatened with shooting us for allegedly plotting to steal them.  We just wanted to see the Perseid meteor shower… ah, lying out on a blanket under the stars in the mild summer evening, with the smell of drying thistles and drying cow pats, while a searchlight waves over the hill, getting closer… wait, what? The two Turkish men found us, alright, and were not amused – I can see how we can be easily mistaken for cow-stealing masterminds, with our fleece blankets and tea thermos and our roomy 4×4. Thankfully, there were two ladies present, so they refrained from pulling their trigger on sight (as they told us in heated tones), and our suspicious “picnic” was broken up peacefully.

So, how to assuage the double disappointment of clouded-over skies and trigger-happy herders?  Imagine you are sick of Turkish beer, and you are out of smuggled Georgian wine. Imagine you have gin, but the store-bought tonic is questionable, to put it mildly. What do you do? Luckily, if you are my resourceful coworker L., the answer isn’t “cry into your Efes” – the answer is, you buy a bag of bark and cook your own tonic water from scratch! And this is how, on a Saturday night, we came to be stirring a pot full of cinchona bark, allspice berries and citric acid crystals, brewing up a red-brown potion that puckers your face in on itself – until it is diluted with sufficient sugar and gin, giving a delicious and surprisingly close approximation of a gin&tonic. Heady on our success, our next project is planting coconut palms – coconut milk is impossible to find in Kars.

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.