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.

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Connection vs. mere communication, and the relief of common language during travel

I’ve been miming and two-word-sentence-ing my way through Turkey for the past three months, but never realized just how draining it was until I traveled through Georgia, and was suddenly, miraculously, able to talk to almost anyone. Suddenly, speaking Russian felt as extraordinary as having a Babelfish in my ear.

Our travels are made up of these small interactions with people that add up to the full picture of a place as much as, if not more than, the sights we see or museums we visit. It can be as simple as asking directions or joking about the weather, or asking about the culinary secrets of a babushka selling homemade cheese and mchadi at the market, or getting into philosophical debates with your homestay host about Georgian politics. I had heard some warnings about speaking Russian in Georgia, since the relationship between the two countries is tense, but I couldn’t learn more than “gamarjoba” and “madloba” on short notice, nor memorize the cursive Georgian script. As it turned out, almost everyone I spoke to was simply happy to talk, no matter what the language.

Among other interactions, a portly grey-haired woman sold me the most enormous green figs and the most delicious churchkhela I’d ever tasted. In conversation, she told me about her garden, her technique for making the grape syrup for the churchkhela, her pride in these sweets that she gouged me for, but that were worth it. Another time, asking for directions, an old man launched into a tirade about gas prices these days, and how could anyone claim that life was bad under Stalin, when you look at the inflation rates? Being able to stand up for myself with a sketchy marshrutka driver. Hapless attempts by a potbellied 50-ish Georgian man to hit on me. Hitchhiking with students and soldiers as we listened to Georgian folk, Russian rap and Lana del Rey. All of these portraits of Georgians would be lost to me without Russian.

I speak 3 languages; of these, English opens the most doors and smoothes over basic interactions almost everywhere I’ve traveled.  I could never advocate traveling only in countries whose languages you speak fluently  – you would never leave the house. Sometimes the language barrier is a challenge worth facing, where every real connection feels like a minor blessing, where you gain a newfound appreciation for the simplest tasks you accomplish. Other times, you cannot shake the feeling that you’re just skating on top of the iceberg, and missing some fundamental understanding. Coming back to Turkey from Georgia, I was plunged back into muteness. Aside from destinations and food orders, I can’t carry on a conversation, don’t understand jokes, often cannot distinguish between helpfulness and flirtation. And my travels in Turkey are tinged by that feeling of being on my guard, afraid of being lost, or being misunderstood. There are many places I want to go, still, whose languages I do not speak and am unlikely to ever learn. But, as I plan future solo trips, I feel I will lean heavily in favor of places where I can continue the conversation past the “what” questions and into “why.”

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.

Life as language mnemonic

I know few enough words in Turkish that I can remember when and where I learned many of them over the last 2 months. Some words float up unbidden and I cannot recall why I know them. But other words take on associations for me, like songs or scents, with certain scenes in my Turkish life. They are more useful than any mnemonic I’ve come up with so far.

Yumurta, the word for “egg”, is an appropriate start. It is the first word I used in my first Turkish errand. Unfortunately,  I learned torba and çorba around the same time. A one-letter difference leaves little margin of error; I hoped to tell the shopkeeper that I had my own bag (torba) for groceries – instead, I told him soup (çorba) was not necessary.

Dikkat – careful! – I learned attempting to cross the streets in Kars. I have since figured out that streetlights are observed at only 3 of the town’s intersections. The rest are decorative.

Yağmur, rain, I first heard standing at the top of the Kars castle, watching the sky broil and darken with a forceful May thunderstorm. The word, all vowel sounds, seemed too gentle for the rushing dark clouds heading directly for us.

Çamur is mud – an appropriate rhyme with rain. Both the word and the substance were hard to miss, walking through a village in sneakers and hoping to stay on my feet, nor trapping my shoes in the stuff. The village kids were delighted that I had increased my vocabulary by one with their help.

I learn the word for “cheese” not in a grocery store but through an introduction to our neighbors’ yellow cat, Peynir. I am relieved that I didn’t test my comprehension by calling “here, cheese, cheese!” to any local strays. To add to my animal confusion, I live with a cat named Baykuş = “owl”.

Dut is mulberry, my favorite childhood fruit. On a trip to Diyarbakir, I went for a walk with Couchsurfing friend, who took me below the city walls and along the Tigris River. We ate our fill from the trees we passed, hands stained violent purple-red. I’ve never been more motivated to keep learning.

Daydreams in the Ani ruins

The first time I saw Ani, it was grey-wet with rainclouds and bursting at the seams with wildflowers, and I felt like I had walked into a dream. Most of this medieval Armenian capital has either been destroyed or remains hidden under rolling grassy mounds. Only a few churches and a mosque punctuate the angle-less landscape. In the rain, seeking shelter in a ruined cathedral – the caved-in dome letting in a cylinder of rain – we were alone with the landscape and the swallows in the eves. We could have been the last people on Earth.

I came back to Ani again in clear morning sunshine, expecting some of that magic to wear off, burned off by the clear blue glare, diluted by the shuffling groups of tourists. But walking along the riverside cliffs, looking across to Armenia over the heads of a monastery chapel and a crumbling bridge, or brushing against the columns of a Zoroastrian fire temple – that feeling was back again. It hits me in the gut, squeezes my ribs. This place used to be filled with markets, children, religious festivals, weddings, funerals, construction, commerce, military processions. And now there is only the broken geometry of grudgingly restored buildings.

Ani Cathedral, on a rainy June day

Ani Cathedral, on a rainy June day

How can a city go from a bustling trading center of 100,000 residents to a forgotten ruin, from the City of 1001 Churches to a leveled plain of broken churches? I can see the spiraling steps of a minaret lying queasily on its side. The market stalls are stone outlines filled with poppies. The frescoes are fading. The rust and black checkered walls cave in. I close my eyes and imagine I have retro-X-ray vision – the hillocks are now houses, the churches stand side by side with palaces, the city walls are unbroken, the bridge is restored and the streets are busy with Silk Road traffic. I open my eyes and it is full of ghosts.

I can’t say why this place affects me so strongly, after all the ruins I’ve seen. Maybe it’s the vastness of it, or the isolation; or perhaps it’s the contentious history, its years of neglect. I watch the swallows burst through the narrow clerestory windows, strobing through light and shadow in the high nave. I want to be alone with the ruins, retreating to the past, both fearful and relieved about how everything changes.

Motion blur impressions of Turkey

Turkish inter-city buses will deliver you to your destination, but the gently winding potholed roads will lull you into a doze and warp your views of the countryside, reality smudged around the edges, odd details jumping out.

In mountain passes, you will wonder if you are seeing sheep or scattered rockfall. You will pass queues of cows, tumbledown houses topped with satellite dishes, green fields, yellow fields, pink fields. You will challenge yourself to name wildflowers colors in Turkish, but despite the abundance of subjects, this game will be very short. You will attempt to make conversation with your assigned seatmate, always carefully chosen to be female, and to explain in awkward, uninflected strings of Turkish words why and where you are traveling. You will lapse into silence.

You will pass goslings watched over by women, geese herded by men; children, roadside, waving bunches of wild greens for sale. A man selling a fresh caught fish, and a few hundred meters down the road, a boy selling a smaller fresh-caught fish. Mosques and untethered horses and old weathered snow patches. You will count white-painted or stone-brown minarets. You could make it into a game, with a friend, but you are traveling solo, so your reward is uncontested access to the hazelnuts and dried apricots bought for the journey.

You will pass alien fields of craggy black lava stones extending into an early-morning mist. You will pass fields of Martian-red poppies as Mt. Ararat towers in the distance. Half asleep, you will be startled by a white minaret needle in scaffolding that you mistake for a rocket about to launch.

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…