I’m learning Turkish at an alarming rate, using a program I acquired on the Internet. Babbel. It appealed to me because the Flemish word for talk is babbel. I can highly recommend it but I doubt I’ll ever be a Babbel poster child.
Since a boat the size of a city block docked overnight out front my window and cut off my view, I decided to get out. I set out toward the bridge that connects Karaköy with the Old City. The sector where we live is booming. Since I moved here about four weeks ago now, I have seen places gutted and built up, open, and thrive. I meant to take a quick peak at the market past the bridge, but I ended up halfway across the bridge on a platform underneath it that stretches all the way to the other side. It is lined with restaurants and coffee shops. It’s not immediately apparent how you get there as the passage leads by one of the many WC’s Istanbul has.
The place was empty still as they were just getting ready for the day, so I had an unusually quiet stroll with the waters of the Bosphorus on one side and the Golden Horn on the other. In the distance I spotted the offending cruise ship that sent me running from the house.
When I looked up, I heard the cars and streetcars above, and I saw the fishing lines slung over the railing, one after the other, turning the bridge into a giant centipede. The bridge is forever crowded; the railings have inviting wooden gadget as resting places in wood strapped on them. The water that runs in between the street part of the bridge and the sidewalk, always smells like fish.
The Bosphorus and Golden Horn are rich with supplies for the eager fishers.
Clambering down to the market, I squeezed my way past parked cars to a stall where radishes burst like fireworks between sprays of mint and artfully arranged lettuces. I wanted them, and the tomatoes that shone like baubles on a yuletide tree but I became tongue tied so I walked on, past the fishmongers. I marveled at the concentric patterns in which they arranged their catch and I walked through little restaurants set up with tarp and plastic chairs around an assortment of tables. With the smell of grilled fish in my nostrils, I climbed over a makeshift passage to the streets beyond, were hardware store after hardware store spilled onto market stalls. Here the streets were dingy but functional.
Closer to the crossroad where the bridge meets land, market stalls displayed wares that might appeal more to tourists. At this crossroad, it is advised to use the underground passage where shop after shop sells electronic equipment. Once out of the underground and back on the road to home, I ventured into what looked like an ancient indoor mall. A feeling of stepping back a century or more was balanced by yet another row of electronic stores, not only on the first floor but also on the second. This place, I later learned, is the terminal for the funicular car built in 1875 and the second oldest underground transportation system in the world.
Finally I was back at the French Gates where I made a stop at the bakery. Here a husband and wife team bake and sell delicious goods. You almost have to stoop when you go in. On one side the baker was slapping limp twisted circles of dough back and forth on a marble slab, to coat them with seeds.
On the other side of the shop a large low table was spread with a variety of baked buns. The final versions of the twisted circles lay in neat piles next to rusty colored crusty buns that burst open at the top into a golden cross. Further down, braided loafs and sesame drowned buns that look and are tough, but burst open with Nutella.
When I walked in, I said hello in Turkish, merhaba. The baker’s wife sent me a look that said, this isn’t going to be easy but I have survived worse. Confident my tongue was working again, I went to the table with the finished products. I passed on the Nutella and pointed to one of the crossed buns—they are sweet because of almonds—saying, bir, which means one. The lütfen, meaning ‘please’, got stuck somewhere at the back of my throat. Then the shopkeeper said something, presumably the cost of the bun. I answered, and I am sure of it, with “your sister is Italian.” I may not remember correctly, but I do know that I just showed her a hand full of coins, out of which she picked what I owed, and that I then said merhaba, instead of ‘thank you.’ She just looked from me to her husband. She may have even shaken her head.
I think I better hit the books again.
Turkish is an interesting language. Interesting for those of us who grew up learning a language with a grammar structured around that very handy verb to be. In Turkish it does not exist. Instead, words are modified to indicate our presence in them. It gives a sense that the world appears as a given, with us passing through it like a wave. If I want to say I’m a baker I will add an ending to that noun to indicate that is what I do. If I am happy, I add the appropriate ending to that. Nouns, adverbs and adjectives can be modified to indicate that we inhabit them. The ending also indicates which person we are referring to: first, second or third, plural or singular.
No gender. Turkish has no gender. No need to fight for gender neutrality here.
I don’t know in how far a language defines a people, but Turks smile and laugh readily. Maybe knowing that they don’t have to ponder the conundrum I think therefor I am, they happily inhabit a given reality and then shed it when the time comes.
A parting greeting is the word laughter repeated twice. Güle güle. Go with laughter.
A small boy came to our table as we were having a meal. He was all of seven, out on his own as far I could tell, selling packages of tissues. As he concluded his transaction with Th, he was singing and smiling. When I snapped his picture for Instagram, his laughter burst open like ripe fruit. He wanted to see the picture. When I showed him, he drew me into a moment of pure delight.
And then he was gone. His little box with packages under his arm. A little boy surviving a big world.
I was reminded of a few nights before when a girl of about eleven came to our table. She was holding a small accordion on which she played a simple musical phrase. When Th gave her a coin, he asked her to play something else. She flushed red, put a hand to her face and ran away giggling.
Last night a man came playing the accordion, a girl going around collecting coins; last week a boy of about twelve, playing the same instrument. Most likely all of them were Syrians, possibly all from the same family, exiled from a land torn apart.
At our favorite bistro, the local cat jumped up on the chair next to Th. Her eye on the grilled köfte, a meatball accompanied with half a braised potato smothered with braised tomato wedges. She put a paw on his arm. When he gave her a piece of bread, she simply curled herself into sleep. On the way home, a cat skulked around the corner, his white coat grey. A deep red gash, the size of a tomato wedge, behind her left ear.