My husband, son and I live in an apartment complex on the Asian side of İstanbul. From our eighth floor vantage point, we have a great view of the village that surrounds us.
A long window makes it easy for my toddler to keep an eye on what’s going on in the neighborhood. Everything passes by our house on the street below, from cars to trucks, buses to tractors. There are even a few cows and brave chickens. Every morning around 9, the street sweeper comes by, which is the highlight of my son’s day. He may not be able to tell time, but he just knows when that truck is supposed to come around. Last week, while waiting for the sight of the favorite orange vehicle, we witnessed a mild fender-bender between a small truck and a school shuttle. The minivan was full of kids. The truck had missed a turn so it stopped and reversed, not noticing the oncoming school van. It could have been a really bad accident but thankfully was not. Still, both drivers jumped out of their vehicles and started yelling at each other. Things almost came to blows. Both drivers then just started talking about the accident. No one reached for a phone for about 10 minutes. They just stood there and tossed blame back and forth, walked around and assessed the damage from all angles, shook their heads and kept on talking. The same discussion over and over again. They were completely blocking the road so no one could pass from either direction. Eren’s beloved street sweeper was not able to clean our street that day. Other drivers, rather than take an easy detour down another street, came over to talk with both drivers for a while. Scratch their heads, take a look at the very minor damage and then drive off again.
Eren and I lost interest and moved away from the window. An hour and a half later, the two vehicles were still there, and so were the police, finally. After everything had presumably been discussed to death, both vehicles drove off. I just shook my head and sighed. So much of that incident I witnessed has been my Waterloo with Turkish culture. Maybe it is a part of my American culture or maybe just part of my personality, I do not know. But, I consider myself a “doer” not a “talker” when it comes to many situations. Had I been either driver in that incident, I would have first assessed if everyone involved was OK and not hurt. Then, I would have called the police right away. While waiting I would check the damage. In this case, the police were not called until things had been discussed repeatedly for a lengthy period of time.
My husband Can and I struggle with this difference in our marriage. Since we have a toddler, I also do not have the time to talk about actions before performing them. A while ago, I was in the kitchen while Can and Eren were playing in the living room. Can yelled that Eren had something in his mouth, but he didn’t know what it was. Rather than just take it out of his mouth, Can had to elaborate that the object was white, he had found it on the floor, he was making a face like it didn’t taste good, that he was chasing the cat, etc. In the time it took for him to make this speech, he could have taken the object out of Eren’s mouth. Instead, Eren himself had spit it out by the time I came out of the kitchen. Pieces of paper towel don’t taste as good as he thought. My eyes shot daggers at Can. Why is it so hard to act, yet so easy to talk?
Then, we have our many “same conversation, different day” types of interactions. A simple “would you like some coffee?” is responded to with too much unnecessary information before properly answering the question. Instead of a simple “yes please” or “no thank you,” I get this: “We drink a lot of coffee, don’t you think? Maybe we shouldn’t drink so much. I used to drink tea a lot but now I don’t.” He would go on longer if I let him, but I usually leave the room to start making breakfast for my hungry toddler or to get some much needed caffeine for myself. It’s impossible to get simple yes or no answers from a lot of my Turkish family without the requisite chitter-chatter. I used to be able to tolerate it better, but ever since Eren was born, I have less patience. Maybe it’s because I don’t have as much free or quiet time in my life anymore, I don’t know. I find myself staying up late at night to just enjoy some peace and quiet when everyone has gone to bed.
A part of daily life in Turkey is these small conversations for many transactions. Most of the time, I do enjoy it and am not as crotchety as I sound above. But with my husband, I do not, especially when it comes to household chores or taking care of Eren. If I ask him to feed Eren his lunch, I just want him to do it so that I can go finish the laundry. Instead, he has to ask a million and one questions about Eren’s lunch while in the meantime Eren has wiggled out of his high chair and is off playing in the living room. In the time it takes to have the conversation, his meal could have been over. I could have finished a load of laundry. Maybe I have always been this impatient, or maybe I have developed an attention span to match that of my toddler’s.
Every stage of my son’s life, my marriage to Can and my relationship with Turkey becomes easier in one aspect but more difficult in another. While I have overcome or come to terms with many of my cultural issues of being an expat, there are still others that I struggle with, such as the lengthy discussions about every minute detail of even the most minor decision. Today at a shop to buy a gift for a friend, the shopkeeper tried to engage me in some small talk. I asked him if he had the glass pomegranate in blue but could not get an answer out of him without a lot of other unnecessary chatter. As the shopkeeper felt my impatience, I realized that my attitude was hurting me here. If I could just invest a little time by talking, I could probably get a better deal on the item I wanted. So, I took a deep breath and spent a half an hour talking about different topics before making my purchase. At home, Can’s prattle might annoy me, but it also is his way to interact with us. He works a lot and is not a part of a lot of our day-to-day life. His focusing on small details is his way of trying to be actively involved with us. Most days I can handle it, but some days my personal life can experience a cultural fender-bender.
Elle Loftis is an American expat, writer and mother living in İstanbul. Reach her at [email protected] for comments or questions.