[EXPAT VOICE] Getting to know the Baba

[EXPAT VOICE] Getting to know
   the Baba

October 26, 2010, Tuesday/ 16:18:00/ MARY YÜCEL
My father-in-law always has a slightly unexpected way of looking at the world. Recently some friends of his came to visit to update him on their daughter’s news. The daughter in question has just started on the path to superstardom.
I’m not sure if she is singing or modeling her way to the big time, but I do know that she has fully embraced the “famous-female” dress code, and now (to my father-in-law’s way of thinking) is displaying an unseemly amount of flesh. The girl’s parents glowed as they told him about all the parties and exciting events she was going to in İstanbul. My father-in-law listened closely, nodding at appropriate intervals, grimacing at others. Then, once the proud parents had finished updating him on all their news, he made that oh-so-expressive tut of Turkish sympathy, patted them consolingly and said “Eyvah, children are hard. But it’s not so bad… my son married an English girl.”

Despite comments like this he has made every effort to make me feel both accepted and welcomed into his family. When I turned up in Turkey six years ago, with the fait accompli of pregnancy on my side, and when my now husband and I hurriedly brought our planned marriage forward from some mystical date in the future (we were happy to wait indefinitely, but army conscription got in the way) to just two months into my getting-to-know-you Ankara visit, he took it upon himself to shower me with diamonds. There were so many that had I chosen to wear them all at once (as on one memorable occasion I did) I looked like some big-time drug dealers bit on the side. Happily diamonds are never an unwelcome gift, and I was capable of reining in my love of bling and wearing them more appropriately.

Lost in translation?

On our wedding day my father-in-law spent some considerable time apologizing (in Turkish) to my monolingual, English father for the “intimate” (read small) nature of our wedding. My father, once this epic monologue was translated, tried to reassure him that in England he would have been expected to pay and he didn’t in the least mind being relieved of this responsibility. I’m not sure if his response got lost in translation, or if my father-in-law was simply unable to accept the peculiar ways of other cultures, but he was not in the least reconciled to the situation. In the end they overcame the language barrier in mutual appreciation of each other’s harmonica playing, and my husband (aka the designated translator) and I sat back in communal amazement that there were actually two people in the world who enjoy this instrument.

In day-to-day life it has been strange getting to know him as he exemplifies the changing mindset of generations. He grew up at a time when respect for the family patriarch was of the ultimate importance. By all accounts the patriarch in his family (his uncle) was a bit of a cretin, and he has made a huge effort to go against the “he who holds the purse strings holds the power” tradition and allow his children the freedom to make their own decisions. I think a part of him still likes the idea of being the all powerful büyük baba, because I have yet to come across a situation in which he didn’t “know” best. However, he limits his (usually retrospective) advice to frustrated hand waving and the occasional “I told you so” to make his point. A good example of this is his attitude towards smoking. It is his particular bug-bear, a thing which he has never indulged in but which almost every member of his family does. After giving a somewhat gruesome lecture (involving limb amputation and oxygen masks) on the dangers of this bad habit, he adopts a “monkey don’t see” demeanor and steadfastly ignores the smoker in question until they have stubbed out their indulgence, at which point the veil is lifted and he will see and talk to them again.

The (in my opinion) outdated concept of specific roles for men and women is one that my father-in-law holds very dear. In fact, he regularly has to fend for himself as my mother-in-law is called back from their seaside retirement home to grandchild babysitting duty in the big city, and does so admirably. However at the reappearance of female family members he becomes noticeably more disabled. If it’s just me who’s around (the rather inept foreigner), he can still find his own possessions and do his own laundry, but is no longer capable of washing up. When his wife returns he becomes fully domestically incapable -- unable to fetch his own water, find his own glasses or make his own bed. If you happen to be present throughout this transformation, it can be a little startling.

A genial grandfather

I tend to see him mostly in his role as genial grandfather to my boys: doing (terrible) magic tricks, collecting tokens from the newspaper to “buy” them presents, producing gofret bars from the depths of his pockets and sitting them on his knee to tell them stories. When I was little I used to love hearing about my family’s history, but my father-in-law’s tales should come with an age rating, for example the one about the rabbit. My husband had recently brought home a pet rabbit for our kids, and it was growing at a monumental rate, to the point where I could barely look at it without thinking “hello rabbit… pie.” Anyway, my father-in-law saw the rabbit and began to reminisce about when he had bought one for his oldest son. The son had been delighted, less because of his new pet’s fluffy cuteness than because this rabbit would eat anything. The boy fed it and fed it and fed it, until it grew so huge he could no longer lift it. According to my father-in-law it was 20 kilos, but as this is what my 5-year-old weighs and as the world record for giant bunnies is 21 kilos, I’m pretty sure he’s exaggerating, though I expect his pet was on the large side. As he tells it, it grew bigger and bigger, and they were sure this was some kind of monster cross-bred-with-a-dog mutant rabbit until in the end it was so large there was only one thing they could do… eat it. They told their son it had gone to live on the “happy bunny farm.” It wouldn’t have been quite such a rollicking tale, but I kind of wish he’d left out the eating part when he told my kids.

It was a few years into my marriage that I finally realized this geniality was a new state and that my father-in-law was the reason my husband has that indefinable aura that means you always feel safe walking down dark alleys with him. At the time we were living in the same building as my in-laws, and my husband had got into the habit of barbecuing on our balcony. Barbecues are essentially very antisocial enterprises. They smoke. They spew ash at the least provocation and our downstairs neighbors were entirely unimpressed with my husband’s new char-grilled addiction. He thought said neighbors were beyond consideration because their favorite balcony pastime was watching the TV at such an outrageous volume our toddler was repeatedly woken from his night-time peace. One evening the barbecue-TV battle escalated into a full-scale war with insults being shouted from both camps.

Apparently the TV-neighbors crossed some kind of line because suddenly my husband had sprinted out the apartment and was banging on their door ready for a fight. My in-laws also appeared in the hall, and my savvy mother-in-law, being far more up in Turkish fight protocols than me, instantly threw her arms around my husband and octopus style, disabled him. The neighbors were yelling, my husband was yelling (and trying to escape), my father-in-law demanded an explanation. On hearing whatever it was the neighbors had called my husband, he saw red, charged forwards and kicked the neighbor on the shin. I’m sure its not the first time my mother-in-law has wished for more than one set of arms. As with all Turkish fights, peace was restored when the women wrestled the menfolk back into their respective homes and slammed the doors. I realize it’s terribly un-politically correct, but I quite like having big strong men around to protect me.

As the years have gone by my father-in-law and I have got to know each other better. He likes to talk about food and I like to eat, which paves the way to long chats about market vs. supermarket vegetables and the extortionate prices of all things fresh and green in England. Unfortunately I rarely manage to cook anything he wants to eat. My food is too English (flavorless) for him to really enjoy without garnishing it with pickles and ketchup, and he tends to plead that he’s eaten “a really big lunch” and can only manage a small portion. It felt like a major triumph when I finally managed to cook him something he liked (aubergines and chicken left over from a [less eventful] barbecue and turned into a lasagna) and watch him go back for thirds. But the truth is I can never quite relax in his presence. He is so used to the other women in the family doing his bidding that he can’t see why I don’t feel the need to do the same. His every request is followed by exhortations to “Hadi kuzum, hadi canım benim, hadi” pleas of increasing ferocity for speed. He simply can’t comprehend that I may not want to stop cooking and burn the sauce, abandon the toddler mid-nappy change, or even get up just at the climax of my favorite TV show, so I can fuss around him and congratulate him on whatever bargain purchase he has found/vacuum the second he has finished eating/ find him some object from our Pandora’s tool-box. He tends to ignore my lapses in cultural propriety with the steadfastness he applies to the family’s smokers. Despite our lack of animosity, and despite the fact that I really am quite fond of him, this slight friction is ever present. So when my husband and I discuss, as we periodically do, the possibility of living with my in-laws whilst we do something productive like saving up for our own place, I automatically hit the veto button. I just don’t think our home could ever be quite large enough for both our personalities.