A place and people renown for their hospitality, I was stuffed beyond capacity from the minute I stepped foot on Turkish soil. I arrived in İstanbul as a single girl, and many Turkish families embraced me and felt it their responsibility to make sure I had a family away from my blood family. No matter how large the family, or if everyone in the house worked, the houses were always spotless -- so clean I was sometimes afraid to sit on a chair and somehow mess it up. How did they do it? I lived in a small house at the time, lightly furnished, yet my house always had a sense of clutter. “Creative chaos,” I like to call it: a book here, a magazine there, some photos hanging, etc. Despite how it might look to an outsider, I know exactly where everything is.
Since we got married, we have had to host our share of dinners at our house. I tried to get my place into sparkling clean condition so that my guests would be received in a manner like I was received in their homes. It was frustratingly impossible for me. We also had a white cat and a red couch, the best way I can recommend to display cat hair. In our previous flats, we had not really met any of our neighbors. Since moving to this complex a few years ago, we have met almost all of our neighbors. Most of them have children around my son Eren’s age, so it is nice to have friends and playmates nearby for him. Believe it or not, interacting with neighbors is a new thing for me. Although I have lived in Turkey for nine years and lived in several different places throughout İstanbul, I didn’t really meet or get to know my neighbors. I was shy, lived alone, and neither them nor I ever made any friendly overtures. It was not that different from the places I had lived in the US, so it seemed normal to me. I know that for most people in Turkey it is the exact opposite. While I did not talk to or see my neighbors much, I am sure I was talked about in their homes. I had a cat when no one else in my building did. My landlady in one apartment was related to half of my building, so I felt like everyone was keeping an eye on me, but not in a good way. When Can and I decided to move in together before we got married, we wisely left that building.
A building full of single people
We moved to a building full of single people, and had little in common with the mostly university student crowd. Like most couples when they move in together, we fought a lot. Given that we could easily hear our neighbors’ loud parties, they most certainly could hear our screaming matches. I was embarrassed. If I happened to be on the elevator at the same time as someone else, I didn’t lift my eyes from the floor and barely mumbled a cursory “iyi günler.” I couldn’t bear the thought that probably the whole building had heard me lose my temper on more than one occasion.
After we married, we moved yet again, to be closer to Can’s job. Eren was born shortly thereafter, and we were happy at our family-friendly “site” on the Asian side. We started to socialize with our neighbors. I go to their houses and see that their carpets, like mine, have stains as well. Things are not all shiny clean in every Turkish house, to my immense relief! Now that I am just one of the neighbors it is not as scandalous for me to see a bit of clutter when entering their house for a spontaneous tea. My hostess most likely won’t have her hair freshly done from the salon, or be wearing make up. Like me, she is just another mom getting through another day. It makes it easier when having them over to my house. Although in my opinion Turkish houses are still held at an impossibly clean standard for me, I feel better knowing that this is not the case for every household. Knowing that my neighbors are human and that their houses are prone to dirt and mess from raising children makes me feel more relaxed.
A few weeks ago, Can and I sat on the couch one night and watched a movie. Over the sound we could hear our neighbor and her husband having their own screaming match next door. Our other neighbor, who has two teenage kids, is usually quiet. Until the day my husband left at 4 a.m. for the airport and discovered her son passed out drunk in front of the door. I felt bad when she acted embarrassed upon seeing us and tried to put her at ease. I couldn’t put into words how relieved I was to see and hear that they experienced problems typical to most families. I think that Can and I fought so much over the years that our fights just drowned out everyone else’s. They all fought, too; we just couldn’t hear them over our own yelling. Now that Can and I have calmed down a bit and things have settled down, we can now hear the normal confrontations of typical families around us.
I don’t need to look down in shame anymore when I see my neighbors, afraid they have heard us fight. I have witnessed their problems, too. I don’t have to worry about inviting people over for tea, embarrassed by the juice stain on my carpet that Eren made months ago and is impossible to get out. They all have a stain or spot in their houses somewhere, too. I also have learned to not feel intimidated by these impossible standards and realize that I was the one who put them on myself, and instead chalked it all up to another thing I tried vainly to do to fit into Turkish culture. The people who live near me hear my voice raised in joy and in frustration. The people who come into my house see stains and clutter, but they also see and hear a happy family. A lot of my problems stemmed from coming from a small town to a crowded city. I am not used to living in apartment buildings where, no matter how soundproof the house, you can still easily hear your neighbors and they can hear you. No matter what, living in buildings with other people will expose your private life in some capacity. Even something as simple as drying your clothes on the balcony can be cause for consternation if you accidentally put your undergarments out there to dry, too. For expats like me who also come from small towns with a wide physical gap from your nearest neighbor, it can be especially difficult. It has taken a long time, but I can say now that I am getting used to it and also enjoy living next to neighbors who are just as “human” as we are.
*Elle Loftis is an American expat, writer and mother living in İstanbul. Reach her at email@example.com for comments or questions.