Overcoming my pet peeves
ILLUSTRATION: CEM KIZILTUĞ
We all have them. Those things that drive us completely up the wall, yet for some inexplicable reason don’t seem to faze others.
When I came to Turkey, I came with a couple of pet peeves; as the years went on, I collected a few more. Slowly, but surely I have managed to chip away at them until I can truthfully say they are almost gone.
The main pet peeve that came with me from New York was people who didn’t use their turn signals while driving. It used to infuriate me when people didn’t use their turn signals. I had to get over that one fast since time and time again, I was nearly mowed down by turning cars. Drivers would beep their horns furiously at me while I shook my fists and tried out my new Turkish swear words. Slowly it dawned on me that in Turkey, the turn signal was more or less an optional feature that came with the car. I realized that I would end up blowing a blood vessel if I kept up the way I was. Now, I just expect them to turn, and when they don’t, I cross the street.
On the bus
As I became more and more familiar with the Turkish culture, I developed some additional pet peeves. One of the first new pet peeves I adopted came after my introduction to İstanbul traffic. Coming home from work, I would be stuffed into a crowded bus that plodded slowly through the mass of cars, taxis, minibuses and dolmuşes. It annoyed me the way people would weave back and forth when they perceived that the traffic was going faster in another lane. “Just stay in one lane and we can get through this faster!” my brain screamed. Another new pet peeve came with the bus culture. I couldn’t understand why people would push their way to the bus door to get off well before their stop. If I was standing there holding on for dear life as the bus jolted me around due to the constant stop-go action, invariably someone would try to muscle his or her way past me to get to the door, thereby weakening my already precarious hold. I would tell them: “Don’t worry. I’ll move when the bus stops.” As the years have gone on, I realize that their desperation is based on fear -- the fear that they will miss their stop. Now, if I can safely move, I do. If not, I kindly tell them not to worry, that I will move when I can or I push the button several times so they think that I’ll be getting off, too.
One of the most maddening things I found here were the people who called themselves “usta” or “master” (basically used the same way we would say “professional”). At first, I took that title at face value; he (and it usually is a “he”) is the best in his field. Soon, however, I found out how ubiquitously that title is applied. The first time was when I was helping a friend get his pictures for a US visa. The literature stressed that the picture had to measure 5cm x 5cm and there were specified measurements of the face included. I went to a photographer and told him what we wanted. He didn’t seem to be paying attention and so I asked if he had ever taken a US visa photo before. “Of course I have!” he said indignantly. “Why does everybody who wants a visa comes to me for their visa pictures. I am a master photographer.” Imagine my shock when I came back to find a 5 cm x 5 cm picture of a blowup of my friend’s face -- his face completely filled the frame. When I complained and pointed out that the face was not according to the measurements set out by the consulate, not only did he insist that I was wrong and that his work was flawless, but he insisted that I pay him for his work. This scenario has been repeated several times with masons, carpenters, tailors, cobblers and every other professional you can imagine. Now when someone insists that they are a “master,” I don’t get angry anymore, I know this is empty talk -- part of the dance of getting a customer. In the end, if I need the help of a specialist, I ask around. I’ve gotten the best results by word of mouth. Nevertheless, every now and then, I’ll still bump into someone who insists that he is an usta. I just smile and move on.
At the supermarket
One annoyance that took me off guard was at the supermarket. The store clerks here will casually smash up your bread and chips with heavier items or throw around your eggs and glass items. The first time it happened, I yelled at the clerk: “Be careful! You’ll break them!” while she looked at me as if to say, “What the heck are you talking about?” and then proceeded to toss the eggs on the pile of groceries.
It took me some time, but I have come to realize that these clerks are focused on scanning items as they appear in front of them as fast as possible and collecting the money -- they are not taught to focus on how they are handling items nor are they educated in customer service. Now I carefully set up the products to be scanned by putting the heaviest items first and then the rest. If I forget and something gets crushed, I realize that it’s my own fault and I silently reprimand myself rather than berate some young, unknowing clerk.
I learned to take a deep breath and say, “That’s Turkey” (burası Türkiye); I finally understood what people meant when they said that.
One pet peeve that was very slow in changing was my reaction to my Turkish friends’ relationship to time. Like Charlie Brown and the football, I just kept falling for the same trick. I would make plans with somebody and would show up exactly on time. As the clock ticked I fussed and fumed -- rooted in the meeting place. My friends would casually stroll up 30 minutes (or more!) late and wonder why I was so angry.
I’m still an on-time type of guy. It’s in my blood. But now, I expect the lateness and will find things to amuse myself with until I get the call -- usually that includes browsing the surrounding stores or popping into a nearby gallery. For my students, I’m a stricter with time. I tell them that they have reserved my time for specific hours and that I have other students so they can’t be late. Of course, I adjust the time if they are a little late (five minutes or so), but if they are seriously late, they end up losing the time. They very quickly learn to adjust their schedules so as to arrive on time.
Pet peeves, of course, are a two-way street, and I can tell you that I drove some Turks up the wall with some habits of my own that poked their pet peeve button. My lack of drama is among the top 10. For some reason, I just can’t go along with the manic drama that accompanies my friends when things don’t go their way. When I meet a new friend nowadays, I let them know fairly soon into the friendship that I just don’t do Turkish drama. I go on to say that if they get upset about something, I’ll be happy to talk it out with them, but during the drama ranting and raving phase -- well, I’ll be sitting that out. Inevitably they try and fail to rile me up (and in the throes of the drama accuse me of being cold-hearted), but eventually all of my friends have come to know that I am a loyal and true friend -- but I won’t participate in the drama.
The talking dog syndrome
The only pet peeve that is still with me is when people hear my accent and just assume that I am a dumb foreigner. This usually happens to me when I am at a bus stop or in the metro station. Someone will come up to me and ask me for directions and in the middle of my response, upon hearing my accent, they cut me off with, “I’m sorry. I didn’t realize that you were foreign,” and ask directions from another. Once when this happened, the other person (who was Turkish) gave completely wrong directions to a woman who was trying to get to my neighborhood (where I had been living for the last four years). I interrupted their exchange and said: “Excuse me, but that’s not right. What you need to do is. ...” She stopped me, patted me on the arm condescendingly and said: “Thank you. That’s so nice of you to try.” Then she turned back to the Turkish person and said, “So you were saying?”
I call it the talking dog syndrome. If a dog walked up to you and said, “Excuse me, can you tell me how I can get to Taksim?” You would probably look at the dog and say: “Oh my! That dog’s talking!” and forget to answer him. I have high hopes. I figure it’s just a matter of time before I get over this, the way I’ve gotten over the others. I think this is the last one. After 10 years of being here, I can’t imagine there are any new pet peeves lurking around the corner waiting for me.
*Brooks Emerson can be reached at [email protected]