First Impressions

It’s amazing how differences that are so obvious when one first lands in a new country so quickly become the norm, just daily regular fare. I am sure that in our early days in Moscow I noted dozens of things I found quirky, cute, admirable, or alarming.

Like…
…the driving (any and every means is used to beat traffic, including chasing ambulances, driving down sidewalks, and driving in the wrong lane and playing chicken with oncoming traffic to get ahead);
…the proliferation of fur (live there one winter and it’s not so strange);
…the variety of vodka in the store, a selection so vast it is often greater than that of wine
…the people’s superman-like ability to work outside, all day, in frigid temperatures without hat or gloves (in general, the people’s unparalleled resilience to harsh conditions, weather or otherwise);
…the abundance of flower shops and sushi restaurants despite Moscow’s climate or location;
…the stony faces on the street (a striking contrast to the extreme generosity you will be the recipient of if and when you are welcomed into their midst);
…the flowery toast-athons that, no matter if to mark a private or business occasion, can touch on not only the beauty of the people present but wax on about all matters of life – its peaks and valleys, its lessons and virtues – ending with the toaster wishing a laundry list of good things for the recipient (a Russian’s toasting ability, in my experience, is unparalleled by any other nationality and is, perhaps, only rivaled by the next trait, one which explains why toasts are so popular – after all, Russians have the saying “only problem drinkers don’t toast before drinking”):
…their ability to consume vodka.

Unfortunately, I have forgotten many of the first impressions I had when new to Russia which is why I wanted to document a few of the first impressions of Istanbul:

  • The people: Sure, there are a few exceptions in every bunch, but, overall, the people are warm, friendly and helpful. However, what is most noteworthy is their unguarded responses, their emotional openness. They seem to react spontaneously to things without worrying about putting on airs or feeling self-conscious. Such as was the case with two twenty-something guys who, upon seeing our dog approaching, squealed and leapt behind a parked car from which they safely ogled her; they didn’t seem concerned at all by what many would consider to be their less-than-manly response.
  • The food: In a word: YUMMY! Dangerously so. And very reasonably priced. Granted, I am not a picky eater, but surely there is something here for everyone. Beef. Chicken. Lamb. (Not so much pork which isn’t an issue for us, minus bacon, which they do have, you just have to pay more for it). Fish. Fruit. Vegetables. Bread. Pastries – all sorts of yummy, delicious flaky, chewy, crunchy varieties stuffed with an array of savory or sweet fillings. Chocolate. And I haven’t even started my field research on the foods showcased on Anthony Bourdain’s show “No Reservations”! Bonus: Excellent Turkish wines at pretty reasonable prices (okay, maybe more expensive than the US but cheaper than many other places; not pricey enough to put off indulging oneself at any rate).
    Challenge: Have not found Betty Crocker cake mixes (my version of ‘homemade’) but did locate a chocolate chip cookie mix. Also, pop-tarts appear to be absent from the grocer’s shelves, but, given the even tastier option of Krispy Kreme doughnuts (and dangerously easy access given it’s ’round-the-corner location), who cares?
    Bottom line: we’re not going to starve.
  • The language: I was wrong when I said that Turkish would be easy compared to Russian, a language which is surely the most grammatically complex language known to man, undoubtedly designed by some sadist linguist.  I was living in a dreamworld of ignorance, blissfully unaware of the second sadist who invented Turkish. Although grammatically simpler than Russian, Turkish bears no resemblance whatsoever to any word of my native language or any other language I have tried (and failed) to master. I have had to resort to pneumonic devices and word play to pound into my brain some basic words and phrases:
    • “Bill” = “hesap” or, in my head, = “Hey, sap!”
    • “How are you?” = “Nasılsınız” = “Nah, sil sin is”
      (Further explained: “Sil” in Swedish is “herring”. Therefore, the meaning is “Nah, sil, sin (it) is”, because, after all, herring DOES make one retain water like a sponge. What does that have to do with “How are you?” Not a clue.
    • “Which bus?” = “hangi Otobüs?” = (think thick cockney accent) “hang eet owt ‘o bus?”
    • “Dog” = köpek”, easy because of the name in Russian of the coin “kopeck” (and our dog is worth her weight in, well, fractions of pennies)
    • “ucuz” = “cheap” or pronounced “oojus” just like the Russian word “ужас” which means terrible…in this case not, but, hey, one has to come up with shortcuts across insanity however one is able.
    • All of which means that my vast vocabulary of 22 words that I boasted about in post 1 has quickly dwindled to 5.
  • Other:
    • The daily prayer: When we first visited Istanbul last October, the unexpected blast of a man’s amplified voice through our flimsy hotel window at 5 in the morning was, I will admit, a bit of an unpleasant shock. Not knowing then that we would become residents of Istanbul, I remember thinking that I would love to live here but wasn’t at all sure I could ever get used to the call to prayer, an event that occurs 5 times a day, starting around 5AM. I was wrong. Now it is just one more of the background instruments that compose the city’s lovely, lively polyphonic sound.
    • Communication: Being an American (sorry, fellow patriots), subtlety is not necessarily our strong suit. Therefore, learning that, in Turkey, the raising of eyebrows accompanied by a single tutting sound (and, in my experience, often a shrug) means “NO” was a crucial bit of information. Warning: The tutting is understated (which may explain why I interpreted the bus driver’s shrugging and eyebrow-raising as “YES” thus leading me to put the kids on the wrong bus their first day of school).  I am hoping that if I start to do something really stupid or culturally offensive – like enter the men’s section of a hammam – that the tutting will be escalated to a crystal-clear shout.
    • Service: Many services – for example, housekeeping for our apartment, waiting tables at restaurants, retail clerks – are performed by men. Women do work here, at all different levels of society and professions. It’s just that many jobs that I am accustomed to seeing a woman do, here are done by men or a greater proportion of men. Service, by the way, is great based on what I have experienced. Efficiency, ditto. Now if I can just learn some of the language to take advantage of it…

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