Basak meets me at the airport shuttle drop off point in the busy city center. We hail a cab and we’re off to my new apartment. She shows me how to get in and gives me a tour of the apartment. I drop my bags in my room and then we’re off again. She wants to show me the neighborhood so I won’t be lost when I’m all alone at home during the coming weeks. We walk, and walk, and walk. Where we’re going, I don’t know. She shows me her workplace, says I can come there anytime if I need help with anything. And then our destination is in sight: Cevahir, the biggest mall in Europe.
She shows me to the grocery store so I can stock up on a few necessities. I feel awkward shopping in front of her so I try to make healthy choices. I throw a couple of nectarines and bananas into the handbasket, then I head toward the dairy section. Without having to tell her what I’m looking for, and before I can reach for anything, she stops me: “That’s not milk.” I look at her, completely befuddled. We walk over a few aisles to where the cereal is, and there we find a wall of milk boxes – the kind that would never survive in America, the kind that has a shelf-life of two years and needs no refrigeration. “Oh, the Turks do milk like the French,” I think to myself. I throw it in the basket, along with some cereal.
“I need shampoo and soap too,” I tell her. She takes me to the toiletries and I’m dumbfounded by the sheer number of shampoo bottles, not one of them with a label I can read. Right, first order of business: Find an English to Turkish dictionary. I look at her and say, “We need a bookstore.”
The next day Basak takes me to see the University I’ll be attending. We aren’t able to talk with the International Student Relations office because it’s after business hours so she heads home, leaving me to explore on my own. I wander the street in front of campus until I see the restaurant I’d seen in my classmates’ pictures back home. “God, I hope this is the place,” I whisper as I walk in the door.
A handsome man with cutting green eyes approaches the reception counter. Nervously I ask, “Is there someone here named Aşkın?”
With a charming Turkish accent he says, “I am Aşkın.” Now I’m really nervous. I’d hoped I could explain the situation to a waiter or someone and they could explain it to him in Turkish. But now here I am and he’s right here, and he has those eyes.
“Uhhhh….I’m a friend of Kristina…” I begin to say, but he cuts me off before I can finish my explanation. “Are you Rebecca?” he asks happily. “Yes!” I say with relief. With ease he changes into French and welcomes me, telling me that my friend Dana had been there earlier that day, but that he wasn’t able to speak with her because he has a very limited English vocabulary. He calls Dana and hands me the phone.
Dana and I barely knew each other at home but we’re practically inseparable here. We’re both so grateful to have someone to share this craziness with. We help each other navigate the buses, the cell phone companies, the campus, and the Turkish bureaucracy.
After three weeks of spending our days sightseeing or in the mall, wishing school would start so we could make friends here, we learn of a language exchange group that meets every Saturday evening for drinks and conversation. We’ve got only one week of Turkish lessons under our belt and this week’s meeting is on the Asian side, but we will not be deterred. We leave two hours early to ensure we’ll make it there in time, but when we arrive in Kadiköy we’re not in the right place at all. All we know is we’re near the shore of the Bosphorus. With several missteps and the help of a number of Turks – one of which walked us all the way to our location even though he and his girl friend were running late for some kind of family ceremony – we finally made it, half an hour late.
Dana and a Kiwi girl get wrapped up in a Turkish lesson, while I mingle with the French at the table. I eventually find myself at a table with three young Turks who refuse to believe my claim that I can already count to a million in Turkish. When I first sat down they had asked me what I’d already learned in Turkish.
“Well, I pretty much only know my numbers,” I responded.
“Oh really, so you can count to, what? Ten?” one of them patronizingly asked me.
“No, I can count to a million!” I replied with confidence.
So they proceeded to quiz me by writing down numbers, first easy ones like 99 or 25. Then moving on to the hundreds, and finally giving me what was to be their “Gotcha!” number: 126,573.
“Yüz yirmi altı bin beş yüz yetmiş uç!” Success was mine!
My pasta and cereal rations are running low and I’m tired of wasting my money on restaurant food, so I finally head to the grocery store on my own for the first time. I have a personal mission to buy and then cook actual Turkish food. After all, one cannot survive on pasta, cereal and white wine for six months without wanting to jump out a window at the thought of food (or so I reasoned). I see the bread for Dürüm and it’s decided that this will be my first foray into Turkish cuisine. I head to the meat section and inspect everything, trying to decide whether I trusted myself to cook chicken or not. I decide on spicy pre-cooked Kebab meat (or at least it looks pre-cooked and the picture of peppers and fire on the package clued me into the spicy factor).
Then I’m off to conquer the cheese section. There are hundreds of cheeses, none of whose names I recognize. I finally just decide to grab any white cheese and hope for the best. Somehow my random grab landed me with cheddar, for which I will be forever grateful. Tzatziki sauce, tomatoes, and a couple walks through the aisles for good measure and then I’m done.
Elated by the fact that I didn’t die from food poisoning, I invite Dana over the next day to try what I have now coined “The Turkish Burrito.”
I’m sitting on a bench with my earbuds in, waiting for the metro to arrive. A pre-pubescent boy sits on the other end. His younger brother sits between us – his little kid arm, sticky with sweat, resting against mine. “Pardon,” he says as I inch over so we’re no longer touching. He looks up at me and asks something in Turkish. I look down at him and say, “I’m sorry. I don’t understand Turkish.” He looks confused and his brother gives him the 411. “Ah, Ingilizce?” he says, looking back at me. “Evet,” I say.
Now, excited to practice his English, he points to my earbuds and says, “What is this?”
“Music?” I say, confused by what he’s asking.
He looks thoughtful for a moment, then says, “Where are you from?”
And we have now exhausted this eight-year-old’s English vocabulary. So we sit in silence, until, just as the train arrives I see his face light up. He’s remembered something. “I love you!” he shouts over the sound of the train. I look down at him and laugh. I walk away to catch my train and as the doors close I know for the first time that I’m really going to miss it here when I leave.