Life can be hard for non-smokers who don’t have the tasks and belongings of smokers to keep their hands busy. Instead must find ways to deal with our hands, to wait for buses without hurried drags, so my task is to collect tiny stories to keep me occupied.
An old Turkish man arrives to join in the wait. I feel inspired to demonstrate some of the Turkish I’ve been learning, but not quite confident enough to strike up a conversation. Thankfully, he sneezes. I seize the opportunity and say, in Turkish, “Çok geç!” Which is incorrect. I said, “Too late!” instead of “Good health!”
He begins a slow shift toward the speaker, and during the craning of his neck, I try to decide if I’d rather seem like a strange woman talking to herself in Turkish, or as a novice Turkish speaker in Vienna unable to properly wish him well as we wait for the bus. I’m not sure which would be less embarrassing. By the time he faces me, I am bright red, furious with myself for making the error. I offer a penitent: “Çok yaşa?” He nods like a teacher praising the one answer a student might salvage at the end of an exam. These are phrases I should have clear by now, so I’m boiling with self-consciousness. Vain early attempts in a new language are a sure path to humility.
He seems to understand this, so he thanks me easily in his native tongue and turns away. And when he thinks he’s moved enough to be out of my view, a full grin is granted across his deeply lined face. He covers his mustache as he gives an exhale of laughter, suppressed to be polite and merciful.