The Nice Thing About Strangers

Creative Non-Fiction Short Stories. :) Travel, Oldsters, Love, and Compassion.

Spiraling in Turkish

Last summer, living in Izmir, Turkey, I started trying to learn Hungarian. I spoke Turkish on errands, English in my work, and Hungarian in the two hours of lessons I pushed myself to pursue. Otherwise, I spent hours silently staring at sunsets and the sea, trying not to think in any language at all.

I went to a shop with pens, paper, school supplies. The owner is elderly, he limps, he’s tall and his clothes are very loose, but when he leaned I could see his ribs through his shirt. Like so many Turkish men who labor all day in these small shops, he is dignified and as upright as he can be. Efendi. A gentleman.

I asked for green or purple pens, since I’ve been making Hungarian flashcards and I’ve learned 10 ways to say thereforecertainlytotally. I’m also learning all the mindig/minden/mindegy/mindent words at once. Experts advise drawing pictures to help you memorize words, but the sketches I make are a bit embarrassing, even to myself. Maybe color coding will help.

I accept red and blue ink pens, since this is what he has. I ask for a lined notebook, and he offers me the cheapest ones—the ones bound flat on the side. I don’t know the words for spiral-bound, so I try in Turkish, “maybe the ones by your eyes?”

At eye-level are the spirals in various colors, but he returns me to the first option: “These are more economical.” He doesn’t say cheaper, he selects his words carefully. Efendi.

Not wanting to seem snobbish or excessive, I hunt through my Turkish to find a way to explain my decadent choice of a spiral-bound notebook. “Sometimes I write something down, look at it, and I don’t like it. I must tear it. Throw it away.”

He lights up, “Yes, yes, I understand.” We trade a smile. In Turkish, I feel free despite my errors. Knowing I am an outsider and sure to say things strangely, I have cast aside my insecurity and decided that in a worst-case translation, maybe I sound poetic.

I’ve been trying to sort out why I won’t go home. Why not be an ordinary person with a coffee table and a mortgage, who doesn’t have to explain her reasons for seeking spiral-bound notebooks? If I were speaking English, I would never have painted a picture of myself as an impatient writer, preparing for fury, keeping my nature in mind with my buying and binding.

Being abroad, every small errand is a sort of adventure. I’m a local curiosity, especially in Turkish. I love being an insider and an outsider. Sometimes calm in the conversation, sometimes totally lost in idioms, slang, or a few mistranslated words. Actually, this is the benefit of going where you don’t speak the language, or where you may not speak it well–you’re tested, you’re experimenting, you’re humbled, you’re fortunate to receive mercy, you’re entertaining to locals as you can shake them from daily routine into some new description of a task.

I’m too far from the objective to even imagine semi-fluency in Hungarian, but maybe it will be the same. Perhaps I will meet yet another version of myself. At the moment, I’ve not got the vocabulary or imagination for who I might be, but I’d like to uncover this in any case.

–Izmir, Turkey


6 comments on “Spiraling in Turkish

  1. Darlene
    August 12, 2020

    I so admire people like you who are not afraid to use another language. I live in Spain, but my Spanish is limited as I live in an ex-pat community where English is the common language and the Spanish people prefer to speak English with us to help them improve. But when I do find I need to use Spanish, the listeners are so patient, kind and gracious. Good luck with your studies.

    • thenicethingaboutstrangers
      August 13, 2020

      I keep trying to learn them, but I can’t get a good hold on Hungarian or German. Turkish, however, I adore. I love to speak it, I love to listen to it, everything. 🙂 I’m not sure why, but it’s my language. 🙂 -Paige

  2. joannerambling
    August 12, 2020

    I speak one language and I often stumble over that…………lol

    • thenicethingaboutstrangers
      August 13, 2020

      I wrote a friend a 2 page letter in Hungarian and EVERY sentence was incorrect. 😀 I keep trying, but glory, why?! 🙂

  3. Alison and Don
    August 16, 2020

    Your efforts remind me of all the months I’ve spent in Mexico and South America speaking Spanglish – an insider and an outsider at the same time. Enough of the language to have an adventure with it.
    Your shopkeeper sounds like a true gentleman.

  4. Tim Shey
    August 24, 2020

    Paige: You may already have seen this news report from Turkey:

    Turkish News Report on Adrenochrome

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This entry was posted on August 12, 2020 by in Travel.

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