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