July 16, 1995
It seems like an entire village has come out to greet us. I assume these people are relatives of my girlfriend, but as they’re hugging me before even acknowledging her, I figure I must have won a contest or something. After a couple of words in English – hello, welcome – everything now sounds like gibberish. The airport is so smoky that I just want to go out and breathe Turkey‘s fresh air.
Five of us pile into a 1960 Volkswagen Beetle. The driver is Tartar, looking like one of those dioramas at the Museum of Natural History, with a Droopy McDawg mustache. He looks nothing like her aunts, who look Bulgarian. They look nothing like my girlfriend Elif, who looks Israeli. And none of them look like the people in the airport, who looked swarthy. I am confused as to what Turks look like.
I notice that I can see through the rusty floorboards to the road below. We’re following a sign saying “Ankara,” which is strange because I’m sure my girlfriend’s family live in Istanbul. The ride is interminable and disorienting. The air is full of soot. Historic buildings are sandwiched between modern sprawl on top of sprawl. One minute we’re in Europe, and the next, we’re in Asia.
We take the tiny elevator up to Elif’s mother Dilek’s apartment two people at a time. I’m instructed to remove my shoes before going in. More people are inside, scurrying about, attempting to get food on the table as soon as possible. Elif is showing me the feast, and her mother Dilek is showing me a closet which she’d stuffed with American junk food, in case I’m not able to eat anything. Then she takes me to the master bedroom, which she’d vacated for us to stay in. Inside, I find a pile of brand-new underwear and T-shirts which she had bought for me, in case I had arrived naked.
Elif talks with her family in the living room while I shower. I lay down and immediately fall asleep and am immediately awoken for dinner. My charge is to eat and stay awake for hours in a living room full of people I can’t understand. I’m ushered in, and her large extended family is sitting around the table, laughing, gesticulating wildly. Elif signals me, say hi, hi! This is Sumru my younger aunt. Sumru says bye. Another woman asks if I have any siblings. Elif tells her that I have a sister, and the woman says that my sister should be very happy to have such a brother. Dilek is bopping around everywhere, trying to serve. She is blinking uncomfortably, clearly wearing contacts to look prettier. Dilek’s boyfriend Cos goes over to the stereo and puts in a Beatles tape. I tell Elif that they should play music that they like, and not what they think I would like.
Her aunt lights up another pack of cigarettes and tells Dilek not to serve every person, but to leave the food in the middle of the table “American style.” There is so much food that it seems like they made every possible item they could think of and laid it out, as if either to make sure there’d be something I’d like, or to overwhelm me with familial fecundity. There are about seventeen types of mezes (appetizers) to complement the meat dishes. Most of it Elif had cooked for me in America, such as the cacik (grated cucumber and garlic in yoghurt) and eggplant and beans in olive oil and salads, but I am immediately taken with sigara boregi, cheese-filled pastry “cigarettes” which she couldn’t make in America because the thin yufka dough is so hard to find.
Elif is translating everything. Her mother’s boyfriend Cos says to me the following sentence in English: “I hope Istanbul, your family.” Elif’s aunt Sumru is suddenly overcome with emotion, standing up and getting between Elif and I, hugging us, saying, Canim, canim, canim (“My soul”). Elif looks at her mock-quizzically, and her aunt says, “I can’t handle it, my heart is throbbing, I love you two so much.” I have never seen this woman before in my life. “Let’s toast!”
Everyone runs back into position. They pour me some more raki, a clear anise liquor which turns white when you pour water into it, and we toast: “Serefe,” “To honor.” In America, the toast would have been for health, happiness, or success instead. Everyone sips their drinks, except Cos, who gulps the whole glass. His throat must be made of steel. Elif is drinking a foul-tasting wine instead. Everyone’s done with their meal, but no one clears the table. Everybody still eats pieces of bread with their raki. I stand up to help clear something, anything, and knock over Elif’s wine. At least two people say this is good luck.
Her mother returns with baklava – Turkish baklava, she stresses. She has changed into an undershirt, suddenly relaxed. An aunt says that they should send me home with baklava. Elif says that my parents want helva. The aunt says they’ll send me home with baklava and helva. I eat about ten varieties of baklava. I have never eaten baklava this airy, this buttery, this heavenly. I dream of living in a baklava land and having hazelnut concubines. Cos says, I’m going to need a bypass from all these women.
Elif’s aunt Sumru asks me what I think of Turkey. The only thing I know about it is the airport and this room, and I’m thinking that the air composition has considerably more nicotine than on my home planet. Through the smoke, I come to realize that her mother’s apartment could double as an Elif museum: pictures of my girlfriend at every age, in every place. I point to the pictures and giggle, and Elif is now getting between me and her mother, pushing our cheeks together, and says, Ooh, ooh, ooh, canim, canim. Then she breaks us apart and squeezes herself between her two aunts, lest they get jealous, and makes the same pose, freezing as if life were a still camera. Ilknur says I love you in English.
They turn on the television as loud as it will go, and a variety show is playing pop music. An aunt automatically gets up and bellydances. Her other aunt dances at the table, and her uncle claps along like an old man in a nursing home. Elif joins the aunt dancing in front of the TV, cheerleading, shouting a gypsy chant whose translation supposedly has sexual overtones, but to me sounds simply surreal: “Allah! 60, 70, 80, 90, 100! Swim on the air, swim on the land, swim in the sea, if you can’t find it, swim in the pool!” The song ends, and they applaud each other. The elders are all smoking, with bad teeth and garish makeup, and I am shocked at how village her extended family is. Her mother Dilek is still bopping around nervously, cleaning, presenting, helping, serving. I can’t believe there is more food. Fruit is being brought out, although we’d already eaten dessert an hour ago. Elif is translating more sporadically. I’m drunk and jet-lagged, and every phrase sounds like it ends in “Michael Jackson” or “mush.” Elif shows mercy and excuses me to go to bed.