Our tour guide pulls over on the side of the road, a few hundred feet from a gas station. We wait inside the battered white van as a hard rain comes down.
An hour ago, we’d been scrambling around the hilltop ruins of the Roman city of Pergamum. I’d tried to find shelter under the remains of a shattered row of columns, but couldn’t get away from the wind or rain. Climbing the amphitheater’s sloped steps, I’d felt as though a strong gust would send me rolling from the ancient Pergamum to the modern city, Bergama, below. My borrowed umbrella turned inside-out and shed a few of its plastic spokes. The guide laughed when I tried to return it to him.
Here, on the side of the road, there’s not even a breeze—just the rain.
“How will you know when the bus is coming?” my mother asks for the third time.
“We’ll see it.”
My mother squints out the van’s back window, muttering under her breath.
Ten minutes later, a long blue bus barrels down the road. The guide flags it down. He hauls our luggage while my father counts out a tip. A short man in a suit pops down the bus’s steps to collect our tickets.
I take a window seat towards the back and throw my backpack in the spot next to me, while my parents sit across the aisle. The attendant offers us drinks. I ask for “üç çay, lütfen.” Three tea, please—I have forgotten to make çay plural—but the attendant smiles. The balding man seated in front of me turns to stare.
“Ben biraz Türkçe öğrengiyorum,” I shrug, accidentally adding another g where the word doesn’t need one. I am learning-ing a little Turkish.
The bus shudders away from the side of the road. We’ll be traveling for five hours, heading north along Turkey’s Aegean coast to Çanakkale, a small city on the strait of the Dardanelles.
The tea is hot after Pergamum’s chill. The attendant brings us chocolate to counteract the drink’s bitterness. The tea burns my tongue, but I don’t care.
We leave Bergama’s outskirts and pass onto sparse roads. I stare at ramshackle houses and apartment buildings. Every small town we drive through has a tea house. Each one has tables occupied by men sitting out front, underneath awnings or table umbrellas, holding glasses of tea. I wish I could memorize the weathered faces and the cheap plastic tablecloths. There are no women at the cafés; draped in loose dresses and headscarves, they sit in clusters of two or three in front of their homes. Istanbul feels far away.
Istanbul. The city’s name has rung around my mind for years. The summer I was ten, my father spent a week there for work. He returned with stories of boys my age peddling döner in giant trays on their heads, right in the middle of the street. He showed me photographs of spires and minarets, and the Bosphorus, a bright body of water.
For Christmas my senior year of high school, my father gave me a copy of Orhan Pamuk’s novel, Snow. I read it on the plane to Vienna, where we spent New Year’s, and finished it in our hotel room overlooking the Ringstrasse while flurries fell outside.
The next fall, just after he won the Nobel, Pamuk spoke at the university where I was an undergraduate. I immediately read two of his books, Istanbul and Black Book. In his talk and in his books, Pamuk explored Turkey’s status as a place that’s stuck in-between: between Europe and the Middle East, between a liberal, modern society and a traditional one. I wanted to explore those gaps. But I was taking German, and writing courses, and got wrapped up in college as so many of us do, thought I’d never visit Turkey. Couldn’t imagine much beyond Morningside Heights and the German towns I was reading about for class.
I graduated and read more Pamuk. My mother took me as her translator and seer (she’s blind in one eye) to Germany, then Spain. Then, she fixed her good eye on Turkey, maybe because my father still talked about it, maybe because she saw the row of Pamuk books on the shelves of my walkup apartment.
She booked a trip to Turkey for April 2012. As a gift the Christmas before the trip, she signed me up for an introductory language class at Manhattan’s Turkish Cultural Center, where I spent four months learning greetings, colors, and the names of foods—kindergarten Turkish. Some of my classmates were nervous about learning a new language, but I’d studied Spanish and German intensively, and was used to the constant practice, correction and doubt that comes with attempting to master a language. I thought I was the best in my class, thought I’d learned enough to really help my parents get around Turkey. But, just before the trip, I realized that our curriculum didn’t even cover the past or future tenses. What did I really know?
On the plane from JFK to Istanbul, flight attendants correct my pronunciation of teşekkur ederim, or thank you. “Tea, sugar and rum,” one of them tells me. “Just say it fast.”
Eleven hours later, I’m in Istanbul. Our hotel room peeks out at the Bosphorus, where tankers chug by and ferries dart between them, rushing from the city’s European side, where we’re staying, to the part that’s geographically in Asia. Hotel employees smile when I butcher iyi gunler, good morning, and mumble teşekkurler, a shorter version of teşekkur ederim. I’d been confident in the classroom, but, in the language’s land, I become strongly, strangely aware that I know almost nothing, even as my parents prod me to “talk to them in Turkish” over and over again. I’m a trick monkey that doesn’t know very many tricks.
As we explore Istanbul, my confidence fluctuates. Waiters help with my pronunciation. Some even teach me a few words. One thanks me for learning his language. I should thank him for knowing mine. At the entrance to Topkapı Palace, a ticket-taker greets me with hoş geldinız, Turkish for welcome, and does a double-take when I reply with hoş bulduk, the traditional response to hoş geldinız.
There’s no English equivalent to hoş bulduk, no way to acknowledge a welcoming except with thanks. But hoş bulduk goes deeper. I feel welcomed. You’ve let me in.
Yet, I’m not as happy as I’d expected to be. I try to celebrate the trip, a visit to the homeland of one of my favorite authors, but can’t. I’m filled, instead, with dread that sits deep in my stomach and makes me feel like I’m going to lose all control if I don’t hold tightly together.
My inability to relax even on vacation makes sense: over the last few months, while studying Turkish, I’ve had pneumonia, had a boss resign unexpectedly, seen my workload spike, been rejected for a Fulbright, gone off my low dosage of Prozac because I thought my once-debilitating anxiety was gone, gone back on the Prozac because my panic attacks returned, and had my then-boyfriend ask—while I’m in the middle of one panic attack—if he can sleep with another woman.
I try to leave him, but don’t want to be alone in my airshaft-facing studio in Washington Heights. A cheating boyfriend’s company, I’ve reasoned, though I hate the logic, is better than sitting with my feelings. At least I can go to his apartment when the anxiety hits.
Halfway around the world now, I discover that the feelings I hoped to leave behind have brought themselves along. In this new setting, without the distractions of my daily life, I’m face-to-face with the anxieties I’ve been trying to ignore.
But I do enjoy it—I do. I love seeing the places I’ve read about in Pamuk’s books. Crossing Galata Bridge, I don’t have to imagine the hüzün, the melancholy, Pamuk describes as filling the city—it’s already filling me. I have perplexing experiences, like when a woman in the public restroom under Galata Bridge opens the stall she’s just entered (the toilet is a hole in the ground) and asks me something in Turkish. All I can say in response is anlamıyorum, I don’t understand. I’m excited to pass for Turkish, but shaken, because I don’t even know how bathrooms here work. The moment’s odd, but a triumph.
What makes the experience so rich, besides the food, the call to prayer, the markets and the narrow streets, is the language. I love learning to inhabit a new syntax—a new way of thinking. It leads to a re-seeing of myself and the place I’m from. When I’ve traveled abroad with my parents before, they’ve enjoyed my near-fluent use of Spanish and passable German, and I’ve enjoyed thinking in a word structure that’s not my native one. Trying to speak the language of a place we’re visiting helps me connect to its people a touch more than I otherwise would, I hope.
But here, where I know so little, making basic conversation is exhausting. I understand, for the first time, how it must feel to travel to a country where you don’t have fluency. I have an inkling of a sense of how some migrants must feel when speaking a new country’s language—surrounded by a swarm of new phrases, grasping for familiar words. Trying to make sense in a place where things simply mean differently. Trying to hold on to and communicate their own meaning in this other way.
Four months of introductory lessons have taught me how to ask for the bathroom (though I confuse right and left), ask where someone’s from, and admit that I don’t understand. I don’t know the past tense, or the future, or the tense I’ve fantasized about learning since I heard Pamuk mention it: the hearsay tense, for relaying stories you’ve overheard, or dreams. Linguistically, I’m stuck in a preschooler’s present.
A cab driver tries to hold a conversation with me because I’ve spoken a few words to him. But I’m lost. My thought process goes like this: He might have said something about a tree, I think. What do I know about trees in Turkish? “Do you like trees?” I ask, realizing just how wide the gap between the things I want to ask him and the things I’m able to ask him is.
My parents find my use of Turkish exciting. They don’t understand how baffled I am. How restricted I feel by my inability to communicate. Yes, most people we encounter speak English, but resorting to my own language feels like a failure. I understand that my feelings here come from a place of tremendous privilege. I’m lucky that this is my problem. And yet, “talk to them in Turkish,” my mother repeats.
Trying Turkish brings joy when I do it in moments of not seeking approval. After I say hoş bulduk to the Topkapı ticket-taker, he does a double-take my parents don’t see. We smile at each other, at the surprise of sharing a phrase.
But the joy is short-lived. As the day goes on, tension seeps into my shoulders and chest. I’m building up to a major panic attack. If I acknowledged that, I’d get it over with. Instead, I get mad at myself. How can I be anxious while looking at the mosaics on the palace walls, at the views of the Golden Horn? There must be something wrong with me. Or maybe it’s this place.
Though I’m not proud of it, I have moments of distrusting Turkey. There’s something deceptive about a nation that continually emphasizes how modern it is, I decide. It’s not modern—maybe that’s it. I’ll feel better once I’m home. Unfairly, I blame a country for tensions that are entirely my own.
Behind me, a mother, father, and young daughter are leaning forward, watching what my parents and I are doing. My mother jerks her chin towards them and mouths to be careful, that they might be Gypsies. She thinks they’re going to try to steal our valuables. The woman is wearing loose layers, but the dad’s in tight jeans, and the daughter wears leggings and a pink shirt, an outfit that my niece, who’s around her age, might wear. I shrug and continue looking out the window.
Someone taps my shoulder. I turn to find the mother’s face in the space between my seatback and the one next to me. In Turkish, she asks where I’m from.
“New Yorkluyum,” I respond. The man in front of me turns around to stare again.
I try to remember what I’ve learned. Does Turkish have a formal you, the way Spanish has Usted and German has Sie?
“Nerelisiniz?” I finally ask. Where are you from? I may have used the wrong conjugation.
Through a mixture of Turkish and a little English, the woman says that she and her family are migrant workers from Uzbekistan. The husband asks if I speak Russian, a language he must have learned as a child educated in the Soviet Union. I shake my head and ask if he speaks German. He does not.
The daughter leans forward. She has the same long dark hair as my niece. Her mother points to my seat. Can the girl sit next to me? She wants to talk. I move my backpack to the floor between my feet. My mother mouths to watch my stuff.
“Sizin adınız ne?” I ask.
The girl’s name is something long and complicated, a lovely name I’ve never heard before. I don’t quite catch it the first time and am too embarrassed to ask again. Her parents’ names slide past my understanding as well.
We leave the rain behind. As the bus kicks up dust, I try to talk to the girl with my limited vocabulary. I think of what my niece likes. The girl is ten, she sort of likes school, and she wants to be a doctor. Her mother makes it sound like they move around often, and I wonder how much education the girl is actually getting—if there’s a real chance for a migrant workers’ daughter to become a doctor here.
“Do you like cats? Do you have friends?” I can’t ask much else, and the girl is disappointed. I want to ask about her life—what kind of places she’s lived in, what her dreams are—but my vocabulary has too many gaps. We’re speaking in her second language, and I’m lightyears behind.
She answers each question with a simple evet, yes, or hayır, no, and continues on, telling a story. Much of what she says misses my reach entirely.
“Do you like math? Do you like ice cream?”
From time to time, we descend into silence.
After one long pause, she asks if I like music. I nod, listing some American and British bands. She nods back, but her eyes are blank, as if she doesn’t recognize the names. Then, I can tell that she’s asking if I like something, but the item’s a name I don’t recognize.
“Bu ne?” I ask. What’s this?
The man in front of us plays a video on his phone. It’s a jangling, catchy song performed by a sparkling group of musicians and singers. There’s a lot of glitter and flashing lights.
The man and the Uzbek family laugh. The porter joins them. It’s a recent Eurovision song. I don’t know if it’s a Turkish group performing or some other nation’s hit, but clearly most people here know it. The moment is a reminder that each culture has its own centers. I expect people here to know my music, but I hadn’t even thought to ask about theirs. And yet, they’ve shown me.
We spend the two nights before Pergamum in Kuşadası, which is billed a beach town along Turkey’s Aegean coast. Our hotel is across the street from a narrow strip of sand. A few blocks down, a boardwalk extends out into the water. Beyond that, a huge cruise ship is docked.
It’s late afternoon when we’re dropped off in Kuşadası, and my parents want to rest. I want to stick my feet in the Aegean. So I put my sandals on and cross the street. The water is cold. There’s nobody sunbathing or swimming, and nowhere for me to sit without getting sand all over my jeans, so I decide to check out the boardwalk.
There’s almost nobody out. Most of the people outside are men, between sixteen and fifty, and there are always two or more of them, and it’s clear from my rolled-up jeans, tee shirt, and the way I stop to photograph the coast that I’m a tourist. Any women I pass are in groups, some wearing head scarves, some not, or they’re old. Some of the young men look at me in a way I’ve only experienced once or twice: their glares make it clear that I don’t belong in their town. I’m an outsider, and I’m not welcome.
Buses packed with tourists drive past, on their way from Ephesus or Pamukkale to the cruise ship, which will be leaving soon. This town must see bus after bus of travelers pass through it every day, people who look and leave, only to be replaced by new eyes the next day, and the next. I wonder if Kuşadası’s residents resent the constant comings and goings, how people judge their town without setting foot there. I head back to the hotel.
In the evening, there’s a big soccer match happening: Beşiktas versus Fenerbahçe, for a national title. I watched a few of the matches leading up to this one, and have attached myself to Beşiktas, whose Istanbul stadium is across the street from Dolmabahçe, the palace where Kemal Atatürk died. He’s considered the founder of modern Turkey, and his photograph is everywhere.
For dinner, my parents choose a table smack in the middle of a restaurant that’s going to fill up with soccer fans. My father doesn’t realize what’s happening around him—that there’s subtext to this beach town. I say that we should sit somewhere else, somewhere out of the way of the people whose place this is, but he says we’re fine.
Fans trickle in as we’re eating our kebabs and rice, and we get a few annoyed looks. If some tourists took my prime spot at the bar back home, I’d sneer, too. We’re the other, and we’re in the way. There are no other tourists at this restaurant. My parents finish, oblivious, and ask if I want to stick around for dessert. I don’t.
On our way back to the hotel, we pass more locals, mostly men, who look at us like we don’t belong. I’ve traveled to over a dozen countries by the time I get to Turkey, and this is the first time I’ve been so aware of my difference. It swells around me, and I want to shrink, to let the locals keep their home free of strangers like us. Later, I wonder if this is how newcomers to some U.S. communities feel. If this is how the migrants who cross through Turkey to western Europe feel once they arrive.
Our hotel TV doesn’t have the channel with the game, so my dad and I decide to find somewhere to watch the last half. I stop in the bathroom on the way out, and something in me shifts again. Suddenly, I feel low. All the anxiety I’ve been avoiding for months—all the existential worry about my job, my relationship, and my future as a writer—finally hits at full force. I feel like I’m not going to be comfortable in my body ever again. My palms tingle and the room goes dark at the edges. I start crying.
My mother lies me down on my bed and rubs my back while I shake. I’m twenty-two, and don’t remember the last time she held me while I cried. I catch a chill, so my father gives me his sweater. They sit next to me while I blubber and sob. We miss the game.
The next day, we take a tour to the calcium carbonate travertines at Pamukkale. On the two-hour drive out, my mother asks how I am, over and over again. I don’t want to talk—it costs energy that I just don’t have. Even though the day turns warm and bright, I’m shaky, still feel like I could slip back into the panic. The aftermath of a panic attack is like the haze following a migraine: it can take hours to a day for me to feel like I’ve shed its shadow.
But Pamukkale is gorgeous, the calcium carbonate pools white and gleaming. It looks like snow, or salt. My feet soften in the warm water, and my shoulders burn from the afternoon’s reflections off the travertines. The sun tires me out, but I still tremble some during the night.
When we finally leave Kuşadası for Pergamum, I’m glad. Some darkness rolls away as we leave the city behind, though I’m left with the memory of how I felt there. The panic isn’t in me anymore. I’m ready to put myself back together again.
After the laughter fades, the girl and I slip back into silence. The attendant makes an announcement, and the family starts to gather their things. The bus pulls off the main road and makes several turns.
I ask the girl where we are, but she shushes me. I ask again, and the mother puts her index finger over her own lips. They stay silent until we pull into a dusty, empty parking lot. The Uzbeks don’t speak until the driver parks. Perhaps it’s a ritual of coming to a new place. Perhaps the bus isn’t supposed to make this stop.
Then, the mother pulls me close, kissing me on both cheeks. As she kisses each of my mother’s cheeks, the father shakes my father’s hand. He walks to the front with their bags.
My father snaps a picture of me with the girl, saying he wants to show my sister how much this Uzbek child looks like her own. The girl copies her mother and kisses both of my cheeks, and my mother’s.
In the middle of the aisle, she turns to face my father. She joins her right thumb and forefingers together and drags them from her forehead down to her heart, as if she’s starting to cross herself. Then, she rests her right hand against her chest and bows, deeply. The bus is still with the moment. There’s respect in this gesture, a deep sense of honor I’ve never seen before.
I wave to the family as the bus pulls away. Back on the main road, still two hours from Çanakkale, I settle into my seat. My parents and I are outsiders, but now we’ve been truly welcomed to this place.
We have been welcomed, over and over again, because Turkish people are kind, and generous, and patient with my bumbling speech. My anxiety does not come from this place; I have brought it here. The migrant family has shown us that we are welcome here, and so has the man with the Eurovision video, and so many other people along the way. They do not have to welcome us.
I may never get to return to Turkey after this trip. But what I’ve learned here will travel with me: if you are kind, patient, work hard, and have some hope, and if the people you encounter are also kind, patient, hardworking, and hopeful, you can be welcome anywhere. More importantly, you can welcome anyone to your own place.
Hoş geldinız and hoş bulduk. Welcome. I feel welcomed. We have let each other in.
Marissa Mazek received her MFA in Creative Writing from Hollins in 2015, and got her BA in English and Creative Writing at Barnard in 2010. Her work has been published in THEThe Poetry, Watershed Review, ZiN Daily, and elsewhere. She recently completed a novel about illiteracy, the South Bronx, and Puerto Rico.
If writing defies “common sense,” if it seems to go against traditional modes of thought, norms, and histories, the idea of that common sense no longer makes sense, or might make sense if we’re allowed to reinvent ourselves. That’s what I’m looking at with the literacy narrative. I want to hear yours: when you first “clicked” with a language, whatever it is; why you questioned the modes of your Englishes; how you wrote “poetry,” but looked at it again and called it “lyric essay.” I want to see your literacy narrative in its scholarly, creative, and hybrid forms. Send your literacy narratives to Sylvia Chan at email@example.com. Stay tuned for more literacy narratives from yours truly and others.