Istanbul has thrust me into a peculiar paradox. Coming from the Midwest, where we are expected to smile and step aside for others, the assertiveness required to function here on even a fundamental level has surprised me. At the same time, I have found myself feeling constantly like a bystander, a sort of passive observer to the marvelous Turkish world.
Perhaps the best example of this unusual combination came today at lunch. After class, I found myself with Katie in a cafeteria on campus, one in which you ask for what you want from a wide array of options pictured above you. Once I had decided what I wanted, I turned to order, only to realize I had absolutely no idea how to do so. I watched those around me, all of whom apparently had no issues acquiring food. Ten minutes passed before I concluded that studying their actions was of absolutely no help to me. I did not understand enough Turkish to know what they were telling the various people behind the three apparently different counters, and I could not for the life of me figure out if they were paying before or after ordering their meals.
I realize, of course, that this situation – to not be able to order a sandwich – sounds extremely silly, and believe me, I felt silly. Prior to this episode, I had only experienced in Turkey either a single counter, in which case the ordering process was rather obvious and straightforward, or a sit-down restaurant with a menu at which I could point. Now here, in an ordinary school cafeteria, I felt ridiculous, childlike. Eventually, like I seem to be doing so often these days, I decided to just go for it. I made my way to the cash register with Katie, and we requested one of the items on the menu. We were met by a stream of Turkish and a crisp, English “no”. After a few seconds of nothing but blank stares of incomprehension, another man zipped out from behind the counter. He began pointing at items on the menu and pronouncing their names, but he spoke so speedily that I could not connect pictures with words, and was unsure of what he was trying to say. Eventually, he stopped talking, looked at us pointedly, and said in English but with a strong Turkish accent, “Club sandwiches? Two?”
And so we ordered club sandwiches for lunch. We waited for five minutes or so for them to be made, and then a new challenge began – trying to pay for them. Again, I felt ridiculous. We tried repeatedly to get in what we assumed was a line to pay, but somehow we found ourselves in a stagnant position. We never moved, and yet people behind us were somehow ending up in front of us. Orderly lines are apparently not a given in Turkey. After a few minutes I managed to reach my hand around a couple in front of me and hand over 7 TL for my sandwich, and Katie somehow pushed herself to the front to get change for her own sandwich.
We emerged from the cafeteria exhausted, unclear on what exactly had just happened, but with food in hand.
Moments like this have become a normal occurrence for me. Events and scenery continue to wash over me; I barely know how to take them in. I cannot always control what I do, see, or even eat, and so I just let it all happen. I have trouble fathoming the full extent and intricacies of this place. And yet, even when I am picking things at random and letting Istanbul swirl around me, I find myself being aggressive. I zip between cars to cross the street in a way that I never would at home. I push my way into lines and through doors and do not feel a sense of guilt for cutting someone off (they do the same to me). I jam myself onto overcrowded busses, and I make snap decisions about food and activities even when I’m not sure to what I’ve just agreed.
I wish I could come to a grand conclusion about all of this. I wish I could tell you I am perfectly happy being caught in this state of aggressive passivity. The truth is that sometimes it’s uncomfortable, it’s unfamiliar, and it’s unsettling. But despite any preceding confusion, I’ve also never yet gone hungry, I’ve always successfully paid my bill, and thus far I really can’t complain about the outcomes of anything I’ve done, intentional or otherwise.
So I guess I’ll take the paradox.
And, you know, that Turkish club sandwich wasn’t half bad.