Use Your Words

Istanbul Skyline

I’ve called myself a writer since I was five years old. I have a vivid memory of writing a series of illustrated story books about the Rainbow princess and her tribe of valiant warriors, each of whom bore a costume in a color of said rainbow. Apparently, even as a child, I understood the power of franchising opportunities.

So, from a young age, I’ve been good with words. Able to express myself. Well-versed in getting my point across, in print, on the phone or in person. I’m a smart girl, if I do say so myself, and I can talk to just about anyone.

But that’s all in English.

When I studied in Spain in 2000, I first grasped the frustration of not being capable of saying what I was thinking. I spoke Spanish reasonably well, but in a 400-level literature course analyzing the poetry of Ruben Dario, I quickly realized how maddening the limits of my vocabulary were. (I still don’t know how to say “existential crisis” or “I believe the imagery in the third stanza symbolizes the enduring struggle between the Id and the Ego” in Spanish.) Incredibly frustrated, I finally announced to my professor one day, “I am not stupid. I sound stupid in Spanish, but I am not a stupid person!” To my credit, I’m pretty sure I managed to say it in Spanish. But expressing myself on that high of level, day in and day out, in a foreign language was absolutely exhausting.

But that was just Spanish. And I was wearing clothes.

I spent two weeks in Istanbul last year to kick off my trip to Europe, spending time with American friends who live there. I wasn’t planning on learning a lot of Turkish for my 12-day stint, other than the requisite “Merhaba” (hello) and “Tesekuleh” (which I know is spelled wrong, but hey, I’m pretty proud that I remembered how to say thank you in Turkish a year later).

My lack of language skills proved to be a bit more of a challenge than the average tourist faces, as I was staying on the Asian side, far away from the English-speaking tourism touts. I brought home nearly a pound of baklava from the corner bakery because I couldn’t manage to explain that I really just wanted one piece. The Turks’ famous hospitality and friendliness neatly accommodated my complete inability to communicate in most instances, but I felt consistently helpless and utterly reliant on the help of others. It’s a rather instructive place to be once in a while. I was loving every minute.

Until I went to the Turkish bath. A language barrier is all well and good when you’re trying to navigate the bus system, but try being naked. My friends, in an effort to make my experience authentic, save me from getting ripped off, and help me avoid the coed baths frequented by European travelers, sent me to a bath at a mosque on the Asian side. I went clutching a hand-drawn map with key vocabulary words: “massage,” “soap,” “men,” and “women.” And thank God for those last two, because the full impact of stumbling into the wrong door became evident to me when I walked out of the rain, through a beaded curtain, and straight into a room with a whole lot of large topless Turkish women just sweating it out.

Between my crib sheet and the fact that money tends to communicate pretty well all on its own, I managed to pay and be shown to my changing room without incident. The trouble came when I was down in the baths themselves. There’s a whole system to the thing: get yourself wet with water, but not too much, and not too hot, and don’t use soap,well, not yet, then go the sauna, but for how long?

When the people on both ends of a conversation are mostly naked, some of the normal coping mechanisms we use when communicating with someone in a foreign language are rather less effective. Subtleties of body language are overcome by–well, by bodies. One must be delicate when gesturing when one is talking to someone unclothed. Add to all that the general frustration of not being understood. It’s like I had a dream that I was back in that Spanish classroom, trying to wax intelligent about Dario poetry but I’d forgotten to get dressed. But I was awake. And still naked.

The bath lady was twice as frustrated as I, which didn’t help. There was a lot of yelling in Turkish. She threw some water at me, in what I sincerely believe was an intention to be helpful. Finally, a young woman about my age who spoke a little English gave me some pointers. During my massage (which was awkward all on its own; marble slab + soapy lather = slippery), my bather used some of her very few syllables of English to get me to roll over: “Laa-dey, move.” She said “lady” as if it had three syllables and followed up her command with some pretty brutal scrubbing.

Not the most relaxing experience of my life, but I left with the softest skin I’ve ever had, a new perspective on cross-cultural communication, and extreme gratitude for clothing as I conversed with Turks for the rest of the week.

I’d like to say that I stuck around, befriended my masseuse by the sheer power of authentic eye contact and learned Turkish vocabulary and scrubbing techniques from her over a nice cup of tea, laughing over our previous gaffes and learning to communicate in a language that transcended words.

I didn’t. I went to the mall. Yep, there are malls in Istanbul. (And before you judge, I will maintain that there was intense cultural learning in this experience, too. Have you gone clothes shopping in a Muslim country? All very modest. Great for tall girls, actually.) And then I drank a latte at a German cafe in the Turkish mall. (Starbucks was full.)

But as I drank that latte, I sat down and wrote about it all. Because sometimes you just have to use whatever words you’ve got. They’re never enough, words, but when used well, they inspire us to dig deeper and express the shadows of that which can’t be said. My words couldn’t make me understood at the baths, but using them helped me understand myself and my reaction to my surroundings a little bit better. And I think it’s that process of reflection that makes all the difference. Even if we’re too exhausted or not equipped with the resources to make all the dots connect, at least we’re giving it an honest try.

Even if I do sound like a stupid person in Turkish.

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1 Response to “Use Your Words”


  1. 1 Jen 18 January 2011 at 08:39

    This is a great article on translation, Istanbul, Pamuk… fits with the theme of the post. http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/nov/28/maureen-freely-translation-orhan-pamuk


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