On Learning Turkish

I’ve never not had class on a Friday, and this was the reason why I was dressed, while my roommate, who enjoyed the luxury of spending the entire day at home, had only recently decided to change out of the sweatpants she had worn all day. We were about to walk to a friend’s apartment where we would find a party, our other roommates, more friends, and maybe one or two strangers. While she blew dry her hair, I waited on a rickety Ikea chair next to the island counter. As usual, I had a book in my hand.

At the time, what I had really wanted to read was a Patricia Highsmith novel. I had been in the mood for a smart thriller, but as luck would have it, Powell’s did not have a copy of Talented Mr. Ripley or Strangers on a Train. I picked up The Black Book instead because the blurb on the back cover promised a detective novel-like plot.

In the dim kitchen light, I tried my best to read carefully. Orhan Pamuk’s prose was dense. It was easy to breeze through the pages and still form the images written on the page, but the book also rewarded you for paying attention. The sentences were woven together with an eye for detail that felt lush. They were also long.

Take, for example, this one:

Although the radio was on from the first thing in the morning till the last thing at night, the thick-coated and not-at-all Turkish-looking china dog curled up on top of it never woke from his peaceful slumber.

The first time I read this sentence, I tripped over its syntax. The second time around, I was only half-paying attention. But then I tried again. A radio, a china dog, a peaceful slumber. I reread it one more time before running to my roommate’s room.

When she saw me at the doorway, she held out a skirt in each hand. “Peach or black?”

I pointed to the black one. “Do you know what’s really cool?” I didn’t wait for her to reply. “You can tell that this book was translated from Turkish! I just read this sentence…”

I tried to explain how the verbs in Turkish were always the last words of a sentence and how it was an agglutinative language. My professor had told our class how Turkish sentences and words could often go on forever, with clause after clause and suffix after suffix piled on top of one another. I described how reading through the short, simplified passages in my textbook was strenuous, even on the best of days, because my English-accustomed brain was not used to sifting through so many words to find the actions that drove a sentence. But that was why the sentence about the radio and the china dog was so astonishing. I had just read a string of words that managed to capture how meaning in Turkish revealed itself in peaks and glimpses, and once you understood, you felt a little silly because the message had been there all along, waiting patiently to put the pieces together.

The next morning, I read the translator’s afterward at the back of the book. Maureen Freely talked about devrik cümle, or a sentence “in which words appear in an order different from that ordained by custom and practice, and cascading clauses create a series of expectations that are subverted by the verb at the very end.” Quoting the poet Murat Nemet-Nejat, she described Turkish “as a language that can evoke a thought unfolding.” Thinking of my jumbled explanation from the night before, I admired and envied her eloquence.

***

You could say that I took Turkish on a whim. If pressed to explain, I would tell you how the course catalog made me feel listless by the time I had reached my last year at school. Language classes, unlike Lolita, the principal-agent problem, or my thesis, were straightforward. Each morning, I practiced pronunciation and took grammar quizzes with 24 others. I woke up at 8:30. I put on the clothes I had picked the night before. If the weather was good, I slid into my chair by 9:20. If it was raining, I’d arrive at 9:35. Crammed in a classroom more suited for 15, I tried not to spill crumbs of granola onto my neighbor’s notebook.

While readings and problem sets swallowed my evenings and afternoons, it only took me twenty minutes to finish my Turkish homework. I wrote answers in between classes on sheets torn from a spiral bound notebook. My handwriting was messier when I sat outside than on the days I managed to claim a coveted seat at Harper Cafe. It was the messiest when I finished my homework as author Paul Tough talked about his latest book at a school on the North Side. One parent glared when she noticed I was conjugating verbs instead of learning how children succeed. I didn’t care. My work was graded on completion, the stakes were low, and I had remembered to use the accusative.

I liked completing those exercises. I enjoyed translating sentences in the same way some people must have liked playing with Legos. With a little rearranging and some trial-and-error, clauses and endings snapped into place. Like an easy Sudoku puzzle, they required you to exert enough brainpower to feel accomplished but not drained.

This was productive procrastination at its finest, an easy excuse, a small source of comfort. I remember how late one Sunday evening, I looked at the to-do list in my planner. The John Cheever biography that I needed to read still sat in the stacks of the Reg. I had left a sixty-page submission packet for next week’s editorial meeting unread in my email. The notes on my econ. readings were too sparse to help me survive cold calling in class tomorrow. Fifty pages of Mrs. Dalloway stood in the way of sleep, but pressed beneath the novel’s facedown pages were ten sentences and a page of translations. I would be just fine when I woke up the next morning.

***

I once took a class on magical realism in Slavic literature. It was the winter of my second year, and all I wanted to do was read. If I couldn’t hibernate, then at least I could immerse myself in fantastic happenings set in Balkan villages and Soviet Russia, which was the next best thing at the time.

The class required a presentation and two papers. I gave the introduction to Orhan Pamuk and explained how Turkey often found itself caught between the East and the West. I wrote my final paper on Dear Shameless Death, an obscure bildungsroman about a girl’s move from a rural village to Istanbul, using crinkled ethnographies nearly twice my age.

I have a lot of fun turning random details of my life into neat, organized narratives, but it’s a silly game to play. It’s amusing to think that my interest in Turkish was inevitable, but on any given day, I’m equally fascinated by Abstract Expressionism, grocery stores, giraffes, people watching at airports, Roland Barthes, news articles about Millennials, or the Oxford comma. Depending on the moment, I might be more inclined to think poultry than country.

***

My college roommates were a cosmopolitan bunch. Spanish, French, Russian, Chinese, German, Italian, French, Turkish. We knew a lot of languages and had traveled to a lot different countries. Throughout our four years at school, we shared stacks of index cards and looked at each other’s vocabulary lists, which were often crumpled and grease stained from too many days spent on the kitchen counter.

But if I wanted to add to our collective polyglot household, I should have taken Arabic or Swahili. By the time I signed up for Turkish 101, I was already redundant. My linguistic-major friend was the original trailblazer when it came to choosing language classes, and Turkish had been her pick when it came to choosing something non-Indo-European.

It was never my plan to go to Istanbul either. That was also a roommate’s suggestion, the same one who humored my sudden tangent about The Black Book. We had both chosen to study abroad in the fall and booked our return flights to America on the same day. Over Skype, she floated the idea of Turkey because “it seemed cool.” I’d wanted to go to Italy, thinking that pasta and Renaissance art would be nice after a short stay in Germany, but when I calculated the cost of flying from Berlin to Istanbul and then onwards to London, where I would catch my flight home, it made no sense to say no.

I still haven’t been to Italy, but I didn’t realize how Istanbul was just what I needed until I stepped off the Metro and saw Istanbul’s cityscape sprawled beneath our feet. The city felt manageable even though we couldn’t figure out how to say thank you (teşekkur ederim) no matter how many times we listened to the automated Google Translate recording. Like Blanche DuBois, we depended on the kindness of strangers. An old man was determined to give us his seat on the metro, even though we were happy to lean against our suitcases. When we were caught in the rain on our way to the bus stops, two women offered us their umbrellas. There was one of our neighbors, who was willing to let us into our AirBNB apartment complex after I had broken our key in half on the building’s door, and our even more forgiving host who met us early the next morning to replace the key. When I lost my wallet, the kindly concierge at a fancy airport lounge let me use the WiFi to email my parents and tell them to cancel my credit cards. My mom still liked the ceramic bowls I’d bought from the Grand Bazaar even though they arrived in shattered, scattered pieces.

There were a lot of things I liked about my stay in Turkey. I liked the pomegranate I bought at the local grocery store and the frozen mantı that we’d cooked for dinner at our AirBNB. I liked the stray cats that wandered around the neighborhood. I liked how you could casually step onto a ferry and arrive on a different continent. I liked that there were jellyfish in the Bosporus and that people went fishing on Galeta Bridge.

I’d learned five words by the time I returned: merhaba, elma, çay, çıkış, süt. Hello, apple, tea, exit, milk. There was a lot to like about three months in Paris, but Istanbul was the city that I talked about. Three years later, I still say that Istanbul was one of my favorite cities, even though I’d only spent four days there and didn’t even get a chance to try Ayran.

***

Sometimes, images of Istanbul emerge from the bottom of my brain. There’s a particular shade of teal that always reminds me of the beautiful mosaics at the Topaki Palace. Sometimes, the upside-down Medusa busts in the Basilica Cisterns pop into my head, and there’s the memory of me sitting on a futon, scooping out the insides of a pomegranate with a tea spoon.

On the other hand, my knowledge of Turkish has slipped away quietly. I still know enough to tell you what I am doing. Kanepede oturuyorum. I am sitting on the couch. I hate how when I was trying to think of the Turkish word for orange (turuncu), my brain offered up Spanish instead (naranja).

I’ve also missed three chances to see Orhan Pamuk speak. The first chance was a talk at Columbia, where Pamuk is a faculty member. The second was at a ticketed conversation at the New York Public Library. The third event was free and open to the public at the Brooklyn library, but things that are free disappear quickly in this city.

In retrospect, learning Turkish was never really about knowing another language—that was just an added bonus (and a great conversation starter). Here’s another memory that I’ll remember much longer than the vocabulary that I memorized on my walks to campus. My friend and I had just caught a cab to Beyoğlu with our suitcases in tow. I was inches from falling asleep, and the radio was playing a Will.I.Am song. I leaned my head outside the window just in time to see how everything looked golden in the afternoon sun. The domes of mosques and spiraled minarets rose and fell as we drove through the sloped roads. Seagulls flew above the Golden Horn. It was warm, almost spring-like compared to Berlin, where my plane had landed in six inches of snow and all my sweaters and long-sleeved shirts couldn’t keep me from catching a terrible cold. After spending the past three months looking up, my neck craned towards Old World buildings and Rococo ceilings, I liked being able to take in a city in one fell swoop. I liked how the bits and glimpses of the city I had caught from the airport suddenly unfolded and materialized into this gorgeous, sun-soaked cityscape. I’d never been so impressed by anything in my life, and with my forehead still against the car window, I let myself be carried by a sudden onslaught of wonder.

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