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 for you 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. Continue reading “On Learning Turkish”

My Favorite European Food Experiences

1. The “Falafel Special” at L’As du Fallafel. This falafel sandwich, wrapped in pita, smothered with delicious white sauce and topped with eggplant and cabbage, is easily the best €5.50 I’ve ever spent. The green storefront is tucked away in the Marais, and after every final, I took line 1 to St. Paul and ate my food under the awning of a Jewish deli across the street from the restaurant, which always seemed to have delicious matzah ball soup. The falafel, fried and seasoned to crisp perfection and piping warm, was worth a trek, even if it meant eating under the pouring rain.

2. A giant pomegranate that I bought at a Carrefour in Istanbul. Back at the apartment, I used a butter knife to open the fruit, which made a big mess. Pro tip: first pick out all the little red kernels into a bowl and scoop them up with a spoon for neat and efficient consumption.

3. The “Autumn Special” poffertjes at a pancake place in Amsterdam. I thought I would have had to wait until I returned home to have pancake like foods. Crêpes are plenty delicious, but they don’t have the same soft, fluffiness. Luckily, poffertjes certainly held me over. The small, mini-pancakes that I ordered came with a scoop of vanilla ice cream drizzled with cranberry and cherry sauce and chocolate shavings. Whipped cream held everything together, and I dipped the cakes in a caramel maple syrup from a bottle on a table. One of the best brinners I’ve ever had and a perfect respite from the cold rainy weather outside.

4. Macarons from Pierre Hermé. Laudurée, established in 1862, may have a two hundred fifty year pedigree, and indeed, their salted caramel macarons are heavenly, especially since they’re  filled with smooth, sea salt caramel. But in terms of overall yumminess, Pierre Hermé has got it beat. Each macaron has the perfect balance of filling and cookie and an immaculate presentation – bright colors, smooth gilded surfaces, soft creamy insides. The rose flavor was astonishing and tasted like a sunny English tea garden, and I had a “Mogador,” a seasonal creation that blended chocolate and passionfruit.

5. Pain au noix from Eric Kayser. One of our school guides pointed out that the Eric Kayser bakery near the UChicago Center in Paris was “very good.” It was only later that I found out that Eric Kayser is internationally renowned for his baked goods. I had been munching on mainly pastries and baguettes when I decided to try something different. After some hand gesturing to indicate that I meant a small loaf of bread and not a small dinner roll when I said “petit pain,” my bread was sliced and wrapped neatly in breakfast, still warm and smelling heavenly. I usually dislike nuts and things in my bread, but the recipe integrated everything perfectly. I ate a slice with blueberry jam everyday for breakfast, and it had a mild sweetness that made it perfect for a light meal or afternoon snack.

6. Lentils in Madrid. Lentils are another food for which I do not have strong feelings, but these lentils were hearty and nourishing. Cooked with Spanish sausage, they were a simple appetizer and recommended by our waiter to general acclaim.

7. Cool dessert thing in Loire Valley. And that whole meal in general. Apologies for the unintelligible description. Plus, it’s one of the only meals that I did not document on film.

8. Confit de canard at Chartier. Chartier has the distinction of serving French food at great prices and in a historic looking, hotel-esque setting. When we arrived at 6:30, the line had already spiraled to the end of the block. Although quality wise, there were probably finer restaurants in the city, it was just what my friends and I wanted, a place of minor distinction and affordable. We started our meal with escargot, which is actually quite good, a big hit if you are a fan of shellfish and buttery sauce. Confit de carnard is a leg of duck, my favorite type of poultry, often accompanied with potatoes. The potatoes in question were adorable: cute, little, round things still wearing their skins and soft enough to pierce easily with a fork. It’s a French dish that appears everywhere in Paris, one of my absolute favorites.

9. A full English breakfast in London. Picture a runny egg, a side of bacon and ham, plus buttered toast. It sounds like pretty ordinary. Now add a tureen of baked beans, a sliced tomato, and some black pudding, and there you have it! English breakfast! At least five sources of protein and something to fill our stomach for the entire morning and then some. Everything was good, even the black pudding, which in theory sounds gross but in practice is not half-bad. After weeks of pastries and yogurt, it was a much-appreciated departure for the most important meal of the day.

10. On the same note, a meat pie in London. The beef was so tender that it fell off the bone when I tried to scoop a piece with my fork.

11. White wine at our wine-tasting. Despite our wine-tasting session, the task of detecting fruity florals or wood-like flavors in wine still perplexes me. However, the first wine that they served was a half-dry white and soothingly sweet. It was a bright, golden color, a little viscous, and reminded me of honey. I wish I’d written down the name.

12. Christmas market currywurst in Berlin. There were Christmas markets everywhere, and you can’t leave Berlin without trying its staple street food dish. At one market, they made it with potatoes instead of typical dinner roll, and it was a great, hearty snack for a clod, blustery night.

13. Home-cooked Turkish grocery store meal. We wound up just cooking dinner for ourselves each night that we were in Istanbul. At the store around the corner, we picked up a package of köfta, spiced lamb patties that were fried on the stove, a package of frozen mantı, which are star-shaped pasta noodles filled with meat, a loaf of fresh bread, spicy tomato pepper sauce, and beyaz peynir, which is known simply as white cheese. Picking up random food from the store was half the fun.

14. Sangria in Barcelona. I had a Spanish tortilla with a small pitcher that I shared with a friend. It was sweet, and there were pieces of pears, apples, and grapes floating as happy as they could be, bumping into cylinder-shaped ice cubes.

15. French fries at Albert Cuyp Market. I had just eaten an ossenworst sandwich, but there was a fry stand at the corner, and I couldn’t resist. I paid an extra thirty cents for mayonaise, the best pocket change that I’d ever spent.