30 January, 2010


I wandered the streets of Kızılay and Maltepe alone for the first time, in search of a SIM card for my second-hand cell phone. I could have gone with the other Erasmus students to buy a SIM card, but i had a mission of sorts - to find the shop on Necatibey Cad ("Nejatibey Street") where Emin and i had asked last Sunday, and a very helpful associate who had given us his card.

Really, though, the mission was trying to communicate without assistance for the first time. Along the way i bought simit and borek from a street vendor, 3 pieces for 1 TL. Across Atatürk Boulevard i found myself on a wide pedestrian street lined with shops - Amerikan Pazarı, Japon Pazarı; fish markets and small groceries open to the street, bins of produce spilling colorfully towards a crowd of walkers. And at last i was on Necatibey. Trouble is, street numbers are hard to find here, and on Necatibey, TurkCell shops are a lira a dozen. Feeling lost and suddenly nervous, i stepped into one and asked, "does anyone here speak English?"

The manager understood, and repeated the question in Turkish. A young sales agent stepped over; his name was Selçuk. His English was slim; it was just enough to complete the transaction. "In three hours," he said, "the card will be activated. Call 8090 and …2…". Struggling for the word he wanted, Selçuk turned to Google translator.
"Press?" i asked.
"Yes," he said, relieved. "Press 2 for English menu."

It was a strange encounter. A safe enough one, as the plan and price were marked, and there was little incentive to take this hapless foreigner for a ride. Instead, the manager and another sales agent gathered around. It seemed serving an American customer was a novel thing for them, a novelty they thoroughly enjoyed. As we completed the transaction, Selçuk said, "Tamam. It is no problem...(translator check) at all. If you need anything, here is my number and email. And," he laughed, "facebook. Come back any time. We wait for you."

The open-air book market on Karanfıl seems to be a favorite spot of mine. Granted, most of the books are in Turkçe - but Emin told me there are English books here too - and, i had heard, textbooks. Sellers welcomed me to their stalls, only to find they couldn't communicate with me. In one, i found not one but two Organizational Behavior textbooks. Right class, right language even. Wrong authors.

As i crossed the city's core back to the bus stop, i couldn't help but notice afresh the English language centers. COPE. TOEFL. Acronyms for proficiency tests filled fifth-story windows. Makeshift blue-tarp shelters filled a side street. As i passed them a second time, i heard chanting, and realized this was the Tekel strike i'd heard about. (Tekel - literally, "monopoly" - was the government-owned alcohol and tobacco cooperative; when factories were recently privatized, many workers were dismissed without pensions.) It was the 47th day of the strike.


On the bus ride home i couldn't help but meditate on the role English plays in modern Turkiye. There is no immediate threat to their unique Altaic language, though global brands slowly erode the monolingualism of the marketplace. More than any language, my native, highly irregular tongue is, ironically, the language of uniformity and opportunity. In Real, the local answer to Walmart, i am looking for shampoo. A young female attendant asks if she can help (or at least that's what i think she's asking).
"Turkçe bilmiyorum," i reply, and she launches into a clear, if tenuous, English.
"Welcome to Turkiye. How can i help you?"

Bilkent University offers another example. It's a school of the upper crust, a storehouse of global opportunity, and with the exception of history and Turkish literature, classes are taught in English. Nonetheless, campus signage is almost exclusively in Turkçe, and support staff - the dormitory attendants and blue-collar workers of campus - speak little to no English at all. (One other notable exception, to my chagrin, is the 1-credit strength training class i signed up for. The Athletic Dept. director encouraged me to give it a shot anyway, suggesting classmates could translate if the instructor could not. Did anyone say "immersion"?)

Cooking dinner with the roommates, i realize why they call this an exchange. We're constantly making explanations to each other, as tavuk, pilav, and sebze simmer on the stove for a late meal. It turns out that in Turkçe, "olmak" - to be, to happen - is a multipurpose term. When they're hungry, my roommates explain, they ask "yemek oldu mu?" - has food happened?

I test the sebze (vegetables). Translating without thinking, Oğuz asks in English, "is potatoes happened?" We share a hearty laugh.