13 February, 2010

Tunalı staircase, with pickpockets

backdate 11 Feb 2010

The second week of classes is so much messier than the first, when you haven't quite adapted to a new schedule yet and mix up the meeting times. Here, by contrast to UMaine, most classes meet twice a week - or once, for one to three hours. Just to keep things interesting, they usually start at different times on different days - for example 13:40 on Tuesday and 15:40 on Thursday - which i managed to transpose, of course, and miss Tuesday's class. So it was Wednesday night; i'd been beating my head against the last two assignments for a year-old incomplete course all evening, missing bus after bus into the city. Around eleven, i took the last bus from campus to join the Erasmus students for the weekly gathering at Crow Pub, high on a fifth floor in Tunalı.

Tunalı is the club district, just uptown from the Rixos Grand Ankara hotel. Along the gradient of neighborhoods, it's considered the safe end, next to the bourgeois Çankaya district full of embassies. As you travel north on Ataturk boulevard, though, neighborhood reputations become increasingly cautionary: be wary in Kızılay, never go to Ulus alone, don't go to Altındağ period. So what occurred on to that fifth floor pub was a surprise.

The stairwell is open to the street; on each floor a door leads to a different pub. It was about the third landing where two boys, in their young teens, loitered. One sat on the sill of the open third-story window, hanging precipitously over the alley, smiling. The younger one engaged me, friendly. But of course i couldn't understand his Türkçe. "Anlamadım," i said. I don't understand.

The kid was insistent. He began to lift my shirt; i pushed him away. Then he switched to something i could understand. "One lira. One lira."  I gave him a lira, which only increased his insistence; the older one now sat on the railing beside us, laughing. I began to push the kid, to try to shoulder my way past. So the older one approached me - and i knew he was talking about futbol when he said Fenerbahçe. I know, Oğuz, i'm a Galatasaray fan, and i'm sorry, but i figured playing along was the best course of action. Fenerbahçe, i cheered, and the boy gave me a hug. I felt a hand slipping toward my pocket.

Did one of them have a knife? I didn't know, so i tried to avoid escalating the situation. I just keep pushing, and the little one with his brown face screwed into an expression of sheer determination, gripped the railing and pushed back. It was a stalemate, his Türkçe growing more rapid and me saying, Anlamadım. Anlamadım.
At last four young men and women ascended the stairs on their way to Crow. We'll send someone down to help, they said as they squeezed by. But they didn't need to. It was one moment of sheer disorientation, and then i slipped past the boy. Bisiktirgit! he said. (The thing about learning a language from your roommates is you learn all the küfür, the swears, first. It was one of the few things he said that i understood.)

It could happen anywhere. That i understand; a classmate was concerned, when i told him, that the experience not affect my perception of Turkiye. And it does not - instead it is another of the facets of moving to a city with three times the population of my entire home state. But i walk the streets - still alone - with a new caution. I know the street kids have nothing to lose.