Wednesday, February 24, 2010


Four years, five pounds and one baby ago, I put on a pair of şalvar, covered my hair with a scarf to keep it clean and out of my face, and milked a cow. Or rather, tried to. I never did manage to squeeze a drop of milk out of that animal's stubborn teats, but the day remains a highlight of my early months in Turkey -- I wasn't working and had no stress or responsibilities; I could focus entirely on ''the experience,'' ''the adventure'' of my new expat life.

Recently, I found the pictures from that day. The first thing I thought upon seeing them was how skinny I used to be! No matter how carefully I eat, life here has just that much more oil and unrefined carbs, and no opportunity to walk anywhere. But that's beside the point. Looking at the four photos taken that afternoon transported me back to that village house and garden, whose residents have recently reentered our lives, incidentally, and to the wonderful truly alive feeling I had that day.

It's also appropriate that I should have stumbled upon those photos just now, because Murat and his wife recently gave us a huge bucket of yogurt. I don't know how many kilograms the silver bucket held, but it was darn heavy, and every time I put it back on its shelf in the fridge, I worried the shelf would break! The yogurt lasted two weeks, and we needed to eat a little every single day in order to get through the whole lot. But it was the best yogurt I've ever eaten, so that wasn't difficult. It was so sweet and creamy, I even asked if they'd put sugar in it! (''Just milk,'' they promised ... although I've heard that before!)

And the best part? It's from the milk of the very same cow I milked four years ago!

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Car Seats Soon to be the Law

Back before I mellowed into the calmer, more accepting, less judgmental expat-me, one of my favourite sources of outrage was the fact that no one in Turkey seems to use children's car seats. And though I still, without exception, see children on a parent's lap in the front seat of a car, or otherwise bouncing around the vehicle, my blood no longer boils every time.

Not because it no longer bothers me; but because I've gained perspective. Fifty years ago, Canadians didn't use car seats either; and Turkey has had other things to worry about -- military coups and the collapse of the economy, for example.

But over the past four years I've seen change; more and more adults are wearing seat belts, for example.

More recently, Toyota, who has a huge presence in Turkey, ran a television commercial for its brand in general, with the slogan ''çıkarım senle her yola,'' which translates roughly as ''wherever you go, I'll go with you.'' The ad features nothing but children of different ages in car seats, which I immediately went bonkers over. I saw the entire ad campaign as a public service announcement -- instead of featuring its cars on scenic highways and taking hairpin turns, or navigating bad weather conditions with ease, Toyota chose to pull on viewers' heart strings. ''Life is a long road,'' goes the jingle, and Toyota will be with these children through adulthood.

And then, just a week or two ago, my friend and our school nurse called me on a Saturday, and asked me, all excitedly, whether I'd seen the news! She went on to tell me that it had just been announced that car seats for children were about to become the law! Since Baby's birth, she'd been helping me navigate the complicated Turkish health care system, taking me to his various appointments at the doctor's, the local health centre, and the hospital. And she'd observed with interest my conversations with the nurses, doctors and technicians we met, often commenting on how much she liked my ''different'' way of doing things -- not overdressing Baby in the heat; questioning his vaccines; and insisting on using a car seat for even the shortest trips!

I wonder if the traffic police will also start cracking down on the families of five on motorbikes, none of them wearing helmets?

Friday, February 19, 2010

Mystery Solved! or Turkish Vocabulary Lessons

Well, this just goes to show that when you put your mind to something, you're bound to get results. I have admittedly been OBSESSED by this mystery insect invasion, regularly cleaning off and then checking all surfaces in Baby's nursery, leaning in close to inspect -- did that dot just move? Your eyes play tricks on you when something's that small, I've learned. Oh, if only I'd had a magnifying glass ...

So anyway, I'd started to notice that although there were no new dots on the crib, there were plenty on the changing table across the room. Why were these critters continuing to fall on one side of the room, and not the other? I can't tell you how many times I craned my neck and squinted up at the 15-foot ceilings, searching for something unusual about that corner. Nothing.

And then I decided to look down. At some point on Thursday afternoon, I decided to look at the non-white surfaces of the room, namely the brown wooden floor. At first glance, there was nothing to see. But as my eyes scanned the edges of the room, they settled on an area where the mouldings seemed dirty. I crouched down as closely as I dared, making sure to keep my hands and knees off the floor, not wanting to touch a bug! There they were, concentrated in one foot-long area of the room -- millions of dead specks. I looked up, already knowing what I was going to find.

Months earlier, I'd had some of Baby's organic bedding leaning up against the wall in its posh linen bags in that corner. (Remember, please, these had been gifts!) Periodically, I'd noticed some kind of debris on top -- tiny pieces of straw and black sand. I'd realized they were falling from a crack between the wall and the tin plate covering an old hole where a wood stove pipe had been. We'd only been living in the apartment a few weeks, but I'd been noticing a strange sound whenever I was in the bathroom, just off the soon-to-be nursery. I swore it sounded like the cooing of pigeons, but where the heck were they? Surely not inside the building? But they sounded so close!

One day I was walking towards our front entrance, returning from errands, and looked up to see a huge hole in the outside wall of Baby's nursery, about a foot wide and tall. And there were pigeons roosting in it! A quick not-too-mathematically-accurate calculation taking into account the thickness of the stone walls told me there were at least two square feet of nesting space there.

Now I realized my mystery invaders were coming from the pigeons' nest! Pigeon lice? Pigeon mites? This time, my Google search yielded thousands of results. My relief at solving the mystery was overshadowed by the realization that the pesticide sprayed in the room and attic had probably not hit the pigeons' nest, and was only killing the bugs that fell into the room. Something had to be done!

One particularly informative website warned me that getting rid of the pigeons wouldn't be enough; their nest and the entire area had to be cleaned out because the lice and other critters that had been living there would migrate, looking for new homes! The article went on to warn of the damage these lice and mites could cause humans! Horror!!!

This morning I spoke with the grounds manager. I now know the Turkish words for pigeon, flea (which it wasn't), and lice (which it was). Thankfully he shared my alarm. Within 15 minutes, a man with a ladder and a huge gun filled with silicone caulking was at our door, and sealed all the edges around the tin plate.

I'll be inspecting all the white surfaces for black dots tomorrow morning!

Thursday, February 18, 2010


On Tuesday morning, I put Baby down in his crib to play with his mobile. At eight weeks, he's still sleeping in a cot in our bedroom, but I sometimes use the crib in his nursery for naps or play time; I also use the changing table in that room for changing and dressing him. To my horror, I noticed two or three tiny black moving dots on the bed sheet!

I immediately picked him up again, and upon further inspection, noticed that there were similar moving black dots all over the bed -- on the sheet, on the railings, and even on the mobile! I was horrified!! What were these insects? Where did they come from? Where they in the mattress or bumper pads? Would I have to throw any of them out? Did they bite??!!

I called the school's grounds manager -- thank goodness there is someone like that to call -- and he came immediately, with another man in tow ... a bug expert? No one knew what the bug was, but one speculation included wood mites. Within 15 minutes the room had been cleared of its few items; all fabrics were in the washing machine at a scalding temperature; and some kind of bug spray was being sprayed, both in the room and inside the attic.

We all stood around trying to figure out what kind of bugs these were and where they had come from. The men concluded they had ''fallen'' from the wooden ceiling.

Thank goodness my cleaning lady was here that day; Baby was on day 2 of a nap strike, and was overtired and fussy. As a result, I hadn't been able to put him down to play in his bouncy chair or crib much, and he'd been attached to me for two days, it seemed. Had I had to actually do anything other than organize the bug defensive, I think I wouldn't have been able to handle it. With Baby alternately on my hip and down for 5-minute naps, from which he awoke screaming, all I had to do was watch, ask questions and instruct. ''There are some more over here. Let's wash this too. Are they over there, too? You say the bug spray doesn't harm humans; why should we stay out of the room for a day, then? What would happen if I licked it? What would happen if I licked the dried spot where the wet poison had been?''

An internet search turned up nothing, and I concluded that we hadn't truly gotten to the heart of the matter. But what could I do? It was a mystery: why were the insects only in one room? And where did they come from? Could they really have rained down from the ceiling? In one room only?! Our building is historic but poorly maintained, and I suppose the combination of cracks in the wooden ceiling and decades' worth of dust in the attic could have created the breeding ground for something like this. But I wasn't convinced. I wanted to believe we'd found an explanation, but my instinct told me we were kidding ourselves.

The next morning, I hesitantly went to the nursery to see if there were any bugs on the white surfaces of the crib or changing table, or on the bed sheets hanging to dry on the drying stand. There were. We'd cleaned off all surfaces the previous day, so these were new bugs. Although it seemed that 95% of them were dead, and there were fewer than the day before! Hooray! I wiped off all the surfaces and held my breath until the following morning.

Again I went to the nursery first thing in the morning. More insects, although fewer still than the day before, and mostly dead. My unscientific calculation told me now we were at a 99% mortality rate. This was good news, but I wasn't celebrating yet. Why did they continue to appear each morning? And we still didn't know what kind of insect they were!

I had no choice but to get back to life-as-normal as much as possible, and try not to obsess. I've set up an impromptu changing station in the living room, where Baby's travel changing pad has now taken a permanent place on the sofa; spare diapers, wet wipes and cream lie beside it; a change of clothes is draped over the back of the couch. My laundry stand is in the kitchen, where nothing rains down on my clean clothes. And I avoid the nursery like the plague, entering only when absolutely necessary. Which unfortunately is several times a day, since our bathroom is off that room. But I always put shoes on and hold my breath as I pass through.

I continue to check the room each morning, each time finding a few less bugs. But there doesn't seem to be an end in sight. I've gotten kind of used to this new normal, though. I admitted to my husband over breakfast this morning that the thought of five adult humans, standing baffled in the middle of a room covered by near-microscopic crawling dots, trying to kill them all, was somewhat comical.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

The Nanny Search

My mat leave ends in six weeks and I'll be going back to work, albeit with certain allowances: I'm allowed 1.5 hours a day to breastfeed Baby, and since I live right across from school, that'll be easy. My teaching schedule is likewise brilliant in that it has many large open periods each day, so I won't be rushing to get home, feed and be back, all within a 40-minute period. Instead, it'll almost be like working part time.

But I will need a nanny, there's no getting around that. So how to find one?

Many working women in Turkey leave their children with their own mothers, and I envy them that. I've observed the way these older women eagerly await the day when their daughters will have babies so that they can have someone to care for again. This is in stark contrast to my mother, who would not be at all interested in looking after her grandchildren full time; she's raised her own four and moved on! She's now involved with the career she had to put on hold for twenty-five years; why would she want to give it up all over again?

And then of course there's the small problem of geography; my mother lives in Canada.

But back to reality. There are no nanny agencies in our city; indeed, there are no nannies per se. Since taking care of children is such a ''natural'' thing, any woman is considered capable of doing it. Women whose own children no longer need them full time, or else women who don't have grandchildren, are happy to look after someone else's as a way to supplement the household income.

So my nanny will be entirely capable of changing Baby's diapers, comforting his cries, and feeding him the bottles of expressed milk I'll leave for him. But finding someone who also excels at the other aspects of childcare -- playing with him, stimulating his developing mind and body with cooing and talking, using his Fisher-Price Circus Gym to full effect, giving him tummy time each day -- will be a bonus.

But we still have to find someone, and there are no job ads. Instead, everything is done by word of mouth. Luckily, a little investigation has yielded lots of interest.

The first candidate cold-called me; or rather, her sister-in-law called me. The connection is vague, and my husband still doesn't get it, but I'll try to make it clear: the nanny's sister-in-law goes to a hair salon where I've on occasion gone to get my legs waxed; the owner of the salon told this other customer of hers that ''a foreign teacher at the American school'' was having a baby and would surely be looking for a nanny. Now, I need to add that I don't know the owner of the salon, nor did we ever speak about me needing a nanny. Anyway, this other salon customer tracked me down through the school, and I agreed to meet her sister-in-law.

I had some doubts right away. Why didn't the nanny call me herself? And could I trust someone I didn't know, or who didn't have the reference of someone I knew? But she actually turned out to be quite good, and we would have hired her, had she the reference of someone other than a hairdresser I didn't really know!

The second candidate was referred to us by someone who knows someone, which was an improvement over the previous nanny. But, in keeping with the rules of irony, I was prepared to hate her. However, she was pretty good too!

My husband and I couldn't believe our luck; two for two!

And then along came a third candidate, this time recommended by our family doctor, whom we respect and trust immensely. Could she be the perfect package, then? A great reference and a great nanny? But she turned out to be mind-bogglingly unsuited for the job.

My first impression of her, over the phone, wasn't great: she called me canim and hayatim, the Turkish equivalent of ''honey'' or ''sweetheart,'' more times than I could count. I realize it's just a reflex of hers, she clearly calls everyone that, but I'm sorry -- you haven't even met me yet, so how can I be your hayatim, ''my life?!!'' And besides -- it's a term of endearment you don't use with your potential employer! I could see this woman wouldn't listen to any of my instructions, and would instead be inclined to do things her way.

But I second-guessed my instinct and agreed to meet with her. I could be petty and list all the little things that bothered me about her. But I'll skip to the whoppers. After reassuring me that despite her tremendous knowledge about childrearing, she'd do things in whatever way I showed her, she proceeded to give me the following instruction: as I put my son to my breast to feed him, I must recite Bismillah al rahman al rahim, which means ''In the name of God, most gracious, most merciful.'' I'd noticed she herself had uttered the phrase as she entered our home, and a few more times before undertaking anything -- changing Baby's diaper, or drinking a glass of tea. But to impose her faith on me was too much; Turkey is after all a secular society, and although there are many religious Muslims, there are also many non-practicing people.

The few Turkish people I told this to were shocked and found the whole thing quite funny. Needless to say, we did not hire her.