Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Why Turkey isn't Europe

Call me thick, but when it happened for the third time today, I finally got it.

Let me start at the beginning. Our baby's due date was somewhere around the end of December. Once or twice, my husband had mentioned his concern that a December baby would be disadvantaged at school. Typical me, I dismissed his concerns, pointing out that I was a December baby, and it hadn't hurt me one bit. (Note to self: must work on my sensitivity to others' concerns -- turns out my husband was really worried about this.)

When Baby was indeed born in late December, my husband pointed out that he was born in 2009, just like his cousin WHO WAS NOW 10 MONTHS OLD!! How could they be expected to be in the same class at school? A valid point. But don't these differences even themselves out? Again, I dismissed the subject. And besides, did we even have a choice?

Well, it turns out we did.

Later, when I replayed the above conversation in my head, I realized my husband had been asking me whether we shouldn't register Baby's birth date as January 1, 2010, thereby buying him an extra year's time. I'd assumed he was joking.

I must be a really bad listener, because a few other people had also casually asked whether we'd be registering Baby as having been born in January. But I never clued in.

Until this week, when I was at the local social security office, taking care of something to do with the end of my maternity leave. (Don't ask -- I'm still not even sure what exactly I was doing ... just following the instructions of my employer.) After asking my son's birth date, the extremely kind and patient man (I know I was driving him crazy. But that's another story.) -- a government official -- asked whether the birth date on our son's ID was the same as the one I had just given him, i.e. had we registered a different birth date!!!!!

Only then did it sink in. Apparently it's perfectly acceptable, or at least common practice, to fudge birth dates in Turkey! I must look into whether this is actually legal and the government simply figures a few days' difference doesn't really matter, or whether this is just another example of how Turkish people, kind and always willing to help each other out, never wanting to disappoint anyone or to have to say no to someone, turn a blind eye to the law.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Going Against the Grain

Never mind how annoying it is to be constantly told how wrong you are; it is tiring to persevere and continue doing things in the way that is right for you when your way is so different from the norm. I've written about how strangers on the street, never mind the nurses at the clinic where my son gets his vaccinations (medical professionals!), have told me I'm not dressing my baby warmly enough; and indeed, there's nothing like having a baby in a country that is passionate about children, to bring out the opinion in everyone.

I had my first taste of what a conformist society I had moved to four years ago when I was new in Turkey and living in my future mother-in-law's house. Unemployed and quite isolated, I was literally trying to rebuild a new life from scratch. I began by joining a gym, to which I'd walk several times a week. However, every time I left the house, I had to reassure my now husband's mother that I'd be fine, and that no, I didn't need her to send someone to accompany me. But I was too full of energy and optimism to see the subtler message: I shouldn't have been going out by myself.

However, I now speak the language and am a gelin, a bride, or daughter-in-law, and therefore an honourary Turk. And with that status, I lose a certain immunity; people now feel free to comment and criticize, to advise and admonish.

Traditionally, new mothers stayed home with their babies for forty days, recovering from the birth; they often spent those forty days in bed, while other women tended to all the household chores and took care of her. While this was only ever told to me in jest, and people admitted that modern Turkish women no longer wait forty days after having a baby to leave the house, I heard it often, and usually when someone learned I'd been out and about with my newborn again.

Indeed, within a week of giving birth, I put my baby into his pram and went to buy bananas from the grocer's around the corner. The following day we bought salad ingredients. On the third day, we went out just for the sake of going out; we took a walk. Getting myself out the door wasn't easy; I lacked any kind of inertia, and it was incredibly tempting to stay home, where I was comfortably entrenched on the sofa with everything I needed to feed, change and sleep my baby. I had TV, the internet, and books. And a husband more than happy to pick up dinner and groceries on his way home. Or better yet, to cook dinner himself. Not to mention the thought of fiddling with the pram.

But long days alone at home (a newborn who doesn't react to you does not provide adequate human contact), followed and preceded by sleepless nights, was disorienting and soon became depressing. I knew I needed to get out, that the benefits of fresh air and (adult) human contact far outweighed the (low) risk of exposing my baby to germs and chilly weather.

And so we took a daily walk whenever we could. The days we couldn't get out really did turn out to be difficult ones, and 'good' days always coincided with days when we'd managed to go outside. So convinced was I that these little excursions were vital, we even walked in the rain. And we started to walk further and further, sometimes for close to two hours.

Without realizing it, I was becoming a local phenomenon. Apparently the grocer, the fish monger and the baker all mentioned to my husband they'd seen me out on walks with the pram. They were astounded by my mobility.

I, however, am astounded by my determination. For nothing worked to facilitate my forays into the outside world. I pushed the pram along streets with sidewalks that suddenly ended; I went to malls, knowing there'd be no place to nurse. I resisted one doctor's advice and refused to give my 'starving' baby formula and sugar water when we had trouble breastfeeding the first few days. I insisted on strapping him into a car seat, and then struggling with the seatbelt to secure the thing, when people encouraged me to just hold the baby on my lap while someone else drove. (Again, the nurses!) And most recently, now that my son is nearing three months and sleep patterns are emerging, I endeavour to put him down for regular naps and to observe a nightly bedtime.

But my conviction is firm and thankfully my energy is great. I wonder what will be next?

Monday, March 15, 2010

Free Stuff!

Who doesn't like free stuff? Celebrities apparently get it all the time -- sunglasses, clothing, cell phones ... But am I weird for getting excited about free groceries?

I recently wrote about the 5-kilogram bucket of yogurt we get every few weeks from one of my husband's workers, but it dawned on me the other day that we are constantly receiving free food items, and in huge quantities at that. And I love it!

Turkey is a country that loves its domestic agricultural products, and there is plenty of everything. Add to that the country's culture of sharing, and you've got free food. My husband recently returned from a project in Anamur, a city famous for its bananas. Guess what he brought home with him?

But my husband is from a large family, and is used to seeing things in large quantities. So he didn't just bring back bananas, he brought home five kilograms of bananas!

I've gotten tea from Saudi Arabia; and pul biber (Turkish paprika) from Mardin. And it's always been in huge quantities. Every year, the family orders one hundred kilograms of honey from somewhere in eastern Turkey, and distributes it among the siblings. There are only six siblings. You do the math.

One year, my husband's brothers decided to plant peanuts on a random strip of land they had somewhere outside the city. I knew nothing of this until one day my husband came home with a potato-sack-sized bag of peanuts, and plonked it down in the middle of our kitchen floor! Needless to say, I wasn't exactly overjoyed. What the heck would I do with 50 pounds of peanuts?

I admit that the peanuts were more a source of stress than joy over the course of that year. Every so often I'd shell a few until my thumbs developed blisters (I never got more than a small bowlful at a time) and we'd roast them in the oven as a snack. I made peanut butter, otherwise unavailable here (the sweetened version they sell in the supermarkets doesn't count!). And from the peanut butter, I made peanut butter cookies.

It took me a while, but I've finally figured out that you've got to embrace what you've got when you've got it. Back in Toronto, I'd buy a few oranges and other pieces of fruit for the fruit bowl each week, and enjoy a couple of different fruits each day; at the end of the week, I'd buy more. But when your mother-in-law gives you 20 kilograms of oranges, grapefruit and lemons, you've got to consume them quickly, or they go bad. And nothing feels worse like knowing you've let good food spoil and go to waste. And so it's freshly squeezed grapefruit juice every morning, and a few oranges for an evening snack each night, and lemon juice on every salad; it's orange cake and candied grapefruit peel.

In the winter, it's citrus; in summer, it's figs. You can never have too many of those. Once a year it's olives and olive oil; every autumn it's pecans -- whole, unshelled, raw. As each crop is harvested, a huge portion is doled out to each sibling, friend, or neighbour. I now look forward to each season and what it will bring to my kitchen; and then, for a few weeks, we feast on a certain food, knowing it'll be another year until we see it again.

Friday, March 12, 2010

The Newspaper

Sunday is the day my husband reads the paper, and every Sunday I am reminded how much I miss that Sunday ritual: a long lazy day spent curled up with The Globe and Mail or the National Post, or, if I've really got time, The New York Times. The day is divided into chunks of reading time broken up by compulsory Sunday errands, and after each one, I settle down again in my comfy chair with a fresh cup of coffee for another stint of pleasurable reading. I still read on Sundays, just not the newspaper. And it's not the same.

One takes for granted one's ability to read well. I can pick up any English language paper, scan the headlines for articles that interest me, and then either skim them or delve into them and absorb every word. Of course it took me almost twenty years of schooling to get to that point. As good as my spoken Turkish has become, I've spent ridiculously little time reading or writing the language; never mind that newspapers are written in a more formal style than is spoken, with unfamiliar vocabulary and grammar. As a result, reading a Turkish newspaper article involves me struggling slowly, line by line, dictionary in hand, and reminds me of trying to get through a French reading assignment in junior high.

If I lived in Istanbul, I could pick up English language newspapers and magazines quite easily. For a price, of course; an issue of Vogue costs around 25 Lira, or about $20cdn. But out here, only the major booksellers carry international press, and then sporadically. So for someone like me who hates to sit idly and tries to fill every spare minute doing something, preferably reading, forgetting to stuff a book in one's bag for that train ride or wait at the dentist is agonizing. There's no such thing in my life anymore as the hasty mid-week pick-up-to-pass-the-time paper or magazine.

Interestingly, I rarely visit the website of any major newspaper, which begs the question, why do I miss the papers so much? Perhaps it's more about the feel of the thing, the way people speak of the smell of books. I think this Sunday, I'll pick up a section of my husband's Hurriyet, open it up and hold it in front of me, looking at its colourful pictures and turning the pages. Maybe, just maybe, I'll get more satisfaction out of that than I think!

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Yogurt Soup

It sounds disgusting, I know. But it defied all my expectations: I thought it would taste awful, it didn't; I thought it would be a cold soup, it isn't.

With a fridge full of yogurt, I had to do more than eat a bowl of it with lunch and dinner every day. And even my daily smoothie wasn't making enough of a dent in my supply. Enter yogurt soup: this tart, tangy soup has a je ne sais quoi aspect that I've been searching for since I ate a creamy borscht on a Polish train from Berlin to Krakow in 1995. I'm not kidding. I've been searching for that balance of sour and salty for fifteen years, without success. Until now.

Yogurt Soup:

1/2 c. rice or other grain (barley or wheat berries are nice)
2 c. yogurt
1 egg
2 tbsp. flour
dried peppermint, heat (paprika or red pepper flakes; I'm using Turkish pul biber, which is spicy dried red pepper)

Rinse the rice and simmer in approx. 4-5 cups of water until done.

Meanwhile, in a small bowl, whisk the egg and add salt -- perhaps 2 tsp to start; you really need to adjust to taste, but this soup wants salt! Add the flour and mix in. Add the yogurt and mix it in too.

Take a tbsp. of the boiling rice water and add to the yogurt mixture, stirring vigorously; repeat; repeat again. This gently warms the yogurt and egg so that neither curdle. Now add the whole shebang into the simmering pot; slowly simmer, stirring, for 10-15 minutes.

Top with mint and dried red pepper; squeeze lemon into each bowl as you serve if you like -- I don't find it necessary.

Afiyet olsun! (Bon appetit!)

Monday, March 1, 2010

So Sad ...

My brother in England decided on a Friday afternoon to fly to Turkey that night and visit for a week. He wanted to meet his newest nephew and get away from the stress of work. Despite his hasty departure, he was still thoughtful enough to ask me if I wanted anything; and without a few days to carefully mull over a list, I blurted out the first things that came to mind at that moment: parmesan cheese. And salami.

In a dramatic drive-by last-minute dash on the way to the airport, he picked up my goods. Two long sticks of salami and a generous wedge of parmesan cheese, both of excellent quality. My brother was going to deliver!

Over the course of a week, my brother, my husband and I nibbled a little on the parmesan and salami as we prepared dinner; other evenings we enjoyed some with an evening nightcap. But we barely made a dent in what my brother had brought, and it looked like I'd be able to enjoy these perfect, salty tastes for weeks to come.

And I did. A slice or two of salami one afternoon; some shaved parmesan to really make my pasta dish complete on a night when I didn't really want to cook a more elaborate meal. (Pasta is my standby go-to dish in emergencies.)

But the other afternoon, I realized the days of the salami were coming to an end. I'd taken the formerly hefty stick out of the fridge, peeled away a little of the skin, and sliced two thick pieces for myself. As my taste buds danced on my tongue, I glanced down at the cutting board and noticed that all that was left of the salami was a tiny stump. So sad.

Rather than save such a small piece for another time, I decided to finish it off then and there. Why postpone something painful? Just like I prefer to rip off a bandaid quickly, I'd attack that last piece of salami, enjoy it, face the sadness of it being gone, and move on, only its memory living on.

With a little difficulty, I scored a small section of the skin and peeled it off; I sliced off as many small pieces as I could, and then held the final bit by its end and gnawed the remaining meat out of its casing much like a beaver might work at a tree trunk. A lovely image, I know. But why waste lovely salami in the name of propriety?