Saturday, 27 September 2008

Happy Bayram, Whatever That Is

I peek inside the packed reception room. I don't know a single person in there, and they all appear to be speaking Turkish.

Nope. No way am I going in there.

It is four o'clock, but the sun is still pouring down like melted lead. A stream of people flow through the wide open doors, joining a noisy reception line. There is much hand-shaking and kissing of cheeks and I am utterly lost. I look all around me and I cannot see one familiar face.

Because there are so many of us new teachers, no one has been able to explain just what this Bayram reception we are expected to attend is all about. "Something about Ramadan," my husband informed me hastily just before leaving for work in the morning. "To mark the end, I think."

I take a deep breath and think I've just about worked up the nerve to go in, but a quick peek reveals another volley of kisses and as I hear the enraptured greetings exchanged, I feel immensely self-conscious, as though I am crashing a private party. Worse still, a private religious party. The people inside will quickly spot my lapsed Christian soul and chuck me out in short order, as well they should. My mouth is dry.

Then I see another new teacher who looks almost as nervous as I do. She is Turkish, I know, and accompanied by one of the older teachers, but there is no mistaking it: she is quaking in her boots. I quickly latch on. "Can I go in there with you? I don't have an idea what to do."

"Neither do I! Come along, we will follow her," she says, pointing to her companion, who has already crossed the threshold. She is greeted with delighted exclamations and a volley of hands are extended for her to shake. My new friend and I trail after her like waifs, our hands timidly extended. We too are met with happy smiles and handshakes and the same phrase, repeated over and over.

Inside, the noise level is tremendous. There are little tables set up with plates of cookies and snacks, but almost no one is eating. I follow my new colleague as closely as I dare. "We just go from group to group and shake hands," she whispers over her shoulder. "They told me this would be easy, and I see they are right!"

They told me it was no big deal too, but I didn't believe them. And now I see that this really isn't a big deal; much like coming here in the first place, the only really tough thing was making the decision to cross the threshold.

By the end of the reception, which lasted barely half an hour, I believe I must have shaken over a hundred hands. Small hands, big hands, brisk hands, limp-as-dead-fish hands, moist hands, dry hands, hot hands and warm hands. The difference in human hands and each and every handshake is surely as diverse as the difference in faces and personalities.

Everyone without exception greeted me kindly and warmly.

"Happy Bayram!" the other foreign teachers and I said to each other afterwards, though our Turkish colleagues explained that the greeting they had been exchanging was more to commemorate the end of Ramadan than to enjoy it as a holiday. One woman told me that the day should be spent in quiet contemplation, not in drunken revelry. "People have lost the whole point of the holiday," she fumed. "They think that after a little fasting they can go out and get drunk as lords."

The very next day marked the end of the working week and the beginning of a one-week holiday. To our amazement, all the teachers, new and old, were given a cake to mark the end of Ramadan. Most of us pictured small confections in boxes, but when we went to collect our gifts, we were astonished to see that they were whole, fully frosted white cakes pristine in their boxes. Each one must have weighed at least a pound and they were all decorated lavishly with pink frosting bows.

Sadly, I left mine in the back of a colleague's car and forgot all about it. My girls, when they heard about this, were broken-hearted, but I reminded them that we did not fast in the first place and so were hardly entitled to it. My husband had a beer, but no one got drunk. We spent the rest of the evening in fairly quiet contemplation.

Tuesday, 23 September 2008

Have Angst, Will Travel

Ismail runs a very successful auto repair shop. I've never met Ismail or had need of his services, but I know he is successful because his shop is directly across from the guest house we are staying in and he gets a lot of business. At all hours, from fairly early in the morning until well after seven, Ismail or one of his workers is out there revving up an engine -- vrooom, vroooom, VROOOOOOOM -- and chatting with his customers. His work also entails the dragging of extremely heavy items over a gravelled stretch of tarmac, and the sound this produces really has to be heard to be believed. If you are the sort that grimaces at the sound of a fingernail dragged along a blackboard, you'd definitely have to give Ismail's gravel-dragging a miss.

It is hot here, and dusty, but it is also unbelievably beautiful From the minute our plane touched down in Istanbul, I have marveled at the trees and shrubs that grow here in profusion -- ones I grew up with, but have not seen for decades. There are eucalyptus, pepper trees, bougainvillea -- a whole botanical world I used to be familiar with. Just walking outside and seeing olives, figs and oranges on trees is enough to make me cry. And things have gone so well here that for a long time, I wondered what to write. I'm not a huge fan of travel writing where everything goes right; I'm the nasty sort who enjoys reading about the passport that went AWOL, the bottle of shampoo that decided to make a break for it, the umbrella that the traveler toyed with taking, then left behind, only to encounter the first rainfall of the year at their travel destination. So how could I be a hypocrite and treat readers to stories of balmy Mediterranean beaches and affable Turks? True, the area we are now living in resembles a building site. There are many British expatriates here, and they and the people who cater for them, seem to feel the need to post billboards every square meter, generally in lurid colors. A huge boom in property development has obviously come and gone, with many of the building sites abandoned in various stages of development. It is not unusual to see a completed villa with mature and manicured garden stuck between the concrete foundations of two other buildings, piles of bricks and bags of electrical cables still in evidence, all just a stone's throw from a massive billboard advertising a casino in flashing purple and magenta neon. Think of the tackiest stretch of road you have ever seen in Southern California, add signs in Turkish, a light, but somewhat destructive earthquake, plus a great deal of hastily-executed half-finished buildings and a generous sprinkling of rubbish, and you will have a pretty good idea of the landscape we currently enjoy. But who really cares about that when you can get freshly squeezed orange juice every 200 metres? When you have a job you were trained to do, and could, if you wished, swim in the sea up until October?

And we have been lucky: our kids are more or less coping at their new schools, and our colleagues seem an interesting, kindly bunch. My husband mentioned to one of his fellow teachers that it was difficult to get around without a car, and this man offered us his, giving us the chance to tour the countryside and visit beaches. So I have honestly pondered what to write about. So far, it almost feels like a holiday -- and who wants to hear stories of how delightful someone else's holiday is?

Then yesterday I went to meet my husband and kids after school. Wearing khaki trousers and a rumpled shirt, I got dissed by a memsahib-type in a fancy designer suit, heels, and full make-up. Youngest daughter whined that her best friend Fatima was a jerk because she thought Chinese people were the same as Japanese and insinuated that all Far-east Asians were less than civilized. She said that Ben, who is from Leeds, is a jerk because football is all he can talk about other than how many girlfriends he has. She complained that she had too much homework; that she is tired of singing the Turkish national anthem and marching around the gymnasium. Eldest was in a grumpy mood and informed me that her flip-flops were disintegrating. And flip-flops, I have seen, cost big money here -- more than I am prepared to dish out. My husband called us just after we'd walked all the way to the supermarket in the pounding heat to get muesli, which does not appear to exist in this country, along with other staples like Ryvita or peanut butter. He could not pick us up, he told us; the car had only just broken down, black smoke pouring out of it. And suddenly it hit me: this place is starting to feel like home.

Sounds like Ismail's got another customer out there. I'm betting it's a big one this time -- maybe a Landrover.

Home is where the angst is.

Tuesday, 16 September 2008

Shrink Rap: A Review

Dr Robin Altman's Shrink Rap is several things in one book: a brief introduction to the mental health problems many kids suffer with today, and a working woman's guide to managing a profession and children. I might well have bought this book to read even given our impending move, but the fact that I got a free copy absolutely clenched the deal.

I warmed to the book as soon as I read the chapter Blaming the Mother -- A Time Honored Tradition in Psychiatry. While most mothers would agree that we have a huge impact on our children, even a brief study of Freud shows you that when our offspring suffer any kind of emotional trauma, we are bound to be cast as The Bad Guys. Freud, as Dr Altman puts it, saw women largely as "a bunch of neurotic, castrating bitches desperately longing for our own penises." I'm sure some would say I'm in denial, but I've personally never bought that whole penis envy thing. The only time I've ever yearned for my own penis was on a bus trip from Guadalajara to Mexicali, when the bus driver made several stops by the side of the road for all the men to relieve themselves, but never once for the women. Clearly, when one of the underlying premises of Freudian psychiatry is that women resent not being men, we're hardly going to get a fair shake once we've become mothers.

If I were in the market for a psychiatrist (and after this move, I may well be), I would give the Freudians a wide berth and make a beeline for another woman who did not view me as a neurotic male wannabe. While Dr Altman recognizes that mothers, as primary care givers, have a great influence on their children, she also allows that "fathers, grandparents, siblings, teachers, coaches, and peers may all contribute to screwing up a child." Mothers, she points out, can have "a great deal of healing power at (their) disposal," and parents who cooperate with family, school, and society, have the most powerful influence of all. Personally, I find this commonsense and compassionate view of mothers both refreshing and reassuring.

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, eating disorders, autism, oppositional defiant disorder (I reckon one of my kids had this one and how I wish I'd had this book back then), bipolar disorder, and psychosis, among others, are all issues that are briefly discussed here, and, being a glutton for detail, I found the descriptions interesting and useful, if perhaps a little too brief.

I also liked the chapter on "working" versus stay-at-home mothers; having been both, I could easily relate to this. I feel uncomfortable now when I hear either side disparaging the other. Life is tough enough for mothers whichever path we choose. What a great world it would be if we could just support each other and resist the urge to take pot shots.

When my eldest was born, I pored over books with detailed descriptions of illnesses like measles, mumps, and chicken pox. I learned about teething and sleep problems and became knowledgeable about developmental stages. In fact, I read a lot of parenting books in general, but this is the first one I've seen that covers mental health exclusively. Too bad it wasn't out when my kids were small. I'd have gotten a kick out of telling every concerned person who saw me bent over my frothing-at-the-mouth toddler that she was suffering from an acute case of oppositional defiant disorder.

When we first blithely signed up for this parenting lark, most of us -- mothers and fathers alike -- had no idea what it was going to involve. We thought of cuddly babies, soft toys and people who would grow up to look and act a little like us. What we didn't think about was kids who would sick up on our shoulders every two hours, wake us up five times every single night, and wet the bed until they were nine years old. Also, while most of us may fleetingly consider childhood illnesses like German measles and whooping cough, I wonder how many of us ever imagine having kids who are too freaked out to use the toilet at night even when they can; who suffer night terrors, walk in their sleep, or are slow to socialize. Or worse still, who develop eating disorders as teenagers or maim themselves. When this happens -- as it well may, even in the best of homes -- what you need isn't some pontificating What are you doing wrong? type, it's someone who will help you through with humor and sensitivity. This book is a great start.

Tuesday, 9 September 2008

Making Do

Eldest daughter has been helping me pack boxes. So far, her ratio is about one to my eight, but never mind: you've got to start somewhere. And at the end of every day, we each have a pile of junk that we are loath to recognize as such.

"Let's face it," I tell eldest, staring in dismay at her monstrous collection of toiletries, "you're never going to use half of that stuff."

She stares down at the drawers her dozens upon dozens of bottles and jars are virtually spilling out of, her features tight with denial. "I might."

I cross my arms over my chest and sigh. "It's all old stuff anyway; you might as well throw it all out."

She frowns and presses her lips together. "But it's still good."

I pick up a bottle of lurid pink, full-strength body spray 1/8 full. "You're telling me you want to keep this?" I'm not a big fan of body spray.

"Mom, you can go now," she says, but I'm on a roll.

"And this?" I query, holding up a bottle of shampoo with two inches left.


So help me, we could open our own hairwashing salon here. I don't know what there is about using up the last few centimeters of shampoo, but not one person in this family seems able to do this. When I was cleaning out the bathroom, I counted almost two dozen bottles with only a smidgen of shampoo left in each one, but eldest takes it to a new plane entirely. I'm not telling how many almost-empty shampoo bottles she has; I'm trying to convince myself I must have imagined it.

"You're not going to want to see this stuff in a year's time. You're not going to want to lug it all to your dormitory now, are you?"

She sticks her lower lip out and glowers at the jumble of bottles and jars. She knows I'm right.

Later on, though, she catches me sitting there, reading picture books. We've got what I'm certain is one of the biggest Japanese picture book collections in Scotland. "Remember this one about the oni who eats donuts and chocolate and green peppers and spaghetti?" I say fondly, showing eldest the picture. She scrunches up her face and rolls her eyes, but I know she does remember. She's not ready to throw that one away.

"What are those?" she asks, pointing her foot at the pile of notebooks in one corner.

They are my guilty secret: I've saved all the homework she did in elementary school, in Japan. I fished her completed notebooks out of the trash when we were moving from Japan to the U.K. All of her carefully formed hiragana and katakana, every childishly-penned kanji with its precise stroke order: how could I just throw those notebooks away?

She bends down for a closer look, recognition beginning to dawn. "Those are my old notebooks, aren't they?"


She has a look of triumph in her eye. "You saved them."

"Only a few."

"Like anybody's ever going to use them!" She picks one up and looks at it, her lip curled.

I took a break and washed the clothes. Eldest hung them out on the radiators, then we lugged a huge pile of things down to Oxfam in the car. When we got back, the whole house smelled like Herbal Essence shampoo.

"What's that smell?" asked eldest, looking around. "Isn't that Herbal Essence shampoo?"

I nodded. "I washed the laundry with it. It seemed a shame to waste it."

Eldest sat back in her chair. "You washed the clothes with shampoo? You've got to be kidding!"

"No, I'm not. We were running low on laundry detergent and I had a bottle with about two inches of shampoo in it, so I figured why not? Anyway, it did the job."

She shook her head and grinned. "Mom, you're a genius!"

"Aw, shucks."

"No, really! And I know what I'm going to do with all that stuff upstairs now!"

Oh God: the house is going to reek for the next few days. What have I done? Still, it's freezing cold outside. The picture books have been safely boxed away, but her old notebooks will make a nice, toasty fire.

Thursday, 4 September 2008

From England To Scotland Via Wales

Something wonderful has just happened: I had to go into the hospital for minor surgery and I have been told that under no circumstances can I cook or do any work tonight. I am sitting in a room with virtually no furniture but my computer table and chair, and on all sides of me are pure chaos: china and glassware sitting in stacks; piles of neatly-folded winter clothes we won't need for at least a year; bedding, towels, and still more books, but tonight I can indulge in guilt-free dereliction of duty. So I am going to write about how I left Scotland for England on Monday and managed to end up in Wales on my way back.

We set off for Manchester Airport at seven o'clock. Our eldest sat huddled in the back, plugged into her MP-3 player, while our newly-acquired daughter and our youngest traded excited banter. Eldest is remaining with me to get everything packed up and the house closed; all the rest are off to our new home and country in the Middle East.

As soon as my husband's passport arrived, reservations were made for Monday. "You can drive back from Manchester, right?" he asked me as I sat surrounded by boxes of china, books, clothes, and general clutter. And like a dumb ass, I went and said yes. After all, he's taking two teenagers to a foreign country, starting a new job, learning a new culture, language -- the works. Surely I, a qualified driver for the past two years, could drive back to Scotland on my own. Piece of cake, right?

I began to get the jitters as we pulled into the many-tiered parking lot at Manchester Airport. I've never driven in one of those multi-storied parking lots before, though I've been driven through them on countless occasions. We drove around and around now in a dizzying circle and I wondered aloud how well I would negotiate the descent.

Eldest has just been learning to drive and when I voiced my worries on getting out of the parking lot, she commiserated. When I was learning to drive, she stood behind me while I did my hazard recognition on the computer and offered superfluous advice. She informed her sister that she would easily master driving; she had watched her father drive and she knew she'd be fine. God knows how I stood this, but I did.

Acquired daughter comes from a carless home, and whether that has anything to do with it or not, one of her greatest ambitions is to become a car racer. She loves speed and demolition derbies and all of the sorts of things that I find quite daunting, and though she has had no driving lessons herself, she too knows it will be a snap.

"It'll be easy!" she scoffed now, adding something of a non sequitur: "I've been in dozens of these!"

"Well I have too," eldest daughter said, frowning, "but I've never driven in one."

"Ach, it'll be easy!"

"How do you know?"

"I just do!"

"But you've never driven in one, have you?"

"No, but I know it'll be easy!"

Good thing she couldn't see my face.

After we'd seen everyone off, eldest and I made our way back to the car. With trembling fingers I started the ignition and inched slowly out of the car park. I managed to overshoot the exit on each floor and was a bundle of nerves at the end of my ordeal, but five minutes later we saw daylight and the first hurdle was over.

Then came finding my way out of the airport. To make a long story very short, I got lost.

"You can do it! Just follow the signs to the north," my husband had assured me. But even after years of marriage, he still doesn't get it. Some people can find their way using the sun and the stars and their own inherent sense of direction. My husband is one of them, and I am his diametric opposite.

And there were no signs to the north.

My eldest and I saw this right away. There were no big, Mary-friendly directions-for-idiots billboards that said SCOTLAND THIS WAY! FOLLOW THE RED LINE! Instead there were signs for places I only remembered fleetingly, like Preston, Birmingham, and Wrexham. Preston and Wrexham, I vaguely remembered, were in the north, but Birmingham wasn't, so what was the deal?

I stopped and asked directions at a hotel, managing some pretty hair-raising parking between two cars that made my daughter whimper and put her hands over her eyes, oh she of no faith. The receptionist was kind enough to print us out a sheet of directions, but neither my daughter nor I could follow them, so we managed to find the motorway again and bore, we hoped, towards the north.

Everything was looking pretty good until I started noticing that the signs were in Welsh. I stopped and asked for directions again, and I give the worker I interrupted real credit: he kept a perfectly straight face as he confirmed that we were indeed in Wales, though I'm sure he must have wondered at a frantic woman with an American accent asking him for directions to Scotland. He treated me with great kindness and gave me excellent directions, as did the man in the petrol station, and as by the time we got to him I was close to tears, I give him bonus points.

At the next place we stopped for directions, I wrote everything down but my daughter could not read my handwriting. At the next place, I got her to write out the directions, but neither of us could figure out what they meant.

"You're scaring me," said my eldest as I launched into my umpteenth impassioned tirade against husband for not walking me through the precise instructions. "Calm down!" Easy for her to say.

I'll spare you the nitty-gritty of the next hour of torment; let's just say that as I threaded my way through narrow streets and unfamiliar junctions, all the time trying desperately to follow my daughter's muddled and conflicting directions, I could feel individual white hairs popping out on my head. As massive trucks lumbered past and our car stalled for the fifth time in first gear (it even does this to my husband), I might as well have been main-lining free-radical-promoting poison. Never mind: all that matters is that we finally found the right motorway and got on it. In the right direction. And kept on driving until we got to Scotland, at which point we both broke into Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah and would have started on Handel's version too, if only she hadn't fallen asleep from pure nervous tension.

When we got back, the eldest said something to me that she's said several times now, ever since her first driving lesson -- something I can hardly hear too many times. "You were so right about driving. It's really tough. I'm sorry I acted like it was going to be easy."

If she can do that, maybe some day I'll acquire a sense of direction.