Friday, 28 November 2008

East: Far And Near

For the past two weeks we've been trying to get letters from our local muchtar so that we can apply for residency permits. A muchtar, as far as I can tell, is a neighborhood official whose job is sorting out all the paperwork and odd bits no one else wants to concern himself with. We've been trying to meet ours for the past three weeks and he's been an elusive guy to hunt down.

The first time we went to his house, we had a Turkish-speaking friend with us. We were on our way back from work and had all the kids in the car with us. Two of them were not on speaking terms with each other (or us) and all of us were tired and hungry. My husband and I picked our way over broken concrete paving in the dark, past pots of geraniums and portulaca. The air was scented with rotting citrus and jasmine and the smell of someone's laundry detergent.

But the muchtar was not at home. His little boy had a fever and he'd had to go to the hospital with his family. We talked to his neighbors instead. They were eating dinner, but seemed friendly.

"Maybe next week he will be home," our friend translated. "Inshallah." God willing.

The second time we went to his house, I had a fever myself, but thankfully we didn't have the kids with us. I huddled in the car, shivering, while my husband went to talk to the neighbors who at least spoke a little English. Again, they were eating dinnner. The muchtar still wasn't at home.

The third time we went to the muchtar's, our Turkish-speaking friend could not go with us. With some embarrassment and great trepidation, we went and knocked on the muchtar's neighbors' door. They were all eating dinner again, but the mother of the household obligingly got up to take us over to the muchtar's house. It was dark and I stumbled on the uneven pavement.

The muchtar was not at home.

The next time we went, he wasn't home either, but the neighbors, once again, were eating dinner. They invited us to have a cup of tea. We declined.

There are times we find ourselves wondering why it always has to be so hard at first. And we've had to remind ourselves what it was like when we first went to Japan with a nine-month-old baby.

During our first months in Tokyo after our eldest was born, we stayed with friends while I went to work and searched for suitable housing. My husband was not employed at the time, and although my school gave me a generous salary, unlike a lot of other companies, they would not sign on as rental guarantors. It is very difficult to rent in Japan if you don't have someone to agree to be your guarantor, so the only places we were able to consider were those so old and dilapidated no one else wanted them.

For three weeks, I made the rounds of every real estate agent in our area. Sometimes they took one look at my face and wanted nothing to do with me.

"No foreigners!" several called out as soon as they saw me at the door. Most were more polite, but you could see it in their eyes: they were certain we would not be able to communicate and dreaded engaging in tedious bilingual wrangles. I quickly learned to barge right in, speaking Japanese, before the agent could open his mouth to send me away. That way I was able to tell when the prejudice against me was nothing more than a perceived language barrier. Once we'd started talking and the estate agents saw that my Japanese was sufficient, everything was fine. The only problem was getting around that pesky guarantor issue. The minute prospective landlords heard we had no guarantors, they got cold feet.

After two months of imposing on our long-suffering friends, worried sick that our baby was keeping them up nights, we were ready to give up and fly back to the U.K. And then one day it happened: we found a house with sympathetic landlords whose daughter had studied abroad herself, in Vienna.

"We know how hard it is," the wife murmured. "Looking for a place to live in a foreign country."

"Our daughter has some real horror stories," the husband agreed. "It's not easy for someone who plays the piano to find a place. And I imagine it must be a lot harder with a baby."

Three days later we had moved in. That house was our home for over nine wonderful years.

Last night we went to the muchtar's house again. It didn't look like he was at home, but he was.

"Come again tomorrow and I will give you the letters," he told us as we stood in his veranda, surrounded by washing on the line and his children's scattered tricycles.

We've got our fingers crossed.


Ello said...

oh Mary! Sorry everything is so difficult! But everything will work out soon, you'll see! And in the process, you are adding to your wonderful repetoire of stories! You are such a wonderful writer!

Charles Gramlich said...

Wow, you bring alive some of the hassles and red tape that one has to deal with in living elsewhere. I'm surprised, I guess, at the resistance in Japan. Wow.

Charlie said...

I have a suspicion, Mary, that you would not enjoy moving from country to country half as much if everything was easy. I think that, deep down, you secretly thrive on chaos.

debra said...

The learning curve in a new culture must be so steep. Did you expect it to be like this?

Mary Witzl said...

Ello -- Thanks for your vote of confidence -- we keep telling ourselves that things will work out, but it's a long, hard slog. In the meantime, you're right: this place is an absolute treasure trove of stories and I mean to winkle them out!

Charles -- I thought the Japanese liked red tape until we came here. I swear to God, the Turks are nuts about documentation, forms, certificates -- and they like everything signed in triplicate.

One of the best ways to see Japanese prejudice at work is by going there and trying to find a place to live. I could write a book about all the headaches we had there, especially when it came to renting a place, but then I could write many more books about all the kindness and goodness we encountered there.

Charlie -- You've got me there! Smooth sailing never makes for good stories, whereas trials and irritations do. And yes, deep down inside I do love me some chaos. Still, someday I'd like to find peace just to see what it's like.

Debra -- No, I didn't. One of the great things about this kind of lifestyle is that you never know what to expect. Which is one of the great pitfalls to living like a nomad, but ironically, it is also one of the charms.

Kim Ayres said...

But this is what makes you such special people. Most people when faced with endless hassles will retreat back to the familiar. You and Mr Witzl on the other hand keep going and going until you've overcome the obstacles. You've always had my tremendous respect for that :)

Robin said...

Wow! Slippery little guy. But once you got him it seems easy. He's like a Turkish leprachan, but no gold, just papers.

I think it's the same thing in America, except you get to yell at someone, and still get no results. This kept civilized, and almost magical. All in all, I'd rather be in Turkey.

Uma Krishnaswami said...

Great story, Mary. I recently had a similar experience trying to close down a safety deposit agreement with a bank in India. It took interminable phone calls, papers, and, when we got there, a series of waits in several office rooms where everyone was bustling around seeming to do precisely nothing. But then again, fighting with Sprint felt like that too, when they trued to slam a fee on me I didn't owe. But maybe less charming than the bank in India where I could at least eavesdrop on lovely lines like "How many triplicates this form must have?"

ChrisEldin said...

I love the detail in your stories--I really feel like I'm right next to you during these moments.
I hope things will become easier, once you're settled in. I have a feeling they will.

JR's Thumbprints said...

Does not the muchtar have a substitue? Someone who can keep the ball rolling, so to speak.

Barbara Martin said...

Mary, your experience reminded me of when I tried to get a TV license while in London, England, only to find out there were none available for the street I lived on.

Anne Spollen said...

I still like the name: a muchtar or a much tar -- it's just so perfect :)

Mary Witzl said...

Kim -- It's very good of you to say it, but every time we learned that the muchtar was not at home, we felt like tearing our hair and gnashing our teeth. One good thing that has come of this, though, is that now even I could find his place blindfolded. Well, maybe I could (ahem)...

Robin -- He was slippery all right, or maybe just busy! But we have the papers now, so we are prepared to believe it was the latter. My husband and I bought him a big bottle of raki to smooth the deal over -- I hope it was appreciated. There are a lot of wonderful and interesting things about Turks, but I have to say that they do yell at each other here too.

Uma -- I absolutely love that story about triplicates! And we had a similar experience to your Sprint one, but with Tiscali instead. We ended up having to pay an entirely bogus bill because they threatened legal action and we do not have the time to prove that their claim is fraudulent. They didn't say anything even remotely charming either.

Chris -- I wish you HAD been with us!

Things do seem to get easier here, then something comes along and complicates our lives all over again. I can't get over how much red tape there is to cut through here, or how many fiddly little details there are for us to figure out.

J.R. -- It seemed to us that the neighbors were performing that function. We interrupted so many of their dinners that it got to be very embarrassing. I hope the muchtar is generous with the gifts he gets for his services -- those long-suffering neighbors deserve some compensation.

Barbara -- I HATE that whole T.V. license system and commiserate! We had a friend who had the same problem. And we ourselves did not have a connected T.V., but the BBC would not believe this. They kept threatening to come into our house to check. We invited them to do this, but they never took us up on it.

Anne S -- Since practically every Turkish male over the age of, say, 16 seems to have a cigarette in his mouth, I'm betting there was much tar in the muchtar's system. Funny how I never thought of that, though -- it's pronounced MOOK-ter (sort of -- my Turkish is sadly still lacking).

Christy said...

If raki is liquor, then I'll bet that helped your case! No matter where in the world, everyone likes a gift. I'm glad that you have your necessary papers and hope that your next buearocratic endeavor goes smoother. And the neighbors? Are you now bosom buddies?

Gaining Back My Life said...

Mary, your writing never fails to amuse me and find sympathy within me for your struggles.

Thank you for sharing what trials and little joys you find in life. It is well worth the read!

Carrie Harris said...

Good gog, woman. I've got fingers crossed that the paperwork fairies will be in your corner tomorrow.

Mary Witzl said...

Christy -- We're on a first name basis with them and have been invited to have tea with them twice. Plus, the wife told us -- through our Turkish-speaking friend -- that she will help us anytime if we have problems. Which is sweet, but I don't know how she'd manage this given that she doesn't speak English.

GBML -- Thank you! Actually, it is such a joy to be able to whine on my blog and have people thank me for it.

Carrie -- We have the papers now! We are actually legal! The paperwork fairies must have noticed us and decided that we were worthy of their favor, so thank you for whatever kind words you put in for us.

Linda D. (sbk) said...

Yay for the paperwork fairies!!!

Kara said...

you know what you have? patience. i don't have that. i'm still jealous you live in turkey, though.

Tabitha said...

Mary, everytime I read stories about you starting off in a new country, especially with kids, I can't help but admire your courage. It's one thing to move across the country, where you still have some roots, ya know? But to move to different country, the roots aren't there anymore. And there's something comforting about knowing they're there... For that reason, I don't have the courage to live abroad the way you have. And I think it's awesome that you've found ways to make it work. Just like this one will, eventually. :)

Mary Witzl said...

Linda -- We needed some kind of luck, so I'm awfully glad they came through for us.

Kara -- We're in more of an outpost of Turkey, actually. And me patient? Noooo way! Just ask a couple of the teenagers I'm teaching...

Tabitha -- Sometimes I think what we have is a weird mixture of courage and fools-go-where-angels stuff. If we thought about it long and hard, we'd probably let discretion take the better part of valor. So we think about it short and easy. It makes for a lot of headaches, but the truth is, we both love the adventures. I just hope we can get through all the headaches so we actually enjoy the adventures this time.