Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Water, Water Everywhere

Yesterday, I caught myself carrying a basin of water outside to the garden. Half the way across the kitchen, I realized what I was doing and stopped: I'd used the water to wash rice, but I didn't want to just dump it. But I had to. I walked over to the sink and poured out the water, gritting my teeth at the waste.

I don't need to save water anymore and it feels so weird.

Over the last two years, I've grown used to recycling the water I've washed rice and vegetables with. In our bathroom in North Cyprus, I had two large tubs of water saved from running the tap until the right temperature was achieved. When they got full, I mopped the floor with the water, watered my herbs with it, or used it to launder clothes, pouring it right into the washing machine.

Everybody conserves water in Cyprus -- you have to. Everywhere you go, you see air conditioning units with receptacles under them so as not to waste even the smallest bit of runoff, bowls carefully placed under leaky hoses, trays put out to catch rainwater. In Turkey too, we saw birds and animals drinking from air conditioning pipes; dry fields where the only green was the weeds growing in patches under leaky pipes.

In Cyprus, everything is dry as dust in the summertime. Root systems grow incredibly deep to tap what water there is; only the hardiest, most drought-resistant plants and trees can survive. We got used to seeing trucks delivering water, used to taking two-minute showers, used to turning the water off when we brushed our teeth or washed our faces. For one memorable weekend in November when we ran out of water, we got used to going to the local swimming pool every evening so that we could at least wash our feet. We stopped going to the tap to fill our glasses too: the water from our faucets was nasty-tasting stuff. We got used to hanging our clothes outside and being able to take them in almost immediately, bone dry. In all the time we lived in Cyprus, I never once saw a clothes drier in anyone's house.

In Scotland, water is completely taken for granted. When it rains, which is almost every day, water pours off rooftops and gushes into gutters. If it isn't rainy, it's cloudy and there is often mist. The ground is soon saturated. It rains so much, everything is generally damp almost all the time. Moss grows lush and thick in gardens, weeds go on a rampage, spreading far and wide, and grass grows so fast you can almost hear it. Everything in Scotland is green. On the rare days when the sun comes out, everyone hurries into their gardens to peg out laundry. You get used to hanging your sheets and towels out, then racing outside to take them back in when it starts raining. Two years ago, I often had to do this two or three times a week. Our neighbors, an ecologically-minded couple with a newborn baby, ended up giving up and buying a clothes drier. I could hardly blame them.

I grew up in Riverside, California, a hot, dry place. In Riverside, just as in Cyprus, we hoarded water and we respected it. In Scotland, you can't walk half a mile without finding some body of water: a bog, a stream, a pond, a river, a loch, or the sea, but in Riverside, where even a burst sewer main can be refreshing, you can go a long way to find a puddle. The joke of Riverside is that it not really beside a river. Actually, the Santa Ana River used to flow through Riverside, but nowadays you are hard put to see even the merest trickle where it used to be. When I was a child, my sisters and I used to love going to see the 'river' after a long, hard rain. It was thrilling to see a foot or two of muddy water snaking its way through the huge, parched river bed.

Here in Scotland, I've got one river practically in my backyard and another a stone's throw away from our house. Both are deep, full at all times, and lined by grassy banks and moss-covered trees. There are times I try to picture my childhood self gazing with longing at this green, wet world I now live in. Two years ago, I was beginning to take all the rain for granted myself, but after two years in Cyprus, I'm back to my Southern Californian water worshiping status.

I wonder how long it will take me to stop hoarding water?

Thursday, 22 July 2010


On the whole, I don't get as much respect as I'd like. When I do, it's all too often in the form of telling versus showing. Now there might be some mothers out there who prefer hugs and kisses to foot rubs and a kitchen floor scrubbed clean by someone else, but I'm not one of them. I'm greedy: I'd like both, in equal measure.

Every generation is different. There has always been a gap and there always will be, but in the past few decades, it has really stretched. As a general rule, parents in western countries really don't get the same kind of respect they used to. Personally, I blame everybody. Kids and parents: we've all changed. And I blame modern Western culture. I blame Hollywood and MTV. I blame mass media and advertising and the internet.

When I grew up, parents whipping their kids was a given, not only allowed, but actively promoted and encouraged. Whenever anyone questioned the wisdom of this, the Bible was widely quoted. (If you've got one around, check out Proverbs 13:24, 19:18, 22:15, 23;13-4, and 29:15 and you'll get the general idea.) I only had a handful of friends whose parents didn't use corporal punishment and I was always awed by the charmed lives they led. My father, generally a very sweet person, also had a fiery temper and an Old Testament approach to discipline.

I don't beat my kids. I can count the number of times I've swatted them on the fingers of one hand. I remember too well the anger and confusion I experienced as the frequent recipient of corporal punishment, and I've found other means of correcting them: time out, grounding, counting to ten, withholding treats and privileges. Whenever I stop to think of the differences in how we were disciplined, I am awed by how lucky they are.

Years ago, I was walking through San Francisco's Chinatown with a Vietnamese friend. In front of us on the sidewalk was a typical middle-American family: Mom, Dad and three pre-teenage kids. As we watched, the oldest boy decided to impersonate an airplane. He carelessly lurched to one side, causing his mother to lose her balance and stumble into the road. My friend sucked her breath in as the boy laughed in a disrespectful manner. The mother laughed too as she stepped back onto the sidewalk. "Why she not hit him?" my friend whispered, astonished. "Why she laugh?" All I could do was shake my head: if I'd knocked one of my parents into the road while I was goofing off, I'd be running for cover, not laughing.

Over the years, my Asian and African students have expressed their dismay and surprise at the lack of discipline in Western countries. "Why don't American parents hit their kids?" is a question I've been asked dozens of times. The truth is, of course, that all too many of them do, but for some reason, my students don't see this. What they see is privileged spoiled brats getting away with murder. They can't get over the fact that the parents of these entitled kids don't haul out and whack them. They are amazed to find that Western children don't necessarily respect their parents or wholly accept them in all their imperfection.

When I was teaching Turkish and Kazakh students the difference between -ing and -ed adjectives, I used a photograph of a cringing daughter watching her tipsy father relive Saturday Night Fever on the dance floor. "The father is embarrassing," I told them. "His daughter is embarrassed." My students were stunned. "Father not embarrassing," they protested. "Father is father!" They were horrified when I confessed to having been embarrassed by my mother's awful fashion sense. When I asked if any of them had ever been embarrassed by their parents, they all shook their heads and stared at me. "Teacher, father respect! Mother love! Not embarrass!"

Although my Turkish students have shown an interesting mixture of deference and cheekiness, the Africans I've taught have been extremely respectful, sitting quietly with their hands folded in front of them, patiently waiting instruction. They are obviously flabbergasted when others are disruptive or show me less than total respect, and they are less than pleased by my namby-pamby reactions to bad behavior. "Teacher," one Nigerian student told me with exasperated patience, "you should strike them. If they do not listen to you, you must hit them and then they will begin to listen to you." Which I can't do, of course, and not just because I've had little practice. I've only taught a handful of Africans over the years, but every single one of them has fondly related tales of beatings at the hands of parents, teachers, and neighbors. "That's what that expression means," a Ghanaian man once told me, "it takes a village to raise a child. If the child does something wrong and the mother is not there to correct him, the neighbors must beat him. Then they will tell his parents they did this and the parents will thank them." My Nigerian colleague, Leonard, confirms this. "If no one beats children, how will they learn?" Leonard remembers frequent spankings and beatings. He remembers being whacked across the face so hard he got dizzy. Leonard loved his mother dearly. And you will not find a nicer, gentler, more sweet-tempered person than him. You won't find a funnier comedian than Russell Peters either, but even he has something to say on this subject. Food for thought, isn't it?

I'm not advocating spanking or beating. I think that the blind respect of authority it instills isn't really the kind I want. I think it shows a shameful abuse of power and a failure to use logic and reason. I think it teaches children that you can get your own way if you resort to physical force, and I'm against all of that. I do think, however, that in certain emergencies the odd spanking won't kill a kid. And that if your kid shoves you off the sidewalk, you don't have to beat him, but you probably shouldn't laugh.

Friday, 16 July 2010

The Long And Whining Road

"It's hot," my daughter says for maybe the twentieth time, wiping her forehead with the back of her hand.

As if I hadn't noticed.

"It's even hotter if you're carrying a backpack," I hint, but she's too sweaty and miserable to pick it up.

A line of eucalyptus trees offer us a short, thin strip of shade and then we are out in the sun again. We fully intended to leave earlier when it was cooler, but the morning was frittered away on girls' grooming rituals. Gritting my teeth, I only just manage to keep this to myself.

My daughter kicks at a stone. "I don't get why we couldn't just take a taxi anyway!"

We really should have taken a taxi -- even I can see this now. But when we were planning the day's events, it was still cool. Our family has walked a lot farther than four kilometers, even uphill. Yes, we should have known it would get hot. And that it would take two teenage girls so long to get ready in the morning even with almost non-stop nagging.

A motorcycle whizzes past us and we watch it disappear around a corner.

"This is totally ridiculous!" my daughter groans. "Walking four miles straight uphill just to see that pile of rocks!"

"It isn't a pile of rocks and it's four kilometers, not miles."

"Whatever." She kicks at another stone. "It feels like miles."

I shrug my shoulders to shift the weight of my backpack and rattle it meaningfully. Its full of water, money, Kleenex, and sunscreen and other day trip essentials of use to the whole family, but my daughter still ignores the hint. She's smarter than I am.

There is a rush behind us and a whole bus goes by, one of those luxury two-tier tourist buses packed to the gills. We just know it's bound to have air conditioning. From behind the dark frosted windows, we can see tourists staring down at us.

"In Cyprus, they'd have stopped for us!" my daughter whines. "When we were hiking up to Karmi in December, they stopped for us and we didn't even need a lift!"

"Maybe they're afraid of offending us. Two lone females as we are."

My daughter snorts. "They probably think we're crazy! What kind of total losers walk four miles uphill when it's this hot?"

My husband and younger daughter are waiting for us just around the bend. As we join them, another loaded tour bus zooms past. We all turn to watch it. Through the tinted glass, we can see the people sitting in air-conditioned comfort inside as they gape down at us. Our thoughts may be warm, but they're definitely not fuzzy.

Eldest daughter says something unprintable. "Can't we call a taxi?"

"We've made it this far," my husband reasons. "We might as well keep going." Another car whizzes past us; there are no passengers. Eldest daughter says something else unprintable.

She and I sit down in a tiny patch of shade to catch our breath and my husband and younger daughter, much more heat-tolerant than we are, carry on up the hill. Two youths chug by on a moped, slowing down as they pass us to have a look. Eldest daughter suddenly perks up. "If we had a stick or something, I'll bet we could knock them off." She stares after them reflectively. "They were cute, weren't they?" I smile. If we weren't so miserable, she'd have noticed that right away.

Another tour bus rushes past us, sparkling white in the blazing sun. My daughter glares at it. "Stupid driver! What would it cost him to stop and give us a lift?"

I shrug. "Come on. The driver isn't going to risk the lives of 40 people on a hairpin turn just to pick up a couple of sweaty females."

"All this just to see a pile of rocks!"

"It's not a pile of rocks, it's an acropolis. If it were a pile of rocks, would all those people come all this way to see it?"

My daughter frowns. She's an Olympic frowner; she could win gold medals. Fortunately, she's got a gold medal smile too, but I haven't seen it for at least three kilometers. "Stupid tourists," she mutters. "They'll get to the top, take a look around, then pile back into the bus and think they've seen everything."

"Our journey is purer than theirs," I say in my most unctuous tones. "The gods will look on us with favor because we've put more effort into ours. Nothing worthwhile should be easily achieved."

My daughter snorts, but as we round the bend, we see a lake sparkling in the distance, fringed by a crescent of bright green trees. And now we can both see the columns, huge and dazzlingly white in the sun. My daughter is silent for a moment; even she is awed. And they look so close -- surely we are almost there now?

"Looks like it's going to be worthwhile after all, doesn't it?" I prod.

My daughter shrugs. Like many other teenagers, she is also an Olympic shrugger. Unfortunately, as we round another bend, it is obvious that we have at least another kilometer to go. Just as this sinks in, another tour bus soars past us. I am amazed at the feelings of rage this stirs in me. It doesn't make sense, but there it is: it's like waiting to be served in a popular restaurant. All the diners who are lucky enough to have seats look so pompous and greedy even though they are doing exactly what you want to be doing yourself: sitting and eating.

"But those columns are beautiful, aren't they?" I say lamely.

My daughter narrows her eyes and gives me a long, hard look. Those columns could be gold-plated and tipped in crystal; they could surround a lake of nectar and honey and there could be free banana splits and chilled mango juice and she still wouldn't think an uphill march in the sun was worth it.

The acropolis, it turns out, was wonderful to behold and well worth a visit. But if you ever visit it with a teenager, I strongly recommend you go by taxi.

Thursday, 8 July 2010

City Of Surprises

Istanbul is a city of surprises.

It was the cherries that first captivated us. We were stuck in mid-day traffic, the sun blazing down on our taxi. It was so hot, my thigh and shoulder were fused to my daughter's and I ached to peel off my sticky clothes. The hotter it got, the more we all started to dream of beer and ice water and air-conditioned rooms. When boys started darting in and out of the traffic hawking sweating bottles of water, we were sorely tempted. But when the boy with the cherries showed up, we all reached for our coin purses and tried to get his attention. He didn't seem to see us sitting there, stalled in the traffic.

The longer we waited, the better those cherries looked. They were piled high in a wheelbarrow, glossy and red, and the boy, who couldn't have been more than ten, doggedly pushed them in and out of traffic, his voice hoarse from crying his wares.

"I'll bet there's ice in that wheelbarrow," my oldest daughter said. It really looked like there was. The boy had stuck small green branches in among the cherries, perhaps to keep them cool. I was thirsty and hungry and tired and hot, all in one. I'd stayed up all the previous night packing and cleaning. I hadn't gotten any sleep at all on the plane, which arrived two and a half hours late. I'd missed dinner the night before, and breakfast had only been half of a small sandwich and a glass of water.

"They're dark cherries," my daughter observed longingly. "They're not those bland red ones. These look really sweet."

The boy pushed his cherries past a store with hundreds of brightly colored scarves. Women clothed from head to foot in black swished past him. They looked hot, but no hotter than we felt. We watched as the boy negotiated the uneven pavement, deftly dodging other fruit hawkers with piles of oranges, chunks of ruby-red watermelon, boxes of bright green apples. The taxi inched another five feet through exhaust-scented air. The boy with the cherries was making faster progress through the traffic than we were.

We all stared open-mouthed at the pyramids of oranges, the wedges of cut watermelon, the piles of apples. We passed a shady garden with lush, green grass. Someone had scattered what looked like crumpled cellophane of all different colors over a patch of the grass. For a split second I was incensed: how could anyone litter in such a beautiful place? And then I realized that it wasn't cellophane; someone had planted a ring of flowers in that spot: crimson, gold, purple, and blue. There was a flash of silver and red and the wheelbarrow laden with cherries creaked past us again, the boy straining and sweating behind it.

Even through our exhaustion, hunger and thirst, we could see that we were in an incredible city. Our last trips to Istanbul had simply been to change planes; now we were entering as real visitors. We caught our breaths as we drove past the crumbling city walls on our right and the Sea of Marmara a cool, shimmering aquamarine on our left. We watched as the boy with the cherries disappeared into the crowd, taking his mouth-watering merchandise away from us.

That afternoon, we bought apples from one vendor and chunks of juicy, chilled watermelon from another. We drank cold, freshly squeezed orange juice and walked through the cooling dusk past sprawling mosques with gold-tipped domes, and churches and terraced gardens shaded by sprawling grapevines. Violins competed with the call to prayer and the scent of jasmine and roses filled the air as we strolled along cobblestone streets. When we talked to each other in Japanese, some of the shopkeepers interrupted, in Japanese: "Isn't that Japanese you're speaking?" In one short morning, we met at least a dozen Turks who were very fluent in Japanese. But we did not see any more cherries.

In the evening, my daughters almost cried with joy to find a Korean restaurant not two blocks from our hotel. We ate bibimbap and kimchi and tofu and cabbage soup, and staggered home so full we could hardly stand the thought of breakfast. On our way back to the hotel, we saw two more Korean restaurants. Who would have thought there could be three Korean restaurants in Istanbul, all within walking distance? But we did not see any more cherries.

The next day, we visited the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, and the Topkapi Palace. It was fiercely hot, so hot that I got addled and forgot to collect my backpack from the security check at the entrance. I spent a miserably uneasy two hours wandering around the palace, lining up to see the sultan's treasures and the relics of saints, trying not to think about my cell phone, my prescription glasses, and the 250 Turkish lira in my wallet. Just as I'd begun to give up hope of ever seeing my bag again, I remembered where I'd left it. I could have kissed the security guard who handed it back to me. But I did not see any more cherries.

When I checked my email back at the hotel, however, I found a message from an agent expressing interest in my writing. I wrote back to him and he wrote back to me, and I got the call: an offer of representation. I've been waiting for just such an offer for a long time, so I won't even bother trying to explain how euphoric and grateful I felt. For the better part of a decade, I've imagined getting the call, but never once did I expect it to come to me in an Istanbul hotel room with trains trundling past and people selling cashmere shawls outside. I held my hand over my ear and tried to concentrate. I hoped the agent wasn't getting an earful of the trams trundling past, the hawkers outside screaming, "I make very cheap for you, pretty lady!"

After dinner, we found a boy selling cherries. They more than lived up to our expectations.

Saturday, 3 July 2010

A Few Things I've Learned

We're packing up. Our suitcases are bulging with clothes, and books and papers are stacked everywhere. Brooms and mops are being plied over the floors, the washing machine is going full-time, and this house we have grown used to is beginning to look as empty and lonely as it did the day we moved in almost two years ago. Dozens of bags have been hauled off to our local charity, and our leftover food and spices have gone to obliging friends, but we're still taking a lot of stuff home with us. How can we throw out framed photos of ourselves and our students? Or the brass Turkish coffee maker we bought last Christmas? Or the nazar boncuğu (evil eye amulet) my husband got last teacher's day?

It's hot, so I've got the windows open. A fierce wind is blowing in from the Mediterranean and it's a chore to keep the piles of paper from flying everywhere. There are lists: of things we have to do, things we have to get rid of, things we have to buy. We've been taking stock of what is ours and what is not -- and I've been taking stock of what I've learned here in the past two years.

Here are just a few things I've learned:

1) A little Turkish. I know greetings, the days of the week, the months of the year, and numbers up to a thousand. I know most of my colors, fruits, vegetables, and greetings. I know how to say You're lazy! and Stop talking! too.

2) How to bargain. I've always been awful about this, but the other day I went shoe shopping with my youngest daughter and bargained the clerk down from 25 Turkish lira to 20 without even batting an eye. I'm pretty sure I could have gotten him down to 15, but I didn't want to embarrass my daughter.

3) How to sing the İstiklâl Marşı, the Turkish national anthem. I learned this last year and it is still my party piece. It's a great song, by the way, with a really bracing, stirring, moving melody. I'm a little shaky on the second stanza, but that doesn't stop me from putting my heart and soul into it whenever there's an occasion to belt out the İstiklâl Marşı. Getting to sing it has been the high point of every long, tedious assembly and school parade.

4) How to get mobile phones out of teenagers' hands fast. I can do this almost effortlessly now, even when the teenagers in question are almost twice my size. The secret is the element of surprise. If you sidle up to them nonchalantly, keeping your eyes elsewhere, you can catch them off guard and easily divest them of their precious phones. A sense of humor is also a great asset; people are much more malleable when they're laughing.

5) How to teach auxiliaries. My Japanese students already knew how to use these, so I never had to teach auxiliaries before and I really didn't know what I was missing. Two years ago if you'd asked me why we say Who did Madonna marry? but Who married Madonna? I'd have been horrified. Ask me now and you'll get an answer.

6) That Turkish is spoken in many countries other than Turkey. Two years ago, I had no idea that a lot of people from Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan -- and other central Asian countries -- could speak and understand Turkish.

7) That Turkey is a great melting pot. I had no idea before we came here that there could be Turks with red hair and freckles, Turks almost as dark as Africans, Asian-looking Turks, Turks with blonde hair and blue eyes.

8) How to make Turkish coffee (it's all about timing) and stuffed grape leaves (don't stint on the olive oil). And how to eat kebab without spilling it all over yourself (peel down the paper it's wrapped in, never be tempted to remove it entirely).

9) That C is pronounced like J in Turkish. I wish I'd known this when we first got here. My daughter and I kept asking people in Istanbul Airport where the terminal for Ercan was, pronouncing this as Er-kan. People kindly asked if we wanted the Er-jan terminal, but we insisted that no, we wanted the Er-kan terminal. Our cheeks still flame just remembering.

10) That most Turks, though Muslims, do drink occasionally, and that by no means all Turkish women cover their hair. Before we came here, I pictured a typical Turkish couple as a large headkerchief-wearing woman in a voluminous skirt walking six paces behind her swarthy, mustached husband. Imagine my surprise when the first Turkish woman I met was a savvy, multi-lingual, stylishly dressed ex Army officer.

We're taking far too much back with us. Good thing all the knowledge we've accumulated is light.