Column: Trying to Talk to the Turks

Abroad Columnist Shelby Ostergaard gets lost in translation in Turkey

Before I tell you this story, there are two things you need to know about me. First, I’m a pretty friendly person. I like to talk to people, I like to hear their stories. Second, I talk fast. Really fast.

One of the most awkward experiences I've ever had started out in a Turkish bath. Weirdly, the part where I was sitting in a steamy room with a bunch of European women, naked (except for this weird cloth thing that covered my, uh, dölyolu as the Turkish woman called it) wasn't the awkward part. That part was fine. Everyone was relaxed, the steam was nice and the large Turkish women in their underwear scrubbing the other women weren't nearly as strange as I thought they would be.

There was one issue though. My friend Sam and I paid for the cheapest option—Turkish bath only. So I get into this room with all of these women, and I have no idea what to expect. I’ve never had a Turkish bath before, so I’m not exactly sure what it entails. It turns out, it basically entails what I described—sitting in a room full of steam with a bunch of naked women. The full service, on the other hand, entails lying on a hot platform, being exfoliated, rubbed with soap, and massaged. But I didn’t know that until I’d sat in the room full of steam for three hours waiting to be scrubbed and a Turkish woman came and yelled at me and kicked me out.

In spite of this, it was actually still a pretty relaxing experience - just one that took over three hours and left me dehydrated and tired. My friend Sam got sick of waiting for me and went out without me, and I ended up having beers with a French guy from our hostel.

The next morning, I wake up. Sam is curled up, still in his clothes. It turned out he had an absolutely epic night. He stayed out ’til 5 a.m., met Turkish communists, philosophers and journalists. He talked about life and politics with the locals.

As he’s telling me all about it, I can’t help it. I’m jealous. I’m jealous in that sick, sad, stupid way you get when something good happens to a friend of yours. It’s unbecoming. It makes your stomach churn a little bit, not even from the jealousy itself but because you feel bad about being jealous at all. It’s annoying. It’s not pretty. But it’s a part of life.

I know that. So I decide that the best thing to do about it is to go have an epic night of my own and meet some locals.

And that’s when the awkward part starts.

I head into a bar by myself and go order a beer. Beers in Istanbul cost about 10 Turkish lira and I have….exactly 10 Turkish lira. Okay I think to myself, that just mean I’ll have to meet some people at this bar.

I go sit down and pull out my journal, trying to look nonchalant. And not like I’m out hunting for locals to talk to me. I peer over my paper, getting a good look around. Who should I talk to?

I lean over to the person next to me and try to think of something to ask him. I draw a blank. Normally something just pops into my head but right now….nothing. Crap.

“Hi-my-name-is-Shelby, I’m-new-in-Istanbul” I blurt out. I wince inside. It sounds fast even to me. The 30-year-old guy gives me an absolutely blank look. I doubt he even knows I said something in English, let alone what I said.

“Hi. My. name. is. Shelby. I’m. new. in. Istanbul,” I say, as slow as I can, trying to pause in between every word. My efforts are greeted by….another completely blank look.

“I….don’t….speak……English,” the guy eventually says. Right. I smile, and the guys turns back to his friends. I can’t tell if he was weirded out by the experience or not but I, for one, feel like an idiot.

So I turn to the guy on the other side and try again. This guy understands me introducing myself. He smiles. I smile. His friends look bored. He tells me his name, which I forget. And then….nothing. Everything else I try to say is met with some confusion. Because this guy also doesn’t speak English very well.

I try a third time. And a fourth. And a fifth.

Every time the same scenario, or something close to it, repeats itself. Within 25 minutes I feel like an idiot. And an jerk. And just uncharming.

I feel like an idiot because I just got shut down talking to five different groups of people. Even though there were language barriers, the shutdown still happened the same way. We’d talk for a few minutes, an incredibly basic conversation. And then I would try to say something. And they wouldn’t understand. And I’d try again. Then we’d both awkwardly smile at one another. And I’d turn away and try again. I felt like a guy with a bad line, going up and down the bar, getting rejected repeatedly. I’m not charming without English. I’m awkward and I have nothing to say. And the conversations don’t happen. Or they peter out.

But I feel even more like a jerk. Because I don’t speak Turkish. Because I speak English, the only language in the world where you can go up to bars and introduce yourself speaking it and be able to have an expectation that someone will be able to speak it too. Even when you speak English the way I do—really, really quickly.

I feel horrible that I can’t quite figure out how to talk to people that don’t speak English well. And that I was even expecting to be able to.

So I leave the jazz bar full of 30-year-olds where I’d spent my last 10 Turkish Lyra. And I head back to the hostel where there are kids my age who speak English. And I sit there and drink beer. And I sit there, still jealous that Sam is good at communicating at a speed less than a mile a minute, jealous that he was successful at talking to the Turks when I wasn’t.

But here’s the thing about experiences you have while abroad. Every one of them is an amazing experience simply because it’s something you’ve never done before. Yeah, talking to the Turks would have been interesting. But trying to talk to the Turks was interesting too. I’ve never been misunderstood so many times in my life. I’ve always lived in countries where people speak English, where I’m the majority. And experiencing what it’s like to not have that? Well, it was unlike anything else.

My friend Gershom recently told me that power is when people adapt to you. And all around the world, people speak English. It shows the power of the conquerors, of imperialism, of the British Empire, of the American. I’ve spent a lot of time abroad wondering what it would feel like to be born some where other than America. And for about an hour in Turkey I got to experience it. What it’s like to have people who haven’t adapted to you. To have people rolling their eyes that you can’t speak their language.

It’s panic inducing, it’s uncomfortable, it’s embarrassing, it’s strange. It’s even more awkward than a steamy room full of naked European women. And maybe it’s not as an epic of a story—but it’s a story that I never got to tell before.

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