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Sorry, I don’t speak Turkish

İstanbullus take me for a local. Waiters bring me Turkish menus and three to four people stop me every day for directions or to sign petitions. I’m often offered flyers for English lessons, and once I was stopped by a reporter with a big fuzzy microphone and his cameraman. The disappointment is mutual but the surprise is one-sided when I say, “Sorry, I don’t speak Turkish.”

But this is a city where no one seems to mind if you don’t speak the language. One description of the Ottoman Empire said İstanbul was “a fabulous melting pot of nationalities. On its streets people spoke Turkish, Greek, Armenian, Ladino, Russian, Arabic, Bulgarian, Romanian, Albanian, Italian, French, German, English and Maltese,” and it seems this tradition is strong. The guys in the sandwich shops will pull out two words of English (Cheese? Tomato?). Even without a common language, people are willing to communicate. They’ll use gestures to help you understand (Stay on the bus! It’s not your stop!!). People are willing to help, to meet you halfway, or more if necessary.

I went into a corner store and asked for “Palmitas evim” which is not Turkish patlamış mısır (nor Spanish palomitas!) but it did include the Turkish word evim – “my home”. By great goodwill the shopkeeper made the necessary mental leap and found what I wanted: a bag of kernels to pop at home.

My school offers beginner Turkish classes for new foreign teachers. Every Sunday afternoon from 3 to 6, we join Mustafa Bey in room 41. It was so useful to learn numbers! It opened up a whole world of prices, times, dates and addresses. Besides the consonantal and vowel harmony of Turkish, I’ve learned the months, (April, Nisan), days (Sunday, Pazar) and some animals (lion, aslan – the name of the lion from The Chronicles of Narnia!)

It’s easy to use or recognize new words immediately. I recently had my first completely Turkish conversation when I got some takeaway pilav – exactly like the dialogues we practice in class! Maybe my local disguise is up as soon as I open my mouth, but polite exchanges are part of the daily routine. It’s nice to reply to neighbours, drivers and shopkeepers when they ask how I am or say good morning or good evening.

İyi akşamlar! !


Karatahta (Blackboard) by Aydan Murtezaoğlu


3 responses »

  1. Hey, greetings I ‘m Reza, from Indonesia
    Nice post actually. I want to visit Istanbul next month:)
    keep writing 😉

  2. Pingback: A night like any other « Jill in Wonderland

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