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  • Postcards from the TransCanadian Railway

    In September and October I went home to Canada for a bit and took the TransCanadian railway across the country, starting in Vancouver and ending in Halifax. I had a great time. The long-haul trains in Canada are convivial places, the cast of characters I met along the way hilarious, irritated, full of love, sad, memorable, and occasionally very proud of being from Moncton. Here are a few of them.


    I stayed a night at an AirBnB in Winnipeg for two nights between trains. The host, a woman in her late thirties, had described herself as “a real Jesus freak” in her profile. Before I arrived, she let me know that she would be holding a Bible study in her home that evening and was wondering if it would bother me. I said that of course it wouldn’t.

    The Bible study, which I eavesdropped on from my room, was clearly an awkward convergence – four women of varying ages who either clearly did not know each other or had no sense of humour. Not a single chuckle was to be heard, not even in response to an on-colour joke. I felt fortunate that I had chosen not to involve myself, not because I’m totally disinterested in matters religious, but because I felt like the palpable awkwardness would just be increased by the presence of someone as heathenistic as me.

    After the Bible study, I asked my host if she’d enjoyed herself.

    “It was okay,” she said. “I’ve been looking for a good Bible study for a while, and I keep striking out. This one seems alright – there’s a special study technique where you underline a lot of stuff, but I don’t know. We’ll see.”

    “What would your ideal Bible study look like?” I asked.

    “I work all day,” she said. “I don’t really want to discuss things. There’s already too much going on in my brain. I don’t have energy for discussion or parsing apart the text. What I want is just a Bible study with ready answers. Answers, you know. Like something clear. Not discussion.”

    “Oh,” I said, feeling suddenly very sad.


    “Where are you going?”

    This is generally the first question people on the Canadian long-haul trains ask each other by way of introduction, hoping to get a sense of a person by understanding their direction.

    “Saskatoon,” was the answer of one gentleman in his early 70s. “I bought myself a rail pass and I’m going all across Canada. I have two grandsons in Saskatoon, and I’ll visit them. After that, I’ll head to Toronto. Maybe I’ll go home for a bit to Kingston, I don’t know. Maybe after this I’ll buy an Amtrak pass too and just keep going.”

    “That might be nice to go home for a bit,” I said, “after these long train journeys.”

    “No,” he said. “My wife died. We’d been together since 1956, when we were eleven. We got married when we were 20, which was as early as anybody’d let us marry. For now it’s really hard to be home, so I bought a rail pass. Maybe after this I’ll buy an Amtrak pass. I don’t know yet. Eventually though, I’ll have to go home.”


    “Watch out,” said one of the train attendants as the train was rolling leisurely into Toronto. “Sometimes kids camp out on that bridge and shoot at the train with pellet guns. Actually, it doesn’t happen so much here, but it does happen a lot on the train up to Churchill. It’s a problem.”

    The train cook was passing through the car.

    “One time I was taking the train up to Churchill,” he said, “and somebody shot a 22. at us. Smashed the window to pieces.”

    “Jesus,” said the passengers in the car.


    The first train I took, from Vancouver to Winnipeg, was nine hours late and, though the website indicated that the train had WiFi, this was not true. 

    Many passengers were upset. The most upset was a tall German man of about 65 hoping to rent an RV and visit the old homestead of some German relatives who had bid so long farewell to Germany and had made their fortunes in Canada. Being late for his RV pickup, the tall German man complained to anybody who would listen.

    “Zis ees a joke,” he said to me. “Zis schedule ees a joke. Zer ees no vifi. Zis ees a joke.”

    Every time I walked by his seat, he would repeat this like a tired refrain. I, too, was none too pleased by the lateness, but was coping better. I soon took to avoiding eye contact with him on my journeys throughout the train.

    Two days later, he was on the same train as me again, this time from Winnipeg to Vancouver. Unfortunately for his sanity, this train was also nine hours late. He decided to complain to the train staff who responded with the demeanor of a secretary at an MP’s office, charged with getting rid of the pesky constituents who’ve called to make their opinion known about how reneging on your electoral reform promises is a bad thing to do. There was much “Mhm, mhm, okay, let me tell you how this works. Yes, it’s too bad, but really you have to understand…”

    Afterwards, the German said to me, “She has been at her job too many years. She does not care. She does not even understand what we are saying. Zis ees a joke.”

    The next morning, I spied him in the dining car.

    “Good morning,” I said. “How angry are you feeling today?”

    “Me? Angry?” he said. “I am not feeling angry at all.”

    Momentarily confused, I stared at him. “You’re not feeling angry.”

    “Of course I am feeling angry,” he said. “Zis ees a joke.”


    The German wasn’t the only passenger on the second train who had also been on the first. I also met a couple in their sixties who told me that they were out of step with their friends because they had had children later in life.

    “We wanted to have children when we were in our early twenties,” said the wife. “But then we weren’t getting pregnant so I went to the doctor and it turned out that I had gone through early menopause! My uterus was the size of a prune! And my hormones were completely menopausal! So we thought, well I guess that’s not going to happen.”

    She spoke with a bubbly enthusiasm, all the time.

    “So when I was 34, I started to notice that I was getting this belly and so I started working out more and more to try to get rid of it! But nothing worked and it turned into this little hard round thing. At one point I got my husband to jump on it. I said, ‘Jump on it, jump on it! Feel how hard it is! What is going on?’ Then a little while later I saw motion on my stomach – and of course it was the baby kicking, but I didn’t know that then. So I called my husband and I said, ‘come in here, look at this!’ And then the next day I went to the doctor and said, ‘I’m dying.’ Turns out I was six months pregnant! And you know what, at the time that I was pregnant there were two other women at work who were due around the same time as me, and they couldn’t do anything. So I said, ‘Oh, well, you sit down and rest and I’ll do all the the lifting, setting things up and whatnot. And turns out I was as pregnant as they were! I was in the American medical journal in 1988 because of it!”

    “You should have been on Oprah,” said her husband.

    “I should have been on Oprah!” she crowed. “Although of course there wasn’t Oprah in those days. Anyway, when my son was born, the doctor said to me, well ‘this is basically a miracle. This is never going to happen again to you, so don’t have hope.’ And so away I went and we had our little boy, and then a little while later I started feeling kind of weird and I thought, ‘if I didn’t know any better, I would say that these were the signs of early pregnancy.’ But this time I didn’t want to go to the doctor because the last time I’d felt kind of stupid – and I’m not stupid – because I did not know I was pregnant. So I bought one of those kits and it turned a little bit blue if you were a little bit pregnant and brighter blue if you were further along, and lo and behold it was bright bright blue. So I took it into the doctor and I told him, “I’m pregnant and I’d like to have an abortion” because I thought, ‘I’ve gone through menopause and my eggs have degenerated. I’ve had one healthy baby and there’s no chance I’ll have another one.’ But my doctor was Catholic and he said to me, ‘No, unfortunately I can’t do that for you,’ and so I had the baby and he was even more perfect than the first! And then after that we thought, of course this can’t happen again so we took some precautions.”

    “How are your sons doing now?” I asked.

    “Oh well, they’re good,” said Maureen. “Our oldest is working, and our youngest is too and he’s also transitioning to be a woman! It was such a surprise to us because he was always so masculine and he liked sports and he was very athletic.  Anyway, we were totally okay with it, except it’s a little hard to remember to say she and her all the time. And also – and this is interesting – she’s also a MomDad! Before she transitioned she met a woman while on vacation and she got pregnant and now they have a beautiful little boy!”


    “That’s some engagement shit right there!” crowed a member of the group that I had started playing cards with on the train. Besides playing cards, we traded stories and facts about our relationships. He stuck his hand out to show us his engagement ring.

    “So,” one of us asked, “What are you planning for your wedding?”

    “Well,” says he. “We have to elope in Vegas.”

    “Why?” I asked. “Do you just not like big weddings, or do your parents not approve?”

    “Parents don’t approve,” he said, and left it at that, leaving us collectively in suspense.

    Not for long as it turned out.

    “Well, the reason we have to elope,” he said conspiratorially a bit later on, as though he’d been waiting for the exact right moment to drop the juiciest details “is that our parents are married. But we, y’know, didn’t grow up together or anything.”

    “So you’re marrying your step-sister” someone said.

    “I hear that’s one of the most popular porn genres” said someone else.

    Later on, he told me I looked familiar. He looked familiar too. We tried to figure out how and if we knew each other.

    “Were you part of the Marxist community in Montreal?” he asked.

    “No,” I said. “Did you hang out on the same floor I did at university?”

    “No,” he said.

    “Maybe we just saw each other in our university lobby,” I said.

    “I can only think of one other possible way that we couldn’t know each other, but it’s a bit weird,” he said.

    “What, like a swinger party?” I asked.

    “Did you ever have an, erm, tryst with my ex-girlfriend Catherine?”

    So I was not too far off with the swinger party.

    “No I never had sex with your girlfriend,” I said confidently.

    “Are you very sure?” he asked.

    “Yes,” I said, having been an unfashionable -1 on the Kinsey scale for as long as I can remember. “I’m sure.”

    A week later my husband was heard me cry out disappointedly.

    “What’s wrong?” he asked.

    “I just realized that I missed the only chance that I might have in my entire life to seriously respond to somebody with ‘I did not have sexual relations with that woman.’” I said.


    The train to Halifax was also several hours late leaving, so the people in the lineup got cozy with one another.

    The woman next to me started complaining about her job.

    “My boss is 71,” she said, “and I’ve been waiting to get her position since she was 65. She leaves early every day. She’s lazy. She has no oversight in her position. And every year she hires different summer and winter staff even though the summer staff would be happy to continue working the whole year.”

    “That sounds terrible,” I said.

    “Well,” said the woman with finality. “I’ve decided I’ve waited long enough. They’re opening a new medical marijuana plant in my town, and I’ve applied there to be a manager. I have managerial experience and I need to work at this point because my own retirement’s coming up!”

    “Good luck,” I said.

    “I think I’ll get a position,” she continued, “because it’s for medical marijuana and so they actually need people who don’t use marijuana to work there because it needs to be sterile and all that and you can’t just be pickin’ leaves of the plants for your own personal use. Anyways, they asked me if I had experience, and of course I couldn’t say that I had experience growing marijuana ‘cause it’s still illegal. But I told them, you see, ‘I’ve grown tomatoes, I’ve grown squash, I’ve grown catnip, and I’m damn well sure I can grow marijuana too.’”

    “Well I’m sure you can,” I said.

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  • In Which I Go to a Turkish Wedding and Think Very Judgmental Thoughts


    The Malvolio waiting in the wings of the Turkish wedding is an old woman. She does not dress up, instead generally wearing a plain black cloak. Her unique function is to mine all the possible gossip from the event. Was the bride’s dress sufficiently fancy? Which guests brought a paltry gift, or didn’t bring one at all? Who wore a hijab but danced to bring all the boys to the yard?


    These old women are known as “teyze” in Turkish. Being judgmental is  not a teyze prerequisite, but teyzes are usually traditional and, in a country where entertainment means television and not much else, gossip is what keeps their lives interesting.

    After arriving at the wedding and completing the necessary rounds of greeting relatives she likes or pretends to like, the judgy teyze sits down and keeps her face expressionless (lest anybody think she is actually having fun – or maybe because Turkish weddings are not fun.) And from her perch on her chair, one of 300 other judgy teyzes, she inspects the cake and the festivities with an eagle eye trained towards anything gossip worthy to break up the monotony of rolling out endless sheets of phyllo pastry over the next few weeks. She does not dance. She considers herself too old for that, of course, and anyway, the dance floor is only big enough for ten percent of the wedding guests and they keep playing the same five songs over…. And over…. And over again..

    I feel empathy for judgy teyzes, because I recently went to my first Turkish wedding and was unable to maintain any kind of remotely anthropological outlook. Why? It was the dullest, most awkward event that I have ever attended, and I have been told that this is normal as far as weddings are concerned. So I judged, since there was nothing else to do, and judged away!

    Turkish weddings, at least traditionally, span two days. The first night, historically only for women, is called the kina gecesi. (This is Turkish for henna night, a tradition most people will have heard of.) Nowadays, everybody can attend, but only women get to sit down, which means that men can casually slip away if they get bored, which they will.

    At the henna night that we recently attended, the bride wore a dress that couldn’t fit through the door. Everybody sat down. Eventually the bride and groom showed up, and danced. Finally, everybody was allowed to dance, but if you didn’t want to, your only option was to sit there. The music was too loud for talking, and too grating for enjoyment. And the DJ kept playing the same songs over and over.

    After about two hours of this, during which time you couldn’t leave because you hadn’t seen the bride get henna put on her hands yet, the bride went to change her dress to a traditional henna night gown. Her mother put a blob of henna on her hands (no intricate patterns here!), the bride and some of the guests danced for an hour more (which you have to stay for) to the same songs, and then they distributed favours,and finally about twenty minutes after that it was appropriate to leave.

    No alcohol.

    If you cannot dance for three hours straight, there is really nothing to do but think about how bored you are. No awkward drunk uncles give memorable, embarrassing, exciting speeches. There is no food on your plate to poke at. You just sit there in a plastic chair in a dress, waiting for it to end, wondering if your hearing will be permanently damaged by the volume of the music, and thinking enviously of the men in the back who can just leave if they want to.

    The only people in a less enviable position than the woman guests of this event are the bride and groom who, although they are to repeat the entire performance the following evening at the actual wedding, are not permitted to stop dancing for the entire ceremony.

    Ah well, so that felt like a waste of an evening. Perhaps the wedding will be better?

    We spent the entire day at the home of the bride and groom’s parents so we could see the groom forcibly removing the bride from her home. It’s not a violent event. The bride stays in a room guarded by her oldest brother. The groom gives money to the brother to give up his sister, and the father ties on a red ribbon to symbolize the bride’s virginity. To symbolize the groom’s virginity, he has to wear a red ninja headband.

    Just kidding, virginity only matters when it’s the bride of course!

    Now the groom has the bride. Everybody disperses to make themselves ready for the wedding. For close relatives, this means doing everything in their power to upstage the bride. Long cream or light-coloured dress? Check. Nine solid gold bangles? Check. Ostentatious up-do or hijab-do? Check.

    My sister-in-law and I went to the hairdresser with some other relatives to take part in this ritual (though of course I couldn’t bring myself to do anything upstage-y.) Here, I learned an interesting thing. Hijabis getting ready for an important event are not allowed to ditch the hijab, because that would be immodest. Instead, they get a hairdresser to arrange it so that it’s many pleats and folds look fancier, and then they get makeup put on their face so they look fancier. And they wear a long dress with lots of sparkles so they look fancier. Everything about it says, “look at me,” but at least it’s modest.

    After the hairdresser, off to the wedding. The venue was outdoors and tastefully decorated. We sat down and discovered, joy of joys, some other English-speakers who had been invited and to whom we could say everything catty that we wanted. The bride and groom walked down the aisle. They cut what looks like a Costco sheet cake. Then they danced their first dance. Then there were three more hours of dancing. Once again, the music was too loud. The DJ, who was not the same DJ, played the same five songs from the previous night! There was no ceremony, as apparently in Turkey “a wedding” is the thing we fondly dub “a wedding reception” in good old North America. And we were served food (thank God), and cake which was not the same cake that the bride and groom cut because…. Even the largest wedding cake isn’t large enough for 600 of your closest friends and family, I guess. It was ice cream cake, which I remember being all the rage for birthday parties when I was 9. 

    No ceremony, no speeches, not even a relative insisting on singing a song in a cringe-inducing faux-operatic style.

    Finally, it was over, and we could go home.

    On to the most catty thing I’ll say here. A number of women were wearing large amounts of solid gold jewelry. Since the Turkish currency has been unstable for at least the past 70 years, most Turkish people of any means choose to save their money in gold. This gold comes out during significant events like weddings and holidays, but cannot be worn every day because it is too soft.  

    Every member of the brides family was wearing multiple pieces of 22 carat gold, the bride wore no fewer than three dresses, the groom two suits, the venue was on the pricey side, but none of them appeared to have been to the dentist in at least ten years.

    Not only does it seem to be a no-brainer for me that the day whose photographs will grace your mantlepiece for the rest of your life you would like to have clean teeth, just one of those inch-thick bangles could buy a lifetime’s worth of yearly dentist appointments.

    But yeah. Something something can’t judge another culture. Just kidding. I am beyond the point of thinking that one should not make judgments, at least where decisions or traditions affect people who are not yourself. Judgment, where it doesn’t evolve into contempt, is important. It allows us to fight for improvement. And although a wedding a relatively small thing, it’s not nothing to force 600 people to listen to the same too-loud songs for six hours and to lose their entire weekend to that end. I felt resentful. I can’t have been the only one.

    Turkish society remains very conformist and traditional, and it can be very hard for some Turkish people understand that things might happen another way than what they’ve always been used to. I was initially okay with this, thinking that it wasn’t my place as an immigrant to step on anybody’s toes. However, when I allowed my mother-in-law to plan my engagement ceremony, I soon realized the folly in this outlook. The whole event was just… awkward. There was no MC to move the ceremony along. We, as the couple getting engaged, didn’t know what to do with ourselves after they put the rings on, and nobody told us what we were supposed to do, so we sat there blushing awkwardly.

    When I asked Adem about it, he said, “Well, engagement ceremonies are always like that.” We had a similar conversation about the recent wedding.

    “You didn’t find the wedding as horrible as I did?” I asked in a discussion the following day.

    “No, it’s normal,” he said.

    Fortunately during our engagement ceremony, my parents were there to rescue it by giving some speeches. But I still felt, after it was over, a sense of shame that I hadn’t been more proactive in designing a ceremony that was considerate to everyone, a ceremony that didn’t feel like a chore to attend.

    And if you’re thinking, “well maybe the most considerate thing would be to just follow the traditions,” you’re entitled to your opinion, but I think too much tradition can keep things stagnant and allows us to continue practices that reinforce harmful ideals. The virginity ribbon? No thank you. Anything that represents an idea that a woman can be bought? I’ll pass, thanks. And anything that makes people feel like they’re wasting their time? No, weddings are a joyful occasion and, if possible, should be joyful for everyone in attendance.

    All that being said, these ideas are easier said than implemented. I’ve been stressed about our wedding coming up because I want to make it an event that doesn’t make people grumble with resentment, but I am still fairly constrained by the traditionalism around me. For example, I have already conceded that we will invite 600 people from Adem’s side, which is insane. Adem wants me to wear one of those gaudy princess dresses and teases me by showing me white dresses from H&M that he says are similar to the ones I show him. (To be honest, if it looked okay, I would wear a dress from H&M and I would even wear a dress that wasn’t white, but that is one tradition that I have been forbidden from sinning against.) And I’m not even allowed to think about having alcohol at the wedding itself, though I have negotiated for there to be some both before and after. Every single tradition needs to be negotiated. It’s so much.

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  • Captain Underpants in Turkish


    This weekend Adem humoured me by going to see Captain Underpants with me. He even let me drag him to the bookstore to buy the first book in the series in Turkish (though he loudly chanted “I married a ten year old, I married a ten year old,” the whole way.)

    So I’ve been reading Captain Underpants in Turkish over the past few days and I have learned many things.

    The most important of which is that Turkish doesn’t have a word for wedgie.

    They have to translate “Captain Underpants was able to leap over tall buildings without getting a wedgie” with “Captain Underpants was able to leap over tall buildings without getting his underwear stuck.”

    I felt very sad that the Turkish translation didn’t have the panache of the English original, so I asked Adem about it.

    “Oh yeah, I’ve seen wedgies in films,” Adem said. “But we don’t do it to each other here so we don’t have a word for it. We have other stuff we do to each other.”

    “Like what?” I asked.

    “Oh, you know, grabbing someone by the balls and telling him to sing the national anthem backwards.”

    Where is that “the scream” emoji when I need it?

    No word yet on whether there are Turkish words for wet willies, purple nurples, noogies, Indian burns, or swirlys. But I will let you know what kinds of similarly horrible practices English doesn’t have words for.

    In the meantime, any translation suggestions for the National Anthem ball grab?

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    Since I arrived in Turkey, I’ve listened to the calls to prayer thousands of times.

    You would think I would have memorized them by now, but they haven’t punctured even my short-term memory, much less long-term. If you asked me to repeat the words, or sounds, or even hum along to the music, I wouldn’t be able to.

    I guess I’ve become an adult, and my years of learning through passive absorption are over.

    The beginning of one of the calls to prayer does stick out in my head though. It’s sung in the mid-afternoon, and starts with a robust Al-LAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAH. This much I get.

    I passively feel like I should at least know what is being sung; but instead, each time I hear this AL-LAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHH, the LAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAH of which is exactly the same length and timbre of the beginning of “The Circle of Life” song from The Lion King, that is what I automatically start to sing. Gustily, if there’s nobody around to feel disrespected of if I’m feeling particularly exuberant.

    It is now Ramadan. In Turkey, during Ramadan, my sleep is disturbed by the dreaded (for me) Ramadan drummer. Every night, he strolls through Turkey’s neighbourhoods banging a drum to wake everybody up before the sun rises so they can eat. Then, he comes to your door and asks for a tip for waking you up! Unfortunately, there is no option to take money away from him to get him to stop drumming.

    This guy has sicker beats than any of the other drummers I’ve heard. Ours is a no-nonsense drummer. Loud, and regular.

    Since many Turkish people are, like me, not Muslim, (or Muslim only on their official IDs) I am not alone in being annoyed by the Ramadan drummer. I recently saw a picture of a poster hung up on a building in a liberal neighbourhood of Istanbul. The poster had a picture of Lars Ulrich, drummer of Metallica, with a caption that said, “The only Ramadan drummer you should tip.”

    Hear hear.

    Anyway, back to the general point. While the mid-afternoon call to prayer inspires me to sing “The Circle of Life,” the regular bang-bang, bang-bangs of the Ramadan drummer inspire me to sing the song “Bang Bang.” It’s not perfect because the bang-bangs come a little too close together to sing the intervening words, but at least the initial bang-bang is roughly at the right tempo.










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  • If You Want to Go Shopping in Turkey, Consider Europe Instead

    I swear, the pantyhose are made of real silk!

    Before moving to Turkey, I almost always shopped online. I loved getting exactly what I wanted, not having to go anywhere, being able to judge the quality of my prospective purchases by the reviews of people who have already hacked through the jungle of the internet, contracted the tropical fever of buyer’s remorse, and learned the strange tongues of the savage online merchant.

    Online shopping in Turkey is much less popular than in Canada, which means that if you need something, you must usually perform the unpleasant task of searching brick and mortar stores until you find it. If being forced to spend time doing that isn’t bad enough, Turkish salespeople often make it worse.

    My defense mechanism is to just not go shopping if I can help it, but as Adem and I got married in the winter, I did need to buy a few things. The first was a shawl to go over my dress. I hoped to buy something wool as it might be suitably warm for going outside in a Turkish winter. Adem and I went downtown to look in the shops. We spotted one that sold scarves and asked the merchant if he had any made of wool.

    “Sure,” he said and pointed. “Right there.”

    Just by looking, I could tell that the scarf was not wool. The fabric was glossy and a bit plasticky. Further investigation revealed a tag that said, “100% polyester.”

    “This is polyester,” said Adem to the merchant after I showed him the tag.

    “Oh,” said the merchant. “It’s polyester mixed with wool.”

    “But this says 100% polyester,” said Adem.

    “Well it got mixed up with the others,” said the merchant.

    “The others are also polyester,” said Adem after glancing at the rest of the tags.

    We walked on, shaking our heads.

    A few days later, I went to Sephora to buy a lipstick for the wedding.

    A saleslady approached. “Can I help you?” she asked.

    “Yes,” I said. “I’m getting married soon and I’m looking for a lipstick that is close to the natural colour of my lips, but will make them more visible in pictures.”

    The saleslady led me to the Estee Lauder section and proposed a colour. Even by Sephora standards, it was expensive.

    “Or,” said the saleslady as I grimaced indecisively, “the colour I’m wearing could be very nice as well.”

    The saleslady’s lipstick was so dark it was almost black. It could not have been further from what I’d asked for.

    “No thank you,” I said. “I’m looking for something more natural looking.”

    Then, I asked her if there were any cheaper brands I could try.

    She said, “All the lipsticks here are this expensive.”

    Since I am too good at wasting time and not making my exit when I should, I asked, “what about the store brand?”

    “Oh,” said this lady a bit tersely. “I didn’t realize you considered the store brand a possibility.”

    I allowed myself to be dragged over to the store brand shelf but left without buying anything after the lady, again, showed me an array of colours that were the opposite of what I’d asked for and then did not suggest we look at other, cheaper, non-Estee Lauder lipsticks which were displayed in brightly coloured rows all over the store.

    That same week, Adem and I bought wedding rings. I asked the jeweler if mine could be made in rose gold.

    “Of course,” he said. “The rings will be ready in a few days.”

    A few days later, we went to pick them up. As promised, Adem’s was yellow gold, and mine was rose.

    Six weeks after the wedding, both the rings were yellow gold. For some reason, rather than making mine in solid rose gold, they had only plated it … without telling us.

    We went back to the store to complain.

    “Oh,” said the jeweler. “Rose gold as a material doesn’t exist, so it’s not possible to have rose gold jewelry that isn’t plated. You know. You wash the dishes, you do housework with it, and that’s what happens. It wears off.”

    Adem is a peaceful guy, and my Turkish isn’t good enough to really stick my claws in someone, which is maybe for the best since the mental insults I was slinging would have made Satan himself blush.

    Here is a G version of those insults:


    They offered to replate the ring for free, which we did because I was too stunned to say or do anything else. Three weeks later, it is now quite robustly yellow, again.

    Turkey has bigger problems than this of course, but these kinds of mundane dishonesties are just so frustrating in the day-to-day.

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  • Kaynanalık: the Turkish Word for Mother-in-Lawness

    Esma Sultan from the show İstanbullu Gelin. The show is entirely based on a mother/daughter-in-law conflict.

    The Middle-Eastern mother-in-law, so the common story goes, believes with all her might that no other woman could possibly be worthy of her son. The stereotype is so prevalent in Turkey that Turkish actually has a word – kaynanalık – that literally translates to “mother-in-lawness.” Usage example: Yes, I know your son prefers his stuffed grape leaves without meat, but stop with the kaynanlık. If I like them with meat I’m allowed to make them that way! Despite what you may believe, your son won’t starve!

    My own grandmother, herself from a different country in the Middle East, was (she isn’t dead, but she’s mellowed with age) so good at kaynanalık that she could have served as a lighthouse for other bad mothers-in-law who’d lost their way. Her own kaynanalık successes, however, did not stop her from becoming concerned that I may be mistreated by the very culture she so enthusiastically participated in. As soon as she could after the wedding, she sat me down and asked, “So, how’s your mother-in-law?”

    I actually have a great mother-in-law. She doesn’t make foods she knows I don’t like, constantly asks me what foods I do like, says things like, “you’re not my daughter-in-law, you’re my daughter!”, gets me to call her Mum, tells me about unpleasant experiences she had with her own mother-in-law many years ago, and enthusiastically tries to teach recipes I’ve taught her to her own sisters, who are skeptical about them to say the least.

    Anyway, I told my grandmother that I lucked out in the mother-in-law department, and she said, “Oh, I’m glad to hear that. You know, Middle-Eastern mothers-in-law are famous for being mean.” She paused for a too-short moment of self-reflection. “You know it’s funny,” she said after a while. “Everybody always talks about bad mothers-in-law, but nobody ever seems to have anything to say about bad daughters-in-law.”

    My brother would later text me to say that “With one short quote, she elevated herself to Plato’s perfect form of a bad mother-in-law.”

    If I’ve learned anything from the little time I’ve been married, however, it’s that mothers-in-law actually do talk a lot about their “bad” daughters-in-law. Mostly I’ve heard about this from my own mother-in-law, who when responding positively to questions about me, is often regaled with stories from other women about their own daughter-in-law-related misfortune.

    “I met a friend today,” she said to me one day a few weeks after Adem and I were married. “And was she ever complaining! She said her daughter-in-law never comes to visit and they never invite her to visit either. But they do invite the daughter-in-law’s mother.” She shook her head. “Oh, these women,” she said. “They’re so old-fashioned. Why do they feel like they need to be mean to their daughters-in-law? That’s how it was supposed to be in the old days, not now.”

    A few days later, Adem ran into the same lady who, after asking how our marriage was, used the subject of marriage as a springboard to launch into another volley of kaynanalık lamentation. Adem immediately launched into his, “oh my gosh, it’s been really great to see you” routine and extricated himself from the situation with as much grace as he could.

    That story reminded me of another story we heard from Cihan, a friend of ours. About five years ago a good friend of his got married. At the time when they were married, the wife was working a better job than the husband. One day Cihan’s phone rang. It was his friend’s Mom.

    “Hi Cihan, how are you doing” crackled (I imagine) her voice from the other end of the line.

    “Good, and you?” said Cihan.

    “I’m good, I’m good,” she said. “Listen, I just wanted to ask you. You know, you know my son well. I just wanted to make sure that his wife isn’t getting uppity because of the employment situation. She isn’t bossing him around or anything is she?”

    So far I’d been spared any mother-in-law jeremiads, until today, when I discovered a small table at my local bazaar selling a few products from Armenia. Foreign products are worth their weight in gold in Turkey, so I couldn’t believe my eyes. Pork sausage, condensed milk, halva made out of sunflower seeds! What luck! I asked the lady, a woman in her sixties with severe drawn-on eyebrows, if she came to the bazaar every week.

    “Yes,” she said. “I do. When I go to Armenia I bring things back here and sell them here once a week.”

    “Oh, you’re Armenian?” I said stupidly, because it was obvious from her accent that she was.

    “Yes,” she said. “But I’ve been here 15 years. Every time I travel I have to go through Russia because the political situation between Turkey and Armenia isn’t that good you know.”

    “Oh!” I said, surprised. “You don’t come back through Georgia?” (This would be a much cheaper option, and she could bring more stuff into Turkey to sell.)

    “NO!” she said. “My daughter-in-law is Georgian! I don’t like Georgia. My daughter-in-law is so greedy. I would rather go through Russia.”

    I took some of the halva and left her alone.

    I’ve spent the rest of the day feeling smug about my own good luck and trying to think of silly titles for articles or books by mothers-in-law for mothers-in-law. I mean, there does seem to be a glut in the market, no?

    Here’s what I’ve come up with so far.

    “The trick one mother-in-law has to avoid ever setting foot in the homeland of her daughter-in-law, (and how you can do it too). HINT: It costs money!”

    “Uninvited: The mother-in-law story.”

    “Why Change when You Can Stay the Same?: Kaynanalık traditions of the Middle East through the ages.”

    Yelling: A Guide to Getting Grandchildren without Compromising your Son’s Care.

    “How to cope when your son gets bossed around by his wife instead of by you.”

    “When bad daughters-in-law happen to perfect people.”

    …other suggestions are welcome.

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  • 6 Turkish Pop Songs to Torture your Friends With!

    When I was an adolescent, my family and I often played a game called Crazy 8 Countdown. To play this game, you dealt eight cards and started to play Crazy 8s. Each time a player ran out of cards he or she was dealt in again, but with one less card than before until that number reached zero.

    One fateful day, my younger brother invented “Very Crazy 8 Countdown.” Instead of playing a normal game of Crazy 8 Countdown, before dealing the first card somebody would choose a song and put it on repeat. We were not allowed to turn it off until the game finished.

    My brother is now head of the Torture Department at a top-secret prison complex at an undisclosed location.

    Unsurprisingly, our fondness for Very Crazy 8 Countdown did not last long, but it did last long enough for me develop a lifelong aversion to Billy Joel, who accompanied us through one particularly torturous and long game of Very Crazy 8 Countdown. I have lived my life in constant fear of hearing the strains of a Billy Joel song on the radio, and so moving to Turkey was something of a relief. The politics are crap, the mayonnaise is suspiciously bright white, it happens to be one of the ISIS capitals of the world, but at least I can live my life in the relative peace of knowing that my existence is now a Billy Joel-free one.

    Unfortunately for me, Turkey has produced its fair share of terrible pop tunes. Unlike terrible American pop ditties of all kinds, the worst Turkish pop songs rarely reach the foreign airwaves. Feeling lucky? Think again, because I am about to provide you with the fodder for seven horrible games of Very Crazy 8 Countdown of your own.

    1. Kendimi Kontrol Edemiyorum

    Gençkan’s Kendimi Kontrol Edemiyorum is notable for it’s electric guitar solos during which Gençkan pretends to play an acoustic guitar, it’s sleek 90s styling and, last but not least, its monotone panache. The chorus translates to I can’t control myself / I’m so so angry / Don’t make jokes my friends / I’m pretty out of sorts today. Gençkan’s attempted subversion of the angry-music genre by singing without the help of tones falls a little flat in more ways than one.

    Fun Fact! Do you know that it is impossible to find any trace of a grown-up Gençkan anywhere online? It’s almost as if he’s embarrassed or something.

    2. Çukulata Kız

    While not as musically horrifying as Kendimi Kontrol Edemiyorum, Çikolata Kız (Chocolate Girl) is notable for seeming to take advantage of tourists to Ephesus without their knowledge, climbing on pillars at historical sites, and being racist. The elderly dancing tourists in the video likely just signed up for a trip to Ephesus and not to be in a music video. (If there is one thing I would like to know, it’s whether those people are even aware that this video of them is even on the internet.) As for the racism, culture critics (aka probably just me) have criticized the fact that the word ‘Chocolate’ is used to denote a black woman and that part where the black girl’s boyfriend shows up and ends up not being angry because Ragga Oktay is dancing. Because black people love to dance! Get it?

    3. Çikita Muz

    Muz means banana in Turkish, and Çikita Muz is what Turkish people call what us North Americans fondly dub ‘the normal banana’ and what scientists and nomenclature lovers have christened “The Cavendish Banana.” (Turkey is also home to the anamur muzu which I think is just the Turkish name for the rare Gros Michel variety that was popular in North America until disease made it impossible to cultivate for commercial purposes.)

    The reasons this video is bad are fairly self-explanatory. There is no need to even translate the lyrics. Enjoy (or don’t). At least you learned something new about bananas.

    If you feel like more, Ajdar Anık also has a song about mint.

    Fun Fact! Ajdar Anık has a degree in Engineering.

    Bir Gün Beni Arzularsan

    Dear Banu Alkan, thank you for putting your boobs in a bowl. We notice that you aren’t particularly flat in the chestal region. The vocal region, however, is quite another story.

    Fun Fact! In 1976, Banu Alkan starred in a film called Taksi Şoförü (Taxi Driver). That same year, Robert De Niro starred in a film called Taxi Driver (Taksi Şoförü). Wild, right?

    4. I Love You I Love You

    Musically speaking, this is far from being the worst Turkish song ever. However, a Turkish man singing to a photograph of a blond foreign-looking woman and imagining her responses is just too reminiscent of the daily sexual harassment many women, and particularly foreign women, and extra particularly blonde women experience in Istanbul.

    Fun Fact! Because of this song, the only thing my mother-in-law knows how to say in English is “I love you.”

    5. Hello Obama

    It was 2008, a simpler, more hopeful time. Mustafa Topaloğlu was swept up in the hopenado sweeping the rest of the world like a house in Kansas. Unfortunately, the superfluity of hope he was probably experiencing extended to his understanding of his abilities in English, and led to the creation of this song which, much like the house in Kansas, could probably kill a wicked witch if it really tried.

    I have so many questions about this video, and here are a few.

    1. Is he wearing one of those tuxedo t-shirts? Or is his tuxedo designed to look like a tuxedo masquerading as a tuxedo t-shirt?
    2. Did he do his own subtitles, or was his subtitler as delusional about his English abilities as his boss?
    3. Who is the rapper and why is he too embarrassed to show his face?

    Fun fact! Mustafa Topaloğlu was on Turkish Survivor in 2012.

    Less Fun Fact! My sister-in-law says that Mustafa Topaloğlu is known for beating his wife. But because my Turkish isn’t good enough to read all the Turkish tabloids, I cannot confirm this.

    6. Foolish Casanova

    When she says “Shut up! Shut up!” I think the Petek Dinçöz might actually be singing to herself.

    If you can make it to the part where she says it, then you are probably drunk or not worthy of being my friend. (Full disclosure: I made it there, but it was for research ok?)

    Fun Fact! This singer has worked with 12(!) music labels. I can understand why a label would drop her, but how she has managed to find new labels is beyond my ken.

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  • Life in Istanbul these Days

    Sorry for the long absence – it was, I promise, one that would have counted as “motivated” by even the nitpickiest of my high school teachers. I’m working full-time, I’ve had some minor but time-consuming health problems, I did a bit of travelling, and I got married. I’ve neglected a few projects because of the craziness of it all, and this blog is one of them.

    Here are some notes from life in Istanbul as of late.

    Turkey is going to have a referendum in early April about some proposed constitutional changes. These, if accepted, would give the presidential office and Erdogan a great deal of power. I’m beyond caring about it because whether Erdogan wants to maintain the veneer of democracy or not changes little about what is actually going on. The only thing to do is to choose battles we can fight in our corner. To that end, Adem and I have a laundry list of products we no longer buy and stores we no longer frequent because of their links to the government. Ülker and Godiva products are out, we’ve stopped shopping at Şok, Bim, and A101, and we try to shop at the bazaars and neighbourhood shops and to buy local so that our money goes towards providing livelihoods for local merchants instead of big companies that tend to funnel money upward.

    Although I don’t feel any anxiety about the referendum, it is hard to ignore the campaigning. As my neighbourhood tends conservative, huge posters encouraging people to vote yes to the constitutional changes are prominently displayed all over the place. Under one of these posters, another poster has been hung advertising “psychological consulting.” Although I’m reasonably sure that said “psychological consulting” would also be coming from a conservative perspective, it still makes me laugh every time I pass by.

    Along with the posters everywhere, campaigners are handing out flyers in the street and mobile propaganda trucks play jaunty patriotic tunes. The ones against the constitutional changes all play the Izmir March, whose lyrics translate roughly to “Long live Mustafa Kemal Pasha! May his name be a jewel in our crown.” Like many marches, the Izmir March is a major earworm and I find myself whistling it frequently, even if my feelings towards Atatürk are not particularly worshipful.

    In other news from this month, my eyes have been opened to the meaning of my status in Turkish society as unmarried lady living with her boyfriend. I’ve never felt exactly uncomfortable in my neighbourhood or apartment building, but it did make me laugh ruefully this past month when the neighbours started speaking to me all at once. Before I had assumed that their not speaking to me was just because we live in a huge city, but I now suspect it was because Adem and I were living in sin.

    It all started when, a week after the wedding, I said hello to the opposite neighbour and mentioned “my husband.”

    “Your husband?!” she said. “Adem is your husband?”

    “Yes,” I said, “we just got married.

    “Congratulations!” she said. “Why don’t you come in for tea?”

    She has never invited either of us for tea before.

    A few days later, our downstairs neighbour caught us as we were heading out and admonished us for not inviting her to the wedding.

    “We’re neighbours!” she said. “You should invite us!”

    “It was just a small civil wedding,” Adem said. “We’ll have a bigger wedding and invite you.”

    “Congratulations, congratulations,” she said. “Yes, let us know when you have the big wedding.”

    Now she too always greets me whenever we cross paths in the hallway and asks me how I’m doing. I appreciate the attention but do find is amusing (and disturbing?) to see how shut out I was until I made an honest woman of myself. On the other hand, it’s not exactly surprising and they were never rude to me, so I suppose I’ll accept the friendliness and reserve my personal misgivings for bigger problems than their tacit judgement of our choices.

    More to come, I promise.

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  • Dare to Disappoint: Growing up in Turkey – Turkish Literature in English

    Özge Samancı’s bildings-graphicmemoir Dare to Disappoint: Growing up in Turkey chronicles her growing up years in Izmir in the turbulent period following Kenan Evren’s 1980 military coup. Turkey’s 1980s was a time of rapid inflation, a dictatorial government, curfews, and persecution and killings of opposition members. Samancı’s parents were both public-school teachers and, as the currency devalued in the wake of the coup, they became increasingly poor. In order to silence the protests of public servants being paid less and less, the government implicitly suggested its employees begin to take bribes. This allowed for a near-complete absence of recourse for people who didn’t have money and wished for any sort of legal protection.

    Samancı’s father’s response to the treacherousness of life in Turkey is to push his two daughters to do well in school and get well paying jobs. At one point, he tells them, “you have to be good at school. Otherwise, in the future you will be dependent on your husbands or us. Your husband will tell you what to do. You will lose your freedom. In this country, if you are a woman and you don’t have a job, you are ZERO, nothing, NOTHING!” Özge and her sister Pelin respond to this pressure by working very hard and attending weekend school so that they can go to more prestigious high schools and colleges. (This educational pressure was a reality for many Turkish kids of the period, including Adem.)

    The political narrative is a perfect pairing to Özge’s own personal journey to find herself amongst the obstacles of the Turkish education system and her father’s insistence that she be financially successful. Through Özge and her family’s stories, Dare to Disappoint poses questions of what to do in the face of a society that restricts you and its other citizens and forces you to behave in certain very prescribed ways. Do you try to follow your dreams, or is it best to just try to survive?

    This graphic novel also provides a clear window into how the Turkish present mirrors the Turkish past. The modern Turkish “democracy,” the legal system that favours those with money and power, and the intense competition among people who can be trying to raise a family working six days a week for 400 American dollars per month are all foreshadowed in Samancı’s work.

    Samancı also explores the question of whether resisting the status quo is even worth it, both through her own life and in a more political sense. In one scene, her parents watch two protesters protest the government on television and remark that “they’re so brave.” However, the with backdrop of executions and jailings one can’t help but wonder where the line between stupid and brave lies.

    Despite all the serious questions, Samancı is able to demonstrate the turbulence of Turkish society and its effect on her and her family in a way that is gracious rather than angry, humourous rather than jaded. If there is one book I would recommend to people trying to understand modern Turkey, this one is it.

    Other things about Turkish culture you can see in the book include: political graffiti and movements, Kemalism and Kemalist attitudes towards Ataturk, Turkish communism, and the rise of kumpir.


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  • The Best Turkish Literature in English: An Overview

    A PSA

    You may have noticed that I’ve been more-or-less absent from the blog for a while. Back in August I decided that my next post was going to be about the best Turkish literature published in English. Two months, 18 books, and ten single-spaced pages later, I have realized that a series of posts about this would be a better option for all concerned.

    An Intro to Turkish Literature

    Understanding Turkish literature requires an understanding of the history of the Turkish language. Turkish has been the official state language of Turkey, for a relatively short time. Ataturk’s language reforms of the 1920s mandated that Turkish be written in Latin, not Arabic, script and that the large numbers of Persian and Arabic loanwords be scrubbed as much as possible from the language. One of the main consequences of this is that modern Turkish literature is a relatively young beast. Other consequences are equally important. While the generally accepted interpretation of Ataturk’s language reforms is that were an attempt to instigate a rapprochement with Europe, the reforms had the messy secondary effect of rendering a large number of people with no experience of the Latin alphabet illiterate. This was not Ataturk’s only messy proclamation. In Portrait of a Turkish Family, Irfan Orga writes about how the abolishment of the fez wreaked havoc in the newly declared Republic of Turkey. At the time, some thought the idea of wearing European-style headgear so objectionable that they took to wearing women’s headwear instead. Ataturk is still much loved by many Turkish people. However it could be argued that his autocratic style of leadership and plethora of decisions made without significant consultation of the Turkish population set a precedent for the rest of the century. Turkish literature cannot be read without keeping in mind the struggle between autocracy and systems in which people’s voices are heard; not only are these questions are blatant in the content of the novels, they are implicit in the very creation and use of the language of Turkey.

    Turkish literature’s relative youth and the Turkish language’s relatively limited geographical spread restrict Turkish literature in ways that highlight striking commonalities between works. It is possible that this is only a consequence of a certain type of book being favoured for English-language translation; however, I suspect this not to be the case. Resistance is the most prevalent theme I encountered. Nearly all the books I read explored questions of how people can resist, whether resistance is worth the potential costs, how people feel when they have few to no options for improvement in their lives, whether there is even a point to resistance when new people and status quos to resist will always crop up, and where the line is between bravery and stupidity is in the fight against tyranny. Is any kind of resistance worth paying the ultimate price of death? What about losing your family, friends, or home? One of Turkey’s most famous writers, Yashar Kemal asks these questions succinctly in his work. In They Burned the Thistles, the character of Old Osman states, “There’s nothing worse than a frightened man. Just put fear into a man and you can make a slave of him for ever.” Later in the book however, the main character of Memed asks a different question. “Old Suleyman said it was right to struggle and fight and resist tyranny. What do you think? If it never comes to an end, is it worthwhile struggling against oppression, and trying to overthrow it?”

    Besides resistance, Turkish literature also demonstrates that, while some things change, many stay the same. The 18 books I read dealt with issues of freedom of the press, authoritarian government, military coups, forced military service, government that does not listen to its citizens, rapid inflation, corruption, disregard for children’s education, and the near-destitution of people who have the misfortune to find themselves, through no fault of their own, on the wrong side of the powers that be. This is not to mention the power of the Turkish family to dictate the lives of its members. There’s lots of that too.

    It’s not all negative. These books also showcase the best of Turkish culture: generosity and love of family and friends; the fierce fight of parents for their children; and the fierceness of many Turkish people who, though I may disagree with some of the things they fight for, are generally more willing to put themselves on the line for what they believe in than people in North America. In these books we see Turkish folk customs, Turkish traditions, and Turkish kindness. There are Turkish people struggling to come to grips with the history of their country even when this history is complicated and messy and at times horrifying. And, from many of the authors we see a love for Turkey and its land and people, and a true desire to change Turkey into the best Turkey it can be.

    The Best Turkish Literature

    If this is the only post you read in this series, here is a list of the nine books I would say are worth reading so far. (My adventures in reading being not finished, I may add to this list in future.)

    1. Özge Samanci – Dare to Disappoint
    2. Yashar Kemal – Memed, My Hawk
    3. Sevgi Soysal – Noontime in Yenisehir
    4. Sabahattin Ali – Madonna in a Fur Coat
    5. Irfan Orga – Portrait of a Turkish Family
    6. Ahmet Ümit – Patasana
    7. Nazim Hikmet – Life’s Good Brother
    8. Elif Shafak – The Bastard of Istanbul
    9. Fethiye Çetin – My Grandmother: An Armenian Turkish Memoir

    Most of them are available online. Only Ahmet Ümit is a bit tough to find. I’ll be writing individual posts about each of these works in the coming weeks.

    Do you have any other recommendations for Turkish novels or memoirs in English? Send them my way!

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