Istanbul, Turkey – January 2009
Out of a group of eighteen, I was shocked to find only three of us did not want to strip halfway nude and participate in a communal Turkish bath, or hammam. Since the other two holdouts were 1) a leader, and 2) a girl who had grown up in Turkey and already experienced a Turkish bath, really it came down to just me being a prude. I liked the other members of our team, but we had only known each other for seven pre-trip meetings and two days of traveling. I did not feel safe enough to let my extreme self-conscious guard down. Instead of participating in a cultural experience and group bonding exercise, Kate and Chris and I wandered the streets of Istanbul alone. The three of us took a taxi to the mall where Kate’s family shopped. I was disappointed to see that it was a normal mall with a sleek interior and modern storefronts.
“We could see if there are any good movies playing,” Kate suggested. We headed toward the mall’s theater.
“How do you say ‘let’s go’ in Turkish?” Chris asked.
“Haydi gidelim,” Kate said.
“Haydi gidelim,” Chris repeated.
Kate glanced at him in shock. “Wow, Chris. That was really good.”
“Hi-dee gitilem,” I said.
“Close,” Kate allowed.
“Hi-dee gitilem,” I tried again.
“Haydi gidelim,” Chris said.
“Yeah, that’s perfect!” Kate exclaimed. “Your accent is perfect, Chris.”
We found the theater and stared at the back-lit movie poster for Yes Man. Deciding we didn’t want to spend money on it, we discussed what else to do with our time. “We could find somewhere that sells baklava,” I suggested. Kate decided we could walk to the waterfront and find a shop there that would sell the dessert.
“Haydi gidelim!” Chris exclaimed. I frowned at my feet.
As we crossed cobbled streets and slanted sidewalks, Chris continued to request Turkish words from Kate. He parroted them back perfectly almost 100% of the time. Every time I tried to join in the game, I inevitably stumbled over the foreign words and wound up speaking gibberish. Kate was unfailingly polite, encouraging despite my failures. This only made me feel worse.
We found a pastry shop that sold baklava, and to make up for my wounded ego, I might have overly bragged about how “when I was in Greece!” I’d fallen in love with the honeyed sweet. We bought four squares and carried the box to a bench that overlooked the Bosphorus. The lights of the city danced over the dark water.
“Nefisti!” Chris exclaimed.
In my jealous mind, Chris was now capable of speaking fluent Turkish while I had yet to pronounce one word correctly. I stopped trying to join in the language acquisition game and instead led the conversation around to learning more about my teammates. We had a lovely and vulnerable conversation that was only occasionally punctuated by Chris’s remarkable ability to absorb foreign languages.
We met up with the rest of our team at the hotel two hours later. They were bursting with ecstatically grossed-out stories of communal scrub brushes, which I listened to with a combination of relief and jealousy. It was getting late, and I saw Chris lean over to Kate.
“Yatak!” he yelled suddenly. “Go to bed!” As we started to scatter to our rooms, I muttered, “Yatak.”
“Hey, good job!” Kate said. I hadn’t known she was walking behind me.
“That was right?” I asked.
“Yeah, it was perfect.”
I smirked, shoving humiliation down deep. I was still smart. I could learn things. Like, one thing, at least.