Sliding Back to America from the Marmara Sea

Last week, at a playground on the banks of the Marmara Sea, I stood with a stranger and watched his daughter and my grandson chase one another up and down the slide. They were laughing, enjoying the game. We were encouraged by their easy palship to attempt a conversation.

“Where you are from?” the man asked me. I faltered a moment, embarrassed.

“From the U.S., “ I finally replied.

“Ah. I am from Syria. I came here five years ago.”

Unsure what to say next, I stammered, “You are kind to speak English with me.”

“Oh,” he laughed. “I am a teacher of English. I love to have the opportunity to speak!”

“Ah.” I could have been quiet. A socially adept person might have stood there simply enjoying the mirth of our children and the sparkle of the sea. Instead, I pressed on.

“It must be difficult to be from Syria. What’s happening in your homeland must be painful for you.”

He nodded solemnly for a moment then looked me in the eye. “Well,” he ventured, with a new twinkle of mirth emerging from his own, “No more painful than being from America, I’ll bet.”

Déjà-vu.

In 1970, when I first ventured to Europe, a sweet Italian boy asked me if I were an Ugly American. I spent the next 9 weeks of my trek across the continent proving in every way could that I was not. My encounter with the Syrian English teacher was not the first time I realized I was experiencing a resurgence of what I felt about my country in my profligate youth.

“Speak to me in German,” I begged an Iranian neighbor in the courtyard of the apartment complex where I was staying one morning. I couldn’t bear to hear American English coming from my mouth as I spoke to her.

Being an American, especially being an American abroad, is indeed excruciating. Every day of the two months I stayed in Turkey I faced news from my beloved country that made me shudder. Child abuse by US officials. Refugee incarcerations. Racist slurs against respected politicians. Rallies inciting brainwashed multitudes to chant hateful slogans. Ostensible newscasters spewing toxic lies to widen the chasms that divide citizens. Threats of war both civil and foreign.

Early in the morning three days before my flight home to the States, I received an email from my airline instructing me that because of heightened security in the US, all passengers leaving high-risk areas must undergo extreme scrutiny by security personnel. I was therefore instructed to be at Istanbul Airport at least three hours prior to flight time.

I closed the email, shuddering at the thought of having to leave the apartment at 2 AM for a 6 AM flight. Shivering with resentment that my prosthetic hip would set off the metal sensors and force me to endure inevitable pat-down humiliation.

Before I could shut down my email server and go brew a cup of coffee, my news feed blasted pictures from El Paso. Twenty people killed less than a week after the Gilroy Garlic Festival massacre. I sat and wept. Before my tears abated, news of Dayton. I remain inconsolable.

I am hyper-aware of irony. It underscores the absurdity of life around me and ordinarily gives me a healthy perspective on what I observe in the world. While irony often makes me laugh, it is equally capable of reducing my soul to painful shards that impair my vision, alter my hearing, infuse me with the bitter taste of helplessness.

By the time I read those three notices, my toddler grandson and I had spent 60 days frolicking in various playgrounds in our Istanbul suburb, interacting with people from all over the Middle East. I didn’t like everyone, and I am sure there were those who disliked me. Human interaction is like that. I’m not historically ignorant, and I know there have been times when I would have had a very different experience in Turkey. But this time, now, there was no threat inherent in not being friends with everyone. I never felt unsafe. No one ever threatened me with a gun. No one shouted at me that I must conform to any single notion of right/wrong. Not one person posed any kind of a threat to me or my family.

So sad. My misinformed, misguided, brain-washed fellow Americans believe that the people outside our country threaten us with terrorism. When I said I was traveling to a country that is 97% Muslim, I was overwhelmingly warned, even by my more enlightened acquaintances, to “Be careful.” It should have been I issuing the warnings. The real threat to all of us comes from our fellow Americans.

Mass shootings continue to increase. Congress continues to allow the money-wielding gun lobby to control them. The so-called president continues to sow seeds of fear and resentment that foster bigotry and violence. Politicians and our so-called liberal leadership continue to insist on radical stances instead of seeking ways to re-group and ameliorate. The mainstream press continues to whitewash the awful truth about the evil in our midst.

And we continue to allow ourselves to be bamboozled.

You are right, my Syrian acquaintance. What’s happening in America is painful.

 

Back on the Road With Grandma – Part II – View from the Courtyard. . . It Seems So Simple Really

From my window, I have a world view I wish I could share with my fellow Americans.

I am currently in an apartment complex in Istanbul. On the European side. Four separate entrances to four connected but independent buildings comprise the 12-story structure that wraps itself around a large courtyard, a recreational close.

In the center of the courtyard is a very large gazebo.

With ample seating for at least 20 adults and floor space for at least as many children. Much of the day, it is occupied by mothers and a few fathers, who chat amongst themselves while their many children run exuberantly about. They are often there until well after 10 PM.

No one in any of the flats that face the courtyard fears missing the opportunity to be part of the communal scene. Each apartment faces the square, and curtains on the sliding doors leading to a small balcony are invariably open. By placing a couch set at the sliding door, inhabitants extend the indoor living space out into the world of the square. Sound carries easily. From the comfort of home, they intermittently call to one another, supervise unruly children, and engage with the flow of life below.

I imagine our neighbors wonder what is wrong with us that we are so anti-social as to keep our windows covered, our doors closed.

Solitude, then, is not the ideal here. Personal space is meant to be shared. It extends beyond our courtyard into the activity that bustles about us. On the street, in stores, at the local market one is likely to feel crowded even when there are no more than a few people nearby. Walking close to one another seems a requirement on the walkways. Driving far too close is common practice on the roads.

Life here is on a clock set for summer hours. Revels extend late into the night, and nearly nothing stirs before 9 AM, even on workdays. This is lucky for me. My need for alone time, for the wide berth of privacy, is satisfied by my early-morning sessions in the exercise room or by eschewing the sun-drenched outdoor pool in favor of the dimly lit indoor equivalent.

I adjust to what might feel like perpetual invasiveness, even when people are staring at me with great curiosity. The ultra-communal atmosphere fascinates me. It instructs me about the world to which I will soon return.

In my neighborhood in Harlem, apartments are built to ensure the most privacy one can hope for in a crowded city. They are built with an American sense of individuality. Bolted doors, barred windows help to reinforce the notion that boundaries matter.

It is a notion that is just as foreign to many of my neighbors in Harlem as it is to those here in Istanbul. Like my neighbors in this courtyard world, my fellow Manhattanville residents are from places where the house is the place to sleep. In the warm climes – in places like this part of Turkey, the Caribbean Islands, large sections of Africa, Asia, South America, and the Asian subcontinent — the cultures encourage and even require communalism. Folks often and comfortably congregate in courtyards, on the beaches, in the marketplace. In Harlem, they replace the familiar sharing places with city sidewalks, local parks, even the local grocery stores.

I have been known to grouse about the way the habits of the collective affect me, interfere with my limits. Though I crave diversity and delight in the culinary benefits these strangers have brought to my city, I also complain about the things that niggle.

Watching the courtyard below me in this very foreign place is a kind of revelation, a reminder of how fortunate I am to experience this perspective changer.

I pledge to remind myself often — at night, when I wish the noise on the street would just stop, on my block, when I am having trouble walking quickly because of the lawn chairs and hibachis blocking my way, in Whole Foods when another shopper’s cart refuses to move more than an inch from me, on my way to work when the tourists walking four abreast slow my progress from point A to B, in my own apartment building, when it is abuzz with folks iding together – that my way of living is not universally the best. Awareness and perhaps a set of earplugs should enable me to adjust my point of view.

We white Americans have made a history of co-opting, usurping, and/or obliterating all traces of Others’ cultures. Our national beginnings are fraught with murder, enslavement, criminalization of anything un-white. We have stolen food, customs, traditions, language, and culture and have forcibly replaced what belongs to others, requiring that they embrace what is ours. We have taken this imperialistic attitude to the world, earning us the moniker of Ugly Americans. And in the time of Trump, we are doubling down on our insistence that the Other be like us or get out.

I don’t like what we’ve become, we white Americans. We are a fearful, suspicious, hateful lot with little understanding of these others settling on our shores. They are not here to take anything away from us. Yet we treat them as though it is a bad thing that their difference threatens our blandness. Every American should spend a week looking out of my Istanbul window and see that there is no harm in retaining individuality if that is what we want. We might be irritated by a handful of inconveniences, but in the end, our lives are enriched by allowing ourselves to observe and grin.

Perhaps a week at my window would engender a sorely-needed American attitude adjustment. Liberals need to see that while the people of the heartland have lacked exposure, they can watch, smile and accept with the rest of us. And so-called Conservatives need to shut up and listen, taste, touch the joy that happens in this courtyard. We can all adjust.

It’s so simple. Really. You may love your hamburgers, sandwiches, and wraps, but once you’ve tasted kofta or börek, you’ll know something more delicious. Preserving tradition is fine and dandy, but it’s always a sure bet that adding something new can give your life a whole new dimension.

Back on the Road With Grandma

This summer, it’s Istanbul, Turkey. I’ve never been here before.

Once upon a time I dreamed of seeing Istanbul-not-Constantinople and taking in Ephensus, the Topkapi Museum, et al. My imagination conjured encounters with all manner of exotic people, places, ideas. Even in my old age, I fantasized about meeting interesting people, perhaps a man? Preparing for my trip, I made a hypothetical list: The Blue Mosque, the Haga Sophia, a ride atop a double-decker tour of the city and the ancient ruins of Iconium, a cruise down the Bosphorus alongside the remains of the wall that protected Turchia. I figured that since I’d be in the city for three months, I’d have ample opportunity to learn some of the local language, soak up the essence of the culture.

Now entering my third week, I have adjusted my expectations. Mine is not the sojourn of a freewheeling youngster or a liberated retiree. I am here in the official capacity of Toddler’s Grandmother. Consequently, though I have happily partaken of the pide bread and acquired a craving for muhammara salad and vegan boreks, I remain more familiar with home-heated frozen French fries and chicken nuggets. While I’ve managed to board the ferry and visit the Isle of Heybellada, My experiences are filtered through a skewed lens with minimal focus. I see the world through the eyes of a two-and-a-half-year-old, who is fixated on construction vehicles with three doors that open and shut or on dogs sleeping in the shade or birds resting on low-hanging branches. Nothing else in Turkey matters nearly as much. A museum would be excruciating, and the Blue Mosque might shudder at the thought of my grand child running through.

I have yet to see the city by night. Bedtime is early in the world of a toddler.

None of this is in any way disappointing. I believe I will love the memory of this Turkish sojourn all the more for having shared it with my little miracle boy. A walk on the Bosphorus is as satisfying as any cruise when you’re throwing rocks to watch the ripples disrupt the calm and laughing at the boats seeming to race with one another, singing about wheels going ‘round and ‘round as a big green bus zooms behind.

Back in New York, I’ll hear in my dreams the five calls to prayer outside our window, but I will remember a sleeping boy rather than the responses of the faithful. Here I’ll content myself with vicarious visits to storied places. The beauty of Haga Sophia and Rumeli Castle resonates adequately from the page, and neither will age any less sublimely for want of my presence.

Much to my amazement, I have no need to further enrich my senses. Things that once seemed intensely important have lost their luster. The glories of the past are singularly unenticing because the future is in my arms.

My future has become irrelevant. Who knows what time I have left? Nothing is promised,. I have had already a long life that has given me much to be grateful for. I gladly turn my attention to what I will leave behind. Memories matter.

No matter what time is left, I will be a presence in this boy’s heart, even if only as half-seen a shadow casting stones on the water of the Bosphorus.

——————

Next up: How America looks from here . . . . Spoiler alert. It’s not pretty.