Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The most useless phrase in the phrasebook

[The following is based on my journal entry from 12-30-2008, while I was in Turkey. That day, Matthew, Paul, and I went to Haya Sofya and the Blue Mosque, and the Istanbul antiquities museums. We then went to two toy stores, trying to find Silly Putty. It is likely that I had, in my pocket, the only egg of Silly Putty in the country. We then went to the spice bazaar and had supper near there at a pide and kebap shop.]

Tonight at supper, I used eight Turkish words. First, I asked the waiter, "Ingilizce konuşuyor musunuz?"--"Do you speak English?" He looked confused, like I'd mispronounced something to the point of incoherance. Onur suggests that the waiter thought that if I knew enough Turkish to ask that question, I ought to know how to order in Turkish.

Then, I said "Ben vejetaryanım"--"I am a vegetarian." The waiter pointed at the three items on the menu without meat: soup, salad, and plain cheese pide. I ordered the pide.

Pide is flatbread with melted cheese on it, typically kaşar. Some people call it Turkish pizza, but some Turks, I hear, resent this--they see pide as being in a category of its own. It does not have tomato sauce.

In restaurants in Turkey, sometimes the bill is left on your table during the whole meal--that is, the waiter will take your order, leave the bill on the table, and append it as you order more things, say drinks or desserts. This seems to me to be a sensible system that prevents bills from getting mixed up. In other restaurants, though, you'll actually have to request the bill, they won't just drop it on the table when they want you to leave. We would have been trapped in limbo if I didn't say, "Hesabı, lütfen"--"Bill, please."

As we left the restaurant, I called out, "Hoşçakal," and the waiter replied, "Güle güle." (You say goodbye differently if you are leaving or if the other party is leaving.)

I felt so ashamed when the waiter looked blankly at me when I asked him if he speaks English. It was awkward, and I have five days of awkward built up.

If I move here, awkward will be my life for months, and I won't ever be normal. That will be hard.

The day after Josh's wedding proper, the party continued. We had a barbecue, then went inside for dessert. There were four languages being thrown around. I got out my yo-yo and did tricks. Claudia tried it, and her dad teased her because she couldn't get the yo-yo to return. Claudia's dad is Chilean, so he mostly teased her in Spanish. My Spanish wasn't good enough for me to translate what he said, but it was easy to get the gist from context. (It was a fun teasing, not a mean teasing.) She would hold her mouth open--her sister, Pamela, told me that she does this when she's concentrating--her dad teased her about that, too. I said, "En boca cerrada, no entran moscas"--"Flies don't fly into closed mouths" and everyone who spoke Spanish laughed. Even the people who didn't know Spanish laughed. That was the first time that I told a joke in a language besides English. That party is probably my favorite picture of heaven.

Today was the first time I used another language when I really needed it, and that experience was more purgatorial.


  1. i've only ordered in a foreign language once--and i experienced a similar dread/anxiety during the entirety of the encounter.

    i've some of my non-english-as-a-first-language friends how they deal with the anxiety and they just shrug their shoulders. perhaps its a uniquely american neurosis.