We are on a train to the airport in Izmir. Dave and I grapple with the crowds since like Amtrak, trains are often oversold. We are standing in the aisles over our packs with our smaller backpacks across our chests.
A guy walks by selling simit, the national snack, which is something of a sesame seed bagel on a diet. He flashes us wide grins as he squeezes past us through a crowded train.
A stop passes by as we lurch with the tracks. As we move between stops we watch villages fade into countryside.
As we approach a stop, an older woman in a headscarf and her traveling companion get up. She smiles at me kindly as she neatly unfolds herself from her seat. She catches my eye as she walks by me en route to the exit she takes my hand. It is cool and soft. She knows I am not Turkish. No self respecting Turkish woman would be carrying her luggage like this. With her other hand she gestures to her now-empty seat and nods me into it, only letting go of my hand once I am in motion towards it. She looks at Dave expectantly to arrange our things.
I say thank you in Turkish to her and she promptly leaves the train.
I think about my grandmother’s hands and how they used to feel just the same.
I’m walking out the door of our new home for our final six days in Istanbul after flying in from Izmir. Dave isn’t feeling well, so I offer to run out to a nearby store for provisions: drinking water (Istanbul’s water is potable but tastes like a swimming pool full of nickels) , milk for coffee, sugar etc.
I make my way out of our door and down our tiny alley which may, or may not, hold a sweatshop. Our host had told us his apartment was a 15 minute walk to Taksim Square, which was true, but it was a 15 minute walk down very steep hills into a working class neighborhood swirling with dust from nearby carpenters and the wailing of sirens. We never felt unsafe, but compared to our plush digs in liberal, upscale, fun-loving Besikas, we were in a whole new world.
Two little girls appear from behind me and scamper up to me talking at a good clip. Their hands are extended upwards. My first impulse was that they were asking me for money so I spin on my heel. We have not been here but 10 minutes and already I feel the weight of the neighborhood around me. They follow me a few steps and one bravely takes a hold of my elbow. They now understand I am not ignoring them but do not understand. They look at me with eyes like saucers and motion at their ponytails and then point at mine.
My bright fuchsia french braid.
They are maybe seven or eight and I all of a sudden know what this was about. I smile broadly at them and reach around behind my head to show them my hair. I bend down a little so they can see it better. They ooh and ahh and reach out to touch it.
Turks are very tactile people. If a mother was walking with a young child it would not be out of place for a stranger walking past them to ruffle the child’s hair as they walked by. Turks are exceedingly kind to children and keeping children happy seemed to be something of a national pastime.
With my neck craned, I give them a “wait a minute” gesture, and proceed to rip out my hair elastic and undo the braid. They immediately begin to stroke the bent out of shape, dry, oh lord does it need a vat of deep conditioner ends of my hair chatting in the singsong tone of a little girl in disbelief.
After a few minutes of inspecting my hair, rolling it between their fingers, and combing it as if to see if it was in fact connected to my head, I motion that I needed to go. They consider me very seriously as I smile and point up the hill to the shops. The bolder one reaches her arms up like she wants me to pick her up. I bend down and she puts her hands on my shoulders and with grave dignity sends me off with two kisses, one on each cheek. Her friend does the same and they skipped away babbling in Turkish about, I can only assume, the weird foreigner with hair like they’d never seen who clearly needed a hug.
We are at our favorite kebab place for the very last time. When we first arrived in Istanbul, we happened upon this shop as we walked around, dazed by the time difference and desperately seeking non-Asian food. Now we are so full of meat, cheese, bread, and more cheese and more meat a salad sounds more fitting but we ignore our guilt and perhaps our waistlines.
We had first gotten into a line outside this shop because everyone else was. We fumbled through ordering, pointing, and generally being in the way. We were not doing what you should do. Standing closer in. Ordering quickly. Having nearly exact change. We were in a fog. We were new.
Sailing up to the front of the line, I greet the same friendly proprietor in Turkish. I ask for two sandwiches on pita bread with all the trimmings, please.
A gleam in his eye, he recognizes us from the other two times we have been there. I recognize this look. I’ve seen it before from a Thai soup shop owner. He sees me see it. He smiles heartily at us and says thank you. We were the foreigners drooling at bread who had held up the line. Who had forgotten in the moment of jet-lag induced stupidity how to say thank you in a country we’ve been to before.
We shuffle up to the register. I repeat our order and then say “twelve lira” in Turkish. He nods and hands us our sandwiches with a hint of pride. Perhaps he recognized us too? There are only so many English-speaking, pink-haired ladies in Istanbul with their bearded, bespectacled menfolk who are so proud of their Tourist Turkish.
Dave and I are so American about it, which is what gives us away. We pronounce things as perfectly as we can with an effusiveness that only we Americans can possess. We may be saying “twelve lira” but it’s really a loaded phrase. We say “twelve lira” but we mean so many things. We are just so thrilled to be somewhere where we can try and fit in. We pretend we are fitting in just fine. That people think we might even live here!
But of course they don’t think we live here. We can’t say more than 20 words of Turkish, let alone a full sentence.
But we want to, and they can tell, and that’s all that matters.
This kindness gives us a renewed energy about traveling.
Kindness comes in many forms. Sometimes it’s a wordless interaction. Sometimes it’s a compliment. Sometimes it’s politely overlooking how you are embarrassing yourself. Sometimes it’s just accepting it.