Thursday, August 16, 2012

   Musings on English, Turkish and French
That the English language is a rich one is evidenced by the fact that almost all languages have borrowed from it to make up for deficiencies in their own vocabulary. Even the French, who are so proud of the capabilities of their own tongue, couldn’t stop Franglais, despite imposing fines on the media for using it. The French people think “le weekend” just seems to say it better than “la fin de la semaine.”

Although Turkish has very few loans from English, a handful of English words have entered it indirectly through French, or more accurately, through that not very respectable part of it called Franglais. The Turkish language has scads of real French words in it rendered phonetically as heard through a Turkish ear- i.e., apartman/appartement (apartment), tuvalet/toilettes (toilet), pusula/boussole (compass)– as France had great influence on the Ottomans. As part of its continuing predilection for the French language, it has also adopted Franglais like “miting” (meeting) and “full,” both pronounced in Turkish just like the French say them. They’re used slightly differently in each language- meeting, for example, has mainly political connotations in Turkish – but both languages seem to have effectively filled a hole in their dictionary.

English is not always the lender, however. Sometimes the English word is recognized as deficient in some way and the language looks to borrow itself. Like our French friends and “weekend,” some think “fait accompli” says something importantly different than “done deed."

But even if you’re skeptical about that difference and avoid French terms as pretentious, you’d have to admit it would compromise your meaning if you substituted “deadly woman” for “femme fatale” in a review of- and try this one on for size - a film noir.

If you look, you will find that scads of other languages have useful words and expressions that we should but don’t have the equivalent for.
On this sign for a printers/matbaa (Arabic) in Balikesir, Turkey we have the following borrowed from French: kartvizit/carte de visite (calling card); eşantiyon (eşantiyon takvim are giveaway calendars)/echantillon (sample); dijital; fotokopi; telefon; and adisiyon (restaurant or hotel checks)/addition (restaurant bill). Fatura (invoice) may be derived from the French ‘facture’ (invoice), and fiş (receipt) is most certainly 'fiche,' which can mean sheet or slip of paper.  Fax is probably borrowed from French, though the Turkish spelling should be faks. GSM, which stands for Global Systems for Mobile Communication, here just meaning a cell phone, may be the only salute to English. (A French friend argues it really means Groupe Speciale Mobile!) 
Even when I try I can only think of a few bona fide borrowed English words in Turkish: one is teyp, pronounced like “tape,” meaning car tape player. Untypically, English was chosen over French but I think only because 'magnétophone' is such a mouthful, not to mention a bit quaint.

There also seem to be cases when English should seek to replace a word but doesn’t.

I recently learned a new term, a name for a piece of furniture, which fits this bill. When I first heard it uttered my thought was, “Gadzooks, what a clunky word!”

The word is “trundle.”

We were going to buy a new single bed for my son’s room and were intrigued by a type where a second smaller bed on wheels pulls out from beneath a larger one. When we were looking, the salesman never referred to it by any special name, and when we came to buy it, I simply called it “the bed with the second bed inside it.” I assumed it was a Turkish invention.

A few months later, when my sister arrived for a visit and we were showing her our son’s room, she remarked, “Oh, you have a trundle bed.”

If they had asked me earlier on a quiz show to define trundle bed, I would have guessed, after remembering my grandmother’s small studio apartment, that it was one which pulled out of the wall.

But I would have been buzzed off. My sister was right. The dictionary definition of trundle bed is ”a low bed on wheels that can be stored under a larger bed.” (I’ve now checked and found that, as you probably know, my grandmother’s bed is called a “Murphy bed.”)

But why is the word “trundle” used to refer to this bed? Just our language instincts tell us that this unpleasant sounding word would be associated with something heavy, awkward or of great force, as in “The tanks trundled over enemy defenses.” In fact the dictionary definition is (referring to wheeled vehicles) “to move slowly and heavily, typically in a noisy or uneven way : ten vintage cars trundled past.” A person, it says, would move in a similar way: “She could hear him coughing as he trundled about.” This doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the bed I bought.

I have found, however, that the original mid-16th century word “trundle” meant only “small wheel or roller,” far from the more recent phlegmatic meanings of the verb, so we can assume that the name just comes from the fact that the hidden bed is on wheels.

All the above is according to the 2011 Oxford American Dictionary. The 2003 Cambridge Dictionary includes the additional and surprising fact that "trundle" is an American noun, and that the British term is "truckle bed." Though the Brit's choice of word is not much better sounding, it is passable- at least not embarrassing. This leaves the onus for "trundle" squarely on American shoulders.

But if having wheels is the reason we call this bed "trundle," then I would have to say the name is even a lamer pick than I first thought. The least remarkable thing about the bed is that there are wheels on it. What’s impressive is that, like magic, one bed pulls out from another and- on our model, anyway - has scissor spring feet so that it rises to the height of the other bed. They become a matching pair. When two guests arrive to sleep over, this seems very ingenious indeed. Calling such a nifty invention in effect “a bed with wheels” is like naming a bed that ingeniously pulls down out of the wall a “hinge bed.” (The name 'Murphy Bed' honors the inventor.)

I’d suggest that we start looking to foreign sources for a better name but in fact I have already located one.

One day while I had my head under the trundle bed looking for coin that had rolled under it, I hit my head on the metal frame. As I examined the area to see what exactly had caused so much pain, I found a small, paste-on sticker identifying the bed’s model, manufacturer, etc. Much to my delight, I discovered that the Turkish name for this bed was “yavrulu baza.” Baza means bed base or box spring, while yavru means offspring or young child, and very often is used to mean kitten or pup. The lu in yavrulu is the preposition “with.” Together you have something like “bed with child”.

You have to admit that is a great way of describing this bed. Turkish, perhaps because it’s neither a Latin or Germanic language (it's in a small group with Finnish and Hungarian), introduces American or European learners to some fresh and original ways of saying things. You often come across words and expressions which seem much more apt or descriptive than the English.

Unfortunately, I don’t think most English speakers would be comfortable with the Turkish term for trundle bed. The only Turkish word in English is yogurt- they invented it – but five syllables (ya-vru-lu ba-za) would be too adventurous for us. I propose, therefore, that if we do replace this God-awful word "trundle" with the Turkish- and we will have to jump start it because any replacement is just not forthcoming - we use an English translation. What, exactly, could be left to the people.

Dialog in the Year 2030 Between an American Woman and her Visitors
Host: It’s getting late. Maybe you two should spend the night. The bed in the upstairs guestroom is a pup bed, so it would be no trouble.

First Guest: A pup bed? Great! We’d love to stay over.

Second Guest: You know, my mom was telling me that pup beds were called trundle beds, of all things, in the old days.

Host: Trundle?! Isn’t that the name of an ogre that roams the Norwegian fjords?

First Guest: Ha! Can you imagine inviting friends, like, 'Please feel welcome to stay over tonight - we’ve got a wonderful trundle bed waiting for you two.'

Second Guest: Yeah, 'Sorry, we got a pie in the oven.'  

Host: It goes to show you that a language is like an intelligent organism. When a word is unsatisfactory in some way, it seeks out a replacement. I wonder where pup bed comes from.

First Guest: It’s just cute enough to be American, but I’ll check it out on Wikipedia and see what they say. (Starts jabbing at his iPhone, then starts scanning the entry.) Says here that it is not really of American origin after all but that the term pup bed is derived from a translation of the Turkish name for this kind of bed: yah-VROO-loo- something like that -BA-zah, which means literally box spring with child. Apparently, the words "bed with child" were first used on Craigslist around 2014 and soon became so popular as a substitute for the brutish sounding trundle that it replaced it in English usage by 2020. However, it is surmised by linguists that because some speakers in North America were offended by the connotations of bed with child, the term pup bed began to be used as a substitute and eventually, because of its immensely more appealing associations, replaced the previous term.

Host: Well, thank God for that, otherwise you’d be back to square one with, ‘Please, won’t you spend the night…we have a wonderful bed with child for you upstairs in the guest room.’

Second Guest: In any case, score one point for the Turks. For all the years that they’ve been dragged through the mud, having for the last 60 years to deal with the image in the film Midnight Express, taking flak for being so stubborn about Cypress, for the treatment of the Kurds, and especially for the history with the Armenians…after all that negative, finger-pointing press, finally they get some positive recognition.

Sunday, January 01, 2012

Do you recall the late seventies film “Midnight Express” where an American is arrested, tried and sent to a Turkish prison for attempting to smuggle hashish out of the country? In it the Turkish police (or the customs, or the military police, or prison guards- it’s not exactly clear who they are in every scene) are portrayed as crude and brutish. When this film came out, the Turks were horrified at how they were characterized, and until sometime up to the late nineties, the film was banned here from cinemas and TV.

I watched this film again recently and the one thought that kept going through my mind was, “This is just not Turkish.” I’ve been here for a long time and I will give myself credit for knowing how the Turks act in certain situations, even if this film is set before my arrival here. In the scene just after the American tourist is busted at the airport, for example, the customs rifles through and violently tosses about the contents of the his luggage, all the while letting out amused grunts. Actually, real Turkish behavior would be something near the opposite: the customs police would carefully and methodically go through the suitcases without speaking a word. But that’s not very cinematic, is it?

In “Midnight Express,” we are not seeing Turkish behavior at all but rather a Hollywood idea, a cartoonish amalgam, of stupid, evil and corrupt police as they might be in Kyrgyzstan, Nigeria, Paraguay or wherever in the third world. If the film shows the Turkish police as cretinous hoodlums making sadism a sport, I suppose we should be thankful that during the strip search at the airport the director didn’t go overboard and show one of the police dropping his pants for a Sodomy rape scene.
Oh wait! That’s later in the film.

Actually, the director, Alan Parker, and the screenwriter, Oliver Stone, admitted later after much criticism by the Turks that they hadn’t bothered to do much research into Turkish society and especially not the prison system. Most telling of all in this regard is that they shot the film in Malta. But I suppose it doesn’t matter much if all your going to show is a dark, filthy 19th century prison interiors.

Now in 2011, more than 30 years after the release of the film, one might hope that people would have forgotten how Turks were depicted or that folks would have let other things make their minds up about Turkey. Yet, when I visit in Europe or the States, it’s very clear that this cinematic image persists. Now that I am a Turkish citizen and subject to being treated like a Turk if I am arrested, I get all sorts of comments that reference scenes in this movie, and it’s evident people still believe Turkey is like it is in the film. “Do they strip search you when you pass through customs?” they ask. (Actually, I'd rather pass through Turkish customs than American TSA.)

Unfortunately, this idea probably won’t change any time soon. Since the idea of the Turk as a sword wielding barbarian still persists in western Europe- it comes mainly from the complete panic in Europe caused by the Ottoman siege of Vienna in 1683- then this image of the Turkish police as presented in Midnight Express might have a long way to go.

I am here to dispel it as much as I can. Having taught English to police for the last couple of years, I have learned a little about them, and I want to say that these days this image couldn’t be farther from the truth.

In 2010, a student in one of my classes was a cop who worked homicide. He wanted to improve his English because he intended to take a test so he could work at Interpol. I found him brighter than the other 10 students in the class, who were all male university students studying engineering, and so I accepted his invitations to meet outside class. This involved going to his office at the police station, where there would always be 2 or 3 other policemen eager to practice their English, and converse usually about how Turkey compared to America. In these chat sessions, I asked a lot of questions about the Turkish police, and naturally they reciprocated my questions with those about the American police (“How many years of training do they have?” “Do they get good retirement pay?”) To my embarrassment, however, I found I really didn’t know much about the police in own my country. As I was going to California in June 2010 for a month’s holiday, I said I would be able to find out the answers then. I suppose I imagined I might strike up a conversation with an American cop just as I had been doing with the Turks, or wander into the police station and ask for some information.

High Noon

Yet, no sooner had I arrived at Los Angeles than I was reminded about how unfriendly and intimidating American police are. It happened at a Denny’s restaurant, our first stop out of LAX, where we had to wait 20 minutes to be seated. As we stood near the cashier, with a full view of the dining area, I watched the diners’ reactions as two LAPD patrolmen walked through the tables and booths to the restrooms, and then, a few minutes later from there back through the tables to the counter. When the cops started their trek to the toilet, I noticed that many people they were passing appeared to become self-conscious and suspended their conversations, so that the whole restaurant had quieted down by half in no time. (If there had been a honky tonk piano player, his hands would have frozen in the middle of his melody line.) Then, when they disappeared into the toilets, the hush lifted, and the sound volume returned to its full chatter level. This was not surprising in the least, but it was a new experience for me to see the cause and effect played out from my vantage point at the cashier. So it seemed right on cue that when they re-emerged from the restroom silence fell again: really, it was as though someone had hit the mute button on a remote.

In the restaurant I quickly realized that I wasn’t going to get my homework done for my Turkish friends, and I couldn’t believe that I had thought I would just saunter up to an American cop and ask some questions about police work. I would have better planned to crash a class at some primary school during careers day.

Careers Day at a Turkish elementary school.

During such a day at my school in Los Angeles in the fifth grade, “Officer Bob” from the LAPD gave us his presentation, but I only remember being disappointed. He had not brought along the one thing that could excite kids and that would have undoubtedly spawned two or three careers in law enforcement: he showed up without his revolver.

If you think I’m exaggerating about the unfriendly demeanor of American cops, I would ask you to tell me the last time you saw one of them smile.

When I was living in California I had plenty of dealings with the police for quite a range of different reasons: not just traffic violations and accidents, but for investigations into theft and burglary, and even twice for suspicious death (not as a suspect!). I do not recall one instance in those interactions where I felt the officer’s behavior could be called friendly. More often than not, dealing with them left me feeling upset or jittery for the day.

My own answer to the question- when did you last see a cop smile? – would be 1984, when I saw a highway patrolman break into a grin as he flirted with a counter girl at a Bob’s Big Boy. This is not just the last time, but the only time I’ve ever witnessed an American police officer really smile.

A smiling highway patrolman at the farmers market in San Luis Obispo, California, but it doesn’t count because its public relations work.

A Sweet Swat

If you travel outside the States, you will discover that there are other ways for cops to be. You will see that this off putting demeanor of the American cop is not at all necessary for a policeman to function in his job.

When I arrived in Turkey in 1990, I had just such a lesson. I had just begun teaching a class when I recognized one of my new students, Yusuf, in the city center. As I had thought he was a university student, I was surprised to see him dressed in a police uniform, and as I approached him, I realized he was directing a group of helmet-wearing, submachine gun-toting policemen out of a bus. When he turned toward me and recognized me, he broke into a huge grin and began waving excitedly. Leaving his men standing at attention, he came toward me with arms extended.

As we tried to enter an embrace, however, and each cocked our heads forward for cheek kissing, the submachine gun slung over his shoulder got wedged at a right angle between us, and I had to back off. He also stepped back and, after apologizing for poking me, unharnessed the MP5 from his shoulder and set it down on a nearby bus bench. He then extended his arms for a second time and we finally accomplished our full Turkish greeting.

I was feeling truly honored for all the effort he made to greet me, but at the same time I also felt uneasy about the unattended gun on the bus bench. My first thought was that it was a little risky to do such a thing. But then as I turned around I was reminded that the 15 swat team members standing 10 feet away were watching their captain’s every move and every move around their captain. I don’t think Yusuf really ever lost control of the situation.

You will have to admit Yusuf exhibited a nice-sized human dimension for a cop. His soft side is all the more extraordinary when you consider he is not only a member of the fiercest arm of the police, the swat team, but a commander of such a team. Leaving aside his unusual use of bus benches, he is a model for what I would like American police to be more like. It would be ridiculous of me to propose that they try to emulate his police behavior- after all, a lot of behavior is part of cultural identity - it's just that there are some things, like the friendliness and approachability, that they would do well to try on for size.

Guarding the perimeter of the American Embassy in Paris, these are four members of the gendarmerie, or French military police.
This is what I mean by friendly, smiling cops.

Maigret and the Case of the Naïve American

If I can anticipate your take on this event, let me point out that my being enamored with Yusuf’s style is not just a case of being easily impressed by foreign ways. When I lived in France, though I was quite taken with the culture, I found the members of the CRS, the national police assigned to preserve public order, to be just as unapproachable and unlikable and unsmiling as most American policeman. They’re generally huge guys for Frenchmen, seeming on average 6 feet-200 pounds in stature, so decked out in riot gear and toting sub-machine guns, they are pretty scary. They’re not the type of guys you tip your hat to.

Besides the periodic ID checks I submitted to in the Metro, I had only one contact with the CRS. When I had just arrived in Paris, I had stupidly entered a nightclub in the Pigalle section of Paris and had sort of let my self get set up to be separated from the rest of my money, if you get my meaning. I had to run out of the place while being chased by a gargantuan Algerian guy who was a ringer for the James Bond character “Jaws.” As I came hurling out of the front entrance, I nearly landed in the arms of one of the CRS, who patrol that area en mass. I suppose my ability to speak French was passable at this time, but I was so excited from having escaped from Jaws that my attempts to explain what had happened were entirely incomprehensible to the officer. He wasn’t offering any help, but in fact seemed threatened by my presence- I’m sure he pegged me as a drunken Dutch tourist- and just as I thought he might chase me off with his 3-foot nightstick, his colleague standing nearby, who had managed to get the gist of what I said, came over and intervened: “Go home, and count yourself lucky you’re not lying unconscious in the rubbish bin,” he admonished. When I tried to say something again to get them to go in and get my money back, or just arrest the people who robbed me, the first officer reiterated, “ That’s not our job. We don’t do that. We advise you just to go home and forget it.” Well, thank you!

(My French friends later confirmed my suspicion that CRS officers had been instructed not to mess with the sex mafia in Pigalle.)

The french CRS don't need sunglasses to look tough.

It’s hard to imagine anyone thinking good things about the CRS, and in fact the French people all seem to hate them, yelling “Nazis!” or “Gestapo!” at them whenever they show up at a public event. They contrast markedly with the Paris city police, who we all are familiar with through watching films set in Paris, like the Pink Panther series. (Actually, in Paris and environs the police are directed by a national department and are not really city police.)

Or, perhaps like me, you are familiar with the Paris police through reading Georges Simenon’s novels about lovable "Commissaire Maigret," the superintendent of the Paris “Brigade Criminelle.” The one thing you can say about Maigret and his colleagues is that they have a strong human element, both in how they relate to each other and to the people involved in their investigations. Maigret worked from seemingly infallible hunches about people, and would, just as his colleagues thought he was, as one said, "drowning" in a sea of contradictions offered by witnesses and suspects, see through the lies and come up with the culprit.

His atypical-for-a-policeman human side took many dimensions in all the 85 Maigret novels, but it is exemplified well when, as often happens in his adventures, he allows himself and his colleagues to pass by a bistro for a couple of pastis during the workday, or when, as his team work overtime at the "préfecture," he has the local brasserie bring up glasses of beer with sandwichs au jambon beurre.

What made the series so hugely popular was not the plots, as Simenon himself admitted, but, as he called it, the human dimension of the commissaire. Readers loved the fact that when, for example, Maigret interrogated a prostitute, he would get the relevant information out of her, not by being condescending and harsh, but by being non-judgmental and displaying gentleness and respect toward her, recognizing that her station in life may have been the result of unwanted circumstances.

One implication here, given the fact that people can relate to and admire a figure like Maigret so much in fiction, is that they are eager and waiting to do the same in real life. How have the cops missed the cue up to now?

The two times I had contact with the Paris police they showed a human side which was right out of the pages of a “Maigret.”

In my first month in Paris I got my introduction to them when I was drugged and robbed in my own apartment after inviting another student up to drink some wine. A few days after I had made a report at the police station, an officer and a translator came to my apartment for a visit. I had been feeling like an idiot for what I had let happen to me, and apparently their calling on me was to explain what exactly had occurred so that it might not happen again. (This was that the “student” was part of an Egyptian theft ring that preyed on new and lonely arrivals in Paris.)

The three of us were sitting at my dining table in the kitchen, where happened to stand an unopened bottle of Beaujolais. Maybe I noticed that they were looking at the bottle, but before we officially began I felt I should ask my guests if they would like a glass. Their being on duty, I really expected them to decline, as an American cop would, but the French being French, I felt I might be making too many assumptions.

These two are normal, non-CRS Paris policemen.
I clipped this photo from a woman's travel blog, from a piece titled "Why I love Paris."

My romantic ideas of the Paris police were not to be disappointed in the least. They consented without discussion to the uncorking of the bottle. We poured the last drop just as they got to their last point of Paris cautions, which was to never invite anybody to your apartment or living quarters until you had known them for at least 6 months!

Although I was still feeling like an idiot when they left, it was as one just emerging from a therapy session. In no time, I was ready to put the incident behind me and re-tackle life in a foreign country.

The positive impression left by this meeting was to be repeated in another dealing I had 5 years later.

Just before I left Paris to go to Turkey, I got slugged in the eye by a psycho in the train between Paris and Versailles, and at the conductor’s insistence I agreed to report it. The area around my eye had just been stitched up when I arrived dutifully by taxi at the "commissaire" with jurisdiction housed in a 19th century building somewhere on the outskirts of the city.

As I walked up the stairwell to the second floor office to give my "procès verbal," I was feeling pretty pissed at the entire French society for what had happened to me. I was angry and offended, not because a Frenchman had hit me, but because in the train no one had bothered to help me, nor even direct me to a hospital. Even if I hadn’t already planned to move to Turkey, I don’t think I would have stayed in France any longer than I had to.

I was immediately directed to an office with a lone plainclothesman sitting at a 1930ish wooden desk. In his grade school English, right off he offered me an espresso, then, all the while typing my report at about 80 words a minute with two fingers on a 1950ish portable typewriter- “You are very astonished by my speed, is it not?” – joked in a not half bad Peter Sellers / Inspector Clouseau impersonation that he would not rest until he found the man who assaulted me and sent him to face justice. In the 45 minutes spent there, he went out of his way to relax and humor this American. In fact, when I left, instead of feeling depressed and defeated, I was thinking up lesson plans for the next day’s teaching.

Click to Enlarge
Translation of the Statement:
The above named person makes the following statement to us:
Last Sunday I boarded the RER train, line C, at the Chaville Station. In the car in front of me was another passenger. I didn't pay much attention to him and began reading my newspaper. When we got to the Champs de Mars Station, this man got up and just before exiting the car punched me in the face, striking my left eye and breaking the lens of my glasses so that a piece cut me under the eye. Then the train left the station.
This man: 20-25 years old, thin, medium height, fair complexion, 3-day-old beard, short black hair. He's European, French, wearing a dark blue overcoat. He was reading a book on germs. His strange demeanor had attracted my attention during the trip as he had been making remarks to other passengers and on several occasions had been talking to himself.
I hereby file this complaint against this unknown assailant...(etc.).

Don’t think I have Maigret on the brain, but I could have sworn that when I was in the police station I saw through the door of the adjacent office two unmistakable, empty Stella Artois beer glasses on a tray, as though waiting to be picked up by a local brasserie.

You may want to argue that a police force that wants to put on a human face like my French friends is appropriate for the Europeans, but that America’s population lives by a distinct set of social values and requires a different kind of police demeanor, sort of like we have, unsmiling, unfriendly and intimidating.

“Balderdash,” as Commmissaire Maigret would say (in French, it’s “Baliverne”). If American cops acted friendlier with the general public- remember, we’re not talking about how they might behave toward suspected felons –they would put themselves at no more risk than some of their European counterparts, who seem to think that smiling does not compromise their function in the least.

Maigret, far right, played by Bruno Cremer, and his colleague Inspector Janvier are sizing up potential suspects in local bar in the episode "L'ecluse No. 1" (Lock No. 1) of a 2002 French-Swiss TV production called "Maigret."
They don't serve beer in this bar, so the wine- he ordered simply "blanc sec" - is not out of character.

When a Cop is Not

We have made some efforts in the direction of lightening up the police. In the early seventies in Berkeley, California, where I was a student, there probably was no other place on earth where policemen- of any sort, even the gentlemanly Highway Patrolmen - were more unpopular. There was at this time virtually a political correctness among the general population, not just students, to consider cops “an enemy of the people” and to address them as “the pigs.” With not much to lose, the Berkeley City Police initiated a program to improve their image in the community, whereby the fitter-looking officers 20-40 years old were taken out of the squad car and sent to patrol on bicycles and on foot. These cops were also “dressed down:” they were to wear shorts, open collars and carry no gun.
My comrades at the time have reminded me that they were also outfitted with pith helmets, at least for a couple of years. Probably the administration shelved the piths when they realized they were overstating their case, or perhaps, as they were in a student community that adored Groucho Marx, the cops had heard one too many refrains of “Hooray for Captain Spaulding!”

I think at the time I was skeptical of the police department’s motivation. Certainly I considered myself too smart to be taken in by their show, wherein I felt form and not substance had been changed. (I was a philosophy major.) In fact, after witnessing this new breed mix with the public for a while, I recall that though they looked cute in their short khakis, we thought they still interacted with a gunslinger’s demeanor.

Two of our finest from Charleton, Indiana. They are definitely in need of the sunglasses.

But one point at least goes to their side, for even if they didn’t succeed in re-doing their public image, they must have reduced the negativity quotient by a few degrees. I am convinced of this from the fact that when I visited Berkeley in 2008, I saw the same sort of bicycle riding officers patrolling around town. If they’ve been renewing this program for 40 years, they must feel there is some payoff.

I think in the last analysis the shorts did the trick (the form, not the substance!).

Of course, Berkeley was never alone in the effort to make their cops more lovable: the bicycle-shorts-no gun trick has been played all across America and Europe. I’ve never seen it in Turkey, but here- partly for Moslem, partly for macho image reasons - the cops would never consent to short pants.

As an alternative, like on the island where we live, where no one wants to put off the summer tourists, some Turkish cops have begun to patrol with the latest mode in dressing down: a police vest worn over civilian clothes. My friend in homicide advises me not to take them too casually, however, and points out that most certainly a Beretta or equivalent has been tucked in their belt over the right buttock.

You can’t fault the police for doing public relations- the police piss off a lot of people –but their efforts don’t speak to my real complaint about American policemen. I’m not interested in how policemen dress. Far from disapproving of the intimidating look, I’d say it’s necessary for most police work. Anyway, if I as a cop had to respond to a call of gang violence in the Oakland ghetto, I don’t think I would want to show up on a bicycle wearing shorts.

What I really want to propose has nothing to do with looks. What I wish for is a change of behavior: police training with a new guideline of how to act which accommodates some natural human reactions and lets the cop turn down his severe persona when appropriate, like when he is interacting with a regular, non-criminal person. Sort of learning to be like my Bursa swat team friend when he put down his gun on the bench to greet me, but not necessarily going quite that far.

Of course I’m wise enough to know that something of this sort would be a long time coming. Part of me knows that campaigning for friendly American policemen is as realistic as hoping one day for cheerful city bus drivers. Mine is just a wish, borne of a desire since my childhood to befriend a cop, like one does a fireman, but finding police totally unapproachable. It was inspired by my having been witness in the last decade to the complete makeover of the Turkish policeman, where a radical change of the degree I’m hoping for actually occurred and makes it seem that anything is possible in this realm.

Up until the latter nineties, the police here were feared and despised by the general population. This was rightfully so, in the assessment of a 20-year veteran officer I know, because, though they were not like the property-destroying goons depicted in Midnight Express, they were indeed a group of uneducated (Turks would call them “cahil”), defensive bullies.

In the late nineties, however, the direction and thinking at the national level changed dramatically, and a concerted effort was put into creating a better-trained, more respectable policeman. They raised the bar considerably for acceptance as a candidate at the police academy and increased instruction from 6 months to 2 years (note for comparison that the current course at the Los Angeles Police Academy for the Los Angeles Police Department is only 6 months).The curriculum, while once not very serious-minded or socially responsible, became one that was. Now, about 10 years later, and basing my judgment on knowing 15 or so younger policemen, I’d have to say they have been very successful in raising the quality of officers.

Bicycle-riding cops in Paris, ca. 1935

The Bicycle Horn Bust

I am personally able to make a comparison between then and now because I did in fact have significant contract with the police in the town of Ayvalik in 1995. This was when I had first moved to a house on the island of Cunda, which is inhabited by mostly fishermen and olive growers. There were no other resident foreigners around at the time, and my living there by myself was apparently endless fodder for their gossip.

I had been there about 6 months when, having come home one evening from work, a man in a trench coat intercepted me as I stepped off the bus. He escorted me to a car with two other men in the front seat and motioned me to sit in the back with him. I thought right off I was being arrested, though I hadn’t a clue as to the reason. Speaking a kind of Tarzanesque English-Turkish to me, they asked me questions which I didn’t understand but had words in them such as “antique, Greece, agent, CIA and kacakci (Turkish word for smuggler).” I guessed I was suspected of being a smuggler of Turkish antiques to Greece, or a CIA agent, or both. Finally, after a whole hour in the car, it was suggested that we go into my house, where they could look for evidence. I think they were pretty sure they were going to blow off my cover as an English teacher.

The four of us entered the house about 7 p.m. but they didn’t leave until almost one in the morning. In that time, they went through every square centimeter of the place, and even combed the floorboards for a secret hatch. They found two things after all this that they were sure incriminated me, and I could see on their faces that they were pleased that they now had evidence against me. One was a Pakistani bicycle horn, belonging to my Turkish-Belgian landlords, which they were sure was a protected antique (prohibited from export) from the south of Turkey. The second item was box containing three papier mache masks made by an artist friend who had stored her personal possessions with me. The cops were positive they too were contraband, even though, as I pointed out, the masks were signed on the back “J. de Bourre 1994.”

What made the cops seem even more clueless to me was that right there on the living room floor, where I had been cleaning it, was my collection of antique Turkish wedding crowns (tepelik), which look kind of precious because they’re made of a silver alloy. There were about 25 pieces, true antiques, looking like I was ready to ship them off, but the police never looked at or even asked one question about them. Also, though the access panel was clearly visible to them, they never bothered to go up into the attic and search. It was big enough so that I could have had the entire contents of Topkapi in it, but these morons would have overlooked it.

At the end of our evening together, my friends said they wouldn’t arrest me but that they were going to take the bicycle horn and the masks to the police station and get back to me. Then- what chutzpah! – they asked me to make Turkish coffee for them before they left.

(I had neither Turkish coffee nor a proper cezve to make it in, and I panicked that they would change their minds and arrest me. To my relief- segments from “Midnight Express” were beginning to play in my head - they settled for instant.)

"When I hid the bicycle horn, I never thought
they'd look in the samovar"

The next day I went to see the kaymakam, a federally-appointed provincial governor whose many jobs include meeting with the police and jandarma (military police, a phonetic spelling of the French "gendarme") every day to review their planned activities. I was on a first name basis with him (we had done each other favors) and I thought he might be able to intervene and save my ass.

He had been told of the police plan to descend on me the day before, and, he said, pleaded with the police chief to let me alone, but the chief said he had to act on the basis of letters sent to them by two different people reporting my nefarious activities: one said I was a smuggler, the other that I was CIA. That they had found nothing- someone in the department with “worldly” knowledge identified the horn and masks for what they were – didn’t prompt any apology from the chief, even at the insistence of the Kaymakam, but he assured me the chief would not pull a second stunt.
The kaymakam also apologized to me for the competency of the officers who visited me, apparently a special squad assigned to protect “antiquities and old money” but who certainly knew nothing about either of them. But, as he said, that was typical in Turkey with its deficient public educational system.

(“The Antiquities and Old Money Brigade” is how I most often heard the translation of the official Turkish name of this unit. But “old” here really means “ancient,” because were talking about Greek and Roman coins.)

Actually, it’s no more the result of lame education than it is of a standard way of doing things in business and government whereby people are given jobs with absolutely no concern about whether they know the first thing required. In both state and private sectors you see a general disregard for real qualifications when a job is filled and thereafter for even minimal competency in its performance.

Often this occurs when someone has some relatively high educational qualifications. If you have a masters degree in, say, construction engineering, this would impress the employer that you were a capable of doing a wide variety of jobs regardless of whether they were related to the construction field- even if the duties were in a whole different world, such as director of tourism or educational consultant. I personally know of a masters graduate in psychology who got a job as a director in the part of the department of agriculture that inspects meat. As my Berkeley friend Groucho might observe, “Lucky there were no openings in the department that inspects nuclear reactors!”

A Turkish policeman in the 1950s.

But this total disregard for competency is also common at lower levels, such as in state offices, where people move up the ladder to a job out of their league through connections, or as a reward, which really means they get promoted for having done a personal favor. Though this kind of thing is reportedly on the wane in the “New Turkey,” fading mainly in the private sector, 15 years ago it adequately explains why the team from the Antiquities and Old Money Brigade could have been mistaken for the Three Stooges.

In imagining how this trio ever got promoted, here is as plausible scenario for one of them as a beat cop:

Looking to go up the pay scale, our boy keeps radar out for any openings. He hears of a place in the Antiquities and Old Money Brigade before it is even official, and he knows it’s time to make his chief beholden to him. But because he has anticipated this moment, he has already probed his colleagues as to his boss’s needs. Those who work alongside the chief reported that he is obsessed with buying a new car- specifically a black Volkswagen SUV, which is perfect for the image a police chief wants to project in Turkish civilian life. Our boy had also had the foresight to inform his extended family that for the sake of his career and his family he needs to get a deal on a VW SUV. Some relatives in Malatya, 1200 Kilometers in the east, have already announced that an uncle, one of his father’s 12 siblings, is friends with the assistant manager at the Malatya VW dealership, and that it has been arranged for the chief- how this was done is a whole other layer to the story- to get a car at dealer’s price. The chief is thrilled at the news that a new SUV could be delivered to him, and though he is unaware of what specifically getting the car will cost him above the dealer’s price, he, as a Turk, knows that by accepting the deal- and you can bet he does -he has incurred a debt and that it will soon come due. Therefore, when the job vacancy actually happens and our boy’s application is lifted off the desk by the chief’s hands, its approval is a done deal, a yawning formality.

(Whether or not there is a test for the position is irrelevant in this era, because if one can write his name he can pass it, and if he can't do that, which may have been the case with all three of them, cheating is easily accomplished.)

Looking back on the fiasco of the raid that took place at my home 15 years ago, we could condemn the police department itself for not caring whether this squad knew anything about the objects they were assigned to protect, but we know that not giving a flying fuck was standard operating procedure at the time. Who really deserves indictment are the guys themselves. Not for the reason they lacked intelligence or common sense, which they certainly did, but because they had obviously never felt the responsibility to learn anything about the items under their watch. A little elementary research might have told them that bicycle horns were not a big part of Suleyman’s reign. (Or perhaps they thought they were car horns.) For their own sakes, we can only hope that these boys retire before openings come up in the top of the pay scale: the bomb squad.

Now, 15 years later, you would be hard pressed to find a group of officers under 30 that were as crude and as bumbling as this Ayvalik team. Not only are the officers more competent, but- and this is a first for Turkey -police address people in the street as sir or madam.

From a personal standpoint, I would hope they also learn to avoid storing arms on bus benches and refrain from asking the suspect to make coffee.

Best and the Brightest

I know firsthand what goes on at the police academy nowadays because, as I’ve said, I’ve been teaching their cadets. This year, 2011, I taught a group of 10. I developed a close relationship with several of them, mainly because I genuinely liked them, and came away with more than a little insider information. I have also been to the academy as a guest on several occasions.

One of my students on graduation day.

In regard to police corruption, for example, and to the challenge of changing the behavior of a police force once known to rival Mexico’s in expecting payoffs, I understand the new training has made some dents in the old order. Although there can be no true statistics about how many policemen past or present take money for favors, the fact that my students were abhorred by the idea of bribes, and vowed to me they would never succumb to the temptation is encouraging enough. Though you could dismiss it as mere naiveté certain to give way to reality a bit later, just the advent of idealism is unquestionably a step up for the police in Turkey.

(It impressed me as a teaching technique that in the local police academy’s course on ethics, the instructor shows the film “Serpico,” in which Al Pacino, one of the Turks’ all time favorite actors, plays a heroic figure resisting bribes.)

A fact that might surprise some westerners with stereotypical notions about countries like Turkey is that the academy curriculum truly makes an effort to teach that torture is wrong. Instructors warn that it will be met with severe punishment and caution that there is CCTV everywhere nowadays.

Of course if you were a Kurd in eastern Turkey, you might question if the actual incidence of torture has really waned of late. Nevertheless, like with the issue of police corruption, the mere fact that there is someone talking about it merits our congratulations.

But most interesting to me, the cadets are told that if they are working as traffic police and encounter a violator who turns out to be another policeman, they shouldn’t wave him or her on but instead issue a citation like they were anybody else.

If this were part of the official curriculum at the L.A. Police Academy it would be noteworthy, but it is all the more impressive in a place like Turkey where connections between people- as friends, as relatives, even as just being from the same town - have always been so important in getting favors.

I myself receive preferential treatment routinely, and because it’s so usual here, I suffer little guilt. A typical example would be my paying the water bill without waiting in the queue because I am on a first name basis with the clerk. Or, to illustrate how important your hometown can be even if it’s not your hometown, consider this: a few years ago when I was waiting in line to receive papers for my Turkish citizenship, we got called to the window before about 20 people who had arrived ahead of us because on my application we had filled in earlier we had listed my hometown as Malatya (my wife’s), which was, we learned, the proud provenance of the clerk’s family.

Keep in mind that Turkey is a young republic, weighed by centuries of Ottoman authoritarianism, whose people and government really don’t have democratic reflexes built in, and that the idea of non-favoritism as a rule is not automatically considered a good thing. The fact that this ideal has seeped into the national police organization of all places is some cause to feel hopeful about Turkey’s democratic future.

However, there is another reason the caliber of policemen is getting better here, perhaps just as important as the advent of better instruction. This is that the pool of candidates selected for the police academy has become more intelligent and more capable each year. This is a result of both a merit based selection process (i.e., exam centered) that the government uses for hiring in state jobs and an ever-increasing number of applicants.

Currently, as the future feels uncertain and university degrees seem worthless, some of the brightest young people are heading to state jobs, including that of policeman. You don’t get rich, but you can count on your monthly salary, and you can expect a livable retirement. This reasoning particularly resonates in a country like Turkey, where life can be hard.

Graduation ceremonies at the academy, June, 2011. The guys up front are resting AK47s on their toes.
Every police station in Turkey has at east one man stationed outside with an AK 47 or MP5 slung around his neck.

The only hitch is that to get such a job requires you to fend off hundreds of thousands of competitors in an exam. The position of federal clerk, such as in the post office, is an attractive job to many young people, but it has an exam that asks questions about mathematics, the Turkish language and general world knowledge, and is difficult enough to require that any serious aspirant, however bright, take at least a six-month preparation course.

The police has its own test similar in difficulty to the civil service exam, but with additional physical screening. It’s a tough selection process- I’ve known two students who seemed quite capable to fail it – but for young job seekers it is worth trying considering that the salary is twice that of a public school teacher.

As a testament to the higher aptitude of candidates for police training, I should point out that the group of ten I taught this year had all graduated from an Anatolian high school, or Anadolu Lisesi, which is a state high school for the brightest students. Normally, I think you would expect those kind of students to enroll in university.

Two of my students had in fact been in university but decided their time would be better spent learning something that actually led to a job, so they quit and applied for police school. Now that they’ve graduated, they can’t help but feel pleased with themselves when they are witness to the thousands of Turkish university graduates in biology, chemistry or even engineering that constantly send out resumes to no notice.

It’s interesting to me also that half of my group expressed the fact that they really did not want to be policemen, anymore than one wants to be a postal clerk, but that the healthy salary, with retirement after 20 years, makes it palatable. In fact, if you marry another officer, it’s more than palatable: you will be able to live a financially worry-free life here with absolutely secure jobs.

I can truly say that of all the classes I have taught in the last few years, this one with policemen was the brightest and most knowledgeable about the world. I usually teach university students, whom one would think would be better, but in fact there is no contest between them.

This is also the appraisal of a British teaching colleague who spent one hour a week in three of other police classes, as he did in most all the classes in the school. He called them the “brightest” students in the school and based his assessment on the fact that they were generally better able to do his class activities. For example, he gave a sheet of riddles and easy brain teasers to all of his classes (e.g., “If a plane crashes right on the border between two countries, how do they decide where to bury the survivors?” which, of course, is harder to figure in a foreign language) and the police classes were the only ones to do it reasonably well.

It’s One-Stop Shopping with the Turkish Police

Modern Day conversation in Turkey between a family, stopping to ask directions, and a policeman on the street:

Father of family: So when we see this old barn, we turn…is the turn before or after the barn?
Policeman: You take the first right turn after you pass the barn, then follow that road exactly 2.6 kilometers, when you will see and get on an on ramp to the freeway on the right . Got it?
Father: Yeah, great. But we’ve got another question for you. My son’s doing a practice test for high school admission, and he answered the question “What is the capital of Australia?” with “Sydney,” but the key says something else…Cranberra or something, which can’t be right. It’s gotta be Sydney. You wouldn’t happen to know…
Policeman: Canberra, you mean. Can, not Cran. Yes, it’s the capital. Has been since 1908, when it was selected over the much larger cities of, yes, Sydney as well as Melbourne. It’s an unusual city because it was entirely planned by…
Father: Fine, thank you, but one last question and we won’t bother you anymore. My wife and I have been thinking about long term investment for our son’s education and wonder if you would favor buying gold or…

Don't Mention it, Chief!

The author, in plainclothes, awaits his certificate thanking him for teaching the course and "contributing to the cultural life of the students."

Love to Hate’em

Although I have expressed positive feelings about the Turkish police, it’s not at all true that the Turkish people share my enthusiasm. When at the beginning of the 2010-11 academic year my school’s management called a meeting to propose a course for police academy students, they were incredulous at my eagerness, especially when I rejoiced, “Oh great, I love policemen!” After a long silence, as though I had committed some great cultural faux pas, somebody finally piped up, “Peter, excuse me, but nobody in Turkey likes policemen. They are necessary sometimes, but generally they are your enemy.”

This dislike of police comes partly from the influence of the Middle East region, where they have often been regarded with fear and mistrust and as agents of an oppressive non-democratic government.

(This is a good spot to point out that, despite what you have heard about Turkey being a country with European ideals, it really shares more of the cultural values and beliefs of its neighbors, like Iraq and Syria. The antipathy toward police is just one example.)

Still, the attitude toward police is slightly different in Turkey because, unlike the Arab countries in the region, it has more or less been a democratic republic since the 1950s. Even the worst moments of state repression in modern Turkish history cannot carry the weight of the consistent, long term oppression of al-Assad’s Syria or Mubarak’s Egypt. Unlike in those places, the police here, though never loved, have not, at least for the past 50 years, been seen as agents doing the dirty work for some corrupt regime.

(Turkey was founded as a democratic republic in 1923, though some "unofficial" historians say true democracy didn't begin until the 1950s. In the time since, we would do well not to dismiss the periods when democracy was truly on life support, as during the reign of the military after the coup in 1980, a time which was rife with arrests, torture and hangings.) )

What did taint the police here is, as I have pointed out, the long period during which the Turkish police were a mainly a group of uneducated, untrained bullies. Up until the 80s or 90s, what constituted law in Turkey was oftentimes a nebulous matter, and policemen, who were in the first place defensive about how people perceived their ability and authority, liked to push people around, interpreting the law however it suited them to prove themselves. Needless to say, their public image was less than sterling.

In the 70s, during the terrible period of political strife and anarchy, the police further worsened their image by taking sides in the street battles between the communists, socialists and the fascists. As they were busy fighting amongst themselves, the Army took over their role and were then perceived as heroes for saving many people from the violence of the times. That is to say, the Turkish police not only missed the chance to bond with the people, but they ended up tarnishing their reputation for decades.

My daily observations tell me, however, that the school management was exaggerating its case about how Turks regard the police in 2011. I think they were mainly echoing the negative sentiments of their parents, who lived through the 70s’ strife, but I don’t believe they think the shoe fits nowadays.

These days people appear to approach the police on the street with unselfconscious ease, and at cafes and restaurants it is a common sight- unheard of in the States- to see policemen sitting together at tables with ordinary folks. I’d say the old idea of the police as crude bullies has in the presence of the new force eroded at least by half.

Sign Me Up!

In this promotional video for the police, I was disappointed to learn that the part of the policewoman is played by a Cypriot pop singer.

In any case, slagging off the cops is a world sport, and the kind of comments heard in my school meeting may be just as prevalent in the U.S. As the police cadets are want to say, when they need to console themselves about their choice of profession, “Everyone pretends to hate cops, but only as long as they don’t need them.”

Burn it Down, Baby

But if we congratulate the police on their complete makeover, we should also point out that the opportunity to build a new, better police force came about because the old one was so bad it had to be ditched.

This theme, of abandoning the old, non-working system and starting fresh, helps to explain how Turkey, and many other Asian nations, came to be astoundingly better places to live in just a couple of decades.

Take the telephone system in Turkey as another example of a makeover. When I arrived here, it was pretty lamentable. The orange-colored public phones which I used daily worked on jetons you got from the post office, like the French phones up until the mid-eighties, except that they were more often in disrepair. You’d be lucky if one of two worked.

Even if the phone would hook you up to your party, the quality of the connection varied considerably. (People used to joke to me: “When it rains in California, the phones act up in Turkey.”) Especially on long distance- which may as well have been defined as anywhere outside the residential block you were calling from- the voice in the receiver on both ends, if it was heard over the static, receded cyclically during the conversation so that to compensate one soon developed a 120 decibel telephone voice. In fact, even today in the age of cell phones, people of that era, especially men over 40, still speak into the receiver so loudly that you would hear them clearly standing twenty feet from the launch of an Atlas rocket.

Then in the early-, mid-90s the phone system was completely remade by the French. The new technology was so good that when I went home for visits in the States, I found our public telephones at the airport backward and confusing by comparison.

(To be fair, however, our more confusing system was partly a result of there being so many competing players in the field, as opposed to one national telecom in Turkey.)

Both the police and the telephone system got redesigned and rebuilt from scratch because they were so deficient that repairing them would have been nonsense. In contrast, in the States we often just patch up or make partial improvement to a system because we regard it as functioning to the point that replacing it is not urgent. What this means is that Turkey can be more advanced in certain respects- or at least have some better components of infrastructure - than the U.S. (That’s not entirely news, for no one has been bragging about the American infrastructure of late.)

Though I have a fervent admiration for the Turk’s efforts at modernization, as you can well see, I wouldn’t want you to be misled. Let me be the first to point out that Turkey has not by any means successfully revamped all the things that it should. Many parts of the governmental organization have remained in an unchanging pathetic state for at least the last 50 years. As an observer of some of their escapades for the last 20 years, you can take my word for it that some of these enterprises should be - and you will forgive me for my harshness –terminated with extreme prejudice.

Just for starters, I’d recommend that the ministry of education be shuttered and padlocked immediately. Not only that, the higher-ups who populate this body- paradigms of the sort of incompetence I mentioned - should be arrested and banished from the country. (I would relish sending in my friend Yusuf and a team of swat to empty the building.) Moreover, they should be exiled far enough away so that when Turkey does begin to re-conceive the ministry and reappoint staff, these dolts wouldn’t have a chance to contaminate the project.

But there are indeed things- the amazing, completely redesigned health care system is another one - which the Turks are doing well these days. Taking a look at these remade systems could afford us the opportunity to go one step further when we decide it’s time to redo our own. I don’t think the Turks could give us any lessons in engineering or technology, but in some other areas we might be able to glean something. I’m suggesting that we begin reciprocating the course that’s been followed for the last 80 years, where Turks from all fields have been sent to the U.S. for education or training, and send some professions here to observe and learn. We could start with a team of cops.

What could they learn, you may ask? Right off, they- and I hope this would include administrators -would observe and appreciate the high quality of a police force hired according to merit, where the most capable get the job. I’m fully aware that such a hiring practice instituted by just some of the local police departments in the U.S. would, assuming that the jobs were attractive enough to invite competition, be met by hundreds of court cases. But if you could witness and appreciate first hand the salient differences in intelligence and competency of police chosen on merit, you’d consider any legalistic battles to allow it as worth the pain.

Cadets training in the field on the first of May, a day that in Turkey can be rife with unruly assemblies.
I imagine Groucho tapping his cigar and wisecracking, "These cops can restore my public order anytime they want."

Secondly- and this is most important to me -they would observe a cop with a demeanor that was friendly but one who was effective and in control, a combination that they would never imagine possible.

If I proposed that 10 LAPD officers be sent to Bursa to be in the care of my friend Yusuf, the swat team commander, for one summer, I’m fully aware that it sounds like a premise for a “Police Academy” film, but I couldn’t be more earnest. It would change their lives, professionally and otherwise. For once, they might feel they had permission to smile, and when they got back home and walked through a Denny’s restaurant on their way to the counter, they might actually be invited to sit down at one of the tables.

Okuduğunuz için Teşekkür!

Thanks for Reading!

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

I bought a car recently, my first since leaving California for Paris 25 years ago. I haven’t missed owning one and really haven’t needed one until just 11 months ago, when my wife gave birth to the fourth member of our family.

Over the years I have been quite satisfied to use public transportation. When in 1984 I moved to France, its unrivaled train and metro systems taught me that I could live without my own wheels. This is no small lesson for someone born and bred in Southern California car culture.

After moving to Bursa, Turkey in 1990, I found the efficient system of shared taxis and intercity buses continued to preclude any urge to have my own car.

Well, perhaps that isn’t altogether true. It did occur to me soon after getting here that a car would be useful to explore Turkey off the beaten path, and I might have been convinced to buy one but for a series of incidents that happened in my first year here. It put me off from driving to an extent from which I’ve never fully recovered.

My First Turkish Road Trip

About six months into my tenure in Bursa, my newly found girlfriend and I thought we’d have a picnic in a mountain village about an hour outside town. On the day of our outing, the plan was for her to pick me up in her car. (As a foreign teacher, I was quite used to, and happy, being chauffeured around Turkey.) When she arrived, however, she said she was feeling out of sorts and that I would have to do the day’s driving.

My instincts implored me to decline. Firstly, as I explained to my friend, a foreigner doesn’t want to risk an accident while driving someone else’s car, especially if he or she doesn’t have a valid driving license, Turkish or otherwise (my California license was 2 years expired). But also, and this seemed the more important point to me, I hadn’t had any experience driving in a foreign country, and Turkish driving behavior seemed a lot different from what I was used to.

All this seemed pretty ridiculous to her, however. Hadn’t I driven for 20 years in California? And since we were going to take a mountain road to a village, it wasn’t like we were going to be in heavy traffic, was it?

So I gave in. I told myself that indeed I was a practiced driver and surely could drive for a few hours in the country. Besides, in California I had spent much time and money restoring a car, and once you have put thousands of dollars into the aesthetics of a car body, you learn to drive it like you were transporting Cesium 139 in a Dixie cup. My ultra-defensive driving posture would, I figured, keep me safe.

I keep a lot of pictures like this photo of me and my car- a Peugeot 403, a '64 Valiant (I got free), a 356 Porsche- which would suggest that a car relationship is important in my life. Having denied myself one for the last 25 years may not have been good for my soul.

Suddenly feeling the man for the task, I boldly took hold of the wheel and started us on our journey. Perhaps a little too slowly given the flow of traffic- most drivers were blasting their horns at me- I finally made my way out of the city limits. This hadn't been accomplished, I might add, without the constant, voiced irritation of my girlfriend, who at one point ridiculed me for moving through traffic with all the reluctance of a minesweeper.

During the ascent of the mountain road, as we were going around one bend on what became an altogether rather twisty road, we were suddenly surprised by a farmer on his tractor parked in the middle of our lane. Luckily, I hadn’t been going fast and was able to jerk the car to the side of the road and come to a sliding stop.

After some deep breathing and a joint invocation of holy beings (in this case, one Jesus H. Christ and one Al-lah-lah-lah), we got on the road again. I told myself that if I had feared something would happen, it already had, and now was the time to relax.

In fact, we had a lovely picnic without further incident, and when at dusk we started on our way down the mountain, I was pretty much feeling undaunted by the Turkish road.

We were, however, in store for more surprises. Halfway down, again going around a bend, we met another farmer and tractor. This one was apparently moving slightly but it had no lights, front or back, and I only missed hitting it because I was able to swerve into the left lane. I guess you could say we were fortunate because no oncoming car was in the lane.

But I wouldn’t describe us as lucky at all. As I cut into the left lane, I hadn’t seen a minibus that had started to pass us- yes, coming from nowhere, he had started to pass around a curve- and he sideswiped our car with a loud thump. Right away I slowed and pulled off to the side of the road, naturally expecting the driver to join me in assessing the damages to our cars.

It appeared, however, that I was mistaken and that stopping after an accident was not a custom indigenous to the part of Turkey we were in. The minibus driver continued jauntily on his way as though absolutely nothing had happened.

As he disappeared down the road, we turned to inspect the left side of our car. We found a 4-foot-long grate traversing both doors with a slight indentation. My friend looked to be in apoplexy, but also gave me the feeling that I had done something wrong. If she hadn’t been feeling so distressed, I’m sure she would have taken the wheel from me.

It was here that my friend took it upon herself to inform me that people driving in village areas usually drive as they want, without regard to the traffic rules. So you have to be careful. Especially with tractors.

On the last stretch home, we were not speaking to each other. Until, that is, when at a stoplight in the town of Bursa, we were rear-ended in a jolt, complete with the screech, the bam and the tinkling glass.

To add insult to injury, when we got out to look at the back of our car, the other driver started yelling at me. (Some gall, I thought, at the time, though since then I have understood that my presumption that I could not be at fault in a rear-ender was purely an American, not Turkish, idea.) The inspection of damage showed we had a small bumper dent and a broken taillight lens, but because I had no license, our first thought was to get out of there before the police found us.

As he apparently had no car insurance, the other driver was also eager to get going before the police arrived. So, after exchanging license and phone numbers, we both took off.

Back at my apartment, my girlfriend recounted in English what the driver had yelled at me. He was arguing that I was 100% at fault. I had stopped without warning at a yellow traffic light, which no normal driver does. You stop at red, not yellow lights, he was adamant in pointing out. She seemed to agree with him.

(All these years later, I can say that no Turkish driver, normal or otherwise, stops at yellow lights. For fear of whiplash, not even do I. That I did stop that day I now see as a foreign action that no Turk would have anticipated.)

Before she left that day, my girlfriend thankfully began rapprochement. She admitted that perhaps I had been the victim of Turkish drivers, and that no one could have expected me to be prepared for what I had encountered. Feeling relieved, I too wanted to show there were no hard feelings, and I offered to pay for half the day’s damage.

She declined, however, saying that only she could take responsibility for the dents, and that my money would be hard to explain. That is, she would have trouble accounting for its provenance without the risk of an embarrassing revelation. The car, she told me, was her husband’s personal vehicle.

I like this Turkish road sign because you can make it mean anything you want. I usually call it the "What the Fuck!" sign.

What Price a Deal ?

Although I have said the events of this day put me off from driving for the next twenty years, there was actually a time about five years later when I very nearly became a car owner.

I had met a U.S. Air Force sergeant who was stationed at a small cold war missile base in Balikesir. He was about to finish his stint, and before he moved back to the States he wanted to sell his 6-year-old Chevy Malibu. It had blue license plates, meaning it was registered to a non-Turkish citizen, and under Turkish law at the time, it could only be sold to another foreigner. Unfortunately for him, foreign persons were few and far between at this time, and he was having difficulty finding a buyer. Thus, he had had to lower the price considerably, and by the time he offered it to me, one week before his departure, it was only $100.

You can bet I nearly tripped over myself getting the money together. However, when less than an hour after meeting the sergeant I presented him with a $100 bill, he said he would not accept it until I had got certain papers. These included in part an insurance bond and a customs clearance.

The sergeant had pretty much spelled out that these would not be easy to get. Fortunately, the manager of my school, who had no car himself and imagined all sorts of new possibilities in his life if I acquired one, graciously offered to take over the task of getting the papers. As I’ve always said, who better to go up to the front lines against the Turkish bureaucracy than another Turk.

After about three days of leg work, we found out the following: 1) For customs clearance, we would have to drive the car to Istanbul (about 6 hours away) and pay several hundred dollars for the correct papers; 2) For the insurance bond for foreigners, we would have to put up about $10,000 cash deposit in a bank; and 3) Since the car was not purchased in but brought into Turkey it would have to go out of the country every 3 months and then come back in to get a new customs stamp.

The first and third requirements were daunting but do-able. The second was in the end the deal breaker. We tried for several days to work out a way with the bank to put up the bond but it was to no avail. Reluctantly, we threw in the towel.

A few days after we gave up, we heard that customs had informed the sergeant that since he had not sold the car, he would have to deliver it to Istanbul so that it could be auctioned off (for the benefit of the Turkish government). They might as well have asked him to wash and wax it and leave it with a full tank of gas. In his final salute to Turkey, he abandoned the car on a residential street.

Our giving up was all for the better. The Chevy was worth its price but certainly not what we would have had to do and pay to legalize it. If there was any lesson for me in what we had gone through, it seemed to be that a foreigner in Turkey was better off not getting involved with car ownership, be it a Chevy or even a BMW for $100.

The Man Who Would be King

I remained more than quite content for a long time- the next 12 years, in fact- to continue with the bus and my parasitic habit of asking students to drive me to local places when public transport wouldn’t get me there. Then, after my first son was born in 2002 and we were having to lug him and his baby things on and off buses, my wife began campaigning for a family car.

Being quite opposed to the idea of car purchase- and remember, this resistance wasn't borne of cheapness but rather of trauma- I tried my best to counter it by pointing out the economic savings in taking the bus. I succeeded fending it off for the next six years this way, until, when family member number four arrived, the economic savings line was blown to hell.

I have to admit that I myself began to see numerous advantages in having my own car. Not only would gas be cheaper than four bus tickets, but the convenience of going where I wanted when I wanted- and faster, too- without being subservient to bus times and routes seemed now an attractive option in my life. Just the prospect of having my own car brought on in me a startling feeling of power. After all my years in Turkey being a dependent traveler, I knew it was now time to be my own man.

For us Americans, the family car may be a bigger deal. After I bought my car and started transporting my family around, I felt we had achieved some sort of added validity. I think this is because the family car is a small but integral part of the American dream I carry around.

So crumbled my resolve against car ownership, and before I knew it I was checking out the cars in several local dealerships with my father-in-law. I settled on a black Ford Connect Tourneo which, as a masculine, ergonomic and practical car, was a far cry from the cute, pretty green Fiat with the automatic transmission that my wife had been campaigning for.

Since we had to get it home someway, I had to suddenly face driving my spanking new $25,000 car from the dealership to my house in Ayvalik, about 45 minutes away.
After a 12-year hiatus from driving in Turkey, you can imagine that this task, getting back in the saddle, was more than a little intimidating. Remembering the last time I drove in Turkey, I began to fear for the car’s, not to mention my own, safe arrival.

Thusly, we decided that I would follow behind my father-in-law at reduced speed while staying close to the right shoulder of the highway. Sort of like the old geezers I used to ridicule on California highways.

Because Turkish drivers generally go about 15-20 miles over the speed limit, and we were going at least 20 miles under the limit, cars wound up swishing past us at almost supersonic speeds, many blasting their horn in annoyance, as we crawled our way to Ayvalik.

And the Meek Shall Get Stoned

Then, as we entered a road construction zone, things turned nightmarish. The road department had covered a freshly laid layer of asphalt not with pea gravel, as you would expect, but with stones the size of unshelled peanuts. When cars raced past me, the stones were thrown up into the air by their rear wheels. We collided with them when they were in mid-air, which, because we and the stones were both moving through space in opposite directions, resulted in quite an impact.

As 20-30 rocks rained down on my car, I began cursing and screaming- “What kind of fucking highway department is this in Turkey?” among other things- and pulled off to the side of the road to take refuge. But there was no respite; passing cars continued to spray us as we sat there. The only way to stop the assault, I quickly concluded, was to get back in traffic and not let anyone pass me so as to keep ahead of the stones.

Somehow, I pulled this off. I managed to get bold enough not only to stay with the flow of traffic but to actually pass some drivers. At one point, when I zoomed past two or three cars in one swoop, I have to admit to sadistic pleasure. When I saw in my rear view mirror that I was sending off my own shower of stones to those behind me, I couldn’t resist feeling the pleasure of revenge, and I let off a little maniacal cackle.

But I felt no real joy when I finally made it to my home. My $25,000 car was no longer a virgin. I found two chips in the paint on one side and one solid identation in the nose of the front hood. The bliss of new car ownership, which had almost caused me to glow at the dealership, had after only a couple of hours been extinguished- Hell, more like assassinated by the collusion of the dumb ass Turkish highway department and crazy Turkish drivers.

To make matters worse, my wife couldn’t help pointing out that the Fiat dealership was on the other side the road construction, and I would have been spared all my pain if only I had accepted her wisdom about car choice.

The feelings of utter hopelessness that I had as I watched rocks bounce off my shiny new car and of being a victim of the highway department’s incompetence soon grew into bona fide rage. This not only kept me from sleeping well for the next few nights but led me in an obsession where I wanted to talk about my rocks experience with anybody who would lend me an ear.

Most listeners pointed out that such things have happened to nearly everybody in Turkey. If you look at windshields of cars, they said, even the brand new ones, you’ll see that no one has been spared. All have at least one substantial chip in the glass complete with spider webbing. This is all thanks to the highway department’s use of oversized gravel when paving.

One student of mine suggested that I could become a national hero if I took the initiative and brought suit against the Turkish highway department. The courts would listen to a foreigner, he said, and millions of Turks with disfigured cars would be brought justice.

I took to the idea right away. Although it was mostly because I wanted a way to work out my anger, I have to admit I also fantasized about becoming a national hero to the Turkish car owner: “English teacher throws the national highway department to the mat,” might be a newspaper headline to accompany the cheers heard everywhere.

Before visiting my lawyer, I worked up some evidence. I did some Google research on correct gravel size in asphalting, and I made a video of the portion of highway with the killer rocks. In addition, I found a couple of people who would testify that they had had a similar experience to mine.

This is one of the short videos I made before I went to my lawyer.

When I had just begun to present my case to my lawyer, however, he was quick to point out that, though I had some pictures of large rocks and others of a ding in my car, I had no proof of a causal connection between the rocks and the ding. That would, moreover, be the crux of my case. Turkish courts, he said, don’t give much credence to conjecture; they want things in writing or in pictures. If I had a video of the rocks hitting my car (Damn! Don’t you always leave your camera at home when you need it most?) I might stand a chance.

I had a brief moment when I considered going back to the scene of the crime and taking a video of more rocks hitting my car, but the absurdity and masochism of such an act convinced me just to give up my crusade. The lawyer concurred with the wisdom of my decision.

So now I just live with my anger. Unfortunately, however, it doesn’t seem to diminish. This is because whenever I approach my car from the front, which is almost every day, my rage is exacerbated by the sight of the ding placed squarely in the middle of the nose of the front hood. And just like with someone who has really put you off, I have started to look in the opposite direction when I am passing.

This sign has just recently been added to the construction zone, probably after a rash of complaints. As if a warning allowed you to take action to avoid being hit!

Inertia Sminertia

(If you’re a reader of this blog, you know that although we have a house on the island of Cunda in Ayvalik on the Aegean coast, we live by necessity five days a week in an inland town called Balikesir, where I teach English at a private school.)

If my relationship with my car has suffered for aesthetic reasons, several months of driving in Turkey have nearly brought us to divorce court. This is to say that I’m beginning to regret getting the car and now thinking of getting rid of it.

There’s a recklessness and craziness among Turkish drivers that makes any highway trip a truly hair-raising experience, worse even than I remember on the road 20 years ago. After every major excursion, I literally thank God that my family has arrived unscathed, and I wonder if we shouldn’t get back to taking the bus. Let me describe a road trip for you.

When we go to Ayvalik from my job in Balikesir we have about a two-hour trip through hilly, mountainous countryside on a two-lane highway. I can state without exaggeration that on every trip we have met at least one instance of the following hazards: A car in the midst of passing another coming head on in our lane, requiring us to brake and go to the right side; or a car ahead of us stopped for some reason and blocking the lane. The latter can be an unpleasant surprise after dark.

On one of our first trips using our car, to Ayvalik, we had three brushes with a head on, and on the return, we came upon two vehicles stopped in our lane. The second stopped vehicle, which we met at night, was a truck that had apparently conked out on a grade. The driver had left it without any lights on whatsoever and had not placed any roadside emergency warnings. Luckily, my front seat passenger, my visiting sister from California, saw it in time for us to slow down and avoid a collision.

After this trip, my sister started to call Turkish driving behavior ‘insane.” And I know she meant more than merely careless or dangerous. She, like other foreign guests have commented to me, was referring to behavior wherein there seems to be a total absence of normal human risk aversion.

There are plentiful Turkish traffic manoeuvres which raise the hair on the back of your neck, but this particular one- the old 'slip back in a second before the estimated time of impact' stunt- is by far the most frequent. Note that there is an element of "chicken" here. The truck driver didn't slow down because he would consider it backing down.

Part of the explanation for this behavior is that Turks are a very impatient lot. They don’t like queues and will do anything to beat waiting in line. Likewise, they don’t like cars in front of them on the road. They will begin to pass even if they are going straight uphill around a blind curve in a snowstorm.

But this doesn’t explain everything- not the cars stopped in the middle of the road, for example. There has to be another common denominator that explains their total lack of fear in risky situations.

After some months of driving experience and observation in Turkey, I would submit that this common denominator is- and I can’t think of another way of describing it - the under-appreciation of inertia.

I’ve considered whether it might be an ignorance of inertia, but having checked the primary and secondary school science curriculum, I’m confident the basic idea was put in everybody’s head at some point.

For those of you a long time out of science class, inertia is usually taught as the resistance of a body to change in motion. It explains why when you jump off a speeding train you will probably break every bone in your body. If the train is a French TGV traveling at 200 KPH, then before you hit the ground you will be hurling through space at the same speed. That’s a whole lot of “resistance” on impact.

In cars, the law of inertia readily explains why people die in collisions. When a car crashes into a tree, it’s not the car hitting the tree that injures or kills, say, the front seat passenger. It’s the secondary collision of the passenger against the dashboard or windshield. This results from the fact that the passenger was traveling at the same speed as the car and when the car met the tree, he or she, not wanting to stop, kept going.

The way Turks drive you would think that they had devised a secret escape-from-inertia plan, whereby at the moment before a head on collision they could just bail out of the car and land upright on two feet.

Actually, misunderstandings about inertia are not confined to Turkey. I remember sometime in the seventies reading an Ann Landers column where a woman wanted her to settle a bet about whether jumping up in a falling elevator at the last moment could save your life. In her answer, Ann asked a professor at some university for his input. He invoked the law of inertia, of course, and pointed out anyone in the falling elevator, which might approach 100 MPH, would be traveling the same speed as the elevator at impact. Jumping up before it hit bottom would counter the falling speed only insignificantly, not enough to make any difference. No matter what you did, you’d be a pancake, concluded Ann.

Much to my surprise, I found that people are still asking the falling elevator question at Internet sites such as Yahoo and, believe it or not,the falling elevator was a topic on the Discovery Channel's Mythbusters

Also, you can find that there is lots of discussion about what really happens when you jump off a speeding train. I came across one poster who seemed to think that when you jump off the train, you “disconnect” yourself from the train’s speed. I’m sure he was thinking of scenes in films we have all watched where, after leaping off a train, the character somersaults a couple of times and then, without batting an eye, gets up and brushes himself off.

I would, in fact, propose that at least part of the source of these fallacies about inertia held by the Turks (and by us) is Hollywood. Unfortunately, since a lot of our world knowledge comes from TV and films, doesn’t this mean that when something is misrepresented, people worldwide can be infected with a misconception?

Without even looking, I have come across 2 films with dubious scenes in which the character’s physical actions seem to defy inertia.

In Diplomatic Courier, a Film Noir from 1952 that I recently acquired, the protagonist, thinking his life is in danger as he is being pursued by a car of enemy agents in Trieste, decides to jump out of the car he is riding in.

Lest you think that 50 years later Hollywood is more faithful to the laws of science, I happened to watch a film called Screwed (2000) on TV the other night and was astounded to see how easy it was for a dog to jump out of a fast moving van.

In this scene, the two guys in the van have kidnapped the dog from an old lady for ransom.

If the van is traveling at 40 mph, the dog is, too. So, in reality, when the dog jumps out away from the van- it's like the falling elevator- he counters the van's velocity only insignificantly and would, if this accurately represented the laws of physics, tumble violently in the direction the van is moving. He would probably break a lot of his bones before coming to a stop. Of course, that's not very appropriate for a comedy film.

Bring On Broderick Crawford

If Americans have a better idea of the dangers brought by inertia than Turks, it may be in part because we have seen educational clips on the subject on TV and at school to counter Hollywood’s viral rendition of physics. Two I well remember seeing in my formative years in California, which I know had a great effect on my driving attitudes, are the one from the California Highway Patrol showing the dangers of tailgating and the slowmotion video of crash test dummies with and without seat belts in a car hitting a wall.

In all my years in Turkey, I don’t recall seeing public service spots on either of these subjects, or, for that matter, any issue of driving safety. Since almost all Turks tailgate as standard procedure before passing- we’re talking 3 feet clearance at 80 MPH- and 90% of them seem to have abhorrence for seat belts, it’s high time the government seriously approached traffic safety through the mass media.

Since Turkey has one of the highest traffic accident rates in the world, changing driving habits should be a matter of Turkish pride for the government. Yet, their efforts have been far from serious, more like pathetic. A big part of its campaign, mostly seen on posters in public buildings, is to warn people of the ‘Traffic Monster.” Unfortunately, its rendition is rather lame- it reminds me of the Ghost Buster’s logo- and foolishly suggests that the culprit for traffic deaths is an entity “out there.” I would advise captioning the poster with the words, “Don’t look now, but the traffic monster is you!

"Don't Be a Traffic Monster," it says.

The other front of the government’s efforts, the "educational" one, is in primary schools, where they give students as young as fifth graders lessons called “Traffic” as part of a weekly curriculum. What 11-year-olds with no understanding of what it is to drive can gain from such a course is a mystery- even to them, if you ask them: one student reported to me that after a year's curriculum he had learnt "to read some traffic signs, walk on the left side of the road, and stuff like that." Well, that's getting to the crux of the traffic problem.

If they spent a part of the class time objectifying some of the more dangerous driving practices of the public- after all, people learn to drive by watching others- they might start to change driving behavior. Even more important would be to have them question their mother or father as a model of good driving. It could be said that kids learn to drive primarily from the backseat of the family car. This means that if Dad passes cars on curves going uphill, junior will probably do the same. For no less than the public's survival, this learning cycle has to be sabotaged.

Also, the course might include something about the resistance to change of an object in motion.

If there's anyone who could whip these Turkish traffic morons into shape, it's the no-nonsense Chief Dan Matthews, aka Broderick Crawford, from the 50s TV show "Highway Patrol."

Do as the Romans?

Turkish driving is outrageous by any standard (yes, even compared to the Italians!), but what makes it even more dangerous is being an American driver in the midst of it. I’ve mentioned how my stopping at a yellow light caused me to be rear-ended because it was simply not expected. That’s an example of a piece of driving behavior learned in one society that cannot be safely transplanted to another. I’ve got hundreds of such pieces.

Today, for example, driving from Ayvalik to Balikesir we met quite a few trucks on curvy grades. Most of the time I stayed behind them because I couldn’t see well enough up the road to be sure of passing clearance. I thought I was being a good driver. Yet, by being the cautious, defensive American driver I was creating a dangerous situation for everybody. The cars behind me were infuriated that I wouldn’t pass and drivers 3 or 4 cars back jumped out to pass the whole group, resulting in several edge-of-your-seat moments. Several blasted their horns furiously as they passed me. I’m sure that if it were in their cultural repertoire, they would have given me the finger.

If the moral here is to adopt the customs and practices of your host country, I’m not capable of driving like a Turk even if I wanted. This is, however, exactly the advice of a friend who was a long-time driving instructor in England. If you want to stay alive in what is a fairly dangerous state of affairs, he says, you shouldn't trip up the Turks with your culturally based driving peculiarities and thereby make the situation more life-threatening than it already is.

He has been here for 10 years and in fact now drives exactly like a Turk (that is, totally dissing inertia). When I go along with him in his car on errands in the city, I find myself hanging on for life, gripping my own seat belt as we rocket down narrow, twisting streets all the while miraculously swerving out of the way of oncoming cars. It’s not unlike the Cyclone at Coney Island.

Rights of Passage

The best way to understand the difference between Turkish and American driving habits is to consider how each behaves at a four-way stop.

When I was home last and rented a car for a few days, I was reminded how civil American drivers can be, at least in comparison to Turks. In Santa Barbara I came upon a residential 4-way stop, and because I was going to turn left, I waited first for an oncoming car to pass. As I did, another car appeared on my right. Remembering vaguely that the car on the right had the right of way- it has been 40 years since I read the DMV manual- I deferred to my newly arrived friend to make the first move. He, however, wanting to be the more gracious, motioned me to pull out. We had a momentary standoff as each of us beckoned the other to go first, but the game was suddenly changed by the appearance of a third car. Since I was on this new car’s right, I figured I had priority over him and discounted his presence. However, as I pulled out expecting both cars now to grant me passage- somebody had to get the ball rolling- each of them had simultaneously made a move into the intersection, the guy on the right apparently giving up on me to make the first move. But then, seeing me, both cars stopped abruptly in the middle of the intersection, as though they had realized a faux pas, and ever so courteously backed up to let me through. I almost felt embarrassed to go on my way.

For contrast, watch the action at a comparable 4-way stop in Turkey. There is a level of aggressiveness and daring that makes for the opposite of what occurs in the States. If there are 4 cars at a 4-way at the same time, probably all will try to be the first to pull out. The actual order of passage will be determined by levels of chutzpah, as in a game of chicken: to be number 1, just lurch through the intersection regardless of whether the other cars have made their move. It helps if you rev your engine and burn your tires. It’s a bit like 4 cats meeting and establishing a dominance hierarchy, only a bit faster and nastier.

This is the back of our new car after traversing the infamous construction zone a few times.
You may hear that people are the same wherever you go, but I've really only found two universals in my travels. The first one is the compulsion to write "Wash Me"- or Beni Yıka, or Lave-Moi, or whatever- on dusty cars with your index finger.
(The other, if you're wondering, is to keep a container of assorted ball point pens on your desk, none of which write.)

The Miracle of the American Crosswalk

I know there are those in America who lament that the level of driving civility is declining; among other things, they point to increasing instances of road rage. But I would contend that we retain 80% of our traditional manners, even in a place like L.A.

One way to witness American courteousness is to observe any crosswalk in America and see how respectful drivers are to pedestrians. Their behavior can be found hardly anywhere else in the world.

Cross any street in Europe (with few exceptions) or in Asia at a crosswalk without traffic lights and drivers won’t even slow down as they approach you. Often they speed up to scare you. The unwritten law seems to be that a pedestrian should be wary of cars, not vice verse. If there are lights, don’t count on a green light for pedestrians to give you right of way either. Here in Turkey, I estimate that after 10 P.M., 1 in 5 drivers run red lights if they have “judged” the way is clear.

Now place yourself in an American city of any size at a crosswalk without traffic lights. Stand at the curb and see what happens. Not only will cars stop, but they will continue to wait even if you don’t step into the crosswalk.

Many of my students in both France and Turkey have come back from a stay in the States and have reported on this traffic behavior as a most curious cultural phenomenon. One French student who stayed in Seattle for a couple of weeks told me that during the first day of his wanderings he had been genuinely mystified by American drivers. He had been walking around the city with his guidebook and when he came to an intersection he would often unfold the map to get his bearings. As he did so, he noticed that cars would stop. At first he had no idea why, but after it had happened a couple of times, he realized that when he read his map he had positioned himself right next to a crosswalk, and the stopped cars were expecting him to cross. American drivers, he thought, have to be the best mannered in the world.

But even after he started to do his map reading away from crosswalks, there were a couple of instances during his roaming when he inadvertently caused cars to stop. Not wanting to appear impolite, now that he understood the reason they stopped, he told me that he crossed the street for no other reason than to oblige the drivers.

If you were from Europe, or especially from Turkey, the causal inference between standing on the curb and stopping cars would not be obvious by any means; it would just not be in your world experience to have had a car stop to let you cross the street. It was for my French friend, and many others I’ve talked to- none of whom you would call pro-American- a most pleasant discovery about the country and people.

Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off

Would that crossing the street was the major problem I had with Turkish drivers. As I’ve said, what I’m scared of is driving on the highway with them, which is pretty much the purpose for which we bought the car.

After every one of our excursions there has been a sobered pause where I feel that my passengers and I are lucky to be alive. Then I wonder if I should continue driving or go back to public transports and count on a longer life.

The way things stack up at present, I’m ready to sell the car. Although it’s primarily because of how off putting it is to drive is here, there are a few more things that have entered into this decision:

1.) At both our houses in Ayvalik and Balikesir, there has been no place to park our car.

For the first month of our car ownership we were forced to park about 10 minutes from our house on Cunda. This is because we have narrow cobblestone streets that are only occasionally wide enough to allow for a parked car and clearance for through traffic. Most available spaces have been taken.

Then one of our neighbors told us we could park in a space between his house and an old abandoned Greek house. Being a believer in the caveat “There’s no free lunch, especially in Turkey,” I was suspicious of the offer. I wondered why our other neighbors with whom he was chummier hadn’t taken it.

As it turned out, there was in fact no price tag on the offer. But the reason he had offered it to us was mainly because no one else in the neighborhood was interested. They didn’t want to park there because the space was also the residence of a goat.

But not to worry, as our neighbor explained, because the goat, which lived in a converted packing crate, was on a tether that prevented him from getting into mischief. Still, he advised, one had to be careful and be sure to park out his reach, otherwise the goat might try to gnaw the paint off the front of the car.

We took the space, feeling goat vigilance was a small price to pay for a parking place nearly outside our front door. After only 3 months, however, our privileged parking was ended when the old Greek house on one side of our space collapsed during a small earthquake. We were in Balikesir at the time and our neighbor telephoned us to tell us how fortunate we were to have left Cunda the night before because rubble had come crashing down right where our car would have been. Although the goat and his residence were unscathed, we were advised that we would have to scout out a new parking place.

Rather than lucky, I felt regret at having left Cunda when I did, as though there had been a missed opportunity. If our car had been buried, wouldn’t I have suddenly been freed from the stresses of driving in Turkey, including not in the least that of always having to find a parking spot?

Our car was usually parked under the rubble on the far right, behind which you see the goat's residence.
When I lamented that I had moved our car the night before the house collapsed, I was thinking that our car insurer would reimburse us for our loss. Though my wife was quick to point out that in Turkey there could be no clause protecting anyone from falling Greek houses, I still insist that it must be somewhere after the clause about gnawing goats.

The parking problem in Balikesir is worse for us because during the daytime there is hardly any place to park even 10 minutes away. We live near the city center and so, as as a policeman has explained to me, the streets have to be free and clear in the day. Accordingly, virtually every single street in the vicinity has a sign with a P in a red circle with slash.

However, there is one small side street near our house that the city has overlooked in its sign posting. If you park there, so everyone has understood, the police don’t ticket. But since it can accommodate only about 15 cars, and there must be 50 personal vehicles belonging to our neighborhood, you can be sure an empty space is as rare as …well… a courteous driver in Turkey.

We’re parked there at the moment, and I’m not moving the car out unless I’m at gunpoint, and even then I might resist. I’m sure those of you who live in cities with lots of cars and few parking places will understand this.

When we come back from a trip, there is, of course, never a free space waiting for us. What we do is pull into a nearby pay lot and then, from our apartment, monitor the parking situation on the side street, which is visible through our living room window. When we see a space vacated, I run down 4 flights to the pay lot, scramble into the car, and then peel over to the empty spot. If my son is around, I have him stand in the space until I can get there.

To pare down my “arrival time” from the lot to the parking place, I have actually practiced sticking in the ignition key and slamming the door shut at the same time. Also, it helps that the lot attendant knows my routine. When he sees me scurrying to my car in my slippers, he doesn’t expect me to stop the car at the gate and pay.

When I get a good space- defined by good visibility from our living room, on a wider portion of the narrow street so as to keep the car from being sideswiped- you can read the gloating on my face as I stand at the window at night admiring it, “How ‘bout that space, huh? When was the last time you got a space like that?”

2.) Since I don’t want to give up a good parking space unless I absolutely have to, I don’t use the car for errands in the city. This means we are taking buses and taxis like we did before we spent $25,000 on the car. This has made me feel like an idiot.

This is the way I'd like to work out my feelings towards Turkish drivers.

3.) Just recently my father-in-law telephoned to remind us that the tax was due on our new car.

I couldn’t imagine what he meant.

We had paid, when we bought the car off the lot, Value Added Tax of 18%. (There’s an additional, hefty tax for cars imported into Turkey, but I don’t think we had to pay this because our model Ford is, I’ve been told, assembled in Turkey.) Then there are the license plate and registration fees we paid, which are more taxes no matter what you call them.

Moreover, just recently I was told I can no longer use my California license and that I need to get a Turkish one. That's all well and good, but this requirement appears to be just another pretext for revenue collection, as I will have had to spend close to $500 on 7 different nonsensical documents from various bureaucratic agencies, including a doctor’s report on ears, nose and throat. (Perhaps we are lucky because under the old law a psychiatric evaluation was necessary.)

Anyway, what other tax could we have missed?

As my father-in-law explained, slightly amused as always at my outrage at some of Turkey’s practices, there is a tax you have to pay just for owning a car. Ours, he had learned, would be about $1000, every year.

Isn’t this adding insult to injury? How much more am I going to pay to keep something that I regret buying in the first place?

A student of mine tells me it could be worse. His father, who owns a BMW SUV, pays close to $8,000 a year for the privilege of owning it.

The Only Way to Fly

As I write this, I can see about 100 meters away through the window our car sitting forlorn, in the midst of gathering yet another layer of city dust and carbon emissions. It has been in the same spot for the last 4 weeks, and will most likely be there for at least another month. As I’ve said, nothing short of a mass evacuation of the city, a forced one, could get me to move it.

I’m not even using it for longer trips, such as to Ayvalik. During this past winter and early spring, my wife has preferred to stay in Balikesir and not go to Ayvalik because she is caring for our new baby. This has meant that I am on my own when I go to Ayvalik. Since for one person there is no compelling economic reason to take the car, I have elected to take the bus.

But this decision has really nothing to do with money. I’ve been taking the bus because it pardons me from having to drive. During every trip, I sit back enjoying, not the scenery, but the fact that I’m not the one behind the wheel.

Whereas not long ago I was swearing at the bus company for overselling tickets, broken seat backs and pathetic reading lights, I have come to a new found appreciation and respect for this slow, lumbering vehicle they call an “otobus.” I’m back to taking it weekly, only this time with a smile.

Once again, as has always been my preferred place on the bus, you will find me every Saturday morning in aisle seat number 34. I’m right back where I started, only I have learned my lesson well.