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EVERYTHING SHOULD BE UNDER THE SUN
"I have been appointed foreign correspondent in Turkey", my husband told me, "how do you feel about that?" My immediate response was enthusiastic. I had never been in Turkey before. I imagined it as exotic, colorful and exciting but still familiar enough so I would not feel completely alien.
My friends and relatives did not share my enthusiasm. They pitied me. "Isn't it dangerous? Isn't it a very chaotic, even dirty place? Wouldn't you be completely isolated?" Leaving Berlin for Istanbul looked like a setback to them. Frankly: Most Germans don't like Turks very much. They look down on them. They avoid them. When a German girl marries a Turk it is regarded a serious downfall. Of course not few have fallen anyway.
The majority of foreigners in Germany are Turks. Most Turks in Germany, many of them being Kurds in fact, came from small Anatolian villages. A great number of them are not sophisticated and worldly but cling to traditions in an environment that is everything but friendly. The Ottoman army had threatened Western Europe for centuries. Most Christians think of Moslems as merciless fighters for their faith. In the plane to Istanbul I felt that ancient fear of the Turk coming to the surface. I tried to laugh at the picture of the mysterious dark and cruel Turk welling up from my subconscious.
A tall blond blue eyed driver picked me up from the airport. His English with a heavy Turkish accent was not bad at all. I did not speak a word of Turkish. How many times did I have to repeat the simplest phrase before I could keep it in mind "Tesekkur ederim" (thank you) I thought I would never make it! To show my gratitude to my patient Turkish teacher, I gave her a present. To my amazement she did not open it until I asked her to. "It is not the custom to open a present right away", she explained, "but I will do it for you. "O my Goodness!" she cried when she realized that I had given her expensive soap. She looked embarrassed. "To spare you future misunderstandings I should tell you that you are not supposed to give soap since the receiver might think she doesn't smell good," she said, laughing at my complete bewilderment.
We had to buy stuff for our house in Tarabya. Being accustomed to a cool, industrial style we could not decide on buying those wildly patterned bed sheets or these elaborately decorated shiny brass lamps. The shop owners invited us to tea and we chatted and looked around until finally we would make up our minds and go for a less colorful but still wildly patterned bed sheet.
Istanbul is a paradise for shopping. But being at least one head taller than the majority of Turkish ladies I hardly could find clothes or shoes my size.
I like walking in nature. Planning to take a walk in the forest, I parked my car at the side of a street a little ways outside of Istanbul. Immediately another car stopped. "Is anything wrong with your car, madam?" I was asked.
I was not used to so much caring. There were always people around me, people who would help me, people who would advise me, people who were watching me. I was hardly ever alone and nobody would understand why I wanted to be alone.
Even in the street, people look closely at each other, perhaps especially at foreigners. "I must look really strange to them or really beautiful", I thought. Sometimes I looked back. I found out that a man would then feel encouraged to talk with me. I soon learned that it was enough to turn the eyes skywards, raise the chin and make a short sharp sound with the tongue to turn him down.
In Western Europe it is considered polite to look into someone's eyes while talking. But in Turkey a man reads love in the eyes of a woman who looks into his. After a year or so I understood the secret of a female look: It is something like seeing without looking.
In the streets of Tarabya I saw many ladies with traditional long skirts and head scarves. I had imagined that at least covered ladies would be shy and submissive. In fact I have never met a submissive Turkish woman. They all seem to be remarkably self-confident. The scarf would not weigh them down at all, even make them stronger. Of course nobody hated the scarf more than my sophisticated Turkish friends, those slim and beautiful ladies with elegant costumes, expensive perfumes and always perfectly styled hair and manicured fingernails.
One day I walked down the street in my neighborhood, a car drove by, when suddenly something small and hard flew out of the car's window and landed right in front of my feet. It was an old battery. In the country I came from, you would not even have thrown such a thing into the normal garbage can.
When Ocalan had been captured my German and American friends canceled their flights to Turkey. Without success I tried to tell them that the possibility to be hit by a terrorist's bomb was just as great as a flowerpot falling on their heads.
I loved to live in Turkey. I was amazed how friendly, charming and helpful everybody was. I had a great time. I got so used to everything, that I forgot how different the world I came from really is.
After a few years I felt awkward when I came home to Berlin for a visit. The first thing I noticed was how unhappy and aggressive everybody seemed to be. Already at the airport I noticed a high level of tension and it was even more apparent later in the car driving through the city.
In general Turkish people are much less cynical, impatient and indifferent than my countrymen. For a majority of Germans work is at the center of life. Turks work to live, but Germans live to work. In Turkey people have always time for a tea or two. They have time to help and time to chat. In Turkey people are generous and would invite you whenever they get a chance, not so in Germany. Salesmen in shops and waiters in restaurants would only assist you reluctantly. Forget about a free cup of tea.
Turks like to communicate. Everybody has a cellular phone and uses it excessively. As an artist I was interviewed regularly, reflecting the Turkish appetite for news. The mega-city Istanbul was constantly buzzing and there was talk going on like in a small town: who was with whom and all that.
Germans are comparatively uptight and in some parts of Germany you have to keep greeting people for weeks before they would wave back. But once you have won over a German he or she will be true to you forever.
Turks aim to please, sometimes to the point of excess. Some do things 'a la turka' but you can forgive them because they are so nice and when you think about it, you did not lose more than you got.
I had a wonderful and unforgettable time in one the most beautiful cities in the world. Having lived there and having come to know wonderful people, I would say with typical Turkish zest; "I am happy to call myself a Turk at heart."