Monday, July 14, 2014

The Nature of Friendship

Last week, I needed to ship some NATO equipment from Turkey to Italy.  The system was going from one NATO site to another; you'd think this is the sort of thing that happens all the time and NATO people would have a process. Everyone acted like this had never been done before, no one knew what to do, and it was no one's job.  (It wasn't my job, either, but I had an interest in making sure it happened.)  Fortunately, a Turkish Master Sergeant, Mehmet,  whose job is to handle the customs paperwork, helped me out with the entire process - he called shipping brokers and airlines, forklift drivers and warehouse guys. 

We had a lot of time to chat about the English language, life in Turkey, his American friends from when Izmir was NATO HQ Air Command.  Mehmet described an American Captain as one of his best friends; the guy attended Mehmet's sister's wedding.  They stay in touch even now.  I like Mehmet, and had lunch with; stopped by his office - in another building - just to say hello.  I am friendly with Mehmet...but I'm not sure I'd call him my friend.  Typing that sentence makes me feels a little squishy, it feels like I'm being wrong.  But that word, to me, incurs a burden of responsibility.  And I don't think I'm alone with that feeling...

Mehmet and I were waiting for the delivery truck to pick up the system, and Ramazan, the forklift driver, waited with us.  Ramazan has worked at this Garrison for about 25 years.  He's seen Americans come and go.  Some worked with him in the motor pool, and a handful he regarded as his special friends.  They shared meals with him (in his own words).  They called upon him for extra help with their own vehicles, and they were his friends, so he helped them.  They exchanged addresses and phone numbers and promises to bring their families to meet him when they visited Turkey; they said if he were ever in their neck of the woods, look 'em up!  They'd be glad to see him again.

They moved on, and he's never heard from them again.  They don't write, they don't call.  They don't even email, or answer his Facebook friend request.  How could they call him their friends?

I tried to explain to Ramazan the transient nature of U.S. service people.  That we can sincerely mean our words of friendship in the moment, but time passes and we move on.  There are people I hold close in my mind - I think of them often.  I wonder how they're doing, and I'd love to see them again.  I know I would enjoy every minute I could spend with them, and I'd welcome them into my home in a heartbeat.  There are people I think of fondly - when I think of them.  Perhaps I'm reminded of them at a specific time of year or day, or in a certain place or circumstance.  I'd be happy to see them again, I would chat with them easily.  I wish them well.  But I wouldn't want them too close, or too often.  Do I still get to call them "friend"?  I want to.  It seems to diminish them not to, and I don't want to do that to them.


When I arrived in Turkey, my new Turkish co-workers gushed at me:  We have awaited your arrival as we await a goddess! (I am not kidding, this is not hyperbole.)  They called me "friend" and didn't even know me.  They declared themselves my friends, I would be their special guest.  It was too much for me, and I felt squeamish and suspicious. I thought them over-the-top and false; I still shudder to think of that first day, first encounter.  Maybe it's my fault we never got along, were never able to work together.  I did not embrace them as friends.


I work with a NATO civilian, and have socialized with him and his wife on a couple of occasions.  I like them; they're very nice people, and I get along well with them.  I could choose from a number of tables at the NATO Ball, and I was pleased to be able to sit with them.  They've lived in Turkey a long time, and they travel a lot, but not on the typical tours Americans take - they forge out on their own.  They tell stories of hiking across fields and having shepherds invite them into their modest one-room homes to share the family's midday meal.  They stop to photograph a mountain and find themselves the special guests at a wedding.  Their car breaks down in a tiny village, and a local takes them in overnight while a mechanic travels to get parts.  A forest ranger has them breakfast with his family.  These people are all their friends.  The couple recall them all fondly and enthusiastically.  They visited the forest ranger and the shepherd years later, and the tell of the ranger's and the shepherd's wives crying with joy to see them.  These people are all their friends.    


I feel a bit ashamed of myself.  I am a terrible friend.  I don't write, I don't call, I hardly email...  I love my parents very much, but I interact with them about as much as I do anyone I call a friend (so Mom and Dad, I really am sorry, and friends, don't think I dislike you).  I write a Christmas card to my English grandmother every year, but I send it perhaps one year in five...and I think of her nearly every other day...

People here tell me they will miss me when I'm gone...their faces suggest they want to hear me say I'll miss them too, but I don't say it unless I mean it.  There are people I'll recall fondly, people I will remember, people I've enjoyed working with and would be happy to work with again.  But I won't miss them.  I don't feel our relationship carries that weight, incurs that responsibility.  Are we friends?

Monday, July 7, 2014

A Day at the Bank

Okay, not a day, but a few hours.  Definitely way longer than I ever plan to spend in a bank.  American banks are mostly boring, tedious during Girl Scout Cookie Sales, and terrifying when signing a loan.  But Turkish banks...Turkish banks are awful.  

My first experience was the day after I arrived.  I went to the bank on the Garrison to open a Euro account to receive my travel payments.  I was the only customer, but I still had to take a number.  The two tellers and the three ladies at desks ignored me like I didn't exist - customers are clearly socially inferior to staff.  The electronic number counter ticked thru several numbers evidently taken by people who either left or died waiting.  I tried approaching the tellers, but they gave me a look - the kind that transcends spoken language and sent me back to my seat until my number came up and they were ready to help me.

That experience formed the foundation of every future Turkish bank trip. Later visits to both the bank on Garrison to pay my gas bill and the bank outside my apartment to pay the rent were just like that....

The staff at the bank where I pay my rent speak not a lick of English.  When I walk in, I say hello to the guard, who raises his eyebrows at me and punches a button on the ticket machine.  My ticket number will get me to the right teller's desk with the maximum wait time possible.  Of course, the bank is often full, so I join the queue to get a ticket, but many Turks don't line up the way we Americans do...if I'm not physically pressed against the person in front of me, I'm not in line, and someone will step right in front of me - even on me, if I'm close enough to almost touch the person in front, but not close enough that there's no daylight showing between us.

There is no air conditioning in the bank, and the heat was on thru May (dear dog, that is not hyperbole, the heat was seriously on in the bank when I paid my rent in May; I was drenched in sweat in shorts and a t-shirt, and everyone else wore hats and scarves).  The wait in the heat is miserable...  And I don't understand the wait.  I have waited nearly two hours to pay my rent.  My transaction takes a few minutes - everyone else's seems to take forever, and people go up to the counter whenever they feel like it, interrupting whoever is already there.  And a trip to the bank seems to be a family affair:  one number pops up on the display, and a gaggle of people shuffle to the counter, bags everywhere, money everywhere, every adult talking to the teller at once.

When I finally get to a teller, I always get the same one - which is a good thing, because he knows me.  For my first eight months here, we went thru the same routine:  I tell him in Turkish that I want to pay my rent, he doesn't understand me, I show him my little book with the sentence written out, he asks me a bunch of questions that I don't understand, I shove money at him - insistent that he take it, I point to the bank account number and my landlady's name, he shakes his head at me and counts the money, and I sign the form and walk away hoping I didn't just give a stranger $1000.  Now, we mostly go thru the same routine, but we start with him waving me over to him, regardless of which teller my number says I should go to.  He still asks me a bunch of questions, and I still don't know what he's asking.  I don't know why he's asking...what's there to talk about?  Here's money and a bank account.  Put the money there!  But he smiles at me now, and tells me to have a good day.

The ladies at the Garrison bank still treat me like a mangy cat wandered in from the street...I can't wait to say goodbye to them!

UPDATE:  Today I paid my last rent payment.  I squeaked into the bank with nine minutes to spare, so it wasn't crowded...I still waited half an hour.

So teller #2's customer finished her business and left, and teller #2 pushed the button for the next customer:  the bell chimed, the number changed, and an old man with a cast stood and shuffled to the counter...and he was not quite at the counter when teller #2 pushed the button again, the bell chimed, the number changed, and a middle age woman launched herself at the counter, pushing aside the old man's money and shoving her money at the teller...who pushed the button and the bell chimed, the number changed, and a twentysomething guy charged the counter.  The middle age woman won the tussle, and the two men ambled aimless orbits about each other, awaiting teller #2's attention.

I had the misfortune of completing my business at this bank with teller #2, who spoke not a lick of English and maintained a steady stream of Turkish dialogue at me, shaking his head and clicking his tongue at my inability to understand him.  My personal teller nodded and smiled and helped when he could, and when I finally managed to complete my transaction, he called out a cheerful "Görüürüz!"