Friday, July 15, 2011

Still breaking the rules after 10 years!

I did it again. I broke a cardinal rule of Turkish hospitality: “Never, ever suggest to a guest that it’s time to leave.” How embarrassing. After 10 years here, I still break the rules, and it leaves me feeling like an Inept, Insensitive Foreigner.

Stand up my Husband or Kick my Guest out?

My friend Zühal was coming for breakfast between 9:30 and 10:00 a.m., so it never occurred to me that I wouldn’t have enough time to make it to a 2:00 p.m. prayer meeting. At 10:30 the breakfast table was set with eggs, tomatoes, cucumbers, olives, cheese, and bread, but no Zühal! I began to feel uneasy. By the time she arrived at 11:00, I knew I had once again overscheduled myself.  Apologizing profusely for being late, she walked in the door with a huge, well stocked tote bag, and her daughter announced, “We’re going to stay here with you until it’s time for swimming class.”

During our breakfast I was torn.  Should I skip the prayer meeting to stay with my guests?  That’s what any Turk would do.  My husband, however, would expect me to make the prayer meeting a priority. 

In the end, I let her know I had to go. I wondered if she connected the fact that she’d been an hour late with our time together being cut short.  I doubted it.  I made a mental note to allow 5 or 6 hours in my schedule when I want to invite her over: one hour for her to be late and four hours for our visit.

Classic Turkish Moment
(How I learned to cook for a crowd even when expecting two guests.)

My blunder with Zühal reminded me of one of my Classic Turkish Moments, during a two year stint in Istanbul 20 years ago:  It was 8 o’clock, and my 7 o’clock dinner guests, Nesrin and her mother, hadn’t arrived.  I stirred the spaghetti sauce, tossed the salad one more time and called to see what had happened. 

“Taner just got home,” Nesrin said. “He has to take a shower, so we’ll be late.”

“All right, I said.  “See you in a little while then.” But inside my mind was spinning. Taner? Why would Taner come?  I’d invited Nesrin and her mother. As I hung up the phone, a light dawned.  Nesrin had invited her brother and his family as well.

I made a mental adjustment.  Okay, instead of 2 guests, we’ll have 5.  I can do that. I opened the fridge, scouted for more ingredients and realized there was no way to make more spaghetti sauce. I got out more salad fixings, found an extra bag of pasta, and put more water on to boil.

They arrived at 9:15, 2 hours and fifteen minutes late.  Nine people came through the door taking off their shoes as my roommate and I kissed and welcomed each one. Nesrin not only brought her brother and his family, but also her aunt, uncle and cousin.  Now the dinner that I had cooked for two guests was looking very small indeed.  As 10 of us gathered around the small dish of spaghetti sauce at the table, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

This happened 20 years ago, but things haven’t changed. 

I still meet with surprises and sometimes feel like I don’t quite measure up. Do things like this ever happen to you where you live?  How do you handle it? All I can do is accept that fact that I’ll probably never be the perfect Turkish hostess!  I’ll write more on that next week.


Jamie Jo said...

Oh yeah. I hear you. What's even worse, though, is when we commit horrible faux pax and don't even know it. For me it's been 25 years, and yes, I am still guilty of more than I know.

Aunt Michele said...

I'm with ya! I invited new neighbors to come over and eat homemade pizza. They didn't show and now they seem to be avoiding us. I'm culturally lost sometimes. Guess they didn't really want to come but were too "polite" to say so?

Just keep smiling!

Cheryl said...

Hi Betsy, it is hard to leave all of our cultural things behind. I am with you - in reference to kicking them out. I tried to do control damage in the beginning when I invited by saying - you know this will be great to have you here, but I do have an appointment at such and such a time. No it is not the best, but really, who are we being rude to - the one there by kicking them out, and if we don't go or are late to the next event - we are rude to them by not showing up. It is that shame culture we deal with all the time. Bless you! Cherry

OliveTree said...

Thanks for your comments! I know you can all relate to what I'm saying. Yes, I'm sure not knowing about the faux pas at all would be even worse! It helps that Turks are generally pretty understanding and flexible when it comes to foreigners.

Anonymous said...

Here there's a signal, is there not in Turkey? They offer coffee and that means, politely, don't let the door hit you on the way out ;). I don't use it... I just tell my friends, oh and I need to leave at X time when I invite them. Usually it relates to school pick-up and they get it. But, they're also mostly Americans these days, teehee.

OliveTree said...

Yes, they use coffee here also to signal the end of a long visit sometimes, but it might still be a while before people leave. ;)