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  • Let me tell you how I got to know my wife's fatherland and family. I'll start by segmenting a memoir we wrote after our first visit there almost two decades ago (my wife's words are in italics). Begging your indulgence, I'll sprout on with impressions from subsequent visits, ending with our most recent trip this summer. Read the backstory here.

    The Swissair jet touched down at Ataturk Airport at noon, about half-full and ten minutes late. The Istanbul sky was gloomy, the November air chilly and murky following several days of rain. Inside the unheated arrival hall, a smarting stench of diesel fumes and assorted vapors permeated every corner. But our luggage soon arrived, and we carted it over to the transit desk to check in for the final leg of our journey, a Turkish Air flight to Antalya. Immigration was perfunctory. I handed over $20 for a tourist visa, and none of the guys in official hats turned from their cigarettes and conversations to inspect our luggage. Things seemed to be vaguely organized, but nobody seemed interested in telling us what we needed to do without being asked. Fortunately, my traveling companion is Turkish, and knew the appropriate questions and how to interpret the responses, which even for her were a little confusing. So we waited half an hour on plastic chairs until a shuttle got organized, trying to keep warm, hoping that the air in the domestic terminal would be more pleasant to breathe.

    Later in the week the TV reported that an air pollution emergency had been declared in Istanbul; everyone who didn't have to work was supposed to stay indoors. The stench we had experienced on our layover was just a taste of the smog that settled in after the rain stopped and cold weather set in. The city has doubled in size in about 20 years, and now holds about 12 million people. Most households have no central heating, and must warm themselves with charcoal fires. Government dump trucks bring in the fuel and pile it in the streets for people to take. That, along with far too many motor vehicles crammed into the narrow, choking streets scripts a nefarious scenario for smog. The capital city Ankara, with only two million people, has converted many of its buildings and some of its buses to run on natural gas, and the difference has been quite noticeable, I was told. But even in that city, which lies in a valley, fumes build up.

    Eventually a big bus showed up outside and we plus three or four other travelers got on. It hung around for quite awhile, and then abruptly charged off on a hair-raising tour de tarmac.

    Turks cannot seem to drive slowly, and have a hard time following other cars; they have to be out in front where they can feel the space around them.

    Our driver dodged trucks and baggage carts, honking at oncoming traffic, trying to bull his way in front of everyone before pulling up at the domestic terminal some distance away. There we learned that our flight would leave more or less on time in about two hours. So, we went upstairs to see what there might be to do.
  • The large upper hall had groups of seats, mostly unoccupied, a few pay phones, old handicraft exhibits in cases, a souvenir kiosk, and a café, which proved to be the high point of the waiting experience. Near the café we noticed a bride and groom sitting and talking to a companion. The bride wore a white elaborate dress and a headdress festooned with minute embroidery. The groom looked a lot like he was on his way to a prom, with a blue evening jacket and shiny black shoes. These outfits were, I was informed, typical dress for a modern traditional Muslim wedding, and so they were probably newlyweds about to start their wedding trip.

    Most everybody else was dressed in unmemorable western clothing; there were a few couples and groups of women, but most people were men. Nobody in the lobby was using a laptop, but guys were strolling around trying to look important while chattering into cell phones. At the café counter, we witnessed an older man request a cup of Turkish coffee, only to be told that the café didn't make it anymore. But like most things in Turkey, this turned out to be negotiable, with the man behind the counter saying he would see if anyone in back had time to make the coffee. Eventually a small cup of black liquid was produced, and the customer took it with him to sip as he chatted with his companion.

    I found the idea of having Turkish coffee appealing. But after witnessing this hard negotiation to get a cup, I could not dare to ask for another without annoying the owner. So I settled for sips from Geoff's drink.

    The other man at the table was drinking a glass of Rakı, a clear distilled spirit that tastes of anise, the counterpart of Greece's national drink, Ouzo. I ordered a Coke, which tasted about the same as it would in East Orange, New Jersey. Aygül drank some mineral water and shared my Coke, and we held hands across the table as we discussed the rest of our journey, especially what her parents, their house and their town were like, and what we could do (like sightseeing) and could not do (like sleeping together).

    I must admit that I was having hard time to show my affection in this familiar environment. I feel much more comfortable in the foreign land of Boston. It is, maybe, because I never felt in love in my familiar environment, where displays of affection are discouraged.

    She had come to visit her family, whom she missed a lot after nine months in America; I had come with her to meet them, to get my first whiff of Turkey (hoping that the rest of it smelled better than the airport), and to handle an important item of business. One week would not be enough to see many sights, but would be about right for getting to know people and to start negotiations. Still, I felt unsure about how I should present myself, and nervous about making a variety of mistakes, like calling someone by too familiar a name, eating with the left hand or not belching after a good meal. I needed more clues.
  • Time inched along, slowing down. We finished our drinks and strolled back down to the departure lounge. there was still more than an hour before we would board, so I sat down away from Aygül and slipped into meditation to get myself as centered as possible. Our flight would take us to the southern coast, where her whole family lived, some in Antalya, the rest near the town of Kemer about 25 miles away. I had met one sister about four years ago, but had only seen photographs of the others. They seemed to be a pleasant-looking crew, and Aygül kept assuring me that they would like me a lot, and how easy they would be to get along with. I did not doubt her, but it was hard to believe that nothing would go wrong. Families can be complicated ecologies and have multiple pathologies. Dark undercurrents of mistrust, resentment and rivalry can flow beneath their placid surfaces. Aygül maintained that hers was different, that they always had fun together and nobody hated anyone else. I was dubious.

    I was assuring him that they will love him -- because I love him, and they will easily pick that up. I did not talk to them about all of my feelings for Geoff very openly. Because in my family (or in my culture) sentimental feelings are not expressed directly for an unknown strange reasons. Love, care... are always kept low in expression. But you would definitely feel the existence of them there. They are subtlety hidden in everyday expressions or interactions. You would hardly hear anybody say he loves you. That love just lingers there to be sensed and responded in a same subtle way again. I assured Geoff that he does not have to do anything special. Just be present there and try to sense the feelings. I knew he was going to do great, if only because he has been great with me and it should not be much different than that there.

    None of this would have preoccupied me were it not for one small thing: unless something very unexpected happened, these people were going to end up as my relatives before too long. It wasn't very clear how or that we would be able to communicate, what we would have in common other than their beloved oldest daughter, about to be usurped by forces from the West. I fantasized that I would be inspected like a carcass of meat -- prodded, flopped around and sniffed at, judged to be of a certain quality. Perhaps I would also be tested: asked to help construct a stone wall, taken for a 25 km hike up a mountain or ushered out to milk a goat at 5 AM before coffee. Did I have body odor? Should I have more? Would I eat all the weird stuff on my plate, and how would I wipe their debris my face without napkins? Can I manage to eat while sitting on the floor? I was in the game, but without knowing the rules I wasn't sure how to play.

    He was right that he was going to be inspected but not the way he expected. They were not going to test him openly. But they were going to pick up his persona with "feelers," just being in the same room with him or engage him with everyday things and try to read his body language, or face expressions. Everything would mostly be abstract.
  • The flight to Antalya finally got underway, and soon we were being served a snack. At beverage time I asked for tomato juice, which must have been a mistake because even when Aygül translated my request into Turkish, the stewardess simply stared.

    I think tomato juice and paste are only used for delicious Turkish cooking, not for drinking.

    I settled for orange juice. After my cheese sandwich and sweets, I snuggled next to Aygül and tried to doze as she told me how glad she was to be seeing her family again, how much she loved me and how happy she was. I wanted to kiss her, but that isn't something Turkish couples do among strangers if they care for their reputations. In fact, from then on, until I left her in Ankara, all our kisses were stolen, out of sight of other people. But at the air¬port we broke down and embraced in the terminal, and sure enough, we got several long, unfriendly looks. To my relief, I am able to report no god squad of chanting mullahs materialized to break us apart and bludgeon me within an inch of my miserable infidel life.

    Slumping into the sweet softness of her shoulder, I reflected that it had been a long day, and it wasn't nearly over. We had been en route from Boston for more than 12 hours, and had been up for twice as long without more than two hours sleep. When my lids fluttered open, I glanced up at the flight map up on the front partition and thought yes, we are almost there.

    When we landed, we would be driven for an hour to her parent's home, where no doubt we would be fed more than we could eat and plied with many questions until late at night. But I was too wound-up to consider how tired I was, and when the Airbus thumped down at Antalya, I found myself applauding while steeling myself for the days to come. Aygül was bright-eyed, expectant and hopeful, her usual radiant self. Everything is going to be all right, I began to think.

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