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  • In Turkey, where most people don’t own a car, buses of various types fill most transportation needs. Tourists take to buses in large numbers too, but usually are segregated from the locals. Long and short buses with padded seats (“otobusler”) ply intercity routes and service resort hotels. Nearly every one I’ve ridden has been close to fully occupied or more; on longer routes bus stewards serve tea and snacks. Larger towns operate municipal bus services: fares hover around 40 cents, a small price to pay for being crushed solid. A kind of minibus called a dolmush (as near as I can transliterate) fills in the gaps, trundling ten or twenty people at a time around towns. Altogether, these fleets move a lot of bodies to and fro, but still can’t satisfy peak demand.

    You enter a dolmush midway back, then commandeer an empty seat if you can, usually near the rear. Leisurely, you dig out some coins to remit to the driver. You do this by handing your carfare to someone in front of you. The recipient passes your coins to someone closer to the front, and so forth until the driver's hand brings them to his eye for inspection. If change is warranted, he scoops coins out of a grooved tray and hands them back over his shoulder, where someone takes and passes them back, passim, until they are lodged in your palm. If the vehicle is really crowded, you may wait for your change almost until you have to debark, but you are never cheated and your money will never be stolen. Despite your paranoia, the circle is unbroken.

    Trust in community — especially among women — is evident in Turkey. This is a fundamental of human society that only affluence, and the sense of entitlement that it ushers, can wash away. Its loss is also something that is hard to understand for those of us raised in places where privacy and individuality are valued over social intercourse and cultural conformity, for which we substitute self-sufficiency, mutual aloofness, and suspicion of strangers. All cultures fear strangers to some extent, but they don’t all define or respond to them the same.

    Some of my cultural preconceptions about strangers were crushed at a bus stop in a small city in the South of Turkey. A dozen or so Turks assembled there one limning afternoon, waiting for a local bus that was 15 minutes late. Forget queuing: when the hapless otobus finally chuffed to a stop, everyone surged toward the front door, eager to board. Every seat appeared to be taken, and standees consumed most of the remaining airspace. Third or fourth up the front steps struggled a young woman, carrying an eight-month-old boy in one arm and dragging a heavily laden shopping cart with the other. Realizing the impossibility of safe passage, in a blink of an eye and without hesitation she boosted up her offspring to an older woman sitting in the front row, and then retreated, wheeling her burden to the rear door and clambered up, hoisting her cart up after her

    The doors eventually closed and the bus veered into traffic. Several clicks up the road, the young woman extracted herself down the rear steps, then hurried forward to pay the driver and retrieve her last-born from the older woman’s bosom. Maybe they were acquainted, maybe not. Perhaps they recognized one another (“I think she lives on my cousin’s street”). Hard to know, but what’s clear is that they partook of a communal trust that may be common in Turkish towns, but is foreign to me. Bill Bunge, a radical geographer who studied women and children in groups might disagree; his theory is that “mommies are commies.” Maybe some are in America, but not the upper middle-class ones in my neighborhood.

    Most Americans mommies wouldn’t dare to place their baby in the arms of a stranger and walk away, however much overt friendliness they may exhibit. We use our superficial familiarity to fortify our security bubbles even as we reach out to strangers. Turkish friendliness, on the other hand, goes places that we might find uncomfortably intimate. After “what’s your name,” “where do you come from,” and “have you visited Turkey before,” if time permits (and it should), they will continue to probe: “How are your parents?” “Are you married?” “How many brothers and sisters do you have? ”How many children?”

    During a twenty-minute cab ride across Istanbul, my wife (who is Turkish) determined that our driver’s name was Erol, had immigrated four years ago from Trabzon, went home twice a year, wasn’t married but had a steady girl friend, was the youngest of seven children, and was studying to be a civil engineer. Erol found out about as much about our family. We also learned (and heard) that Erol’s cab’s transmission was about to blow, but nevertheless, we arrived safely. That happens in Turkey – where what’s possible often trumps what’s perfect.

    I learned that one thing that Turks and Americans share is a propensity for risk-taking. But most of ours is focused on the marketplace and game play, not on relationships, personal security, or jobs (or even driving, based on Turkish traffic situations I’ve seen). The pity is that Turks seem to be getting more like us, at least in urban centers. Most Turkish TV channels bombard viewers with 20-minute strings of commercials every hour, pushing the same type of goods ours do. High-rise buildings bristling with satellite TV dishes sprout like grim grey mushrooms in towns and cities along the southern coast and elsewhere, morphing orchards and farmland into instant suburbs and scrub land into malls.

    Still, at least a fifth of the women I saw on the street covered their heads with scarves (noticeably more than during past visits), and life does slow down a bit during prayers at neighborhood mosques. Americans, who are a small minority of tourists, are still warmly welcomed, but linger long enough and you’ll get lectured about the Eagle’s menace and the dark stratagems of the White House. So, perhaps America’s international bad behavior will push Turks away from emulating our way of life, to deal with our post-modern planet in their own special ways. I would like that.


    @image: My future wife and her maternal grandmother at her hillside village home near Trabzon, c. 1963, photographer unknown
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