Foreign Correspondence: Turkey Thanksgiving

Elijah Garrard
Elijah Garrard

Right now, I’m living away from home. It’s the third time I’ve gone into exile abroad, striking out into unfamiliar territory for reasons I can’t fully explain. Now more than ever, I miss the wet green-gray of an Edmonds autumn. I miss the dark, wild mornings of yellow leaves. In my mind’s eye I can see those roiling storm clouds that part for rays of occasional watery sunlight. I imagine myself walking downtown on a windy day and, as the first rain splatters down, ducking into the library foyer—browsing the book sale until the storm lets up.

I arrived in Turkey at the end of August. I’m far inland; the nearest body of water is the Euphrates River. The air was heavy with humidity, but the land was bone-dry. After weeks of suffering and sweating, the first of the fall storms blew in, marking the turn of seasons. It came as a veil of rain, wiping away the tawny hills across our valley. The clouds lingered for a while, then lifted as suddenly as they’d come.

In the interview for this job, my soon-to-be boss told me, “It is a great place if you like reading, and being alone!” In that respect, I haven’t been disappointed. In seriousness, though, things are all right. Our hot water is perpetually on the fritz, and there may or may not be scorpions, but I have a little time for art and music. I finally read War and Peace! Baklava is widely available and reasonably cheap. This place will never be home, but I think I could like it here.

In Turkey, I’ve run up against new challenges that I didn’t face in Argentina. For one, I don’t speak the language. Coming for work, as opposed to a program or fellowship, I have no built-in network of advisers and support. But in the months since my arrival, I’ve been met primarily with generosity. In those crucial first weeks, new acquaintances came with invitations to dinner or tea, a lift to the shopping center, a fan to borrow, or a tray of leftovers to take home. Volunteer translators sprang up out of nowhere—at the post office, the supermarket, or (most crucially) at the baklava store.

Every time I go abroad, I’m increasingly convinced that the world is full of kind people waiting to be noticed and appreciated: the street vendor who gives you an extra scoop of popcorn when you’re hungry and down to the last of your foreign currency, or the salesperson who—hearing your accent—asks where you’re from, and whether you’d like tea.

The first time I heard about Tuğba was back in August, when my American colleague and I ran up against a language barrier negotiating at the company office. My colleague whipped out a phone and said, “I’m going to call Tuğba.”

I was astounded. What sort of country was this, I wondered, where you could just bother somebody like that? Many ex-pats here complain about Turkey’s lack of punctuality. What they fail to mention is that this loose sense of time leaves openings to pause and talk over a glass of tea. People are not caught up in a headlong rush from Point A to B. They’re more open to be infringed upon by a stranger in need.

Later, I would meet Tuğba in person when—on a whim—I went to take lessons at her music center. She looked me up and down and in a magnificent Brooklyn accent said, “Sit down. I make real American coffee. You take sugar?” The music center was a gathering place for relatives, musicians, students, former students, and a handful of strays like myself. I came back the next weekend, and the next. Not so much to play music, as just to sit and feel anchored for a few hours. Tuğba fed me cookies and scolded me when she caught me doing the dishes. When I needed help with my phone company, she came along. More than once, I called her from the office for translation help.

The next time I saw her, I thanked her profusely and gave her a Tupperware of food I’d made, as I know for a fact she hates cooking. She looked askance at it and said, “I don’t wanna get poisoned.”

The truth was, I didn’t know how to thank her enough, and said so.

“I lived in New York for 20 years,” she told me. “When I first got there, I didn’t speak a word of English. This old Jewish guy lived in the same building. He couldn’t go out, but he called a community center where I could take classes. He showed me where to take the bus. People here don’t understand what it’s like to be a stranger in a country and not know anything. But I know, and I’m gonna help you because that old man helped me.”

It’s November now, and the weather has turned again. It’s cold. The city is blanketed in smoke as homes burn wood and coal for warmth. On the bus, watching the town slip in and out of the haze, I pick out the lady I’d want for my Turkish grandmother. I try imagining myself as one of the scrappy kids playing soccer in the parking lot. From my window, I see families walking together in the late afternoon. I wonder where they’re going and who they’ll meet.

More than the town of Edmonds, I miss what Edmonds means to me: the certainty of family and home. In the meantime, I’ll be keeping my eye out for a Turkish family I can pretend to be part of—one open to a mute, smiling stranger who accepts all baklava passed his way and sneaks off to do the dishes when nobody is looking.

This Thanksgiving weekend, go out of your way to be kind to a foreigner. And if you have room at your table, consider taking in a stray or two.

– By Elijah Garrard

Elijah Garrard was born and raised in Edmonds. He is a graduate of Edmonds-Woodway High School and Bowdoin College, and is now based in Eastern Turkey. He writes about travel, people, and curious goings-on in his monthly column.


8 Replies to “Foreign Correspondence: Turkey Thanksgiving”

  1. Well done, Elijah! You’re right, there are kind people in this world who go out of their way to help a traveler. Good for you to remind us how reciprocating to other travelers makes the world go ’round.


  2. Elijah, your well written accounts of living outside of a comfort zone rang a few bells with me. I see you as T & T, my short form for trying and triumphing. One can only try and the triumphing part, well, that is sometimes solely in the hands of the Gods that be.
    I see that you try hard and the Gods are complying on most occasions. It takes courage to do what you do, and bravo to you for your own hard won triumphs. You are our ambassador in who are and in what you do, thank you for trying so hard, and may the Gods that be. continue to favor you.


  3. This is so perfectly expressed in a piece that reads like poetry. You have captured the essence of the ex-pat experience and given a face to the spirit of Turkey, as your friend Tugba was able to to for New York. It lifts my spirits and gives me hope for the human race.


  4. I have been fortunate to live in a number of places in the world. I agree that there are so many wonderful people out there just waiting to show you their world and to help you be a temporary part of it. Such experiences make for a priceless education and life-long friendships.


  5. Elijah,

    while i enjoy reading about your adventures, one thing, definitely lacking . . . WHERE are you in Eastern Turkey??? What city??? Always, please keep us posted as to what city, town, village you’re at – thanx!

    also, a world of caution… Turks like to be known for their hospitality! but, sometimes things do go wrong… upon my return from Iran, I spent the night in a cheap hotel in Erzurum, got out for a walk. I’d passed thru Erzurum on the way to Iran, and knew the city was full of life.

    on that day, however, the streets were – silent, empty, dead. not knowing anything, i continued my walk around town, until some people approached me and told me to go back to my hotel. Instead, I went to the more expensive hotel filled with Persians. I then found someone with a better grasp of English and learned it was census day… everyone waited inside to be counted.


    someone was on the outside, breaking windows. turned out, he had just been fired and was angry! I did learn, sometimes, when Turkish men become angry, they will fight! then, once the anger has been released, “kiss” and make up!

    but as I think you are learning, if they know you are a foreigner, an “American” – interested in them and their culture…

    and they DO separate American – people – from the American “government”

    (ok Teresa, that’s 2 words in caps, i still have one left 🙂

    and, i hope to be able to get around to some of my old pics for you … don’t hold your breath


  6. A great reminder of playing backgammon on a side street in Izmir and drinking red tea from a glass. They wouldn’t let me pay for my tea, as they were treating me as a guest! Language wasn’t a barrier, as the game took first place, just like in futbol. Your description of life in Turkey is so enjoyable to read, just please keep it coming.


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