Recently, I quit one job and moved to Turkey for another. I had never been to Turkey. The only Turkish word I knew was “baklava”. I had a months’ notice.
I am not living in Istanbul, full of expats and tourists, but in the often overlooked Kars, near the Georgian border. It’s a small but ancient town with a rich history, surrounded by mountains and subject to the harsh seasons and changeable weather of mountain regions. Few foreign tourists make the trek here, and “hello” is the extent of many locals’ English knowledge (case in point: a local restaurant’s menu featured the improbable “cutting vaccine” as an appetizer on its English menu).
A month into living in Kars, listening to the flow of Turkish speech still feels like drowning in a river, grabbing on to the driftwood of the few words I recognize. This is simultaneously exhilarating and deeply frustrating. Out of the stream of this incomprehensible language, I manage to catch familiar words, which feels like a minor miracle. But then I am stuck holding the orphan words with no context. The stream keeps flowing by and drowns me once again.
The last time I was immersed in a new language, aside from short trips abroad, was in Spain, at 16, by which point I had studied it long enough to understand, if not always be understood. But Turkish is not related to Spanish, nor to Russian, my native language, and a month of piecemeal studying prepared me with only a few meager words and the ability to ask about the whereabouts of Topkapı Palace, which is inconveniently in Istanbul.
I still roll the following phrases in my mind, like worry beads, every time I go out: “Amerikaliyim. Türkçe konuşamıyorum” (“I am American, I don’t speak Turkish”). My vocabulary grows slowly and with strange gaps – I know how to say “happy” but not “sad,” I know the word for “shoe” but no other piece of clothing, and I know how to say “I want to go shopping,” although I don’t. I get waves of elation recognizing words on store signs, or on the rare occasion I hear a full phrase composed of words I know. In the land where a “dilemma” and a “meat wrap” differ by a “u” sound, and where “month,” “moon” and “bear” are homonymous, where an affirmative and a negative differ by a hardly-there “m” stuck in between suffixes, it is easy to land yourself in a fix.
Not knowing the language adds a level exoticism to daily events and interactions. My first grocery trip nearly gave me a panic attack, overwhelmed as I was with unfamiliar labels on formerly familiar items. Bins of spices and dry goods are an enigma. Basic daily tasks are conducted through pointing, signing, and a dash of luck. In some ways, that ignorance is freeing – conversations are translated for me, or not, and sometimes it is a relief to let go. It is also frequently humbling, and I am not too proud to mime – in the absence of Turkish vocabulary, I’ve signed anything from “a little” to “broom” to “dog”. Immersion is merciless, physically exhausting, and often lonely. I cannot explain to the staring men in the spice shop what a foreign woman is doing there, nor interact with the kids playing in street outside my house, nor give directions, nor explain what exactly is wrong with the washing machine. But with each new word I recognize in conversation, I gain a little hope that fluency is – if not around the next corner – not too many streets down. I can almost ask for directions.