Monday, January 24, 2011

All of this could be wildly wrong

I have been dragging my feet on this blog thing—making heel marks in the sand really.

Much of my reluctance is from exhaustion—there is simply too much on my plate at the moment (and 42 of the items on my plate are insane, needy 12 year olds). Part of it, though, is the feeling that I am mostly talking out of my ass.

When a person goes to another country, they come back with expert explanations and reports of how things are ‘over there’, when most of the time, it takes years if not decades to really get to know a place.

The other day, I came across my new housemates (a couple) speculating about why Turks never wait in line. The male suggested that it’s because in poor places, you’re never sure if there’s going to be enough of whatever it is you’re lining up for and so you have to make sure you’re right out there in front, for if you’re not, you might come away emptry handed. He’d seen the same thing in India, he explained. (I get this image of a million starving Turks all charging the fish sandwich stands at the wharf, knocking the cart over, scraping the bits of onion off the pavement and shoveling it into their mouths before the other hungry savages can snatch it out of their hands.) The girl said it sounded reasonable and they went out for beers (this whole conversation took place while they were putting on shoes and coats) where no doubt they shared the theory at a bar with other young foreigners, some of whom agreed, some of whom didn’t, and some of whom didn’t listen. The hypothesis will make the rounds of the foreigner circles and either get picked up permanently as an answer whose origin is forgotten (‘I think I read somewhere that....) or else just dropped.

It’s not true, of course. Many Turks DO wait in line, for one thing. There was an enormous queue at the bus stop in Taksim last night with everyone politely asking if this was the right place for Bus 129 before taking their place in the back. Many DON’T of course—like the woman who jumped in front of me at the bank line because she had a short question, or the old woman who plopped her groceries down in front of mine at our local market last night. Line culture is just not as solid or sacred here—and while I cannot really answer as to why that is so, I expect it is probably along the same lines as the difference in climate control culture. In Turkey, it’s always hot. The temperature drops to sixty and the heaters are on full blast and everyone is wearing coats. We foreigners at school are ceaselessly gasping for air and opening windows much to the horror of our local colleagues. In America, it’s always cold. In summer, when it’s eighty five degrees outside the air conditioners are blasting icy air until its a comfy seventy two and everyone is wearing tank tops. My old students in Boston thought we were completely insane. Why does one people overuse heaters and the other overuse airconditioners? Ancient hunting rituals and the influence of historical poverty or just because?

Anyway, this tendency to speculate, to feel somehow assigned the job of finding pat explanations for things one witnesses while traveling is a little suspect. It often contains a grain of condescension and oversimplifies extremely complex matters and leads you to assume you understand something that you haven’t even begun to touch.

Of course, I’ve done it. I still do it perhaps. And of course it’s usually in response to something that causes me stress. (Much like the line conversation was sparked, no doubt, by someone butting yet again in front of one of my housemates). Car horns, for instance. Hell, I don’t even need a conversation partner. I mumble wild and very perjorative explanations to myself as I stomp angrily down the street as to why this or that moron is wildly blowing his or her stupid horn every five seconds—‘Turks!’ I grumble. ‘It’s always ME ME ME! I want to go. Get out of MY way! And no patience. They probably can’t even wait for the goddamn turds to drop out of their asses and sit digging them whenever they rush into the toilet.’

Yeah, okay, this is an extreme version of what I am talking about—a moment of complete rage in which I blame and demonise the whole country for these honking idiots that fill the days with their stupid, relentless noise. But I still think you have to be careful—blogs are blogs—but you are still sticking your opinions up on the internet for possibly a wide variety of people to read who, probably, since all things written are true, will take it for fact. When in fact, without lots of research, debate, consideration, empathy, and experience, you are probably just blowing things out of your ass.

And dude! They get published. There’s a wonderful travel book about the old Christian sites in the Middle East, but the segment on Istanbul (where the author spent a few days, a FEW DAYS!) was so wildly off that I didn’t recognize what city he was talking about until the end when he said ‘and then I departed Istanbul for the East.’ The chapter title was ‘Istanbul’ or something like that and I had assumed that I was reading about a different city he had visited on the way to Istanbul. And of course this put his whole book in doubt. The cafes and scenery were accurate enough—these were things he could directiy observe—but his interpretations of things was wildly off.

Which is what travels blogs try to do—interpret things. And I’m not sure that I am still not just learning to observe. So what business do I have interpreting Turkey on a blog? It freezes me up sometimes, so that even when I have time to write, I don’t.


Stephen Freer said...

I understand what you are feeling. Don't be too hard on yourself though. People try to make sense of patterns and things, it's just what we do. It makes us feel better somehow. Unfortunately, they are mostly mistaken. I remember doing the same thing in the states with my friends. We would try to explain peoples behavior and make all kinds of theories. It's not just because we are living in a foreign country. But you are right, who wants to spread untruths when there are already so many out there. It is a tricky situation

Jeff Gibbs said...

Well, I guess we can only try to be One can smell one's own farts, as the teenagers say these days. I usually know when I am spinning out crap and pretending its real. I just have to remember to stop.