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The Saint of IstanbulA COLLECTION OF SHORT STORIES
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2011 ChanCe
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Chapter OneNative Speaker
English is a funny language. It looks easy but not every Tom, Dick and Harry can speak it as it should be spoken. Everyone thinks they know English when they're in their own country but when in the United States they realize they only know a few words and they're not worth a damn! After whizzing by the airport, restaurants and cafes, I too, like everyone else, realized I didn't know English when I turned on the TV to find out what was happening in the US. The ruthless presenters weren't speaking English; they were merely swilling the words and spitting them out! Their words couldn't accommodate rookie ears like mine. After cold sweats ran down my neck while watching presenters blurt out the words like a Ping-Pong match trying to keep up with their word marathon, I fell asleep. When I woke up I turned on the TV to see if I had dreamt the whole thing—there it was again! I realized that I couldn't understand a word of English! I had gone to the best schools, read a million English books but the result was still the same. I had come to this country for seven months; I needed to get away from everything, needed to long for my country, my job, my lover and maybe, most important of all—myself. You know, however painful, longing is an important necessity. The most tangible thing I was going to do during my time here was to improve my English at Tutorium—a prepschool in the University of Illinois. However, things were not going as well as I had hoped. Everyone in our class was Korean except for a stuttering Slovakian, Ana Maria from Colombia and a Japanese guy who was the son of a CEO of an automobile company. All the teachers did was to try to get us to talk to each other. Because of the bad accents of the Koreans, my not so well English was almost becoming extinct. My English needed CPR but it had been suffering ever since I'd got here. I kept on watching the newscasters on TV just like a Ping-Pong match: Left cheek, right cheek ... Left, right ... Some jaws were even more exhausting to watch—Jay Leno's for example. He dribbled his words constantly and sometimes he bounced them off of his chin only to catch them right in his mouth. Yes, this guy was a real word juggler; he masterfully mumbled the words that seemed like ping pong balls that never touched each other. I couldn't keep my mother's advice "if you really want to learn a language you must speak it at all times" because I was busy dialing all the phone numbers of Turkish people that had been shoved in my hand ever since I'd arrived in Chicago. I had outed myself ... After all, we the Mediterraneans are very hot-blooded and everyone was racing to invite me to dinner. For days, I was a guest of crowded Turkish families, student homes and Turkish restaurants. In short, I managed to be at every place where only TURKISH was spoken. Sometimes, those families even forced their children to speak English with me as a token of Turkish hospitality. Finally, the Turkish colony acknowledged the fact that I had to talk to a native speaker in order to improve my English. I still had hope of that when I drove my busted beige Volvo to a faraway Chicago suburb to where a Turkish guy named Ahmed and his family lived. No doubt he had invited me so that I could speak English with his American wife Elisabeth. When I finally arrived there after a horrifying traffic jam and getting lost while looking for the house, Elisabeth greeted me with her two kids among smells of food. It was my first time there and it was dinnertime. What was she going to do? Not ask me to dinner surely! Elisabeth would be cooking in the kitchen and naturally I was going to improve my TURKISH with Ahmed! He, on the other hand, was sensible enough to suggest that it would be good for me if I spoke ENGLISH with Elisabeth. At first, as I didn't how difficult it was to find a real American in America, I couldn't quite understand why she was singing in SPANISH in the kitchen. Her husband had told me that Elisabeth was originally Puerto Rican but she was born and raised in Chicago. Frankly, none of this mattered to me because all I wanted to do was to speak a little English, that's all! I realized I was dead wrong when I saw her Puerto Rican relatives' storm into the kitchen at dinnertime. I had found myself smack in the middle of a happy family barbeque but the language of happiness was Spanish. Trying to be polite, Elisabeth squeezed in a couple of generic questions for me while juggling two babies and serving, no doubt I answered them quickly & correctly. The Puerto Ricans congratulated me on my fluent English. Before I parted, I said "Muchos Gracias" to Elisabeth for dinner. I had really liked them—they were friendly people like us Mediterraneans. In the meantime, my mother kept calling me with words of encouragement, "A language is like popcorn, my dear," she said, "Suddenly it will start popping!"
In the meantime, I was really getting along with the Koreans in Tutorium. In fact, it looked like they had picked up on my obsession about accents so they had dragged Guido of Bari from an upper grade and introduced him to me as a present. I tried to chat with him in the cafeteria for a while. Sure, he was better than the Koreans but as a pure bred Italian—except being damn good-looking—Guido rolled his r's, slammed his t's in my face and tramped his p's. It was obvious that things weren't gonna work out with Guido either.
The other Turkish student in the class, Uzi—his name was Ozgur but it was a miracle to hear a foreigner's real name in America—promised me he would let me speak English with his girlfriend Tammy if I let them use my flat so that they could make out once in a while. Tammy was a petite, cute girl from Thailand. Maybe it was easier in Paris but now that I had realized it was much harder in America to find a real American, I didn't stress on nationality. Hyped on enthusiasm about the fact that I was going to speak English with Tammy, I invited them to my flat for dinner that night and cooked some Turkish food which had me hauled up in my kitchen the whole day. After Uzi ate like a pig and burped with pleasure, he patted Tammy on the back and proudly asked her to repeat some of the Turkish words he had taught her. Every man who has been fed wants something from his woman—but all he wanted was some TURKISH words—that's all! After getting tired from all the greasy & spicy food I had cooked and all the foreign words she had to remember, Tammy fell asleep on the couch before she had a chance to make love to Uzi.
Suddenly I realized I was tired from trying to speak ENGLISH. I picked up the remote and turned on the TV. As soon as I saw Jay Leno's face, I was determined to change the channel!
Breakfast ... Kahvalti ... Desayuno ...
It's my favorite meal of the day, on the grounds that I can have it anytime I want! I simply reject the idea that it has to be had at certain times. It's one of those imposing little bourgeois rules: Breakfast must be had at specific times and certainly in the mornings ... Whereas having breakfast anytime I want is high up on the list when it comes to the concept of freedom.
The kid inside me and I usually had breakfast outside. There were two reasons for this: 1. we woke up nearly at noon because we were up studying all night, 2. the breakfast I would prepare at home would take a lot of time and we'd be late for the library. As soon as we woke up we'd jump into my busted beige Volvo. I'd gently pat my stomach, say "Let's go, kid!" and hit one of the Golden Nuggets on Diversey Road. Once there, we'd drink our coffee, stuff our faces with scrambled eggs, toast, pancakes with lots of maple syrup and plan our day at the library because we usually spent our afternoons at the Lincoln Library.
No one would stare at our faces at the Golden Nugget as if to say, "Do you know what time it is? What kind of breakfast is this?" Whatever the hour, it was never too late to start the day. I liked that, it was nice for all those who had pulled an all-nighter; it was even a luxury you couldn't find at five star hotels. As someone who had missed breakfast times all my life, I was enjoying having breakfast in America whenever I felt like it. No wonder they call it the land of freedom ... I think the most important meaning of this freedom are the diners which are open 24 hours a day.
It's not important who you are or where you come from in these 24-hour Diners. There are waitresses who are willing to pour you coffee at any time of the day. They're usually called Kathy, Shelley or Denny, old fashioned but easy to remember American names. You don't often come across names that are longer than two syllables. A blonde, wasp woman is offering you unlimited coffee with a huge smile on her face. You can't imagine what this feels like to a foreigner ... These waitresses have a different kind of compassion; they are unconditionally willing to share your most intimate American dreams with you; like they will be there forever but you'll definitely one day achieve something big ...
The closest diner to Mozart Street was the Golden Nugget on Diversey Road. I usually sat at a table near the window and avoided the chat around the counter that pulls you in like a tornado. I guess they knew me by now: The poor, pregnant foreigner! They'd put extra chocolate chips on my pancakes and I'd put extra maple syrup on them. One day as I started to order my pancakes the waitress jumped in and said "The usual, right?" All my life I wanted to hear that question! Now I belonged somewhere and I officially had a routine. I had my library card in my pocket: the Lincoln Library ... And the blonde waitress at the Golden Nugget asking me as she smiled, "The usual, right?"
These little things slowly but surely were planting seeds of a state of belonging in my heart. One day they would bloom ...
Chapter ThreeOld Fashioned Things
If there weren't such a tradition as Thanksgiving, I would have never ended up in Rockford. Rockford is the second largest city in Illinois but it could be considered a small one with all of its features.
The foreign students at the University of Illinois would be guests at American families living in neighboring towns for four days. When I was filling out the application form, I specified that I was seven months pregnant and preferred a closer location. In the brochure, there were also smaller American towns seven to eight hours away. If it weren't for the kid, I would have preferred to see those. That's why I was a little jealous of the Indonesian psychologist I saw at the bus stop who was en route to Paris—Illinois ... I was immediately reminded of a scene from Wim Wanders' Paris-Texas where the cowboy in the story was telling everyone how he had taken his elegant wife (Nastassja Kinski), who had always wanted to go to Paris, to Paris–Texas, with a smug on his face. For some reason, each state in America is filled with towns with the same names as if there aren't enough names to go around; Paris, Waterloo, Hollywood ...
We found out where we'd be heading on the day of the trip and mine was the second largest city in the state: Rockford!
It was nightfall when we arrived in Rockford. We gathered at a church a little outside the city. Before we had dinner prepared by stuff brought over by families and drinks that consisted of coffee and punch, a white haired woman with glasses who wore cowboy boots and a mealy woolen sweater was announcing which student would go home with which family. The kid had already started kicking with hunger while I was standing there with my enormous belly waiting to be united with my family. Order, order, order ... This was a total contradiction to the Mediterranean way of thinking where dealing with details was considered futile. For Mediterranean people "complete order" was an unattainable concept! Knowing this, it was in vain trying to live like that. Many, many students were about to run to their families and greetings would begin amongst turmoil and chaos. Food would be flying all over the place, drinks would be passed around and first conversations would be held between bites with smacking mouths. At my wit's end, I heard my name on the microphone and that I would be a guest with the Ross family. At that moment, I saw a tall and slightly overweight woman come towards me with a smile on her face. The Ross family ... Well, you couldn't quite call it a family; just Hanna Lee the divorcee and her two kids ...
Hanna Lee from Rockford ... The pioneer of the old fashioned American woman; a woman that makes you feel all warm inside when you see her, the woman next door you'd see in the television series from the 70's. A middle aged woman who was probably pretty when she was young; she had short brunette hair that couldn't quite cover her big ears, a big smiling face and green eyes that complemented her maroon colored hair. Hanna Lee instructed her kids, Sean and Jennie, to greet me. As it was getting late, we tried to get to know each other while eating in a hurry. Hanna Lee was working as a dental hygienist. This was obvious from her red, healthy gums I saw whenever she smiled. Sean and Jennie were both going to elementary school. As soon as we were done eating, we packed up the picnic bag and hopped into Hanna Lee's burgundy Desoto. Even though it was dark I knew I wasn't wrong about Rockford; yes, this was a small place. On the way to the house, Hanna Lee showed me the office she was working at. We didn't talk much at all that night, she just said that she was divorced and mentioned some of the boyfriends she'd had, which were mostly Middle Eastern. To tell you the truth, I was happy to be a guest at a house that was man-free. I didn't like the idea of having a strange man in the house while I was walking around with a gigantic belly. As I was quite tired that night, I went to my bedroom, which Hanna Lee told me was on the upper floor. Most of the books in the room were self-help books about men, women and relationships; books that told you how to get a man, keep a man, hang on to a man ... It seemed that Hanna Lee had done everything to keep her marriage going! I thought about the Middle Eastern men she had gone out with after her divorce. I guess this was one of the reasons why she was interested in my country. Before I went to sleep, Hanna Lee quietly knocked on my door to ask me if I preferred tea or coffee for breakfast. I replied that I didn't mind and fell asleep.
I must admit I was disappointed about breakfast. I was expecting a big American breakfast with pancakes, scrambled eggs and lots of coffee (that should have been the Rockford way!) but Hanna Lee said "We'll be having Thanksgiving dinner later on so I thought we'd have a light breakfast" and gave us a couple of slices of toast and some butter. Breakfast has always been my favorite meal of the day, especially in this country. And along with it, coffee or tea that seems like it will keep coming forever. Then there was the second shock of the day: Decaf coffee! Thank God I still had my taste buds working; decaf coffee; like nicotine free cigarettes, sex with condoms and cholesterol free eggs was a tasteless invention of the era that aimed to present us with healthy options instead of pleasurable ones. Not to worry, I'd hit a Golden Nugget on my return to Chicago!
All day we prepared for the big meal. When Hanna Lee's mother, brother, his wife and their pubescent twin daughters came around at three o'clock, everything was ready for a traditional family dinner. The Thanksgiving dinner menu was just as it should have been: stuffed turkey, yams, mashed potatoes and pumpkin pie. Momma Ross, who was a sweet woman in her 70's, had baked the pie. She took an interest in me and told me that it took balls to have a child all alone in a faraway country. After dinner when we were having coffee, she told me that she had been a waitress in Chicago when she was young and had met her husband there. She had lost him 10 years ago. That's all we could talk about during that turmoil. Momma Ross was the kind of elderly woman I wanted to have long talks with during teatime. Suddenly, I had an overwhelming urge to listen to Chicago in the 40's from her. I visualized a happy Chicago night after WW2: Ethel (this was momma Ross's first name), 18, drying her hands on her apron after serving the last vanilla ice cream, looking at the clock in anticipation because she's meeting her boyfriend at the pizza place on the corner. Where's that damn Mabel! She's always late. Finally Mabel arrives and takes over the vanilla smelling counter. Ethel quickly styles her maroon locks in the restroom. She's looking good after pulling an eight-hour shift. She puts 5 cents into the jukebox and a romantic song from Peggy Lee comes on. Her tired feet in her sneakers are now feeling like a couple of birds, she can fly to infinity with them. They take a short stroll in the warm summer night on State Street. How pretty is that wedding dress in the window of Marshal Fields!
Excerpted from The Saint of Istanbul by ChanCe Copyright © 2011 by ChanCe. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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