To Mi or No to Mi, My Turkish Conundrum

Adventure, Love, Travel

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Written by Margaret K. Özemet

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“Izliyorum, İzlemiyorum. Gidiyorum. Gidmiyorum. Yaziyorum. Yazimiyorum.” My head swirled in confused concentration as I worked through the positive and negative iterations of present continuous tense verbs in Turkish. I am watching. I am not watching. I am writing. I am not writing. Ugh. Barely three weeks into Turkish classes, I was struggling with the concept that two letters, m and i, jammed between the verb and pronoun suffix, of which there are five different options, totally reversed said verb. On paper it was logical but trying to pick up the shift during conversation proved virtually impossible. Are we going or not? I could never catch the two-letter difference, so I relied completely on visual cues. If my mother-in-law retired to the sofa, she must’ve added the mi, but if she grabbed her bag and put on her shoes, we were in a sans mi situation, so all operations were a go. It was a rough existence.  Even if I said, “efendim?” the Turkish equivalent of ‘come again?’ It didn’t help. No one offered assistance by over-annunciating or speaking slower, so I continued to flounder. My father-in-law was the worst offender. His mi usually got hijacked by his massive Turkish mustache, leaving me completely lost. 

I didn’t choose Turkish, Turkish chose me when I fell hard for a hot Turk with an expired visa. Six weeks after we met in the US, we tied the knot. Six weeks after that, our last-ditch efforts to iron out his visa debacle failed, and he had to leave the US or get deported. Suddenly, I was living in Turkey with a man I’d known for 3 months, sharing an apartment with his parents, and struggling to acclimate to a new city where English speakers were a rarity. I wanted to work. I wanted to shop. I wanted to take the bus. I wanted to get my hair done without the fear of some Turk bleaching my raven locks platinum, the seemingly popular trend. But none of that was possible until I could navigate the language. Unlike modern-day expat life, this was the early 2000s, so we had no translator apps because we had no iPhones. If you wanted to survive, you had to hit the books. So, with the help of my Turk, I enrolled in Turkish classes before the ink on my visa was even dry. 

“Honey, why you want do this? Is not mandatory.” 

Back then, his English wasn’t great, so I also hoped that if I could learn Turkish, our communication might gain some clarity. “Yes, I do. The attorney said it could take INS years to process your Green Card from here. Am I just not going to speak to anyone for years? I haven’t spoken to anyone but you for weeks and I’m losing my mind. I love you, but I am an independent woman, and this independent woman absolutely has to learn Turkish.”

“Ok. We sign up you.”

Three days later I was in a third-floor classroom, staring blankly at our teacher, Nuran Hocam, with ten other expats. We ranged in age from 18 to 65 and hailed from Europe, Asia, and North America. Our little UN bonded fast, especially over that stupid -mi- that made a verb do a 180 and confused us all. In the middle of week three we began covering verbs and that’s when Nuran Hocam lost us all. While we were excited to finally be able to add actions to our fledgling vocabularies, that mi was baffling. Thankfully,  most of the class could interact with some level of English to help clarify concepts, Nuran Hocam, however,  didn’t know a word of it, so we were left to muddle through on our own.

“I can’t ever hear the difference between the words.” Suzan, the Danish teenager summering with her Turkish grandmother to learn her father’s native language was losing hope. “Maybe there is a remedial Turkish class somewhere else.” 

Gary, the twenty-something Brit with the Turkish girlfriend agreed. “It would be far easier if these people used a bit of annunciation.”

Gary wasn’t wrong, but coming from the US Northeast, and being fluent in the guttural accents of Philly, Jersey, and the 5 boroughs, I understood that annunciation was a big ask.

At the end of that class, we agreed that those of us with bilingual Turks at home would get some clarity on the concept and report back before the next class. It was our only hope. Aware of my assignment, I was running through the concept in my head as I made my trek to the ferry station on autopilot. I dodged a line of taxis, took the alley to avoid street dogs, and rummaged for my ferry pass without a conscious thought. It wasn’t until the ferry was pulling away from the station that I noticed, the Bay of Izmir was not the beautiful scene of Aegean tranquility I was accustomed to, rather, it looked like a battlefield, or battle bay… or whatever you call a naval battle place. Military helicopters hovered overhead, churning up the water. Warships were scattered about like a game board for Battleship. Soldier-filled zodiacs zig-zagged across the water, and a small military speedboat circled the ferry as we crossed the bay. I moved to the top deck for a better look. A massive roar originating from behind the ferry station increased until I felt it in my chest. I looked up to see a row of fighter jets blaze across the midsummer sky. Across the sparsely populated ferry, chatter was growing. Unfortunately, unless the chatter involved phrases, like hello my name is, or involved asking for the potty, I understood nothing. 

In the remaining fifteen minutes of my twenty-minute journey, I counted four additional warships, both in the harbor and out in the Aegean, caught a glimpse of what looked like an aircraft carrier docked near the horizon, watched a trio of fighter jets whip across the sky one way, and a second trio counter the other. By the time the ferry docked, I was a ball of trembling anxiety. I contemplated sprinting down the cobblestone street home, even at 34, I didn’t have the knees for that so instead, I race-walked praying my husband was home. I was going to need him to help me translate.

 From what I’d ascertained, we were under attack and all-out warfare was about to engulf us at any moment. We’d need to take cover, and probably get our hands on some weapons, though I had no idea how that worked in Turkey. It wasn’t like America with weapons at Walmart, not that it mattered with my debilitating fear of firearms, but if this was war, I was going to have to woman up. On the fourth-floor landing outside our apartment, I took a minute to catch my breath and determine how I could tell my new family that we had to make a break for it because the Russians were attacking. Why Russians? I’m a child of the Cold War, who else could it be?

I pulled open the steel door and called for my Turk. “Gökhan! Gökhan?” Silence. The size of our apartment did not lend itself to the possibility of him missing my screech. I checked the bedrooms. Empty. Fear ramped up in me like the jets overhead. They taught us what to do during a Russian invasion in elementary school, but they never covered what to do if you were facing the Russians in a country where the only thing you could ask of a stranger on the street was the location of the nearest bathroom. Should I pack a bag? Should I change? What does one wear when hiding from battle? My squishy American self was whirling, and that’s when a voice called from the front balcony. 

“Buradayim.” Out here, called my father-in-law.

Great. Now I wasn’t stuck fighting the Russians alone, I had my 5’4”, surly, father-in-law on my team. Granted, in his prime he was a professional soccer player known for his intense speed and commanding right kick. Unfortunately, his prime was about 40 years ago and since soccer isn’t an arm sport, we had no chance in hand-to-hand combat. With our similar size, we didn’t scream ass-kicking dream team, but we’d have to make it work. Maybe he knew where we could get hand grenades in the neighborhood. First, I needed to explain the situation. 

I took a deep breath and hoped my adrenaline would help me remember enough Turkish.

“Feribot problem var.”  There’s a problem on the ferry. 

“Ne?”  Huh?

“Gökhan nerede?”  Where’s my Turk? 

“Ruslar geliyorlar.” The Russians are coming. 

“Ne?”

“Saldırıyorlar.” They’re attacking.

Gingerly, he set the small, glass teacup and saucer on the table beside him and knitted his substantial eyebrows. “Ne?” 

I understood his confusion. It was shocking news and difficult to process. So, I said it again, a bit self-impressed that I had that much vocabulary in me.

“Feribot problem var.”  There’s a problem on the ferry. 

“Gökhan nerede?” Where’s my Turk? 

“Ruslar geliyorlar.” The Russians are coming. 

“Saldırıyorlar.” They’re attacking.

He looked at me, slowly stroking his massive mustache. Why was he so nonchalant? Come on old man, we’ve got to get a move on! He must’ve been processing and within minutes my broken Turkish would make sense, and then we’d be off and running. That was not the case, however. He looked at my panic-filled eyes, opened his mouth, and began to howl. That kind of howling laughter one cannot hold back in the face of absolute stupidity.  

“Margaret, Ruslar gelmiyorlar, saldirmiyorlar.”

I nodded. “Evet! Ruslar saldırıyorlar!” Yes! The Russians are attacking!

Two letters meant the difference between the Russians attacking and the Russians NOT attacking. Unfortunately, those two letters got stuck in his Turk ‘stache. He could barely stop laughing long enough to breathe when my husband arrived. Before I could open my mouth, my father-in-law was explaining the situation in Turkish. I stood there in wait. I assumed my husband would realize that his father was having some kind of panic reaction. Instead, my husband joined his father in laughter.  When he finally caught his breath, he explained. “Honey, no Russians. Is war game week. Every year all Turkish military practice war games in bay. They practice how to protect. Everything fine. Why you are thinking are Russians?”

“I don’t know. They’re the universal baddies. As an American, if it’s not the Russians, it’s somebody in the Middle East, but we’re here so the Russians seemed like the obvious choice.”

He laughed again while shaking his head.  “You need relax.”

Eventually, I did learn Turkish. Not well, but well enough to live there for three years as an independent woman, who could navigate the city, hold a job, and even have a baby, all sans English. The Russian attack saga was the first of many language blunders that continue to live on in family lore. Like the time I told my in-laws I was making a bomb in their kitchen, after mixing up the words for popcorn and bomb. Or when I told the nurse that my newborn hadn’t nursed because he hadn’t stopped walking all night. However, those words are very similar in Turkish. And just last summer, almost 20 years and 20 extra pounds later, I was sipping Turkish coffee overlooking the Aegean. I was lamenting perimenopausal weight gain with my sister-in-law and mother-in-law, telling them I’d never been this skinny in my life. Fortunately, I corrected that one, but not before they both nearly seized from laughing. Over the years, I’ve solidified myself as the crazy foreign in-law, who can’t get the language quite right but loves them all enough to keep trying. They appreciate that, but I think they are more appreciative of the repeated belly laughs I’ve provided since my arrival. Güle güle gidin – may you go laughing.


Margaret Özemet is a teacher, writer, mother to two boys, former expat, and intercultural wife, all of which give her plenty of material for her humorous tales. Her work has appeared on numerous online sites and print journals, including New Letters, Hippocampus, Red Fez, Scary Mommy, and many more, as well as the anthologies, Knocked Up Abroad Again, Once Upon an Expat, and the upcoming Bigfoot Country to name a few. Tales of her crazy life can also be seen on her blog, Laughter is Better Than Prozac, or on her shared book podcast, Two Lit Mamas. When she’s not teaching, she can be found writing stories about tough GenX women saving the world, on the sidelines as a rabid soccer mom, talking her Turkish engineer husband out of another ‘great idea,’ or trying to exhaust her hyperactive corgi, Atilla.

Connect with Margaret:

Margaret co-hosts Two Lit Mamas, a podcast for children’s book enthusiasts, including parents, teachers, and writers. You can learn more on the website, Instagram, or Facebook.

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