Rave and Rant

Now that I have been here on and off for three years, I thought it would be fun to record what I enjoy and don't enjoy quite so much about living here, to see how it changes over time. Though I was initially quite shocked about some things I found here, the biggest impact it has had on me was that I started to reflect on the culture I grew up in differently. As a foreigner here I tend to nod my head a lot and feel quite voiceless.  I have found hard it hard not to be vocal and critical about the injustice I see because that was certainly my habit in the UK.  So I hope any Turkish friends reading this will forgive me a little ranting. I am trying to carry out a small, controlled explosion. There is no way I am going to get through it all in one post, but I am going to start with something I really like and then get my personal rant over with. I hope you will forgive my need to vent.

When I was thinking about things I like about living here I was really surprised that the first thing that came to mind was the call to prayer. When I first arrived it was simply the sound of the exotic, a regular reminder that where I called home had shifted. Over time though I have grown to love this calling to another mode of being, cutting through the chaos that is Istanbul. It has to be said that it does not always sound particularly beautiful or melodic, but I have come not to mind in the least. I am usually in Istanbul itself when Friday prayers take place, and I like watching the overflow from Dolmabahçe Mosque creating a moment of reflection amongst the tourist bustle. My favourite Friday experience is one my Dad shared with me. We had gone to the Grand Bazaar to watch the precious metal and currency traders huddled in a corridor shouting into their mobile phones. As we stepped out into the sunshine we saw rows of men kneeling on mats and pieces of cardboard. We watched the shopkeepers find inner stillness enough to pray. Its not that I feel drawn to some sort of religious belonging. I am sometimes an atheist Catholic and at other times a bit more Catholic atheist (its believing in God that I struggle with). It just feels very enriching that there is this audible reminder that life is varied and that a lot of people in the city are striving towards deeper goals (and that can include non-believers too).


One thing that felt really liberating at first (though I am kind of ashamed to say it) is the lack of health and safety enforcement. After working in schools and having to fill in endless forms imagining every scenario, seeing workers balance high up on scaffolding with no hard hat or welders sending sparks across the street was (childishly) invigorating. Then, of course, you grow up, and start to imagine (and hear about) what this means. A couple of weeks ago on a particularly windy day in Beşiktaş a building site 'safety' wall came down just across the street from me and the children. All kinds of signs and 'temporary' structures hurtled down the street. You just cannot presume something is safe.

Health and Safety.
The Heybeliada children were all playing in this during the street renovations (they were wearing woolly hats though).

Something I will always be grateful for is how friendly people on Heybeliada have been towards us. This would have been a far lonelier experience if people hadn't so quickly taken to greeting us and passing the time of day. I know that if one of the children wandered off, or we needed help everybody would step up. There is a lot of day to day generosity, especially to Anton who comes back from any trip with cookies and sweets for me to pinch. I am just overwhelmed by my knitting neighbours and the shops that always add a bit extra (though its not helping my waist to return). The problem is that life here can feel a bit claustrophobic. Turks just don't seem to value privacy in the way I am used to. Neighbours ask 'Why did your baby cry?', 'What are you cooking?', 'Where is the baby sleeping?'. Its considered natural to share your opinion on someone else's choices.

Now for the real rant; this is a nation of advice givers. I would try and give this a positive spin, something to do with caring and kindness but I am just not feeling it. Once when I was complaining about it, a Turkish man explained to me that as everyone loves children they treat them all as family members, and look out for their needs. You could see it that way, I can't. To me its parenting in the style of Orwell's 1984 (and I am sure that this culture has much to do with Turkish history). People inform on each other to ensure conformity. I would not be exaggerating if I said that I can be told off, or given advice, 20 times during a short trip out. And it comes from all quarters. Men have told me about the correct diet for breastfeeding, young boys have told me that its good to exercise a baby and I have lost count (a very long time ago) of the amount of times I have been told off for not dressing my children warmly enough, for being out in the rain or letting them play on the floor. Advice is strong in all aspects of childcare with a strong consensus but no logic: I shouldn't have breastfed while pregnant, Neve's spine will be damaged from baby-wearing, I had Neve too soon after Anton. Perhaps Anton would put on weight if you did more home cooking (I am not actually aiming for obese anyway). The worst is when you see it coming and you just can't get out of the line of fire quite quick enough. I remember a boat trip where because Anton was in a sling and I was carrying lots of bags a gust of wind took his sun hat and plopped it in the Bosphorus. A crowd gathered as I got off the boat to tell me off for not having a hat.

The only time I have arrived home to cry to Ville about 'this fudging country' was after five different groups of women told me off for having Anton out in the rain (wearing waterproofs from Finland) on the 10 minute walk from the boat jetty to home. And, as this is a rant, I would love to know how it is possible to be so unreflective that a woman who has never left her village would think that a mother of three who regularly flies to England and Finland is so badly in need of her guidance. Are those countries full of deformed (their mothers breastfed while pregnant), emotionally maladjusted (their mothers did not get pregnant with their second children at precisely the right moment), cripples (their mothers carried them in slings)? I guess as they have never been they can imagine anything. Of course its important to say that this fairly uniform interference is not because the individuals perpetrating it are ill-intentioned, but that there are some cultural habits that I find it hard to cope with.

You might be reading this thinking whoa Julia this is a bit strong, maybe people are just trying to be nice. I have decided to say this because I think cultural behaviour in this country is taking away some of the joy from parenting by making parents feel watched and judged. But because this is the norm they do not realise how light-hearted and easy-going loving parenting can be. I definitely feel like I am having the spontaneity I had with Ruskin (of course you can sit in the stream, and dance in the rain, and put your hands in the mud and lie on the ground for a different view) drained out of me under the weight of the tutting and head-shaking, often accompanied by telling me how beautiful my children are. And there are some great experiences that are being denied here:

Setting out to school with damp hair that freezes so you can 'crack' it.
Having your neck and ankles scrubbed clean the day before the new term after six weeks on the road in a camper van.
Sleeping with the windows open on a chilly night and being snug under your duvet.
And most importantly being able to kiss and chatter to your baby as you conquer the pavements of Istanbul together thanks to a baby carrier.
I could write a long list...

Anton on the floor.
Quick Anton, before the anti-fun police arrive.

Most women out with a baby have an accompanying entourage of mother, sisters and sisters-in-law, so that they can live up to an impossible standard of care. While it is nice that the children and I largely have Istanbul's art galleries and museums to ourselves during the week, I do think it is a sad indictment given the size of the city. I think that the pictures you have gaped at, sculptures you have felt and things you have built are more important than how clean your mother's floor is (I am presuming mother while saluting the one  or two men in the city that mop the floors so their wives can relax). Another issue is the lack of facilities for babies. Very few restaurants have a place to change babies and most buildings and streets are a struggle to negotiate with pushchairs. Luckily there is a lot of kindness and willingness to help. I would however prefer rights and facilities: they are less variable than a waiter's mood. 

So please, women lying in wait for Neve's hat to fall or Anton to sit on the kerb, the last thing parents need is unsolicited advice.  What they need to feel is that its safe to go out because they don't need to be perfect. They need to feel that the strength of their love will lead them to have good instincts. I just want to be able to work it out as I go along.

Being as grateful as I am for the kindness people have shown its hard to get angry. But I guess this is my place to let off a little steam so I can keep nodding and smiling. 

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