From my Balcony
“Katie, come have coffee with us!” one of my neighbors calls to me, leaning over my balcony. My ground floor flat faces the complex’s communal yard on one side, my private garden on the other.
From spring through fall we all gather in the big open space just off of my bedroom balcony to watch our kids on the playground and to sit and have Turkish coffee or tea with each other. These have been stressful days in Turkey, as everyone knows. Added to that I have just returned from a week of vacation and have a pile of work to sort through. I really don’t have time to sit for an hour, but allow myself to be persuaded.
I walk outside and the ultra-Nationalist neighbor is bent over an electric cezve, an apparatus used to make thick, strong, Turkish coffee quickly and efficiently. At times from her balcony they fly the red flag with the three crescent moons, the symbol of Turkey’s nationalist MHP party. On a rickety plastic table, six delicate, gold filigreed, demitasse cups wait to be filled. The neighbor that called me over is busy rounding up enough plastic chairs to put around the table, the fringes of her navy blue headscarf blowing in the breeze. A supporter of the ruling AK party, they were one of the first to proudly hang a Turkish flag from the railing of their balcony after the coup-attempt. As she bustles around two more neighbors show up, one wearing a tank dress over a one-piece bathing suit, leading her elderly mother by the arm, her with a black-and white spotted scarf knotted under her chin. Ardent Kemalists, at least from what I have gleaned during past conversations.
They are greeted warmly, all of us not having gathered together properly since the communal iftar dinner thrown by our complex during Ramadan last month. That had been a soaking wet affair, with a freak rainstorm starting just as the call to prayer went out announcing sundown and the time to break the fast. Undaunted, the guys rushed to bring over sun umbrellas from the pool to put over the long tables we had set up. We mothers picked up the kids and put them on my bedroom balcony, where they could stay dry but still within sight. We all broke bread together, huddling close under the meager shelter of the umbrellas while sipping ayran, a salty yogurt drink and chowing down on homemade pide, the Turkish equivalent of pizza, topped with meat and cheese. Even when the sky darkened and the first drops fell, there was no talk of canceling. We just made plans together to keep going.
The Kemalist woman asked where our Leftist neighbor was, and if she was going to join us. “I haven’t seen her since the wedding!” she continued, referring to her son’s nuptials over a month ago. Everyone in our complex had gone to the short ceremony at City Hall, then posed for a group picture afterwards. The AKP neighbor’s family had helped transport a lot of the Kemalist’s out of town relations to and from the ceremony. “She is visiting family today, won’t be back until later,” I informed them, having already had tea with that neighbor in the morning before she left. Another neighbor wandered over, lighting a cigarette. Of indeterminate political affiliation, she was always kind, welcoming, yet I couldn’t place her on the political spectrum just yet. Of course, it would never do to just ask outright. She sat next to me, a 14-year American expat living in Turkey.
The Nationalist poured the coffee carefully into the cups, making sure to top each with a good layer of the all-important foam. From a tray she offered them to us, starting with the elderly Kemalist, as she was the oldest in the group, then going down the line. A nicety so subtle I had long since stopped noticing it, until the events of the last week left me with heightened senses, and a newfound appreciation for order and manners. We sipped the hot brew, grainy grounds washing through our teeth and down our throats. Bitter, but for the sugar it had been brewed with giving a sweet aftertaste, leaving you wanting to go back for more. So we did. “This has been a crazy week,” began the Kemalist, holding her saucer in one hand, the tiny handle of her cup in the other. A strap from her bathing suit fell down a tan shoulder, as she set the cup on the table and waved to a woman heading to the pool, not far from where we sat. It was the wife of a retired military officer heading for her afternoon swim, wearing a swimsuit that covered her arms, legs, and whole body. A cloth of black spandex hid her hair. “I’ll join you in a minute!” the Kemalist called out. She would finish her coffee with us first before doing her laps. The infant daughter of the Nationalist made fussy noises from her bassinet, her mother getting up to check on her. As she rocked the bassinet, she held out an arm, showing us bright red splotches. “Ever since the night of the coup attempt, I can’t stop itching. I went to the doctor, he says it’s from stress, and he gave me a cream. It doesn’t seem to be working though,” she said as she anxiously looked at her blotchy arms.
“Try to relax, you are nursing, you shouldn’t allow yourself to get so stressed,” the AKP neighbor advised. Like all of us, she too had dark shadows of sleeplessness under her eyes. “I say that, although it’s easier said than done.” She concluded. We all nodded. “I keep getting alerts from the US Consulate,” I added.
All eyes turned to me anxiously. I had promised them over the months to share whatever information I received. “A lot of the same vague warnings, not much new. But still scary. I don’t know what to think,” I confessed. Everyone nodded sagely and sipped some more. “I hope I never again hear a sound like the sela go for hours again,” the Indeterminate proclaimed, as her shaky hands lit another cigarette. We all nodded emphatically. The sound of the mosques in every part of Turkey calling people out to the streets from 1-4am was one of the most terrifying things I had experienced in my life. Many heeded the call. As of this writing it’s estimated that 290 people died trying to stop the coup. But it was a huge risk, calling on a mob to save the country. What if they had gotten out of control? Turned on everyone? Thank god more people hadn’t died that night.
The AKP neighbor’s cup chinked as she put the saucer over top, swirled the remaining thick grounds, then tipped all of it together so the plate was right side up with the overturned cup on top. “Ah, you know how I love to read the grounds!” the Nationalist exclaimed, leaving her now sleeping daughter to rejoin us at the table. I too overturned my saucer over my cup, swirled it from right to left three times, and then quickly tipped the saucer right side up, cup side down. The women chuckled. “Katie, you are so Turkish!” the Indeterminate said, her eyes twinkling. Statements like this from Turks always made me feel proud, like it was a kind of a blessing. “I never say no to someone looking at my fortune!” I grinned. Even the elderly Kemalist chuckled a bit, her keen eyes inspecting me from head to toe.
Ever since the coup attempt I had steeled myself for the inevitable waves of xenophobia that wash over Turkey when things hit the fan. I hadn’t been disappointed. There had been a few incidences while I was vacationing on the Aegean coast, but nothing here in Izmit. Not many foreigners live in this small city, but I have nonetheless been embraced. Izmit, what my Turkish friends in Istanbul referred to as the ‘armpit’ of Turkey. They snickered when I told them of my intentions to relocate from Istanbul to this small, industrial city 40 minutes from Istanbul four years ago. Like ditching Chicago and moving to Gary, Indiana. Still close enough to Istanbul to visit whenever I wanted, but far away from the traffic, congestion, and high prices of the big city. What those people failed to see was that once you passed the leatherworks, the cement factories, the busy port and the natural gas foundry, is a little gem of a Turkish city. Several well maintained parks. A bustling city center that is just crowded enough to feel fun without being overwhelming. Several decent private schools that charge a reasonable price. And traffic? Hardly any. The people in Izmit might work hard but here time is not lost on long commutes. There is always time for tea, always an invitation being given or received for dinner. Neighbors know each other and socialize often. We take care of each other. Unlike in Istanbul where in the many districts I lived, I never met one of my neighbors. Barely exchanged even cursory hellos. Izmit is similar to other parts of Turkey, much like the difference between living in New York City and a town in the Midwest.
“Surprisingly the lira hasn’t fallen too much,” the Kemalist reflects, as we wait for our coffee grounds to cool so the Nationalist can read them. “The price of gold could be better though,” the Indeterminate adds, all of us nodding. If you ever want to know the latest currency rate or gold standard, just ask a Turkish woman. “Mommy!” my son calls from my nearby balcony. “You promised to take me to the pool!” he says to me in English, his face a mask of frustration. “Ah, if Cem goes, my son will want to go,” the AKP neighbor says. Despite only knowing us for a few months, almost all of the neighbors have picked up on quite a bit of English. We both look at each other and sigh. “Ugh, mine too,” the Indeterminate says. Although the pool is right there, we have to stand up, get the kids in their bathing suits, and move to the hot, sunny pool area to watch them swim. The Nationalist’s baby starts crying, that hungry cry every mother immediately recognizes. The Nationalist reluctantly stands too, and takes the baby back to her flat. We all part ways to care for our kids, while the Kemalists join the retired officer’s wife in the pool.
Friends ask me when I will know it is time to flee Turkey. I didn’t know how to answer, until today. When these type of coffee breaks stop happening. When it is no longer possible to sit and enjoy the company of people from a variety of different backgrounds and affiliations. Turks wax poetic about bygone times when they grew up in diverse cities with Armenians, Greeks, Assyrians, and Kurds as neighbors. They don’t see the diversity around them right now that needs protecting, needs cherishing. While it might seem that our little plastic table hosting our impromptu meet ups are unique within Turkey, they are not. And it gives me hope. Instead of focusing on the things that divide us, see that which unites us is actually stronger. We represent what Turkey is today. And why I still have hope.
“Katie!” my leftist neighbor calls out. She obviously just got back. Everyone waves hello. “We just had coffee, we missed you!” I say. “Next time!” she says as her kids race to put their swimsuits on and join us at the pool. Off to the side, our now-cold coffee cups left on the table, our fortunes meant to be read another day, another time.