Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Meet the Neighbors

I have rarely had much luck with my neighbors in Turkey. That Turkish people are usually so hospitable to foreigners makes it that much more disappointing. Maybe because I wasn't a tourist anymore. I was not going to be moving on. Also, back then I was a single male, and therefore looked at by the families with a certain amount of suspicion.

If you have ever read, "The World According to Garp" you might recall the term, "a sexual suspect." The idea is that if you don't fit into the socially culturally acceptable pattern of life, then people who have done this duty- marriage, career and oodles of babikins- will look at you with a kind of skepticism. It reinforces conformity and is very much alive in Turkey. We do it because we have always done it this way. Why are you NOT doing it?

(Before Turkish readers get themselves into a froth about this remark, I can assure you that Turkey hold no monopoly on this attitude. I grew up in the Midwest, for pity's sake. And lived in Oklahoma and if you were not married at 18, not a father at 18 and a half and not divorced at 20 with a part-time job just to pay alimony and child support, then, brother, something was wrong with you.)

My general rule is: Treat all neighbors with smiles and greetings in the elevator or in the parking lot but be wary. It is sad to think that every small act of kindness has to be examined from all obsessive angles but I have so often felt this "small end of the wedge." A slice of cake in the doorway suddenly becomes a in-depth look at your love life. A bayram greeting can transform into a conversation about how much you earn. A warm hello at the entrance of the apartment building can become a request for English lessons to a drowsy 10 year old.

The last building I lived in was probably one of the worst examples. It was absolutely unbelievable but readers, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, believe me,. everyone in the building seemed a bit on the other side of sane. To them, all the things they did were perfectly normal.

In front of my living room window, there was a lovely view of a plum tree. One spring day, I see a child climbing the tree to pluck off all the green plums. For some reason, Turks love green- immature- plums, despite being sour enough to lock your jaw. The poor tree was still quite young and the branches were cracking as he climbed further and further out. I shooed the cluster of children away. I asked them if they thought they were monkeys, as a matter of fact. A few days later, I was gob smacked to see a middle-aged woman, headscarf and overcoat, climbing the tree for the remaining plums. Her friend was goading her on.

As much as grumble here, I really really do enjoy having fun and trust me when I say I have done a lot of silly (and dangerous) things in the name of a good time. But seriously, how much do these unripened plums cost in the market? Is it really worth breaking your neck for? This example took place outside the building so it might not actually qualify in the neighbor category.

One thing I noticed that tended to disgust and stun me was how often my neighbors would quicken their pace into the building in order to get the elevator. Alone. It seems they didn't like to share it. You could even shout to ask them to hold it and you would arrive with your shopping bags, just as the door closed shut on a pair of nervous eyes. And often I would be coming in as they were going out and it would never occur to them to hold the door open. I know what you must be thinking, is that so important?

I would say, yes and no. No. I won't cry about it. My heart wasn't broken. No, it wasn't a strain for me to open the door for myself. And no, there was no mandate or obligation for them. They were perfectly within their rights to walk right past, without giving the least amount of consideration for me. However, these little things are the social lubrication for a society. Giving up your seat on a bus to an elderly person. Allowing somebody to go before you at the check-out aisle when you have a lot and they have one or two items. and the best part is, it doesn't cost anything to do these things.

Some friends of mine moved to Izmir from Istanbul and my first advice was: beware of your neighbors. About a week later, after they have settled in, she told me, "Well, we already had a problem with one of the neighbors. On the day we were moving in!" I said, "Let me guess. He told you that you couldn't use the elevator to move any of your things." She was taken aback a bit but I couldn't count how many times, the self-elected elevator protector has made this announcement. I understand it and I obeyed the dictate but, when you first arrive, it is hardly the most attractive display of hospitality and neighborliness In short, Welcome Wagon, it ain't.

In my last apartment, I had a running battle with the people upstairs. It all came from their side because I never return fire. The father was a booming retired army commander type. An especially dreaded type too, because for the last 30 years of their lives, they have been allowed to bully poor recruits and have had underlings fawning over them and everything in their regimented lives has been arranged, inspected and perfected. Now, in retirement, they learn that bluster and bullying doesn't always work and life isn't perfect. The wife was also directly out of central casting, deceptively mousy. Frizzy-haired, bony, tired looking.

The son was a huge monster with a stupid look on his face. For the first year I was there, I listened to him burn through his hobby of playing drums- lucky me- and later watched him, tootle off to start his career in high finance with suit and tie.

After about a year or more, they suddenly developed this fixation about my two cats. She complained about the smell. Admittedly I could have been cleaner, I was working at the time and, short of putting diapers on them, there wasn't much I could do when I wasn't there. As it was, I spent a lot of time, worrying about it, hosing down the balcony (where their litter box was) and using bleach and room deodorizers until my head spun. I closed off all the shutters but for one- it was like living in a cave.

No offense to Turks but I was rather surprised that anybody here would be so sensitive to foul odors. I remember Izmir bay in 1995. Perhaps they should have worked in customs at the airport if their noses were that finely tuned.

The wife was the note-giving type. I find this lack of spine particularly irritating, especially when she would leave it on my door for all the other people in the building to read. Threatening notes on the door with promises to call the authorities ( The Feline Excretion Division at the police department?) This campaign also included loud hour-long corridor conferences with the other neighbors in the building. Talk about humiliation. Having watched many cowboy films, I was aware that this was exactly how lynching parties are formed.

My landlady called and informed me that they had found her telephone number and abused her as well. Thankfully, she was a bit astounded by their attitude as well and told them, "I don't even know you." She came for a visit- store bought cookies and tea- and found nothing extraordinary in the scent category.

Although she was, herself, not fond of cats, (she flinched when one walked by) she had no problem with the pets or with any imaginary smells. However, she did mention one thing they said which was enlightening. They'd asked her when my lease was up and when she planned to rent the apartment.

I found that strange. Subsequently, I learned that the neighbor's son was engaged and they were trying to get me out so he could move in. Honestly. And that son must REALLY be more of a fool than he looked.

Finally, one afternoon, I am sitting in front of my PC and my cats suddenly tore through the apartment like they had just seen "The Exorcist for Cats." I looked out to my balcony and I see clods of dirt. and then I hear another. hitting the balcony shutter. That's correct. The crazy loon was throwing dirt onto my balcony, although I cannot exactly tell you why. I called up to her and asked what the blankety-blank she thought she was doing? She denied doing anything and started in on my cats again. It was all so surreal.

On the day that both my cats became ill at the same time-cat puking, by the way, is like the crescendo of Bolero- I decided that enough was enough. I couldn't be sure she wouldn't poison them and they are stupid enough to trust any human- even madwomen- with a bit of steak. Paranoid? It happens all the time.

As a postscript, after I moved away- within a week- I found out that the pushy brow-beating father had died of lung cancer. Was I over-wrought with grief? Not much. Perhaps this could explain their belligerent and un-Turkish behavior but I am not sure. Some kind of drama that I was forced to play a cameo role in. Maybe that's it. Maybe not. In any event, as the victim of persecution by obnoxious neighbors I should not be expected to show too much genuine sympathy.


  1. I really enjoyed this post. I'm sorry that you had these experiences, but I appreciate you retelling them. They portrayed so vividly what daily life is like for someone living in another culture. And I loved your observation that you were probably just playing a cameo role in a larger drama that was unfolding in their lives - perhaps the stress of the illness and fear of being alone made the woman maniacal about freeing up the apartment so her son would be nearby...on the other hand maybe she just hated cats. Actually it would make a great short story.

  2. Thanks a lot. It is great getting positive (erm.. any) feedback from readers.

  3. Fantastic post, and thoughtfully written. Recently, someone asked me, "Don't you think the people in Izmir are friendlier than in Istanbul?" And my best answer was a qualified "Well..." There are fewer people on the street in Izmir, so you're less likely to get pushed and shoved. But in Istanbul, my neighbors were really very friendly, kind, easygoing. Here, because I live in a posher area, people are more keen to protect what they think they have of value. Some see my wife and I as barbarians spoiling their elevators. I don't see the exceptional warmth of Izmir, and I don't think it's better or worse than another place: it's just a local myth that "WE are nice. Unlike THEM!"

  4. I honestly believe that relations between neighbors in Turkey and the levels of friendliness in general are rather different things. Expectations are different maybe.
    I have not lived in a posh area of town but it was not much different. The "displaced villager" mentality allows a excessive bit of informality which by no means improves the situation. Example: In one apartment, the people downstairs were all from small towns and carrying on the same customs in the city. Like talking across the street from their balcony every morning to a relative who sat on her balcony. I would hear any number of juicy bits of gossip too.(Her husband stayed out late and didn't explain why!!) Later, she had the nerve to come upstairs and tell me that her baby was sleeping so she requested my silence. Fair enough. But when I asked her when her baby normally took its nap and when it was to wake up, she looked at me with a blank stare. I suppose she wanted me never to watch TV, walk across the floor, play music or flush the toilet ever again.

  5. Neighbor issues are so incredibly frustrating, especially when we all live on top of each other like we do. And it's just astounding the way people will happily scold you or tell you to stop doing something, yet continue doing something equally or more obnoxious themselves, apparently unaware that others might not like it.

    I like your comment about being a bit player in their drama. As dramatic as my own household often seems to me, it must be that there are huge dramas unfolding in every little apartment around me that I have no idea about. Then I look at the blocks and blocks of apartments around us and it's a wonder we all don't kill each other with all the dramas piled up. Apartment living amongst strangers is an intensely unnatural state.


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