What am I doing here? Surrounded by TV lights, an enthusiastic crowd of shoppers and TV cameras, I am face to face with a friendly African presenter who is introducing the next episode of ‘Yabanci Akşam’ (Foreigner’s evening). I am a newly qualified English teacher, who the previous year had started working at an English school UKKLA in Bursa, Turkey. Nestled under the 9000 ft slopes of the mighty Ülüdağ, reputed to be the Mount Olympus from which the Gods of ancient Greece had watched the battle of Troy unfold. Bedecked by pine forests and inhabited by bears and wolves it was the ideal location for an adventure-seeking mountaineer Brit to locate in search of wilderness to explore. But I digress. The question remains, what exactly was I about to say and in what language?
The week before I had been approached by a local TV station and asked if I wanted to appear in their popular interview series. A mutual friend had made the link and so here I was in a huge Carrefour shopping centre about to go live. The reason I was feeling less than confident, was the interviewer, let’s call him Henry, had just asked me to only speak in Turkish, keep it light and try and tell them an amusing story from my time in Turkey. Wow. Gone were my preconceptions of this TV appearance – the one where I was to be a part player surrounded by other expats, in which I was able to respond freely in my own language and extoll the pleasures of life in Anatolia. Sweeping in came visions of faltering Turkish, a vastly different language, a rapidly scanning mind desperately seeking an amusing anecdote and a realisation that the gathering crowd was rapidly growing and taking an inordinate interest in thisYabanci – me!
The interview starts with the crack of the clapperboard and we’re off. Introductions and nice to be here. “What do you think of Turkey?” Luckily, I had learnt the simple verbs; sevmek is to like and the ….iyorum is I am -ing, so everything became I am liking (seviyorum): the food (yemek), the people(insan), the nature (doğa), the music (Müzik) and the welcome (Hoşgeldi –niz) for foreigners. So far so good, but what about this amusing story? Bingo! A thought! When people sneeze in Turkey the normal response of ‘bless you’ in English is replaced by ’Çok iyi yaşar’ or ‘live well/long’ as a rough translation. And the person sneezing’s response is ‘sende gör’ or ‘you too’ again very roughly translated. Of course, to the beginner language learner, they’re just sounds we hear, and then we try and replicate those sounds at the appropriate time. Thus, what I heard was ‘chokky asher’ and ‘send a girl’ and it leaves me to imagine how ‘sending a girl’ might make me feel better. Luckily, this linguistic misinterpretation wasn’t lost on the audience and mirth ensued Henry’s fuller explaining of the mnemonic translation.
By now half an hour had passed and the clapperboard brought the interview to an end. However, what I didn’t realise was that we were just relocating! In this February of 2005 there was a circus in the car park of the hyper-store and we duly trudged, camera equipment, lights et al across to the circus and took our seats in the front row of the big-top tent being tugged by the chill winter winds rolling down the valley. While the lighting and cameras were once more being set up, a clown appeared stage-left and struggling in his colourful red-nosed embrace was a live lion cub of about 6 months! He sat beside me and passed me the lively feline. I love dogs and had never been much of a cat person, but this toothy friend was by now chewing my fingers and eyeing up his prey. I had better adapt.
The board sounds once more, and the cameras are rolling. “Why did you come to Turkey” I hear Henry ask in fluent Turkish. Much distracted, I sought to remember my reasons for having driven to Turkey from England the previous year. “For love” I answered with baby Leo working his way slowly up my arm, tenderising his new fleshy friend. I explained how I had met the lovely Sultan the previous year at a Sahaja Yoga seminar in Italy and had decided to come and meet her again with the inevitable consequence of lonely guy meets lovely girl – maybe I’d sneezed I jested! Dragging conjugation rules for past very simple Turkish and being chewed remorselessly by a 3 stone fur ball added an extra degree of linguistic difficulty. Could I master lion wrestling in a foreign language? Time passed and they had bagged enough of this strange foreigner and thumbs up for content and deep thanks for being such a sport – a gladiator in a sitcom circus of language befuddlement was indeed good TV they suggested.
I never saw the initial program broadcast, but people were coming up to me in the street and saying hi and “are you that guy from….?”, so I gradually learned that it had indeed been something of a hit. It aired, apparently, many times on Bursa’s local station and I even developed a small but devoted following. I didn’t let the fame get too strong a hold of me, however, as I was soon back to the chalkface eliciting nouns and conjugating verbs.
Living abroad and learning a new language to me is all about forming a real and meaningful rapport. I may not have understood the Turks and their culture after just a year, but I was reaching out and my desire to communicate was being expressed and warmly received by Lion cub and man alike. I went on to greater fluency and understanding in the following 11 years in Turkey, but those are stories for another day.
By Mark Daniel