It’s Ramazan (Turkish for Ramadan), the Islamic month of day-time fasting. I’m not Muslim, but even so, there are benefits. We eat Ramazan pide, the special bread of the season, and I enjoy güllaç, a glutinous milk-based dessert served only at this time. Two Fridays ago we were invited by friends to a restaurant for iftar, the evening meal that breaks the fast. The restaurant specializes in döner, meat cooked on a vertical spit. We arrived 20 minutes early, but the restaurant was already full with families, seated at tables provided with a plate of dates and olives – the first things a fast breaker eats – and bowls of chopped tomato and cucumber salad, and shredded onions with parsley and sumac. Waiters took our orders, and brought over a trolley of drinks (non-alcoholic). We were seated under a large TV screen, which duly noted the iftar times throughout Turkey. There is almost a one-hour time difference between the east and the west. Eventually Ankara’s time came, 8:12 pm, heralded with the call to prayer, and everyone started eating. The waiters quickly and adeptly brought food to the many tables; getting food to all in short order requires skillful organization on the part of the restaurant. We had lentil soup, then our plates of döner, and, for dessert, kedayif, the restaurant’s specialty, all delicious. The four of us chatted away, eating in leisurely fashion; by the time we finished, the restaurant was empty. The evening was balmy, so a stroll through the neighborhood was in order.
At a corner nut shop I bought small portions of mixed nuts and salted peanuts at a nut to take home. Turkey is a “kuru yemiş” (“dried fruit and nuts”) country, where excellent nuts are sold everywhere: walnuts, almonds, hazelnuts, pistachios, cashews, and peanuts, as well as leblebi (dried roasted chickpeas). [France, in contrast, is not such a country.] My non-Turkish appearance inspired the man at the cash register to speak to me in English. Because I have lived here so long, I don’t feel particularly foreign and have found it irritating when people speak to me in halting English. Why are they singling me out? Now, though, I’m less bothered. If they want to practice English, why not?
In government offices, though, I would welcome attempts to speak English. It might relieve the tension. You wait and wait (these days with a printed number for your place in line, fortunately) and then you have to speak and reply with a certain precision. You don’t want to blow it.
A few weeks ago I was applying for a new ID card. I came prepared with my biometric photo and, of course, my current ID card. I arrived at the Public Registration Office (Nüfus Müdürlüğü) at 10:30 am and took my number. Fifty people were ahead of me. I had nothing to read and, moreover, I had a lunch appointment. I gave up and left.
I discussed the matter with our secretary. “You need to get there at 8:30 am, when the office opens,” she said. “At the latest.”
Two days later, I got going early and arrived at 8:20 am. This time I brought a folder of student papers to read. Several people were already waiting, sitting in a long corridor outside the offices. At 8:30 am, the office door opened and we filed in to get our automatic number. Only 17 people were ahead of me. Three counters were open, so the wait shouldn’t be too bad. While I was perusing the announcements posted above the number machine, it suddenly hit me that I couldn’t pay the fee in cash. It wasn’t much, only 18.5 liras (= $4), but I needed to pay it in advance, either on-line or at a bank. I double-checked with the man ahead of me in line, no. 17. It’s true, he said. Panic! Where would I find a bank? I would lose my place in line and have to start all over!
I remembered seeing a hotel just across the street. They would surely know where I could find a bank. Fortunately, banks were clustered nearby. But the banks didn’t open til 9:00 am and it was only 8:45. Nothing to be done; I had to wait. Eventually, receipt in hand, I returned to the Public Registration Office where, miraculously, my number hadn’t yet been called. The man just ahead of me, no. 17, was at one of the counters. I had to wait only five minutes and then it was my turn. Registering fingerprints for all ten fingers took some time, as each finger had to be pressed and rolled onto a little machine at least three times, but the woman doing this, who was doing this all day long, was remarkably patient. I told her so and she smiled. The entire procedure was finished in 15 minutes, and early the following week my new biometric ID card was delivered to me in person, at home.
One reason I applied for a new ID card was because I read in “Hürriyet,” a major newspaper, that ID cards more than ten years old would not be accepted as proof of identity at voting stations on June 24. The nation-wide elections for president and parliament taking place then are, needless to say, of major importance. It would be a shame to be turned away because of an out-of-date ID card.
Two students who expected to be working at an excavation north of Rome just showed up at my office to say they couldn’t get an Italian visa.
“What happened?” I asked.
In order to vote in advance, before going to Italy, they applied at the Public Registration Office for a dispensation. This was granted, and the two students went to Ankara’s Esenboğa airport and duly cast their absentee ballots. However, the Public Registration Office had changed their place of residence to Italy. The Italian Embassy then said, We can’t give you a visa here, because you are not residing in Ankara but in Italy. You will have to present your documents in Italy.
“At least you have voted,” I said.
“Yes,” they said. “At least we have voted.”
Somehow I don’t think it was much of a consolation.