‘Musait bir yerde inebilir miyim?’ (Turkish for, ‘may I get off in the next available place?) doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue. In fact, it’s a daunting expression for any foreigner, and especially so for one who has just arrived in Istanbul and knows only how to say, ‘şerefe!’ (or ‘cheers!’).
I was living at the time in Kadıköy and working at a language school off of Bağdat Street in Suadiye. My everyday commute entailed taking the yellow dolmuş (a kind of shared, taxi-van with a set route) from the Kadıköy Iskele, headed towards the final stop of Bostancı, and I would hop out at the bottom of Şaşkınbakkal. It was, I’d later realize (after becoming well-acquainted with the dreaded Metrobus), one of the most pleasant commutes possible in Istanbul — coasting, windows wide-open, along the Cadde Bostan seaside.
For my homeward journey, I’d take a Kadıköy-bound dolmuş from Bağdat Street and, as I lived in the Yeldeğirmeni neighborhood, I’d get out at Altıyol, site of the iconic boa (bull) statue. In my pocket, I always carried a slip of paper with the golden phrase, ‘musait bir yerde inebilir miyim?’ scribbled upon it, but I was too intimidated to utter it before what I perceived to be the rapt and critical attention of the other passengers. One word out of my clumsy, foreigner mouth, I worried, would turn every head in mocking unison. So I’d wait until another passenger said it first and would hop out behind them. This worked just fine for awhile.
But one week, in which I’d started teaching a night class that finished at 11 o’clock, I found myself the sole passenger aboard when the Altıyol stop came ‘round. The first time it happened, I fumbled for my folded piece of paper, but was too slow and it was too dark to read anyway. I contemplated shouting ‘şerefe!’ at the driver, anything to get his attention, but in the end just hung my head and rode it out until the final stop at the iskele. I determined, during the long walk of shame back to my flat, to never let it happen again.
The next evening I found myself in the very same situation, the only passenger left, seated in the first row behind the driver, as we approached Altıyol. My first instinct, as always, was to reach for the slip of paper in my pocket, but again unable to read it in the dark, I then considered the ‘serefe!’ option, and again ruled it out — perhaps the driver was a bit conservative and would not react kindly to my toast. In the final instant, with the adrenaline pumping as we neared the turn, I recalled my co-worker at lunchtime using the word ‘lütfen’ which, by the context, I’d understood to mean, ‘please.’ It surged up from my chest to my throat to the tip of my tongue and, proud of myself for having in the crucial moment recalled it, I shouted it, as though pleading for the restoration of my dignity: ‘Lüüütfen!’ The driver turned in shock, took one look at me, and pulled over to free the captive foreigner.
I walked home with my head held high, unashamed by the bluntness of my request. What was language, anyway, if not the utterance of sound in an attempt to convey meaning to another? I had spoken Turkish. And I had been understood.
Featured images courtesy of Talya Baker.
Awkward Tales from the ‘Bul is a series of the funny, strange and utterly confusing experiences we undergo in Istanbul.
To contribute to this series, email your submission or query to: email@example.com.