Blah blah Ataturk, blah blah Bulgaria, but what about what you’re actually doing now? Fear not, I’m about to explain.
Today is my day off. Friday isn’t usually my free day, but things have been getting shuffled around a lot recently, what with people getting fired and rehired and Ilker, the manager, planning to close the hostel in a month and take off to Buenos Aires semi-indefinitely, so that’s what happens. I’m sitting in front of my laptop at Hush Hostel’s reception desk, looking up now and then to greet a guest and solicit their help for a project that Berna- my coworker- and I just decided to undertake: writing down the single favorite song of every person in the hostel and making a gigantic playlist for tonight.
I like working here, at least in part because it rarely involves any major degree of actual work. Morning shifts can be unpleasant, requiring you to get up at the crack of dawn (well, 9 am) and do all sorts of boring and borderline-gross things like emptying wastebaskets- which is more unpleasant than you might think, considering that putting toilet paper in any of the toilets in this country will clog up the works- changing sheets, and picking up all the trash people tossed on the floors the previous night. One bright spot about morning shifts is that, generally speaking, there’s a direct correlation between how much cleaning there is to do and how much time you have to do it before people get up wanting breakfast. All that is a bit tangential, though, since I rarely work mornings. I think Ilker took pity on me.
Working at a hostel also means that life is a bit like a speed-dating service, or an Olympic parade. Every day I meet between five and thirty new people from all over the place- mainly Europe (and mainly mainly Germany) but also the occasional American or Lebanese or Libyan- who I will almost inevitably chat with in the evenings, laugh with, get to know a little bit, and then wave goodbye to in a few days, never to see them again. Despite the wide range of characters who walk through the doors here, everyone’s conversations are, and I think this is more or less a permanent feature of life on the road, surprisingly formulaic at first.
“Where are you from?” is question number one. We, and I include myself because I do this too, follow up with “so how long are you staying in Turkey?” and then a list of follow-ups ranging from “oh cool, so what are you doing here?” to “where have you been?” and “what’s your job?” Curiously, or maybe not, nobody cares much about anybody else’s name, maybe because nationality serves as an equally good and more memorable identifier most of the time or maybe because we all realize that even if we somehow remember all thirty names we learned today, we’re not going to ever see these people again after next week.
I think one of the most interesting conversations I’ve had here was about national identity. “How does it feel to be from a country people don’t necessarily know much about?” I asked my companions a few weeks ago (a Lebanese guy, a Slovakian girl, two Turkish girls, and a Hungarian guy, if memory serves). Everyone seemed bemused by this question. What do you mean, “how does it feel”? It just is. But I disagree. I’ve recently been thinking a lot about national identity and linguistic identity- I’m from the States, after all, and speak English, both of which the international community at large has some relatively major claim on. I introduce myself as an American and people immediately bring their preconceived notions to the table. I think the anonymity, for lack of a better word, of being from a country like Lithuania or Suriname, would be a welcome feeling. We didn’t reach any consensus that night, but hey, I’m living right in the middle of an ever-changing group of international travelers. I’m going to keep asking, and I’ll get back to you with the results.
My single favorite guest so far was Ben, an American guy here to study at an Istanbul university for the Critical Languages Scholarship (envy). After finding out that he’s a Linguistics major, I wasted no time in trying him on some of my theories about language, only to find out that I’m not the first one to think of them. I guess some consolation lies in the fact that the people who came up with them first were actual scholars and professors and stuff, not 22-year olds who can’t decide if they’d rather go to grad school or spend life swinging from trees with monkeys and riding giraffes across the savannah (both?).
Anyway, check it out:
-Funny people are better at learning languages. Apparently true. I initially wondered about this when I realized that a very, very large percentage of my Turkish conversation is based on laughter- laughing at myself when I say something stupid and wrong, laughing when we can’t understand each other, laughing, basically, because without the crutch of verbal politeness, it’s the easiest way to communicate friendliness and positivity.
-Americans (and English speakers in general) are perceived as rude largely because our language lacks the degree of honorifics and buffer courtesy words which other languages use. Yet interesting fact: despite appearances, English is actually a highly polite language. In most other examples I can think of- all Romance languages, every east Asian language I’m aware of, most Slavic languages, and so on- there are two words for “you”, formal and informal. English, obviously, only has the one- but what people are generally unaware of is that “you” is the historical polite form, which fully replaced the less formal “thee” centuries ago, in a linguistic coup which parallels the equal and opposite modern change seen in, for example, Swedish, where the familiar “du” is increasingly being used in place of “Ni”. Interesting, no?
Labels: languages, Turkey