A Language Lesson, or How I Got on the Wrong Bus and Ended Up in Asia

As you read the following description, you may be tempted to think at times that I am engaging in hyperbole for dramatic effect, or possibly that I am misremembering things as more absurd than they really were. Memory, after all, is a slippery fish. I assure you, however, that things happened as I record them here, so just sit back and enjoy the comfort of being anywhere in the world but the İstanbul Posta Müdürlüğü.

In early 1999, I had gotten through my first Christmas abroad. It wasn’t as difficult as I had imagined, and in fact was quite nice. If there was any lingering homesickness, it was dispelled when I got a notice that there was a Christmas care package from my sister waiting for me at the post office. The notice was half a sheet of thin white paper that told me to collect my package at the İstanbul Posta Müdürlüğü. There was a post office across the street from the school where I worked and lived, but of course, it wouldn’t be that easy. Nothing in Turkey was ever that easy.

The İstanbul Posta Müdürlüğü was the central post office building specially reserved for package delivery and pick up. Because the box from my sister was over a certain size, weight, and monetary value, I had to pay customs and pick up the box myself. I got a little nervous. I’d been venturing farther afield on my own, but going to an outer neighborhood without a guide felt a bit overwhelming. However, I am an obstinate girl and insisted to no one in particular that I could do this myself. My helpful colleagues told me what bus to take, where to get off, and how to get to the post office.

This could only end well! (Image courtesy of photobucket.com)

And so, off I went, armed with my postal notice, my trusty Turkish Langenscheidt dictionary, and a healthy delusion that nothing would go wrong.

I arrived at the correct stop without incident and stepped off the bus. I was immediately engulfed in the smell of chocolate cookies. As it turns out, the post office is located just down the street from the Ülker cake and cookie factory. My stomach started to growl and I regretted not eating before embarking on the journey, but really – how long could it take?

I found the post office and walked in. I entered a world that seemed to have stopped in 1962. Everything was beige, brown, or formerly-white, and a 30-year-old pall of cigarette smoke and complacency hung in the air. Because I had an intense aversion to being the hapless foreign girl who didn’t know what to do as a line of increasingly belligerent Turks lengthened behind me, I stood near a wall at the front and studied everyone and everything for at least five minutes before attempting to enter the fray myself.

Finally, I went in. Following the lead of several people who had come in after me, I started with the desk closest to the door. The next 90 minutes went like this:

  1. Hand original notice to Zeynep at desk. Zeynep checks in a book, picks up a scrap of formerly-white piece of paper that had clearly been cut from a larger pad, stamps the Second Paper, fills out a Third Paper, and hands them to me. Directs me to Window 8.
  2. At Window 8, give Second and Third Papers through barred window to Murat, who checks a book and stamps Third Paper. Murat gives Second Paper to Cem, who disappears around the corner and returns with box. Murat hands over Third Paper. Directs me to Window 3.
  3. At Window 3, which is really Desk 3, hand over Third Paper to Ayşe, who smiles and says a number. Give blank look. Ayşe stops smiling and writes a number down on Fourth Paper. Get money out, but Ayşe shakes her head and directs me to Window 2.
  4. Window 2. Give Third and Fourth Paper, and money to Ahmet, who takes everything and returns Fifth Paper with a stamp on it. Directs me back to Window 3.
  5. Window 3. Ayşe starts to smile again. Returns Second Paper. Directs me to Müdürlüğü office.
  6. Look around helplessly. Wander. Accidentally bump into Müdürlüğü, who smiles, looks at Fifth Paper, takes out Sixth Paper, signs it. Directs me to Window 1.
  7. Window 1. Zeynep takes all the papers, stamps original notice and returns it but keeps all other Papers. Directs me to Window 8.
  8. Window 8. Cem directs me around the corner. Cem, Murat, and Fatih open my package, unwrap presents, and check for explosives in packages of macaroons.
  9. Burst into tears.
  10. Watch in amazement as surly Turkish postal workers transform instantly into concerned uncles. New Uncles Cem, Murat, and Fatih sit me down and offer tea, Ülker cookies, and lemon-scented towelettes as they clumsily re-wrap presents, tape up package, and send me on my way with an extra cookie for the road.

And there you have it in just ten easy steps! How could I have been worried?

My head eventually stopped spinning just in time for the chocolate cookie aroma to invade my nostrils once again on my way back to the bus, and my stomach violently reminded me that I hadn’t eaten since lunch time. Thankfully, a simple bus ride home was all that was left.

It is at this point that I find myself with a teaching moment, a chance to share a good solid technique for language learning. Before any adventure, be sure to practice any phrases you might need along the way. These phrases should be practiced regularly and repeatedly, so they can flow from your mouth with ease. The confidence of knowing that you can repeat the sounds with reasonable accuracy will help you overcome the momentary nerves that will appear at the moment of actually reciting these phrases to an actual native speaker in an actual situation that calls for their use. You may stumble over a word, but you’ll know the phrase so well that you can recover in no time at all and sail through the rest of the words without a care.

As I watched my bus approach, I repeated in my head the phrase that I had practiced to ensure I could correctly identify the proper bus to go home. I climbed on, paid my fare, and asked the driver in perfect, practiced Turkish, “Efendim, Levent’e gidiyor mu?” Sir, does this bus go to Levent? And here was when I understood the fatal flaw in my foolproof language-learning method…

I hadn’t practiced the answer.

Naturally, I simply pretended that I had understood the driver’s response perfectly, and I sat down with my package. We lurched to a start and were on our way. I crossed my fingers.

In those first few months in İstanbul, the only way that I could identify my bus stop with absolute accuracy was to look for an enormous red Nescafé cup that was built on top of a water tower across the street from my school. After about 40 minutes on the bus, I knew I was close, but I still couldn’t see the cup. When I finally saw it, it was distressingly far away, a beacon of safety that was getting more and more distant. I thought that I could rescue myself by just getting off at the next stop and finding another bus, hailing a cab, or even walking towards the glowing cup.

Atatürk Bridge (Courtesy of WikiTravel)

Instead, 30 minutes and one traffic jam later, I was on the Atatürk bridge, staring at a sign that welcomed me to Asia. Despite being tired, hungry, and frustrated, it was oddly exciting. I’d never been to Asia before.

I got off the bus at the first stop that didn’t scare me. I got on a bus going in the opposite direction, which was, once again, the wrong bus. This time, however, I had a plan. I finally got on the correct bus at a large transport hub not far from my house. I’d been through this hub before, and though it was chaotic and barely organized, it was familiar. I found my bus. I saw the cup. And four-and-a-half hours after I left it, I found my home.

The macaroons contained no explosives but were slightly stale.

10 thoughts on “A Language Lesson, or How I Got on the Wrong Bus and Ended Up in Asia

  1. I’ve spent many Christmases living abroad and every year there seems to be a new mishap that reveals all the presents before Christmas, whether it’s because all the gifts have been unwrapped or because I’m asked to examine and sign a customs declaration which contains a list of all the items.

    • I think one of the oddest parts of that post office was that the procedure was different every single time, and they never opened the box again. I don’t think it was because they remembered me because I didn’t go very often, and there were different people working anyway. But yeah, we think our post offices are bad in the States? They got nothing on the bureaucracy in other countries!
      And my intense curiosity at other ex-pat experiences leads me to ask – if I may – where did you spend those Christmases?

  2. I was starting to get really worried about it all until they sat you down with a cup of tea. So sweet. According to the Brits, a nice cup of tea saves the day, but personally I’ve yet to be convinced. The bus journey sounds harrowing. You really are brave to venture across the world like that!

    P.S. I simply must learn how to pronounce Müdürlüğü now.

    • It was amazing how quick the transformation was, too. The Turks can seem very indifferent to strangers, but it doesn’t take much at all for them to consider you family. They also, I think, put the same faith into tea as the British do. I wouldn’t say their tea saved the day, but it did make me feel better :)

      (The umlauts denote the same pronunciation as they would in German, or if you’re familiar with French, the vowel sound in the pronoun ‘tu’. So just say ‘murdur’ with your lips all rounded. Actually, it just occurs to me that it sounds like the way Hugh Weaving says “Mordor”, just with the ü instead of o. Then add a long ‘loo’ with the same rounded lips. The ğ here is silent – it just lengthens the vowel.)

  3. Hi Leonore:

    Thought I would stop by your blog and stumbled onto this travel tale. This is uncanny! Aside from the fact that your story is delightful in the retelling, which it probably wasn’t in the original – it brought back memories of a visit to Turkey maaaany years ago! Another thing in common. How many is that now? Too funny.

    Anyhow, there was one adventure involving a trip to Asia while on a road trip with three friends from Germany to Turkey and back – which I actually ended up missing because I was unwell. But your description brought back memories of the tales my friends told. Only their quest was not a post office, it was the Bulgarian consulate in order to get a visa….

    A friend of mine sometimes quotes a German saying, which translates – semantically and not phonemically – as “if you go on a trip, you’ll have a story to tell”. How true!

    Working on keeping my comments short (hopefully next time) but just wanted you to know that I thoroughly enjoyed this one. Thanks for sharing.

    Have a great weekend,

    • By the way, I just re-read my comment and realized that it sounded like I did not make the road trip to Turkey. I did. I just missed the adventure at the Bulgarian consulate. Just in case anybody is wondering :)

    • Thanks, Chris! We are racking up the similarities, aren’t we? :)

      The Germans got that right: there are always stories to tell from traveling! And actually, I think that keeping that in mind and being able to recognize the absurdity in the midst of it can actually help make the experience easier to deal with as it’s happening.

      Oh lord, anything that involves government bureaucracy and Europe…I can only imagine trying to deal with a Bulgarian embassy in Turkey! :)

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