Feb 26, 2010

The Joy of Hosting

Despite the prim title, no, I'm not channeling Martha here.

I just hosted an old friend in Istanbul for a week. Since she's a good ol' sport with the tourist stuff, and not one to gripe about long city walks up steep hills, we made excellent tracks. Through the city, up and down the Bosphorus, to Asia and back, we combed the city and its beauties.

Every so often she would stop, camera-ready, to marvel at something I grew used to ages ago. She laughed at the stray cats stretched lazily atop an ancient car. She nudged and pointed at the women in full traditional burkhas alongside husbands in full Ed Hardy gear. She grinned at the opulence of old palaces, at the weathered gables of wooden villas.

It's wonderful, seeing a place through new eyes again. When a voice points out all those unique everyday happenings that you long ago accepted as the norm.

"Why do so many vendors sell tissues by the subway?"

"People aren't subtle about eavesdropping - I kind of like that."

"These elevators are claustrophobic."

It reminds me of when I first arrived, when every new scent and sight and piece of human behaviour left me fascinated. When every little frustration ("why is there always backed-up traffic on my street?!?!") gets discussed and taken apart and made understandable (these neighbourhoods were designed long before the automobile - duh).

Sometimes in my first few months here, I would take a simple city bus or an easy walk to the bakery, looking around and telling myself, "remember this! Remember the way women in high apartments lower buckets of money and shopping lists to the greengrocer below. Remember the goofy cartoon of a cellphone ad, the cat food left kindly for the strays who live by the mosque, the macho handshakes of the young bored men on the streetcorner." In the giddy honeymoon stage of expat life, everything glowed, and discomforts were "just how it is"; conflict was simply "my adjustment period." I would go home and jot these tiny scenes into notebooks. Much later, after encountering a leery man, unruly students, a car nearly running me down, I would read back and dismiss these fragments. I would think of these details as naively gushy, too small for anyone's novelty but my own.

On one of her last nights here, Jess wrote postcards to our friends, noting the pouffy, glittery OTT wedding dresses in shop windows, and the mouthwatering simplicity of fried potato in a chicken doner. It's not until a fresh witness notes it that I remember, yes, this is so different, and so fascinating, and the hurtles of living abroad can be balanced out by the joy of the small details. Cue the cheesy Martha ending; we are so lucky to see it all.

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