Cultural Differences

14/05/2011 by Christopher Buxton

Ankara, Sunday: it’s our first night, having just arrived, transported from the airport to a hotel in the central Ulus district. It’s gone ten, but it still feels early for us, so we go out in search of a celebratory glass of beer.
Of course we are aware that in Turkey, a secular Moslem state, bars serving alcohol are not to be found in every street. You have to look out for the blue signs advertising Efes beer. Luckily we appear to be located in Beer Street – there are two Efes signs. However being Sunday all the bars are dark. Just round the corner, there’s a flash of azure.
Beneath a supermarket broad well lit steps lead us down into a large subterranean hall with a high ceiling. The area is divided into sections of orderly white plastic tables and chairs by rows of artificial plants. High up, fierce strip lighting emphasizes that this is a waiting room for lost souls – lost souls who can be distracted by large soundless TV screens showing curvaceous singers. Off this waiting room are a four or five low ceilinged dives, each fronted by an obsequious waiter and a grey haired man in a black suit, who advertises his importance, by being seated alone, beads in hand, in front of the door to his dark smoky hole.
We prefer the open space and a nodding young waiter accompanies us to a table. Apart from a morose lonely raki drinker, we are the only customers in this section.
I order two beers and forget to ask how much they will cost. The waiter darts off and as we wait, an extraordinary shape passes by our table. Tomorrow in the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations we will see many similar figures. This Hittite fertility goddess has squeezed her substantial pale body into a mini-dress which is more straps than material. Tottering on high heels she makes for the solitary drinker. As she bends over him her dress rides up further where her enormous buttocks reach the backs of her knees. The drinker appears oblivious and Miss Five by Five disappears.
Our nodding waiter reappears with beers and a dish of peanuts, which from their taste I realize have been retrieved from the depths of the Dead Sea. The price is 15 Turkish lira – this seems a bit steep, but this is our first night and we’re not disposed to quarrel. I hand him a 20 lira note. He becomes quite effusive – perhaps he is ashamed – we cannot know; but he scurries away and returns within seconds with a dish of hazel nuts.
Meanwhile, perhaps thinking that we might have more than beer in mind, we are approached by a succession of women. The first is another Hittite goddess, taller than her strapped sister, she waddles towards us with an air of regret and a handful of necklaces. I assume wrongly that she is intent on selling the latter, but as the enormity of her approaching body fills my field of vision and I am forced to look her in the eyes, a pasty face that has seldom seen the Turkish sun assumes an effusive smile. She swoops and seizes Annie’s hand, shakes it, releases it and seizes mine. She says nothing. In a second she has released my hand and tottered away on her high heels. We do not see her again.
A second woman approaches with a much more confident step. I’ve seen her earlier talking to the very important man who sits in front of the nearest dive. She is slimmer, wears a tight top and jeans. Her thirty years old face is topped with blonde hair. She too insists on shaking our hands, as though we were VIPs on a luxury aeroplane. No words pass but she lingers as if expecting more than embarrassed incomprehension. She is too professional to show discomfort and in a second she has swooped over the artificial bush to talk to a new lone drinker who has just sat down in the next sector.
Our waiter appears with a servile shuffle and a third woman at his shoulder. To my surprise he has come to give me my change. He is bowing so low that I cannot see his face. The third woman bobs sinuously in the background. Like the waiter, she prefers to avoid eye contact. She has a darker complexion than her sisters and is dressed quite modestly in green chemise and loose trousers.
I hear a murmur at my elbow. I look down and realize that the waiter is trying to communicate with my shoes. I overhear his proposal: “She will like you buy her a beer.”
My shoes do not respond. But Annie and I wave our hands in what we hope to be a universally understood gesture of helpless incredulity. The beer hall houri simpers and retreats as graciously as a cobra that has momentarily forgotten its purpose in life.
Captured in our cultural balloon, we are now left in peace to finish our drinks.