“I can hold it,” Laura announces, sliding defeatedly into her rickety plastic chair. “It’s Turkish.”
We are at a bus terminal in Athens waiting for transport to Delphi, and Laura has
“just paid fifty cents to not use the bathroom.” I have two bottles of water and a cup of coffee in me, and a forthcoming 3-hour bus ride. I decide to take my chances.
I hand the woman manning a table before a door labeled “W.C.” fifty (euro) cents, and pass her, focused on entering the dark watery beyond. “Wait,” she calls after me. I turn. “Paper?” She holds up a generous portion of toilet paper, and I accept it, smiling.
Then turn back to my fate.
I open the stall door to find a Turkish commode: two rippled foot ledges bordering a porcelain funnel which disappears into a dark hole.
Like peeing in the woods, I decide a moment later. Except with a convenient sink and soap. Cleaner, in fact, than the U.S. and English version of toilets, given that you don’t touch anything. It even flushes.
This is something I have learned from being abroad: difference is not scary. When you need to pee and there’s a hole but no place to sit, this is not scary, it’s just different. When you need to eat but no one speaks your language so you don’t know exactly what’s in that pie you’re getting, this is not scary, it’s just different.
When facebook changes its layout, this is not scary. It’s just different.
Ultimately, if you have a safe, cleanish place to sleep, and you’re getting fed somehow, and there is a place to relieve yourself, and your friends are still alive and human regardless of how you connect with them, life is okay. Things come in different forms, but life is okay.
When you realize that, you are not only a successful Buddhist, but you are a happy happy person.
It’s a sweet kind of liberation.
You stand on an uneven rock before an enormous, weathered, ivory-colored pillared building, and the sun hits the top of your head with fiery effectiveness. You’re thinking about cataracts, about peeling skin, about a hat, about the accoutrements you wish you had now, and then you stop, and you just are, you and the Parthenon, and you are full of shame because you are here but you don’t know about columns or Athena really or old politics but you’re here and someone else is not.
So you study it and catalog details so that when you do learn, you remember.
The ferry is disappointingly enclosed so you press your nose against the glass and watch the spray strain to reach it. When the dock collides with the boat, you bound out, onto land, you breathe. The old Greek man with weathered skin twinkles at you and directs you down the road, there’s a beach there, maybe some tourists but mostly not, and so the three of you walk, the soft sea on one side and the Mediterranean rock and brush on the other, glaring at you kindly, and the only people who pass are brown boys on motorbikes, black hair blue eyes, they look at you with mild curiosity and then they are gone. When you reach the beach you shed your towel, your clothes, and you slide into the water and it’s the warmest saltiest smoothest clearest water you’ve ever seen and now you are in, it’s effortless, it’s like coming home, the oldness goes and you feel new.
The center of the world.
Istanbul. It’s Laura’s birthday so Ali the hostel-owner buys her a cake and all the hostel sings happy birthday, and then crosses the bridge for drinks, are we going to Asia? And after it’s over you walk over uneven slate cobblestones to the sea, it’s almost sunrise, there are enormous blocks of rock barricading the sea from the road and the city, and first Alex and Mikel remove their shirts and their shoes and their pants, and then Xabi, and then Heather goes, and you and Laura, and with a shivery splash you’re in the sea, very different from Greece but there’s the saffron sun, exhilaration, good morning Istanbul!
You’re barefoot, your sandals are in your purse, you fumble with a blue cloth big enough to use as as a toga should you so choose, and finally you turn and ask the guard–“No problem! I show you–here.” He throws it over your shoulders, covering the skin of your arms, and you gesture at your hair, shouldn’t you cover that? He waves his hands, smiles, “Okay.” And gestures you inside.
You enter your first mosque. There’s the enormous open space, the dome above. There’s the pious man praying, up and down, murmuring in another language. There’s the low wooden fence separating you, the nonbeliever, from them, the believers. There’s the screened alcove behind you where the women go.
Here you are, in the Blue Mosque, and for the past two days you have not been anonymous, you have been white, you have been English-speaking, you have had blonde hair and blue eyes
and you have had a vagina without accompanying hijab.
Men undress you with their eyes on the street.
At first it was cheesily charming,
“Did you drop down from heaven?”
Then it was funny,
“Hello, Spice Girls. Can I hassle you?”
Then, it was
“You have beautiful lips. Come kiss me with them.”
You walk on the sidewalk and they want to sell you something, or they don’t, but they talk to you, the men, always men, and sometimes, sometimes, you want your body, your eyes, your lips, to not be remarked upon, because somehow the remarking makes them, your body, your eyes, your lips, belong not to you but in small part to the remarker, and after three days of remarks none of it is yours anymore.
So you stand in that mosque and you look at the women’s section and you remind yourself not to be imperialistic, not to be a judging outsider, but you stand there and you look at the women mysterious in their screened piety and you are angry.
What is this society, that is so afraid of women?
Cover them up.
If a Turkish man sees a woman he has to remark, to sexually taunt, he cannot let her be because that is allowing her to be herself and that is a terrifying kind of power.
For a week in Istanbul not a single Turkish woman spoke to me. Anytime I bought a ticket, or a sandwich, it was a man on the other side of the counter. And they didn’t let me live separate from my gender.
This, I find, is what it means to be weary.
I do not know what progress means.
So I define it myself.
Progress is not machines.
Progress is not English.
Progress is not Christianity.
Progress is not Western.
Progress is the antithesis of this soul weariness.
Progress is a society that allows everyone to grow.
Progress is freedom which is truly for everyone.
This has little to do with government or religion.
According to the government of Turkey, I am free to walk down the street in any clothes.
According to me, I am not.
There is a lack of freedom in the United States too.
If we are all free, if no group subjugates another, why is there rape?
The most beautiful building in the world.
I have not been in all the buildings in all the world, but I know that nothing, nothing, could ever be more sacredly beautiful than this.
The Hagia Sophia.
A cathedral and then a mosque and now a museum. Mixed on the walls are murals of Christ and motifs of Islam. The ceiling goes up longer than you thought any ceiling could, and every corner, dome, rise, is painted with the kind of old art you see in textbooks.
You forgot your language, and it doesn’t matter, because no matter what war we’re fighting or what religion is currently all the rage, this is a sacred place.