Saturday, July 8, 2017

Beatriz at Dinner

Do you ever feel uncomfortable at high society functions, standing around with a glass of wine, wondering if you’re holding it right, knowing your scuffed up tennis shoes are painfully conspicuous, feeling as though you don’t belong and should be at home, wearing your ratty old sweater that was knitted by your great-grandmother and drinking from your own jug of Carlo Rossi? Oh, you don’t? Uh, yeah, me neither. I was just asking.

Tonight I saw the film Beatriz at Dinner, which could also be called White People are Insufferable. Beatriz, a massage therapist, unintentionally crashes the shindig at one of her client’s gated mansions after her car won’t start. One aspect of Beatriz’s character that I loved was that although she is out of place at this dinner, she doesn’t feel uncomfortable. On the contrary, the boring, upper-class white people at the party feel uncomfortable around her. Beatriz is interesting and they are not. Beatriz connects on an emotional level, and they’re about as personable as weighty bookends. Beatriz has musical talent, which the other guests are too shallow to appreciate. She ornaments her neck with a dolphin necklace (foreshadowing?) and her car with Buddhist and Christian emblems. These simple decorations give insight into her character. But the fancy clothes and jewelry worn by the others speak to their unremarkable characters.

In conversations between these dullards, which include so many nauseating lines that privileged white people actually use, the superficial guests blend together as one boring mass of uncaring, materialistic, power mongers. The dialogue is fantastic and brought to mind Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire. Maybe one trick to creating compelling dialogue is to have characters who are incompatible forces of nature: Stanley Kowalski and Blanche Dubois, or in the film I just saw, Doug Strutt and Beatriz, and put them in an uncomfortable scene together.

The unpleasant characters, led by the cringe-worthy Doug Strutt, will be recognizable to most people because they’re typical of the kind of power mongers currently running the country. The men who brag about getting into fights in bars (or theatrical wrestling matches) are the same men who brag about killing animals for sport and are the same men who build hotels and casinos and golf courses just to line their own pockets, cheat vulnerable people, deny climate change is real, and find other ways to destroy the world. The women who are complicit in this bad behavior are just as bad, because they too are driven by power and money and are willing to justify destructive behavior and turn a blind eye.

Beatriz speaks up because she represents goodness. She reminds me of another heroine in a film I love, The Girl in the Café. Both films are a call to action, a demand that we speak up and call out evil when we see it. We all want good to overcome evil, right? Right. Well, Beatriz at Dinner raises the question of whether we’re receptive enough to recognize goodness when surrounded by evil . . . before it’s too late.  

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Notes from Istanbul

According to the M.A.S.H. game I filled out during my long flight back to Portland, I’m going to live in a house in the Netherlands with my husband named Aster, two children, and a Newfoundland dog. I will be an illustrator. Aster will be a painter. And we will drive a yellow Prius. The reason I was predicting my future with this game from my childhood is that my last night in Istanbul my friend Kelley gave me a small notebook, which she had filled with her own personal notes and activities to keep me occupied during my trans-Atlantic, multi-stop flight. I had cancelled my previous plans to travel around England and Iceland, deciding to travel to these places when I am not so eager to get back home. These last-minute changes meant that my journey would be punctuated by long stopovers in Frankfurt and Denver before finally arriving in Portland. The notebook came in handy because none of the films on the Lufthansa flight appealed to me. And now I have an exciting life in the Netherlands to look forward to!

Besides the contents of the little notebook, I recall other notes from my last night in Istanbul, flavor notes of cheese and almond in a delectable dessert as well as notes of black licorice from a liqueur from Finland. “Notes” is actually an understatement. It tasted just like strong, full-flavored black licorice, liquefied. I took a photo of the bottle with Kelley in the background, a reminder to buy this stuff if ever I am in Finland.

On my final flight from Denver to Portland, the woman sitting next to me nudged me awake in order to warn me of some threat that needed my immediate attention. In my foggy state, I saw her point at a boy’s hand retreating through the gap in the seats. “He was trying to steal your phone,” she said. She then twisted her face in a dirty look that conveyed disgust and bewilderment that such a child could even exist. I heard the boy explain as he made a video on his own phone that his plan to steal the phone from “the sleeping lady” didn’t work. I realized he was traveling alone when one flight attendant kept checking up on him with adoring smiles and handing him large bags of gummi bears and cans of Coke. Twice the boy yelled, “This one’s for the blog! Exaggerated noises!” and then filled the tiny aircraft with his tortured shriek, perhaps inspired by Macaulay Culkin’s Home Alone scream. I was too exhausted to reach over the seat and strangle him. I don’t know if a video of me sleeping during the foiled phone theft is on this boy’s blog or not, but I can tell you that an American child trying to steal my phone certainly came as a surprise. I have just returned from Istanbul, where I would sit at outdoor cafes with my purse on my lap. If my phone was out, my hand was always hovering over it, so that little Turkish artful dodgers sneaking around wouldn’t see an opportunity and run off with it. Stealing a phone is the sort of thing I would expect from a poor street kid in Turkey, not a spoiled, sugar-crazed American kid on a flight from hell. Thankfully, that flight was only 2½ hours.

During the last year, a woman I considered a friend wrote a malicious blog entry about me pertaining to a time I confided in her about a personal problem. I know I’ve been guilty of expressing my frustrations about random people who disappoint me, but friends are off limits. Also, if it’s just a vent and doesn’t add anything positive to the world, I usually come to my senses later and delete the post. A video of me made without my awareness on some 10-year-old boy’s blog doesn’t bother me so much, but betrayal by a friend does.

A Shakespeare mural I painted. 
As is often the case with living overseas and starting over every few years, I met some people with whom I really clicked right before I left. I wish I had met them sooner because perhaps these fun interlocutors could have eased the stress of living in a big chaotic city. I’m lucky that I did have good friends all along and I did what I could to relax. I painted a couple of murals for my school, and designed a tattoo for a friend. I worked on my illustrations, which, as I look at them now, are not very good. I think calm is conducive to creativity, which is why I’m drawing so much better now that I’m back home. Calm is also conducive to making friends, which explains why cool and interesting people flocked to me in the last few weeks of my last residence, when I was calmly confident that my departure from Turkey, a country that is becoming a more stressful place day by day, was just around the corner. 

A Langston Hughes mural I painted. 

Sunday, May 28, 2017

The Fidelity of Friends

Grades are done and now I can finally fill my head with more exciting visions, such as 1920s fashion and the budding plot of a suspense novel. I can’t really merge the two because the novel I’m envisioning is set in present day, but that doesn’t mean I can’t look fabulous while writing it. I have often wished I could transport myself to Paris in the 20s, like in the movie Midnight in Paris. These days, I go for evening strolls around Istanbul and put my mind on a scavenger hunt for ideas, but I’ve never found a portal to a classier and more debonair time.

That’s okay, because although I can’t mingle with the Fitzgeralds or enjoy a private concert by Cole Porter, I have enough amazing people in my life to make me want to stay put.

Last week I found myself trying to dodge landmines of unbelievable stress. (One detonated on Wednesday, but everyone in the vicinity survived) My girlfriends were there for me and I realized how fortunate I am. One friend advised me to work out, and so I was able to channel my stress into something positive. I’m feeling so lucky right now.

A male colleague’s comment about women being catty seems completely ludicrous to me, especially after last week, when the support of great women friends kept my head above water. We’re strong, we cook for each other, we make each other drinks, we listen to each other. Catty? I believe he’s thinking too small. We’re more like lionesses . . . a pride of lionesses.  

Saturday, May 20, 2017

A Guest Appearance

I am a guest in this country, a long-term guest, but a guest all the same. I have a residency card and an apartment, but during orientation two years ago, one facilitator informed us that “We are guests in this country,” a message that I interpreted as we are welcome here but we are not welcome to complain or be obnoxious. This implication was lost on some. (Just imagine a loud American wandering the streets of Istanbul, calling out, “Where’s the Trader Joes?!”) But to be fair, I’m not always adept at reading between the lines. I’m still trying to understand the security advice: “Remain vigilant.” Does that mean stay home and eat popcorn and stream movies on my laptop? If that’s so, then the fort is secure. Roger that. Over and out.

Recently, I watched the first six episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale, a terrifying cautionary tale which explores the depths of desperation for male supremacy and religious brainwashing. Women are used for breeding only and given patronymics, like “Offred,” which means property of Fred. This show has messed me up. When I talk with friends about the similarities between the show and Trump’s America, it feels like we’re Girl Scouts gathered around a campfire telling ghost stories. I’m the one trembling and jumping with fright at every sound coming from the woods: a crackling of dry leaves, a coyote howling in the distance. But The Handmaid’s Tale isn’t just women sharing scary stories. Everything in the show (women being forbidden to drive, be educated, express themselves freely, have money, own property, have ownership of their bodies and reproductive rights) has all happened or is currently happening to women in the world today.

In The Handmaid's Tale, foreign guests visit the land of Gilead, formerly the United States. The leaders and their wives instruct the handmaids to be on their best behavior. Offred, the handmaid at the center of the show, is asked by a guest if she is happy and Offred lies. How could she be happy? A handmaid is never at home. She’s not even a guest. She’s a slave and her own body is meant to be used as a guest rental for a baby that will be yanked away as soon as it’s born.

The word “guest” implies that you are not staying long enough to capture the essence of a place, that you’re not getting the full picture. Your hosts will tidy up the place, be on their best behavior, shield your eyes from any unsightliness (in the case of the show, scrub the blood off the execution wall). They will try to make your stay as pleasant as possible.

The American South, famous for Southern hospitality, is learning how to be a little bit more hospitable to people who may be offended by statues of Confederates who fought to uphold slavery. Those racist monuments are coming down, and perhaps they will be replaced with uplifting statues and monuments, depicting people who have done something honorable. I’m glad. Then maybe guests such as myself can visit the South and truly appreciate Southern hospitality, without feeling uncomfortable.

Turkey is another country famous for its hospitality. But judging by the recent violence in Washington DC, when Erdoğan’s bodyguards attacked peaceful protesters, some Turks need to work on what it means to be a guest.

I’m okay with someone telling me I’m a guest in this country. When I go to America this summer, I will be a guest too. I think I’m a considerate guest. I don’t kick my hosts in the face. I suppose we are all guests on this planet: here today, gone tomorrow. Let’s try to be polite guests, no matter what country we’re in, or however much at home we feel. 

Friday, May 5, 2017

Happy Hıdırellez!

Happy Hıdırellez, everybody! I would tell you more about Hıdırellez, but Wikipedia has been banned in Turkey. That didn’t stop me from celebrating it, whatever it is. Tonight, I dined at a Syrian restaurant with a friend and her book club members. I drank potent mint lemonade and sampled several delicious dishes. I met people from America, Scotland, New Guinea, Syria, and Turkey.

When I asked a Syrian man if he liked living in Turkey, he answered, “You can’t drink the whole ocean in a cup.” If I were as dumb as our fake president, I would not have understood this metaphor, as with the metaphor, “The oval office has no corners you can hide in.” Luckily, I’m not so stupid and I understood what he meant.

After dinner, Maureen and I ignored the State Department’s security warnings to avoid crowds and went to a jam-packed party in celebration of Hıdırellez. These days, I don’t usually venture out to the neighborhood Sultan Ahmet, the home of the Blue Mosque and Aya Sofia, but it felt comforting to be back in such a beautiful place on a beautiful night like tonight. The population of Istanbul must have been concentrated in that very densely populated party, because the streets of Sultan Ahmet were oddly vacant. Actually, I don’t know where everybody was. Maybe they were asleep already.

They certainly weren’t out lamp shopping. That job was left up to me. Maureen and I went into a lovely shop and I bought a white mosaic lamp that shines beautifully when lit up. That was my Hıdırellez present to myself. I wish everyone a spectacular Hıdırellez. Good night.