Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Breathing underwater

With encouragement from a friend and a beer I agreed to join our friends who were snorkeling in Costa Rica last summer. Being a person who runs out of the ocean when seaweed brushes past my skin, I hesitated to venture into the water. Not knowing at the time that fish actually scatter in the presence of a foreign body, I was afraid of hundreds of strange fish nibbling at me. Layered upon those imagined fears was the task of mentally adapting to breathing with a snorkel.

I geared up and jumped into the water. Soon after I found myself independent from my friend, breathing calmly, and exploring at a distance far from the security of the boat. I first noticed that in that world just below the surface I felt like an awkward visitor. The schools of fish that swam by were fascinating, dynamic, and colorful. Compared to their size and the grace with which they navigated the waters I felt large and clumsy, almost embarrassed.

Amazement with this new strange world eclipsed my awareness of the fact that I was breathing in a manner completely unnatural to me. I would occasionally remember that I could not breathe through my nose, but would immediately redirect my thoughts so as not to panic.

I find similar thoughts appearing and fading sporadically as I live my life in a foreign country. Day to day life is a peculiar blend of the unusual and the mundane. That is, I am no less sensitive to the richness of new sights, sounds, smells, and tastes than when I came here for the first time. But in many ways I have ceased viewing life with a tourist’s zeal. Despite the attention that I receive, I don’t feel excluded. My sentiments may just speak for the overflowing warmth of Turkish people, but I feel at home.

Conversely, there are moments when I say to myself, stunned, “Shit. I am in Turkey.” Often a sight seen while walking or from the seat of a train reminds me that I am far away from all things familiar. Like suffering the dark effects of a hallucinogen everyone suddenly appears alien and the language seems strange. For just a few seconds I become uneasy and succumb to an alienating sense of loneliness.

Now, like when I was underwater and suddenly became cognizant of my altered breath and the strange beauty of it all, there are fleeting feelings of anxiety. I find myself aware that living in a foreign country is like I am breathing in a different way. But I know that the more I engage in such thought, the more it invites disquiet into my mind. I prefer to divert myself away from dark notions that nothing is familiar and everything is frightening. I choose to forget about being foreign and to swim along instead, assuming I am one of the fish.

Friday, February 5, 2010

An orange, a day...

I had an image of heaven as a child. God’s head, a large scale version of an evangelist often on our television while I grew up, ethereally hovered above an industrial waste land. Large steel towers puffed grey smoke as if on a timer, and stood upon dry and colorless land. Above the horizon was a cloudless and pale sky. I often pictured myself peering at this scene, which lay before my young eyes drab and spanning onward spatially and temporally without end. I hoped never to die if this was the experience of heaven. It seemed more like hell. I dreaded the afterlife and eternity. In adulthood I have come to see the roots of those fears, a fear of boredom.

At nearly thirty years old I find the same sensations of dread resurfacing that my thoughts used to invoke when I was a young child. Adana life has come to feel painfully routine. I am starting to ask, have I died and gone to the heaven of my childhood?

In my kitchen there is a purple glass bowl in which I put oranges. I had started using the bowl for fruit because I liked the visual contrast of the purple with the oranges. After about a week when I have eaten its contents I go to the market to buy more and refill the bowl. A video recording of the kitchen table played back in fast forward would reveal a cyclical pattern; the bowl fills, empties, winter, fills, empties, spring, fills, empties, fall, fills, empties, summer, fills, empties, winter, fills, empties, fills, empties…

Second to kebab, oranges are probably the most abundant food here. Orange trees line the streets and parks overflow with them. When walking I often see a stray orange, one that has fallen from a tree or someone’s shopping bag. Sometimes they are whole and unblemished, sometimes squashed, occasionally they are decayed. They are a reminder of the choice I made to leave Istanbul for Adana. The omnipresent orange has become a symbol of a stagnant, seemingly inescapable existence.

As the days collapse into each other even the people have taken on a static appearance, like in a painting or figures in a small town diorama. They live the same day, the same moment eternally, as am I. The fruitstand owner waits outside of his stand in his vest and apron. The restaurant worker is outside with a cigarette that never extinguishes and a glass of tea that never empties as he waits to escort customers into the phantom restaurant. The old man is hunched over his tray of chestnuts and turning them in the fire. And the hefty man with the five o’clock shadow sits on a crate on the street corner continuing to pop popcorn, although he is already neck deep in bags of it. I get the impression that he is as fed up as I am.

But how much of this is a projection of my own boredom? And is the remedy for this illness a change of location, or a change of attitude?

Contemplating this, the worn and jaded faces of these men enter my mind and I decide that at this time I am their companion in existential misery, and I toss an orange peel aside.