I’ve been putting off writing this one as it means thinking about something I find deeply unpleasant.
It involves a student, but not the one I mentioned that was cute. A far more insidious person. I’m aware that in telling this story, I’ve been presenting myself in a more sympathetic light than I deserve. Poor little English girl, mistreated by a possessive, controlling boyfriend and driven to cheat by her circumstances. It seems like no matter how many times I sit down to write something nice about my boyfriend and critical of myself, I end up telling it the other way around.
I’ll try again. If I was a victim, it was of my own stupidity. I made terrible choices and didn’t have the courage to be honest with myself even, let alone my boyfriend who was simply living according to his rules and outlook on life. I wasn’t forced to try and fit in with those and the parameters were quite clearly laid out. If relationships are that simple that is and you don’t make, or fail to make, decisions that are forced by your feelings at least. I had and still at times have a tendency to try and comply, to seek approval and then to want to maintain that approval.
I also need a lot of attention and if I’m not getting it, I’m attracted to another source of it. I’m not that focussed on being in a relationship and never have been. So while that has pluses for being independent and happily single, it means I don’t or didn’t put enough value into a relationship; in fact, don’t or didn’t even understand what its values were. It was a source of attention, a lot of it and when it wasn’t there I mistook attention from someone else as something valuable.
However, when my boyfriend left I did become a victim. I’d been so tightly coddled and didn’t really have my own life in Istanbul that I was much less independent than I had been, much more used to being reliant on someone else. And I was lonely in the first few months as I forged a new kind of life in Cihangir and confused and afraid of the future I was creating for myself as potential housewife. But also I was still trying to pass the tests set so not even sure if that future would be mine to accept or reject. I was way too busy trying to pass the exam with far too little questioning about whether that life was the qualification I wanted to earn.
Anyway, this student of mine who was a lawyer took the moment my boyfriend went away in August to pounce.** He was too clever to move as fast as that though. From about October onwards, he befriended me, helped me out, took me for lunch or dinner during or after classes. Places he took me were Caretta and Güveççi Abdullah but mainly Caretta.
This is apt as it means turtle, a slow moving reptile like creature with all the time in the world. In fact, he was more like a crocodile, hunting from below the surface of the water, hidden and lurking.
He’d always been slightly, slightly flirty. But it was so subtle it was an undercurrent and something I put down to the way men and women often interact in my own culture. Big mistake there, Turkish men do things with intent. He was married with a 2 year old daughter so I always told myself that the overly long eye contact or occasional compliments in Turkish were just Turkish charm and the habits of a die hard flirt (he’d been a waiter in holiday resorts in summer jobs when he was younger so you know what I mean).
He actually met my boyfriend once and I was worried enough that there was something to perceive that I deliberately dressed in gym clothes as we were stopping on the way to the gym at this guy’s office for some nonsense involving a carpet he’d promised me (a lie, one of many that came so easily to him). My boyfriend had told me off for looking scruffy and I’d had to put smarter clothes on – “wear good” was a frequent admonition.
I’d sensed that he might think there was some energy there shouldn’t have been (despite the fact it wasn’t something I reciprocated) and do the Turkish boyfriend act and make it uncomfortable for me with my client. I said something to that effect about not doing the woman claiming thing.
He was so annoyed about that he went into the familiar freeze me out routine as soon as we left the guy’s office, leaving me in tears. He was furious that I would give him any instruction on how to behave in a social situation. I’d only said something quite light, it wouldn’t have amounted to anything to the ears of anyone less proud and less convinced he could never be found at fault. And let’s remember it came an hour after him telling me how to dress.
On that occasion, the student behaved perfectly normally and there was none of the underlying tension that I’d feared between them and none of the undercurrent I’d felt in class sometimes. All the tension was reserved for me as, like tuning into a radio signal, I’d got good at knowing when I’d fucked up and made him angry.
Anyway, the reason I’d not wanted my boyfriend to think there was anything going on there was that my having male students at all was a huge point of contention and something he was extremely reluctantly trusting me on. He’d always told me not to take any male students and I kind of crept them in one by one. It wasn’t deliberate, I took the work that was on offer and I did have about 50/50 and the female students became friends too so from my cultural perspective there was balance and nothing out of the ordinary.
I was being naive though. This reptile was exactly the kind my boyfriend feared. He took lessons in his office partly to show off to friends that he had this blond English girl coming to his office twice a week. It was status and he was basically paying me to hang out with him. Many, many lessons ended up at lunch, another venue to show me off in. And he used that position as leverage to make the next level of move when I was alone and vulnerable.
If I’d been less scared of my boyfriend’s reaction and judgement of me as not clever enough to avoid dangerous situations, I’d have discussed it with him and dropped the class probably at the end of the summer when he went away. But I couldn’t admit there was something not right about this guy because it would have meant I wasn’t a good judge of the male student situation at all and never had been.I’d have been, once again, the silly little girl that didn’t know how anything worked in his country.
I thought I could just handle it my way instead. I was so wrong.
And in the beginning, I did need help. Moving flat and coping with a load of other stuff that becomes overwhelming in a foreign country I ended up almost in tears during a lesson once. A lesson he’d derailed into personal conversation specifically to start finding the chinks where he could worm his way in. And then there I was getting attention and needing that too and there was someone taking care of me again. The lesson was abandoned for dinner and I remember feeling much happier with whatever had gone wrong that day.
And from there I began to fall. Not happily though. I was very uncomfortable with this guy although still got on well with him but by then I’d lost some other classes so needed the money. When I told him I didn’t want to do the lessons anymore in an effort to extract myself, he roped in colleagues to take classes too so I was there four times a week instead of two and even more needing of the work. He was a lawyer and very clever, even with his not so great English and however I sat down to say, I can’t do this, he’d work the case and I’d end up all turned around.
I wasn’t attracted to him but I was drawn to him in some way. He tried to hug me once and I burst into tears, I told him it was wrong. I should have left the country then. I didn’t really have enough work, wasn’t happy and was telling myself if work hadn’t picked up by the end of the year, I’d leave.
Keeping me there at that point was him, writing for Time Out and ironically, thinking that if I left I’d never want to go back and would lose the relationship, that in my own inadequate way I was trying to keep. I knew we wouldn’t survive if I left Turkey. He’d always thought I’d be safer at home in my own country. But I’d never have carried it on long distance away from the bubble I was pretending to myself was a life I could live. I knew we were over if I left.
He was right – again. I was way out of my depth in croc infested waters.
**I’ve remembered another thing this guy did and I let happen through a shallow fondness for trinkets and an always troublesome habit of English politeness. About a month or so before the army bell finally tolled, I’d been in class with this guy and he mentioned some phone he had bought his wife, or happened to have laying around in his drawer or something. It hardly matters since it probably wasn’t the truth.
I had had, since arriving, the cheapest crappiest Motorola phone. This was pre-smart phone so it’s barely imaginable now how small and crap it was. My boyfriend had a flip phone that he always told me how expensive it was – 600 ytl – because that was what made it good. There is a certain cavalier smoothness – or was – about phones that flipped which was also why he liked it. He didn’t like the way I – super budget traveller and perenially temporary resident wasn’t that bothered about possessions.
So my cheap phone was a sign of my cheapskate failings – a massive fault in Turkish society. You must not be seen to mind spending money or to be stingy. While there are some good things about that – generosity – it means spending way beyond your means for the show of status is the right way to behave, even if it means being constantly in debt to credit cards.
He had no basic understanding of how credit cards worked and that, having them maxed out meant you’d spent the bank’s money not yours, and the interest rate meant you paid for the item over and over again. He usually just paid the interest and most of the actual debt remained month after month even on months when he earned well. I had savings – and continued to save – but I played around a bit on the Istanbul stock exchange for fun. (I eventually lost loads of money in Turkey as I got complacent with how easy it was to make money on currency and then the lira sank and never recovered and I’m still trying to close that account 3 years later).
As he was fond of telling me, I had nothing to show for my life thus far. Savings didn’t count, nor did the fact I had paid myself through my MA. Being good with money was just evidence of my stingyness and not commendable. Later on, when we both opened a pension account. (It was in the Bad Times, the bank did the hardsell and he had no clue so it worked on him. I was sure something promising that kind of crazy return couldn’t be true but didn’t voice it much as I was happy we were doing something long term, simultaneously if not together, and took it as a good sign. Actually it was just another indicator of his lack of financial awareness. ) Anyway, I made my monthly payments with money that was in my account – actual money. He paid his on his credit card (which incredibly was the default setting the bank applied and I had to insist they take mine from my savings account) and he never tired of telling me how well arranged he had it that he didn’t really have to pay the installments as they just went on his credit card. The credit card which had higher interest rates than the pension ever could. I tried to explain but a) he dismissed anything I said about money, neither listening nor comprehending and b) I didn’t argue very hard because the last thing I needed was an argument that could be avoided – so few were.
So, back to the student and the phone. With a show of casualness he pulled out some other, slightly less rubbish than mine, phone and insisted I take it. I said no thanks, I didn’t need one but Turkish insistence is hard to refuse. It’s so unEnglish, we’re not prepared for it. English people have a well tested routine of offer, politely insist “Oh go on, do!” then either accept, having proved your manners by not agreeing instantly, or demur equally politely knowing the other was only pressing in order to play their part of the conceit. Both accepting and turning the offer down are left equal space by the offerer although occasionally you do go into politeness hyperdrive and miscalculate how many polite insistences there are going to be so reject firmly too early when, really, you were planning to say yes.
None of this works in Turkey. English frailty caves everytime and you understand that accepting saves face for the other person so it pushes even more of your must-be-polite buttons. I recall being embarrassed at how over the top I was my fake gratitude l for this shit Nokia I didn’t need or want. I think he genuinely did have it laying around in a drawer but that it was a kind of test. He knew full well I was going to have to use it because he’d see that I wasn’t and that I would have to explain where I had suddenly acquired a new phone. Or maybe he wanted to see how my boyfriend would react, knowing it would cause trouble, or to see if I would deal with it by lying and therefore see how malleably dishonest I could get. I hadn’t started lying by then, not properly lying, so he calculated wrongly on the latter but spot on with the former.
I went home with my dilemma, knowing really that this wasn’t OK and wasn’t going to go down well. Instead of just explaining what had happened and risking being berated for my stupidity in having male students and, even worse, him going round to the company and starting a fight, I just sort of casuallly got it out and started trying to work out how to use it. He asked where I had got it and I “casually” said that the student had it laying around as a spare he had when he bought one for his wife or whatever it was he had told me.
My boyfriend was not happy. Taking presents from a man was a signal I was, if not interested then available and also, as with everything reflected badly on his status as a man and provider. I was upset, it was unpleasant, but also because I knew that in his world – the one I now lived in – he was right and I knew I had acted against even what I wanted just because I was hampered by my weak-making social conventions. This guy had done something out of line. It only didn’t go any further because I did such a good job of downplaying it. I took the phone back next lesson saying it had caused problems for me at home. I felt much more able to reject the offer and “be rude” with the support of “my man” speaking for me which only served to reinforce my dependence and feeble position as someone who could take care of themselves.
Old Croc had learned exactly what he needed to know. Even now I can’t help a grudging admiration for how sneakily clever this all was.
After my boyfriend had gone away another phone appeared. This time it was in its box and brand new. And it was all shiny and red and a slide phone and I couldn’t help my magpie self. I loved it. There was some story about why he had bought it, something about buying the same one for his wife and just getting me one too on the spur of the moment but I didn’t pay much attention to the obvious lie. I knew it was wrong to take it but the bauble, with its lovely metallic Christmassy colour, was so nice and, more importantly there was no-one around to have to explain to, that I took it with genuine pleasure.
In one way, my boyfriend would have been happy how materialistic I was capable of being after all.
The phone became mine and on my next visit I just said that now I’d been here a year it was time to buy a phone. Easy. The first lie achieved. Croc smiled toothily at my increased pliability. Everyone was happy.
Interestingly, my other main male company student at the time – a lovely, totally upright guy with no side to him at all – said straight away that male students giving me presents had another meaning. He was right, of course, but he didn’t say it to judge me, just as a friendly warning.
I still didn’t listen. My phone was just too pretty.