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Cappadocia, Turkey; Jun 18, 2005

raising eyebrows

In the US, sticking up your middle finger is an extremely rude gesture. To do the same in England, hold up your second and third fingers. In Brazil, connecting your index finger and thumb together (meaning “okay” in the States) is calling someone a jerk. We've learned that the subtleties of gestures are sometimes as important as learning the language and unfortunately, these are sometimes only learned the hard way.

The day's drive was longer than we anticipated; instead of reaching Cirali as we planned, we decided to spend the night in Finike, a small town not listed in our guidebook. It was late and things were shutting down quickly so we decided we'd better find a place to check-in soon if we were going to get any dinner.

We pulled in to what looked like Turkey's version of Motel 6 to begin the task of bargaining for a room. Usually this is handled by Grace, but he was really tired, so I popped out of the car into the lobby. This town caters to Turkish tourists so the man at the desk spoke no English and when I tried the little Turkish I had picked up he looked at me as if I was speaking Alien. Worse, the barren entryway had no signs or brochures to reference, and everything I did was met with a blank stare. Finally, combining a hotel key from his desk, plus some cash from my pocket and pointing to our luggage at the door, he understood that we wanted to rent a room. The next task was figuring out how much.

ROLLOVER for graphic reinactment

"$?" written on a piece of paper meant nothing, but the New Turkish Lira (NTL) sign did evoke a response, albeit a somewhat crazy one. He wanted 50 NTL! Since we hadn’t just arrived in Turkey yesterday, we knew it was too much for this place. But it was getting late, and we were without other options. So I bargained, as is the custom. I drew a big circle with a line over the “50” (a la ghostbusters) and wrote “35” next to it. He responded by writing “45,” so I smiled and wrote “40.” Things were going well; we weren’t going to get a great price, but at least we weren’t going to pay 50 NTL. Then the strange thing happened. He just smiled, gave a slight nod and raised his eyebrows the way Joey on Friends does when he says, "How you doin’?" Confused, I pointed at the number again and said, “Ok?” Again, the smile and the eyebrows. So I wonder, Yes? No? Is he picking up on me? Does he know what I did last summer? If none of these, then what?! So, I go back to the paper, point at the number and say, “Ok?” combined with a nod, then “No?” while shaking my head, hoping he'll pick one. He's still just nodding, smiling, and raising his eyebrows, but I can somehow tell he's not agreeing to a price of 40. This must have looked quite strange to Grace and I explained the situation as he approached. Grace then had a go, trying variations of my tactics, but to no avail. Still eyebrows and smiling. Finally, Grace goes back to pen and paper and writes: “50” crossed out, “45” crossed out, then “40” with a big circle around it. The man writes “45.” We give up; at least we have an answer. We give him a thumbs up, pay, get a key, and retire to the room having missed dinner playing charades with the front desk guy.

Weeks later I was reading a book about Turkey called Bright Sun, Strong Tea by Tom Brosnahan and he explains that the Turks raise their eyebrows as a polite gesture to say NO instead of saying their word for NO. Ah, it all clicked. If someone had only been so polite to us a bit earlier.

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