Editor’s Note: Notice that the title, “Rakı var mı?” – which is in Turkish – contains two letters that look like the letter “i” but without the dot. Blame Atatürk, who instated the current Turkish alphabet by fiat in 1928, and had the option not to use characters that weren’t in the regular Latin script, but did anyway – or, instead, you could thank him, because Turkish has one of the few alphabets that actually makes a lick of god damned sense, not to mention that if it weren’t for him Turks would still be using the Arabic script, which I’m not even going to try to reproduce… Anyway, the ı sounds like… um…uh… there’s not really an English equivalent. Turkish vowels are really challenging for me, which is one of the reasons I gave up trying to learn it several years ago. Maybe I’ll take it up again. Anyway…
My flight to Georgia went through Istanbul this time around. I didn’t have time to leave the airport, unfortunately, but ideally I will be taking some kind of vacation there – maybe a week in spring – while I’m in the region.
Instead of paying for a visa for two hours, I tried to kill some time. I checked my email and facebook, updated my status, and that was fifteen minutes. I got some Starbucks – a caramel frappuchino, to be precise – and then I drank it, and then I decided to wander around. Fascinating, I know.
Finally, I ended up – where else? – in a bar. At first I only went in to get a closer look at the taps, but there was a woman at the bar, who noticed me walking past her in a way that made me feel self-conscious about just leaving again right away, so I stalled for a little bit, and she ordered a beer – Efes, one of my favorites – in one of those all-American accents, and then I realized that if she was ordering a beer, it would be shameful for me to just leave the bar without ordering a beer myself, and so I ordered a beer and I sat down and I said hi.
Don’t ask me to explain the weird social calculus that goes on when I make decisions about interacting with strangers. I never know if sitting down at a bar near someone else is going to annoy them or please them, be interpreted as friendly or overbearing, and if it’s a woman, I don’t want to seem like I’m hitting on her or make her feel uncomfortable. On the other hand, I don’t like social situations in which two or more people are sharing a space but not acknowledging each other, and of course I’d already noticed the woman look at me when I came in, and she probably noticed me noticing, and then I ordered the same kind of beer as she had just ordered, and so clearly some level of mutual acknowledgment had already taken place, so I felt okay in saying hello. Also when I travel my sense of social boundaries always gets all out of whack – I was always taught never to talk to strangers, but apparently in many places in the world talking to strangers is the norm, so I try to accommodate that. And yes, I do overanalyze pretty much every social situation I get into to this extent or more.
It paid off, because she said hello back, and even started a conversation! She was very friendly, and we entertained each other with stories of our travels for about an hour and a half, until her flight had to board. I’m pretty much always surprised when a social interaction with a stranger goes well, but I guess when you get outside New York it’s actually a pretty friendly world.
Anyway, onward towards the point of this story. I went to use the restroom, and when I got back to the bar, this girl was trying to elicit, from the bartender, shots of something distinctively Turkish. He was offering her Turkish vodka, but she was (quite sensibly) not impressed and wanted something more authentic and cultural than vodka. Of course I immediately thought of rakı, Turkey’s national beverage. It’s almost exactly like Sambuca, and comparable to Ouzo, Absinthe, and various other anise-flavored liquors and liqueurs. In other words, totally delicious.
I suggested that we try rakı, but the bartender, and the waiter who had now also gotten involved in this conversation, did not understand what I was asking. I tried three times and the bartender apparently either thought I was asking for vodka or really wanted to push vodka that day, and then I decided that maybe speaking Turkish would resolve the situation, so I put together one of my first Turkish sentences ever: “Rakı var mı?” It means, “Is there any Rakı?”
This got their attention. The waiter and bartender immediately understood me and knew what I wanted. The waiter even repeated the question in case the bartender hadn’t heard me, and he said it basically exactly the same way I said it (although to a trained ear, probably not. As I said, Turkish vowels are really challenging for me, and my brain just isn’t wired to hear differences that Turkish native speakers can hear in vowel sounds. So the waiter may well have been repeating me in a non-foreigner accent. The point is, I got my point across.)
After that, my store of Turkish was basically exhausted (I’d already used “good day” and “thank you” on the flight from Istanbul to New York in December) and so I confirmed several times in English that we did indeed want to have two shots of Rakı despite its strength and the fact that you’re supposed to put water in it and sip it like a civilized human being, not shoot three ounces of it in one go like some savage American beast.
However, I personally remember a day when my sister’s friend Stacey showed up at our door with a coke bottle filled with black Sambuca and a group of about five of us wandered around the neighborhood gulping it down like there was no tomorrow, so I still find the sensation of drinking anise liquors straight to be not only bracingly alcoholic, but also gently nostalgic at the same time. Party like it’s 1999.
Anyway, girl at the airport bar, if you’re reading this: thanks for the rakı and the conversation. My liver may have metabolized the alcohol, but the memory of our encounter will be preserved on this blog until the end of the internet. Which, hopefully, won’t be for like, a really long time.
Later, I ordered some more rakı on my flight to Tbilisi. This time I put some water into it, and it louched like any good anise-flavored liquor is bound to do. The girl sitting next to me on the plane asked me what made it turn white, and… well, you try using phrases like “oil-in-water microemulsion” and “water-miscible solvent” after a ten-hour transatlantic flight, two pints of beer, and three ounces of rakı. I probably sounded like a complete idiot, and I believe I digressed and ranted for twenty minutes about how the French wine lobby ruined Absinthe with a smear campaign, which I am still mad about even though it happened 67 years before I was born.
Anyway, if you’re interested in learning more about rakı, absinthe, the louche effect, Atatürk, or anything else I’ve mentioned in this entry, Wikipedia is your friend. They’re all fascinating subjects and Wikipedia is comprehensive and accurate.
And by the way, if you’re writing something in Turkish, make sure you don’t dot that ı. It could be the last mistake you ever make.
Here’s something odd: They were playing Christmas music at the airport (which, by the way, is named after Atatürk). This is especially odd because in America, “Christmas season” starts on Halloween and ends on Christmas. Apparently in Turkey it starts on Christmas and ends sometime during the day on January 5th. The girl at the airport bar commented on this to the bartender, who immediately turned off the Christmas music and played techno for us instead. Hilariously, this song soon came on. Expats will recognize it as being ubiquitous in Georgia and, apparently, everywhere else on the planet that isn’t America: