When I learned that my good friend from graduate school, Jeff Hibbert, had moved to Istanbul, Turkey, I was somewhat mystified. Not Constantinople, I wondered? More to the point, why leave the comfort of the United States for the relative uncertainty of life in what pundits have, rightly or wrongly, come to describe as a developing nation? Having read Tea and Bee’s Milk: Our Year in a Turkish Village by Karen and Ray Gilden, however, I can see the attraction that life in Turkey had for my friend.
On the surface, Tea and Bee’s Milk is about the authors’ efforts at spending “a year doing nothing” in a foreign land. This “nothing,” however, is far more involved than sitting around and, well, doing nothing. In fact, there’s a whole lot of “something” in all that Karen and Ray do throughout the book — getting to know shop keepers, traveling, drinking tea, and struggling to get decent internet service, to name just a few things. In other words, Karen and Ray are living — and not just to the artificial rhythms of life in the Western world. Rather, they’re living at the pace of a culture that places more value on human interaction than on making money. The world they discover is one not of sheer lust for goods and services (i.e. the “keeping up with the Joneses” mentality inherent in the American Dream) but one based on mutual give and take between individuals. Their “doing nothing,” then, represents a paradigm shift: what one culture might regard as “nothing,” another might well regard as the entire point of living.
Similar paradigm shifts occur throughout the memoir and are perhaps best represented by a passage in the middle of the book in which the authors gradually redefine their understanding of the word “clean.” Where “clean” once meant that something was spotless or even antiseptic to the Gildens, it eventually comes to mean “clean enough.” More importantly, they learn to let their previous notions of “clean” fall by the wayside as an ice cream vendor pushes a scoop of ice cream onto a cone with his thumb and a baker wraps a loaf of bread in an old newspaper to protect it from the elements.
The overall arc of the narrative, then, is one of change. Although the authors are initially horrified at the state of the new, unfamiliar world in which they’ve arrived, they eventually adjust to that world. Yet to call this a narrative is a little misleading and, indeed, the transformation occurs largely between the lines. That is, this isn’t a travel memoir along the lines of Under the Tuscan Sun in which the narrator maps a clear path from point A to point B in her life via the tricks of the storytelling trade. Rather, the Gildens offer a montage of impressions from their travels — emails, brief essays, and anecdotes — and allow their readers to draw any and all relevant connections on their own. In many ways, this strategy leads to a more “real” sense of place and of the hectic joy of discovering a new way of life.
So, Jeff, if you’re out there and reading this, I get it now. Not that I ever doubted your good sense (well, at least not as far as your move was concerned), but now I have a better appreciation for the adventure you’ve embarked upon. And if anyone else is planning a similar move, definitely pick up a copy of the Gildens’ memoir!