Part One: Root and All, and All in All
If there was a single trait that gave humanity its wonder, it was its diversity: the vast expanse of ways to be alive. But through all that breadth of space the world could endlessly afford, I’ve always had a fondness for those who grew in cultural cracks, those who sprouted in the gaps between the concepts we accept.
My identity took root in Tokyo, where I moved as a child. My English-speaking school used the American system, and though most of us there held U.S. citizenship, we all felt some form of distance from the place. Not fully at home in any world, we forged a new one all our own. We mixed Japanese words with American slang and stayed far away from tourists on the train.
But that in-between was comfortable. It was what we understood.
I returned to the U.S. for college. I spent the first year struggling to fit in and the second no longer wanting to. After my mother got a job in Saudi Arabia and piqued my interest in the Middle East, I transferred to the American University of Beirut, where I spent two years studying Middle Eastern history and partying. Every day I woke up to rejoice in my good fortune, how good it felt to be back in my element: a life on the fringe of something else. And though Lebanon and Japan were as different from each other as either was from the U.S., strange little similarities made it feel like home: I once again looked like a foreigner. It wasn’t predominantly Christian. Society was more group-oriented.
After graduating I moved to Moscow to teach English because I didn’t know what else to do. The move plunged me from the best time of my life until then straight into the loneliest. The society was unlike anything I understood and I was unsure of why I was there at all. The language barrier was severe and I scrambled to catch up. I failed to form close friendships with any teachers at my school and my work schedule allowed me little time to see the few Russian friends I made. Then the winter swallowed my surroundings slowly, draping everything in black and gray.
Like any Russian winter, mine heralded an internal storm to match what raged outside. And like any Russian love story, mine too was soaked in alcohol.
Such was the backdrop when I met Altan, at the peak of my Russian depression. Our friend Chris introduced us in the teachers’ room after classes finished, just before they invited me for dinner.
I’d never been to the UK, but even I could hear he was from London straight away.
I was planning a trip to Armenia then and misheard his name as “Artem”. “Is that an Armenian name?” I asked. “I’m hoping to go there soon.”
“No, it’s a Turkish name,” he replied. “My parents are Turkish.”
So the three of us trekked to Masterskaya for cheeseburgers. Chris told us about his days folding bags in a factory and Altan showed off his fake front teeth: a relic from his younger and wilder days, when, as a teenager, his teeth had been kicked out in a fight. The fake teeth were attached to a retainer he could push forward with his tongue, forcing his front teeth down to the bottom row: a fun party trick when the situation called.
I liked Altan already but found his retainer a bit unnerving. “But what happens when you kiss someone?” I asked.
“Oh, you know” he smiled. “Sometimes it just comes out and goes in the other person’s mouth.”
The three of us got along very well, to the point that after the right number of beers, Altan felt comfortable telling us about the girl he’d recently begun seeing. She was out of town on a long-term visit with her family. He said that he missed her and look forward to her return.
Later (sans retainer complications), we kissed by Red Square on Tverskaya. “Oh man,” he laughed as he stumbled against the brick. “This is bad! This is so bad!”
It’s very difficult to convey the grandeur of Moscow’s center to someone who hasn’t experienced it. In the center of Moscow, you’re at the center of everything. The world looks to Moscow, Moscow looks to the center and the center looks to Red Square.
I’ll admit I regarded Red Square as somewhat of a disappointment the first time we met. It was September then, and the summer was still teasing us with the last of its appearances.
Outsiders certainly conceived of the country’s character as bound up in its weather, and in some ways perhaps it was true. The first time I saw the red draped in white, I smiled to see the perceptiveness of the architects: of course they had been clever enough to account for the snow.
The snow draped a crystalline layer over each section of red and encased the roof in a radiant white. And how perfectly it was lit at night: the red an even bolder shade, the shadows that fell across the front: a geometric lace.
It hadn’t initially taken me because I’d seen it when it was warm. Red Square in late summer is picturesque enough. But Red Square in the snow in the night: that’s really something to behold.
And so we fell into a cycle I’d imagine to be timeless. We’d meet every few days, insisting we were just friends and both knowing that wasn’t true. Meetings against the previous meeting’s behest, and against the more stringent parts of Altan’s conscience. “I’ve become a slut,” he once lamented, head bowed. “This is not who I am.”
On one early occasion he began teasing me about how easy it was to seduce American girls because they love British accents, and how he planned to travel to the U.S. one day and drown in women. I rolled my eyes lavishly.
“Oh please,” he smirked. “You’re pretending you don’t care but you love my London accent.”
I tersely reminded him that I wasn’t some American girl from the suburbs. I’d dated many other non-American guys and he’d have to find more interesting ways to impress me.
Unfazed, he carried on: “Let’s see, you like my London accent, you like my penis, you like it when I help you plan your lessons… What else?”
“Altan, are you trying to get me to list things I like about you?” I huffed. His smile read yes. “Well I’m glad you really understand what I look for in a man: accent, penis, help with lessons.” He just laughed, let thoughts shift elsewhere.
To be accurately read is an annoying kind of pleasantness, but at that time and at that age, I needed nothing more. And while I’d later learn that expression is truly better, I still remember that comfortable feeling, when you don’t have to explain because someone understands. Because of course, I was lying about his accent. He pronounced my name with a glottal stop: “Dako’a”. I missed a heartbeat every time.
Every British-American couple invariably moves through a fixed series of culture-centered conversations in the dawn of their relationship. The uniformity of these discussions induced eye-rolling in me when I was forced to overhear them, but in private with Altan, I could take a hidden delight. So we passed them all: we mocked each other’s accents, bickered over grammar differences, exchanged slang. He laughed nearly to the point of tears when I, in passing, described a coworker’s infraction as “a dick move.” He texted me the next day to ask for the term again when he forgot it.
But his identity had limits, as I was soon to learn. That evening, we were dining out and seated across from each other’s purple salads.
I don’t remember what he said but it may as well have been, “I direly need tea four times a day” or “Last night I dreamt I had brunch with the Queen.” Without thought, I stretched a sideways smile and exhaled with loving sarcasm, “You’re so English.”
A serious look set in as his back straightened. “I’m not English,” he clarified sternly. “I’m Turkish.”
A move inward for dramatic effect. “Listen, I consider myself British because I have a British passport. But I don’t consider myself English. I’m from London – but I’m not English. You don’t have to be English to be from London anymore, understand? London can belong to anyone now – that’s what makes it what it is today. People from all over the world have come to rebuild their communities there – and London belongs to them too, okay? Just as much as it’s ever belonged to anyone else. I’m from London and I’m Turkish. I’m a Turkish Londoner.”
As I looked on at him then, a feeling spread. On its thin surface it was cute he couldn’t let my “You’re so English” comment go but beneath lurked the simultaneous, colossal understanding of why you can’t let those moments go, because they build up and crush you. It was the cousin of the hurt that would settle when someone glossed over me in a group introduction: “This is Giulia – she’s Italian. This is Dakota – she’s American.” (“This is Altan – he’s English.”) It was the way his tone of voice and posture changed. Most of all, it was the warm understanding that he’d had that speech prepared, that he’d said it hundreds of times and how its structure was so similar to my own.
Because he didn’t know it then but I had a speech prepared too and mine also made mention of my passport. His experience and mine had differed: he’d faced hardships I could only imagine but I at least understood the need to clarify those invisible lines.
In the ensuing silence, scenes played within my mind. I’d say they played quickly and slowly at the same time, if such a thing were possible. I felt the second-hand singe in the telling intonation of “But where are you from?”, saw the times he’d distanced himself from Turkey to fit in with the white kids, and from England to fit in with the Turkish kids. How wearily he must’ve defended the concept of “Turkish Londoner” to people from both sides.
Because Altan was London, wholly, fully, sometimes a bit embarrassingly. His incessant need to compare London to everything we saw. The glint in his eyes when I recounted my childhood dreams of the city. The proud smile he wore, as if London was his personal accomplishment.
Anytime Altan insulted a British person who wasn’t from London, the place they were from was always somehow relevant: “That fuckin’ Sheffield idiot.” “I would punch that Scouse bastard if I ever got the chance.”
For me, London had long been a phantom, a vessel into which I could pour any kind of dream. A universe filled with hyphenated identities – and I spoke the language, no less. London had dark streets you could wander without a penny, its dirty old rivers kept rolling, it called. The chimneys had been fuel for Charles Dickens, the smokestacks fodder for H. G. Wells. It was Bram Stoker’s London where Orwell lived, very much down and out. Zadie Smith’s London, where Danny Rahman and Quang O’Rourke could grow up to be Kundalini yoga instructors. The sky swelled with Shakespeare’s sonnets, Martin Amis’s broodings: “Sometimes, as I sit alone in my flat in London and stare at the window, I think how dismal it is, how heavy, to watch the rain and not know why it falls.”
(Ah, the white men I grew up idolizing.)
And if it could belong to anyone now, then I too could claim my fair share of London. It was there for me, just waiting, and with the right blend of experience and words I could set about me a London all my own. Someone could ask me, “Where are you from?” and I could say “London” and that could be true.
But it’s dangerous when your conception of an unknown city becomes so wrapped up in a person. When I went to London the following year, I thought of him every day.
That was a London that held fresh tomorrows; a London that promised a life anew.
Altan’s family moved from Istanbul to London when he was nine, sometime after his father was imprisoned for being Kurdish, then released two years later. (Curiously, Altan scarcely identified as Kurdish at all.) So he’d grown up in a partly Turkish community but with few actual trips back to Turkey, and he hadn’t visited in ten years because he was avoiding his military service. When we first met and he told me his parents were Turkish, I replied that I lived in Istanbul for three months. His face brightened with a smile. “What were the people there like?” he asked.
Altan didn’t think of Turkey every day but he longed for it from time to time. And I knew that sensation too: an emptiness you could become aware of suddenly, a feeling you’d forgotten something.
He kept an Orhan Pamuk novel next to the English-Turkish dictionary on his desk, but more as a reminder that he should be laboring through it than because he actually was. He and his parents had settled into the classic equilibrium of many immigrant families: they spoke to him in Turkish, he replied in English and they both understood about 95%.
If London was a dream for me, Istanbul was for him. He loved to ask me about Istanbul, even the simplest of things: “What do people eat in the morning?” “Are those jellyfish still in the Bosphorous?” And whenever I listed the reasons I thought Istanbul was the Greatest City in the World, he’d smile, his eyes would unfix and he’d dwell on the other life he might’ve had.
“If I lived in Istanbul,” he once daydreamed aloud, “I’d speak Turkish every day. I’d just go to the market and speak Turkish. I’d buy vegetables in Turkish!”
And I knew he liked this about me: that I could reconnect him with his previous world. His gaze when I recognized the names of places he remembered, or recited the only Turkish sentence I still knew: “Please give me one portion of çiğ köfte.” (“Bir tam porsiyon çiğ köfte alabilirmiyim.”) He was delighted when I asked if he’d been subjected to a traditional Turkish circumcision ceremony. Which, incidentally, he had.
On the day of their circumcisions, Turkish boys are clad in traditional dress (and we both agreed there is something distinctly wizard-ish about the suit). And thusly Altan marched into the world, unknowingly advancing on a strange dilemma, the conundrum faced by many Turkish boys on their big day. He understood that on this day, the world looked to him. He understood he was transitioning from a boy into a man, and would take on all the responsibilities and honors that entailed. He did not fully understand that the outer part of his dick was getting cut off.
After being paraded around in his wizarding suit, he was taken to a hospital, where some foolish doctor began the procedure just before his anesthetic kicked in.
Altan shrieked in pain, feeling every cut, while a pack of nurses materialized to seize on each of his limbs, holding him down while he screamed for them to stop and struggled to break free. Fortunately the pain only lasted the remaining time the anesthetic needed to take effect, but even after it subsided he was understandably bitter, and elected to pout in protest throughout the entirety of the after party, where he was perched on a bed overlooking the party-goers, naked but for the small box propped up over his dick to keep the blanket from irritating it.
Altan laughed his way through that entire story. “How do you even know about that, man? I haven’t thought of that in years.”
Sometimes when we talked about Istanbul, I felt like something lurked in the back. That we both wanted to live there again, that his parents thought theycould pull strings to get him out of the military.
There were other countries we both had connections to: Argentina, Saudi Arabia. And I knew he liked this too: my patchwork life and lust for lands unknown, though they had their price.
It was in the way he asked about other places too. He was enthralled by my stories from Lebanon. He lit up, laughed at moments that weren’t funny, asked for more. That time my friend and I camped on the balcony of a restaurant. That time I made out with a famous author. “You’re so cool,” he used to say. “You’re the coolest person.” “But why do you keep moving?” he’d ask at different times, sometimes in different words. “When are you going to stop?” A mixture of awe and nervousness.
As our time progressed, it became clear he was keeping a mental list of the pros and cons of me and the other girl, and it was clear who was losing. In the month we spent together, he asked me four times if I’d decided yet how long I was staying in Moscow.
On our final morning, he couldn’t make eye contact with me when he said, “I think one day we can meet in another country.”
“I live in this country right now,” I replied.
“Yeah but I have a feeling you’re just gonna leave.”
A few months later, he was right.
Read Part 2 of this essay, Monday, July 18.
Dakota is a teacher and writer currently somewhere in Europe. She has a Twitter <https://twitter.com/DakotaTweeting>