Baby-friendly places: nobody beats the Turks

This is a typical reaction of Turks to babies.

Have you ever been in an office (especially one with many women) where someone brought in a puppy? Everyone crowds around, cooing and petting the puppy, perhaps taking photos and telling stories about their puppies. There’s always a few curmudgeons who find a puppy in the office a disruption, but generally, it’s a pretty exciting diversion from work. Well, that’s exactly what it’s like having a baby in Turkey. Vera happens to be exceptionally cute and engaging (not that I’m biased or anything), but every time I go out with her, strangers pinch her cheeks, teenage boys take her photo on the Metro, and we hear lots of Maşallahçok güzel (so beautiful/cute!), and some variation on yerim seni bebek (I want to eat your baby!)A few weeks after Vera was born, I wrote a post for Gadling on the baby-friendly difference, discussing how accommodating Turkish people are for mothers and children with everything from getting a seat on the subway to calming a crying baby at the supermarket. Nine months later, I’ve collected many stories to illustrate that when it comes to being crazy for babies, nobody beats the Turks. Here are just a few of our experiences in the baby-crazy ‘Bul.

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Every week a group of expats gather for drinks and conversation, we call it Thirsty Thursday, and we meet at a different Istanbul cafe or bar each week. My attendance has slowed a bit since Vera was born, but we still make it out every few weeks, and V is most in her comfort zone in a noisy cafe, surrounded by people. One evening, we were meeting at the tiny but excellent U2 Irish Pub, but Vera was in A Mood. I tried everything to calm her so that I could chat with my friends and stay for a bit, but she was inconsolable. Above the bar, there are a few apartments, along with a bathroom for bar customers to use. I stood there trying to change her diaper on top of storage box, when an old lady who lived in one of the apartments came out to see what the commotion was about. As soon as she saw Vera, she invited me into her home and sang songs to amuse the baby. Even after a change, I remained pacing the hall outside the bar with my crying baby, until the bartender came out and asked me why I wouldn’t come inside. I explained that I didn’t want to disturb other patrons (it is a bar after all, not a Gymboree), but he was confused. “She’s a baby, she cries. It’s no problem, come inside.” She eventually did calm down long enough for me to have a drink with friends, distracted by the soccer on TV, the music (probably U2) playing on the stereo, and the delight of each patron who came in to discover a baby in the bar. Only in Turkey.

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A few weeks ago, I accomplished the near-impossible with a baby: I managed to get both of us dressed, fed, and out to do errands well before noon. Leaving the supermarket, we waited to cross a fairly busy street (one constant in Istanbul is the traffic, it is always crazy), when an old Turkish man walked by and said, “Be careful of the traffic, miss!” Before I could respond, he grabbed my arm and walked us across the street, using the other arm to wave off cars. I didn’t have the right words in Turkish to tell him that in America, it’s customary for the young to help elders cross the street, so I just thanked him and we went our separate ways.

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Blue Mosque babies

Earlier this year, a friend came to visit us with her baby boy, just a few months older than Vera. Their visit coincided with some late-winter snow, but we tried not to let it stop us from exploring the city, though many Turks are scared of going out if the forecast calls for a breeze. The two babies got an incredible amount of attention over the week, in part due to the fact that they offered two different “flavors”: Vera’s a dark-haired girl, Kesha a fair and blue-eyed boy. On a visit to the Blue Mosque, we literally had a line of people, both locals and tourists, taking pictures of the babes! One afternoon we took shelter from the snow inside a cute coffee shop in funky/gentrifying Çukurcuma. Like many cafes in the world, it was full of young hipsters (hipsTurks?) typing on their MacBooks, drawing in sketchbooks, and probably writing terrible poetry. But because this is Turkey, we were treated like celebrities: V and K were carried around by the waiters, allowed to bash on the laptops, and endlessly cooed over. My friend asked one of the English-speaking hipsTurks why all the fuss and he explained that most Turks don’t take young babies out, especially in inclement weather, as there’s generally always extended families around to help with childcare. Family is very important in Turkish culture, so seeing babies out in the world is pretty exciting, especially if they are very different-looking. “We love black babies, too. Do you know any black babies?” Um, not at the moment, but I’ll keep my eyes peeled. He couldn’t offer an explanation of what Turks do with all the photos they take of our random babies; I figure there must be some kind of ICanHazCheeseburger-like website where they are cataloged and shared. By the end of their visit, my friend and I were scheming the perfect Turkish business: a baby peep show! We figure we could charge a lira for a look, maybe 5 TL for a cheek pinch. Hello, college fund!

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At this point, it looks like we will leave Turkey around V’s first birthday in July. I couldn’t imagine a better place to have her spend her first year, and wonder how she will adjust to the far less baby-crazy and sometimes baby-hostile world of New York City. As we have done on many of our international trips, I imagine we will go in search of Turkish restaurants from time to time, just to get a taste of their baby fever. While we’re looking forward to the many conveniences of living in America again, and much cheaper baby gear and toys, we’ll miss the feeling of being welcomed everywhere (I could take her to a nightclub at 2am and they’d probably offer to turn down the music and A/C) and that help is always around when you need it.

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