I went to Turkey for the first time when I was five years old. We spent part of the summer visiting my maternal grandparents in the small town of Kozlu, near the Black Sea. I don’t remember much about that first trip to Turkey, but I remember that I didn’t like the food, feta cheese was smelly, they did not eat cereal for breakfast, I didn’t speak or understand Turkish, I whined a lot, strange people (my many relatives) kept kissing me and pinching my cheeks, I was restless and bored at times, and I met the woman who became my first role model and who I came to adore—my anneanne [a-nah-neh], my grandmother.
“There’s no peanut butter,” I whined. “I want peanut butter.” My mom, obviously frustrated with me, gave up trying to get me to eat feta cheese, tomatoes, and bread and walked away. I sat slumped at the kitchen table, my legs swinging and my stomach grumbling. “I’m hungry,” I cried. My anneanne tries to soothe me but since we don’t speak the same language, I don’t understand what she is saying and she doesn’t understand what I’m saying. She hears the words “peanut butter” over and over.
“What is this ‘peanut butter’?” she asks my mom in Turkish. My mother, I assume, tries to explain what it is. (Peanut butter has yet to make its way to Turkey.) My anneanne turns to me and pats me on the arm, “Gel, gel,” she says. “Ben fıstık ezmesi çok daha iyi bir şey var.” Huh? I look at her confused. I have no idea what she just said but I can tell she wants me to come with her. I glance at my mom with a puzzled and wary look. She sighs loudly and waves her hand ambivalently, signaling in the slightest way “ok, go.”
Anneanne quickly gets dressed, puts on her coat even though it’s warm out, artfully wraps a flowery silk scarf around her head, and takes her purse in the crook of one arm and then my hand in her hand. “Gel, gel,” she says again. My five-year-old brain finally understands she is saying, “come, come.” I grab her hand and off we go. We walk down the dusty street. I have no idea where she is taking me. But her hand feels soft and warm, and I feel good being with her. She talks the whole way. I don’t understand a word she is saying. I listen wide-eyed, looking up at her intently as I shuffle my feet and stumble along.
We arrive at our destination, not far from the house. She brings me inside the local grocery store, which is a small shop. It’s not like walking into Whole Foods. There are just a few shelves and baskets of fresh produce. She looks for something on the shelves, stops at one point, and says, “ah, buldum.” She grabs a small jar, and then places it in front of the cashier. My eyes are drawn to the small array of colorfully packaged candy near the register. I don’t see anything familiar but I know candy when I see it. Anneanne notices my gaze, and she grabs a few pieces of Tipi-Tip bubblegum and waves them in front of me. “İstiyor musun?” I slowly nod my head yes, hoping she’s is asking me if I want some.
We head back home, and I am smiling, suddenly forgetting my hunger. This nice lady got me bubblegum. And it was nice to get outside. Once home, anneanne takes the small jar from her purse and opens it. She cuts a slice of bread from this morning’s fresh loaf, and then she spreads what looks like dark goo on the bread. She sets it on a plate in front of me, “Ye bunu, çok iyi,” as she motions with her hand to her mouth, showing me to eat. I’m a little leery; after all, most of what I’ve tried in Turkey didn’t taste good to my little kid preferences. But it smells good so I take a bite. My eyes grow wide. I flash a big smile across my face—this is the best thing I’d ever eaten. Thus began my love affair with Nutella . . . and my love for my anneanne.
Thank you anneanne for introducing me to Nutella, but, more importantly, for breaking through the communication barrier, hearing what this little girl really needed, and showing me love is the universal language. You are my real hero. Happy International Women’s Day!
(Images of my anneanne from family archives.)