On Saturday my younger sister-in-law tried to explain börek günü to me as a group of people going to one person’s house, eating börek, and giving them a hundred lira as a way to save up money. Like me, you’re probably a bit confused: what does a flaky pastry have to do with savings? And why are we going to someone’s house to give them money?
First of all, börek: börek is a pastry made from layers of filo dough wrapped around or covering various savory fillings such as spinach, spinach and white cheese, mushrooms, potatoes, or minced meat. It’s baked in the oven and served at breakfast…or lunch…or dinner.
A “börek day” can be described as somewhat of a book club (without the books) and a savings club rolled in one. If there are ten women in a group, then each month they all gather at one person’s home, eat börek and other foods, sit around drinking tea and gossiping, and each give the host 100 lira. The next month they gather at someone else’s home and do the same, rotating on until each person has played host (and received 900 lira). It’s really an excuse for a socializing.
So Sunday morning after breakfast my mother-in-law and I went out the door with the younger sister-in-law’s government-issued bus card, met up with my older sister-in-law, took the dolmus to the city center, the metro to Batikent, then switched to the extension metro line, and got off literally at the edge of the city among rolling hills and suburban apartment complexes interspersed with chain grocery stores and clusters of shops.
Suburban living usually means apartment-living in Ankara. Compared to the city center and older neighborhoods the apartments are larger and the sites are complete with parking lots, playgrounds, and paths meandering among the grass. But other than that I can’t see much appeal, at least on the north end of town. Sure, the apartments are more comfortable (for the same price), but it’s a long way to work (45 minutes tot he citycenter by metro) and the surroundings don’t have much to offer. (On the other side of town, however, we had friends who were renting an older house house – with a garden – in a quiet leafy green site directly behind the mammoth Gordion shopping mall and Çayyolu subways station [a straight 25 minute shot to Kizilay], within walking distance and 10 minute driving distance to shops and restaurants and cafes – so it’s hard for me to see the appeal of suburban apartment living on the far northern side of the city).
We arrived around 1:30, were greeted by my cheerful sister-in-law’s husband’s cousin and her three year old daughter who promptly gave me a tour of her bedroom, showed me her mother’s wedding album (twice), and sat me down to make-believe tea with her plastic dishes set. The other guests slowly, delinquently arrived in couples and small flocks, all relatives – my sister-in-law’s mother-in-law, her other daughters-in-law and daughters and cousins and cousins of cousins and daughters of cousins of cousins. Relatives, in other words, with too many relations for me to keep track after the first few introductions. Not only are relative-networks rather wide, but I’ve also realized that a lot of social activities in Turkey are still family-based.
Once everybody arrived we sat down to eat – a centerpiece of dried fruit and chocolates, plain and spinach börek, a dried green bean dish, great glass bowls of yogurt and carrot salad, an overly fluffy tiramisu-looking cake, homemade baklava stiff and burnt at the edges, and salad. Like a number of non-specific-meal gatherings I’ve gone to in Turkey there was a [for me] conspicuous lack of protein and an over-abundance of breads. There is always a salad, always mixed appetizers, always some baked goods – but rarely meat or beans or eggs. I’ve noticed that even at home: sometimes my mother-in-law will have pilaf topped with a vegetable dish cooked with olive oil – but no clear source of protein. When we cook or have barbeques with E’s friends, however, it’s completely the opposite: the meal always centers around the fish we’re grilling or the kofte (meatballs), or steak or other meat.
As the women came in they sat around the living room in a circle and caught up on each other’s lives since the last gathering. Unlike a book club, however, the women jested – mostly in fun – about how the latecomer’s should be punished. I suggested they be made to clear the table and do the dishes, but the others were more bent on they paying a 10 lira fine. This same vein went through their transactions after the meal was complete: one woman acted as a bookkeeper, sitting down to collect all the bills and tally who paid what, and who had paid what last month. They they got into a huge discussion after discovering that one person not only didn’t show, but also hadn’t given the money to someone else to take on her behalf – and had apparently done this a month or two before as well. Because they are all relatives, the conversation got even more feisty. I suppose it’s more akin to a [competitive] bridge club where people play for stakes than book club.
While sitting one kid – a boy of three-and-a-half – was running around, stripping the pillows from the chairs and throwing them on the floor, climbing on top of the sofa, grabbing a puzzle and then, five minutes later, moving to something else. His grandmother said he was just hyperactive, didn’t get out of the house much due to last week’s cold weather. But I noticed something else: he wasn’t looking at people. He wasn’t responding to people, or taking in their reactions to anything he did. He didn’t seem to understand – or even know that he should understand – how his actions affected others. For example, I was sitting on a chair, leaning against a pillow, when he decided he needed that pillow, came up (without looking at me), snatched the pillow, and threw it on the floor. My two-and-a-half year old niece can be yaramaz (mischievous, naughty) – but it’s a whole different breed of the behavior: 90% of the time she knows when she’s done something naughty and she either looks guilty when caught and cries or (more often) flashes this wide “I-know-I’ve-done-something-bad-but-let’s-see-if-I-can-get-away-with-it” smile. She is acutely aware of other people’s reactions. This kid wasn’t even aware that he should be aware.
We talked about him after leaving – it seems like he has autism and people in his family are mistaking it for normal troublesome three-year-old behavior. The contrast was even greater when we met up with my mother-in-law’s youngest brother slick in a pony tail, CAT boots and slim jeans (age 45 – one year older than the sister-in-law present) who lives in the site opposite and came to say hello with his six-year-old son. The kid seemed shy and quiet, but there was nothing obtrusive. As we left my mother-in-law told me that he had autism, but his parents had realized that something was off by his first birthday, sent him to treatments and a special preschool, read up on it as much as they could, and ensured that everyone in the family was participating in his education and development. The doctors said he would be probably be perfectly fine by age 10, and completely able to attend a normal middle school. Quite a contrast to the first, who will, if nothing is done soon, probably grow up to be largely uncontrolled and unable to regulate his own actions and emotions.
On the long (long, long) subway ride back we also talked about when I should leave Ankara after the birth (maybe one month after, in the first week of August), when my mother-in-law can come and the logistics of all that, how we’ll try to find a part-time nanny, and how I’ll be trying to get a contract from the university that allows me to work part-time starting from September. As I mentioned, I don’t need to work – but I’d like to for the sake of my psychology and creating a well-balanced life. My mother-in-law, who chugged along the whole day and had just been commenting on how refreshing it was to get some air, see a few different faces, spend time in adult company, and talk to non-two-year-olds, gave me a one word reply: “Work!”.
To close, here’s a borek recipe, just in case you want to make your own “borek day”.