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Road Signs

The MacGuffin, Fall 2016, Vol.XXXIII, No. 1


My father always looked like he knew where we were going, even when we were lost. And during the twelve years we lived overseas that was often the case. 

Most of our travel, with the exception of Atlantic crossings, was by car. An army doctor, my father’s first assignment was Vicenza, Italy. Whether we were headed someplace we wanted to be, or someplace we had to be, my father drove with steady determination and focus, like a job. My mother did her best to navigate. It was the era of maps: folded, turned, ripped, slapped into submission, or crumpled up in a ball and thrown with exasperation to the wilds of the back seat: my little sister and me. Frequently we had to stop and ask for directions. The foreigners would stare at us, nonplussed. First we thought it was our enormous white Buick (1960 Electra), a startling contrast to Fiats and Vespas. Then we realized (big slap to the forehead), we were the foreigners! Once we were able to make sense of our desired destination, their response, a combination of broken English and hand signs, went something like this: go straight through the roundabout, exit at third turn at the small arrow, not the little one, and then take a sharp right at the next corner with the statue. Direction giving, it turned out, was more figurative than literal, like reading a novel in another language.  
Getting lost was not the only complication during our travels. The road signs in Europe were hard enough to understand. Unlike American systems, most European signs are based on symbols, not text, due to the diversity of languages spoken. There are two different signs for animal crossings, for example: one for domestic and one for wild. Does this mean the driver slows down? Speeds up? Stops to admire? And what about the red triangle with the black X in the middle. X marks the spot? 

And typically we were looking for some rare and hard-to-find destination because my mother and her Green Michelin guide said so: the castle with Byron’s chains; the mummified finger of St. Francis of Assisi; a liquor-making abbey with real monks; the palace with a dining-room table that lowered into the kitchen; and salt mines in Salzburg. But most of the time we were looking for restaurants. That was the Red Michelin guide.

In Italy, Sunday outings became a tradition. We had learned to speak the language fluently, so finding our way around became much easier. Plus father had an innate understanding of Italian “sign language,” an effusive and often dramatic combination of facial expressions and hand gesticulations: Hands thrown up in the air: Non so. I don’t know. Finger tap on the side of the head: Sei pazzo. You’re crazy. Fingers brought together, hand raised and lowered: Ma, che vuoi? What do you want?  My father invented his own: a finger across the palm brought a waiter with the check, though one time they brought him matches.

Germany was a different matter. There was no drama to translate; the language was much harder to learn and speak. So going out for our Sunday drives was especially challenging. This was my journal entry dated September 24, 1968. I was fourteen and we were living in Stuttgart. 

Today is usually family day. We all decided to go for a ride. My family is very unique. We are always having strange adventures, like today. Read on!

It was about 11:30 when we finally left. We were going to this place called “Die Mühle” in Münchingen. Anyway, we got kinda lost! So here we are driving through this little village and decide to ask for directions. Here is this fellow. Daddy rolls down the window. “Münchingen?” The guy says, shrugging his shoulders, “Italianishe.” My whole family bursts into Italian. The man I think was somewhat scared, but anyway he got over it! He told us he didn’t know. Boy. Was it funny. Then we see two German boys. My mother in her great German asks, “Wo is Münchingen?” The boys knew we were Americans and spoke English. My stubborn mother kept on speaking German! Well, it takes up a nut to make the world! This went on for a little while. Finally we set out again, arriving at our destination. We enjoyed an excellent meal mixed with laughter about the previous happenings.

Another Sunday we were headed for a restaurant in a medieval town in the Mosel Valley renowned for its Riesling and views of the Rhine River. We had been driving in circles (this time a more reasonable Chevy Caprice) on cobblestone streets and already more than thirty minutes late for our reservation. Everyone’s on edge except for my father. He pulled up at a stop sign and calmly rolled down his window, leaning out to a man on a bicycle.

“Bitte schön. Scusi. Si’l vous plait.” My father pointed to the name of the restaurant in the small red book. The man on the bicycle nodded, gestured to a crossroads, and recited a string of unintelligible words. 

“Ekrem,” my mother asked, getting excited, “what did he say?"

My father closed the window, shrugged, and stepped on the gas. He maneuvered the car through streets an arm’s length wide and voilà, we were there. After this happened more than once, we started the joke about my father having been a cabdriver in his former life, a cabdriver in every city in Europe.

I don’t think he liked this characterization very much. He was Turkish, a doctor, and a very proud man. People expect Turks to be dark skinned with dark eyes and dark hair. No, he explained to me and others. True Turks are fair-skinned, their ancestry dating back to central Asia, to the homeland called Turan. But even though my father, Dr. Ekrem Suleyman Turan, was 100% Turkish, he dressed 100% American in button-down shirts, khaki pants, Ray-Bans, Keds, a white tennis hat (fit tightly over his bald head), or, in clothes my mother made him wear like bespoke Italian suits, shirts, and ties. 

One summer while we visited relatives in Istanbul, my father took us on a tour of Kapali Carsi, the famous covered bazaar. It was easy to tell that my mother, sister, and I were tourists: my mother with her striking white hair, my sister and I in vacation clothes (being a teenager, my skirt was probably shorter than it should have been). My father, with a camera around his neck no less, was in his American “disguise.” As we were leaving the bazaar, a rug merchant approached us. Please, he said in very nice English, come see my rugs. Always courteous, my father lifted a hand and shook his head. No, thank you. The rug merchant persisted. The exchange continued between them until my father, losing his patience, turned abruptly and delivered a strident, rapid-fire response in Turkish. The poor man practically fell to his knees. He bowed his way backward into the shadows of his stall, fervently apologizing. As we returned to our hotel, my father acted as if nothing had happened, not one feather ruffled. That same summer in Turkey we had dinner at a fancy restaurant. The waiter kept bringing us Caspian caviar, ladling it onto our plates by the spoonful. My father paid the bill without blinking an eye, but when we got back to the hotel his face looked a shade paler than usual. 

He also had an uncanny ability for getting us out of trouble: deep snow on the Brenner Pass, he had chains in the trunk; flat tires on the outskirts of Madrid, the temperature nearly 100 degrees, he found a water spigot on the side of the road; in the mazelike alleys in Venice he always found the station for the vaporetto; and stuck in traffic, he had Hodja.

Nasreddin Hodja was a legendary 13th-century pedagogue; a wise man, a wise ass, and, sometimes, an ass. He is famous for his wit, subtle humor and clever stories. He didn’t care if you were a sultan, a beggar, or one of his demanding two wives, he was always philosophical in his approach to life, whether it made sense or not. My father brought home a collection of Hodja stories from Turkey one year. The cover illustration showed Hodja, a long white beard, wearing a giant turban, sitting on his donkey. I loved the book; it was like holding my father in my hands. His response to our complaints—When are we going to get there? Is it going to take much longer?—was Hodja stories. My father’s delivery was exquisitely deadpan, as if he were the trickster himself. 

One day Nasreddin Hodja was on his way to the market in a cart filled with baskets of lemons. The cart was very heavy and the horse old and tired. Hodja’s son, an impatient boy, complained bitterly about the heat, the dust rising up from the road stinging his eyes, the flies buzzing around his head, that they didn’t seem to be moving. Father, the boy sighed, when are we going to get there? Can’t we go any faster?  Hodja looked at his son, shrugged his shoulders.  Certainly we can, but what are going to do with the horse? 

Laughing, we would forget our complaints and beg him to tell us the story again. 

Some of the best car trips were the annual ski treks to Garmisch-Partenkirchen in Bavaria. We’d stay in a beautiful Old World hotel that had been commandeered by the army for military families. From Vicenza we’d take the Autostrada until it became the Autobahn and head north to the Brenner Pass, climbing up through dark craggy tunnels carved in the mountainside. The Buick was so stuffed with luggage, skis, and boots that the back end scraped the road each time we hit a bump. Maybe it was because of the bright red, forty-five-pound transformer we’d faithfully lug with us on each trip, even if it meant a sacrifice or two, like the box of Christmas ornaments or Mom’s extra shoes.

We needed the transformer to plug in the G.E. electric coffeemaker so Mom and Dad could have coffee in the morning. They hated the hotel coffee made by the German waitstaff for the American guests. Obviously the staff didn’t know about the Turans—we weren’t Americans at all!  After many years of staying there, it’s likely the Hotel Garmisch-Partenkirchen Hof staff had different names for us.

Early in the morning, my father would plug the transformer into the 220 outlet. The voltage would overpower the circuit and blow all the power out in our room as well as in the adjacent rooms in the hallway. But Dad, with the brazen, self-assuredness of Hodja, would walk out into the hall, wearing nothing but blue cotton boxer shorts and his shiny brown leather slippers. He’d locate the box and reset the fuses. We had power, and coffee, and everyone was happy. I hope Mom and Dad have the red transformer with them in Heaven. 

There were times, however, when getting lost or taking a wrong turn found us someplace we did not want to or should be, or places we wished we had never been. 

Touring Naples, we mistakenly found ourselves in soiled back streets. Prostitutes hanging out of doorways made provocative clucking sounds with their tongues, and men, leaning against buildings, spit at the ground as we passed; others laughed We clung to each other and walked as quickly as possible to find our way out. By car, lost somewhere in the Schwartzwald, we stopped and asked for directions from an old man sitting on a bench. His face was deeply wrinkled and worn. He sneered and waved us on, like he was swatting a fly. I remember the prickly feeling on the back of my neck. It wasn’t the only encounter with anti-American hostility during the years we lived there. I remember a dull, bruised silence in the car, but my father kept driving, getting us home.

Back in the states, my father kept on driving. They bought a condo in Florida and made the 1,000 plus mile trip between Jensen Beach and their house in Chester County, Pennsylvania, four times a year for nearly thirty years—first in a two-door Buick Riviera and then in an Eldorado because it was more comfortable. Even in his eighties he insisted on driving everywhere. My parents would come to our house in Center City, Philadelphia, for dinner and then drive back late at night after a few drinks. It made me crazy. But I didn’t want to drive at that hour either. I begged them to let me get rooms for them at the Four Seasons but they (he) refused. An old man likes his own bed, he said. I always felt guilty that I never drove them. I know he thought I should have, he expected it of me, the least a daughter could do for her father. The guilt is still there, like an open wound that never heals.  

The driving to Florida was the end of him. They were still stubbornly going back and forth, long past the time that he should have been at the wheel. He had already lost the vision in one eye and could barely see above the dashboard, his height having diminished with age. My mother wasn’t in good shape either with bad knees and pulmonary sclerosis. She could barely walk or breathe. 

They typically made the trip in three days, stopping after six hours in the car.  They were on their final lap back home, somewhere in North Carolina. After checking into a motel, Dad ventured out in the twilight to find takeout for dinner. It was dark; he couldn’t see and tripped over a curb, his face landing hard on the pavement. I don’t know how he got himself back to the room; he was bleeding heavily due to his meds: Coumadin. They remained in the motel for three days, never calling a doctor (and he was a doctor), never calling me, never calling for help of any kind. He knew that if they had gone to a hospital, Mom would have had a terrible time managing without him. 

Mom called me as soon as they got back and told me what happened. I got to their house as fast as I could. Dad was lying in bed, his entire face bruised. He could barely move. My mother said he wouldn’t eat. Please, get him to eat something, Heidi (my nickname). He’ll eat for you. I spoon-fed him some pasta my mother had made. He chewed and swallowed a few bites and then fell asleep. The ambulance came the next morning, and we took him to the hospital. He died of complications a few months later. 

Soon after, we had our last car ride together. I was at the wheel. My father’s ashes in a box next to me on the passenger seat. I drove us home.