By Esther Heboyan
Special to the Mirror-Spectator
Until recently I had no inkling that Pope John XXIII (1881-1963), formerly known as Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, used to live on the very street where I spent my early childhood. Until recently I had no inkling that my street in the Harbiye neighborhood of Istanbul was renamed Papa Roncalli Sokak. I say my street because I lived there the first eight years of my life. Yes, I lived somewhere on that street during the crucial formative years, as they say. What did I see, what did I hear, and what did I do?
Do? I didn’t do much, it seemed to me years later, and it still does today. Wasn’t allowed to play outdoors. The city street was no playground at the time. Never owned a bike to rush up and down an alley as some kids, mainly boys though, did on the Prince islands. However, I remember strolling about the Beyoğlu neighborhood or going to the Turkish film matinees, my hands tightly squeezed in my parents’ or my grandmothers’ hands. Tightly squeezed as if a sudden whimsical urge would make me wander off. Where to? And how could I? My world was my family, was my neighborhood. Tightly squeezed as if a malevolent character out of a book or a movie would snatch me away. And then what?
Hear? Heard languages, Western Armenian (spoken mainly indoors), my maternal grand-mother’s funky broken Armenian (a language no one else around me spoke at the time and would ever speak in my future life), Turkish (indoors & outdoors), funky peasant Turkish (from street vendors and apartment janitors), Greek (at an aunt’s), American English (from Elvis Presley songs). All of those languages were music to me. Just like the doleful songs drifting from the radio, a relative’s sad saz being tuned endlessly, someone’s harmonica, someone else’s accordion and home-made percussions – the clink of silver spoons, bare hands drumming on a table top, and the best of all, tongue popping, yes, a human tongue that produced short round clogging sounds and that I so wished to mimic. Heard songs performed after meal times. Those who had no ear joined in anyway, to be rebuked ruthlessly. Heard laughter and weeping, screaming and whisper. Heard silence.
See? Saw an ill-lit room on the first floor of a small building. Saw a dancing bear and the bear-keeper right in front of our window. Saw the ice-cream vendor rolling his cart that was bluer than the sea. Saw the classrooms of a grade school run by solemn nuns. A catholic school for girls in black uniforms. Austere as austere can be. Don’t know why I took along and have kept to this day my school report card of 1962-63. The absurdity of it all. Halfway during the last term of Grade Two I was gone already, gone out of the country, I mean. The child of eight looks at two assessment rubrics left blank in the yearly average column, then scribbles down one perfect 5 (the highest mark then) for Hal ve Gidiş (Disposition and Conduct) and another for Düzenlik (Organization). A pair of 5s in blue ink aiming for muted perfection. Also: the parents having lost interest in daily matters, the child decides to sign the report card herself. Resisting the erasure of time and place.