Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Curses! A Visit To A Bureaucratic Hellhole That Wasn't So Bad

You can tell from the outside that nothing good will happen in here.
Remember a couple of weeks ago how I was all sucking at life and stuff? Well, the shots in the ass kind of did their job and life went on, apparently not caring whether I sucked at it or not.

Does this cancel out somehow?
In general, I try not to be superstitious, though I avoid obviously dangerous superstition thingies, like walking under ladders (shit really does drop from up there) and opening umbrellas in the house. Okay, the umbrella thing isn't really dangerous, but once when I was about six, I was attempting to demonstrate to my mom how it doesn't bring bad luck to open an umbrella in the house and I opened one and it broke something semi-valuable and I got in trouble so if that isn't bad luck I don't know what is.

But when I was sucking at life I made fun of both the muhtar and SSK and you know what? It has become necessary to go to both of those places. LE's school needs some bit of paper from the muhtar, and this goddamned SSK aktivasiyon business turns out to be real and has to be sorted out in person. So maybe there's something to this overwhelming Turkish belief that our thoughts and words have the power to draw the universe's attention to you, and bring down a load of shit on you if it's about bad things. I'm pretty sure this belief accounts for the lack of public education about earthquake safety and why no one does anything about these shit buildings that keep going up.

Anyway, the muhtar was painless, once I found it. There was a really nice receptionist who looked us up in her computer and discovered we weren't registered. Since the steps required to do that are in my husband's hands, I washed my own hands of the muhtar and LE and I went on our merry way.

As for SSK, it's became some sort of Holy Grail of a thing I got bent on, nay, called upon to Deal With.

Don't ask me why SSK needs to be activated. I pay them money and they do their thing and I thought we were getting along fine until I actually tried to use it a couple of weeks ago. I'm fairly certain this whole aktivasiyon business is just a wee scheme to create work for the good folks down at SSK. I mentioned it to some friends and they were all, "Your school is the one who should to deal with that," so I marched myself down to Human Resources only to be told I have to do it myself. I was told nicely, in any case, which always pleases me in the face of any bad news. They rolled their eyes and started asking each other, "Did you have to do this aktivasiyon thing?" and some said yes and some said no, making me think the random fist of Turkish bureaucracy came crashing down on some people but not on others. And they told me where I have to go to do it, which, as it turns out, is right near a tramway stop so I just thought, "Fuck it. I'm tired of sucking at life, and I'm going to go on down there and activate the hell out of my SSK."

Here's one thing about my life in Turkey. Before I got married, I either a) didn't deal with anything, or b) dealt with it, but it was so horrifyingly problematic I swore never to deal with it again, or c) got a Turkish person to come along with me to tell me what I needed to do. The school where I first worked even had some guys who would come along with us to deal with stuff. We called them the little men, because not one of them was over 5' 3". These guys were security guards or cleaners or something, just the all-around fellows who worked at the school and sometimes cleaned stuff or fixed stuff. Seyfettin Bey was the best of them. He was always kind to us, he wore a charming cap and vest, and he could kick bureaucratic ass like no one's business.

I don't like the look of it.

On a bad day you'd get Creepy Salih or Handy Kemal.

Pink is for girls!
In fact, the little men, aside from their creepiness or handiness, just made the bureaucracy situation even more uncomfortable, because neither the little men nor the people we had to deal with spoke English, so instead of one person barking Turkish at you, there were two. It's not like I ever expected everyone to speak English, but instead of feeling grateful for having some help in whatever nightmare you were dealing with, you felt as though you were making your little man look bad because you couldn't figure out what the hell anyone wanted from you. Plus they would do stuff like propel their foreigner ahead in the line in ways I wasn't quite comfortable with at the time. Nonetheless, it all worked out because I have a tax number, a SSK card, and well before I was married, I had a legal residence/work permit so I could be called upon to turn up for work when the Ministry of Education inspectors came. It took an awful lot more stroking of my ass by Creepy Salih and Handy Kemal than I'm comfortable with, but by golly, it's done.

Then I got married and BE dealt with everything so I was completely off the hook, which is just one reason why my Turkish is so piss poor after almost 10 years here. It's ended up that I'm completely lame at doing anything grown-up here. BE, while quite good at dealing with things that need dealing with is not, shall we say, on the ball about taking care of things and sometimes I want things to get taken care of before next year.

Fast forward to now. I packed up LE, telling him we had to go to one of the worst, most boring places on Earth, worse than the bank even, but that afterwards we'd go somewhere super-cool. He wasn't too keen, having decided his day was was going to be spent watching A Nightmare Before Christmas over and over. He's really into the opening song, and as a result it's been the only earworm I've had for days now. Watching LE dance to it or burst into song from time to time is totally worth it, though, so I'm not really against repeated viewings of this particular film.

But once LE found out all the forms of transportation we'd be enjoying, he warmed up to the idea. Minibus-metro-funicular-tram sounds pretty fucking good when you're four. When we arrived at our desired location an hour and a half later, LE was completely convinced it was all a wonderful adventure. His favorite part was the little red and green lights on the metro sign telling you which stops you've been to. He also likes the signs telling you which things are forbidden, and the metro doors have two-- one telling you not to lean on the doors (lots of naughty people doing that too, by the way) and another with a crossed out hand which I took to mean you shouldn't try to pull the doors open with your hand. LE really wanted to know whose hand it was.

We're orange.
The tramway was even better, with a color-coded sign showing the people you should give your seats to. LE liked the orange one best because it was about him. And because none of these forms of transportation was full of snot-nosed students from my university, there was always someone who gave us a seat.

Guess when the numbers slowed down.
The SSK place had a number system, which was much nicer than the pushing mob scene I had envisioned. We got number 493. The sign said 310. Fuck. I'm never sure what to do in these situations because sometimes a group of numbers flies by really fast and sometimes they take 20 minutes to change. There was a room with nice tables and chairs labeled something like "Employers and SSK holders waiting room." Since it looked ever so much nicer than the other waiting room with no label, I went on in and found us a spot. There wasn't anything on the sign about un-activated SSK-holders being forbidden to enter.

Really, it was the best place to wait.
LE played with his car and I eavesdropped on our fellow waiting room denizens and peeked at the papers they had with them, suddenly worried I should also have a sheaf of papers with me. In an effort to not suck at life, I had actually phoned, yes PHONED on the telephone the SSK place to check what I should bring. I never quite trust information I get on the phone from such places though, so I had brought every form of official document we have, just in case.

The three things that saved us.

Just then, things in the SSK office started going insanely contrary to my expectations. A security guard walked in and started throwing candy around. No, seriously. That actually happened. It's like he could read LE's constant, intense, thrumming  "I want candy" brainwave. He made sure LE got extra candy. I gave LE one and saved the rest for emergencies, as I'm wont to do.

So after the car had been broken and repaired a few times, LE moved on to his iPhone games. He found some games in there I didn't even know I have that were pretty fun, but he totally wouldn't share. So that kind of sucked.

Eventually, we had to pee. The security guards directed us to the elevator to get to the toilets upstairs. The elevators only held three people, though, and there were like twelve waiting, so much to LE's tremendous disappointment, we used the stairs. It was one flight so we handled it okay. Upstairs, there were some offices but nothing that looked like a toilet. We wandered around and LE spotted a toilet-y looking place. We went in slowly and suddenly a man materialized saying, "This is the men's room!"

Saw  really scared me, because it's real.
There are few things I hate more than walking into the wrong bathroom. But this bathroom didn't even have a bathroom sign, let alone a gender label. I asked if it was written anywhere and the man said "no," so I guess my mistake was cool. He directed us to the correct toilets and it was every bit as awful as I expected, the kind of place where I'm glad there are only squatters because then I don't have to touch anything. LE was delighted because peeing in a squatter is like peeing on the floor. Plus we got to ride the elevator back downstairs so that was another crisis averted.

Back behind the SSK windows was a dank-smelling, closed-up array of businesses I wished were still open-- a bakery, an Internet cafe, and a drycleaner, among other things. If only I could have smashed all those other errands into my SSK visit! But apparently the Turkish economy had other ideas.

I mock your sucky institutions!
So we went outside for awhile. For luck, there was a man out front selling bananas and nuts. I bought some of each. LE raced around and played with his car. Then we started playing football with his car and some other folks joined in. In LE's world, it was shaping up to be an okay day. Despite my freaking out that we might be required to have a sheaf of papers like everyone else, I wasn't minding the day so much either.

Eventually, our number came up. The woman in the office behind the little hole in the window I had to bend down to talk into was looking me up before I even explained our boring problem. She was being really nice, which threw me for a loop. I passed her my phone, where I had my official yabancı number written. That's a number BE came home with and gave me one day, and I was never sure why, but it's really long and it seemed easier just to hand her the phone than to attempt shouting the number through the little hole. She had a smiling and joyful face.

But all she could find was some stuff that ended in 2008. I had no idea what that was all about, because of all the money SSK is getting out of my paycheck every month.

"So?"I asked? "What do I have to do?"

"So?" she said happily, "What do you have to do?"

If Sesame Street had an episode called, "A Visit To SSK," this woman would have been the star. She was that lovely and cheerful, seriously.
The world has a lot to learn from Sesame Street, but the SSK lady already learned it.

"I don't know," I said. "Where is my money going?"

"Look, I'll show you!" and she cheerfully waved me around to the office door to come on in to the sanctified SSK office so I could see her computer. She showed me where I left my old school to have LE, and where my SSK payments had stopped.

"Interesting," I said.

Who could be happy after a day's work here?
"Yes!" she said, like it was the best day ever at 4pm on what must have been a long, hard day for her. "Isn't it?" Then she thought for a moment, and went to punch in the foreigner ID number that was on my phone. Just then, my friend phoned me and the woman was perplexed and horrified. I pushed the red button because that seems to solve most problems and my friend would understand. My foreigner number came right back up because iPhones are fucking cool.

And there on her computer was all the money the government has been taking from me. Turns out I have two SSK accounts. Turns out my school went and set up another one for me without asking if I already had one. Turns out the whole computer revolution in government offices has somehow failed in terms of the whole cross- referencing thing, because you'd think my old account would have come up when they were trying to make the new one.

I kept mum about how this whole thing could be related to the fact that I have two or three official names here, depending on who you ask. The nice Sesame Street lady didn't notice anyway, and I figured it wasn't a good time to bring it up. LE decided now was a good time to play "Hide From Mama At An Inopportune, Stressful Moment," and even though none of his his usual spots (behind the sofa, in the nook behind the table) were available, I could hear him giggling evilly from behind an empty desk. The nice lady directed us to an office upstairs where someone might be able to do something, and LE popped up when he heard the word "elevator." She waved us back to the little hole in the window while she punched more stuff into her computer. When we got the hole, a young man was yelling at her on behalf of a friend who, after waiting a couple of hours had, quite justifiably in this man's mind, nipped out for a pack of cigarettes at the last minute and missed his number.

"Terbiyesizlik yapmayın!" she was saying cheerfully to him as we collected our papers.

Seriously, where ever this woman finds her source of joy and patience, I need me some of that.

"Gray-faced bureaucrat" on Google images gives us Wayne Newton
So we went upstairs to the other office, nicely veneered compared to the place downstairs and I noticed the toilets were labelled, for gender and otherwise, and waited patiently for a gray-faced elderly bureaucrat to finish doing some bureaucratic thing. While we waited, a man on the phone behind him was engaged in a delicious conversation.

"Madam, if you'd just stop speaking so I can.... yes madam, if you'd just... yes, madam, I understand your name was written as Çetin but it should be Çelik... Madam, if you would just stop speaking now so I can... Look, it's not a problem (tap tap tap on the computer), I've just changed your name to Çelik... Please, madam, stop talking..." I could hear the woman on the phone screeching from where we were standing.

I didn't envy that fellow's job at all. And I realized that perhaps the SSK thing has become decidedly less horrible than it has been in the past, despite everyone's expectations. The gray-faced man sorted out his problem and waved us off to a younger woman over yonder, another Sesame Street cheerful person who wrote out all my SSK numbers on a sheet of paper, totally unfazed by what I feared would be a most confounding problem. "It will take about 2 months to join the accounts. Check the website then, and make sure it's okay."

"Will I have to activate it again?" I wondered.

She looked relieved that I knew what the Internet was. "Most probably!" she said, with a smile.

And with that, we got the fuck out of there.

And since we were on the tram line, I decided to make the most of our day, and let LE learn about his heritage and shit. So we went on down to Sultanahmet and checked out the Yerebatan Sarayı, which is much improved for four-year-olds since I saw it eleven years ago because they've eliminated the colored light show and new-age music but added safety railings along the water's edge. I scored a teacher discount. Since LE doesn't know any better, I acted as the tour guide and pointed out all the fish and made up a whole bunch of crap about battles in regards to the Medusa heads because that's what I imagine about them.

The Romans lost, by the way, because it was about fucking time the Romans lost. Snooty pricks.

Then we had some köfte and soup, and later a sahlep at a tourist tea garden near the mosque. The village tea boys were unable to hide their shock at my half-breed Turkish boy, and they were awfully sweet because it isn't summer and not much is going on for them these days. I let LE run around the courtyard in Sultanahmet mosque and showed him about the chain at one of the entrances, plus there were lots of cats. I stressed the numbers about how old it all was, and it warmed my chilly heart later when I heard him telling his dad and Babaanne how we went to see all the *really old things*. He thought the cats and teaboys were also old, which confused his dad and Babaanne, but whatever.

Our trip to the SSK ended up being a fine day after all, which is about 1,000 times more than I ever expected. So without being overly optimistic, it's possible that I just kicked life in the ass a little bit...

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