I was on a turkish reality show

It was because in the midst of looking for a new job, I found a craigslist ad that was looking for a bunch of foreigners to “live with a turkish family for a week, learn to cook a turkish meal, and sing a turkish song.” They didn’t know how ready I was for such an experience. It would be just like being in Georgia, but with a camera crew. GAME ON.

The experience, if I were to sum up, is a lot like being on a tv show for which there is a script, except it is not written down, and so the film crew wants you to do things but can only sometimes communicate what that is because they are speaking in nonsense.

Day one of filming was bizarre. Eda, the redhaired secretary who only spoke turkish, instructed me to meet the car at the Kadikoy District Marriage Registry building at seven in the morning. Mert, the intern, and Feyza, the assistant director, were waiting in the vehicle for me. (note: these are guesses. I actually have no idea what anyone’s jobs are, except of course the people holding the cameras.) I had a really bad head cold and had slept very little, and was delirious. Also this week I’ve been living in a basement in Hasanpasa because I had to abandon the sea palas, so I’d been searching for a new house all week, and also planning a vacation to Eastern Turkey (to see things like this motha here) so I was very delirious.

We drove all the way out to Kavacık, which is a northern Asian suburb of Istanbul, and they made me wait in the car while they set things up. (“It is surprise.”) First they filmed me walking out of the car, then they filmed me walking up the alleyway to the backyard, and they did each about three times. The backyard was full of birds: chickens, two aggressive and dominant ducks who would curl their heads and honk like guns at passing chickens, and pigeons. Plus two dogs.

I greeted my hosts, Nazo and Ahmet, two people in their sixties. They greeted me with village kindness and hospitality. They seemed genuinely nice. Then we filmed that surprise beginning three more times.

It was a strange day. They insisted on interviewing me in turkish, which is not really a language I can be effectively interviewed in, unless you want me to say “very X” or “it is beautiful, I like it.” Erman, a tall Turkish guy wearing a steadycam apparatus and a backwards baseball cap, instructed me to look disappointed with my room. “Look, where will you put your clothes, there is no closet.” (He had also lived in LA for a long time, so his english was pretty good.) I tried to look disappointed, but it just struck me as rude, since these nice people had offered me their house for a week. Also I did not care where I put my clothes. My room had some birds. (in cage)

Nazo, my “host mom,” was an enormous smiling woman who smelled of old blankets. She prepared an enormous meal of borek and salad for the entire film crew. The director and film crew found fault–they had to sit her down at the dinner table and talk about acting “natural,” which is difficult to do on camera anyways, but she had the tendency to gush and was never sure when they were recording or where to look. Ahmet was indulgent of the whole process, and eventually just wanted to go to bed. He played with the dogs in the yard with his feet, in the way that people do when they don’t want to bend over or scratch the dog and then have to wash their hands.

Then the film crew drove me back home. It was explained to me that we are just faking living there. Instead, we will be changing outfits several times tomorrow to furnish our audiences with that illusion.

Day two was long and epic. I was still very ill, and I woke up at six to meet them at the Marriage Registry. We slept in the car. Mostly I remember sleeping on various surfaces–carpets, beds, couches–because I was ill and wasn’t sure what they wanted.

I had expressed to the producers of the show that I love eggplant kebap, and would be happy to make that dish. When we filmed the cooking segment, however, there were some ish. Instead of delicious eggplant and ground meat on skewers cooked over a fire, we would be boiling meat, frying slices of eggplant, then wrapping the boiled meat in soggy eggplant, then baking it with tomato sauce. It was terrible and very difficult to make. Nazo was very positive throughout the whole process. The film crew had to interrupt me several times to “make it look worse, like you cannot do this.” We changed outfits three times during the cooking segment, to pantomime growth over several days as a chef of boiled meat and greasy eggplant packettes.

Nazo was also responsible for teaching me the song. It was a Turku, or turkish folk, which is strange, repetitive, and I could neither understand the words or the melody from the things she muttered happily at me, so I just danced to whatever she was saying. We filmed a “guest” segment where two strange woman came in, and it appeared that Nazo and Ahmet did not actually know these people, and these people did not actually know each other, and they filmed us all having a conversation in the living room. Or rather, they were filmed having a conversation while I watched silently. I felt the normal level of uncomfortable that a person feels when people are having a conversation in a different language, but a film crew who only mostly speaks that same language want to film you in the same room with these people having the conversation, so you can’t leave the room and find a nice carpet to lay upon and nap. The last shot we got that day was of me vacuuming the rugs. It was nine thirty pm. We all went home.

Yesterday was the final day of the shoot. I met the other two tourists with whom I would be competing–Shiva (from Jaipur) and Marina (from Belarus). We all met at nine in the morning in Tophane, at Istanbul’s Kitchen Academy. As it turns out, they had both lived here for upwards of two years, and, also unlike me, actually spoke turkish. Shiva was married to a Turk.

I foolishly did not eat breakfast (OR COFFEE), as I imagined the film crew would provide it (which they had previously) and they did, but not until later. Erman my bro got me some orange juice and some pastries. We did a bunch of pre-filming and then did the singing contest and then moved downstairs into a professional kitchen for the cooking show part. Here are select texts that I sent out during the entire day’s process:

[12:34] help i am going out of my mind with hunger hangover and caffeine deprivation we have just finished filming “walking into the building”

[12:40] my host mom keeps cornering or crushing me against walls to whisper happy words of encouragement or instruction which i in no what understand today is so strange

[12:43] now she and her friend are mumbling–not even to each other just mumbling what is going on


[2:05] right before they brought the food I realized the absurdity of the situation and started babbling to anyone as if they understood

[2:41] also they put a plate of cakes and a cup of coffee in front of me on this table and since we are being filmed here i literally have just been staring at it, unable to indulge. my torture is their decoration.

[3:21] now the fat woman is explaining in confidence how to cook the dog kebab for the fourth time and I am miming her directions back to her as if I understood but saying nonsense words instead i am completely nuts we have not even started cooking

[3:46, in response to “how’s it going”] oh it’s just great they just filmed me barking and saying yok to the camera and then feeding the camera some cake

[5:29] funny how filming is inevitably interrupted every few hours by the call to prayer

[5:37] i hope your movie is good because i will be here until i decompose

[8:02] ha ha ha i cut myself on camera while cooking to become a living stereotype of myself for everyone i know it’s a hard job to be ernie sometimes [And, as a side note, I sort of knew I would cut myself. I already move a little too fast sometimes, drop too many things, spill many upright containers of liquids, and putting me in a situation of duress, like, being on tv on a cooking show making something I’ve never really made before and having to answer questions in a language I don’t speak, for instance, almost guarantees injury. It makes pretty good TV though. ]

[10:02] if they ever find my body let them know who i was and the life i led


They filmed the awards ceremony at about midnight. I knew I wasn’t going to win. I sang good, but we were all still dressed up in our chef costumes, and both the women had made really good food–Marina made a pilaf fish thing, and Shiva made lamb curry. (It was amazing.) I of course acted ridiculous and put on a very silly show throughout the whole process, but it felt isolating and strangely empty–beyond having the lowest turkish communication level on set.

I realized halfway through filming that the story they were telling–I couldn’t win. They wouldn’t be able to justify, from a storytelling perspective, having me win, regardless of how anything turned out. I was too ridiculous, and therefore nothing more than a caricature, the jester. It stopped being about winning or losing a turkish reality show or hahahaha how is this real life, and started being about being merely comic relief to my own life. All the fight went out of me.  (admittedly, I did burn the eggplant in the oven, which was a death sentence for the already complicated food anyways). I slumped in the stairwell, hung out with my fellow tourists after our 16 hour day, waiting for the film crew to finish interviewing our host parents so we could all go home. We got the results just after that.

WHO WINS AND WHO LOSES I’ll post the link to the show when it’s done (in about three weeks). You’ll have to find out for yourself, DUH. I’d be a terrible TV personality if I didn’t promise more excitement, just after these messagehshahahahahahahahahahaha how is this real life


1 comment
  1. Holy shit. If I were going to make a list of people I’d expect to end up on Turkish reality TV, I … would draw a blank, but if I was forced to come up with names anyway, perhaps at gunpoint, you would top that list, Ernie. And even at that, this is incredible.

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