Meeting People is Easy

October 9, 2011 § Leave a comment

Watching Meeting People is Easy is easier than meeting people.  Moving to a new city is difficult; moving to a new country and attempting to make friends is more difficult.  Moving around a lot has forced me to be more outgoing, more independent, more resourceful, and more content with myself.  I spend most of my free time alone; sometimes it gets to me, but I like the freedom.

But I’m not kidding anyone or myself, I much prefer to be meeting, talking, sharing, and dancing with people.  In Istanbul I met a great friend and her wide circle through an open discussion night on Jezebel.  Here in Vienna I had a great Thursday night drinking with a friend of a friend of a friend from France (we met by e-mail introduction).  But the easiest way, for me, to meet people in foreign countries is through Couchsurfing, generally a website for free travel accommodations but also a way for all sorts of people to connect and explore new cities and countries together—natives included.  I had some great experiences last week with folks from Spain, Greece, Romania, and Austria.  I go to the weekly German conversation hour, and last week some new friends up and carried me off to another bar for an Austrian version of Quizzo.  I played ping-pong on a public table with some Austrian students.

I even found my roommate on Couchsurfing.

This is Georg. He’s one of the tallest people I’ve ever met and he makes a mean palatschinken (crepes or pancakes filled, in his version, with chestnut cream and baked with a topping of sweetened marscapone cheese.)  He’s also a top-notch meteorologist and was on the team which modeled weather systems for the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver!  Unfortunately he’s traveling for the next month (in Mallorca and Nepal—jealous?), so in the apartment is just me and FM4, a really great alternative radio station which broadcasts in German and English and plays the best Euro indie and electronica.

For various reasons I don’t have internet at home so last Sunday I hoofed it over to Museumsquartier, probably my favorite spot in Vienna right now.  It’s a huge trapezoid-like space enclosed by a bunch of museums and bars, and the center is full of funky colorful benches where people hang out, drink, laugh, love, and who knows what else.  On weekend nights it’s full of young people drinking cheap booze.  They also have free wireless.  I was making some Skype calls and catching up on e-mail when a Spanish guy at the next bench started talking to me.  Most people in Museumsquartier are in groups so as two people riding solo, we hit it off, and I could relax in a foreign language I actually understood.  But what guts this guy had!  This is what I need to do, I told myself.  I will be this person!  I have been this person before.  I will be this person again!  Without the mediating influence of the Internet.

Museumsquartier during nice weather

The past week was Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, some heavy-hitting holidays on the Jewish calendar.  Everyone ever comes out of the woodwork to go to synagogue and I was happy to be one of them.  After Yom Kippur services last night everyone poured out into the street, whipping out containers of breads and desserts, sharing and shaking hands.  I had spoken with a few people during services but nothing much came of the conversations, just pleasantries.  I spotted some people my age, including one guy who was pretty easy on the eyes.  “Go talk to him, Sherri, just do it, just go talk.  Go,” I said to myself (I really do talk to myself like this).  “Go.  Go.  Go now, his friend just walked away.”  Hesitate 10 seconds, a new one walks up to him, “Ah, it’s too late, I’ll go when he’s free next.”  He’s free.  “Go, go go, go now!” Nope.  More friends.  The last one walks away, he pauses 20 seconds, then heads back into the synagogue and disappears.  My feet remained planted on the ground the entire time.   It felt like this:

The street cleared.  I left alone and inhaled, within the next hour, a bratwurst, a box of lo mein, a pistachio ice cream cone, and a Turkish coffee.

I don’t know why it can be so tough to approach people sometimes.  You’ve got nothing to lose in doing so; either they’re open and you’ve made a new acquaintance, or they’re not interested and at least you’ve given it a shot and know.  It’s better than mental games.  And Garth ultimately got his dream girl.

Language is, of course, an issue.  Everyone speaks English here, but all their group conversations take place in German.  It feels strange to approach a new person in English and my German, while improving, only goes so far.  I think also the nature of a tight-knit community like Vienna’s Jewish one exacerbates the situation.  Everyone has known each other for years.  Those people my age, they’ve grown up together in some pretty unique circumstances.  How can I just insert myself into their lives? If I were in the States at my family’s congregation, how would I feel about some random foreigner sticking her hand in my face?

Actually, I’d probably really like it.  I’ve never been disappointed with the random folks I’ve met in the US and abroad through spontaneous conversation; either they become friends or hilarious memories.  Even the painfully awkward dates I had in Turkey were worth it for the anecdotes.

I ended the night on a high note, meeting up with Centropa’s Czech intern Martina and her American boyfriend, Clayton.  We drank wine and talked about everything in the world.  And it made me feel better, that I wasn’t a total social misfit and that there is hope.  It had also been the most I’d spoken to anyone in a while.

It’s a new year and a new week and I have no idea what it’ll bring.  It’s exciting.  And I hope to be a little more active in shaping where and how it goes.

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The German ambassador and I are close

September 30, 2011 § Leave a comment

because he lives across the street and I didn’t close my curtains the other day.  Oops.

That also explains the high security fence and German flag flying outside.   Around the corner lives the Turkish ambassador, and the American ambassador lives nearby as well.  Posh living!

And this is where I live.  It’s not as beautiful but it’s still a really nice building inside.  And the neighborhood is just so quaint

Hietzing center at dawn. Jet lag's a bitch.

I’ve spent the past few days touring around at a really leisurely pace.  I am here for a while so no need to rush anything.

This is the Vienna State Opera.  Tickets are way too expensive but on Wednesday nights they broadcast the opera on a large screen outside and you can watch and listen for free.

The weather here has also been unseasonably great: warm, sunny, and in the mid-70’s.  I’ve done as much outdoors things as possible because first, they’re free, and second, the weather will not last.

On Wednesday I met up with a bunch of Couchsurfers to walk along the Danube canal and photograph the graffiti art, which the Viennese government sponsors.

It's true, the canal is pretty gross.

Today I registered with the Vienna’s CityBike program.  It’s 1 euro to sign up and you can ride a bike around the city for free for an hour; second hour is 1 euro, third hour is 2 euros and so on.  I took a spin around the Prater, an amusement park and wooded park area.

That repeating logo is from the program’s sponsor, Raiffeisen Bank.  Honestly, it looks a bit too close to the fascist crossed hammer logo from Pink Floyd’s The Wall for my liking:

But that’s reading too much into things.  Gonna get my last tourist kicks in this weekend before work starts on Monday.  Centropa’s taking me to Budapest, Hungary for the day.

Ich bin hier

September 27, 2011 § Leave a comment

Isn’t German great?

I took a great walk around my new neighborhood of Hietzing .  This product was definitely the best part

FAT

I know you can buy schmaltz (rendered chicken fat) in America, but wow, that is some shelf.

Ready!

September 26, 2011 § 1 Comment

I kind of left you hanging there with that last post back in June, didn’t I?  Here’s what might have been running through your head:

How did she make it home from Turkey?
A: My dad came, I somehow had enough things to fill 5 suitcases, we took a taxi to Istanbul, Delta gave me a seat with extra leg room,  I saw Newt Gingrich, we arrived at JFK.

How is her leg?
A: Significantly better!  We found a great orthopedist in my town who, contrary to various Turkish doctors, insisted I didn’t need surgery.  I broke my tibia plateau in the best possible least-weight-bearing part of the bone and just needed to wait it out.  That popliteal capsule tear?  NBD.  Calf muscle tear?  It’ll get better.  And it did.  Thanks to a tough physical therapist, her gossipy assistant, a JCC membership, and hours of walking back and forth in the pool, I’m mostly back to normal.  It’ll take a few more months for my quad muscles to be at full strength again (kneeling and crouching are tough), but I can do pretty much everything I used to do.

What did she do all summer?
A: Everything except earn a lot of money.

My cousin Shep got married in Virginia

Shep on the left, my mom in the middle, my uncle playing my crutch like a guitar

I shared a room with my impossibly cute nephew Ari

and he survived!

I spent a good amount of time in New York City, with trips to Philadelphia and Providence

My Turkish friend Elif visited NYC just to make this face

I took the GRE and visited some graduate programs in History

I baked a lot of cookies

and I started to learn German because I’m moving to Austria today.

Back in March I sent an internship application to Centropa, a Jewish history NGO based in Vienna that works to preserve and disseminate Central, Eastern, and Southeastern European Jewish history.  They work with all age groups but primarily schoolchildren across the world to link them to engaging primary resources about 20th century European Jewish life–and, most importantly, people.  Centropa partnered with Istanbul’s Ottoman-Turkish Sephardic Cultural Resource Center (where I volunteered last year) back in 2005 to record extensive oral histories of the community.  You can read more about the partnership and view the resulting exhibit on the blog I created for the center.

One of the coolest tools Centropa produces is videos of subjects’ lives.   Guler Orgun, the Turkish dynamo behind the Ladino newspaper El Amaneser, got the video treatment and you can watch her story here, in Ladino with English subtitles (I tried to embed it, it won’t work, I know you probably won’t click the link but it’s really worth your while!)

So I sent them my resume and they said, “Come!”  Then I broke my leg.  But they waited; it’s almost 4 months later now and my suitcase (only one this time, thanks compression bags!) is packed, I’ve got an apartment lined up, and Air Berlin flies out this afternoon.

Though I’m certainly more prepared this time abroad for language and culture shock, there’ll still be a lot to surprise me in my personal and professional life.  I hope to write in this blog not just about my adventures but also about my experiences confronting a country which has remained fairly verboten in my house.

I leave you with Austria’s greatest contribution to popular music, the indomitable Falco.  See you in a few months, America!

You know that feeling?

June 2, 2011 § 1 Comment

Although there’s still technically one more day of classes left, most of the hazirlik students have stopped coming to lessons.  Of course, today is the day I returned to say goodbye to them.  Communication breakdown?

It felt great to return.  A friend dropped me off outside the NKU hotel, where it all began, and where I sipped a glass of tea, ate some cheese, tomato, and hot pepper tost, and felt the cool breeze blow off the Marmara and through my hair.  All the hazirlik teachers came to have tea/coffee/a smoke at the hotel after lunch, and I was back.  Just like that.

After Suzan finished her Turkish coffee (without sugar, please), Ezgi turned her cup over, let the grounds dry, and read her fortune.  There is an actual art to reading Turkish coffee grinds but we just make it up.

As Ezgi told Suzan wild things about what was to come, I couldn’t help remembering Pinar reading my fortune back in October (it might seem I’m just remembering this to create a cohesive narrative of my time here, but it’s true, I swear it).  She looked at the patterns in the grinds, looked at me, and told me there were many things in life I was worried about but none of them were important and I really needed to stop worrying about them.

It was incredibly true.  I spent the entire fall semester wavering between sanity and breakdown, the effect of a major life adjustment and sincere and unproductive navel-gazing.  And, well, moving abroad is tough, not gonna lie.  But I made it a lot worse for myself than it needed to be.  All I wanted was nothing more than to leave this town and never come back, students be damned.

Now I can’t imagine living anywhere else.  Though I certainly don’t want to stay in Tekirdag another year (I’m a city girl at heart, I’m convinced), it’s become a true home.  My home.  It took until February for it to become this way, but it’s my place, these are my students, this is my lojman, and to hell with Anatolia.

Each of the hazirlik classes took their turns this week having barbecues in the forest bordering the university (forest’s name?  Ataturk.  Of course.)  While I couldn’t make it to most of the picnics, thanks to a Facebook group message I was able to hitch a ride in Gizem’s car and head to A-1’s end of the year celebration.  A-1 is the top class in hazirlik, which means they generally understand what I’m saying.  It’s amazing what that can do for teacher-student relationships!  As the sun went down:

As fits with the traditional division of labor, the women prepared the salad while the men roasted chicken, kofte (meatballs), and sucuk (sausage).  I swear I have never had better kofte, though when asked they admitted it was already mixed by the butcher, not homemade.  Still, I love them.

The students played volleyball and yelled at each other in Turkish while I ate at the grown-ups table with Gizem, their main teacher, Gizem’s husband Cemal, Elif, a specialist, and Elif’s boyfriend Mehmet.  Since I couldn’t get up and join the volleyball game, I did the next best thing.  I spotted a tavla (backgammon) board across the way and challenged Gizem to a game.

I beat her, 2 game to 0.  Beginner’s luck?  The students thought they could take me for a ride.  Serkan challenged me.  He won by one roll.  Burak challenged me.  I killed him.  Then Nurtekin, another teacher came along.  He buried me.

Most of the students were surprised I knew how to play.  I told them of my ill-fated relationship with Caner, a local guy who a friend set me up with.  We got along just fine, but his limited English and my limited Turkish left us with little to discuss.  After conversation stopped about 2 hours into our first date, I suggested he teach me to play tavla (most bars and cafes here have boards hanging around).  Over the span of 2 dates, we played about 4 or 5  hours of tavla.  I know how to play.  I think only one of my students accurately understood this story because he burst out laughing.

During my game with Nurtekin, Cemal pulled out his guitar and a hefty Turkish songbook and he and the students started singing.  One of the things I loved most about Turkey is a great willingness to enthusiastically sing and dance in public.  As dusk settled, I felt a distinct end-of-summer-camp pang, the end of a wonderful shared experience with people you come to love after seeing them day in, day out, who have formed such a part of your being, but you may never see again.  I almost cried.  Yep.  I held in in, Nurtekin destroyed my tavla high, and a pang in my knee reminded me it was time to go home.

I’ll miss you, A-1!  From your hatred of the EU and your unwavering love of Ataturk, to hilarious desert island survival soap opera skits and unintentionally ridiculous Halloween stories, to your steadfast disapproval of America’s love of study drugs, constant interest in my personal relationships in great attempts to derail my lesson, and apparently extremely accurate imitations of my mannerisms, you’ve wormed your way into my heart.  How could you not love a student who shows up to class beaming, with Ataturk’s signature tattooed on his arm?  And who then wants extra Spanish lessons?

I hope we’ll meet again, A-1.

Censorship

May 31, 2011 § Leave a comment

Yesterday’s post?  Happened a couple of weeks before “the accident.”  My life definitely doesn’t involve traipsing around graveyards anymore.  Though when I can walk again, just try and stop me!

During the first week of my lojman-based convalescence, I was pretty productive.  I limited myself to 2, maybe 3 hours of TV followed by 2-3 hours of Ladino interview transcription, reading, harmonica playing, and napping.  Use this opportunity, I told myself.  Set a schedule, have goals, be productive.

Then weeks 2 and 3 rolled around and my motivation ebbed as I became hypnotized by E2’s daily cycle of Ellen, Martha Stewart, and Gossip Girl.  It repeats thrice (great word) and so did I.  I’m admitting it, without shame: at some points during the past 3 weeks I watched 9 straight hours of Ellen, Martha, and my favorite Scandalous Upper East Siders.

My expression was as vacant as Nate's--but he's prettier

After a Saturday night chocolate cake and Mad Men binge (the 3-episode cycle from 8-11 pm repeated again at 1 am!), I put my one good foot down and said, “Sherri, pull yourself together.”  I threw out what remained of the cake, turned off the TV, and resolved to, well, get shit done.  After a good night’s sleep.  Sloth makes you tired.

Monday was fantastic.  I can be a pretty good taskmaster when I need to be.  So I rewarded myself with some late-night lounging.  CNBC-E, my favorite American TV channel in Turkey, was showing Bobby, the much-maligned 2006 docudrama of RFK’s assassination, the only movie to unite such disparate stars as Emilio Estevez, Laurence Fishburne, Heather Graham, and Lindsay Lohan.  Dressed to the nines in their 60’s finest?  Great!  I began to willingly suspend my disbelief and actually enjoy the movie–and then this came on the screen:

No, Demi Moore’s not sporting the biggest orange flower ring EVER.  It’s a cigarette.  In an effort to dissuade viewers from smoking, no one on Turkish television is allowed to be shown smoking or holding a cigarette.  So instead, network censors replace cigarettes with neon-colored flowers.  This is utterly ridiculous and has the complete opposite effect of drawing the viewers’ eyes even more to what they already know is a cigarette.  A cigarette made prettier!  I want to smoke psychedelic flowers, too!  The ban completely ruined Control, the Joy Division film I watched back in October.  Do you know how many flowers Ian Curtis smoked during the 70’s?

This isn’t to say I don’t greatly appreciate the same 2009 law which banned smoking in indoor bars, restaurants, and cafes (though many slyly get around that by simply installing temporary windows in the winter and continuing to claim open-air status).  There’s enough real smoke (and smoke blown up people’s asses) in Turkey to go around.  But if anyone in the Turkish government thinks this act of TV censorship is preventing anything, they’re wrong.

Of course they’re wrong!  Remember when Turkey banned YouTube and every criticism of Ataturk went away?  Or when, instead of simply shutting down one person’s site, Turkey banned Blogger?  It was like that one time in kindergarten when some kid stole something and wouldn’t admit it so the teacher punished the entire class.  I am not your child, Turkish government!  And then here’s a whole list of other sites Turkey has recently banned.

It gets worse.  In August, the country’s Information Technology Board (BTK) will require that all Turkish households with Internet access choose a content filter.  You can’t not choose a filter.  They come in different levels: family, children, domestic, and standard.  Let’s play “choose your own repression!”  But I’m being selfish.  It’s to protect the conservative children, won’t somebody think of the children?! says BTK chairman Tayfun Acarer.  Of course!  In the words of Ersu Ablak, I want freedom, I must be a sick porno freak.

It doesn’t end there.  The Telecommunications Directorate issued a list of 138 words that are now banned from Turkish domain names, among them the English words beat, hot, homemade, and, winner of the Overwhelming Irony Award, free.  Also forbidden are the Turkish words for breath and, winner of the *Facepalm* Award, forbidden.

The opposition CHP party is ridiculing this which deserves to be ridiculed in TV ads for the upcoming June 12 election. This is my favorite:

I wish I could provide a translated transcript for you, but I don’t understand everything they’re saying.  What I do know is that they’re talking plainly about the sheer inanity of the ban, including the forbidden ban.  The ad is basically one big partywide *facepalm*.

It’s easy enough to get around the ban by using a service like HotSpot Shield, which encrypts your internet connection.  But we shouldn’t need to.  Turkey’s been widely criticized by the western world not only for censoring the Internet but for arresting and silencing journalists on trumped-up or false charges. And the Turkish people aren’t taking this laying down either.  There have been numerous protests around the country to challenge the government’s continual impinging of freedom.  But nothing seems to change, and as CHP stands little chance of upsetting AKP next month, expect plenty more viewings of shiny fluorescent flower inhalation in the coming years.

Belonging

May 30, 2011 § Leave a comment

Fellow Fulbrighter Amy sent an e-mail a few weeks ago that she had secured State Department funding for a Turkey Fulbright ETA traveling photography exhibit and needed our best photos from the year.  Eager to contribute, I borrowed Alex’s ‘one day when I’m a real adult I’ll own one of these’ DSLR cameras and headed to one of my favorite and quietest places in Tekirdag: the Jewish cemetery.

When I found out last June that I would be living in Tekirdag, the first thing I did was google the place, study its history, and contact current residents.  Tekirdag used to have a vibrant Jewish population who, after centuries of residence, gradually left throughout the 1900’s for greener pastures: Istanbul, Israel, and America–specifically Seattle.  Yes, Seattle.  It’s surprisingly home to one of America’s largest Sephardic population (read more about their arrival here).  The Jews left for various reasons: greater economic opportunity, the formation of Israel, difficulties in the new Turkish republic, and a 1934 pogrom.  So while the town’s got a great history behind it, I am the only living Jew in Tekirdag.

Last summer I called various members of Seattle’s Bikur Holim Synagogue to talk with the children and grandchildren of Tekirdag emigres.  They were eager to discuss their 2005 congregational trip to Turkey and their relatives’ memories of their ancestral home.  One man in particular, Isaac Azose, sent me DVD footage of his 1992 voyage to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the Sephardic Expulsion from Spain, and also sent me the name of one Nissim Hasan, an old Muslim Turkish man who used to work for a Tekirdagli Jewish family about 50 years ago and spoke Ladino.  But Isaac didn’t have Nissim’s phone number; instead, he had the address of one Turhan Ozbek, a real estate agent who could magically put me in touch with Nissim.  So one aimless October day, I went in search of Turhan.  One small problem: most streets are horribly labeled in Tekirdag and I had just arrived in the city.  I had nothing to lose and absolutely no shame, so I walked into a real estate office in the center of town armed with a big smile and my dictionary and asked where I might find this Ozbek character.   Huseyin, the man behind the desk, was confused but genuinely curious about me and my mission to find an old man I’d never met before.   Wouldn’t you be?  A whole parade of mustachioed men came in the tiny office, drank tea, looked puzzled, drank more tea, made some calls, then left.  Finally Huseyin put his daughter Deniz on the phone, an Internet cafe proprietress  who had lived in London for a year or two.  It was determined that Huseyin and I had reached our Turkish/gesticulation communication limit and that Deniz’s translation assistance was desperately needed.  To the cafe!

While Deniz’s English skills were marginally better than her computer skills, they still weren’t great.  She also was horribly confused about why I needed to find Ozbek to find Hassan but went along with the whole crazy scheme and tried her hardest.  Through a whole network of phone calls and asking passersby, we found Ozbek’s office.  Not surprisingly he’d moved in the past 15 years.  To his office!

His office, as I later came to realize, was a typical Turkish real estate office.  A ground-floor room, apartment ads plastering the outside windows.  Inside, one small clean desk facing the door, and one filing cabinet.  But while many of T.dag’s agents have entered the 20th century and use computers, Ozbek’s office looked like a 1970’s relic: a fading poster of a Middle Eastern tourist site lettered in Arabic, and a typewriter.  Oh yes, a typewriter.  Even Huseyin thought that was funny.

We sat with bated breath, waiting for Ozbek to return from his lunch break.  He returned and told us that Nissim had died five years before.

Well, that was a pretty decisive end.

Huseyin, Deniz, and I went back to Deniz’s cafe and said our goodbyes.  But before I left, I asked Deniz for directions to the Jewish cemetery.  She told me it was located somewhere behind the bus station, “up”, but that I shouldn’t go there because it’s dangerous.  That’s the warning I hear weekly about locations in Tekirdag.  They’re not.  I went.

The Jewish cemetery was located up a hill past the larger Muslim cemetery, behind some new apartment blocks, and under the watchful gaze of a new mosque.  I would have missed it, had I not picked my way down a weedy hill to examine some gray stone slabs half visible through overgrowth.

Many of the older stones at the top of the hill were faded, falling apart, covered in weeds, and inscribed in Hebrew.  I walked through and took photos, then descended to examine some much newer stones with Ladino inscriptions.

The newer stones were elevated above-ground and in much better condition than the sunken ground-level ones.

Ladino grave inscriptions are wonderful descriptive poetry:

As I was adjusting to my new super-fancy camera, a woman came down a dirt path with a large walking stick in hand.  “Merhaba,” she shouts out to me in Turkish, “Hello.”  I respond hesitantly.  While the cemetery is right behind an apartment block development, no one’s ever out there.  The landscape instantly changes to rural–behind the cemetery is a mosque, a farm, and an unpaved road.  Whenever I’ve visited I haven’t seen anyone, including the resident of the shack on the edge of the cemetery.  We ended up falling into a great conversation.  Nefise was super friendly and eager to hear why I was in Tekirdag (isn’t everyone?).  Now retired, she walks a loop around the cemetery and farms every day.  Because she’s out so much, she often meets foreign visitors who come to see the Jewish cemetery (there are foreign visitors?  Who? When?  Tell me!)  Nefise takes great pride in the town’s past Jewish history and always warmly greets the tourists, most of whom are descended from the very people laid to rest there.  The town government supposedly sends someone to clean the cemetery once a month, and when they don’t come (as usual) she calls up to complain.  She has no time for religious or ethnic fighting, and I felt comfortable enough during this conversation to reveal to her that I am Jewish.  Didn’t phase her for a second–in fact, all she did was tell me how much she hated the fighting over Gaza.  After about 20 minutes and the addition of a neighbor who complimented me on my camera (if only!) my Turkish ran out and Nefise and co. headed home.  Buoyed by this lovely and unexpected interaction, I set up the camera again, eager to photograph before the sun sunk too low.

Then a couple of men came down the same path.  One shouted out, “Selam Aleikum”, to which I replied, “Aleikum Selam.”  I was instantly put on edge.  This greeting is perfectly harmless: “Peace be upon you”/”and with you”, more or less.  In fact, plain-old “selam” is the casual Turkish way to say, “what’s up?”  But the whole “Selam Aleikum” bit?  Something only more religious Turks say.  Normally not a problem.  Except when you’re at the Jewish cemetery.

The two men (the Talker and his sidekick, who remained silent the whole time) approached me.  I stood up and closed the camera.  “What are you doing here?” Talker asked me in Turkish.  “Taking pictures of the cemetery,” I responded.  “Why are you here?  The real Turks are over there,” he said, pointing at the neighboring Muslim cemetery.  “This is Jewish.  That is Turk.”

“First I am here.  Then I will go over there,” I replied.

“This is Jewish.  That is Turk,” he repeated.  “Look over there,” he said, waving at the one recent Muslim grave within the confines of the Jewish cemetery.  “That’s interesting.  Take a picture of that.”

“OK, thanks,” I said.  Eager to leave a slightly menacing conversation, I walked over to the grave and pretended to snap pictures.  The two men continued walking.  Once they were out of sight, I returned to the original subject of my trip.

I took some lovely photographs that day.  But I couldn’t get the second conversation out of my mind.   Outside of Istanbul, Tekirdag is one of the best places in Turkey to be an ethnic minority or a woman.  Sure, people still gawk but they’re generally not openly hostile to outsiders.  Plus I can wear short skirts (isn’t that the goal of 3rd wave feminism?)  But really, I’ve felt comfortable enough here to be able to tell colleagues and students that I am Jewish, and I don’t fear any backlash.  This, as opposed to a fellow Jewish Fulbrighter in a small town in Eastern Turkey who tells his friends he’s Protestant, which is suspicious enough.

Turkish identity is a tricky beast.  People who reside in the political borders of Turkey historically speak a variety of languages and self-identify with a host of religions and ethnicities.  Kurds, Greeks, Armenians, and Jews are among the most well-known.  But what about the Laz, the Roma, the Circassians?  Under Ataturk’s goal to create a strong Turkish nation and one Turkish identity, cultural attributes which diverged from the new Turkish norm were suppressed, although generally freedom to practice religion remained.  Some minorities embraced this new push, including many Jews who saw this shift as a chance to finally gain acceptance as equals in the Republic–learn new modern Turkish language and ways, serve in the military, fantastic.

Doesn’t always work out so well.  Examples include the aforementioned 1934 pogrom, the discriminatory Varlik Vergisi Wealth Tax, 1955 Istanbul pogrom, just to name a few.  It’s been and continues to be a bumpy ride.  However, many of the Jews I’ve spoken to in Turkey do identify themselves as Turkish, or equally Jewish and Turkish.  But there seems to be a quite vocal Turkish minority that, well, will just never accept anyone outside of the ethnic Turk/Sunni Muslim identification as a true Turk.  One Jewish woman I spoke with in Izmir said that a colleague once remarked that she was and acted “almost like a real Turk.”  This woman’s family has lived in Turkey for about, oh, 500 years.  Ouch.

I don’t have a conclusion here.  Part of me feels glad to be returning to America, where I’ve never had my national identity called into question because of my religion.  To my face, anyway.  But I’m most certainly in the minority during a decade of substantially increased xenophobia building on a long history of strained racial and ethnic relations.  The Jews of Tekirdag were lucky to find a safe haven in Seattle; I hope when their families visit Tekirdag in the future, more people like Nefise are there to welcome them.