A la izquierda

October 17, 2010 § Leave a comment

Two Spanish women approached me at the Hagia Sophia today and asked me if I were Spanish.  I’ve never been so happy to tell someone where to find the bathroom.


In which Istanbul saves me

October 15, 2010 § Leave a comment

The past two weeks have been a difficult time of transition for me.  Competing thoughts and overwhelming emotions drove my mind in so many directions I found I had no energy to write and record events, ideas, epiphanies, laments, the highs and lows of teaching.  A lot of those feelings I have no desire to revisit right now, but I know the anxiety and doubt will climb to the surface again when I least expect it.  I’ll try to have a computer (or pen and paper) handy.  This blog could be a lot more fun if it’s not simply a rehash.

But rehash this will be.  It’s Friday night, a pack of wild dogs is roving the campus, the omnipresent rain is, well, present, and I’m headed to Istanbul tomorrow.  I’ll gloat over it again, I’ve got 3-day weekends, and after a quick but intense escape to Istanbul last weekend I resolved to catch the first bus out of Tekirdag as soon as my Thursday classes were over.  I knew it was a silly resolution as soon as I made it.  My weekdays are so packed with teaching, foraging for food, drinking endless cups of tea, and locating available washing machines, I need at least a day of downtime for administrative (attendance sheets—still waiting to be entered–and lesson planning) and life (Skype, blog, shopping) matters.  I’m rising early tomorrow to catch a bus to the ‘bul, but let the rehash begin.

I was ready for a change from my job at PennDesign, and I knew I wanted to live abroad.   I was accepted for two teaching programs: one in Spain and one in Turkey.  I took what some may consider an excessive amount of time to decide where to head, but the promise of new adventures, unknown cities, great food, and (let’s not kid ourselves) the Fulbright label convinced me to throw my lot in with the Turks.  Sitting pretty in Philly, I imagined my future life in Turkey to be pretty easy—an assistant teacher in a seaside town near Istanbul?  University students?  16 hours a week?  Sign me up!

Then I arrived and things were…different.  A full classroom teacher for 21 hours a week.  No books.  A seaside town with a constant cloud cover and lots of rain.  Students who aren’t exactly delighted to be there.  And one hell of a language barrier.  All of these challenges prompted me last week to contact the Spain program I had declined and inquire about any open positions.  I was seriously ready to repack my bags and head across the Mediterranean.  I reasoned that even if my teaching situation was less than ideal, at least I’d be able to communicate with the people around me.

I phoned some friends who’ve been in similar situations abroad and all reassured me that my feelings of alienation and frustration were normal.  It takes months to create a satisfying life, to learn the language, to truly feel comfortable, they said.  But in the meantime, you stumble, you fall, you hate your life, you take some trips and feel proud of your survival skills, you forge relationships, and somehow it works out.  But don’t leave now.  Give it a chance.

Pep talks rallied my spirits, but I still wasn’t convinced.  I gave into the questioning of my faculty and friends (“You still haven’t visited Istanbul?!”) and caught an early Friday morning bus (they leave every 15 minutes—I’ve got a lot of options).  En route, I ate a delicious Tutku cookie (get your hands on one now), made friends with a Bulgarian woman, and tramped through the metro, tramways, and rainy streets of Istanbul to arrive at my first destination: the Quincentennial Foundation Museum of Turkish Jews.  I was a site for sore eyes: wet, cold, damp army backpack, driven by the sounds of the crazy streets.  I was heartened to have a successful Turkish conversation with the museum guard.  My spirits soared as I walked up the steps of the former synagogue and exploded as I entered the main floor and permanent exhibit.  I was so overcome by comfort, peacefulness, love, exhilaration, relief, and intense feelings of gratitude, I began to cry.  I had felt like an aimless soul who had left behind all she loved in pursuit of a mediocre teaching position in a rainy, dull town.  The maps, the artifacts, the photos—they reminded me of why I came to Turkey: a fascination by the migrations of Sephardic Jews and the evolution of their language; a love of Ladino; and a genuine curiosity about the country.  I had dreamed quiet dreams of a mysterious Turkey since I started Ladino classes in 2007.  To physically be in a place I had only read about and imagined, and which seemed so far away last fall—it was beyond my comprehension.  Old-school museum exhibits allow the viewer to observe history from a distance and see the evolution of materials and ideas; Istanbul and this quiet, reflective space provided a sanctuary for me to step back from the daily grind of NKU and re-examine my motives, my overarching goals for the year, and my conflicting emotions.

There’s more to the Istanbul weekend: beautiful sites, delicious food, amazing people.  I will write about them another time.   Istanbul allows me to function well with minimal Turkish—years of Philly living have allowed me to understand and follow the signs and symbols of city life well.  I came back from the weekend refreshed, inspired, and with a renewed sense of hope for the upcoming months.  I still don’t have a clear plan of how I plan to incorporate Ladino into my time here, and I’m still on the fence about teaching in general.  I reached no conclusions, have no new ideas about my life, and have no guidelines for how to make it through the semester.  But for some reason I don’t feel as lost, I don’t feel as purposeless.  It’s amazing how literally nothing has changed in my living/working/social situation from last week, yet my mind feels like it’s done almost a complete turnaround.  I have no doubt these feelings will fade. That intense emotional experience already feels far away.  But I’m staying here to explore them—for now.

First week updates

October 3, 2010 § Leave a comment

Pat myself on the back, I successfully finished my first week of teaching at NKU.  21 hours of “What is your name?”, “What is an adjective?” and excessive finger wagging.  I’m sitting back this weekend, popping the lid of a nice cool ayran and trying to organize my new life.

I arrived in Tekirdag on Saturday after a 9 hour bus from Ankara.  I was told the ride was only 7 hours, but that estimate didn’t take into account an engine problem that stopped us twice, various loud driver/passenger/toll both collector arguments, and dead-stop traffic  around Istanbul.

I was met at the Tekirdag bus station by Hakan, co-director of the English department.  He packed my luggage in his minivan, started the engine, and asked pretty incredulously, “So you’re really here for a year?”  Way to make me feel confident in my decision, Hakan!  We drove to the NKU campus hotel (my home for the next 2-3 weeks) and Hakan helped me check in—good thing, because the staff (actually NKU students) doesn’t speak English.  I was joined at the hotel by Alex, a fellow Fulbrighter, fellow Tekirdagli for the year, and future super best friend 4 life xoxo.  We spent the night eating burnt kofte, drinking campus-produced white wine in the hotel restaurant, and wondering just how we ended up in this city.

The next day, Dudu and Elif (two other NKU English teachers) took us on a car tour of Tekirdag.  NKU is actually about a 20 minute drive from the center of the city, and the landscape change from brown hills, scattered apartment blocks, and American-style shopping centers to a dense, lively downtown area was much appreciated.  We wolfed down some famous Tekirdag kofte and piyar, drank some tea and walked along the seaside promenade.  Hakan, Dudu, and Elif, while surprised that we are here, are happy to practice their English with native speakers.  Surprisingly, none of them has visited the UK or the US.  Cultural ambassadors to the rescue!

Since we arrived in Turkey, we have been desperately trying to ask NKU what kind of classes we would teach this year.  After constantly being put off, we were told to stop by Monday morning at 8:30 am for our programs.  Classes start Monday at 8:45 am.  Yeah.  At 8:30 the programs still weren’t completely ready, but Dudu managed to eke out our sections and classrooms and off we went to shock and awe our students with our amazing native speaker abilities.

Alex and I are teaching Hazirlik students this year.  Hazirlik literally means something like “preparation”, and that’s what our students are doing: preparing for university-level English.  NKU tests entering students’ English with a pre-year exam.  Students who fail must spend an entire year studying English (and only English!) at Hazirlik.  At the end of the year, they take another exam.  If they pass, they’re allowed to being their university careers.  If they fail, they must repeat Hazirlik.  What lucky ducks!

Hazirlik feels like some combination of high school and university.  They’re grouped by ability level (A, B, and C) and each group sits in the same classroom all day–the English teachers come to them.  The maturity level of the students is also reminiscent of high school.  The girls are relatively calm and patient while the boys want to poke each other and chat incessantly in Turkish.  My goal=focus that energy to English.

It’s hard to get to know my students well because there are so many of them.  I have 10 class sections which meet for 1 hour twice a week and 1 class for 1 hour once a week, and each class has about 25 students.  Alex has the same schedule.  We’re trying to keep our classes on the same lesson plans to coordinate with their other English classes and facilitate co-planning.  In fact, that’s what I’m off to do now—a Sunday morning lesson planning session so we can show our visiting friend Dara around later.  More information to come about teaching, Tekirdag, a Turkish wedding, and more!

Where Am I?

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