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.

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