Today in 1453

May 29, 2011 § Leave a comment

Before I forget, today is the 558th anniversary of the Fall of Constantinople.  Mehmed the Conqueror, only 21 years old (don’t you feel unaccomplished?) defeated Byzantine Emperor Constantine XI and won Constantinople for the Ottomans.  Little-known fact, the city wasn’t officially named Istanbul until 1930.

Ottomans are not Turks, Turks are not Ottomans, and Ataturk was quite firm about that shift in identity.  But I guess I feel some sort of excitement about today (I think it’s my students’ proud Facebook status updates) and so busted out my best (read: only) Ataturk t-shirt (my Mehmed one is in the wash).  If you can think of today as “Kicking Other Ruling Powers Out of Istanbul Day” and make broad comparisons to post-WWI occupation and the Treaty of Lausanne ,then yes, the t-shirt makes a bit more sense.

To commemorate this auspicious day, here’s They Might Be Giants’ version of Istanbul (Not Constantinople).  I first heard this song on the Tiny Toons cartoon show and grew up believing that Istanbul was located in the middle of a vast desert.  It’s a horribly uninformed, historically inaccurate, and possibly insulting tribute to both Ottomans and Turks.  Don’t let TV raise your children!

If you look quickly at the map in the intro, you can see Tekirdag right to the west!

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Pesah alegre! Part One: Food

April 20, 2011 § Leave a comment

“You will come to our seder, sweetie, where have you been?”

My mother is most likely separated from the majority of folks in the Western world by, at most, 5 people.  So when I decided to come to Turkey, of course her friend Elaine appeared, whose cousin’s cousin (or something along those lines) Leyla lives in Istanbul.  She gave me Leyla’s e-mail address and told me not to hesitate to contact her.  Of course I hesitated to contact her–I couldn’t tell if the invitation from Leyla to connect was genuine or simply a nicety no one expects either party to follow through.

But I did finally call her in early December and she picked me up for tour of Istanbul, driving me through the formerly Jewish parts of Sisli and up to Kagithane, where her family’s clothing store and factory are located.  She treated me to a huge European-style lunch at the store’s cafe (European-style, she explained, to appeal to visiting businessmen in the area who want something more familiar than Turkish food), then drove me up to her family’s apartment overlooking the Black Sea in Tarabia.  From the moment I stepped into her car I felt welcomed–Leyla is the talkative, take-charge, bustling Sephardic mama I’d been searching for.

With Leyla in December at her familys clothing store in Kagithane

I saw her again twice in late December when my dad visited.  We took the metro up to Tarabia to join her entire extended family for a lively and gut-busting Shabbat dinner.  Later that week, we joined Leyla, her husband Vedant, her Argentinian friend Mati, Mati’s London-based son, and Leyla’s high-school-aged son for a bottomless meze dinner at a Bosphorus-side fish restaurant in Sariyer.  Basically, all of my interactions with Leyla happen over food.  Not too different from most of my relationships in Turkey, really.

Come Passover-time, Hakan is kind enough to give me Tuesday off so I can celebrate ‘Hamursuz Bayrami’ in Istanbul.  I contacted Leyla about locating a community seder but she wouldn’t hear of it and I was immediately invited to her family’s first night seder (maybe exactly what I’d been angling for…).  After lessons on Monday, I caught the 3 o’clock bus from Tekirdag and was safely ensconced in my favorite anarchist cafe sipping tea by 6 o’clock.  Around 7:30 pm I made the more imperialist transition to the Taksim Starbucks, from where Leyla picked me and Mati up.  I imagined we were going up to Tarabia, but instead we drove around laberinthine Beyoglu streets for an hour trying to locate Barinyurt, a Jewish old folks home where her extended family had rented out a room for the evening.  The car ride was filled with fast-paced Turkish/English/Spanish conversation (Leyla and Mati are ‘like sisters’, in their words) so when the interminable search finally terminated, we weren’t any worse for the wear.  I had also wolfed down some last minute bread and hummus in my friend Rebecca’s apartment, so hunger wasn’t an issue.

I’m not sure who was older, the building’s residents or the building itself, but Basinyurt was gorgeous–immaculately decorated, high ceilings, privacy and communal areas on each floor for the residents.

We peeked into the residents’ seder, then headed up to the penthouse floor for our private room overlooking the rooftops of Galata.  The 6 tables in the room each seated about 10 people, and according the guest list (where I was listed only as ‘Sherry’), I was at the cousin’s table.  A bit of anxiety about being separated from my mama, but luckily the cousins were late 20’s/early 30’s, and most spoke English and were baffled and pleasantly surprised by my appearance (random Americans don’t appear at family gatherings all that often).  Virna on my right was a 29 year-old advertising exec, and her sister Selin and boyfriend Moni were eager to talk about their lives, their travels, levels of Jewish observance in their family, and traditional seder foods.  Izzy on my left, a 30 year-old pharmaceutical developer, had spent a year doing research in Birmingham, Alabama (the American equivalent of coming to Turkey and going to Tekirdag?) and we talked about American and Turkish accents, that awful 4-month adjustment/depression in a new country, his crazy family, and once again, food.

The seder was run in a rather domineering way by a rabbi whose relationship to the family I couldn’t quite determine.  We all joined in the kiddush, then he barreled through the haggadah in Hebrew, pausing just briefly for us to scramble and wash our hands, break the matzah, and pass around the traditional foods from the seder plate.  To the rabbi’s loud solo, the seder attendees provided the back-up gossip chorus; there was a din of table conversation the entire Exodus retelling.  People idly flipped through the haggadah, but given that there was no chance for participation, coupled with Virna and Izzy’s assurances that no one in the family really cared for observance all that much, the seder was a one-man show.  The most educational part for me was the haggadah, which was written in Turkish, Hebrew, Hebrew transliteration, and Ladino.  A student’s dream come true, I could follow along with the seder flow and pick up some new words.

Unfortunately, the new words were squeezed out of me to make room for the Passover feast.  First came the fish course, an unidentified (meaning, I didn’t ask and my new-to-eating-animals sensors couldn’t identify it) hunk of fish fillet covered in a thick lemon-egg sauce.  Then the salad, a standard mix of lettuce, shredded carrot, and one lone tomato dressed in olive oil and a  hint of vinegar.

First course:

–Ispanak: spinach, mixed with matzah meal and egg
–Batates koftesi: potato slices breaded with matzah meal and fried
–Bezelye: pea salad with cubes of potato, vinegar, and a bit of dill
–Yumurta: hard-boiled egg
–Bunuelos: egg and matzah meal mixed and fried
–Prasa koftesi: leek, ground beef, and matzah meal mixed as a meatball and fried

I would have been quite happy to end dinner here.  Then came the hunk of lamb, accompanied by some wan potatoes and peppers and displayed on some sort of feather duster?

Finally, dessert.  Fruit skewers of strawberry, kiwi, seedless grape (my first in Turkey!) and melon, and tishpishti, a cake of matzh meal and almonds soaked in honey syrup.  But wait, we weren’t done yet!  To celebrate a few birthdays, there appeared a chocolate, cherry, and walnut cake and “Happy birthday” sung in English and Hebrew.

Like a truck driver who stops for a nap before speeding to deliver his goods by the deadline, the rabbi picked up after dessert, when the attendees probably cared less and less about finishing, and barreled through some post-feast blessings and “Ken supiense i entendiense?”, the Ladino version of “Echad Mi Yodeah.”  Some more chit-chatting, some unfruitful attempts to leave, and some more chit-chatting later, we finally rolled down the stairs at 12:30 am and drove home.

I woke up the next day and I couldn’t eat.  If you’ve ever lived with me or woken up with me (lucky you!), you know it’s s a rare morning I’m not scrambling some eggs or chopping fruit.  It happens maybe twice a year.  I spent the day transcribing Ladino, avoiding Molotov cocktails, and readying myself for the second seder.

Around 6:30 pm, I headed to Taksim, Istanbul’s transportation hub, to catch the metro straight north to its last stop, Darussafaka.  There, Avram picked me up and brought me to his family’s flat for the evening.  I met Avram last fall on Ladinokomunita, a worldwide Ladino-only conversation group.  He knew me as nothing more than a bizarre American attempting to learn a dying language but was generous enough to invite me for lunch with his wife and son in October.  We had a delicious time but hadn’t reunited since.  Passover was the perfect time to visit the northernmost Jewish enclave of the city and catch up with the extended family: not only Avram and Rosa, but also their son (whose name I can’t remember), daughter Verda, Verda’s in-laws, Verda’s two daughters, and the helper/babysitter who was not introduced to me but still deserves recognition.

We made the usual small talk and watched and applauded as Verda’s 4 year-old sang and counted in Turkish and English and generally ruled the evening.  Since I hadn’t really eaten that day I was eagerly eying the seder plate.  Luckily Rosa noticed my wandering stomach and offered me some candied orange that she just happened to have hanging around in china cabinet.

And then, the seder.  We gathered round the table and opened a different multilingual haggadah–still Hebrew, Turkish, Hebrew transliteration, and Ladino, but with more and bigger pictures (!).  I was eager for a more participatory seder, which this was in that Avram and Father-In-Law both shared the lead.  They also occasionally pointed to me and made me read random sections in Ladino (I led a rousing solo rendition of “Nos Abastavamos!”, the Ladino version of Dayenu).  So the seder was a bit more of a shared success except that almost everything was read in Hebrew, which not a single person at the table understood.

Exodus retelling out of the way, the feast arrived.  Start drooling, here comes the photo essay:

First course:

–Spinach and mushroom casserole
–Batatas koftesi
–Bunuelos
–Prasa borek: leek casserole
–Kabak borek: squash casserole
–Salad
–Fried fish

Second course:


–Prasa koftesi
–Lamb and potatoes, sans feather duster
–Bezelye–just plain peas this time
–Taze Fasulye: fresh stewed green beans

Dessert (sorry, no picture)
–Mixed fruit (strawberries, pineapple, and something else I can’t remember)
–Tishpishti–homemade and significantly better
–My homemade lemon-orange macaroons (a heretofore unknown Passover dessert)

We sipped Turkish coffee, melted into the couches, and finally called it a night around 10:30 (early!)  The In-Laws gave me a ride to the metro stop, I melted into the metro car, then rolled down the hill from Taksim to Rebecca’s apartment.

But the magic doesn’t end here!  I’ve got a kilo of matzah and a kilo of matzah meal straight from Israel, with the Turkish head rabbi’s sticker of approval.  Tonight Alex and I are making my dad’s Passover rolls, my mom’s matzah ball soup (also unknown in Turkey), and some quinoa salad.  I’m going to try my hand at some Turkish Passover dishes this week.  Wish me luck!

18th of March

March 23, 2011 § Leave a comment

In early March I began to see signs around Tekirdag advertising what looked like a military commemoration.  Most military remembrance days in Turkey have to do with the legendary WWI Gallipoli campaign, in which Ottoman forces defeated an attempted joint British/French/ANZAC invasion, but I knew that ANZAC Day wasn”t until April 25 (I’m planning a weekend trip to bake in the sun with some pasty Aussies).  Heading to dinner one night with my Turkish friend Emel (I met her on Couchsurfing, she’s used to explaining Turkey to others), I stopped her and asked her what the below ad in the center of town referred to:

Turns out March 18th is Canakkale Naval Victory Day, which I found a bit confusing because the dates of the Gallipoli campaign (from April 15, 1915 to January 9, 1916) don’t include March 18th.  Hmmm.  Actually, March 18th marks the aptly-named Battle of March 18 in 1915, in which Ottoman naval forces defeated the first major British/French campaign to take the Dardanelles.  The attack laid the groundwork for the subsequent mud-laden slog and trench warfare during freezing winters and agonizingly hot summers that characterize WWI and did so much to catapult Ataturk to national recognition and shape the growing ‘Turkish’ consciousness.

Back to the sign.  My beginning Turkish led me to believe that a group of hearty folks would be trekking from Tekirdag to Canakkale (a bus trip of at least 3 hours), and man, was I impressed.  But really, Tekirdag was sending a delegation on a bus to participate in a Canakkale-based commemoration walk.  And though I saw ads around my town and Istanbul for remembrance ceremonies, they all seemed to take place in Canakkale itself–disappointing, because I wanted to glimpse, if not participate, in the day’s events.

Namik Kemal University was ready, however, with its own ceremony, held yesterday (3/21) though not widely advertised through the campus (well, neither was the German ambassador to Turkey’s campus visit).  Luckily, one of my favorite students informed me of the event and made me promise I’d come so I could see him play the ney.  Although it meant missing my new favorite Pilates class, I booked it from English class and Spanish tutoring and bike riding at the gym to the campus Pyramid Salon (think NKU multipurpose fancypants salon–important speeches under the glowing mirrors of a disco ball).

Sponsored by the Ataturk Though Association, whose members I think start every day asking ‘What would Ataturk do’?, the ceremony was quite solemn.

This backdrop is pretty standard fare for university occasions–the Turkish flag and Ataturk image flanked by NKU banners.  But the low lighting, melodramatic recorded music, and emotional readings of the day’s history lent it an air of great importance.  I understand generally nothing of what was said (except that the British had a boat called the HMS Irresistible) but really enjoyed feeling the equal pulls of nationalist celebration and mourning.

Part of a hour-by-hour recapitulation of the battle

Performing "Cannakale Icinde Aynali Carsi." You can listen below

My student Taha soloing on the ney and accompanying a reading

After musical tributes and the intense reading (in Turkish translation) of a letter written by a former ANZAC soldier, all of the night’s performers lined up side-by-side and repeated some lines with such fervor I was a bit taken aback.  I really wish I knew what they said, but unfortunately the students I was sitting with weren’t able to translate them for me.  The repetition ended with “Ne Mutlu Turkum Diyene,” a refrain seen on statues of war imagery in every Turkish town.  It translates roughly to “How happy is he who can say ‘I am a Turk'”.

Second from the left is wearing an Ataturk tie featuring the Pasa in his Humphrey Bogart phase

Then the house lights came on full blast and the solemn air dissipated.  It’s no secret that Turks are a patriotic bunch–the school systems do one hell of a job perpetuating the sanctity of Ataturk’s memory and legacy.  A large part of Turkish national identity was born during World War I (wherein only Muslim Ottomans fought together on the front lines so as to cement the solidarity of that identity–Armenians, Greeks, Jews and other minorities were conscripted to labor battalions or worse fates), so any military commemoration or national holiday is celebrated in a way America’s Memorial or Veteran’s Day could only dream of.

In a country which recognizes the horror of war but glorifies its military past (and most do, don’t they?), its citizens are taking a pretty strong stance against NATO intervention in Libya.  Twice this week, when new Tekirdaglis have discovered I’m American, I’ve been asked why America’s bombing Libya.  Oh my Turkish is nowhere near good enough to explain this, but writers are having a great time breaking it down.  Despite Erdogan’s protests, the bombing has started, and we can now simply hope for a swift defeat of Ghaddafi, minimal civilian casualties, and a new democratic government that Libyans need.  “Baris…baris” (“peace…peace”) I say when I’m pressed.  Democracy cannot be implemented by invasion and top-down control; well, it can but it’s much better if it comes from within, and without the need for battle commemoration days.

I’ll leave you with a haunting Ladino melody commemorating the soldiers of Gallipoli and Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.  There’s something about the strength and youthful fire of military camaraderie I admire.  But I much prefer love songs.

Celebrations, Part One

December 10, 2010 § Leave a comment

For a European (is it really?) nation, Turkey ranks on the bottom of the list for number of holidays.  It’s no France or Spain, for sure.  But when a bayram does come, be ready.  Students extend their holidays for a few days on either side, and the air at the university is rich with the promise of travel and too many family members.

Let’s step way back to the last weekend of October.  Halloween for the Americans, yes, but also Republic Day for the Turks, a celebration of the founding of the modern Turkish Republic.  Say bye-bye to the Ottoman Empire with flags, flags, folk dancing, and massive Ataturk portraits.  Terrifying rain and winds cancelled parades in Tekirdag and Istanbul, so I wasn’t able to truly appreciate the fervent pride that accompanies this holiday.  I did, however, impress my students by correctly pronouncing “Cumhurriyet Bayrami” and knowing of its existence.  It’s pretty hard not to, though, when every main drag in every town has huge signs wishing Turkey a happy 87th bday.

I taught a Halloween lesson that week for my students—apparently it’s known as “Witch’s Holiday” here and some of them had a basic familiarity with the topic.  We talked about Celtic traditions, candy, pumpkins, and costumes.  It’s not easy to explain a holiday as, well, different as Halloween, but seeing as how the word ‘zombie’ is the same in both languages, we were able to reach some common ground.  I think they especially enjoyed my zombie impressions, though I was a bit disappointed not more of them wanted to spit pumpkin seeds with me.  There’s always a brave few souls who will volunteer for Sherri Teacher’s bizarre cross-cultural connection moments, but most were content to eat their seeds at their desks and cheer me on in my attempts to spit at the garbage can.  Oh, there’s another great moment.  If you want Turks to be absolutely baffled by you, carry a garbage can around all day.  No number of explanations of needing it for class will suffice—you will still be the crazy yabanci.

Afternoon classes on the 29th of October were cancelled, so Alex and I headed to Istanbul to prepare for some Halloween fun.  We were running low on cash (thanks, Fulbright!) so our costumes were pretty low-budget—I made a newspaper hat and a cardboard sword as a piss-poor pirate, and Alex rolled up her sleeves as Rosie the Riveter.  We debuted our costumes at the Marine’s Halloween Ball, held at the Marine’s House on the grounds of the American Consulate in Istanbul.  Although the rest of our crew didn’t feel the need to dress up, my friend Rebecca (former Fulbrighter, met on a blog, the most welcoming host ever) created the best makeshift Minnie Mouse costume I’ve seen yet, and her blogging partner Asher went as Hipster Ahmedinejad.  If you’re confused by that costume, so were the rest of us.  It consisted of a hipster get-up and an Arabic tattoo.  Yes.

Rebecca, Alex, and me. Newspaper hat courtesy of Rebecca's job.

I felt pretty special that night—it’s the only party I’ve ever needed a passport to enter—until I entered what could only be considered an international frat party.  The beer selection included such gems as Budweiser and Sam Adams—under normal circumstances this would be relatively disappointing, but the Efes-Tuborg monotony needed to end.

So frat party—imagine slutty nurses and angels dancing on pool tables to Amy Winehouse and you’ve got what the night devolved into around 12.  But there were some lovely conversations to be had with teachers, journalists, scholars, and Consulate workers.  Someone who, under normal circumstances, is quite ordinary in job and activities, instantly becomes more intriguing in Istanbul—basically, I spent the night trying to figure out what circumstances brought us all together in this hot strobe-lit room.  Given the plentiful libations people were more than willing to talk, and overall it was one of the more eclectic and entertaining Halloween celebrations I’ve attended.

When Ahmedinejad ain't happy, ain't nobody happy.

The next night was Asher’s Halloween party, in which he wisely changed his costume to a recently procured Turkish military get-up, and Rebecca dressed up as Prime Minister Erdogan’s wife (political costume that I won’t get into here right now).  The international company was lovely and drunk, and I was happily surprised when many of the interesting but far-gone guests I met still remembered me weeks later.  The party ended early due to a washing machine mishap and a roommate who seemed just about ready to snap, but I’d like to think we did Halloween in Turkey right.

Good night, boys.

Thanksgiving Resurrection

November 24, 2010 § Leave a comment

I’m mixing two holidays here, but go with it for a minute.

When most people are having difficulties or major life changes, they write to describe, analyze, and organize their thoughts and emotions. Me? I turn inward.

It’s been a combination of looking inward, being beyond busy, and lack of Internet that’s kept me away from this blog. But fear not, devoted readers! As long as the wireless connection in my office works for at least 15 minutes a day, there will be updates. Oh yes, there will be updates—hopefully with photos.

Many of you think I must lead an extremely exciting life here in Turkey. Well, you’re right and you’re wrong, to varying degrees. Working abroad is, well, working. Here’s my schedule:
Monday: 6 classes between 8:45 and 4
Tuesday: 5 classes between 9:40 and 5
Wednesday: 4 classes between 11:30 and 5
Thursday: 6 classes between 8:45 and 5
Early mornings, long hours on my feet, and alternately chatty/disengaged students mean that my days are pretty draining. Lesson planning and, well, life (cooking, shopping, trying to keep in touch) fill my weekday nights. Add in a Wednesday night Turkish folk dance class and gym sessions(on hiatus due to a bad back), occasional nighttime Turkish lessons, and attempting to jack Internet while standing on one leg with a finger on my nose (our home connection can be pretty temperamental/nonexistent), and there you have it: everyday life, albeit in another country.

Here are some Namik Kemal photos

Sunset over the campus

We're pretty well-protected here

The Hazirlik classroom building

The student and faculty cafeteria and gym. I need to go the latter more often than the former.

But Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays are mine, all mine! Weekly funds and travel opportunities dictate where I go; some weekends I stay in Tekirdag, drinking tea by the Sea of Marmara and wandering the streets. But more often I’m affected by the travel bug; I’ve graced Istanbul with my presence every other weekend and I’ve made additional trips to Karabuk, Safranbolu, and Thessaloniki. I usually travel on a whim—coach service is so plentiful and relatively inexpensive that I can hop a bus to the ‘bul and head anywhere in the country without much advance notice. My dream come true! I do have all the bus travel to blame for my achy-breaky back right now (sleeping horizontally is so underrated) so this upcoming weekend I’m Tekirdag-focused.

As you may remember (and as I’ve mentioned in most places in my life and this blog), the main reason I chose to come to Turkey was my interest in Ladino. To that end, I’ve hopefully worked out a weekly internship at the Ottoman-Turkish Sephardic Cultural Research Center in Istanbul. I’ve offered myself for whatever projects may need assistance—as is usual for research centers, they’re short-staffed and welcome volunteers. Just call me His Gal Viernes.

Thanksgiving is this Thursday, and Alex and I are hosting and cooking a dinner for our Tekirdag friends on Saturday night. Get past all your “Turkey in Turkey” jokes now—provided we do actually find a turkey, it’ll be gracing our table along with cranberry sauce, matzah ball soup, mashed potatoes, and whatever else looks good at the Thursday bazaar. We’re inviting our NKU colleagues and anyone we’ve ever met in Tekirdag—dolmus drivers, water delivery men, guitarists, Internet café proprietors. We’re looking forward to expressing our gratitude to our new friends. Their support and generosity get us through each day and we want—nay, need—to express our love through food. L’chaim!

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