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!


Istanbul Seyahat

May 29, 2011 § 1 Comment

**Note: there are many pictures that accompany this post, but unfortunately my continually fickle Internet connection won’t allow me to upload my personal ones…I’ll try later**

After the university and the lojman, the place I spend most of my time in Tekirdag is the bus station, or, in the Turkish take on French, otogar.  Located right outside of the city center and behind the harbor, the otogar is home to intercity private coach lines traveling long distances to bigger destinations (2 hours or more), intracity public/private buses, and small private vans which travel short distances to regional towns and cities (2 hours or less).  But the Tekirdag otogar is so much more than place to embark or arrive; it’s a self-sufficient world.

The ground floor of the semi-circle otogar is full of small private coach offices selling tickets.  The coach line names and logos are prominently displayed, along with their most common destinations (which sometimes make you wonder why anyone would possibly want to go to Luleburgaz, but it’s Turkey).  Small means small; while some of the offices have room for 10 or more seats, a few are nothing more than a man at a desk.    In the middle of the semi-circle are a couple of convenience stores, and to the far left is fully-stocked lokanta (a quick-service restaurant with already-prepared foods kept hot in steamer trays).  In between the lokanta and the offices are the pay WC and the Roma family selling chestnuts in the winter and simit all other times.

The second floor (first floor in Turkish terms, but second to all you Americans–let’s just say the floor above the ground floor) is still a mystery to me.  There’s a male-only kiraathanesi (coffee/tea house), which for obvious reasons (death glares) I don’t enter.  Then there’s the family tea house, which also seems to be solely filled with men.  NOTHING MAKES SENSE.  Throw in some empty offices, some occupied unlabeled offices (shady!), a mosque, and there you have it: the Tekirdag otogar.

Catch Malkara Yildirim, Metro, Istanbul Seyahat, Kesan, Canakkale Truva headed east and you’ll wind up at Esenler Otogar, Istanbul’s central bus station.  This is the otogar to crush all other otogars, the uber-otogar, a seething literal hive of nonstop international transit.

Doesn’t it look like a hive?  If not in outward appearance, then at least in the constant buzz of activity.  The outside of the hexagon is lined with hundreds of multi-colored signs advertising private coach lines hitting every town and city in Turkey, Bulgaria, Georgia, Syria, Iran, Romania, even Germany.  THERE ARE BUSES THAT GO FROM TURKEY TO GERMANY.  My god.  Intermingled at the corners of the hexagon are competing lokantas and convenience stores are selling the exact same foods and products, differing only in salt content and price.  Above the ground level are offices, more restaurants (which, when you try to find them, are mysteriously closed or boarded up), hotels, political party headquarters, barbers, internet cafes, dry cleaners, etc. Overwhelming, no?

Then take a look at the central rectangle in the hive.  I know I have.  After being too late to catch an evening bus to T.dag and having several hours to kill, I’ve eaten, slept, boarded the metro, and made friends in that rectangle.  Not only are there more (like, 20) restaurants offering food from most regions of Turkey (their Tekirdag kofte’s got nothing on our Tekirdag kofte), there are kiraathanes, internet cafes, clothing store, shoe stores, convenience stores, unmarked offices, and lord knows what else.  Oh yes, a kuruyemis.  During the height of my leblebi addiction, I made friends with the 18 year-old scooping dried fruits and nuts behind the counter.  I promised him I’d come back and we’d have lunch together in the rectangle.  I never did.  I’m sorry.  But his prices were so good!

You might think the hexagon and the rectangle provide enough geometrical diversion for the travel-weary.  But you’d be wrong.

Underneath Esenler lurks a dark, murky, damp subterranean world offering the EXACT SAME services available on the surface level: countless restaurants, hairdressers, dry cleaners, pay toilets and showers, clothing and shoe stores, tailors, mechanics, and a mysterious internet cafe that I swear doesn’t exist.  I descended into the abyss to look for this cafe once and followed the trail of arrowed signs like a modern-day Hansel and/or Gretel.  As the trail led me further into the dark and progressively creepier labyrinth, I gave up and backtracked to where the sun shone, thoroughly skeeved out.  Another friend confided that she had indeed found the cafe but would never recommend that anyone else search for it.  I’ll let that one be.

So what keeps these transportation hubs humming?  People, obviously.  But not just passengers.  Bus travel is popular in Turkey because it’s cheap, easy, and networks are extensive.  Gas is pretty expensive here (US, you’ve got it easy) and passengers pay by how many seats they’ll take up, not by how many people are actually traveling.  So if you can squeeze your family of 4 into 2 seats from Istanbul to Ankara, you’ve saved yourselves quite a bit of money.  And anywhere you’re looking to go, the bus will take you.  And if the bus doesn’t take you there, you can find a van at the local otogar to drive you there.  Cheap, convenient, and quick.

But that’s not all.  What keeps the bus stations humming are the coach line personnel.  Not only do you have drivers, who, after schlepping impossibly long distances have only a few hours at most to freshen up and get a haircut before their next drive; you’ve got ticket selling agents who preside over pretty brisk business; touts who stand outside each coach line’s office and yell destinations in their loudest convincing voices (the bus station sounds like this: “AnkaraankaraankarankaraTekirdagTekirdaaaaagAnkaraankaraankaraSamsumankara”–why are so many people going to Ankara?); and bus attendants.  This is where Turkey tops all.  Each bus has a man (rarely a woman, only had one brusque lady on a trip to Bulgaria) dressed in uniform (tuxedo bowtie on Metro!) who check the passenger manifest, serve your choice of soda, juice, water, or hot coffee/tea (on a bus!), and prepackaged corn-syrup laden Turkish cake.  On some lines, the attendants will come around with lemon-scented kolonya and dump far too much of the alcohol-laden liquid on your hands, soaking you, your clothes, and your bags with the unmistakeable scent of fake lemon bordering on Pine-Sol.

All of this (the extensive network, the personal service, the self-contained station worlds) add up to make a more pleasant and generally more interesting bus travel experience than the grimy Greyhound station, though not nearly as colorful or terrifying as the Chinatown bus network.  Before “the accident” (refer to it in hushed tones, please), I was a frequent otogar-goer.  I was a presence at Esenler at least twice a week, and while I often chose to wait for my bus in the Metro waiting room (cleaner, quieter, less crowded, and with TVs!), my loyalties firmly lie with Istanbul Seyahat (literally, Istanbul Travel).  I can’t explain why–it’s the most expensive from Tekirdag to Istanbul (15 lira) and not the most luxurious, but something about the bright orange logo, in-seat TV entertainment system, and past consistent service of the prized Tutku cookie won me over early.

Do you see how good this cookie is?  The chocolate-hazelnut cream can actually bring Turks and Greeks together.  Amazing.  I’m more inclined to believe the Turk would grab that pack and run, but dreaming is nice

I digress.  Since I generally travel at the same times each week, I see the same drivers, ticket sellers, porters, and attendants each week.  Each week they butcher my name on my ticket.  Each week they can’t understand why I live in Tekirdag.  Each week they laugh that I live in my neighborhood.  Each week they urge me with imploring eyes to please, take some kolonya.  Each week I respond with a smile and broken Turkish.  But we never really bridged the gap between spoken niceties.

This all changed after “the accident.”  I travel to Istanbul now only to visit my adorably English-challenged orthopedist at the Amerikan Hastanesi, scoot on my butt across Tarlabasi Bulvari and up staircases that somehow count as streets in this city, and generally provide comic relief for Turks, especially Turkish children.  But my new condition has brought the bus personnel and me together like nothing before.  First, I need to buy two seats so I can stick my immobilized leg straight out in the back row.  This involves pointing to my leg, repetition of memorized Turkish phrases, and an ‘aw shucks’ smile.  The ticket sellers smile sympathetically (sometimes) and happily charge me 30 lira.  Next, I need to get up the steep steps to board the bus.  This involves handing my crutches and backpack to the attendant, turning around, doing the butt scoot up the stairs, and grabbing the seats to hop down the aisle.  The attendant follows me and places my bag and crutches beside me.  At first this step involved the attendant holding the foot of my injured leg straight out while I ascended the steps, but luckily I can hold it on my own strength now (it was awkward for everyone involved, trust me).  Then, after two hours of the bus seat arm jamming me in the back, I have to get off the bus.  Repeat the butt scoot.  Then the attendant flags me a taxi and wishes me, again and again, ‘Geçmiş Olsun’ (get well soon).  Some of the porters at Esenler will run over and ask me what happened, why the crazy yabanci who always goes to Tekirdag now has a Darth Vader leg brace and wears bright orange shorts.  One man in particular helped me recover a jacket I left on a bus back in November and because he never forgot me, was genuinely concerned about my new lack of mobility.  I love you, anonymous porter who wouldn’t accept a thank-you chocolate bar.  I ate it and thought of you.

Yesterday on the half-empty bus back to Tekirdag (thank you, Esenler ticket seller for not charging me for two tickets with a wink), the attendant plopped himself down next to me and proceeded to tell me his life story, of which I understand about 10%, but I nod and repeat certain words and it looks like I understand.  What I got was that he used to be a cook in Finland.  This I am sure about. Now he serves cupcakes on the Istanbul Seyahat bus and looks wistfully out windows.  I like him.

It was difficult to realize that yesterday’s trip from Esenler to Tekirdag will be my last.  When my dad comes next week to help me pack up and ungracefully exit Turkey, we’ll be renting a taxi to take us.  This recourse to private transportation is new to me.  The public nature of the bus meant that I met everyone: vomiting teyzes who grabbed my knee, engineers learning Spanish, Bulgarian workers, gawking children, Moroccan tour guides, my students.  I don’t know how I’ll feel not making the journey on the barreling white coach.  The crowded, polluted, and dangerous (those buses pull out like no one’s business to shouts of ‘Gelgelgelgelgelgelgel’–‘comecomecomecomecomecomecome) Esenler has seen my best and worst moments: injuries, farewells and breakups, fear loathing and dread of the ending weeknd, reunions, meals, and more.  But I know I’ll be back.  I have to come back.  And I’ll walk into Istanbul Seyahat’s office, they’ll butcher my name, a teyze will shove me, and I’ll smile.

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
–Prasa borek: leek casserole
–Kabak borek: squash casserole
–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!

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.

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.

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