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.

Geographical Purgatory

May 12, 2011 § 1 Comment

Once I returned, stiff and weary, from Antalya, I gladly collapsed into bed, happy to be in familiar surroundings.  I’ll be spending the next few weeks in my living room, my gilded prison.

Social isolation aside, what’s most difficult about my situation is the geographical purgatory.  The accident abruptly removed me not just from the university and town life, but, well, Turkey.  I’m not interacting with Turks, attempting to speak Turkish, and besides some TV morning shows and soap operas I watch but don’t understand, I’m not hearing Turkish.  Aside from random teyzes chopping wood outside my window, shouts from the schoolyard next door, and the reliable call to prayer, I’ve essentially been removed from Turkey.  Forget “Is it Europe?  Is it Asia?”  The more pertinent question is, “Where is it?”

Sample teyze, minus harem shalwar pants

I watch English-language television, read English-translated books*, and talk with American friends online and on Skype.  But I don’t live in America or England.

I watch Ellen and Martha Stewart reruns from last year, but I don’t live in 2010.

I transcribe Ladino.  But I don’t live in Ottoman Turkey.

I watch Al-Jazeera, BBC World News, and read books about Central Asia.  But I don’t inhabit some nebulous international space.  Or do I?

I essentially live nowhere and therefore I live everywhere.  I like to imagine that my apartment has detached itself from the lojman and is on a world tour, safely surveying government repression in Yemen and Bahrain, earthquakes in Lorca, Spain (near where I would have been teaching had I gone to Spain), flooding in the Mississippi, murders of miniaturists in the Ottoman Empire, family Shabbat dinners in mid-20th century Izmir, Turkey.

I feel kind of like Tom Hanks in The Terminal, or Tom Hanks in Cast Away, but not like Tom Hanks in Philadelphia (too geographically certain).

I'm working on lassoing food from the kitchen to the couch

Magic carpet ride aside, this liminal existence is pretty disconcerting.  I wasn’t ready to be prematurely yanked out of Turkey and I’m upset I won’t be able to live this last month to the fullest.  But I’m not ready to go back to the US.  Some might say this is a good transition back to American life.  It’s not.  Since the only representations I get of America are Jay Leno and the Big Bang Theory, I’m growing to despise brainless American TV more and more (Conan, you get a free pass).  I feel a strange affinity with Guantanamo Bay detainees.

I don’t know what this is.  I’m really looking forward to my next outing, when I’ll try to navigate the seamless Turkish transportation system to make my way to Istanbul for an appointment at the German Hospital.

I’m a citizen of the world.  Or at least, I’m queen of the corduroy couch.

*If you want to start a Skype book club, pick up a copy of Orhan Pamuk’s My Name is Red.  It’s either that or a book of speeches on Swedish/Turkish/Kurdish relations (a pretty engaging read, and easier to understand than Pamuk).

Two weddings, no funerals

December 1, 2010 § Leave a comment

In America, weddings aren’t complete without agonizing over dresses, food, the wedding party, location, music, guests.  The same seems to be true for Turkey; over-the-top ceremonies and clothes, and more painful tightly-curled updos than a high school prom.  But the agonizing appears to stop at the guest list.  How do I know this?  I’ve been invited to two separate weddings either the day of or three days before.  Would that fly at the Huntington Jewish Center or Crest Hollow Country Club?  There was no hand-wringing about extra plate settings  or grumbling about last-minute attendees; just invitations to share in happiness.

The first wedding happened my first full weekend in Tekirdag.  Over coffee and cigarettes with my colleagues on a Friday afternoon, I was invited to a wedding of a teacher I had yet to meet.  “For real?  For really real?” I asked.  Yes.  And the wedding was in 5 hours.  A frantic afternoon at the police station applying for our residency permits gave way to girly-girl prep time.  In our finest American duds, Alex and I waited at the Burger King for the rented minibus to carry us to unknown Trakyan distances.  Bumping over the rolling brown hills with people I barely knew past garbage fires, I was excited.  Then the sun set, it got cold, it was 90 minutes later, and the minibus driver got lost.  For all I knew, we were headed to Greece that night.

But finally!  We arrived in Uzunkopru and were hurried into Gizem (the bride’s) family’s house for a homecooked meal of meat stew, rice, soup, immeasurable quantities of bread, baklava and Turkish delight.  I was delighted.

Alex and I, overwhelmed and stuffed. But that's generally how we feel every day in Turkey.

We hurried back onto the bus and arrived at what I can only imagine is the Turkish equivalent of a fire hall.  The building appeared to be an all-purpose hall ready to host your wedding, circumcision, any cause for a gigantic party.  We lined up outside for what seemed to be the longest receiving line ever.  Meanwhile, I stared at this poster and tried to figure out if I had met Gizem before:

She looked vaguely familiar, but I wasn’t sure.   Then,  as we entered the building, this beaming woman greeted us

and I remembered.  After greeting their families and throwing in some newly-acquired Turkish etiquette (kissing the elders’ hands, they love it) we gave Gizem a huge hug and tried to avoid getting caught on her money sash.  Turkish brides traditionally wear red sashes to which guests pin money and gold coins that the couple later cash in to fund their new life together (Macy’s has fertile ground for registry marketing in rural Trakya).

The bride and groom take photos with all of their guests (hello, receiving line traffic jam) and sell them to you during the reception.  Of course I splurged—but not on a scanner.  Sorry readers, you’ll have to wait.

Here I discovered the secret of the non-guest list.  Everyone in the whole town came wearing everything from expensive gowns to t-shirts and jeans.  And as they come in, the hall staff adds more tables and chairs.  That’s all—they simply add more space.

It’s less of a hassle to add more spaces because there is no sit-down dinner served at this particular reception; just Pepsi, mixed nuts, and wedding cake.  Gizem and Cemal had already had their official wedding ceremony, so the night we attended was simply celebration.  A DJ blasted mostly Turkish tunes mixed with American love songs and salsa.

The couple’s first dance, with fireworks

Alex and I were amazed at how into the traditional dancing the teenagers were.  No hesitations about grabbing each other’s shoulders, and, legs flailing, dancing in wild lines across the floor.  Just pure glee.

I loves me a good line dance and was only too happy to learn some new steps and wave my gold sequined handkerchief around.

Unfortunately our minibus was scheduled to leave at 11:30 pm so we missed the henna ceremony.   Not surprisingly we got lost on the pitch-dark ride back to Tekirdag, but we were so exhausted from the multitude of new experiences and riotous dancing, we didn’t mind much.

Nighttime party bus

Readers, do you think I’ve developed a case of the royal we?  I spend so much time with Alex it seems that I can’t explain any experience without including her.  Well, except for this next one.

I had briefly met Recep when he served as translator during a brief conversation about my new apartment in late October.  He had been completing his military service in eastern Turkey and had only just returned to teaching duties at NKU.  I didn’t see him again for 2 weeks, when he reappeared to invite me to his wedding 8 hours away.  Not one to turn down a celebration, I packed my bags for the first weekend of November and headed to the UNESCO World Heritage Town of Safranbolu.

Recep and his fiancé, Sule, were in Konya with Sule’s family and wouldn’t arrive in Safranbolu until early Sunday morning.  Given bus times and teaching responsibilities I wasn’t able to stay for their apparently huge (500 guest) Sunday lunch, but I spent Friday hanging out with fellow Fulbrighters Rachel, Hayfa, and Dara in Safranbolu’s evil twin town of Karabuk.  Saturday, Recep’s friend Mehmet guided me and Sule’s closest university friends on an in-depth tour of Safranbolu.  Mehmet spoke some English, but luckily for me Sule and her friends were all Translation majors and spoke perfect English.  We laughed and took tons of photos while exploring an old Roman aqueduct and a mysterious and beautiful cave system, and sipping sahlep while gazing at the preserved Ottoman wooden mansions that landed Safranbolu on that coveted list.

We strolled through the center’s winding streets and ate far too many free samples of the town’s famous Turkish delight.  We also stumbled upon a man selling mushrooms in the street at 9 p.m.  Because that’s when I want mushrooms.

But the real party started after Mehmet dropped me off at Recep’s family’s house for Saturday night.  Remember that Recep and Sule were in Konya?  I walked into a living room of 4 Turkish women whose age range was vast (12 to 70) but whose English was…well, about existent as my Turkish.  I can’t being to express what thoughts went through my head when I entered the boiling hot living room and saw an old woman eating su boregi and watching half-naked models grinding on PowerTurk, but they were along  the lines of, “My god, what on earth can I say to fill the next 4 hours?”  A smile and basic Turkish compliments go a long way, as do enthusiastically eating everything offered to me.  The two girls loved showing me their family photos on Facebook and discussing their dresses for the upcoming wedding.  Somehow we happily passed 4 hours stuffing my face, smiling, and watching TV—and then the Recep and Sule caravan arrived.

The wood-burning soba which heated both the room and our tea to uncomfortable levels

It was already 12:30 am and I couldn’t imagine that the night could go on much longer.  But the caravan of families was hungry.  Men went into one room, women into another, and out came the midnight feast: meat stew, lentil soup, salad, baskets of bread, stuffed grape leaves, rice, and baklava.  Princess Cruises buffet, eat your heart out.

My baklava fantasy come to life

I was tired and had been feasting my way through Safranbolu all day.  I was content simply to sit back and watch the crowd descend.  But seeing as how the wedding party had been staring at each other all weekend, I became the center of attention.  Everyone wanted to know who this yabanci was.  And after they found out who I was, they wanted to feed me.  My humble protests of “Doydum, doydum!”  (I’m full!) resulted in a showdown between me, Sule’s mother, and one grape leaf speared on a fork tine.  Beneath the gazes of about 20 Turkish women, I cracked, gave in, and ate the proffered leaf.  Then another one, and another one, and then some baklava.  In between, women I barely knew squeezed my leg, smiled at me, and offered me both cooking lessons and their sons.  I continued to smile.  It’s not so bad being the yabanci sometimes.

About an hour and a half later, I gave my best wishes to Recep and Sule and stuffed my stuffed self into a van headed to an unknown destination.  I arrived at another apartment where I gladly passed out in the cozy bed offered to me.

The happy couple!

The next morning I was barraged with simit and su boregi before my bus.  Everyone was disappointed I couldn’t stay for the Sunday lunch, and though my stomach couldn’t take any more food, I was disappointed as well.  Turks are great at making you feel instantly part of their family and I wanted to share in their immense wedding joy.

A bit much for one entry.  I need some more time to reflect on feelings and not just events and food.   But in the meantime, more photos!

NKU colleagues at Gizem's wedding

Aqueduct in Safranbolu

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