Belonging

May 30, 2011 § Leave a comment

Fellow Fulbrighter Amy sent an e-mail a few weeks ago that she had secured State Department funding for a Turkey Fulbright ETA traveling photography exhibit and needed our best photos from the year.  Eager to contribute, I borrowed Alex’s ‘one day when I’m a real adult I’ll own one of these’ DSLR cameras and headed to one of my favorite and quietest places in Tekirdag: the Jewish cemetery.

When I found out last June that I would be living in Tekirdag, the first thing I did was google the place, study its history, and contact current residents.  Tekirdag used to have a vibrant Jewish population who, after centuries of residence, gradually left throughout the 1900’s for greener pastures: Istanbul, Israel, and America–specifically Seattle.  Yes, Seattle.  It’s surprisingly home to one of America’s largest Sephardic population (read more about their arrival here).  The Jews left for various reasons: greater economic opportunity, the formation of Israel, difficulties in the new Turkish republic, and a 1934 pogrom.  So while the town’s got a great history behind it, I am the only living Jew in Tekirdag.

Last summer I called various members of Seattle’s Bikur Holim Synagogue to talk with the children and grandchildren of Tekirdag emigres.  They were eager to discuss their 2005 congregational trip to Turkey and their relatives’ memories of their ancestral home.  One man in particular, Isaac Azose, sent me DVD footage of his 1992 voyage to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the Sephardic Expulsion from Spain, and also sent me the name of one Nissim Hasan, an old Muslim Turkish man who used to work for a Tekirdagli Jewish family about 50 years ago and spoke Ladino.  But Isaac didn’t have Nissim’s phone number; instead, he had the address of one Turhan Ozbek, a real estate agent who could magically put me in touch with Nissim.  So one aimless October day, I went in search of Turhan.  One small problem: most streets are horribly labeled in Tekirdag and I had just arrived in the city.  I had nothing to lose and absolutely no shame, so I walked into a real estate office in the center of town armed with a big smile and my dictionary and asked where I might find this Ozbek character.   Huseyin, the man behind the desk, was confused but genuinely curious about me and my mission to find an old man I’d never met before.   Wouldn’t you be?  A whole parade of mustachioed men came in the tiny office, drank tea, looked puzzled, drank more tea, made some calls, then left.  Finally Huseyin put his daughter Deniz on the phone, an Internet cafe proprietress  who had lived in London for a year or two.  It was determined that Huseyin and I had reached our Turkish/gesticulation communication limit and that Deniz’s translation assistance was desperately needed.  To the cafe!

While Deniz’s English skills were marginally better than her computer skills, they still weren’t great.  She also was horribly confused about why I needed to find Ozbek to find Hassan but went along with the whole crazy scheme and tried her hardest.  Through a whole network of phone calls and asking passersby, we found Ozbek’s office.  Not surprisingly he’d moved in the past 15 years.  To his office!

His office, as I later came to realize, was a typical Turkish real estate office.  A ground-floor room, apartment ads plastering the outside windows.  Inside, one small clean desk facing the door, and one filing cabinet.  But while many of T.dag’s agents have entered the 20th century and use computers, Ozbek’s office looked like a 1970’s relic: a fading poster of a Middle Eastern tourist site lettered in Arabic, and a typewriter.  Oh yes, a typewriter.  Even Huseyin thought that was funny.

We sat with bated breath, waiting for Ozbek to return from his lunch break.  He returned and told us that Nissim had died five years before.

Well, that was a pretty decisive end.

Huseyin, Deniz, and I went back to Deniz’s cafe and said our goodbyes.  But before I left, I asked Deniz for directions to the Jewish cemetery.  She told me it was located somewhere behind the bus station, “up”, but that I shouldn’t go there because it’s dangerous.  That’s the warning I hear weekly about locations in Tekirdag.  They’re not.  I went.

The Jewish cemetery was located up a hill past the larger Muslim cemetery, behind some new apartment blocks, and under the watchful gaze of a new mosque.  I would have missed it, had I not picked my way down a weedy hill to examine some gray stone slabs half visible through overgrowth.

Many of the older stones at the top of the hill were faded, falling apart, covered in weeds, and inscribed in Hebrew.  I walked through and took photos, then descended to examine some much newer stones with Ladino inscriptions.

The newer stones were elevated above-ground and in much better condition than the sunken ground-level ones.

Ladino grave inscriptions are wonderful descriptive poetry:

As I was adjusting to my new super-fancy camera, a woman came down a dirt path with a large walking stick in hand.  “Merhaba,” she shouts out to me in Turkish, “Hello.”  I respond hesitantly.  While the cemetery is right behind an apartment block development, no one’s ever out there.  The landscape instantly changes to rural–behind the cemetery is a mosque, a farm, and an unpaved road.  Whenever I’ve visited I haven’t seen anyone, including the resident of the shack on the edge of the cemetery.  We ended up falling into a great conversation.  Nefise was super friendly and eager to hear why I was in Tekirdag (isn’t everyone?).  Now retired, she walks a loop around the cemetery and farms every day.  Because she’s out so much, she often meets foreign visitors who come to see the Jewish cemetery (there are foreign visitors?  Who? When?  Tell me!)  Nefise takes great pride in the town’s past Jewish history and always warmly greets the tourists, most of whom are descended from the very people laid to rest there.  The town government supposedly sends someone to clean the cemetery once a month, and when they don’t come (as usual) she calls up to complain.  She has no time for religious or ethnic fighting, and I felt comfortable enough during this conversation to reveal to her that I am Jewish.  Didn’t phase her for a second–in fact, all she did was tell me how much she hated the fighting over Gaza.  After about 20 minutes and the addition of a neighbor who complimented me on my camera (if only!) my Turkish ran out and Nefise and co. headed home.  Buoyed by this lovely and unexpected interaction, I set up the camera again, eager to photograph before the sun sunk too low.

Then a couple of men came down the same path.  One shouted out, “Selam Aleikum”, to which I replied, “Aleikum Selam.”  I was instantly put on edge.  This greeting is perfectly harmless: “Peace be upon you”/”and with you”, more or less.  In fact, plain-old “selam” is the casual Turkish way to say, “what’s up?”  But the whole “Selam Aleikum” bit?  Something only more religious Turks say.  Normally not a problem.  Except when you’re at the Jewish cemetery.

The two men (the Talker and his sidekick, who remained silent the whole time) approached me.  I stood up and closed the camera.  “What are you doing here?” Talker asked me in Turkish.  “Taking pictures of the cemetery,” I responded.  “Why are you here?  The real Turks are over there,” he said, pointing at the neighboring Muslim cemetery.  “This is Jewish.  That is Turk.”

“First I am here.  Then I will go over there,” I replied.

“This is Jewish.  That is Turk,” he repeated.  “Look over there,” he said, waving at the one recent Muslim grave within the confines of the Jewish cemetery.  “That’s interesting.  Take a picture of that.”

“OK, thanks,” I said.  Eager to leave a slightly menacing conversation, I walked over to the grave and pretended to snap pictures.  The two men continued walking.  Once they were out of sight, I returned to the original subject of my trip.

I took some lovely photographs that day.  But I couldn’t get the second conversation out of my mind.   Outside of Istanbul, Tekirdag is one of the best places in Turkey to be an ethnic minority or a woman.  Sure, people still gawk but they’re generally not openly hostile to outsiders.  Plus I can wear short skirts (isn’t that the goal of 3rd wave feminism?)  But really, I’ve felt comfortable enough here to be able to tell colleagues and students that I am Jewish, and I don’t fear any backlash.  This, as opposed to a fellow Jewish Fulbrighter in a small town in Eastern Turkey who tells his friends he’s Protestant, which is suspicious enough.

Turkish identity is a tricky beast.  People who reside in the political borders of Turkey historically speak a variety of languages and self-identify with a host of religions and ethnicities.  Kurds, Greeks, Armenians, and Jews are among the most well-known.  But what about the Laz, the Roma, the Circassians?  Under Ataturk’s goal to create a strong Turkish nation and one Turkish identity, cultural attributes which diverged from the new Turkish norm were suppressed, although generally freedom to practice religion remained.  Some minorities embraced this new push, including many Jews who saw this shift as a chance to finally gain acceptance as equals in the Republic–learn new modern Turkish language and ways, serve in the military, fantastic.

Doesn’t always work out so well.  Examples include the aforementioned 1934 pogrom, the discriminatory Varlik Vergisi Wealth Tax, 1955 Istanbul pogrom, just to name a few.  It’s been and continues to be a bumpy ride.  However, many of the Jews I’ve spoken to in Turkey do identify themselves as Turkish, or equally Jewish and Turkish.  But there seems to be a quite vocal Turkish minority that, well, will just never accept anyone outside of the ethnic Turk/Sunni Muslim identification as a true Turk.  One Jewish woman I spoke with in Izmir said that a colleague once remarked that she was and acted “almost like a real Turk.”  This woman’s family has lived in Turkey for about, oh, 500 years.  Ouch.

I don’t have a conclusion here.  Part of me feels glad to be returning to America, where I’ve never had my national identity called into question because of my religion.  To my face, anyway.  But I’m most certainly in the minority during a decade of substantially increased xenophobia building on a long history of strained racial and ethnic relations.  The Jews of Tekirdag were lucky to find a safe haven in Seattle; I hope when their families visit Tekirdag in the future, more people like Nefise are there to welcome them.

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).

The barbecue that actually happened

April 30, 2011 § Leave a comment

The only word to describe attendance at my speaking classes is ‘unpredictable.’  Hazirlik (preparatory) students are allowed an incredible 100+ absence hours for the year—I believe technically they can miss 20% of all their classes with no repercussions.  For American university students used to large lectures, this may seem normal.  But hazirlik is not a girl, not yet a woman, caught somewhere between high school and university.  The classes are small (about 25-30 students on the roster) and demand constant participation.   The curriculum also moves quickly.  Missing 20% of classes is pretty detrimental to language progress.  But since that’s what the official university system allows, the students take full advantage <we can talk about YOK (Turkey’s Higher Ed Commission) dysfunction another time.>

Since Speaking classes aren’t viewed on par with my Turkish colleagues’ in terms of gravity or seriousness (Speaking is only tested twice a year, and Speaking classes were never offered before Alex and I arrived), my students tend to skip my lessons more than others.  I would like to generalize that high attendance corresponds to higher ability level (for instance, 20 B4 students come while 8 C8 students come), but the fact that almost every C4 student comes despite not understanding most of what I say and appearing openly hostile to my presence confounds that theory.  Sometimes a random student who hasn’t shown his face the entire year will appear to say hello, then fade back into the shadows.  He’s done his duty for the year. Basically, every time I walk through a classroom door it’s a surprise.

About a month ago I walked into C5 to find six students just hanging out, waiting to see if I would come to class and, when I saw how few students there were, if I would cancel class.  Actually, I love it when those six students from C5 come—Ayse is sharp as a whip, Erdinc less so but he loves to talk, Latif is a good-natured aw-shucks type, and the rest get caught up in their enthusiasm.  I sat down on a desk and just chatted with them for about 15 minutes.  I told them about a recent date I had had where I learned to play backgammon (tavla, in Turkish, a constant presence at cafes and bars across the country).  But, I admitted, I hadn’t learned to play okey (a Rummikub-like game also popular in cafes and bars, played in groups of 4).  The enthusiastic Erdinc asked me if I liked mangal (barbecue).  Of course, I said.  Always the ringleader, he began planning a teacher-student mangal at his house, where we would eat, chat, and play okey.  We all checked our cell phone calendars and decided on a date.   I promised to bring some American food, then steered their attention to the day’s lesson.

Honestly, I never expected them to follow through.  It’s not that I doubted their enthusiasm or good intentions; it’s that the plans seemed like so many made with promise: yeah, we should definitely get together sometime!  So I was pleasantly surprised when Erdinc came by my office Monday to remind me of the mangal on Tuesday.  I made a mental note to cook Alex’s knock-em-dead Snickerdoodle recipe (you simply can’t not like them) that night and also invited Reyhan, my colleague who teaches C5’s main course lessons.

After lessons on Tuesday, Reyhan and I walked from the university down the main strip of cafes, bars and stray dogs in Tekirdag’s Degirmenalti neighborhood to meet Erdinc at Masal Cafe.  We waited and waited but he didn’t show.  Then, we caught sight of Omer Faruk running back from the local big-box store Migros with bread and he led us around the corner to the mangal site.

Degirmenalti is, like many Turkish neighborhoods, a combination of old drafty houses and new developments (though less of the faceless block variety) that leads right down to the Sea of Marmara.  Erdinc lives with a couple of Namik Kemal students in the ground floor apartment of an old drafty house.  A exterior spiral staircase leads to the top floor apartment and a group of women kept running up and down with various covered pots.  When we arrived at the house, Reyhan and I were given plastic seats of honor in the front yard where we waited for an hour while our student tried their damn hardest to start a fire from some tiny twigs, paper, and charcoal.  One of them joked about throwing their New English File books on it and I was so hungry at that point I almost agreed.

But finally the fire was started and grillers full of seasons chicken wings were somehow cooked all the way through (not a single victim of food poisoning!), a balcony table was set for the two teachers, and we were served all-we-could-eat wings, chopped salad, and a huge hunk of bread.

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Our students hung out inside in the kitchen and living room, chowing down and having their own Turkish conversations.  Omer Faruk works as a waiter at the university hotel and he did his best to serve us but he often forgot a glass of water or napkins.  When the cooking was done Erdinc came out and resumed his enthusiastic chatting routine, also playing for us assorted English-language songs on his cell phone (favorite: one called ‘Turkish Delight”.)  Omer Faruk, whose English, well, is mostly Turkish, hovered over his shoulder, and a couple other students came to talk.   The food was delicious, but apparently nothing topped the Snickerdoodles.  The general reaction included a wide-eyed, lips-licking declaration of ‘nefis, hocam!” (delicious, my teacher!) from every student, even the ones who barely speak to me.  Finally we were invited inside to drink tea and watch an old Turkish television show about a group of men who are obviously past high school age but who inexplicably are still immature high school students.  Hmmm.  The students gradually trickled out until it was just Reyhan, me, Erdinc, and Omer Faruk.  Reyhan and I were a bit tired from teaching all day so when Erdinc suggested busting out the okey set, we politely declined with “baska bir zaman” (another time).

I really can’t imagine any other class arranging such an afternoon.  There’s unity and we have fun, but this went above and beyond in terms of organization and dedication to fire-starting.  Thanks for the love, C5!

Feed me, Ugur

April 13, 2011 § Leave a comment

You’ve heard of Turkish hospitality.  It’s the stuff of legends, and it’s the stuff of my new caffeine addiction.  If you haven’t heard of the legendary hospitality, it boils (ha! tea joke) down to this: you’re foreign or someone I simply don’t know, let me feed you and refill your tea glass, you know you want more tea, what do you mean you don’t want more tea, of course you do, this is Turkey, don’t you know we drink tea here hahaha.  It manifests itself in other ways: free rides around town, free samples at the market, guided tours, directions which may or may not be accurate, people touching your leg when they really shouldn’t.

I love this system.  I used to read Bible stories about unexpected traveler knocking on<insert patriarch>’s tent flap, and Patriarch giving him the last jug of fresh water and lentil stew and his daughters, and wondering where such a system might still exist.  Pleased to meet you, Turkey.

About two Sundays ago, I was fumbling with my keys and a handful of shopping bags outside the entrance to our university lojman.  A man in about his 40’s, maybe, opens the door to let me in.  I graciously thank him in Turkish, and the second I do so, he says, “Are you the American?  I’ve heard about you!  How long have you been here?” I could tell by the way he asked that he knew exactly how long I’d been there and had really, really been wanting to introduce himself but never had the opportunity and thought it might be a bit strange for a middle-aged man to knock on our door unsolicited (not that that’s ever stopped most Turkish men, but I digress).  It turns out Ugur speaks perfect English, having spent 5 years at the University of Reading, England doing his PhD in plant genetics.  He also did a solo driving tour of America’s East Coast from Boston to the Florida Keys.  Ugur, where have you been all my life?  Really just upstairs?  It was such a lovely lobby conversation, and we made vague promises to meet soon for tea at the university.  He leaves the building and I fumble my way into my flat, where Alex and I begin cooking lunch.  A knock comes on our door 20 minutes later: it’s Ugur.  His mother is in town and though we might like some homemade spinach and cheese borek and stuffed cabbage leaves.  MIGHT?  Ugur, you really need to get to know us better.  Although the reheated crust was a bit limp, the spinach filling was different than those we’d eaten before.  And the stuffed cabbage leaves?  Step aside, stuffed grape leaves, your fatter and tastier cousin packs a better and less oily mouthful.  We promised Ugur to return the plates and serving tray later, but filled, in the traditional Turkish fashion.

Two hours later, I got a text that a lentil soup-making date with a new friend from Couchsurfing was canceled, leaving me, Alex, and another friend Derya at loose ends, with neither food nor plans for the evening.  Alex has a nasty habit of making delicious Snickerdoodle cookies, and what could be more American?  We invited Derya over roll some buttery dough in sugar and cinnamon and gorge ourselves.

I’d like to propose that Fulbright change its mission to ‘intercultural exchange through food’, because my god do I have the best evenings when food is involved.  We mixed, we rolled, we baked, we danced, we drank local red wine, Derya finally taught me how to make Turkish coffee.

And then we carried two plates of American teeth-decarying goodness upstairs to repay Ugur’s kindness.  Alex put a batch of cookies in before we left the flat, thinking we’d deliver and return.  I knew better.  Ugur answered the door in his pajamas then did a presto-chango and emerged in daytime clothes.  His mother busied herself heating up MORE spinach borek (secret filling ingredient: yogurt).  Alex and I partook, while Derya, the Turk herself, refused.  Ugur’s mother spent the rest of the night badgering Derya to eat some borek, it’s only 9:30, you must be hungry, what’s wrong? She successfully resisted.

Everything sounds wonderful, right?  We laughed, we chatted about traveling, Tekirdag, America, universities, current events, green tea.  Someone should have taken a photo of us and slapped it in the Fulbright brochure, it was so delightful.

But wait, this is my life, and nothing ends without a big wah-wahhhhh.  Ugur had a brain tumor last year, and though an operation removed most of it, there are still some tumor cells lurking around.  They feed on sugar.  He took a polite bite but the cookies were a big no-go.  Silver lining?  His mother gladly swooped in to clean up.

In case you were worried, Alex did leave 10 minutes into our hour-long visit to take the cookies out of the oven.  Afiyet olsun!

The final countdown

April 12, 2011 § Leave a comment

As I glanced lovingly at my students this week and wished them good luck on their midterms, I realized we have only 8 weeks left together.  The horrified faces I greeted on the first day have become the rhythm and stability in my days.  Whether I’m the same for them I can’t say, but love ‘em or hate ‘em, my weeks just aren’t complete without ’em.

I’ve been reading some fellow Fulbrighters blogs lately and realized how little I ever write about my students.  I was so down on teaching the first semester I would do anything not to think about them outside of class time.  It’s so much more romantic, too, to write about weekend jaunts and social fun.  But I spend hours each day with the little buggers, much more time than I do traveling, and they’ve managed to worm their way into a special place in my heart.  Besides, there are so many ridiculous things that happen in class that deserve to be shared.  I’ve begun posting daily quotes on my Twitter, but really the quotes need surrounding anecdotes. I can’t promise to equal the greatness of Cass, but I’ll do my best to capture the confusion that characterizes my weekday hours.  It’ll also kick my butt and get me posting here more about life—8 precious weeks left!

So this weeks is midterms week, which means that Monday and Tuesday are regular lessons and that’s it (!)  The exam happens Wednesday night, we grade on Thursday, and otherwise kick up our heels as our students toss their books in the air hightail it to Istanbul for the long weekend.  Reading, Writing, Listening, and Grammar are tested on the exam.  Notably absent?  Speaking.  So the past week or so we’ve been playing speaking-based review games of grammar and vocabulary.

My hazirlik classes are tracked by ability: A1 is the highest and C8 is the lowest (C8 deserves a blog all its own but I have neither the time nor the psychological prowess to dissect them).  After A1, B4 is my highest class and because they’ve got a quicker pick-up for English as well as a greater motivation (I’m not beating around the bush here) I can do more sophisticated activities with them. But  I had spent the previous weekend in Bulgaria and then returned late from a wedding in Istanbul, so lesson planning didn’t quite happen this weekend.  Default plan?  GAME.

Whenever I mention a game, some student inevitably brings up a disturbing Saw reference.  My games haven’t gotten quite that violent yet, but we’re on our way.  Today’s game was called, “Correct the Teacher: Grammar Edition.”

Rundown: class in two teams.
One person from each team comes to a central desk, Family Feud-style.
I say a grammatically incorrect statement.
Students must correct me—first one to slap the desk and get it right gets a point for their team.

Since B4 is a pretty advanced class, I threw some curveballs at them: past continuous, passive voice, obligation. They nailed them.  So I turned to phrasal verbs.  “Throw the garbage up!” I said, waiting for a quick desk slap.  It came.  “Throw up the garbage!” cried Guven, “throw up the garbage!”  I shook my head and turned to the other team’s rep (one day I’ll learn her name—let’s call her Merve) “Garbage throw up, garbage throw up!” she yelled.  I stare at her, horrified.  Taha, sitting down, yells from Guven’s team, “Throw garbage up!”  Merve’s team tries, “ I throw up garbage!”  They traded various incarnations of garbage vomit for about another two minutes,  All I could think was that I’d successfully the classic “A sphincter says what?” scene from Wayne’s World.  I’d done it.  I’d unwittingly managed to get one of the better classes to emphatically repeat something they would otherwise find horrifying.  Fulbright mission achieved!  After I stopped laughing, I did my best miming version of what throwing up garbage would really look like.  I guarantee you none of them will ever deliberately or accidentally direct someone to regurgitate trash again.

It’s been 3 months?

December 30, 2010 § Leave a comment

I guess it’s technically 3 1/2 months that I’ve been in Turkey now, but those first couple of weeks spent in a bizarre Fulbright orientation bubble deserve their own ‘period of my life’ recognition.

5 weeks in a hotel in a hotel followed by 2 glorious months of apartment dwelling.  Countless moments of “I’m packing it all in, shove it, Turkey” followed by a free dinner from my Ozcanlar Kofte cashier/portly adoptive Turkish father.  Classes of glassy-eyed students followed by lessons of enthusiastic singalongs, evil eye jewelry gifts, and wonderful birthday messages.

Before I left the US I read countless “Things to Know Before You Go Abroad” articles and blog posts.  I thought I was ready for the amazingly cliche “roller coaster of emotions” that I was about to experience.  I wasn’t, and I’m still not.  But it’s impossible to be completely prepared, and anyone who says she is is lying.  As long as I hang in there till the next day, I know that something beautiful will bloom from the shit fertilizer of the previous disaster.

I’ve got one more week of lessons in Tekirdag, one week of exams, then five glorious weeks of vacation!  The plan right now is to spend three weeks in Izmir recording Jewish oral histories for the Sephardic Center’s Ladino Database project (more info to come later), then jet across the Mediterranean for two weeks in Spain with friends and my old Spanish host family.  And yes, for those eagerly awaiting an answer, I am returning for a second semester at NKU.  Leaving mid-year seems oddly incomplete and I’ve grown attached to my 250 little buggers.  Besides, could I really leave before the annual Oil Wrestling festival?

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