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!

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Pesah alegre! Part One: Food

April 20, 2011 § Leave a comment

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

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

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

With Leyla in December at her familys clothing store in Kagithane

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

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

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

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

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

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

First course:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First course:

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

Second course:


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

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

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

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

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!

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