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.

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 Summer of George

May 11, 2011 § 2 Comments

“God would never let me be successful!  He’ll kill me first!”
“I thought you don’t believe in God.”
“I do for the bad things.”

Seinfeld’s George Costanza is both the most painfully realistic and painfully hilarious character to appear on a modern sitcom.  He poisoned his boss, moved back to his parents’ duplex in Queens, fabricated elaborate false identities and webs of lies to prop up those personae, got fired from the Yankees, cheated on an IQ test, pushed over an old woman and children to escape from a fire, double-dipped his chip, got punched by Marisa Tomei, ruined his hand modeling career in a freak hot-iron incident, got swindled and robbed on the way to a job interview, inadvertently killed his long-suffering fiancée with toxic wedding envelope glue, and got caught masturbating by his mother, who then threw her back out.  And these are just a few of the Astonishing Tales of Costanza.

What could possibly be realistic about such ridiculous stories?  Perhaps it’s not so much what happened as the underlying personality characteristics that allow a person to act in such a way to give birth to such incidents.  Wikipedia describes George as exhibiting “a number of negative character traits, among them stinginess, selfishness, dishonesty, insecurity, and neurosis.”  Who among us (neurotic Northeastern jews, I’m looking at you) does this not describe?   In the brilliantly and awkwardly funny Curb Your Enthusiasm, we find that George’s character and exploits were based on Larry David’s, Seinfeld’s co-creator and the true brains behind the show (you know it’s true) life.  These bizarre combinations of and terrifying interactions with humanity, these unfortunate situations–with the right friends, the right circumstances, and the right neuroses, any of these stories could happen to you.  And that’s the premise of Curb Your Enthusiasm—this is your reality, slightly exaggerated (read here for an interesting debate between the stylized George and the stylized Larry)

In Seinfeld’s Season 4’s ‘sitcom about nothing within a sitcom about nothing’ arc, Jerry and George’s TV pilot gets picked up by NBC.  Unemployed, without hope, and without a girlfriend, this is the single greatest thing to happen to George in years.  Yet he’s overcome with staggering doubt.  In his therapist’s office, he relates the confession that starts this entry: “God would never let me be successful.  He’ll kill me first.”  George is the perpetual loser—he won’t admit it, but deep inside, he knows it.  While auditioning actors to play the ‘George’ role on the new pilot (the self-reflexive post-modernity of the whole show is overwhelming), one actor asks, “What are we looking at here?  Is this guy a real loser?”  George responds sharply and dismissively, “ No, not a loser!”  A bit too sharply and dismissively.  We know you’re lying, George.   The universe simply doesn’t work in your favor.

Most of my life has unintentionally come to resemble George’s.  An encyclopedia of painfully awkward and hilarious situations, false identities (you don’t think I’ll tell you my fake e-mail addresses, do you?), and the knowledge that when something goes too well, disaster is right around the corner, no matter how many evil eyes you have in your house.

Since the depths of the previous fall’s discontent, my life in Turkey has substantially improved: better grip of teaching, better understanding of the country and the language, better relationships.  I was looking forward to a triumphant last month of class parties, travel, Istanbul, farewells to friends, a long-awaited return to the US, and then an exciting move to Vienna.  With this general satisfaction in mind, Alex and I headed to the unofficial Fulbright farewell weekend at an all-inclusive Mediterranean seaside resort in Antalya, on Turkey’s southern coast.  Things were perfect!  Killer buffets, two pools, saunas, a Turkish bath, a beach with cool, clear water.  I should’ve been on the lookout.  Mid-afternoon on Saturday I suffered a blatantly ridiculous pool-based accident and broke a bone in my left knee.  Alex has summed up the hospital visit and wincingly hilarious Sunday trip back to T.dag on her blog.

I’m now home, safely ensconced on my orange corduroy couch, surrounded by books, satellite TV, and a fickle Internet connection.  I’m glad I’m comfortable because, well, I’m not leaving for a good long while.  While I’m lucky enough to live on the ground floor of our building, the building itself is down several steps from the curb, at the bottom of a steep and uneven hill.  And to access anything from our apartment block wasteland of a neighborhood, I need to climb several steps to board the minibus/dolmus.  It just ain’t gonna happen.  The next foreseeable exit date is Tuesday, when I head to T.dag’s finest English-speaking orthopedist (when I locate him/her) for a 10-day check-up and hopeful cast removal.

Things aren’t so bad! If someone buys and prepares my food for me, I can transport it in my backpack or in my mouth like a dog and eat.  I managed to put my own socks on this morning.  I even somewhat bathed myself.

Since I’ve got a hell of a lot of time on my hands now, I hope to update this blog daily with thoughts and stories I’ve been too neglectful to write about this year.  I’ve got the rest of today to ponder exactly why the universe has it in for me, and prepare myself for some visitors and Sinema Lojman’s (aka my laptop’s) showing of The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou.

In case you’re wondering, the Seinfeld pilot does get cancelled when NBC’s president joins Greenpeace to impress Elaine and the new head axes the sitcom.  Sad trombone.  But in perhaps the strangest ‘art imitates life imitates art’ moment of my life and Seinfeld, I leave you with the Season 8 finale, in which George, surprised by 3 months’ severance pay after being fired from the Yankees, plans the Summer of George, a hedonistic zenith of relaxation and frisbee golf.  Until he slips on an invitation he previously dropped on the steps and breaks both his legs.  Sound familiar?

skip to 4:47 and live what I feel

Yarina gorusuruz! (see you tomorrow!)

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!

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!