The Hilton Hotel

While this blog’s focus is the stories regarding Turkish daily life as viewed through public transportation, my Turkish life is inexorably intertwined with both the American and Turkish governments, and sometimes the best of stories are surprisingly unrelated to trips on public transportation. This past weekend was steeped in international cooperative blundering, and I can’t resist sharing the experience, so please forgive the tangent.

I’m not  a fan of bureaucracy.

But, my time here is chock full of it: To get a bank account, you need a residence permit, a tax number, and a number that is assigned by the government, which can take anywhere from 1-9 months to receive. You can’t be paid without this number, or without a bank account. Getting a cell phone requires a passport, a phone registration document, and no foreigner can purchase a cell phone contract. Under any circumstances.

The structure of things is comical because, ultimately nothing is orderly. Unlike the monotonus, if predictable bureaucracy I encountered in France, Turkish bureaucracy seems to be for show, and my Fulbright experience has been tinged with this flash and red tape, and it seems I’m not alone.

If you’ve been keeping up with my blogs, you’ve heard about the problems regarding Fulbright’s expansion. This weekend was a bloodletting for Fulbrighters throughout the Cumhuriyet,  and I have some favorite remarks:

“Its important to just remember to stay alive.”—A.S.
While addressing the Commission and fellow Fulbrighters regarding the state of our mental and physical health.

“Overall, I give it a rating of 280 Van cats.”—C.T.
After speaking about the feral cat population in his city, and deciding to use feral cats as an arbitrary rating system with which to rate his Fulbright experience so far

“Yeah, I still have to walk 20 minutes when I want to take a shower.”—J.I.
Talking about how his situation has improved

“You’re welcome to come visit, but bring your own water or you’ll have to haul it 2 km.”—D.R.
Addressing the executive members of the Fulbright Commission, inviting them to his rural placement, where there is no running potable water

“Without YÖK, you wouldn’t be here.”—A.O.
Reminding us to remain positive

Who do we work for?”—R.B.
When asking for clarification about who we actually work for

“Secil, who do you like more? Us or the full grant recipients?”
“Euhhhhhhh…” walks away, thinks for a minute, returns, “Well, I will always remember this group, because we all suffer together.”—Secil Yazicioglu, American Programs Officer, Fulbright Turkey
After addressed by several inquisitive Fulbrighters regarding her undying love for us

“Yes, I would like you to write me a letter before you leave my country telling me what is wrong with your university.”—Dr. Yusuf Ziya Ozcan, President of YÖK (Turkish Ministry of Higher Education)
Addressing me personally after dinner, after skipping our briefings discussing exactly what his organization needs to change

“Next year will never be the taste of this year, if you ask me it’s a good thing, I will only remember this year as bad… If you survive, it is enough… My job is to count heads…All the suffering is worth it, I hope I filled the 15 minutes”—Ersel Aydinli, Executive Director of the Fulbright Commission
After showing up unprepared to give the opening address that was supposed to be 15 minutes long

The day was tipped off by a flurry of Turkish media. A dozen cameramen and reporters swarmed into the room to tape the Dr. Yusuf Ziya Ozcan’s speech regarding YÖK’s sizable contribution to Fulbright’s expansion, he then, to our collective horror, veered off saying the program will be doubled next year (can I get a hell no!) Ultimately a PR ploy, it was an unwelcome start to a very, very long day.

Next, the newly appointed Ambassador addressed us, he offered a combination of humor, respect and solidarity that was lacking from the Turkish side. He’s a great man who solidified his position on my good side when he made Sam Adams beer available at the reception later that evening.

The one perk was staying at the Hilton Hotel.

While I have a pretty cushy apartment, and placement for that matter, many of my fellow Fulbrighters cannot count on certain comforts typically deemed a simple standard of living in the US: hot water, access to brewed coffee, TV, and 24-hour electricity to name a few. And, while it is these very experiences that equip each of us to speak authoritatively on Turkish culture, a slight bump in our standard of living, if only for a weekend was certainly welcome. The Hilton Hotel redefined comfort with a pool, jacuzzi, fitness center, attentive staff, Crabtree & Evelyn bath products, plush robes, comfortable beds and bacon.

If it was an attempt to placate us in our rage, it was too little too late, but I was happy to accept the bribe. I was thrilled to take the first bath I’ve had yet in this country, take a dip in the pool, and eat bacon while overlooking the Embassy of the Islamic Republic of Iran(the Hilton Hotel’s neighbor).

 

 

**Please note that the opinions expressed here are my own and are in no way associated with those of the Fulbright Commission or the US Department of State (except the quotes, which are the opinions of said individuals…)

Also, please note that while the Hilton gets a triple thumbs up, for 500TL a night, there should be free internet.

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Hey remember that time when we hitched a ride in a van full of Turkish men to the Bulgarian border?

Ahh, Bulgarian bus stations

This weekend I went to Bulgaria, a country that shocked me in terms of its similarity with Turkey. And, while there are certain stark differences, like the alphabet, and that they love pork products, several basics were the same. The taxi drivers will try to screw you out of your money with an unabashed enthusiasm, they have a freaky affinity for Nescafé products, and the busses were equally complex.

On the way to Bulgaria, I met up with a friend in the Turkish border city of Edirne. We discovered on the day of our trip that the bus wasn’t leaving from the actual bus station, something that may have once baffled me, but something that I am now unsurprised to learn. After obtaining the name and location of our rendezvous point, we set out for the Aslan Tesisleri, a creepy hotel-cum-bus stop, on the outskirts of the city. After killing time for about an hour, we began carefully watching for our bus to arrive. While it was set to arrive at 11:45 at night, we waited until 12:15 before calling the central bus station and inquire about the driver’s location.

After being transferred half a dozen times, I was able to obtain a phone number for the Edirne bus station, albeit without the area code. After asking around for the Edirne area code, without actually knowing how to say area code, I called the Edirne bus station. They gave me yet another phone number, that of our bus’s driver. After calling twice with no luck, we saw a Metro Europe bus slowly creeping by the Tesisleri. We ran outside, as I tried the driver again on my phone. As the bus picked up speed and drove away, the driver picked up. I yelled at him to stop, explaining that we were waiting for him at the Tesisleri. He responded calmly that he would be arriving there in 10 minutes. What a coincidence I thought, two Metro Euro busses going to Bulgaria at the same time of night? Well, best to believe the bus driver.

We decided to wait in the parking lot, on the side of the highway, lest the driver pull the same stunt as the one before him did, rolling away as we chase after him, yelling. Walking down to the road, we noticed a group of five Turkish 20-something men waiting for the Sofia bus as well. They told us we had missed it, and when I explained I had called the driver, they decided to try him again. Apparently, he had been napping while the alternate driver worked, he had no idea where the bus actually was when he spoke with me and had simply lied to get me to calm down. They were at the Bulgarian border crossing, he told the men, and we were welcome to come meet them.

So, against our better judgment we jumped in a van full of Turkish men and made a mad dash for the Bulgarian border.

I should say, we took some precautions: I took down the license plate number and messaged a friend explaining what we were doing, making sure the driver and his buddies understood what I was up to. I instructed my friend to call the cops if she didn’t hear from me within an hour. Luckily, they were as harmless as our intuition had told us, and within 10 minutes we were at the border.

The driver chuckled as we ran up to the first of what turned out to be five separate admittance gates separating Turkey from Bulgaria, saying he was glad we found him. I could have smacked him, but his laxity was so comical all I could do was laugh. My friend (rightly) remarked that had he pulled a similar stunt in the States, we would have been comped our entire trip. Seeing that the situation was different, we didn’t press our luck and we piled onto the bus waiting for the first round of passport reviews.

Two hours later we rolled into Bulgaria, and as the snow fell around us, we drifted off to sleep. Waking in Sofia, we spent about ten minutes attempting to get a taxi, and when we finally figured out the system, our baffled driver drove us halfway around the city. Too tired to argue, we finally gave in, and were forced to walk to our hostel when we realized the location had been changed.

It was all, all of it, worth it however when we were handed our first real cup of brewed coffee that either of us had drank since August.

**Hostel Mostel in Sofia, Bulgaria gets four thumbs up (two from each of us). Its new location off of Makadonia Sq. doesn’t require a taxi, just a 5 minute tram ride on the #3, 6, or 9. You can, and should buy your tram ticket on the tram, for 1 lev, to avoid the 10 leva fee for not having a ticket, please, learn from our mistakes!

Homosexuality

Riding the 830 from the Bayrampaşa Otogar to Taksim Square, we pass a seedy section that branches for a few blocks between İstiklal and Tarlabaşı Streets where one can see a handful of transexual prostitutes, and a little further in the occasional semi-discreet brothel and a gay bar or two. Being gay in Turkey has got to be extremely difficult, even if one lives in Istanbul where you may find relative safety in the anonymosity of a metropolis. But, being gay anywhere else has got to be really, really difficult. Then it occurred to me, I have yet to meet one openly gay person in Turkey.

With so many openly gay friends in the States, this struck me as a sign of my own ignorance. They must be around me, right? Then I started thinking about a conversation I had with some friends.

A few days ago I was sitting in a punk-ish death-metal-ish themed beer garden (the beer was SO cheap it was worth putting up with the music) with two ex-pat friends who were complaining about the Western media’s coverage of the Muslim world. While it’s good to have friends from Turkey, I do find I learn at least as much from veteran ex-pats as my quote-un-quote native ones.

While the two bantered back and forth complaining about the poor understanding the average American journalist has for the Arabic language, I kept my mouth shut. I’m at least as linguistically ignorant as the common journalist. Their beef was this: Individuals are commonly referred to by only part of their name like ‘Ibn or Bin, which are not actually names but rather a prefix meaning “son of” and therefore a name that can not ever be used alone, think the Irish Mc. And while this isn’t an earth-shattering mistake, it shows the depths of the ignorance of not only the journalist but also the entire editing staff. Anyone with a cursory knowledge of Arabic should catch this.

This then lead to a discussion of the poor translation and explanation of the cultural context required to understand speeches from leaders in the Eastern world. Ahmadinejad’s 2007 speech at Columbia University was brought up. In his highly contested speech, Ahmadinejad declared that the Muslim world doesn’t have homosexuality like it exists in the West:

‘No homosexuals in Iran’: Ahmadinejad

(AFP) – Sep 24, 2007

NEW YORK (AFP) — Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad skirted a question about the treatment of homosexuals in Iran on Monday, saying in a speech at a top US university that there were no gays in Iran.

“In Iran we don’t have homosexuals like in your country,” Ahmadinejad said to howls and boos among the Columbia University audience.

“In Iran we do not have this phenomenon, I don’t know who has told you that we have it,” he said.

This of course led to a discussion of the differences in understanding of homosexuality in the East. That is, there is a categorical difference between a homosexual and a man who has sex with men. And, while the American Red Cross may use such terms to weed out the blood of undeclared homosexual men (recognize that question, “Have you ever had sex with a man that has had sex with men?”), I must say, there is a stark difference in this part of the world.

Apparently being on top matters. Being on the bottom matters. And while individuals in the States may make distasteful jokes about such things, here in the East, the man on top is not considered to be homosexual. There is a distinct difference between them, and n’er the two shall meet. My friend offered up this anecdote in explanation: His friend went home with a man and in the heat of things, began, well, feeling around. The other man, outraged, stormed out saying something that roughly translates to “I’m not the passive one.”

I had come across this concept once before in an article about the US military’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy. The article discussed Turkey and their policy, referred to by the author as, Do Ask, Must Tell. Turkey has mandatory military requirement for all men. All men. There is no such thing as conscientious objection here. Every Turkish man is required to serve five months if he has a university degree and 18 if he does not. He receives almost no money from the government either, and while Turks are enamored with their military, a significant portion doesn’t actually want to have to play soldier. For free. For a year and a half.

One way out is by declaring one’s homosexuality. Why? Because according to Selma Aliye Kayaf, the Minister for Women’s and Family Affairs, homosexuality is a “disease that needs treatment” therefore barring the “sufferer” from military service. The article also discussed that because service is so loathed, the government is astute to those who fabricate homosexuality. The author spoke to individuals who were told they must document their homosexual acts, showing themselves in photographs or video at (excuse the bluntness) the receiving end.

So, my friend argued perhaps this is what Ahmadinejad meant when he said the Arab world doesn’t have homosexuals like in our country. And, even if it’s not what he meant, that’s the reality here. I honestly can’t make heads or tails of the situation. I’m not a gay man, I’m not Turkish and like I said I unfortunately have yet to make the acquaintance of any openly gay Turks. I’m not sure what this kind of conceptualization of sexuality really means either. While some may say (rather optimistically) that it opens up a discussion about the categorization of preferences, I feel such an argument is false. The only narrative here is a heteronormative one. But it definitely made me think, that’s for sure.

Thoughts on taksis

Something that has always baffled me about public transportation is a city’s desire to pretend that nightlife doesn’t happen. Boston is famous among the young crowd for its idiotic night schedule, rarely a subway running after 1 am. Istanbul outdoes Boston in both population, 15 to roughly 3 million, and senselessness with the last bus typically leaving at 11:30pm, throwing you on the mercy of the taxi drivers.

Taxis in Turkey receive a mixed review from me. They can be some of the nicest men I have had the pleasure to speak with but they can also be some of the most horrible, deceptive individuals in the city. Being a Turk, you still, at times, must do battle with a taxi driver to insist he doesn’t take you for a joy ride around the city, but being a yabancı, a foreigner, you must go into the situation with your guns blazing.

I was sick a few weeks ago. I went to a soccer game unprepared for the weather and the wait outdoors, waking the next morning to find my body abandoned by my immune system. I had become Petri dish of disease. After suffering a fever and serious abdomen pain for a day and a half, I finally gave in and made a trip to the hospital.

Mentally and physically defeated, I was in no mood to battle with a driver. The kind man spoke to me about soccer, trying hard to win me over to the Beşiktaş camp. He was genuinely interested in my job and praised my Turkish. He even offered me an orange to help boost my immune system. When we arrived at the hospital (he had taken the most direct route) he made sure to show me the meter, saying it should not cost more than this when I returned home later. He helped me into the emergency room and in parting he incessently repeated the kind Turkish phrase, “Geçmiş olsun, geçmiş olsun”, “Get well, get well”.

Later in the week I was again forced by lateness and icy weather to take a taxi, and with only a 20TL note in my pocket (for a 13TL-15TL ride), I jumped in telling him where to take me. He began griping that there would be traffic on the route, suggesting an alternative I knew well. The experienced taxi-rider would have said no to this suggestion (there is no traffic at 12:30am) but I gave in since I knew where he was taking me. He began going the way he had described, but soon veered off onto a highway, a highway. I snapped at him, asking where he was going. Surprised he attempted to tell me he was heading to my destination. I fired back that he was lying, seeing a sign for my village pointing in the opposite direction.

After battling in my pidgin Turkish he seemed to give in, heading back in the right direction. When we arrived at my place, I found the rate to be 25TL, five more than I had and ten more than I should have to pay. I yelled at him, telling him his actions were çok ayıp, very shameful. After finally handing over my 20TL, I jumped out of the car. Luckily my vocabulary doesn’t include most curse words, though I’m sure he used a few as I exited the taxi and entered my apartment. I called him an English-language expletive to relieve my own anger and slammed the door.

If ever a case for Turkish public transportation, the crooked Turkish taxi driver is one.

Mimar Sinan

Sitting in the dolmuş, I am occasionally accosted by both people I know and people I don’t. One of the downsides to living in a random city is that foreigners are few and far between, people tend to remember that token American the way one would expect any small-town American community to remember their token foreign exchange student, the town drunk, or the local millionaire. Its that person that everyone feels they know, without actually knowing anything about them. Being the outsider makes people feel you belong to them in some strange way. They bring you up at dinner parties to their friends, they smile knowingly at you on the street, or in Turkey they stare unabashedly at you.

The problem I have with all of this, is that I never know if I should know one of these people. I typically put on my iPod (thank the Lord for Steve Jobs and his team of wünderkinds, where would I be without my iPod?) and tune out the world around me. And, as much as I admire those who travel to new places and immerse themselves in the local culture, sometimes I need to be anywhere but on a dolmuş being stared at by an aging Turkish couple.

All this brings me to Sinan. I was sitting on the dolmuş looking out the window when suddenly, my arm was grabbed by a twenty-something man. This was surprising to me for several reasons, 1. Men do not touch women in Turkey, 2. I could understand what he was saying, and 3. He looked vaguely familiar. Sinan asked me in clear, concise English what I was doing that evening. This, again, is very suspicious. He clearly knew exactly who I was, but I was still baffled. I managed to both save face and weasel my way out of that evening’s engagement. But, much to my chagrin, he became a nearly daily character in my life in the weeks that followed.

I should add a personal note here. Some people are anal retentive, some people have social anxieties, and some people, like me, cannot remember names to save their lives. Regardless of the country, the situation or the importance of an individual, their name never seems to stick until I either hear and see it more than a dozen times (thank you Facebook!) or I have some little mind trick to remember their name. Maybe their name rhymes with their hometown, maybe they resemble a childhood friend, maybe a physical characteristic begins with the same letter as their name. Whatever the trick, its my only hope in remembering who they are. So, when I finally overheard that his name was Sinan, I lucked out.

Mimar Sinan is one of the Ottoman Empire’s greatest gifts to the world. The internationally renown architect created some of the most breathtaking structures still standing today. I have been enamored with his work since visiting the popular Çemberlitaş Hamamı back in 2008. Known simply as Mimar Sinan, or Architect Sinan, he is still one of Turkey’s most celebrated historical figures. And, since I live in Eastern Thrace, I am lucky enough to be only two hours from what he considered his crowning architectural achievement, Selimiye Cami. Selimiye is quite possibly the most beautiful mosque in existance, it incorporates elaborate designs, beautiful calligraphy, and a spacious open-floor plan. And, especially when one considers that this work was all designed and completed in the 16th century, there is an added sense of awe at the accomplishment of his vision.

So I had finally remembered his name, but I still had no idea who he was. Because my university has programs up through the doctorate level and since I interact extensively with members of administration and staff, there are a large number of clues that I cannot rely on to identify who a new or unfamiliar individual is. Age is far less of a factor than it has ever been before. A 30-something could be an instructor, a secretary, a janitor, or a student. There’s really no way of knowing for sure. And, being as young of an instructor as I am, I tend to err on the side of caution when interacting with new male acquaintances, just in case one of them happens to be one of my 450 students.

I spent two months trying to get to the root of the matter. And, since he had friended me and messaged me incessantly on Facebook, there was a real sense of urgency as to how to proceed. Finally, after weeks of research, I discovered he was indeed a student. Not my student. But, a student. And, because of the intense hierarchy of the Turkish professional system, I now knew I could rely on the superiority of my position to shame him out of my life. And, before you scoff at me for the use of the term shame, he knew these lines and ignored them, crossing endless barriers that he knew to be inappropriate.

Such is my life, the daily scramble to remember individuals when my brain is already scrambled eggs. I think I’ve become quite the sleuth however, looking to key social, economic and professional indicators to decipher who this new person is and whether I should know them. But, when all else fails, I simply introduce myself, turn on the charm, and hope for the best.

 

Abulation Fountain at Sinan's Selimiye Mosque which Andrew Loreaux quite astutely suggested quite staggeringly resembles the entrance to the Chamber of Secrets.

Condoms, jellyfish and a little piece of heaven

Walking to the Arnavutköy bus stop, I have a beautiful stroll. Arnavutköy is situated between Ortaköy and Bebek, two popular neighborhoods for well-monied İstanbulliler, on the European side of the Bosporus. The Bosporus is the straight that runs through the center of Istanbul, splitting the ancient city in two. Today the Bosporus is one of the most important international shipping routes in the region as the mouth from the Black Sea into the Mediterranean and later to Asia via the Suez Canal or west-ward via the Atlantic.

Its also an absolutely breathtaking sight.

On my walk I pass private boats, docked while their owners relax. Some have Kıralık, or “For hire” scrawled on old pieces of scrap wood, others are significantly more upscale, with posh hotel names running down their side. Further up, where the water rushes past a break-water, men are huddled in the cold, fishing. They bring bait, extra layers, bottles of water and patience. Walking by, I have to be careful not to become ensnared by their lines as they line them up to cast into the rushing water.

Arnavutköy has one of my favorite architectural features, a little inlet of water, a little island of houses between the town and the straight. When the city constructed the road running along the sea, they built a small section over the water. Rather than forcing the well-financed, well-lawyered locals to give up their prime water-front property for a strip of tar, they left them several meters of water and built a raised road instead. The effect, one would think, would be a cute, tranquil, Venice-like waterfront home, but reality is different.

An interesting feature of the Bosporus is the presence of an enormous amount of jellyfish. These aren’t dangerous jellyfish, no man-of-wars here, but they’re kind of scary and pretty gross. And, while swimming the Bosporus is illegal, any ideas I had of breaking Turkish law (never a good plan) were quickly eliminated at the thought of swimming through a half-mile of jellyfish-concentrated waters.

While Turks are extremely cleanly people, a cultural attribute with roots deep in both history and religion, its baffling the amount of pollution the country has. Its so sad that even the most beautiful of sights can be marred by empty wrappers, old receipts, plastic bags. I’ve been told they once pulled an entire sofa out of the Bosporus. This littering seems to be ingrained culturally, I have seen individuals of all ages pulling trash out of their pockets, emptying it onto the streets. Grown adults throwing paper cups or discarding of unwanted food wrappers mindlessly as they stroll down the road. Villagers routinely burn their trash rather than deal with its disposal. Bus companies toss their bags of trash out the doors as they speed down the highway. And, unfortunately, this all must end up somewhere.

So, walking by this little island of beautiful homes with their little water-front terraces should, should, be nice. Unfortunately the way the tides flow and the way the water moves, or rather stagnates, large, concentrated pools of dead, shredded jellyfish goo with heaps of city rubbish form. For the past week I have walked by a milky pool of jellyfish guts with three old condoms floating peacefully atop the unpleasantness. On mornings when I am particularly mentally detached, my mind wanders to how the prophylactics wound their way into my peaceful corner of the city, then I shiver, cringe, and run for the bus.

Arnavutköy is a beautiful, quiet section of a bustling international city, but as with any place, it has its downfalls. As long as you don’t look into the water, but rather admire it from afar I think you’d be pleased. And really, with the stunning views surrounding this little, old Armenian vineyard, its easy to miss the discarded condoms.