Yabanci, just like me.

Kars is a city in North-Eastern Turkey, skirting the border with Armenia. It is the site of Orhan Pamuk’s book Snow, though after torturing myself with both Istanbul and My Name is Red only to abandon both works entirely (certifying forever the pretentiousness of literary critics everywhere)  I have yet to read what I am certain is a thrilling interesting read.

When I told friends and colleagues of my plans to head out East, they responded with a mix of curiosity and disgust. Why would you voluntarily go to Kars? There is a great divide between Western Turks and Eastern Turks, with this again divided into city and village Turks. Out East, they’re not like us. They’re backwards people. Out in the villages, they’re not like us, they’re backwards people. It seems everyone needs someone to feel superior to. And, being American, I’m all too familiar with this notion of being a real citizen.

I live in a part of Turkey that was “exchanged” (read: bloodily and savagely ripped) from one country to another for thousands of years. Where Thrace once housed Greeks, Jews, Bulgarians, and countless others, it is now home to Turks. The East had a similarly vicious history that I was excited to explore. Where once home to Armenians, Circassians, Laz, Kurd and Turk, today it has made great strides towards ethnic homogeneity.

People out West where I live constantly warn me that people from the East are crazy, they aren’t real Turks. They’re backwards, like the Iraqis or the crazy Saudis, they make their women cover, they don’t have proper schools. People out East liken Westerners to the heathens of Europe, they’re materialistic and snooty. (Sound like the American North/South divide to anyone?)

The more I’m warned about a place in Turkey, the more excited I am to visit it. And, Kars was no exception. The ride had been an adventure. Even before leaving Istanbul, I had encountered a little of the local culture. A pushy multi-generational family of village people (literal ones, not the YMCA guys) had caught my attention in Ankara when entering the plane when they were

  1. Gaping at me openly, saying yabanci (foreigner) over and over (its an international airport guys, get over it)
  2. Surprised that you needed photo ID (really? really? you need photo ID to buy a cell phone)
  3. Carrying all their things in tarpaulin bags (sigh)
  4. Extremely concerned that they were entering the incorrect plane (no really there is a system in place for this)

The family consisted of two incredibly elderly men, one of whom resembled the chess-playing man in that Pixar short (especially after he dons the glasses):

With them was a thick, heavy set elderly woman, a cross middle-aged couple, their teenage daughter who seemed to have taken her style tips from Miley Cyrus, a grown daughter, a man who I assume is the husband of the elder daughter, and a screaming baby. Plus their baggage.

My Anglo-Saxon/Nordic coloring tends to set me out from the rest, and as we were shuttled to our plane, the elderly lady, clearly curious about my nationality, asked me for help with her ticket, then praised my glorious Turkish (I can pronounce 18A like a champ!) During this little interaction, they announced that those with seat numbers 1-15 enter from the front of the plane, and those with seats 16-30-something enter at the back. This announcement was only in Turkish, and I sat there basking in the glory of understanding my first-ever loudspeaker announcement.

Perhaps the family was too engrossed in keeping track of their  tarpaulin bags or attempting to read the numbers on their tickets (do they have optometrists in Kars?) to hear said announcement. They all entered from the wrong end and spent the next 10 minutes running over other passengers who were attempting to situate themselves.

The family was seated only one row in front of me, and as they arrived, an attendant asked that they please put their baggage in the over head bin. The elderly man without the glasses reached up to check the sturdiness of the compartments. He began to explain to the flight attendant that he was worried the bags would fall out and things would be broken. The flight attendant looked at him for only a split second (God bless him and his patience) whereafter he reached up and calmly explained to the elderly man and his entire family that in fact, the overhead compartments close. Ahh, the elderly man said, this seems to be a safe place for our things.

They sat themselves down, got up, rearranged, sat down, passed the screaming baby back and forth, and grumbled when the attendant explained they must wear their seat belts. The other passengers watched this scene with equal amusement, though their sentiments seemed tinged with shame whereas I enjoyed this interplay of culture diversity.

Upon arrival in Kars, as we continued to barrel down the runway at the speed of a racecar, they unhooked their seatbelts and stood up to gather their things. The flight attendants, still dutifully strapped in, were helpless to stop them. By the time we began taxing to the arrival gate, they had their bags in hand and had lined up at the back exit door.

“Where do they think they’re going?” Quietly commented the woman seated next to me, clicking her tongue in disapproval. I love seeing the interaction of Turks from various backgrounds, the village and city folk have about as much as common as I do with pretty much any Turk. But, unlike in my “native” Tekirdağ, in Kars, its the village folk who win out in normalcy.

After arriving on the tarmac of the Kars airport, I relaxed in the dingy cafe of the departures gate while waiting for Hannah and Sasha to arrive from Ankara. Once they had arrived we made quick friends with a taxi driver who would take us to Ani for the better part of the afternoon (if you’re wondering, we got him to 30TL per person for a 3 1/2 hour trip total.)

I love visiting historical landmarks in Turkey, they’re one of the nation’s great gifts to the tourists of the world. Unfortunately, those sites which do not immediately demonstrate the glory of the Ottoman history, and the Turks in specific, tend to be less-well preserved.

Ani is an abandoned Armenian city that sits on a cliff right up against the Turkish-Armenian border. It once housed 100,000 people but today its been reduced to rubble save the handful of semi-standing structures. Its always interesting to see what Turks make of other culture’s historical places. These places are always lauded as part of the “Glory of Turkey” even while the Turks themselves reinforce the yabanci-ness of the site’s original residents.

The plaque at Ani’s entrance had some phenomenal statements/translations that illustrate this Turk-centric ideology.

First is this, lest anyone forget who the most important party in Ani’s history is…

In Ani even though the foreground of the Christian Management, Turk and Islamic Governments were the ones who had the city for the longest period.

And this garbled mess of English that tells of Ani’s importance, what it has to give to science I’m not sure…

Ani city today as being a Ruin Pace (Open Air Museum), which is now in lands of Turkish Republic Government, services to science and culture, and with the excavations and researches it’s secrets are coming to light day by day.

We traipsed through the rubble, narrowly avoiding the enormous magpies left by grazing cows. Though the site is a historical monument, local cows are allowed to graze here. Hannah, discovered this for us when she stepped smack in the middle of a giant magpie, her foot covered in green-brown goo.

After making our way back to Kars, we set off to find our friend who was joining us from his placement in Ağrı. He has not fared so well this year, and who can blame him after eight months of isolation in a city whose name literally means “pain.”

We weren’t sure what we would find, and we searched for the hotel he was napping in with more than a little trepidation. After ducking into a place called Bizim Hotel, we inquired of the staff as to whether an American man had stopped in. Yes, he said, he’s upstairs.

Up the stairs, huh? The “stairs” were built into a nearly vertical wall, and we used our hands and feet to climb them, much like a ladder. On the second floor, which was called the first but really located on the european third, the man knocked on a door. We heard some English inside, but when the door opened, it wasn’t him.

We said our hellos to a blond, germanic-looking man who looked at us groggily with confusion. As we stood there, the receptionist started to make his way downstairs. As Hannah and I tried to explain who we were to the germanic-man, Sasha caught the receptionist and explained that this was not our friend.

“Sorry” Hannah and I explained to the confused and bleary-eyed tourist, “We said we were looking for our friend, and they must have assumed it was you… you know, there aren’t many tourists here, and well… sorry… go back to sleep. Have a nice trip though!”

Sasha’s conversation was a little less successful. As we left the tourist in peace, the receptionist made his way back to the man’s door, “No, no, of course this is your friend” he told us.

“No, really, we don’t know him,” we countered.

His boss, who had heard the commotion, made his way upstairs. His employee explained that we were looking for an American man who had made a reservation for four. “Oh” the man said, as he crossed over to the tourist’s door, “He’s in here.”

“No!” We yelled as he was about to knock on the poor man’s door. “That’s not him!”

“Of course it is” he countered, “He’s foreign, just like you.”

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F*ing clueless

Nothing is predictable. This is something I should know by now. I used to marvel at people’s ability to navigate the seemingly impenetrable public transportation system. How did they know? How did they learn?

I used to think that this knowledge was something written into the Turkish DNA code. Kind of like Turkish women’s ability to wear towering heels day in and day out with no clear impact on their feet’s wellbeing. Or perhaps, the Turkish male’s genetic predisposition to çay. I swear their bladders have, over millennia, grown to accommodate pots of black çay.

Maybe not. The more Turkish I learn, the more I realize that people are as confused as I am. Elderly women ask the dolmus driver if his route will take them to their destination. They’re occasionally surprised (as am I) by a diversion from a normal route, to which the driver shrugs and says something vaguely translating to “Tough shit.”

At work, I used to think that I was the only one who spent her days wandering like an overmedicated mental patient through the labyrinth of rules, paperwork and unwritten understanding.

I have just come to realize: I am not alone.

I don’t know what to make of this revelation. I have a deep pity for my friends here, who like me, spend day after day, clueless. We wait in vain for shreds of information that inevitably trickle down the rumor mill. And, while their command of Turkish gives them the opportunity to obtain bits of information that I simply can’t access alone, they are rarely better informed than I.

Because I always assumed my obliviousness was due to my (poor) Turkish, I constantly asked questions. I dug through emails and spent hours on google translate attempting to piece together the fragments of office policy/politics that sat idly in the bowels of my spam box.

This past month there was an election at my university. Every five years or so, the administration changes. The incumbent must run a campaign and defend his/her position from potential usurpers. And, the time has come here at my university for a changing of the guard.

From top to bottom, the old are out and the new are in.

The former director of my department is a comical, lighthearted man who, quite interestingly, decided to leave his lucrative job at a respected university a few years ago and backpack around Iran and later South America. When funds ran out, he came back and was appointed into a vacant spot in our university. That was in January.

He’s been ousted. I have not personally spoken with this new director, so perhaps its a bit early for me to say, but his initial impact has me wondering.A few days ago a meeting was called to announce his “resignation” and to introduce us to his replacement.

The new director sat stoically as our former director graciously and animatedly greeted him. He made no eye contact with any of the twenty-or-so employees, mumbled a greeting, shook hands half-heartedly and awkwardly kissed the former director, and made a bee-line out of the meeting room.

Not a good first impression.

I soon found out that the friendly Vice Rector who had advocated for me and my colleague upon our arrival here, has been ousted. As has the Rector who heavily promoted a stronger English program.

This all would have been frustrating enough, but I am in the middle of a paperwork nightmare. My American colleague, the Patient, ripped a tendon in the back of her knee, and possibly also ripped her calf muscle in addition to a hairline fracture on her knee, all in a freak poolside accident. She has been on medical leave, but there is a problem.

In Turkey, with a note from the doctor, you can take 10 days leave on an injury. After 10 days, a second report can be issued to extend the home rest. The Patient’s second leave was written as 20 days, but regulations stipulate that a second leave report can only be 10 days long. After 10 days, the Patient must submit yet another report, this time by a panel of doctors, who explain her condition and recommend her for 30 days of home rest. The problem is, our contracts end June 31 (no that’s not a typo, I know there are only 30 days in June…) Back in February, we made an effort to change the contract to reflect the end of our Fulbright grant period (and our health insurance) which is June 15.

“Yes, yes” I was told, “yes, yes we will change the date, it is not a problem.” Well, our contract currently stands at June 31, 2011. The Patient has plans to leave in just over a week, but her second 10-day leave expires tomorrow. There is no point in summoning a panel of doctors to get her 4 more days of sick leave rather than just resign and leave.

The resignation request has been met with discussions of the length of the contract. Circular discussions in broken Turkish follow a path something like this:

Me: “Yes, but getting a panel of doctors together for this is difficult and tiring. We don’t want to do it.”
Staff member: “Yes, but this is required.”
Me: “But, its not happening.”
Staff member: “But, it is required.”
Me: “What if she resigns?”
Staff member: Looks at me confused for a moment. “But the contract goes to June 31.”
Me: “Not if she resigns.”
Staff member: “She needs a 30- day medical leave report.”

Repeat loop.

It may seem I’m pretty on top of this, but it is solely due to an amazing colleague who sat down with me and the department secretary (a dear woman who has a coronary every time I break protocol… who knew leaving the country required a letter of consent from the Univeristy’s Rector…?) and the kind woman explained the situation. The one question nobody, not the department secretary, English department director, personel staff, or director of personel and payroll, could answer was: What if we just ignore the contract.

I realize that this screams unprofessionalism, and perhaps its not the best idea for me to be advertising this, but what if we just ignore the paperwork?

I was met with blank stares.

Ignore the protocol? But the rules! The rules!

Death by… Marshrutka?

The longer I spend in the caucus region, the closer I come to death.

Georgia is an interesting country with a peculiar history. This is the country that gave the world Stalin. I wasn’t sure what I would find in Tbilisi, would it be a former Soviet state still clawing its ways out of the abyss of communism’s collapse? Would I find the steriotypical hedonism of the post-Soviet system? What do you make of a country that has named its largest road after George W. Bush?

No that's not a joke.

After going to Tbilisi for the weekend, one would think scenes like this would be the cause of an untimely end

Our taxi driver told us a story of the 2008 invasion, where the Russians randomly attacked cars on a highway. There were bullets everywhere and shrapnel flying, he dove from his car and into a ditch to avoid being killed. He was so close to the original strike, he later saw himself running from the scene on a BBC video of the attack.

And that was only three years ago.

Then there were the stories of sex-trafficking. And, not to make light of something so horribly serious, I knew Georgia must be an amazing place after a friend insisted I go, even after nearly being abducted off the streets of Batumi and then discovering that her hotel was in fact a brothel.

Surprisingly, its not the Russians or invasions that threatened my life, nor was it groups of former-Soviet thugs and their sex-trafficking that had me worried, but rather the complete and utter shit-show that is the road system.

Public transport on this side of Europe leaves a bit to be desired from a safety standpoint, Turkey has desensitized me to some of the perils of road transport, but nothing could have prepared me for Georgia: potholes the size of a small village, cows crossing the street on a narrow mountain pass, boulders larger than most homes littered across the highway, the smell of cha-cha on the driver’s breath…

This past weekend, while in Tbilisi, I got the adrenaline flowing. After a particularly treacherous (if absolutely stunning) ride through the mountains on the Turkish/Georgian border in the dirt-poor province of Ardahan, we arrived in Akhaltsikhe, (written ახალციხე) in Georgia.

In Akhaltsikhe we were quickly (with Frank’s glorious Russian) directed to a marshrutka (former-Soviet state minibus). Sasha and I made a quick pitstop in what just may be the most disgusting bathroom in the entire world. The first thing I thought of was this scene from Slumdog Millionaire:

We entered an old wooden trailer where Stalin himself probably went for relief as a child, it smelled so putrid I seriously debated popping a squat next to the stairs. The sewage was piled up to the rim of the square hole, and I dont think I have ever peed so quickly in my life.

Back on the marshrutka we wedged in and prepped for what would be a bumpy ride. The constant swerving, the plethora of one-lane highways, the omnipresence of tractors and herds of cows, the general disregard for street maintenance or human life, it all was a bit much to handle. We gripped our seats, shot commiserating glances, held on for dear life as we barreled towards the capital.

Having not eaten in hours, we visibly ogled at delicious looking strudel-cake two older women had pulled out for a snack. They chuckled at our faces, we must have looked pitiful. Then, to our surprise (and utter delight) they pulled out one cake for each of us, laughing as we devoured it. Speaking no Georgian, we attempted to physically convey our thanks as we were launched from our seats as the bus hit pothole after pothole, its shocks long worn out. And, for a brief moment, this kind bit of hospitality turned our attention from impending doom, and to the utter joy of homemade strudel.

A Cripple Travels Turkey

The Journey: 560 miles, 900kilometers... with a busted knee

One busted knee, two foreign travelers, four forms of transportation, 900 kilometers: A story told in eleven parts.

Part 1: An Ambulance, an Apaçi nurse, and Health Care in Turkey

Ambulances are not typically thought of as funny modes of transportation, but any ambulance ride is made funnier (its a word) by the fact that most Turks couldn’t care less when there is an ambulance honking behind them. As we cruised along, we frequently came upon absent-minded drivers who refused to switch lanes or speed up. The driver clicked his tongue at their idiocy and swerved around them. We pulled up to the hospital where my friend and I somehow became responsible for moving the Patient in and out of the gurney. The nurses looked at us. Paused. Waited. Made a half-assed attempt to move the Patient, who would inevitable shriek in pain. They would back off, we would have to swoop in and catch her before she fell, then ease her into her wheelchair. This happened no less than three times.

The Doctor was dressed in distressed jeans, a neon pink polo shirt adorned with a vibrant argyle design. He sported the standard man-purse, and in delightful English, explained to us our options. The surly Apaçi Nurse begrudgingly obeyed the various orders of the doctor, but left us to do the (not so) heavy lifting.

Part 2: The Taxi Driver/Philosopher with the Russian Wife Named Olga

After getting the okay from the doctor, we made our way to the airport. The taxi driver told us the story of his recent romance with a Russian tourist, who he met in his taxi. She came for a holiday and he got her number. They met up one night, he cooked for her and her friend.. Both women were impressed with his domestic skills. They stayed in touch, and after her mother died, she decided to move to Turkey to be with him. They are now married and he glowed with happiness. A bit of a philosopher, Hamid explained to the Patient that she must send forth good vibes to the Universe, “If you send out good things and happiness,” he cajoled her, “good things will happen, but” he cautioned, “if you send out bad thoughts and ideas, you shall only receive bad things in return.”

Part 3: The Patient is Fondled by a Security Guard, Advice is Sought from the Gun Exchange Bureau

Upon arrival at the airport, the first round of security was attempted. The traveler was ushered to a seat where her immobilized knee was inspected with a bomb-sniffing device, and then her body fondled by a slightly over-zealous female security guard.

The Antalya airport doesn’t possess its own set of wheelchairs (surprised? No.) After inquiring at the “Gun Exchange Bureau” (I’m not kidding, and no I have no explanation to offer) where I could obtain a wheelchair, I was told to find our air carrier and ask there.

Because we wanted to avoid the nightmare of rushing through security, we arrived extremely early. So early, in fact, that the staff to check us in had not yet arrived. I found a man who worked for our airline that in turn found three other men who worked for someone else who eventually demanded that a young man who worked for yet another carrier produce a wheelchair; he begrudgingly gave in and arrived about ten minutes later with a chair.

Part 4: The Guy Entrused with the Patient’s Care

After obtaining the wheelchair, the Patient was parked in the waiting area. She happily people watched as sunburnt tourists lugged their bags about, as a family of hippies searched for their flight with their enormous backpacks perched on their shoulders, as a father cooed his two small children while his wife checked the family in. The Guy Entrusted with the Patient’s Care clearly counted down the seconds until his departure, and slinked off with promises that a “friend” would be coming by to take care of us.

Part 5: The Stabbing of the Patient

Two hours before the flight we went to the medical center so they could administer a shot to prevent deep vein thrombosis. The doctor had suggested that I administer it, but I don’t stab people I must spend the next 6 hours with, with needles.

Arriving at the medical center, we pantomimed with a nurse who then produced a man in scrubs, who walked up inches from the Patient’s wheelchair and stared, open-mouthed. He stood there gaping, like a small child. All my patience gone, I started yelling at him in English, “[Expletive]! We’re not a [expletive] sideshow! What the [expletive] is wrong with you!? Can you [expletive] help us or not?!” To which he stood, unfazed, while my outburst provoked the nurse who quickly ushered us into a room where she promptly stabbed my friend with the syringe. The Man in Scrubs continued to stare, remaining useless.

Part 6: The Kapitan

After the shot was administered, we made our way to the ticket booth, which had finally opened. As I waited to get our ticket, I was accosted by an airport employee who rattled of something unintelligible in the fastest Turkish I have ever encountered, to which I responded “Hiçbir şey anlamadım”, I don’t understand anything. He sped up the speech and raised his voice to a low shout, to which I responded “Hiçbir şey anlamadım.” The sole word I took away from his tirade of Turkish was “beklen,” wait. Wait for who? For the “kap-ee-tahn”, ohh wait for the pilot? Uh, okay.

Part 7: Ice Ice Baby

The knee was calling for ice, and ice it got. Our airport attendant, the phenomenal Mehmet Sadi, suggested that I might have better luck than he procuring free ice from the nearby Burger King. I can’t remember his exact words but his explanation was something along the lines of, “You’re a blonde foreigner, I am not. You will have better luck with this.”

At Burger King I explained in my pseudo-Turkish what I wanted. The girl tried to offer me a paper bag full of ice (hmm… is this why she works at BK?), I grabbed a plastic one from a cleaning lady and a young man filled the 10 gallon trash bag half way with ice. I didn’t need it to preserve a dead body, I wanted to say, but I took the ice and thanked him for his enthusiasm. I emptied out half in a nearby trash bin, wrapped it in a thicker bag and brought it back to the Patient.

Part 8: Bir Saat Sonra (An Hour Later)

After waiting for this fabled pilot to arrive to give us unknown information and allegedly treat us like VIPs (Mehmet’s words, not mine) we were fed up. 45 minutes from takeoff and we still didn’t have tickets, still hadn’t gone through the second wave of security, and still had no idea where the gate was. I put up a fuss with the man who had started this whole pilot nonsense who then decided we needed to pay for an extra seat if we wanted on the plane.

Repeat after me: BULL. SHIT.

Part 9: The Much Nicer Old Man that I Wanted to Hug

Going to the ticketing office, the elderly man who had originally helped us procure the wheelchair, said something along the lines of “Nonsense, you don’t need to pay for anything.” He directed us back to the check in booth where a much sweeter woman gave us our tickets.

We never met the pilot, and we were certainly never treated like VIPs.

Part 10: The Super Bitchy Not Cool Off-Duty Flight Attendant

I have never understood what makes people act irrationally rude. But, alas, it happens, I guess. As we arrived on the plane, and the Patient took her seat, leaving her long, immobilized leg sticking into the aisle. It was a painful angle to hold, and we tried wedging something underneath the foot to prop it up, if only for the jostling of takeoff.

An off-duty flight attendant who was seated behind me and across from the Patient quickly yelled at her. “This is forbidden”, she said, “you can’t do that” rudely pointing her perfectly manicured finger at the Patient’s propped foot. The best part was that the on-duty flight attendants couldn’t have cared less. But this woman was on a mission: Suck every bit of pleasantness out of our flight.

She took out her plastic-sealed Vogue magazine, tossed back her perfectly coiffed hair, she snidely translated our conversation to her colleagues. And, as the refreshment cart made its way through the plane, she began her assault on my seat.

Had I not known better, I would have assumed a rowdy five-year-old had taken up residence behind me. After take off, she started banging on the back of my seat, rocking me back and forward, beating my back like a burly Russian masseur. Then, to my horror, she reaches around the front of my seat, pushes in the little button and hurls my seat forward. Now, mind you, my seat was already in the upright position. The little lass had wedged her purse in under my seat, instead of her own, and couldn’t get it out. Somehow it had become my fault.

Part 11: Otogar

After our cab ride to the Otogar, we delved into the chaos that is the Istanbul Seyahat ticket office on a Sunday night. We  had purchased two tickets for the 9pm bus, not having planned for the busted knee. We were able to exchange them with the Extraordinarily Miserable Sales Man (he’s there every day, he’s my favorite, no nonsense about where I’m from, he just scowls at me like he does to everyone else) for the 10pm bus and we got one additional ticket so the Patient could stretch out her knee in comfort.

The greatest source of fear this entire odyssey was the ascent onto the bus. The steps are steep and the Patient is stopped up by an ascent the hight of the curb. She spun around on her rear end; I held her leg and crutches and she pushed herself up each step with her arms. After finding the seat, we both zonked out until the Tekirdağ busstation, grabbed a taxi and collapsed into our beds.

*And, our experience with crippledness (its a word) isn’t unique, Sasha had as hellish a time as we.

Edirne, shmedirne

Every time I plan to meet Dara in Edirne, I always wonder why I don’t go more often.  It’s a beautiful ancient city with a European feel; its pedestrian focused in a way that I have not seen elsewhere in Turkey, and its a great place to stroll on a warm, sunny day. It served as a major trading post throughout much of history and even served as the capital of the Ottoman Empire from 1365 to 1453 while the emperors lay siege to the fortified Constantinople. It’s only about 120km (75miles) from Tekirdağ, and has become a happy meeting spot for my friend Dara and I. Dara is unfortunately placed in the city of Kirklareli, once called Kirkkilesi meaning “Forty Churches”, today there are no churches to speak of and come to think of it, there is really nothing to speak of when it comes to Kirklareli.

So why don’t we go more often?

I get to the bus station, and I’m reminded.

There is no bus, exactly to Edirne, there is a minivan with a pockmarked windshield riding on about 200,000 miles, spitting fumes from an empty gas tank. But, this is Turkey, and I should be used to it.

Maalesef, I am not.

See the minivan to the right? Yes, that's the one I'm talking about.

I arrived at the station at 9am to find that no; the busses no longer run at quarter past the hour, now they run at quarter ‘til. Well, there goes our 11 am meeting time. At about 9:50 the attendant motions for me to follow him. We exit the bus station and go around a corner where the minivan is idling. I climb into the passenger’s seat and we head up through the gypsy village to a part of the city I see only when going to Edirne.

The driver parks the car.

10 minutes later more passengers pile in. There is a bit of discussion, followed by a heated negotiation over who has to sit on the wooden stool.

Yes, the wooden stool. Next to the sliding door are two seats, with three in the back. But, the enterprising drivers decided to increase profits by adding a seat in the empty space next to the door. I think of the wooden stool as a jump seat, or, in the case of an accident, the ejection seat.

I’m in the front seat, well fastened in.

At 10:10 we’re off.

Now, if you’ve ever gone off a major highway in Turkey, you don’t need an explanation of a Turkish country road, but since most of you haven’t, here it is.

Think of the last time you drove down a country road in the mountains during the spring thaw, the gravel everywhere, potholes that could swallow up the family sedan, random bits of nature scattered along your way, the lack of legitimate speed limit, the feeling of the one-lane highway. Lunatics come veering around corners, bombing down hills passing you at two, sometimes three times the speed limit as you swerve to miss the upcoming pothole.

Now imagine that in a minivan, throw in tractors, feral dogs, the occasional horse and carriage, and eliminate any streetlights or signage.

Welcome to Thrace.

About halfway there, the driver and only remaining passenger decided to inquire about my obvious non-Turkishness. “Nerelesin,  kızım” or Where are you from, my daughter? After explaining who I am and why (oh why) I live in Tekirdağ, they decided that since I don’t have a Turkish family dedicated to teaching me the language, they should spend the remaining 45 minutes beefing up my skills. When we arrive in Edirne, the driver tells me that he will not be going to the city center, but he is clearly worried that I will not find my way on my own. Already an hour and a quarter late, I’m more than miffed.

Then he sees the servis bus.

The servis is a free shuttle that companies run from the (typically) isolated bus stations to the city center or other popular destinations. The driver speed up, swerving and honking the horn as he rolls down the window and waves at the servis’ driver. When this doesn’t work, he flashes his lights and waves a handkerchief out the window, but to no avail. While debating what to do, the servis pulls over to let some passengers off, we too swerve to the side of the road, come to a lurching halt where the driver looks at me incredulously, “Koş kızım koş!” Run my daughter, run! So, I jump out of the van and sneak onto the servis through the door at the back.

Oh, if it were only so simple.

About three minutes later the driver pulls over, stating that this is the last stop. I get out, look around and see only giant TOKİ housing developments. I follow the crowd down a large boulevard hoping it’s the right direction. I call Dara to give her an update, explaining I haven’t a clue where I am and will ask directions once I find someone who is not a teenage boy (very suspicious creatures), who is not a tayze (I can’t understand their Turkish and their cheek-pinches are painful), and who is not a gypsy (since they are rarely useful to tourists.) As I hang up the phone I accidentally press down on the red end-call/turn-off button a split second too long.

My phone turns off.

As I have mentioned before, European phones have a security measure that requires a PIN code when you turn them on. I don’t know my PIN and I had not brought my wallet containing the PIN card with me.

I am effectively phoneless.

I show up at Mado, our meeting place, about an hour and a half late. And… Dara is nowhere to be found. I sit for about a half hour when I hatch the idea to beg Turkcell to unlock my phone. I pull over a waiter and explain to him in my pidgin Turkish that I, Turkcell’e gidiyorum. Ama arkadaşim, bir küçük, kısa yabancı…uhhh… gidiyor. O kahvalti [expletive] kahverengi saçli.Ben iki saat geç kaldim. Uhhh… tell her to uhhh… Beklen. After some more pantomime he understood that he should tell my friend with breakfasty brown hair who is foreign to wait. Okay.

I go into Turkcell with tears welling up in my eyes. Please, I ask, please oh please will you help me. My phone is broken. I don’t have the PIN, but I must talk to a friend. 30 seconds later, my phone is unlocked, “Başka bir şey yok?” That’s all? She asks, raising a suspicious eyebrow.

At about 1pm I call Dara, who is waiting outside the Turkcell store looking for me.

Oh, yeah, this is why I don’t go to Edirne.

Trakyan Chickens at Edirne's Cuma Pazarı