Mişmiş or A case of double hearsay

Lately there has been one hell of a disturbance in my napping. I get home from work at 6, and I typically sprawl out on my couch after a day of sitting and staring at the wall, and pass out for a half hour to an hour while I listen to Martha Stewart explain how to butcher a pig or make a home-made leather apron for gardening (you can wipe them clean!)

Because its been hotter than hell, I like to crack the window, especially before the bugs get going. But, for the last month or so, my napping has been rudely interrupted by the incessant blaring music coming out of giant vans with huge speakers mounted on the roof: Electionmobiles. Shoot me. Please?

There is a national election here in Turkey on June 12, so now in addition to the call to prayer, I have the slogans of the AKP, CHP, MHP, BDP, HAS, the SDP, a marginalized socialist-leaning party with a blue flag with a dove–more like a girl-scout logo than a political slogan. All this campaigning is making me grouchy.

While discussing this yesterday with my friend Sasha, who worked in Bartin (near Zonguldak, though that’s probably not helpful either) she told me of this AKP ad with a super traditional song. She loved the music, and has been humming it to herself as she strolls around Istanbul. No, that’s normal, I told her.

The AKP is the ruling party that is expected to decimate the rest of the field, possibly giving them a 2/3 majority needed to push through any legislation desired. And, while this happens from time to time in the good ‘ole USA, its quite a rarity here, in a country with so many parties. And, it kind of sucks when one party tyrannizes another. The words translate roughly to: “In the same way we are history, we drank the same water, one part of a summer, we are the same mountain breeze. Got to give Erdo some credit, even if he is a loony toon (please don’t sue me?)

The CHP is the former ruling party, its a the slightly more liberal, and significantly less religious party. The Economist recently wrote an article that called on the CHP to get their shit together to protect a number of social freedoms currently being cut by the AKP. It slammed the AKP for their recent attack on journalists, and restored my faith in western perceptions of Turkey, especially after having read this vomit-inducing cotton candy piece from the NY Times. In the ad, you hear the word “yasak” which means forbidden. The government just passed legislation that forbids a number of names in internet website domain names which include both the words yasak (forbidden) and nefes (breath), which coincidentally is part of the CHP’s slogan “Rahat bir nefes alacak” Take a fresh breath.

The MHP is the party I least understand, and their election song does nothing to help me understand them better. They’re the nationalist party, and were recently hit with a sex scandal (yes, they have those here too–though not as aptly named as Wienergate.) There is all kinds of speculation over who is responsible, but the fact of the matter is, the MHP was hit hard. And, while I am loath to support an ultra-nationalist party (especially as a foreign resident in this country), here’s an interesting article that makes a case for some support for the party if only to prevent said expected 2/3 majority that would be held by the AKP if MHP fails to secure the requisite 10% vote to keep their seats in parliament (their voters are most likely to swing to the AKP rather than other parties.)

What I love about the song though, is that its a mix of bad metal with rap. It sounds more like the background music to some summer thrasher movie than a campaign song for this guy:

No he's not at an Ozzie show, the devil horns are actually for his elite group within the MHP called the Grey Wolves.

In any case, Sasha and I were talking about this whole mess, and she sent me an article, where she was misquoted, after double hearsay brought news of her love for the AKP song to a less-than-thorough journalist (c’mon Turkey, its just sad really.) This is not the first time that Fulbrighters have ended up in the Turkish paper.

Back in November, a local lunatic in Karabuk published an article claiming that the 54 Fulbright teachers were actually… wait for it… CIA! She based this information on nothing more than the knowledge that there were 54 of us in small cities. The two Fulbrighters in Karabuk were hounded by locals who, in true Turkish fashion, latched onto the absurd conspiracy theory, and socially alienated them. Things only got worse when Milliyet, a national daily, picked up the story, and ran it. And, while the story was slightly better weighted, asking at least for the Rector’s input, it was a stupid, stupid article.

With the help of google translate (plus my own Turkish) this is more or less what the second half of the article said:

“Turkish people are hospitible, warm, loving and tolerant, I knew that, I also discovered that by living here. The 8th International Turkish Olypics official song “New World” song fascinated me. The emphasis on a new world based on love and peace was appealing. The AK Part’s fascinated and integrated advertisements said it again, “Love, unity and togetherness, nothing else. If I could vote in Turkey, this message would compel me to vote for AKP.”

Then there was something about slogans that I couldn’t figure out. I just love that she was quoted in this article, and while she may have said those thoughts about Turks for the paper, she specifically told her colleague that she would not like to be quoted in anything regarding politics, but as it turned out, it was too late. Since there doesn’t seem to be any kind of fact-checking department, Sasha officially supports the AKP…


A la turka mı? a la franka mı?

One thing, that after innumerable trips to countless cities across Eastern Europe and the Caucasus, the one thing that American busses have on their Turkish counterparts is: the toilet.

Now, getting stuck with a seat next to the lavatory on a multi-hour trip can be frustrating, especially if a passenger or two are suffering from indigestion, but at least its there.

Back in August when we arrived in Turkey, we were put up in a less-than-stellar hotel in Bahçelievler in Ankara. The rooms were fine, the staff was fine, the conference facilities were fine, but the food was so sub par we all ended up with travelers diarrhea. This was my third trip to Turkey, and though I was afflicted with sinus infections the last two times, I had never, even once suffered any digestive discomfort from Turkish food, even after drinking the tap water. One of my colleagues wound up in the hospital with salmonella so perhaps it wasn’t travelers diarrhea but rather food poisoning, in any case, there was a great and frequent need for toilets.

Our conference was on the second floor, and most of our rooms several floors up. The problem was, much to our horror, that the nearest toilets were all squats. This left several of us with a dilemma, and before you start to judge, saying squats aren’t so bad, remember we’re talking about food poisoning and we’re talking long and frequent squat sessions. To those with little or no experience in this: it really hurts your thighs and it makes your feet fall asleep leaving you teetering on a pee-covered floor as the motion-sensor light flickers out. Its scary, its tiring, its uncomfortable.

Now, there are those who have been won over by the squats. They have their merits to be sure, but there is something rarely considered by those who use them frequently: what if you can’t squat?

No, really, what if you’re mobility challenged, or drunk? What if you can’t balance for one reason or another? This very thing occurred to two friends of mine, first my colleague who broke her foot after rolling her ankle while jogging at a different conference in Ankara, and the other my colleague here in T-dag, affectionately called The Patient, who had a broken knee and ripped calf muscle. How on Earth do you squat when you only have one foot?

Answer? You don’t.

You don’t drink water. You don’t drink tea. You pray, and pray, and pray that you’ll make it home before Nature calls.

When it came time to leave our conference and head to our sites, we all suffered the same fear: what will I do on a 6-8-10-20 hour bus ride if I need to poo every half hour? Most of us either ate only bread and no water for the few days preceding our trip, or simply ate nothing, so there was nothing to pass. Neither was a desirable or healthy way to handle the problem, but it worked. Well, as far as I know it worked.

But squatters are something you’ve simply got to embrace here.

This little video helps explain how ridiculous I felt the first time I came to Turkey and the first time I encountered a squatter, the embedding isn’t working and I’ve tried everything, please watch it, its hilarious. Its from a film called Ay Lav Yu about a Turkish man from the middle of nowhere, who falls in love with an American girl, Jessica.  Jessica’s parents come, and don’t know how to use a squatter, so they have fashioned this chair for them to use in the latrine. This enterprising character is trying to sell them to the locals as the new hip American toilets, as you can see Nazif Amca is skeptical.

You might be inclined to laugh at the scene, but really, I would have appeared just as ridiculous to a Turk,

*they are rarely this clean in public places

What direction do you face? The door? The wall? How far down do you squat? Do you, like, hover? Or do you do the yoga squat? How do you flush? What is that little bucket and spigot for? Why is it wet everywhere? Please tell me that’s water and not pee? Where’s the TP? Oh the TP goes in the trash bin? Really? Oops.

When you move to a new place, there are bound to be differences, but its the differences in sanatation that really stick with you, though I suppose its not a common topic in polite conversation, which is why many of us are shocked when we arrive in a new country.

So there you have it: a la turka/ a la franka. Pick your poison.

Ode to T-dag.

Most people take care when choosing where to live, we’re inclined to take several issues into account: the size of the city, the city’s reputation, the cultural scene, any current acquaintances we could rely on. For expats, perhaps this list is a little longer and would include the language barrier, the presence/absence of war, the presence/absence of domestic terrorism, the new nation’s level of like/dislike of foreigners.

For me, however, I had no choice of home when I came to Turkey.

This creates an awkward situation whenever I meet new people, particularly Turks.

“Why Tekirdağ?”

“Well”, I stumble, “uh, see I work for YÖK [the Turkish Ministry of Higher Education], and, well, they chose Tekirdağ for me.”

To distract my new acquaintance from this less than flattering explanation, I typically start rattling off a litany of frightening cities throughout the nation where my less-fortunate colleagues were placed: a Jewish man who lives in Bayburt, home to the MHP (nationalist party); or Iğdır, a tiny village nestled up against the closed border with Armenia and the wide-open border with Iran; Ağrı, whose name literally means “pain” in Turkish; or the number of blonde ladies situated on the Black Sea coast who are frequently propositioned as Nataşa or hookers (one actually took a harasser to court and got him jail time.)

After this, I typically explain that, despite the fetid air (blackened by a city heated entirely with coal), the polluted waters (where Istanbul, the city of over 20 million, flushes its filth), the constant smell of fermenting rakı that hangs over our neighborhood, that despite the little roma children who cruise around on their horse drawn carriages, the feral dogs, the cats in heat, the burning trash, that Tekirdağ, really, in the grand scheme of things, is not so bad.

Perhaps I should say, I’m currently afflicted with a sense of nostalgia. One week from today, gidiyorum. I’m out. And, while my current plans have me hopping between the US and Turkey through the fall, it is certainly the end of an era.

My roommate moved out this morning. She packed her Turkish life in to five bags (yes, FIVE) wedged herself into a taxi and set off with her father for Istanbul.

I can’t say I’ll miss the apartment terribly. Our university, I should say, made every effort to make us feel at home. We have satellite TV with over 800 channels, though so far, I’ve only found five with consistant English language programming: Al-Jazeera English, BBC, E2, CNBC-e, and a creepy though soothing English-language Japanese culture channel. I did find ARTE, my favorite French/German culture channel which I use to keep my French from disintegrating. Then there’s the internet, without a proxy server we couldn’t access gmail, Facebook, twitter, or any site that required a form submission (airline websites, bus websites, etc.) There’s the light in the bathroom which blew sometime in January when we discovered the light fixture had been plastered onto the ceiling, so we’ve peed in the dark since then. About a month ago the hot water was cut, leaving us with icy showers. Though I have mastered the bucket shower: with the help of my electric kettle, I’ve got the whole thing down to 10 minutes and only about 5 liters of water. In the kitchen you can’t have the oven, refrigerator and TV going at once. And, the vacuum can be the only appliance running or it trips the fuse.

At work, things are only marginally better. Despite the fact that our building is only several months old (or perhaps because of it) things don’t work well. Apparently the plan was to include A/C, a revelation here in Turkey only very rarely experienced. It seems this plan was scrapped, but our floor-to-ceiling windows that don’t open were never redesigned. The eastern-facing classrooms roast the students in the morning sun, while the afternoon and evening classes gasp for air in the western-facing rooms. It would be nice if we could open a door at least, into the hall, but the whole building is made of uninsulated and exposed concrete (surprise surprise) which naturally causes sound to bounce and clamor from one room to the next, multiplying in strength as it travels. Our offices were hastily built with something that looks like an office do-it-yourself kit. The walls don’t reach the ceiling which makes for next-to-no privacy, leaving us all at the mercy of a poorly chosen ring tone, a professional spat, or for me, a complaining Skype date with a friend from home. Ultimately we’re all reduced to talking in code, whispering or not talking at all.

I was going to say I won’t miss my students terribly, but then this happened the other day:

IO-A, the best class ever, showed up to our last class wearing these.

And, a close up of a photo of me they sniped from Facebook.

So, perhaps this nostalgia got its start here. With a t-shirt with my face on it.

Then I went into the city yesterday to get some food for dinner. I missed the Thursday market, so I decided to wander down the main stretch and see what struck my fancy. In the end, and about 7 kilos of produce later, I had picked up strawberries from the district next to ours, fresh cherries being harvested for next week’s cherry festival (!!!!), apricots, a bundle of mint the size of my head, scallions, parsley, Israeli couscous, homemade beyaz peynir (white cheese, like feta), and a rotisserie chicken. In the piliç market, where I got the chicken, the vendor remembered me from November when I came in trying to buy a turkey for Thanksgiving. My Turkish was significantly less-developed and he understood that I was trying to sell a turkey, after which hilarity ensued. He genially chatted me up as he prepared the succulent little bird in paper for me to cart it home. Come back sooner, he said as I left.

And, after weeks of sifting through idiotic taxi drivers in Tekirdağ, Sherri stumbled upon a kindly old man who is based out of the bus station. The dear man chatted genially as he drove us around the city this week. And, on Tuesday when we went to a café across town, as he waited for us to come out and meet him, he plucked two roses from a nearby bush and offered them to us with a flourish and a bow. She enlisted his help for her epic trek to Istanbul. This morning as he hurled suitcase after suitcase into his compact car, securing the trunk with several bungee cords, and as he helped Sherri wedge herself in between a duffel and a little black Samsonite, I realized it was the end of something.

Perhaps its only when leaving a place that we give thought to the idea of home. I haven’t felt attached to Tekirdağ until recently. It was a place I needed to be during the week, and it was a place to be left behind when the weekend came. As the weather has gotten nicer, as my Turkish has improved, and as I have cemented friendships, I’m not sure what comes next.

I’m not overly sentimental, like I said, the coal-filled air will be of no loss to me, the stench of burning trash, the peeing in the dark, the cold showers, I will not miss these things. But, the human connections have been lovely and will be greatly and deeply missed. I’m not sure I would ever choose to live here again, but its been a good run Tekirdağ, and despite all your flaws, you’ll be missed.

Mangal me.

Mangal, its the hip new thing sweeping the ‘dağ. Rather than holding classes, my colleagues and our students have made dates to meet in the forest next to the university for mangal, or BBQ. With the temps up around 25 (75F) outside, our jail-cell classrooms are sweltering, and students have resolved to halt any and all learning until after the summer break. With only a few days left before exams, us teachers are at least as wiped as the kids, and we’re weak in the face of a class full of students promising charcoal-grilled chicken and fresh çoban salata.

I first fell victim to B-6’s scheming, and with my colleague Seda, we decided to cancel afternoon classes to provide ample time to relax under the shade of the trees, play jumprope and build fires. We met the students outside of the Maxi supermarket where our students had procured the worlds creepiest, if not largest van. 14 of us piled in.

Yes, 14.

We barreled down the highway, pulling a u-ey in the middle to dart down into the forest entrance. Smushed up against my students, with one (luckily female) wedged up against my chest, I felt my credibility collapsing around me. My fragile façade of serious-teacherness was totally abandoned, not that any of them had fallen for it before…

We piled out and the gender roles took over. The girls started chopping up the cucumbers, tomatos and onions for salad. Another whipped up a maranade for the chicken wings. While yet others laid out the various snacks meant to hold us over until the meat could be prepared. The boys set out for kindling for the grill, a little concrete box in the ground. They swept out the old ashes and piled up little sticks, dry pine needles, picking thicker branches and breaking them for later.

Seda and I, the guests of honor sat and watched the scene snacking: her on leblebi and I on roasted peanuts.

The girls had their task down and were quickly finished. They set up jumprope (yes, my students are 20.) The boys were having a significantly more difficult time with their gender-assigned task. Each time the fire began burning, they would dump enormous amounts of branches and leaves on the mess, hoping to build it up, but each and every time they smothered the smoldering pile. After watching this happen 2 times, with my stomach growling in anger, I finally stepped in.

Having grown up on Massachusetts’s South Shore, spending my summers BBQ-ing with friends and family, and in a house with three fireplaces yet no central heating I’m a bit of a fire-building champ. Whether in a firepit, in a fireplace, in an old-fashioned stove I can get one going.

One thing I have learned about a BBQ fire from my father is that the coals must be hot. The quality of the fire has little to do with its size, but everything to do with the heat it throws. Eying the raw chicken wings sitting in the sun, heat was exactly what we all needed if we hoped to escape the day without a serious case of salmonella.

After building a teepee with branches and slowly adding wood, I kept the overzealous pyros away from the pile until the larger wood had caught. In about 20 minutes the coals were hot enough to cook the food. The guys seemed little interested in learning about building a proper fire, especially from their lunatic foreign langauge teacher, but who knows, maybe one or two paid attention.

In any case we chowed like champs, and I got my first taste of the oft lauded Turkish mangal. I’ve got a date this evening with one last class to char some chicken on my last day as an instructor here at NKU. Bittersweet? Nah, smoke-infused meat is just what I want to celebrate the end to what has been an… interesting year.

Afiyet olsun!