There is finally some attention being paid to the massive protests currently being staged across Turkey. I’ve got my opinions on the ruling government (just flip through some of my old posts), and I’m so excited to see a populace standing for their democratic rights.

In my hiatus, I’ve worked a bit at a little college you may or may not have heard of, but I’ve also been volunteering with an advocacy group here in Cambridge that works to promote safer streets and civic engagement with the city planning process. I’ll be starting grad school at UC Berkeley this fall (as a FLAS Fellow studying Turkish!!) pursuing my Master of City Planning degree.

I have the city of Istanbul to thank for helping me realize my passion for city planning, transportation planning to be precise. This blog’s title, Dolmus, has become a flaming passion of mine. I’m fascinated with the way in which these little vans connect communities in ways that the myopic city government simply can’t comprehend.  Just one more anthill of activity that many overlook.

These protests came out of nowhere for the central government, but for the rest of Turkey, for the rest of us, those who love Turkey and who have called Istanbul home, they seem like a logical progression of events. The tighter the government squeezes, the bigger the explosion.

Turkey is not coming apart at the seams. This is a democracy functioning. The reactions of many members of the central government simply illustrate how out of touch they are with the wants and needs of the people.  I am so proud of my students, my friends, and my community for standing up for their beliefs.



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.

The Curious Case of the Missing Wallet

Cell phones in Europe have a little security setting that I really am not fond of. They require a pin code each time you power up, and since I am highly forgetful and automatically misplace everything important, my phone is often out of commission.

In the US, I can’t imagine not having my phone on me at all times, but here I will leave it turned off for four or five days at a time, all without realizing it. The only three people entities that routinely call/message me are:

  1. My American colleague Sherri, but since we share an office and an apartment and a social circle, its rarely a problem
  2. My former boss who incessantly, almost obsessively wants to feed me
  3. My network provider Turkcell who sends along savings packages for their Gnctrkcll (if it looks like an intimidating word, its hip turk lingo for Genç Turkcell meaning Young Turkcell) that I don’t understand.

The other day, though, I needed my phone and when I found it, the thing was dead. I went to power it up, but of course, that required the pin code. I took to keeping my pin code in my wallet, since it seems like a safe place for important things. I went hunting for it (a nearly daily activity) but was unable to figure out where I had put it.

I sat there on the couch, running through the day, thinking about the last time I had definitely used my wallet. It was that evening when I bought wine for a friend’s party. I had put it down while I packed my groceries and, well, I thought I had picked it up, but maybe not?

It was too late to go back to the market that night, but I figured, meh tomorrow I’ll go. I have actually only lost my wallet twice, which may sound like a lot, but let me reiterate how comically scatterbrained I am. The first time I was 17 and it fell out of my bag while I was in a restaurant, and the second was in college, I didn’t care so much about my wallet as I did my car keys, which I needed to drive five friends to a John Mayer concert that night.

I wasn’t worried at all about finding my wallet, really. I figured it would work out. Which, makes me think of the 30 Rock skit with Kenneth:

I’d like to think that I’m not as naive as Kenneth, since in NYC I would be a basket case if I had lost my wallet, but there’s something about Turks and Turkey that made me far less worried:

  • My net worth is not enough that I fear someone stealing my credit cards.
  • My bank freezes the card every time I use it, even though I continually reassure them that I live in Turkey, I’m sure no crazy Turk could buy much of anything before Bank of America put the kibosh on their spending spree.
  • My name is absolutely not Turkish, at all. There is no way someone could pass as me.
  • But, perhaps most importantly: Turks are outrageously honest when it comes to money.

For example, the second time I came to Turkey, I took a city bus alone to meet up with my friend who was taking classes during the morning. The bus was so packed that people couldn’t enter from the front, but rather stepped on in the middle and at the back. The driver seemed highly unfazed by this. Why? Because people pass forward their money.

Let me repeat that: People pass forward their money. To strangers. Who return their change.

If ever a time to ask, Where the hell am I, this is one.

So, there I was, wedged next to the driver, which meant I was the recipient of the cash, some people were passing forward 20 million TL notes (sounds like a ton, it was roughly $17 at the time.) I had no trouble passing money back to its owner, but something in me would never, ever trust a stranger with $16.25 in change.

Since 2008, the system has been updated, but the system is still, at its core, the same. First, the government eliminated six zeroes off the end of the lira, reducing the price of a beer from five million TL to five. Second, people now have a little fob that they can add credit to, so most commuters pay digitally for their public transportation. This means that while some pass forward cash, others pass forward their house/car/work keys that are all attached to their fob, to strangers.

Wha whaa?

So, I went to the market the next morning, when I walked in, the cashier immediately told me she had my wallet. She handed it back to me, and as I walked through the store, picking up a few things, I discreetly checked the contents. Yup, it was all there, including the cash. As I went through the checkout line, I put my wallet down as I packed the groceries into my bag. The cashier picked up the wallet, and with a smirk on her face, she handed it to me, saying, “Don’t forget this.”


Note: “Efendim?” meaning literally “My lord?” is the question asked on the following occasions:

1. When answering the phone.
2. When you didn’t hear what someone has said.
3. When a truly absurd thing has been done/said.

Istanbul is only a two-hour bus ride away from me. This is both essential and detrimental to my mental health and overall well-being.

I’m not a hard and fast ex-pat, thrusting myself into the culture; there is no risk of me going native. But, I like to think that I offer my new acquaintances a better view of Americans. We don’t all go around sporting teevas and tube socks, some of us are aware of the differences between the MHP and the AKP, some of us know to cover our heads and remove our shoes in a place of worship. Some of us can navigate the dolmus. These are my badges of honor, and they are the recognized social currency here.

This past weekend, it was a friend’s birthday in Istanbul. This always offers me the chance to escape the ‘dağ, if for a night, and to make the acquaintance of ex-pats who enjoy patting themselves on the back for living full time in Turkey. When they cast me a commiserative glance, offering a hand of friendship in the midst of this perceived insanity and foreignness, I balk at the gesture.

Now don’t get me wrong, Istanbul is not New York, Paris or London, to be sure, but it’s fun to remind these ex-pats that they do not in fact live in Turkey.

I should also say that Tekirdağ is not Yozgat, it is not Bayburt, it is not Iğdir. I do not live in Batman or Diyarbakir. I do not live in Kirklareli. What makes Tekirdağ so comical is that it is almost near Istanbul, but it is still so far.

Case and point: the current yardstick used in the measurement of Tekirdağ’s modernity? Burger King. Upon arriving, my new friends and colleagues pointed out the two (count ‘em: TWO!) Burger Kings to prove I had chosen my location well. They aren’t backwards villagers—they have Burger King.

My point being, while I may refrain from gorging myself on fast food, I am not roughing it.

Whenever speaking to a new acquaintance, my job and location in Turkey are bound to come up. Because I spend the day talking in some pidgin language with my beginner Turkish students, my social skills have suffered. When I speak with someone who doesn’t require the grand pantomime and song and dance I typically must employ to make myself understood, the flood gates open and the little glimpses of my life come tumbling out tend to shock and horrify

On Saturday it all started well, I spoke about our flat, which by the good graces of my university comes rent-free. It is perched on a hill overlooking the Marmara. The downside is that the enormous and active international shipping port obscures our view. There isn’t a morning where I am not awoken by the sounds of chains lifting cargo, trucks carting supplies and foghorns tooting hello/goodbye.

Quaint, my new friend thought, but then the story took a turn for the Turkish: This past week we had the good fortune of playing host to a cruise ship. A cruise ship of cows. A cruise ship of cows whose stench descended on the city and refused to dissipate. So rather than smelling of coal or the local spirit known as raki, we had the putrid stench of bovine refuse wafting through the cracks in the windows and seeping into my hair and clothes. While my new friend’s eyes widened and he gulped down the wine remaining in his glass, I carried on unabated.

On Saturday morning, while I sipped my coffee in the living room, I heard the familiar sound of the local simitci, the simit seller who happens to be a 13/14 year-old gypsy boy. What makes him particularly interesting is that he sounds like a goat. He comes bleating down the hill “Simiiiiiiiiiiit! Simiiiiiiiiiiiiit!” For months we thought he was in fact a goat, which in a city of 130,000 should be relatively unexpected, except that this is Tekirdağ. Up the street we have a rooster that sounds sunrise well after the sun has risen, we have horse-drawn carts driven down the highway by 10 year-old boys, we have old men who sell, kill and pluck chickens on the street corner.

My new friend mumbled something about getting a refill, and never came back. But I wasn’t finished

Yesterday my (American) colleague and I braved the gray weather and headed to a tea garden. While sipping tea out of our miniature, curved tea glasses, we noticed two cats eyeing a large black trash bag. Moments later, a man opened the bag and pulled out a three-foot long shark. He showed it off to his friends, gripping it by the tail fin wriggling it back and forth, mocking its demise as it dangled limp and lifeless. The other patrons continued to sip their tea. We sat there, aghast.

Sometimes we benefit from these little oddities: yesterday we met a neighbor for the first time and, thirty minutes later he appeared in our doorway with two plates of food: lahana sarma (cabbage leaves stuffed with rice and ground meat) and ispanak böreği (spinach rolled pastry with cheese) both still piping hot.

Most of the comical things I experience are those so small and so subtle that they’re hard to explain. Like, today the toilets in our wing of the building aren’t working. “Eh, you know” our boss told me, “it’s a new building.” Yes, I am aware. So shouldn’t the toilets work?

There’s also the daily standoff between my colleague, whose desk is less than organized, and our cleaning lady, whose very existence is predicated upon her ability to create and maintain a spotless Yabanci Diller Yuksekokulu (Foreign Language School). Every day the kindly lady picks through my colleague’s desk like an overbearing parent, peppering my colleague with questions, Is this trash? Is this? How about this? Do you need this? And, like clockwork, my colleague fends off the woman’s attempts at orderliness.

These are the things that make up my life here; these are the things that leave me in stitches.

Efendim? I ask myself rhetorically.

A tempering of my love-affair with public transportation

Waiting on the side of the highway under a broken streetlamp, with a flashing yellow caution light blinking over my right shoulder I look out over Tekirdağ, through the smog and see the shipyard that abuts my flat across town and suddenly I become quite nostalgic.

I am leaving for Istanbul for about five weeks, rather trying to leave but its not working out so well. Its about 32 degrees (or for our non-American friends, 0) and I’m bundled up. My hands are the only things starting to get cold. I’ve been out here for about 45 minutes now, with minimal success. What am I saying minimal, with no success whatsoever and that nostalgia I felt earlier is beginning to fade.

The nonchalance of the bus system with regards to pedestrian/passenger safety is interesting: it is common practice to stand on the side of a highway in daylight or after nightfall and simply jump up and down when a bus comes along. Some of the more reputable bus companies do not participate in this informal arrangement, but I feel safe in stating that the majority here do. Because the bus station is across town, I generally just stand on the side of the road and wave at a bus as it comes by. That was my plan tonight but it seems that 10 o’clock at night on a Sunday isn’t a high volume time.

My stomach is in a knot and I’m angry. You see, it’s about 10:15pm and while I may actually eventually succeed in flagging down a bus, there’s really no point. I could go to the station but that would take until about 10:30 and I won’t arrive in Istanbul until after the subway shuts down. I know I’ve been defeated but I am loath to throw in the towel. I try one last time to flag down a bus in the dark—good thing it didn’t stop, it wouldn’t have helped anyway, it was an express to Ankara.

About five minutes later the city bus arrives and I get on, swallowing hard, finally throwing in the towel, or rather, putting off the battle until tomorrow morning. I arrive back in Altyol at about 11:30. Entering my apartment I decide not to remove my coat or my shoes—the heat is broken. I make my way to the kitchen and I heat up tap water in my electric kettle. Then, I go into my room and pull out some pajamas: a pair of athletic pants, a long sleeved shirt, my fleece coat, and a pair of ski socks.

Hearing the kettle has finished heating; I grab the pasta pot and the hot water and head into the bathroom. I mix the cold water from the tap with the boiling water in my kettle and give myself a nineteenth-century bath—the hot water is on the fritz too. Any nostalgia I had when looking out calmly over the city is washed down the drain with the icy water from my faucet. Istanbul here we come. I don a wool hat on and get into my freezing cold bed. Before I know it my alarm is going off, its 5am and the reprise of last night’s trip begins.

Because the dolmuş doesn’t start running until 5:45, and since the bus station is two dolmuş-rides away, I have to walk half way if I have any hopes of catching a 6am bus. What’s the hurry? Why all this fuss? My Turkish class starts at 9am in Taksim and, being a teacher myself, I am aware of how important first impressions really are. You see, after four months here I have a comical assortment of survival Turkish. I can navigate the bus station like a champ, restaurants are a breeze, and I can even finagle my way through the police station’s residence permit application and dozens of complex bank forms. What I can’t do is have anything resembling a normal conversation.

At 5:15 in the morning I am power walking down an empty highway. I turn on my running mix and get a good pace going, a feeble attempt to lighten up my dour mood. I arrive at the meydan at 5:53 and there is not one bus in sight. I storm through the empty roundabout on a rampage, ready to bully a driver into doing his job when a bus comes barreling around the corner.

An inter-city bus in the city center?

What is happening? I jump more from shock than from any real idea of convincing them to pick me up, but it seems my shock was animated enough to get the driver to pull over.

So at 5:55am I am finally on my way to Istanbul.

If you think this is the end of the adventure, you have clearly never tried to get anywhere in Istanbul during rush hour. Because the first bus was at 6am, I didn’t have any traffic allowance and, barring a trip to the Asian-side, getting to Taksim is one of the most difficult trips to do quickly in traffic.

I automatically discount the direct bus from the bus station to Taksim not only because on a good day it takes an hour and I’ve only got 45 minutes, but also because it only runs every hour and ten minutes and the time table is not working in my favor. I go into the subway to find the faster direction to be closed. Great, Zeytinburnu it is.

When I’ve got the time, and when I haven’t been muscled out of my seat by a burly un-deodorized Turkish man, there is some great sight-seeing that can be done from the 830 Otogar-Taksim bus and also from the Zeytinburnu-Kabataş tramline. I had neither time, nor a seat, so after packing myself into the Zeytinburnu tram like a sardine, I notice a bus moving alongside us with TAKSIM written on it. I decide to take a risk and I jump out at Yusufpaşa and switch to the bus, and for the first time in 24 hours, I make the right decision we make a beeline for Taksim square.

I arrive at 9:25, just in time to realize I have never learned how to say: Sorry I’m late.