AvrupalılaştıraMAdıklarızdanmısınız

I’m only a few days shy of one year since I moved from Turkey. But, just last night, I got a Turkish lesson from one of my indefatigable students Kerem:

There are a few of them who still talk shit about the Celtics with me on Twitter, and who will, on occasion, correct their teacher’s Turkish.

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!

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

Efendim?

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.