Saturday, December 26, 2009

Saturday, December 26, 2009 - No comments

Noel Baba - the Turkish Santa Claus

Little known fact - St. Nicholas actually lived out his days in Demre, just down the coast from Antalya. He was known for his miracles and his generosity to the poor. Nowadays, Father Christmas is becoming an increasingly well-known figure in Turkey, though not in relation to the holiday you'd first suspect....

I'm reposting this article from CNN - it gives some good insight into what "Christmas" looks like in this predominantly Muslim, but increasingly western-looking nation. Definitely going to check the movie out sometime this week, too. Should be the perfect compliment to "It's a Wonderful Life" and "The Grinch...."

ISTANBUL, Turkey (CNN) -- It may be the first modern Christmas movie ever made for audiences in Turkey, a mostly Muslim country that does not celebrate Christmas.

"Neseli Hayat" or "A Cheerful Life" is the story of a down-on-his-luck, working class Turk who is hired to work as a mall Santa.

The trouble is he doesn't really know who Santa Claus is, and needs some very basic lessons.

In one scene, a manager drills the main character, Riza and several other hired Santas on how to give Saint Nick's hearty bellow, "ho-ho-ho."

In another segment, a bearded, costumed Riza enters a waiting room and extends the traditional Muslim greeting "A salam aleyekum" to four other mall Santas, who answer back without looking up "aleyekum salam."
Video: Muslim Turks celebrate Christmas

But Riza then spends much of the film, embarrassed and hiding his job and costume at a posh Istanbul mall glittering with holiday decorations, from his wife and family in a shanty neighborhood where one would be hard pressed to find a single piece of tinsel.

The writer, director and actor who played Riza, Yilmaz Erdogan, says his character is a metaphorical bridge between two worlds in Turkey: wealthier, upper class Turks who live a "Western" lifestyle and have adopted the trappings of Christmas to celebrate the new year, and poorer Turks who have emigrated from the Anatolian heartland to the big city and are more familiar with traditionally "Middle Eastern" customs.

"Riza is the man who is in the middle of these two groups," Erdogan said.

He spoke to CNN at the Istanbul premiere of his film, which debuted in a shopping mall cinema decorated with Christmas trees and female hostesses wearing tight black dresses and Santa hats.

Erdogan agreed it was an unusual decision to focus a Turkish film on Santa Claus, which Turks often refer to as "Noel Baba" [Father Christmas].

"It is a symbol that we all love. Any person who sees him will smile," Erdogan said.

"We don't have a religious relationship with [Christmas]. We have a relationship based on a date, based on modern times. A significant group of us love this Western date and we celebrate it with the ones that we love," he added.

This month, one could easily mistake the shopping malls and commercial districts of Istanbul for any Western, Christian city. Stores and hotels are bursting with Christmas trees, lights and ornaments. Only the sound of Christmas carols is perhaps missing.

And the Yuletide pageantry is not only confined to shopping destinations of the wealthy.

Christmas kitsch is also on display in labyrinthine, working class street bazaars built in the shadow of centuries' old Ottoman minarettes. Amid stalls selling everything from middle eastern baklava sweets to hunting rifles, shopkeepers also sell animated, life-size Santa dolls and giant inflated Frosty the Snowman figures.

"Its been busy these days," said shopkeeper Saime Elkatmis, who wore a woman's Muslim headscarf as she sold plastic wreaths and glowing stars to passing customers.

"Within the last two or three years, people are a lot more interested in New Year holiday, from all the sectors of society," she added.

Next door, Tuna Alkan, a member of Istanbul's tiny Jewish community, was helping her husband Joshua sell plastic Christmas trees to mostly Muslim customers.

Alkan said Turks usually refer to the trees as "New Year's trees."

"It's a good symbol, it's a happy symbol," Alkan said. "Why wouldn't we use it?"

Part of the enthusiasm for Western holiday pageantry stems from economics. Turkish merchants have clearly embraced Christmas colors, to generate consumer excitement and help drive up sales.

"A Cheerful Life" creator Yilmaz Erdogan agrees that Santa is a symbol of capitalism.

"This is capitalism and Riza is a victim," Erdogan said. In the film, Riza resorts to working as a mall Santa after an economic crisis drives his restaurant bankrupt, and after he plunges himself and his friends in debt by falling for a pyramid scam.

But in the end, with the help of the Santa suit and some very strong Turkish family values, Riza succeeds in saving the day.

The split identity between east and west is often a source of social and political tension in Turkey. This gentle, Turkish Christmas movie shows Turks they can have a foot in both worlds and still enjoy the holidays.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Wednesday, December 09, 2009 - No comments

From Bloodshed to Barbecues

**NOTE: Several of the photos below are pretty graphic. If you are squeamish about blood, don't scroll down past the text! (And if you are sensitive about the treatment of animals, please understand the cultural context within which these were taken.)

I arrived back to Turkey just in time for a good load of festivities as American Thanksgiving and Kurban Bayrami (The Muslim Sacrifice Festival) were a day apart this year. This prompted some amusing conversations as we explained the traditional Thanksgiving meal - I'm sure many of our neighbours now think we "sacrifice a turkey" in the same way they would sacrifice a cow. :) (Incidentally, some of our neighbours recently decided that a rooster would be a suitable pet for their three-year-old, so now we have a rooster that terrorizes our otherwise quiet complex, crowing at all hours of the night and assaulting dogs and children at will. Seriously, the thing is a beast. We'd been hoping someone would get creative with their sacrifice this year and offer up the offending bird, but alas, it still roams free.)

Kurban Bayrami has its roots in the Quranic story of when God told the Prophet Abraham to sacrifice his son Ishmael, and then at the last minute provided a ram to die in his place. Every year, Muslims around the world (at least all who are financially able and who consider it their religious duty) sacrifice a cow, sheep or goat to commemorate Hazreti Ibrahim's willingness to give up his son. If you dig down a few layers, you'll find that this tradition is also perpetuated by the underlying belief that in order for Allah to forgive man's sins, their must be the shedding of blood. (This, of course, opens the door for many good conversations with our neighbours.)

In order to present a less barbaric face to the Western World (ie the EU and whatever tourists may happen to be roaming the city's streets) it is illegal to kill the animals in your own garden, so after they've been tied up and moo-ing or baa-ing all night, people drive their animals to the designated sacrifice areas (ie somewhere out of town, the neighbourhood carwash or an empty covered bazaar) where either they themselves or, more often, actual butchers will perform the ritual sacrifice. Sometimes, if they aren't too well off, several families will chip in together to buy an animal. The whole thing has an air of community and festivity about it, even despite all the gore. Prayers are offered, then the animal is tied up and swiftly killed, often with a loud reaction from the other animal-spectators who know their turn is coming. Following the removal of the hide and the draining of the blood, it is usually the women (who must have remarkably strong stomachs) who set to work at cutting up the meat and dividing it into portions - a third to be eaten by the family, a third to be shared with friend and relatives, and a third to be given to the poor.

I was pretty impressed with how the whole operation goes like clockwork. You've got a guy with a clipboard collecting the fees for the butchers, the guys who chant the prayers, the guys with the knives who do the dirty work, the guys with rubber boots and hoses who clean up the blood, and the guys in the "Deri Toplama Ekibi" truck ("Skin/Hide Collection Squad") cleaning up the remains. And by afternoon, the whole place has cleared out and you'd never know anything had gone down.

On the morning of the sacrifice, one of my roommates and I set off in search of the action. We found it a few kilometres up the road where there it seemed every field or open space had become the scene for the slaughter. It seemed that heaps of "city people" had come out to the village to make their sacrifices, cuz what are normally quiet-ish streets turned into a village-wide traffic jam. It was interesting, too, to see how many not-covered women had come out our way, too. It was obvious who was and wasn't from around there!

We made the rounds to observe, talk to people and get some photos. I've only ever experienced the Sacrifice Festival in Istanbul, and I found people down here were much more willing to chat and have their pictures taken. (Meaning no one was really concerned about whether or not I was a reporter or threatened to break my camera if I didn't leave...unlike last year....) We played the good students of culture that we are and asked a lot of questions about the meaning behind the tradition. What really comes across is the pride in carrying out an age-old ritual, and the sense of unity that comes from knowing that people all over the Muslim world are all doing the same, as well as joy in being able to share and celebrate with family and friends.

Following the sacrifice is a four-day holiday where there is much visiting of loved-ones, kissing of elderly hands, and sharing in tasty meals. We got in on some good barbecue action with some of our neighbours, and I must say, I am grateful to the cow who gave his life and became those kebaps!

Seeing it all up close really brings to life the OT requirement of animal sacrifice and the grave reality of the need for blood to cleanse us from sin and shame. It makes the gift of the final sacrifice that much sweeter, and the desire to share that glorious, freeing news with my loved ones here that much more urgent.

Here are some photos from the day:

Death row

Somber spectators

I wish I could've captured this old teyze just a few seconds earlier, lugging that big heavy cow head around and laughing the cutest laugh!

Post-sacrifice grill-out with the neighbours

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Saturday, December 05, 2009 - 1 comment

Nurturing the Creative Life: Just Do It

I recently read a good article, Nurturing the Creative Life by Elisabeth Adams, and was challenged by the idea that, instead of waiting for the perfect combination of miraculous free time and lightning bolt inspiration, I need to get in the habit of sitting down and just writing. I have friends who regularly churn out these incredible, witty blog entries, and I think, "Man, I could do that, but it would take me hours!" A dozen times a day I am struck by an event or an image that causes me to think, "Hey, that would make a great story." But by the time the duties and interruptions of the day have come and gone, the moment has past and the time and energy to write about it has, too. So many good stories gone to waste!

It's true what they say: In order to be a writer, you have to write. Just do it. If I neglect the creative process on a daily basis, chances are I won't come up with anything amazingly impacting when I finally do sit down to compose something. And so, in response to this, I know the thing to do is to stop waiting for the time to write to present itself and to start making time, every day, to record the wonder and the heartache, the magnificent and the mundane, the LIFE that is going on all around me. When I first moved to Turkey and everything was fresh and foreign, I used to carry around a little notebook in my bag. Mostly I used it for writing down new vocab words, but many a "cultural anecdote in the making" found its way onto those pages as well. This would be a habit well worth taking up again.

So, this is me, sitting down and writing. We'll see what it turns into.

I woke up this morning to the most delicious sound - that of an intense rainstorm and some good, hearty thunder. The plan had been that if the weather was nice, we'd head out to the ruins at Perge to make use of the last month left on my roomate's Museum Discount Card. I'm always up for a good tramp through an ancient city, but I have to admit that when I awoke to the rain pelting my window, I was more than relieved. It's been a full week, and the idea of being able to snuggle in my bed a little longer and then have a day of true rest sounded amazing. What followed was a good heart-refueling, daydreaming with my roommate about what our "contextualized Christmas decorations" should look like this year, an amazingly hot shower (with much gratitude for the hot water switch upstairs that allows us to have hot showers even when it's not been sunny for days), making and indulging in a pot of curried pumpkin soup (Pumpkin freshly bought from my pumpkin guy at the pazar...yes, I have a "Pumpkin Guy" - isn't that great? He even chops it all up for you.), and now the act of sitting down and writing. All interspersed, of course with good coffee and conversation. Apart from a cookie baking date with one of my neighbours tonight (she is obsessed with my gingersnaps and wants to take some back to her university dorm when she leaves tomorrow), the only other thing on the agenda is some work (fun work, don't worry!) on photos from my Long Trip Home and some time curled up with a yet-to-be-determined novel.

Rest days for me are a determined act of the will - a conscious choice to set aside til tomorrow all the things pressing for my attention and to do things that are life-giving, all the while actively trusting that the One who carries all our burdens can handle all of mine if I stop to take a breather. My world will not stop spinning. In fact, it will very likely spin more smoothly. :)

Here's to deep breaths of life-giving air.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Monday, October 26, 2009 - No comments

The Last Golden Saturday

"Autumn, the year's last, loveliest smile."
- William Cullen Bryant

"October's poplars are flaming torches, lighting the way to winter."
- Nora Blair

Autumn is in her dusk now, it seems. The brilliant yellow trees on the hill that announced the season with much fanfare back in September, back when I could still enjoy a book under their shade without a sweater, have long since surrendered their leaves to whipping winds and children's boots. The weeks have paraded by in a riot of colour, with each tree in succession blazing forth for its moment on centre stage and then scattering its beauty to the ground like a thousand gleaming stars. Each day, a new array of delight is strewn across my path, and I can't find enough heavy books in the house to rightfully preserve these delicate treasures.

Fall is said to be a time of melancholy and decay, when the world sheds its glory and settles into the quiet death of winter before coming to life again in the spring. To me it is quite the contrary - it is autumn that makes the world seem most alive. It is both breathtaking and surprising - every day a new landscape, each one more dazzling than the last.

Today, as I crunched my way through maple leaves as big as my head and breathed in the crisp, heavenly air, I found myself wishing those blazing poplars - the last act of the show - could stick around for an encore performance. The way the sun illuminates their shining bronze leaves, they are just too spectacular to lose so soon. And yet I know that just a few short afternoons from now, as the sun begins to set a little earlier and the smoke begins to curl from the chimneys, they, too, will find their way into my collection and their pomp and splendour will be only a delicious memory.

And so, beloved Autumn, even as I savour your most glorious days, I prepare to bid you farewell. I shall be right here where you left me, pumpkin spice latte in hand and pear crisp in the oven, breathlessly awaiting your return.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Tuesday, September 08, 2009 - 2 comments

Rediscovering the Joys of Home

I've been back in Vancouver for three weeks now, and this is perhaps my smoothest "re-entry" yet. None of the usual tears in the grocery store, dumbfounded stares at the gas pump or general "Idontbelonghere" feelings, as so often is the case. Probably due to the fact that I've been back on the continent twice this year and "home" doesn't feel so foreign.

This is the first time in years that I've been able to enjoy a bit o' BC summer. I'm always here in the winter, and while I love to brag about how Vancouver isn't freezing like the rest of Canada, the weather still isn't exactly conducive to sitting on a park bench with a book. I am loving the freedom to get out and enjoy my gorgeous city! And more than that, with my recent "identity crisis" (some form of delayed culture shock, perhaps) I am loving the chance to simply be....Canadian.

Here are a few of the little things that have brought me great pleasure since being back:

* the library! you can just plunk yourself down on the floor and read books in english to your heart's content... for free!
* frozen mangoes, frozen strawberries, frozen raspberries....a smoothie lover's dream!
* walks on the dyke....complete with seagulls and that wonderful sea smell
* the fact that a uniform of jean shorts, a hoodie and flip-flops is perfectly acceptable
* spinach that comes prewashed and pre-pulled....I love to eat it, but it's a pain to clean after you get it home from the pazar!
* I can carry my coffee around in a tumbler and no one thinks that's strange
* anonymity - I may be the only Caucasian face in the crowd, but I am still "just like everyone else". No one looks at me and thinks, "foreigner." (Plus, with my last name, I belong more than anyone realizes!)
* the ability to pour on the sweet Thai chili sauce without having to ration it
* my mom is in the next room and my best friend is a local phone call away!
* fish n' chips @ Pajo's on the wharf
* no one has yet to shout out, "Hey, lady!" or ask me where I'm from
* an endless variety of curry available in every grocery store
* I can walk around the park alone without anyone harassing me
* the divinity that is Timothy's Frozen Yogurt
* four minute walk to Starbucks!
* being able to park myself on a log, a bench or a patch of grass and read, undisturbed
* Orange Julius hot dogs.
* the freedom that comes with driving a car
* the glorious hints of autumn appearing all around me
* hot, fresh donuts. oh, yeah.

(Have we noticed that most of my joys revolve around food? I make not attempt to disguise my edible passions!)

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Saturday, August 22, 2009 - No comments

Anatomy of a Turkish Bus Ride

I've never been a Greyhound rider (too many sketchy people on board, or so I hear) but riding long-distance buses is a pretty regular part of my in-Turkey life. Sometimes it's an adventure to some intriguing corner of the country, but most often I find myself on overnight buses between Istanbul and Antalya, heading up there to see my Turkish family, leaving the country or returning home from who-knows-where. I usually end up opting for the 12 hour overland trip instead of the similarly priced 55 minute flight due to the fact that my inability to pack light means I am always trucking way more weight than the airline baggage allowance permits. But I don't mind the trip - it's become sort of a familiar ritual - one I can, and often do, perform in my sleep.

This is how it goes. I usually buy my ticket in advance from a bus company office in town, and they are always kind enough to make sure to seat women with women and men with men. (This is much appreciated, since the passenger beside me often ends up asleep on my shoulder!) Inter-city buses in Turkey are pretty cushy - you almost feel like you are on an airplane, and, contrary to any "rural images" you may have conjured up in your mind, there are most definitely no chickens roaming the aisles. There's a seat for everyone, usually with headphone jacks for the TV, which you have to hope will be playing something benign like the news or a game show and not the horror films Turks seem to be so fond of. (On my most recent ride, there was a national team soccer game on and I got swept up in the collective cheering every time we scored a goal.) :)

After the bus attendant comes through to check tickets and find out where you are getting off, he comes down the aisle with a little cart and serves coffee, tea and snacks. Kamil Koç, my preferred bus line, has the jumbo sized Tutkus (my favourite chocolate-filled cookie) and ice cream in the summer. It's easy to see how they earned my loyalty... :) I love the fact that when you get coffee, they have special "half-sized" 3-in-1 Nescafes - perfect for those little cups you get on the bus. I always enjoy them going down, and then come to regret them later when they make their way to my bladder and I have to wait for hours til the next potty break!

Smoking is "forbidden", though the driver seems to be exempt from this rule, and happily puff away all night long. The other smokers pile off the bus en masse every time we stop to pick up new passengers in order to hurriedly satisfy their nicotine cravings.

Around eleven o'clock they shut the lights off, and I always seem to be the only one with my reading light on. Once my lids start to get droopy, I contort my body into some semblance of a comfy position and attempt to get some sleep. (Tylenol PM is often added to the mix if I am too wired from the craziness of getting ready for whatever journey I am embarking on.)

Every couple of hours, the lights come one and the little man at the front of the bus and gets on the microphone to announce that we are pulling into a rest stop, usually for half-an-hour. (Back in the day when I didn't know Turkish, these announcements always scared me cuz I didn't know how long we were stopping and was afraid of getting left behind in the bathroom!) Rest stops are kinda like mini-malls - a department store, market, souvenir shop and food court all rolled into one. (Since I almost always travel with the same company and they always stop at the same places, they are pretty familiar, which is good since I am often groggy and my contacts are, by that point, sticking to my eyes. Once, a waiter even recognized me from a previous trip and asked me how my trip home to Canada had been! Talk about being a regular!)

I am usually about to burst from my previously ingested Nescafe and make an immediate beeline for the bathroom. Bus station bathrooms can be pretty ghetto, but the rest stop ones are normally decent and clean, even modern, with automatic flushers and hand dryers. There are usually a couple of western toilets, and then a bunch of "squatty potties" - porcelain holes in the ground. (I have yet to see a squatty with a sensor-flusher, but I think that would be pretty nifty!) At some places, the bathrooms are free, but at most stops you have to pay 50 or 75 kuruş to the guy in the booth on your way out.

Next comes the food. They always have a yummy array of my favourite home cooked foods, like patlıcan (eggplant) and kuru fasulye (white beans), but those tend to be pretty expensive, so as of late, I am more likely to opt for soup. I have to say, there are few things more comforting in life than a hot bowl of yayla corbası (a yogurt, rice and mint soup) in the middle of the night! This little pause is always my most relished part of the trip. A cup of Turkish tea would be the perfect companion, but I have learned by now that my bladder can't handle both soup and çay!

Then comes a browse through the market, where there is always an amusing variety of tacky gifts, cheese and nuts, self-help books, and Turkish delight, just in case you forgot to pick something up for whoever is collecting you at the other end. What always tempts me is the bags of Konya Şekeri - this chalky candy that tastes kinda like those French mints you used to get at weddings. I love the stuff, but I have been accused by my roommates of eating half the bag and then leaving it to rot for months afterward, so I have been forbidden to buy any more. :)

This leaves just enough time for another potty trip (just to be sure) and a stroll outside for some leg-stretching and fresh air (difficult amongst the crowd of smokers.) An announcement over the loud speaker lets you know it is time to get back on the bus. (After accidentally boarding the wrong one once, I have learned to carefully check the signs on the front!) The attendant guy checks to make sure no one is missing and then, as we head off once more into the night, he goes around with a bottle of lemon cologne and splashes it on everyone's hands to freshen up. Sometimes they even spray it into the AC vents for good measure!

Throughout the night, unless it is an express bus, there are stops at otogars (bus stations) in every city along the way to drop off passengers and collect new ones. These are always a chaotic flurry of activity, even in the middle of the night. Tearful relatives bid each other farewell, girlfriends press their faces to the glass to blow one last goodbye kiss, and (my personal favourite) crowds of well-wishers pound drums and wave flags and throw their young men up in the air before sending them off to their askerlik (compulsory military service) to shouts of "En büyük asker bizim asker!" ("The greatest soldier is our soldier!")

By the end of the ride, in the early hours of the morning, either the Antalya seascape or the infinite Istanbul skyline comes into focus through bleary eyes. My knees are sore and my bladder ready to explode. It's off to collect luggage and either head for home or embark on the next leg of the neverending journey....

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Thursday, July 23, 2009 - 2 comments

Identity Crisis in Seat #2

(written while on an overnight bus ride, July 16th)

Yabancı.” It’s one of my least favourite words in the Turkish language. Literally, it means “foreigner” or “stranger.” My Turkish Dad tells me that in terms of the former, it’s more like “guest” and is a positive word. To me, it usually feels more like “someone to rip off,” “someone we can get away with flirting with” or “someone who likely doesn’t speak Turkish.” Whatever the meaning, it’s not really something I want to be.

I want to blend in! I want to be "Jane Doe".....or, rather, "Ayşe Yilmaz." I want to be able to walk down the street and not have someone call out, “Hello lady!” I want to be able to have a conversation with a shopkeeper without them asking where I am from! But, alas, with blue eyes, freckles, an accent and the confident stride of a women who’s never worked a day in the field, been beaten by her husband, or been subject to the sorts of insults and shame that cause people to grow up with slumped just ain’t gonna happen.

Some days I play the local part very well. I dress right, I don’t make any language mistakes, and I move through society in perfect sync with all the unspoken rules. Then other days, I feel like I have a big sign on my forehead that screams “YABANCI.” Today is one of those days.

It started with a mix-up over my seat number on the bus. I thought that when I booked my ticket I’d gotten the front seat, which I always go for cuz it helps me not get car sick. But when the bus attendant checked tickets, he informed me that I was sitting in the wrong spot. The annoying thing was, even though I was speaking Turkish to him, he tried to explain the problem to me in (very broken) English, cuz, you know, my confusion had to be due to the fact that I am a foreigner and foreigners are easily confused. Doesn’t matter that the same thing could have easily happened to a Turk. Another passenger kindly offered to switch seats with me so I could sit in the front, but our game of musical chairs apparently confused the “system”, further irritating the attendant who, I am sure, thought the whole thing was due to my not knowing my numbers.

There are a number of things you can do on a bus that no one would bat an eye at if a Turk did, but if I were to do them, it automatically labels me a yabancı. Tonight, I did all of them. I read a novel, I took my shoes off, and I am listening to an iPod. (Sure, the song playing right now is “Sweet Home Alabama,” but the one before it was “Ah Be Kardeşim” from the new Yalın album I just bought – doesn’t that count for something?) Oh, and the fact that I am writing in my journal just now – a dead giveaway. (Does it help that its cover is brown paper from a bag of Turkish coffee?)

Everyone on the bus probably thinks I’m a starry-eyed tourist, enchanted by the exotic East. They don’t know that this “exotic East” is my home. They don’t know that yesterday I saw Ice Age 3 in Turkish and understood nearly all the jokes. The bus driver doesn’t know that I know he shouldn’t be smoking that cigarette because I read about the new law against smoking in closed places in a Turkish newspaper today. The lady beside me doesn’t know that the reason my eyes are glued to the road is not because I am afraid of the crazy driving (I’m quite accustomed to that!) – in fact it’s because I am scanning the numbers on license plates to see how many of the country’s corresponding 81 provinces I have correctly memorized. (That and I am desperately searching for the elusive number 79 – Kilis – which is the last one I need to find to beat my roommate in our little competition!)

A perk of Turkish buses is that they serve snacks and drinks. When I am travelling by bus or by plane, I so often order çay (tea) even when I really want coffee. Nescafe always seems a bit more “uppity” to me, but tea is “the people’s drink” and ordering it somehow it makes me feel more like a Turk...even if it is bag Lipton tea and not the real stuff. But sometimes it feels good to go for preference over image, and so I am sipping a Nescafe. What’s two more “yabancı points” when I am already in the hole?

We stopped for a meal break a little while ago. At the Adana bus station, which I am quite familiar with. I went straight to my “usual” restaurant and ordered some lentil soup - the quintessential Turkish comfort food. (And, no, I didn’t get it to try to look more local – I really do love it!) But even though I ordered and paid for my food in what I know was perfect Turkish, the cashier still replied with, “You’re a foreigner – where are you from?” Grr! I know he was just trying to be friendly, but he picked the wrong girl on the wrong night.

It just goes to show that I could live here the rest of my life, be an active member of my community, quote Turkish TV shows without a trace of an accent, walk my kids to school in a headscarf and baggy village pants, cook eggplant and crack sunflower seeds with the best of ‘em....but to every new person I meet for the rest of my life, I will always be a “foreigner-where-are-you-from?” It’s like someone’s written “yabancı” across my head with a Sharpie and no amount of scrubbing will ever wash it off.

Sigh. If I already look the part, there’s no sense in pretending. With that, I’m putting on my very non-Turkish sleep mask and at least getting a good night’s rest. :)

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Saturday, June 27, 2009 - No comments

Make Yourself at Home

Coupla days ago, I was in the market for a tailor. I am in the habit of stuffing my carry-on to the limit with all my heaviest stuff (and acting as if it is light as a feather, even though it is killing me)so as to avoid having overweight bags when I travel, and as a result, my backpack had some torn bits that needed mending. (Side note: Since I am a pretty skinny person, I am toting less pounds per capita on those airplanes, and on more than one occasion, I have tried to use that logic to convince the airline personnel that I should therefore be allowed more luggage. Hasn't worked yet.)

Anyways, the backpack.

Ok, so I found an ayakkabici (Shoe Repair Man) who said he could fix my backpack. Even better, it was only going to take a few minutes, so I sat down and watched him work. Then came a rather amusing exchange. As is customary, he asked if I wanted some tea while I waited. I said yes, and he said, "Great, there's the sink. Wash yourself a glass, and wash one for me, too." I chuckled to myself, did as I was told and then waited for the tea to steep. (At which point the man said, "You can't really be a foreigner." He was so impressed that I knew the word for "steep.")

Shortly after I had poured tea for me and the old man, a woman came in to have her belt fixed, and I figured I may as well have fun with my new role as the "cayci" (tea lady), so I offered her a cup, too. And there we sat, all chatting and sipping our cay as he pumped away expertly on the sewing machine, "as if we were old friends and not what we actually are....which is....strangers who don't even know each other's names." (Bonus points to anyone who knows which movie that's from.)

I had to laugh when the lady asked the guy if I was his daughter. Nope, just a helpful customer who is amused daily by her second culture. :)

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Thursday, June 18, 2009 - No comments

The Third Place

On a recent visit to Starbucks, I picked up a copy of “Pour Your Heart into It: How Starbucks Built a Company One Cup at a Time.” Flipping through it as I waited for my friends to get their drinks, I came upon an interesting concept that struck a chord in my soul. The coffee-giant’s founder, Howard Schultz, described a visit to Italy where he encountered the “coffee bar phenomenon.” In every neighbourhood, it seemed, there was an espresso bar – a sort of community gathering place where people came to share a moment of their day over a cup of strong coffee. These were places to pause, to savour, to engage. It was here that an idea began percolating in Schultz’ mind : the idea of a “third place” – somewhere outside of work and home where one can have a taste of romance and community, a welcome reprieve from the everyday-ness of everyday life.

Every culture and every era has its “third places” – the barber shop, the beauty parlour, the tavern, the coffee house, the village well. “Without such places, the urban area fails to nourish the kinds of relationships and the diversity of human contact that are the essence of the city. Deprived of these settings, people remain lonely in their crowds.” (Oldenburg)

The Turks have this concept perfected. The men congregate in the kiraathanes to smoke, drink tea and play games. These are a place to unwind after work, to gossip and talk business, and, well, to avoid going home to their families. As a female and a foreigner, I sometimes envy the clusters of men who sit around sipping the day away. There’s something about those places that transforms you from an individual in a crowded nation to someone who belongs to the crowd, even if just for a few hours.

In tea gardens, on the street, and on balconies, there is a seemingly standing invitation to sit down for çay, to be refreshed and to be woven more deeply into the community. In most workplaces, all you have to do is ring a buzzer or yell down the street, and a boy with a platter of steaming tea glasses will come running. Most big city parks even have their own “wandering çay guys” who roam the park and keep the sugary liquid flowing cuz, after all, it is practically unheard of to go more than hour without tea in this country! And rare is the day that I can make it all the way from the busstop to my front door with out at least one neighbour calling me to come and sit down for a cup. I will never go thirsty here, that’s for sure.

My fixation with coffee has much less to do with my affection for caffeine (substantial as it may be) and much more to do with the fact that I love what it represents in my life. Hot drinks - whether they be coffee, hot chocolate or tea – have always held a special romance for me. They signify cozy-ness, comfort, intimacy and warmth. The sight of a steaming mug conjures up images of breakfasts on the balcony with friends, secrets shared at quaint corner tables and late nights sitting outside drinking in my Daddy’s love.

I, too, have felt the call of the “third place.” Even though Starbucks has taken over Turkey just like every other corner of the globe, it still holds a whiff of magic for me. Walking through the doors and inhaling the heady aromas is akin to coming home. Whether I am there to plug in and buckle down, to meet with friends, or to just curl up with a book, I feel like a little piece of it is mine. And there is just nothing like coming in off the street on a rainy day and having Merve, my favourite barista, start making my “caramel macchiato with extra caramel sauce in a for-here mug” without me saying a word.

I think Schultz was really onto something.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Monday, June 08, 2009 - No comments

Studded and Strewn

"The world is fairly studded and strewn with unwrapped gifts and free surprises . . . cast broadside from a generous hand."

- Annie Dillard

Sometimes I have to pinch myself.

The day after I landed in Istanbul (after being back in the States for a wedding) I got a jet-lag induced early start, and headed for the European side in hopes of some good shots to use in my next calendar. I got off the ferry at Beşiktaş and headed up the coast on foot, planning to stop whenever an interesting image caught my eye. A sense of expectation in my heart, I asked Dad to guide my steps. No sooner had I breathed that thought than I passed the magnificent gates of the Çırağan Palace, now one of the city’s finest hotels. Thinking maybe I could get few nice shots of the Bosporus, I turned around and went in. The palace wasn’t open for tours, but I sweet-talked my way into getting directions to the back garden. (It pays to be able to talk up the beauty of the Bosporus in Turkish!)

Entering the hotel, I saw a sign that made me laugh with surprise: I was just ten minutes late for a free classical music concert put on by Starbucks, with free coffee to follow! So, completely by coincidence (ha!) I got to spend my morning listening to Bach and Mozart and then sipping complimentary liquid goodness served on silver platters in the grand hall of a palace. Someone sure knows the way to my heart!

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Thursday, June 04, 2009 - 2 comments

A Day in the Life: Fatih

I have been waiting since March to post these photos, hoping in vain for “enough time” to write something colourful and compelling, but, alas, I think I ought to just give up and post the pictures.

They are from a visit to Fatih, a district of Istanbul that feels like....somewhere other than Turkey....and has captured my interest as of late. Unlike many of the more cosmopolitan areas of the city, daily life in Fatih seems to centre entirely around religion. Istanbul’s version of the Bible Belt, there is “a mosque on every corner” and at prayer time, they are packed out. I spent a few days loitering in mosque courtyards and roaming crowded neighbourhoods, trying to capture the heartbeat of Fatih.

I think my camera and I shall be frequent visitors here.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Monday, April 13, 2009 - No comments

Life Lessons While You Wait

Made some interesting discoveries via Antalya Coiffeur magazine while waiting to get my hair cut last week:

* There are a plethora of uses for the leftover loose tea in your çay danlık (Turkish teapot). Rub it in your hair after conditioning for extra shine, on your feet every night for a week if they are stinky, on a wound to keep it from getting infected, on your hands if they smell like onions, on your bald spot to make it vanish....kidding.

* One of the most important parts of being a wife is to have food your husband loves on the table, right on time, all the time. Oh, and you're supposed to be sure he never sees any "unpleasant sight" in the house. Like dust.

* Manly men must never drink bag tea or wear shiny clothes.

*Supposedly the reason "we" (or at least Turks and French people) say "Alo?" when we answer the phone dates back to Alexander Graham Bell and his beloved, Alessandra Lolita Oswaldo. At first, the only operating phone in existence was hers, so when it would ring, he would answer using her nickname, "ALO." Time passed and telephone use became more widespread in the town. When Alessandra got jealous of Alex's love for his invention, she left the two of them to themselves and broke off the relationship. He was heartbroken, and every time the phone rang, he would answer with a heart full of hope: "ALO?" Everyone else caught on, and the rest is history. Supposedly.

* There are a whole host of "eerie" similarities between Lincoln and JFK. A few that stuck out: Both died on a Friday, both killed by triple named men who themselves were killed before they went to trial. Lincoln died in the Kennedy Theatre, Kennedy in a Lincoln car. Both Presidents' wives miscarried while living in the White House. Lincoln's secretary's name was Kennedy, and Kennedy's was Lincoln. Both were succeeded by a Johnson; Andrew, born in 1808, and Lyndon B, born in 1908. And the best one: a week before being assassinated, Lincoln was on vacation in Monroe, Maryland, and Kennedy was on vacation with Marylin Monroe.


Sunday, April 5, 2009

Sunday, April 05, 2009 - 1 comment

Is that Obama in my bank?

We have a new commercial running in Turkey. "President Obama" steps up to a podium, flanked by American flags and a White House logo and begins detailing one bank's plan to turn the economic crisis around.

"I wish I could announce such an economic package," he says, "but there is a bank in Turkey that did it. It is Garanti. I wish we had Garanti in America."

This nation not exactly known for its pro-American sentiment, but Barack Hussein (they ALWAYS include his Mslm middle name!) Obama is quite the popular figure of hope around here. He is making his first visit to our country this week, and Garanti (my bank - woo hoo!) has capitalized on his popularity by running an ad campaign using an Obama lookalike. His face is all over television and plastered on bus stops across the country, proclaiming the wisdom of Garanti Bankasi. Gotta love it.

Sunday, April 05, 2009 - 1 comment

Off to the Ballot Boxes

"Election season" came to a close last Sunday. For more than a month leading up to the municipal elections, campaign-mania filled the streets with its flags, and the air with its patriotic, herald-the-virtues-of-the-candidate songs. Slogan stickers and politicians' faces were plastered on every available surface. Strings of political banners hung from every lightpost and across every intersection. And "campaign mobiles" - vans and buses sporting loudspeakers on top - trolled every neighbourhood blaring songs destined to woo our hearts and win our votes. (Charming until you get stuck between two competing vans at a traffic light and nearly go deaf!)

Zeki Basaran, the CHP (Republican People's Party) mayoral candidate for our municipality was my personal favourite....purely cuz he had the catchiest song. Seriously, it got stuck in my head back in February and hasn't left yet. I have the whole thing nearly memorized and like to fill any silence by belting it out. Always gets a good reaction. :) Click here to hear the song that has become the neverending soundtrack to my days. Zeki lost the race, but he still lives in my heart.

It's been intriguing to observe the campaign phenomenon here and compare it to how things work at home. The biggest difference I noticed is the fact that there are no political commercials on TV. I wonder if there is a law against that, or if it is just too expensive? (Can't cost any more than the billions of lira in gas they must spend driving those musical vans around all day....) And no lawn signs. Probably cuz here there is no such thing as a lawn. :) I haven't fully sorted out the song thing, but my hunch is that it could be a literacy thing - if the housewife in the kitchen isn't reading the newspaper, get your slogans and promises stuck in her head in the form of a song. (Smart.) Or maybe, like the flags flying so thick you can hardly see the sky, it's more of a show of presence and power. Not sure. Either way, I like the festive atmosphere it creates.....except if I am trying to concentrate on anything! :)

Between the drive-by campaigners and the politicians coming door to door, I racked up quite a collection of election paraphernalia - flags, posters, air fresheners, even flowers from a muhtar (like a neighbourhood leader) candidate. Being that I can't vote here, I feel no need to be loyal to one particular party and proudly display it all in my room.

Many a politician has been accused of buying votes - particularly questionable was the ruling party's tactic of passing out washing machines in towns in the country's poor southeast. Unfortunately for them, it didn't seem to make a difference at the polls in those districts. (And the ironic part of it all is that many of those people may not even have electricity in their homes. Guess they can always use their new appliances as storage cupboards.) In our neighbourhood, word on the street is that our (now re-elected) muhtar passed out cash in order to secure votes. I was kicking myself cuz when he came to our door, he asked how many eligible voters lived in our house, and I said none. Bummer - maybe I coulda scored some money! :)

I was up in Istanbul on the day of the election, and it was interesting to get a different perspective and see which parties were popular up there that aren't popular where I live - particularly cuz I spent most of my time in a very religiously conservative part of the city. I was fascinated by the fact that when we went to bed on Saturday night, the streets were still filled with flags, but when Election Sunday dawned, they had all miraculously vanished. (It is illegal to campaign on election day.) Somebody was working hard all night long!

This was the first time I had seen an ad for a female candidate. (Centre.) She was running for city council in a very religious district. This both surprised and intrigued me.

Not sure I would vote for this guy - he apparently wasn't too concerned with keeping the neighbourhood clean. I saw literally tens of thousands of his little cards all over the district.

Anyhow, the votes have been counted and the dust has settled. Re-elected leaders are breathing a sigh of relief and new ones are gearing up for the task ahead. Time will tell if they will fulfill all their bright campaign promises. I won't give you all the stats cuz you won't care, but I've been avidly reading election articles and analyses and trying to sort out who's who and the breakdown of which party won where and what it all means. It really does give one a sense of belonging to know what's going on, and it helps me feel more "Turkified" when I can discuss current events in a semi-educated manner. I may not be able to vote, but I enjoyed getting caught up in election-fever. And, hey, I got an air freshener out of the deal!