Monday, January 23, 2012

Monday, January 23, 2012 - No comments

Istanbul: The Daily Dance

This was the piece I wrote for an assignment for my writing course on "My hometown in 500 words." (I know, I know, Istanbul is not my "real" hometown, but I like to pretend.) :)


A chaotic choreography is performed daily on the streets of Istanbul. Every person, every vehicle has its part in the ensemble. I step out my front door and take my place on the stage.

I’m “home for the holidays,” spending the Sacrifice Festival with my “Turkish family.” It was on this street five years ago that I took my first wobbly steps in the dance. I’d like to think I’ve become more graceful since then, that I have improved my sense of Turkish rhythm and no longer have two cultural left feet.

The crisp November wind sends rainbows of laundry aflutter, carrying on it the smell of freshly baked bread and the lingering scent of the woodstoves that kept the neighbourhood warm last night. Yaşar Abi is selling roasted chestnuts on the back of his truck. “I’ll stop on my way home,” I promise. Accompanied by the clatter of backgammon dice and the low voices of the men huddled outside the cafe puffing away on their cigarettes, the junk-collector calls out a nasal “Eskiciiiiiiiii” as he lumbers up the street with his cart of broken treasures.

Wedging myself between a laptop, a grocery cart and the door, I punch my Akbil to pay my fare as my bus swings out and creates a space for itself in the morning traffic jumble. We weave our way through clouds of exhaust fumes down the hill into Kadıköy, braiding paths with overcrowded minibuses and grouchy taxi drivers, past the median where the pigeons congregate, the dilapidated wooden Ottoman mansion that I’ve always had a crush on, and the grey-haired pastry-seller who once wrote a poem about my friend Mandy’s blue eyes.

At every stop, as the bus brakes just long enough to inhale more people than it spits out, a hierarchical reshuffling occurs. Texting teenagers in Converse give up their seats for old men with canes. Spots are swapped to prevent a covered woman from sitting beside an unrelated male. Those of us hanging onto ceiling straps with one hand and guarding wallets with the other struggle to move back a few inches without landing in any unsuspecting laps.

Wriggling my way to the middle door, I am ejected onto the crowded sidewalk. I join the crush of shoppers inching their way through the Fishermens’ Market, scouting delicacies to spread before their holiday guests. Miniskirts from Moda meld with headscarves from Üsküdar, bobbing and twisting to avoid colliding with henna-haired gypsies selling roses, hamals shouldering baskets full of old ladies’ groceries and çaycıs deftly swinging trays of steaming tea cups.

Sidestepping puddles of fishy water and ducking under strings of dried peppers, I dip in and out of the throng. At the Ecevitler deli, with its singing butcher and nineteen varieties of olives, I purchase smoked eggplant salad and cabbage dolma and pause to watch a shopkeeper toss a fish to a cat perched on a striped awning. The call to prayer momentarily silences the music floating down from the rooftop cafes, but the chattering seagulls and Bosphorus ferry horns pay no heed.

Several hours and multiple shopping bags later, the grainy remains of a Turkish coffee break still on my lips, the bus deposits me at my stop. I measure the rhythm of the evening rush hour, plotting the lane by lane dash that will get me safely across the street. Two others join me on the curb, and we share glances of “us-against-the-traffic” before charging into the first available opening. With a grand finale of “car-step-step, car-step-step,” I nod to my partners and exit the stage. Yaşar Abi trades me three lira for a bouquet of steaming chestnuts as my reward for surviving another performance, and with a mental bow, I head for home.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Sunday, January 15, 2012 - No comments


Any die-hard Veggie Tales fan knows that “usta” is Polish for “lip.” But upon moving to Turkey, I learned that it is also Turkish for “a man who is an expert in his trade.” Around our house, we use the word more loosely to mean “workman.” And, around our house, “usta” is something of a dirty word.

In the four-and-a-half years we’ve lived in this house, I would venture to guess we’ve had around fifty “ustas” parade through our house. Maybe sixty. Roofers, painters, window guys, air-conditioning guys, electricians, oven repairmen, washer repairmen, solar-heater repairmen, and, more than anything, plumbers. With as much lime in the water as we have here, pipes, faucets, washer parts and toilet innards are constantly being eaten up or breaking, and no matter how much lime-preventer and chemicals we dump into them, the end result is still often that we have to get them replaced. During the first few months after we moved in, we called one plumber so many times that he actually brought us flowers to say thank you for being his best customers! (Incidentally, he also had a lazy eye, and we never could tell which one of us he was talking to!)

Usta Days are kind of write-offs in terms of getting anything really productive done cuz these guys require constant attention. Not only do you have to hang around to supervise and make sure they are actually doing what you ask, but they don’t always come with things like ladders and tools, so you often have to stick around in case they need anything. You have to prepare things for tea breaks and Nescafe breaks, and order them lunch if they are around all day. Valuables are hidden, and, depending on the job, furniture haphazardly shoved out of the way. And then there is the post-usta clean-up.....

On the flip-side, the beauty of an Usta Day is that since you can’t do anything you actually need to do (i.e. visiting neighbours, working on the computer, anything that requires concentration) you now have time to do all the weird little jobs that should be done “eventually” but aren’t worth your time on a normal day. The trick is to have enough to do so that you don’t look like you are hovering (or like you’re a wealthy North American who has nothing to do but twiddle her thumbs), but nothing so involved as to steal your ability to keep an eye on them and be available when needed. Polishing the copper coffee pots, reorganizing the spice drawer, changing cupboard liners and throwing out all the leftover containers that don’t have lids are all Usta Day-worthy activities.

The tricky thing about ustas is that you never know exactly when they’re going to come. “Tomorrow” is a very loose term. We’ve had many a week where our house stayed in a perpetual state of disaster for days because the window guy who was supposed to come in the morning didn’t show up til evening when we had plans to be out, and then couldn’t come again for four more days. This makes planning anything tricky cuz you have to be home, but you don’t know for how long. And it always seems to happen that the big jobs we save up for a time when the weather is right (or the power is on) end up getting delayed and delayed until right before we have a guest coming to stay, meaning a frenzy of activity and cleaning all crammed into a few hours in order to have the house ready for company. (This is how two of my very gracious best friends ending up arriving in the middle of a new window fiasco, just in time to scrub floors and wash curtains along with me just so they’d have a room to sleep in that night!)

This week, we’d called for someone to come install an air-conditioner/heater unit in my roommate’s room (which will hopefully remedy the persistent mold problem in there), and after us having rearranged our schedule several times as they waited for parts to come in, two guys showed up bright and early yesterday morning. They were young - one in his teens and one in his twenties - but they worked hard and knew what they were doing. In situations like this one, most of the interaction is left to my (twenty plus years my senior) roommate and I stick to making and serving the tea. You know, so they don’t arrive back the next week with their whole family to ask my hand in marriage.

Yesterday, the tea must have been particularly good, because when they returned after having taken our two AC units into the workshop for cleaning, they smelled like they’d both taken showers in cologne. And when, several hours later, my room still smelled like “boy-trying-to-impress-girl,” I thought to myself, “One more reason I need to get married off soon.”

I really hope he’s a handyman. :)

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Wednesday, January 11, 2012 - No comments

Three Hours at the Office

“As Thoreau famously said, it doesn't matter where or how far you go - the farther commonly the worse - the important thing is how alive you are. Writing of every kind is a way to wake oneself up and keep as alive as when one has just fallen in love.”

― Pico Iyer

It’s been three months since we returned from our Great Southeast Adventure, and I am still working on the same stories as I was the week after we got home. I had grand notions of writing up all my anecdotes by Christmas, but instead I am still sitting here with a hard drive full of photos, a mind full of memories, and a whole pile of half-finished pieces in front of me.

This feels like the story of my “travel writing career” this far: a lot of great ideas, but very little to show for them. Sometimes a blinking cursor on a blank white screen feels like an invitation to greatness, but more often than not, I get the feeling it is mocking me. Between neighbours and crises and laundry and lessons, even if I manage to find an hour to write, inspiration and free time rarely seem to coincide, and I too often find myself closing the lid to my laptop to move on to the next task having only written a sentence or two.

This will never do.

It’s been a battle of a journey, this process of coming to see my writing as a calling instead of just a hobby that I dabble in for kicks on the weekend. Even the phrase “my writing” has sounded so pretentious to me that I’ve been hesitant to call it that for fear of sounding like one of those starving artists who lives in a loft in New York City, eating Ramen Noodles for dinner every day and dreaming of that elusive “big break,” but never producing more than a few creative obituaries.

Thankfully, over the past year, I’ve come to a place of recognizing that writing is a gift and a passion that has been deposited inside of me to be used, not just dreamed about, and I am ready to put in the hard work that it will undoubtedly take to carry me from “someone with potential” to “someone who is regularly published.” Before Paul Theroux wrote “The Great Railway Bazaar” he had to take a whole lot of notes on a whole lot of trains over a whole lot of months. And even before that, he had to exercise his ability to see the stories in the world around him, and work his “describing muscles” to the point that he actually had something to say that was worth reading.

I am ready to work my muscles.

"I only write when inspiration strikes...Fortunately it strikes every morning at nine o’clock sharp."

- W. Somerset Maugham

Several of my “New Year’s Anticipations” centre around carving out a place in my life and my schedule to develop my skills as a writer. Much as I like the idea of inspiration striking at random moments when I just happen to have the time to sit down and let the words flow, it has proven to be highly unrealistic. The only way I’ll become a writer is to write, and the only way I’ll write is if I set aside (and fiercely guard) specific time devoted to writing and then....write. Instead of waiting for the dream to somehow magically evolve into discipline, I need to start with the discipline that will pave the way to my dream.

For me, the first step (besides giving value to this endeavor in my own heart) is to make regular time in my schedule to write. I’ve decided that if I can set aside one afternoon a week to write for three hours or so, I will consider myself a wild success. Besides the fact that that is about as much time as I can realistically spare right now, that is also about as long as I can solidly write before my creative engine starts to sputter. At least for now. (I intend to strengthen that muscle!)

I haven’t found that I do so well writing at home, as the voices of the washing machine, my roommate, the phone, the doorbell, and my internal to-do list never fail to call me from my place of creativity and steal those precious minutes of focus. Leaving the house and going to a specific place, on the other hand, lets me feel more like I am “going to work” and gives me the opportunity to ignore everyone around me and focus, and not feel the least bit guilty about it.

My chosen “office-away-from-home?” The back corner table at Starbucks.

On the bus on the way here, I listened to a “Writing Excuses” podcast that was, “coincidentally” bang on for where I’m at today. The guest speaker’s challenge was to see whatever time you set aside for writing as a job that you show up to, punch your time card at, and give your undivided attention. If you were to work at a bank, you couldn’t just “not feel like going in today” or allow a million distractions to steal you away from the task at hand. In the same way, a writer must see their “shift” as a non-negotiable and give it their all accordingly.

I was really encouraged to hear the guy say that most writers, unless they’ve really made it big and write “full-time,” work another job and write in the evenings on the weekend. If the average writer writes a solid 200 words in a concentrated hour, and they spend an hour a day writing, five days a week, that’s 52,000 words a year. If the average novel is 100,000 words, that’s half a novel in a year. Not phenomenal, but not bad either. Considering that what I’m going for right now is not a novel, but travel and culture-related articles, I should be able to crank out several dozen this year if I really give myself to it.

And so it is that I spent a solid three hours today over coffee with characters from my trip to Mardin. Peder Yakup was there - the priest who lovingly tends the restored Syriac church in the village of İzbırak despite the fact that there is no congregation. And Maria, the nun, with her gum boots and shalvar and her cigarette. And what’s-his-name (whose name is written safely in my notebook at home) our guide at the ancient and soon-to-be-underwater city of Hasankeyf. At 692 words of what I daresay was inspiration, I’m gonna call it a day.

I am happy to report that, I showed up for work, I sat down at my desk, I stared that blinking cursor in the eye, and I won.