Friday, November 22, 2013

Friday, November 22, 2013 - No comments

Anticipating Winter - Part Two (The Locals)

For most of the other women in my neighbourhood, winter preparations involve things like tomatoes and peppers rather than plaster and paint.  Last week I read an article in an inflight magazine called “How Anatolian Women Prepare for Winter,” mostly revolving around the edibles that are currently being stockpiled in cupboards around the country.  A far cry from a Pinterest board of new and intriguing ways to use pumpkin, most of my neighbours’ autumn to-do lists are more about making the most of the current harvest and keeping veggies on the table through the winter when fresh ones are scarce.

Tomato paste is a key ingredient in a lot of Turkish recipes, and the homemade variety is definitely preferred over the store-bought kind.  At the end of the summer, women load up on kilos and kilos of tomatoes (either from the pazar or their own fields) and then the tomatoes are chopped, strained, and either dried in the sun for a few days (if you live in the village and have the luxury of a flat roof) or boiled on the stove (if you’re a city dweller confined to an apartment) and then stored in glass jars (or sometimes pop bottles) to be used all winter long.

Olives are a must on the Turkish breakfast table.  The olive grove behind our house has been picked bare, the olives now being cured in large reused plastic water bottles full of brine, olive oil and thyme which will be kept in the dark through the coming months.  Last year I got to help with my first olive harvest.  Olives are high on my list of foods I’d love to avoid for the rest of my life, but I sure did enjoy climbing all those trees!

An Anatolian woman’s pantry will be bursting with canning jars at this point in the season.  Pickled cucumbers, peppers, carrots, onions, tomatoes and cabbage line the shelves.  Homemade jam comes in every variety from “familiar” flavours like strawberry and apricot to more “creative” flavours like carrot, rose and, yes, even eggplant.  (No joke - it’s found on the shelf of any big market.)  Turks are also big fans of pekmez, a cousin of molasses made from either grapes or mulberries.  A great antidote for anemia, it’s known as an “internal heater” that will keep you warm and free of colds during the chilly months.  A few years ago I got to witness “pekmez making week” in Cappadocia - I marveled at the arm muscles it took to be able to stir the grapes for seven or eight hours in a massive cauldron over a campfire!

Pickled everything
Buckets of boiled grapes for making pekmez

In the warmer months leading up to winter, women here hollow out red and green peppers and eggplant and then string them up like colourful necklaces on the roof or balcony to dry.  These will then be stored in a dry place and pulled out during the winter and stuffed with a mixture of rice and spices (and sometimes meat, pine nuts or black currants) to make dolma.  (My favourite!)  

Dried peppers and eggplant
 A whole lot of delicious dolma
Most evening meals here begin with a bowl of steaming soup, and tarhana çorbası is a winter must.  A variable mix of veggies (usually onions, red peppers, carrots and an assortment of greens) are cooked and pureed.  Yogurt is added, then a whole lot of flour, and the mixture is kneaded until it forms a soft dough.  The dough is separated into balls and left to dry for several days, then broken down into marble-sized bits and dried some more.  When it’s dried through, it’s crushed into flakes, either by hand or in a blender, and then stored in jars to be made into soup at a later date.  I only recently learned how involved the process of making tarhana is, so I shall be more appreciative from here on out when a bowl is placed in front of me. 

While most families will buy several loaves of bread (think French bread) a day from the neighbourhood bakery, a homemade flatbread called yufka is also a popular accompaniment to dinner.  When the weather is nice, groups of women head outside (in our case, to the olive grove out back) and set up their bread-making assembly line.  Dough is mixed in large plastic tubs and then rolled out paper thin on a low wooden table.  The large round yufka is then cooked on a saç (a huge concave metal pan) over a fire.  After a long day’s work, each woman will go home with a stack of flaky yufka that will be covered with a cloth and stored for up to a month.  Come dinner time, they just flick it with drops of water until it softens and, voila - bread.  (And if I’m lucky enough to happen to pass by on bread making day, the offer always comes for me to go grab some cheese from the house and have them fry me up some fresh gözleme.  Yum!)

Last but not least comes the category which I’d call “fruit snacks.”  (Like Fruit Roll Ups, but way healthier!)  People who spend the summer in their hometowns out east often have vineyards and fruit orchards.  Those with grapes and mulberries will boil and strain them, then set the juice out to thicken in the sun and use it to make things like pestil (thin fruit leather) and cevizli sucuk (literally “walnut sausage”), a long stick of “fruit snack” with nuts inside.  They’ll also do up a bunch of strings of nuts, grapes and chunks of the fruit leather to be pulled out, along with dried mulberries, for snacks when guests come over.  
Cevizli sucuk
I have so much respect for the hardworking women around me and definitely love being able to partake of the fruits of their labour.  Since moving here, I’ve learned to do without most packaged food and make pretty much everything from scratch (I’ve come a long way from the days of importing Bisquick for pancakes, let me tell you...) but I’ve still got nothing on them!

Friday, November 22, 2013 - No comments

Anticipating Winter - Part One (The Foreigners)

The other night when I showed up to babysit, the kids met me at the door with their Christmas lists:  an assortment of red and green letters adding up to a whole gamut of things ranging from “sunglasses” and “magenta nail polish” (when did this “little girl” become so pre-teenish?) to “a boy dog stuffie” and “Littlest Pet Shop Bobble Heads.”  My immediate reaction was, “It’s way too early!”  (It doesn’t help that my roommate’s birthday is December 1st, so Christmas music is expressly forbidden in our house until the 2nd.)  But I’m sure back home, they began to deck the malls the day after Halloween, so I suppose these guys aren’t jumping the gun by too much.

We’re into those in-betweeny weeks of the twilight of autumn. During the day, it’s still a gorgeous 25 degrees outside, our laundry still dries on the line within a few hours, and we can have brunch on the terrace in bare feet and t-shirts, as we did for a friend’s birthday on the weekend.  But I’ve definitely started wearing slippers in the house, and at night it’s been cool enough to turn on the heater in the living room and make me think about pulling out my electric blanket.

Winter prep around our house has involved a host of outdoor projects.  Last week we had a guy come and cut down three trees on the perimeter of our complex in an effort to prevent a repeat of the horrible flood episode we had last year when pine needles plugged up our next-door neighbours’ terrace drains (they live in France most of the year and aren’t around to clean them) causing over a foot of water to collect during one crazy winter storm.  It poured into their upstairs kitchen through a massive gap under the door and then made its way through the walls until we discovered that we had a lake in our entryway and “rain” falling from our kitchen ceiling.  I had to risk my life climbing over our adjoining wall to clean out the drains while hail fell and lightning flashed all around.  The carpets were a mess, the paint and plaster in our stairway turned all bubbly and the smell of the mold didn’t leave us until summer....

The whole tree-chopping day was quite a neighbourhood event, with the gardener and his son as well as a few other men pitching in to help the (approaching elderly and unfortunately rather vulgar) man who arrived “ready to cut” with a chainsaw and a curious lack of rope, ladders, or anyone to accompany him.  The womenfolk showed up to watch (free entertainment!) and I supplied the tea to workers and spectators alike.  There were some dicey moments, like when the gardener tied the rope around his waist as ballast against a five storey pine (I could just picture him sailing through the air...) and when it looked like said pine might just go crashing down onto the Frenchies’ house (“Sorry about your roof, Metin Bey...But on the bright side, no more clogged drains!”) but thankfully, in the end, all turned out well and everyone involved went home with enough firewood to keep their woodstoves going for at least a month.

In the years we’ve lived in this house, I’ve become something of a plastering usta (professional/expert/handywoman), and I’ve been putting my skills to good use regrouting the tiles and joints on our terrace (in hopes of preventing my roommates ceiling from turning a fuzzy, cough-inducing green as it has done for the past several winters) as well as cementing cracks and redoing the plaster around several of our windows. Keeping an eye on the weather report, I was glad to be able to get those spots repainted before the promised rains arrived this weekend.  

And now, with the cooler weather moving in, it’s finally starting to feel like fall.  Tomorrow, the Thanksgiving turkeys will be bought.  (It's hit and miss here, so we get our orders in early!)  I'm taking my cues from the kids and starting to gear my head towards Christmas gifts.  All around the neighbourhood, people are beginning to get their sobas (woodstoves used for heating) set up.  And I’ve got visions of cozy living rooms and hot soba-roasted chestnuts dancing in my head....

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Saturday, November 16, 2013 - 2 comments

İstanbul'da Sonbahar

Akşama doğru azalırsa yağmur 
Kız kulesi ve adalar 
Ah burda olsan çok güzel hala 
İstanbul'da sonbahar 

If the rain wanes as the evening nears,
Maiden's Tower and the Princes' Islands 
If you only were here, it's still so beautiful 
Autumn in İstanbul
- Teoman, "İstanbul'da Sonbahar"

I recently entered a photo contest called “Dört Mevsim İstanbul” (Four Seasons in Istanbul).  It was fun to walk down memory lane as I scrolled through my (thousands upon thousands) of Istanbul photos, trying to narrow it down to just four per season to send in. 
Autumn is by far my favourite season, and besides Tennessee, with its brilliant foliage and “smoking barns”, Istanbul is my favourite place to experience it.  The city just does fall so well.  It’s not that there are really all that many trees (as the Gezi Park folks made us well aware) to make the city change colours, and there aren’t really any seasonal events to speak of - at least nothing that resembles pumpkin carving or hayrides or bobbing for apples.  :)  For me it’s more about the way that rain seems to suit the hüzünlü (melancholy) city, the way the few leaves that DO change stand out so brilliantly against the grey backdrop of the ancient metropolis,  the excitement of the appearance of the roasted chestnut carts in the squares and along the waterfronts, the warmth of a cinnamony cup of sahlep on the Bosphorus ferry, and the cozy smell of coal and woodstoves that fills the air as the nights get chilly.
I spent a weekend in Istanbul at the beginning of November, proudly accompanying my Turkish mom to the book fair where she was presenting the book she just published (!) and I’ll be up there again the last weekend of the month for my “little sister’s” isteme (when her boyfriend’s family will come to officially ask for her hand in marriage) so I am getting my happy fill of autumn goodness there this year.  
Here are some of the “final candidates” for the photo contest, as well as a few favourites from my time there last weekend.  İyi sonbaharlar!  Happy fall!

Chestnut carts

Leaf-crunching in Gülhane Parkı

'Tis the season for pomegranates!  (Thirty-five cents a kilo here - jealous?)

Creamy sahlep is made from crushed orchid roots and tastes 
best with a generous sprinkling of cinnamon.

Surprise bursts of colour around the city

Monday, October 28, 2013

Monday, October 28, 2013 - 1 comment

The Milk Man Cometh

Where I come from, “thou shalt not audibly impose yourself on your neighbour” is something of an unstated rule.  Loud mufflers, honking instead of knocking on the front door when picking up a date, and causing someone else’s house to vibrate and shudder while you party til all hours are considered bad form.  Shared air is quiet air.  The tinny melody of “The Entertainer”  - that summertime anthem that causes kids to drop what they’re doing, raid their piggy banks (or their parents’ pockets) and run for the ice cream truck - is one of the few welcome exceptions.

But in many parts of the world, what might be considered “noise pollution” somewhere else is simply “the music of life.”  

When I lived in Guadalajara, Mexico, I always listened for the sound of the trash collector ringing his bell con gusto as he made his rounds.  (It was a sound you depended on - no garbage collection if you missed him!)  The water guy, too, had his own distinctive call - a very nasal, “Aguaaaaa!  Agua, señooooor!”  When I spent a summer teaching English in China, the patriotic music and exuberant counting of “Yi, er, san si!” blaring over the loudspeakers of the school next door as the kids did their morning exercises made for a reliable, if not slightly irritating, alarm clock.  And here in Turkey, as in much of this part of the world, the ezan, or call to prayer, denotes the rhythm of the day for both those who rely on it as a cue to perform religious duties and for those, like myself, for whom it is simply a familiar part of the soundtrack of our everyday lives. 

In my neighbourhood, as well as pretty much every other neighbourhood around the country, yelling or playing music from a loudspeaker on top of a vehicle are perfectly acceptable forms of advertising.  And while I can’t always understand what’s being said (due more to garbled speakers than my lack of language), I’ve always found the “mobile marketplace” aspect of life here rather entertaining.

Several times a day, men will roll down our street pushing carts piled high with recyclable materials and “old things” yelling, “Eskiciiiiiiii” (“Collector of old thiiiiings”) or “Hurdacı, hurdacı, hurdacııııııı!!! (Junk mannnnnn!!!!)  Then there are the “portable carpet fixing vans” that play their spiel about sewing up frayed edges “on the spot.”  (I’ve lugged a carpet out and used their services before - quite the experience!)  Depending on the time of year, the watermelon man and the onion man make their regular rounds. For the months leading up to an election, campaign-mobiles troll the streets blaring catchy tunes about the candidates and inviting people to rallies.  Even the guy who delivers our gas and bottled water has a jazzy theme song.

Perhaps my favourite “commercial on wheels” is the one played by a van that seems to show up mostly on weekend afternoons.  A chipper, almost game show-worthy male voice proclaims, “Attention, attention!  Great deals are here!  Great deals have arrived in your neighbourhood!  Come uncle!  Come auntie!  Come sister!”  For all his promotional exuberance, I half expect the vehicle to be filled with exotic circus animals instead of just bath mats and clothespins.

Recently, another itinerant salesman has joined the ranks.  We have a new milk man.  I say “we” in the loose sense of the word, since I have yet to purchase anything from him.  (My neighbours are forever extolling the glories of fresh milk, but “It smells like a cow” is not a positive attribute in my books, and since I am too lazy for the whole “cook it before you drink it” process, I stick to the long-life stuff in cartons from the supermarket up the road.)

My ears were first introduced to the sound of the milk man early one recent sunshiny morning as I sat on my balcony having my quiet time.  The air was silent, except for the distant sound of hammers clanging at a construction site, the twittering of a few birds and the rustle of the leaves of the grapevine below me, when suddenly the stillness was pierced by a rather long blast of a car horn coming from our complex’ parking lot.  

Now, around here, horns are used rather more liberally than they are back home - as a part of a wedding celebration or to indicate that a light is about to turn green and you’d best get a move on, for example - so at first I ignored it.  But it quickly became apparent that this particular horn was meant to get the attention of everyone within earshot when it was followed by a shout of, “Sütçüüüüüü!!!  Sütçü geldi!”  I leaned over the balcony to see a middle aged man sporting a moustache and a beret leaning out the window of a shiny white car alternately honking and yelling, “Milk maaaaaan!   The milk man is here!”

Feeling irked at this violation of my beloved morning peace, I turned back to my book.  But this was no drive-by-seller.  After a few more taps on his horn, he got out of the car and began to walk up and down the paths between the houses, announcing his presence.  

Aggressive, I thought, as he continued to call out every few steps or so.  Maybe it’s just because he’s new and he’s trying to drum up business.

When he made his way past our house, he called up to me, “Sister, do you need any milk?”  I thanked him and told him I didn’t, and (to my relief) he moved on without pushing.  

I never actually saw anyone come out and buy any milk that day, but he must have assumed that our complex was a good fishing pond, cuz two days later, there he was again with his horn and his bottles of milk.  

In the weeks that followed, I found my normally patient self getting increasingly irritated each time I saw that little white car pull in or heard the milk man announce his arrival.  Did he really need to honk his horn first thing in the morning?  And if people really were buying his milk, couldn’t he just go straight to their doors and knock instead of disrupting everyone’s breakfast with his yelling?

I find the shouts and ditties of all the other sellers charming, but somehow this one got under my skin.  I think it was because everyone else says their bit from out in the street, and if no customers come out, they move on.  But this man’s tactic felt invasive, like some kind of audio-trespassing.

Then one day, I was moaning to my roommate about how rude I thought the milk man was and how I had to forgive him on a thrice weekly basis, and she said something that completely changed the way I looked at the situation.  

“What if,” she said, “the reason he doesn’t go knock directly on his customers’ doors is because he knows that the men are already at work, and he doesn’t want to bring shame upon the women or make them uncomfortable by standing on their stoop when he knows they are alone?”  

Well.  That was something I hadn’t thought of.

It amazes me that I have lived in this country for seven years now and supposedly know a thing or two about how the culture works, and yet can be so clueless about what’s really going on underneath.  Of course I know that everything is connected to a person’s honour, and that appearances are more important than what’s really going on.  And it’s true, those jokes about kids who look more like the milk man than their father must have been rooted in a bit of truth somewhere.  But sometimes I feel the daily outworking of the whole “honour-shame society” thing is still an area where I’ve just barely scratched the surface.

Maybe our milk man isn’t rude and inconsiderate at all, but is actually the exact opposite.  Maybe he’s simply a man of honour who values not giving the appearance of evil over not waking up the neighbourhood.  Maybe by announcing his presence from a distance, he's giving the women who want to buy milk the chance to come out with their empty bottles and fill them in plain sight instead of opening themselves up to gossip.

It turns out I still have a lot to learn.

I still buy my milk in a carton, and I still don’t see the need for the horn, but I'm happy to say I no longer have to repent for my attitude when I hear the words, “The milk man is here!” 

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Thursday, September 12, 2013 - 2 comments

A Significant Tree

(Back after a long summer's absence.....I wrote this three weeks ago as I watched the skyscrapers and whitecaps and pine trees give way to jagged snowcapped mountains as my beautiful hometown faded from view out my airplane window...)

Yesterday as I ticked the last of my gotta-do-while-in-Canada errands off my list and was heading home to continue packing, I was heading down Minoru, about to turn right onto Granville, when I saw It.  There beside me, on the edge of the little park on the corner where the path leads to the library, a tiny red sign posted on the trunk of a fat tree caught my eye:  “City of Richmond Significant Tree Inventory.”  Hmm.  ‘Must be old,’ I thought.  I looked up at its leaves to see what sort of tree it was and I smiled a great big smile.  

A chestnut tree.  

Chestnut trees, in my books, are always significant.  Chestnuts have long been a little secret signal between my Father and I - a promise of good things He holds in store. I had to stop.  I was already running late and still had to order dinner before getting to work on trying to “skinny-fy” my suitcase, but I didn’t care.  Chestnut trees trump all.

I pulled around the block, parked at the library, and headed for the trees.  At the entrance to the park stands “Grandpa’s statue” - the totem pole he helped carve when he was in the Carving Society.  From there, I followed the path into the little park where, when Mom was the promotion director at the mall and Dad was a photographer for the paper, they used to have picnic lunch dates that eventually led to marriage and me.  I remember there used to be a big log in the park - taller than my preschool self -and that log is where I have my first recollection of holding a ladybug.  

I made my way over to the “significant tree”, enjoying the first Crunching of the Fall Leaves on my last day of Canadian summer.  :)  Early evening sunlight cast long shadows on the golden leaves blanketing the park floor.  I smiled at my Father as I peered up into the tree and saw all the bright green chestnut shells, ready to tumble to the ground in a shower of hope and crack open to reveal their treasures of “joyful anticipation” in just a few short weeks.  And there, tucked away in the grass, I spotted one early chestnut that had already made its journey to the ground, just so I could pick it up on this very day and take it with me as a token of hope of good things to come.  

A few metres from the tree, the sign for Minoru Park Plaza lists things like the Aquatic Centre (where I “learned to swim” in my little chocolate chip bathing suit), the track (where I used to do the hundred metre dash and high jump and dream of running as fast as my friend Kim Rogers), the skating rink (where I took lessons and learned to skate backwards as a kid, and then, as a teenager, would go with friends on the weekend and giggle about which boy we’d like to catch us if we “accidentally” fell), and the library (from where I used to take out huge stacks of books to bury my nose in all week long...except the time when I got grounded for lying to my teacher in Grade 2 and wasn’t allowed to take out books for two weeks, which nearly killed me.)  And, not listed on the sign but just on the far side of the main park, are the Chapel (where rice has been thrown at multiple family weddings), the Pavilion (where my four-year-old self had to go home at bedtime from Auntie Robin and Uncle Gord's wedding reception and was so disappointed to find out the next day that I had just missed hearing Puttin’ on the Ritz, one of my favourite songs), the pond where we released my pet turtle Monty into the wild, and finally, the hospital where I was born. 

There is more “significance” on that patch of land than one venerable chestnut tree.  That entire big block in the centre of town has a central spot in my family’s history as well.  And as I stood there with that spiny pre-chestnut clutched in my hand, I could hear Dad saying, “Hey, I’ve not forgotten you or your part in this story.  There is hope for you and for your future.  There will be picnics in the park and story hour at the library and a little girl in a chocolate chip bathing suit for you yet.” 

(And, as if that weren't enough, He gave me a rainbow in the fountain on my way out, just to be sure I knew He'd keep His promises.)

My heart smiled at this sweet gift on my last night home.  Even as I was preparing to fly away, my roots were going down deeper.

My great-great-several-times-over-grandfather was a founding father of our city.  He’s got a school named after him and is a key figure in the history books.  I am the only grandchild on our branch of the family tree, and, being a girl, the last name will stop with me.  What’s more, I haven’t lived in my hometown for fourteen years now, and have planted my heart in other lands since.  And yet I have a stake in the ground there, just as he did all those years ago.  Just as my parents did with their lunch sacks and my Grandpa with his carving tools.  I am a product of lives lived, promises made and lessons learned on the land surrounding that Significant Tree.  It is a landmark of my past and it holds promises for my future.

And I have a chestnut to prove it.  

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Wednesday, June 12, 2013 - No comments

Mundane Terror, Roaring Calm

photo from

There is a strange sort of calm in my village these days.  It’s not any calmer than it usually is, but the fact that there is so much unrest around the country makes the quiet in my own backyard all the more disquieting.  For the past fifteen days, in nearly every city in the nation, hundreds of thousands of people have been staging anti-government protests, often resulting in violent clashes with the police.  I watch the rallies and the resulting “skirmishes” on the news each day, but if it weren’t for the fact that all the placards and graffiti are in Turkish, I might as well be watching events unfolding in Aleppo or Tahrir Square.  It feels that far away.

Last week, turning to Facebook and YouTube for current events when the local stations were downplaying things, I watched in disbelief as protestors set fire to vehicles in front of the ruling party’s headquarters just a few miles from my house.  Social media was alive with information on which streets were “controlled” by the police, which pharmacies were open ‘round the clock to take in wounded protestors and home remedies to combat the effects of tear gas.  The whole nation was on fire, it seemed.  

Still, in my municipality, a stronghold of the party in power, the only signs that anything has been going on at all are the quiet removal of a few flags from balconies (lest they be mistaken for support) and the clucking of tongues of a few teyzes who disapproved of “the mischief of those young people.”

In my city, for the most part, the TOMAs (riot control vehicles) are back in their garages and the battle has shifted back into a mainly ideological one.  A large plaza downtown - like so many around the country - has been “occupied” by protestors staging what is now largely a peaceful sit in.  Students chant slogans, people browse through an open-air library, tea is distributed with generous smiles. But this isn’t the case everywhere and things are far from settled.  It may well be a long, turbulent road to next year’s elections.

I read an article recently by a journalist who lives in Istanbul, just off Taksim Square, the epicentre of the uprising.  She detailed the sights and sounds - the “mundane terror” - that, whether she chooses to take part in the protests or not, have invaded the most minute aspects of her daily life since this season of unrest began - tear gas wafting through her windows, the banging of pots and pans in opposition to the status quo, and riot police stationed on her street.  

We may live in the same country, but her experience is the polar opposite of mine.  With the events of the last two weeks at the forefront of my mind, the very absence of that “mundane terror” feels all the more pronounced.  The “revolution” is all around me - in my newsfeed and in the recently tear-gassed eyes of the friend I sit across from at Starbucks - and yet nowhere to be seen.  The contrasting normalcy of my immediate surroundings makes it all feel like a dream, the silence shouting back in counterpoint.

Outside my window, I hear the gardener spraying the grapevine with a hose, and I can’t help but wonder how many people are being knocked off their feet by water cannons at this very moment.   In the apartment building across the olive grove from me, an old woman hangs her laundry out to dry in the sun.  Downtown, her secular counterparts hang flags and pictures of Atatürk on their balconies, wishing they were young enough to join in the marches.  A child playing on my street calls out excitedly, “Mom!  The watermelon truck’s coming!”  while somewhere in Adana a university student screams to her friend, “Look out!  A TOMA is coming!”

At the pazar, sellers cry out, “Peaches, two lira a kilo!”  In İzmir, a mob cries out, “Hükümet istifa!  Hükümet istifa!”  (“Government resign!”)  A hurdacı (junk collector) rolls through my neighbourhood gathering broken furniture and old washing machines, while in Beşiktaş, residents grab their brooms and clean up the debris after another night of rioting.  At the bus stop, a woman pulls the corner of her headscarf over her mouth to block the dust.  In Taksim, a professor pulls a gas mask over his face and stands his ground.

When I arrive home in the evening, I inhale the sweet smell of honeysuckle and akşam sefası.  In Kızılay Square in Ankara, a woman gasps for air as she is bombarded with tear gas.  The clatter of silverware on plates gives way to laughter and the sound of tiny spoons in tea glasses as my neighbours settle in for a night of balcony chatting.  Downtown, the clanging of the nightly “pots and pans protest” begins promptly at the stroke of nine.  I run excitedly to my window, trying to catch a glimpse of the wedding fireworks I hear exploding in the sky.  An old man in Istanbul tosses and turns, unable to sleep for the sounds of tear gas canisters and rubber bullets bursting in the street below.  

And so, with my eyes glued to the evening news and my knees glued to the floor, I continue to live in the tension between “here” and “there”.....

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Wednesday, June 05, 2013 - No comments

It Comes With the Territory

I am a teyze magnet.  I attract little old ladies everywhere I go.  It’s a fact of my life here that hardly a week goes by without a cheek pinch or an invitation to marry a young nephew or grandson by a wrinkled and toothless auntie on the bus or at the market.  

I suppose I attract them because they attract me.  I find a group of ladies knitting on the sidewalk positively irresistible and don’t have to be asked twice to come and sit awhile.  Besides children, they’re the easiest segment of society to smile my way into, and I love the cheeky way they’ll joke and speak their minds, having cast off polite restraint decades ago.  They have all the time in the world to tell stories and, as long as I can sort out their accents, they are usually fascinating.  And there’s almost always çay.

Last week, my roommate and I were showing her niece around Kapadokya.  I’m always excited to visit my favourite region of the country, but sometimes when the activity is something I’ve done before (can we say six trips to the Göreme Open Air Museum?) I like to wander off and do my own thing.  After a straight week of guests and gezzing (sightseeing/showing people around) I was in desperate need of some alone time and my friends’ planned stroll through the carpet and pottery shops provided just the opportunity I’d been waiting for. 

I’d brought my journal along and had an hour of introverting at a cafe in mind.  Trouble was, I’d also brought my camera, and all those old stone houses and winding cobblestone streets proved too much for me and my Canon sidekick to resist.  After a satisfying meander through the upper old quarter, replete with the wooden doors, stone arches and wrought iron balconies my eye so loves, I came upon a gaggle of teyzes sitting on cushions and knitting slippers in the shade. 

I called out a “Merhaba” (“Hello”) and a “Kolay gelsin” (“May your work come easily”) which were instantly reciprocated with a “Come sit and talk to us!”  Throwing all introverted needs to the wind, I obliged.  Şalvar-clad hips made room and a fresh cushion was laid.  After the usual “Where-are-you-from-how’d-you-learn-Turkish-maşallah-you-should-marry-a-Turk” chitchat, they settled back into the rhythm of their knitting needles, their hennaed fingers flying.  

The woman to my right, who didn’t look a day over a Turkish sixty (which, incidentally, looks like a Canadian ninety) turned out to be eighty-one years old.  She modestly regaled me with her family history - Grandpa was a pasha, Dad was a military officer during Atatürk’s “taking back of the land” and the founding of the Republic in 1923.  (“Did he meet him, Teyze?”  “Of course, and he loved him.”)  Her father, who had been dead for 57 years, moved the family back to their hometown of Avanos before she was born, so she knew nothing of the Istanbul life of her older siblings and had lived in this neighbourhood all her years.  (“That house is the one I was born in.  That one over there was my mother’s sister’s but we sold it to some Dutch tourists....”)

The “younger” woman to my left, darker than the others complexion and clearly from out east (“But I’ve lived here forty years”) was singularly interested in selling me her woolen booties. 

From the end of the row came an offer to show me around some of the prettiest houses (“I have to walk up that way anyway”) so off we went.  Sahide Teyze, in her white headscarf and brown sweater vest, led me up the block and made a tottering beeline for an elegant stone mansion that, judging by the way she walked up to the wooden outer door and started fiddling with the latch, I assumed was hers.

“Hoo hoo!  Are you home?”  She shouted instead of knocking.  “Oh, they’ve shut it tight,” she said, beginning to shove her shoulder against the sticky door.

Teyze, be careful, let me do it!”  She either didn’t hear me or didn’t care and continued to fuss with the door.  

“They’ve locked it, I see.”  She reached through a small hole and tried to lift a metal bar.  I started to wonder if I was about to become a trespasser.

“There, I’ve got it,” she exclaimed with a wheeze and a look of triumph.  “Come in, come in.”

I followed her into a high-walled courtyard dotted with pomegranate and apricot trees, a wheelbarrow and bags of cement.  The main house rose in front of us, its tall arches gazing down like eyes from the second floor, intricate designs carved into the pale yellow stone walls.  

“Come see the restoration they’ve done.”  She led me through an archway to a white-washed room with a vaulted ceiling.  “These walls used to be painted so pretty.”  She shook her head, fingering the plaster.  

The faint sound of a drill came from somewhere upstairs.  

“Ah, they are home!” she exclaimed, making her way towards the stone staircase in the courtyard that led to the upper floor.  I was beginning to wonder who “they” were.

The stairs were a considerable feat for her old legs, but she persevered to the top.  I followed behind in spotter mode.  In front of the house’ magnificent stone facade was small garden in which a grey haired man of about sixty, wearing protective goggles, was crouched down drilling holes into a piece of wood.  

“Hoo hoo!  Merhaba!” Sahide Teyze called out.  

The man looked up, his expression going from startled to mildly irritated to resigned in a matter of seconds.

Kolay gelsin,” I said to him.  

“Thank you,” he replied in English.  “Please, sit.”  He dusted off two plastic chairs and we sat.

“You aren’t Turkish?” I asked.

“No.  And neither are you.”

I laughed.  “I’m sorry to have barged in on you like this.”  I glanced at the grinning teyze beside me, who was watching a caramel-striped cat with great interest.  “She insisted on showing me.  I thought this was her house.”

“Ah, yes, well, it used to be.  She likes to stop by unannounced.”

Sahide Teyze leveled her eyes at the man.  “You still haven’t come over for tea!  Where is your wife?”

“Working in the house,” he answered slowly in Turkish. 

Just then a tanned woman with dyed-blond hair in a strappy pink tank top and cut-offs emerged from the house’s arched entryway.  He eyes lit up when she saw Sahide Teyze - seemingly more in genuine delight then faked hospitality - and she kissed the older woman on both cheeks.

“You said you were going to come for tea!”  Sahide Teyze swatted her on the bottom.  

The woman smiled good-naturedly at this accusation and gestured at the house.  “Çok iş var.”    (“We’ve had so much to do.”)  “Bu hafta,” she said, her hand over her heart.  (This week.)  

“I’ll go get us some lemonade,” she continued in English and disappeared into the house, returning a minute later with glasses of cold, thick peach juice.

“Where are you from?” I asked the man.


Ah, the “Dutch tourists!” I thought.

“And did you just buy the house?  Congratulations.”

“Oh, no, we bought it six years ago.  We come work on it every summer holiday.”

Six years and she still feels free to pop the latch and poke around!  And to bring in some foreigner off the street for a tour!  Then again, she is a teyze.  I suppose it comes with the territory.  

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Sunday, May 26, 2013 - 1 comment

Istanbul Tulip Festival

Tulips are usually associated with Holland, but did you know that their fame actually first flourished in Turkey?  During the Ottoman Empire, they were cultivated for the pleasure of the sultans, and held such importance that the reign of Sultan Ahmet III (1703-1730) was known as "The Tulip Age."

Tulips are an important national symbol, and every April Istanbul holds a city-wide Tulip Festival.  I've been around for it in previous years and enjoyed the tulips on every median and in public parks, but this year was the first year I had a chance to actually head over to Emirgan Park, the main display site.  There were 270 different varieties on display there, amounting to 2.5 MILLION tulips in that one park alone!  (Can you imagine planting all those bulbs??)

I was in town on a layover last month and had just enough time to meet a friend (a Dutch one, no less!), hop a bus up the Bosphorus to Emirgan and take in an hour or so of the colourful tulip glory.  We barely made it through the first section of the park, but what we saw we loved!

I'm seeing a tulip calendar in the near future.....