Sunday, December 7, 2014

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My Annual Bout of Seasonal Whiplash

“Sorry, no more Pumpkin Spice Lattes this year.  Would you like a Gingerbread Latte instead?”

I’d already walked in thinking, “It’s too early for Red Cups!”  And now, the fact that it was mid-November meant my favourite drink (and with it, my favourite season) had been ousted from the menu?  “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” drifted from the speakers in comical counterpoint to the Mediterranean sunshine outside the tree-and-garland clad coffee shop.  Clearly neither the thermometer nor the fact that Christmas isn’t even celebrated in this country hold any sway over Starbucks’ syrup selections.

I love Fall and I love Christmas, but I love them most when they each get their chance to individually shine.  Autumn is for cozy melancholy, December is for joyful anticipation, and never the twain shall meet.  But the “end of Autumn” and “beginning of Winter” are decidedly overlapped and jumbled here (scarves and hats one week, t-shirts and flip-flops the next) and they certainly don’t jive with my internal North American cultural calendar.  (September is for bouquets of newly sharpened pencils, October is for pumpkins and leaf-crunching, November is for poppies and cranberries and turkey - at least for Americanized-Canadians like myself - and December is for manger scenes and gingerbread and mint.)  

The world outside the four walls of Starbucks and my own house doesn’t follow the same rhythm as the one I’ve carried inside my heart since childhood, so ever since I’ve lived here, I’ve felt culturally and meteorologically out of synch.  The Muslim holidays of Ramazan and the Sacrifice Festival move back ten days every year, so festivals aren’t really tied to particular seasons.  There’s harvest time and (if you live somewhere colder than here) the first snowfall, and the fruit and veggies available at the pazar change, but that’s about it.  So it’s up to me to mark my own seasonal transitions, with friends like Creamy Pumpkin candles, Vanilla Bean Noel lotion and holiday-appropriate Gilmore Girls episodes to help with the process.  

The thing is, though, Summer lasts well into October here, so while my newsfeed is full of pumpkin cheesecake and caramel apple bar recipes, we’re still back on barbecues and ice cream.  The height of the Turning of the Leaves happens in early December, so right when I know I need to dive into Silent Night and writing Christmas cards, my heart is telling me it’s still time to be out taking pictures of the red and gold glory and savouring Pumpkin Spice Lattes.  I sometimes resent having to “finish Autumn” early, knowing that if I don’t “do” Christmas in December, come January it’ll be too late.  And so all too soon I find myself exchanging my fall playlist (featuring the likes of Norah Jones and Swell Season) for carols with Louie and Ella, and collecting DIY gift ideas when I’d rather be collecting leaves.  

This year, though, I feel like my annual bout of “Seasonal Whiplash” is going to be a mild one.  I may have bought several pounds of fresh pumpkin at the pazar this morning, but inside I am so ready for Christmas.  When one of my best friends came over from the States last week for Thanksgiving, I had her bring a new Advent book I had ordered.  It’s called “Waiting Here For You:  An Advent Journey of Hope” and it’s hitting my heart in all its tender places.  The longing for dreams not yet fulfilled, the ache for redemption, the anticipation of light dawning in the darkness and life conquering death, and the sheer wonder of gazing upon the One in the manger....

I know that, even in the midst of quiet-time-on-the-balcony weather and a red-tinged grapevine outside my window, much of my lack of reluctance to let go of Autumn is due to the fact that, last month, the most achingly beautiful Fall day was pierced with an unexpected grief.  The joy of capturing images of trees decked in crimson and gold, the smoky smell of a campfire, and the warmth of a steaming glass of çay cradled in my chilly hands are all tied up in the loss of a dear friend who fell from a fireside stump onto a bed of leaves as a result of the brain aneurism that claimed his life a week later.  So while my eyes are drawn to the beauty of the deep red-coloured vine strung like a necklace along my neighbours wrought iron fence, it is tinged with a bittersweet sadness just now.  I’m kind of ready to close the book on my favourite season until next year when I can welcome it with a fresh heart.

So, today, I let the leaves fall to the ground and melt into the earth, becoming in their death the very nourishment that will urge new life to burst forth next Spring.  And I embrace this Advent season in all its waiting and anticipating, trusting that what’s been promised will yet come to pass.  I enter wholeheartedly into the spirit of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”.  I sit on the edge of my seat, holding my breath from this side of the first Christmas, knowing that the sky under which the shepherds settled their flocks every other night is about to be illuminated by the light of a thousand angels.  I fix my gaze on Bethlehem and pin my hope on the fact that the long-awaited and seemingly far off are just around the corner.

And with that, I think it’s high time I whip up some peppermint hot chocolate, pull out a few of the pfeffernusse cookies Mom sent over in a package, put on “It’s a Wonderful Life” and start decorating my little tree.

Welcome, Christmas.  I’m so glad you’re here.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

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August According to My Left Hand

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then I’m submitting this one for my thousand-word essay on “How I Spent My Summer Vacation.”

This hand says it all.   

The orange circle arrived on my palm at my “little sister’s” henna party (the Turkish equivalent of a bachelorette party) two weeks ago on a sweltering Istanbul night in rented restaurant thick with high heels and hairspray.  A gaggle of glittering females, candles in hand, we danced in circles around the bride, singing the traditional song intended to make her cry as she left her family for her new life in her husband’s home.  Fortunately for this bride, though, she was crazy in love with her fiance and, when our mournful song held no sway against her happy laughter, we abandoned our efforts and celebrated along with her as her hands were hennaed, marking her for marital bliss.

The slightly faded orange spot was restored to its rich hue a week later whilst crammed into a small living room in an eastern Turkish village with twenty-plus women the night before another friend’s wedding.  Headscarves and inhibitions were discarded at the door, pinkies linked and pajama clad hips weaving to the tune of folk songs and laughter.  A coin was pressed into the hennaed hand of the bride-to-be for good luck, and then the dyeing of dozens of fingers and palms began.  Marriage advice and blush-tinted giggles flowed back and forth between older and younger into the wee hours as the bride spent her last night in her family home.

The bandaid on my middle finger came as a result of the combination of those two weddings.  Both henna parties and weddings involve a whole lot of dancing, and Turkish dancing (at least the kind I can manage) involves a whole lot of snapping.  Excessive snapping can lead to blisters.  Enough said.

The purple juice streaming down my hand marks one of the sweetest memories of the past month.  The night after the second wedding, the mother and father of the bride (our dearest neighbours who moved back to their very-far-away hometown a few months ago) took us to see their pride and joy - the orchard and vineyard that have been in her family for generations.  For as long as we’ve been friends, we’ve enjoyed the fruits of their labour there.  They’ve brought us buckets of grapes when they return at the end of each summer, sent us cherries via cross-country bus (a rather handy form of “mail” we have here) and shared their precious dried mulberries, peaches, walnuts and fruit leather over many a winter cup of tea.  This time, true to form, they sent us off with a crate full of cucumbers, tomatoes, eggplant, grapes, and a watermelon that bravely survived the cross-country car trip home.  To see their eyes shine as they led us down the dirt path between the fruit trees, pointing out “the pumpkin that’s going to weigh twenty pounds”, “the one walnut that survived the frost” and the couch under the shade tree where they always take their tea breaks made me feel like I’d finally connected with a part of their hearts I’d only heard about in stories.    And, as you can see, I liked the blackberry patch most of all.  :)

Last but not least, the funky brown spots on my middle and ring fingers.  Well, in between all these wedding weekends, I was up in the cool, rainy wonderfulness of the Black Sea mountains attempting some semblance of a writing retreat.  The place we were staying was rather camping-esque, involving a whole lot of handwashed clothes, outdoor meals and bucket showers.   The scent of mosquito repellent took me straight back to the days of not wanting my mom to wash my campfire-smoky clothes after a week at camp for fear that the memories would fade with the smell.  Those blotches are the later stages of a most unfortunate burn-turned-blister that occurred as a result of introducing a British friend and one of our Turkish hosts to the delicious gooeyness of S’mores.  Life lesson learned:  never try to rescue a fresh-from-the-fire marshmallow as it’s falling from your stick.  

So, there you have it:  August according to my left hand.  

Friday, July 25, 2014

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Sunday Morning, as Experienced from My Window.

Outside my window, the world is quiet.  Sunday morning quiet.  Ramazan morning quiet.  No tinkling teaspoons or clatter of breakfast cutlery.  It’s too soon after the pre-dawn sahur meal for those keeping the fast to have woken up, and too early for those sleeping off a Saturday night on the town to have emerged, bleary-eyed, from their beds.  

A shirtless young man with a hairy chest and drawstring pajama bottoms greets the day with a stretch and a yawn from his balcony one building over.  The only other living things in sight are an orange cat curled up under a car in the parking lot four floors down and the group of seagulls dipping and diving over the cluttered muddle of red-tiled roofs that is Kadıköy.  One swoops down to rest on a satellite dish on the building opposite me, then spends a minute weaving his way between the pipe-thin soba chimneys before rejoining his companions in the gray sky over the minarets of the Söğütlüçeşme Mosque.

The soft whoosh of vehicles drifts up from Taşköprü Road behind our building.  A nasal-voiced simitçi hawks his sesame pastries in the street below, belying the fact that it’s Ramazan.  A car honks in the distance, the sound muffled by the forest of apartment buildings between here and Söğütlüçeşme Road a few blocks over.  Two short bursts of a ferry horn reverberate from the direction of the docks.  Slowly, lazily, this Asian-side suburb of Istanbul is waking up.

The wind blows a patch of dark clouds my way, bringing with them a brief shower of hurried drops, followed by a burst of sunshine and that homey wet cement smell.  The vaguely cool breeze - a relief from days of July stickiness - teases the laundry hanging from the bars of a window across the way and the carpets drying on the balcony rails beside it.  Curtains billow from open windows here and there, and a red and white Algida ice cream umbrella sways over a picnic table on the balcony two floors down from Shirtless Man’s apartment.  Up the hill, a huge yellow and blue Fenerbahçe flag tied between two buildings rises and falls on the wind.  

A wasp floats in the window, sniffs around a bit, and then drifts out again.  A cloud passes overhead, its shadow twin sliding across the beige wall of the building across the parking lot.  On the top floor, a wooden wind chime hung from a makeshift balcony roof flutters above an old couch, a washing machine and a set of white wrought iron patio furniture.  One building over, a knotted trash bag and a rainbow of clothespins bounce on the line.  Below them, an assortment of potted plants soak up the warmth of the emerging sun.

A whoop-whooping sound in the distance grows increasingly louder until a helicopter appears low in the sky on the Moda side of Kadıköy.  It slows and lingers over the square by the ferries for a minute before moving out of sight.  An odd place for a traffic helicopter to stop, I think to myself.  Must be police.  It’s early in the day, but perhaps not too early for a protest.  It is, after all, Sunday.  

From far away, another sound replaces the whir of the chopper’s blades.  An even, measured clanging.  A hammer on a construction site, perhaps?  Unlikely on a Sunday morning.  If I didn’t know better, I’d think it were church bells.  Could it be?  Maybe from the old Catholic church up in Moda?  Kadıköy is, after all, a proud little “tolerant” island in the middle of an otherwise predictably conservative sea....

From somewhere much closer by, a garbled voice comes over a loudspeaker.  A policeman telling someone to move their car?  No, he’s talking far too long for that.  Is’s definitely coming from the Söğütlüçeşme Mosque a block away.  But it’s not yet time for midday prayers....  The voice in the microphone becomes clearer.  Turkish, not Arabic, so it’s not a Quran recitation....  A Sunday morning sermon?  (Where AM I, anyway??)  Yup, he’s definitely preaching.  But it’s not Friday, and it didn’t begin with a funeral announcement, so I can’t for the life of me figure out why....

(**I later asked a “relative” of mine, who happened to be at the mosque that day, what the deal was.  Many people aim to read through - well, mostly listen to - readings through the entire Quran during the month of Ramadan, .  Apparently, it was this mosque’s turn to host a reading.  Not sure where the sermon part fits in...maybe he was explaining the meaning in Turkish?)

I head in to take a shower, and when I emerge, the imam is still preaching.  Another fifteen minutes or so and he moves into some sort of chant in Arabic.  A long, undulating wail, musical in its quality, dwindles into a low gurgle, followed by a long pause.  I don’t understand the Arabic, but the emotion in his voice weaves a somber tale.  The next line is a soulful proclamation...another pause...a passionate crescendo climaxing in a note that makes me wonder if he’ll ever take a breath.  

The mournful song gives way to part two of the sermon.  Then more chanting.  The dirge is punctuated by a set of “Allah’u akbar”s - the only words I understand besides “elhamdullilah” (“praise be to God”).  He carries on this way for over two hours, talking - interestingly enough - straight through the call to prayer. 

A few buildings away, a woman in a red strapless top steps out onto the fire escape.  She faces in the direction of the mosque as she talks on her cell phone.  The imam continues his song, unaware of her stare, the melodic recitation filling the air around her, settling heavily on her bare shoulders, and tumbling thickly down to the streets below.  

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

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Kuzguncuk: A Rainbow by the Sea

In preparation for my Turkish sister's wedding day photo shoot, today I did a little "location scouting."  (Translation:  "Checking to see if there are any shady places in the area so the bride's makeup doesn't melt and drip all over her dress as we wander around on a 38 degree August afternoon.")  I was so excited when she told me they wanted to do their photos in Kuzguncuk, a colourful little Bosphorus neighbourhood that's one of my favourite places in Istanbul.  Picture narrow streets lined with rainbows of gorgeous houses, carved wooden balconies and intricate wrought iron grilles overflowing with flowers, old men drinking tea and gossiping under ancient sycamore trees, and a salty breeze blowing up from the sea...

Here are some of my favourite shots from the day:

There's one house in particular that I always love to pop by, mostly because the artfully arranged junk in the yard is ever changing.  I was particularly impressed with their creative method of drying peppers...

"Before marriage" (upside-down) and "After marriage" (rightside-up).

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Sunday, July 20, 2014 - 2 comments

On the Verge of a Bi-Cultural Breakdown

Disclaimer:  I might not mean all of this tomorrow...but it's how I feel today.

One aspect of my job here involves mentoring new arrivals to Turkey during their season of cultural adaptation.  This sometimes involves formal teachings on “getting yourself from culture shock to cultural fluency” as well as a whole lot of informal conversations full of “Why do they do it that way?”s and  “How am I ever going to survive here?”s

This week, as I looked over something I’d written for a past teaching, I had to laugh at myself.  I sound like some amazingly well-adjusted, bi-cultural hero.  But today, that feels like the farthest thing from the truth.  


Here’s the excerpt:

I think of myself as a half-Turk, half-Canadian.  This is my home and my life is here.  In a lot of ways, I am much more a part of this society than the one at home.  I have Grocery store discount cards, bus pass, bank account, a “greens guy” at the pazar, a “usual” gözleme that the waiter automatically brings me at the waterfall, and a tab at the photo place.  I have three Turkish women who claim me as their adopted daughter and in whose houses I am the one who serves the tea because I am “the kız.”  I do my devotions in Turkish.  I can make some amazing dolma - stuffed peppers.  Some of my favourite music and TV shows are Turkish.  I have an ever-increasing collection of glittery shoes and billowy village pants and sweater vests that I never would have worn back home but have come to totally love now.  When I am in Canada, I have a habit of headscarf stalking, chasing down people who may or may not be Turks in shopping malls.  I have pictures of Atatürk up in my room, and it’s not uncommon for me to tear up when I sing the Turkish national anthem.  

I also still prefer a latte to Turkish coffee (though not by much), would rather read a book alone on my day off instead of hanging out with a big crowd of everyone and their relative, keep a stockpile of Thai sweet chili sauce and curry packets in my stash cupboard, prefer watching hockey to futbol, and get super excited when I get off the plane in Vancouver and see the Canadian flag.

But getting to this place of being comfortable with “the Turkish me” has been a long process - one I am still in, really.  It started off with a sense of novelty and fascination with this culture, followed shortly by a season of “how will I ever live in this culture” to “being as Turkish as possible and getting frustrated that people still saw me as a foreigner” to “accepting the fact that I am part Turk, part Canadian, and I will always live in this tension” and getting comfy in this spot that is uniquely mine.

But you want a little honesty?  In the end, much as I love these people and this culture, I still ultimately want it on my own terms.  I love going to a neighbour’s and eating stuffed peppers on the floor, taking pictures of the colourful patterns I spot in the pazar, and writing cute stories about unique cultural phenomena.  But I like it best when I still have a bedroom door to close on it at night.  I like it best from the outside.  

When Turkey’s charming “togetherness” and its whimsical “spontaneity” encroach on my alone time, my writing time, or my productive time, I get a little grouchy.  When being “on the inside” involves too much cigarette smoke, having to give up “my” bed for a surprise guest, or a “ten minute errand” that turns into hours of shopping, I just want to crawl into a hole and hide.  I thrive on “plans” and “predictability” and “to do lists”, and life here lately seems to enjoy throwing all that back in my face and laughing at me.

I’m having one of those weeks where I feel about 80% Canadian and 20% Turkish.  And that 80% wants the 20% to just go away.  I’ve been staying with my Istanbul family for two weeks while I attend a language course and work on material for my book.  I adore them and am loving the quality time I’m getting with them, especially in this unique season leading up to my little sister’s wedding next month.  But I think the combo of me having a lot of work I need to be accomplishing, and the fact that Ramazan and wedding-related things make for lots of extra social events has got me feeling quite at odds with the world in which I’m currently attempting to live.  

Often, in prep for these “cultural acquisition lessons” I’ll scour my old journals for examples of my own adjustment process.  The earliest pages - the ones from when I lived with my host family - are filled with tearful frustration and the cries of a suffocating introvert.  Sometimes when I look at entries from that first year, I think, “Was it really that hard?” But then I have weeks like this one, where I am more or less fluent and have a “good grasp of the culture” and yet still struggle so much, and I wonder how I ever survived four months of “non-stop Turkishness” without having a breakdown...

Thursday, July 10, 2014

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Our Home and (Perhaps Not) Native Land

A few days before I came back to Turkey, Mom and I went to Pajo’s at Garry Point to celebrate my birthday.  As we sat there enjoying the best fish n’ chips in the city (#3 in Canada, I might add), we were trying to guess the story on the big group having a potluck at the picnic tables nearest us.  The chopsticks were flying, with noodles and rice dominating the spread.  At first glance, I would’ve told you it was a Chinese extended-family picnic, but there were a couple of Middle Eastern looking men and a few Koreans thrown into the mix.  Guys that married in, perhaps?

On a napkin-and-ketchup run, I tried to get the scoop from a young Asian woman sitting off to the side with her little boy.  

“You all look like you’re having a lot of fun.  Is this a family picnic?”

She looked like she was struggling to put a sentence together.  “”

I looked over to where the group had gathered for announcements of some sort.  “Is it for school, for a class?”  

Her eyes brightened.  “School!  Yes!”

Later as Mom and I went to make a pit-stop at the washroom, we passed by close enough to the group to hear a Caucasian guy who appeared to be the leader asking trivia questions like, “Who is the mayor of Richmond?” and “Who was the first Prime Minister of Canada?” 

“Ah,” we thought.  “An ESL class, most likely.  Or maybe something for new immigrants looking towards becoming citizens.”

As we got ready to head over to the beach side to walk along the Dyke, the leader handed out sheets of paper to the thirty or so members of the group, and began to lead them in a rather halting, uncertain rendition of “O Canada.”  Some used their fingers to follow along with the words; others, like one particularly boisterous Asian man, had clearly practiced the anthem and belted it out with operatic gusto.

Now, if you know my Mom and I at all, you know we are suckers for “foreigners” and “patriotic sappiness”, so it will come as no surprise that we marched right on over and joined in.  Several people looked up from their lyric sheets and, stumbling over the words, returned our encouraging smiles before finding their places again.  The addition of these two “enthused locals” to the group seemed to bolster their courage - hesitant voices getting louder as we moved past “with glowing hearts” towards “the true north, strong and free.”    And by the time we got to, “God keep our land,” I’d gotten all choked up and had to mouth a few lines before we all proclaimed in unison, “We stand on guard for thee!”  

I don’t know what it is about national anthems, but they get me every time.  Nary a Çocuk Bayramı (Children’s and National Sovereignty Day) goes by that I don’t have tears in my eyes as I sing along to Turkey’s (painstakingly memorized) İstiklal Marşı at the opening of the neighbourhood school’s celebration.  Once when I was teaching English in China, we were doing a lesson on American culture and when my Yankee teaching partner couldn’t remember all the words to the Star Spangled Banner (for shame...) I had to jump in and finish it for her.  And wouldn’t you know, somewhere around “the rocket’s red glare” I got all emotional....and it’s not even my anthem!

“O Canada”, of course, is in a class all its own when it comes to the waterworks - all the more so when I’ve been away for awhile.  I remember so clearly the opening ceremonies of the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics - standing alone in my living room in Turkey, thousands of miles from my hometown host city, hand on my heart, tears of pride flowing freely as I sang along with my countrymen via Eurosport.  So I guess it’s no wonder I got all misty-eyed as I stood there, four days from my departure to my “other-home”, watching all those immigrants so intentionally make the home I’ve left their own.

A half hour or so after we’d left the group, Mom and I were sitting on a log on the beach when an older couple walked past, the woman leaning heavily on a cane.

“See the way her headscarf is tied?”  I said, indicating the way it was tucked into the neck of her long coat .  “I’d bet anything she’s a Turk.”

Mom, always up for meeting some new friends, said, “Let’s go stalk them and find out!”

So, off we went, following far enough behind so as not to be creepy, but close enough to hear what language they were speaking.  And, sure enough, it was Turkish.

“Hello!” Mom called out as we caught up with them.

When they looked our way, I followed in Turkish with, “Excuse me, are you Turkish, I wonder?”  Their eyes lit up as they answered in the affirmative, and a swirl of conversation about how we’d “chased them down” ensued.  They kindly switched to English for Mom’s benefit  - his accent flawless, hers with admirable evidence of having worked extremely hard at her second language.

When I explained how it was that I came to know their language, the woman smiled knowingly and said, “I think we’ve heard of you!”  It turns out that a Turkish lady I met last summer at the grocery store is a good friend of theirs, and she’d told them all about “this local girl who is a photographer in Turkey and can speak Turkish.”  

He is an economics professor at a local university, and she gave birth to and raised their children in Vancouver.  Their house is just a five minute drive from where I grew up, and my Turkish family lives one bus stop away from their old family home in Istanbul.  

Small world indeed. 

I was sad to have to decline their invite to come over for çay (four days left and a mile-long to-do list) but when I told them about my “homeland” book project, they said they’d love to be interviewed when I’m back next summer.  They’ll be the perfect candidates, too.  “We’ve been in Canada thirty-five years,” she told me, “but I’m still completely a Turk in my heart.”

She looked so wistful when I told her I’ll be spending all of July in Istanbul for my language course, remembering with fondness, I imagine, humid evenings of tea and backgammon and wedding fireworks over the Bosphorus.  I, on the other hand, envy the fact that she’ll spend the summer walking the Dyke and the path around Garry Point, eating all the Pajo’s fish n’ chips she wants.  And both of us, no doubt, will hear the laughter of the seagulls and inhale the salty sea air of our second homes and long for the places we came from.

As I sat at the Vancouver airport last week, eating my traditional “last meal” of yam fries and chipotle mayo at A&W before heading home to Turkey, I thought back to the national-anthem singers and the Turkish couple.  The former were getting ready to mark what would be, for most of them, their first Canada Day.  The latter have celebrated more Canada Days than I have, having lived in my hometown longer than I’ve been alive.  And I, the only locally-born one in the bunch, would be in the air on July 1st, flying further and further away from the Salmon Festival and Timothy’s Frozen Yogurt, and closer and closer to Ramadan and the tinkling of spoons in tulip-shaped tea glasses.  

The new immigrant painting a maple leaf on her face, my new Turkish friend waving a flag at the parade in her headscarf, and I wearing my Old Navy Canada Day t-shirt as the familiar Mediterranean coastline came into view outside my economy class window - who’s to say which one of us carries “O Canada” most strongly in our heart?

Sunday, July 6, 2014

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“Where are you from?

“Where are you from?”

Having lived outside my “passport country” for nearly half my life, I don’t always know exactly how to answer that question.  I’m from Vancouver, and that will always be “home.”  But eight years in Turkey make me “from” here in a different sort of way.  I’ve got a house, a bank account, a bus pass, favourite foods, a language, and a circle of friends that all make here “home” as well.  I “grew up” in Canada, but I “became an adult” in Turkey.  The first is a part of me by nature, the second by intention, and sometimes it’s hard to say which is stronger.  Double doubles and Turkish coffee, smoked salmon and stuffed peppers, weenie roasts around a campfire and dinners eaten seated cross-legged around a pile of food on the floor - each of them makes my mouth water and my heart come alive in a different way.  Each of them is me.  Each of them speaks of “home.”

The longer I’ve lived in Turkey, the more I’ve come to see just how much weight that word “home” carries.  There’s a word in Turkish for “hometown” or “homeland” - “memleket” - that almost never fails to bring a gleam to the eye of the one who utters it.  Whether you were born there or grew up there or have never even set foot there, it’s where you are from.   It speaks of family, of roots, of belonging.  One’s memleket is something almost sacred - a place to be longed for, a place that takes on a sort of mythical quality the longer one has been away.

It was summer when I first moved to Istanbul eight years ago - the time when everyone who can gets outta Dodge and heads somewhere cooler.  I remember people constantly telling me they were heading to “memleket” for a few weeks, or that so-and-so had just returned from “memleket.”  I kept thinking, “Wow, this Memleket must be quite the vacation destination.  I wonder why I can’t find it on a map?”  And when I finally learned the actual meaning of the word, I understood why everyone was so excited to be heading there:  they were going home.
I am so intrigued by the role of the memleket in Turkish culture, and the way that it so defines people in a way that seems much stronger than in North American society.  I have friends who have spent their entire lives in big cities like İzmir or Ankara, and yet feel inexplicably tied to the hometown of their parents, even if they’ve only ever been there to visit Grandma.  My “Turkish sister” was born and raised in Istanbul, and yet when you ask where she’s from, she’ll tell you she’s from Gaziantep.  That’s where her mom is from.  That’s what’s in her blood.

While jobs and opportunities may have caused many Turks to relocate to somewhere clear across the country, they are often very “clannish”, preferring to stick with people who eat, think, talk and worship they way they do.  It turns out “home” is portable, to a degree, and can be set up somewhere else.  In the big city, it’s common to find entire apartment buildings inhabited exclusively by people from Kayseri, a group of women from Van building a tandır clay oven in an empty lot so they can bake their bread “just like at home”, and a “tea and backgammon” cafe frequented only by men from Erzurum.  In the same way I lug suitcases full of butterscotch chips and Oregon Chai and curry paste and Betty Crocker frosting halfway across the world, my neighbours return from their hometowns with gallons of tomato paste from Batman, sacks full of walnuts from Erzincan and tubs of salty cheese from Antakya because “it’s better where we come from.”  

My fascination with this whole “memleket” concept has inspired me to write a book on the topic.  I’ve recorded hours of fascinating interviews with friends and neighbours telling me what they love and miss about their hometowns, what it’s been like to adjust to living where they live now, what of their habits and thinking has changed since moving to our “westernized, modern city” and which place feels more like home.  My goal is to explore the ties that bind us to where we came from, and to learn more about what makes us belong to a place, and it to us.  

In the process, I’m gaining a deeper understanding of my friends’ hearts as they share memories of their childhoods, both sweet and incredibly painful.  I’m learning more about why people think the way they think as they explain the (often extremely conservative) societal rules and values of the towns they came from.  I love watching their eyes light up when they talk about “taking naps under the cherry tree in Grandma’s orchard” or “the smell of the soil in the town where I was born.”   And I’m seeing so much of myself in them as I ponder the way the sound of the seagulls in Istanbul and the scent of the pine trees in Antalya and the rainy weather of the Black Sea stir up feelings of “home”.

I imagine this project will take several years to finish, but I’m excited to share snippets of my interviews and findings along the way.  I hope you enjoy this "journey home" as much as I am!

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Thursday, May 29, 2014 - 2 comments

How Bazaar, How Bazaar (Part Three: The Headscarf Bazaar)

Not all headscarves are created equal.

A headscarf isn’t just a headscarf.  It’s a statement.  It says a lot about the girl underneath, but also about her family, and possibly the religious sect she belongs to.

For example, if it’s loosely tied with the ends flowing down the back or hanging forward over her shoulders, she’s probably your average village lady - possibly covered more out of tradition than religious conviction.  (You might even - gasp! - catch a glimpse of a little hair showing around the edges.)

Hair pulled up into a bun underneath with a bone (band/wrap) covering the upper part of her forehead (no exposed tendrils here!) and a silky/shiny scarf tied tightly under the chin means she’s covered-with-a-purpose.  Depending on the style of tying, she might be part of a religious group or attend a religious school,  and certain styles often signify a lot of money and certain political affiliations.

The full black çarşaf (this literally means “sheet” and refers to the head to toe covering most know as a burqa) is the most conservative.  It used to be that you’d find these mostly out east, but they are increasingly common in the big cities in the west now, too, which the secularists find a bit alarming.

I always wondered exactly how many layers some of those girls were wearing, and I’ve marvelled at how they manage to cover every bit of skin but their face and hands without sweating to death.  But in the “Yazmacılar Çarşısı” (“Headscarf Bazaar”) I found my answers.  That street (and the surrounding area) had every style, weave, fabric and design of headscarf imaginable, so that everyone from the accessorizing Bohemian to the ultra-religious Saudi tourist would find something to please.   (Not to mention a huge selection of prayer mats and "pilgrimage supplies" as well.)

There the mysteries of The Covered Girl’s Secret Weapons unfolded before my very eyes:  a bone that also comes down to not only frame the face, but cover the chin and neck, kinda like the top of a diver’s wetsuit.  This would be handy in the summer because it means she doesn’t have to wear a turtleneck underneath her other shirt.  Or, even more useful, the “turtleneck dickie” that covers just the neck and shoulders.  And then there were the arm covers that cover the forearm up to just above or just below the elbow, so you can get away with a short sleeved shirt and not expose your skin, but not have to roast to death underneath either.

Now, if the day comes where hair flowing freely in the streets is no longer acceptable, I know where to go for supplies.  And with as hot as it gets where I live, those "secret weapons" would come in mighty handy!  (And if, for some crazy reason, men begin to cover their heads, well, apparently there's an answer for that, too!) 

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Sunday, May 18, 2014 - No comments

How Bazaar, How Bazaar (Part 2: The Tailors' District)

Tradesmen of Istanbul's bazaar quarter originally set up shop according to their wares, and they still hold loosely to this tradition today.  Street names indicate what type of trade was centred there, resulting in names like Fincancılar Sokak ("Mug-Makers Street") and Sandalyeci Sokak ("Chair-Makers Street").  Örücüler Sokak ("Knitters Street") today is still lined with shops bursting at the seams (pun intended) with yarn, ribbon and thread.

My favourite discovery of the day was this button shop, Kut Düğme.  As a lover of photogenic patterns and rows, I could've spent all day in there.  The "button man" was dying a set of blue buttons in a pot on the floor, and I was amazed at the speed with which he whipped out several dozen while I was there.

There was an entire district dedicated to everything a girl needs for her pre-wedding henna party - from satin bindallı outfıts to the gloves she wears while the henna sets to the little souvenir henna packets guests take home as party favours.

I am forever in awe of the way simit sellers balance their trays of "sesame bagels" on their heads.  Who needs charm school when you've got on-the-job training like this?

We weren't sure what to make of these bins we saw in the "hunting supply district."  Exploding duck decoys, perhaps? 

Customers with a lot of items on their list can hire a hamal to follow them from shop to shop and carry their load on his back.  That has got to be an exhausting job, especially considering how the entire bazaar quarter is built on a rather steep hill.  

I had to laugh when I saw this - someone clearly got called in to look at a customer the moment they sat down to take a break.  The cigarette is getting what it deserves, but what a sad waste of a perfectly good cup of çay!