Prosecards from the Edge (of a Continent)

A running commentary on my life in Izmir, Turkey...and other thoughts.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Ramazan and Şeker Bayram (Part 1)

Last Monday, October 23, marked the end of the month-long religious fast of Ramadan (Ramazan in Turkish). For a month, faithful Muslims rose in the pre-dawn hours before imsak, the dawn call to prayer indicating the beginning of the day's fast, to eat and drink. For the rest of the day they allowed nothing to pass their lips until iftar, the evening call to prayer indicating the end of the day's fasting. I asked a Turkish friend of mine about why people fast. "We are not correct Muslims," she explained. "Throughout the year we do things we should not...we drink alcohol, do not pray five times a day...maybe do other things that Allah does not approve. At Ramadan, we have the chance to fast and pray, and we believe if we do so, we will be forgiven for the wrong things we did the rest of the year." A bit like a combination of Lent and going to confession, I thought -- doing penance, practicing self-denial in order to purify the spirit. She went on to explain that the other reason for fasting is to develop an understanding of what life is like for the poor; to have food and drink all around, but not be able to touch it. I was moved by this. Such a concerted act of empathy towards the less fortunate, practiced by even the well-to-do, is something the world could use more of.

As for empathy, I thought I'd try to develop my own by participating in the fast. But after one day of no food or water (the water part was the worst), I realized that I didn't have sufficient justification for fasting to help me through the more difficult times. Fortified by belief, or by the strength of tradition, it is easier to navigate the bumps in the road...for me, it was merely an experiment. When I felt faint and dizzy on the first day, I couldn't find much justification to continue doing this to myself. So I stopped.

The communal act of self-denial that occurs during Ramadan is a beautiful thing. I have to laugh, however, when I find my own 'California' values crashing head-on into Turkish, or rather, Muslim beliefs. As much as I admire the abstinence of Ramadan, I was, after all, raised in the land of health freaks, where the average citizen probably knows more about the human body's functions, metabolism and nutritional needs than doctors in some countries. From this perspective, I looked upon the fasting with something akin to horror. Knowing how vital the consumption of fluids is to body and brain function, and knowing that not eating all day slows the body's metabolism to a crawl, and that the enormous meals at iftar cause the body to hoard all that energy as fat...well, it all gave me goosepimples. I grew up with 'breakfast is the most important meal of the day' and 'if you have one big meal, it should be lunch' and 'eat small amounts throughout the day'...and here were millions of people, ignoring all of this! The nutritionist in me shivered. And it's true: the biggest complaint of those who fast is that they usually gain 2-3 kilos. But I could have told them that.

The worst side effect of Ramadan, from an onlooker's standpoint, is the bad breath. Try abstaining from food and fluid all day and you're guaranteed to wind up with world-class, elephant-felling halitosis. Breath mints don't stand a chance against it. My advice to those living in Ramadan-observing parts of the world: put off meetings and any other appointments, and definitely avoid first dates, until it's all over.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Izmir photos

These pictures were intended to accompany the post below this, but due to technical problems with the Blogger website, I was for some reason unable to add photos to that post. Hoping that this issue will be resolved soon.

A Ramble on Architecture, History and the Spirit of a Place

What makes a city loveable? Is it the physical trappings, e.g., beautiful buildings, cleanliness, fashionable shops, 'quaint' bits? Or is it something less tangible, perhaps simply a capacity to surprise again and again? One of the things that fascinated me about Turkey from the beginning was its contradictions. Straddling Europe and Asia, it is a nation at once leaning East and West, longing to be part of the European club while holding on to a distinctly Oriental, fatalistic view of the universe. Witness the love affair of the latter Ottoman sultans with things European (particularly French), and, in the early days of the Republic, Ataturk's at times brutal efforts to forcefully drag his countrymen into a European present. He dictated the abandonment of the fez in favor of European headwear (refusal to do so resulted, in at least a few cases, in death), urged his people to stop carrying loads on their backs, and introduced the Roman alphabet. The Turkish language is loaded with French words and phrases. Interestingly, in today's atmosphere of heightened Christian - Muslim tensions, Turks still admire things American, and those I've met invariably seem pleased to find out that I come from there. And yet there is a quiet, quite un-Western sense of fatalism that pervades Turkish life. Superstition is rampant, and proverbs pepper daily speech. A guiding principle is inshallah, god willing, as if personal effort and initiative is futile, because God will decide. This results in a kind of passivity which can be infuriating to the westerner, who tends to think in terms of the betterment of his / her lot in life through hard work and ambition. Turks work hard, but often seem to give little thought to making improvements in quality or efficiency. Whether this has to do more with a fatalistic world view or with their heritage as make-do nomads is debatable. Whichever it may be, the result is that in the country's larger metropoli (Izmir being the country's third largest) one encounters an intriguing mix of 'progressive', European-izing tendencies, and ways of living that, except superficially, haven't really changed for thousands of years.

The once-lovely city of Smyrna (long known by the Turks as 'Beautiful Izmir') was tragically burnt to the ground during the ousting of the Greeks at the end of the Turkish Independence War in 1922. Sensing an opportunity for a land grab whilst the Ottoman empire was in its death throes, Greeks had turned against Turks in an ambitious attempt to establish 'greater Greece'. After a long and brutal war, the Greeks ultimately found themselves on the losing side and were ousted. The post-war rebuilding of the city seems to have been driven by either urgent necessity or greed...or both. Where once stood lovely high-windowed, balconied wooden houses now stand block after block of concrete boxes. They are often small-windowed, low-ceilinged, shoddily constructed; few attempts have been made to restore the old buildings or even to reference the old styles in new buildings. Perhaps beyond greed and necessity, these post-war building styles also reflect a collective, post-war psychic depression. The country's people had just survived two brutal wars, back to back. Old ways of life were gone forever. Where once Turks and Greeks had lived relatively peacefully together, suddenly there was a tremendous cultural vacuum. The Greeks having turned foe, it is hardly to be wondered at that the local Turks did not rush to emulate Greek architectural styles. And in light of what the country had suffered for years, it is understandable if there was little enthusiasm for architecture in the post-war era.

Today, when contemplating 'Beautiful Izmir', I am struck by two things. One is that in some sense it isn't beautiful at all, between the unspectacular architecture and the often reckless disregard for the environment. Exhaust-belching buses prowl the streets, garbage gathers in run-off canals, torn-up sidewalks and streets trip the unwary pedestrian at every turn, and dumpsters overflow onto streets. And is beautiful. The city's natural setting, for one -- a magnificent bay surrounded by rows of mountains that, at sunset, cloak themselves in different shades of purple. The soft sea breeze that keeps you from stifling in the summer; the haunting call to prayer from the local mosque; the couples and families lounging on the grass, in the parks, picknicking in the shade of the trees. The liveliness in the streets, at all hours of the night. The lazy, contented street dogs, well-fed and perpetually napping. The melodies of the street-vendors' chants; the constant flow of people and activity. The unexpected sights -- horses grazing in a roundabout, someone hauling a bed on a bicycle. Is Izmir beautiful? By some standards, she might not be considered so...and yet I find again and again that I love her for her spirit and for, rather than in spite of, her imperfections.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

The Battle of Broken Things - Score Update

The weekend over, here's the updated scoreboard:

Home phone: fixed (yay!)
Toilet: fixed (yay!)
Doorbell: fixed (yay!)
Computer: sorta kinda fixed

Mobile phone: still inoperable

TV: Deceased
Pipes under bathroom sink: Inexplicably leaking

Never a dull moment around here. ;-/

Friday, October 13, 2006

Time Out To Scream

Okay, can I just have a minute to rant a bit? This has nothing to do with my Turkey experiences, but it's driving me nuts and I've got to get it off my chest. Ever had a really bad day, where just EVERYTHING seems to be going wrong? One of those where the negative energy produced by one mishap actually seems to spill over and actually cause others? Well, it's been a bit like that the last couple of days...

We have two computers, a desktop and a laptop. The desktop seems to have suffered a bit of brain damage en route to Turkey, and is now functioning very slowly and refusing to bring up a web page, even though it claims it is connected (we're using wireless). We've resorted to every trick we know, including calling help desks and other professionals, to no avail. On top of that, this PC has a cordless keyboard and mouse which are barely alive -- you have to thump them to get them to do anything at all, and usually it's the wrong thing...forget about actually typing anything. I had to hit the letter P approximately 15 times before a P actually appeared on the screen, just by way of example. I bought two sets of new batteries for keyboard and mouse, but got no improvement in performance. I even went out and bought more batteries, in case the cheapos I had bought were duds, but no change in performance. Obviously the problem lies elsewhere. Unfortunately, lots of useful programs (like Photoshop and MS Office) and data (like all my docs and pictures) reside on this USELESS machine.

The laptop, on the other hand, does connect to the internet. Unfortunately, a while ago it had a complete meltdown and we had to remove all its programs, reinstall the operating system, etc. Now I've got an operating system that speaks Turkish (marvelous!) and no programs at all, so when I want to, say, type a Word doc or open an Excel spreadsheet, I can't! Why don't I just reinstall the programs, you ask? Because I can't find the CD! And I won't even go into the mental acrobatics I've had to go through trying to adjust browser settings in Turkish, not being particularly technically inclined in the first place. As if that weren't enough, the laptop has only one USB port, which is being used by the wireless internet connector thingy, so if you want to upload something from a memory stick to the internet, for example, you have to disconnect the internet, upload your data from the memory stick onto the laptop's hard drive, remove memory stick and reconnect the internet. The same procedure applies to printing, of course -- want to print something off the internet? You have to save the pages (and their pictures, too!) somewhere to the computer, disconnect the internet, plug in the printer, and print. On a side note, when you DO finally manage to print something out, the printing quality is lousy -- our good laser printer mysteriously disappeared from the moving van on the way from Germany to Turkey, and all we're left with is this ancient InkJet into which you have to feed paper one sheet at a time. Grr.

Did I mention that the laptop is also prone to overheating, and shuts itself off every 20 minutes? No? It's burning a hole in my jeans as I write this.

The chaos has not limited itself to the computing sphere. Turkish law says that when you bring a foreign mobile phone into the country, you must report it at the customs office and pay a (hefty) duty, something like 50% of the purchase price, which is ridiculous -- particularly if your phone, like mine, has already developed a bit of brain damage and is nearing the end of its useful life. If you don't pay this duty, They will find out and, at some point, have your phone blocked and made utterly useless. This happened to me a couple of days ago, throwing an enormous monkey wrench into my life and forcing me to think back to how things were done before mobiles (I'm still scratching my head on that one). Nevertheless, I took a deep breath, straightened my spine, and thought "I can handle this," until yesterday, when for some inexplicable reason our home telephone was shut off. Something to do with an automatic payment not being quite so automatic, if you know what I mean. Did I mention that a while earlier, our doorbell had mysteriously ceased functioning? Well, it did, so even when I cleverly managed to use internet telephony (thank god, they didn't disconnect the internet!) to call out and order water (I'll explain that some other time), I realized that I wouldn't know when the delivery came, because we had no doorbell!! I therefore spent a good couple of hours on the balcony, on the lookout for a water delivery man. Fortunately, I caught him -- as he was just leaving.

Just to top off the whole ensemble, last night our toilet broke. Broke, in a way that I have never seen a toilet break. Water simply began pouring out the bottom of the reservoir onto the floor. The water wasn't coming through a leaky seal, or through a crack in the pipe -- it seemed to actually be seeping through the porcelain itself. Sound strange? It does to me, too, but I swear that's what's happening. So now we have jerry-rigged a system whereby the reservoir remains empty due to the little floaty thing being secured in a position that makes it think the tank is full, and when you absolutely have to flush, you lower the floaty, wait an eternity for the tank to fill up (all the while watching half of the water landing on the floor and trying desperately to contain it with buckets and towels), stick your hand into the reservoir and pull the string to flush, then re-rig the floaty into the previous position to stop the tank from filling. You may be wondering why we didn't just turn off the water supply to the toilet? A sensible thing to do -- unfortunately, the valve was completely rusted over and would not be turned, under any circumstances.

To summarize: I can't compute (really) , call, send text messages, receive visitors or flush the toilet. My Turkish-speaking better half has gone off to Germany. My knowledge of the language here is so limited that I can't really even be enterprising and try to find people to deal with these issues. (How would I, anyway? Can't call them!!!) I am effectively a prisoner in my own home, convinced that if I should leave the house, something will inevitably go amiss with the door lock, and then something worse will happen...I'll be a prisoner out of my own home. Feel for me, people. =:-/

A Sinking Feeling

And then there's reality. Approaching Izmir from the air, the city of my imaginings collides rather messily with the gritty reality of the modern metropole.

Twenty minutes prior to landing at Izmir's Adnan Menderes Airport, you pass over parched brown hills dotted with low-lying brush and olive trees. Here and there the hills are traversed by what appear to be hiking trails or unpaved access roads, but that is the extent of civilization in these parts. Not a house or freeway in sight, only land and sea as far as the eye can see. On the coast, tiny golden smears betray isolated, probably perfect coves and beaches, inaccessible by road. To the outdoors enthusiast, a delicious spectacle...

Ten minutes outside of the city, however, something happens to the air. Tinted with a dreamy haze only minutes before, it suddenly acquires an alarming brown tinge that reaches blanket thickness by the time you’re directly over the city. Looking down at air the color of used mop-water, I am unhappily reminded of Los Angeles on a midsummer's day. But then, the day I arrive is a midsummer's day, and Izmir does support a population of close to 3 million, so the comparison to Los Angeles is apt. Add to that the fact that the city lies on the coast and is backed by mountains which help to hold in whatever particles are floating about, and the analogy to Los Angeles is complete (minus all the movie stars and latte macchiatos).

For weeks my stomach did flip-flops of anticipation every time I thought of this move. Ten minutes out, the abdominal acrobats are metamorphosing into lead balloons. As we descend into the thick brown soup I am suddenly besieged by dark visions of what my life will be here -- gasping for breath on a day to day basis, making myself actually less healthy by going out and exercising, filling my lungs with toxins until I finally fall ill with some grave and incurable respiratory illness.

Addmittedly, I'm a bit of a hypochondriac. There ensues a lengthy battle within myself, the voices of pessimism wickedly insisting that I will be laid low with TB within the year, while the sweet voice of optimism reminds me that the most beautiful and healthy people in Turkey are rumored to hail from Izmir. Since I'm pretty well committed to this ride, whatever I happen to think about it, I decide to side up with Team Optimist. Aren't olive oil, fresh vegetables and sunshine an antidote to pretty much everything? At least I hope so.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Izmir Imaginings

In the early days, when the prospect of moving to Izmir was still little more than rumor and speculation, the mere contemplation of the place would send my imagination spinning. Always one to appreciate the aural aesthetics of a good name, it pleased me that the name of the modern city, Izmir, rolls pleasantly off the tongue, conjuring images of fresh breezes, gracious coastlines and bright white ships. I was charmed by the sound, and thrilled at the prospect of living in a city whose name I would enjoy saying -- contrasted with, say, Düsseldorf or Yozgat (a Turkish city that’s rumored to be approximately as attractive as its name). And then to think that modern Izmir is, in fact, ancient Smyrna once again sets the mind awhirl, setting off echoes of history reaching back into myth. Rumored to be Homer's birthplace (approximately, anyway), Smyrna was founded in the third millenium B.C., when it shared with Troy the most advanced culture in Western Anatolia. The city subsequently became part of the Hittite empire, and later one of the most important cities of the Ionian Federation (when Homer is believed to have resided here), then fell successively under the rule of the Lydians, the Persians, the Romans, the Byzantines, the Seljuks and, finally, the Ottomans. Whew. (Undoubtedly there are one or two empires that I've missed, but give or take a few, that's the roster.) The city is surrounded by a Who’s Who of historical places -- Ephesus, Troy and Pergamom, to name a few. The region is the birthplace of St. Nicholas, and is believed to be where Jesus' mother Mary lived out her days. People who have never been to America sometimes tell me that they don’t really believe the country exists outside of the silver screen. I had similar a reaction to the prospect of living in the birthplace of legends. To think that not only did these places exist, but that I would soon be living on the edge of the wine-dark sea, sharing vistas that Homer may have once gazed upon (sadly altered today, alas) was the source of endless fascination to me.

Life in Germany was orderly and clean, it is true, but it had become too pedestrian, too safe, too predictable. What better cure than a new life in a place where epic sea voyages had been undertaken, battles fought and mythical creatures encountered, in a land loud with the echoes of civilizations past? Humming with anticipation, I packed up and boarded my flight.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Welcome and Invitation

Many of you have asked me to report on what life is like in Izmir, Turkey, my new home as of July 7 (barring an absence of six weeks from July 23 through September 4 for a trip to California and Columbia). Remembering my promise to do so (perhaps not the wisest idea, knowing my track record as a correspondent), I at some point found myself desperately typing out individual updates to various people, sadly falling far short of the number of people on my list. And since the list of correspondees seems to keep expanding as memory gradually returns (now that the moving dust has settled), I have finally thrown up my hands and concluded that in the interest of time and sparing myself some tedious repetition, it would be much more sensible to post these updates in one central place where everyone could read them, anytime they liked. That place is here. I hope this will prove an adequate means of satisfying that 'I wonder what ever happened to Kate?' question that may now and then surface in the backs of your busy minds. (And in case that question doesn't surface, maybe this will remind you that I'm still here!) This doesn't mean that I have abandoned personal correspondence, and I promise to do my best to keep up genuine personal interaction. It would be delightful to hear from any of you on an individual basis, as well. Here's hoping that this finds you all well, and wishing you happy reading!