Prosecards from the Edge (of a Continent)

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

Tuesday, November 21, 2006


I've been stood up by the Pope.

Well, not by the man himself, maybe, but by the infinite levels of bureaucracy surrounding him. I was successfully added to the list of 'Pope-goers,' with the condition that at some point I would have to provide a copy of my passport. Last weekend I stop by the church to say hello to Father Alphonse, and he tells me that my name has been taken off the list because I didn't provide the copy of my I.D. 'on time' -- whatever that was. (I wasn't given a deadline; just assumed that the day of the trip, at the latest, would be o.k.)

I'm terribly disappointed. Although not a devout Catholic, I had looked forward to this once-in-a-lifetime experience of seeing a major world figure up close and personal. I really wanted this. And now all these little voices in my head, who are forever analyzing and interpreting, are busy making commentary on this turn of events. The stoic in me says 'oh well, forget it, easy come, easy go.' The groupie fame-seeker in me is throwing a mini-tantrum in my head, because it won't be able to boast of having seen the Pope. The old-testament religious side says 'this happened for a reason -- some higher power knew that you are no true follower of the faith and cynical as hell, and therefore took you off the list.' The conspiracy theorist in me is muttering 'This priest doesn't like you and/or doesn't believe that you are worthy to see the Pope...maybe it's because you told him you can't make it to Sunday mass because that's your hiking day...and HE is the one who 'accidentally' neglected to mention a deadline for submitting I.D.s.' And then there's the questing, searching part of me who really wanted to hear from a major spiritual leader. This part is curled up in a corner, whimpering over the lost opportunity for enlightenment and guidance. Heck, I'm sure we could all use some. I guess I'll just have to find mine elsewhere.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

The Pope and Me

St. HelenTwo weeks from now, I'm going to see the Pope. Just like that.

It's funny how a lot of the more interesting things in life happen through pure serendipity, when all of our concerted effort and forethought might never have made them happen. One sunny Thursday morning I had time on my hands -- one of the many, many mornings here when I've had time on my hands -- and decided to go for a stroll. I meandered through the backstreets of our cozy neighborhood, Bostanlı, and headed towards the district of Karşıyaka, which is the main commercial center on this side of the bay.

It was an entertaining walk. When you have no particular agenda, and no particular time presure, it's amazing the things you can discover simply by strolling through the streets of your own city -- the city you thought you knew. I found shady, tree-lined streets, where the trees were so tall they must have been a hundred years old. There was an antique furniture refinishing shop, where two strikingly good-looking brothers adopted old and mistreated furniture and made it look good again. There was a shop selling local olive oil, an art studio -- students working diligently under the watchful gaze of their instructors. One of my favorite discoveries was a place that was full of massage beds. You know, like those electric massage chairs, only with these, you're lying down. Every bed in the place was taken by portly, balding older men, or plump women in headscarves and baggy flowered şalvar trousers, and somehow I was so tickled by the scene that I had to stand and watch for a minute.

In a shady, quiet, tree-lined street I made my most interesting discovery. The lovely church of St. Helen -- Karşıyaka's only Catholic church.

I don't know what it is about living in a country that statistically is 99% Muslim, but in the months I've lived here, I've started to feel a tug back towards the faith of my childhood. It has been years since I've been a regular churchgoer or could even call myself Catholic. Perhaps the pull I've been feeling towards the church is cultural as much or more than spiritual. However much distance we may put between ourselves and our early beliefs, somehow they become an inescapable part of us. Most of the time we can't see or feel them, but when we least suspect it, they resurface. When we are surrounded by people who do not share that background or those beliefs, we are reminded of what we've left behind and drawn back towards it.

The church of Saint Helen is infinitely pleasing to the eye. It is small and made of gray stone; sparingly decorated, surrounded by lovely trees. It beckons to the passer-by. After some looking around for someone with a key who could open the high (locked) wrought iron gate in the high stone wall around the church, I was in. Was I projecting my own feelings, or was there a palpable feeling of love and acceptance hanging in the air? Inside that perimeter, I was suddenly a child taken into the arms of a loving parent, safe from the evils of the world. It was a nearly overwhelming feeling. What had my soul been missing? Why had I been so unaware?
Interior of St. Helen
I mounted the steps and slowly pulled open the door, prepared to encounter the usual excesses of European Catholic churches -- the kind which I have always felt put off by, in that they seem to encourage contemplation of the material rather than the spiritual. But yet again, a surprise. Delicate arches, pale shades of cream and light blue. One or two delicate, tasteful, barely-gilded artifacts ornamented the church -- and that was all. It was quiet and peaceful, and as I sat down near the front, for some reason unbidden tears rolled down my face. Was it simply the beauty of this space and this moment? Or was something fundamental missing from my life?

As the time drew towards 11:00, the end of the day's 'visiting hours' at the church, I made my way to the door. The man who had originally admitted me stood there, apprently eager for a chat. Not in English, suffice it to say. He seemed very excited that another sheep had come into the fold (a bit prematurely, I couldn't help thinking to myself). We talked about our origins and faith, with me constantly asking him to repeat and speak more slowly, and him constantly getting excited and speaking faster. He wanted me to meet the priest, he said. Come.

Around the back of the church is a vine-covered house. The man I was with shouted something up; an old and benign face appeared at the window. Moments later, the face became a whole person standing at the door, smiling and beckoning me in.

Father Alphonse is from Malta, and has been living in Turkey for 15 years. (Still doesn't speak Turkish, I was interested to learn.) He was a kindly fellow, and we talked for several hours about everything from cockroaches to the demographics of the Christian population in Turkey. He invited me to begin coming to Sunday morning mass at the Cathedral (the existence of which I had not even known about). Apparently there is one, however, and it is in English and frequented mainly by NATO personnel. I told him as kindly as I could that I'd love to, but Sundays wouldn't work due to my regular Sunday hikes. I hastened to reassure him that if I had a Sunday free, I would go. What's more, being in nature is like praying for me; very spiritual, I blathered. I wondered later why I had gone to such lengths to placate this man I barely knew.

The subject of the Pope's impending visit to Ephesus came up. Ephesus, about an hour's drive from Izmir, is an ancient Ionian city and the site of the House of the Virgin Mary -- the place where Jesus' mother Mary is widely believed to have lived out her days. Quite unexpectedly, Father Alphonse asked if I'd like to go see the Pope. Of course I said yes, although perhaps not for the reasons that the good Father might have hoped. At any rate, he put me on the list of passengers riding in his personal bus. So there it is...on November 29, I've got a date with Benedict.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Head for the Hills

our destination A fantastic disovery!!

Izmir, it seems, is absolutely crawling with hiking and mountaineering clubs. Who'da thunk it?? Fond as I am of where I live, I have to say that a casual look-around does not necessarily give one the impression that the locals are fanatical environmentalists, if you know what I mean. But it turns out that there are hundreds (if not more) of fervent nature-lovers right here in Izmir, who have given rise to numerous clubs and organizations to support them.

When I found out, I did a little dance of delight. Four long years in the frozen, flat (I would underline that twice if I could) north of Germany had quelled any desire to go outside that I might have started out with. I had been desperately missing the hills and hikes of home (i.e., the San Francisco bay area), slowly withering inside with each passing day of gray and rain and nothing but flat green, as far as the eye could see. A speedbump would have been a considerable elevation gain in Bremen, but I couldn't find any of those, either.

But enough about Germany. Having discovered the hiking groups in Izmir, we wasted no time in joining up with one, the Zirve Dağcılık ve Doğa Sporları Kulübü (Summit Moutaineering and Nature Sports Club). They go on weekly hikes; no car required. I couldn't wait!

The Sunday after signing up, we met at 7:30 a.m. at the Karşıyaka city center to take the club's shuttle bus to the other side of the bay, where we were to pick up some more hikers. By 8:15-ish, we'd filled our busses to the gills and were on our way. There was plenty of talking, singing, passing around of chocolates and other food, and I was delighted with the spirit of comraderie that had developed so quickly and spontaneously -- and so early on a Sunday morning, at that.

Despite the fact that Izmir is a metropolis of 2 million people, only 20 minutes' driving gets you out of the city and into pure, unspoiled nature. There are rugged mountains, cool pine forests, rushing streams and meadows dotted with herds of goats, the gentle melodies of their bells wafting on the breeze. The hike we tackled that day was arduous, particularly for the two of us who had not had a close encounter with a hill in a long, long time. We covered approximately 25 kilometers, summited a 1750 meter peak, scrambled through the underbrush alongside a river, and slid (sometimes on our backsides) down an impossibly steep gully. Everywhere there were beautiful surprises. A sweeping panoramic view; exotic green mushrooms on the forest floor; a farmer coaxing his reluctant horse to plow a field; an old woman descending the mountain after a morning collecting pine cones; a cool stream trickling through an orange- and yellow-dappled gully.

Just before sundown we finally made it to the village at the end of the route, exhausted and sore-footed. We sat down at one of those cafes you find in every Turkish village -- the kind frequented exclusively by men, serving nothing but tea. While everyone else sipped on a refreshing cuppa, we, of course, worked on persuading the man in charge to let us order cold beer from the place next door. (Come on, what did you expect? Look who we're talking about.) We sat there, exhausted to the bone, but I was feeling happier than I have in a long time. Give me more!


Check out all the pics from our first hike

Friday, November 10, 2006

Great Balls of Fire

When we can't stand the heat, we get out of the kitchen. But what do our appliances do? Boxy and legless, they don't stand much of a chance of they do what anyone would do under the circumstances: catch fire.

A few days ago I decide to finally haul myself out of my cooking slump by whipping up a Turkish classic, guveç. It's basically a layered dish of meat and about five different kinds of veggies, baked for hours in a clay pot until all the different juices have fused together and the vegetables melt in your mouth. Delicious. So I haul myself to the greengrocer, pick up the necessary produce, surmount my squeamishness to pay a visit to the butcher and pick up a half kilo of beef, then spend the next hour washing, chopping and layering everything into my lovely black Colombian pot. Gently putting the lid on, I kiss the pot for luck and stick it in the preheated oven. Three hours from now our taste buds will be singing.

Company is expected. It arrives, and we all pace the house like circling buzzards, anticipating the meal to come. About a half hour of cooking time is left when I start to smell something funny. I peer into the kitchen, and low and behold -- flames! Not coming from within the oven, but from behind, where the electrical wires are. As the smoke grows more acrid and the flames start to leap out from behind the oven, I do what anyone with numerous safety, rescue and emergency preparedness courses under her belt would do: I stand there staring at the flames, paralyzed and panicking. Our oven is fueled by a gas canister just outside on the balcony. Sudden terrifying visions fill my head -- the imminent explosion of the canister; my body, blackened and maimed; blood dripping from my ears; death. I do manage to have enough presence of mind to turn the oven off and weakly croak "fire". Fortunately the others hear my cry for help. Levent rushes in, disconnects the gas canister as a precaution, and somehow (I'm so dazed I don't notice how) puts out the fire behind the oven. We're safe.

But the guveç is raw and inedible, and the disappointment in the house is tremendous. It turns out that the oven had been suffering long before it made its radical attention-getting gesture. The heat was nowhere near where it should have been, and consquently the food still needs another hour and a half instead of the anticipated half hour. Reluctantly, we hit on a solution in the form of take-out -- there is a fantastic lahmacun (flat bread covered with meat and spices cooked in a clay oven) place around the corner. We take the guveç when we go, and the staff there kindly agrees to cook it for us.

Now we are ovenless (although the stove still works, thank goodness). A new appliance will inevitably be purchased, but in the meantime, I am doing some experimenting with oven-less cooking. On the agenda today: whole-wheat bread and carrot cake. Who could rock the culinary world.

Monday, November 06, 2006


My efforts to learn Turkish continue laboriously. 'Laboriously' being the key word. The structure of the language is so radically different to English that, unless you utterly abandon your English-language-speaker ways of thinking and start to think like a Turk, you are lost. This precept is true in all languages, but especially so in Turkish. In German, you can mangle some grammar, but people basically get what you mean. The same in French. Whereas in Turkish, if you don't use the right grammar, you can't even begin to construct a sentence...and if by some miracle you manage to string some words together, it's pretty likely that no one will understand what the hell you're talking about.

Levent and I spend Sunday mornings curled up with a Turkish newspaper. We select an article of interest, then go over it with a fine-tooth comb. For my current level of Turkish, newspaper writing is way over my head, and without Levent's help there's no way I could even begin to tackle it. Even with help, though, I wind up with these moments where my head starts throbbing, my vision goes blurry, and I experience a barely-contained urge to scream, or faint...or both. It reminds me of L.A. traffic (why do all my analogies always come back to L.A.?): one minute you're parked on the freeway, making no headway whatsoever. The next minute traffic miraculously clears and before you know it you're doing 70 without a care in the world. About 5 seconds after you've gotten used to your newfound mobility and are starting to enjoy it, traffic comes to a (literally) screeching halt, and there you are, parked once again on the 405 South at rush hour. Turkish sentences have more or less the same effect. One moment I'm looking at the thing, thinking I haven't the foggiest idea what this sentence is about, or even where it begins. Of course, you're thinking, Why, it begins at the beginning, of course! But it doesn't...not really. A lot of sentences seem to be a random stringing-together of words, devoid even of helpful commas which might help you differentiate relative clauses from the main sentence. Suddenly, a flash of understanding. I get it! I get it! I cackle triumphantly to myself. Like that short-lived burst of speed on the L.A. freeway, I dash ahead to the end of the sentence, only to come screeching to a halt before a linguistic brick wall. The wall sometimes takes the form of extra words or sentence parts thrown in that don't jive with the meaning I've decided to attribute to that particular sentence. Or it might be that there are suffixes that don't make sense...compound nouns, posessives, relative clause indicators...when using any of them would plunge the sentence back into obscurity.

Take the following, by way of example. And this is a relatively short and simple one...nothing like what you find in the newspapers!

Bizim onlarin evine gideceğimizden başka bir şeyden haberim yok.

If we take literal word-by-word translation to ridiculous extremes, this reads (hyphenated words indicate that one Turkish word represents this concept):

Our their to-their-house that-we-will-be-going apart-from one thing-from news-my doesn't- exist.

Clearly, literal translation is a no-go. But where to start unravelling such a sentence? One helpful hint is that the subject generally comes at the end of the sentence, and the relative clause(s) come(s) first. Therefore, My news doesn't exist must be the main clause. What other parts can we latch onto? Let's see...their to-their-house actually just means to their house. Our...that-we-will-be-going can be translated as that we will be going. So in interpreting the sentence, we make the following transformations:

Our their to-their-house that-we-will-be-going becomes
That we will be going to their house.

My news doesn't exist can be interpreted a bit more naturally as
I've heard nothing or I don't know anything

The suffix -den together with başka (as you will only find out by consulting a dictionary or Turkish textbook) means apart from.

Sooo...let's put all that together:
That we will be going to their house / apart from / I've heard nothing.

...rearrange the parts:
I've heard nothing apart from (the fact) that we will be going to their house.

Ta da!! Easy, right? The good news: I decoded the sentence. The bad news: it took me 5 minutes. Now imagine trying to actually speak to people...generally, people lose interest and walk away before I (a) have figured out the end of my sentence before I start the beginning of it, and (b) remembered how to formulate it.

There is some progress, though. Today I made a telephone call to the man I work for and actually SAID (I'm very excited about this!!) the following:

Me with-the-car taking man's name forgot-I. (I forgot the name of the man who picks me up.)

Lord knows if it was right. But he seemed to understand, and he gave the desired information, so that's progress, right? I'm off to study whilst still in the grip of optimism. Bana başarılar dileyin! (Wish me success!)

Friday, November 03, 2006

Ramazan and Şeker Bayram (Part 2)

"Now That We've Starved for a Month, Let's Gorge Ourselves on Sugar."

Ramadan ends with a great, calorific, late-onset-diabetes-inducing sugar binge, otherwise known as Şeker Bayram (or Sugar Festival). The holiday officially lasts three days, the first of which is reserved for family celebrations. The whole family gathers at the home of the oldest person and everyone eats...and eats, and eats. Younger people kiss the hands of their elders to show respect (and curry favor, no doubt), and elders give the children sweets and pocket money. Whole families visit the family cemetery plot to pay respects to the deceased. The following two days are filled with endless visits between relatives, friends, neighbors, etc. The general rule is that you don't visit anyone younger than you; it shows respect for younger people to go to their elders. The visits are short, often a mere fifteen minutes, and are always accompanied by the giving of sweets. It is fascinating to go the the supermarkets in the week before Şeker Bayram and see the vast, glitzy chocolate displays on hand. There are impeccably made-up sales girls standing next to each different brand of chocolate, Sirens luring shoppers to destruction on their chocolatey rocks. Their tactics are aggressive. There you are, Jane Shopper, innocently seeking out the low-fat milk and minding your own business, when a manicured salesperson suddenly takes you by the arm and gently but persuasively tugs you over to her display. This is the supermarket. This shouldn't happen. Anywhere but here. But it does happen here. Apparently these women are direct representatives of the different chocolate manufacturers, and are paid on per-calorie-sold basis. Pre-Bayram chocolate purchasing is HUGE. Look at the shopping carts at the checkout and you will find most of them overflowing with expensive boxes of truffles, all intended to be given to visitors. Mouth-watering as these goodies may look, however, the word among the younger generation is that chocolate is no compensation for numbing days of tedious chitchat...and audible sighs of relief can be heard when distance or business makes it impossible to get home for the holiday.

Bayram is over now, and although I had no relatives to escape from, I can breathe a sigh of relief over one thing: I can once again seek out the low-fat milk in peace.