Prosecards from the Edge (of a Continent)

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

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Hoedown in a Muslim Land

I have a sneaking suspicion that some of you out there may entertain certain, shall we say, less than warm and fuzzy feelings towards the Islamic world. Feelings for which you can't completely be blamed, based on media portrayals of Islam and the way that the news, as much as any religious group, thrives on extremism. Curiosity about the reality behind media shock campaigns was one of the many reasons I came to Turkey in the first place. I couldn't believe that all Muslims wore black hats (or turbans?) or for that matter that all, or even most, Christians were so terribly lily-white. Islam is spreading at a phenomenal rate these days. If it is as extreme, unjust and death-centered as we are being brought to believe, why are there so many new subscribers? Surely there must be more to it.

So far, my experiences among this 99% Muslim population have been tremendously life-affirming. People here are kind, generous, respectful, humorous, and as far as I can see, not at all prone to blowing themselves up. If I were to fault them, it would only be for their horrendously bad driving (more on that later) and the excessive nationalism with which they are inevitably programmed, as it is a strong component of the country's school curriculum (and there still exist laws that prevent people from making 'anti-Turkish statements'). There is also a latent sense of insecurity that one gradually picks up on -- an odd, paradoxical mixture of "we're fiercely proud of our unique origins and identity" and a self-deprecating "we're not Europeans yet, but hope to be good enough to be admitted to that club someday." These few minor shortcomings aside, Turkish people are on the whole delightful. They are hospitable to a fault, and certainly know how to have good time. The art of eating for hours, chatting, spending time with friends -- they've got it down far better than a lot of us in our hectic, rushing Western lives.

Last Saturday, I had my first opportunity to witness the Turkish 'art of living' in a party setting. The Zirve Mountaineering Club had just had its annual meeting, and that evening a dinner and entertainment were scheduled for club members. Levent and I prettied ourselves up a bit and headed down to the restaurant. We arrived late. Once inside the door we were immediately swallowed by the thumping, gyrating Oriental music, mellow lights and mingled aromas of perfume, cigarettes and food. There were long banquet tables laid with appetizers in a glorious array of colors -- red tomatoes, white cheese, orange carrots, purple beets, green salad, pink radish and yellow lemon all made an appearance. The rakı drinking was in full swing, and judging by the flush in the faces of a few of our table-mates that it had started long before we arrived. Maybe it's because of the hurry-hurry culture I come from, maybe it's simply that I have bad table manners, but I discovered at some point that I was sitting there, intent on my food, quickly and methodically working through my entire plate of appetizers without saying a word to anyone. At some point I brought my head up for air and realized that nearly everyone else (all of whom had arrived before us) still had most of their appetizers left. They were chatting, laughing, sporadically leaping from chairs to go dance to a particularly infectious rhythm. The way they were so civilized about eating, talking, dancing, all in their appropriate measure, stopped me in my tracks. A sneaking feeling of shame came to perch on my shoulder. "Pig!" it hissed in my direction. Remembering that pigs are not particularly well-loved in this culture, I made a silent resolution to stop shoveling down the [magnificent, chop-licking] food and start trying to be part of the group. The band played some classic Turkish art music songs, the old ones that everyone knows, and conversation stopped as these songs came on and the entire room burst into song.

I danced. Admittedly, the generous pitcher of rakı the waiter had plunked down in front of me helped with that. The 'Orientalism' of the movement and music was powerfully seductive...the women with their utterly feminine curves, their flowing hair and the skilled way in which they shook their shoulders and hips, the men with their serious faces, arms outspread, fingers snapping, tracing the slow and methodical cross-step of the dance. It was so mesmerizing that a few times I forgot myself and whatever I was supposed to be doing on the dance floor, and simply stood and stared.

More food arrived -- roasted meat and vegetables, bread from a clay oven, yogurt -- and another pitcher of rakı made a magical appearance. Conversation grew livelier. Fantastically, my Turkish suddenly seemed good. A man with an instrument that looked like a distant relative of the bagpipe got up on the stage and began to play a Black Sea melody. Most everybody headed for the dance floor, locking arms in the traditional pattern of the dance. There were a few more traditional dances, then some more modern hip-shaking Oriental beats. Around midnight a worked of art arrived disguised as a fruit platter. Pink-red grapefruit cascaded into bright orange mandarine, which in turn mellowed into yellow-orange orange slices; oranges gently transitioned to lime-green kiwi, which finally faded into pale white-green apple. It was lovely, a sunset over a summer meadow. Sated as we were, we ate the fruit anyway because ignoring it would have been a crime. An hour and a few more dances later, ears pounding, a group of us who all lived in the same neighborhood decided to make our exit. It turned out that two of our group members owned a restaurant a stone's throw from our apartment, so we decided to head there and finish off the night. Bleary-eyed and stone deaf from the night's pounding music, we sat in the quiet little fish restaurant, where we were immediately plied with drinks and food that we were completely unable to eat. We told jokes, and I think I even managed one in Turkish. We swapped stories, and made plans for an outing the following day. It was the wee hours of the morning when we stumbled back home. As I pulled off my clothes and sank gratefully into bed, I smiled a little to myself and thought, so much for Islamic extremism. That was a good time.

Thursday, January 18, 2007


This blog is supposed the place where I talk about life in Turkey, but I hope you'll forgive me if occasionally it becomes the forum in which to rant and rave about my private grievances and beat my head against a virtual wall. My circle of friends here is exactly nil, so this blog is all I've got...sob...sob...

Wednesday dawns bright and beautiful. I leap out of bed full of grandiose plans and absolutely brimming with positive energy, and manage to keep up the momentum all day. A run on the waterfront, shopping in the Pazar (making my usual unsuccessful attempts to chat with the vendors), coloring my hair chocolate brown in a fit of boredom, laundry, house-cleaning, catching up on emails, studying Turkish, polishing off a chapter in my book about the Ottomans, giving myself a manicure, experimenting in the kitchen, planning a lesson for work later that day. Everything is going swimmingly, and when it comes time for me to be picked up to go to work (I teach English at a power company twice a week), I bounce down the stairs like Tigger, feeling ridiculously good, reflecting on how nice it would be if I could manage to feel that good going to work more than, say, once a year.

The group I teach consists of four guys. Two of them (Ali and Serkan) are youngish, early thirties, and friendly and easy-going. They speak at an intermediate level, but with a lot of hesitation. Then there's Murat, who is in his forties, and is very shy and has the lowest level of English. Finally, there's Yusuf. What to say about Yusuf? Jokester. Megalomaniac. Thorn in my side. Fountain of wisdom. Insulting, condescending bastard. Charmer. I could write a book about him. Suffice it to say that he's the boss, he's very petit, and I think he may have a bit of a Napoleon complex going on. This man destroys my lessons. He talks incessantly. I cannot for the life of me manage to politely interrupt him. He uses most of our precious lesson time to "educate" me about subjects which I either (a) already know about, or (b) have no interest in. He has the gall to keep me from doing what I need to be doing, and then to take it upon himself to "teach" the rest of the class new words, grammar, etc. When I correct his mistakes, he denies that my corrections are legitimate. When some garbled sound emerges from between his lips and, after questioning him about its spelling and pronunciation, I inform him that it's not a real word, he insists that it is. This man HAS to be the boss, he HAS to know better, and he HAS to command center stage. Meanwhile, as he's monologuing away, the rest of us are slowly sinking deeper into our chairs and our eyes are rolling back into our heads.

On this fine Wednesday afternoon I stroll blithely into the classroom, smiling and greeting everyone, about to get started on a lovely lesson, when Yusuf says grimly to me "we need to talk," and there is an audible POP that is the sound of my bubble bursting. He proceeds -- there, in front of the other students -- to tell me about how they have completed 'performance reviews' of themselves and of me. They have concluded, he said, that they're not learning anything. He says (this is a more or less direct quote) "We gave ourselves a negative performance review in regards to our progress in English. But we don't want to take all the responsibility on ourselves, since our success, of course, depends on the success of the teacher." Long, pregnant pause. Meaningful look flung in my direction. Me looking back with stunned bug-eyed look. Yusuf's monlogue continues for the next hour. It is full of lovely and humiliating little jabs like "good teachers have a plan." (You're saying I don't?) "In X number of lessons we've learned nothing...whereas when I was in school I learned English in nine months." (Define 'learned.' And if the others aren't learning, it's because you won't shut up and let me teach.) "We don't care about the topics you want us to talk about." (Everyone was interested but him, but as soon as the others got talking, he yawned loudly, stared at the ceiling, played with his pen, and finally left the room.) "We need textbooks." (Never mentioned it.) "Textbooks are useless." (Huh?) "We give you minus points on your evaluation because you give us handouts instead of books and we can't remember where we filed our handouts." (This is my There ensue a serious of terrifically humiliating 'demonstrations' on the part of Yusuf, whereby he attempts to show me how to teach. He points out to me that the internet is a valuable resource. (Gee, really?) The stunned bug-eyed look on my face is slowly transforming into a cold, tight-lipped stare. My eyes narrow. There is a brief lip-quiver as I for a nano-second really start believing that I'm as miserable as he says...but it is soon replaced by anger as I realize how preposterous he is. The others in the room don't dare speak up -- he is their boss, they are cowed by him, and anyway, their English is insufficient to really participate in this discussion. Every now and then, out of the corner of my eye, I catch Ali looking terribly embarrassed and attempting to disappear under the table, and glimpse Serkan trying to hide his silent hysterical laughter behind his hand as Yusuf continues with his 'demonstrations.' After a good hour's rambling, punctuated with pointless asides such as how he discovered that aspirin was killing him, and the fable about Nasrettin Hoja and the yogurt, and how easy it is to tell the difference between British and American English, Napoleon finally shuts up, magnanimously offering me the floor. Or so he says. At this point I am burning with rage. I know that I have planned every lesson well, and have sound reasons for doing what I'm doing. If I have failed, it has been in being too polite, unwilling to tell the director of the company to shut the hell up. Unwilling to embarrass him in front of his colleagues. (Exactly what he's doing to me, incidentally.)

Barely keeping my anger in check, I respond to each of his points. He interrupts me, inevitably, every five words or so. I make small concessions, I defend what I have already done, and I try, in a reasonably tactful way, to point out that he is a large part of the problem. Blinded by his own ego as he is, I don't think he quite gets it. I'm hoping that I've struck an appropriate balance between keeping the customer happy and total spinelessness. After verbally beating me to a pulp, Yusuf gives me a big grin and says "Kate, we don't want you to take this personally, but you are know, it's all about customer service." Big grin again. Do not bash his teeth in. Do not bash his teeth in.

Ali drives me home. In the car there is silence for a while as we crawl forward in a sea of brakelights. Finally, haltingly, he speaks up. "Kate, I hope that what Yusuf said...I know, he can be..." At this point either English or diplomacy gets the better of him, and he leaves the sentence dangling. My quiet and not particularly genuine response: "It's's good to know what he thinks." "Don't worry," says Ali. There is no more conversation on the ride home, and I stare out the window at the desolate marshlands barely visible in the darkness, wondering how do you know how much criticism to accept, and how much to brush off? How can you really know? When are you being too hard on yourself, and when not hard enough? I've spent most of my life with people telling me I'm too self-critical, but if the voice inside keeps saying I'm not hard enough...who's right? How to separate legitimate criticism from petty personal agendas that have nothing to do with me... I go to bed, lost in thought, the buoyancy of the morning long gone.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

The End of the Glühwein (thank god!)

On our last day of glühwein-bingeing in Bremen, the day before we fly back to Izmir. Ahh, Izmir: a place where, mercifully, no such deadly concoction lurks at roadside stands to ambush weak-willed schlubs like us. More (writing) soon from the Turkish side.

Friday, January 05, 2007

European Interlude -- Retrospective

Author's note: Faithful readers, my apologies for the long gap between entries. I've been away and haven't had much time or opportunity to update. I promise more frequent posts from here on out!

* * *

Izmir is a lot of things -- sunny, warm, laid-back -- but around Christmas time, one thing it isn't is....well, Christmasy (sp?). And so, longing for a little winter chill and yuletide flair, I hopped on a plane and hightailed it back to Bremen, Germany, which was my flat green-and-gray home for four and a half years. As for what the two weeks I spent there looked like, I composed this little variation on the 12 Days of Christmas, which pretty much sums it up (I'll just give the quick run-down, rather than write out the whole repetitive song, which would be rather boring. Just start singing from "On my 12th day in Bremen, my true love gave to me..."):

My 12 Days of Bremen (actually it was 14, but who's counting?)
12 days of gray skies
11 rounds of Köpi
10 cold-eyed stares
9 Mozart Kugeln
8 bars of Milka
7 good luck oranges
6 Gouda cheeses
5 Glühwein mit Schuss
4 Nackensteaks
3 Hangovers
2 German jokes
...and a giant bank account withdrawal.

Thank you. Ahem. Thank you very much.

Coming back to a place that used to be called home is a curious feeling. Distance and time can work wonders. Much-loved places that persist in the memory as incomparable paradises often seem sadder, more tired, less lustrous than we imagined them...and the places we longed to escape from, whose one or two negative aspects managed to blind us to so much else that was positive -- those places can seem wonderful once we no longer forced to endure them.

Experiencing Bremen again, as a tourist this time, was a positive kind of closure for me. As a resident I was oppressed by winters with weeks of slate-gray skies. I was depressed by the humorlessness of the locals, who eyed me with suspicion whenever I smiled or said good morning. Most of all, I loathed the inflexible, always-needing-to-be-right mentality that exists in great abundance among the northern Germans. There is a love of what is 'correct', and a bizarre kind of negative satisfaction in pointing out to someone else that they are doing something incorrectly. There must be a reason that the word 'schadenfreude' (taking pleasure in others' misfortunes) slipped into English from German, rather than French or Italian or any other language. Knowing what I know now about Germans, I suspect that the real meaning of the word goes a bit deeper. Take the dictionary definition "Taking pleasure in others' misfortunes," and tack on "...when those misfortunes come about because the 'victims' failed to do something correctly." The pedestrian who is run down while crossing against the light; the man whose house fills up with water because he didn't seal his windows properly...these incidents are guaranteed to cause some small smirks of self-righteous satisfaction amongst the locals. They (of course) knew better; anyone who was imprudent enough not to follow correct procedure probably deserved what they got.

For any of you who are sitting here reading this, protesting that there are lots of nice things about Germans, let me say for the record that I am not unaware of these qualities. But my point is that the one has nothing to do with the other--regardless of all the good stuff, these few particularly unpleasant traits were the deal-breakers for me. But I digress. My object here was to talk about Bremen, a city revisited...

During the time I lived there, and fore a while after that, Bremen had come to inhabit my soul as a little dark spot of pain and angst. Maybe it was the weather, maybe it was the people, perhaps it was the raft of difficult and painful events that occurred in my personal life during those years. Hard to say. Because of this, although I tried my best to see and appreciate the good things, my efforts were at best only half-hearted. There was a part of me that became so melancholy in association with the place that I simply needed to be gone. Just as some ex-pats I know in Bremen can't bear to hear Germany or Germans criticized, because of the enormity of the commitment that they have made in giving up everything, moving thousands of miles away and then raising families which permanently tether them to the place, I couldn't really bear to listen to people who sang the city's praises and tried to convince me to stay. I had made up my mind; I wanted out.

Coming back for the first time, I was suddenly free to admire what I couldn't allow myself to before. Over two gray and drizzly weeks, I wandered the streets and gazed up into the windows of the great, magnificent houses, with their softly lit rooms and high, gracious molded ceilings. I was struck with the dignity and elegance of these houses and the lives I imagined within them. The somber quietness of the city, the smooth rushing of the ever-punctual streetcar and quiet elegance of black Dutch bicycles on the tidy red brick paths -- all of these I saw with a detached sense of wonder and appreciation. Dusk fell. Bicycle lights bobbed in the darkness. Children in cheerful tassled caps cavorted in the lowering gloom of the great city parks. Solitary figures in black strolled with their dogs on a carpet of damp leaves. Gleaming Mercedeses glided past, tires hissing on the damp streets. Bare windows offered glimpses into beautiful lives, full of color and light and elegance. Groups of dignified elderly people, impeccably dressed, out for a quiet walk, hands clasped contemplatively behind them, their conversation a low murmur. The gloriousness of the eerily blue-lit cathedral and city hall in the old center of town. Long gone from my sight, beholding them once again made me catch my breath. The cacophony of churchbells in the evening, probably my favorite thing about Europe. The scent of butter from the bakeries and mulled wine from the Christmas market; thousands of merry twinkling lights all around. The clean and orderly perfection of everything.

Did I feel regret for having given this up? Over those two weeks, I searched myself long and hard for the answer to this. From time to time I felt a pang of missing, a tiny tug of envy of those who still had this and could call it theirs. But in the end, remembering why I left and holding firmly to that remembrance, I believe I made the right choice after all, despite the fact that where I live there are no church bells, a lot fewer Mercedeses and large elegant houses, and the scent of glühwein is unlikely to delight one's nose on an evening stroll.

Flying back to Izmir, I realized that in fourteen days in Bremen, I had glimpsed the sun for a staggering total of five minutes. As the plane neared the city that was my new home, the rolling green-brown hills came into view, the sea sparkled in the sun, and the pine forests seemed to be waving hello to me. It was raining then, but, as it miraculously always seems to do here, the sun was shining at the same time. The light glancing through the clouds was spectacular, creating a fantastic shadow play on the waters of the bay and the mountains beyond. I went to bed tired and content, sleeping long and dreamlessly. This morning I awoke to brilliant sunlight streaming in my window. I threw on my clothes and practically galloped out of the house to be out in the incredible light. The air had a perfect mild crispness and a heady, intoxicating quality that I am at a loss to describe. It is like a hundred helium balloons grabbing hold of my soul and taking flight...I feel so very light, there in the brightness and the sea air. I can live without order and punctuality. It is good to be home.