Prosecards from the Edge (of a Continent)

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

Saturday, March 31, 2007

I owe, I owe, So Off to Work I Go...

One of the eternal, blasted paradoxes of the universe, right up there with youth being wasted on the young, is the tendency for time and money not to co-exist. There you are, slaving away at a soul-sucking job that consumes most of your waking hours -- all of them, actually, if you are one of the unfortunate sorts who is unable to emotionally detach -- amassing piles of wealth...for what? A meager yearly two-week holiday? The ability to view exotic vistas from the comfort of your wheelchair in your dotage? You've got the money, but you are a slave to the work machine. You daydream about all the great things you'd do if only you had a few free hours here and there...

Scenario 2. You are blissfully unemployed. You have all the time in the world, the luxury of waking up in time for lunch, taking long walks, learning the basics of knitting or fly fishing. The impediment, of course, is lack of funds. No money for yarn, let alone for the fishing rods or the wheels to take you to the fish. The bliss gradually erodes, and you spend your days cursing your free time, because you have nothing to do with it except ponder 1001 ways to scare up some cash. You become inconvenienced by frequent and malicious decisions of the power company to discontinue your service, and you quickly learn how to be as silent as a forest animal on alert when there is a knock at the door -- the Big Bad Landlord again, teeth drawn and hungry for rent.

By what cruel rule of the universe are we permitted to have either money or time, but not both?

Long days of navel contemplation take their toll. The soul-sucking, cash-earning alternative starts to sound mighty appealing when compared with empty, aimless days, and so the job hunt begins.

In Izmir, if you're a native English speaker, particularly one who's TEFL certified, work as an English teacher at language schools or as a private tutor is abundant. Pay ranges from miserable (10 YTL an hour, or about 7 USD) to spectacular (150 YTL an hour, or over 100 USD to tutor chidren of well-to-do families). Regardless of pay, freelance English teaching can be a hard row to hoe. There are no benefits, clients can cancel 24 hours prior (with no compensation for the teacher), and typically teachers need to schlep themselves all over town to various different jobs to make ends meet. It is also a lonely profession -- there are no colleagues, no after-work happy hours, and socialization with students is not only bad business practice, but generally undesirable -- it feels too much like work.

After a couple of years of doing the freelance teacher gig in Germany, and learning firsthand how dry it can suck you, I was dragging my heels at the idea of getting back into the racket. Just as a return to the business was starting to seem my inevitable fate, a friend by chance passed on a job advertisement from a school in Izmir. The American College of Izmir, the most prestigious private school in the city, was seeking an ESL teacher. My first thought: job security! Second thought: Children. Ewww. Still, on a whim I applied for the job, was invited in for an interview the following week, and shortly afterwards received a job interview -- which I was required to accept or decline within 24 hours! Talk about pressure.

What tipped the balance? Was it my empty, friendless days of cruising the waterfront and making silent conversation with the pelicans? Or was it the coincidence (cleverly arranged by Fate?) that that very week we had received another hit and run visit from our nemesis, the nefarious power company? Whatever the reason, I accepted, and as of the start of School Year 2007-2008, I am officially employed as a full-time ESL teacher at SEV (the Elementary divison of ACI), teaching a class of 25 5th graders. My sleep is sometimes haunted now by echoes of shrieking childlike voices, running feet, the stifled urge to scream. But mostly it is a better sleep, knowing that my days of navel contemplation are numbered.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Odyssey in a Box, Part II

Miraculously, the mechanic neither explodes nor succumbs to the chemicals he swigs so nonchalantly from our car's internal organs. Instead, he spits, takes a drag of his cigarette, and announces in a sandpaper voice that there is no gas in the tank. Zero. Zilch. Which is a source of great puzzlement to us, as Levent had already put 20 lira worth of gas in the tank (see previous chapter) and had only driven a handful of kilometers on it. Chalking it up to an inefficient engine, or the high price of gas, we shrug, and take up the dolmuş driver on his offer to bring us some gas (for a fee, of course). We don't have a great many other options. LPG gas is not transportable -- you have to get your car to it. Normal gas, or towing, therefore remain the only possibilities, and since we find ourselves on this particular day in severely financially straitened circumstances, we of necessity opt for the former. The dolmuş driver departs, returning 20 minutes later with 5 lira worth of gas, for which he charges us 25 lira (there is a fee for his and the mechanic's efforts built in to the price). The mechanic has fiddled with something inside the engine (forgive me, mechanics out there -- I know nothing of these things), and he assures us that the car is now good to go, and that this gas will get us at least 30 km, before which time we will surely have located an LPG station. Exit dolmuş driver and mechanic, stage left.

To our immense relief, the engine roars to life when Levent flips the ignition switch. We pull out into the spring sunshine and traffic, a few hours delayed, but glad to be mobile again. We pass the ferry terminal, leave the bustling downtown, get onto a clear stretch of coastal road. We are maybe ten kilometers from the site of our breakdown, just entering the city forest, when to our horror we hear a hiccup, and the car makes a frightening lurch. No, no, no, I close my eyes and chant. Not now, not again, it can't be, CAN'T BE. Another lurch. Another 10 meters covered. Violent shuddering. We are coaxing the box, flattering it with all our might, yes, King of Automobiles is the Tofaş, an elegant and highly engineered piece of machinery you are, and so on. Around us is nothing but cool green forest. We are better able to appreciate the cool quiet of the woods and the sweetness of the birdsong when the engine finally goes silent, impervious to our flattery, leaving us stranded at the side of the road.

A collective sigh is heaved. (I think even the car participated in that one.) We get out and peer up, then down, the long, straight road. Not a hint of a gas station, or even a building in sight. I momentarily forget our quandry as the spring sunlight begins to warm the top of my head and a butterfly makes an inquisitive tour around my feet. The blissful revery is nearly complete when the wooosh of a passing automobile snaps me back. I hurl a reproachful look at the 'car'. There's nothing for it now but the old heave ho, it seems, so Levent takes his position at the driver's side door, one hand on the wheel, one on the car, and I install myself at the rear.

Pushing is surprisingly easy, and fortunately for us, we are dressed in our running gear, having planned on a run on the beach in Çeşme. It is actually nice to be out of the car and moving, and gradually our pace quickens, until we are actually jogging along with the car. Cars -- sleek, expensive, new ones -- honk as they drive by, passengers stare out their windows, but not one person stops to help. I start to break a sweat. The good thing is, I'm getting my workout after all, Çeşme or no Çeşme. A group of flamingos in a nearby marsh look up from their breakfasts and crane their long pink necks in our direction. I can almost hear them tittering to themselves. We must have covered at least two kilometers, when a primer gray, beat up vehicle of Eastern European persuasion pulls up ahead of us. The logic is lost on me as the car passes us, pulls to a stop a very short distance in front of us, and proceeds to back up rapidly. Bear in mind that we are proceeding at a goodly trot, so what with us making a quick advance, and our would-be rescuer making a quick retreat, the gap between us closes remarkably rapidly. It is all that Levent can do to fling the door of our Box open, leap inside, and hit the brakes. Our cars stop, inches apart.

Our Knight in Shining Armor has arrived on a steed that makes the Tofaş look good. It has no paint, is sagging low to the ground, and gives the impression that a slightly too-hearty slam of the door might reduce it to its component parts (a la Inspector Clouseau, if you're a Pink Panther fan). Added to that the fact that this trusty steed is currently carrying five -- yes, five -- people, and my eyebrows begin to arch in a mute skepticism. The driver, a cheerful sort, produces a frayed towrope from the trunk of his car. It is alarmingly short, allowing for perhaps two meters of space between our respective vehicles. We get underway, and immediately our rescuer accelerates to a petrifying speed, given the difficulty of steering and braking our own car. Our rescuer also does not have the advantage of having brake lights, so it is always a surprise when he slows down, and a test of Levent's reflexes and subtlety on the brake pedal. The challenge is to slow down enough not to hit the car in front, but not enough to put additional strain on the rope which might either break the rope or damage the car in front. It's a tricky business. I, passenger, am helpless to do anything but white-knuckle it and wish we were still pushing.

Turns out, it would have been an epic push, had we been left to our own devices. We continue another three kilometers or so, and not a gas station in sight. There is a terrifying moment where we are caught in traffic and our tower elects to change lanes, and a hot-shot driver behind us wants to cut us off before we can change lanes, too, not realizing that we are connected to the car in front. We chug up a hill (amazed that the Eastern European steed can make it at all, let alone with 5 passengers and us in tow), over a freeway, down a hill (terror) and around a corner into a gas station, at the entrance to which our tow rope snaps. We hop out, old hands at this by now, and push our tired Tofaş the last few meters to the LPG pump. Our last ten lira is passed to the station attendant, our rescuers thanked profusely, and we drive back to the forest, too late for Çeşme now. We arrive just as the sun is transforming into a brilliant crimson orb and sizzling into the sea. The lagoon is absolutely still and its surface is a perfect mirror of the riotous hues of the evening sky. Caught in the reflected light, the flamingos seem more fuschia than pink. We watch them, as the sky turns from tomato to aubergine, listening to the soft lapping of the water on the shore. The day was not as we had planned it, but nonetheless, I have to think, it wasn't too bad, either.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Odyssey in a Box

We borrow a car from a friend. "Car" is a word used loosely to refer to a white, tin-boxlike item with wheels which occasionally, when properly cajoled and nourished, will propel one from Point A to Point B. Night rides in this vehicular wonder (officially known as the Tofaş, in case you were wondering) are vaguely terrifying, unaccompanied as they are by anything resembling head- or tail-lights. One lonely right side parking light bravely attempts to do the work of all its fallen comrades. Consider that this is a country where people don't, as a rule, stop at red lights, and you'll understand the terror.

Anyway, on this particular Sunday, it is broad daylight, a lovely, balmy spring day, and we decide to jump in The Box and hie ourselves to Çesme, a beach resort about 45 minutes away. The Box is temperamental today, and the engine first petulantly refuses to start and then gives in, only to launch in to a fit of death-bed coughing and shuddering. Çesme suddenly seems very far away. We speculate that The Box may have had a rough night out on the town whilst we were sleeping. Or that it is ailing from some mysterious and terminal automotive disease. Or even -- Levent casts an inquisitive glance in my direction -- that it may be out of gas. Hard to say, since the gas gauge doesn't actually serve any purpose other than to keep there from being yet another gaping hole in the dashboard.

The gas in Turkey is said to be some of the most expensive in the world. Currently prices stand at 2,70 YTL a liter. For Europeans, that translates to 1,44 Euros per liter; for all you Americans, that's $1.87 per liter, or about $7.50 per gallon. Like America, Turkey is highly dependent on the automobile. Public transportation is not particularly widespread, and while it may be technically possible to get where you want to without a car, it is not at all easy or quick. It all comes back to the automobile. This being the case, and it also being the case that most Turks earn very low salaries (I don't have statistics, but consider that 2000 YTL per month, or about 1000 euros, is viewed as quite good), it is not surprising that Turks have found ways of getting around the exorbitant cost of fuel. It's called the LPG, or liquid petroleum gas tank. A large number of vehicles around these parts have been retrofitted so that the cars run on LPG, a compressed liquid gas that is vastly cheaper and more efficient than regular gasoline.
The only drawback to this type of fuel is that it can be hard to find. Not every gas station sells it, and, adhering to the law of Murphy, those stations that lie directly on your route most certainly do not sell it.

We set out this fine day, The Box choking and sputtering, and there is a moment of snap decision-making. The nearest LPG station is in the opposite direction from the way in which we want to go. Do we play it safe and go there, or continue on our merry way towards our destination, in the good faith that there will soon appear to our wondering eyes an oasis of LPG? The car does have a normal gasoline tank as well, and on a previous run, L. had thrown 20 lira worth of gas into the car as a safeguard against running out of LPG. So we figure, what the heck, worst case we'll switch tanks and run on the expensive stuff for a while. On to new frontiers! We manage to make it around the curve of the bay, past the detergent factory, the military zone, the walkers and joggers along a long stretch of waterfront park, the port, on into the central commercial district, jockeying through a sea of traffic and pedestrians, The Box all the while nurturing its bad cough. We have nearly made it through the heart of the central commercial district when our steed suddenly lurches, coughs, and dies. At a red light, fortuitously. L. mutters an incantation and flips the switch to the normal gas tank. But instead of the roar into vibrant automotive life we are expecting, the traitorous car hiccups, belches, lunges viciously at an unsuspecting pedestrian, wheezes, splutters, coasts a meter or two in silence...and is still. Puzzlement on our parts. A second attempt. A third. In between silent, coasting periods, the car is lurching like a mad bronco. We are making fitful progress down the palm-lined boulevard, attracting no shortage of stares, when it gives a last gasp and falls silent. We coast to a pitiful stop at the curb, coincidentally just in front of a parked dolmuş (shared taxi) with its hood up and toothless driver peering intently into the engine.

Words are exchanged between Levent and the dolmuş driver. Out of nowhere, a mechanic materializes. A cigarette dangling lackadaisically from between his lips, our twenty-something would-be hero somehow brings to mind a Sean Penn fallen on hard times. He removes some hardware from our car. Between drags of his cigarette, he sucks gasoline from a hose. He does it slowly, almost like a wine connoisseur at a degustation, and I sit watching him in fascination, waiting for him to explode into a great orange fireball, or fall over writhing and convulsing after having accidentally swallowed too much gasoline. The suspense is terrible and transfixing. I look on, ever-so-slightly cowering in my seat, bracing myself for the inevitable cataclysm.

... to be continued ...

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Shadow and Light

There are those long dark nights of the soul when you don't feel the least urge to write. And when the day comes that you do finally feel like putting words to paper -- or to screen, as the case may be -- you find that all that wants to come out is a long and viscous river of vitriol, words of pain and rage that only belong in a private journal, not in a public forum for the world to see and dissect. Too many people could be compromised, too many skeletons left running amok.

My apologies for the long silence. These are difficult times, but the dark clouds are passing -- and the play of light and shadow that ensues when a cloud breaks up in the sun is, as always, fascinating.