Prosecards from the Edge (of a Continent)

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

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

A Day in the Life

So, in case you were wondering, here's what a typical weekday in the life of Yours Truly looks like.

I wake up around 8 or 9, look around, register the brilliant sun trying to sneak through the cracks in the shutters. Notice the beads of sweat on my skin and make a mental note of the uselessness of the fan that's been going all night.

Stumble out of bed, feeling brain-damaged from the heat. Throw on most minimalist item of clothing in my wardrobe. Fill up electric kettle, make Nescafe. Yes, Nescafe. Oddly enough, it's the most popular kind of coffee here, in the land of Turkish coffee. You can get filter coffee, but it's more expensive, and I have this unfortunate knack for making expansive gestures in the kitchen which have resulted in the untimely demise of at least three French presses. So until my next trip to IKEA, it's Nescafe.

I peer at my tomato plants on the ledge. There is some brow-furrowing, because the bottom leaves are mysteriously withering up and dying, and there are only 3 tomatoes on all of my 10 plants. Something is amiss with my babies. I drench them with water, only to check them a few hours later and find them bone dry.

I head to the balcony, take the bucket of run-off water from the air conditioner and use it to douse the balcony, rinsing off the copious quantities of dust that accumulate on a daily basis.

I come back inside, and resolve to make do with open windows in lieu of A/C -- for at least a couple of hours. Start trying to think about the day's lessons. My head is a swamp -- I have discovered that the heat has a debilitating effect on my thought processes, and wreaks utter havoc on my already weak organizational abilities. Despite intense effort, I cannot concentrate. I sit down at the computer in the study and try to work. The A/C does not penetrate here, and it is overwhelmingly hot. Staring at the screen, mind drifts vacantly...I start an email, discard it, start to plan a lesson, lose track of what I wanted to do, go back to the email, feel the droplets of sweat running down my chest and legs, finally give up and go and get a glass of water. Generally I forget to refrigerate it, so it's room temperature and not at all quenching. I sit down in the study again, and again the sweat and confusion. I move to the haven of the living room and stand under the A/C. Cool, organized reason returns. A deep breath. I think I am ready.

But back in the study, sans A/C, the mental problems return. I decide to work on Levent's laptop in the living room. Ensconced on the couch, the laptop on my knees, A/C hitting me wonderfully in the face, I think I've found a workable solution. But before long the laptop gets blazingly hot, nearly burning my thighs, and again, the rivulets of sweat crank up. The couch cushions are getting sweaty. There is a general sensation of ick. I can't work at the dining room table because it's too high to type. Instead I put a pillow under the laptop and hope it will shield me from the heat, but it doesn't. Next I experiment with balancing the laptop on the arm of the sofa and typing on it that way. Sorta works, but I nearly knock the laptop off the edge a few times.

Generally I spend hours getting lessons together, partly because I am inherently slow and disorganized, and partly because of this bloody, liquefying heat. I generally finish prep at exactly the last minute, no sooner, throw on clothes, grab my ferry pass and hightail it to the terminal. It's a 10-15 minute walk, and since I'm generally in a hurry, I arrive soaked, undoing all the good of the nice cool shower, clean clothes and sweet-smelling things I put on before I left.

The ferry takes 25 minutes, and it's a peaceful ride. But lately the wind has been violently gusty, so sitting on the open deck has been a bit trying. On the inside, drinking tea, I ponder the ships that hail from distant harbors and think about time and distance and the meaning of everything. I am jolted from my reverie by a violent air horn blast signalling that we have arrived.

From the ferry, I board a bus that takes me another 20 minutes up the coast. The buses are crowded and never air-conditioned, and it is a true test of endurance to ride them in the summer. I arrive at my destination wilted, demoralized and grumpy before my lesson has even begun. My energy is ebbing...where will I find enough for myself, let alone any to give away? My student is a 10-year-old girl with nearly no English. Our lessons last an hour and a half, after which her mother, who is lonely and happy to have me there, feeds me an enormous home-cooked meal and makes conversation. She speaks no English, and talks incredibly fast. Although it is pleasure and company for her, to me it is like work -- making the enormous effort to understand, to be understood. Sometimes I wish I could escape immediately after the lesson, in the interests of self-preservation. But it is not to be...we talk for 45 minutes, and at the end I am stuffed with the food that she keeps loading on my plate, and utterly wasted from the effort of conversation.

I emerge into the blazing five o'clock sun that feels like high noon, brave the dust and exhaust of the main street, find a patch of shade in which to wait for my bus. I have never been so aware of the smell of exhaust as I am in Izmir. Whether that is because most vehicles run on diesel or because the emissions standards are lower, I don't know. But there are days when it chokes me and makes my head pound. I wait with an ever-growing group of fellow-waiters. Most people are dressed for summer -- capri pants and short skirts -- but there are also men in jeans and conservative women in the full Muslim getup, and I simply can't fathom how they do it. I am feeling faint, and know that the bus will be no relief.

The bus pulls up with a roar, we board and I get ready to endure 45 minutes of sweaty, pushing, jolting commute. Fortunately my stop is early enough on the line that I can generally get a seat. And the men here are extremely gallant, and will generally leap up to give their seats to a woman. (Although I appreciate it, I do sometimes feel bad about it, since they may well be more tired than I...) On my narrow, sweaty plastic seat, amidst the jolting and the bumping, I try to finish some last-minute prep or go over how I will present my next lesson. It's not particularly easy, however, given the circumstances.

We arrive at my stop, an enormous, bustling crossroads of three major boulevards. The sun is so intense it seems to burn holes in your forehead as you exit the bus and face into it. I forge through the traffic and the fumes and the seas of pedestrians and finally manage to cross the street into the merciful shade. At last I arrive at the language school where I teach, take the tiny, rickety elevator to the 7th floor and enter the paradise of air conditioning that is my school.

It usually takes 15 minutes of sitting there doing nothing before normal brain function returns. Other teachers are there, making copies, browsing the library, drinking tea, and we exchange pleasantries. I'm sick of talking about how hot it is, but somehow you can't escape it. Some time under the A/C finally gets me feeling a bit less like an overcooked noodle, and I start feeling a breath of optimism that maybe, just maybe, I can not only get through this two and half hour class, but can actually do well at it.

The class comes and goes. Sometimes they are enthusiastic, sometimes not, and my energy level tends to fluctuate accordingly. These days one of my classes is about to end, and the absentee rate has increased every time, and the ones who do come only do so because their bosses hold them accountable. They have worked an entire day and are tired; the suffering and fatigue is unmistakable. Inevitably, my own morale and energy sinks. But we persevere, and at 9:35 we disband and go our separate ways in the hot (recently oppressively humid) night.

Murphy's law has it that if I consistently arrive at the bus station at 9:45, the bus will consistently arrive at 9:55, but the odd times when I am delayed and arrive at 9:47, the bus will have arrived at 9:45. Odd...I've been keeping tabs on this and found it to be weirdly true... and in these hot delirious days, it could be easy to believe that the universe is out to get you...

So I wait for the bus that defies my attempts to get there not too soon and not too late, dripping with heat and fatigue, feeling not the least bit of enthusiasm about anything. The bag of teaching books and supplies that I have carried around all day must weigh 5 kilos, and is digging a groove into my right shoulder and making me lopsided. The only thing that jolts me from my semi-trance is the taxis that cruise by honking repetetively, annoyingly, as if we waiters will suddenly come to our senses and realize that a taxi was exactly what we had been looking for.

Eventually the bus roars up, belching exhaust. I climb on, ride the fume-filled, kidney-jolting, brake-abusing monster back to my side of the bay, a 40-minute journey. I stagger in the front door at around 10:30, drop my bags in a heap by the door, and stand under the A/C. A change of clothes into a slip of nothing, a huge glass of water, sometimes followed by a cold beer. A vacant feeling behind my eyes. There are intentions to do this or that bit of follow-up work for the class I just taught, or a little prep for tomorrow, or a few emails to loved ones I've been ignoring, but the tiredness gets the better of me. I sink onto the sofa, caught between the glare of the television and the whisper of the A/C, promising myself that tomorrow will be a new and better day.

Friday, July 06, 2007


Ah, summer on the Aegean. I think this pretty well sums it up.

On my 'My Yahoo' page I have saved weather forecasts for a handful of different cities. They are there because people I know and care about live in these places, and I like to check them from time to time and imagine what life is like for these people living in these places, in the weather conditions of the moment. Today it is hot, humid and still in Minneapolis, with scattered clouds lazing across the sky. I imagine my brother dashing out of an air-conditioned office for lunch and instantly being drenched by the humidity. He stands in line at a hot deli and then beats a soggy retreat to his office. New York is even more humid and windless. I imagine my little brother working in the confines an un-airconditioned autobody shop, sweating over his custom work, dying for a breath of the fresh air that can be so elusive in a New York summer, thinking of all the carefree out-of-town places he'll go on the weekend with his bicycle, his friends. In San Diego it is cool and humid and windless, and I imagine my oldest brother looking out his office window and thinking that this is a 'blah' day, and not what San Diego in summer should be, certainly not on a Friday afternoon. Back in Bremen, Germany, it's been raining for the last three weeks. It is cool and windy, and I can well imagine all my old friends there, soggy and huddling underneath nearest available overhang, grumbling about how summer in Bremen is no summer at all (reminds me of San Francisco, come to think of it). My mother has just arrived in California from her humid South China home, and I imagine her savouring the change from wilting humidity to honest heat. She has a sun hat on, and she's touring her garden, checking up on the plants she hasn't seen since last summer, glad to move without her clothes limply clinging to her skin. My father is returning today from a trip to the northeast of California, and I imagine him whizzing through the hot, pine-scented mountains and down into the blistering central valley, radio on, the air outside dry and fiery and scented with wild oats and sage.

Somehow entertaining these fantasies, however far off the mark they may be, gives me a nice sense of being more present than I actually am in the lives of people I care about. It gives me a very real sense of connection that I sometimes miss in my far-flung home.

And then of course there are the bragging rights. Doing a quick scan of all these cities this morning, I felt like a proud parent whose child has gotten the top score in the class: of all of them, my city has the most sunshine, the lowest humidity, and the most wonderful wind. It's hot and breezy and, actually, perfect. All that's missing is that as-yet unpurchased sailboat. And loved ones to share it with. Donations, anyone?

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Bathing Suits and Ballot Boxes

The elections are coming.

Summer is in full swing, and people are abandoning the city in droves and heading to their summer homes on the brilliant white beaches of Ceşme. The weather is so fine, the atmosphere so lovely and relaxed down Ceşme way, it's almost enough to fool you into thinking that all is well and the world is a carefree place of sea, sand, sun and sandwiches.

But the elections are coming, just a few weeks now, and people are expected to turn out in record numbers. Perhaps with sand still clinging to their bare feet, and the scent of sea brine on the skin, but they will be there.

In this election the Turkish people will vote in a new parliament, which will in turn select a new president. A random survey of Turks I know produced feelings ranging from ambivalence to nonchalance to extreme concern and blackest pessimism over the current state of the country and probable outcome of the elections.

Turkey is between a rock and a hard place: like the U.S., it is effectively a two-party system (there are other parties, but they don't count for much). The most powerful party -- and, it must be said, the party that has actually been the most effective in getting things done in a long time -- also happens to be conservative and religious. Liberals fear these people are laying the groundwork for an Islamic state and are slowly and methodically lining up all their chess pieces to get the country to a definitive 'check mate' somewhere down the road.

On the other hand, no one loves the opposition party. The opposition presidential candidate -- well, calling him 'opposition' is a bit of a joke, because throughout his very long career in politics, the man's entire track record consists of opposition. All he has ever done is oppose. He has produced no initiatives, brought about no positive gain for the country...does anyone really want a mere naysayer with no goals and ideals of his own in the presidential office?

It's a pretty poor choice the people are left with. Interesting, too, because in this case it is actually the Islamic party representing progress (though who knows how far it will go). I suspect the religious side will win. On the one hand, great. They've done some good. I certainly appreciate the fact that Turkey's wildly escalating currency is finally a thing of past, and I don't have to keep track of all those zeros any more. On the other hand, it's just too dang hot to wear the hijab.

So let me raise my Conservative Party Cocktail -- ingredients: two parts booze, three parts tax (and that's supermarket price, not bar price) and a dash of disapprobation -- and drink to all things in moderation.