Saturday, August 8, 2009

Today I met up with my friend August to walk around Ulus, the old part of Ankara. After a bit of wandering, we found the Haci Bayram mosque, one of the oldest and most revered mosques in the city. Haci Bayram was a Muslim mystic who founded a dervish order centered in Ankara in the 15th century. Unfortunately, my lack of understanding of Islamic mysticism prevents me from going into much detail, but basically, dervishes were orders of mystics who had certain rituals or beliefs in addition to the teachings of the Koran. Westerners are most familiar with the whirling variety, but that's actually only one dervish order, the Mevlevi (followers of Mevlana, aka Rumi), who were originally based in Konya.

(Note: It's hard to tell if you don't know how Turkish is read, but the word haci = the more familiar hadji, a person who has gone on the hadj, the pilgrimage to Mecca.)

Anyway, this mosque is very pretty and also houses Haci Bayram's tomb. August and I decided that since there were plenty of tourists (albeit all Turkish ones) there, it would be ok for us to be touristy and go in, too. We only had one head scarf between us, so I took it first, donned it, yanked down my knee-length skirt a little to make it cover more leg, took off my shoes and prepared to go in.

Just as I was about to hand August my purse to hold, an obviously religious middle-aged woman coming out of the mosque came up to me, put her hands on my shoulders, kissed my cheeks and said (in Turkish): "Thank you! Thank you so much, my dear! My good girl!" Apparently she was overwhelmed that a foreigner and apparent non-Muslim would cover her hair to go into a mosque. Unfortunately, I was rendered speechless by this display, so the woman didn't even have any way of knowing that I understood what she was saying. Still, August and I agreed that it pretty much made our day.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Cranky post

On Tuesday we had our end-of-program talent show. It wasn't really the end of the program - we still have another week - but the junior version of our program (high school kids) are leaving tomorrow, so we did it with them.

Part of the show was a reenactment of a kina gecesi, a henna night. This is a party that happens the night before a wedding, where a bride's hands are painted with henna and her female friends and relatives sing her songs about marriage, like the one we sang:

Let them not build their house on a high, high hill.
Let them not take our girl to a faraway land.
Let them not despise our girl, the apple of her mother's eye.

Let it be announced even to the birds in the sky: I miss my mother.
I miss my mother, and my father, and my village.

I wish my father had a horse, so he could get on it and come to me.
I wish my mother had a sail, so she could unfurl it and come to me.
I wish my siblings knew where I was, so they could come to me.

Yeah. Most depressing wedding song ever. It's from the days when marriage sucked even more for Turkish women than it does now. Usually brides came from a different village (as is the practice in many traditional cultures), so marriage often represented a girl leaving everything she knew to go live as the lowliest family member in a new household.

(As for marriage sucking for Turkish women now, I could write a lot about my impression of gender relations here, but I won't... yet.)

Apropos of that, my host mom keeps asking me if I miss my mom. Every time she asks, I say, "A little bit." To be honest, living in Turkey is not that different from living in DC - I'm not in the same place as my mom, and we talk on the phone sometimes. So I've explained to Host Mom several times that I don't live with my parents, but she doesn't really seem to be able to comprehend that. (Turkish kids live with their parents until they get married, and many of my friends' 20-something host siblings actually seem completely unable to function (e.g. feed themselves) without their mothers.) Finally last night she asked me why I always say "a little bit." Instead of explaining yet again that I don't live with my parents anymore, I said, "In American culture, it's not so good for a 25-year-old to complain about how much she misses her mom." She was shocked. It led to a long and uncomfortable conversation about how egocentric (I would say "individualistic") Americans are, how no one ever helps each other in America. I heard a lot of that in Russia, too. I do think American society is more individualistic than group-mentality based, but I get tired of defending it to people who think it's the worst thing ever rather than just a different way of doing things.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009


I am used to seeing people with strange English phrases and nonexistent English place names on them; this seems to pretty much be a part of global culture by now (as are misspellings of "Dolce and Gabbana"). Nana and Justin had a great post about some knockoff Pittsburgh Steelers stuff in Korea that said something like "Peanutsburg Nutters." The best ones I've seen in Turkey so far have been "Flip-Flop Fanatic" with a clip-art pair of flip-flops (on a man, twice); "I am Summer Muffin!" with a photorealistic cupcake in heart-shaped sunglasses, and "Don't live on the hillside" in threatening Goth letters on a black shirt.

But yesterday on the bus I saw a guy in a shirt that said something like "Since 1956 Genuine Ice Hockey All-League Stars", with SANDUSKY in big letters above that. I definitely did a double take. Where did some t-shirt designer with questionable English skills pull Sandusky out of? The ones in Ohio (Upper and regular) are the only Sanduskies I know of.

Tonight I am leaving on a night bus for Alanya, a resort town (with a castle!) on the Mediterranean coast. I have never seen the Mediterranean. I have never been scuba diving. I have never river-rafted. (Ok, maybe I've river-rafted. I'm not sure.) I will do all of these things in the next three days, thanks to your (and my) tax dollars! Thanks, U.S. Department of State!

Monday, July 27, 2009

Istanbul - 1

Yikes, it’s been a week since Istanbul and I still haven’t written about it! Sorry about that. I guess part of the reason for that is that it’s hard to turn a trip into an interesting blog post. Somehow “we went here, and then we went here, and then we went here” isn’t very entertaining to write (or read, I presume). I’ll do what I can.

We arrived in Istanbul early in the morning on a Thursday via overnight train from Ankara. The train station where we disembarked was on the Asian side of the city; we immediately took a ferry to the European side, which is where most of the interesting stuff is. Istanbul is divided into European and Asian sides by the Bosphorus, which connects the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara. The European side of the city is further split into a northern and southern section by a bay called the Golden Horn.

This reminds me, in Vladivostok there was a bay called the Golden Horn, named after the one in Istanbul. I always sort of wondered about that, and can now say with certainty that besides being hilly and having bodies of water called the Golden Horn in them, Vladivostok and Istanbul are nothing alike. Ok, that’s not true, they also both have funiculars. But Istanbul has two and Vladivostok only has one.

So once we got to the European side, rode the funicular up the hill and dropped our things off at the hotel, we immediately started sightseeing. This was both the best thing about the trip and the thing I regret the most: we were only in Istanbul for three days, and our time was packed with seeing the many historic sites the city has to offer. I’m glad I got to see all those famous places, but I also wish I had gotten to see more of the Istanbul that people actually live in. Istanbul is a rabbit warren that’s home to an estimated 12 to 18 million people. The fact that the estimate is that wide should tell you something about the city - there’s been a lot of migration there from villages and small towns all over Turkey in the last 30 years or so, and the upshot of that is slums, shantytowns, and untold numbers of un-censused citizens.

Orhan Pamuk more eloquently described Istanbul as an “archipelago of neighborhoods,” which captures a lot more of the romance of the city than what I wrote above. Despite not having much time devoted to wandering off the beaten path, I did get at least a taste of that idea. We stayed in Beyoglu, which feels European in every sense, from the variety of shops, restaurants and galleries on Istiklal Caddesi, the main street, to the narrow, winding, cobblestoned side streets housing bars and coffeeshops. My first night in Istanbul I met up with Kevin, who studies at Georgetown with me and is doing the advanced version of the CLS program at Bogazici University (in Istanbul). We met up with a friend of his and had dinner and drinks at a rooftop café, then went to a different café on one of the aforementioned side streets to smoke nargileh (hookah, or “water-pipe” as the Turks charmingly (and literally) translate it). By 9 p.m. any night of the week (but especially the weekend), Istiklal Caddesi is absolutely packed with people, both Turks and tourists, out for a night on the town. Our second night there I was part of an exciting parade/putsch of eight or nine of us in search of a non-crowded bar (we didn’t find one, although we did find a bar we could at least fit into). So yeah. Beyoglu is apparently the place to be (or one of the places to be?) if you’re in Istanbul to party.

In contrast, I also spent a lot of time across the bay in Eminonu and Sultanahmet. There’s not a lot to say about the character of Sultanahmet, since it’s home to both the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia, probably Istanbul’s most famous attractions (did you know they’re right NEXT TO each other? I had no idea. It makes me feel a little better about the fact that I often can’t tell them apart.), and is therefore super touristy. Eminonu, though also touristy, appears to contain at least a few actual Turks. As you can all see from my Facebook album (I’m pretty sure everyone who reads this is Facebook friends with me, but you can correct me if I’m wrong), the New Mosque, which is right on the Bosphorus in Eminonu, is much less touristy-crowded than the Blue Mosque. We went there near 5 o’clock prayer, and there were a decent number of people who appeared to be there for just that. Anyway, Eminonu as a whole does not have the same vibe as Beyoglu at all - it feels old, but in a different way, not the Western European kind of old. It helps that the Egyptian Bazaar and the Covered Bazaar (usually called the Spice Bazaar and the Grand Bazaar in English) are both there. Bazaars are pretty much as Oriental(ist) as you can get, so the narrow, winding streets, old buildings and wide squares there feel more foreign than Beyoglu.

Wow, this is already super long, so I will continue with a log of what we actually saw and did in my next post!

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Crack rice and other delicacies

Our first week here, we all went out to lunch at a kebap place. The rice they served us was so good one of my classmates christened it "crack rice" for its addictive properties. I've had the same delicious rice many times since then, and it turns out that the secret is that before you boil it, you cook the raw rice in melted butter for a few minutes, until it turns translucent.

Seriously, the Turks are a people who know how to make good use of fat in cooking. For example, most of their vegetable dishes involve soaking/cooking the veggies in olive oil and serving them cold. (I maintain that there is nothing more delicious than eggplant in olive oil. Yum.) It rarely tastes overly heavy or greasy, though. That's one of the best things about Turkish food. Unless you're eating a big kebap, none of it makes you feel gross. (Don't worry, I haven't deluded myself into believing that that makes it healthy.)

So, the other night my host mom served me a plate of spaghetti noodles in a light red sauce. "Do you make pasta this way in America?" she asked.

"Um, yes," I said, "I'm pretty sure it's Italian."

"Right." She put the plate down in front of me and stood over me as I took a bite. "Well? Is it the same?" she asked.

"Not exactly," I said. "Say... did you use butter in this?"

"Yes!" she replied. "Both butter and olive oil! I add them before I add the sauce. It makes it taste better."

"It sure does," I agreed, silently thinking crack spaghetti.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Things we shouldn't tell people from other countries

Never try to explain that in the U.S., removing your shoes when entering a house is generally optional. (At least, if you're talking to someone from a culture where this is not the case.) It's nearly impossible to convince people that this isn't filthy and disgusting. Actually, I guess it is pretty dirty. Why do we do that?

It's also been pretty hard to explain to my host mom that pork products are delicious and nutritious. The face she makes reminds me of the face some Americans made when I said that they eat horses in Iceland.

Apropos of that, I had "veal ham" in Istanbul. Not because I was seeking it out - it just happened to be on a sandwich that sounded otherwise delicious. It tasted hammy, I guess. I also had a whole fish there. Those of you who know my feelings about fish will find this hard to believe. To clarify, I was served a whole fish, but even after getting someone else to remove the things that made it look gross and fish-like from my plate (to my credit, I at least tried! I did ok until I had to pull out the spine, GROSS), I probably only ate a quarter of it. Sorry, I have trouble finding things that are booby-trapped with hundreds of tiny bones appealing to put in my mouth.

Oh, yeah! I went to Istanbul. It was an awesome trip and it's my new favorite city (please, nobody tell St. Petersburg!). I will write more about it shortly!

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Ticks and other devious creatures

I did not go back to the hospital tonight for my second bloodletting to see if I have hemorrhagic fever. I laugh in the face of danger!

My host mom keeps telling me I've lost weight. Ha. She apparently thinks I am an amateur at living among peoples who enjoy overfeeding their guests, and have a will that is easy to break with innocent-sounding compliments. But thanks to my experience in Russia, I see this for what it really is: a devious ploy to get me to eat even MORE of the delicious food she heaps on my plate at every meal. Nice try, Nursen Teyze.

Today in class we had a mini "evaluation" of the program so far (one of our teachers is also the program director for Ankara) in which we critiqued our host families, language classes, and supplementary lectures in Turkish. I said, "I like my host family, but they don't understand that sometimes I just don't want to eat." My teacher's response was, "If I had known they were from Erzurum, I would have warned you. You never stood a chance. With people from Erzurum, there is no chance not to eat. You will be able to roll back to America."

I did not know this about people from Erzurum. All I really know about Erzurum, which is a city in eastern Anatolia, is that the people there hold a hard candy in their mouth while drinking tea instead of sweetening the tea, and the word they use for "cup, glass" (bardak in standard Turkish) is istakan, borrowed from Russian stakan. Nursen Teyze's mom told me that when she found out I spoke Russian. I was very pleased to learn this (because I am a dork who loves word borrowings), but I still refused to let her convince me to take a second helping of lentil soup. I will prevail!

Sunday, July 12, 2009

In which a tick mistakes me for its dinner and reaches a sad end.

So yesterday we went on a hike in Kizilcahamam, a region not far from Ankara with lots of hills and forests and things. The hike was led not by our diminutive middle-aged language instructor, Neşe, but by a totally jacked 40-year-old male phys ed teacher who assured us that the "medium-level" hike we chose would be nice and easy (since the "easy" hike was for children). We were accompanied by Nilay, the young (and also pretty buff) beginning Turkish instructor who we all love.

Well, fifteen kilometers later I think most of us (except maybe Nilay) agreed that the hike, while fun, was by no means easy. I'll have pictures of it later, because the scenery was great and as we climbed the mountain we kept passing through different biomes - Alpine-esque meadows, dry pine forest, wet pine forest, desert. It smelled amazing, too, as we kept walking through patches of thyme and lavender.

So at the end of the hike we stopped for a bathroom break and I found a tick halfway up my thigh. Unfortunately, while I'm pretty average as far as being grossed out by bugs is concerned, I do startle easily, and I sort of screamed in the bathroom when I found it. I mean, you would too. There was a bug with its HEAD buried in my LEG, WAVING ITS LITTLE LEGS IN GLEE AS IT SUCKED MY BLOOD. Eww.

Amusingly, as soon as we found the tick, everyone started trying to reassure me that it was exceedingly unlikely that I was going to get Crimean-Congo hemorrhagic fever, and that even if I did the death rate in Turkey was only 5%, not 30% like in Africa. I think I was the only one who was not the least bit concerned about tick-borne illnesses. I mean, really. There have been zero recorded cases of hemorrhagic fever in the Kizilcahamam area. How unlucky would I have to be to not only be the first person to get it there, but to get it from a tick that had probably been in my leg for less than an hour? I do appreciate their reassurances, though, because if I had been worried about hemorrhagic fever I would have been REALLY scared. (Do yourself a favor - don't google it. It's gross.)

Anyway, Nilay was 100% against pulling the tick out ourselves, and she convinced me we should go to the village hospital to get it removed. I thought this was a little excessive but also understood that resistance was futile. So we went, and the hospital staff was exceedingly nice about it. As I waited for paperwork to be done (total wait time: five minutes, tops - yay!), an old woman with no front teeth sitting in the waiting room asked me worriedly where the tick had bitten me. "In the mountains," I said, but maybe she was asking about my body and not my surroundings? Who knows. Turkish is confusing.

So they pull the tick out and put it in a little vial and rub my leg with iodine. Then they explain that both the tick and I need to go to Ankara and get tested for hemorrhagic fever. A lot of discussion in Turkish ensues and the doctors, Nilay and I decide together that if I have to get tested in any case, testing the tick is probably unnecessary. The tick is summarily drowned in a bleach bath. (Moment of silence for the tick.)

Between then and getting back to Ankara, another guy in my program also finds a tick, but he pulls it off without thinking. But then he gets worried, too, and so in Ankara we both go (accompanied by Nilay and the jacked phys ed instructor) to the hospital, a huge pink building whose waiting room and front lawn are one and the same. They ask us difficult questions like our phone numbers (I am tired and cannot remember how to say "eight") and our parents' names (the secretary gives up when I say something as bizarre as "Kathy" and just enters "R" for my mom and "P" for my dad). Then they take our blood. The woman didn't wipe my arm down with alcohol before she stuck the needle in, and I subsequently had a nightmare about blood poisoning. I know, it's really dumb that I'm not scared of hemorrhagic fever but I am worried about that.

Anyway. Then they scold for not bringing the ticks (apparently only one of like eight species of ticks carries hemorrhagic fever, and they could have told by looking at them), make us wait for an hour (on the lawn/waiting room) and tell us our blood is clean. And that we should come back on Tuesday to make sure it's still clean then. Also we get printouts of our lab analyses, on which I learned (among other things) that my hematocrit is normal. Hooray?

All in all, it was pretty interesting to see how Turkish hospitals work (twice!) and have my first-ever tick bite, but I'm not looking forward to returning to the hospital, and the next time I venture into the wilderness here - assuming I'm not dead by Tuesday - I'm definitely putting on bug spray.

Saturday, July 11, 2009


I can't believe I ate a sheep intestine sandwich last night.

It was actually pretty good.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Today's Special

The CLS program through which I came to Turkey is really awesome. Not only do we go on all sorts of trips (next week: ISTANBUL!!!!), they organize special lectures and things for us, too. Yesterday the assistant to the UN High Council on Refugees in Turkey (I think I just botched that title, but you get the idea) came and gave a talk, and in doing so gave me a potential thesis topic (yay!).

And today, instead of six hours of Turkish (which, it turns out, not one person in our class can handle more than twice a week), we're going to visit parliament and the AK party headquarters!

I'm sure you all know what a parliament is, so I won't describe that. The AK party is the party of Erdogan, the prime minister, and Gul, the president. Or maybe the president can't officially have a party; I forget. AKP definitely backed him when he was running, at any rate. It's a hard party to figure out - it's accused of being "Islamist" (both Erdogan and Gul's wives wear headscarves) and a lot of the Turkish educated elite doesn't like them. (Including my host mother - I learned the words "reactionary" and "ignorant" in conversations with her about the AKP.) My host sister says she thinks they are trying to form an "Islamic bourgeoisie" and are basically giving money to conservative Muslims to do so, a fear based on the increasing numbers of headscarved women in more middle-class and affluent neighborhoods in Ankara.

On the other hand, my Turkish teacher has pointed out that AKP is the only party that's presented a reasonable plan for EU accession, and is in several other ways a party cut from Western liberal-democratic cloth. Politics is not really my cup of tea (although if it were, it would be my 587th cup of tea since arriving in Turkey), so I don't have much personal insight to add to this. I sort of wish I did... Anyway, I don't think I'll be figuring out anything earth-shaking today, but still, it should be a really interesting trip! Also, we get free lunch!