We Have All the Projectors

I have finally made it to Van, where I will be staying for the next nine months. I came to teach English and take names. But I’ll give them back when I’m through. I just need them for a small trick.

On Monday I met with the English department head for the first time. Before I left the states, I was told that I would need to wear, as a daily uniform, a dress shirt and slacks. The teachers who inspired me in high school wore flannel and jeans, and had great big bushy beards. But they also had to teach in the Bates Annex. That’s where the ghosts were.

Anyway, I had to buy several shirts and pants. I even had to shine my shoes. And when I walked into the English department, the head was wearing a Hollister shirt.

His name is Hassan, and he is a nice old man. He, along with everyone else, wears jeans and, if they feel like it, a collar. He told me that at the university, the department was known as the English mafia, because they got the best rooms, and they “had all the projectors.” I said I was glad I had joined the right team.

I found out that I’ll be teaching conversational English to graduate students and professors; my students probably won’t have much experience at all, and most likely know nothing about dragons, so I have my work cut out for me. I’ll teach 12 hours a week, with one catch – I don’t start until mid-October.

When Hassan told me this, I was a little shocked. All the other Fulbrighters were supposed to start that day, that first Monday when they walked into the office. But I have two weeks to myself. I briefly thought about leaving immediately – I thought about traveling for a few weeks around Eastern Turkey before my classes started. But something made me reconsider. As I thought about my next two weeks, I realized I had an opportunity to rise in the English mafia. And so I asked Hassan: “Tell me – how can I get in on the projectors?”

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An Example of Turkish Generosity

Sometimes the people here in Turkey make me feel like a terrible human; they have a social level and a generosity that is beyond me. I will try to explain, using a story as well as pictures, because some of us are visual learners. I’m an olfactory learner, so I just had to be there to get it.

Last Sunday a few friends and I wanted to go to a hamam (Turkish bath). We were walking in that direction when we decided to stop for a short lunch. This was maybe around noon. Then, around four, I realized I was still smoking hookah and playing backgammon with the cafe owner. What happened, you might ask. I ask that same question every time I shake my eight ball. And all it says is, “Maybe.”

The people here in Turkey are gracious beyond words. Basically, Ur, the owner, offered to teach me backgammon. Then he had his waiters continually bring tea and coals for the hookah. The pace here in Turkey is dialed down to 3 on a scale of 3 to 10. When I got anxious about making it to the hamam, Ur said, “Do not go today. Tomorrow, come back here, and I will take you to my hamam.” Of course he said this in Turkish, and it took my group probably three minutes to translate.

(Not only did we get the hamam invite, but Ur also invited us to be his guests that night, watching the rivalry match between Turkey’s two big football clubs. When we came back, all but a few of the tables had been taken out of the restaurant, and the chairs had been arranged in rows facing a projector. Ur still gave us a table and served us dinner. After the game, when his workers were mopping the empty floors, Ur served us tea and would make vague comments about how handsome I was. I don’t say this to emphasize my good looks, but to stress that Ur and I had a relationship that almost made me uncomfortable. When we walked together, he put his arm through mine, which is a common practice in Turkey but in America it is something we call gay.)

On Monday we came back to Ur’s restaurant, and after some tea (there is always tea), he ushered the girls in our group into his car, and had one of his waiters run two blocks to flag down a taxi for the guys. It seemed like a normal task to the waiter.

The hamam itself wasn’t a 15th century marble building – it was in the second basement of a Mall of America type building. It wasn’t much to look at, but when a 250 pound mafia don-esque masseuse is trying to rip the skin off your back, you’re not really looking around. Since I still don’t speak much Turkish, the masseuse gave up talking and started slapping me when he wanted me to move. Ur came in a couple times to check on me and talk to the masseuse. I finished maybe ten minutes after everyone else, which makes me think that Ur requested the special “Extra Pain” option.

But take a minute and consider – this man took two days off to cater to a group of punk American twentysomethings; he gave us free food and tea, and then took us to a Turkish bath. He adopted us, for no reason at all, other than hospitality is in his culture.

When we finished, we all went back to Ur’s cafe to play more backgammon. After our games, Ur was quiet. Suddenly he said something, which our group’s sole Turkish speaker interpreted as, “He said he will miss you the most,” pointing to me. We laughed, and Ur spoke again; “He said you think it’s a joke, but he’s serious.” At this point I was confused, because all I did to communicate with Ur over these two days was use funny faces and charades. I was a little embarrased, so I made another funny face. Ur smiled and said something else, to which our translator said, “I’m not exactly sure, but I heard ‘Cass’ and ‘donkey.'”

Draw your own conclusions.

It Was a Good Death

Here in Ankara, we wear dress clothes everyday to attend seminars on Turkish Culture, English Teaching, and Covert Intelligence (I can’t really tell you what I’m doing in Turkey). But last Friday, after we finished our discussion on capturing and interrogating a tail, we were told by our advisors to dress extra special for dinner. Job fair? No. Even better, they said. We’re going to the Ambassador’s house.

There is no current Ambassador here in the capital; the last one was moved to Iraq this year, and there’s a hold on the nomination of the next. However, whoever was in charge that night was definitely an American. When we arrived at this fenced in forest mansion, we were hoping for some real Turkish food. Unlike the hotel dinner, something substantial and filling, like too many Oreos. Instead, as we filed onto the grass lawn, the lame-duck Ambassador announced, “I can see it in your faces – you miss your home land. Therefore, HOT DOGS FOR EVERYONE.”
I’d been gone a week, and I still hadn’t had a solid, undisputedly authentic Turkish meal. But this was hot dogs for everyone – you can’t turn that down. It’s instinctive, like some sort of hunter-gatherer culture where the hot dog traded for double it’s weight in ivory and molars.
I don’t do well with adults – I don’t know what to say. As any individual who gets by solely on humor and zero other attractive attributes will tell you, it takes a while to build credibility. You can’t just jump in. And I can’t make any other type of conversation, because that’s not the way my mind works. My one conversation with an Embassy diplomat ended with me asking if it was actually possible to catch a falling star, and if so, what kind of self-destructive person would put it in his or her pocket? It’s burning at like six trillion degrees. Celsius, of course.
But this was okay, because just that Friday afternoon I had finally established credibility with the Fulbright community. It took a week of sitting at the back of the room and mumbling jokes under my breath, but I finally came forth.
Friday we had to prepare a ten-minute micro lesson, teaching one life skill to a group of four others. In my group, we had lessons on how to tie a tie, how to make an origami hat, how to play dominoes – I taught on how to incapacitate a Yeti.
Curious? You should be, especially if you live in an area with elevation exceeding 5000 ft. There’s an acronym for it: K.N.O.T. It stands for Knee Neck Organs Throw. You see, with the abnormal speed, hideous strength, and overly evolved sense of territory, your only hope of incapacitating a Yeti is to get it on the ground. With it’s curved spine, a Yeti is incapable of rolling over on it’s stomach, once it’s on it’s back. Like a turtle, it is stuck (don’t get to cocky – it can still rip your legs off). Assuming an athletic stance, kick for the knee, grab with both hands around the neck, put a knee in it’s stomach, then step in front of the Yeti and throw it across your body and onto the ground.
As I taught this to my group of four, I made them get up and practice the moves with me. A few of them laughed and had a good time; one, Maria, and fortysomething woman with many years ESL teaching experience, was not amused. However, she eventually came along, especially after I explained the dangers of Yetis. I told the group that we had all lost relatives to the Yeti; I asked them to go around and say who in their family had been killed. One said a father. Another said a brother. When it got to Maria, she looked at me without any humor and said, “My uncle. It was a good death.”

First Impression Are Important, Unless You’re a Tourist

The Fulbright ETA’s are in Ankara for two weeks, attending seminars both on English teaching and the Turkish culture. We’re in a hotel whose name translates to “Capital Teacher House” – it’s meant especially for teachers, and in addition to housing and conference rooms it provides three eerily similar meals a day. This means that if I leave at all, I leave the hotel after sundown.

(Ankara as a city isn’t that interesting, so it’s no loss. After the country was restructured in the 1920’s, the capital was moved to this small town and built almost from scratch. It’s a pretty standard city.)

Tonight a few friends and I took the metro to Kiliray, the student friendly strip. There’s a pedestrian road there, with trees and street vendors selling socks and mix CDs (as in, these men created a playlist and are now selling it on the street. These guys don’t even have GEDs, but by golly they’re doing what they love). My friends and I stopped at a cafe and hookah lounge, where we happened to be celebrities.

Our waiter’s name transliterates to Chari (I can’t find the Turkish alphabet online – it may be banned, just like YouTube). Chari looked like a Turkish Robert Downey, Jr., and had a particularly Eurasian haircut that was business in the front, party foul in the back. He spoke less English than I speak Turkish (“thank you,” “hello,” “goodbye,” “give me the weapon”), but when he wasn’t serving customers he kept returning to our table to massage my shoulders, and saying, “very handsome, very handsome.” He brought others waiters by our table, one by one, and even had the bar’s entertainment, a musician on a elaborate guitar, play me a song (I’m not sure what Chari said, but the guitarist stopped his current song, started a new one, and stared at me long enough that I had to leave to use the restroom. When I got back, the guitarist was still looking at my empty chair).

I need to clarify that I wasn’t looking too handsome. Since I’ve left for Turkey, I haven’t done much in the way of showering. I don’t shave and I even had a Fulbrighter, during one of our business dress seminars, say, “You like to keep it casual, don’t you?” You should see my sweatpants, I replied with my mind. He was too freaked out by my telepathy to respond.

Chari’s antics attracted the attention of a table of twentysomethings, guys playing backgammon, which is the official old person game here in Turkey. They would occassionally stare at our table; I would try not to look, though we locked eyes once. I waved, though I wasn’t brave enough to say anything. The last cafe I was at, when I left I yelled, “Merehaba!” What my then waiter heard was “HELLO!” which could also mean “WHAT A GIANT TOOL I AM!”

Eventually, the table exchanged words with Chari, and after a few mime motions I figured out that they wanted to watch me smoke hookah. Like any well-rounded, confident young man I immediately became self conscious and tried to give away the hookah mouthpiece, but one of the table-sitters got out of his chair and actually put it to my lips. As I drew in a breath, they all watched silently. I began to exhale, and felt an itch in my throat that had been there the whole night. As I began to think, “Exhale slowly and act like an angry action star,” my organs replied “NEVER! And stay out of my head” and I began to cough uncontrollably.

A good portion of the patio began to laugh, and I have come to suspect that the word handsome probably means moron in Turkish.

Turks Rule the Air, Almost the World

Did you know that American Airlines doesn’t offer peanuts anymore? Peanuts used to be so cheap that my uncle would yell, “I’m getting paid peanuts!” If you yell that on an American flight, people will say, “In this economy? You’ve been blessed.”

Not in Turkey. I had an hour and a half flight from Istanbul to Ankara yesterday, rounding out a 24 hour period of travel, and they served lunch. It wasn’t even lunchtime. We left Istanbul at 1:30. And it was an inconvenient meal. As soon as we reached cruising altitude, the flight attendants were throwing these trays out. They didn’t even bother with the cart. It was like dock workers throwing fish – cous cous in the face! And I hadn’t even started my chocolate mousse before an attendant was shoveling my uneaten salad into a trash bag. She said we were preparing to land. We were preparing to take off thirty minutes ago.
You can’t get mad, though. On my ten hour flight from New York to Istanbul, it was like the attendants were trying to compost the trash on my fold out tray. They would be handing out breakfast sandwiches and say, “Oh, I’ll take the rest of your cheese tortellini.”
I was lucky this time – I didn’t get an emergency exit, but I did sit behind a woman who got an emergency exit, and she also had a broken arm. The flight attendant made her move because she was unable to operate the door. I volunteered to switch spots with her. As we disembarked in Turkey, she said to the attendant, “See – I told you we wouldn’t crash.”
On the way over the Atlantic, I watched The Green Zone and Prince of Persia. After The Green Zone I wanted to watch something much more fun and lightweight, but it turns out those movies are very similar. Apparently Prince of Persia is a thinly veiled allegory for Iraq. I’m serious. The whole movie the  king is searching for a weapons forge in this city he invaded, but it turns out his evil advisor tricked him into an attack to secure the Sands of Time. It’s a good thing Jason Bourne was there, or he might have gotten away with it.
On the flight to Ankara, the pilot made a paragraph long announcement in Turkish, and the whole plane began to clap. I thought he had just told an awesome story about how he almost met Tom Cruise or accidentally stole a car in Zurich. But during his English translation, it turned out that the Turkish national basketball team was on the flight with us. They had just lost in the FIBA finals to the U.S. I didn’t know this, however, because the Turkish papers in the airport had headlines that translated into, “CHAMPIONS.” I guess Turkey decided to pull a North Korea on that one.

I’m Leaving for Nine Months and I’m Going to Take –

I’m packing tonight for Turkey. I’ll be in a remote region, in Van (pronounce Juan because of the strong Hispanic connections in the Middle East), and I’m trying to prioritize my things. What matters most to me? What will provide the most entertainment? What can hold the most heroin?

I have a 72 disc binder; it has three seasons of Buffy, the collected series Firefly, a few video games to get me through the Pankratium (November 22nd), and some throwing stars. They’re just for goodluck – I haven’t had to use them since January. I also packed ten or so books to get me by before my Kindle arrives. One day it’ll show up at my door, and I’ll think to myself, “I should’ve changed those stupid locks.” We have a destructive relationship, but I can’t get away.

Mostly I’m just scared. My parents built a nice new house on the lake, and I don’t want to leave it. My dad and I sat on the porch this afternoon and read until I finished my book. I don’t want to lose that. In the end I know I’ll be thrilled to be in Turkey on Tuesday, but the goodbye tomorrow is the part I don’t like.

I leave Sunday morning at 7:30 a.m., and I’ll arrive in Ankara, the capital of Turkey, at 4:00 p.m. on Monday. It’s called time travel, and it’s one of the services I offer. I’ll be in Ankara for two weeks for training.

I can’t fit my multi-tool into the heel of my Chaco. I want to have it on the plane just in case I’m in an emergency exit row, but the security guards always confiscate. I thought I had them fooled, but I can’t make it work. They’d never think to look in my shoes.

Who’s the Terrorist Now?

I spent all yesterday traveling. I visited Montana, and had to fly through Seattle and Dallas to get back to Arkansas. The people who run Montana try to limit access; they make it hard to get in, and they make it hard to get out. I felt like I was on Shutter Island, except that I totally wasn’t crazy. Everyone else is crazy. Especially the old people in Montana. They were following me with their eyes.

In Seattle my plane was delayed because of heavy rains in Dallas. When the pilot announced it on the intercom he laughed the way America laughs when another county has an economic crisis. Oh yeah, America says, that was last week for me. And yesterday. Probably tomorrow as well. But regardless we had to file out of the plane, peruse the gift shop (another bowl of clam chowder? I don’t see why not), and line up to get checked in again. We were not happy with Dallas.

Because of this two hour delay, when we landed in Dallas I had fifteen minutes until my next plane took off. This was a workable situation until I realized my pilot had landed on the exact opposite side of the airport from our gate. This was like the time my drunk fake uncle Patrick parked across a sewer drainage system from the back of a TJMaxx. “What luck! Now who wants designer clothes for less?” Great, Patrick – now we have to swim for it. And I’m not going to call you uncle anymore. I’m eight years old – I know who my real relatives are.

By the time we parked the plane, I had zero minutes, but I was still going to make an effort. I tightened my backpack straps and ran like a dish washer – a military grade dish washer – to the next gate. When I got there it was too late, but they gave me a ticket for the next flight out, leaving in ten minutes from a terminal two letters away. Why? Why not group all these flights together? Why can’t humans teleport? Why did uncle Patrick have to lie?

When I got to the gate it was already closed, but a jet bridge worker scanned me in. I couldn’t tell him anything. I was breathing too hard. I just help up my ticket and he took it. I was seated in the back of the plane the minute departure was scheduled for, but for some reason, the plane didn’t leave. We sat on the tarmac for possibly ten minutes (I almost bought an eight foot tall Anubis statue from Sky Mall, but I didn’t have the money. I ripped out the page just in case) when the flight attendant announced that there was an extra person on board, according to the headcount, and they couldn’t take off until he or she was off the plane.

I felt like the nice middle aged lady next to me grabbed my stomach and twisted. That was me. I was the extra person. I was the terrorist. After a few seconds deliberation, I raised my hand. I explained the situation and showed the attendant my ticket, but she said I was accounted for. I was okay. I let out a sigh as she left, and was about to reopen Sky Mall (mix my own sodas at home? I think I will) when I realized that if it wasn’t me, then there actually was a sleeper unit on this plane. Someone had snuck on, and who knows what kind of throwing stars he had in his belt. Probably ones tipped with poison or sneezing powder. Just as I was working myself up, the flight attendant found him. He was in his thirties, a bigger man who looked like a normal t-ball coach. They all do, I had to tell myself as he was asked to leave the plane.

The woman next to me leaned over and said, “He looks normal, but you never know. They can’t be too cautious after 9-11.” I realize I just said that as a joke, but it was a joke. This woman was serious. I looked at her. She was probably in her mid-forties. She had sandy blonde hair, glasses and big necklace jewelry, and frail skinny arms. I asked her where she was coming from, and she said a Veteran’s hospital in Houston. Did she have someone there she was visiting? No, she said, I was there. “I was in the military in the eighties, but they pulled me back into service for Iraq because of what I do.” I smiled. What do you do, plan out the menu? She responded without humor, “No. I’m in intelligence. I was an interrogator.” I went to the bathroom and stayed there the rest of the flight.

Not Only am I Back, But I’m Standing Right Behind You

I’m kidding, just kidding. Really I’m underneath your bed, and I’ll grab your ankles before you lay down to take a nap tomorrow afternoon. Don’t believe me? THEN LOOK UNDER THERE.

But seriously. I spent the last three months at a summer camp, and boy do I love children. They taste like veal. I have many stories of silly things campers did and extremely stupid things counselors did, and hopefully over the next few weeks I’ll share some of those if I feel like it. Honestly some days I wake up and everything feels like a lie. Those are the days I just make up stuff while I type.

A few of my friends and I went to see The Expendables last night for four dollars, and was it ever worth four dollars! I half expected to hear Terry Crews lament, “If I had a nickel for every torso I exploded,” and then I would hand him my four dollars and search around in my pocket for fifty five more cents. I’m still having trouble processing what happened. By the time the credits came around, I was astonished – they actually hired a writer. Someone got paid. Have you ever seen a movie or read a book and thought, I could do better? Well that wasn’t The Expendables. You can’t script improvisational genius. I’m pretty sure no one tried to script Mickey Rourke. All of his scenes were probably filmed in his home, and all the dialogue was actually him speaking frankly to Stallone on candid camera. But why am I talking about this?

Halfway through the summer my plans for next year changed. I was planning on working for BYX Nationals as a chapter consultant, but in late June I was notified that I received a Fulbright grant. Most people that I tell are from Arkansas, and assume this means the Fulbright Arts and Sciences College at the University, but nay, it’s actually a government program. It’s pretty prestigious, but I don’t say that for myself – I was an alternate’s alternate. The only reason I got the scholarship was because eighteen other people turned it down; the last one said, “Why don’t you give it to Cass? We’ll all get a laugh from that.”

The grant I have will send me to Turkey for nine months. I’ll be teaching English in a university there. I’ll be in southeast Turkey, right next to the borders of Iraq and Iran, so I’ll be sure to get you a souvenir. I hear crossing the border is as easy as one two three months in prison. However, instead of writing about a fraternity, I’ll now be writing about a foreign culture. I hope that’s cool with you.

I may not be deserving of this grant, but do you know who else won a Fulbright scholarship, fair and squizare? Dolph Lungdren, who portrayed Gunner in The Expendables while wearing a rubber Gary Busey mask. Dolph has a masters degree in chemical engineering, and won a Fulbright to attend MIT, but quit after two weeks because Stallone asked him to punch murder Apollo Creed. That’s the kind of spring board I’m hoping this turns out to be.