“I’ll See You Tomorrow”

This week marked my third week to teach professors at Yuzuncu Yil University, but it was also my first week to teach the medical faculty. I now have two separate classes on two separate campuses – the regular professors (education, theology, veterinarians) and the doctors.

The doctors are much cooler.

Campus is about 20 minutes outside of the city of Van; the medical faculty is located in the heart of the city. Everyday after lunch, the medical faculty sends a car to pick me up and bring me to the city. Everyday the car is driven by the same Turk, Niza Matin.

Niza is probably sixty, and looks like all other sixty year old Turkish men: a little pudgy, five year old mustache, wears a suit everyday. Each time I get in the car, Niza is sweating. Like beads, running down the side of his face.

He also speaks no English, but he talks the entire ride. I try to look at him while he talks, and nod, saying, “Tamam” during the pauses (basically, “Okay”). I have to listen hard for the change in pitch, if he’s asking a question – when he asks a question, he usually looks at me. I used to say, “I don’t understand,” but that never stopped him, so I don’t anymore. Now I say things like, “You know, Tom Cruise said the exact same thing to me yesterday at the club.” Then Niza will say, “Tamam.”

The difference between the medical faculty and my regular students, besides the doctors being a little bit more advanced, is imagination. They talk all the time, and they just run with questions that I ask them. For instance, when I ask my regular class to pretend that they are meeting one another for the first time, they ask me to restate the question a few times, then say “Hello,” to one another. In Turkish.

I gave this task to the doctors. The first pair, a surly old man named Bulent and the only woman, Sahran, began innocently enough until Bulent asked Sahran how her operation went. She got confused, and Bulent clarified. “I heard they took out your kidney.” Sahran turned to me and said this wasn’t true, but Bulent interrupted. “I am pretending.

The absolute scariest part of my day is when Niza drives me home. My first day, the outbound traffic, towards the university, was clogged. We were stuck. Niza muttered a few Turkish curses then jumped the median between our lane and incoming traffic. Then we drove for three minutes in the incoming traffic lane. And it was just as full as our lane.

As I got out of the car later and tried to hide the pee stains on my pants, I was shutting the door, with my hand in the small crack between the frame and the window (I rolled it down to throw up in fear), Niza rolled the window up on my fingers, trapping them. Then he pulled out of the parking lot. I ripped my fingers out of the door and waved limply. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”


Van Tourism: Mission Accomplished

There are basically four things in Van – Akdamar Island, Van Castle, the Muradiye waterfall, and the Van cat. Look at any Coca-Cola billboard, and you’ll see all four, stacked one on top of the other – the waterfall as a base, with the castle on top of it, mounted by the church at Akdamar, and finally ruled over by a humongous white cat head. Walk into any fast food restaurant in town to see this startling vision of how things could be.

Two weeks ago, Murat and I went to Akdamar; last week I went to Van Castle and was robbed by ten year  olds; occasionally I see these white cats watching me from the bushes. Who knows what they’re planning? So this weekend it was time to go see the waterfall.

We took Nevzat’s father’s car about an hour north of the city. Nevzat has a driver’s license, but that can mean different things in Turkey. It can mean that once, a long time ago, he passed a short driving test. That’s just a personal guess. The car was a stick shift, and for the hour Nevzat drove, Cihat and Bulent were yelling, “Bir. Iki. Uch – no, uch! Durt. DURT!” calling out the gear names as Nevzat shifted. While this was going on, I was yelling, “CRANK THE EVANESCENCE!” The band’s debut album, smash hit of 2002, was in the CD player.

You may be able to tell from the picture that I got the wrong signal about hands on shoulders. Nevzat, on the left, is obviously not going for it.

People in Turkey love the picnic. Everyone is just picnicking uncontrollably. And it shows – the area on which we threw down our Turkish blanket was littered with plastic trash. It was a little sad, and my friends agreed. It is like this in the southeast, they said. People do not think about preserving the pretty places. However, we picked up our picnic, though it was no type of picnic I’ve ever experienced. Cihat threw down a portable grill, filled with coals it took the better part of a half hour to stoke. That was Bulent’s job. Nevzat cut up the salad, which is basically just tiny chunks of cucumber and tomato and a few other vegetables. My job was to put out the vibe. I was pretty decent at it until I got light headed because I was standing in the smoke. Bulent had to physically move me.

Not Pictured: Troll who lives under the bridge. Out to lunch.

We were there for a few hours, grilling chicken and losing in cards (may have just been me). On the way home we switched to Green Day (“CLASSIC” I yelled over the sputtering motor. For some reason we had to keep it under 90 kph. Cihat said to not pay any attention to the engine light). They dropped me off after dark; as I went to bed, I realized I had forgotten to eat dinner. I thought about the cookies I have hoarded, but then I realized I wasn’t hungry anymore. Picnic indeed.

“You Are Boring”

I’m teaching forty year old professors. It should be easy, right? Civilized, enlightening, reflective? Perhaps even esoteric (I think that’s where fresh water and salt water meet; I read it in a book on screenwriting). The answer to these adjectives and most other positives ones you can find in a thesaurus is no. If you compare them to animals, they will most be like man cubs – raised by monkeys, but still four years old.

(Just in case any of these professors has found my blog and Google translated it, that was a little harsh, I admit. You are most like the campers I had at Camp War Eagle. Like twelve year old boys. How about that?)

After a week and a half of teaching, I’ve spotted the types. There’s a fifty-something professor of theology who is the kid who knows all the answers. And all the answer return to the spiritual character of a man. Even the answers about the weather in the Black Sea region. “WE – BELIEVE – IT IS – THE SOUL OF A MAN -”

“Yes, Hiyat, that is very true. What other kind of weather does the Black Sea have? Anyone?”

There are two best friends, women who speak very little Turkish, who giggle at every mispronounciation  I make. Today when we were talking about marriage, I repeated what a student said – that the bride and the groom are ceremonially bathed before the wedding – and these two women began laughing like schoolgirls, laughing so hard they couldn’t speak enough words to explain that what I had said was funny to fourteen year olds.

Then there’s the kid who won’t answer anything. “Faruk,” I say, “what is your favorite movie?” And Faruk just shakes his head, ‘no’. He’s a big man, and he sits in the back with his arms crossed. He has nice ties, though.

Today I had to create two rules: 1) No Turkish, and 2) Only one person speaks at a time. In the beginning I thought we could get by on mutual respect. We are all adults (well, everyone except me). But something happened last night that made me reevaluate.

After class yesterday, I was in my office when there was a knock. A woman from my class came in, and with the help of a friend she told me that it was too loud in class for her to understand. I knew this was my fault and told her I would fix it. Then, she said, “And…you are boring.” What? “You…are boring?” We stood confused for a few seconds before she left, and then it was confirmed – my class was boring.

Later on that night I attended an intramural soccer game of my peers (English Dept vs. Education Dept; we play every week, and we roll them. We have this old man who I swear never moves more than twenty feet in either direction, but can pass a soccer ball like a lead bb), I caught a ride into town with a player who had to pick up his wife. It turned out his wife was the very same woman who thought I was boring. With the help of the others in the, I eventually understood that she meant to ask me if I was bored in class. Whoa. Big relief. But then the car went on to talk about my class for the next fifteen minutes in Turkish, and no one would translate.

Swindled and, in the End, Happy

Yesterday, for the first time in Turkey, I was ripped off by three elementary school age kids. I’m not even mad. It was pretty clever, in hindsight.

I took a bus to Kale, the Van Castle. Van Castle overlooks the city; it sits on a brief outcropping of rock, and you can easily see the walls that have been reconstructed, which are white, compared to the old, original castle. Still impossible to scale, though, as I found out.

My bus dropped me on the wrong side of the castle walls – the side where attackers would die gruesomely because they couldn’t find a way up. I was walking along an access road, trying to find the main gate (my guide book said there was a small cluster of gift shop/tea house/museum type buildings somewhere) when I was approached by three cute little kids. They knew a little English, and offered to take me into the castle. Thinking it would be a short trip, I agreed.

Show me a chain link fence in Turkey, and I’ll show you a hole in it. Probably directly in front of us. If I’ve only learned one thing here, it’s that, but I’ve learned two things – children can be as sinister as adults, or robots, even. As these kids took me up a path only they knew, criss-crossing the steep slope up to the foot of the walls, I realized I would have to tip them a little. Maybe a lira, for getting me to the castle entrance. I was already regretting my decision to go with them, because the foot wide path we walked was often pushed to the edge of something that could be classified as “a long way down.” I realized that my fear of heights had kicked in when I saw the ten year old girl in front of my offering to help me up a boulder.

It happened when we reached the pinnacle. I looked back at the path we had came up, and couldn’t see it – I had no idea how to go back down. It was the same in front of me – I didn’t know how to proceed. The kids knew this. And at this point, they asked for money.

It was the oldest one. He was maybe twelve. He asked for five lira, and I said one. We flipped flopped until we reached three, and I paid. This all happened in Turkish, and I would have been stoked about the language exchange if I hadn’t been thinking about how I needed to change my underwear when I got down. The oldest boy took the money and then ran past me, climbed a straight up rock face, and disappeared. Oh no.

Right before he Ocean’s Eleven‘d me.

There were still two kids left, making gestures of want. I panicked. Do you ever sit in a quiet place, like a funeral or a Broadway show, and have an irrational fear that you’re about to scream? You get worried that, like turrets, you’re about to let loose some terrifying loud noise and ruin the moment for everyone? I do, all the time. And on the top of this rock, fifteen feet from any edge, I had this fear that at any moment, against my will, some insane portion of my brain was about to make a run and jump for it, to try to fly. I pointed at both kids; “Besh ve besh, if you can get me down from this death trap.” They said yes.

Not Pictured: Courage. Or dignity.

As we walked along the ramparts of the castle, it became apparent that I wasn’t supposed to be here. This area was obviously not open to the public, because it was still under construction. Concrete mixers, sandbags, and even wet walkway – I left a shoe imprint at one of the nooks where archers used to stand to shoot arrows at bad guys.

Eventually, after I taught the kids the phrase, “Don’t look down,” we made it to the bottom. I paid them both five lira and gave them a hug, saying, “I never want to see this place again.” We parted, and I started walking in field at the foot of the castle, where a few ruins were spread out. After about an hour, I came to the actual Van Castle, where a two lira ticket would get you passage up a wide gravel road to the top. I figured, what the heck, and went up there to see if it was any different. It wasn’t, and it was full of tourists. I laughed to myself, because they were not getting the real experience. The real experience included a real fear of death.

On my way back down I saw a Japanese family with the little girl who had shown me around. She called me by name, and I gave her a high five. The Japanese man said if I needed it, she could show me around – that she knew the castle well. “No worries, Nintendo,” I said. “Shorty and I are cool.”

You Can Call Me Mega-Fast Wind

When I first arrived in Van (positioned on Lake Van, right, as seen from space – note the resemblance to a phoenix), my home for the next nine months, I was told the university wasn’t ready for me. The classes I was supposed to teach didn’t yet exist, and it wasn’t possible for them to mentally prepare enough for my style of dress. That’s okay, I said. I don’t have to teach right away. In fact, I don’t have to teach at all. I have no idea how, anyway.

(I got the Fulbright to Turkey because I looked up all the countries which didn’t require previous knowledge of the language – there were 13, out of the 200 countries the Fulbright is offered for – and applied to the country with the most spots. I had to write an essay about why I have always wanted to go to Turkey. Thank you, Wikipedia. I don’t care what professors say about open code sources.)

Monday was the first day I had classes to teach. I’ve been assigned a conversation class, meeting five days a week for two hours at a time. When I first heard about it, I panicked; Hassan, the department head, told me not to sweat it. He said that when he taught the class, he would go in and write a topic on the board and just ask questions, so that the students would answer in English. Basically, he told me he just made it up on the fly and didn’t give a Turkish rat’s behind about preparation.

So on Monday I went to my office hours and wrote science fiction, played Age of Empires III, and then a half hour before class started I had a panic attack. It was small and unembarrassing, but it spoke to my tiny, surly fear – I have no idea what I’m doing.

I walked in the classroom; in it there were maybe 20 or 25 professors, 40 years old and up, waiting to learn English from me. Hassan came in with me, and spoke to the class at length. What he had to say could’ve been said in three minutes, but, God bless him, he took thirty. During his speech he would occasionally turn to me and tell me how to teach the class. These were things that were sort of intuitive –  like writing vocabulary on the board or correcting pronunciation. I felt a little helpless because this was happening in front of my students, who were saying to each other, “This is him? He looks like a Yeti someone has shaved and then put on a liquid diet. Pass the olives, Mehmet.”

Finally, before he left, Hassan told the class I wouldn’t be there on Thursday, because on Thursdays I would be at the city campus, teaching the medical faculty for eight hours. This was perfectly acceptable to the students, but because I had never heard of this before, I was slightly concerned. On his way out, Hassan said, “Do not worry – we’ll talk tomorrow,” as if to communicate that he knew I had no idea about the eight straight hours of English teaching he had added.

There were a few moments of silence. I took a few baby steps. I wrote my name on the board, and asked the students to tell me their names. And it went on from there. It wasn’t completely smooth, but somehow we got on the topic of the meanings of names, and an hour and a half later they left. All this with absolutely no preparation. Thank you, Hassan.

Like this blog, while in class I told a few lies. I told them I had met Tom Cruise once, but was too shy to speak to him. I told them that there were seven generations of Cass’s in my family. And when asked the meaning of my name (which happens all the time – everyone here knows what their names means), instead of admitting I didn’t know, I said it can mean either “fast wind” or “mega-fast wind,” depending on pronunciation.

Turkish Man Night

Last Friday I was in my office, attending to important business – I had to repel the Ottoman invasion of Colorado, on the video game Age of Empires III. Often my co-workers will stop in briefly and remark about how hard I work. “It is true,” I say, hiding my computer screen. “But if not me, then who?”

I was creating villagers to harvest wood when Murat, a Turkish grad student in the English department, came in and sat down. I quickly shut my laptop. It turned out that Murat was bored, and after he asked to watch me play Age of Empires III (how did he know?), I said, “Maybe you would like to go to town?” He stood up immediately. “Yes – we go.”

This was around lunchtime. Murat and I had already agreed to go to Akdamar Island together, where there is an old Armenian church, on Saturday (see picture on the right, of Murat, myself, and the famous trash can). As we walked out of the English department, I knew what going to town with Murat meant – this meant sleepover.

In my few weeks here in Van, I have discovered a trick I like to call the Trap Door Sleepover (TDS). Basically, as you and a friend recline in a tea house, or walk through town, maybe ride the bus together, or share a meal, at one point the friend will say, “I insist you stay with me tonight.” I’m not sure about Turkish culture, but sleepovers for me went out of style after Billy the Blue Ranger left for the water planet in the original Power Rangers (think 1996). However, it is still very popular among twentysomethings here.

Murat’s only roommate is Memed, who is a police officer in Van. Turkish police officers must serve two to four years in eastern Turkey, where, apparently, no one wants to serve because of either the violence or the boringness, I couldn’t get a straight answer. Memed spoke no English, but one thing was clear – he was getting engaged on Saturday. I told Murat that in the U.S., before marriage a groom’s friends would hold a bachelor party. Memed liked this idea.

We kicked off the night with warm bologna pizza, cold fries, and oversized chicken nuggets. It was what Memed wanted. Then we went back to their apartment to watch the Eurocup qualifying match between Turkey and Germany. And we did it like men; Memed prepared the hookah, and Murat boiled more tea than was healthy to drink. We watched that match from cushions on the floor, smoking Arabic tobacco and drinking more tea than it’s possible to pee out in four days. I’m still feeling the effects.

At one point in the match (after a German of Turkish descent, Mesut Ozil, scored on Turkey – “Traitor,” Memed and I agreed), Memed had to let his fiance into the apartment, and they went back to his room to talk about the engagement. An engagement in Turkey is more of an agreement between families, where the two families gather and promise certain things to one another. After the door closed, I asked Murat what the Turkish phrase for “man card” was, but we could not come up with anything that carried the same weight. When Memed came back, I let him off easy with a “are-you-serious” stare.

Taste of Breakfast Rivaled Only By Terror of Host

Many Turkish cities are known for something in particular. Gaziantep is known for baklava; Bursa is known for kebab. Van is known for it’s lake monster – I’m serious, I have a picture. But I’m not publishing until I have more proof. I don’t want to have another Phantom Menace on my hands. They should have never released that monster.

Also, Van is known for it’s breakfast. Turkish breakfast is lavish, but Van is supposed to have the best breakfast in the country. Last Saturday, some friends from the English department invited me to breakfast at Bak Hele Bak, a very nice restaurant which, while we were waiting for the food, they admitted they had never been to. I’m glad we got to experience it together, because I’m sure I couldn’ve known from their faces what was coming.

I’m not talking about the food. Which, by the way, was glorious in a way that the sun is when you get really close, like a hundred thousand miles (at which point it will turn you into neutrons). Turkish breakfast comes all at once, on a hundred tiny plates, each displaying a certain type of olive, or a special cheese, or homemade honey. You just pick and choose; almost everything ends up spread onto bread, including the sausage and undercooked egg mixture (sounds gross, tastes like pure protein). I still can’t identify the best part of the meal – it looked like a tortilla, had the consistency of a scrambled egg, and tasted like cream cheese. If you can tell me what it was, I will FedEx you a high five. Overnight. That will cost me more than the breakfast.

Afterwards, I didn’t eat lunch, and I had some cookies for dinner and even had to push those away. “No more cookies,” I said. “I am STUFFED. It must’ve been the cream cheese scrambled pancake.”

But if my companions had been there before, I think what I would have seen on their faces would’ve been sheer terror when the owner walked in. The name of the restaurant is Bak Hele Bak, but the owner’s name, Yusuf Konak, and his face appear everywhere the restaurant name does. Everywhere. Think napkins. He was on my mouth – oh no. I’m going to throw up. GET AWAY FROM ME KEYBOARD.

Yusuf is an older man who always wears a dark suit with a pink silk tie. I’ve seen the photos. He speaks no English, which I learned when he was yelling at me. Don’t be alarmed – he wasn’t angry. That’s how he communicates. He came in the restaurant about halfway through our meal and began yelling like Samuel L. Jackson. Like an angry cop on the wrong side of the law. My friends told me he was actually asking trivia questions about Turkey – get it right and he would reach into his pocket and pull out ear rings or an actual ring, some tidbit. Then he would throw it at you. I was lucky. He threw a scarf at me. The others…some didn’t make it.

He shook every single person’s hand in that restaurant. And it hurt (you can see him here holding the shoe he later slapped everyone with). Later, when all had been quiet, I asked one of my Turkish friends where Yusuf went. Murat, my friends, pointed to a table where Yusuf was being interviewed by a camera crew. Local news, I asked. No, Murat said. It was a very famous program, actually, the equivalent of the Food Channel. Interviewing Yusuf. I said a little prayer for the show’s host. If he was lucky, it would all be over quickly.

In Turkey it is Illegal to Smoke Inside

In Turkey, things are different. For instance, the English Department has it’s own tea runner. His name is Maruf, and he sports a unibrow like it is the only thing keeping his forehead warm. Maruf does nothing except deliver chai tea to anyone who calls. The extension is 3262. I know it because to every office I visit, Maruf comes at least twice while I am there, to present the tea. Even when I tell the professor, “No more tea, please. My bladder just painfully ruptured,” still Maruf comes.

Another thing: students don’t show up to the first week of class. I’ll walk around the department, taking breaks from reading comic books during my office hours, and I find all the professors in their rooms. Why, I ask. Because the students didn’t show up. Is this common? Are you outraged? No, it’s expected, they say, and then dial Maruf for more chai.

One of the reasons they drink so much chai, I think, is because smoking was recently, as of last year, banned indoors. Smoking is very big in Turkey, like Mad Men big or the planet Jupiter big. Everyone does it, but there’s beginning to be a backlash. You can’t smoke indoors now. In theory, at least. Many times, other professors will produce cigarettes and say something like, “It is good for the economy,” or “There is too much oxygen in here.” They look sheepish, but they still open a window and sigh into a cigarette.

This is what we do, because there are no students. I am told that next week, which will be the second week of classes, students will start to come, and the smoking will decrease. We will still drink chai, they tell me. They have to pay Maruf for something.

Hassan, the department head, is an old man with skin that is almost orange and a bright white mustache. He is nice like a grandfather on a sitcom, and he doesn’t smoke cigarettes. He smokes a pipe – the greatest pipe I have ever seen. It is carved out of white marble, with a bowl that you can fit two fingers into. The outside of the bowl is marked like a little brick bowl, and it is held by a huge and magnificent dragon claw. That’s right, a dragon claw, like the ones used for piercing steel armor and hoarding gold. Hassan lit it while facing the window, then turned to me and said, “In Turkey, it is illegal to smoke inside,” by which he meant, “I run this mother.”