I’ll Be There In Two Months

To celebrate Thanksgiving, a good majority of the fifty Fulbrighters in Turkey are gathering in a couple of cities and having dinner. They even have actual turkey birds, which took quite an effort to track down. I was excited about attending one of these dinners until I learned that Van is at the end of the universe and in order to get from the end of the universe to the Black Sea or western Anatolia you must pay hundreds of lira. That’s why there are so many people in Van. They can’t afford to leave.

However, one of my students, Ahmed, invited me over for dinner. He had no idea it was Thanksgiving, and I had no idea what his name was (I actually don’t know many of my students names, but people here always call me Mark, after the other American in Van. Some people call me Cats).

Ahmed is in his late sixties, and so is his wife. The first thirty minutes of my visit were set aside for photo albums. Ahmed showed me his three daughters, as well as his three grandchildren (triplets of his eldest daughter and her Spanish husband). It was odd to see him in that context. In class, I only knew him as the older opinionated guy who would not shut up, who when I tried to cut him off would speak louder to finish a point. But I found out that he was not only a grandfather, but a cuddly old man. From pictures. I found that out through pictures.

Ahmed is Kurdish, like 90% of the people in Van, and his wife served us a traditional Kurdish meal until the third time I said I was full. She didn’t eat – she hovered, until one of the two plates were empty, and then laid down more meat.

You can’t just have dinner here. They won’t let you leave before you have tea, and tea usually takes an hour or two. Two, with Ahmed. He did most of the talking, and it was actually quite fascinating – he talked about his family, which has 1000 people in it. No lie, unless that’s a translation error on his part, and I don’t think it is. I wrote out the number ‘1000’ and he said, “Yes, one thousand.” He talked about Turkey’s problems. At one point his neighbor Hamdi, an Iranian, came over, and we talked together. Hamdi had the cutest little girl with him, who everyone kept referring to as a boy. Turkish people have a lot of trouble with third person singular pronouns – in English we have he/she/it, but in Turkish there is only one article for all three – so I didn’t think anything of it. I told Hamdi how cute his little girl was. It turned out it actually was a boy.

After two hours of tea, I was ready to go. Actually, after one hour; it’s a pleasant strain to communicate with someone with the level of English Ahmed has. However, as I got my coat on, he went into his room and came back with a traditional Kurdish scarf, which he gave to me, and he said, “If you ever need anything, call me, and I’ll be there in two months.”

It was quite sweet, if confusing.

Then, as I was finally leaving, Ahmed opened the door and there was Hamdi, with a plate of anchovies for me. Ahmed clapped his hands and helped me take off my jacket. He told me I couldn’t possibly leave now.


Learning Through Rap Lyrics

I have a conversation group in the university’s medical campus. It’s a separate campus, about twenty minutes away and in the city center, and the students overall are more proficient. They’re doctors, and not only that, but many of them are widely respected and internationally known. So exchanges like this throw me.

Erjan, the handsome, white haired head of psychology, asked me today, “What does ‘what’cha say’ mean?”

ME: Where did you hear that?
ERJAN: On a music video.
HUSSIEN: Jonas Brothers?
ERJAN: No, Jason Derulo.

I then explained that it was a contraction of “What did you say,” and that under no circumstances were they supposed to use it.

Each day a different group of doctors come to the class, or at least are supposed to. Everyone has their assigned days, but the students who speak English well will come everyday. This has led to some problems. Like today. Today, Tuesday, was supposed to be the day that Ejemi came. Ejemi is the foremost pediatric neurosurgeon in eastern Turkey. However, he’s not coming anymore because of his last class.

Two Tuesdays ago, Ejemi was frustrated because the proficient English speakers, those who came multiple days, were dominating the conversation. He was so frustrated that he announced he was boycotting the class – he wasn’t going to leave, but he sure as heck wasn’t going to talk. Only he announced this in Turkish, and no one bothered to translate it.

I noticed that Ejemi wasn’t speaking, so I decided to help. I directed a very simple question at him, smiled and waited for an answer. He smiled back, but it wasn’t pleasant – he was like a mischievous first grade bully who you know just played a prank on you but you’ll have to wait to find out. It was a good ten seconds before someone leaned over and said, “Ejemi isn’t speaking today.” But he was still staring at me.

However, my all time favorite cultural mis-translation happened outside the classroom with my friend Murat, when we were visiting Akdamar Island. We were having tea and talking about Akon when he asked, “What does it mean, ‘Smack that’?” He then started repeating the lyrics to give me some context. I stopped him after, “Till you get sore.”

I Have No Pictures Because I Didn’t Do Anything

This past week was Kurban Bayram, which celebrates the non-sacrifice of Ishmael by his father Abraham, and the provision by God of a substitute ram. In all my conversation classes leading up to this, I’ve had multiple students tell me this story, and then ask me to tell the Christian version. Usually the only change I make is to turn Ishmael into Isaac, and the ram into a majestic unicorn with a sixteen foot wingspan. Then my students will poke their neighbors and whisper in Turkish, “See, I told you it was the same.”

But more importantly, Kurban Bayrm means a week off. I went to Istanbul for the week to meet up with most of the other fifty Fulbrighters in Turkey. I was estatic to finally see other Americans again. I soon found out that everyone else had been traveling every weekend to see each other. This is the first time I’ve left Van, I’d tell them, and they’d always ask why, because, I agree, it didn’t make much sense to remain in such a quiet place for seven straight weeks. So I’d say, Thousands of years ago God built a wall around Van to make sure that nothing would ever get out. That wall is nothingness, and it stretches out from Van in a circle with an eight hour radius.

That’s a bit harsh. Since this was the first time in seven weeks that the Fulbrighters were reuniting, How is BLANK was a question each man or woman had to answer fifty times. So I’d say: It’s great. It’s quiet and beautiful and no one will ever let me read in peace because they think I’m lonely.

I’d love to post pictures of myself in the Sultan’s old bedchambers or looting the Hagai Sophia for gold mosaics like my ancestors, but the truth is we didn’t do a lot of Istanbul-ish stuff. In traveling to Istanbul, I had one goal – to not have to try. I didn’t want to try to understand people, I didn’t want to help people with their English, I didn’t want to translate anymore. I wanted to sit with people and not have to try in order to be friends. And it worked beautifully.

We did a lot of America-ish stuff. We saw Harry Potter. We ate at an Italian chain restaurant. We bought a lot of English language books. We talked about video games. A lot, actually. If there was one benefit from Kurban Bayram, it’s that I learned that at least three other Fulbrighters own a copy of Age of Empires II¬†and are eager to play online together. We spent a good deal of time on strategy, in between arguments about Pokemon (which I did NOT participate in – talk about a bunch of dweebs).

The whole experience is probably best summed up in the Princes Islands. These are islands maybe an hour from Istanbul by ferry. These islands are pretty hilly, and there are no cars – it’s all foot traffic. At the highest point on the largest island there’s a monastary that was there before the islands got there, or something like that. Really old. We rented tandem bikes and tried to pedal the whole way. My bike was obviously broken (why wouldn’t it be – oh yeah, because that’s a crappy thing to rent to someone), and I ended up pushing while my partner Lucien steered. It was a lot like the relationship between the guy pushing the Corolla and the guy on the steering wheel shouting commands out of the open door.

When we finished pushing the bike up the hill (which was one of those hills where you ask for its birth certificate because there is no way it should be pitching in thirteen and under little league), instead of checking out the monastery we decided to rest for a while on these cliff rocks that were probably out of bounds. Someone brought a couple of bottles of wine, and we drank these and talked about mechanics of Dungeons and Dragons for a few hours (we’re planning to meet before Christmas for a game). As the sun was setting, we picked up our bikes and our trash and started walking down the hill.

We didn’t even pose for this. It was that resplendent.

At this point, you’d think we’d realize that we hadn’t even been inside this older-than-Pangea building, but no – instead, we realized that we were almost late for the bike rental return. So with Lucien steering and me literally running full speed behind him, we made it all the way back without hitting more than one person and damaging forever more than one of Lucien’s fingers.

This aptly describes the whole week. There were monuments, but we forgot about them, and the vacation was that much better because of it.

Prepare for the Pankration

>In a week and a half I’ll be celebrating the fourth annual Pankration (Pan-krat-e-on, not pan-kray-shun; it’s not a medical operation). The Pankration is a video game holiday that I made up four years ago. Since then it’s grown to be honored by dozen(s) of people, mostly my ex-pledges in the fraternity. However, that doesn’t mean it’s not real.

For those of you who do not know, SPOILERS AHEAD. Like I said, the Pankration is a video game holiday, a gaming marathon from sunset the Monday before Thanksgiving until sunrise the following Tuesday. It started in 2007 when I decided not to go to class the Tuesday before Thanksgiving. Now I’m extending an offer for you to be as lazy as me.

Ever want to be this man? On Nov. 22, you can.

(The name is Greek; pan, meaning all, and kratos, meaning awesome, roughly translated. Literally, strength, as in all-strength, but the Greeks hadn’t yet invented the word awesome because they had yet to play video games. In ye olden days, the Pankration was an actual Olympic event between Greek city states, a wrestling match with three rules – no eye gouging, the fight ends when the sun goes down, and no Spartans. Spartans would never give up, so a number of them ended up dying before they were banned.)

This will mark the first time the Pankration has ever had an international following. I’ll remain in Van, Turkey for the festivities. I asked off but since my department head couldn’t pronounce the name, he said he thought it would be best if I taught my classes on Monday, which, since Daylight Savings Time, now end right after sunset.

Unlike the original event, participation is open to everyone, so please join in. The only piece of electronics I have with me in Turkey is my 2006 MacBook Pro – if I can’t get my pirated copy of Final Fantasy VII to work, I’ll be playing Knights of the Old Republic (both of these games would be in third grade or higher if they were humans. The technology in Turkey is sort of limited).

Too Bad I Don’t Have Actual Photographs to Go With This

I was supposed to get a residence permit within four weeks of arriving in Turkey. It’s now been eight weeks, and I still haven’t even applied. And no one seems to care. I mentioned this to Zeke, the only guy in the English Department I ever see work, and all he says is, “Tamam (okay), tomorrow.” Zeke’s about fifty, and is a thick man with a black mustache that looks like a fruit wedge. Tamam is Zeke’s favorite word. Every time I have a problem, his number one response is, “Tamam.” It’s okay, he says, no one really cares if you have the permit or not. It’s Turkey.

But last week he decided it was time to move forward, so he sent me to get passport photos made. Six of them. I was confused at the number – most of the time organizations only ask for two, and even then I think it’s overkill. You only need one to put on a passport. But Sanaye, the thirty-year-old non-trad student who helps me with errands, said that when he filled out his paper work for the university, he was asked to provide twenty-four¬†passport photos. 24. I asked him why, and he shrugged. I said maybe they were planning on losing twenty three, just to be safe, and he said, “It’s Turkey.”

There are a surprising number of photography shops in Van’s central area, Besh Yol (five streets – it’s where the five major roads meet. It’s also where there’s an awesome statue of five fish swimming above the cars. They’re probably asphyxiating). The oddest feature of these shops, as well as any other shops in my town, is how they fit everything in a hole the size of an RV, cut in half and stacked on top of itself. I told an elderly man I needed the photos and he took them. It was my first all Turkish transaction, and this wasn’t lost on me. When they produced the photos maybe fifteen minutes later, it looked like they had airbrushed the acne out of my face. I high fived the owner.

When I lived in Rome, the weekend before I was to go home, my passport was stolen while I was riding a train to Florence. I had to postpone my flight a day and go to the American Embassy for an emergency passport. It’s quite fun, actually – they treat you like a B-list movie star. They’re all very sorry about what happened and they liked that one movie I was in. It was quite gratifying. But the best part was knowing I’d only use the passport once. So when it came time to take the photos, right before the camera snapped, I pulled my hair to a standing position (it was shoulder length at the time) and opened my eyes and mouth like I had just seen an alien. And that’s the photo that got me home.

In Van, as I waited for the photos to be processed, another older Turk who was in the parlor reading a paper asked me the usual questions. Where are you from, what do you do here, what is love. When he found out I worked at the university, he asked me if I knew Hassan so-and-so. I was half listening, and thought he meant my department head, so I said yes. He pulled out his phone and started dialing, and I realized he meant the Rektor of the university (basically the Emperor – everyone thinks the Rektorluk, where he works, is the Death Star). I quickly paid for my photos and left before he realized I was lying. As I walked out the door, I could hear him saying in Turkish, “Cass. No, CASS. Tall blonde American. C-A-S-S.”

The Life of the Party

Last night I was invited to a dinner by the head of the English department, Hassan. The dinner was for the third year English students here at the university, and included all of their instructors, one of which I am not. At all. I recognized a few faces from around campus (everywhere I walk, someone is always whispering, “How are you,” because they’re unsure of their English. I have to search them out. It turns out many of them are third year English students). I sat by the only other American, Mark, who is also tall and blonde and (not also) about thirty.

When a group’s conversation is primarily in Turkish (very common here in Turkey), I tend to tune out. I think about my own things – stories or ideas or articles I need to look up on Wikipedia when I get home. Sometimes I find I get miffed when the conversation comes back to English, but it turns out not to be interesting. So last night I was talking to myself, and sometimes Mark, but not really paying attention to the crowd.

One of the professors, Meltem, is also an accomplished singer. After the meal was over, he was asked to sing, and he went on for forty five minutes. He was very good, but again, it was all in Turkish, as these things tend to be, so I clocked out.

At one of the points where I was in my own thoughts, I opened my eyes to check on the room and found everyone staring at me. I was startled, and no one was speaking. Hassan could tell I didn’t know what was going on, so he repeated: “I said, Cass, why don’t you sing for us?”

I panicked and looked at Mark. He shrugged. Hassan said, “Why don’t both Cass and Mark sing for us?” At the dinner there were fifty students sitting in a weird triangle shape (I have no idea what kind of cut-rate waiter school the guy who arranged the tables went to), and they all started clapping. Very loudly. For a solid minute.

I panicked. I had nothing, and neither did Mark. Eventually we sang the first verse of “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” Twice. Then I crawled under the table and vomited on a third year’s shoes.

After the dinner was over, about half the students (the ones on my side of the triangle) approached me with their camera phones and asked for a picture. I posted up with Mark in front of a window and there was literally a line of people stepping in between us and handing their camera phones to some unlucky shmuck who probably just wanted some chai and a nap. That’s what I wanted. That and a time machine.

Hassan offered to drive me home, and while we were in his car I apologized for the “Little Lamb” incident. I told him I froze up. He said not to worry. At the next big dinner the English department had, he said, I would be ready to sing.