Merry Christmas Turkey!

A few weeks ago, when I had resigned myself to celebrating alone, in a random conversation one of my students told me that he was flying to Ankara to be with his family for Christmas. I began to prod, very carefully, asking why he celebrated Christmas, how often he did it and did anyone else know? Later I found out that all of Turkey celebrates Christmas, but they do it on New Year’s Day, and apparently Santa Claus is from Eastern Anatolia.

In 2001: A Space Odyssey (the book at least – I fell asleep when I watched the movie in my Exploration of Space colloquium), astronaut Dave arrives at this alien purgatory area where he awaits his final transformation into a floating space baby (I read the book – I didn’t understand it). There he finds a room where everything seems like it would be on Earth, but slightly blurred, like someone took a picture of the Earth items and tried to remake the item from the photograph. That’s basically what Christmas is over here. Someone saw Elf and tried to decorate Van like the movie would have been if the budget was ten lira.

Regardless, my girlfriend Holly came over to celebrate with me. Because of a series of very bad things that happened at once, she ended up arriving the day after Christmas, but, like I said, no one here knows when to actually celebrate. We opened presents on the 27th. While she’s been here, we’ve watched season three of Grey’s Anatomy a compelling medical drama and visited several of my Turkish friends, who all end up giving Holly something from their home. Towels, cookie tins, even a luffa. I got nothing. Thanks a lot, guys. I will NOT be giving you the small jars of American peanut butter I had parceled out for your presents.

From Van, Holly and I are going to hop through Europe, staying with friends and acquaintances of acquaintances, so the posts might be sporadic from Tron McKnight. But I’ll leave you with this. The end of the calendar year marks the mid-point of my grant period. Okay, not really – not mathematically at all, actually – but symbolically. Anyway, one of the other ETA’s here in Turkey prepared a survey for the other fifty, to gauge our various conditions (some people are not having nearly as much fun as I am). The survey asked questions about housing, teaching, social lives, and community outreach (my answer to that open response: “old men I don’t know challenge me to backgammon at my tea house. I always win”). The survey is much needed, because some grantees are having a tough go, and their situations need to be known. It does a great job of that. To give you an idea of what we have to deal with, the problems micro as opposed to macro, out of the hundred or so questions four were about wild dogs with rabies, three were about where to find good beer, and one was about ghosts. It’s not all egg nog and mistle toe here. Don’t forget it.


The Ultimate English Lesson: How to Party

On Wednesday my speaking class held a party. It was exactly like the parties at the end of third grade. We had cake and took pictures and then I got beat up afterwards by Lewis Chase. How did he find me?

Fissun (far right, red turtleneck) was the only one who knew my iPhone was also a camera.

I thought it would be a short affair, with some sweets (I love me some Turkish sweets) and probably a present. I thought there would be a present because the day before one of the students asked me point blank what kind of present I wanted. Well, that’s not the full truth. He started out asking me if I needed a tweed suit jacket. I countered with, “How about a solid scarf?”

The party was supposed to be attended by the three instructors – Mark, Hassan and myself. Mark had another class, so it was just Hassan and I standing at the front of the room while twenty students sat in their usual desks. Before I realized what was happening, Hassan started calling on students and asking them what they liked about the course. Because I was the young gun, most all of them were nice enough to say that I was a great teacher. But eventually people got tired of saying that, and started trying to top each other. One woman, Selma, said, “My life is more colorful now.” I gave her a thumbs up. If there was an award for best comment, though, she would’ve gotten second place, finishing right behind Gulsen, who spoke last.

“I used to have no hope. Now I have hope.”

I kid you not. Gulsen said that. About me. Perhaps.

As we distributed cake, students started to ask me about my girlfriend, Holly. Holly was supposed to come to Van at the beginning the week, but because of the super criminal with the weather control device creating all the snowstorms in Europe, she’s still in Montana. Furthermore, because of her new flight schedule she has to spend the night in Istanbul before continuing on to Van.

We actually talked about this in class. While I was done teaching, the class continued for a few more lessons. I had to fill in for Hassan one day when he left town. As typical, I found out about this an hour before class.

Since I didn’t have a lesson plan, I told the class what had happened to Holly and asked for suggestions. We brainstormed, and the incredible bad-idea-ness of their thoughts was only equaled by their enormous desire to help. Here are a few things they suggested:

1) Holly takes a taxi to Taksim Square (night life central) and walks north three hundred meters, takes a left and continues two hundred meters to Mustafa’s brother’s apartment.
2) Ahmed’s daughter drives four hours to the airport to pick up Holly. They return to the daughter’s apartment, only to go back to the airport the next day, totaling sixteen hours of driving time for Ahmed’s daughter.
3) Nere’s sister (sister or aunt, I wasn’t sure), who works at the airport, will let Holly stay in her office until midnight, when the sister’s shift is finished, at which point the sister will take Holly home. Then Holly will be an honored guest in the sister’s home for the sister’s two day break.

Needless to say, I solved the problem elsewhere. But as I explained this to the class at our party, Hassan interrupted suddenly: “Yes, the problem is solved. There is a student who lives on the Asian side of Istanbul. Holly will take two buses and the metro to meet the student at a Chinese restaurant. Everything will be alright. Tamam.”

Lots of Dialogue and a Few Parentheticals

Since classes ended last Thursday (with a discussion of family feuds in Turkey – not like the game show, but like Hatfield-and-McCoy shooting at each other for traffic accidents. There was a blood-feud-inspired shooting at a neighboring hospital, and assailant was currently in our hospital. Relatives of the victims were supposedly outside waiting in black vans. Longest parenthetical statement yet? Possibly), I have been to a few we’ll miss you meals held by students. Usually these end with the students grilling me about my travel plans. They may or may not be interested, but once they figure out when I won’t be traveling (I’ll be in Van for about two more weeks) they ask, “Why is class ending? Don’t you want to come back next week?” I respond: “I do – I really do – but my department head is against this. Ours is a forbidden lesson.”

Mark and I went to a man dinner of hamsi, lots and lots of hamsi, which I thought were anchovies but after so many plates I’m not sure anymore. The dinner was hosted by three of the male students, and was jolly enough until one, Ahmed, got a call on his cell. He became serious and walked away from the table. Thurgood leaned in and said, “His wife. Is terrified.”

“She is terrified.”
“No. Excuse me. We are terrified.”

Last night I had dinner with three female students. Sevda, Selma, and Gulsen have taken me out before, if only to practice English, because during class they are too busy giggling. They have been extremely gracious to me, both cooking and buying me meals, and even purchasing gifts for my family (which I’ll probably claim are from me). However, when we’re out, they always want to gossip about the class.

“Who is the best speaker?”
“Who is the worst speaker?”
“Who do you hate?”

Of course I’ve never answered these, even though I want to. I’m serious – I really love making fun of people behind their backs. And I can’t do it here because I’m the teacher. Also, sometimes it gets me in trouble. But yesterday they caught me.

“What do you think of Hayatin (Hayatin is the sixty-something professor of theology who starts every statement with “According to me” and ends every statement with “that is what it means to be a human being,” or the broken English equivalent)?”
“I like Hayatin. He is a good person.”
“But in the last class. You laughed at him.”

It’s true. On my very last class of my ten week term, I broke. Hayatin, as well as a few others in my class, had been giving me off the wall answers for my whole time there, and I had always handled it with grace. But on my last day I broke.

The question was, “What are some interesting or strange phobias?” We listed a few (brown plants? grow up, Murat. Of course with him he could very well have been saying brown pants) when Hayatin raised his hand. I deliberately ignored him for a few more answers until I finally called on him, due to his persistence.

“I would like to tell a story.”
“Hayatin – will the story give an example of an interesting or strange phobia?”
“I would like to tell a story.”
“But does the story include a phobia?”
“Once upon a time there was a snake charmer…”

And he proceeded to tell a religious fable where the charmer is eaten by a snake he thought was dead. It did not include any phobias.

When he finished, without responding I turned my back to the class, faced the wall, and tried to hold in a laugh. It was like holding in a fart. It was only louder when it came out. When I turned back around, Hayatin had a wide smile on, like he was extremely proud of himself.

So at dinner with the three girls I finally admitted: “Yes, sometimes Hayatin speaks without thinking.”

Last Day of Classes

Last Friday I was in my office slaving away on Age of Empires II (the Mongols just don’t know when to stop) when Hassan Hoja, my department head, popped in my room and said, “By the way – your classes are finished next week.” Then he threw down a pinch of powder which exploded, and he vanished in the smoke.

I was rather speechless, not because of the smoke (it’s the primary mode of travel, after the floo network), but because I had no idea my classes were coming to an end. Neither did my students, when I told them on Monday. I guess that’s Turkey. No one really cares for calendars, except to look at the pictures (fluffy cat calendar, I so do not regret buying you in the Russian bazaar downtown).

Another example of the spirit of Turkey, perfectly captured in mundane carbonite – my faculty classes, while two hours on paper, are actually only an hour and a half. The sheet on my door says class is from three to five, but we take a tea break at 3:45 and pick back up at four, finally to leave at 4:45. This is the way I was told to run things, and honestly, I’m really starting to pick up a tea addiction. I start scratching my arms if we push through the break.

But today, we said, why go back to class at all? The tea room is where it’s at. LET’S MOVE THIS PARTY.

I’m the blonde one. Murat is the one trying to hide behind the ColaTurk refrigerator.

After Maruf, the head chai-master, took the photo, we passed it around as a group. Mustafa, the man on the front right, looked at it and said, “I am handsome.” Then Murat looked at Mustafa’s picture and said, “SHINY.”

This is all the more impressive when you consider that Murat is the Picasso of languages. An actual transcript from today, when he answered the question – when you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?

MURAT: Book open, learn much, knowledge and specially beauty. Shepherd.
ME: So, you could say it: “When I was a kid, I wanted to be a shepherd.”
MURAT: [pause] Book open, learn much, knowledge…

And even though I still don’t know everyone’s name, I was comforted in some form by the medical faculty, who, as it turns out, doesn’t know each other’s names. At first I thought it was just a Turkish practice to refer to everyone as, “my friend.” This comes from Bulent, the pudgy pediatrician who dominates our conversations.

BULENT: I agree with the gynecologist.
ASHYE: My name is Ashye.

I’ll Give You Two Peppermint Sticks for a Peep

Since I got here, I’ve been seeing these advertisements around Van for a private English course. Center of these posters is a picture of a nice and distinctly American man in a three button suit with a thought bubble that says, “I am at whatever course.” Except it doesn’t say whatever. I can’t write exactly what it says, because children read this blog. Or at least look at the pictures.

Anyway, I thought this was just what Google image brought up when the course owner typed in “average American.” However, it turns out that this guy actually lives in Van. And I met him.

I thought there were just two Americans in Van: Mark, my colleague, and myself. When I was receiving my residence permit (six weeks late), I was told that there were a few other families, Jackson’s (private English tutor, esquire) being one of them.

Three of these families are very close, and last night I was invited to their preliminary Christmas celebration. All three families are young, and together they had six or seven kids under four years old. The activity of the night was ginger bread houses. There was a house set aside for me, but I opted to team up. It’s much more efficient.

Claire was the brains and I was the blonde.

As is obvious from the photo, Claire had a fabulous time. We started out building a house, which became then a school and later a candy shop, before Peep (TM) Show (just look at the picture, kids). Apparently different relatives had sent all three families packages of Peeps, which no one wanted to eat, and every ginger bread house was asked to take in a few strays before the rest were thrown away.

We had chili and cornbread (the first American meal I’ve had in three months), and once the kids were put to bed, I decided it was time to go home. The wives were picking out a Christmas movie as I was gathering my things. As I grabbed my bag, I heard from the kitchen one of the husbands whisper, “Did you bring Settlers of Catan?”

So instead of getting home at 8:30 and Skyping my mom, I spent a three hours trading two sheep for a brick and building the longest road that island had ever seen (I also won). I got home after midnight, with just enough time to log on to Skype, see the new dog my mom bought to replace my brother (he got an apartment last week), and have the desk manager at my guest house turn the lights out on me.

Fortune Telling and Get to Know You Games

On Sunday, Mark (the only other American at my university and thus the guy I’m confused for all the time – we all look the same) and I were invited to dinner by a trio of giggly girls. This is one of two groups in my conversation class who behave like thirteen year old teeny boppers. Besides being in their thirties, I guess this isn’t out of the ordinary.

Sevda invited us to her house for dinner with her and her husband, and sisters Selma and Gushen helped prepare the meal. I know these names for a specific reason.

The week before, Sevda had invited me to lunch with her and the two sisters. While in the car, I discovered that all three girls loved LOST, and we compared favorite characters (Jack – don’t make me BARF) before Sevda said, “The ending, it was not – suitable.” When I tried to share how I felt about it, she cut me off with. “It was bad.”

Anyway, while I was chewing my kebab at lunch, Sevda leaned across the table and said, “What is my name?” I heard her but acted like I didn’t understand. I was stalling, because I had no idea. She knew my game immediately, and tried a different question. “What’s her name?” she said, pointing at Gushen. I had to shrug. At that point I knew she was going to ask about Selma, too, whose name at the time I had no idea about, and there was nothing I could do to stop her. It was excruciating, until one of them accidentally called me Mark.

After dinner on Sunday (where Sevda dumped, no lie, half a pan of fried anchovies on my plate and told me not to worry about the bones), we sat in the most ordinary Turkish living room I’ve seen yet and had Turkish coffee. This stuff is thick, like one of those disgusting health smoothies, and leaves dredges that you’re supposed to be able to read fortunes from. Like tea leaves, if tea leaves looked like the throw up of a dog that ate a black rubber bone.

Sevda took my cup and sat across from me. Eventually she started telling my fortune, with the sisters helping at certain points. It started out tame (you miss your family, you will have visitors soon, you will know fear – that last one was in a demon voice), but as it went on – and it went on for a good fifteen minutes – she started to get bolder and bolder. It became a Turkish version of MASH, that childhood game that told you where you would live and who you would marry. It turns out I’ll get married in Greece in five years, before studying French in Paris. I don’t want to bore you with the details, but I will say that I am psyched about retirement – ON THE MOON! I tipped her two lira to predict that last one.

Yes – My Curtains Have Dolphins on Them

When I left America, I made a vow to not shave until I stepped foot back on those purple fields of grain. I don’t know what color they’re supposed to be – I’m always asleep when I drive through the mid-west.

I shaved last night. As I’ve explained in simple English to most of my Turkish friends by now, I couldn’t feel my face anymore. If the beard was wet, I felt dry. If it was wet because of soup, then I felt socially uncomfortable.

Using two different BIC razors and a small pair of travel scissors, it took me an hour and a half to shave. Afterwards, my face was still numb. Sometimes you can’t win.
I know what you’re thinking. Yes, I trimmed my ear hair (thanks, Dad), but that’s not the point. I also shaved. If the staff at the medical faculty can figure it out after we’re sitting in a circle for three minutes, then so can you.
Turks can’t say the word “beard”. When I sat down with the medical faculty, I tried to start a conversation about Wikileaks (the largest majority of cables were actually about Turkey – over 7000. My department head told me to be careful in the city because I might be perceived as a spy. So I immediately went to the city and started following people). But after the first few exchanges, one of the students exclaimed – “What happened to your bird?” After that it went downhill. Everyone wanted to know why I shaved my bread, or if my face got cold without my burn.
I humored them for a quarter of an hour before turning the conversation back to Wikileaks. Just then, by far the loudest student in the classroom came in late and yelled “YOU DO NOT HAVE ANY BEER!”