Government Bureaucracy? Solved with Dancing!

This past weekend was the mid-year meeting for all Fulbright ETA’s in Turkey. The Fulbright Commission paid for the Ankara Hilton this time – BOO YEAH. They had a pillow menu. The hot tub wasn’t that hot, but I was definitely there for a long time because where else am I going to find a hot tub in Turkey? In comparison, the last meeting we had in Ankara was in an orgetmenevi, or teacher’s house. Three plus out of the fifty Fulbrighters got food poisoning, and the railing on my balcony was broken. I could’ve died.

On Friday, we went up one by one to a stand and microphone and gave a summary of our individual situations. By the second presentation, I realized I am ridiculously lucky to be in Van. Most everyone had some outrageous complaint: my boss doesn’t talk to me, my peers think I’m not a real teacher, I’m not getting paid, Cass stares at me when he thinks I’m not looking (I overheard the last one at breakfast). Almost every single girl, even the ones who stated that they loved their situation, said men think they are prostitutes, and will on occasion shout that out in the street.

I get paid regularly. I love my department head and my peers. I have yet to be called a gigolo. Plus, no one else lives in a city with its own animal. Van cat outside my window – high five! Or run away because of my sudden movement.

It’s obvious that Fulbright regrets these difficulties – I mean, they gave us each 300 lira in incidentals (of which I spent 50…on keychains). It remains to be seen how well the problems will be fixed by the time we leave.

However, Saturday was a free day and I’ll just come out and say it – the best day I’ve had in Turkey, hands down. After switching hotels (no one could afford the Hilton if the government wasn’t paying for it), a few friends and I played Dungeons and Dragons for seven hours. I can’t say much now, because it deserves its own post, but it is definitely the greatest thing I’ve ever done, right behind regularly serving the homeless at the soup kitchen where I made BANK. Per hour of work, I don’t think I’ve ever made more.

Saturday night, everyone wanted to go out. In our respective villages, no one drinks much because of the stigma, so when Fulbrighters get together, people drink a lot (not me, Mom). On Friday, at the pinnacle of drinking time, I had a guy offer me a job in the fall at a camp in California; at breakfast on Saturday he not only couldn’t remember it, but admitted that he had no authority to hire anyone. Anyway, on Saturday, I did not want to go out, but I am a follower so there was really no choice. As it turned out, the bar we went to had a dance floor. CHA-CHING.

I realized after a few hours of dancing that people in Fulbright don’t really know the actual versions of each other. Though no one tries to hide themselves, inevitably what we get is the Turkish version of each other. No one knew I liked to dance.

I’ve often dreamed about being able to play the piano well but never doing so. That way, after weeks or months of knowing someone, I could sit down at a piano and make people cry. Then all the girls would be like, “Cass, I totally see you for the stud muffin you are, underneath your big eyebrows.” However, when I started dancing, all the girls would say is, “You’re crazy,” or “Your shirt is on inside out.”

During special events at Camp War Eagle, I’ll often be given a corner where I dance for two hours without stopping. The kids will come over in twos and threes and watch, amazed, as someone with the level of coordination I have tries to scissor kick. Beyond that, I haven’t danced for fun as I did Saturday since college. And when my friends said, “I didn’t know you liked to dance,” all I wanted was to confess  my love for it. About how I was runner-up two years in a row for my fraternity’s “Best Dancer Who Is Not Named Simoni Kigweba Award.”
We named the award after him…sort of.

Or how my voice cracked while dancing in front of an audience of thousands of my peers. Listen how they laugh at 7:54. However, they seem impressed with my high kicks around the 3:15 mark.

Regardless, I got to relive my glory days and I only hit one Turk it the head with an elbow. Or he’s the only one who complained. All in all, great weekend.


Dangers of Living in a Guest House

This past Sunday I decided that I had worked way hard during the past week when I taught my two classes, and that I deserved to do whatever I wanted. Which is what I do every day. But this time, I earned it.

I went to breakfast in the city; there are a few places which I patronize (this means I walk to a breakfast salon and tear a 50 lira bill in half, screaming, “BRING ME HONEY”; my patronage is highly sought after). Most of them still don’t know I don’t speak Turkish. So after explaining to Bulent again that I can’t understand him – if we’re on a first name basis I feel like he should know it already – I ate my honey and cream and stayed to drink chai until I got to a stopping place in my book (Takeshi defeated the younger version of himself in hand to hand combat – it’s a time travel thing, and it’d take too long to explain here).

When I got back, I had a Spa Day (shower; use shampoo) and got back in to bed, preparing to watch the entire second season of Warehouse 13 again because a) it’s that good, and b) I had to buy it through iTunes, so I need my money’s worth.

Fighting paranormal crime so you don’t have to…be productive.

At least that was my plan. And I know what they say – if you want to make God laugh, tell him a fart joke. He loves those.

By my third episode, I’m under the comforter, picking cookie crumbs out of my chest hair (and eating them – I had just showered and used shampoo), when I see in my sitting room one of the Turks who work at my guest house. After five months, I still live at a pseudo-hotel, in a two-room suite, but it’s okay with me because they make my bed as long as I’m out by eleven. However, at this point it’s not okay, because I have minimal clothes on and with my headphones I couldn’t hear anyone enter.

But the Turk, seeing me shirtless with cookie crumbs on my shoulders (I’m a messy eater), gets so embarrassed that he walks backwards out of the room. That’s right. He was so disgusted in awe of my then current situation that he was unable to walk normally.

I was slightly embarrassed but realized it was a mistake. Besides, I assumed that he would tell all of his friends to stay out my room because I was working out my eye muscles watching science fiction.

Not five minutes later I saw a different Turk walk into my sitting room. I knew him, and I assumed Ercan, while not being so paralyzed as to never walk forwards again, would graciously bow out of the room. Instead, Ercan looked at me and smiled. I took my headphones off and asked him what he wanted.

“What are you watching?” he asked. I’m watching one of the cleaning people invade my privacy. But instead of saying that in a way he would understand, I told him I was watching a television show. Expecting him to leave, I was again disappointed as he stood in my sitting room and looked around, checking surfaces for dust.

Eventually he did leave. I was amazed he stuck around that long, and expected him to be embarrassed about it later, but that night as I emerged for food, Ercan stopped me in the foyer and asked if I enjoyed the television show. The nerve of some people.

Women, We’re on to You

Most funny things in life are small moments that don’t fit into a big picture. Big picture funny things are the topics of books and movies. Most funny things are like the picture my dad sent me of the cat sleeping on my mom’s neck. Classic.

So when Turks say funny things, or when I do something stupid, it usually takes a bit of wrangling to fit it into an overall framework, to make a post-length story. The following story I couldn’t fit into any story from the past couple of weeks, but it makes me laugh, so I’ll just post what actually happened. And besides, there were a lot of bad jokes in my last post. I tried to hard.

On Friday in my conversation class I set the topic as Valentine’s Day, because it had just passed and I wanted to know what my students thought of it. Most of them didn’t celebrate. Actually – none of them did. Once I taught them the word “commercialized,” they agreed that Valentine’s Day was all about money. So instead the conversation devolved into romance and then further into (yet again) the difference between men and women, where it was stated that while women only love one man, men can love many women. The word polygamy was used repeatedly, but I can assure you that no one knew what it really meant.

Anyway, after our daily tea break (gotta have it), we resumed class and I started to direct the conversation towards other holidays, like New Years or Mother’s Day. We were deep in discussion about why moms are more sensitive than dads (men vs. women again; yet, no one ever seems to get offended), when Bunyamin, one of the silent students (there are a few who come to class not to speak but to improve their listening), spoke up and said, “Woman use eye-drop for gun.” You could tell he put a lot of thought into how to phrase it.

All I Want to Do is Party, Buy Everybody in the Club Hakkari

Mark, the other American who teaches with me in Van, asked me to go to Hakkari with me this week. Since it’s the last week before classes officially begin (my classes, already begun, are off the book, so I can evade taxes), it’s Mark’s last chance to travel. And when I told my friends we were going to Hakkari, they all said the same thing: “Why would you go there?”

Funny. That’s exactly what people in Istanbul and Ankara said when I told them I was teaching in Van.

Hakkari is a border city with Iraq, and more isolated than Van, which I didn’t think was possible. I owe Mark five lira now. The drive by dolmush, which as the dragon flies is 100 kilometers, takes four hours through the mountains, military check points, and periods of time where we’re waiting for someone’s friend. When we finally got to Hakkari, we were told that all the shops might close after lunch, due to a demonstration. But do not worry – there’s nothing to see, anyway.

Though the town is small (we walked the full circumference twice in two hours), it is beautiful. It’s surrounded by mountains, so that there is no horizon. Every sunset ends in jagged rocks, which is really romantic, if you’re a supervillan. The odd thing about the town is that in America, it would’ve been colonized and commercialized long ago as a ski resort. The snow was gorgeous there. But everyone walked past them like they were Luke and the mountains were Yoda (he shouldn’t have judged him by his size). The idea of skiing on a mountain where no other person has skiied before is exciting, but as Mark pointed out, I would have to walk back up on my own.

Fatih, a primary school teacher, was our host. He showed us around the city and planned a complicated dinner that took two hours to cook. Mark cut the onions while I washed my hands after using the restroom.

Fatih had three roommates, who we were introduced to and who took turns helping in the kitchen. However, when it came time for dinner, there were six roommates.

I have no idea who the two mustaches are, but inspiration doesn’t need a name.

We ate on the floor, just like my parents used to make me when more important people came over. And I had to put my cup on a towel. Deja vu, teenage years. Notice the absence of plates – the meal, which was chicken, rice, and vegetables, had to be shoveled like snow. I thought it was very exciting but Mark said it reminded him of Mauritania (previous attempts to spell it included Moritania and Mortanya), where if you didn’t eat quickly, you didn’t get to eat.

On the ride home to Van, we were stopped at another military checkpoint where all the passengers had to hand in their IDs. Mark and I passed up our residence permits, which are like little passports made of wet paper, and waited to be cleared. However, the jandarma (military police) boarded the bus holding our permits and a hundred and fifty lira in cash. As it turns out, the money had accidentally become stuck in Mark’s permit. Long story short – Mark almost bribed not only an officer of the law, but a military official. Luckily we got the money back – AND they didn’t find the balloons in my stomach filled with helium. It makes me talk funny.

Your Move, SmartBoard

Last Thursday there was a frenzy in the department. Like piranha fish, instructors were swimming about in packs, bloodthirsty with excitement because of the University’s very first American SmartBoard. Even though it’s winter break, instructors are contractually obligated to be in their offices (it’s Turkey…is the only explanation I’ve gotten). So instead of drinking tea for three hours on Hassan Hoja’s new leather couches (which came with the SmartBoard upgrades), everyone crowded into the department’s primary classroom to watch a demonstration.

This is the first SmartBoard at Yuzuncu Yil, as well as in Van, and probably in all of southeastern Turkey. I sat through the demonstration, though I didn’t understand it, but I did see the board do quite a bit of intelligent things, including solving a hand written quadratic equation and playing a keyboard cat video. Unfortunately, the board has yet to receive its “this isn’t really funny” lines of code yet.

I teach my conversation classes in the primary classroom where the new SmartBoard is. The white board that was previously there has disappeared. On Monday, the day of my first class, I told Hassan Hoja that I didn’t know how to go about teaching without a white board; I didn’t know how to use the SmartBoard. He told me that it was perfectly safe to write on the SmartBoard, that the demonstrator himself had done it, and then he lead me into the primary classroom and began to write on the board with a regular marker. He kept writing my name and erasing it, saying, “It is perfectly fine!”

My class was the very first class of the university (students’ classes don’t begin until next week). Because of this, I was to be the very first instructor to teach using the SmartBoard. I spent the first part of class writing out words and then quickly erasing them before the ink had time to dry. I was still nervous, despite Hassan Hoja’s reassurances. During our class break, a couple of students came up to the board to examine it. “I do not think you should write on it,” they said, and I assured them Hassan Hoja said it was alright. The older men of the class spent the next five minutes of the break attempting to show me how to use the board by repeated pressing the button marked “Pencil” and trying to write on the board. After a while I stopped explaining that the SmartBoard needed a projector to work.

This is me, except the board isn’t on, the girl is a guy, and I’m wearing flannel.

The second half of class I relaxed and didn’t erase as I taught, so after class I stayed later and tried to scrub the board with the paper towels I had brought. However, it seemed that no matter how clean the towel was, each time I wiped the board there was still a blue tint on the surface.

I was starting to panic when Zeki Hoja, the department’s jack of all trades, appeared in the doorway. “Zeki Hoja,” I said, “thank goodness. I may need help.”

Zeki Hoja looked from me, to the board, and back to me before saying (and I quote – realize sometimes I tend to exaggerate but this entire story is the truth) – “WHAT HAVE YOU DONE?”

Consider the Average Reader

One of my favorite books is Kurt Vonnegut’s Timequake, which is part time travel story, part memoir. In fifty years when everyone’s forgot about it, I’m going to write my own. With dragons. That breath time.

Anyway, in Timequake Vonnegut says that every author writes for one specific person. He claimed he wrote for his sister Alice, who died decades before this particular book came out. KV, as I call him when I visit his grave, said that every author crafts the story so that this one specific person will enjoy it.

I like to write (SURPRISE! I also like to steal, but I have medication for that), and I like to think I write with my mother in mind. She’s very easy to please. The two leads must be happy at the end. Evil must be vanquished, and if someone falls down and it’s funny, so much the better.

Recently back in Arkansas where my parents live, there have been nasty snowstorms. Wood is scarce, and no one leaves their houses for fear of frost giants. Though they don’t have cable, my parents do have Netflix, and in the course of the blizzard have watched many movies, including The Last Airbender. Afterward, my mother emailed me to ask some questions (she incorrectly references the movie as The Last Hairbender).

On returning home, we watched the Last Hairbender…..and loved it!!!!!!  But i have some unanswered questions……
  • when will the little boy avatar learn to use his earth and fire bending skills?
  • Who will teach him?
  • Will the Prince of the Fire nation turn from the darkness to the light and become friends with the Avatar?
  • What happens to the white-haired water princess who gave her life for the glowing fish….will she be resurrected?
  • Does the majority of the people who see this movie understand the false theology sublimely embedded in the mystic spirituality of the film?
  • When is the next sequel coming out?

Since I haven’t seen it, I couldn’t answer her (maybe you can). But I look at these and see some basic elements that, when I write, I need to cover in order to make my mom happy, including closure and possibly a redemption plot. But she’s definitely hooked.

Happy Birthday, Self!

Last week I turned 23, but no one here knew it. I didn’t really have the heart to tell everyone – “Guess who has two thumbs, a vestigial tail and a BIRTHDAY TODAY?” – so instead I explained to a couple of colleagues what Groundhog’s Day was like, and how cool the Bill Murray movie was. Because it’s funny and science fiction.

(It’s like this with all holidays. Thanksgiving and even Christmas passed without much ceremony, because no one here knows about them. I was surprised how much I’m dependent on Christmas music, decorations, and A Muppet Christmas Carol to really recognize the holiday. My family would ask if I was lonely, and I would tell them I forgot what month it was.)

I got a call from the Fulbright program that day. They wanted to check to see if the information on my Turkish citizen number was correct. “And, by the way, Happy Birthday. You don’t look 28.” I agreed, and said I look either 23 or 45, depending on the beard. But I soon learned that the Turkish government has my birthday recorded as February 2nd, 1983. Since the mix up hasn’t caused any trouble yet, I’ve decided to let them think that as I inform my insurance company to cut my monthly bill in half.

So instead of a party I bought a bus ticket to Erzurum, where a few other Fulbrighters had gathered to watch the 2011 Winter Universiade, which is the Winter Olympics for college students who are not participating in the concurrent X-Games or who have chosen to continue with their college hockey season instead of joining the American team. America did not have a strong showing. I know, because I went to the women’s hockey semi-final between America and Canada. We lost 7 to 1. And all the Turks were chanting for an eighth goal.

(We, and for that matter everyone else, were not as bad as the Turkish women’s hockey team, who lost all games by double digits, including a 32-0 game against Finland. I learned this from the British women’s hockey team while watching the half-pipe finals. Obviously, they were extremely beautiful, and had great teeth.)

Along with gold medals, a stuffed version of the double headed eagle mascot was given to winners.  I swear, I saw the Russian hockey team cradling them.

Since Erzurum is in the extreme eastern area of Nowhere, there were not many spectators. Mostly Turks and participants. Thus, everywhere we went, people thought we were athletes, and were hopelessly disappointed when it turned out we were English teachers. However, when we never said anything, we got free bus rides, Pass Go cards through security, and even free tickets to the men’s hockey gold medal game, which was almost as exciting as the women’s.

At one point, bolstered by previous successes and the overall laxity of Turkish security (I think we were the only ones who bothered to buy tickets for the mountain events), I tried to push my way past security to a VIP area. When stopped, I took off my hat and pointed to my blonde hair. “AMERICAN,” I said. “DON’T CARE,” the guard said. So I put my hat back on and told him my friend Brobama was going to hear about this.

Finishing Strong

I spent the last week of my month long journey in Izmir, a city on the Aegean coast and the fourth most populous in Turkey. It also has awesome movie theaters. And I did the tourist thing – I went to the agora at Smyrna and the ruins at Ephesus. All it taught me was that my Classics degree has, only eight months after graduation, become nothing more than trivia facts. As my host family and I walked down the uncovered marble streets of Ephesus, I would say, “That’s a library. Or a temple. Cat house?” or “That carving tells the story of Zeus and Apollo playing…charades? But I can’t remember how it ends.” It’s a little discouraging to find that half the knowledge I spent four years acquiring is now apocryphal.

But forget about that (I apparently have). On Sunday I was invited to go to a Protestant church in Izmir, attended mainly by Turks. It was entirely in Turkish, which is humbling – it’s easy to say, but it’s hard to subconsciously believe God doesn’t just speak English until you have to sing a hymn in Turkish. What was most disconcerting, though, was that although I knew some people there spoke English (I met them earlier, including the pastor, who studied in America and had great English), no one ever translated for me. They didn’t even whisper, “We’re about to pray,” or “We’re reading this passage,” or “Those muffins require a monetary donation.” Even when we broke up into smaller prayer groups, my group prayed in Turkish, though everyone spoke English and one guy (besides me) was American. I understand why – it’s a Turkish church. But it climaxed during prayer requests, when one woman pointed to me and said something in Turkish. The whole congregation laughed, then the pastor moved to the next request, without translating how she had made fun of me.

My self-confidence skyrocketed.

Afterward I figured it out. I had helped the woman move earlier in the week (John, my host, asked during one day’s errands if I could stop by for a little while. Of course, I said – I can spare four hours. Okay, I didn’t say the last part, but I guess it was implied). This event included moving two couches down seven flights of stairs, up six flights of stairs, then moving another pair of couches down the same six flights. Elevators in Turkey hold two people (think about a matchbox. Now think about an elevator. They’re like the second one), so it took longer. John moved his couch with another American, so they were able to say things like, “Slow down” or “Lift up.” I moved with a Turk who didn’t speak English. He would shout commands and I would say “AFFIRMATIVE!” without understanding.

On the second set of stairs, I was at the top of the couch when, weak from being generally a weak person, I collapsed with the couch on top of me. I was hurt, just greatly embarrassed, but all I could do was yell “TAMAM,” or “Okay,” because my partner either thought I was hurt or an idiot. Later John told me that if I wasn’t there, the guy probably could’ve moved the couch by himself. He wasn’t a big guy, but I guess that’s just a Turkish thing.

So the comment in the church probably went like this: “I’m so thankful that everyone helped us move, including the foreigner [LAUGHTER].” Or she might have been describing how I collapsed.

For the sake of the site, I will say that while in Izmir I saw TRON the movie. Izmir has better theaters than my hometown in America. The movie was awesome, expect for the actual plot and whomever the movie was about (I read an article recently about how Hollywood is now tending to cast generically good looking leads without personality – think Avatar – so that the audience can imagine themselves in the lead role. I sure imagined what I would do inside a computer. I would kick butt. On a dragon made of light). But I think it’s safe to say that the best parts of the movie were all the ones that involved the actual character of Tron.