Cass: 1, Intelligence and Cultural Sensitivity: 0

I have a driver, Niza, who chauffeurs me on the twenty minute trip to and from my medical faculty classes everyday. He’s my Chewbacca – though he speaks no English, and I no Turkish, we have come to understand each other’s sensibilities. He loves to talk about the weather and thinks fat people are funny. We’ve been friends for about seven months now.

Every Thursday we’re joined by Hateje, a twenty-something art student. She sits in the back, and I’ve yet to find out why she has to go to the medical faculty. My best guess is she has some sort of chronic painter’s cramp or her uncle is the dean. She doesn’t speak much English, so usually our interaction is:

HATEJE: Merhaba, Cass!
ME: HOLY COW, you scared me, Hateje. Don’t hide next time.

Every Wednesday I teach a class in the dean’s office directly. It’s usually attended by higher-ups with less English skill. The topics usually revolve around simple nouns and ‘Where did Cass goes this weekend’. However, since the dean is a busy man, I usually spend the first fifteen to twenty minutes of class in his waiting room with a book.

He has a pretty secretary whose name I don’t know, but I feel like we’ve bonded over the months that I’ve been sitting in her office space waiting to teach English. She will usually ask me questions in Turkish and I will respond with, “I don’t speak Turkish.” I’d tack her name on the end if I knew it, but she knows my name and that’s half the battle. The other half is air support.

Yesterday, Hateje got into Niza’s car with a big red canvas and a smile. After we greeted each other, I rode in silence while Hateje and Niza talked about me. I know this because they said my name many times, and once Niza picked up my hand and motioned to it, as if he was making a point about my hairy fingers. Turks don’t prize body hair.

After my class was over, I walked to the spot where Niza usually waits to take me home. However, he wasn’t there; I walked into the dean’s office to ask the secretary where he was. Above the secretary’s desk hung Hateje’s big red canvas. At that point I realized that, though I’ve known them/her for half a year, Hateje and the secretary are the same person.

As she described in unintelligible Turkish Niza’s current whereabouts, I whispered in surprised, “Hateje?” She looked at me puzzled and said, “Cass?”

I’d love to say this is the pinnacle of my American misunderstandings in Van, but I’m certain I’ll do something else completely idiotic. I’m still embarrassed that I’ve ridden in the same car and sat in the same waiting room with this single person for seven months whilst thinking she was actually two, one being much prettier than the other. When Niza eventually found me, I think he sensed my uneasiness. Again, we’re very close. So to make things less awkward, he started motioning between Hateje and I and saying, “Evlilik,” Turkish for marriage. I can’t marry her, Niza. Apparently I don’t know her at all.



Coming back from a weekend in Greece, my students’ curiosity got the best of them and they owned up to their lie. “Okay,” they said, “We lied. We really have no clue what Easter is about. Enlighten us.” I took my blue board marker and wrote one word on the scarred whiteboard upon which I teach.

ROCKETS, I wrote. They gasped. One of them said, “It’s so beautiful.”

For Easter I traveled to Chios, a Greek island an hour boat ride away from Turkey. I spent enough time in the Turkish port to watch Source Code in a movie theater and eat at the most majestic harbor patio of any Burger King in the world. Why the King is there and not, say, the shooting villa of The Bachelor, I’ll never know.

Chios is famous for both the rich merchants that live there and for the Rouketopolemos, a centuries long tradition where two Greek Orthodox churches, 400 meters apart, launch fireworks at each other for three hours leading up to Easter morning. Priests and islanders both spend months hand-crafting over 25,000 rockets that they fire at the opposing belfry. Most direct hits win, though historically each church claims victory and then agrees to settle the dispute the next year.

This ends TONIGHT!

No one is sure of how long this tradition has been going, though it is known that in the late 19th century the churches had to turn to fireworks after the occupying Ottomans confiscated the cannons that the locals used to celebrate Easter. So 120 years ago, they fired actual cannonballs at each other whilst celebrating the resurrection of Jesus.

So apart from Saturday night, I ate some pork, walked around the water front and took luxurious naps a pension with twenty foot ceilings and a dumb waiter.

On Saturday night a few other Fulbrighters and I took a taxi and then an hour of walking a triple-Z switchback to reach the summit of Pelineon, the highest mountain of the island. From there we had a good view of the rocketry below. Both churches had a battery separate from the building, maybe a block away, which would fire barrages of hundreds of rockets at a time. The rockets lit up orange with a long streaming tail and when they crashed against the cloister the impact looked like water ballons filled with magma. This went on for three hours.

(A few other Fulbrighters were inside one church during the bombardment. The priests were conducting an Easter service, chanting “He will rise again” while rocket after rocket smashed against the stucco, sounding like a hungry half-troll on speed banging against the door of a candy store. Apparently both churches were holding service. It’s part of the tradition.)

WHERE'S YOUR GOD NOW? That's right, He's in our house.

From the top of the mountain we could watch all the misfires, and most rockets did not hit the intended church. Some were potshots at the opposing battery. I’m sure both rocket launching pads were run by twenty year olds who left the island for college but have been dreaming of launching the rockets since they were five years old. But a lot of the rockets overshot their targets and landed in the surrounding neighborhood. From the top of the mountain, we couldn’t tell what was on fire, but every thirty minutes another fire would break out, either a dry pine tree or a tar shingle roof top. Watching from above, it only illustrated how amazing it is that this extremely bad idea lasted this long.

Initially we had to fight for space on the brick safety wall of the switchback, but around midnight the cars began to clear out. We decided to stay until the rockets died out, and about an hour later we were walking down the completely black mountain alone with no other humans in sight. Faced with a five hour walk back to our pension, we slowly picked our way around the dead fireworks the locals had been shooting on our own. When all hope was lost along with one of the wool socks I brought with me, a pick-up with a non-English speaking driver offered us its truck bed for the fifteen minute ride back to town. We rode laying face up and cursing each other for not buying our own bottle rockets earlier that day when we had the chance.

Top Three “Only in Van” Things This Week

1) During a faculty conversation class about children and parenting, I opened with the question, “How many brothers and sisters did you have?” Answers were a little above the American average but overall normal – three brothers and four sisters, seven sisters, two brothers and the child we kept in the basement. Then we got to Ahmed, the mid-sixties engineer who has over a thousand living relatives. He held up three fingers and said, “My father had three wives!”

2) On Tuesday in my medical faculty, we were discussing the amount of tea each doctor drank daily. This is a common topic when I don’t know what else to talk about. Salim was excited counting off how many cups he had had that morning when his phone rang. He spoke in Turkish for half a minute before ending the call and standing up. “My wife and children are in the city center, and there is a riot. I must go pick them up.” While I began to hyperventilate in fear the doctors around me were calm. “We’ll see you tomorrow,” they said. As Salim walked out the door one doctor called after him, “Make sure to take the bus!”

3) For the past few weeks I’ve been attending a Koran commentary study with a few of my older students. They buy me dinner and in exchange I listen to them read this commentary in an English translation. The book has words like “effulgence,” “ineffable,” and “ephemeral.” When they asked me what the last one meant I told them it was the scientific name for skin. But they rarely ask; last night I realized that not only do they not understand what they’re reading (they read aloud to improve their English speaking and pronunciation), but that the meeting has now turned into a class that I teach. Without me realizing it, the men have slowly transferred authority over what we read and how long we read to me. I correct their pronunciation on words like “transience” and nod at the next reader when it’s his turn. As it happens, I just picked up another hour and a half of teaching.

Van’s All That

Last week I was contacted by three separate groups who wanted to come to Van. To each I replied, “Why do you want to come here? We’re still waiting for God to lift the plague of frogs. The old Turkish men say we still have eight left.” But the people wanted to come anyway. Who knows what inner demons they were running from, to be driven here.

They came at a good time, though. The weather is turning, the grass is growing again, and no one has seen the Van monster in over fifty years (though we must always be prepared). Tourism is starting to emerge, though the word tourism must translate to something different in Turkish because when I asked a Turkish friend when tourists would start to come to Van, he laughed. However, on my first of two tours of the Kedi Evi (cat house, where we keep 80 of the 280 Van Cats left in the world locked up and under cuddly surveillance) I met a man from Taiwan who came this far only to take pictures of the cats. Weirdo. Just hide one in your backpack and taxidermy it when you get home. Viola! 3D picture.

But in the course of my three separate tours of Van castle during three consecutive sunsets (and three separate explanations of my fear of heights and why I wouldn’t climb the rampart wall) I began to realize that my city is actually a cool place. In my previous trips to the castle the ground was either covered in dust and gypsy children or in snow and mud. Both made the climb to the top difficult, though only one of these four elements threatened to leave me stranded if I didn’t pay it money. However, this past weekend grass covered the ruins of the Old City and the sun stayed in the sky long enough for us not only to watch it set but also to be hungry for dinner, and not lunch, as we walked back to the city.

The three groups that passed through Van only combined once for a show of force on Saturday morning, when the nine of us rode a minivan to Gevash and then took a boat to Akdamar Island, the site of an old Armenian church. The sign at the boat dock said it was built in the 8th century but one of the Turkish girls on our boat said it was at least a hundred years old. After a quick tour of the inside we spent most of our time on the island climbing trees that overlooked the salt lake. My friends said it was beautiful, and I suddenly felt like Van was the unpopular artsy girl that spring gave a make-over just in time for me to win a bet by taking her to the prom.

The only problem came with the university guest house in which I live. It’s basically a hotel for thirty people and its run by students from the tourism department, many of whom have never seen an American (some have heard stories about me, but dismiss them as fairy tales). So when I bring guests, the initial reaction is: “THEY DO EXIST!” It takes quite a while to get a room, and rates vary depending on how confused the student is, because many of them have worked for several months but have never had to check someone in. So as a solution, I began to sneak people in one by one while the receptionist wasn’t looking. I also had success with registering two girls for a room that eventually housed four and convincing the staff that two of my friends were married.

However, I felt some pride when the four-for-the-price-of-two was discovered by Ercan, a 19-year-old who occasionally works the front desk. When he discovered two other American girls hiding badly behind a wall in the courtyard, he contemplated the situation for a moment then said: “Only for you, Mr. Cass.”

The Order of the Face Will Come to Rule

This past weekend I flew to Izmir to help babysit the kids of 10 to 15 expat families while the parents attended a marriage conference. I brought my ear muffs but it turned out to just be a joke in one of the preliminary e-mails and I ended up looking like an idiot in the 75 degree weather.

Babysitting turned out to be a lot like a two-day summer camp, complete with cheers that I made up and a kid with an Australian accent who wanted to play with a newfound “samurai sword” (divining rod with a nail sticking out of the head). After several games of “What genetic enhancements would you like to add to a cat” and “What would you pull out of a box to defeat a dragon at close range”, we hit upon two major discoveries.

1) The Order of the Face – Prior to an everyday game of Capture the Flag 3000 (you must knock over a bucket by throwing dodgeballs), we ran into a problem keeping the teams separate. As a solution I used red and blue finger paint to draw stripes under each kid’s eyes (and ‘accidentally’ in Martin’s nostrils – sweet revenge after he stole my lunch apple).  Taking it one step too far, I then painted a smilely face on one of the Coppertone baby sand shovels that came with the plastic buckets and told my kids to start shouting, “The Order of the Face will come to rule.” The five game series was over before the first one started. The blue team realized we had a collective identity by the second game but they went through four different names with no apparent results. Eventually they succumbed to the cries of my children: “Honor your ancestors!”

I wish I had a picture of Izmir, but here's another camp team I made up: ThunderStruck

2) Revised Dungeons and Dragons – After the fourth inter-planetary adventure story I told involving a few of the campers, the four decided that they were through listening. They wanted to choose their own. So I took out my Tweety-Bird notepad (50 kurush at my campus stationary store) and a pencil and asked the most important question anyone in outer space could field:

“What kind of weapon do you have?”

To start we settled on an energy sword, laser rifle, grenade launcher and lightsaber scattered throughout the group. Over the course of the next three, hour-and-a-half campaigns the group was able to upgrade to the likes of Rocket Launcher and Energy Gloves (that was a write-in; I’m still not sure what they do), as well as purchase Shields, Time Stoppers, Cloaking Devices and even a Particle Accelerator, which did whatever I wanted it to at any point in the story.

As we walked around the camp compound in the gorgeous Izmir hills (I got a Chaco tan and a sunburned nose), I would interject, “You’re surrounded by ten spider robots” or “You come to a magma river where it’s also raining knives,” and the campers would have to work out how to do it. In the beginning it mostly involved Caleb teleporting away and leaving his older brother Seth in a dangerous situation, but eventually, after I explained teamwork in terms of Tetris blocks they started to work together.

In the course of one day, we defeated A) Colonel Meloblaster – originally Alabaster, but no one could pronounce that – and his trolls, B) Dr. Daisyface – which I got a lot of flack for – and his robot army, and C) the invading alien race Xorn, who eventually it was revealed were controlled by none other than Meloblaster.

I slipped away early Sunday morning to catch the next flight back to Van, but I took with me an acute sense of how out of shape I am. Playing with these kids was like herding little kittens to whom sharp objects smelled like cat nip, but I only did it for a day and a half, and although I greatly enjoyed it, I could not have done it for another. It makes me dread going back to the real world, where I will be called upon to do more than teach two hours a day and play Age of Empires on the most difficult setting.

Improvisation Is the Middle Name I Just Made Up

I knew class was going to be rough when both Ozge and Sevda were in their chairs when I walked in. The two women make up two of my toughest critics when it comes to the conversation topics I choose. If something doesn’t fit into the scope of what they deal with on a daily basis – celebrity gossip, ancient languages, kebab – it doesn’t make them happy. So when I took my blue board marker and wrote “LABOR UNIONS” on the board, I didn’t have to see their faces to know their reaction. Because they didn’t know what the phrase “labor unions” meant. But then after I explained it, that’s when they got angry.

I made it through the first 45 minute block before stopping and admitting that perhaps I made a mistake in my lesson plan (as it turns out, there’s no such things as teacher unions or negotiating benefits, and everyone was satisfied with current working conditions. My classes fail hard when everyone agrees). So I told them when we returned from our daily tea break (highlight of class), I would have a new subject prepared.


I expected, on their return, for my students to give me a topic, but no one had any suggestions except 60-year-old Ahmed who wanted to talk about “science.” Thanks for making it specific, Ahmed. And for asking every day. So I took out my blue board marker and asked the students to name as many animals as possible.

By the time we filled the board up, I had a rough idea of what I was going to do…for the next three minutes. I told the students to combine two animals from the board into a new species, then take three minutes to figure out how to describe it. After I explained the directions four more times, I had their working silence which I wisely used to doodle skeletons in my notebook. When they finished, they described the animal to me as I drew it on the board and other students tried to guess. This is what we came up with:


I had to disqualify the last suggestion on the basis of plagiarism – there already is such a thing as a donkey-horse, and it’s called a mule. Ismael, who came up with the revolutionary new idea, felt wronged and started to explain that no, cows have four stomachs, not the donkey-horse. His logic was flawless, so I let him be.

BEHOLD the awesome power of DONKEY-HORSE!

In a fit of invention that qualifies as looking into the future and pulling ideas out of my future brain after I’ve taken four hours to think about it, I then constructed a March Madness style bracket and had all ten hybrids face off against each other in a sand pit. The individual mad scientists who created them each stood up and argued their animal’s strengths. Eventually, it was decided that despite the crocodile-elephants girth, the spider-crow was simply too fearsome, especially since, as Sevda argued, it flew in packs and could throw webs from fifty feet high.

Honorary awards went to parrot-ant for best pet and dolphin-bird for tastiest. And when the students left the room, smiling and waving, I was confident that they learned nothing.

April Fools Passes Without Incident

Last semester I had a rule – every day I had to have at least one English conversation that involved a real person. It’s probably a healthy rule to obey; I mandated it because when I studied in Rome and would go stretches without talking to anyone, I would get lonely. However, I’m better now because I’ve made a lot more imaginary friends.

Yesterday I broke my rule for the first time in Turkey, unless you count the high school students who kept asking me what kind of alcohol I liked (“Americans drink. You like drink? What you like drink?”). However, it was time well spent. Now that spring is upon us and the smoke from burning trash obscures the mountains in the distance, I’ve decided to spend more time in Van, because if it’s this polluted here, how is it going to be in a touristy city?

Anyway, you know what they say: if life gives you lemons, say, “I’m not paying for these lemons.” And if life doesn’t respond, quietly tuck the lemons into an inside jacket pocket and walk out of the store.

I’ve spent most of my free time this weekend finishing the a season of Alias that I bought when I was home. The neighborhood Blockbuster was going out of business, so I got the first three seasons. It’s quite spectacular, actually – it really surprised me, as I knew nothing about it – but now that I’m on the third season (after a marathon session on Saturday – I also wrote an email to my mom on that day), it’s kind of a disappointment, a) because my two favorite characters have been unceremoniously written out, and b) because there is no discernible villain. And c) because I’ve run out of kiwis and I’m too lazy to go to the city center to get more.

This afternoon, while taking an Alias break (my computer got so hot that it couldn’t recognize the DVD I put in) I packed one of my two suitcases. I’ll be handing it off to a friend who’s visiting Izmir next weekend. He’ll take it home for me and also bring me peanut butter. In the suitcase I put all my winter clothes, as well as all my dress shirts and ties because, although I was told they were mandatory, I still haven’t worn them. And I also counted the weeks I have left – 8. That means 16 more conversation topics. If you have any ideas, feel free to suggest, because at this point I’m out.