We Didn’t Insult Anybody’s Dad

In celebration of two years away and/or the ability to finally afford plane tickets, I reunited with several of the friends I made teaching English in Turkey through the Fulbright program. As we’re scattered across the continental U.S., we voted on cities to descend on. New Orleans won. It was the only place I could drive to. I still can’t afford a plane ticket.

ImageI arrived early and spent the first night in a most original hostel. The closest fictional counterpart to the India House Hostel would be the Happiness Hotel from The Great Muppet Caper – a place where drifters mean to pause and wake up twenty years later, working as the bellhop.

The India House Hostel was never built but rather it has been grown for several decades. It seems that every traveler to pass through has left a postcard, picture or poem plastered onto the walls. Posters in the hallways are turning yellow with age. Murals, both horrible and beautiful, decorate the facade. Arriving late that night, I knocked a Hindu goddess bust over and the head rolled off. When I reported my crime, the desk clerk says, “No one knows who put that there.”


The hostel is a converted house with several lean-to’s resting against it, no doubt built on hot summer day’s when backpackers had nothing better to do. There’s an above ground pool and a posted sign of 40 maximum occupants. We were told that in July, the pool and pool deck will be filled to capacity, and a fifteen minute timer will call for rotations between those two and the house bar, located under a lean-to.

Though I was given a key, the door to the shed I slept in didn’t lock. I had the top bunk above an Indian man who was sleeping both when I laid down and when I packed up the next morning.

As my friends as I collected ourselves over coffee, we eavesdropped on a nearby phone conversation: “Yeah, it was an awesome night…no, it’s not my fault…he deserved to get punched…” The man was in his sixties, white beard and pony-tail, and he wore an open shirt that had once been red. His skin was weathered by good times and he seemed to want it that way.

After he hung up, we asked him about his night. It was wonderful, he said. He had lived in New Orleans his whole life and he obviously favored it above all others. I mentioned the characteristic flavor of the hotel, so much different than the cold dormitories in Europe.

“Europe,” he scoffed. “Pyramids? Stonehenge? It’s a bunch of rocks. Where’s the jazz? Who’s dancing? What’s cooking?

“Rocks. Yeah – we should get some of those. Let’s get some rocks.”

He meandered, waxing about the city and it’s general disposition, until we turned the conversation back to his previous night. He still hadn’t revealed the specific story behind his phone call, so I asked: “What’d you do last night?”

And he uttered these immortal words:

“Last night? I’ll tell you what:
We ate well. We drank everything.
We danced with everyone’s mother,
We stared at everyone’s girlfriend,
But we didn’t insult anybody’s dad.
We fought everyone
And we bet on everything.”

One day I’ll write a book solely to use that quote as an epitet.


The Place I Used to Live Was Destroyed

On Sunday afternoon the city I used to live in was rocked back and forth by a 7.2 earthquake. I found out about it after a woman from my mom’s bible study group called to ask about my friends. I had spent that day attempting to slay a dragon on the XBOX. It took me seven tries.

My nieces came up to visit. Zuzu and Coco. Yes, I know. One is three and the other a year and a half and we watched Carebears twice, even though Zuzu claimed the second time never to have seen it. Coco had the flu.

Two days later both my parents, my fiance and I all had the flu.

I lived in Van for a year while I taught English at the city’s university. Turkey has always had a problem with earthquakes and buildings in Van are cheaply built because the area is so poor. They’re all colored like they’re at a cocaine party in 1982. Everyone is wearing pastel suits with wide lapels.

I haven’t talked to many of my students since I left in May, but on Sunday I sent everyone emails asking about their families and the university. “We are okay but we are outside now,” which sounds like a tweet but Cihat’s home was destroyed. We played cards together every Monday but the Ezgi Cay Evi is gone now. We’ll have to find a new place.

Murat, a biologist in his forties with little English skill but no shame for mistakes, said, “Thank of God anyone was no hurt at the university from my relationship,” which caused some initial uneasiness but upon rereading turned out to be positive. No word on the city cats yet, but I’m assuming they’re fine. The university’s famous cat house was the more lavish than most eastern Turkish homes.

Over four hundred people have now been declared dead. I’ve had a lot of people ask me about the earthquake; it’s opened up communication with old fraternity brothers and other Fulbrighters that I haven’t talked to since my Kindle was stolen in the Istanbul airport. The major lesson I’m learning now is how little I would’ve cared if I hadn’t been there. But when I read news articles now I ask, What about Kebabistan? Or the nice old man who made me ground beef sandwiches. I hope the university guest house was destroyed. I hated that place. But I liked the workers – I hope Deniz made it out before that place was sucked into the earth. It’s odd to think about how many people I came to know by sight if not by name, and how I’ll never know if they are still alive.

But today during the car ride home I made up a new joke:

What did the librarian say after the comedian finished his set?


End of the Year Party Without Government Oversight

After we found out that the American government wouldn’t be paying for an end of the year party, the Fulbrighters in Turkey decided to throw our own. It took about two months for someone to finally say, “Fine! I WILL plan this carouse. With great power comes great resplendence.” Something like that.

We settled on Antalya, the Turkish Riviera; the people who named it thus are the same
who call Erzurum the Paris of the East. Middle class Europeans and rich Russians vacation there because it’s cheaper and not heavily policed, respectively. Our all-inclusive resort, The Sea Life, had a view of a rock beach, a swirly slide, and an open bar. Looking like a Sandcrawler of the Sea, it had everything we needed. In three days I only left to go to the airport. I’ve never stayed in an all inclusive resort before (and probably won’t again – it was like a Little Europe with big iron walls to keep out the Turks), but I’m amazed at how they make any money. We got a group rate, and I made sure to make my money back at the dessert bar during lunch, dinner, and breakfast (chocolate cake keeps well in the minifridge).

Turks aren’t big on shorts or exposing any other part of the body, so no one’s skin was prepared for the sun. Even now I look like someone hit me in the stomach with a water balloon full of red chili powder. We spent most of Saturday standing in a ten person line at the waterpark-style curling slide, misusing it as best we could. After going through every variation of backwards, upside down and handcuffed that we could think of, we started sliding with eight to twelve people at a time. On the penultimate run, I was trapped at the bottom of the pool as other Fulbrighters fell out of the slide on top of me like elementary students dog-piling an outcast. However, it turned out I was in pretty good shape as one girl in the run broke her knee. After she was Jesus carried out of the shallow end, one of the guys said, “Do you think we could do fifteen?” And we did.

I used to run award shows for my fraternity. At the end of the year I put together a Powerpoint with pictures and titles like “Most Resembling a Muppet” or “Most Likely a Robot.” My senior year I was called on to do this in three hours – I bought twenty items from Dollar Tree and worked backwards with awards like, “Member Who Looks Most Like a Square” and “Achievement in Magic Shoes.” Shortly after someone decided to wrestle the logistics in Antalya, I volunteered to give awards. Some of my favorites:

Best Couple
Best Dance Crew
Best Rap Duo
Secretly Engaged
Secretly Canadian
Most Motivational Facebook Statuses
Most Inspirational Bro
Most Valuable Frank
Most Sarahs

The last one went to the four Sarahs who ruined the program by having the same name. They got what they deserved. Runner-up was Sasha Frankel, who was one consonant away from winning. She was also honorable mention for Most Valuable Frank. Better luck next year. Many of the awards came with stories; people emailed these in with superlatives attached, and I got to embarrass different people by revealing their dark secrets. I now know much more about my friends than I wanted.

Later that night we sang karaoke on an outdoor stage until an employee took away the hard drive because we were rocking too hard. We also spent a good deal of time at a Turkish wedding reception that was happening with thick bass beats in the resort’s built-in disco (they also had an in-house DJ). Finally, a few people wrestled in the lobby and one Fulbrighter peed in a potted plant. I watched this all happen. Somewhere in the weekend, one person made the comment that as Fulbright scholars, we are America’s future. Some of us will go into politics, law, the arts. Several are already headed to Ivy League graduate programs next fall. I think this comment was made after we slithered in a fifteen-person snake down the waterslide. Post-knee-break.

You’re in good hands, America.

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.”

Dungeons and Dragons and Grenades

“Tron stands alone in a field. Behind him is a slain dragon, and in front of him are
three very alive, very angry others. Tron does not flinch. With his rapier over his shoulder and two bandoliers of grenades across his chest, he stares them down. Cass, you have initiative.”

Thus began the Dungeons and Dragons game that six of us Fulbrighters played on Saturday, after our mid-year evaluation with the Embassy and program heads. When our Dungeon Master (DM) spoke these words, I was overcome with both a sense of how awesome this game was and how awesome I am. However, both illusions were shattered when it turned out that this opening was a dream sequence. Our DM knows how to crush spirits.

If you don’t know D&D, it isn’t satanic – Mom. It’s just a few guys having a good time wishing that they were anything but the loser I am. That came out wrong. It’s a pen and paper role playing game, where the DM casts a scenario and the players have to react to it (badly, in most cases).

My character’s name was Tron, but since he was French it was pronounced “Trau”. I spoke in an accent, and tried to make it consistently French, but it kept bouncing from French to my hog farmer uncle John to Arnold Schwarzenegger (though I had an easier time than Matt, who was playing a bard and kept trying to rhyme everything he said for the first half hour of the game). Tron was a musketeer unjustly jailed by the ruling Elvish class and replaced at home like a reverse Sommersby. As an afterthought, I made him incredibly racist against elves (you would be too, if you languished in their prisons for fourteen years). This ended up affecting the game a lot more than I had intended.

When we got out of the dream sequence and into the reality of the game (yes, irony is my specialty), the first three things my character did in combat was a) throw his rapier into some trash bags, b) vomit on an opponent’s shoe, and c) head butt a wall. The game turned out to be more difficult and I turned out to be less invincible than I previously thought.

The six of us had been talking about playing for quite some time, and because of this, we each came into the game with a well thought out character. The best was Ugga, a half human, half troll nine year old who swung a pine branch with the strength of ten Trons (since it’s a pen and paper numbers game, I know this is mathematically true). As Ed, Ugga’s creator, described his character’s religion, Cassian, I began to recognize elements, like a devotion to fish sandwiches and dragons, and the belief that it’s prophet, Cass, will come again in the guise of a dragon. My character converted three fourths of the way through the game.

We played for seven hours, and most of that time we spent impatiently waiting for the DM to spring a trap – for ninjas or even stray cats to attack, so we could finally fight. I was luckier than the others in that since my character was racist, I was forced to attack any elves I saw, whether it helped the party’s situation or not. However, when an attack came, most of the time I was too excited to do something logical, so I would react in a manner that doesn’t even make sense in my dreamworlds (I have many). For instance, at the beginning of our first major fight, I tried to shove a grenade into an opponent’s mouth. Instead, the live grenade fell at my party’s feet, and everyone had to spend the next turn scrambling behind tables, waiting for it to go off. Since I had the highest dexterity (a mathematical characteristic), I always went first and more often than not ruined scenarios by doing something similar to this.

Sadly, the game ended just before midnight because a) all the Fulbrighters not playing wanted to go out, b) Matt got tired of speaking in meter, and c) I used up the last of my grenades. It had been ending gradually for a half hour when Ugga, the adolescent half troll, got in a friendly-fire fight with our illusionist during a face off with the boss. It escalated until the illusionist, who could only conjure things less than three feet tall, created several floating crossbows that danced about the room in a random fashion. When his roll to complete the task was successful, we all turned to the DM and asked, “What happens next?” All through the game, the DM dictated what our opponents did, based on our actions, and he had been pretty good about handling our (my) more stupid moves. To this, he looked at us in disbelief and said, “I have no idea.” And so we declared ourselves victorious and went out for drinks.

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.

It Was a Good Death

Here in Ankara, we wear dress clothes everyday to attend seminars on Turkish Culture, English Teaching, and Covert Intelligence (I can’t really tell you what I’m doing in Turkey). But last Friday, after we finished our discussion on capturing and interrogating a tail, we were told by our advisors to dress extra special for dinner. Job fair? No. Even better, they said. We’re going to the Ambassador’s house.

There is no current Ambassador here in the capital; the last one was moved to Iraq this year, and there’s a hold on the nomination of the next. However, whoever was in charge that night was definitely an American. When we arrived at this fenced in forest mansion, we were hoping for some real Turkish food. Unlike the hotel dinner, something substantial and filling, like too many Oreos. Instead, as we filed onto the grass lawn, the lame-duck Ambassador announced, “I can see it in your faces – you miss your home land. Therefore, HOT DOGS FOR EVERYONE.”
I’d been gone a week, and I still hadn’t had a solid, undisputedly authentic Turkish meal. But this was hot dogs for everyone – you can’t turn that down. It’s instinctive, like some sort of hunter-gatherer culture where the hot dog traded for double it’s weight in ivory and molars.
I don’t do well with adults – I don’t know what to say. As any individual who gets by solely on humor and zero other attractive attributes will tell you, it takes a while to build credibility. You can’t just jump in. And I can’t make any other type of conversation, because that’s not the way my mind works. My one conversation with an Embassy diplomat ended with me asking if it was actually possible to catch a falling star, and if so, what kind of self-destructive person would put it in his or her pocket? It’s burning at like six trillion degrees. Celsius, of course.
But this was okay, because just that Friday afternoon I had finally established credibility with the Fulbright community. It took a week of sitting at the back of the room and mumbling jokes under my breath, but I finally came forth.
Friday we had to prepare a ten-minute micro lesson, teaching one life skill to a group of four others. In my group, we had lessons on how to tie a tie, how to make an origami hat, how to play dominoes – I taught on how to incapacitate a Yeti.
Curious? You should be, especially if you live in an area with elevation exceeding 5000 ft. There’s an acronym for it: K.N.O.T. It stands for Knee Neck Organs Throw. You see, with the abnormal speed, hideous strength, and overly evolved sense of territory, your only hope of incapacitating a Yeti is to get it on the ground. With it’s curved spine, a Yeti is incapable of rolling over on it’s stomach, once it’s on it’s back. Like a turtle, it is stuck (don’t get to cocky – it can still rip your legs off). Assuming an athletic stance, kick for the knee, grab with both hands around the neck, put a knee in it’s stomach, then step in front of the Yeti and throw it across your body and onto the ground.
As I taught this to my group of four, I made them get up and practice the moves with me. A few of them laughed and had a good time; one, Maria, and fortysomething woman with many years ESL teaching experience, was not amused. However, she eventually came along, especially after I explained the dangers of Yetis. I told the group that we had all lost relatives to the Yeti; I asked them to go around and say who in their family had been killed. One said a father. Another said a brother. When it got to Maria, she looked at me without any humor and said, “My uncle. It was a good death.”

Not Only am I Back, But I’m Standing Right Behind You

I’m kidding, just kidding. Really I’m underneath your bed, and I’ll grab your ankles before you lay down to take a nap tomorrow afternoon. Don’t believe me? THEN LOOK UNDER THERE.

But seriously. I spent the last three months at a summer camp, and boy do I love children. They taste like veal. I have many stories of silly things campers did and extremely stupid things counselors did, and hopefully over the next few weeks I’ll share some of those if I feel like it. Honestly some days I wake up and everything feels like a lie. Those are the days I just make up stuff while I type.

A few of my friends and I went to see The Expendables last night for four dollars, and was it ever worth four dollars! I half expected to hear Terry Crews lament, “If I had a nickel for every torso I exploded,” and then I would hand him my four dollars and search around in my pocket for fifty five more cents. I’m still having trouble processing what happened. By the time the credits came around, I was astonished – they actually hired a writer. Someone got paid. Have you ever seen a movie or read a book and thought, I could do better? Well that wasn’t The Expendables. You can’t script improvisational genius. I’m pretty sure no one tried to script Mickey Rourke. All of his scenes were probably filmed in his home, and all the dialogue was actually him speaking frankly to Stallone on candid camera. But why am I talking about this?

Halfway through the summer my plans for next year changed. I was planning on working for BYX Nationals as a chapter consultant, but in late June I was notified that I received a Fulbright grant. Most people that I tell are from Arkansas, and assume this means the Fulbright Arts and Sciences College at the University, but nay, it’s actually a government program. It’s pretty prestigious, but I don’t say that for myself – I was an alternate’s alternate. The only reason I got the scholarship was because eighteen other people turned it down; the last one said, “Why don’t you give it to Cass? We’ll all get a laugh from that.”

The grant I have will send me to Turkey for nine months. I’ll be teaching English in a university there. I’ll be in southeast Turkey, right next to the borders of Iraq and Iran, so I’ll be sure to get you a souvenir. I hear crossing the border is as easy as one two three months in prison. However, instead of writing about a fraternity, I’ll now be writing about a foreign culture. I hope that’s cool with you.

I may not be deserving of this grant, but do you know who else won a Fulbright scholarship, fair and squizare? Dolph Lungdren, who portrayed Gunner in The Expendables while wearing a rubber Gary Busey mask. Dolph has a masters degree in chemical engineering, and won a Fulbright to attend MIT, but quit after two weeks because Stallone asked him to punch murder Apollo Creed. That’s the kind of spring board I’m hoping this turns out to be.