The New South

A few weeks ago, I was in New Olreans, reuniting with old friends. There’s nothing like extreme isolation and a collective language barrier to bring people together. We walked old streets, told stories of our new lives, and considered one friend who couldn’t make the trip. An idea hatched – we had to get Ed a souvenir. But what?

The city was filled with street artists. Despite my lack of visual sense, I could at least identify things that thrilled me. Oh, that tree is growing goats like fruit? How much do you want for it? Most ran from fantastic to psychedelic, and held an intense faux-French flavor.

In the midst of painters, palm readers and those creating caricatures of old married couples from Alabama, we found a young man in a tattered jacket, sitting on an old crate and working from a typewriter. For twelve dollars, he composed a piece of flash poetry for Ed. It was quite good, too – that night, my friends and I took turns reading the poem aloud, offering our own emphasis and voice to personal interpretations of the meaning. In retrospect, they were probably just pretty words strung together in sixty seconds like a gypsy necklace, but still: impressive.

Wandering alone, I found a photographer who specialized in period piece costumes and sepia. I offered it to the group, two-part humor and one-part nostalgia for similar photos my awesome family took when I was younger. My friends agreed, enthusiastically.

ImageReviewing the costumes, we quickly realized that a) we were not up to cross-dressing, b) rumrunners are for people sans imagination, and c) there were not enough Union army costumes to cover those in the group who lived in the north. Though there were four Confederate costumes, I was the only one who lived south of the Mason-Dixon.

The grey uniform and the Confederate flag are still loaded symbols. That’s understandable. However, my friends showed real hesitation at the prospect of joining a lost cause. We compromised by writing a new ending, complete with individual characters and personal motivations. After a few failed poses and an impatient photographer, we struck on our own interpretation of the divide between North and South.

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Welcome Home

I’ve tried five different countries, and no one will exchange Georgian Lari. I don’t know what these people did to damage their currency so much – possibly the cursive double-u’s that make up their entire alphabet – but I just got home from my American bank who said they had never seen this money before. They called the home office and confirmed what I already suspected – there is no country called Georgia. It was all an elaborate scam.

Now I use my three fifty-lari bills as bookmarks in the new paperbacks I picked up at Barnes and Noble my first day home. My Kindle was lifted while I slept in a corner of the international terminal at the Ataturk Airport. I’m not as broken up about the theft of the Kindle – it had served its purpose, and I have many other things they could’ve stolen (ex. my soul) – but I think what hurts the most is that in the immediate future I won’t finish 1776. I had one chapter to go; George Washington had just finished making a triology of bad decisions and left me asking, “How is Colonial MacGuyver going to get out of this one?”

The journey from Van, Turkey, to Fayetteville, AR, took 56 hours. They discontinued direct flights after no one from Fayetteville ever came to Van. After watching a few episodes of Farscape, I slept Sunday night on a row of padded airport chairs with my ninth-grade basketball hoodie pulled over my face. Every few hours another group of Germans would arrive, singing and tap dancing and slapping me awake with their joy of finaling making it to safety Istanbul. By the time my alarm went off at four in the morning and I made my way to the Delta check-in desk, sanitation workers were moving my luggage to wax the floor underneath where I laid.

Monday night, after my flight out of Detroit was canceled due to lazy storms, I held back exhaustion tears on a free airport shuttle filled with old people (I was by far the youngest person on my final plane home). As they talked about the Northwest Arkansas Craft Fair we arrived at La Quinta Inn, where half an hour later I fell asleep in a large box of mix fried rice.

Early Tuesday morning as the passengers from my plane gathered in the La Quinta lobby for the shuttle back to our replacement flight, a elderly couple from Joplin talked about the things they lost in the recent tornados. Antique scooters, three of them, though the man originally pieced them together out of spare parts and was confident he could do it again. I sat down on the outside of the circle, preparing to fast forward through the next four hours, when one of the soccer mom passengers said, “You’re the guy from Turkey, right?”

What?

“Yeah,” said another grandmother, “I heard you were in Turkey teaching karate or something.”

“English,” I said. “It’s a more aggressive style than karate.”

“Well, good for you. We talked, and we’re proud that you went over there and had adventures.”

The day before, as we sat on the tarmac for two hours waiting for our pilots’ work day to expire, I told the man sitting next to me what I had done with my last nine months. After that I ran silent all the way to my two queen beds in room 122. I guess the other stranded passengers Breakfast Club-ed together to welcome back to the U.S. And it worked. After we went through security I waited for the other passengers so we could walk to the gate together as the group we had become. Even the old woman from Joplin who, the day before as we waited to board the flight the first time, woke me up as I sat next to her and said, “Take you hair off my shoulder,” like I had put my hand on her naked thigh. Tonight I’m cutting my hair.

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.

Rocket-a-Doodle-Doo

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.

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.

You Get What You Pay For

Last weekend was the official last weekend of winter. As such, I had to move quickly if I wanted to get any skiing done in Turkey, as well as save big on name brands. So I met a few Fulbrighters in Erzurum, THE place to ski in eastern Turkey. And I decreed it a man weekend. No girls allowed. Or wanted to come.

I've been waiting for an excuse to use this.

I arrived in Erzurum at 5:30 a.m. after a night bus where I listened to Human Clay all the way through twice before I realized that I was whispering the lyrics while the man next to me slept. When my target apartment door opened, one of the Fulbrighters, still in bed, asked if it was time to go skiing. I told him to give me thirty minutes. Which somehow became three hours.

Erzurum was host to the University Winter Olympics this past February, and as such the skiing facilities were overhauled. A new resort, Kanakale (honestly I just made that name up – I can’t really remember it) was built, and we decided to spend our first day there. We arrived by taxi at Kanakale at nine in the morning, and there was no one there. The doors were locked, the ski lifts were stagnant, and all the office furniture in the foyer had been removed. It was like those haunted theme parks Scooby Doo used to visit that look perfectly sound and empty. Except this time, the proprietor got away with it, despite those meddling kids.

So we spent the next two days at Palandoken, the main resort, on a mountain which I just learned has a name that translates to, no lie, “Great Dragon.” The stars aligned. Then they crashed big time on frozen powder and their back hurt the whole bus ride back to Van.

Since it was the end of the season and the snow wasn’t ideal (but also because this is Turkey), the mountain was empty. We never waited in line at a ski lift. In fact, there were some lifts tucked away in the surely-I-have-gone-off-trail-this-time wilderness that didn’t have operators. They were just swinging full speed, and you had to jump on it or freeze to death in a place where Ski Patrol can’t find you, because Ski Patrol hasn’t been invented in Turkey yet. However, I’ve never skiied in a place that was so empty, and it was a special feeling to be alone with such big mountains looking over my shoulder. If you’re into that kind of stuff, which I’M NOT.

The summit of the Great Dragon (I cannot believe I didn’t know it was called that when I was there), in addition to being deserted (no lift operators; a tea house with it’s windows boarded shut) is also quite beautiful. In one direction you can see the town of Erzurum and the resort, and the other direction looks like sand dunes of snow. There’s absolutely no signs of life looking out on the backside – no huts, no roads, not even telephone poles. And to my hyper developed sense of I’m-about-to-fall-off-this-great-height, it was terrifying.

Google Images said this was from Palandoken.

Alas, all good things come to a point where you realize it’s not that good. The lift tickets and ski rentals cost 45 lira, which is about 30 dollars (made that up, too). Super cheap for skiing. However, on the second day I found out why. After two enormous wipe outs that destroyed the four lunches I was carrying in my backpack as well as my sense of adventure, I was skiing in a flat area when suddenly I felt like I was on one ski. I looked down, and sure enough I was slaloming. The other ski had popped off twenty yards ago. As I was already going at a face pace, I decided it would be a great idea to crash again. After one of my friends brought me my ski, we realized that the boot didn’t fit the ski. The guy we had rented from didn’t bother to fit the boot. Suddenly, I felt less bad about falling one hundred yards down the frontside of the Great Dragon. However, my nerves were shot and I had already wet my pants, so I called it a day.

Velcro Supernova? You Just Named My Band.

Last week’s foray (synonyms also considered: sortie, sally, sashay) into Georgia left me with a desire to visit Turkey’s neighboring countries as well as 150 Georgian lari, which apparently no one in Turkey thinks is real money. Look who’s talking, Turkey. If your bills were flavored I could taste the rainbow. And if the bills were edible.

Just forget that last paragraph. I went to Bulgaria this weekend with some Fulbright friends, and no, Bulgaria doesn’t recognize Georgian currency either, so I’m stuck with these holographic IOU’s that look like Monopoly from the future. However, Bulgaria was a step up in every other way, including their currency’s legitimacy.

Our destination was a city called Veliko Tarnovo, and the only reason I know how
to spell it is because I looked it up on Wikipedia (this is how I also discovered the resident’s skewed sense of scale: the manager of our hostel claimed the city was “HUGE!” – relative to the Vatican, I guess. 67,000 people). During the time I spent there, it was known as Velcro Supernova, city of the Tsars.

We took a bus from Istanbul and found the border crossing much more civilized than Georgia, where we stood in line in a tin walled cattle shoot until enough border guards passed my passport around and decided that, despite the beard, shoulder length hair, and sand dollar glasses I was the same scared little boy who took that passport photo in Collier’s Drug Store on Dickson St, in Fayetteville, AR.

It was the plan to change buses in Bourgas, a coastal city, but Bulgaria said, “To hell with that plan! I’ve got a much better one,” and the bus drove off without us. Faced with a six hour wait for what would turn out to be a non-existent train (there was a strike), we asked a cab driver how long it would take to reach Velcro. Three hours? With six people in a 1980’s Civic? Tell me where to sign in blood.

One thing about Bulgaria – they know their music. Specifically, the best of the 80’s, 90’s, and today when filtered through the family genre. As Lucian tried to curl into a tighter ball on the floor of the cab, holding back tears and motion sickness, the rest of us were singing what we only knew as the song from the end of the Big Green. Except for our driver, Nikolai. He did not sing.

Velcro is in a big forest, surrounded by hills that people used to build castles on; one of the castles remains today, and stormed it for the student price of two lev a piece. It’s a university town, and therefore had a disco with a really bad DJ. If he was a scientist, he would probably try to cross bred a mariachi with a the ring of a rotary telephone and a hammerhead shark. I don’t think I can make myself any clearer. Nevertheless, it did not keep us from dancing, though I wish I could’ve gotten tips from the people who stared at me. I would’ve made bank.

We stayed in the Hostel Mostel, which I’m sure was named with great consideration and not like a rich woman names the small dog that hates her. But despite the name, this hostel was probably the best I’ve ever stayed in. The two men who ran it personally cooked and fed us each night, even the one we didn’t pay for. Plus we stayed in a sixteen person room where I called top bunk – and got it. That’s how much my friends respect me.

We owned this town. Ocean's 11 style.

In the end, I think I would go again just to see the trees (there aren’t many in Turkey – my friends say it’s the climate) and the food. I tried to explain to my students that the food in Bulgaria was prepared in a more American style, and I liked it because it reminded me of home, but the truth is it was much better. By twenty rungs on a fifteen rung ladder. In fact, we went to the same restaurant three times this past weekend, because there were always new things. The best dish I ordered was labeled “wolf morsels of pork supplied with garlic potatoes.” In Bulgaria they refer to portions in terms of the size of the predator it would feed.

Midnight Train to PORK PRODUCTS is More Like It

This past weekend I traveled with a group of Fulbrighters to Georgia, which is the northeastern neighbor to Turkey. We had a chance to see the capital Tbilisi, the most famous city, but we settled with the port of Batumi because it’s a half hour away from the border and I’m getting increasingly lazy when it comes to experiencing culture. Case in point: I’m starting to challenge old men to internet backgammon. But I do that because they don’t know how to work the buttons and it’s the only way I can beat them.

Statue of Medea; one of Georgia's early exports were Golden Fleeces

Georgia is two hours ahead of Turkey, because Turkey refuses to divide the country with something as volatile as time zones, and despite what I was taught, it used to be a Soviet republic. I can’t really blame Sherman for burning it – okay, that’s my only reference, though it wasn’t even that good. However, I do wonder if my mom counts the country as below the Mason-Dixon line. She’s told me on multiple occasions that I’m not allowed to marry anyone born north of it, although Missouri is still under her consideration.

We went to Georgia mostly to enjoy the things we can’t get in Turkey. Pork. Casinos. Beer. The Georgian alphabet. We didn’t realize that they neither spoke Turkish nor English in Batumi. One person in our group of ten, as it turned out, just happened to be fluent in Russian; he handled every single transaction, including food, hotel rooms, and the taxis, though one surly taxi driver went back on his word and demanded 5 lari instead of the agreed 4 (roughly 58 cents – needless to say, we were furious).

(We probably could’ve handled ourselves without the language until it came to dinner. One of the few Turkish words I can recognize is “lokanta,” or restaurant. But on the streets of Batumi we were constantly asking each other, “What’s the hieroglyph for dinner?”)

We kept cheap rooms in a hotel called “Bronze Knuckle/Vampire Heart/B/Alien Spaceship,” when each letter is pronounced phonetically. In my room there was a double bed separated by a curtain from a sitting room with two fold-out couches. The first night we were there, our party was split between those wanted to sleep after midnight and those who wanted to donate their newly exchanged Monopoly money to Red 23 at the roulette table. After a few solid hours of sleep, sharing a double with another guy (remember that a double bed is the smallest bed unit that is certified for two people), we were joined by another Fulbrighter, crawling on his hands and knees to lie between us. He then stole my wool blanket and put his hand on my stomach. But it was his birthday, so I had to let it go until the sun was up.

However, during the second night I had more trouble sleeping. I had been in bed for two hours when I woke up slowly to loud conversation. It was four-thirty in the morning, and although my room was dark, the curtain that separated it was lit up from the other side, and there was music. I sat up and opened the curtain two other Fulbrighters who weren’t terribly sober free-style rapping to an instrumental track on an iPod. They didn’t immediately notice them, so I listened for a second, and, to their credit, they were pretty competent rappers despite the fact that they couldn’t hold their heads up straight.

“Fat rhymes, guys,” I said, “but can we go to bed now?”

They immediately switched to whispers and said yes. So I laid back down in my bed, and they continued to speak in what I’m sure they thought was a whisper. It started, “My man Cass wants to go to bed/So we’ll do what he said/Otherwise we’ll end up dead/Hand me a beer I’m thirsty.”

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.

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.