Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Christmas in Turkey, Part I

Ah, the holidays abroad. The time of year when you try to uphold the traditions of your own childhood and culture, both for your children and yourself. We enjoyed our Thanksgiving and even managed a traditional dinner, along with the glee of being able to say “We’re eating Turkey in Turkey!” I, in a fit of childish behavior, had to make the joke right at the beginning of the meal because I couldn’t take the tension of waiting to see who would say it first.

But how to create a Christmas atmosphere for your children while living in a country that is 99.5% Sunni Muslim? Well, as it turned out, we didn’t have to do too much work. Christmas, so to speak, is everywhere in Turkey.

Obviously, the Turks do not celebrate Christmas, but they celebrate New Year’s the exact way we celebrate Christmas – with a tree and presents and St. Nick (I will get to this in another blog posting, but the fat man in a red suit that you know as Santa Claus is actually St. Nicolas, who was, of course, TURKISH. As I mentioned in an earlier posting about the history of Turkey, anything that was important in the ancient world has to do with Turkey.) So there are lighted, elaborately decorated, and to our eyes, “Christmas” trees everywhere – in building lobbies, malls, and city squares. Conveniently, New Year’s is just a week after Christmas, so to our kids, everything was decorated for Christmas. Our apartment building has a tree in the lobby, as does the building next door. All of them are fake, but no matter where you look the spirit of Christmas is here.

But our children have never had their own Christmas tree (for various reasons over the years) and we decided that this year, they would. So began the hunt for a real Christmas tree in Ankara, Turkey. Armed with some vague addresses of where people MAY have bought a tree last year, we set out. After a couple of hours, many liters of gas and no luck, we briefly contemplated a nighttime raid on one of the many lovely coniferous forests in the southern part of the city with a saw and dark clothing, but decided it was not worth being sent home for a felony should we be caught. But lo and behold, as disappointment began to reign, my sister, visiting for the holidays, noticed a bunch of pine trees propped up on the curb a couple of blocks off the Konya highway. A few exits and U-turns later, we actually found what she had spotted – a small, well, I hesitate to call it a nursery but that’s the closest word to describe it, “nursery” tucked into the sidewalks of an urban neighborhood. The trees were spindly and droopy but live. We picked the most robust, robust being a very relative term, 3-ft tall-on-a-good-day tree, bargained the guy down to about $100, and loaded it into my trunk.

And how to decorate? Well, you can get decorations everywhere in Ankara. The large store across the street has 2 50-ft aisles of, uh, New Year’s decorations – string lights, bulbs, ornaments, candles, tinsel, Santa figurines, Santa cups, Santa mugs etc. Could have knocked me over with a feather I was so surprised.

So call it New Year’s, but my kids were treated to a lovely Christmas here. Turkey really is a crossroads between the east and the west. But the whole season could be summed up in an ornament I couldn’t resist buying, a gorgeous hand-painted tree ornament depicting Santa in his sleigh, riding through the sky….over a mosque.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Hitting The Bus

Did I mention that I had a Minor Altercation with a large red metro bus?

Mmmm… I didn’t think so. That was fun. And now I have a formal introduction to the ways of processing a car accident here in Turkey. I dearly hope I won’t need the information for future reference, but I’m not holding my breath.

The whole event was more unfortunate and annoying than anything else. I didn’t even hit the bus, I merely rolled a bit too close to it. We each remained motionless for a minute while the traffic was stopped, and then when the bus started up, his protruding back bumper hooked my headlight. Completely my fault, but really no big deal. A $14.95 light for my car, and a bus bumper that someone could have banged back with a hammer. At home we would exchange licenses and insurance info and be on our way in ten minutes. But we are not at home.

The most important thing to remember is that if you move your car after an accident here, you are automatically at fault. Each vehicle has to remain exactly in place until the traffic police arrive (oh yeah, you can imagine the possibilities). So since chances are you will be sitting there for a while, one hopes that a) the accident occurs in a remote traffic-free zone where you are not subject to the anger of delayed commuters and b) that there aren’t a lot of other accidents that morning to take up the time of the traffic police. I was lucky with neither.

It took the police three hours to get to the scene. We kept calling them and they assured us they were on their way and then finally, after two hours and many phone calls later, admitted they had 150 accidents to deal with that morning and would be a bit delayed. ANY OTHER location in the world I would have said, “Yeah, right – spare me the theatrics.” In Ankara I can only say, “150? That’s all?” The modern day Sisyphus is alive and well and He Is A Traffic Cop here in Ankara.

So after they finally show up, it takes another hour to process the accident. You each give your side of the story to the policeman who diligently writes it down. Oh, AND you have to submit to a breathalyzer test. All this for a busted headlight and dislodged bumper. Fortunately I skipped my usual beer-on-my-Cheerios breakfast that morning and my drunk and disorderly morning conduct was nowhere to be seen.

So lest you think that you are done, you need to go to the Central Police station a few days later for the judgment. They give you a copy of your statement which somehow doesn’t quite match what you said, but that you are allowed to correct. Those of you that know me will laugh at the image of me firmly but politely telling this mass of Turkish police that “no, no, I never HIT the bus, just sort of ROLLED into it. That needs to be changed.” My husband always laughs at me splitting hairs when it never matters. As it were, I was deemed 100% at fault. Which is true, although they often rule against the foreigner.

So, four hours of my time and a trip to the police station. And the epilogue? I’ve become insufferable because I can say to my husband, who hates my car, “That’s why I bought a junker. The odds were just too high.”

Friday, November 16, 2007

The Sound of Turkish

I’m back. Sorry for the long hiatus.

I’m back and finally in a Turkish language class. It’s really taken me too long to sign up for one - inertia can be a powerful force – but better late than never. The Turks are just the nicest people I’ve ever met (have I said that before?) and I really want to communicate with them beyond a smile and hand gestures.

And after some instruction, I have to say I really like the Turkish language, despite some unusual linguistic concepts I need to get my head around (i.e., there is no verb for “to be” or “to have”!!). It does have a logic and an order that appeals to my dominant left brain.

One of the biggest differences from French (which I have studied intensely and most recently) is that every single letter in a Turkish word is pronounced. In French you could easily drop four or five letters in a word, which sometimes happens in English as well, but in Turkish you can’t even forget a single letter (can you imagine if you had to pronounce every single letter in “through” - ta-ha-er-o-u-ga-ha?) This makes it much easier to hear an unknown word and be able to look it up. But of course, when speaking Turkish, you have to actually remember this rule.

For example…The windshield wiper on my car snapped and in desperate need of a new one, I went to the auto parts section of a local big box store. Since my Turkish is so limited, I brought the broken wiper with me and held it up with a smile. The salesclerk asked me the make of the car. Reflexively I pronounced Renault in my best french accent – rolled the r just so, the e like “ay”, pronounced the au like a long o, and dropped the lt. The nice gentleman looked at me blankly. I tried again. A furrowed brow. Don’t know why I was so slow…then I carefully pronounced each letter separately, inserting a y between the vowels – Re-na-yu-l-t. Instant comprehension, lovely smile, I had my windshield wiper.

Which brings me to another facet of Turkish – you can’t have two vowels next to each other, which is a boon to us poor foreigners. Every single vowel is always pronounced exactly the same, and you don’t have to remember how the sound changes if there is a second vowel like, a vs. au or o vs. ou , or ei or ie, etc. On the off chance a combination of suffixes produces two vowels, they just stick in the letter y. Just think about the double vowel sound possibilities in English with even this small example of ou:

Dough – long o
Furlough – long o

Through – sounds like ew
Ghoul – sounds like ew

Cough – short o
Ought – short o

Enough – short u
Rough – short u
Tough – short u

Bough – sounds like ow
Noun – sounds like ow

I’m not a linguistics professor, but do you see ANY rule here?

As for international relations…the political situation with the PKK has really brought out Turkish national pride. It reminds me of the US shortly after 9/11, that brief time when everyone was flying the American flag and proud to be an American. It’s like that every day here since the tension escalated on the border. There are Turkish flags hanging from windows, over doors, in taxi and bus windows, from car antennae, huge 75 ft. flags strung between apartment buildings. My children attend a Turkish school, and they have a lobby display - shrine, really - to Ataturk with balloons with the Turkish flag hanging from the ceiling. The nationalism here is rampant and oddly appealing. I guess the stark divisions in the US sadden me. I would give anything for a presidential candidate that could unite us, and yet I fear that no matter who wins, 50% of Americans will reject the winner on party affiliation alone. Can you blame anyone? Everyone has fanned the flames of partisanship in their own way.

And to close on an upbeat subject -

GO RED SOX! Red Sox Nation is alive and well in Ankara, Turkey.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

The Temperature in Turkey

Not even the weather in New England changes this quickly.

We left Ankara last Friday, in shorts and T-shirts and enjoying the 70-75 degree weather, to travel down to Side, a town on the southern coast of Turkey for a couple of days. Now granted, the Ankara locals were saying that this constant warm, sunny weather through October was not usual. But who listens? The weather was typically lovely and Mediterranean in Side, sunny and in the low 80s with occasional thunderstorms. Indeed we left Side on Monday in the blazing hot sun. But the temperatures dropped the closer we got to Ankara, and by the time we arrived home, it was 35 degrees. Yikes.

It was rather embarrassing on the way home to hop out of the car for gas and facilities in shorts and flip flops. I endured the stares of more than a few people as I walked my son to the gas station bathroom in his shorts and sandals while the two of us shivered. My Turkish phrasebook doesn’t list “But it wasn’t this cold when we left!” and really, would it have helped if it did? I was a bad mother. Two of the gas station attendants took one look at our outfits and then checked out our license plate, as in, “What country are these idiots from?” The plate might say Turkey but we’re from the land of Denial, my friends.

But nothing like driving to get a feel for the geography of a place, and it really was a gorgeous trip. The land around Ankara is almost lunar, with nary a tree to be seen. The land is parched and brown and windswept. But as you drive south past Konya (home of the whirling dervishes, a subject for another blog posting) you go over a high mountain range of green coniferous slopes that is reminiscent of California. The summit is at 6000 ft. (No snickering from the western corner, please, that’s high for those of us raised in the east) and from there you coast all the way down to sea level in Side, with palm trees, banana plantations and balmy blue ocean water. I can highly recommend it as a vacation spot. To hearken back to a previous posting regarding the history of Turkey, did you know that Mark Antony and Cleopatra once canoodled in the ancient roman city of Side? Bet you didn’t. Neither did I, not to beat a dead (Trojan) horse. I thought about asking for the room they slept in, but I refrained.

As for temperatures of a different sort…I have not personally felt any change in attitude towards us as Americans since the Armenian Genocide resolution passed last week. There was a small demonstration outside the embassy, and many public statements from Turkish officials promising dire consequences for U.S.-Turkey relations, but so far my daily interactions with Turks feels no different. The newspapers here, which are famously inflammatory, printed the headline “27 Stupid Americans” after the committee voted 27-21 in favor of the resolution. I think most Turks are extremely upset, but are too polite to express it to me. Although if the resolution passes in the House, as they are expecting in November, I think things could change rather quickly and unpleasantly. What can I say? We are all extremely disappointed here and hope that the resolution doesn’t pass. I’ll leave it at that. For those of you that know me personally, you can email me if you are interested and I’ll go into more than I can in a public space.

Friday, October 5, 2007


We are in the middle of Ramadan, known as Ramazan here in Turkey, the Muslim holy month. While the world recognizes Ramadan as a time for fasting, it is also an opportunity to refrain from envy, anger, greed, backbiting and gossip. The fasting is a time to turn away from worldly concerns and concentrate on a deeper spiritual relationship to God, as well as a reminder of the hunger of the less fortunate of this world.

For observant folks, nothing can be ingested between sunrise and sunset. Eating, drinking, smoking and sex are all prohibited during this time. Indeed for the most pious of Ramadan observers, the ban can extend to the licking of stamps.

Each morning drummers circulate through the towns and cities to awaken everyone an hour or two before Sahur, the large meal before dawn. This of course is helpful for those Ramadan observers who have a long hungry day in front of them and don’t want to oversleep (drummers have no snooze button), but pure hell on non-observant light sleepers. It just all depends on where you sleep and where the drummer walks. One of my friends has a bedroom that sits right above the alley of the drummer’s path, so she was awakened every day around 3:30 AM until she got used to the noise. She was so excited when after 2 ½ weeks she finally managed to sleep through the drummer. Her husband, however, swears that the drummer was actually IN their bedroom the other night. We have been fortunate (or culturally deprived?) as to not hear a drummer in our part of town – I don’t know whether we are heavier sleepers, have better sealed windows or perhaps just a weaker-armed drummer.

The dates of the holy month are based on the lunar calendar, which is about 11-12 days shorter than the solar calendar, so Ramadan drifts backwards year to year. This of course presents serious ramifications as Ramadan slowly backs down into summer. Sunrise materializes about 5:30 AM during the summer months, which means those drummers will be wandering around a lot earlier to remind you to eat. And the sun doesn’t go down until after eight PM. A long hungry day. That’s not even taking into account the heat. Can you imagine going the whole day without any water? This summer we had weeks of 95 degree + weather. The day during winter is a little over 9 hours long. The day during summer is 15 hours long. That’s 360 more minutes without water, and I’m sure you count every one. Next year Ramadan starts on 9/1 and it will be another ten years before Ramadan arrives in the cool increasing darkness of early spring.

To help manage the times of each day, different businesses will print out a chart with each day of Ramadan, and a column for the exact time that day of Imsak (the hour that fasting begins), Gűneş (sunrise), Őğle (noon prayers), Ikindi (midafternoon prayers), Akşam (evening/sundown) and Yatsı (night prayer). I picked one up at the Armada mall here in Ankara and it reminds me of the tide charts I see around my father’s Florida home.

So after the long day of fasting, many people go out with family and friends for IFTAR, the evening meal during Ramadan that breaks the fast. Often you will find that restaurants are crowded and neighborhoods deserted during the month’s evenings. This of course has no bearing on the everyday expatriate life except in rare circumstances like if, oh, say, for example, one Sunday night during Ramadan THE RADIATOR PIPE IN YOUR BATHROOM BURSTS and starts gushing coal-black sooty water at an alarming rate, and the Titanic comes to mind and there’s no one to help because your building manager is at an IFTAR dinner and all your neighbors are at IFTAR dinners and the whereabouts of the water shut-off for the apartment (which unfortunately you didn’t know was bizarrely hidden in an obscure closet) is unknown, and there’s not a single plumbing business open on a Sunday night during Ramadan and oh, hey, I have a brainteaser for you:

Question: If a pipe gushes X number of gallons of sooty black water per minute, how many minutes does it take to reach Y number of inches of water in the bathroom before it spills out all over beautiful hallway hardwood floors and bedroom carpet?

Answer: Fewer than 30 minutes, which is how long it takes someone to come to the house to shut off the water.

Those rare circumstances can be killers.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

The Dolmuş

Finally, a brief blog entry so you don’t have to spend your entire lunch hour reading one of my postings…

There are, I’m happy to report, other transportation options in Turkey besides driving to your own death in a car or braving the seatbelt-less, albeit clean and efficient, taxis. There is a uniquely Turkish mode of transportation called a dolmuş, which means stuffed in Turkish. A dolmuş is a small minibus, and it might run within a city, or between cities and small towns.

A city dolmuş runs a prescribed route through the city - unpublished, but fixed. The sign in the window gives a general destination, but the only way to figure out the specific route is to get on and ride it to the end. There usually aren’t any prescribed stops, so you can pick it up anywhere along this route simply by waving your hand. You get on and ride it for as long as you want for a fixed sum (equivalent to about $1) and get off wherever you want.

For such an informal transportation method, there are some rules to be followed. When you get on, you immediately sit down. Do not, under any circumstances, approach the driver. You hand your money to the person in front of you, who passes the money through each passenger up to the driver and then the driver passes the change all the way back to you. Now, the driver does all this while navigating the city streets. You’re lucky if he keeps one hand on the wheel, so I figure by giving him exact change I decrease our chances of hitting something.

At the beginning of a route, the driver will wait until the bus is full (ah, that’s why they call it a dolmuş!) before he starts. You may not, under any circumstance, wait around until the next empty one leaves. You will be yelled at.

And there are advantages to riding the dolmuş - it’s cheap, easy and you finally get to be the in the vehicle that stops without warning, instead of the idiot driving behind him.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

We're not in France anymore...

It’s not fair to compare. But I can’t help but do it. I think we as human beings are looking to understand our world, and we do it by placing our current experience against the backdrop of our previous experience. So in my daily life, Turkey gets compared to France, almost always favorably. And during the course of a normal day in Ankara, I often find myself saying,

That would never happen in France.

My first instinct is to tell you that it’s because the Turks are so much nicer than the French, but that’s unfair, and far too simplistic a statement that doesn’t take into account the cultural differences. But those cultural differences – the role of children in daily life, the strict social rules that govern the French, the Islamic, albeit secular, culture of Turkey that reveres hospitality - add up to a very different daily experience, at least for me.

A day interacting with Parisians would leave me drained. And I was fluent in French, too. I always felt like I had to have my combat gear on to master Parisian life. Either you had to battle the bureaucracy, or count your change, or watch your purse, or coexist with reserved strangers or find a way, anyway, to make someone help you, even if it was their job. No one helped, everyone disapproved. Older women would lecture me about my children (they were too loud, ran too quickly, not dressed warmly enough), younger people would ignore me. People would rush by, annoyed by my stroller. My children in France were an utter liability. The hardest part of my experience in Paris was feeling like my children were growing up thinking that every adult disapproved of them.

People in Ankara are delighted with my children. They smile at them, stop and wave, ask their names. I don’t watch salesclerks stiffen when they see me walk in with small children. We take our kids to all but the fanciest of restaurants here. The Turks, most especially the men, LOVE children. It’s like being in Italy or Egypt. The waiters pull out the chairs for my kids, ruffle their hair, ceremoniously hand them a menu, pour their water and generally fuss over them. The fancy bakery down the street always hands my children a cup of freshly squeezed juice and a chocolate as soon as we walk in the door, while I look on, hoping the kids leave me some.

The waiters in Paris would take one look at our kids and tell us they had no open tables. Or give us a disapproving look (if the other diners hadn’t already) if the kids’ voices rose above a whisper. Oh, and how often did that happen? I didn’t count occurrences per meal, but per minute.

In Ankara, I’m not guarded every time I walk out the door. I feel confident that if I walk into a store and need something, a combination of charades and my 15 words of Turkish will at least start a “conversation.” If they can’t help me, they’ll find someone else who can. The Turks give. A smile, a sample, a cup of tea, their patience. A day running around Ankara leaves me tired, but emotionally energized from my personal interactions. Paris was exhausting, and there were few random social interactions to recharge you.

Some of my criticism is unfair, Paris is a large city, and people are busy and impatient, just like New York, and Hong Kong, and London. You can’t spend the day in New York and come back disappointed that you didn’t soak up any positive energy. Hey, did you get back home alive and with your wallet? Say thanks, move on.

And Paris deals with more foreigners on a daily basis than anywhere else in the world. So I guess we must forgive them somewhat for being tired of dealing with us. While there is a small foreign community here in Ankara, we do remain more of a novelty.

But still I continue to say, That Would Never Happen in France. And every day, it seems, I have a new reason to say it.

Last week I had a friend visiting from CA, and we decided to take the bus to Ulus, the old part of town. I had never braved the bus before, but hey, you need a brand new experience each week just to keep you sharp - or humble, depending on how it turns out. Well, we boarded the bus with a sign in the window saying Ulus which I assumed was the destination. It wasn’t. It was just a stop along the way, a long way. Anyway, we started talking, failed to pay attention, you’ve heard this one before…and when we looked up, there we were, in very northern Ankara, almost off the map. And neither of us speaks Turkish. My friend tried some Turkish out of the phrasebook on the woman next to her. I opened up what had to be a 4’ x 3’ map and proceeded to loudly rustle the huge folio while simultaneously peering out the window searching for a street name. Neither of us was particularly worried – you can always get off a bus, cross the street, and get on the same bus going in the opposite direction. Nevertheless, we must have looked worth taking pity on.

A gentleman immediately stands up and says, “Can I help you?” and proceeded to get off the bus with us, hail us a cab, and explain to the cabdriver in Turkish something to the effect that we were American friends that needed to get to Ulus (the words American and friend are in my 15-word linguistic repertoire.)

That would never happen in Paris. EVER. A number of other ex-pats have said the same thing – that the Turks they’ve encountered have gone out of their way to help them, even though it was inconvenient.

One day my husband and I pulled up to the apartment with a huge box that needed to go upstairs. There happened to be two guys standing on the street waiting for a friend and as they watched my husband struggle with the unwieldy and heavy box they jumped up immediately, didn’t even ask him if he needed help, just picked up the other end and helped my husband carry the box into the building.

That would never happen in France.

But not because I think the French are unhelpful. Their strict social rules truly prevent them from interacting with strangers easily. The average Parisian would consider it intrusive to offer help without being asked. They are all about dignity, and by offering help they are acknowledging an uncomfortable situation that you are in, depriving you of dignity. Plus they don’t know you, so they don’t intrude on your world.

We found that if we had a personal connection to a French person, they were absolutely the warmest and kindest of people. Our French friends truly, truly opened their homes and lives to us very generously. I couldn’t thank them enough. But the average encounter on the streets of Paris makes for a lonely existence.

But there are many reasons I say it. They are repaving the ramp that goes to our underground garage. As a consequence, we have had to find street parking for a week. Last Sunday morning, our family headed out and as we passed the construction, I stopped dead and stared. My husband, a bit concerned, said, “What? What is it? What’s the matter?” because I kept staring. I just couldn’t believe it. There they were, working. On a Sunday. Because it was important and because it greatly inconvenienced the residents, they were working on Sunday to finish it.

That would never happen in France.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Renault Redux

Finally, I’m legal. It took seven weeks (3 ½ of them without the car), and hundreds of dollars, but my car is now legal. Not, of course, that it prevented me from driving it when it wasn’t, but now I can get in a fender-bender and not be in really, really big trouble. I thought French bureaucracy was bad, but it is not even in the same league as Turkey. We’re talking single A ball vs. the 2004 Red Sox. We are talking my alma mater’s football team vs. the NE Patriots, we are talking…well, yes, we are talking Boston sports teams. ANYWAY, dealing with the French was just a warm-up, and not enough of one to make me zen-like about coping with the Turkish process of registering a car. Patient and uncomplaining I was not (am I ever?). Seven weeks!! Just imagine if I was a law-abiding citizen and had waited that long to drive…

So the process goes something like this: You buy a car from another foreigner, to make it easy - easy being a relative term. This person hires a Turkish representative to go to Customs and deregister the car. Your car then sits at Customs, incurring fees for each day it sits, until the Turkish representative that YOU’VE hired goes to Customs to retrieve your car (with ten, I repeat, no less than ten documents supplied by you). Said representative keeps your car until Customs sends a document in the mail to Traffic. Document may not be hand carried or hand delivered. For legal reasons unclear to me, it must be mailed. Customs and Traffic are not that far apart, but document takes eight days to arrive. Then car is driven to Traffic, where it is inspected and hopefully given license plates. Above all, do not hope for speedy license plates during Ramadan. Yes, Ramadan started Thursday the 13th, about the time I needed license plates. Rejoice when process is complete. Then obtain legal, notarized letter in Turkish stating that you have permission to drive car. Car legally has to belong to husband, you are only borrowing it (which, I hasten to add, has nothing to do with me being a female, but has everything to do with me being the spouse of the foreigner working in Turkey). Drive without letter and have accident, or loan to someone else who has an accident with your car, and you are looking at a $50,000 fine given to the owner of the car. No, you did not miscount the zeros.

I’m pretty sure all this aggravation is karmic payback for the complaining I’ve done in my life about the DMV. Come to think about it, and I’m thinking out loud as I write this, I was JUST grumbling about the California DMV in early August, right around the time I bought the car! Long story - lost license, impossible to reissue without being there in person, etc. And I was bitching and moaning about some poor customer service I received. So perhaps I actually deserved all this! What a novel way to look at it. Another reminder folks, if you didn’t hear enough of it from my France emails, is that if you start feeling less than enthusiastic about your own country, move to another one. All those ungrateful feelings will evaporate. This is not in any way a comment about Turkey. I absolutely LOVE LOVE LOVE living here. It’s just a reminder that you have more ease, opportunities and freedom in the US than you can possibly imagine. Well, if I’ve annoyed you, relax, I’m getting off my soapbox.

And now that I am lawfully ensconced in my driver’s seat, I am free to purchase gas at over $9.00/gallon. Nope, you didn’t misread that number either. And please refer again to the above comment re: ungrateful feelings. I’ll admit I have been an advocate for more expensive gas in the US to force some change in our fuel consumption, but my “walk your talk” philosophy has been sorely, sorely tested (read: tested and failed) in the face of $128 fill-ups. That’s just a standard sedan. SUV people are paying over $200 per full tank. You can be as snarky as you want about SUV owners paying what they deserve, but $128 ain’t no picnic either.

So it’s another sunny day in Turkey, and I’m legal, broke, and ready to do battle once again with the forces of Ankara traffic. Onward.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Language Barrier

So I haven’t had a chance to take a class in Turkish yet, although I am looking forward to starting soon. For now I fiddle around with Rosetta Stone, pick up phrases here and there - survival Turkish - and try out new words on my housekeeper and the building guards. That usually gets me a smile.

It’s just that Turkish is just so vastly different from the other languages that I’ve studied. It will be my fourth - not counting English or the bit of Russian I took in high school - and I just have to wrap my head around the concept and dive in. Nouns have no gender (Bonus!), there is no definite article (which can make you sound like Tarzan), you pronounce every letter (hard to remember after French), the verb always comes last (can you IMAGINE being a simultaneous interpreter, and having to wait until the end for the verb?) and Turkish grammar has very few exceptions.

Actually Turkish used to be written in Arabic script, but as part of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s cultural reforms in 1928, the script was replaced by the Latin alphabet, and at the same time, many Persian and Arabic loanwords were removed and replaced by French words or new words derived from Turkic roots. (Some people consider this one of the greatest cultural tragedies, to remove a people from their linguistic roots, although I think they are well-meaning foreigners and not necessarily the Turks themselves. I have no comment on that whatsoever, only to say that if he hadn’t, there wouldn’t be a prayer that I’d be functionally literate by the time I left Turkey.) Anyway, every once in a while I can understand a Turkish word because it sounds exactly like the French equivalent, even if they are spelled very differently. I was also amused to find that the Turkish word for lion is Aslan. Yes, Mr. Lewis did visit the Ottoman Empire during his lifetime. There’s a tidbit for your next cocktail party.

I guess what intimidates me a bit is that Turkish is an agglutinative language (like Finnish and Japanese, two language noted for their ease of mastery by Anglophones. NOT.), which linguistically means that you keep adding suffixes to express possession, negation, tense and potential, etc, but in real terms means that you can get endless words that make German compound nouns look short. Thus the phrase “You will be able to come” is a single word, gelebileceksin. Gel (to come) ebil (to be able to) ecek (will) and sin (you). In fact, supposedly (ah, supposedly - what one can get away with on a blog, no fact checking needed) the Guinness Book of World Records lists the world’s longest word as the Turkish word,


which loosely translates as “Maybe you are one of those who we were not able to Czechoslovakianize” That’s an extraordinarily useful phrase that this struggling native English speaker plans to use at her earliest opportunity.
The longest word in the Turkish Language Foundation’s dictionary (official regulator of the Turkish language) is elektroansefalografi (electroencephalography) and if you apply the maximum number of suffixes, you get:
or “Apparently you may be amongst the ones that we will not be able to make have an electroencephalography.” I am going to commit that one to memory just in case I become a Turkish doctor.

And to THINK that I complained about high school Russian…

But unfortunately for my linguistic education and cultural sensitivity, the Turks make it easy to slide by on survival Turkish. Not because many of them speak English - some do of course - but because they are so NICE. They will go out of their way to help you, especially if you attempt even a word or two of Turkish, and even if you don’t. They smile and encourage, offer you their few words of English, serve you tea, and then everyone is old friends, and we all laugh, even if no one understands each other.

What a concept – patience with foreigners. Oh Toto, we are not in France anymore.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

My History Handicap

I’m starting to feel intellectually small here in Turkey. Put more simply - I just feel stupid. I’ve come to the unfortunate conclusion that my grasp on history, at least ancient history, is pathetic at best.

It all started about a week or two after I arrived in Ankara, when I asked an acquaintance of mine what she had done the previous weekend.

“Oh, I took the kids to Troy.”
“Troy!” I exclaimed, “That’s ambitious to go to Greece for the weekend!”

My answer earned me an odd look. Not a look that makes one feel secure.

“Well, I didn’t go to Greece,” she finally said. “Troy is in Turkey.”

Oh. I had no idea.

And it continued. The next weekend a couple of us were trying to decide whether to visit Gordion, a small city an hour from Ankara. I asked what was worth seeing. They replied that it was an important archeological site, containing King Midas’ tomb, among other things. I started to laugh heartily, stopped immediately, remembering my blunder of last weekend, and blurted out, “You’re not joking - there really was a King Midas?”

Apparently there was. News to me – I thought he was a fable. And there was a King Croesus (as in “as rich as Croesus”). He lived in Turkey too, of course.

I’m hoping that at least half of you were a little fuzzy on these historical points as well, or I’m going to feel even sillier than I already do. I consider myself a reasonably well-educated, curious and intelligent woman who has perhaps a slightly diminished intellectual capacity due to rearing small children, but otherwise can hold her own. You know, I speak a couple of languages, used to be able to do calculus, can string a couple of words together without drooling. But obviously I am sorely lacking in the history department. Pathetically, embarrassingly, shamefully lacking.

It doesn’t help (well, actually it does in many instances, but that’s another story) that I have a walking tome of history for a husband. He’ll deny it, but he knows everything. We’ll be talking about some historical reference or issue and he’ll bring up an event completely unknown to me. And not particularly obscure, either. I’m tired of being unfamiliar with the topic at hand, so rather than admit I’ve never heard of said war/invasion/leader/movement/general/innovation, I now give him that overly bright spousal smile and say, “Why yes, yes of course” like I have the least idea of what he’s talking about.

I am now so wary of discussing anything historical. You could probably mess with me quite successfully and claim that Mao Tse Tung, Ponce de Leon and Robert Burns all used to drink Raki together in Constantinople and I’d be scared not to believe it.

Don’t get me wrong – I love history. I would be happy to study it far more extensively than I have. It just doesn’t stick in my brain. I’m a numbers nerd. Can I remember my phone number from when I was seven? Yes. Can I remember random social security numbers from when I worked as an actuary? Yes. Can I remember all our previous license plate numbers? Yes. I have random takeout pizza phone numbers floating around in my head. I might be able to give you the starting and ending dates of most of our major wars, but I’d be pretty vague on how they started, and why they happened.

But Turkey is just a bonanza for a history buff. The scope and breadth of history here is breathtaking, with Turkey playing host to all of the world’s great civilizations at one time or another. Despite being a modern Muslim nation, it boasts the roots of Christianity along with a rich Hellenic and Roman history.

At the risk of sounding like History Lite, let me give you some quick highlights, in general chronological order:

Human remains were found in Turkey that date back to 8000 BC, the oldest in the world outside of Africa.
Turkey has the world’s second oldest known city (after Jericho), Çatal Höyük.
The Trojan Wars, immortalized by Homer, occurred in Anatolia. Hence, Troy in Turkey.
The Phrygians arrive, followed by Lydians, followed by a Persian conquest.
Alexander the Great drives out the Persians.
The Celts arrive in Anatolia.
Then Anatolia becomes the Roman Province of Asia Minor
Caesar prevails in the Battle of Zela (just east of Ankara), about which he writes to the Roman Senate, “Veni, Vidi, Vinci.” Just think, written in Turkey!
Christianity spreads as several of the apostles preach and travel in Turkey.
Constantine moves his capital to present day Istanbul, creating the world’s most glamorous city at that time, Constantinople.
Asia Minor becomes the centre of the Eastern Byzantine Empire
Arab invasions begin and Islam is introduced to Anatolia.
The Selçuk Turks rout the Byzantine Army.
The Mongols defeat the Selçuks.
The Ottoman Empire begins (lasts, oh, 600 years)
Turkey spends WWI as a German ally.
Turkey is neutral during most of WWII, declaring war on Germany in time to qualify for UN Membership, and then joins NATO in 1952.

And I didn’t even mention Turkey’s rich biblical history. You know, I did go to Sunday School. And yes, I did listen. But somehow I missed that all these events in both the Old and New Testament occurred in Turkey. Did you know…

Noah’s Ark was said to land on Mount Ararat.
Abraham was born in Turkey, and God spoke to Abraham in Harran, Turkey.
Apostle Paul was born in Turkey and returned here on many missionary journeys. The city of Ephesus (mentioned in I and II Corinthians and Revelation) in western Turkey is very famous, and a Christian church grew up there.
According to legend, but apparently supported by some archaeological and literary evidence, Apostle John came to Ephesus with Mary, mother of Jesus. There is a House of the Virgin Mary, the last home she lived in for years, on a mountain a couple miles out of town.
Apostle John is buried in Selçuk, in the basilica of Saint John.
The seven churches that St. John mentions in Revelations are in Turkey.

I mean folks, this was a happening place. Obviously if you were anybody in ancient history you rolled through Turkey at some point.

All of this history is extraordinary to me. But I guess what surprises me (although I guess not surprising, given my above admission of historical ignorance) is that I knew NONE of this before I came. Turkey certainly wasn’t on my radar screen in any way. I had no idea that all of this happened here.

Did you? Please let me know this was all news to you…

Saturday, September 8, 2007


Ugh. I just cannot believe it. So early in my writing career and the worst has happened.

I’ve been scooped by The New York Times.

I’ve been meaning to post this entry about our weekend trip to Cappadocia on the blog all week. It was just about finished, save for a few last details, but then our furniture and boxes showed up and I’ve been unpacking and cleaning for three days straight. So here I am, Saturday morning, thought I’d check out my email and the NYT online before I sat down to my literary endeavors, et Voila!, as we said in my last country of residence, there it was, smack dab in the New York Times Travel Section – Next Stop Cappadocia, Turkey – A Moonscape Carved by Nature and Man.

If you’ll forgive a bit of petulance on my part, no doubt common in the blogosphere but probably not the least bit tolerated in the grown-up world of journalism:

Waaaaaaahhh! No fair! I-WAS-THERE-FIRST! The news, such as it is, waits for no (wo)man.

Well, I do want to make up for scaring you about the Ankara traffic, and this time offer a blatant pitch for travel to Turkey. OUR weekend away to Cappadocia was fabulous. Cappadocia sits about 3 ½ hours southeast of Ankara, and the drive there could not have been more different than driving around France. The land was barren, parched, gold/brown, windy, covered with grasses and rocks and evoking an Eastern Washington/Central Valley/Nevada appearance. It’s the kind of landscape that makes me nervous, Easterner that I am, with no trees for cover, a relentless sun, and very few dwellings. A different kind of beauty, to be sure, and utterly foreign. Fortunately there are plenty of places to stop for gas and drinks and, um, facilities.

Yeah, I’d been warned about the public facilities, but I have availed myself of facilities, such as they are, all around the globe and in more primitive places than Turkey. So we stopped. I walked in, saw the hole in the ground, no toilet paper, and began to calculate how long I could hold my breath for how much I had to pee. (Oh, this is too graphic for you, you say. I thought this was a NICE travel journal. Relax, I’m getting to the Cappadocia part.)

You see, with the rest of my family consisting of two males and a female still in diapers, I am the only one that has to make the tough decision about how long to wait until the next acceptable rest room. It’s been ten years since I’ve lived in South America, and I’m well out of practice of tucking in a roll of toilet paper wherever I go, and ten years less tolerant for a hole in the ground as the facilities. So the question was, could I hold out?

Good thing I minored in math - the calculations were complex. Let’s see, it’s 95 degrees out, the soda I’m desperate for contains 355ml…times 135 lbs….divided by another hour to a modern bathroom, to the 2nd power for so many Turkish potholes, bumpy ride, sore kidneys…carry the six….nope, I won’t have any liquid, thanks.

Anyway, we made it (as did I, so to speak) to Ürgüp, a small town in Cappadocia where we checked into a great hotel where each room was a cave carved into a mountain. Most of the hotels in the area are cave hotels, and they are truly unusual. Each room is a single cave carved from the mountain, often with its own outdoor area. It keeps the rooms naturally cool (a must with the heat) and absolutely beautiful. They usually afford a stunning view over the whole valley too.

And what a valley! It was voted a UNESCO World Heritage Site and for good reason.
If I was a more poetic writer I could better describe a lunar landscape with incredible cave houses and crazy rock formations (they call them fairy chimneys) and cave churches that date back many, many centuries as well as 400 underground cities and thousands of churches and monasteries. Lazy writer that I am, I’m hoping that some of my pictures will do it justice. In short, a volcanic eruption 30 million years ago covered hundreds of miles in lava, ash and mud and the subsequent erosion formed deep valleys and “fairy chimney” rock formations. People over the ages have carved entire buildings out of the rock – houses, chapels, cells, stables and quarters for the Byzantine Army.

I’m struck again and again how the concept of history in other countries is just in another league altogether. In France they trace their first set of kings back to the year 600. Well in Cappadocia, the earliest settlers, the Hatti, were already overrun by Western European Hittites by 2000 BC. Already by 2000 BC their language and culture were mixed. Just whoa, I need to sit down and think about that. Alexander the Great showed up in Cappadocia in 333 BC, St. Paul introduced Christianity in the first century, he was followed by the Selçuk Turks, the Mongols, and then Cappadocia was incorporated into the Ottoman Empire in the fourteenth century.

I could go on and on about the history of the region, but you might as well just (snivel, snivel) read The New York Times piece. It came out before mine. Well, truth be told, dry historical travel pieces bore me silly and I’d much rather read a personal account. (Not me!, you cry, please, more ancient history and much less roadside bathroom humor…) Ah well. Come to Turkey and visit Cappadocia yourself.

So that’s your - albeit extremely abbreviated - ancient history lesson for today. I’m sure some of you could care less about ancient history, so I’ll delve into pop culture for a moment. An extra credit question for you Simpsons weenies (Rich? anyone?): Does anyone remember in which episode, and what character, mentions the Cappadocians? Only from memory, folks. NO GOOGLING THE ANSWER.

Just a little something for everyone…

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Tales of Turkish Traffic

I want to confess right up front that I have broken more traffic laws in Ankara in the last two weeks than I have in my last (almost) forty years. Let’s give the forty year span a fighting chance: I have broken more traffic laws in the last two weeks than I have even THOUGHT about breaking in the last (almost, don’t rush me) forty years. Even the car I’m driving isn’t exactly legal yet. Ok, it’s not legal at all, but I really need it.

Lest you think that I have undergone a complete personal transformation, let me, like a good American, absolve myself of any and all personal responsibility and blame it on geography: the traffic here in Ankara is legendary. Not as in DC/LA you-shoulda-seen-the Beltway/Santa Monica Freeway legendary. Legendary as in an utter free-for-all. When people in the community welcome you to Ankara, it usually goes something like this:

“Welcome to Ankara! How’s it going so far?”
“Thanks, it’s going well,” you answer.
Long pause.
Then they venture, “So….have you driven yet?”

This is not a random, idle question. This is a will-you-be-able-to-hack-it-or-will-you-go-home question.

Consider what some of the guidebooks have to say about driving in Turkey:

“Driving in Turkey is only for the confident and experienced” - Insight Guides
“You really need to be an experienced, level-headed driver in order to tackle the challenging highway conditions” – The Rough Guide
“We certainly do not recommend driving in Ankara. The traffic is fierce, fast and intense, traffic patterns crazy, driving habits bizarre, and signage insufficient – to name only a few good reasons.” – Turkey Travel Planner

Now, Turkey is not a third-world country. They have highways and traffic lights and street signs and super modern gas stations and many Turks have brand new, very expensive cars. There are no fifteen family members crammed in one car, there are no “salad trucks” as my son liked to call the small pickups with mounds of lettuce and tomatoes in the flatbed that we saw in Cairo. No three people on a scooter. No animals in the streets, competing with the cars. No swarms of motorcycles. None of that. There is also no, and I mean NO, traffic enforcement either.

And this utter lack of enforcement leads to a predictable end: anarchy. If you could do anything you wanted to with no repercussions, what would you do? Exactly. You would do whatever you wanted to do…because everyone else is. The only thing that saves it from monumental disaster is that the Turks are generally polite, not overly aggressive drivers (although many would disagree with me.)

So in light of the situation, I decided to enter the Ankara traffic war, Boston style. I did what any self-respecting Bostonian would do – I bought myself a junker. A total beater of a car. A car that says, "Cut me off if you want to, but you really don't want to nick that pretty paint job of yours and you can tell by what I’m driving that I don’t give a s__t.” A car that has SOUL, as my father would say.

A 1993 Renault. Used to be black. Now it’s just ugly.

I’m pretty sure everyone in my neighborhood thinks I’m the maid, because they all drive such nice cars. I know the $60,000 BMW in the garage space next to mine has been giving me more and more space every day. So there is a method to my madness. But it does concern me slightly that I’ve taken so readily to the rules, or lack thereof, of the road here, with no thoughts of becoming a shining example of responsible driving behavior. I am definitely not part of the solution. Perhaps because I learned to drive in Massachusetts and recently honed those driving skills on the streets of Paris brings out a competitive streak in me.

Here’s what you’re up against:

Red lights are completely optional. One always stops at them, for sure, but if no one is coming, then by all means, plow ahead. Indeed, if you don’t, the car behind you will honk to remind you to do so. I admit, I often bow to peer pressure and optional red lights remain the biggest source of my transgressions.

Lane markers are merely a suggestion, no need to take that suggestion. You can occupy two at the same time.

Parking. Be creative. Sometimes a lane on the highway is an excellent place to park a car. Doesn’t have to be the right lane, either. Nor do you need to warn the person behind you on the highway before you stop and park.

Double-parking. Newbury Street on a Friday night, times ten. But all the time. The three-lane road home from my children’s school usually has two lanes parked, one open as you head up a steep hill. Get an old bus in front of you and you’ve smoked three packs worth in a matter of minutes.

One way streets. Same status as red lights - completely optional. My apartment building is on a one-way street and there are definitely more cars going up the street than down it. So you can never just swing onto a one-way street without thinking about what might be coming up to meet you. And the wrong-way Charlies aren’t meek, apologizing with slow speed and hunched shoulders like you think they would. They roar up, owning that road. Just last night I had two cars (two!) coming the wrong way up my street as I attempted to pull into our garage. Damn if I was going to back down on my own street. So I sat there. The first one pulled over. The second one remained stubborn. No one moved. The Mexican/Turkish standoff continued. Finally, he pulled over, perhaps bowing to my diplomatic plates but more likely taking one look at my car and figuring if I was stupid enough to drive a fourteen year old french-made car, I’d be stupid enough to sit there all night.

Stupid, no. Stubborn Yankee, yup.

And my personal “favorite?” Just because you happen to be in the left lane doesn’t mean you can’t take a right turn. Or vice versa. And no, it doesn’t matter how many lanes there are. I kid you not. It’s quite a shocker to be merrily rolling along and then have a car perpendicular to yours right in front of you, not to mention a large bus.

But despite the above description, it’s still not like driving in Rome. In Rome I would emerge from the car wild-eyed, hair askew, out of breath and just glad that I lived through that wild ride to hell and back. In Ankara it’s almost more of an intellectual challenge, albeit a heart-pumping one. The driving behavior here is so unpredictable that you have to be constantly alert. You arrive at your destination with a fierce pride that you conquered everything they threw at you and still made it. I don’t play video games but I imagine it’s like getting through to a next level with a new high score. It just makes you want to pump your arm and say “Yes!”

Twisted and sick, I know. But often that’s life in a foreign country. It scrambles all of your neurons and alters your reality but it keeps you alive and aware and connected to LIFE.

Well now, now that I’ve scared any of you timid souls out of visiting Turkey (and in the interest of full disclosure I should add that none of the taxis here have any seatbelts) I will try to reverse some of the damage with future postings on this blog and urge you to visit this wonderful country. The people are nice, the food is fabulous and the culture rich in history, all subjects I will explore further. Do come.

Besides, wouldn’t you like to see if I’m exaggerating…?

Monday, August 27, 2007

Friday, August 24, 2007

Just Another Sunny Day in Turkey…

…is what we say every morning at 6AM. And it has been so far, without exception.

A far cry from Paris, where it was usually overcast until midday when the sun appeared. I’ve always said I didn’t care how early I had to get up as long as it was light out. Well, geography is calling my bluff and I’m walking my talk. It’s sunny here when the alarm goes off at 6AM, and for the most part, I get up, with far less difficulty than I did in Paris at 7:30AM. By 8:30 the sun is blazing, making sunglasses a necessity as I drive the kids to school. The day continues with 90-95 degree temperatures, surprisingly comfortable in the shade, but instantly wilting in the sun. An occasional single cloud will wander by lazily, its purpose visual interest against the vast blue sky rather than any sun relief. Just another sunny day in Ankara.

The downside to a thousand sunny days is that Ankara is in the throes of a severe water shortage, with no rain in sight. The city had begun water rationing a couple of weeks ago, alternating the water supply by district. Water would be shut off to the northern half of the city for two days, and then the south side of the city (save a small district that housed the President of Turkey) took its two-day turn. This transpired for a week or two, until the interruption of water flow and change of pressure caused the city pipes to break, thus shutting off water to EVERYONE. The city eventually repaired the pipes, restored water to all the residents, ceased water rationing, begged for water conservation, and offered prayers for rain at the mosques on Fridays. They said we have six weeks of water left, and when that’s gone…? We may get some rain but the bulk of the water is supplied by winter snowfall (certainly not forecast for the next two months), so stay tuned for the unfolding hydrosaga.

And how did we fare during the water stoppage? Well, fine, thanks to our building’s large reserve water tank. When we had looked at this apartment on a brief trip to Turkey last February I remembered the previous tenant saying, “Oh, and a bonus of this building is that they have a reserve water tank.” Well, in my mind I imagined a small second tank in the apartment that would allow us to take consecutive showers without running out of water. She seemed so proud of the fact, and not wanting to be rude, I said to her, “Is that important?” She opened her mouth in surprise, stared at me a moment and then finally said, “YES,” very firmly. This was the same YES I gave to a college classmate of mine from Miami, who by mid-October of our freshman year in Vermont was wearing a down parka and sleeping in a sleeping bag. Sometime around Halloween, he looked at all of us native New Englanders and pleaded, “It doesn’t get any colder here than this, does it?” YES. It’s the answer of a weary veteran toward the woefully uninformed, skipping the unwelcome details and condensing years of experience into a three-letter answer. YES can be equally kind, incredulous, and condescending. So YES, the tank was important. We have water. For now.