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…