Thursday, January 29, 2009


Ankara is high plateau living at its “finest”. The city sits at about 3000 feet, and my part of town about 4000 ft. It’s a very dry climate, and that has taken getting used to as well. Since the ground doesn’t help retain the day’s temperature, it’s all about the sun. It can be 100 degrees in the summer, but if you are in the shade, it’s a lovely day. But five minutes in the sun on a 80 degree day can be absolutely withering.

But even in this dry climate, sometimes in the winter this crazy fog rolls in. I spent five years in San Francisco and got used to the fog even though I never liked it. But this is different – the winter fog rolls in, and it doesn’t roll out. Until a week later. It can be strangely claustrophobic. You really don’t see a view out your window for a week. And when it finally dissipates, it leaves the equivalent of a winter wonderland, clinging to the branches of the trees and every surface imaginable.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Xmas Tree, 2008 or “Bring a Local, Pay Less”

I think in the interest of being “independent” and wanting to soak up the full range of cultural experiences here in Turkey, we have sometimes tried to negotiate the ins and outs of commerce and travel in Turkey without help – and with our limited Turkish language skills. This results in a predictable outcome: the desired “rich cultural experience” along with a considerably lighter wallet.

The Turkish word for foreigner is yubanci (yew-ban-gee), and all of us yubanci generally pay yubanci prices. Unless it’s a department store, nothing has a price tag on it. The price is what the market will bear, so to speak, and when the market can’t speak Turkish, the price is high. For example, I once called the VW dealer here to get a quote on the cost for an oil change. They flatly refused to quote me a price until I had given them my license plate number over the phone. (Your license plate will show whether you are a foreigner or not.) I refused to tell them, so they quoted me 250 YTL ($150), we did no business together. Sometimes this upsets me, but I’ve accepted that I will always pay more than a Turk, and as long as I am happy with the stated price for the desired item, then it shouldn’t matter that someone else will pay half that. I just let it go.

But every once in a while, I’ve made my point about being independent, I feel good about making an effort, and I just want to compete on a level playing field for once. It’s time to bring in the local. And not just any local. A Woman.

As you may recall, last year after a long search we finally found a small place that sold us a Charlie Brown christmas tree for $100 after we bargained (we thought) fairly hard (see 12/26/07 blog entry – Christmas in Turkey, Part 1). This year, however, my husband, his boss and his boss’s Turkish wife headed out to a different nursery out on the Eskisehir highway. They picked out a lush, quite handsome specimen of a conifer and then went to start the deal with the three burly Turkish men who ran the place. My husband and his boss quietly backed away and just let the boss’s wife do her stuff. My husband said he even felt sorry for the poor Turkish guys. It was just no contest. Turkish women can be fearless negotiators. They just tell you what’s what and then you do it.

The result?

Tree on left: Christmas 2007
Contest: Four non-Turkish speaking foreigners negotiate for a tree.
Winner: No contest, game to the Turkish tree guy.
Cost = $100. Wrestled it home in the Renault’s trunk.

Tree on right: Christmas 2008
Contest: 1 Turkish woman vs. 3 burly Turkish men.
Winner: No contest - game, set and match to Turkish woman.
Cost = $60 DELIVERED TO OUR DOOR, 10 miles away.

And the most wonderful part of all was that my husband had the tree delivered as a surprise, and when the kids and I came off the elevator and it was sitting right in front of our apartment door, they thought Santa had brought us a tree. Would’ve paid the $100 just for the pure joy on their faces. But don’t tell the Turks.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Rx in Turkey

Hmm… I guess it’s been a while since my last posting.

Blog entries came to a grinding halt last year because my child was hospitalized - four times. I know many people are able to “write through the pain” and continue to be creative while dealing with a difficult situation. They even use the writing to keep sane.

That would not be me.

My brain is like one the first desktops (I know - I’m dating myself) that could have only one application open at a time. If you wanted to work on the Small Child in a Foreign Hospital program, you had to first close the Creative Endeavors program.

ANYWAY, the child is fine. Back to 100% and in 5th gear. It’s a recurrent, albeit very fixable, problem. Hardly life-threatening. I’m throwing a couple of specialists at it with no answers yet. But the bright side? Fodder for the blog.

I have to say upfront that if you are going to go through something like this then Turkey is not a bad place to do it. The private hospital that now knows us so well is modern and spotless with English speaking physicians. The equipment is brand new and everything is computerized. When they take an x-ray, the x-ray is already on the doctor’s desktop by the time you walk back from the x-ray room to the doctor’s office. Only once did I have to wait more than three minutes in the emergency room.

(I can’t help compare it to our time in the Paris hospital - yes, we did this there too - although to be fair it’s more like comparing a public hospital vs. a private hospital than Turkey vs. France. And while I shouldn’t really complain because at the end of the day my child was cured with essentially the same course of treatment, the experience in Paris was distressing. I have been heard to mutter that I would get airlifted out of Paris before I’d go back to a French public hospital, but that’s uncharitable of me. They cured my son – it just wasn’t pleasant. And WHY was I at a public hospital instead of a private one in Paris, you ask? Because the Parisian private hospital only accepts pediatric emergencies Monday-Friday, 9AM – 5PM. Pediatric emergencies are literally turned away outside of those hours. Now I ask you, what child, ever, EVER has an emergency during those hours? No child. They have emergencies on Friday at 6PM, or Saturday on the soccer field or Sunday afternoon during the NFL playoffs. Never during the work week).

The first clue I had that this was not going to be a familiar medical experience is when just after we were admitted, a tall, gorgeous, elegant Turkish woman walked into our room and said to my son in beautiful English, “Hi, I’m your dietician. What would you like for dinner tonight?” My mouth dropped open. My sweet, oblivious son took it as completely normal that a hospital would cook to order and promptly starting reciting exactly what he wanted for dinner. He requested pesto pasta to start so I gently tried to steer him toward something a bit more Turkish. She showed up every day, twice a day, and made him whatever he wanted. And brought me a tray of the same. My other clues? Well, there was the beautiful cut-up fruit tray delivered at 10AM, the warm milk and cookies delivered at 9PM. The maid that made up my bed at 9:30 PM so I could sleep over. The roving bands of doctors that would stop by randomly and ask if there was anything I needed. The room service.

I’m sorry, did I mention this was a hospital, not a spa?

And now that we’ve done this in three different countries, I was comforted to see that the course of treatment was identical in each hospital, even down to the medicine and the dose.

But the bill?

Turkey – 5 days – $2,451.96
France – 4 days – $5,380.25
California – 4 days – over $27,000.

And really, the only proper reaction is to be grateful we have health insurance.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Monday, January 21, 2008

Christmas in Turkey, Part II

So. Santa. Santa flying over a mosque. Santa omnipresent in a Muslim country. What gives, you ask?

Well, as I mentioned in a previous posting, that beloved “American” icon has his roots in, where else - Turkey. Humor me, if you will, while I relate the story of Santa, who is really St. Nicholas, a Christian Turkish saint.

St. Nicholas was born in 260 AD in Turkey (of course!!), the son of wealthy parents that raised him to be a devout Christian and then died when he was young. There are many stories and legends written about the kindness and generosity of St. Nicholas - perhaps the most famous of a poor man who had three daughters. He could not afford a proper dowry for them which left them the option of being sold into slavery. St. Nicholas wanted to help, but was too shy to do it in person so he went to the man's house and threw a purse filled with gold coins through the window on three different nights.
One version has him drop the bag of gold down the chimney to avoid being spotted by the father; another version has the bag falling into a stocking drying above the fire (you see where this is going?)
There are further stories of St. Nicholas calming the seas during a violent storm, saving people from famine, and protecting children as well as many other kind and generous deeds done in secret. He expected nothing in return. Obeying Jesus' words to “sell what you own and give the money to the poor,” Nicholas used his whole inheritance to assist the needy, the sick, and the suffering. He dedicated his life to serving God and went on to become the Bishop of Myra. Celebrated as a saint a century after his death, he became the patron saint of many cities and countries, with 2,000 churches named after him - 400 in England and 34 in Rome alone.
And how did this Turkish Christian bishop become the fat, white-bearded red-suited Santa we know today?
Some say the Dutch brought the tradition of St. Nicholas to New Amsterdam (NY), some say it was the Germans who brought it to Pennsylvania. Regardless, John Pintard, the man who founded the New York Historical Society in 1804, pushed for St. Nicholas as the patron saint of New York and the Historical Society. Washington Irving joined the society and published Knickerbocker's History of New York, which contained many references to a jolly St. Nicholas character. The Society held its first St. Nicholas’s day anniversary dinner in 1810 and an artist was commissioned to create an American image of St. Nicholas for the occasion. St. Nick was depicted as a gift-giver with presents for children in stockings hanging by the fireplace.
Then in 1823, a poem called “A Visit from St. Nicholas” – that we know as “The Night Before Christmas” – was written and became a classic. It was immensely popular and further solidified the image of St. Nick as we know it today. Slowly disappearing was St. Nicholas the European bishop, who reappeared as a round, bearded elfin figure. At the same time, the saint’s name -the German Sankt Nicklaus and Dutch Sinterklaas - morphed into the more phonetic Santa Claus.
He was dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot,
And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot;
A bundle of toys he had flung on his back,
And he looked like a peddler just opening his pack.
His eyes—how they twinkled! his dimples how merry!
His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry!
His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,
And the beard of his chin was as white as the snow;
The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,
And the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath;
He had a broad face and a little round belly,
That shook, when he laughed like a bowlful of jelly.
He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf. . . .
American artists began to pick up on the images in both Washington Irving’s work and the poem and Santa Claus continued to evolve into a red-suited figure by the 1920’s. And then in 1931 (you knew American commercial interests had to have a hand in all this) an artist for Coca Cola began 35 years of Santa illustrations for Coke that firmly established the image we know today as Santa Claus – a rotund, bearded man with a twinkle in his eye, apple cheeks and a white fur-trimmed red suit. He was such a commercial success hawking all sorts of products that he has been exported BACK around the world and threatens to overwhelm the kindly St. Nicholas. So it goes.
Anyway, much, MUCH more than you wanted to know of course, but then that is the curse of a blog…
So Santa being essentially Turkish (and the Turks have intense national pride) resulted in a proliferation of Santa all around Ankara - for New Year’s, of course. There were Santa mugs and Santa candles and Santa ornaments and 5-ft tall Santas and heck, just about Santa everything. Which was lovely and convenient for a couple of children in a foreign country and excited about Christmas. Santas everywhere! (There were even Christmas carols on the radio, although I couldn’t for the life of me figure out how that corresponded to the Turkish New Year).

So all the work of creating a Christmas atmosphere in Turkey was removed, except for one tiny detail that did not escape my laser-focused five-year old.

My son, a budding civil engineer at five, always needs to know exactly how things work PHYSICALLY. Well, here we are in Turkey this Christmas, ensconced in an apartment with no fireplace. So of course he expressed great trepidation on just HOW Santa was going to get in to deliver the all important loot if he couldn’t come down a chimney. Living in a foreign country is a daily exercise in being creative and this holiday was no exception. We gamely explained how Santa lands his sleigh on the balcony, as opposed to the roof since we have no fireplace, and hence, no chimney to descend. I see my son dubiously eyeing our narrow 8th floor curved balcony as I’m enthusiastically describing Santa’s near genius ability to land his sleigh and eight reindeer anywhere, physics be damned. This creative explanation also necessitated deciding which window to leave open so Santa could get in from the balcony. My kingdom for a chimney…

You know, they don’t prepare you for this kind of situation when you are planning to live abroad. Sure, I can mail a letter, hail a cab, barter in the marketplace, but no one told me I would have to rework a sacred holiday legend.

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.”