Four things Turkey has taught me about myself

In the fall I applied for graduate school programs, but did not get in. In January, I told my current job that I wouldn’t be returning next year. In the spring, I began to apply for jobs back in the States—39 in all, but I did not get an offer. In fact, some schools did not even send an acknowledgment that they had received my application at all. I signed up with a teaching agency; they are incredibly helpful, but told me that prime hiring time had passed. Although, they did help me figure out how to make a video resume.

Then, just a couple weeks after school ended, my boss called and offered me a position with the high school. Another teacher had decided not to stay and they wanted me back and were willing to negotiate with me. After talking with my family and the agency, I have decided to stay. I like Turkey, but was ready to go home and still do miss the States in a lot of ways and I plan to return after this next school year (with more experience, skills, and money). I have a new apartment, I’ll take Turkish lessons, and I’ll get to travel a bit more. This decision was not easy, however, and made me really reflect on the past year. So here are some of the things Turkey has made me realize:

  1. Somehow I’ve done something right in the friend department. I’ve had so many friends take the time to Skype, put together care packages, send post cards or letters, or even fly thousands of miles to visit. When you’re that far from home, something as simple as a letter or a few minutes on Skype, or even an email, is incredibly rewarding.
  2. Believe it or not, I’m fairly good at getting context clues and reading certain situations. I have managed to learn a bit of basic Turkish, but there are still instances almost every day where I have no idea what people are saying to me. And telling them that I only speak a little bit of Turkish either makes them try their limited English or just speak more Turkish, but also use more hand gestures. When the latter occurs, all I can do is guess. And it turns out that my guesses are right 90% of the time. And 80% of the time my broken Turkish responses seem to be enough of a response. I thought this has to be something that everyone can do, but then I started dating my boyfriend and let’s just say that he’s much better at memorizing the vocabulary than I am. I keep him around for reading things, but he lets me do the talking.
  3. I take a lot of things for granted. Here are just a few: shower stalls, trees and scenery, internet freedoms, ranch dressing (and a variety of other foods), being able to express myself to anyone (ie doctors, parents of students, hairdressers, the clerk at the clothing store), having a car and the freedoms that come with it, being able to find books in English, all the difficulties foreigners have to deal with in the States.
  4. I can be more diligent that I have been. I’m working on it, but I’ve been getting a lot better about writing more regularly, taking initiative to continue learning, reading more, etc. Of course I’m not where I’d like to be, but being in Turkey has forced me to think about what I want and not waste my time. I watched two episodes of The Office before writing this blog post, though, so I’m still working on it.

Of course this isn’t everything, but it’s just a few of the things that come to mind when I think of this previous year.

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Oof Ya

I apologize (yet again) for my lack of recent posting. There has certainly been enough to talk about. Perhaps that was the problem–too many distractions. Well I would like to update you on the past couple of months and I suppose the best place to start would be March. I apologize in advance if my next few posts seem rushed as I’m trying to catch up.

Ok, March. the biggest adventure of March was Passover. My goodness, what an ordeal.

When I first moved to Turkey, I was unsure of the level of anti-Semitism, so I was careful with what I said or did. But as I became more comfortable and opened up to people, I received nothing but acceptance and support. So far I haven’t experienced any more problems than I did living in the South. A friend of a coworker even lended me a menorah for Channukah and there are plenty of other teachers who take off for holidays, which leads me to Passover. I decided that this would be my first venture into a foreign synagogue. I looked up temples online and found a couple on the Asian side, but when I called to find out service times, my limited Turkish was about as helpful as the other person’s limited English. After finding someone to help me translate (I was at least able to provide the Turkish word for Passover; apparently they also just say Pesach), I was told that I needed to fax all my information to the high rabbi of Istanbul.

Apparently there were bombings at a couple temples years back, so they are very serious about the security. That made me feel both safer and more nervous at the same time, but I went ahead anyway. I sent in a copy of my passport, address, phone number, and which temple I wanted to go to. Then the one lady in all of the Istanbul temple workers  who could speak English called me back to let me know I’d been approved. I talked to the same woman who lent me the menorah and asked her how conservatively I should dress. She told me that what I was wearing at the time (a short-sleeved dress and boots) would be fine. So I asked off work, washed that exact outfit, made sure to write down the address of the temple, and had my roommate order a taxi for the morning.

I woke up very nervous and excited (perhaps anxious would be a better word?). I dressed in my dress, boots, and a cardigan and made sure to grab a scarf in case I’d need to cover my head. I then met the cab driver outside the apartment and I was on my way. The cab driver was chatty (they’re usually very chatty or very impatient) and I spoke what I could with him, but was trying to pay attention to where we were going. I was only vaguley familiar with the area. He turned off the main road and we started to pass a lot of apartment buildings. I looked at the address again–this was the street where the synagogue was, so I started matching the numbers. Finally, he pulled up across from number 3, which was the correct address, but it was an apartment building. I looked desperately at the sheet again and back at him. He pointed to the sheet and explained that this was number three. This was  where I’d asked to go. I wanted to tell him, “well, yes, I can see that, but this isn’t where I want to go.” Instead, I just said thank you, paid him, and stepped out of the car. We were close to an intersection, so I walked to the corner and checked the street signs. Again, this was where I was supposed to be. Service started in 20 minutes and I had no idea where the temple was. I walked back to number three, but it was still just an apartment building. I was Harry looking for 9 3/4.

So I called my roommate. She tried to help, but the address she looked up was the same I had and she needed to go to work. So I decided to use my Turkish to try to ask for directions. I probably asked about five people. They each seemed to know what I was talking about and all pointed me back in the direction from which I’d come. It was frustrating not being able to tell them that I’d already been there and there was, in fact, no synagogue. They could obviously see the confusion on my face and always started talking more and faster, which was no help at all. So I just (again) thanked them and walked away. Finally I called my friend from work. I explained the situation and she said to go into the apartments. After the bombings, a lot of synagogues made it harder for people to find them, so it was quite possible that I was actually in the right place. So I went inside with her still on the phone. A guard came up to greet me and I understood “Kim,” which means who. So I thought he was asking who I was. I showed him my passport (as I was told I would have to do) and he took me to an elevator and up to an apartment room. The whole time I’m on the phone, narrating, and inwardly wondering how small this synagogue must be. The guard knocked a few times and said something to me. I nodded. A woman answered the door in her robe and I knew that we’d had a miscommunication. I handed him the phone, resigned that I was failing at communicating.

It turns out that he thought I was looking for the other foreigner in the building. My friend explained the situation to him and he also tried to tell me where it was, but even my friend didn’t understand. She called the synagogue and called me back. Apparently, thank you Google, the online adress was wrong. I was off by about 30 and needed to walk further down the road. She said that the guard at the synagogue was now expecting me and would be outside the security box waiting for me. I thanked the guard at the apartment building and again walked down the street. I saw the white security box and nervously went up to the man standing next to it.

“Synagogue?”

“Amerika?”

“Evet.”

“Pasaport?”

Thank God. I handed him my passport and he smiled. He spoke into a little microphone and another guard came out to escort me. At this point I still did not see a synagogue. And at this point, service has already started. The new guard led me past an apartment building and through a locked fence. He opened another locked door and I went into a hallway. (Mind you, I still have no idea what the outside of this place looks like. It was behind buildings and shrubbery.) I then had to go through a metal detector before we were buzzed through another door at the end of the hallway. Once through the door, it beautiful. Huge, marble, bright, colorful, and full of singing. I followed the guard, but wasn’t really paying attention to him. I was taking in my surroundings, happy that I’d finally made it. We walked toward the back of the building where he talked to an older man and pointed to me. The man then led me to a staircase, which brought me back to reality. This could not possibly be a staircase to…

A women’s section.

When I reached the top of the stairs, there was only one other woman–an elderly lady. She was sitting right in front of what appeared to be a balcony looking down on all the men. I was suddenly much more conscious of my skirt with no leggings or hose. I buttoned my dress up all the way, took my scarf off my neck, loosely wrapped it around my head, and sat down next to the woman. She smiled at me and wished my happy Passover. I smiled back and wished her the same. I managed to find a prayer-book, but had no idea what page we were on. My Hebrew is about as good as my Turkish and while I can recognize and recite prayers when I hear them, I certainly can’t read them or the Turkish transliterations. I looked down into what I like to call the “man pit” and watched as the men moved freely, greeting each other, kissing both cheeks, adjusting their shawls. A few more women trickled in over the next few hours and we just watched as the men sang, stood, sat, kissed the Torah. All things I was used to doing, not viewing.

It’s hard to describe the feeling I had during this experience. It was nice to hear familiar prayers and songs (even if the melodies weren’t the same). It was nice to be with other Jewish people, excuse me, women, even if we couldn’t really speak to each other. And it was nice to be in a place of worship on a holiday. But I was removed and upset and fighting these feelings the whole time. I was not really allowed to participate and I resented it. I didn’t feel free or comfortable. I felt frustrated that I couldn’t celebrate the way I wanted to and as much as I shouldn’t have, I felt sorry for the other women there. They were all modern looking women. Some didn’t even cover their heads while they were there. But I would hate to teach my daughters that they need to be seperated from what’s going on and I fully disagreed, but I knew it wasn’t my place to do so.  After all the work I put in to get there, I was too distracted and distraught to enjoy it. I made it three hours before I left.

I don’t think I will do it again, but I can say that I appreciate the experience. I was hoping for something familiar, but I have never been so out of my element.

Banana Cake and Berlin

My roommate’s dad is very sweet to us and since he knows I like bananas, he is always bringing me some. The problem is that they usually go bad before I can eat them. The easy American fix for this is banana bread. However, I didn’t realize this was an American fix (or maybe it’s just not a Turkish one–I haven’t quite figured it out yet) until I made some the other day. In fact, since there were so many bananas, I made two batches and decided to share most of them. When I took some down to the family I tutor for, she looked confused as to what it actually was.

“Mus ekmek,” I explain, which is the best I can do. It’s literally banana and bread, but with all the suffixes in Turkish, I have no idea if it’s right.

Mmm, banana cake sprinkled with brown sugar.

“Bread? Is this not a cake?”

Well, no. In English, we call this bread. But if you look at it, it does contain a different consistency than most regular breads. It shares a closer consistency to cake in my opinion and it is sweeter, but hadn’t thought of it until she actually pointed it out. Which, if it were bread would make it some form of Mus Pasta, as pasta in Turkish is actually cake. I know, I was confused too.

Either way, the smell of it baking reminded me of home and if I were in the States, I would be stuffing my face next Thursday with Thanksgiving foods. And for the record, Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays. Ever. Who doesn’t love a holiday that centers around food? Alas, I will not be home for Thanksgiving this year, but I will be in Berlin with a friend from the States. So it will be fun to see how we can celebrate it together in a country that doesn’t celebrate it. Maybe we’ll have some mus pasta.

I am illiterate

I currently live with two friends from grad school: a Turkish girl, Esra, and an American guy, Stephen, both of whom were in the English department with me. The Turkish girl and I lived together in the States as well and we all now live together in Istanbul. While Esra’s English is almost native, neither Stephen nor I knew Turkish before we moved here.

This past weekend, we all went out with friends of Esra’s and a friend of mine from work. Though my friend is Canadian, her family is Turkish and therefore she speaks the language fluently. She asked me and Stephen what it was like to move to a foreign country and not know the language. Stephen said he’s had a difficult time articulating exactly how it feels or what it’s like. Together, we decided that it is frustrating, exciting, alienating, and rewarding. All those words are fitting, yes, but still do not accurately describe the sensation. I stopped listening to the conversation for a minute and looked around the restaurant we were in. There were signs and menus and containers and lots of people talking or messing with their phones and that’s when it hit me and I rejoined the conversation:

“It’s like being illiterate, well, because technically we are.”

I cannot read the signs. Sure, I can recognize certain things: thank you, good morning, hello, one, three, fish sandwich. But the rest is a mystery. I can’t read the newspapers or books. I don’t understand many of my colleagues, the baker, the cashier, the tailor, the hairdresser, the nurse, the radio DJ. I can’t ask directions, discuss the news, or tell my waiter that I didn’t order the cheeseburger. I wouldn’t be able to carry on a conversation with a kindergartener. And even worse, that kindergartener would have a much better language acquisition than me. Imagine that you are living where you do currently and suddenly you can no longer do any of these things. As I said, it is incredibly frustrating and alienating.

But once you catch on, it’s also incredibly rewarding and exciting. Continue reading

One of the many reasons I love David Sedaris

Before I moved to Turkey I broke down and bought a Nook. My aversion to E-Readers didn’t outweigh my desire to constantly have books with me and since bringing my library of several hundreds books to Turkey was nixed by my limitation of suitcase space, a Nook seemed the second best option. (I ended up actually only bringing 15 physical books, which is impressive for me.) Of course I picked the simplest, cheapest one I could find and even that one (the Nook Simple Touch with Glowlight, in case you were wondering) is fancier than I really need it to be. If only they would sell them with that used book smell…

I’m still on my kick of reading 30 books this year, though I’ve only just reached the halfway point nine months in. I’m in love with David Sedaris and one of the books I downloaded to my fancy new digital, black magic library was Me Talk Pretty One Day. Somehow I’d managed to overlook this classic when going through my Sedaris binge a few years ago. But I’m glad of it, because it fits perfectly with my current situation.

The book is essentially a collection of short stories based on various events in Sedaris’ life. Quite a few of the stories are based on his life in Paris and that’s where our situations connect. He moved to Paris with his partner, but knew only two words of French when he first moved there: “bottleneck” and “ashtray.” When I moved to Turkey, I knew maybe eight Turkish words, granted a bit more helpful than “bottleneck” and “ashtray.” But the point is that as he lived there longer, he began to write words on note cards and expand his vocabulary. He went from two to 200 to 600 to 1000. I cannot tell you how many words I know in English or German, but I can literally count up the words and phrases I know in Turkish and as Sedaris says, “It was an odd sensation to hold my entire vocabulary in my hands.” Imagine that your day to day life is based off of less than 30 words!

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10 Turkish phrases to get me through the day

I’ve been here 2 1/2 weeks now and I am slowly (emphasis on slowly) improving my daily conversation skills. Though my miming skills might actually be getting better than my language skills. However, I get by and have learned some key phrases to help me do so. So for anyone visiting Turkey, I found these ten things help me get through the day (they are in no particular order of importance):

1. One _______, please.

Bir, _________ lütfen. (Beer _______ loot-von)

Bir means one and lütfen means please. So as long as you are only asking for one of something, this will get you through a lot. For example: Bir Cola lütfen = one cola, please.

2. Thank you.

Teşekkürler. (Tesh-ik-you-lar)

3. Good morning, Good evening, Good night

Günaydın (Gu-nye-done)

Iyi akşamlar (Yok-shom-lar)

Iyi geceler (EE-gej-e-ler)

4. How much does this cost?

Bu ne kadar? (Boo nay ka-dar)

I mastered this one pretty quickly. Unfortunately, I haven’t learned all my numbers yet, so more often than not, I can’t understand a spoken answer to the question. Usually, I will carry a small notebook with me to have them write down an answer, in case I cannot understand it.

5. Excuse me.

Pardon. (The o at the end is a long o and stressed. PardOne)

6. What is that?

Bu ne? (Boo nay)

7. Have a good meal.

Afıyet olsun. (a-fee-et all-soon)

Turkish people are extremely polite and they place a lot of emphasis on customs, especially polite customs. You are supposed to say this if someone is about to eat, currently eating, or just finished eating. For example, when I am in the cafeteria with other teachers, I may say this when I sit down and when I get up. If I don’t say it at least once, I might be considered rude.

8. Yes

Evet (ev-et. Stress the et)

9. No

Hayır. (Hi-ur)

10. Sorry, I do not speak Turkish.

Üzgünım, Türkçe bılmıyorum. (ooz-gu-noom, Turk-che bill-muh-your-um)

This will be your life saver. If you try to say it in Turkish, they love it and are way more likely to help you than if you went straight to English. They will likely help you anyway, but who doesn’t love a good effort? But get ready to act things out in case they don’t speak English either.

Making the transition

Over the past three weeks, I’ve taken six flights between four states, two countries, been in three continents, and stayed at five different houses. But I made it. I arrived in Istanbul around five yesterday evening and started work at eight this morning. I’m a bit jet lagged and actually quite exhausted, but I love it. I’ve only been here a day and I can already tell that Istanbul is going to be amazing. Ok, so recap of the last day or so.

After staying with friends in North Carolina, I boarded my plane to DC and was able to meet up with a couple more friends in the airport. After realizing I’d read my ticket wrong and almost missed my flight, I was able to see how fantastic Turkish Arilines really is. Despite the fact that I flew economy, they fed me like I was a starving child and tended to my every need. Not to mention that I was lucky enough to get an aisle seat and had plenty of leg room and free movies. They also handed out toiletry bags containing a travel toothbrush and toothpaste, eye cover, lip balm, socks, and earplugs. I was dreading my 10 hour flight, but I can honestly say that I’ve never had such a pleasant flight (and I’ve flown more than I care to remember).

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