Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Wouldn't You Like To Get Away...

Sometimes you wanna go, where everybody knows your name...

And yes, I officially have that in my "neighborhood". I say neighborhood in quotes, because I rather broadly intend to reflect the rather restricted confines of destinations in which I circulate.

So I couldn't resist sharing that my "neighborhood" noticed that I had, indeed, flown away for more than a week or six. My regular coffee shop--they noticed. My cig kofteci *definitely* noticed. I'm about to hear from my hairdresser how he noticed my hair was under the sun/sand/not-washing-my-hair-for-a-week-straight plan. My DVD-seller guy wondered why I hadn't come back for a film I'd asked him to order. But cutest of cutest, the cafe I most adore had the most welcomest welcomes. The server, when I sat down for the first time after two months, said, like the genius he is, "You've been on holiday." (Like I said, nothing gets past these guys.) "And you got a nice tan." (Yes, I probably upped my skin cancer factor by about 500 this summer--but damn, I look "healthy"). He promptly brings me my coffee (he remembered how I drink it even after all 60 days), as well as a small plate of cookies. "Look, he went on vacation, too," he says about the sole chocolate cookie amongst the vanillas.


Monday, August 23, 2010

Fault(y) Lines

Eleven years and two days ago, the residents of Golcuk and the surrounding region in Northwestern Turkey were jarred awake by a 7.6 magnitude earthquake in the middle of the night. It only took 37 seconds for nature to take away the lives of 17,000 people, and flatten the homes of nearly half a million people.

Sadly, even after such a period of time has elapsed, survivors are still haunted by the memory, and frequently taunted by subsequent earthquakes. I experienced one myself while recently on holiday in Ayvalik. Granted, it was merely a 4.8 and we were removed from the epicenter, yet I was awakened by the rattling and shaking of my bed.

Earthquake forecasters predict that another major earthquake will hit the Marmara area within the next 30 years--some claim even sooner. Its anticipated impact is devastating, particularly if the earthquake strikes along the fault line near Istanbul, one of the largest fault lines on the planet. According to an article in Hurriyet Daily News, 40% of all structures in Istanbul would be damaged, and 2% would completely collapse with an earthquake of a magnitude higher than 7. That means 20,000 buildings collapsing and 200,000 damaged--killing an estimated 200,000-300,000 people. Some research predicts even greater destruction, claiming more than 40,000 damaged buildings!

Even one look at the tectonic map of Turkey can give one a clearer picture of why there is so much seismic activity. It's startling (pun intended) to have a look at the list of minor tremors that have occurred even in the past month. Yet other places in the world experience such shifts in the plates, with notably less damage. Who's to blame?

The fault lies (again, pun intended--I recognize that earthquakes are really no laughing matter) in the fault lines themselves. Secondly, the mass of illegally constructed houses and buildings whose construction workers have ignored building codes are also accountable. Fortunately, after the devastation in 1999, construction firms began to adhere more closely to such laws, realizing the consequences of not doing so. That begs the question: What is being done to prepare (obviously we can't prevent) Turkey's residents for another potential disaster?

Yes, there are education programs for children, teaching them how to handle the aftershocks (uh, I'm sorry--these puns are just too easy). Yes, the Istanbul Municipality has established logistics and response centers, and started to reinforce bridges and buildings throughout the city. Sadly, as far as I can see, everyone has been doing their best to prepare for the unexpected. Since such a disaster seems inevitable, all we can do now is pray for minimal damage.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Sesli Sokaklar

As far as cities go, Ankara is relatively quiet. However, that silence is sometimes marked (mostly in the mornings) by people shouting in the streets. This isn't a common, "Good Morning" or even a shout of emergency or cry for help. These are the guys that wander the streets offering their services...the three most commonly heard are the simitci (the guy selling simit), the hurdaci (the guy collecting junk), and the dolmuscu (the driver of the shared taxis). 

Simit is a delicious bagel-ish looking treat that is best purchased from such street vendors. It's covered in sesame seeds and can also be eaten with cheese. Guys (strange, I just noticed I've never seen a female simitci...) wander the streets shouting, "Seeemeeecchheeeeeee" as if they are bearing a painful load of the world's simit on their head. I relieve this weight by handing over 50 kurus (about $.30 USD) and taking a simit off their hands (rather, heads) once in a while. I can't count the number of children that I know who adorably mimic the simitcis by walking around their houses with a pillow on their head.

A hurdaci is a junk collector--mainly scrap metal. You'll recognize him by the requisite cart that he manages to lumber around with--up and down hills, with the control of a ballerina. His cry is a bit more "mournful" than the simitci, for some reason. I suppose the burden of metal is a tad bit heavier than simit... At least it's not carried on his head.

Dolmuses (I couldn't, for the life of me, find a photo from my library) are by far the most efficient system of transportation here in Turkey. These shared taxis (whose name literally means "stuffed"), have set routes, similar to public busses, but drop off and pick up passengers along those routes as requested. The fees are paid directly to the driver, who calculates according to the distance traveled. The only downside to dolmuses is that you really have to know the city and where you need to be dropped off/picked up. That information isn't published anywhere--you just have to "know." Dolmuscus (the drivers) obviously don't wander the streets looking for riders, but you'll hear them at dolmus stops shouting out the end destinations. My favorites are in Istanbul, like "Aksaray, Aksaray, Aksaray" or the one other tongue twister that escapes my mind at the moment. They speak with tongues of auctioneers, so one must keep their eyes open for the interchangeable signs posted in the front window of the minibus.

Ah, there's the hurdaci now, passing just below me...this one is actually riding his rattling (empty) cart down the hill with as much grace as a child on a bicycle for the first time. Maybe that explains its emptiness...

Ramazan Bombasi

Being the insomniac I am, last night was no exception to my sleeping schedule. I toodled around online until 2:30am, drooling over the latest shoes and dresses from my favorite store (Anthropologie), finally surrendering to my bed. No sooner had I fallen asleep was I awakened by what sounded like someone had moved their construction site outside our bedroom window. BANG BANG BANG. silence. BANG BANG BANG. silence. Then it occurred to me that the noise was actually moving around our neighborhood. Then genius here remembered what time of year it is: Ramazan. The noise was a man who has been appointed to awaken believers (and non-believers alike) for Sahur, the last meal of the day, at 3:30 in the morning, before the fast during daylight hours.

The Holy Month of Ramadan is a symbolic month in Islam when the faithful are required to fast from sunup to sundown. That means--no water, no food, no smoking...nothing past your lips. Its intent is to remind Muslims of self-restraint, patience and spirituality. A fine idea in theory...in practice, a greater challenge than one could imagine, seeing as Ankara has witnessed record breaking heatwaves these days! Fitting, seeing as the word Ramadan comes from the Arabic root "rmd" (anyone I've subjected to my fascination with languages knows how interesting I find the concept of Arabic "root words"), meaning "intense heat, scorched ground and shortness of rations." They probably couldn't have picked a better root word.

I had forgotten that it was Ramadan, seeing as I am a spoiled brat and have been on vacation along Turkey's amazing seaside for the past six weeks (maybe I'm the one who needs a little self-restraint in my life!). A majority of that time was spent around the Izmir area. Now, why would Izmir be any reason to forget such an important holiday, you may ask, in a country that considers itself 99% Muslim. That's because "Ramazan doesn't come to Izmir," as the Turkish saying goes.

Izmir is often affectionately called "Gavur Izmir," or "Infidel (non-believer) Izmir". During the Ottoman Empire, the Izmir population was primarily Christian, due to the large number of Greeks, thus eliciting the name. The epithet remains today, seeing as many Izmirians (is that right? I'll use the Turkish: Izmirliler) are perceived as more "liberal"(in very broad terms).

The first night of Ramazan this year, I was in Ayvalik, 2 hours north of Izmir, at my in-laws' house. My in-laws are very modern, liberal people, yet are still spiritual--very similar to my parents as Christians. My mother-in-law was not fasting, due to the fact that she has a form of diabetes (there are exceptions made for individuals in such cases to be relieved from fasting), but my father-in-law was determined. He explained to me that he had fasted since he was 14 (if I remember correctly), and wasn't about to let the blazing heat get in his way. They both woke up the night before (the morning of?) to prepare Sahur, and I joined them in the kitchen after hearing the rustle of pots and pans. I was worried about him, though, in this heat, but relieved that he consumed a good 2 litres of water. We went back to bed. My father-in-law (let's stop this father-in-law dancing--I call him "baba" (father)), is not one to sit at home. As the day rolled on, I started to see him wavering, sweating like mad and a glazed look in his eyes. I was more than eager to urge him to give in for his own sake and drink water, but who was I to play the hand of God? Finally, we heard what I call in Turkish the "Ramazan Bombasi" (the Ramadan Bomb--I don't know its real name), at 8:35 pm, and he could surrender to gulping heaps of water. I saw him return to himself only a few hours later. At the urging of the rest of his family (myself included), we convinced him that this is not his time to observe, and he agreed that a larger donation to a charity would be more suitable (which is how those who don't fast acknowledge the Holy Month).

It was interesting to see the interviews from the spiritual leaders on TV about what is and isn't permissible during this Holy Month. The local news, applicable seeing as we were near the sea, posed the question as to whether it was ok to swim in the sea during Ramazan, not to break ones fast. Yes, the Mufti (spiritual leader), said...as long as you don't accidentally (?) drink sea water. I'm a pretty good swimmer, but I can't remember a time when I was swimming where I didn't nearly inhale the entire sea--on accident! Maybe that's why in the first days of Ramazan I saw fewer of the ladies in the recently-fashionable swimming Hashemas, a particularly modest "swimming suit" that covers the pious from head to toe (literally), allowing even the most modest of women to enjoy the beauty of the sea.

Gavur me, I humbly continued my own daily pilgrimage to the sea, in my bikini, no less, to drink in the most beautiful sea in the world, literally and figuratively, wishing those fasting: "Allah kolaylik versin"--may God make it easy for you.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Travelin' North, Travelin' North to Find You...

How is it possible that I have abandoned my real-time documentation of my Turkish life for so very long?! I apologize to those followers who hang on my every word...the suspense must have been killing you, wondering about my absence. Ok, I doubt that's the case, but take this more as an apology to myself for abandoning a project I had so willfully intended to maintain. 

I suppose my next few posts will be in reverse, then, traveling backwards (and sometimes forwards again) from today to the past five months or so (gasp!). Let's begin...

Very very very early this morning (to me, 1:00 am still counts as "the night before"--semantics schemantics), I was dutifully dropped at the bus station to board the red-eye bus to my beloved Istanbul. For those unfamiliar with Turkish travel, I'd venture to say a good majority of it is via bus. We 'mericans often snub our noses at bus travel (except the few of us brave souls who appreciate NY-DC Chinatown busses!), as being a dirty, inconvenient and slow mode of transport (and yes, sometimes Chinatown busses are all of the above). However, in Turkey, buses are quite luxurious, and at times even more comfortable than airlines. Today is a perfect example of that. The Ankara to Istanbul route is 6 hours, including one 30 minute stop at a strategically located "bus mall" (my invented word...maybe it's correct, maybe not). 

Seating on the busses is assigned most often according to gender--so there are no worries about the occasional pervert copping a feel (or three) on a long journey and being trapped next to him (or her, I suppose) for the next howevermany hours. I was fortunate enough to be seated (very comfortably--plenty of leg room) next to a very very kind lady from Trabzon named Alemtac (a beautiful name meaning "crown of flames"). We developed as much of a friendship as one can make over a six hour journey, which unfortunately meant very little shut-eye for me. On the other hand, I loved hearing her stories so much that I didn't mind. We laughed about the amount of garbage we had amassed on the table in front of us from cups of coffee and snacks and breakfast (yes, breakfast!) that was served. (Side note: the most adorable part of the breakfast for me was the miniature package of three green and three black olives vacuum sealed in a jelly-size packet--PRECIOUS!) 

Knowing from previous trans-Turkey bus trips that some "bus malls" aren't always perfectly maintained (though most are), I was prepared with my own toiletpaper, hand sanitizer, and small change to pay for the use of the toilet, which sometimes is NOT alafranga style, rather alaturka style--meaning you exercise those thigh muscles and squat over a hole. I was amazed to enter the bus mall to find an uber modern, shopping mall-esque building, and a spacious, spectacularly clean restroom--much cleaner than some malls in the United States--and entirely non-squatting toilets. Victory! I had also packed a disposable travel toothbrush, but stood corrected when I saw a vending machine in the restroom where I could buy one for just one lira. 

I suppose I should have included the following song lyrics in a post about my most recent trip to Istanbul, but it would be inaccurate, seeing that I discovered this cute masterpiece the last time I was here. In spite of my accolades to bus travel, when traveling to Istanbul from Ankara, I prefer the train. I prefer train travel over any other mode in general, but specifically that route (more to come in another post). Anyway, this song, performed by Feist and Ben Gibbard, is more appropriate for train travel, but the fact that I see this song as being a love song from me to my Istanbul, I have made it my anthem for my journeys here. Obviously it's a person-to-person love song, but in my case, I dedicate it to my favorite city.

Travelling north, travelling north to find you
Train wheels beating, the wind in my eyes
Don't even know what I'll find when I get to you
Call out your name love, don't be surprised

It's so many miles and so long since I've left you
Don't even know what I'll find when I get to you
But suddenly now, I know where I belong
It's many hundred miles and it won't be long

Nothing at all, in my head, to say to you
Only the beat of the train I'm on
Nothing I've learned all my life on the way to you
One day our love was over and gone

It's so many miles and so long since I've met you
Don't even know what I'll say when I get to you
But suddenly now, I know where I belong
It's many hundred miles and it won't be long

What will I do if there's someone there with you
Maybe someone you've always known
How do I know I can come and give to you
Love with no warning and find you alone

It's so many miles and so long since I've met you
Don't even know what I'll find when I get to you
But suddenly now, I know where I belong
It's many hundred miles and it won't be long

It won't be long
It won't be long
It won't be long 

So here I sit for the past 1 ½ hours at my favorite café (after a short walk around my favorite neighborhood waiting for this very café to open). From here, I can see the end of the Tunel-Taksim tram as they change the tracks to switch directions. I can hear the multitude of Istanbul cats, mimicking the cries that they have learned from children. At this café, I can sit for hours…watching people, type type typing at my computer, surfing the internet, or on the rare and fortunate occasion, chatting with friends (or family!).

And I do plan to introduce another friend and her family to this café this weekend. The reason for this recent excursion to my favorite city is to briefly welcome a friend of mine from Washington and her family to Istanbul. I won’t be able to spend as much time with them, or with my city, as I would have preferred, but I have planned an entire itinerary for them that I hope they enjoy. I love introducing Turkey to people, showing them the small oddities about this crazy place that made me fall so in love with it. Before that itinerary begins, I plan on spending countless hours here at this café, and in this neighborhood, writing and researching…for my next project, which I hope to pour more dedication into and spend less time away from than I have with this blog. 

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

In Case of Emergency, My Husband Has the Same Blood Type

I'd venture to guess that 90% of Americans don't know their blood type. In the past, I used to giggle and snort at the fact that it was listed (alongside your religion, no less) on Turkish ID cards. Come to find out, not only is this info kinda important if, God forbid, you find yourself in an emergency situation, but also if you want to join a gym.

My birthday resolution (I like to give myself 10 more days to eat, drink and be merry AFTER the new year), was to take better care of myself by going to the gym. A friend of mine suggested that I go to the sports club run by the municipality, called the Hanimlar Lokali (The Ankara Women's Club). This place is kind of a women's center where you can acquire just about any skill set under the sun from step aerobics, to theatre, guitar and swimming...you can get your hair and make up done, check out a book from the library and play table tennis...all for $68/year. Compare that to a high-end gym around here, which will set you back about $3000/year and this seems like highway robbery. I've decided to carry out that crime and join the Ankara Hanimlar Lokali.

When I started to look at the list of requirements to join, though, I realized that there's another price I have to pay...getting myself stuck with a needle. At every single doctor's appointment in the past (this is NOT an exaggeration), I passed out. It goes exactly in this order: I sweat, turn as white as the nurse's jacket, I unconsciously hold my breath, and then comes the "helmet"--the invisible enclosure that starts to come over my head and block out all sound and eventually sight, followed by the kind nurse (that has been forewarned) resting me gently on the bench and giving me some form of sugar. Needless to say, I had a small anxiety attack when I walked into Guven Hastanesi today to have the requisite blood drawn and resolve my "kan grubu" mystery. I warned the nurse, who must have been half my age, of my trypanophobia, and she told me to look away and don't forget to breathe (a pretty good reminder for someone like me). She asked which arm was better, and I laughed, explaining that I have abnormally narrow veins and it doesn't matter which arm--she'd probably have to end up circling around attempting to poke something that would serve up the appropriate cc of blood in both arms in the end, as per usual. I inhaled, felt a small poke, and kept on breathing...soon enough, it was over! I didn't even break a sweat, nor were there the usual purple and blue works on my inner elbow! Cheers to the Guven Hastanesi nurse--you accomplished something no other nurse in the history of mankind has done! I decided then and there, in case of emergency, I choose Guven Hastanesi and if I need blood, ask my hubby...we adorably belong to the same "kan grubu".

I wasn't so hopeful when I went to the Saglik Ocagi (polyclinic-type thing). I will spare the gory details, but I was thankful I only had to go there to get a note from a doctor who simply had to look at me and sign a piece of paper saying I looked physically ok to participate in sports. I was kind of surprised at the operation of that clinic, and I'm not so secretly glad that I didn't have my blood drawn there. I know most people only go to such places for simple procedures...but I think I'll stick to having all procedures, simple or not, at Guven Hastanesi.

Lamb Kofte...SEASON'S EATINGS! :)

While I was making this recipe tonight, I couldn't stop repeating the lines from my favorite Saturday Night Live skit of all-time: http://www.ebaumsworld.com/video/watch/80460110/


  • 1/4 kilo ground lamb (about 1/2 a pound...if you can't find lamb, beef is ok, but lamb is uber delish)
  • 1/4 grated white onion (keep the juice)
  • 1 egg
  • 2 cloves chopped garlic
  • 1 C dried bread crumbs 
  • 2 heaping T of cumin
  • 1 1/2 T hot red pepper flakes
  • 1/4 bunch fresh parsley, chopped
  • 2 T Salt
  • Generous dash of nutmeg
Prepare for Schweddy Lamb Balls! (Yes, I'm five years old...)
  • Grate the onion over the meat so you can use the juice in the mixture as well
  • Mix all the other ingredients in, and really get in there and massage the mixture with your hands
  • Form into golfball size shapes and allow to sit in the fridge for about an hour
  • Pre-heat your skillet to medium and use the back of a spatula to press the balls into flatter disk shapes (bye, bye, schweddy balls...)
  • It usually only takes a couple of minutes on each side

You can top them with this delish yogurt dressing if your heart desires (and yes, my heart desires...):
  • 2 c strained plain yogurt
  • 2 chopped garlic cloves
  • 2 1/2 T dill
  • 1 1/2 T mint
  • Generous dash of salt
Stir it all up, and again, let this set for at least an hour in the fridge so the garlic and other spices can really disperse.

Afiyet olsun!

Kemal Kofteci

I have a new neighborhood friend. I feel comfortable saying "friend" because, like saying, "I love you," you never want to be the first one to say it for fear of non-reciprocity.

However, Kemal Bey said it first, so we are officially friends. Yesterday was my big birthday (wheee), and I decided to treat myself to my favorite neighborhood dish: cig kofte. Mind you, this isn't the "true" cig kofte with raw meat, rather the veggie kind, which is equally delish. First, I must explain the joy of cig kofte. When ordering a "full order" (which costs the equivalent of $7 and feeds two people), you receive a generous amount of cig kofte (my guess would be about a kilo), a full head of iceberg lettuce, a full quartered lemon, some nar eksisi (pomegranate vinegar), and if you like (which I do like) a side of burn-off-all-tastbuds pepper paste. To consume this delicacy, tear off a leaf of lettuce, place one or two koftes inside, pour on some pepper paste, lemon juice and nar ekisi, wrap it up like you swaddle a baby and get that baby in your belly!

So on my birthday, instead of cake, I wanted cig kofte. I walked in to the tiny tiny tiny store that Kemal Bey runs, called Meshur Adiyaman Koftecisi (The Famous Koftemaker from Adiyaman). He knows my hubby and I well already, seeing as we frequent the place far too often for our own good. He also already knows that when either of us go alone, it's usually for a half-order, so he asks, "You'd like the usual?" I said, "Absolutely--this is my birthday treat to myself," to which Kemal Kofteci responds, "Then I will give you an abundance of kofte today and you won't pay--it's my birthday treat." Somehow the excitement of birthdayness and the prospect of eating cig kofte clouded my judgement. I should have known better than to mention my birthday. A guy like Kemal Bey (and many many other Turkish people in similar situations) would not even consider letting you pay on a special day like a birthday. I merely mentioned my birthday in hopes of complimenting Kemal Bey that I chose his place for my birthday treat for myself, not in hopes of getting free cig kofte.  I insisted, in a futile attempt to explain the reason I mentioned by birthday, that I should pay like any other customer, but was given the response, "If you set one coin on my counter, I don't want to see your face again." Pretty severe threat. Enjoying conversation with Kemal Bey and his cig kofte as much as I do, I humbly put my wallet back in my bag.

I wish more people were like Kemal Bey--sincere, generous and life-loving. Sometimes, his rapidfire Turkish comes at me faster than I can comprehend, and on the occasion that I do, I can barely get a word in to respond edgewise. But the gist of the majority of our conversation consists of how he hopes that God will never wipe the smile off my face; that he wishes for my health, my husband's health, my family's health, his family's health, and the grocer across the street's health; that people who abuse animals are just as likely to abuse people; that we should all step back from our religious beliefs for a second and see that what unites us is much greater than what divides us...that in the end, we all have one thing in common: we're human.

Thirty minutes had passed without my even looking at the clock once. He insisted that I should come back to drink coffee or tea with him sometime soon. I am confident that I will, because Kemal Bey is one reason that I know God keeps that smile on my face.

The Most "Shocking" Experience

So, I was about to sit down and write a really rad sequence for my yoga class tonight. I had gathered my books on the table, and was multi-tasking by fixing dinner at the same time. I removed the toaster plug (recipe for what I was making to follow) to plug in this very computer from which I'm writing. Suddenly: "SPAT!" with a bright flash of light and my heart in my throat. No fire (THANK EVERY LUCKY STAR...and spark), but of course I was suspicious. I immediately called the hubby, who remembered that there was an electrician down the street (gotta love our 'hood...), but first suggested I check with our kapici (doorman) who may have a good person to contact. Of course, the kapici wasn't home, but his daughter was, and she didn't know of one. I grabbed my bag and walked down the street to the very spot my hubby suggested to Mr. Elektrikci, and explained my problem (in my most awesome Turkish). He said he'd be there in 15 minutes. Unsure of whether that was a "Turkish 15 minutes" or a "real 15 minutes", I called the place I'm supposed to teach yoga tonight and we agreed to postpone the class. Less than 10 minutes later, the electrician was at my door with a flashlight, took one look at the outlet, flipped some switches, took apart the outlet, said there was no power, and soon enough, we were back in business. Sadly, they had already called my students to cancel the class (boooo), so no class tonight. On a happier note, all electrical outlets and appliances in the house are still working, and I had to pay only about $14 to rest assured of this fact. The sweetest thing was that just as the elektrici left, the daughter of the kapici knocked on my door to say she'd found the number of the electrician. I'm really lucky to live in the building I do...our neighbors are fantastic. I ran into my neighbor below us on my way back from finding the electrician, and he assured me that these electricians are good guys and they'd resolve the issue (check). I might also add that I am invited for tea on nearly a weekly basis just to socialize with my very sweet neighbors. Even more, to celebrate "Ashura" (which fell on the day after Christmas here this year), our kapici's wife delivered us a bowl of "Asure", in case I hadn't tried it before. I'm not a huge fan (I HAD in fact tried it), but the hubby enjoyed every last bite. I really am thankful for the awesome sense of "community" in Turkey. Too bad it's totally different when you're an anonymous pedestrian trying to cross the street...