Thursday, May 29, 2008

Turkey Landscape: Sweet Peaches and the Sea

We were sucking off the juices of our peaches -- Tugba and I -- and I could taste the saltiness of the sea on my fingers. Content, I leaned back into my beach chair and let the Cesme sun -- cooler than the one in Izmir just an hour north of us -- do its work.

Turkey's little miracles and surprises have been keeping me busy. Living here is like being on a constant rollercoaster ride; there is no continuity for the foreigner. But the things I am learning, discovering and experiencing -- the people I meet who open their hearts or their mouths (whether I want them to or not) -- are only available to the traveler who digs for them. I am conducting my own excavation in a land layered by ruin and treasure; in a land filled with boldness and humility; brashness and gentleness.


In the same way a person is revealed by what's in their bathroom medicine cabinet, TV reveals what is important to a country's people. It reveals the sense of humor, and defines the various classes (in Turkey, there are only two: making it and barely making it). It also unveils the role in which government plays in people's lives, or doesn't in some instances.

I catch a lot of old films, something like our classic Westerns. They're mostly set in the country, have a lot of hokey music and singing, and are always about boy loses girl to another bumpkin (one that doesn't beat her) and how the jilted boyfriend goes chasing down the robbing, thieving lover only to drag his sweetheart back by the hair and give her a good licking for her troubles. There are shootouts in the mountains that always end up on a seashore, somehow. Other older films I have seen include a story about two girls (in the early Seventies) who biked around Antalya in the south on a little holiday. They were from Istanbul and dressed in western style clothing: short skirts, tank tops, nicely done hair. All of the Muslims and country people they met scorned them or tried to rape them. In the end, one of the girls was raped and murdered. The message was clear: You will be punished if you run around half-naked, pretending to be something you aren't.

There are a lot of soap operas too, usually airing in the evening (movies, by the way, in the theaters are in English with Turkish subtitles, so I'm not totally stranded with Turkish TV. Except that Keanu Reeves sucks as an actor, even in Turkey). The soaps -- surprisingly -- show a lot of older people (widow/er, mostly) looking for new love. It's kind of sweet. But there is always a bit of violence no matter what the show. Either the mothers are beating their kids or the husbands are beating their wives. And this is in contradiction to how close the families really are here... but that's to be discussed later.

Music is a huge industry here. The most famous singer is Tarkan -- a dark-haired, blue-eyed, Benetton-styled hunk who even makes the most dowager housewife swoon. He's unbelievably handsome, running about in longish hair, an incessant five o'clock shadow, and those almond shaped blues that look like sapphires caught in pearls. Oh, yeah -- he's got a really great voice too. My personal favorites, however, are a woman called Burcu Gundes, Tarik (a guitar player and singer) and Alabina (actually from Saudi Arabia I believe) to whom I was introduced by my father.

I have gotten to know the music through videos on television. There are several stations that play music videos and there are ten videos for you to see. When the videos aren't airing, the three minute commercials (with the same songs highlighted) are. If you get tired of Turkish pop music (what my father used to call Bubble Gum Rock), you can watch American videos. There is an independent channel which apparently hijacked various MTV episodes, recorded them on bad video tapes, and now airs them for your viewing pleasure. The sound? You'll have a hard time hearing much, the quality is so bad, but you can practice your lip reading.

Then there is the news, which airs for about two wasted hours, on all of the channels so that if you only have two hours in which to relax and watch television, you have only one choice: the news. Apparently, film is a limited commodity here because during a fifteen minute news story, you will see the same photographs six or seven times over (but, sometimes they are shown at a slower speed just in case you didn't catch the flip of the prime minister's wife's hair the first fifteen times they showed it). The journalists also have a morbid sense of humor. They love to show people in anguish -- men trapped in rolled over trucks crying out over and over. They slow the tape down enough so that the men's cries become comical. In case you can't distinguish the curly, black hair of the victim's head against the dark, night sky as they pull the stretcher out to the ambulance, someone circles it for you in white while you listen, over and over, to the poor man's screams. If you happen to be a Turkish politician, on the other hand, be careful! The photographers are waiting for you to fall asleep or to trip on one of the uneven sidewalks just so that they can do instant replays twenty times.

I think you get the idea...


I meant to buy an alarm clock when I first got here, but I have learned that I don't need one. Here's how my day breaks down:

5:20 - The once-enchanting wails from the Mosques begin for the first of five daily prayers.

7:45 - The children pass beneath my bedroom window on their way to school. I'm usually up before that and having my coffee on the balcony.

8:00 - The selected ring leader at the school begins to shout out exercises and Turkish cheers to which all six million students respond. This lasts for ten minutes.

8:25 - "Buyurun Buca!!" - Buyurun is used when someone enters a shop, or is invited to partake in something. Buca is the name of our section of Izmir. This is hollered by various men who walk along the streets. In addition, they call out what they are selling. "Ekmek! Semit!". That's bread and little bagel-styled rolls with baked sesame seeds. These are piled onto a board and balanced on the men's and boys' heads. They are not allowed to quit working until they've sold all six dozen rolls. Other men are selling watermelons from their tractors (25 cents per kilo -- a kilo is almost two pounds), bed linens (five bucks for a bed-in-a-bag), plastic buckets, trashcans, mops, Pokemon baseball caps, and colanders (which melt on contact with hot water) for just BIR MILYON! Or, one dollar. Take your pick... it's all available to you at this early bird sale! It lasts until at least midnight.

9:00 - The first recess and break. The kids are wildly screaming in the yard. Somewhere in between, the second call is made for prayer from the mosques.

1:00 - Third prayer. School shifts are made. A new flood of kids start and a new session of chants and exercises are drilled through the loudspeaker and repeated by six thousand eager youngsters.

5:20 - Fourth prayer. Dinner time.

10:20 - Fifth prayer and time to do my exercises and stretches.

12:00 a.m. - the last football is kicked by the children playing outside my window and the cats begin to wail, looking for food or, worse yet, screaming and fighting while defending what measly thing they have found. This lasts until 5:20 in the morning.

Pretty simple and no need for a clock. I saved fifty cents.


There is something about song and dance that bring people together and the Hokey Pokey has become my favorite ice breaker. It's unbelievable how receptive kids are to this adult-despised dance...

I was on my way to Bilmer (the school where I teach) and was stopped by a gaggle of girls in their red tartan-plaid school skirts and white blouses. Each grade/level has its own uniform so I recognized this group to be about 11 or twelve.

"Chrystyna!" They called out to me. I didn't recognize any of them. In fact, a few times I heard voices outside my window sounding as if someone was calling my name and now I recognized the girl's voice. But this group did not consist of any of my students. Try as I might to remember Turkish names (I have 110 students altogether), I cannot. But faces, I always recognize. And these were none of mine.

"Where are you going?" the ring leader asked. Her long, straight hair was pinned back by two plastic, blue butterflies. Their little sparkles gave off light even in the shadow of the evergreen under which she was standing. She was beautiful and fearless.

"I'm going to my class," I responded, smiling. "What are you doing?"

By this time, like the schools of fish in a coral reef, the whole group of girls had gravitated around her, smiling in silence. If I had demanded it (in Turkish), they would have fallen to the ground and worshipped me. But the leader was confident in our exchange as she spoke for all of them. "We are cleaning up the school yard."

"Aha!" I laughed, nodding at them all with approval. "That's good, because it needs it."

It was too much said. They giggled nervously and shyly. I had used vocabulary they did not know. Probably the 'aha' threw them for a loop. I decided to give them something they could use. "I have to go now. Good bye!"

They lit up again, and tittered among one another before starting their chorus of "good byes" and waving their hands. On my way to school, I decided that Hassan -- the shop owner next door -- must have told them my name.

Indeed, the next day, as I came home, several of the same girls were in their play clothes. When they saw me coming, they lined up on both sides of the walk. They waited patiently until I was close enough and there was a new spokesperson -- a dark-haired, dark-skinned, lithe girl. She was smiling when she burst out, "You are too beautiful!"

It stuns me every time either my students or the men here say this to me. It doesn't matter what their age. Many women have told me the same thing and I am thoroughly at a loss as to how to respond to the "too" part. I have learned, recently, that they mean "very" and not "too". Before realizing this, I'd wondered if I shoudl be apologizing. Now, I thanked the girl graciously and told her that she was beautiful as well. This embarrassed her in return. But it did not deter her from more conversation.

"Where are you from?"

"America," I replied.

There was wonder in their voices as they said "Ooooh" as if the concept was as unlikely as if I had come from the moon. The leader hesitated and I knew she was forming another question, her brain's dictionary flipping furiously. But she gave up and I kept walking on as she repeated the news to her friends that I was from America.

I popped into Hassan's shop for a bottle of water and when I came out, she was back to interrogate me, having successfully completed the translation in her head: "How old are you?" There is no shame in this question...

"Thirty two," I said, showing her with my fingers."How old are you?"

Her eyes seemed to roll into the back of her head as she processed the question. The other girl from the day before had crept up alongside me and, assuredly, waited for her companion to come up with the correct answer in English. She gave her a whole two seconds. Then she proudly said, "I am eleven years old."
The dark-haired girl followed suit, "I'm eleven too!"

I pulled out a pop quiz on a third girl who had also come nearer. "My name is Chrystyna. What's your name?"

"My name is Olya," she replied, grinning shyly. I told her my grandmother's name had been Olya. I was met with a blank look. I tried another one. "How are you?"

Olya snapped to attention on that one and replied, the way all my students reply in robot fashion, "Finethanksandyou?"

This became our daily exchange on my way home and on my way to work. Last night I got tired of it. On my way home, I stopped and taught them the Hokey Pokey for a few short minutes. They laughed and their watching mothers laughed. Hassan and his wife as well as their mothers were on their shop porch drinking chai. As I walked by, still smiling, they asked me to come and have tea with them. I waited for my cup and the girls, in the meantime, had clustered around like the fish again. They wanted more Hokey Pokey. I made it more complicated this time, though Hassan tried to shoo them away. I gave in and we did some more dancing and laughing. I taught them the parts of the body, left and right, we swung our tails, turned and clapped our hands. Then it was tea time and they dispersed, though regretfully.

I promised I would teach them more the next day. Since then I have taught them the Chicken Dance. During a little get together of mixed Turkish and foreign friends, the girls saw us sharing Hungarian, Turkish, Ukrainian and Irish dance steps to each other. I threw in the Chicken Dance for more hysteria. The girls have learned it since and I am afraid that this little number is turning into all the rage on our block. Remember the Macarena?

The Cesme sun was hot, but the wind was blowing and the sea was crested with waves. Though Tugba and I went swimming, it was a challenge to stay warm. I told her I didn't care. Wednesdays are my only day off for the next couple weeks and I intend to take full advantage of them. We tossed our peach pits into a nearby bin and decided to walk into town.

We followed the shore and found a spot where only the locals go swimming. There are no ritzy beach bars or hotels, just a wide pool near where the boats dock. We regretted having left our things at the other beach. Here the wind did not exist and the sea was mirror calm. We walked on to the farther docks which were built into the breakers stretching out to the sea. Beyond them was wide open water, again filled with waves. On the inside, however, were several small pools formed of rock and people were soaking in them, some hidden by enclaves beneath the actual barrier. Tugba and I wondered what these people, with such satisfied, smug faces, were up to. I dipped a toe in and proclaimed, with astonishment, "It's a natural thermal here!" I stripped off my beach dress and got in. It was like a hot tub. Tugba wasn't so sure about the idea and she asked a Turkish man what this spot was all about. He explained that, from the earthquakes, there was a crack in the seafloor and that explained the hot water.

As I soaked in the surroundings and the calmness, I wondered again at the contradictions of this country. Just around the corner from my rock was a wild, beating sea, while there, in that pool, I was calmed by gentle waters created from a furious earthquake. I ate sweet peaches, tinged with salt, and found the taste satisfying. I am finding that same satisfaction in the elements of this country.

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