Thursday, May 29, 2008

Turkey Reflections

I have been in Izmir on the Asian side of western Turkey for just over a month now and realize that if I don’t start exploring the country soon, I’ll miss the opportunity to visit some spectacular sites. I am not a tourist here. I am doing a summer tenure with an English language school in the heart of the city and far from the NATO and tourist sections of the third largest city in Turkey.

After writing several essays about my initial impressions of Turkey, I wondered if I was giving this country and its people a fair chance? Yes, their culture and mentality are different from mine but does that make them wrong? I have met beautiful spirits here - ones with a gentle nature and some with a vulnerable kindness. I have laughed until I’ve cried with people who have a wonderful sense of humor and a wide-eyed perspective on the world around them. And I have been harassed, stalked and bombarded. You can find both the bad and the good anywhere on this earth.

The woman across the street from me is in her sixties by my guess. She’s out every early morning, keeping her terrace spotless. It is a uniform ritual in this city: Despite the rubble in the streets, there is a tradition of keeping balconies, terraces, sidewalks and those expensive, hand-woven Turkish carpets, clean. The way a family used to hang their coat of arms above their doors, the Turks hang their carpets over balcony banisters.

As I gulp my first dose of caffeine, I remember the first time I saw my neighbor lady. She was craning her neck toward me while trying so hard to pretend she wasn’t staring. All four floors of the same building contain similar matrons on similar balconies. When I noticed the little spy doing the same on the third morning, I raised my hand to wave hello. She quickly turned around and ducked behind the breezy curtain leading, presumably, to her kitchen. It was as if I had just thrown a tomato at her and she was trying to dodge it.

It was with a little stifled laugh that I realized what I may have done. In Greece, my friend Panos had told me that in Byzantine times people would curse you by tossing ashes or dirt at you. This method of cursing, to this day, can still be done with the raising of the hand and slight flicking of the fingers. Our English or American way of waving hello can often be mistaken for this curse. That, and the nazar boncugu - the evil eye - are still feared.

It was with great surprise that I discovered Turkey’s fascinating history. I read up on the country before I came and, yesterday, I spent the whole afternoon reading my outdated guidebook from a used book store. I could feel the creeping, crawling fever and itchy feet I get when I read about other people’s travels. I may be far from home (certainly not "in Kansas anymore") but I’m working six days a week. Though I have plenty of time to explore Izmir's many nooks and crannies, I am anxious to expand my circles.

Orshi, my roommate, and I are trying to pick one place to go before she leaves in July. Our choices are pretty limited but only by time and cash. We have only two full days in which to travel and an overwhelming number of possibilities to choose from.

To the south of us and less than two hours away is Sýðacýk harbor, Ephesus and Kuþadasý. Sýðacýk harbor was once described by 16th century Turkish navigator and cartographer, Piri Reis, as “an anchorage with water like yufka’.” Yufka is a paper-thin, smooth dough from which some of the most delectable Turkish pastries are made. In other words, to borrow from an old cliche, the water is as smooth as silk. Protected by Döganbey Bürnü and Teke Bürnü, it remains a snapshot of Turkey’s rich coastal villages.

In Ephesus, explorers and history lovers, students of mythology and the Bible, will find their curiousity satiated. First and foremost it is the site of the Temple of Artemis - one of the seven ancient wonders of the world. The temple was the first structure built entirely of marble and is four times bigger than the Parthenon of Athens. Even Orshi, who is miserly in handing out compliments, got all breathy when I asked her whether Ephesus was a nice place to visit. “It’s beautiful,” she sighed.

In 50 CE, Saint Paul arrived in Ephesus and converted a small number of Ephesians to Christianity. Though it took some time (and after he was run out of town), the city became the center of Christianity under the Roman Empire.

In nearby Selçuk (Seljuk), travelers will find the sites of the Basilica of Saint John and the House of the Virgin Mary at Bülbüdaðý (Nightingale Mountain). About five years after the death of Christ, St. John brought the sainted Mother to live out her days on the slopes of the mountain. It is now a popular pilgrimage site where both Christians and Muslims leave bits of tissue tied to the branches of dwarf trees to symbolize their prayers and requests.

What I wouldn’t do for a good midwestern American summer storm! A tornado. A violent downpour of rain. In July and August, the temperature will reach 47 degrees Celsius (117 degrees F). The air is already like pea soup in the afternoons and not a drop of rain has fallen in the five weeks I’ve been here. When it reaches 30 - 35, we begin swimming through the reeking smells of garbage from the scattered dumpsters; tripping over exhausted and dehydrated cats and dogs; and drowning in the fumes and heat from buses and cars. If a storm won’t come to clean this up, then I wish for pine forests and fresh lakes; rivers and jagged cliffs. Northern Minnesota is what I want. And that is more possible than a tornado.

To the north of Izmir is a little Turkish sanctuary called Ayvalýk. I have been tantalized by the information that it is a place of terra cotta, tiled roofs, brilliant Mediterannean blues, golden beaches and thick hills of pine forests. A small island just 25 minutes away, by boat, is home to about seven thousand people. Only! Living in a city clogged by four and a half million, Ayvalýk is a ghost town by comparison. Rooms are about five dollars per night and it will cost me six dollars to get there by bus, round trip. Fresh fish is grilled and sold right on the docks, amid the dry, comforting scent of pine trees.You can buy a good bottle of wine for a dollar and a half (Turkish white wines are a delicate and pleasant surprise. They are a gentle testament to what can be wrought from this often savage land, this turmoiled earth).

Or, if Orshi and I are really willing to release ourselves from the promising refreshments which the sea offers from the heat and the dirt, we could go inland to visit my friend's family...

...A few days ago, I served a lunch on my balcony to my friends, Tuðba and Arzu. They had requested a “traditional American meal” and I wracked my brain trying to figure out what that comprised. For a few days I contemplated going to Alsançak or Karþiyaka - where all the NATO workers live and shop on pounds and dollars - and getting peanut butter. What’s more American than peanut butter and jelly sandwiches? The hot dog? They’ve got it here (and serve it on their pizzas!) Grilled cheese? That’s English. Hamburgers? German and there are plenty of those available here too. French fries? Belgian. Pizza? Italian. Fried chicken, corn-on-the-cob, and biscuits! Yeah, but troublesome and way too heavy in this heat.

What I ended up doing was Americanizing spin-offs of Turkish foods. For example, basil is a sacred plant in both Greece and Turkey. It was the sacrificial plant to the Mother goddess of the sea and, to this day - even if they don’t know why any more - ship captains keep a basil plant on their boat. It is hardly ever used for cooking by the locals. However, Orshi knows where the foreigners live and eat and she was able to obtain some of the herb for me. I served tomato basil soup, a version which tickled my guests’ tastebuds as tomato soup is a staple in the Turkish diet.

The main course, however, was a divine inspiration thanks to my chats with my friend's father. Doner kebabs, often served "open-faced" on rounds of pita bread, are another regular dish and the Turks love this version of fast food. While brainstorming lunch food ideas, I came upon some thinly sliced steaks for beef kebabs. I bought half a kilo, an onion, green peppers and cheese and then some thick, white bread. I made Philly cheese steak sandwiches with ketchup and mayo and, while serving, winked at my guests. “These were invented in Philadelphia in the U.S., but the original Philadelphia is just two hours east of us...”

It is called Aleþehir (Aleshehir) today, and it is where Tuðba's father Ahmed was raised. It is a haven of vineyards (so, he tells me), fruit and olive trees, dusty, red hills and lakes. Another hour to the southeast and Orshi and I could be in Pamukkale, where natural caves, panoramic views and fresh springs wait to delight the hot trekker. We would rest under olive trees, or apricot trees; or perhaps tangerine and lemon trees. We would hear the bleating of sheep, wave to the weathered, black-sunned faces of the shepherds. Life would be simple for two days; we would eat simply, drink simply. Our accommodations would be sparse and rustic. When I go does not matter for this is a destination which warrants my time and it is part of my travel itineraries over the next three months.

Noah’s Arc rested on a mountain in Turkey after 40 days and 40 nights of storms. Byzantine Christianity was raised from Turkish earth. Mongols came across and brought the art of horseback riding, music, food, and other craftsmanship to Turkey. Ottomans and sultans cultivated the most incredible architecture, art, and culture. Though some of it may be gaudy by today’s standards, they are still a wonder. Gold, silver, marble and tile are only a few of the riches spawned from an earth violent with quakes. And volcanoes have helped to bring sweetness in the form of sugar cane.

Last Sunday, I felt my first earthquake. I was drilling through pronounciation when I noticed that my students were not responding. I glanced up at them from where I was busy, pacing the room, and they were staring into the corner where the media stand was, holding the huge TV. The whole stand was gently swaying back and forth.

“Ummmm...” I started, unsure of what to think. Everything seemed normal outside in the bazaar below us. “Is that what I think it is?”

“It” was a 5.5 on the Richter scale but the quake was underneath the seafloor, far away. We only felt the shockwaves. I would have hated being in a boat. But I didn’t learn all this until I talked with a friend in Istanbul a few days later. “Did you feel it?” she asked.

“It was more like I SAW it,” I said.

“It” also comes at a time when this country, as I just learned, will feel a new, negative effect of the current economic crises (brought on by the two earthquakes in the Marmaris region in 1999 and 2000). I can’t - no, I don’t want to - imagine how this will devastate more families. It will bring more elderly people and young children to the streets, begging for money. Some try to make this business legitimate by selling things: garbage bags, coat hangers, small packs of tissue. Their attempt at obtaining a handful of coins already makes my heart break.

Our school may see fewer students. Even if they have registered for the summer classes, businesses know that they can squeeze the life out of their employees. Ten hour shifts will become fourteen or sixteen hours. It’s too hard to find a job and too costly to hire employees to rotate shifts. Many of my students already cannot afford to pay their bills and I worry about my own bills. When I signed my contract in March, I calculated I would be earning about $550 by US standards. With the dollar reaching for 1.25 per each million lira, my salary is now comparable to $400 a month. On the other hand, with cash, my bargaining chips in the shops and bazaars are that much better. And my guilt, that much heavier.

My neighbor lady recovered from whatever curse I may have unintentionally put on her and she and I silently commune on our early mornings, on our separate balconies. Not a word has passed between us, but we still greet one another. Eye contact travels great distances.

Though I am surrounded by the charms against the nazar boncuðu, the only evil eye I fear here is the one cast by foreigners who come burdened with ignorance, by fear, and by misunderstanding. Perhaps I am naive to cast away those binoculars and seek out, and expect, goodness in all. But, and especially in Turkey, I wouldn’t survive without that vision.

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