Random Thoughts from Turkey

All the squares (meydan) are covered with political banners.
All the squares (meydan) are covered with political banners. Elections are next month.


I’ve recently passed my three month mark working at English Time, so my probation period is over. Since no one has said otherwise, I guess I’m a full-fledged teacher now, whatever that means. Well, one thing is means is that I’ve been here long enough to make a few observations.

A pedestrian street in Avcilar, decorated for the election.
A pedestrian street in Avcilar, decorated for the election.

Noise: This is without a doubt the loudest city I’ve ever been in. There are no laws or limits that I can see to how loud music or speeches can be, even in residential areas. And while I generally like the call to prayer, it can be deafening at times since all the mosques use sound systems and they are all broadcasting at once, five times a day. And I don’t dare cover m ears, even when the sound is painful.

With the election only a few days away, the noise is worse than ever. Though they do usually stop by 10pm, the square outside our classrooms has music and folk dancing non-stop, 7 days a week, punctuated by speeches. I can’t wait for it to be over.

Now that it is getting so warm, I have to leave my balcony door or my window open to cool off. The sound of the E5, six stories below, is so loud that I can’t listen to music or hear if someone knocks on my door.

Busy metro: The only other metro system I’ve seen that was this crowded was Tokyo. Turks have much less of a need for personal space than the average American, though more than most Asians. But the Metro buses and trams are very, very crowded. Sardines in a can have a similar amount of elbow room. It’s unnerving for this American who isn’t used to having her body pressed against 3-4 strangers for 30 minutes at a time.

Ducks on the edge of the sea--taking from the park near my apartment.
Ducks on the edge of the Sea of Marmara–taken from the park near my apartment.

Driving: Turks believe that they are under the protection of Allah in all things, so cautious driving is optional at best. They aren’t as bad as Cairo, Egypt, or even quite as bad as Vietnam, but it’s bad. I don’t miss having a car. I would never be able to drive it here.

Knufe--a dessert with cheese and enough sugar to put you in a diabetic coma.
Knufe–a dessert with cheese and enough sugar to put you in a diabetic coma. I never thought I’d say this, but Turkish desserts are TOO sweet for me.

Ghost: OK, call me crazy. You won’t be the first. But I think my apartment hallway is haunted. Just the hallway, right outside my door. The handle to my bedroom door moves for no reason. Not the door—which will move because of air pressure changes, the HANDLE. And every time I get into the refrigerator, I swear I see someone in the hallway passing the doorway of the kitchen. Every time I look, no one is there.

My theory is that the ghost is trying to get me to eat less and get out of my room and walk more. How nice that I have a ghost concerned with my health.

Clothing and covering: Women are completely covered all the time. And most men are too, though no head covering. I’m beginning to realize that it’s less of a religious concern or a modesty issue. Turks believe that exposure is bad for your health. All this covering didn’t seem so bad when I arrived in February. It was still winter. There had been snow the week before I arrived.

Lentil soup (corba)
Lentil soup (corba)

But now it’s late May.

Even though it is over 80F now, the average woman will be covered head to toe, with several layers, with only her hands and face exposed. She will be wearing pants or a long skirt and long sleeve shirt, with a simple round neckline or buttoned to the neck. It is not unusual for her to have a long sleeved, calf length sweater as well. When out of her house (which includes inside the classroom), she will also have a overcoat. It will be ankle-length and long-sleeved, zipped to the neck and of a polyester (i.e. unbreathable) material. The coat will probably be black with buttoned cuffs at the wrists. Her hair will be covered first by a fitted black or white cap that tightly contains all the hair around the front of the face and ties behind her neck. Over this is a long, decorative scarf that is wrapped and pinned so that it goes over the head with the ends looped completely around the neck and knotted behind the head.

Even men will wear long pants, long sleeves and a sweater or jacket at all times.
I’m sweating just describing it.

Lamacum, one of Turkey's answers to fast food. Like a pizza, but no cheese.
Lamacum, (pronounced LA MA JUNE) Turkey’s answers to fast food. Like a flat-bread pizza, but no cheese.

Women are lesser human beings: Turkey is more progressive than other Muslim countries. I’m not required to wear a headscarf and according to the constitution, I can’t be made to do so. Officially, they are banned in public buildings, especially state universities. But that is a huge issue at the moment, so a step backward could be coming.

Regardless, women are still a lesser species here. Men are players and they act as though they have more rights than women. They do. Just yesterday I asked my students (a speaking exercise) to tell me what job they would like to have. One of my adult, female students said that if she were a man, she would be a pilot. When I said that women WERE pilots, she shook her head, “No, teacher. Turkey.”

Women basically have two routes: Wife and mother or wayward woman of the street. Your main job is to bring honor to your father or your husband. Women are paid less. Women are seldom in positions of authority. Women rarely go into male dominated jobs and they are expected to do all the housework and child rearing, even if they work outside the home. Men hold all the power. It’s roughly America in the 1950’s as far as women’s rights are concerned.

While I obviously don’t agree with this position, it’s not my country and I’m not here to change it. I’m a foreigner and if the situation gets untenable for me, I will leave.

I'm never going to get used to eggs left out on the counter. These have been here a week.
I’m never going to get used to eggs left out on the counter. These have been here a week.

Beggars: There are a LOT of them and they fall into different classes. There are those missing limbs and they openly display their deformities in exchange for money. Sometimes it’s family members displaying their seriously handicapped relative. At least I hope they are related. There are old women, usually with a child, begging loudly. It concerns me that the child is ALWAYS asleep. Perhaps “unconscious” is a better word. Honestly, I think the child is drugged. And I’ve noticed with the the old women I see daily in the same spot it’s not even the same child. I don’t know what to make of this, but it can’t be good. My least favorite class of beggar is the filthy children who never have shoes and rudely demand money, even grabbing at you. I immediately check that my purse is shut tight and I have nothing in my pockets for them to grab. They often walk up and down the Metro bus asking for handouts. Why are they not in school?

I don’t know what to think of these beggars. Some may be refugees. Some are disabled. I’ve given money, but the next time you pass them they yell at you if you don’t throw them some coins like last time. A few have loudly complained that I didn’t give them enough. And the children steal.

But mostly, the images make me despondent. Nothing changes. It’s the same beggars in the same public places with the same outstretched hands. You can give all you want, all you can, and nothing gets better. It feels hopeless.

Dork: I was working on descriptions with my Level 1 students this Sunday. When you try to explain questions like “How does she look?” and “How does he feel?” you quickly realize what a quirky language English is. It’s best to show pictures of emotions (He is happy, sad, angry….) and physical appearance (She is tall, short, young, old…). And when you run out of pictures, you let students start describing each other.

“Teacher, Emin is tall.”
“Yes, Emin IS tall.”
“Teacher, Emin is handsome.”
“Yes, Emin is tall, dark and handsome!”

And then I had to explain “dark” because that wasn’t one of the words in our vocabulary list. I thought everyone understood and we moved on to other descriptive words.

But after class, Emin came up to me and said, “Teacher, tall, dark and handsome?” I smiled and assure him that he was. But he looked so puzzled.

“Teacher, I stupid?” No! So I mimed “tall” and he agreed that yes, he was tall. I said “handsome” and he blushed. Then I pointed to his thick, black hair and said “dark hair” a couple times. I pointed to another student’s hair and said “blonde hair.” But he pointed to his head and repeated, “stupid?”

Fortunately, I gave him a marker and had him write the word on the board. He spelled it D-O-R-K. He thought I was calling him a dork! He’d used his cellphone translation app to find the definition. English pronunciations!

The white is manti, small dumplings covered in a garlic yogurt sauce and served cold. The salad just needed pomegranate syrup and lemon juice!
The white item is manti, small dumplings covered in a garlic yogurt sauce and served cold. The salad just needed pomegranate syrup and lemon juice!

Salad Dressing: There’s a reasonably priced, cafeteria-style restaurant near the school that I frequently go to. Some of the employees know a little English and always greet me warmly. I often get lentil soup and a salad. I usually just squeeze fresh lemon onto both before eating. The most gregarious of the troop brought over pomegranate syrup and lemon juice for my salad. OMG! This is an amazing combination for a salad dressing.

Touching: There’s a tremendous amount of touching in this country, but it’s rarely between men and women, at least in public. It’s usually between men. Men of all ages walk with their arms around each others’ shoulders. They kiss cheeks. They clasp hands and press their foreheads together for (what seems like) an uncomfortably long period. They stand very close when talking face to face. In America, these behaviors would signal homosexuality. The fact that the men are also fastidious about their appearance, particularly their hair and shoes, would just confirm that opinion. Oh, and lavender is a very popular color to decorate a bachelor’s quarters. But homosexuality is a sin in Islam and suggesting it is probably the worst insult imaginable. Besides I don’t think 95% of the male population is likely to be gay, though statistically 10-11% are. With the current conservative government (which is likely to get more conservative in the upcoming election), it can’t be a great place to be gay.

I still got it!
I still got it!

Quality Control: I keep some healthy snacks about. I eat things like seeds, nuts, dried fruit and roasted chickpeas. But I’ve learned to be very careful when I bite down. Quality control simply isn’t the same here. If you are eating walnuts, expect shells. I found a few rocks in my roasted pumpkin seeds the other day. The raisins often have stems attached. Get used to it.