Thursday, November 29, 2007

Two Posts In One Day: Meme

Until very recently, I didn't even know what meme meant. I kept seeing it as the Turkish word meme, which means 'breast.' This could mean I've been in Turkey too long, in that I'm assuming Turkish and Turkish culture have infiltrated every corner of the Earth. Along with assuming the whole world hates them, I think a lot of Turks secretly believe everyone spends a lot of time admiring and emulating Turkey. I once spent half a lesson trying to convince a class that the Black Eyed Peas don't speak Turkish, and that they weren't singing 'şarap şarap' (şarap means 'wine'), but that they were actually singing 'shut up shut up.' By the time I gave up, most of the students still didn't believe me.

But in the interest of some shameless self-promotion, I'm being a joiner. Bri over at Unwellness has tagged me to try to impress this person, who's going to choose 100 mommy bloggers or family bloggers to interview and hopefully get them all kinds of attention. So this is like my big tryout, my moment that will make or break me. Is this a mainstream kind of movie where you know success and flowers and a fitting end for my enemies await you at the end? Or is it a more alternative flick where no one seems to get what they want but three days later you realize they actually did?

Drum roll for my big moment. I hope I don't make any spelling* mistakes:
Name of Blog: Istanbul's Stranger
My Name: Stranger (It's not my real name, by the way)
My About Page: I don't have one. There's a little blurb under 'About Me' in the top left corner, as well as a link to my complete profile. My complete profile is lame and incomplete because I couldn't be bothered to fill in the blanks.

I remember once reading a news item about a girl who killed herself after winning a radio contest. The prize was a pizza dinner for herself and ten of her friends. She killed herself because she didn't have ten friends. I'm supposed to tag three other people for this meme thingy, but I don't know three other mommy bloggers, so I'll give a tagback to Unwellness, I'll re-tag margaretjames, and I'll also tag Siobhan, another Istanbul mommy.

*I actually wrote 'speeling mistakes' there the first time around, but it seemed contrived so I fixed it.

Mandarin Oranges

One really great thing about Turkey is the availability of good, cheap mandarin oranges. To me, mandarin oranges smell like Christmas. Specifically, satsuma mandarins-- the kind with the loose, thick skin that are a bit pithy and really, really sweet.

When I was growing up, we never had satsuma mandarins in the market. They were a rare treat, given to us by the case as our yearly Christmas present from my father's aunt. She died this year, and no one remembered to tell me. I found out in passing this summer. That's one thing I hate about living so far away from home. I wasn't able to be there for either of my grandmothers' funerals, or even to say goodbye, and sometimes people forget to tell you about stuff like your great aunt dying.

Oranges are such a nice, old-fashioned Christmas gift. I remember reading old stories in which the children would wake up excitedly to find oranges and walnuts in their stockings. 'Lame,' I thought. 'What's the big deal about oranges?' But we would sure get excited when our box of mandarins showed up. They were like no oranges I had ever seen, so small and sweet and easy to peel. You could nibble them section by section and not get the juice all over your hands. My brothers and I would compete each year over who could find the smallest orange section. Fights broke out over this. It's amazing what siblings can find to argue about. We all believed that the smallest orange sections were not only the cutest, almost too adorable to eat, but the best tasting, and so we ate them with cannibalistic pleasure. One year, I found the smallest section ever. It wasn't much bigger than my pinkie fingernail. I ate it right away, forgetting to save it to show my brothers. Later, when they were claiming to have found the smallest sections, I kept telling them I had found it, but that I'd eaten it, and naturally they assumed I was lying, and my youngest brother found a section that was very small indeed, and I was forced to concede victory when my mom snapped at us that his was the smallest section ever, and to please shut up already or Santa wouldn't be coming that year.

Produce in Turkey is fresh and good. It's also seasonal, meaning in the winter, especially towards the end of winter, the choices get pretty bleak, and some things, like carrots and onions, look a little worse for wear. In theory, I believe in the goodness of the eating seasonally. In practice, though, carrots, celeriac, and potatoes get a bit old after eating them for weeks on end. Non-seasonal staples are available here, or what most people consider staples: tomatoes, green onions, and cucumbers, for example, but they are either imported or from greenhouses, and so are predictably tasteless.

I think I wouldn't find eating seasonally so objectionable if there were more variety here. I'm spoiled for varieties of produce, coming from Oregon where heirloom fruits and vegetables are all the rage. But, in Istanbul at least, the variety is depressing. One type of tomato that's red and perfectly round and travels well, and the occasional red or yellow cherry tomatoes in the summer. Two types of cucumber, one for pickling and one for salads, again quite uniform. Iceberg lettuce is everywhere, green leaf almost as much, with the occasional romaine. What galls me about the lack of variety is that Turkey has perfect growing climates for almost everything, from hot season crops like peppers and eggplants, to cool season ones like brassicas and salad greens. Citrus grows in the south just as well as apples and pears grow in the north. I often think it's the huge chain markets controlling the availability of things, as I've heard in villages there are really interesting varieties of fresh produce, and people love them. I'm sure Istanbullites would buy different things if they could, but they just aren't offered the choice from the mainstream markets, though there is a slightly wider variety of things at bazaars or from street sellers.

Occasionally, one of the big markets has something interesting. Ginger, for example. Whenever there's ginger, I buy a big load of it and freeze it. Limes are another oddity, which I always buy a few of and make some semblance of Mexican food. BE hates my taste for these occasional treats, as the cashiers never know what it is and won't enter its code without waiting ten minutes for some guy to run off and find it out while every one behind us in line oofs and shuffles and gives us dirty looks for buying weird vegetables and holding everything up. BE sometimes tries to placate them by shrugging with shame as if to say 'She's foreign, what can I do?' Sometimes the cashier does it for him, saying 'Foreigners buy these strange things. I never what to do.' Sometimes people ask how you cook with crazy things like ginger, and I'll try to explain something like gingersnaps or Chinese noodles, and they smile and say 'How very different!' which in Turkish is a polite way of saying, 'How disgusting that sounds!' Last week, Migros had celery (good celery, I was told, not the stringy, dark green kind they occasionally have which I've never bought because it's expensive and looks awful). A few of my friends preparing Thanksgiving dinners were thrilled to bits. They also had butternut squash. This caused a great buzz on both continents, as I heard about the butternut squash from several different people. Things like butternut squash and celery are so rare that word of their appearance hits the foreigner underground and spreads like wildfire.

In Turkey, mandarin oranges aren't precious or rare. You can have pounds and pounds of them pretty cheaply. But to me, they're still special. I can't stop myself from buying more and more, though I still tend to eat them slowly so as not to waste them. There are two big bags in my fridge right now, and when LE wakes up, I intend to buy another bag. I feel like I have to own as many as I can before the season is out. I might even do what my mom does to create instant Christmas house, which is to steep a sachet of mandarin orange peels, cloves, nutmeg, and cinnamon on the stove, filling the house with a delicious smell.

If I find a very small section in one of my oranges, you can be sure I'll photograph it with the digital camera to tease my brothers with. The youngest, I'm sure, still has a false sense of smugness about having found the smallest section ever.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Crunchy Mommy

Before I had a baby, I imagined I would be of the School Of Hard Knocks theory of parenting. None of this 'overindulgence.' No baby of mine would scream and bang spoons in a restaurant. No baby of mine would be allowed to cry when he wanted to come out of his carrier and sit on my lap. I would be the parent who would complete my sentences because no child of mine would ever be allowed to interrupt. No purse of mine would be filled with a million little things to be pulled out and handed to the baby every 30 seconds to suit whatever need he came up with at any given moment, meaning no pacifiers, no jingly frogs named cute things like Lahana (cabbage), no cloths to wipe spills and dribbles. If the baby cried at night, well, he could just cry and get over himself and learn to act like a normal person. There would be no special songs. No funny faces. No bland foods. None of this 'on-demand' nursing you hear about when an elderly Wal-Mart patron calls security on a woman who has the gall to feed her child in public. My child would learn early on that there are a lot of other people in the world besides him.

As you might imagine, that's all worked out very well for me, just as planned. Apparently, getting pregnant just causes your heart and brain to go squish, and the best-laid plans for a highly disciplined, well-trained little cadet just go out the window. LE is not an early candidate for West Point. A Doogie Houser educational plan is not in his near future. Miss Manners would not be impressed with him. I recognize the expressions on the faces of that childless couple at the next table because that used to be me, wondering why those people don't take better control of that child and stop him trying to fling the plates.

Much to the amazement of many who know me, I got pregnant on purpose. To say my experience with babies was limited would be a gross exaggeration. I pretty much feared them, with their milk and dribbles and bobbly heads and grabby, sticky little hands. Most babies I'd met had the wisdom to cry whenever I came near them. My one diaper changing experience happened when I was about 13, when my brothers and I were looking after some little kids while our parents were out for dinner. The toddler did a poo, and the 3 of us ended up sticking him in the bath rather than actually try to wipe the poo, but then we were afraid we were molesting him somehow and tried to wash him by splashing rather than touching him, and by the time we got him out of the bath and dried off and were fumbling with the diaper trying to work out which way it went, our parents came home and saved the day.

But, being the annoying over-achiever that I am, I approached pregnancy and childbirth and early parenting the way I did anything else, which was to read a lot. Then I discovered just how much there is to read on these topics, and how pretty much all of it is contradictory in some way or other. 'Do it this way!' says one book, 'And your child will have a lifetime of security and happiness to look forward to!' 'Never do it that way,' chides another website, 'Or your child will surely be torturing small animals by the time he's 10.' Do it 'right,' and your kid will be the one to cure cancer, bring about world peace, and inspire joy in the hearts of all who come near him. One false step will lower your kid's IQ, give him asthma, and send him straight behind the counter of a roadside White Castle.

So I decided to limit my reading to one book on pregnancy that wasn't bad, except for reminding me on every page not to smoke or drink, ever. That was an American book. The British websites said one or two drinks a week is okay. The Australians, as usual, were the friendliest and most easygoing by saying daily drinking is acceptable as long as you don't get tipsy. For baby care, I again got one book, something like a users' manual with lots of pictures of how to do things. I didn't want to get overloaded with often conflicting advice.

Like that's avoidable. The best I could do was find a general way of thinking about birth and babies, and try to stick to it in the face of what people around me were saying. Much to my surprise, I went the Crunchy Route. I went from wanting lots of drugs and an epidural to wanting a home birth. I went from wanting to create an intelligent and independent child by leaving him to his own devices as much as possible to wanting to create such a child by loving him to bits and giving him pretty much everything he wants until he's old enough to understand why he can't have it. This is surprisingly easy, as babies don't want much but a lot of time.

The home birth didn't happen because there was only one properly trained foreign midwife in all of Istanbul, perhaps all of Turkey, and she was working illegally and so not covered by my insurance (this was probably a blessing in disguise, as BE's father forbid a home birth, and BE was ready to obey him, and I was ready to consider that a deal-breaker, allowing his father to decide how I gave birth to my baby). But I went to birth preparation classes with the midwife, and she did some home visits after LE was born, and she was a wonderful and reassuring and invaluable person to have around at that time, because everyone else seemed to be wringing their hands and telling me I was doing everything 'wrong' and the baby would surely get very, very sick and die and it would be all my fault.

I did the on-demand breastfeeding. For about 5 months, I was an on-demand cow. I was a 24 hour open milk bar. I'm still an open milk bar all night, or a human pacifier; I'm usually too sleepy to tell what he's doing. For the first 3 months or so, I was sitting on the sofa surrounded by pillows, watching the same DIY programs on BBC that I'd watched two years before during the Snow Crisis. BE would come home to me looking (literally) drained, saying, 'He's been sucking for 4.straight.hours.' My book told me babies will demand the breast every two hours or so. That's really cute. LE at nine months is down to about every two hours or so. For the first three months, he was more of an every 40 minutes kind of guy. Meaning every 40 minutes, he'd want to nurse for an hour or three. As his mom, I'm not supposed to know about such things, but when he grows up, my money's on him being a Boobs Man.

But the World Of Crunch is a very competitive place. When you hang out with Crunchy folks, there's always someone who can out-crunch you. You're a vegetarian? Well, I'm a vegan, you animal-abusing monster. You bought your organic hand-sewn hemp shirt locally from Joe down at Saturday Market? Well, I bought mine from Juniper who works out of her house and only employs homeless women at living wages to do her sewing, and unlike that bastard Joe down at the market who uses factory thread, Juniper uses only thread made by her own free-range silkworms, you silkworm-exploiting bastard. It's the same for Crunchy Parenting. There are people who will tell you that if you don't on-demand breastfeed your little one until he's ready to wean himself around the time he goes to college like the native women in the jungles of Ecuador do it, he will grow up to be violent and selfish, with a deep-seeded sadness about him that comes from being ripped from the breast at an early age, and this sadness isn't the kind that will turn him into a poet. There are people who will tell you that if your baby is left to cry for any amount of time, even if it's just while you've nipped off for a pee, the neural pathways that will cause him to become Son of Sam are surely being burned as he's learning that his mother doesn't really love him and there's no one in the world that he can trust in his time of distress.

I will confess here, to the great shock of many who will tell me any great number of risks, that LE sleeps next to me in my bed every night. The Crunchies will applaud me for co-sleeping, as it's called, because this is 'natural.' Wolves don't put their babies in cribs in other caves to sleep, and nor do women in huts in Africa, and nor should we, in our modern, materialistic, selfish, silkworm-abusing world. To this, I say 'Bullshit.' LE doesn't sleep with me because it fulfills some philosophy of parenting. He sleeps with me because I'm lazy. I'm too lazy to wake up 5 times a night to nurse him and soothe him back to sleep. If he's next to me, all I have to do is fumble a nipple into his mouth at the first peep, and we happily go back to sleep. During the day, though, I'm thinking this co-sleeping business has to stop. LE was cute to sleep next to at first. He cuddled up and wiggled and did whatever he did while he was still inside me, except now it was on the outside, and I woke up in the morning to his little face looking up at me. He's still cute, and he still looks at me, but he also kicks and punches and reaches up to see if my lips and nose can twist off. Stopping is not as easy as it sounds, though. LE knows which side his bread is buttered on, and snuggling up to Mommy is the way to go, meaning he won't sleep in his crib anymore once he knows I'm in the room. No amount of nursing or soothing will convince him this is a good idea, and by 3am, after trying unsuccessfully for 4 hours to make him sleep in his own bed, I give up. Now our upstairs neighbor is helping LE's cause by complaining about the crying, and ringing our doorbell in the wee hours to tell us to make him stop, as though we aren't already trying and as though LE is the first baby in the world who cries at night. The neighbor's idea is that the baby should sleep in the living room, and that we should change all our furniture and evening habits to suit this. My idea is that the neighbor should buy some three dollar ear plugs and shut the fuck up, but BE pointed out that the neighbor is bigger than he is. BE's about six foot three, so the neighbor is pretty big. This didn't stop me from calling him a stupid son of bitch last time he stopped by, which means BE is pretty lucky the neighbor doesn't speak English.

Extensive breastfeeding is all the rage these days. The Crunchy Mommies tell us that a baby should be breastfed until he's ready to stop. This is called child-led weaning. If the child wants to nurse until he is four years old, then good mothers let him rather than disrupt his natural physical and psychological processes. Child-led weaning is nice, I suppose, and the only real argument against it is that it's not really socially acceptable to nurse a kid who's big enough to request the breast in clear language or get the breast out himself. I suppose to a Crunchy, social mores are the fabrication of plastic businessmen and the military-industrial complex, and so are best avoided (like soap). Even I have to admit I'm not so selfless as to continue with breastfeeding for several more years. I'd planned to nurse LE at least to 18 months then see how it went, though even that I'm reconsidering now. Why? LE bites. He bites a lot. He started biting before he had teeth, and the biting continues (more painfully) now that he has two bottom teeth, and I shudder to think what the biting will be like when he gets top teeth. My books didn't say anything about biting. Even Dr. Internet seems to think babies will bite once or twice, then stop it. LE hasn't consulted the Internet about this, and has started biting me every time he nurses, day and night, for the last couple of weeks. Nursing is getting loud and dramatic. The neighbor hasn't said anything, but I'm sure he also objects to 'Ow! God dammit!' at 4am. LE doesn't like it either, but it still doesn't discourage him from biting. Nor do pressing his nose into my breast as the crunchies recommend, or quietly unlatching him to return to nursing later, or calmly discussing with him why biting is not conducive to an effective breastfeeding relationship. I'm all torn up on this one, and I suppose I will have to find something between Crunchy and Not Getting Bitten On my Nipple. If a woman's body was made by Nature to nurture a child with teeth, why the hell are nipples so sensitive?

One very sensitive parenting issue is about making babies sleep. Despite my neighbor's belief that my baby should be sleeping quietly for 12 hours a night, the fact is, most babies don't sleep the way we want them to. We put up with it at first, telling ourselves it's a phase that will pass and that they'll sleep someday. After several months of sleeping 5 hours a night in 2 hour blocks, we stop feeling the love. There are so many books and methods and approaches about making babies sleep. Sleep is a Holy Grail of early parenthood, and even if we could remember exactly what sleep is, we still can't find a way to reach it. The villain of the sleep-training world is the Cry It Out approach, abbreviated as CIO in online parenting discussions. Some people swear by it. The Crunchies scream about it. Most people find a way in between. It's not crunchiness that prevents me from leaving LE to cry. It's that my squishy heart can't take it. There's a one-year- old baby downstairs who screams her little head off, and even though it's not very loud, it's brought tears to my eyes a few times feeling sorry for the little psychopath, not to mention her poor mother. LE may not be the best sleeper on earth, but he sure hasn't ever screamed himself hoarse. If picking him up doesn't immediately solve his problem, surely nursing him will. Turks tell me Downstairs Baby must have gas, because any baby unpleasantness here must be gas. Fear of gas was a new one for me. It's way worse than fear of cold or fear of dirt or fear of getting sick. Fear of giving the baby gas caused my mother-in-law to rip a bag of hazelnuts from my hand a few hours after LE was born, even though I hadn't eaten in over eight hours and, oh yeah, I had just pushed out a freaking baby. It ties in nicely with the Turkish foot obsession though, as a barefoot baby will surely get gas, and a barefoot mommy will also somehow pass gas to her baby through her milk. But if Downstairs Baby's problem is gas, the must be feeding her uncooked beans and lentils topped with cola and Pop Rocks, because that kid can scream like nothing I've ever heard before. Gas aside, if I ever try crying it out with LE, it will be last resort and it will only be if I'm fairly certain it will work. These days, I don't trust my 4am motivation for wanting to try it, because I think there's a vengeful streak behind it.

Another high Crunch Factor practice I engage in is cloth diapers. Much as I love LE and think everyone else should too, I just couldn't stand the idea of his poo sitting in landfills for the next 200 years. Plastic diapers are weird. There's an odd-smelling green gel in them which holds so much pee that the diapers stretch LE's clothes seams when they're full. The less crunchy reason for using cloth is that they're way cheaper. But, like co-sleeping, my love of nature and crunchiness and that good self-righteous feeling only goes so far, as LE still uses plastic diapers at night (I can't be bothered with cleaning up the leaks) and when we go out, because you will never catch me carrying around dirty cloth diapers.

I'm sure there are Crunchies out there who will condemn me for not wanting to carry poo, sleep in pee, and wash sheets every day. There must be baby lovers who will think me terribly selfish for being too sleep-deprived to properly balance my baby's biological need to snuggle up to me and punch my eyes every night with my biological need to sleep for more than two hours at a time. And I'm sure there are fierce breastfeeders out there who will screech 'Hang in there, sister!' at my Draconian thoughts of early weaning. To them, I say 'He's been immunized too!' because there are too many people in Turkey who haven't any vaccinations for me to feel I have the luxury to forgo dangerous, autism-causing shots. If it makes them feel any better, I'm not giving LE all those vitamin drops my doctor keeps getting mad at me for not using. I do believe vitamins are better gotten naturally from food, and anyway, those iron drops are supposed to be given two hours from any meal, and LE has yet to go two hours without eating something.

Crunchies, for all their peace and ecosystem loving, for all their tofu and soy milk and amaranth cereals, for all their 'Let Nature Take Her Course,' can be a downright judgmental bunch. No one can ever be crunchy enough. For my part, I don't think there are very many people out there purposely making bad decisions to hurt their babies. Most people want to do the best things for their babies, and whether it's from misinformation or just from trying to find a balance that works for both the mother and baby, their decisions are theirs and not mine to look down my nose on. Granted, I will never believe voluntary Cesareans are a good idea, or that formula is as good as breastmilk, or that babies should be left to cry, but to each his or her own. Be as crunchy or as un-crunchy as you like. I need a nap.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Street Dogs

One thing I always really used to love in Istanbul are the roving cats and dogs all over the city. I always had pets in the States, and I really missed animals when I came here. The street animals were a nice way to be able to pet and talk to and enjoy cats and dogs, without the bother of actually owning them. They're filthy, certainly, and have been rolling in god-knows-what, and my hands were usually black after a good pet, but I just carried a pile of moist towelette packets from restaurants in my purse, ready for when a friendly animal came by. Out where I live now, there are tons of dogs, but very few cats, and I've kind of quit petting them so much because there's always an old woman nearby to screech at me and I just got tired of it.

In the old days, there used to be packs of street dogs running around the city. This, apparently, was less pleasant, as dogs in packs are thinking in their pack mentality, and they can be more dangerous. My only experience with a pack of dogs was with a pack of overgrown puppies in Bakırköy. They were loping around and I just couldn't stop myself from squatting down in front of them and smiling, at which point the whole pack, eight or so of them, came bounding over to me, to jump all over me with licks and happy barks. For a few seconds I was inundated with giant puppies, then they just passed by and continued about their business.

Most Turks don't like animals very much. More specifically, they're put off by the manginess of some of the cats (and probably the thought of what they've been rolling in, given the number of open trash piles in the city), and a lot of people are absolutely terrified of dogs. I thought of writing this post looking out my window last night, when my neighbor was walking his little moppet of a white poodle, and a woman trying to enter her building screamed and backed away about twenty feet, refusing to go into the door until the neighbor took the poodle far, far away. To me this is hilarious, when people are scared of small, domestic dogs on leashes. I've seen grown men screech and run to the other side of the street at the sight of a dachshund. In their defense, it seems most Turks were bitten by stray dogs as children. A majority of my students had been. Plus, whenever a dog comes anywhere near a mother with her kids, the mother usually screams and pulls the kids away, thus passing on the fear. In the dogs' defense, people often run away from them, and, dogs being dogs, they think this is great fun and often chase them. To someone terrified of a dog, the difference between a bite and a playful nip isn't noticeable.

The dislike of dogs is also culturally embedded, as Islam considers dogs to be unclean animals. The Bakırköy dolmuş drivers have a special hatred of dogs, and many of them seem to keep bottles of water next to them just for throwing at dogs who come near. My husband says it's because they're Shafi (a sect of Islam), from Southeast Turkey along the Syrian border, and Shafis in particular loathe dogs. The drivers' Turkish is, to me, totally incomprehensible, mixed as it is with Kurdish and Arabic, so perhaps this is true. One thing I hate, though, is how some people treat the street animals. They kick them, throw rocks and water at them, hit them, and the meaner ones coax the animals to come to them before abusing them somehow. The security guards around my building seem to take care of the neighborhood strays, and many times I've seen them breaking up groups of teenage boys hurting one of the otherwise friendly dogs. There were groups of strays at my old school, dogs that lived on the farms surrounding the campus. One morning, we arrived at school to find one of them had gotten into the building somehow. Everyone was scared of him (again, an overgrown puppy), and no one knew what to do, so they were all wringing their hands waiting for security to show up. I went to the canteen and got a meat pastry, and used it to lure the dog outside. The only reason he couldn't get out himself is that he was kind of stupid and was scared of the stairs. All the while everyone was getting mad at me because I was pregnant, and they were sure I would catch some horrible disease. Just as I got the dog outside and fed him the pastry, a security guard showed up and kicked him in the face. The poor dog just yelped and cowered and rolled over on his back, trying to finish the pastry while the guard continued to kick at him. I tried to get him to stop it (couldn't he see the animal was clearly not a threat?) but he wouldn't listen. I felt kind of sick the rest of the day.

Many neighborhoods have their local stray, and there are people who feed it. In my neighborhood, many of the strays have ear tags (meaning they're fixed, I think), and are either friendly or just avoid people. Every year, they cull the strays because they do multiply. I'm guessing it's the security guards who choose which ones get tagged, based on whether they're nice, social dogs or not. People are told that the other dogs are taken out of the city to live on a farm, and surprisingly, people believe this. In one of my old neighborhoods, there was this huge black and white dog who was getting looked after. He was a dog with a job. Whenever some kids from another neighborhood came to bother the kids from ours, this dog would come and chase them off. He also chased off other dogs. Every night, as I was walking home late after dark, this dog would appear out of nowhere with a 'Wuff!,' and either take my hand in his mouth to walk me home, or trot along ahead of me to bark at anyone who came near me. I always gave him a good scratch when we arrived at my house. The first few times, I tried to give him some food, which he just turned his nose up at, looking at me like, 'I'm just doing my job, ma'am. I don't take tips, but that left haunch is a bit itchy...' Once this dog took a good beating in a fight, and I could see some neighbor had either taken him to a vet or patched him up himself. That winter the dog disappeared. I like to think someone took him off to a farm somewhere to retire.

I'll probably never have a furry pet here myself, not as long as I live in an apartment (I like small animals, like rats, but it would be a cold day in hell before my husband would allow one in the house-- my plan is to make LE want one so much his dad can't say no). I don't think it's fair to a cat to be trapped inside all the time (it makes them a bit psychotic and strange), and I can't stand litter boxes. A small dog would be possible, I suppose, but I don't like them much and I hate having to walk them and pick up after them. Sometimes on some of the expat forums I regularly read, there are impassioned pleas for money for some animal shelter or other, with discussions about how mean people are to the street animals, and how uncaring, and it's certainly true. At the same time, I can't see how the street animals are more important than, say, the street children, who also roam in packs selling Kleenex and begging for change, and people aren't much kinder to them. At the place where I used to catch my bus, there was a nice street dog with a tagged ear. She was one of those dogs who smiles, really smiles, and very morning we had a nice little chat and a scratch, with her curling her lips up to show me all her teeth. Natually, I named her 'Smiley.' My bus driver and the students on the bus were horrified, and none of them wanted to sit next to me, but I still see that dog going around sometimes, smiling at people and either coming up to them or shying away as she sees fit. She's clearly not a pet, but she will have to do.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Small Things

As a follow-up to yesterday's 11/17 post, here are some small things that happened yesterday:

1) We played the lottery with the numbers I mentioned. We're still waiting to hear if we will be rich beyond our wildest dreams.

2) We went to the tea garden yesterday. Working at the tea garden was formerly 'On Crank Migros Cheese-Counter Guy Who Wants To Practice English' (Migros is a foreign-chain supermarket here) cum 'On Crank Onur Market Dried Snacks-Counter Guy With Very Limited English' cum 'On Crank Revan Restaurant Busboy Who's Beginning To Realize English Is a Chore And So Is Happy With Hello Yenge How Are You' (yenge means 'female relative by marriage', but can be used to address anyone's wife). Now he's 'On Crank Tea Garden Super Waiter Who's Given Up On English By His Own Admission.' Maybe he's not really on crank. Maybe yesterday he'd just overdone the tea and coffee. He was very happy to see us. Very, very happy.

3) On The Weakest Link, they said the name of the younger son of the Dean at the posh boarding school. It's a very uncommon name. In fact, yesterday was the second time in my life I've heard that word as a name.

4) Last night, I popped online to peek at my blog and see if anyone cared about me. No one did. However, after opening my blog, I looked at the computer clock and it was 10:17. Then I checked my visitor counter at the bottom of the page and it was 1,117.

*cue Twilight Zone music*

Saturday, November 17, 2007

November 17 and Ruminations Thereof

Ever since I got kicked out of high school on November 17, 1989, I've always felt this to be an important day. Extreme luck, somehow, either very good or very bad.

Let me dispel of a few notions that first sentence might have evoked. First, getting kicked out of high school, which happened almost 20 years ago, was a major event at the time, but not one that I still dwell on particularly. I'm over it, really. Sometimes the injustice of it irks me a bit, and sometimes I think what a wonderful thing it was in my life's path, a good thing disguised as a bad thing, as good things often are. The only reason I remember the date at all is that it was exactly one month after the 1989 earthquake in San Francisco, where my parents and brother were living at the time. More on that later. Next, mentioning 'luck' in relation to a date might make me look superstitious, which I'm not. Not exactly. Or maybe I am, if I assign importance to the numbers 11 and 17.

The date 11/17 resonated with me at the time, not only because I got kicked out of high school exactly one month after the San Francisco earthquake, but because I already knew those numbers as the time Lunch started in middle school-- 11:17am. For two years, it was a seriously important time of day (the daily one hour of socializing in middle school was pretty much everything my adolescent mind was wrapped around at the time, the one hour of Real Life that happened each day), a completely random time because the school had three-minute passing periods, and the numbers stuck in my mind. For every year since 1989, I've woken up on November 17 with a feeling that something big was going to happen. In the context of my daily existence for each of those years, something big has indeed happened, but in fact I can't remember what any one of those things were, as they were so embedded in the life of my mind at those times that the significance and memories are lost now. The exception to this is November 17, 2001, my first 11/17 in Turkey. On that day, I awoke to discover a tiny new mole on the palm of my left hand, near my thumb. For a few hours I thought it was a speck of dirt, but by 10am, having had no success of washing it off, I established it was truly a mole. I was delighted. No one else cared. The mole seemed very portentous at the time, though of what, was and remains unclear.

The gamblers among you might suggest that I play 11 and 17 in the lottery. I have. Many times. Keno too. Nothing.

The school I got kicked out of was a posh boarding school in Southern California. To me now, it seems very incongruous that I would have gone to such a school, but I did, and they kicked me out, along with three of my friends. We wrote a little underground newspaper together ('underground' seems like an exaggeration now, but at the time it felt huge, what we were doing), and everyone on the closed campus got very upset on their own and each others' behalf, and because no one really had much else going on, people's emotions increased exponentially throughout the day so that by lunchtime (lunch again!), we felt we had to sneak a ride off-campus because we were pretty sure someone would kill us. We'd written the paper anonymously, though by the end of the day, after a tearful call with my father telling him I would probably be expelled and him assuring me I would not be, I went and turned myself in.

It turned out the Headmaster was already looking for me. Not because of the newspaper-- I blindsided him with that little confession-- but because some other students had turned me in for worshipping Satan. They thought this was so because I had been given a coveted big dorm room that lots of other girls wanted following the expulsion of another student for theft, and so they thought I must have used my powers from my covenant with Satan in order to get this room (in fact, the Dean had given me the room because I was the only person who hadn't asked him for it, and that pleased him). Besides getting the room, I had once made a joke about chicken sacrifices, and I had put a sign above my dorm room door saying 'Abandon hope all ye who enter here,' because my room was notorious for being rather a mess. Another teacher had told these impressionable young girls that I was probably worshipping Satan, and that if they'd ever used a Ouija board or dropped acid, their chakras were open to demonic possession and they were in grave danger from me. In terror, the girls had reported me to the Headmaster that very same day, November 17th. I feel I should point out that this wasn't a religious boarding school, but rather just a place that fomented madness in its own way, as happens in very closed communities.

So I was questioned about my alleged covenant with Satan, and my involvement in the earthquake a month before, as well as my involvement with the newspaper. While the expulsion itself doesn't weigh on me much and now seems very surreal, I admit the newspaper does weigh on me. Mostly it was a very sophomoric attempt at being clever and funny. While a lot of it was just teenage bitching about campus life and things that were unfair or unpleasant, we also made the mistake of putting into print the grist of the campus gossip and rumor mill, which naturally went down very badly. It was poorly written, this newspaper, because in our zeal with doing something so secret and forbidden and momentous, we didn't edit it very carefully. But the real reason it weighs on me is because we wrote some pretty mean things about some people who didn't deserve it. In fact, we were just repeating things everyone said anyway, but things like this become more cruel on paper. So both the bad writing and the cruelty to some really undeserving people still don't sit right with me, even now.

While I was being questioned about Satan and the newspaper by the Dean and the Headmaster (in the Dean's favor, he did try to get the Headmaster to shut up about the Satan thing and focus on the newspaper thing), the Dean lit a cigarette using my Zippo that he'd confiscated from me a few weeks earlier, without punishment but with an admonishment to be more careful about smoking and not to get caught again. Whether using my lighter at that particular time was intentional on his part is something I still wonder about. He wasn't a bad man, the Dean, though he was thought to be, because he was in charge of discipline. In fact, he was probably ill-suited for this job of campus cop. I think he was probably a very decent man with an odd sense of humor, someone who I'd like today. To his credit, when I returned to campus a few weeks later with my dad to pick up some of my stuff and also to get my brother, who was unable to suffer the teasing and threats anymore because of what I'd done, the Dean apologised to me and told me he thought they'd made a mistake, kicking me out. The other reason I secretly liked the Dean was because his two boys, for whom I babysat once, were such nice kids. Best babysitting job ever. We had dinner, we watched Raising Arizona, we had a little roughhouse, then the boys both stretched and said they were tired, and went off and brushed their teeth and went to bed. They weren't tricking me either-- they really went to bed all by themselves with no fighting or prodding by me.

I mentioned earlier the 1989 earthquake in San Francisco as being part of what makes November 17 so memorable. The earthquake happened on a weekend during a Giants game. Blissfully unaware, I was milling around campus that day when some other students who'd been watching the game came up to me and told me that San Francisco had fallen down, and what hadn't fallen down was in flames, and that my family was probably dead but no one could get through because the phone lines were full. This was typical behavior of students at this school, this kind of meanness. Other younger students from San Francisco were in tears, while students like the ones who'd reported the earthquake to me had a good laugh. One thing I learned at this boarding school was a certain rigorousness to learning, and how to participate in my own education. This was invaluable. Another thing I learned at this school was that the wealthy and privileged are, by and large, total assholes. Both of these lessons have served me time and time again.

In the end, my family was fine. My aunt phoned the school to tell me this, as she'd been watching the baseball game in Las Vegas, they'd seen the earthquake, and had phoned my parents right away, before the lines filled up.

Right now, it's almost noon on November 17. I've been awake since about 5am thanks to LE, and I've been up since 7, and so far nothing momentous has happened. I didn't even have any dreams worthy of note. Last night, our building was struck by lightening which scared me half to death and miraculously didn't wake the baby, but that doesn't count because it was November 16. So I'm waiting, fingers crossed that the luck goes a good way and not a bad way.

Not that I'm superstitious. But maybe we should play the lottery today. 11 17 19 89, plus LE's birthday. It can't hurt, right?

Wednesday, November 14, 2007


There are some cities that really have lives of their own. They are an organic force that seems to exist outside the residents, or the buildings, or the nighttlife, or the businesses, or the things that happen behind closed doors that no one knows about, yet this force couldn't exist without all of these things. Some cities, when they appear in stories or films, are as much a character as the people.

San Francisco is one of these cities. Whenever a film takes place in San Francisco, the director can't help but be conscious of the city itself, and the architecture, and the unique character of the people and streets. When I lived in San Francisco, people always seemed to be aware of where we were and how San Francisco was a part of life. There are plenty of people who make a conscious effort to be wacky or urbane in a way that only a San Francisco denizen can be, yet there is still a San Francisco-ness that's there without even trying. New York is sometimes a city like this, and sometimes not, because it's capable of being both a unique place full of New Yorky people (as it was in Taxi Driver or Moonstruck or Ghostbusters) or a generic 'Metropolis' (as it was in the Superman films).

Istanbul is definitely its own character. Istanbul lives and breathes and can be felt to exist outside of time. To compare Istanbul to any American city falls flat, because our 200 years of history just don't hold up to Istanbul's thousands of years, or the way that people hold this history inside themselves and their actions as they go about their daily lives. In Istanbul, you can literally stumble over a piece of a 1,000 year old wall. People can steal stones from this wall to build their shanty houses with. You can walk on streets that have run with blood. You can hear music that probably hasn't changed much since music was invented. You can be sitting somewhere and without even trying, you can be transported to the same place doing the same thing 100 or 500 years ago. Sometimes it's just a matter of imagining different hats on passersby.

While at times I like the silence of the suburbs, there are other times I miss the noises. Inside the city, whenever anyone is backing up a car, day or night, there's always a guy who appears out of nowhere to shout, 'Gel gel gel gel gel gel dön dön dön sağ sağ sağ...' (come come come come turn turn turn turn right right right...) Out here in the suburbs, there aren't guys with carts walking up and down the streets calling out their wares. You can rarely understand exactly what these guys are saying, but you know what they're selling by the tune of what they're shouting. Okay, the boza guy (boza is a winter drink made from fermented wheat) is clearly shouting 'Boooooozzzzaaaa!,' but the water guys don't sound like they're saying sucu (water guy)-- they sound like they're saying 'deeeeeewwwwwip!' and the sütçü's (milkman's) word sounds a lot the same except the intonation is different. But there aren't many milkmen inside the city anymore. I guess they were banned, or buyers were discouraged enough from buying their milk that they went out of business. Apparently there was enough dodgy milk to make everyone nervous. There are still plenty of other guys with carts though. Some of them have mangy, sad-looking horses (or are they large ponies?), but most haul their carts themselves. They'll take away your old things for you-- some take metal things and others take broken things while still others take anything. When I lived inside the city I never had to make any effort to give away old stuff-- I'd just leave it out on the street and some gypsies would cart it off within hours.

Once my friend saw a dead horse floating in the Bosporus. A lot of gypsies live in the old wall along the water, and I suppose it was just the best they could do-- I'll bet it's pretty expensive to dispose of a dead horse properly. I've seen some dead dogs and cats in there, and there are always millions of little jellyfish feeding on the garbage. I know people who've seen dolphins in there too, jumping along the side of the seabus in the morning, but I haven't been so lucky. I've seen sunken (or maybe scuppered?) fishing boats, bits of houses, parts of cars... If I could scuba dive, the first place I'd go to check out is the bottom of the Bosporus, though I'll bet plenty of people have thought of that already and hauled off everything good.

I mention the dead horse because it's evocative. It seethes with mystery. The whole gypsy life along that wall does. So do a lot of other places here, and you don't have to be in the old part of town. Once you're out of the Istanbul's historical areas, it starts to look pretty drab and grim. The buildings are repetitive and uninspired 60s-style concrete blocks with fading paint. The streets are in disrepair and there's garbage everywhere. Woodsy the Owl apparently never set foot in Istanbul. But this is misleading. Life in Istanbul is on the inside. People are meticulous, even fussy about the decor in their homes, and housewives are fanatical about cleanliness. If you want to find a good place to eat or drink or buy stuff, it's best to go with someone who's been there before or who knows the area, because from the outside, most bars, shops, and restaurants look exactly the same, and there's no way of knowing which are good except by experience. In Takism, there are bars that aren't visible or even marked on the outside. Once my friend (the same one who saw the dead horse) tried to take us to this great afterhours bar he'd been to the night before that was on the 5th floor of some apartment building. He'd been pretty drunk, though, and he couldn't remember exactly which apartment building it was, so we just chose one and climbed to the top. Indeed there was a bar there, open after hours, with a bartender, a DJ, and their friend inside. As it turned out, it wasn't the same bar my friend had been to the night before, but no matter. We ordered our drinks and enjoyed ourselves as the bartender slowly downed a bottle of rakı and the DJ and his friend went home, after showing us how the system worked. The bartender passed out, and we had our run of the place-- we just fixed ourselves drinks, set up playlists on the computer, and danced until the sun came up. When we tried to wake up the bartender to pay him, he got mad, so we had to slip the keys from his pocket to let ourselves out. My friend went back later that day to pay the bartender, who was happy but apologetic, and begged him to bring us all back soon. Unfortunately, we were never able to find that place again. It was like a magical dream bar.

All cities have sidestreets. In an effort to sound romantic or hard, residents may refer to them as backstreets, but I'd never seen a proper backstreet until I came to Istanbul. It's so easy to get lost-- not just because the streets wind around and kill my already weak sense of direction, but because they all look the same and it's next to impossible to landmark things. In Kadıköy on the Asia side, there's a street where all the bars are. I don't know how many times I've been there, but I get lost every time on the way up from the seabus station. Getting back to the water is easy, even if you're tipsy. You just go downhill and eventually you're there. It's the same if you want to go from Galata Tower to Beyoğlu. I'm only at Galata Tower when tourist friends are visiting, so while they're going around and around the top of the tower snapping pictures, I look out to find a tall Beyoğlu landmark, and plan which street to take when we get back down. I like when friends come here as tourists because I get to go sightseeing to places I'd never go back to otherwise. The walk from Galata Tower to Beyoğlu is really nice. It's fun, and you get to take the tourists around some backstreets they may not have braved themselves. It's usually pretty easy because you just head downhill, so even if you're kind of lost, as long as you're going down, it usually ends up okay.

Once when my parents were visiting, they got lost making this walk. I was on my way to Taksim to meet them, and had jumped off the dolmuş well before the square so I could go up to a Tünel sidestreet where I knew there was a man with a cart who sold small stone animals, and I wanted to buy a little gift for BE, who was doing his military service at that time. It was kind of random where I jumped off. I mean, I knew were I wanted to go but not exactly. Luckily for my folks, I got off the dolmuş less than 100 feet from where they were standing and looking around nervously wondering what to do. I took them up to Tünel with me to find the man with the small stone animals, and when I found him, they were duly impressed. Another time, some friends of my father's cousin were here. They turned out to be great tourists, and really fun people to hang out with. Lucky for me, because as I was taking them on a backstreet adventure from Galata Tower, even with the downhill thing, I got us completely lost. They were still reeling from the views from the tower, where you can catch little glimpses of people's lives from the stuff on their roof terraces, and the woman was a photographer. They had a pretty good sense of humor when I told them I was lost and it was taking much longer to reach Beyoğlu than I thought it should, but I was maintaining my faith in going downhill. My tourist friends were still happily pointing out curiosities and snapping photographs. The streets started getting narrower and more shadowy, and the ubiquitous guys sitting on stools on the sidewalks started looking more suspicious than curious, then they just became disconcertingly expressionless. I had definitely led us to somewhere we weren't supposed to be. This was confirmed when a car passed in front of us and two young men ran by shooting at it with small pistols, then ran past us up the hill. The guys on stools hardly reacted at all (very odd for Istanbul, as you can draw a crowd just by looking up for a little while, and if you stay long enough, people on the fringes of the crowd are likely to get into an argument), while the man in the car just got out, inspected the damage, looked up the road where the gunmen had run off, blinked a couple of times, then drove away.

About ten minutes later, I found the street I wanted in Beyoğlu and we decided to stop for a cup of tea. We chatted about nothing for a few minutes, then started wondering if that shooting thing had really happened. I get that feeling a lot here, wondering if something actually just happened. Fortunately my tourists friends found it more exciting than scary, and they still trusted me to take them out for dinner. As parents, they recommended I not tell mine about the incident till I was safely at home in the US, but I think I did anyway just so it wouldn't reach my dad through the family grapevine.

Gunmen, tired-eyed whores for every taste peeking through lace curtains, small stone animal sellers... I've probably had the least adventurous times than most people on Istanbul backstreets. To be honest, I'm kind of a chicken. I know there's a whole life there, a whole world that doesn't even touch me, not something so mundane as a criminal element (though that's there too), but something else entirely that neither I nor the petty thieves, pimps, or foreign mafia can even scratch the surface of. Even if I went slumming it in some backstreet region, found a few friends and thought I was participating in that life, I'd be nothing more than someone hanging on the fringes. Below the surface of Istanbul, in the places where people like me don't really go, there's something so ancient, so alive, and so very very foreign.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Bülent Ersoy

A picture speaks a thousand words. There's nothing else I can say about this person.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Crisis: Averted!!

It's been a couple of weeks since my post about the events on Turkey-Iraq border, and I have to say, things seem to have calmed down here. What at first appeared in the media to be a vengeful all-out Turkish invasion of Northern Iraq looks like it's been downgraded to a secret, Special Forces-type war. Bombs were lobbed over the border, to be sure, but now the Americans appear to be collaborating with the Turks by providing them with intelligence information and maybe some soldiers. Not that this has stopped many people from hating the Americans, who are viewed as being the cause of all of this, and people resent that the attack on Northern Iraq is being carried out on American terms with America's patriarchal assistance.

The Turkish news is talking about something else and I quit paying attention. The English-language news is silent on any Turkey issues. Flags are still waving from most apartment windows, but it takes awhile for them all to come down after a national holiday, and yesterday (November 10) was a type of holiday too. November 10 is the day Atatürk died. In remembrance of the moment of his death, all of Turkey has a minute of silence at 9:05am on November 10. I've never actually been in a crowded area of the city at this time of the morning, but I'm told it's astounding. An air-raid siren sounds, and for one minute, everything stops. Pedestrians stop walking, cars stop driving, people stop talking, vendors stop hawking, and music stops playing. Many people, like my husband, get tears in their eyes.

Having gotten caught up in the last crisis and having had the feeling that I needed to cover LE with my body to protect him from the world coming to an end, I started thinking about some other crises in Turkey since I've been here. Some of them, like this recent one, I've gotten caught up in the hullabaloo, but for others, I'm able to keep my snooty aloofness.

One crisis we all got through okay I mentioned in a previous post, in which former Prime Minister Ecevit's ministers resigned on him. They decided Ecevit was too old, that his reign had gone on long enough, and that he just wasn't doing a very good job anymore. The Lira tanked for that political crisis, and though we spent a sorrowful day at work watching our salary dwindle away against the dollar, things were back to normal in a few weeks, for me and those other teachers, anyway. The greater Turkish economy took a pretty big hit, and that time is still referred to as a mini-crisis. It's nothing like the recent major economic crisis here in 2000, when several banks crashed and several bank owners absconded with all the money and the (old) Turkish Lira went from 600,000 to 1.5 million to the dollar almost overnight.

The year before last, the pet crisis was bird flu. A few contaminated birds were found in Turkey and the crisis exploded. Fear of bird flu was suddenly rampant, and it filled the airwaves. Every evening we were treated to footage of mounds of dead chickens and geese being carted out of the villages. The guys doing the carting were always clad from head to toe in spaceman-like biohazard gear, though invariably the carts were surrounded by gawking villagers and several children dancing around and mugging for the cameras, none of whom had any protection whatsoever from the supposedly contaminated birds. Most smaller chicken and egg producing companies were put out of business, and even now all that remain are a few large corporations that irradiate the products to EU standards and proudly stamp this on the packaging. Fish sales skyrocketed, as did the price of fish while the savvy fishermen cashed in on the birds' misfortune. While I'm sure most of my neighbors stopped buying chicken and were living in fear of bird flu, they continued throwing their uneaten bread out onto the second-floor landings, thus attracting flocks of wild birds to our kitchen windows. I seemed to be the only one bothered by this, not so much because of bird flu, but because the occasional pigeon would get in and poop all over.

As a side note, I find pigeons and their poo particularly disgusting. I'd rather have a rat in my house than a pigeon. In fact, once I did have a rat in my house here (though surely I'm kidding myself by calling it 'a rat' in the singular when logically there's no such thing). At night, he would steal my dirty underwear from the laundry pile and drag it under the bed to nibble, or he would rifle through the trash in the kitchen and knock over the empty wine bottles in there. Once I went on vacation to the States for a couple of weeks, and when I returned, the rat had made himself at home. He'd grown downright cheeky in my absence, and would saunter audaciously down the middle of the hallway while the lights were on, pause in doorways to look at me and sniff contemptuously before continuing about his business. I got used to the rat, but pigeons I can't abide.

As another side note, during the bird flu crisis, BE and I mentioned to his mother that we were thinking of getting a cat. His mother can't abide any animal, particularly one in the house, so she went nuts at this development. She told us we couldn't get a cat because they were so dangerous. She'd seen on the news a story about a village cat that had eaten a bird infected with bird flu, and the cat died. Then a village boy had come along and played with the dead cat, from which he contracted bird flu and also died. To me, the real problem with this story was the boy who played with the dead cat, but not to my mother-in-law. When we told her that news story was untrue and probably biologically impossible, she suddenly remembered my husband is deathly allergic to cats, an ailment that even my husband was unaware of until that moment. In the end, we didn't get the cat, but that's because we live in an apartment and don't want a cat box or a cat who can't go outside, not because of bird flu.

This summer's crisis was the water crisis. Suddenly, according the government, Turkey's reservoirs were down to 30% capacity. It was as though it happened overnight, even though it must take a few years of drought to get water supplies that low. Since I've been in Turkey, I've not heard a peep about water conservation or water shortage. Turkey's always proud to be one of the only countries in this region with ample water. Every morning and several times throughout the day, millions of shopkeepers and housewives pour water on the pavement in front of their doors to keep the dust down. People wash their cars with high-pressure hoses which they leave running into the gutters while they soap the cars. When someone leaves, you're supposed to throw water behind their departing vehicle (it's a superstition and I have no idea of the reasoning behind it). These are just a few examples of water usage here. Most of this behavior continued even after the warnings about a water shortage started to surface. And then it became a crisis. Experts estimated that Istanbul would be completely out of water by September. We were looking at weeks-long water cuts in the dead of summer. BE insisted we store a bunch of water on the balcony in bottles where it still sits, turning greening or reddish, depending on what was in the water to start with. TV commercials about water conservation started to appear. One of them showed a teacup being stirred with sugar cubes and dry tea leaves in the bottom, and warned us that if there is no water, there is no tea. A terrifying prospect indeed, though I'm sure most people, like me, use bottled water for tea because the tap water is very hard and not really drinkable, sometimes with a funny color or smell. On highway overpasses, government-sponsored banners appeared telling us that dishwashers use less water than washing by hand, as though most people here would suddenly be able to afford dishwashers in order to save water.

And now it's November, and the taps are still running. There's been a 30% price increase with more to come, and there's been a baffling increase in the amount of red stuff in the water. Maybe that's what the price increase is for. To be fair, Ankara was without water for several weeks, and the guys that sell plastic storage containers there quadrupled the price of their wares. But here, nothing. No crisis. Not that I'm complaining. Water cuts are a pain. In the center of Istanbul some people's water is cut off weekly, and I'm just glad it's not me. I can't imagine dealing with all the things that regularly come out of a baby without having water readily accessible.

My final crisis for this post is one that happens almost every year, which is the Snow Crisis. At the first hint of anything like snow, the news is suddenly filled with the Snow Crisis, complete with footage of previous years' snowy messes and heart-pounding music. I've spent five winters in Istanbul, and it has snowed pretty heavily four of those years. Nonetheless, no one seems to understand what's happening when it snows. Perhaps because it's supposed to be a hot Mediterranean country, no one can accept the snow. Much like when it rains, everyone promptly forgets how to drive. Panic abounds. Old people hear about the impending Snow Crisis and line up to buy bread. In fact, whenever the news starts shouting about any kind of crisis, old people line up to buy bread. These bread lines get really long, with all these poor old people standing outside shivering. I guess they didn't get the news that lots of bread is readily available from lots of places besides the roadside Halk Ekmek ('public bread') stands where everyone lines up. Snow brings everything to a standstill.

The first year I was here, it dumped a few feet of snow but the government opted to keep schools and everything open. Then a few little kids died trying to get home from school in the snow. So the following two years, as soon as the first flake hit the ground, the government quickly closed all the schools and public offices for several days, but the snow didn't really come, not the kind that sticks anyway. Then the snow came for real, and there was another week of everything closed. For teachers and students (and people who work in public offices, I suppose), this is great. Free days on end with nothing to do but laze around the house and watch home improvement on BBC, occasionally flipping to the news to see if your school is closed the next day. Two years ago, the snow came right after Kurban Bayram, which followed the semester break, and I ended up with a month off work. Admittedly, I got a bit stir crazy because I couldn't really go anywhere, and for a few days, there was no water or electricity during the day, so I was forced to devise low-tech entertainment.

Despite, all these crises, we somehow carry on. The upshot of the bird flu crisis is that chicken and eggs are more expensive and less tasty. The upshot of the water crisis is pinkish baths for LE that smell faintly of blood, and a higher water bill. The upshot of all the snow crises is that this past winter, when I spent most days on the sofa nursing LE, I'd already seen every BBC home improvement and antiques show at least once, and knew how they ended.

I think the important thing is to remember not to get sucked into all these crises.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Dear Anonymous...

To be honest, I was kind of waiting to get slammed for the post entitled 'Open Letter To Turks Dealing With Foreigners'. I’m surprised it took anyone this long to get their undies in a bundle over it, actually. This morning, I received a lengthy comment from Anonymous, who was obviously very upset about the post. Since Anonymous took the time to read and respond to me, I’ll give him or her the same courtesy.

According to Anonymous, it’s only Westerners who hate Turks, not the whole world. Okay, point taken. Perhaps I overgeneralized. But I’ll invite Anonymous to read the OP more carefully, in which I say that prior to coming to Turkey (from the West, I might add), I’d never met anyone who even had an opinion on Turks or Turkey, or had even thought about them very much. It’s true, I promise. I also would like to remind Anonymous that the entire West is not made up of a single group of people who all think and do the same things.

As for camels in Istanbul, fair enough. I’ve never seen one here either. The only camels I’ve ever seen in Turkey were on Camel Beach near Bodrum, and they were there for the benefit of tourists. Lucky thing, there not being camels here, as I find camels one of Nature’s more unpleasant beasts. I also don’t think camel racing is a big sport here, so probably there aren’t very many people in Istanbul inseminating camels for this (or any other) purpose. In fact, the reference to inseminating racing camels was a literary device we call ‘exaggeration’ or ‘overstatement,’ sometimes used for comic effect. If the humor was lost on our friend Anonymous, I do apologize. Might I suggest replacing the reference to camels with 'changing the bags in biohazardous waste containers,' as this is another group of people who's hands I don't want in my baby's mouth.

As for Anonymous' other comments, which he or she gave in list form, I would like to treat them one by one:

1- Don`t call them names like barbarians, mongols, smelly muslims etc...
I agree-- these are awful names to call someone. Interestingly, the only people I've heard refer to Turks as 'barbarians' are Turks, either repeating what they believe Westerners think of them, or proudly, when they talk about winning some war or other. By 'mongols,' I'm not sure if you mean 'Mongolians' or 'people with Down's Syndrome (in Turkish, for my other readers, 'mongol' means 'retard'),' but one is inaccurate and the other is just mean. As for 'smelly Muslims,' I'd say, because of all the abdest and general obsession with cleanliness, Muslims are, by and large, among the least smelly people on Earth.
2- Don`t treat them like terrorists in airports just because they hold a Turkish passport.
I can't agree with you more here. This sucks beyond belief, and does a disservice to everyone involved. My husband had a terrible time getting a visa because of this prejudice. I was once questioned by the border police in Portland Airport about my involvement in the HSBC bombings because I'd arrived from Turkey a few weeks after. My poor little son is looking at a lifetime of bigotry due to being half Turkish, though you can bet we'll use his American passport when travelling. Lucky for him. But really, this treatment in airports is a matter of policy dreamed up by the idiots in authority, and is not the opinion held by every Westerner.
3-Don`t ask them silly questions like "how many wives do you have?" "have you killed anyone before?" "how come you don`t wear fez?"
The only people I've seen wearing the fez are ice cream sellers. I'm starting to wonder, dear Anonymous, where you live and how you've come to be surrounded by such ignorant Westerners.
4-We know that the western world has always been angelic elves to the others but forget how perfect you are at least for a little while and don`t accuse Turkish individuals of various "genocides" such as "armenian genocide" "assyrian genocide" "greek genocide" "anzac genocide" "british genocide" "polar bear genocide" "x genocide" "y genocide" etc.
What on did the Turks do to the Assyrians? I'll have to look into that one. I've never heard Turks accused of 'Greek genocide' or 'ANZAC genocide'-- I was always under the impression those were mutual slaughters carried out in a time of war. The Armenian issue is a big can of worms that I've been avoiding in this blog. Suffice it to say here that I think the Turks' all-out denial of The Armenian Thing That Never Happened is rather foolish. By pretending it never happened, they've lost the ability to participate sensibly in the international historical debate around these events. Today's Turks aren't exactly responsible for what happened to the Armenians, as it happened before Turkey was even a Republic, and, as I understand it, the wholesale slaughter was mostly done by Kurdish mercenaries as they forcibly marched the Armenians to Syria (though I happily admit my source on this is Louis de Bernieres' Birds Without Wings, a work of fiction). I quite understand that this is a sensitive issue, and I quite agree that Turkey is unfairly portrayed in the international media. But, like I said, as long as Turkey continues to take the position that it never happened, they will never have a chance to have their voice properly heard or taken seriously.
5-Don`t hang signs on your bars clubs etc. saying "no dogs and Turks allowed"
6- Don`t shout out "I would be a Paki rather than a Turk" in soccer games.

7- Don`t insult them just because they are not descended from the "superior" christian white race.
8- Don`t make fun of them just because they are poorer than you.
Again, I have to wonder where you live? Perhaps you should consider moving, as the people around you seem to be the worst kinds of bigots. I myself never really even heard the word 'Paki' until I came to Turkey and met a lot of British expats. For a long time, I wasn't even sure what 'Paki' meant, and I thought it had something to do with elephants.
9- Don`t generalize stuff if you come up with a Turk that has smt disturbing to you. there are some 300 millions of them and not all are the same.
Thank God for that! I don't know what I'd do if all 300 million Turks were trying to touch my baby.

You're preaching to the choir, Anonymous. I think we can apply this last comment to both of us, though if you'd read the OP and my other posts more carefully, you might understand that this is where I'm already coming from. It sounds like we're both expats living abroad, and when a few people do or say hurtful things to us, it's easy develop an 'Us and Them' mentality, and assume it's the entire race who's bigoted, ignorant, and against us, which of course is never the case.

I won't take back anything I've said (except perhaps the camel thing), and I won't always deal with comments this extensively in the blog. But in this case, Anonymous took a lot of time to respond to me, and, given some of the things he or she appears to be facing in his or her host country, I think this person has some legitimate beefs.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Child Development

In an earlier post, I admitted to plopping LE in front of the Teletubbies while I eat my breakfast. I'm ashamed, but LE absolutely loves the TV. He has ever since his eyes opened from swollen little slits, even before he could focus properly. The love affair has just increased as he's started to be able to make some sense of what's going on in there. Gone are the days of nursing and watching DIY and antiques programs on BBC, because LE, no matter how much he wants the milk, can't stop himself from whipping his head around every ten seconds to see what's going on. Sometimes he forgets to let go of my nipple for this, but as it turns out, that's a part of my anatomy that's much more elastic than I had previously believed. In his favor, I also can't read while nursing anymore, not until he's half asleep at least, because as soon as he hears the pages of the book, he whips around and starts reaching. Now I can kid myself that this is because he's really clever and that it bodes future bookishness, but really, he's not interested in what the book says. He just wants to grab the pages so he can crumple and rip them and see if they taste good.

In Turkish, before someone says something, they often say "I'm going to say something." On Turkish TV, there is a short pre-commercial thing to announce the commercials, so when your show cuts out, it doesn't always go straight to the commercial. It goes to a girl eating an apple, or a bride and groom on a trampoline, or a cup of tea being stirred, and it says Reklam ('commercial') at the bottom. Sometimes it rather bafflingly says 'Advertorial.' One of these commercial announcements is LE's favorite thing on TV-- there's a bell sound, and some music, and a martini glass full of green olives and vodka being swirled. He drops everything and stares when he hears that one coming on. That's my boy! Someday I'll have to teach him, though, that a twist of lemon is a better garnish for a martini. The olive, as Auntie Mame chides us, takes up too much room in that little glass.

On one hand, I wish LE didn't like TV so much. I try to limit our TV time as much as possible, especially TV with a lot of commercials. I know TV is bad for kids. I know it's burning unwanted pathways into his little brain and possibly lowering his IQ. I know it teaches him bad things about the world and our society, and that it will someday soon make him covet crappy plastic toys that kill the imagination and food in lurid colors that's full of things I can't pronounce. On the other hand, it's not like I can pretend TV doesn't exist. Electronic media and screens are a fact of LE's future. I wouldn't be surprised if students' desks all contain monitors by the time he's in high school. And it's not like I'll ever convince my husband to ban the TV from our house so we can occupy ourselves with loftier pursuits. This is Turkey, where they haven't even had non-State-owned channels for very long, and every home, business, restaurant, and hospital has a TV blaring every waking moment whether anyone's watching it or not. So the way it works now is, LE watches TV sometimes while I need my hands free, but if anyone else (for example, my in-laws) tries to put him in front of their TV because they think it's cute, I get all huffy and use it as an example of how they don't listen to me or respect my rules for my child. So it all works out in the end.

Because of the time change last week, LE has still been waking up an hour or more earlier than usual. Generally, he's had his breakfast and I'm ready for mine by 9am, just in time for 'Big Cook Little Cook,' a kids' show on BBC that I find highly amusing but that LE doesn't really care about (he just likes the songs), followed by the Teletubbies, which I've already covered. Lately, he's been up (gasp!) before 7, meaning he's had his breakfast in time for this show I can't stand called 'Balamory.' The only redeeming feature of 'Balamory' is that everyone has a delightful Scottish accent, but the fun stops there. It's positively insipid, with this awful theme song that stays in my head for weeks after I've watched it. I leave it on for LE as much as I can stand (again, he likes the songs and the people dancing around), but often I switch to the news to check the tickers for any disasters I may have missed, or I just flip around the Turkish stations until I get so annoyed with them that 'Balamory' starts looking pretty good.

Yesterday morning, I flipped to a Turkish kids' show, and inevitably began comparing it to 'Balamory.' On 'Balamory,' someone was moving house and they needed labels for their boxes so they'd know which rooms to put them in. Rather than simply use a pen and write the rooms on the boxes, they got Spencer the Painter to take some bits of paper to the nursery school so the kids could make the labels. Spencer gathered the kids around and explained what they were doing, then elicited from the kids the kinds of pictures they should draw for these labels. 'A horse!' said one. 'A spaceship!' said another. 'A bed!' said a third. Now, obviously 'a bed' is the only 'right' answer here, but Spencer told all the kids they had wonderful ideas and set them to drawing. Compare this with the Turkish kids' show, in which the kids were lined up by their minders, and divided into teams. The minders told them the teams would be called 'Bıcır' and 'Gıcır' (I don't know what these words mean, if indeed they mean anything, but they sound 'cute'). Two kids were chosen by the minders to climb into a basket full of balls, then instructed to find the balls with certain letters on them, then pass them to their teammates, who would pass them down a line of kids, where the last kid would put the ball into a smaller basket.

On the Turkish program, there was some shuffling and escaping by some of the kids who didn't like which team they had been put on. There was a bit of jealousy at not being chosen to be the kid to go into the basket with the balls. One little girl named Zeynep was put on a team of all boys, which she didn't like, and she was the one who had to put the passed ball into the small basket, but because she was about 3, and the boys were all screaming and jumping around, she wasn't doing a very good job and the boy next to her started putting the ball in for her. The winning team was praised and the losing team was ignored. On the British program, all the kids were told everything they did was wonderful and they happily drew their pictures. There were plenty of markers to go around.

From a pedagogical point of view, it can be said that the British activity was more 'modern,' and more in line with current philosophies of child development. But I'm not quite willing to jump on that bandwagon and say the things the kids on 'Balamory' were learning are better than the things the kids on the Turkish program were learning. On one show, creativity was being encouraged, and on the other, obedience and competition were the goals. At the end of the respective activities, all of the 'Balamory' kids felt good and validated, while just a few of the Turkish kids felt they had received metaphorical gold stars, and by then, most of them weren't paying attention anymore anyway.

Of course, I'm inclined to think an activity isn't really good when most of the kids are left feeling bad at the end, and of course it seems nicer to see kids' ideas being elicited and respected, and their creativity encouraged to flower. But in the grand scheme of things, how much does it matter? Are the kids on 'Balamory' any better off in the end? In real life, most people don't get to be creative. Most people get the wrong answers. Some people win while most people lose. Hardly anyone gets a gold star. On one hand, we can say that it's good for children to experience mostly good things when they're small, because it just goes downhill from there. On the other hand, there's something to be said for having a little reality in our learning experiences.

One of my big worries if we stay in Turkey is LE's education. The education system here is about fifty years out of date. The schools are overcrowded and underfunded, and the focus is on memorization and competition, where students spend most of their time memorizing unanalyzed facts to regurgitate for standardized multiple choice tests which will then be used to determine which students get to fill the very limited places in decent universities. Turkish students are great at memorizing, which is a skill most of us in America have lost. I always wished I could find a good way to use memorization in my EFL classes, though generally I spent a lot of time working to stop them trying to memorize everything because it's not really possible to memorize an entire language. I don't know how many oral reports I had to listen to in which the student had memorized pages of information lifted from the Internet, most of which he or she had no idea of the meaning or pronunciation. And no matter how hard I tried to get them to use original ideas or critical thinking, most students were only interested in what was going to be on the exam, because in the end, that was all that mattered. It wasn't really that the students were wrong or that I was bad. It was that we came from entirely disparate educational backgrounds and philosophies and never could quite find a way to work together. And while from a humanist perspective I appreciate the American and British systems' approach to early childhood education, Turkish students far outrank American and British students in mathematics and the physical sciences, which are arguably much more useful skills in the real world than having a good imagination. It hardly matters that I think a lifelong love of learning, a focus on the whole person, and a well-rounded education are more important. It's what I want for my son, of course, but it may not be what he really needs.

If LE goes to elementary school here, he's looking at being in a classroom of as many as 65 kids. From a young age, he will be made to line up with the other children in the morning to fidget and not pay attention while someone shouts nationalist slogans into a megaphone (is it any wonder my students couldn't listen to me for more than five minutes at a time?). If he keeps trying to be different and more interesting than the other 64 kids in his class, he will learn very quickly that this will get him nowhere and will only incur the wrath of his overworked and underpaid teacher. So if this is the case, which is the more appropriate kids' TV show for him to watch? The one that shows the world as all sunshine and lollipops where everyone gets a gold star for having interesting ideas, or the one that shows him how to do what he's told, follow the leaders, and not to think too much?

These days, LE is working on self-feeding. Even when he sticks the apple wedge into his eye instead of his mouth, I praise him and tell him what a good boy he is. Perhaps I'm doing some sort of lifelong damage to him, but I don't care. I'm his Mommy and I think he does a pretty good job no matter what.