Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Road Trip! A Journey Into America's Rural Underbelly And Also San Francisco

This past week we loaded the baby into the car and drove off to San Francisco. It's about a ten hour trip, so we broke it up into two days, stopping halfway through in Yreka where my mother's aunt lives. My great aunt. LE's great-great aunt. It astounds me that there's a great-great aunt in his life. Despite a serious stroke a couple years back, our aunt is surprisingly spry.

Yreka is, well, a little frightening. One thing that was frightening was the smoke from the nearby California wildfires that everyone there just seemed to be ignoring. The name 'Yreka' (pronounced 'why-reeka') is a little frightening too, as though the poor town got stuck with an unfortunate misspelling, then had to change to an unfortunate mispronunciation as well, in order to differentiate itself from the more accurately spelled Eureka, California. Yreka is little more than a depressed burg full of under-employed rednecks, old people, and Christians (of the variety who like threatening billboards and bumper stickers like "Jesus Christ: He's our Lord, not a swear word"). Some people seem to be all three of those.

On the way back from San Francisco, we had breakfast in Yreka at a place called Grandma's House. The outside of the restaurant was decorated like a gingerbread house, I suppose in a misdirected attempt to be cute, where the decorators forgot that inside the original fairytale gingerbread house dwelt a witch who lured children inside so she could kill them and eat them. If there was a witch inside Grandma's House, she was clearly mad. It looked like someone squeezed a chintz monster until he vomited several layers of floral prints, lace, and wide-eyed kittens onto every surface. Everything was for sale, including an entire shelf of clocks shaped like fat little animals whose tails wagged with the ticking, paintings of a fair-haired, flowing robed Jesus looking up at the sky with dewy spaniel eyes, and embroidered tapestries with inspirational messages. A bookshelf was loaded with titles like Emergency Prayers and Learning to Fly: One Girl's Inspirational Journey With God. I won't even tell you what the bathroom was like.

I do love it though, that there are towns in America with places like Grandma's House, and how the locals seem to be completely unconscious of how bizarre it is. The locals seemed to find the restaurant charming, well-decorated, and not at all out of place in reality. And in Grandma's defense, they served up a lovely breakfast and everyone there was just as nice and cheerful as could be.

And Yreka also sports this place, which I found just priceless.

One thing I love to do while riding in the car is play with the radio. There are very few people I know who will put up with this crap, and my mom is one of them. BE hates it. He lets me change the station maybe two times, then it lands on a song he likes which I usually hate and he won't let me play with it anymore. He's one of those guys who claims to despise Ibrahim Tatlises and his ilk, yet can't pass up the chance to hear one of those songs and he sings along, waving one arm lovingly with the music. BE's car has a feature which prevents me from playing much with the radio-- the power to control the station with the same stick that controls the windshield wipers. In any case, playing with the radio in Turkey is unrewarding because of the lack of variety. It's gotten worse since Radyo Nostalji sold out to some stupid company that changed it from foreign classics to Turkish "classics," as though anyone misses Turkish Pop from five years ago. It is this same company, I'm told, that infused MTV with Turkish videos, as though there weren't already enough Turkish video stations on TV.

But enough with the asides. My mom lets me play with the radio, and in America I hardly even have to play with it very much before I find a Classic Rock station I'm happy to camp on for awhile. This was all well and good until we got near Grant's Pass, Oregon, in the mountains near the border. The signal got so bad that even I wasn't willing to put up with it long enough for one more Led Zeppelin song, so I hit the seek button. At that point, only four stations were available: two Country/Western stations (one that billed itself as "Not your parents' country music" and I thought, "Dang, no Willie Nelson?") and two Christian stations. Not the kind like in Portland where they play Christian music that's just second-rate rock or pop with Christian-ish lyrics. They were the kind where they let some lunatic rant on about Hell and fornication and the Sodomites. Before my mom got mad and switched off the radio (her Baptist upbringing gives her a short tolerance for these screeds), a guy was going on about the Antichrist. He was using a lot of words I knew, interspersed with quotes from scripture, but what he was saying made no sense. It was about the Middle East and the West and the coming of the Antichrist as foretold in the Book of Revelation. I figured because we're in America in these post-9/11 times (American shorthand for "We're wary of Muslims and the Terrorists are out to get us all"), the Antichrist this man was talking about must have been in the shadowy Middle East. But since I've been in Turkey for so long I'm also used to hearing the idea that the Antichrist is from the decadent West. From what the guy on the radio was saying, I really couldn't be sure which from direction I should be watching for the Antichrist. He used lots of words and phrases that didn't exactly go together and one would have to be very well versed in cipherin' (as opposed to literate) to figure it all out. In the end, I asked my mom what the Antichrist is because I'm pretty sure it's not the devil, and she said she didn't know because the Baptists didn't talk about that so much in her day.

As for the wildfires in California, the smoke was unbelievable. Twenty minutes into the smoke, we had headaches and our eyes and noses were burning. For two days, LE looked like he'd just been crying. It was like sitting downwind from a campfire and no amount of hating white rabbits would make it go away. I felt so sorry for the people who live in that, especially the high school kids in Redding out running around and doing push-ups for summer football training. Any sane, responsible educator of kids would, I should think, cancel the training or at least move it to the gym. But I guess in Redding (which is like a larger version of Yreka), high school football is just too damned important to alter the training schedule just because of a little smoke. I'll bet in Redding there's a lot of gambling on high school football just out of a lack of anything better to do. And who knows? Maybe training in the smoke gives the team some kind of advantage, like their lungs will be that much more powerful in smoke-free air.

There are a lot of things I've missed out on being away from America for so long. For example, I've never seen Arnold Schwarzenegger behaving in his capacity as governor of California. But there he was on the news, old Arnie the Terminator (a joke I'm sure has been done to death here, but I haven't been around for that either), talking about the wildfires. I can't believe anyone voted for him in seriousness. It's surreal. At least Jesse Ventura had a nice down-home way about him. With Arnold, I just kept thinking, "Nice night for a walk, eh?"

San Francisco was San Francisco. Exactly the same and sort of different from when I lived there about fifteen years ago. We were only there for a short time-- enough for two wonderful Italian meals at one restaurant that has changed and one that's exactly the same, plus some shopping where we bought very little because even though the stores in downtown are way more fabulous than the ones in Oregon, they have more or less the same stuff, but Oregon has no sales tax. Still, LE came out of it with some very dapper things, and I got a pair of shoes on sale. Then we had lunch with my uncle. My uncle is a little intense but I haven't seen him in awhile and it was nice seeing someone who was in my childhood. He gave LE a beautiful handmade print he'd done himself that I think will be a great thing for LE to have in his pre-verbal, pre-memory consciousness.

Then it was back on the road for the same endless drive through the same places. LE was again quite the little travel-trooper. When we got home my dad made Manhattans and I remembered, like I've done so many times since I've been here, why it's so very, very good to be at home.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008


So there I was, kind of upset with myself for not being able to think of anything to blog about, here in America where things aren't as funny and I'm trying to resist the urge to post really cute pictures of LE doing really cute things here, and I find this comment on an old post. Guess which post it was:

this is so pathetic its not gay and not all turkish people do the wrestling.... its like saying spain messing around with bulls is gay but its not because its the way they have fun and if you can't except that then thats your problem.....AND TARKAN IS NOT GAY AND NEVER WAS.....just because someone told you he's gay doesn't mean he is everyone wants to with him how do you know maybe there is some gay man that wants to be with him......you cant just accuse people of being gay.......this article is pathetic and anyone who believes tarkan is gay is pathetic to.......


I often wonder if this so-called 'anonymous' is one angry Turk, or several.

All I can say is this: When we start sentences, we use capital letters. Proper nouns like 'Turkish' and 'Spain' also begin with capital letters. When we end sentences, we use periods. Ellipses might have dramatic effect when used occasionally, but not when they're used to end EVERY SENTENCE. I can't stress this enough. Overuse of ellipses is incredibly annoying. I'm sure there are other EFL teachers out there who will confirm this.

And I'm not trying to be mean by engaging in ad hominem attacks on someone's English. I applaud our dear Anonymous (or all of you) for ranting on my blog in your second language. I think it's quite brave of you. But these very basic rules of punctuation are the same in Turkish. Learn them. It might make you seem a little more clever.

Or maybe not.

Monday, July 7, 2008


We readers of books are few and far between, not just in Turkey, but increasingly in the US. A look in a Borders or a Barnes & Noble will tell you this. For Christmas I got a gift certificate for one of these (I can't remember which, as I can't tell them apart except for perhaps their color schemes), and I had a terrible time finding anything I might want to read, or that I hadn't already read. Books with pictures are big there, and coffee table books, how-to books, self help books, and spiritual books, but there is very little by way of literary fiction or meaningful non-fiction. Plenty of spy novels and bodice rippers though. At the moment (I'm back in America now), we have a particularly difficult relative visiting. She's a lot of baggage and we deal with her as best as we can, for my mother's sake. After a particularly trying evening, I whispered to my dad the rather cruel fact that this woman doesn't really have any redeeming qualities. Then, despite everything, I had to take this statement back. This relative is in the minority of Americans who reads books, proper books. She's reading one right now. It's not Faulkner or anything, but it's not a bodice-ripper either.

In Turkish films, foreigners are often (somewhat comically) portrayed alone in a cafe reading, as though no one can quite figure out this bizarre foreign behavior (though is it reading or being alone they can't figure out? Turks don't seem big on either one). Illiteracy in Turkey is high (I'm too lazy to look up the numbers and it varies wildly by region and gender, according to this), and in general, it's not really a 'reading' culture. This isn't meant exactly negatively. Turkey is just more of an oral culture, where the written word doesn't play as big of a big role as it does in Western countries. As a small example, I think I've only seen a fellow shopper with a list in the grocery store once. I think it's interesting though, to see where one skill is less used, another is more emphasized. In general, Turks are way better at memorizing things than Americans are. Students impressed me with their memorized oral presentations. Sometimes the presentations were pretty good, where it was obvious the student knew what he or she was talking about. Other times, a student would have memorized an entire ten-minute presentation of text cut-pasted from the Internet of which he or she understood next to nothing. This didn't bode well for learning English or for their grades, but it absolutely astounded me how these kids could memorize this much of something which amounted to nonsense for them. I suppose this came in handy for them in reciting the Koran in Arabic. Finding a clever way to use these memorization skills to actually help them learn English was something I never quite got around to while I was teaching, but there must be a way.

Memorization is a skill that Americans are losing. Those of my parents' generation had to memorize poetry or Shakespeare, which they can still recite to this day. Even my high school still relied on somewhat old-fashioned and traditional approaches to teaching literature, so I also memorized bits here and there, though nothing like what my predecessors had to do. In America though, people are reading less and less without having other skills to make up for it. One thing that never fails to surprise me here (and something I manage to conveniently forget while I'm away) is many Americans' seeming pride in their ignorance, and their fierce determination to avoid having knowledge of any kind foisted upon them. It's like some people actually get personally offended by people who know things, or who read more in the newspaper besides the sports stats and celebrity gossip. In Turkey, uneducated people often strike me as a little ashamed of their ignorance, and are somewhat deferent towards people they perceive as learned. In America a lot of people are, as a friend of mine once said, "Ign'ant and lovin' it." This same friend was recently confronted with an adult American student who got belligerent about his name (an easily pronounceable Norwegian variation of a common English name). When he told her where his family and name come from, she huffily responded, "That means nothing to me."

And remember, people like this vote, though Americans are notoriously lackluster in that department as well. But I'd say the Bush administration is a symptom of Americans' willful ignorance, rather than the cause.

I have this really cool friend who passes through Turkey a few times a year, and has been doing so since the early 90s. He's of my father's generation, and like me, he's a reader. When you live in a foreign country and you read a lot, books in English become one of the most valuable things you can find. Sure, they can be had in Istanbul, but they're expensive. It's an extravagant cost I'm always willing to eat, but my appetite for books exceeds some people's monthly incomes, and shrinking weight limits for baggage make it hard to haul enough books to tide me over until my next trip home. My friend has the same problem, so whenever we meet up, we swap a pile of books. I'm always happy to let a book go once I've read it. They don't serve any decorative purpose in my house. The shelves get so full they just start to be a hazard for the little one, and the books are in danger of getting abused and nibbled at.

It always feels a little funny, handing our sacks of books across the table once our coffee is finished and we're waiting for the bill. I feel a little like a secret agent or a drug dealer. I last met my friend a couple of weeks ago in Sultanahmet. When we swapped the books, the restaurant manager, still bleary-eyed from being up the night before for the European cup quarter-finals, came up and said in jolly Sultanahmet English, "School!" My friend and I must have looked a little confused because the waiter clarified. "Books! Books! School!" He then asked in Turkish what we could possibly be doing with so many books, as though that much reading material was somehow suspicious.

I look forward to these books swaps every few months (though admittedly it's been longer than that with the birth of LE). I like that my friend, on his way from Saudi Arabia to Bulgaria, takes the trouble during his 24-hour Istanbul stop to meet up, discuss teaching and politics and whatever else under the sun, and trade books.

We bookworms of the world are few and far between, and we have to stick together.