Saturday, May 29, 2010

Ex-Pat Questions: Number 3

The thrilling continuation of anything remotely organized I've ever done on my blog. From Nomad's Seven Questions for Expats in Turkey.

3) What one event has most shaped your impression of Turkey?

Ah, an easy one!

When I first came here, I (like many teachers) was working illegally. It's still pretty standard practice, I think. You come in and buy your 3-month tourist visa at the airport, then go to work in some language school. Every 3 months you get a few days' vacation in a nearby country, like Greece or Bulgaria or Northern Cyprus, and when you come back in you get your passport stamped with a new tourist visa. A decent school in those days would even (at least partially) fund your visa run and arrange the bus or train. I'm not sure if they still do that. If you went to Alexandropolis, the nearest proper town in Greece to the Turkish border, there's a nice lady named Helena with a cheap and cheerful pension who will give a little discount to foreign teachers from Turkey. Her son is a big strapping stereotype of a Greek who says "Bravo" all the time.

I do get bogged down in details, don't I? The other cool thing about visa runs is the duty-free liquor at the border and the pork chops in Greece.

It's not like we're the kind of illegal immigrants anyone might be worried about. If the Ministry of Education were coming for an inspection, they'd let the school know ahead of time and all the illegal teachers would have a day off. My school even had some students who were officers for the Foreign Police (a branch of which acts as Immigration here). When I did eventually get a work permit from that school, it was through those guys
-- a bit of purchased torpil in exchange for free lessons, so everyone was happy. The downside of having a work visa was that when everyone got a day off for inspections, you had to stay and be the token legal foreigner on display.

Still, there were times when schools wanted to be careful. Shortly after I arrived here, a Nigerian co-worker was politely asked to leave. This was because another Nigerian (who had nothing to do with our Nigerian) in a very highly publicized case was caught smuggling heroin into Turkey. Sadly, he didn't know there was heroin in his bag but he's still in jail. Suddenly there was all this police attention on Nigerians, so they fired the co-worker rather than risk drawing attention to all their illegal workers. Or to the co-worker, for that matter. Nigeria and Turkey trying to untangle their various bureaucracies makes it next to impossible to get a work visa for a Nigerian, or so I'm told, and no one wanted to see this fellow get deported. I still run into him from time to time. He's one of the kindest, gentlest people I've ever met. Plus, he was a hell of a teacher. None of his students ever bitched that they wanted a "real" native speaker.

Anyway. My first visa run to Greece, I went to Alexandropolis. One very interesting thing is the crossing from Turkey into Greece. Not the actual border control, which is a pain in the ass and another story entirely. The place where you actually cross is a rickety little bridge over a large stream or small river. One one side, there is a Turkish flag and on the other is a Greek flag. There are also two military bases. The Turkish one is (or was at that time) a weedy area with trash strewn all over the place. There are a few ramshackle buildings with peeling paint and a lot of forlorn guys squatting in the shade smoking cigarettes. You can almost feel them missing their mothers. The Greek side, on the other hand, is all shiny new buildings with a nice basketball court and some grass and nary a soldier to be seen except for the one or two on duty.

The actual trip to Greece was uneventful except for some really good pork chops.

I returned to Turkey on the train, with a backpack laden with several bottles of decent wine and duty-free Jack Daniels, as per my responsibility to my friends here, plus personal use. The train went about 5 miles an hour the whole way, which was fine. I just kicked back in an empty compartment and smoked and read and watched the scenery, which was cool-- Trakya is very beautiful and I love it that it's Thrace because that's where Spartacus was from. Or, at least in the movie, he was skilled with the Thracian dagger. It's the one time I saw a proper Sivas kangal, which is a type of working dog that is taller than the sheep he watches over.

By the time we arrived in Istanbul, it was dark. The train started to slow and I made to disembark in Halkalı, which is the place you can catch the Train of Misery, the old inner-city train that's smelly and rundown and you have to keep the windows closed in summer because of kids along the tracks throwing rocks and bottles. It goes from Halkalı to Sirkeci, which is near Sulanahmet, the main tourist center. Halkalı is a few stops on the Train of Misery from Bakırköy, where I was living at the time.

But when I tried to get off, the train guys stopped me and wouldn't let me out. I couldn't understand anything they were saying except "Sirkeci! Sultanahmet! Blue Mosque!" By the time I managed to say something brilliant like "Ev! Bakırköy!" and by the time they figured out what the hell I was talking about, the train had already left. I couldn't really get mad at those guys because they were just trying to be helpful, which was sweet. On the other hand, I couldn't really understand what they were on about either, except that they kept saying "Kumkapı." Eventually I worked it out that Kumkapı was the next stop, where I would be able to connect with the Train of Misery and get back to Bakırköy.

Although I didn't know it at the time, Kumkapı is less than savory. A foriegn woman alone at night wouldn't really have much reason to be there except to hang out with Gypsies or engage in prostitution. There are some good fish restaurants, I gather, and it's certainly a picturesque place-- exactly what you might want from Istanbul with crooked houses and crooked roads and clotheslines all over with people shouting, set neatly next to what's left of the old wall that used to ring the city.

As soon as I got off the train, I realized this was somewhere I didn't want to be. The station was crowded for that time of night, probably mostly people getting off work from blue collar jobs and pretty much all of them men. Of the staring variety. And by staring I mean the kind that lock onto you intently and don't look away no matter what. I saw a small clump of women to go stand near, but they turned out to be hookers so I moved away and just stood there gritting my teeth and trying to look cool and streetwise and stuff.

The Train of Misery was packed. I took a place near the door where there was a strap I could hang onto, and continued trying to look like I knew what I was doing. There were a few men around me who appeared to be enjoying getting pressed up against me a little too much. The difference in our heights made their faces uncomfortably close to tit level. Pretty soon I had the distinct impression that two of them were rubbing up and down against me, each apparently unaware of the other but I can't be sure.

Suddenly from behind me, another couple of guys started edging up next to me. I began to wonder if this all had some sort of comedic value, and exactly how many guys would be able to get a piece of me before we got to Bakırköy. I just focused on the sign above the door that listed the train stops, and tried to configure that with where we were. This was a pretty daunting task on the Train of Misery since the signs in the stations that said which station it was weren't visible from the train (they've since fixed this wee problem), which meant you had to keep count. I'd already lost count but was sort of confident I could recognize Bakırköy.

Then one of the new guys leaned his head next to me and asked in English, "Where are you from?" I figured answering him would be a mistake so I just shrugged and looked away.

"Are you okay?" he asked softly. By then he'd managed to work his way between me and one of the leg humpers. His friend was slowly doing the same on the other side. "Yes," I asnwered, still looking away.

Suddenly the two new guys started shouting in Turkish and everyone turned to look. I had no idea what they were saying, but there was a lot of clucking from the crowd and the leg humpers quietly slipped away while everyone gave them dirty looks. A space cleared around me.

"There are some bad men in Türkiye, very bad," the man said. "It isn't safe for you. Are you going to Bakırköy? Are you a teacher?" I nodded. The man informed everyone around us that I was foriegn and that I was going to Bakırköy and that I was a teacher. They were all ever so pleased. The silent train erupted into happy jabbering as they all discussed this and started asking him and me questions. The volume doubled when I said I was American. I wish I could have understood them, but mostly I only heard words like "futbol" and "Jennifer Lopez," which means, in retrospect, they were probably asking those somewhat endearing and naive questions Turkish people often ask about America, like do we have football there and have I met Jennifer Lopez and America is so nice, why did you come to Turkey? It was all very jolly, down to the guy who asked about football getting a playful smack on the head from his friend who sagely informed him we have American football in America, not regular football.

In Bakırköy, another man who was also getting off there had been appointed to look after me. He saw me off to where I was meeting my friends near the station and merrily went on his way.

The story was a long time in the telling, I know, but that time on the Train of Misery pretty much captures a lot of what needs to be captured about this country.

Thanks for reading to the end.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Ex-Pat Questions: Number Two

From Nomad's post, Seven Questions For Expats in Turkey:

What are some things you found/find hardest to adapt to?

1) The noise. It's probably just the nature of Istanbul, but things are so freaking noisy here. Perhaps it's a combination of crowds, poorly insulated buildings, and too much concrete. Traffic. Other people's ideas of how loud it's appropriate to be and when. Even out in the 'burbs it's pretty freaking noisy, especially now that we're getting on summer so it seems like every other night there's some nearby event that involves fireworks or blasting obnoxious music. I, like most people, feel that any music I didn't choose is obnoxious so that's a purely subjective term. Now that we're leaving windows open, all the concrete makes people talking or laughing at even normal volume sound like they're right in the room with you.

And actually I'm exaggerating about the fireworks, for this year at least. Last year there were fireworks pretty much every other night. It turns out one of the reasons AKP wasn't re-elected for the district governorship or whatever you call it in English is because the guy spent something like a million dollars of public money on fireworks extravaganzas ALL THE FREAKING TIME. Apparently he wasn't notified how fireworks lose their appeal if they go off ALL THE FREAKING TIME. There must be some Disneyland employees who can attest to this. Oh, and also that AKP guy was unpopular for other acts of corruption he was busted for. One notable example is the public money he took to build a community center, but instead built a dershane with a grocery store and cafe (or Little Caesars or whatever it is this month) underneath. I went to the grocery store once and it sucked. I don't know why they're still in business. It had the narrowest, crookedest aisles ever, and the most nonsensical organization I've ever seen, plus all the vegetables were limp and warm.

Back to the noise. Another thing I can't adjust to is people's speaking volume, especially men. Mostly I don't think people are arguing anymore when they're just talking or even vehemently agreeing with each other, but sometimes I'm still not sure. It's not just me either. The other night in the taxi BE and the driver were vehemently agreeing about politics, and for the whole 15 minutes I was trying to convince LE they weren't mad at each other, with no success.

2) Education and medical care. My issues with doctors and education have been pretty well-covered on the blog. Well, education not so much but I have trouble thinking about it for long without getting extremely upset, especially now that I'm facing having to educate my son here. Or should I say "educate?"

Anyway, I have a theory that no matter where you're from, there are some things you will never find acceptable if they're even the slightest bit different from what you're used to. Medicine and education are some of those culturally ingrained things. It's not like I'm blind to the issues of American medical care or education, so I'm not necessarily endorsing them. It's just that the Turkish way sits so very, very wrong with me in a way the American way doesn't. There's no rational reason-- it just is.

Interestingly, I met several foreign women in the park in the US, and education and medicine were some of things they were having the hardest time dealing with, too. The German woman couldn't stand how doctors seemed so cold and single-minded and interventionist, while the Italian woman hated it that her son's preschool (actually pre-preschool) was spending a lot of time teaching the alphabet and numbers instead of letting the kids play. So there you go. Everyone is right in her way because there is no absolute right in these situations. There is and there isn't, I mean. Pragmatism doesn't matter much when I'm going to be pissed off about my son having to memorize and regurgitate a bunch of un-analysed crap while trying to be noticed and not noticed in his class of 60.

And I still don't get why Religion classes (Sunni religion in most state schools) are required or even allowed in a secular country. It never fails to interest me the different mad ways Americans and Turks contentiously define the separation of church and state. In America, they fight about prayer in schools while in Turkey they fight about religious dress. In America, a church group can meet in a school after hours and everyone is cool with that, but in Turkey I'm pretty sure that's frowned on. Stuff like that. I'm not saying one way is better than another. It's just interesting is all.

3) Being a woman here. I'll never take to that. I don't like what it means to be a woman, or a married woman and I don't like all the tacit limitations on behavior. A "girls' night out" for me will never involve tea and cakes, but the few times I've tried to have a proper one since getting married, there was such petulant resistance from my husband he managed to ruin the fun with his endless phone calls and bitching. It's not like all husbands are this way, but enough are that it's not outside of the norm. I don't like it that BE and his family frown on my having male friends, even gay ones. I don't like it that BE will probably never get his head around why I will never think it's my job to iron his shirts, especially when he's way better and faster at ironing than I am. I don't like it that LE already says to his grandmother, "Don't come to the park with Dede and I. Stay home and make food and tea." I don't like it that BE and the ILs found this delightful (granted, LE said it in a way cuter way than I wrote it, but still). I'll never get used to being the "weaker" sex, requiring men's guidance and protection from the world and from the silly whims of my own mind. Istanbul is way less shitty for women than a lot of other places, but some things are still so ingrained. When I watch "Mad Men," I'm like "I wonder if Turkish people get this?"

4) Living in an apartment building. Hate it. I think it must be the most unnatural human state with people all piled on top of each other like this. It's not a Turkey issue-- it's my issue. I've pretty much always lived in houses with yards. Once I lived in a flat that was one floor of a two-story building, but there was still a yard. And once I lived in an apartment in a converted two-story motel, but at least the insulation was good. I just can't get used to having to be quiet all the time (here after I complained about the noise), like stopping LE from playing loudly in the morning knowing the people downstairs can clearly hear a coin drop on the floor, not to mention a Hot Wheels or a plastic guitar thrown in anger, or a fit of echoing rage in the bathroom at not being allowed to remove the caulking from the shower.
I don't like the glowers I'm sure I'm getting from neighbors who don't approve of me disciplining my son, and I don't like that our neighbors know how often BE and I fight or how upset I get when we do. It bothers me to think about what sort of woman they must think I am in light of Number 3, above. And then I get mad that I even have to worry about this shit.

5) Class issues. I think I've covered this elsewhere, but I'm really uncomfortable with the idea of "servants," or that people inherently matter more or less than I do because of how much money they make. I don't like this idea of "the peasantry," which refers to that great mass of people who are considered too mentally feeble to decide even how to vote properly. I know I get really frustrated with the rural folk and how they contend with city stuff like elevators, and yes, I'm guilty of poking fun at them, but deep down I find the whole thing tragic because they had to leave their bucolic lives for this. Like the Oakies chasing the ephemeral California dream, they went from "regular poor" to "fucking poor" with just a geographical shift, and suddenly they were in a place where no one liked them and no one wanted them.

The government can't take care of them properly and nor does it seem to want to except for political lip service and the occasional crumb of charity. The lack of social services here astounds me, and I don't get how it can be lack of money. How much did they spend on flowers along the Sahil Yolu from the airport? How was there so much money to re-pave İstiklal Caddesi not once, but twice? Where do all these mosques keep coming from, especially when we consider the overcrowding of schools? How come the poor only need to get fed for Ramazan and Kurban Bayram? Where did all that earthquake aid money go?

One way that Turkey has it way over America is that the social safety net is much stronger, I think. Americans tend to rely on services while Turks tend to rely on each other. I don't know if Americans relied on each other before there were services, but that doesn't sound very American to me, Teabaggers be damned because I'm sure they'd be the first with their hands out bitching about the services if a tornado hit their town. When I worked in social services, we often talked about people who "fell through the cracks." These were people who couldn't access services for whatever reason, or people who the services couldn't find. That notion was always chilling to me. Here, it seems like it's all cracks. Like, how on earth do the working poor take care of their old and sick people? If I'm poor and you're poor and you come to "visit" me for a week, how should I feed you and your family? And what of the abused women and children?

It's not like I'm such a bleeding heart, but I do spend an awful lot of time wondering how the hell people get by. BE is forever getting mad at me because I keep giving the cleaner raises, plus I give her as much stuff as I can, like extra food and medicine and clothing and toys. It's just that I feel so deeply ashamed of all our stuff every time she comes here, when they're forever running out of bread and cooking fuel. BE doesn't share my shame (though he does feel sorry for them)-- to him it's just that way and there's nothing to be done. He's not particularly religious but I sense a bit of that Allah büyük so what are you gonna do? fatalism of religious countries It's not indolence or stupidity that makes people like my cleaner struggle-- it's a system that decided their fates at birth. Poverty is the same anywhere, of course, but here, the number of poor people and the depth of the poverty really get to me, plus the apparent callousness of the "haves" towards the "have nots." Also it seems to me that class lines are much more rigid than at home, both in terms of people moving up or down, and the extent to which people from different social classes mix with each other.

Anyway, that's probably enough for now. I'm looking forward to your comments, as I'm sure I've missed some stuff and there's probably some other stuff I've gotten completely wrong.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

The Candyman

I can't help it, and I'm sure they're harmless by and large, but the men who come to kids' playgrounds to sell candy and toys disturb me. They're like the guys my mom always told us to avoid when we were little, the much-feared Strangers With Candy. They can also be seen hanging around outside school playgrounds during recess.

There's just something lurky and creepy about them.

I admit I must have seemed creepy sneaking around this fellow to take a picture. That's LE far in the background, wearing the red, white and blue tie-dye.

It totally looks like the guy was scoping out my kid.


Thursday, May 13, 2010

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Graffiti: An Improvement

I did a quickie post awhile back about some graffiti I found in my neighborhood, and I'm pleased to say there have been some improvements, sort of.

This was on the same piece of exercise equipment as the last one. It's pretty faded, but I believe it says, "Fuck that." Kudos!

This one is cute.

This last one is understandable, but baffling. Why did someone feel compelled to write this on the slide?