Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Christmas in Turkey

Chora Church

So, I live in Turkey which means that I have to spend my holidays primarily in Turkey. And, while I am finally getting paid (woo hoo!) I am not paid quite well enough to splurge on a flight back to the States, as tempting and as cliché as it may be to go home for the holidays. 

Instead I did the next best thing, I imported family from the States. While the original plan was for Kelsey, my sister, and Samantha, our cousin to join, Mother Nature had different plans in store. Since most of you spend the majority of your time on the western side of the Atlantic, you may not have been monitoring the weather that descended on north-western Europe in the days leading up to the Birth of Christ, but since one of the only two entirely English channels we have here in the 'dağ is the BBC, we heard all about it.

And, unfortunately, we had to experience first-hand the incompetency of the British Ministry of Transportation. Basically, two-thirds of flights going in and coming out of Heathrow were cancelled outright, for the four day surrounding Christmas, the four busiest travel days of the year. Major problem since its one of the world's most important air-traffic hubs. So, Samantha was stranded, at work, in Boston, at Christmas. 

Kelsey and I carried on without her, much to our chagrin. After relaxing a few days in the 'dağ, we headed to Istanbul. We went to Chora Church, a fabulous gem of a place tucked a bit outside of the typical tourist section of the city. Amazing mosaics and frescoes from the 14th century are still in phenomenal condition, so we marveled at Jesus and Mary for the afternoon. 

Turkish J.C. says "hi"
Later we went into the Spice Bazaar,

and we made friends with a vendor who makes, as far as I can tell, extremely expensive tea sets. He was quite the shop owner, offering us everything from historical explanations for various Turkish idioms, to rose lokum, to tales of fame and glory. Just in case we didn't believe his excellent-ness, he whipped this out, 

"From Fidel Castro to Kevin Costner, the famous drink from these cups"

Upon arriving back in Taksim, we were greeted by a Worker's Party protest. Nothing says Christmas like communists, right? 

The Turkish Communist Party's headquarters overlooks İstiklal street, the capitalist center of the city.

When we saw busloads of riot police being carted into the area, we, ever so poetically, took refuge in a Catholic church where we basked in the Christmas decorations and the abundance of candles. I was able to snap one photo before being accosted by the caretaker. I would have felt bad, but then I saw him blowing out prayer candles to make more space for new ones, and my guilt magically disappeared. Honestly, who blows out prayer candles? On Christmas?

That night we hit a fasil restaurant on Istiklal. We chowed, drank, listened to traditional music and danced. Kel and I went back to our hostel and watched the Holiday for possibly the tenth time in a week and snoozed til morning. 

Friday, December 17, 2010

An end of year recap

Because the next few weeks are going to be filled with travel and holidays, this will probably be the last blog post of 2010. I've spoken with many of you in the last few days about my time here and, depending on the day you talked to me, I have both loved and loathed my experience so far. 

Turkey is a very interesting country, it straddles Europe and Asia just like it straddles the traditional and the modern. While their bus system should be internationally recognized for its efficiency (I'm not talking environmental), their bureaucracy should be condemned for its arcane and anachronistic alleyways and dungeons. Its an abyss of confusion and notarized contracts. 

I have found Turkish hospitality to be the warmest of any country that I have visited. I have been constantly tea-ed (not wined unfortunately) and dined by new friends and colleagues who have made every conceivable effort to make our time here easier. And, in the face of what seemed an insurmountable heap of unresolved problems, they have taken time out of their chaotic lives to ensure I never feel alone or abandoned. 

The locals have been patient with me and my pigin Turkish, helping me find the butter and not the rain in the supermarket, after I asked Yağmur nerede? when I should have asked Tereyağ nerede? Our constant flow of fix-it men have been gracious and kind, even when our problems are of our own making (you must turn two knobs to get the heat going.) 

And, while bacon is scarce (or really nonexistant) the food has comforted me in ways that nothing else can after a rough day of misunderstandings and mistranslations. There's nothing like a hot bowl of mercemek corbası after being soaked through from a sudden rain-storm. 

I'm excited to share these things with Kelsey and Sam as they come next week. I'm excited to dive deeper into Turkish culture and language as 2010 turns to 2011. Sherri and I sat eating köfte last week, doing research for an article we will be writing for Istanbul Eats, thinking back to what we were doing this time last year. I was in the middle of final exams with one semester of my undergrad left to complete. I had no idea what, let alone where Tekirdağ was and could never imagine I would be living this experience.

And, though about 50% of my day is spent keeping myself from going on murderous rampage, the other 50% has been truly rewarding. I was invited to a student's birthday the yesterday. They made great efforts to speak to me in a language that only three months ago, they did not know. And, while I personally cannot take great credit for the accomplishments of my students, I hope that I am having as positive an impact on them as they have had on me. 

So cheers to Christmas and to New Year. May the next be as exciting and rewarding as this last.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Christmas or Consumerism?

The other day I ran a lesson about holidays. It was our first class back from the week long Kurban Bayramı break, and I for one, wasn’t ready to dive back into school. As it turned out, my students weren’t either.

This was the week of Thanksgiving, a holiday rarely on the radar of non-American/Canadians. We discussed the types of holidays—cultural (or civic) and religious. I asked them to list a number of holidays, Turkish, American, and international. Each class did an exceptional job coming up with a broad variety, though there was one class in particular that takes the cake when it comes to a creative approach to the assignment.

When we discussed what Christmas is, they were baffled. The word, like in many European languages, is based on the latin word for the holiday, its Noel in Turkish. Once I explained that there were Christmas trees involved, they perked right up and figured out what I was talking about. When we went back over the long list I had amassed on the board to categorize the holidays, there was a unanimous opinion that Christmas was cultural. I corrected them, saying that no, Christmas is a religious holiday. To this, one vociferous student stood up and said, no hocam, its not religious.  Well, actually first he clicked at me (you Fulbrighters know what I'm talking about) then he denied my statement. 

I tried to explain to him that I really was quite sure that Christmas was a religious holiday, but he stood his ground. I tried to explain that it is the birthday of Jesus or in Turkish İsa but he assured me that this is not true. The whole class had chimed in, telling me that I didn't know what I was talking about and that I also had the date of Christmas wrong. Then, I thought, ha maybe they are thinking of the Greek Christmas. But no, Christmas is, according to my students, on the 31st of December. 

No, that is New Year, I explained. Yes, they said, New Year and Christmas, these are the same. 

Figgity-false. (That's for you Mr. Richard.) 

Turks have recently imported American consumerism. And, with this has come a few extras bundled into the mix. One of these is every marketing team's wet dream, the Christmas shopping season. But, what do you do in a country that has no religious or cultural holiday that routinely occurs in late December? You bundle your plastic Christmas trees and tinsel in with the New Year's celebrations. They even eat turkey on New Year's. The problem it seems, was that nobody had bothered to explain to the Turkish people that they don't celebrate Christmas, they are celebrating something called Consumerism

Now, don't misunderstand me. I'm loving this. I found molasses and tree ornaments at the local Migros shopping center yesterday. And, while they may not have cookie cutters, they have all the necessary ingredients to make Christmas cookies. One of my colleagues, who will probably get his own blog post at some point, sent me an email wondering where online we could purchase Christmas trees. It seems one of his friends wanted to know. I told him something along the lines of "Hell if I know, but let me in if you get to the bottom of it." I encouraged my roommate to respond to his email, "Bitch, I'm a Jew." I don't know if she did, and if she did, I don't know if he would have understood but man...

Even so, I must admit, there's no place like home. 

But of course, I'm not one to roll over and take it. I fought back. I went to the Carrefour (the French version of a super-Wal-Mart) and loaded up on said molasses (3 jars' worth--I wasn't sure which would taste best so I got all of them just in case), made both sugar cookies and gingerbread cookies

 went on iTunes and downloaded The Holiday and Love Actually, scrounged around for some printer paper and cut up paper snowflakes 

and listened to the most amazing Christmas mix ever-- A Very Special Christmas (the first one made) featuring songs like Christmas in Hollis, Back Door Santa, and Winter Wonderland by the Eurythmics.

And of course, we're in the middle of Hanukkah, Sherri and I had a makeshift menorah, 

Dara and I made  latkes and stumbled on an old synagogue in Edirne when I went to visit her in Kırklareli this past weekend. The Turkish governement is investing over 3 million TL (roughly 1.75 million USD) over two years to rebuild the building. After talking to the engineer in charge of the project, it seems that weathering did the enormous structure in. Edirne is probably one of my favorite places in Turkey (far behind Istanbul, but I mean, Paris is behind Istanbul...) it used to have an enormous Jewish population until the population exchange in the 1920s. 

There is something to be said for living in a part of the world that gave birth to the Big Three, no not Garnett, Pierce and Allen, but rather Islam, Christianity and Judaism. There is an enormous amount of historical sites here in Turkey that really are the roots of all three of these religions. I got to go to Nicaea a few weeks ago--I had no idea it was in Turkey until I was there. 

I'm not a fan of spending the holiday season outside of the United States, but I guess Turkey has really come through for me in terms of holiday cheer, historical sites, and molasses.