About the Blog

I recently accepted a position from Teach and Learn with Georgia, a Georgian Ministry of Education program designed to bring native speakers of English into classrooms around the country. I will be moving to Georgia in August of 2014 to begin my assignment.

Before this latest adventure, I studied at Bogazici University in Istanbul Turkey and at Azerbaijan University of Languages. I speak English German Spanish, Turkish Azerbaijani and Uzbek and am currently trying my hand at Georgian.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Wrapping things up

I’m down to my final week here in Istanbul, and I find the prospect of departing for parts unknown (or known, whatever) exceptionally bittersweet. I’ve missed you all a great deal while I have been gone, but this is city and country whose people are so vibrant and festive and welcoming, it will be hard to leave them. I’ll give you one last travel story to explain what I mean. 

 I spent last weekend in Izmir with my first ever Turkish teacher, Ferdane Denkçi, her husband Süleyman and her mother. I arrived early in the morning on a Saturday, but Süleyman was still there at the bus station to pick me up. Ferdane was at home preparing a massive and delicious Turkish breakfast for me to eat upon arrival. They then packed up everything and prepared, assuring me that all I needed to do was “Sit comfortably”. Ok. If you insist. They took me to the beach for the day and out for dinner. Probably one of the most difficult things, if not the most difficult, about being gone from home for an extended period of time is feeling like you are no longer a member of a family. I feel the most homesick when I’m traveling, getting into the airport and everyone is there with a sign and a name and I walk past, catching the next bus, to catch the next ferry etc etc until I arrive alone at my dorm room. I love the independence that being here has given me, but I do miss having someone waiting for me. Izmir was a wonderful reminder that I am part of many families, and that even though I may not see all of my far flung relatives very often, we still care for each other. Ferdane’s mother embraced me as a full member of the family within about 20 minutes of meeting me. She invited me to visit her in Istanbul, wanted to take pictures with me as well as Ferdane in Kuşadası after our lovely day of relaxation, and the next day at Kemeraltı, the shopping district in Izmir, introduced me to shopkeepers as her daughter. One poor shopgirl kept looking from Ferdane to me, and finally said, “Are you really sisters?” at which point we laughed and explained the relationship. The shopping trip was very successful and I was pretty popular overall. Izmir does not get nearly as many tourists as Istanbul and very few of them speak Turkish. Even fewer go to Kemeraltı, which isn’t a tourist market. It’s where you go to get some new towels, a tea pot and some fake Converse. Every time I opened my mouth and Turkish came out, everyone was ridiculously pleased. I felt vaguely like a performing animal, but perhaps they enjoy the praise too. I felt fully immersed and engaged in the Turkish culture, integrated into the fabric of life here. 

Süleyman asked me Sunday evening after our mangal, or barbeque, what the biggest difference was between Turkish and American culture is. I had to stop and think for a moment, but then I knew. Americans can be incredibly time oriented and often are in our everyday interactions with strangers. Turkish people aren’t. The focus is always on the person. This probably contributes to everything being late all the time, but all attention is focused on whoever is being worked with, rather than the 20 appointments afterwards, which I do appreciate (except when I’m waiting). 

Case in point, on the bus to Izmir, or more specifically at Alibeyköy bus stop in Istanbul, I got to witness a rather interesting cultural event and how Turks are focused on the person, rather than the clock. I was sitting waiting for my bus to arrive and I notice a couple of young men arrive doubled or tripled up on motorbikes, making quite a racket, trying to pull tricks etc. Then a tiny van pulls up, unloads like it’s a clown car, and they start blasting music. In this particular case it’s Thrift Shop by Macklemore, which makes me laugh, because American pop music is everywhere.  I’m trying to figure out what the heck is going on, because really, I wouldn’t pick the bus stop for my Friday night rave with my friends. All of them are pretty loud, singing and chatting. They’ve gotten out some fireworks too. For a couple moments, I’m a little nervous, wondering if rather than a rave, this is going to collapse into a riot. They seem pretty happy for a riot though, and it’s a mixed crowd at the bus station at 11pm so I don’t know what they would be protesting about. Then they start tossing one of their group up into the air and catching him. I’m worried for his safety, because some of his compatriots seem more than a little bit drunk, but nothing happens. Then the crowd around me starts talking, they finally know what’s up. The young man in question is leaving for askerlik, or his 2 year required military service. Every man in Turkey does it at some point and now is this young guy’s turn. He’s on my bus as it turns out. His friends crowd around the door and sing a song to him as he gets on, joking and laughing with him until the last possible moment. He’s about my age, I’d say, but the new recruit looks younger than that and a little deer in the headlights, as though he’s not sure what he’s going to do away from home for two years. There is something sweetly naïve about him. We pull out from the berth and I think that’s that, but his friends have arranged themselves at the exit, sitting on each other’s shoulders. The bus driver calls the young man up to the front, and he stands at attention while his friends sing to him one last time, lighting fireworks and unfurling a Turkish flag with Ataturk superimposed on it, the founder and protector of the republic. The bus and the entire bus station stop and wait while this young man’s friends, who number a good 2 dozen, give him a real send-off. Everyone was willing to wait, because this was both an important and terrifying part of this young man’s life. Everyone understood it and accepted it and our patience was our contribution to his send-off, to let him know that his sacrifice is appreciated.  A few days before a bomb had gone off in Reyhanlı Turkey, killing 50 people at a market and the dialogue with Syria is spiraling out of control, so this young man may indeed have sacrifices to make. But for the night his friends just want to wish him well. 

Süleyman told me after I mentioned this dichotomy between the States and Turkey (and I’m not saying that people aren’t important to other people in America, but we value punctuality often above building relationships, it’s a difference in what is construed as rude and acceptable), that I was doing important work. He caught me a little off-guard, but I was glad that he said it to me. I try to explain sometimes the incredible importance of being a cultural ambassador in other parts of the world, and representing not just women or MSU students but also Americans when I travel. Most Turks have never had a real conversation with an American, and so my job is to win hearts and minds with my broken Turkish, my quiet demeanor and my attitudes towards laughter love and life. I do my best, but it’s good to hear that what I do, and what I want to do with a great deal more of my life does make an impact. To hear it from Süleyman’s lips confirmed for me what I’ve always felt in my gut: it is valuable work and there aren’t enough people doing it. 

Another interesting point about the weekend, it was Turkish only. Every interaction I had for more than 48 hours was in Turkish. I spoke Turkish with Ferdane and her family, on the bus, with waiters and vendors and all the rest. And I did pretty well for myself. I hadn’t seen Ferdane for almost 2 years, so she and Süleyman were blown out of the water by my improvement in Turkish, which was incredibly affirming for me. Earlier in the week I had my first experience where I listened to Turkish and understood it, but it didn’t register as a foreign language. This is a strange and wonderful feeling once you realize that it’s happened, because you know that your mind has completed all the circuits and your brain has accepted this new tongue into the fold. I’ve had it happen in Spanish, but never since then. I am still not fluent in Turkish, but I know that I can be. My mind is ready for it; I just need to get some more vocabulary and colloquial expressions under my belt. I feel so much more confident than when I arrived 4 months ago that this is possible though. In turn this has confirmed one last point that I want to leave you with. I know that I’ll be back to Turkey. Perhaps not this year or even the next, but this nation has captured my heart and I know that no matter what, my life trajectory with circle back to it, and to this city that I love. The life of this city fills me with awe, lifts me up when I am down and gives me the confidence to keep working. Görüşme üzere Istanbul, until we meet again.

Monday, May 20, 2013

The compelling nature of ruins

Sarajevo at Sunset

Hello everyone! So this is a bit out of order, but that's how I roll. My mind occasionally brings good material to the surface so you have to run with it. I wrote this piece up for my Material Culture class about a week ago and presented it in class today. I decided I quite liked how I had stated things in it and how it described the city of Sarajevo, Bosnia and the nature of the Balkans as a whole, so I'm sharing it with you. I hope that you enjoy.

There is something eloquent about ruins. Their mute testimonies compel us to listen to words emanating not from them, but from deep within our own consciousness’s, words trying to make sense of disaster borne of natural or human desires, destruction beyond our imagination. Ruins can come about organically, through disuse and time, or they can be the work of an instant, an earthquake, flood or explosive device that erupts at just the right moment leaving only remnants in its wake. It is the latter that most intrigue our minds, for nature’s destruction is always senseless to our humanity, yet when we find it is our fellow men who have carried out these acts, we balk. We are logical, thinking things, and we turn our backs to logic. These structures can be repaired or demolished, or they can bear witness. In Sarajevo, they have a history museum devoted to the story of Bosnia-Hercegovina through the ages, and the more recent tale of the siege of Sarajevo. An outsider would not know of the purpose of this building but for the lettering pasted onto the side. Some of the building has had to be repaired, so that people may walk free of the tangle of twisted metal, or the jagged skylights whose creation was not borne of elegance. Yet much of the exterior has been left untouched. Bullet pocks fleck the exterior, naming a survivor of the horror just as surely as the scars of smallpox would have done 200 years ago. The stairs are marred by missing chunks of concrete, making the walk up hazardous, giving the visitor the tiniest sensation of danger, and the necessity for care. The garden grows wild with tall weeds pushing through cracks in the courtyard, none beautiful enough to bloom. Military vehicles are strewn about, slowly collecting rust, but still giving the impression of an event temporarily interrupted, to be resumed at a later date, for if it were finished our minds tell us, there would be order. The entire museum gives a feeling of time suspended simply for your benefit, and that once you leave again, it will resume its natural course. The interior is spartan, the walls and
One of Sarajevo's many ruins
floors repaired but this is not a luxurious space. It is a place of action with no time to mess about with frou-frou. The inner workings of the building remain exposed, with pipes and wires creating a Gordian knot above your head. The space is clean but not sanitized. The building reminds you that this is not over, that the wounds and animosities have not yet healed, for when you walk outside you see similar buildings, yet these do not hold museums. These are ruins that will not be reclaimed, instead bearing their testimony ignobly as stray dogs wander through and the last rays of the sun shoot through perfect circles in their masonry, the jagged cracked edges the only sign that they were not intentional. A conventional history museum would speak of the conflict as history, yet the ruinous nature of the building invites the visitor to see it as reality, to view it not with the detachment of wandering through an exhibition and then popping out to hit the next tourist attraction. It forces the viewer to consider the implications and walk away unsettled, because our minds detest the scars on buildings as much as on human skin and yet in our perversity we cannot look away from either.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Jerusalem's Allure

Me on the Mount of Olives
I didn’t expect to cry at the Western Wall. I hope people who have been reading this aren’t getting the impression that I’m the stereotypical blubbering female. I can assure you that I’m not. I’m not some hard ass punk rocker chick either but I consider myself to have a fairly tough exterior and I rarely cry in public. Funerals are just about it. Religious experiences also rarely have this effect on me but like I said, it’s pretty rare. I had expected the Wailing Wall to be a more cultural experience like visiting a mosque. These too are beautiful spiritual places—but it isn’t my form of spirituality. I appreciate them but it’s a very different than being in a church for me. I actually went to the Western Wall twice. The first time I just sat and watched and listened. I was there on a Friday around noon, I know that I shouldn’t try to go much later since the Sabbath would be starting in a few hours. The area was already buzzing and I observed with interest the comings and goings of both worshippers and tourists like myself. I made a loop and getting lost, ended up back at the wall. I noticed then that they were letting visitors approach the wall. I had assumed that the natural worship areas would be off limits but apparently no. They had modesty police at each entrance and I watched one women who was told to cover her shoulders say “well, in that case never mind”.  I don’t understand people who get annoyed by modesty policies at religious sites. They’re already letting you in, what else do you want? I was deemed suitable in my long pants and t-shirt but out of habit, and respect, I placed my scarf over my head and arranged it to cover my chest and neck. I walked slowly towards the wall and waited until a small place where I would be able to touch it opened up. I placed my full palm on the stones, uneven, but perfectly smoother from years of wear. I stayed only a few moments knowing that the true faithful were waiting on me. I left a prayer walked backwards towards the exit and left. But in that moment at the wall the full emotional burden of the place hit me. My chest tightened in that way which makes you know years are coming. And so they did, small and silent though as I left I think a few people noticed them. I don’t often cry in public but when I do I refuse to be ashamed of it. I don’t use tears to het what I want to influence or persuade. They are a reflection of me and I refuse to be ashamed of myself.  
The Western Wall
Leaving the wall I was accosted by an Orthodox man. He wanted a donation for something. I was going to keep walking but being from the Midwest it makes me feel like a jerk to not be friendly and he wasn’t threatening at all either. Before I knew it he had ascertained my name and hometown (I go by Hannah from Chicago when I travel) and given this combination plus location I’m fairly certain he decided that I was Jewish. He proceeded to tie a piece of red yarn on my right wrist, and even more surprising to me, placed his hand on my head and gave me a blessing for Shabbat asking for the best for me and my family and that I would find a nice boy and get married soon. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I probably won’t be having any Jewish babies. 
Street sign in Jerusalem
I didn’t end up making it to the Dome of the Rock. The current policy is that non-Muslims are only let into a single gate of the compound and are only allowed access to certain parts of it and only during certain times during the day. What these times are, I could not tell you. I tried to go 4 times at least and was turned back each and every time. Short faith pop-quizzes are also administered by the guards to make sure that anyone who says that they are a Muslim actually is. One girl in my hostel was brushing up on her basic prayers so that she could get in the next day. It all seems rather complex to me. But I got to see the complex from a distance so I cannot complain. The golden dome stands out so much from the city, which from a distance up in the hills seems a sort of light brown beige color, like sand. It looks fragile like sand too, small and tight and yet this city has survived attacks, retreats, being razed to the ground, burnings, massacres, revolts, rebellions, repression and all the rest. I read somewhere that Jerusalem is like a jewel, hard and bright and resilient. It’s an apt description of this city which has been Holy for so many over the years and yet through all the adoration and turmoil, has managed to survive.
Inside the Church of the Holy Sepulcher

The Church of the Holy Sepulcher was a remarkable place. It took me a while to get in since it was Orthodox Good Friday. They are only a few things in this world that I am afraid of, but one that I readily admit to is Russian grandmothers. Old Russian women terrify me. Tough as nails and then some, and not afraid to prove it. I have learned not to mess with older women while traveling, because they will always win. I learned something in Jerusalem though. If I find old Russian women terrifying, when they are on pilgrimage this fear is multiplied 10-fold. The crowds to get into the church were tightly packed and roadblocks had been set up to prevent too many people from getting to the church at a single time. The policemen or guards or whatever they were manning them did not radiate charm into the crowd. They were brusque and tempers were running high. I got stopped twice, once on the road to the church and then again before entering the front courtyard. This second time I was waiting for an eternity in the crowd in the hot sun and considered turning back, but being stubborn, I did not. Eventually we were let in through the tiny arched stone doorway and I was swept along with the sea of pilgrims to the church, whose façade I expected to be far more ostentatious. Since no single denomination has full control over the church the architecture does not really has a distinct style. It looks old and stone with strange additions jutting out at various angles. The exterior just isn’t pretty. The interior is a maze, with chapels, monasteries, crypts, and hidden rooms everywhere. Some are up a floor, though where the stairs are I could not tell you. Others are only up a few steps, some down long flights into the cellar, others you have to go through several rooms to get to the inner one. At the center (I think, I was pretty turned around) is a large central room and a smaller structure sits at its center. Pilgrims were ducking in and then leaving, though only a few were selected for this special honor. The walls of the church that go unclaimed by any particular group are unadorned, with the claimed spaces making up for it, being festooned with murals, icons, chalices, censers, candlesticks, embroidery, altars and all the lavish paraphernalia of the Eastern church that I can’t help but like. People were everywhere, taking pictures, lighting candles every which where (how the whole place hasn’t been accidentally burned down is beyond me) kissing, touching and even throwing things onto icons so that they might be blessed. A few men from Holy Orders wandered around with pilgrims speaking to them every few steps that they took. The bustle of the place was both deeply
The Church at the Tomb of Mary
overwhelming and perfectly satisfying. Everyone was excited for Easter, for the resurrection. Some people were settling down in the church for the ceremony of the Holy Fire, where a fire magically starts in the inner chamber and is then carried out distributed to everyone waiting in the church, around the church and to all the places of worship in Jerusalem and then further afield. The footage from this year shows an elderly orthodox priest sitting on the shoulders of several men who sprint out of the chamber and the crowd surges forward as everyone tries to light their torches and candles with the sacred flame. I did not make it to the ceremony, but I’m not disappointed. I saw the church. I walked the Via Dolorosa, where Christ made His final journey. I climbed the Mount of Olives, where His Ascension took place. I saw the Pool of Bethesda where He healed a sick man, and several churches that claimed to the site of the Garden of Gethsemane, where He prayed His last night. I do not need a mysterious ceremony to tell me that this city is Holy and beautiful and full of life after thousands of years of bloodshed. The city tells me that for itself.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

The Balkans Part II

Mostar and Stari Most
Bosnia on the other hand is moving on. I only spent two days in Bosnia, one is Mostar and one in Sarajevo and yet this was the nation that most struck me, that moved me and spoke to me and where I felt most at ease. Bosnia seems to have been slightly cursed throughout its history, constantly facing assassinations, uprising, invasions, internal struggles and violence. Yet Bosnians have accepted it. I found Bosnia to be friendly, and it greatly reminded me of Turkey with its architecture, food and general air of focusing on people. 

Damage in Mostar
Mostar stills shows all the scars of the war, which in this particular town pitted Croats against Bosnians and resulted in the main tourist site, the old bridge built by Suleiman the Magnificent, being shelled and destroyed. They rebuilt it but at a small former mosque next to it, a loop of video of the bridge plays, from the prewar era of 60s dresses and family outings to ferocious gunfights and wooden barricades being put up above the bridge, bits and pieces pulled together is a besieged town to cover Bosnian troops from sniper fire. The old Turkish bazaar has been rebuilt and is now thriving with a steady stream of tourists in and out. The main road the remains of pock marked buildings cover both sides of the street and just off it a tiny public park across from a mosque now holds a cemetery. The graves are slightly jumbled, indicating that this was not set up like most cemeteries, that this was not official, and was put together in a hurry. When you look down to the dates on the stones you find that all of them are from 1993, when the town was destroyed from the inside out. The ages range from a few days octogenarians, people who lived long enough to see their land torn apart time and again by forces they had no control over, only to find in the end that neighbor turned against neighbor. Many of the graves were young men, 18 19 20. People who I think of as men, and yet some were younger than I am now. That night we enjoyed dinner overlooking the bridge with three Turkish compatriots, who, delighted to find that I spoke Turkish, entertained us with stories and paid our bill at the end, but only after getting the waiter and all the other patrons involved in their games. Bosnia reminded me somehow of how beautiful life is, so why not enjoy it. The nation is so far from carefree, and yet people walk past the wreckage of the war 20 years on like it doesn’t register. Yet divisions remain. 

Near Mostar we saw plenty of Croatian flags being flown, yet we were clearly not in Croatia. What a message. Many of the road signs had portions sloppily blacked out with paint. I couldn’t figure out what was going on, surely not that many towns had disappeared in the conflict, until we got nearer Sarajevo and fewer signs had been altered. No place had been eliminated. However, the old signs featured the place names written in both the Latin and Cyrillic alphabet, one for Serbs, who use the latter and one for Bosnians who use the former. The Cyrillic was being eliminated.  Each of these nations has their own national language, Serbian Croatian and Bosnian. Yet apart from some phraseology, the languages are the same. No one wants to admit this close connection though, so the language has been given three names, for the three nations where it is now used. The alphabets remain a political issue. In Sarajevo we saw more instances of the impact of the war and the continuing tension.

Damaged building in Sarajevo

 We visited the History Museum, which had two exhibitions, one about the history of Bosnia-Hercegovina which felt like a plea to be recognized as a real country, trying so hard to prove that it has been a country since the beginning of time and was not created in the 20th. The other chronicles the siege of Sarajevo and everyday life for its inhabitants. The museum was heavily damaged during the siege but its exterior has remained unaltered, as another testimony to the fighting. Slowly churches and historical buildings are being restored with US and Turkish funding. The US seems to be paying for the churches, for Sarajevo was and still seems to be a richly diverse city. Turkey pays for the mosques. The National Gallery exhibits portraits of the defenders of Sarajevo, with their ragtag weapons and uniforms, sometimes the only item provided was a badge. The ages varied, some men looked like they had battle experience from decades beforehand, other faces looked like they had never seen a razor. One portrait struck me. It showed a young soldier, perhaps 20 walking down the old Turkish section of town, an area that we had just been through, throbbing with people in the wake of some religious graduation at a mosque and tourists from around the world. In the portrait though, the place is deserted but for this solitary figure. In one hand he holds an ice cream cone. The other hand slings a rifle over his shoulder, like he’s never known a day when it wasn’t there.  

Men playing chess in Sarajevo
Leaving Sarajevo was yet another reminder of how far these nations have to go towards peace. Because Sarajevo has two bus stations. One is in the center of the city, near to the river and the sights. It serves both domestic and international locales. Yet we were told there was only one bus to Belgrade every day, leaving at 6am and no other buses going in that direction otherwise. So too at the train station we struck out, to get to Belgrade from Sarajevo you have to go through Zagreb. At tourist information in the center of the city were told that to get to Belgrade we needed to go to the other bus station. We spent more than half an hour on one of Sarajevo’s slightly nostalgic but mostly tired and in need of renovation trams to get there. This bus station was way out on the suburbs, in a neighborhood which my traveling companion found creepy, but felt fine to me, perhaps because of my time in Azerbaijan where I learned about ugly communist architecture and how to be ok walking through unlit streets by myself at night. This bus station only serves a few locations, all in the Respublika Srpska (the Serbian autonomous region in Bosnia) and Serbia itself. Everything at the bus station is written in Cyrillic. Let’s be honest: its segregation, putting space both mental and physical between the two states. Bosnia is troubled, its mountains hold ghosts beyond number, and all along its roads there are gravestones, marking where soldiers and civilians fell during the 90s. Bosnia is haunting, with its beauty and richness paired with craters and pockmarked buildings. Bosnia can’t forget the war, or try to deny it because it still exists. The war may have been history for me when I left Istanbul but I understand now why it still lingers in the international community. A conflict that pits friends and neighbors against one another, that involves indiscriminate killing, where streets become battlefields and parks transform into cemeteries, that can’t ever be forgotten. I loved Bosnia, but I will never understand it.