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.

Monday, February 25, 2013


Myself and Sarah, having made our decision on Edirne, left bright and early on Friday morning. A little background. Edirne is a former Ottoman capital about 3 hours West of Istanbul, putting it within spitting distance of both the Greek and Bulgarian borders. Nowadays it has fewer than 150000 residents and is overlooked by all but the most adventurous of tourists. Enter us. Getting to Edirne consisted of us taking a shuttle bus to Alibeyköy bus station and then just catching another shuttle (luckily I was listening pretty closely to the service announcements which were of course all in Turkish) to the Bayrampaşa station and from there catching the actual bus to Edirne. Bayrampasa was nuts and our bus didn’t end up pulling into an actual parking spot but just pulled up behind the other buses and we heard some guy call out an announcement that it was there. We both slept on the bus but we got banana cake and drinks from the bus attendant. This despite the fact that we were only on the bus for 2 and a half hours. We stopped once for a smoking break and got into Edirne before noon. We caught a dolmuş or minibus into the town itself since the bus station is almost 10km from the city center. The driver of the dolmus seemed a little surprised to see foreigners in town and made sure that we got off at the right stop, which was right next to Selimiye Mosque. We grabbed lunch in a small restaurant and I gave the address of our apartment to the waiter, who gave it to the owner of the establishment and he called the hotel for us to get an exact location. He gave me directions (see that mosque there, go behind it) and within 5 minutes or so we were presenting ourselves to the management of a small Turkish apartment house, who appeared in the form of an attractive 20-something Turkish man. We filled out all the paperwork and he showed us to our room which was a bedroom, kitchen mudroom and bathroom, and free wifi. This was all less than $25 a night. This country does create unrealistic expectations for cost. We settled our stuff and decided to go exploring.
Üç Şerefeli Camii

 On Friday we ended up seeing the three biggest and most important mosques in town, which are Üç Şerefeli Eski Camii and Selimiye Camii. We approached them in this order. After being given a Turkish umbrella, which has a canopy of clear plastic by one of the men who lived/worked at the apartment block since it was raining hard when we left, we walked about 30 feet and into Üç Şerefeli. We were the only ones in the place. I could hear the rain on the dome of the mosque and we quietly wandered, taking photos and simply enjoying the incredibly calm atmosphere that the mosque created. The physical beauty of it could have easily been overwhelming, but small human touches, like the shelves for the shoes of the faithful, or a rack of coats and scarves for women to cover up with, helped to avoid this. We stayed for a while and then ventured back out into the rain. At Eski Camii a funeral was just wrapping up on the porch outside so men were coming in to pray, but after I asked we were urged inside. This mosque did not feature any tiling and most of its walls were blank but for huge calligraphy inscriptions. İt was dark and we could hear the men moving around, but I liked this too. It felt like a place of worship, somewhere that people marked the everyday as well as important life events. While we were inside the muezzin started the call to prayer and so we snuck out through a stream of worshippers taking off their shoes and entering through the green leather doors that mark most any functioning mosque in Turkey. Since mosques prefer that tourists not come in during prayers we went beyond Selimiye and instead checked out the small local Archaeology and Ethnography museum. After showing our museum cards to some mildly surprised guards we wandered through the exhibits, which included some rather nice Greek and Roman pottery and sculpture, as well as mannequins showing traditional Turkish dress and a room in an Ottoman household.
Eski Camii

 Edirne is littered with old Ottoman homes, a few of which have been restored, and most of which have fallen into terrible disrepair, leaving their wooden fronts as a reminder of how fall this town has fallen, from the center of Ottoman life, to a small border town.  Many of the streets are dirty and littered with debris. Homes are a bit ramshackle and water pours down in rivers when it rains moderately hard. The riverbanks are covered in trash and many of the roads outside of the city center are dirt, or half dirt. Modernity recedes from your consciousness. You take in the grime and the abandoned buildings dispassionately. Edirne felt poorer than Istanbul, or at least than the Istanbul that I know. Edirne is also home to the requisite stray cats and dogs, a large number of tractors and horse carts especially considering its size and what feels like a sizable portion of the Turkish army. Over the course of the weekend we walked past at least a dozen militarily protected sites, most of them barracks. This is probably because the town is on the border but it still is enough to put you a little on alert and induce some nervousness.
We returned to Selimiye after a while and stepped into an earthly paradise. Selimiye is supposed to be the crown jewel of Mimar Sinan’s creations. Sinan was probably the most important Imperial architect throughout the entire Ottoman era. His name is omnipresent and his works are famous. And Selimiiye is breathtaking. The balance of space, color, light, sound, atmosphere, material, scale, everything about that mosque sang. I could have sat there for hours. I took more photos than it really decent, and yet I knew that I could not capture the grandeur and the serenity of the place. Selimiye had a few visitors but not many. People were quiet and respectful and most of those inside the mosque were Turkish. A few cleaning women went about their task. I craned my neck to try and inspect every detail of the mosque’s furnishings, though the detail put in defies memory. I sat on a raised platform at the back for a while and watched the subtle changes in lighting as the sun sank lower on the horizon. I listened in to the conversations happening around me and found myself smiling at the pure pleasure of understanding without having to work at it. Not only the language but much of the culture and the history and the religion of this country have become clearer in the 2 and a half years since I started studying it. I am reaching a point where I can translate for people, but I can translate more than manuscripts and menus. I can translate much of the culture to those who have no prior knowledge of it. I can begin to share and open eyes and explain to people why I pick a language as an elective and insist on returning to the region despite the fact that it occasionally makes me crazy.
Sarah in Selimiye Camii

We walked that evening, through the rain and the falling fog, past men-only coffee shops and people selling fruit out of the trunks of their cars. We walked and took it in until our minds and hearts and shoes were saturated and then we turned for home.
The next morning we took a roundabout route to the Museum of Health in an old Ottoman hospital complex and learned about the advanced treatment that was available to patients of all types, including the mentally ill, such as music therapy, from the 1650s and before. I can highly recommend this museum, both for the rather startling knowledge that almost 400 years ago people treatment options were as good if not better than they are today for the mentally ill and also for the frankly hilarious mannequin exhibits of patients and treatments including a man with “chronic psychosis” who appears to have a Moses complex. The museum building was again stunning and attached to the Beyazid II Mosque, which of course we visited as well. This too was beautiful, small and raw, looking unfinished when compared to the other mosques that we had seen, but this detracted not at all from its charm. We were again alone in the mosque. We walked back into town through a residential area, where I heard a women speaking to her neighbor say “There are foreigners here!” as though we were the first they had ever seen. We checked out the shopping quarter of the city and visited two more museums: the Turkish Islamic Arts and the Selimiye Mosque Foundation Museum. Both were located in the former medreses, or schools, within the outer courtyard of the Selimiye mosque complex. Again, I think I enjoyed the building as much as the exhibits.  We turned in early, due at least in part to the fact that it was again cold and rainy. Anytime spring wants to arrive I will welcome it with open arms. 
Me outside Selimiye

On Sunday, our last day in town, we walked to the South to check out two Ottoman bridges, walked by the river for a while, attracted a very good number of amused startled and frankly confused stares and then decided we might as well hit a nice round 5 for mosques. We settled on Muradiye Camii for our last visit. This was an excellent decision. We walked through another residential neighborhood, this one feeling poor but very friendly and got directions up to the mosque, which stood on a hill in a sea of green, part garden and part cemetery. We went into the mosque with a man who I assume was its caretaker, but also seemed to be a very serious student of the Koran. An imam perhaps? I could not say. IN any case he offered to give us some history about the mosque, since, quell surprise; we were the only ones there. I provided a running English translation of his explanation of various architectural features and historical tidbits about the building and various figures who had been associated with it. I have never had a real tour of a mosque before and it made it so much more meaningful. It was also fun to stretch my wings a little and try my hand at translation. I think I rather like it. The mosque was small and cozy for want of a better word. The decoration had at one point been lavish but had fallen on hard times. It was built by Fatih Sultan Mehmet’s father, in the 1430s. The building felt like it knew its age but it was still proud, and perfectly aware of its history. The vista was stunning too, with an excellent view of the town. Edirne may not be what it once was, but it cannot be discounted. It stands tall, unabashed of what it knows lies at its feet. It endures.  And I cannot help but to admire it for its forgotten glory. 
The street to Muradiye Camii [on hill]

First week of classes

Oh Turkey. You strange, wonderful and occasionally infuriating country. Last week I let off after my first class failed to materialize. I magically found a syllabus online, which hadn’t been there before and I proceeded to try and find the readings. They weren’t available online so I emailed the professor and she was super nice about the whole thing. So while things aren’t necessarily reliable everyone is exceptionally kind and will bend over backwards to help you. Which makes you wonder why it is that nothing works. Sometimes such questions are best not to ask. I sometimes find Turkey more frustrating than Azerbaijan. It goes something like this. Turkey is more developed than Azerbaijan and also considerably less corrupt. These are good things. I like national infrastructure and not being afraid of the cops. However, Turkey also hasn’t joined the West fully either. It does not move with the precision of say, the Germans, who believe that if a train is 3 minutes late civilization is coming to an end. The end product is that you have a country where the bureaucracy is complex, unwieldy and occasionally flawed, such as the entire residency permit process. This is the same as in Azerbaijan but in Azerbaijan you just pay various people and things go faster. In Turkey you cannot buy service like this because it isn’t allowed anymore. So you just have to deal with the whole makes-you-want-to-pull-your-hair-out-by-the-roots process. But it does make the whole thing quite an adventure. My mantra from last summer is coming back to life. For those of you who are approximately my age you will remember the TV show “Whose line is it anyway”. I stole my mantra from them: everything’s made up and the points don’t matter. I am fairly certain this is how life works here. I do award myself points. Successful Turkish language interactions score high. Bought bus tickets without a mishap? 5 points. Didn’t understand the waiter? -1 point. But they don’t actually mean anything. But I still do it. It’s just the rest of reality is made up too so sometimes life can be a little confusing.
On Tuesday I went to my Turkish for foreigners class and realized that it had been mislabeled. It should be called “Turkish for foreigners who are actually native speakers of Turkish”. I was in just a little over my head. The Professor spoke only in Turkish for the entire class, but I followed along, so that felt good. She said that perhaps some people should be in other Turkish classes. This was a problem. I now saw the class as a personal challenge. I like to take on challenges. Heck, I started learning Turkish in the first place, I obviously can’t be dissuaded easily from a goal once I’ve started. So I tried to buy the textbook for the class the next day so I could come out of the gate strong. This being Turkey the text book was only made available a half hour before class began the next morning so instead I sat through about 2 hours of the teacher speed reading and then speed lecturing about the reading and not saying a single word. In a moment of fear about my own abilities I attended the Turkish for Foreigners low intermediate class that afternoon. I wanted to fly under the radar and was of course, spotted within 5 seconds by the teacher. The class was 2 hours long and I figured out pretty quickly that it would be too easy for me. Some of the students seemed pretty good but I like a challenge and that class wasn’t it. I did meet a girl who had done CLS Bursa though so it was fun to recount the strange adventures that are CLS institutes over a cup of chay.
I spent these evenings pretty quietly, at home watching a movie or chatting with roommates and the like. Wednesday night I tried out the dining hall here on campus and I have to say, for 1.5 TL (83 cents or so) the food was pretty darn good. I finished up my Sherlock Holmes story in Turkish which I started on Monday night on South campus, sitting on a bench while the sun went down and slowly being surrounded until I had a herd of cats that numbered about 15 and decided that I never actually wanted to be that crazy cat lady and so moved.
The week had been pretty frustrating up to this point because all I really wanted was something to do, classes to go to, homework to read or write, something anything to fill my time. And I couldn’t find anything. Wednesday the pace picked up and I was able to spend a good chunk of time doing the reading for my Turkish class. On Wednesday I also decided with my friend Sarah that it was time to get out of Istanbul and start to see the country. Specifically, we would go to Edirne, since I really wanted to go and could arrange a hotel, bus tickets etc for the weekend. Having made this decision, I was able to happily spend several hours online looking at how we were arrive there, how best to time our arrival and departure and looking for a reasonably priced hotel near the center of town. I also spent some time looking at what all was in Edirne and compiling a list of my must-dos while there.  I really always should be given something to do.
Thursday I slept though high intermediate Turkish, which I had considered checking out but it conflicts with my chem course, which I do actually have to take so I decided it was for the best anyway. Instead I bought the course pack for the class and will work on it on my own. I know most of the grammar concepts being taught in the course already anyway, but a little practice never hurts. Then in the afternoon I went to my other anthropology course, which ended up being pop culture in the Middle East, and I am super excited about it. The professor was a little surprised at how many were in the class and the fact that none of us had been able to access to the syllabus but she took it in her stride and chatted with us for a while before letting us out. I went with Sarah and bought bus tickets without any mishap (5 points) and we booked out hotel, which is actually an apartment, but whatever. I had dinner in the cafeteria and then I met up with my Turkish roommate Ayşe for tea and cake. We went into a little café and ordered. We ended up having a really wonderful conversion and probably talked for 2 or 3 hours. She wanted to practice her English and I always need to practice my Turkish so that was how we did it. She spoke English and I spoke Turkish and we understood each other quite well. It was rather wonderful because if I ever didn’t know the Turkish word, I just inserted the English one and she did the opposite. The week ended far better than it began and I was grateful for the resolution. My classes seem to be great, I’ve met some amazing people and I have made progress in my spoken competency already in my 3 weeks here. I cannot wait to see what happens after 3 months.

Monday, February 18, 2013

The Residency Permit Fiasco

And now to the Hannah serial adventure of the residency permit. I was able to get my student certificate (öğrenci belgesi) by Thursday and went early Friday morning to the central police station down in Fatih, because I was required to take care of it there since they have the foreigners division. This takes about an hour and half of travel each way. You know you have arrived at your destination by the police officers with gigantic guns in front of the place, similar to the soldiers with gigantic guns guarding Sultanahmet. Anyway, you act very friendly as you walk past them, go through a metal detector that may or may not be on, give someone your passport so that they can randomly type things into a computer. They say that it is to keep track of who is in the building at all times, but no one checks you off when you leave. I think that it is to provide more civil service jobs. Anyway, now you’re into the complex. You march up a couple of stairs and a courtyard through a haze of smoke, and in my case on Friday, rain, into a building that could use a couple more heaters and walk into the Secretary of State’s Office from hell. First of all imagine that no one at the Secretary of State’s Office speaks English. This is the Secretary of State’s Office for foreigners, for whom the best common language is probably English, but no matter, it’s Turkish or nothing. Awesome. Next imagine that all the signage is also in Turkish. Good. Imagine that the lobby is full of various offices for people who have forgotten parts of the application because no one can figure out what is actually needed for the application. Imagine now that you walk up the stairs. There is an information desk with 2 Turkish speakers at it. They look at the number on your paper that you show in their general direction praying for mercy and some kind of aid. They tell you to go to a desk. You walk past rows of desk with plastic in front, most of which are either not staffed or have staff not doing anything at them. The aisle you walk though is too narrow for the average American to begin with and about 25 people are standing in it waiting for their number to be called, even though the number system is a mysterious creature and subject to flights of fancy that include going backwards and sideways. It doesn’t help that the numbers go up to about 800 and how they are assigned is also mysterious and most probably simply an Act of God. You don’t have an appointment that day because the school told you that didn’t need one. You go up to the appointed desk the next time the guy is free. He avoids eye contact or the acknowledgement of your existence for a few minutes by ordering tea and chatting with his compatriots, who are similarly ignoring their charges. Finally he looks up and you smile, because charm and bribery are your only hopes. He begins to look at your paperwork, which is complete darn it, even though no one else’s is. He frowns when he gets to the date on your paper and tells you to go to a different office. This is down more rows and rows of desks. You must finagle your way in and find the one person working that day. He looks at your paper, has you write your name on a piece of computer paper for reasons as misguided as the ones for looking at your passport at the entrance and tells you to come back at 7:30 PM for an appointment. It is now 9:30 AM. If you are me you decide that walking more than an hour to Sultahahmet in the pouring rain is a great plan. You end up at the archeology museum for the afternoon, cold and trying to dry out, which you do successfully except for your feet, which will think will be cold and damp for the rest of your life. The museum is fantastic though and you randomly meet up with a friend and have dinner with them. You take the tram to Fatih again and show up about an hour early, because what the hey, maybe they will be free. When you get there you go through the same routine except that the place is almost deserted and pretty much all the counters are free. The guy asks you to sign various forms in Turkish without explaining what they say which momentarily convinces you that you sold your soul to the Turkish Police. You decide that if it means you get a residency permit it is worth it. It turns out you agree to get kicked out of the country etc if you lied on your forms. He underlines many things in red pen and asks you a question which you worry is something terribly important but it turns out he wants you to confirm your parent’s names and your place of birth. You’re not entirely sure you can remember. He finally starts stapling things all over the place and hands it back to you. He says that you can come back on Monday to pay for the thing since in the incredible wisdom of this bureaucratic adventure appointments are available after the cashier closes but they can only begin processing your forms once you have paid for the thing. He tells you that you will owe 198 TL for the pleasure of another hour and a half commute. You decide that bitching him out for the absolute lunacy and frustrating quality of this adventure will not aid the process and so smile and leave. You heave a deep sigh of relief that the Turkish police have not decided to jail you, kick you out of the country or use their gigantic guns on you. And you leave.
Then you get up nice and early on Monday morning and go into Fatih. You go through security again. You give them your passport. You go to the cashier’s desk and give them exactly 198 TL. He signs a form in great swirly letters, gives one to you and does some more artistic stapling with the other and you return to the desk and wait for someone to be free, give another great big smile and hold up the line behind you. The man tears off a chunk of the form where he has written the date when you can pick up your permit. It is the day that you want to leave the country. You ask in the nicest voice you can muster after having roused yourself at 7:30 in the morning for an hour and a half on public transport that consisted of sitting next to a man that you are fairly certain has TB and then giving up your seat on the tram to an old lady and almost falling over 60,000 times as it careens around corners in a frankly non-safe feeling manner. You ask the man at the desk if your appointment could maybe possibly be earlier. He raises an eyebrow and asks when you want it to be and you very sweetly say just a day earlier. He alters the date and says that’s fine and you thank him profusely. Leaving the building you sing Mr. Rodgers “It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood” to the guards and their gigantic guns. And you go home. And you begin to prepare for your hopefully final trip into Fatih to pick up your residency permit and shake the dust of the Emniyet from your heels forever. Please please please let it be so. I’ll let you know soon enough. Hopefully you found this story funny and enjoyable. Because I have to tell you, if you can’t laugh at the ridiculous bureaucratic tangles in this country, you might just lose your mind.