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.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

The Johnnies and the Mehmets

View from "The Neck", one center of the Gallipoli engagement

Battlefields shouldn’t be beautiful. At least this is how I feel. Battlefields should be cold and gray and melancholy. You shouldn’t look out and think “man, what a great beach”, or “wow, what a fantastic view”. Human beings refuse to fight over the truly ugly parts of the world though and so we are constantly forced to face beautiful battlefields, looking at a breathtaking vista and looking down to find graves at your feet, men of 19 and 20 whose lives ended with that view. My brain always short circuits at this point as it tries to rectify how the ugliness of man made destruction could coexist with the natural splendor of the place. I’m never going to win though and so I just consume the paradox and move on.
The cemetery at the first ANZAC (Australian and New Zealand Auxiliary Corps) landing site Ari Burnu
I tried to imagine the fields a sea of dirt and dust, bodies and blood, but I cannot. I see the green pines and shrubs and remember the swaths of electric yellow that surrounded the motorway on either side of the road to Eceabat. My mind cannot comprehend the horror of trench warfare. And I don’t think I want it to. Many of the graves that exist today are “presumed to be buried here”. No one knows. Many names do not even get a headstone, just a line carved into a stone monument, standing mute, each one identical to the other on spots throughout the landscape. Tiny scraps of land that men fought viciously over, pouring hot metal and fire into a football field’s worth of no man’s land before launching themselves towards a goal that they knew the first attackers could not possibly reach. Many of these maneuvers were ‘diversionary’, meant only to distract attention. Men dying for an optical illusion, a sleight of hand, while other men fought just as hard and died just as quickly for the ‘real’ objective, another slice of land in the Aegean, wafer thin ridges on a skinny peninsula for a vein of maritime property that would bring the allies to Russian waters. 

Brighton Beach, where the ANZACs were meant to land on 25 April 1915
There’s a quote by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk about the Battle of Gallipolli that I find incredibly poetic. He wrote it 20 years after the fighting, and nearly 80 years ago and it still strikes me as one of the most chivalrous, courageous and simply heart wrenching things I have ever heard.  I leave you with it.
Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives; – You are now living in the soil of a friendly country, – therefore rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side here in this country of ours. You, the mothers, who sent their sons from faraway countries – wipe away your tears; your sons are now lying in our bosom, – and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well.

Americans are friendly

No really, we are. I never really thought about it before. But I am that Mid-Western girl who loves to strike up a conversation and chat with people. I’ll give directions to anybody, answer most any non-vulgar greeting, and of course share a glass of cay. I met a lot of new people this weekend in Eceabat and Canakkale and each encounter turned out to be a pretty fun little story. I’ll share them if you’re up for it. 
The pier in Canakkale
 Eceabat is essentially a village with a ferry dock and a couple of cheap hotels, a backpacker’s paradise. I wanted to do a little exploring and quickly discovered that your exploring options are pretty limited, because with a population of about 5000 your run out of Eceabat to explore pretty quickly. After meandering down the under-construction waterfront and cutting through a pathway past some very chill dogs, some back gardens with chickens and cows and a drainage ditch, I crossed the highway and took a dirt lane up towards the ridges that crisscross the peninsula. I walked past the plot the first time, seeing a man milking a cow by hand and the little goats munching on some shrubbery as I passed, but feeling like it wasn’t right to take a snapshot if he didn’t know I was. I walked further along, looking out over the Dardanelles and its aqua-blue waters, hillside orchards and a clump of well-tended beehives before turning back. When I came back the goats were still munching away but the little black one was watching me with inquisitive eyes, so I watched back. It slowly advanced towards me but I stayed put, knowing that patience was the best way to encourage it to come closer. Our spell was broken by the farmer coming up from behind his ancient truck, apparently having finished with the cow because he carried a raki (liquor) bottle full of milk with a teat on it. He proceeded to feed the two kids and we struck up a conversation. I started by asking if the goats were babies. I’m full of great opening lines. We ended up chatting about the animals and he asked me what I was doing in Eceabat (translation: what is a city girl like you doing trying to pet the billy goat who is obviously trying to prove his superiority over you but butting you in the back of the knees). I met the farmer’s dog, named Tomas and fed his animals some of the stale bread he had brought along for them. He went about his work, pouring the rest of the milk from the cow into a 10 liter plastic water container and loading it into his truck, bringing the calf over to the cow and walking them over to a field over the dirt track and staking the adult to graze for the day. Tomas barked at me when I stopped paying attention to him for long enough and a barnyard cat (sans barn) eyed me warily. The solitary rooster kicked up a stink. I left feeling like I had left a petting zoo. I don’t know what the farmer thought of the whole thing, but I hope he found it as enjoyable as I did.
The Dardanelles at sunset
 There’s a military museum in Çanakkale staffed by young sailors doing their national service, which is required of all men in Turkey and is typically 2 years long. To the people who run the museum admission policy: don’t put young men in charge. During the off season the museum is supposed to close at 5pm. I got there at about 5:45. I noticed the fortress from the ferry and decided that I wanted a closer look. I walked up and a pair of young men in sailor’s uniforms told me that yes, it was open, but that I needed a ticket. Retracing my steps to the ticket office, another young sailor that the museum was closed and I couldn’t buy a ticket. Not one to take no for an answer I returned to the entrance, put on my best oh-no-what-am-I-possibly-going-to-do face and voice and the sailor looked at me for about 3 seconds and let me in. I looked around for a bit, got caught in the midst of a school tour group and went to the second floor in time to catch my free-entrance-giving sailor giving a performance based upon the experiences of Turkish soldiers at stationed at Gallipoli during the battle. He was doing a pretty good job I had to admit. On the way out, I checked out the rest of the exhibits, and the sailors if I’m brutally honest, leading one to make an exclamation on the lines of “Eyvallah”. Essentially, he was flattered and a little surprised that the American girl was giving him the once over. Also, I think he might have been teasing/flirting back. I chatted with my sailor on the way out, complimenting his acting technique and he told me he had never done any before coming to this post. He was getting out of the navy in four months. I congratulated him and we parted. And that is how you get into the Çanakkale Military Museum for free after it has closed. Discretionary wardrobe recommended. 
The little black goat
 I had my dinner with Orhan Pamuk’s novel Snow looking over the black water. It was quiet the whole time I ate but as I was contemplating whether I would get desert on not two Turkish tour groups rolled up and swamped the place. Seeing as I was sitting by myself and a four person table a middle aged Turkish woman came up and asked if the seat across from me was free. I said of course and she called her friends over, but they were too many for the places available. I told her I was finished and on my way out anyway, so they could have my seat as well. She looked down at me with that tilt to the head that indicates that something doesn’t commute and asked me if I was foreign. I told her I was an American and the usual questions of “What are you doing here?” “Where are you studying?” and most crucially “Where did you learn Turkish?” rolled out. At the end of the question and answer portion of our program she reached down and pinched my cheek in an aunt-type fashion as if to say “You’re such a good foreigner, learning our language”. Then she proceeded to tell all of her friends about what I good foreigner I was, learning Turkish. I wasn’t even annoyed that she had invaded my personal space, I found it rather endearing. 
 Sitting on the pier in Eceabat working on my graduate school personal statement (yeah, I do that, don’t judge) I was approached by three young girls. They wanted to know which football team I supported. I told them I didn’t really have one yet, since I hadn’t been here very long. They decided that I was worthy of more conversation and ended up sitting next to me and chatting about what I was studying, where I was from. Then they asked me a terrifying question, could I sing a song for them? I tried to wriggle my way out telling them that I didn’t know any songs and that I can’t sing to save my life. They were persistent though and eventually I gave in and ended up serenading them to the tune of “Jingle Bells” followed by “Feliz Navidad” and “San Fermin”. I would like to give a big shout out to my high school Spanish teacher Mr. Donnelly at this juncture and thank him for making us sing every single day of class because I can still remember the words to those songs thanks to him. The girls found this delightful and rewarded me with offerings of their own, mostly songs that they learned at school, but their final number took me completely by surprise. It was the opening line to Gangnam Style. Sometimes the strangest things happen in this country. 
 I’ve got plenty more where that came from (being the only young female on a battlefield tour tends to attract questioning) but I’ll leave you with those for now. I really am the stereotypical friendly American. Not an adventure seeker or dare-devil but I don’t feel like I need to be. Just by saying hello and learning Turkish I get to have encounters like these, the everyday conversations that you remember, and look back at and laugh about.  Friendly seems to be working out just fine.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

I cried in the presence of God...

St. Peter's Basilica
 The crowd surged forward and I was swept along with them, physically and emotionally. We were heading towards a railing, guarded by police, soldiers: men in uniforms of all varieties. The crush of people would have been overwhelming in any other circumstance but it felt so natural, so expected and almost as though it belonged. The fixation upon a single human being was what I would have expected from a rock concert or a political rally. Yet the celebrations here did not carry the same overtones, it was a victory, of that I was sure, yet not of a human endeavor. This victory was so much more powerful than any election that changed the rule of a single nation for 4 or 5 years, or the short found success of commercial industry. This was an eternal victory. The man we all pressed towards, with a charisma that was undeniable, though whether it radiated from his person or from the crowd it was impossible to tell, was no ordinary celebrity. He was a 70-something man, with thin white balding hair, fragile glasses placed over his narrow nose, the slight pudgy-ness that men so often develop in their waning years and a smile that spoke of quiet amusement through the expression of his face, but more strongly in his eyes, when you could catch a glimpse of them. He traveled in an open-air vehicle, not a convertible per se, since he needed a railing to hang onto. His security flanked him, but he seemed unfazed by them, focusing on the crowd. He didn’t use stage banter to warm them up, instead he spoke little, and when he did it was quiet words, written for him, spoken slowly and with emphasis, in a language that I mostly understood, but through which I could still sense the passion. He wore white from head to toe and jewelry, though nothing as flashy as I expected. I didn’t know what to say when he went past. I cannot recall if anything came out of my mouth. I put my hands into the air as a salute to this man, the representation of our victory, the center and focus of the energy of more than 150,000 people, packed into a square blazing with the light of a spring morning in Italy. He emerged from a balcony, and set forth his vision of the world, one that is utopic in its goals, and yet that morning, it all seemed possible. I had seen this man before, but never truly in the flesh, almost near enough to touch. 
The Stations of the Cross on Good Friday

The first time I had experienced the ferocity of emotion attached to this man and what he symbolized, I was running late and a little lost. In the forefront was the coliseum, the premier symbol of an ancient and illustrious society. That night it took center stage to represent the underbelly of that society, how with immense power often comes immense cruelty and the desire to control every emerging force in the world. People gathered at its foot to huddle, some holding candles, others bathed only in the orange light of the monument. On the hill opposite, almost facing off with the symbol of Rome was a cross blazing with light. It looked so insubstantial as compared to the stone and arches of its opponent, and yet the state of the latter spoke about the strength of the former. Because Rome failed to control one force that emerged during its reign. The force took over, working beneath the currents of society, in its shadows before a man of privilege elevated it along with himself. It came to survive and endure while the creations of men crumbled, and were left for scrap, to be scavenged over for future building projects and disappear into the mists of legend. Those mists hung over the scene.  In languages from all over the world, voices both male and female recited words that were admittedly foreign to me and yet immensely familiar. Slowly but surely, a journey emerged, one written in 14 parts, The Stations of the Cross and I choked back the tears at the end of each stanza, when the crowd came together as one to speak words that are recognizable in any language, beginning with a plea, “Our Father…”. Why they struck such a deep chord, I can’t say. I don’t know. I speak these words every day of my life; have known them by heart since I was a child. Yet the presence of so many, sharing this experience, remembering the suffering of a man, at a site that represented suffering for the sake of glory, suffering for the amusement of others, and for the truest proof of their domination of the known world, hit me. The journey ended on that Friday night, and the man in white spoke, remembering his family all around the world. It was a solemn occasion, one of contemplation and grief and yet I still experienced elation by being there. The tears were of genuine sorrow, but they were held back by the knowledge that joy had arrived. 

I don’t know that I have ever experienced so much visceral beauty in such a short space of time. Some of it reached my eyes, in the form of painting, sculpture and architecture. The ruins of Rome inspire every budding artist who encounters them, from Brunelleschi forwards. I found myself marveling at the sheer grandeur of the spaces 2000 years later, the effrontery and arrogance of the people who ordered, designed and built these masterpieces and the talent they possessed to pull it off. After all the disgraces, the plundering looting destruction wars famines turmoil and uncertainty the structures still stand, perhaps not as proudly as they once must have done, but still magnificent. I saw works of art that left my chin on the floor, with museums name-dropping right and left, tearing my eyes away from a Raphael to be confronted with a Botticelli, every piece so replete with depth and emotion that even looking was overwhelming. To experience art is to run a full gamut of human perception and feeling, looking over the faces, the bodies, the postures, and the surroundings of every member of a group, looking for both the plain and the subtle meaning for each brushstroke. But the mind will never comprehend the way the heart can and so I find myself rooted in place, staring and trying to take it in, letting my eyes wander and fall when my soul trembles. Sometimes it is the great works, the famous and infamous; the grandiose in scale or subject. And sometimes I fall for the unloved, the pieces that everyone overlooks and yet I cannot continue on from. I don’t know that any other place can wreak the kind of emotional exhaustion on me that an art museum can. The smells of incense, food and human beings assaulted me, and the sounds of church bells, something I never would have thought of missing, but do, washed over me. 
The School of Athens by Raphael
 Yet for all of the tactility of Rome, its sights and sounds and yes, tastes (those were also quite good), it was the untouchable and unreachable that touched and reached me. My mind and my words lack poetry and so I find it impossible to truly describe the emotions of the crowd, the way that the pain from standing on cobblestones for 3 hours drained of significance, the guttural sobs that emerged from my throat at intervals and yet never truly blossomed into actual tears. I can’t explain to you why a small man dressed in white, riding on the back of a makeshift pickup truck has the power to command silence from a joyful mob and keep their rapt attention on him while he speaks. I don’t understand why this man can have such appeal, why I even cared that I got so close to him, since I’m not even a Catholic. I can’t tell you why I felt such contentment and rejuvenation from a weekend of tearing around a city at breakneck pace, going to bed late and getting up early, of trying desperately to understand a language I speak 0 words of, and being bombarded by some of the most beautiful things I have ever witnessed to the point of oblivion.  I cannot explain many things in this world. But I can tell you that I felt an immense power from the people who gathered in St. Peter’s Square on Easter morning to hear a small man named Francis celebrate with us the resurrection of Christ. It was a weekend I will never forget, and which I feel so grateful to have experienced. 
Pope Francis