Çay Service

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The extended family. I’m second from right.

As a YES Abroad student, I have been completely welcomed into the most intimate moments of a tight-knit, loving Turkish family. The experience is by turns enlightening and challenging, fun and hard, but mostly it is heartwarming, and an incredible chance to form bonds with people from another culture would rarely come about it any other way.

For the school semester break, I went with my family to visit my host dad’s parents in İzmir. I slept in someone’s old bed, shared one bathroom with the entire extended family and ate some of the most amazing home-cooked food I have ever eaten. Meeting my host family’s grandparents and seeing them love their grandchildren reminded me more than anything of my own grandparents back home, and made me miss my grandma’s home-style Texas ribs and my Grandad’s laugh. The whole YES experience is about learning about a foreign culture, but at the grandparents house there just wasn’t anything to learn – grandparents love their grandchildren to the ends of the earth in all corners of the world. And after 5 months nothing seemed more natural than for them to pray in the evenings, sitting in chairs to ease the strain of the full bowing and prostration in namaz. When only six months ago I had never seen the Muslim prayer before, I was surprised at how normal it seemed. Grandparents, asking for blessings for their loved ones.

On our last evening in Izmir we visited the grandmother’s brother and his wife at their house across the bay, a two and a half hour trip by car involving a ferry and long lines at an unmarked intersection, where the Turkish ‘every-man-for–himself’ style of driving was at its least efficient. We arrived around 4pm for something I thought was going to be tea, but based on the number of full pots in the kitchen was clearly going to include dinner and therefore after dinner tea, coffee, dessert and talking. We stayed until midnight.

Waiting in the living room

Anxious always to be a gracious guest, despite the insurmountable impossibility of offering anything equivalent to the welcome I have received, I am always quick to offer help in the kitchen. In the shuffle of the first food preparation that day (afternoon tea with homemade börek and two kinds of cake) I ended up pouring çay. Making tea for yourself or your parents is a piece of cake, but pouring for 12 is a different story. You’re holding at least two liters of boiling water in one hand and teapot of boiling çay in the other, and have to fill every tulip shaped cup without spilling a drop. How to get to those cups in the back without knocking over the ones in front? Two rows of six? Three of four? And once you fill them to the brim, they have to be carried to the living room on a tray and offered to everyone in order of status: granddad first, then greatuncle, grandma, my host dad, host mom, aunt, other teenagers etc. Also without spilling. Nothing is more quintessentally Turkish than the girl pouring çay for her family, and all the family members kept saying ‘Türk kız oldu! Türk kız oldu!’ (She’s turned into a Turk! She’s a Turkish girl!).

I was incredibly proud of serving all that tea without spilling a drop. The values it embodies – neatness, respect, hosting, family and food – are central to Turkish society, and to me it was a symbol of how deeply I’ve adjusted to my host culture. I could not be more lucky than to be included in such a special, intimate and loving gathering, nothing fancy and everything genuine, down to the massively rhinestone studded couch, hazy bay and cabbage sarma.

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Ankara Highlights

And thank you once again to the US State Department! This time, for funding a fabulous trip to Ankara. Together with the five other YES girls and six individuals from Ankara’s state funded school for the mentally disabled, we saw some sights and snapped some shots.

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Hacı Bayramı Mosque, built 1427

This centuries old mosque is built directly on the ruins of the Temple of Augustus, from around 20-25 BC (ruins to the left, mosque to the right). It’s no guess why this spot is so special – its a small hill that overlooks the city, separate and above, overshadowed only by the castle to the southeast.

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Women sharing cookies and holding babies as they wait for their husbands in front of millenia-old stone.

We visited on Friday, and so most of the other visitors were not there to sight-see. Continue reading

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Living with Loneliness

Its easy to feel alone in a foreign place. In my new home, I spend a lot of time silent in my room as I wait for my host siblings and parents to come. My room is beautiful, and the fact that I’m not sharing with anyone is still a thrill, but sitting there yet another day after school, the apartment silent, its easy to start to miss my family, to wish I had someone to talk to fluently, or simply get dejected that I have no one with whom I can share the amazing Turkishness around me. My emotional low-point came right on time, 100% predicted by all AFSers ever, but the reality was still surprising.  I’d never had loneliness be a physical feeling underneath my collarbone, nor has Skippy peanut butter ever tasted so good.

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My beautiful, beautiful room.

But even if you know what you’re feeling and why, your emotions unfortunately dont just magically dissappear. If you’re me, baking some cookies and moving on just doesn’t cut it – I like to come to some sort of resolution and try to learn something from what is going on emotionally. Lucky for me, in a recent trip to Ankara, I met someone who helped me do just that, another Westerner recently arrived in Turkey who left me with an entrancing idea: make loneliness your friend. Continue reading

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Greek Mosaics, Turkish Museum

These pictures are from a casual trip to the largest mosaic museum in the world. The Zeugma Mosaic Museum is made up of mosaics from the ancient city of Zeugma, founded in 300 BC and located in the same Gaziantep province. In the 80s and 90s, a multinational team of archeologists uncovered and restored the mosaics, and transported them to a vast and modern museum, complete with computer touch screen ‘brush-the-sand-away-and-discover-the-mosaic-yourself’ type activities. Yet the true attraction is and always will be the magnificent mosaics.

1 eros and zues

Zeus and Europa, seducing her in the shape of a bull.

2 poseidon

A massive portrait of Poseidon among assorted sea-creatures

 For me, it was incredible to see these cultural figureheads in real life – or as close to real life as myths can get. These mosaics were assembled by people for whom these gods were really gods, in a time so much earlier its hard to conceive.

Continue reading

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Walkabout: Antep’s Hell’s Angels

Sometimes, when things aren’t going too well, you just need to go for a walk. At first, its just the thrill of a breath of fresh air – away from the scented products and wet wipes that are a necessity to maintaining a Turkish standard of cleanliness. And in Antep there are always blue skies and puffy white clouds. From where I’m from, that alone is a cause for celebration. Even if I need a coat, just the presence of sun makes a good day for me– the heavens open above me and a road open at my feet.

I never know what a walk in this new city of mine will bring my way. A prayerbead stand, Syrian tourists, the drums of a wedding procession, a 2oo,ooo dollar Porsche – there’s a lot to see. And even if nothing out of the ordinary crosses my path, the fact that I’m walking around a Turkish city alone is pretty extraordinary.

But today, passing a courtyard that is normally filled with tables and chairs, I reallly did see something unusual.  I couldn’t resist snapping this pic, as unobtrusively as I could. Continue reading

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Bayram Part II: Nationalism

The logic behind putting a purely nationalistic holiday on the tail of a religious one is two-fold: it gives the nation an extra day of vacation, but it also infuses an abstract celebration of country with the enthusiasm of a centuries old tradition. And so Atatürk and his compatriots intelligently placed Turkey’s Cumhuriyet Bayramı (Republic Holiday) exactly four days after Kurban Bayramı.

Cumhuriyet Bayramı was a lot like a US federal holiday – an occasion to fly your flag, a long weekend, but not full of family traditions or special food. However Cumhuriyet Bayramı, and not the religious holiday, was the occasion for the hotel gala my family attended. Dressed to the nines, we drove down the street to a scene that was utterly familiar: established members of society filing into a fancy hotel lobby, cars rotating through, valets busy. Although a familiar sight, I have never actually been one of the elite few invited to such an event, I found the upper class social etiquette  just as fascinating as the Turkishness. Continue reading

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Bayram Part I: A Family Affair

A week ago Thursday, approximately one quarter of the people on Earth celebrated one of the biggest holidays of the year – Eid al-Adha. This is the Muslim holiday of sacrifice, known in Turkey as Kurban Bayramı (Sacrifice Holiday). In commemoration and imitation of the Prophet Abraham, whose story Christians and Muslims share, every family who is able to buys an animal and slaughters it. My family however, did not – they paid someone else to perform the sacrifice for them, a normal practice among secular Turks with sufficient income. So the closest I got to a slaughtering was endless footage of escaped bulls and the waves of the Bosphorous red with blood on the television. Still closer than America!

For the holiday, my host-mother’s entire nuclear family and their children gathered at the summer home apartment complex in Mersin, a three hour drive from our home Gaziantep. As I lay in the sun, swam in the bath-water warm ocean and ate pomegranate seeds by the handful, I couldn’t help but marvel how emperors throughout the century have fought for the privilege to do exactly as I was. I am incredibly lucky to be here, and even luckier to be welcomed into a family.

Family kebap banquet in the beachside complex

If I were not staying with a family, I would not have been privy to the intimacy of bayramlaşmaya – the other half of the holiday. Continue reading

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