Quba with a Q

For my first trip out into the regions, my host family and I traveled up to Quba (say it right! This ain’t Havana folks!) for the Ramadan three day holiday. I really had no idea what to expect, so I did what usually works best and tried not to expect anything. This blog post will be as holistic of an account of the two day whirlwind from which I have just returned.

On the Road 

Not twenty minutes outside of Baku, the road begins to be dotted by sights that seem outrageous to my oh-so foreign eyes but are apparently the bread and butter of Azerbaijani roadside shenanigans. I see a biker — helmetless, of course — chugging along the shoulder of a highway, which is already enough to qualify as a suicide mission if you ask me, but on top of that he had some white headphones which must have been projecting the soundtrack of death into his ears. The audacity. I will give Azerbaijani bikers this — whenever I’ve seen bikers at night, they usually have adorned their bike with a minimalistic dim light, but a light nonetheless. I recall the terrifying night drives that my family and I took during our trip to Nicaragua in January, in which there were many last second swerves that gave us heart attack upon heart attack, but the lightless bikers seemed perfectly content to pedal on the tightrope of death.

An hour passes by. The landscape gradually puts on some slope, but is still extraordinarily arid. Of the world’s eleven climate zones, Azerbaijan remarkably hosts nine of them. The first hour of the drive, the highway hugs the Caspian Sea and I’m treated to a view of the aquamarine water, only a few shades darker than the sky above it. It isn’t windy or wavy at all. In fact, the utter stillness of the sea is a bit unsettling. The world’s largest lake has a calm temper it seems.

One of the traditions to celebrate the end of Ramadan is to sacrifice a lamb and distribute one third of its meat to neighbors, one third to the poor, and the last third you may keep for yourself. Speaking to my host mother about this, she reflected on the difficulty of practically fulfilling the task of distributing one third of the meat to the poor. Institutions that might seem like likely candidates, i.e. orphanages, hospitals, homeless shelters, all receive food from the government and from what I inferred, do not accept meat donations. Walking up to the doorstep of a unknown family in a poorer neighborhood is not a viable option, my host mother tells me, because they will refuse the meat and in fact become offended that they were the deemed the recipients of charity. Poverty will never negate pride.

With this is mind, ’tis the season to sacrifice. My family fulfilled our sacred duty last weekend, and for the first time in my life I witnessed the entire meat production process, pen to plate. To tell the truth, I was more fascinated than anything watching my host grandmother slice the liver of an animal that a few mere hours ago I had seen standing and breathing. I know my American, especially my vegetarian American readers, are feeling squeamish as they read this. I am not here to judge any lifestyle or practice. I do see the value in witnessing your food so that in its passing you gain an appreciation for the life that was sacrificed and the myriad of effort from its caretaker, from the food that was grown for its sustenance, from the sun and the moon, from God if you so believe, that all contributed to the life of this animal. Now the death of this animal contributes to the life of us. Think of it what you may, but I find it quite incredible.

Back to the road. About an hour and a half into the drive I began seeing men skinning the sacrificial lamb on the side of the road. I gawked. I turned to my host sister to make sure she had seen what I had just seen. It’s one thing going through an entire day long process of sacrificing the lamb, visiting the mosque, and preparing the meat as my family did. But on the side of the road? What goes through the minds of people who stop and buy the freshly skinned lamb? Sunglasses, shampoo, sandals, did I forget anything? Oh wait, the sacrificial lamb! Pull over, pull over!

I fell asleep for what could only have been half an hour and the next thing you know, we’re in Quba. There was nothing particularly remarkable about our arrival. The town frankly looked like a bigger version of the dozen villages we had passed through to get here. Paved main road with an irrational number of furniture stores, men leaning against cars talking to each other but mostly staring out at the road, and cars competitively, almost coquettishly (?!) navigating the laneless road. We soon turn right off onto a side road and start searching for our relatives’ home. The family we visit are relatives of my host grandmother’s deceased husband, though beyond that I could not tell you anybody’s relation to anybody. My host uncle tried to explain it to me, but I stopped him midway and said that unless we were going to break out the pen and paper and draw a family tree, his valiant effort was in vain. “Qohumlarıq (we’re relatives),” I smile and nod, “that’s all that’s important.”

Arrival

Hospitable is too weak a word. Even the Azerbaijani word, istiqanlı, which literally translates to hot-blooded, feels like an understatement. When we first arrived at the house, there was an initial moment of confusion. Who’s this girl? She’s our guest, from America. But she looks like our girls? Ask her yourself, she understands you! And thus the American cat was out of the bag and the onslaught of kindness began. Not to imply that the kindness was as a result of my Americanness, but my foreign-ness was undoubtedly a rarity in the household. I overheard a young boy whisper to his mother that he had never heard an American speak Azerbaijani before. One of the men, who was absolutely lovely and gave me Azerbaijani jazz music recommendations because he himself was a professional jazz pianist, told me that I was the first American he had ever interacted with. The curiosity and kindness that was shown to me I will never forget. How can I explain it? I can’t. I can only describe it. I walk in and am immediately offered a seat, given a bowl of cherries, a plate of yarpak dolması, fresh yogurt, and tea. Old eyes, young eyes, freckled faces and wrinkled faces all look at me as if I am of an entirely different species. Well, in regards to the life that I live, it isn’t too much of a stretch to say that I am of an entirely different kind. My privilege is conspicuous. At twenty years old, I have traveled the world. I have received an excellent education, of the fifteen years of it, fourteen have been provided to me free of cost. I attend a prestigious college, and I study what I’m passionate about. I have a home in a beautiful, impossibly expensive city, and I have parents with stable jobs who support me. My future is a blank canvas on which I choose what colors, shapes, and layers to paint. My privilege is conspicuous. Despite the differences between our two realities, the ease with which we form a relationship with each other is like water. I take to them, and they take to me. Talking with the relatives, both young and old, reinvigorates my desire to document life histories. The wealth of community knowledge is unimaginable.

After spending a few hours at the house, my host mother, grandmother, and sisters took a drive first to the Quba cemetery where the family’s ancestors, on both sides, are buried. Men wearing the taqiyah, or skull cap that some Muslims wear for religious purposes, were walking around, prepared to provide their service of reciting Quranic verses in Arabic for families visiting their deceased loved ones. My host grandmother had one such man recite such prayers for her brother, mother, and grandmother. Unlike anything that I’ve seen in the United States, most graves in Azerbaijan have images of the deceased on the tombstone, some of just the face, but most have full body images. It was very moving, if eery, to have the face of the buried two dimensionally projected to full size in front of the visitor. The images brought a degree of vividness to the lives lived that I have not experienced in any other cemetery.

After paying respect to the family ancestors, we drove to a famous forest right outside the city of Quba, and the tree cover become so thick that next to none sunlight made it through the canopy. I had been told by friends in Baku that Quba’s nature was gorgeous, and their impression soon became my impression as well. We stopped by a qutab (thin lavash bread with meat or greens inside, cooked in lots of yummy oily butter) place in the forest to have a bite to eat, but my host grandmother was not having their cleanliness standards, so we drove back into Quba and were recommended a place to eat. On route to the restaurant, my host mother asked for direction from a man on the street and not only did he give us directions, he jumped in his car and personally escorted us to the restaurant, testament to the outrageous kindness of random strangers here in Azerbaijan. The qutab was delicious as promised, and afterwards we returned to the relatives’ house for another round of tea. I become quite good playpals with Kemalə, a three year old girl who can only be described as feisty as hell — she’s got attitude and I love it! When we left the relatives house for a different relatives house where my host sisters Fizza, Jala, and I were going to spend the night, I was running low on energy, but Kemalə could have easily gone a few more hours, I’m sure of it.

IMG_5550

Qutab

We spent the night at Zeyneb and her mother’s place, which was extraordinarily clean, as are all houses I visited in Quba. The relatives all seemed to be quite amused by my amazement at the cleanliness, but it truly was remarkable. Especially juxtaposed to the street outside, which wasn’t by any means filthy, but was certainly had its fair share of litter. The resident director for the CLS Azerbaijan program here, David, who served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Azerbaijan shared his take on why there is such a disparity between the cleanliness of homes and apartments and the relatively unkempt stairwells, streets, parks, etc: he believes that this is a consequence of a Soviet attitude, in which the state was expected to take care of public property and ensure its cleanliness. However, after the Soviet Union fell apart and the state was dissolved of that responsibility, no one took it upon themselves to keep public places, streets, stairwells, and the like up to the old standard.

When we arrived at Zeyneb’s house for the night, we were offered fresh watermelon, midnight snacking Azerbaijani style. While everyone else was offered slices of watermelon, I had the privilege to scoop my watermelon out with a spoon myself, and I was informed this was how the nene’s (grandmothers) of Quba did it. Honored to carry on the tradition. We stayed up until about 1 am, dancing salsa (I dance a lot of salsa in Azerbaijan!), talking, and eating. I thought I was full, but then Zeyneb’s grandfather came home from the working at the bakery and brought two still-warm loaves home with him. And the eating continued. I had some delicious Quba village cheese, tomatoes, and cucumber with the fresh bread and finally called it a night.

Day Two

Little did I know what I was in for. After waking up around 9:30 and having breakfast (bread, shor goghal [a salty breakfast pastry], tea, tomatoes, cucumber, and Quba cheese) we went out to the garden and marveled at the fruit trees. Never have I picked a cherry directly from the cherry and plopped it into my mouth, but it sure is a great feeling. What at first appeared to be a flourishing bed of weeds soon revealed its true nature as a mint patch gone wild! What a life, picking cherries and mint leaves from your own backyard.

We returned to the original relatives’ house before setting off on our adventure. First stop: Qırmızı Qəsəbə, translated as Red Village. This place is a real trip. It’s considered to be the world’s only surviving pre-Holocaust Jewish settlement, and the only all-Jewish settlement outside of Israel. The inhabitants are known as Mountain or Highland Jews, and in 1742 were given permission by the Muslim Khan of Quba to build a settlement on the other side of the Qudiyalçay River. They speak their own language called Juhuri, which is a form of Persian due to the fact that most of the Jews who live in the town have their ancient origins in Persia, and most residents speak Russian and Azerbaijani as well. In this northern corner of Azerbaijan there is an incredible example of religious pluralism, with Muslims (to this day) living on one side of the river, and Jews on the other; there is a bridge connecting the two sides and there are strong economic ties between the two towns. While the town used to boast a population of around 20,000, after the collapse of the Soviet Union there was a mass emigration and the current population estimates hover around 3000 people. If it were not for the wealth that comes back to the town from wealthy Jewish Azerbaijani expats living abroad in mostly Russia and the United States, Qırmızı Qəsəbə would not have survived until the year 2017. There is no industry in the town, and there is no real reason for young people to stay. The future is not very bright, but the present is fascinating nonetheless. Though clearly written from a partisan standpoint, the Times of Israel put together an interesting piece on Qırmızı Qəsəbə for those interested in learning more.

Next stop, Şahdağı. Easily one of the most beautiful place I’ve ever been to. Slowly but surely, we drove up the slopes of this heavenly alpine giant. While we still had a good view of the distant mountain, we pulled over and took some pictures with some grazing sheep. I think I was a shepherd in a past life, because the bliss I experienced wandering among those sheep, breathing crisp mountain air, its a sweet life. We eventually made it to the town of Laza, tucked between the slopes of Şahdağı, and, well, I can’t describe it. Looking back at my pictures, they don’t do it justice either. As Laza first came into sight, all I remember thinking is: I need to spend time here. Doing what, Allah bilir (God knows). But I will come back to this place. There’s a waterfall that attracts many Azerbaijanis on holiday, and we made the little trek up as well and got our obligatory waterfall picture. My sister Jalə and I were adventurous enough to take our shoes off and wade around in the surprisingly cool water; I was told it would be icy, but it was far from it. Compared to my adventures in the High Sierra, this was absolutely swimming temperature water.

A full day of adventuring under the sun was starting to get to us, so we started making our way back to Quba. On the way, we stopped and had a delicious linner (lunch + dinner) of xınqal (square pasta like pieces covered with ground beef, caramelized onions, and yogurt) and düşbərə (Azerbaijan’s national dish, vaguely resembling ravioli but in a soup…delicious).

When we arrived back at the relatives’ house, I was exhausted. I sat down next to some of the older women, hoping to spend our last hour having some laid back conversations before our two and a half hour drive back to Baku. Of course, laid back situations simply do not exist here in my life in Azerbaijani. Next thing you know, I’m having a brilliant conversation with a young man — also our relative, of course — who I mentioned before, is a professional jazz pianist, specializing in mugham-jazz fusion music. Wow. I’m in heaven. He gave me some recommendations for live music in Baku and talked about his experience as a musician in Azerbaijan. Truly icing on the cake to a near perfect two days. The time finally came for goodbyes. One of the uncles gave me a rose, a Quba rose, as he told me, and it now has a permanent place in between the pages of my journal. My host mother, laughing, pulled me to the car because if she hadn’t, I would have been saying goodbyes for the next hour. We gave some of the Quba gals a ride over to a clothes store on the main street, and then got on the road back to Baku.

Next, I have a real treat for you all! A note that I wrote on my phone, a glimpse into my mindset in real time rather than reflection. Here it goes:

As we drive back to Baku, I see a donkey nibbling on some vines curled around a chain link fence and I suddenly realize that I love this country. A few moments later, I’m greeted with a deep green, mountain silhouette horizon under a faded pink, polluted blue horizon, and the feeling is confirmed. I’m thankful for this moment of clarity. It’s not often in life when the heart feels sure about anything. This trip to Quba has restored my faith in the beauty of humanity. It has taught me that when one falls in love with a people, falling in love with place from which those people come is second nature. What seemed like a relatively mundane rural town when I first arrived 32 hours ago now feels like a place to which I have things, or rather, people to come back to. The Azerbaijanis that I met on this holiday could come from anywhere, the most unremarkable place imaginable, and I swear their kindness would act as a fertilizer on the land, imbuing the soil with a richness in stories and struggles, home to people with sparkling eyes and wrinkles, testimony to the fullness of lives lived.

10pm. We arrive in Baku. This trip was transformative, enlightening, and most of all, outrageously fun. To more adventures.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

Xoş Gördük, Azərbaycan!

A little over a year and a half ago, I was laughing in a Mavi jeans store in Izmir, Turkey, after someone told me that they thought I was Azerbaijani – scroll way down for that story. Truth be told, a year and a half ago I knew essentially nothing about Azerbaijan besides the fact that it existed. Strangely enough, I remember the moment I willed Azerbaijan into existence in my mind; I was around ten years ago, reading a National Geographic magazine (I guess I’ve always been this way), and as my eyes glossed over the name “Azerbaijan”, I remember thinking to myself that it was a cool name, though for what, I had no idea. My mom told me that it was a country, but that seemed to be the extent of her knowledge. Thus Azerbaijan entered through the side door of my consciousness and lingered there for ten years, patient and undisturbed.

March 7th, 2017 was an unremarkable day to the world at large, but a particularly eventful day for me. I watched a Sufi movie called Baba Aziz with my heart-secret friends, a.k.a. my two Sufism 109 classmates, was treated to dinner at a high-quality-for-a-college-student mediterranean bistro, and danced salsa for an hour and a half with other Mac students. It was also my twentieth birthday. In the early afternoon of this early March Tuesday, I sneakily refreshed my phone in class and nearly gave myself a heart attack. “Congratulations, we are pleased to…” And the rest is history. I find myself in Baku, Azerbaijan for two months on the Critical Language Scholarship studying Azerbaijani.

It has been exactly one week since I’ve arrived in country, and I am stunned by the familiarity, the hospitality, and the eery feeling of homecoming to a place I’ve never been to before. It’s hard to believe that it’s only been a week, because my host family somehow manages to pack a week’s worth of activities into each day I’m here. My family consists of three people: Gulshan, my host mother, Fizza, my 20-year-old host sister, and Jala, my 17-year-old host sister. They are all absolutely fantastic. I could not have asked for a more welcoming, warm-hearted, hilarious, loving family. One week has already given me memories of guitar sing-along sessions, dancing in the kitchen, dining table heart-to-hearts, existential balcony talks, and so much more. I am so grateful.

IMG_4845.jpg

Mənim ailəm (my family): Gulshan, Fizza, me, and Jala

As I mentioned before, it’s been a wonderful whirlwind of a week. Due to both my memory and the fact that I would rather not be putting together this blog post for eight hours, the body of this post is going to be a quick tour of the week’s highlights. Recently I heard about a live streaming experiment that Katy Perry has undertaken. The prospect of live streaming life is somewhat terrifying (though the security state isn’t too far from it! Did I hear someone say conspiracy theory?), it would actually have been useful this week to remember everything that I got up to. Okay enough dilly dallying. Let’s go.

The Average Azeri’s impression of Gianna Brassil

You are not American. You have Azeri roots. You are definitely not Azeri. You are Turkish. Why do you pronounce certain words like a Canadian? Stare. Stare. Stare. Needless to say, I am a confusing creature to most Azeris. Not to worry. I have a year of explaining my heritage to perplexed Turks. “Anam Amerikalı ama Latin Amerikalı kökenli. Atam avstraliyalı. Mən isə Amerikalıyam.” I remember the days when I actually attempted to explain my family’s full migration story! What a novice! After consulting my host sisters and some Azeri friends, they all say that the average Azeri would not think I was a fellow Azeri if they saw me walking down the street. In fact, they said that the average Azeri would probably think I was Turkish, which I find quite interesting! I guess I’m too stylish to be considered Azeri. Hah. Hah. In reality, I am pitifully style-less and big to be ever considered Azeri. Just like the Turks, women here are irrationally small and slim. I’m reliving my glory days as the giant of Baku! God, I missed being a foot taller and five sizes bigger than all the ladies!

The Anthropology of the Mundane

I like to think of myself as a relatively laid-back person, but sometimes there’s no other word to describe me but a paranoid mess. There’s worse things to be?! As a recently declared Anthropology and Religious Studies double major (woot woot!) I am constantly searching for my breakthrough anthropology project that will allow me to make some cash and dip out to travel the world and keep learning languages. So far, Baku has inspired some interesting prospective projects: the anthropology of urban metro, population demographics, advertisements, social behavior, and particularly the names of metro stations and how they shape historical narratives. In Baku, similar to in Turkey, many of the metro stations are named after historically significant dates. For example, the nearest metro station to my apartment is Iyirmi Sekkiz May station (May 28th station). In Turkey, there has been a massive renaming campaign in which hundreds of streets, bridges, metro stations, and the like have been renamed 15 Temmuz bridge/street/station, in memory of the attempted coup on July 15, 2016. I find the position of metro station names and their ubiquity in a mobile citizen’s daily life to be a compelling influential factor in reminding the citizen of the historical narrative and the living nature of history itself. This idea needs a lot of development, but this was its world debut – you’re welcome WordPress. Now don’t steal it!

 

IMG_4902.jpg

Baku metro

I would love to do a project on supermarkets around the world. Food is so telling about the most intimate elements of a culture, and is representative of a country’s economy, agricultural practices, multicultural heritage, and culinary cosmopolitanism. So without further adieu, here are some supermarket photos to quench your appetite for them (you know you have one).

 

Things America Should Have

One of my favorite parts of the CLS program so far is the language partner element. To practice our oral Azerbaijani and start building an Azeri social circle beyond our families, the program pairs us up with university students who have similar interests to us as we indicated on our applications. My language partner, Rena, is fantastic. She and I immediately bonded over our love for Arctic Monkeys (who would have thought?), and the list soon grew past music to experimental food adventures, bookstores, and much more. Which brings me to our most recent excursion to the İçərişəhər Bookhouse Cafe. Located in Baku’s old city, this place is a nearly perfectly designed heaven on earth for Gianna Brassil. Laid back atmosphere, bookshelves lining all the walls, classy music playing in the background, and a decently priced menu featuring fruit smoothies and ‘tost’ (like a sandwich, taking various forms from a grilled cheese sandwich to a nutella-filled piece of paradise). Best of all, all the books in the cafe can be rented for one week for only 1 manat, which is about 60 cents. The book selection was entirely in Azerbaijani to my knowledge, which is great because it has been surprisingly difficult to find a well-stocked Azerbaijani bookstore here. The majority of books I’ve seen here are in Russian; everyone in Azerbaijan is trilingual in Russian, Azerbaijani, and Turkish, and most people speak English and either French or German as well. Without a doubt, it is the most multilingual society I have ever witnessed. I went to the bookhouse cafe with my language partner, Rena, another CLS Azerbaijani student, Halcyon, her language partner Gülüş, and one other Azeri friend. We browsed books, chatted, and played Uno for a few hours; it was magical. Here are some photos:

And with that, dear blog readers, this post will come to a close. Thank you for bearing with my fleeting thoughts in blog post form. I’ll try to post somewhat regularly, in other words, every two weeks, perhaps every week if I pull some sort of superhuman feat. Until next time.

 

 

 

Black as Hell, Strong as Death, Sweet as Love

Kahve cehennem kadar kara, ölüm kadar kuvvetli, sevgi kadar tatlı olmalı.

Coffee should be black as hell, strong as death, and sweet as love.

Türk Atasözü/Turkish Proverb

Before coming to Turkey, I had never drunk coffee. To be sure, I’d had sips of my dad’s tall American morning cup here and there, and I never refused an offer of my mom’s beloved Italian espresso. But coffee had never been a permanent fixture of my daily life, and I would never in a million years consider myself a coffee drinker. That is, until I came to Turkey. Here, I found myself in the midst of a culture that does not treat coffee as a quick and easy energy booster, or the reason for a pitstop purchase on route to a busy day at work.

I’ve come to realize that the relationship between coffee and Americans is like the relationship between people and chapstick. Most days, its consumption/application is carried out along with the other acts committed to muscle memory. Wake up, stumble to the kitchen, put on the coffee pot. Brush your teeth, comb your hair, apply chapstick. They are almost thoughtlessly executed. But say one day the alarm clock fails at its one duty, and you find yourself fighting a losing battle with time. Next thing you know, you’re adjusting your barrette or belt on the way out of the door, and you realize: I didn’t have my cup of coffee/I forgot to put on chapstick. And for the rest of the day, or at least until this crisis of the contemporary age can be remedied, there is nothing to do but jump through the rings of fire—public transportation, grudgingly performed greetings, routine email checks—with a caffeine headache and chapped lips. In short, coffee in the context of American culture is a periphery artefact. It is noticed only when it is marked absent on our mental to-do list. It begins to exist only when it is lacking.

Truth be told, I’d never given that much thought to the role coffee plays in American culture. That is, until I immersed myself in a culture in which coffee is a cornerstone of national pride, a revered symbol of friendship, a sealing agent of blossoming love, a messenger of fate, and everything in between.

turkish-coffee

First and foremost, Turkish coffee is not a type of coffee—it is a process. Although there is no special bean with which it is made, the coffee beans used for Turkish coffee are ground to the finest possible powder, finer than any other type of coffee. It is prepared by immersing the coffee grounds into hot water, just long enough for the flavors to dissolve, or else the coffee will develop a burnt taste. Sugar must be added with the coffee grounds during the brewing process, and there are four levels of sugar one can choose from: sade (plain), az (a little), orta (medium), and çok (very sweet). Once the sugar is dissolved and there is a visible layer of foam, the coffee is poured into elegant little cups. Foamy coffee is an indicator of good coffee; the thicker the foam, the more talented the maker. Coffee is served with a small glass of water and a sweet, traditionally lokum, or Turkish delight.

Making-the-Perfect-Cup-Of-Turkish-Coffee

In the making.

The glass of water is an essential part of the Turkish coffee drinking experience. Before the first sip, one drinks a sip of water to cleanse the palate and prepare oneself for the bittersweetness of a well-made Turkish coffee. To counteract the strength of the coffee, the lokum should be nibbled at periodically; this will complete the balance of the dark, dense coffee and the sweet, soft, sugary treat.

turkish-coffee-served

 That being said, coffee-maker apprentice does not make an appearance on my resumé. The description above is the result of extensive internet research and eye witness accounts of the process carried out in our very own kitchen. If asked to actually make a cup of Turkish coffee, I could probably fumble through the process relatively harmlessly, but be acutely reminded of how much of a foreigner I really am. I do have a well of experience in the arguably more important aspect of Turkish coffee: drinking it.

Coffee drinking first arose on the human stage in 15th century Yemen. The bean was originally imported from Ethiopia, and Yemeni Sufis cultivated the plant for the purpose of using the drink as a type of spiritual intoxication. It soon spread to Cairo and Mecca, then northwards to Damascus and Istanbul. Conservative, orthodox imams in Mecca banned the drink for its stimulative effects, but these bans were overturned in 1524 by the Ottoman Sultan Süleymân I. The drink quickly traversed the continents, spreading throughout the Middle East, to Italy, the rest of Europe, South Asia, and to the Americas.

french_school_-_enjoying_coffee_-_google_art_project

Ottoman woman enjoying a cup of coffee.

The Turkish word kahve comes from the Arabic قهوة or qahwah. The importance of Turkish coffee’s role in Turkish culture is conveyed by examining its permeation in the language itself. Kahvaltı, the word for breakfast, literally translates to ‘after coffee’. Kahverengi, the word for brown, is simply ‘the color of coffee’. One of the most repeated proverbs in the Turkish language is: Bir fincan kahvenin kırk yıl hatırı verir/A single cup of coffee is remembered for forty years. A shared cup of coffee strengths a relationship, or creates a new one. It could be considered the most important sign of closeness between two people, to sit down with a cup of Turkish coffee and have a long, drawn out conversation about everything and anything under the sun.

There’s a particularly amusing Turkish coffee custom that I hadn’t heard before, but absolutely love: traditionally, when a man intends to propose to a woman, he must go to the prospective bride’s home to ask for her hand and receive blessings from her parents. Meanwhile, the bride-to-be must make Turkish coffee for the to-be-groom. However, as a test of character, she puts salt instead of sugar in his coffee, and waits to see how he reacts. If he drinks his coffee without any signs of displeasure, it is an indication of good temperament, and he passes this test of etiquette. Speaking of brides and coffee, my host mother from Bursa last summer once told me that when a girl can make a good cup of coffee, she’s ready for marriage. Good thing my coffee making skills still have a long way to go!

fl-2-turkish-coffee-0125

Turks are not timid in listing off the supposed health benefits of their drink of choice. According to a Turkish website devoted entirely to the miracles of the beverage, it can help one lose weight, protects against breast cancer, protects against high blood pressure, protects against bad cholesterol, prevents indigestion, cures headaches, rids one of cellulite, remedies an upset stomach…the list goes on. I’ve even met Turkish women who enthusiastically advocate the eating of the earthy coffee grounds found at the bottom of each cup, or even the spreading of the grounds on one’s face for healthy skin. Some of these, I believe. Others, I credit to the centuries long love affair that Turkish coffee has conducted with the Turkish people. What can I say, love is blind.

Turkish coffee fascinates me. Its deep cultural roots, the intricate methodology of serving it that takes decades to master, the generational knowledge of how and when to consume it, its consumer’s fervent belief of its life changing effects…you have to take your hats off to it. Because even if you aren’t so enthusiastic as to rub coffee grounds on your face, or credit a friendship to a dark, foamy liquid served in a doll-sized cup, this drink has changed the course of history. Its bittersweet aroma will continue to be found snaking its way up towards kitchen ceilings, around cobbled streets, it will be drawn up our nostrils with deep inhales, each foamy sip of it accompanied by the feeling of tradition and togetherness. I can toast to that.

 

February Will Traipse On

As we enter the month of February, I would like to take some time to reflect on why I believe it to be a truly odd month. First of all, it periodically decides to be a day longer, depriving a handful of people the joy of annual birthdays. Secondly, it is in February that Valentines Day graces our calendars; Valentines Day is an odd day, end of story. Third of all, February is the half way mark for my ten months in Turkey. Half way. The more I reflect on those two words, the more elusive they become. It has felt like a long time because it has been a long time. Six months, half a year, the gestation period of a baboon. By the time I will return to America, two baboons will have been born. I will have learned Turkish, too, but that’s beside the point, isn’t it?

Anyway, I think that months are a slippery way to measure time in the human mind. They are just another method with which humans have strived to abstract our experiences into recordable events. I didn’t think about the fact that it is February as I made banana pancakes for my host family this morning, or when I sat on the waterfront, legs dangling over the edge of the Aegean sea, laughing with friends. Maybe I’m frustrated with the concept of February because it insists on being the momentous half-way mark of this experience, but February and its other time-measuremental friends mean nothing to me. They are just incarnations of the idea that any single thing, name, number, or moment can capture what it means to live abroad for ten months as a curious and confused eighteen year old. Nothing can. All that you can do is continue making banana pancakes, continue sitting on waterfronts with dangling legs and laughing heads, and February will traipse on.

On to less existential topics. I met up with my friends from Türk lisesi, or what the kids these day call high school. After my TÖMER Turkish class, I took the ferry over to their beloved neighborhood, Karşıyaka. I say beloved because inhabitants of this particular mahalle/hood are known to call themselves Karşıyakalı’s (from Karşıyaka) instead of İzmirli’s (from İzmir). Some find this annoying and obnoxious; I remain neutral. Once I got off the ferry, I walked up to the dolmuş station in search of the one heading in the Gümüşpala direction.

ffb9f7a09a1a0725f99d2b0e9544a377

This is what a dolmuş looks like. It can be described as a neighborhood carpool bus (requires a 1.5 lira, or about 50 cents, boarding fee) that picks up passengers anywhere along its route.

I had delayed it for far too long; this was to be my first time riding a dolmuş, ever. And for someone who has lived in Turkey for a total of over seven months, that is quite an astonishing statement. I found the dolmuş, told the driver the landmark at which I wanted to be dropped off, and dearly hoped that he wouldn’t forget to let me know once we got there. The ride turned out to be somewhat eventful, as I ended up seated next to a talkative Turkmen (there is an Arab minority in Turkey who go by the name Turkmen, not to be confused with Turkmens from Turkmenistan). Finally, the driver told me it was time for me to get off, and I was quite frankly amazed that I had made it to my destination without getting profoundly lost. Next thing I knew, I saw my outrageously fashionable high school friends walking down the street to meet me. Destination found, and friends located; the universe was on my side!

We walked up a little hill to my friend’s sister’s apartment, where we ate some delicious food, watched some Turkish dating show, and had our Turkish coffee grounds read. In my future, there will be a convergence of two roads, and possibly love as well. How wonderfully ambiguous.

IMG_1881

Our lunch feast: patates börek, makarna (pasta), çiğ köfte, pasta (cake), domates, and çay

IMG_1882

Just us gals.

After a few hours of lounging around, we decided to walk around the neighborhood for a bit, and I was all for that idea. Neighborhood strolls are some of my favorite things in the world. There’s nothing like walking casually through someone else’s normality. First, we made a stop to the local supermarket to buy some çiğdem, or sunflower seeds. Once, some high school friends offered me a handful in class. I, being unlearned in the ways of sunflower seed eating, cracked them open with my fingers and then carefully popped the tiny seed into my mouth. They could not believe it. They laughed their heads off at my ridiculous method, and tried, in vain, to teach me the Turkish way of consuming seed after seed like a sunflower seed eating machine. It’s just not in my genes.

The views were stunning. The hilltop neighborhood presented an entirely different view (literally) on Izmir, dwarfing landmarks, warping perspectives. I was constantly three steps behind the others, taking terrible photos that I hoped, with the help of basic iPhoto editing, could illuminate the character of the neighborhood. Here are the photos I have to show for that effort:

IMG_1871

IMG_1875

IMG_1876

IMG_1878

The past week and a half haven’t been the most eventful of times. I’ve met up with my NSLI-Y friends with the intention of studying, but we always end up just eating chocolate and talking. Not the worst turn of fate, if you ask me. I’ve had plenty of time to stay up to date with the news, especially about this little ol’ thing called the 2016 presidential elections. As for my allegiance, well, need I say more?

bernie

We feel the Bern.

I suppose it’s fitting that my “half way over” post, if you could even call it that, is filled with relatively mundane things. Not to say my time here has been mundane, but it certainly has given me an idea of what that dreamy phrase “living abroad” really means: it means making banana pancakes and dangling your legs over the Aegean Sea, laughing.

 

 

My Gig as a Lonely Planet Writer

In most guidebooks of Turkey, travel writers usually manage to scrape together two or three pages of sightseeing possibilities in Izmir. Saat Kulesi will be in there, though it’s hard to deny Izmir’s logo-loving clocktower is a tad underwhelming. Asansör, a historic elevator situated in the hilly Konak district, will definitely make the cut as well; the view is indeed spectacular. After those two Izmir staples, pickings get slim. If you’re into train station architecture, you’re in luck, but frankly, Izmir cannot compete with the aesthetically unrivaled Istanbul or the aquamarine waters of the southern Mediterranean coast.

Yet, the more I start to make sense of the Turkish language, those perfect-profile-picture places interest me less and less. I want to walk down quiet back streets and look at the colorful two story houses in front of which elderly men are working away at their front gardens. I want to walk past abandoned lots where stray cats are waking up amidst broken beer bottles and gravel. I want to find obscure municipal museums and locked up Byzantine Churches. I want to joke around with the cook at a near-empty lunch place by the name of Lezzetli Yemek, or, Delicious Food – that’s all we want when it comes down to it, right?

In other words, I think that the more time you spend in a place, the more you realize that it’s the unremarkable, not-guidebook-worthy places that define it in your mind. The Golden Gate Bridge certainly takes the backseat to my favorite pupusería place when I think of San Francisco landmarks. There’s no doubt in my mind that you’ll get a stronger sense of reality in the City by the Bay by cruising through the Excelsior than you ever would strolling past Pier 39.

So, this blog post is going to be a virtual tour through a nondescript neighborhood of a middle-of-the-road city, full of gems that aren’t worth mentioning in any guidebook unless you’re willing hop off the tourbus and look around for yourself.

Basmane is perplexing. Izmir is a anomaly in Turkey for its political leanings, accentuated secularism, comparatively minimal traffic, Sephardic Jew-influenced cuisine, the list goes on. But once you enter the Basmane district, it becomes very clear that you’ve left the sphere of Izmir’s micro-culture and entered a space whose ancient roots are being shifted and shaped as the dust of a new reality is beginning to settle on the cobblestone streets. This new reality is undermined by the fact that most parties do not want it to enter a state of permanence. Over the past few years, Basmane has seen a large influx of EU-bound Syrian refugees, but the dangerous and expensive trip to Europe has forced many to put their journey on pause in Turkey – sometimes for months, sometimes for years. This is far from ideal, as none can legally work because they lack a Turkish work permit; Turkey’s unemployment rate is at a dismal 10%, which isn’t very hopeful to begin with. Turkey faces a reality of stranded, jobless (at least in the formal economy), linguistically disadvantaged refugees who, although under undeniably improved circumstances compared to that of their home countries, are in a state of limbo.

IMG_1701

As migrant groups the world over have a habit of doing, those who have settled into Basmane have begun to recreate the places from which they have come. Arabic signs (accompanied by Turkish translations) advertise Syrian restaurants (this is no hipster-food-truck deal, we’re talking straight-out-of-Damascus authenticity), open air cafes where young men are dutifully kneading manoushi dough, and the ratio of men to women out and about on the street skyrockets. I very consciously notice that my friend and I are the only women within my line of sight, and nearly 100% of women who do turn up are covered. This is a world away from liberal anomaly Izmir is known for, but I realize that Basmane still fits the role of an anomaly, simply one of an entirely different breed.

IMG_1699

 

Climbing up the slopes of Basmane’s concrete-coated hills, we stumble upon something entirely unexpected: Konak Belediyesi Radyo ve Demokrasi Müzesi. There was never a question as to whether we should go and explore this tiny municipal Radio and Democracy Museum. We had the whole museum to ourselves: row upon row of collected 20th century radios, newspaper clippings pronouncing the revolutionary era of radio, 21st century Nokia cellphones that happen to be the exact same model that us NSLI-Y students have as our in country cell phones. I don’t know how I feel about the fact that one of my possessions is now museum material. I think 18 is still a little too young to feel old.

IMG_1684

The same phone.

IMG_1685

iPods aren’t that old… are they?!

Wandering throughout Basmane with no particular destination in mind is the best, possibly the only, way to appreciate its historical and modern cultural syncretism. After various left and right turns and some mandatory pauses to reevaluate your sense of directionlessness, you will find yourself at the footsteps of Ayavukla Church. Thanks to some post-visit internet research, I learned that this Church is “situated at the edge of the former Armenian district, and was for the followers of the Greek Orthodox faith, though according to oral history also served the so called “Hayhurum” (Hark-Rum or Armeno-Greek) community” source.

IMG_1700

IMG_1703

As we stood in front of the closed Church gates, I didn’t have high hopes about actually getting the opportunity to go inside. Turkey is so rich in history that it seems to have become desensitized to its own cultural treasures. For this reason, there have been many instances in which historical sights I seek out are locked up from the public because, frankly, a neighborhood Greek Orthodox Church can’t compete with the ranks of the Hagia Sophia or the ruins of Ephesus. With this in mind, we shouted “Bakar mısın!” (Excuse me! Heyo!) in only half-hopeful voices, not entirely sure that there were any listening ears. To our surprise, there were. A groggy guard in his fifties must have heard our accented clamour, and the unoiled hinges of the church gate got some action. We thanked him and shuffled in, wondering what he must have thought of us youngsters seemingly so eager on getting our daily dose of historical Orthodox Churches.

IMG_1708

IMG_1707

IMG_1697

The Church is gorgeous; it also seems to be the headquarters of the Konak municipality. Fold out chairs with sticker labels indicating past occupants like Konak Belediyesi Başbakan and the like crowded the lower level. Bureaucratic booklets were piled high in cardboard boxes at the Church doors, filled mostly with pictures of renovated historical mansions around the Izmir region. It was the eeriest mix of an abandoned religious property and the remnants of a dull civil service meeting.

The final place on your Basmane agenda will be the Emir Sultan tomb. This will likely prove difficult to find in the maze-like inner part of the district, but have faith. After getting lost approximately three times, you’ll see a sign on your right indicating the entrance of the historical sight. When we approached that sign, we realized that the entrance also happened to be hosting a food handout to the less fortunate inhabitants of the district. It goes without saying that we felt uncomfortable passing the crowd looking very obviously like foreigners making the touristic rounds. I think we all took this unexpected event as a reminder of the reality in Basmane and the countless other forgotten districts, cities, towns, countries where poverty and attractions are intimate neighbors. It certainly reminded me that as I enjoyed the historical richness that Basmane has to offer, I must also remember the reality defined by struggle that Basmane’s inhabitants face.

IMG_1702

IMG_1705

The emerald green, Ottoman-inscribed covering draped over the coffin was beautiful, as were the restored Ottoman gravestones outside. From my research, all the information I could find as to who Emir Sultan was, was that he was a dervish and a scholar from Bukhara.

IMG_1704

“Izmir History”

For some closing credits: To Lonely Planet, you can private message me for my compensation on this Basmane report that will surely be included in your next Turkey edition. To my readers, if you ever find yourself in Izmir, check out Basmane. Turns out there are some cool things to be found there. But even if you never make it to 38° 25′ 7.86″ N 27° 7′ 43.392″ E (GPS coordinates of Izmir! How fancy!), I’m positive that your current coordinates host some treasures of there own. Go out and find them.

Climate Change, Homelessness, and an Ethic of Love

Most linguists agree that when you can discuss the negative effects of carbon emissions in a foreign language, you’re 3/8th of the way to achieving fluency. Now although that previous sentence is a complete fabrication, I’d like to think there are some periphery merits to being able discuss the negative effects of carbon emissions in a foreign language. Firstly, kudos to you for carrying on a conversation about this critical issue; in my book, this is indication that you are a fairly cool human being. Secondly, the fact that you can carry on a conversation about this critical issue in a foreign language confirms that you are indeed a very cool human being. I realize now that by this logic, I am proclaiming myself to be a very cool human being. Well, I’m not sure that ‘very cool’ would be the first adjective phrase that I would use to describe myself, but I am very proud of being able to say iklim değişikliği belki dünya’nın en önemli ve ciddi konusu, ve bizim çevremiz düzeltmemiz için karbon salımları hemen azaltmamız lazım (English translation: Climate change could be the world’s most pressing and serious issue, and in order to restore our environment, we need to reduce our carbon emissions immediately.)

955d558e53c346b7-19428

My giddiness over Turkish environmental vocabulary aside, the topic of climate change has been on my mind, and hopefully on yours too, for non-linguistic reasons. The Conference of the Parties, or in UN jargon, the COP21, also known as the Paris climate talks, are currently underway. Yes, I know what you’re thinking: we’ve had these types of climate talks before. And relatively speaking, we don’t have much to show for them. Usually we get to hear a few inspirational speeches about hope, and the promise of change delivered by speakers who have never had to worry that their home was at risk of being underwater in the Marshall Islands; a country home to over 50,000 people, the heirs of the world’s greatest sea navigators, the Marshall Islands are on schedule to be swallowed up by an unforgiving ocean. These speech givers have never had to confront the reality that droughts are stripping nomadic herders in Somalia the right to carry on their centuries old lifestyle, which leaves the door wide open for them to participate in sectarian violence so as to give them some sense of unified identity in purpose, a purpose that used to be fulfilled by the reliability of the seasons and the ability to live a dignified, self-sustaining existence. These speeches will probably not be delivered by indigenous climate activists who are fighting to to sustain their people’s legacy of respecting the Earth, or by people who believe that the right to clean air and drinkable water are phrases that should never cohabit sentences that also harbor a word like negotiation.

I can only hope that the negotiators in Paris realize the gravity of their work. The weight of human lives depending on the words they write, the agreements they strike. I do have reason to hope, though. As China pledges to peak coal emission by 2030 and has seemingly appear to have taken an all-around more responsible role in saving our planet, there is reason to hope. As this year has reported a stall, even a decline, in carbon emission for the first time, while the global economy continues to grow, there is reason to hope. As the the world’s advanced industrial nations have pledged to give developing economies $100 billion dollars for climate change aid, there is reason to hope. My biggest hope is that the people working around the clock in Paris conference rooms remember that at the end of the day, these are human lives on the line, that the decisions made this week could quite literally dictate existence or disappearance of a country, the demolition or sustenance of a culture, the life or death of a child. I hope they remember that.

A few days ago, my friends and I decided that we wanted to visit some of Izmir’s mosques. I’ve always been one fond of poking my head into places of worship. In San Francisco, I remember taking the bus to Geary street and stumbling across a Russian Orthodox church, but being turned away at the door for dressing too immodestly. Apparently, women are expected to wear ankle length skirts, long sleeve blouses, and a headscarf before entering. As someone living abroad in a predominately Muslim country, I can truthfully say that that Russian Orthodox church in San Francisco required more conservative dress than anywhere I have ever been to in Turkey. Frankly, reflecting on the fact that a place in San Francisco is more conservative in comparison to any other place on Earth is a shock to the system.

hisar1

hisar2

Hisar Camii is stunning. Hidden from plain view by a tree-covered street lined with tea shops and bulky ice-cream refrigerators, Hisar Camii calls little attention to itself. The attentive passerby will be richly rewarded for making a visit to this hidden, quite literally, gem. I untied my desert boots, pulled out my favorite red-orange paisley scarf to cover my thick curls,  and silently walked over to the mosque entrance. There are few other places in the world that rival the profound sense of peace that I receive after entering a mosque. The closest equivalent in my mind is the moment one begins a Sierra Nevada backcountry backpacking trip, when all that can be heard is the pebbles crunching under one’s hiking boots, a distant singing stream, and the steady rhythm of one’s heaving breath. All the sources of one’s barely visible eye-wrinkles are left behind in that other world. This private universe is reserved for special places, and can only be accessed in certain spaces. Hisar Camii is one of them.

All material and moral white noise evaporated the second my rainbow sock-covered feet trod onto the maroon carpet. I walked up the creaky wooden steps to the second floor, which is reserved for female worshippers. Looking down at the first floor, I saw men sitting on the carpet silently reading the Qur’an in both Turkish and Arabic, one hand reserved for page turning, the other for twirling prayer beads. I could hear a young voice practicing the ezan, or call to prayer, from a hidden chamber, and the sound was muffled just enough so as to make it seem like it was traveling not only through several walls, but through several universes as well. The air had taken on the consistency of honey, and the gravity of peace in that room was a divine nectar that I inhaled without reservation.

hisar3

As I descended the stairs leading to the exit of the mosque and this tranquil macrocosm, I thought about a world in which the realms of peaceful existence had no boundaries. A world in which religions of every creed were sources of peace and inspirations for acceptance despite differences in name. I thought about a world that was driven by the ethic of love. Yes, love. Love, which is dismissed as naïve and utopian. Love, the word that most people are to embarrassed to say for fear of being cast as a know nothing idealists. Love, that elusive thing that we all won’t readily admit is the basis of meaningful existence, but know is true. Love, I believe, needs to be exercised more as a verb, as a conscious act of will. Love as your eyes open up to our colorful, chaotically melodic world, as you take your first breath of the immaculate day, as you feel the warmth of a sunny smile directed your way, as you think to yourself about the differences of the person sitting next to you in the dentist’s waiting room and how these differences are what make life so beautiful, are what make life worth loving.

I know that after reading that you’re probably feeling some fuzzy feelings, so here’s a song that might suit your life soundtrack right about now.

Energy – The Apples in Stereo

Currently, I’m reading a book called H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald, which is about a woman overcoming the grief of losing her father by training a goshawk. The subject matter is not something I would ordinarily gravitate to, but the writing is engaging, and the book’s cover art is nice. I’ve also become an avid reader of the New Yorker, and there was one particular piece in a recent issue that moved me deeply. It’s entitled “Fifty Seven” written by Rachel Kushner. It’s follows the fictional, yet all to real, story of a homeless man convicted of murder and his time in the California prison system. This man was the victim of a system that continuously maintained a mentality of apathy towards his heart-wrenching story: a story of a boy who was physically and emotionally abused, a homeless man who came to believe that he was indeed society’s scum, and finally, a murderer who even he himself did not recognize. What I loved most about this story was its ability to humanize him; he was not reduced to his crime, his mental health problems, his lack of opportunity. His was a story of tragedy, a complex product product of experiences, emotions, relationships, places, life. He was a human being.

“Fifty Seven”

A few days after having read the story, I found myself sitting on a bench near the Konak ferry station in downtown Izmir. I saw a homeless man lying on a bench, bundled up, drearily waking up from spending the night there. My first instinct was to look at him with indifference, but then, remembering the story, I did a double take and looked at him for a few long seconds. I thought about what his story might be, might’ve been. I thought about what combination of precise circumstances could’ve led him to spend a night sleeping on a bench near Konak ferry station. A few minutes later, an old Turkish man came up to me and asked if I knew if the man on the bench had been there the entire night. I nodded my head, “galiba, maalsef” (probably, unfortunately). And the old man gave me this look that was crossed between pity and distaste (or so I thought), but the next thing he said took me by surprise. He said, “Çok soğuktu, dün gece…çok soğuk olmalı” (Last night was so cold…he must be so cold). I looked at him, and nodded in agreement. “Evet, çok soğuk” (yes, very cold). The old man walked away, out of my life, but not out of my mind. It was such an unexpected statement coming from the context of everything I had been taught to think about homeless people. I had been taught to think of them as nuisances, as inconveniences, as rejects, as low-lifes, as blemishes. I hadn’t been to taught to think of them as sons, as soccer fans, as victims of child abuse, as orphans of an apathetic government, as people with favorite colors, as people who got cold sometimes.

It all had me thinking about the universe differently. Thinking about him differently. Thinking about me differently.

As for an update on how the Turkish language is faring inside of this brain of my mine: good. Very good. On December 1st, my fellow NSLI-Yers made a daunting, exciting commitment to each other: we will only speak Turkish with one another. In reality, it’s a little more complex than that. For the past month and a half, we have been preparing for this transition by speaking in Turkish and English alternatively every hour so that it won’t be an outright English cold turkey (see what I did there). Additionally, we are setting aside three hours every week as English time, or else we run a very high risk of going insane. We are currently in week two of this transition, and so far, so good. We still manage to be funny, albeit more in a five-year-old-funny kind of way. Our Turkish vocabularies are quickly becoming equipped to achieve our more sophisticated sense of humor that we employ in English, and I can’t help but feel so immensely proud of how much we have all progressed in a mere three months. As I write this blog post, I just finished having a delightful conversation with an employee of Simit Sarayı who is Macedonian-Greek, but lives in Turkey. Upon finding out that my purpose here is to learn Turkish, he responded with a hearty “Aferin sana!” (good for you!). The experience reminded me of how although Turkish may not ever be the lingua franca of the world, it is a language that connects people from all over the world who have been able to experience the beauty of Turkey and the kindness of Turkish people.

I feel so very fortunate that I am able to live out my dream of learning a language and living abroad. You can be sure that while I’m not writing down my thoughts here, I’m slowly grinding away at this fascinating language, reveling at this beautiful country, and remembering how very, very lucky I am.

 

Random, Lighthearted Nonsense

There is no better description for a traditional Turkish breakfast than the word limitless. In fact, I’ve even seen that very word on several menus when referring to the tea binge that everyone is expected to engage in during this all-important meal; it comes as no surprise to me that Turkey is the world’s largest consumer of tea.

the-world-s-biggest-tea-drinkers-average-annual-tea-consumption_chartbuilder-1

I must make the distinction that (unfortunately) the following picture is not an accurate portrayal of my breakfast on an everyday basis, but is indeed representative of a Turkish breakfast in full glory mode.

For the benefit of readers unfamiliar with the contents this all-morning affair, I’ll do a quick inventory:

Omelette, fries (still a little confused about that one), french toast-esque concoction, sigara böreği (cigarette-shaped fried filo pastry filled with feta cheese inside), green and black olives, cucumber, tomatoes, honey, blackberry jam, various cheeses, kaymak (a creamy dairy product common in Central Asia, the Balkans, the Turkic regions, Iran, and Iraq), red pepper spread, normal bread, and of course, limitless tea.

Four out of the five of us NSLI-Y kids decided to go out and have breakfast together and channel our blossoming Turkish alter-egos, which in this case entailed hours of conversation while slowly but surely devouring the feast set before us. In our traditional fashion, our conversation made the mandatory Bernie Sanders pit stop, a detour into the realm of poetry, and an unexpected left turn to discuss our pipe dream of being invited to the G-20 summit in Antalya to meet Barack. It didn’t happen, but the fact that it even might have was enough to sate my excitement dose of the day.

I absolutely love the long-winded nature of a Turkish breakfast. The meal can extend to the fringes of the afternoon without ever hitting that wall of unendurable stuffed-ness that usually descends on people forty five minutes into Thanksgiving dinner. Our breakfast on this particular morning lasted a solid two hours, and we were still dipping away at the array of jams and honey; our waiter must have refilled our bread basket at least four times.

Fast forward two weeks later, and we found ourselves in the southwestern town of Milas for the weekend. In Milas, we all stayed with Turkish host families for a night, made friends at the local high school, had a dance party with the residents of the local mental disability residence, and celebrated one of our fellow German exchange student’s birthday at a cafe.  My host sister for the night, Simge, was absolutely wonderful; we had a blast harmonizing to Hey Jude and staying up until 1AM to bake chocolate goodies which we devoured at that ungodly hour. While in Milas, we also visited Bafa Gölü, a gorgeous little village cradled by the soaring Aegean coastal ranges and seemingly untouched by life post-19th century.

Photographs of Bafa Gölü (According to the legend, it was here that the goddess Selene fell in love with the shepherd Endymion and she asked Zeus to keep the young shepherd in perpetual sleep and bore up to fifty children from her nightly encounters with the sleeping young man. Thanks Wiki.), some wonderful people, and a Byzantine ruin.

But Byzantine history is infantile in comparison to some casual highway ruins biding away in central Izmir. Lars, Krista, and I decided to venture out to Buca with the intention of finding the Roman-turned-Ottoman Kızılçullu Aqueduct. Turns out, the source from which Kızılçullu got its water, the Meles River, was a hang out spot for Homer. Yes, Homer, the ancient Greek epic poet and author of the Illiad and the Odyssey. While Lars took a time-lapse of the traffic speeding under the remains of the aqueduct, Krista and I did some highway-side Turkish studying which certainly attracted some curious stares. Looking back on it – and yes I know that this is profoundly unlikely but let me dream on – the spot where we were studying may well have been quite close to where Homer once was trying to get over writer’s block while working on the Illiad. You never know.