Sunday, December 13, 2009

Mutlu Noel!

By this time of the year back home, I'd have long been good and sick of Christmas carols and Santa Clauses and all the other holiday trappings I'd have been smothered with since Halloween. But when you haven't heard "Feliz Navidad" for a whole year -- and can feel pretty confident that you won't hear it again for another annum -- it actually sounds awfully nice. It sounds like home.

Walking into my friends' house for a holiday party last night, I was surprised at how giddy I felt to see one of them hanging red ribbons and ornaments from a chandelier, to smell the glögg warming on the stove, to hear some cheesy Christmas classics freshly downloaded from iTunes, and, best of all, to be able to unfold the "branches" of the tree into a proper-ish shape. (Not much in the way of real trees here, but this one even shed some of its fake "needles"!)

Besides getting to experience holiday spirit not diluted by overuse, spending the Christmas season abroad also allows you to enjoy everyone else's traditions too: Eating turkey curry (a U.K. fave) and then some Danish Æbleskiver with jam and sugar, watching the movie Germans apparently watch at holiday time each year in place of "It's a Wonderful Life," and whipping up an ensalada de Nochebuena to represent California by way of Mexico since my family's traditional pot roast would be a bit hard to contribute without an oven. All that was missing was the tamales.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

The most wonderful time of the year

In retrospect, it should have been obvious that we were trying to be too clever by at least half. With the time to renew our press accreditation and residence permits fast approaching, another journalist friend and I decided to get a jump on the process by making appointments using the handy-dandy "e-randevu" (online reservation) system recently installed by the İstanbul Emniyet Yabancı Şubesi (Police Headquarters Foreigner Office). We weren't sure when our first set of paperwork from the press office would be ready, but it wouldn't hurt to make an appointment, right? After all, right below the "new appointment" button, there was a "find/cancel appointment" button. What could possibly go wrong?

The square stone wheels of Turkish bureaucracy turn slowly, of course, so we found ourselves needing to reschedule our appointments for a later date. I logged on confidently and clicked the "find/cancel appointment" button. The system found my appointment, all right. But when I went to cancel it, this message popped up:

To cancel your appointment, you must recourse to the police headquarters.

The verb used for "recourse" in the Turkish version was müracaat etmek, to appeal to. I pictured a crowd of foreigners on their knees at the Emniyet, begging to be allowed to change their appointments as a tea-sipping functionary steadfastly ignored them. But an appeal could also be made by telephone, couldn't it? No dice. I called up and was informed that though my desired operation could not be handled over the phone, if I came into the Emniyet, they would be happy to cancel my appointment. (OK, maybe, I added in the "happy to" part.)

So, basically, the Emniyet instituting an online reservation system is the equivalent of a bank setting up an ATM where you can make a request for a withdrawal at the machine, but have to turn up at the branch to collect your cash. Hm. I'd better not give Yapi Kredi and Garanti any ideas.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Spor salonunda (At the gym)

After nearly two years, many things remain mysterious to me about life in Turkey, but the one that's been perplexing me recently is how the heck it's possible to get undressed, shower, dry off, then change clothes, all while remaining completely covered.

With all the attention that's been given over the years to the "exotic" Turkish hamam, Westerners might be forgiven for assuming that Turks, once in the safety of a single-gender environment, spend their time lolling around in the nude, languidly washing each other's hair, free of body issues and social stigma.

Au contraire. Women at my recently joined gym seem to magically be able to change from street clothes to workout clothes and back without showing an inch of skin. Nor do they ever allow their towel to separate from their body while drying off after a shower -- a shower that they walked into wearing their bra and underwear, at the very least. (My spies in the men's locker room tell me it's essentially the same story there.) Of course, that's not the only way in which gym behavior varies greatly from what I'm used to in the U.S.

"Working out" is apparently a relatively new concept in Turkey and it's clear that even gym-goers are still figuring out what it means. A pair of girls will come to swim in the lap pool and each paddle along with one arm, keeping their heads entirely out of the water, chatting as they slowly make their way down the lane. Ninety percent of people on the treadmills will spend their entire session walking at a moderate pace, while the occasional young jock will hop on, run full-tilt for five minutes, and then hop back off again.

When I first joined up, I asked the woman working in the fitness center if she could help me figure out the automatic programs on the treadmill -- the English-language text said they were available, but there was no instruction for how to set them up. She came over, looked perplexed, we each pushed some buttons here and some buttons there, and eventually kinda sorta figured it out. When she asked if it was working OK, I said yes, and she responded,

"You know, you're the first person to ever ask about this!"

Monday, November 9, 2009

Istanbul in an Urban Age

For someone who loves cities like I do, it was nothing short of fascinating to spend two days listening to the big thinkers – architects, planners, academics, and activists from around the world – that Urban Age brought to Istanbul this past week for the ninth in its series of globe-trotting conferences on the future of the planet's mega-cities. (The stunning, Bosphorus-side setting at the Esma Sultan Yalısı, a thoroughly modern interior re-imagining of a gorgeous wreck of an old mansion into an airy event center, didn't hurt – nor did the decadent amount of tasty food served.)

The event also marked my writing debut for the local English-language newspaper the Hürriyet Daily News & Economic Review, for which I filed two stories, an overview of the conference ("The future of cities in an Urban Age") and a look at some imaginative architects' ideas for re-envisioning parts of our often chaotic and under-planned city ("New design visions for Istanbul neighborhoods").

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Istanbul by the numbers

People who haven't been here often ask me to compare Istanbul to other cities; having been to sadly few of the world's largest ones, the best I can usually muster is a "Uh, it's kind of like New York, except I think even bigger?" But now, armed with some data from a conference I recently attended on the future of cities, I can confidently say that:

  • Istanbul has more people than London, New York City, or Mexico City, and quite a bit fewer than Shanghai.*

  • It is growing faster than Mumbai or São Paulo, going from around 1 million people in 1950 to some 14 to 15 million today. (The image at right shows the dramatic growth in the city's developed area between 1950 and 2000.)

  • In its central area (where I live), Istanbul is denser than New York and more than twice as dense as London.

  • It is more polluted than Mexico City, and not far behind Mumbai.

  • Its residents are very worried about crime, even though the murder rate is less than half of that in New York.

  • Its quality of life (according to the U.N.'s Human Development Index) is considered higher than that in Johannesburg, but lower than that in São Paulo or Shanghai.
Of course, numbers don't say anything about which city's views are the best, or whose street vendors are the loudest, or any of the other things that make urban life interesting. For that, you've just got to see for yourself.

* We're talking city proper here, not metropolitan area.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Cadılar bayramınız kutlu olsun!

There's nothing quite like wandering home covered in glow-in-the-dark stars, bedecked in wig and beauty-queen sash, or toting eight plastic baby dolls* -- and knowing that 99.9 percent of the people you pass on the street have absolutely no idea what that crazy foreigner is up to now.

Like McDonalds and Starbucks, though, Halloween is (yavaş, yavaş) beginning to franchise itself around the world. We have a friendly neighborhood kostumcu (costume seller) on İstiklal Caddesi, and the vendors in the Balık Pazarı scatter some scary masks among their evil-eye beads this time of year. Employees of a Turkish firm even showed up at this year's party in elaborate outfits -- apparently as a colleague bonding exercise -- and the local zombies doing the synchronized "Thriller" dance were second to none.

As a Turkish friend recently said, "Why do foreigners get to have all the fun holidays like egg painting and Christmas tree decorating... and we get to slaughter sheep?"

Still, celebrating American holidays abroad never fails to remind you that you are indeed far from home, as the things needed to celebrate properly are generally hard to find and/or expensive. But we make do.

The forward-thinking pick up costume accessories on visits to Amerikastan, while the crafty among the group invite the rest of us over to paper-mache mummy and Frankenstein heads and cut bats out of poster board. And who really liked all that candy corn anyway?

* Yes, a friend dressed up this year as the Octomom. Turks didn't get that joke.

Friday, July 24, 2009

It's all relative

This week, feeling my out-of-shapedness (because really, sometimes only a made-up word will do) especially acutely due to the pending departure of my pilates teacher, I finally got off my butt and went to check out a couple of Istanbul's overpriced gyms, including a hotel spor salonu that promised a fitness center, outdoor pool, sauna, Turkish bath, and jacuzzi. What I didn't expect it to provide was a culture shock.

But there it was, staring me in the face when the blasé young fellow showing my friend and I around opened the door to the sauna area: A man and a woman, lounging in white robes. Together. In the same room. With almost their entire legs and arms showing.

Every door our guide opened seemed a window onto an almost Caligula-esque scene. A man in shorts pouring water over a swimsuit-clad woman inside the hamam. Men and women mingling freely inside a shared sauna. I couldn't help feeling I was violating their privacy, and my own.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not a prude. In general, I'm pretty much a live-and-let-live type, donning long sleeves and a headscarf when entering a mosque and doffing, well, pretty much everything at a hippie California hot springs. And I know that Turkey -- especially in Istanbul -- is hardly the world's most restrictive society.

What amazes me is the rapid adaptability of the mind, how bare shoulders and knees and mixed-gender bathing can come to seem, momentarily at least, shocking. And when the norm you've become used to is even more modest, it takes even less to scandalize.

In the book I'm currently reading, Shadow of the Silk Road, author Colin Thubron describes an overland trip from western China to eastern Turkey. After spending a few weeks in Afghanistan, where the women pass by anonymously, fully shrouded under burkas, he crosses the border by bus into Iran and steps out into the northern city of Meshed, where he writes:

"As for the women, framed in chadors leaving the face bare, they seemed scandalously exposed. I stared at them rudely as they passed. They had feathery brows and dark, swimming eyes and lashes. Many were softly beautiful. Some wore a brazen hint of lipstick or eye-shadow. They might have been naked."

* Photo from the awesomely I-can't-believe-this-is-really-necessary-well-actually-yes-I-can "Put Your Brits Away" responsible-dress campaign by the UK travel magazine Wanderlust.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

What didn't stay in Mardin

After pointing out the wall crypts, the sun-worshipers' chamber, and the "angel" carvings, the two boys who had appointed themselves our tour guides to the necropolis complex in the ancient Roman city of Dara wrapped up their patter: "Bitti. Başka kalmadı." That's it. The rest didn't stay. Now how about some lira?

Kids seemed to be on the hustle everywhere we went in the Southeast, whether waiting outside each of Dara's sites to follow us through the ruins or tailing us down Diyarbakır's back streets calling out, "Hello, hello, money, money!" It seemed especially pronounced due to the notable lack of adult "buyuruncus," the where-are-you-from-would-you-like-buy-a-carpet-I-have-very-nice-terrace bane of my every trip to Sultanahmet. Perhaps the most persistent was the boy who cornered us outside the Kırklar Kilisesi in Mardin, insisting that we come try some "very nice" wine. ("How would you know?" we asked, seeing as he was all of about 8 years old. He didn't seem to get the joke.) Having been warned about the unfortunately poor quality of this ev şarapı, we still decided -- correctly -- that a family of Christians who make wine in their house were worth meeting.

After begging off buying a bottle with many gracious teşekkür ederiz and empty promises to return after we finished our walking around for the day, we dined at possibly the only real restaurant in town, the much-recommended Cercis Murat Konağı, where the waiters only sniffed slightly at a pair of grubby backpackers settling into a table in an old Mardin mansion with a spectacular view across the desert toward Syria. The house wine there was amazingly good (keep in mind, our standards are low after so much time in Turkey) and the food tasty and different as promised -- what we could get of it, that is. For whatever reason, a good two-thirds of the items on the long, mouth-watering menu were "yok." (Unavailable.) We joked that at least they weren't "kalmadı," to our (North) American ears a strangely passive way of saying "we ran out of that." And then, yep, one of the main dishes we ordered... kalmadı.

We lingered as long as we could at dinner, trying to avoid going back to our ghetto hotel, with its windowless room and dirty squat toilet. Fortunately, a diversion presented itself on the walk back, a musical performance in the town's central çay bahçesi (tea garden). The over-sexualized 8-year-old belly dancer was of course a highlight, but most memorable was the guy who walked up to the stage at (presumably) key moments in the music and threw stacks of napkins into the air above the band members' heads, letting the paper pile up like snowdrifts.

I suspect if anyone tried to buy napkins the next morning at any of the neighborhood stores, they would find that they had... kalmadı.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Taking tea in Urfa

Up until now, probably the strangest place I have ever found myself sipping a cup of tea was a dingy Uzbek roadside chaihana in almost literally the middle of nowhere, a place that looked like it hadn't seen any other customers for a couple of decades but had not one, but three Britney Spears posters hanging on the wall. Well, the pigeon coop in Urfa completely blew that one out of the water.

(Come to think of, the local tire yard wasn't bad either. We had a few nice glasses of çay there while waiting for a fan to be installed in a car.)

Urfa, in southeastern Turkey, is, perhaps uniquely in the country, a city of equal-opportunity head covering, where men and women alike don silk lavender scarves called Yamşah; a city where people adorn themselves with facial tattoos, where a motorcycle is not road-ready without a carpet covering its seat, and where pigeons wear bracelets and earrings. Oh, yes, and it's also the reputed birthplace of the prophet Abraham. But we were mostly there to see the pigeons.

Inside Urfa's old bazaar, where men and boys pound designs into sheets of copper, making gorgeous platters and kitschy souvenirs alike, the courtyard of the Gümrük Han is an airy oasis. Built in 1562, this old Ottoman caravanasari (a place where travelers -- and their camels -- could stop and rest) is shaded by sand-colored tenting wafting in the light breeze and full of men sitting on low kürsü stools drinking tea and playing tavla, or backgammon.

Some, though, choose to spend their leisure time in a slightly less atmospheric location -- a dark, tucked-away room filled with the sound of flapping wings and tiny clinking jewelry and the blended perfume of dust, smoke, and pigeon shit.

Occasionally a man would pick up a bird and examine it, but if anyone was actually buying or selling the pigeons, they were sure taking their time doing so, puffing on cigarettes, sipping their tea, and watching the room's feathered occupants skitter and strut about, just as naturally as Americans -- and, OK, practically everyone in the world now -- hang out at Starbucks.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Çok güzel Türkçe ama...!

I've had this conversation in Turkey so many times--at döner stands and train stations, in restrooms and art galleries--I've begun to feel remiss about not writing it down earlier:

Me: "Afferdersiniz..."

("Excuse me..." and then whatever question I have to ask.)
Them: "Alman mısınız?"
("Are you German?")
Me: "Hayır, Amerikalıyım."
("No, American.")
Them: "Çok güzel Türkçe ama...!"
("But your Turkish is very good...!")
Perhaps knowledge of Americans' general ineptness with other languages precedes us around the world. Or perhaps there are so many Turkish immigrants in Germany that your average German knows a few words of Turkish, like Americans (at least in the West) know "gracias" and "cerveza." Either way, I certainly can't say I don't benefit from the low expectations.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Food envy

Earlier this week, I traveled 15 hours each way by train to eat bacon-wrapped cheese skewers (at right) in Bulgaria. (Well, there was a bit more to it than that, but it makes a better story this way.) I've stood outside an Italian supermarket with all my luggage waiting for it to open so I could pull as much pork, cheese, and wine off the shelves as I could in 10 minutes and then race to the airport. I've carted champagne back from a Greek island so we could celebrate Obama's election in style. I've picked raw bacon out of a friend's clothing after the package exploded inside her suitcase during an ill-fated smuggling run. I've even asked a vegetarian friend to bring chorizo from the United States for Thanksgiving stuffing. (She declined.)

Here in yabancıköy, my gang of Istanbul expat friends likes to joke that if we spent half as much time working as we spent scheming how to bring maximum quantities of food and drink back from our various jaunts, we could all retire. (Below, at left, my so-far personal-best haul, from Spain and Portugal.)

Although Istanbul is a massive city with much to offer, it seems to lack the thriving immigrant communities that give other urban areas such a delicious mix of cheap ethnic restaurants. This, combined with the fact that Turks are generally fairly conservative about food, means that ingredients not commonly used in Turkish cuisine--and the few restaurants that specialize in non-Turkish eats--are priced for the presumably fat wallets of foreigners and the local elite.

Bacon, blue cheese, maple syrup, limes, imported alcohol, Ben & Jerry's--we've got them all, just at ridiculously inflated prices. Other items, from black beans and cilantro to celery and raspberries, seem impossible to find on store shelves. Yes, we could eat well and live happily just with what's readily and reasonably available here, without competing to see how many kilos of sausage and liters of wine we can stuff into our suitcases, but where's the fun in that?

* * *

For another expat's take on eating abroad, check out Yazar's blog post "A scone, a goat and the Conor Pass." An Irishwoman living in Çanakkale, Turkey, she's the next link in today's food-themed "World Blog Surf Day," organized by Sher, an expat living in Prague, and Twitter-reported by my fellow Istanbul expat Anastasia Ashman.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Bu sana ibret olsun

Us yabancıs often find Turkish warning signs amusing, in large part because there are so few of them -- Want to fall off our ancient castle? Feel free! It's not like we're going to put up a railing or anything -- and because those that you do see are largely ignored. Case in point: The admonitions to wait for the gangplanks to be laid down before leaping off the ferry. As if.

But two signs I saw this week on a trip to the Princes' Islands particularly jumped out at me. The first, inside the St. George's Monastery on Büyükada (roughly translated from Turkish):

Do not write your petitions on the walls or the icons.
We have a box for petitions.
Write them on a piece of paper and put them in the box.
Who knew there was such a problem with monastic graffiti?

And the other, along the island's shoreline:
Yüzme bilmeyenleri denize girmek tehlikeli ve yasaktır.

It is dangerous and prohibited for those who do not know how to swim to enter into the ocean.
Why, that's practically right up there with "Caution - contents may be hot" on a cup of coffee. Who says Turkey isn't getting more Western by the day?

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Can I have a power outage with that pizza?

Their timing may be unpredictable, but power outages--and the dropped Skype calls, suddenly cold showers, and fumbling around for your cell phone to provide a little glow since you couldn't possibly be expected to keep a flashlight and batteries on hand, now could you? that go along with them--are a reliable fact of life in Istanbul.

And though far too localized to create city-wide community spirit--it's not at all uncommon for my apartment's electricity, water, and/or Internet connection to go out while that of my neighbors, whose house I could hit with a rock if I had any kind of arm at all, stays on, or vice versa--our mini-blackouts do knit us yabancıs closer together, as we load up our laptops or bathrobes to use the Internet or shower at someone else's house. They also somehow seem to lead to ordering pizza.

After a cranky day at work today, a chance phone conversation led me to invite a friend over so he could use the Internet while his power was out, which in turn converted an evening with no plans into a nice one of drinking wine and ordering from Domino's (I know, I know, but they have a two-for-one deal)--a "tradition" initiated one time when our electricity went kaput, though only after much befuddled wondering how in the world we could order take-out without the Internet. Ah yes, that little thing with the numbers and the buttons and the ring, ring, ring. How quaint.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Just another day

Maalesef, I did not get to run around getting tear-gassed this May Day, instead "celebrating" Worker's Day by... working. (After going to much trouble to get to the office in the first place, since so many of the roads in my neighborhood were blocked off.) My friends report that it was "boooring" compared to last year, despite the workers' historic return to Taksim Square. And they're not the type to say that in order to make me feel better about missing all the fun.

Just a few photos, then, of the morning scene, captured on my way to work:

Union members laid red carnations in memory of the 37 demonstrators killed on May 1, 1977.

At this point in the day, the police were doing a lot of standing around.

And in a brilliantly photo-op-ready PR move, they even handed out the flowers.

Monday, April 27, 2009

In-flight oenephiles

Cruising altitude is no place for connoisseurs. Even for an, uh, aficionado like myself, the alcohol served on international flights really only has two virtues: it's plentiful, and it's free. But somehow I managed to recently find myself seated--not once, but twice--by people who seemed to have mistaken the economy section of an Airbus for the plush lounge of a wine bar.

En route to Lisbon last Thursday, the man sitting in front of me called the stewardess over and handed the bottle of wine she had previously served him back to her, explaining in stilted English that the wine was French. And he wanted Turkish. (I know what you're thinking, and he was clearly not a Turk.)

Returning on a connecting flight from Geneva this weekend, I heard the stewardess patiently responding to the (alas, unheard) questions of someone sitting behind me that the wine was "from California... it's a blend of grapes... it's dry, but it's very nice."

But, apparently, not too nice to serve with a BBQ chicken hot pocket.

(Photograph by the great William Eggleston. Untitled, from the series Los Alamos, 1965­-1974)

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Feeling estúpido en español

"You're not in Turkey anymore," this sign may well have read, and indeed I wasn't, spending a stellar 10 days touring southern Spain with a pinch of Portugal thrown in. While I exulted in many of the differences--there aren't many major Islamic monuments you can follow up your tour of with a heaping plate of cured pork--the change of language was a source of constant frustration for me. Here I was, traveling in a country whose native tongue I had studied for 5 or 6 years back in my high school and college days and I could barely spit out a "hello" or "thank you."

"Merh--er, ah, buenas dias."
"Teşekk-- uh, uh, gracias."

Though I never got past being completely tongue-tied, I realized after a few days that I could still understand a large part of what was being said to me (or, more likely, in my general direction, since my travel partner spoke Spanish well). Better yet, finding myself completely incompetent in one language reminded me that I had actually achieved competence (fumbling, bumbling, funny-accented competence, but competence nonetheless) in another, as I continuing found myself thinking not "I wish these people spoke English," but "If I was in Turkey, I could handle this, no problem."

So, sad as it was to bring the vacation to an end, I happily sank into the backseat of the car taking me home from the airport last night, relieved and pleased to be able to chatter away with the driver about how the weather had been in Istanbul, his theory that the city was hiding artifacts found during the building of the Marmaray tunnel so as not to hold up construction, and Topic A with Turkish cab drivers (and a not un-favorite one of my own), "Aren't you so happy about Obama?"

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Seçim zamanı

I recently had a gig helping arrange some logistics for an NGO that was bringing a group of Arab politicians to Turkey to see how local elections are run here. When I met the coordinators, I joked, "The first thing you've got to tell them is that the guy with the most flags wins."

The streets of Istanbul are so festooned with election banners these days, from some spots you can barely see the sky. "Dream big!" one party exhorts; "Taking action for you!" another promises. While the strings of flags represent an alphabet soup of political parties -- AKP, CHP, DTP, MHP -- it's never been clearer to me how much an advantage the incumbent party has in advertising itself. The ruling AKP can distribute thick, glossy catalogs touting the "315 projects in 5 years" it's conducted in my neighborhood, Beyoğlu. It can put massive billboards bearing an image of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, his coat dusted with snow and a huge crowd gathering behind him, advertising the party's final pre-election rally in the area: "In snow, in winter, in rain, all of Istanbul on its feet!" And, it can trot out the biggest, baddest campaign vehicle around.

While supporters of other parties circle Taksim Square in battered cars with dragging bumpers and megaphones duct-taped (OK, I might be exaggerating on that part -- but only that) to the roof, the AKP has a gleaming white tour bus with wrap-around advertising and a matching, concert-ready speaker system on top. All crank out campaign jingles as loud as they possibly can, the sound ranging from ear-shattering to merely deafening. While most find this aggravating, and rightly so, I can't help but get a laugh out of it, and strangely, a bit of nostalgia too. Istanbul is undoubtedly a noisy city, but music -- however painful -- blaring out of cars is something I don't hear much, certainly not the way I did in the Mission district, when the thumping of a low rider's overtaxed stereo, not the call to prayer, was the soundtrack to street life.

Sunday, March 22, 2009


I got to pretend like I was a real foreign correspondent -- which apparently means downing unlimited Nescafé and cookies in the media center, where a sign said that computer use was "for the pressman only" -- last week at the 5th World Water Forum, a slightly mysterious, but certifiably enormous, week-long event held here in Istanbul.

As at any large conference, the sessions ran the gamut from tedious to fascinating, and sometimes a little of both. Though I probably should have attended some of the talks on financing and infrastructure, just to get a better sense of whether the forum's organizers really are evil corporate interests hell-bent on bottling and selling every last drop, my bleeding-heart tendencies drew me mostly to the panels on things like traditional cultural uses of water, migration and conflict, and women's issues -- the latter of which I wrote up for The National, an English-language newspaper in Abu Dhabi (pictured at right).

I also blogged about each day's events for TreeHugger:

And if you read all that, you'll be as water-logged as I am now.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Now 'tweeting'...

Count me among those who don't know exactly what the Twitter fuss is all about, but I've been hopping on Web bandwagons since 1996, so I'm not going to miss the chance to try and post some amusing observations and thought-provoking articles in 140 characters or less... Don't worry, I'll go light on what I ate for lunch.

UPDATE: I liked Twitter so much I opened a second account specifically for Turkey-related content, which has become my main account. Follow me @TheTurkishLife

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Twilight of the Turkish repairman

repair shopWhen my friend Kelly said she was taking her broken TV to the "television hospital," I laughed. But she wasn't kidding. Her Istanbul neighborhood is full of TV repair shops called just that.

One of the things I love about Turkey is how readily, and cheaply, it seems you can get almost anything repaired. But just as Americans and Europeans are starting to (re-)warm to the idea of fixing things up, the spread of throwaway culture to Turkey is threatening repairmen's livelihoods....

Read the rest over at TreeHugger, my other blog home*

* Experimental blog cross-pollination alert

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Balık uzmanı

While walking over the Galata Bridge this afternoon, I noticed a guy wearing a "fish specialist" jacket. (I would have taken a picture, but I was too busy eating a portakallı kek.) I wonder, is this the kind of thing Turkish housewives buy from mail-order catalogs for their husbands? Kind of the Turkish equivalent of a "Hooked on Fishing" T-shirt? In any event, I bet Mr. Uzman doesn't catch much.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Order vs. chaos

Way back in 2001, I saw my first movie at a Turkish theater--some forgettable war flick with Jude Law. Three things surprised me about the experience: 1) The smoke break intermission halfway through, for which the film was stopped mid-scene. 2) The sloppy squat toilet and all the chic young Turkish women who didn't seem to know how to use it correctly either. 3) The assigned seating.

When I go to movies in Istanbul now, what surprises me is that people actually sit in their assigned seat. The idea of a queue often seems like a foreign concept here--sure, people take a number at the bank or utility office, but then they usually butt in front at the window anyway. But everyone searches dutifully for their sıra and koltuk numbers at the cinema, to point where at a Friday afternoon matinee, with 80 percent of the seats empty, a woman came and sat down right next to me. Why the ticket sellers sold two seats right next to each other for such a scantly attended screening is another question altogether.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Instructional paket


This "lavaş" stuff is amazing.

It can be used to make so many different things!

. . .

That all look exactly the same.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009


In San Francisco, there was always a lot of hullabaloo about fare skippers sneaking onto the bus or hopping over the subway turnstile in order to ride without paying. On the bus tonight in Istanbul, I watched two young men board through the back door. The bus was fairly crowded, so it's highly doubtful that the driver could have seen them, but they dutifully handed one bus pass and a small stack of change to the woman standing next to me, who then gave it to the person next to her, and on and on all the way to the front of the bus and then (in the case of the pass) back again. This is a totally normal occurrence. So is having a shopkeeper run off with your money--only to return five minutes later after going to all the other neighborhood stores before finding someone who could give him the proper change. I'm sure there will come a day when this sort of casual trust seems as strange in Turkey as it would in America. I would just hate to be around to watch it erode.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Misery reverses migration

Will the Lou Dobbses and Tom Tancredos have the cojones to herald the financial crisis for doing what neither their demagoguery, nor stricter border controls, nor often brutal working conditions and plenty of out-and-out racism could not -- getting illegal immigrants to stay out of the United States, or head back home?

We've seen a similar pattern here in Turkey, where the culture clash has often been a result of internal migration, as rural Turks moved to the cities in large numbers and brought village ways with them. Like their counterparts in the U.S. and China, they too are getting fed up with the places they once saw as full of opportunity and are looking homeward. The Istanbul municipal seems only too happy to pay their bus fare.

Her zaman bekleriz

Still waiting
"Still waiting," by mission75, on Flickr. Edirne's abandoned Great Synagogue on Maarif Caddesi. My 1999 Lonely Planet guide says it was "scheduled for restoration" at that time.

Relations have not exactly been warm and fuzzy between Turks and Jews lately, so I was a little surprised to read that restoration work on the Great Synagogue in Edirne will purportedly begin next month.

Built in 1907, the synagogue partially collapsed in 1997 and is today an evocatively empty shell, practically begging for use as a symbol of the disintegration of religious diversity in Turkey. It looks like it was once a lovely building, and it would be nice to see it functioning again--as two nearby churches reportedly are--but since this restoration has been "scheduled" for over a decade, I don't think anyone should be cracking open a celebratory He'Brew just yet.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

En sonunda, resmiyim!

Sometimes fortune favors the slackers. I spent a good part of last year kicking myself for not getting my act together sooner to apply for official accreditation as a foreign journalist, the cheapest route to a Turkish residence permit. As I finally navigated my way through the piles of paperwork involved in this process, I steeled myself for the purportedly horrific trip to the emniyet, or police department, the deepest darkest heart of Turkish bureaucracy. But, maşallah, said steeling was not necessary. When the time at last came, I had heard from no fewer than four other yabancıs, that as of this year, the eminyet was new and improved, now with actual lines, and numbers, and 100 percent less shoving. Every word of it proved true. I was almost disappointed. Almost.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

"Hepimiz Filistinliyiz"

Call me crazy (or, more to the point, boring), but I tend not to want to spout off my opinion when I don't have a good grip on the topic at hand. Maalesef, though I try to keep up with the news, the apparently intractable Israeli-Palestinian conflict falls into that category for me. But it seems worth noting that watching things unfold from Turkey is like being on the other side of the looking glass.

As much as American politicians seem sworn to support Israel no matter what its government does or says, Turkish ones have put themselves wholeheartedly on the side of Palestine. Large billboards all around the city, some featuring the prime minister's wife, others bearing hard-hitting religious messages like "You are not the children of Moses" or "This is not in your book," denounce Israel's war and call upon Muslims to support their brothers and sisters in Gaza. Every other shop seems to have a photocopied "We are all Palestinian" flyer in its window, and Palestinian flags join Turkish ones overhead.

Recently, new flyers have appeared calling on people to boycott "Israel products"--like McDonalds, the Gap, CNN, Nokia, and Nescafe. It's hard to say whether the people who came up with this list see no difference between Israel and its American and European supporters, or whether they think their target audience won't know or care.