Monday, June 28, 2010

One expat eyes another, 100 years in the past

Immersing myself in the late 19th and early 20th century life of a bourgeois Jewish woman in San Francisco might seem like a strange thing to do while living in Istanbul, but I jumped on the chance to investigate little-known writer Harriet Lane Levy for California magazine.

Though at first I found it hard to relate to the cloistered childhood she depicts in her autobiography, I became fascinated by how someone who grew up in such a small, closed-off world could make the leap to a larger one – and eventually saw some similarities to my having caught the travel bug so badly when no one else in my family even has a passport. My expatriate life is pretty different than what we know of Levy's – more cheap beers with fellow journalists in dive bars and fewer swanky soirees in famous artists' ateliers, and, of course, no family wealth to live off – but the journey into the past provided worthwhile insights.

My article on Levy, “An Independent Existence,” appears in the Summer 2010 issue of California, part of the theme of "Shelf Life."

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Literary serendipity

I was warned before I moved to Istanbul that English-language books would be expensive and sometimes hard to come by, but books take up a lot of precious suitcase space and weight allowance that is better devoted to booze, smelly cheese, and various pork products. So while I usually can't resist picking up one or two books on a trip abroad, I've largely had to make do with other procurement tactics. I know plenty of folks who spend a lot of time and money ordering specific books to be brought in by willing visitors coming from places where delivery is cheaper, but in line with my general attempt not to bemoan the things I don't have, I've taken a fairly zen approach to my literary life and largely read whatever happens to come my way.

Thanks to the books friends have recommended and loaned, let me "steal" off their shelves, or left behind when they cleaned house or moved away, I've immersed myself in the true-life love story of a French villager and a British soldier caught behind enemy lines in World War I; a heartbreakingly beautiful Nigerian novel; travelogues along the old Silk Road and all around Iran; fascinating historical fiction about a family driven out of 15th century Granada; the life of expats in the rapidly "modernizing" Saudi Arabia of the 1970s and 1980s; and a tale about young rural exiles during the Chinese cultural revolution. Not all of my serendipitous discoveries have been five-star reads, of course, but there have been enough brilliant ones that I may never decide on a particular book to read again. I'll just continue letting the books pick me.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Turkman Eastwood

I was at a bar on a visit home once when my drinking companion pointed to a poster on the wall, saying, "Check that out!" I looked. I looked some more. It was a poster for the movie "Death Race 2000." I didn't understand why this should be of interest to me.

And then it hit me: The poster text actually read "Ölüm Yarışı 2000." I had read it without realizing I was translating, or that it was strange to see Turkish in an American bar.

Clint Eastwood looks a bit Turkified in this poster for the first Dirty Harry sequel, "Magnum Force" -- or "Gun's Strength" in Turkish -- which another friend emailed to me this week after spotting it in the men's room at a San Francisco wine bar.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The buzz about Turkey and Israel

I couldn't have really picked a crazier moment to jump into full-time daily news editing: 24 hours after Israeli forces boarded a flotilla of ships trying to break the blockade on the Gaza Strip, killing nine Turks (including one Turkish-American) and sparking outrage and protests all around Turkey. Our newspaper has been full of stories for the past week -- as it likely will be for many weeks to come -- about the raid and its implications for a relationship already severely rattled by bad behavior on both sides, from a prime ministerial outburst heard 'round the world to petty-minded mockery of a fellow diplomat.

While things don't look good for Turkey and Israel, those who hold out any hope for rapprochement figure the longstanding economic ties between the two countries will be incentive enough to avoid an irreparable rift -- a position bolstered, in an odd way, by a recent discovery about (of all things) bees.

According to the Los Angeles Times, the 3,000-year-old apiary found three years ago in Israel's Jordan Valley -- the "oldest known commercial beekeeping facility in the world" -- was likely home to bees from Turkey, the first such evidence of animals being transferred over such a distance. The science behind the discovery is fascinating: DNA testing showed that the bees were of "a subspecies found only in what is now Turkey," Wired explains. But in light of recent events in this part of the world, the finding is perhaps even more intriguing as an argument in favor of not letting a three-millenia-long trading relationship lapse.