Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The glamorous life of the guidebook updater

"You must have the best job in the world!" the couple at the next table gushed, having just learned that I was staying at their Assos hotel while updating part of the Fodor's Turkey guidebook.

While there are certainly some jealousy-inducing perks to guidebook work – like getting the VIP treatment at that lovely establishment (including a divine breakfast featuring fresh-baked bread, local cheeses and olives, spicy pepper dip, and homemade pistachio and chili jams) – most of what's involved is far less glamorous than fellow travelers might think.

My days on the North Aegean (one of my favorite parts of Turkey) last summer were largely spent getting up early, guzzling copious amounts of Nescafe, and then racing from one hotel, restaurant, or historic site to the next, checking opening hours, prices, menus, room features, and other nitty-gritty details, then collapsing in a sweaty mess (it was August, after all) on a bus that would take me to the next destination, where the process would start all over again.

Nearly a year later, the fruits of these labors have made it into the 8th edition of Fodor's Turkey, with "Chapter 3: The Sea of Marmara and the North Aegean" – much of which is also available online – bearing my mark as updater. Friend and colleague Vanessa Larson's imprimatur is on the "Istanbul" and "Cappadocia and Central Turkey" chapters. I hope our work helps point travelers in the right direction – and that on my next trip to the North Aegean, I'll be packing my bikini and beach towel instead of my reporter's notebook and pen!

Monday, June 18, 2012

Unsettled history

On April 24, 1915, the Ottoman state "sent notice to the provinces... with the aim of stopping the activities of the Armenian gangs who had killed innocent people, rebelled against the state, and made cooperation with the enemy." Of course, that's not quite how Armenians see it.

It is, however, how history is told in the "Belgelerle Ermeni Sorunu Salonu" (Armenian Problem with Documents Room) at the Istanbul Military Museum in Harbiye.

That small chamber on the museum's upper level, part of its WWI display, does indeed contain a few documents -- on the "circumstances necessitating the relocation" of the empire's Armenians -- as well as the bloody shirt of a pasha killed by an Armenian assassin in Berlin. The bulk of its holdings, though, are photographs: of bombs and weapons captured from Armenians, of members of "Armenian gangs," of mosques burned to the ground by Armenians, and gory image after gory image of Turks (including children) set on fire, hacked apart, bound and left to die, even fetuses pulled from their mother's wombs.

The imagery was deeply disturbing on at least two levels -- because of its content, most certainly, but also for the single-minded determination to depict a country as made up of only heroes and martyrs that it represents. Let me be clear: I am well aware that many Turks contest this formulation, and that my own country is no stranger to erasing (or manipulating) inconvenient historical facts. I also have no illusions that the presentation at a counterpart museum in, say, Yerevan would be any more nuanced.

But looking at such official portrayals of history, it seems unfortunately easy to understand how people's beliefs about the "other" can be formed and reinforced, and how this can contribute to creating intractable tensions between two parties. Somber thoughts for a museum best known for its colorful but mind-numbingly repetitive mehter band performance.

With such ideas on my mind as I continued exploring the museum's collection, one artifact stood out in the nearby area devoted to the Korean and Cyprus conflicts: a "Bloody cleaver used by the Greeks against the Turks in Cyprus."

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Watch your tongue

"Sheep's head is usually served roasted or boiled," I said, pointing at the flesh-covered skulls in the corner of the butcher's case, their tongues lolling out between stubby teeth below their bulging eyeballs. "Here's the sheep's liver, and its heart. And did you see the cow tongue back there?" I asked my tour group, indicating a chunk of whitish meat roughly the size and shape of a human forearm.

"No, no," one of the butchers interjected. "It's kaynana tongue."

I racked my brain for the meaning of the unfamiliar word. Was it water buffalo, like the animal whose liver he'd already said was even bigger than the massive cow liver on display? No, that's manda. Was this little shop alongside the Spice Bazaar doing a secret trade in exotic animal parts? Perhaps I should have paid more attention during that useless-seeming Turkish 1 lesson where we studied the words for "giraffe" and "kangaroo."

The butcher repeated himself, clearly dismayed at my still-quizzical expression. "Are you married?" he asked, pointing to his ring finger. I shook my head. "That's why you don't understand..."

As I continued explaining the different types of offal to my guests, the other butcher took pity on me. "Senin beyin annesi," he said with a slight smile.

A-ha. Mother-in-law's tongue.

Tomorrow I'll have to tell them that we have a plant with the same name -- one that's sharp and a bit poisonous.