I would go living in lights

I would go living in lights: July 2011

Wednesday, July 27, 2011


There was an earthquake on Monday. I wouldn't have known, personally. I was sitting in the living room with my new quasi-flatmates (okay, I don't live there, but I might as well) and partaking in a zealous debate about whose turn it was to go to the store. Two of us yabancı (foreigners) and two Turks, all digging deep into our creative resources to invent a reason not to make the sweaty trip down.

"I can't go because I don't know which kind of gin you want."

"Don't be lazy. You're the closest one to the door."

"I saw that lady across the street lowering money in a bucket on a rope and shouting to the store guy. Maybe we should do that. Do you have a bucket?"

"I don't think that would work."

"Yeah, someone has to go. But not me. I think I went last time."

"What? You've literally never gone. Ever."

"Oh, right."

"Well, I'm a foreigner. Maybe they'll overcharge me."

"Nah. But I definitely shouldn't go because... wait, was that an earthquake?"

"No," I said. But I was wrong. I walked into the office the next morning to a flurry of conversation about it- a 5.2 quake centered in the Sea of Marmara, no casualties or destruction as far as I could learn. 5.2 is pretty small, after all. But maybe I didn't look far enough; Googling "Istanbul earthquake" turned out to be a distracting affair, with search results ranging from "Turkey's biggest city braces for massive natural disaster" to "scare-tactic advertisements sell quake-proof flats" to "oh god oh god, we're all going to die." (Maybe not so much the last one). İstanbul, you see, sits almost right on top of the North Anatolian fault line, and it's suffered a big shake-up every century or so for fifteen hundred years, most recently in 1999. Earthquake experts, after fiddling with their Earthquake Dials and pushing some Big Buttons or whatever, have concluded that the next one, a big one (imaginatively named "The Big One") is due by 2030, and it's going to be a monster. 7.6 is a number these seismologists seem fond of bandying about- the same size as the 2001 Gujarat earthquake in India which left 600,000 people homeless.

Let me take this opportunity to introduce a Turkish idiom which is in no way relevant: çayı görmeden paçaları sıvamak, to roll up your pant legs without seeing the brook. It refers, as you might guess, to precautions taken before they're necessary, which is the exact opposite of what most of Istanbul is apparently doing, earthquake-wise.

Oh sure, there's been pressure from the government to improve building standards, and the rich folk of the city are increasingly choosing to live in the northern suburbs, which are meant to be among the least affected areas. But as Okan Tuysuz, a professor of Earth Sciences, told the Guardian in 2006, "about 65% of buildings in Istanbul don't meet the rules and the city is growing too fast for anyone to be able to keep up. Things have improved, but not quickly enough to cope with the problem."

Roll up your pants guys. The brook is right there.

This gloomy entry brought to you by Wednesday Morning.

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Friday, July 22, 2011

The ant prayer

As much as I love Harry Potter, the books did leave me with one nagging concern. Why doesn't anybody use the Internet? Have I vastly overestimated the state of modern technology in England? Is this why my British friends haven't been answering my emails? More likely, I guess, is that a world full of computer-savvy Muggles would throw a monkeywrench into the whole business of magical communication- you can't have Dudley Skyping with his Smeltings friends while Harry stares out the window, sighing heavily and trying to recall how many days it's been since he sent his owl out with a letter for Ron. But really, who sends proper mail these days? I can't remember the last time I bought stamps.

The point is that much like modern teenagers (in the real world), wizarding families are woefully unfamiliar with the workings of the postal system. As demonstrated by Mrs Weasley's attempt to send a letter through the Muggle mail in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, my current Turkish reading:

Zarfın her santimi pulla kaplıydı, Mrs Weasley'nin Dursley'lerin adresini karınca duası gibi bir yazıyla sıkıştırdığı, ön taraftaki 1,5 santimetrekare hariç.

Every centimeter of the envelope was covered in stamps, except for 1.5 square centimeters on the front where Mrs Weasley had squeezed in the Dursley's address in writing like the ant prayer.

...wait, what?

like the ant prayer

The dictionary told me that this, karınca duası gibi, means "small or cramped handwriting." Well, okay. Figuring there had to be more to the story, I put my Detective/Language Nerd Hat on and went in search of my colleagues.

"Ahhh, the ant prayer," I was told, after managing to ambush Ahmet in the kitchen. "It's a prayer in Islam for luck with money."

"Like, prosperity?"

"Yes. Like prosperity. The real name is bereket duası, the abundance prayer. I think we Turks are the only ones who call it the ant prayer, because ants work very hard and cooperate to have enough to eat, you see?"

I didn't, really. "Okay, abundance prayer, but what does that have to do with tiny handwriting? Is it because ants are small or something?"

Ahmet laughed at me (this happens a lot). "No no no! People hang up this prayer on signs in their shops or offices for good luck with business. I think we have one here, in this building. They put it in very little letters so it will fit. That's why when you write something very close together, it is like the ant prayer."

Ohhh. I love idioms, and I'm going to make up excuses to use this one as much as possible. When in Rome, do as the Romans do.

...or as the Turks would say,

Ya bu deveyi güdersin, ya bu diyardan gidersin. (Either steer this camel or get out of the country).

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Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Istanbul culture; my dating prospects

Ninety degrees today. I know it's boring to comment on this abysmal heat in every entry, but if I have to suffer, by god so will you. Ninety Fahrenheit, of course, a mere 32 Celsius, which sounds much less impressive and is one of the things I prefer about our senseless American thermometers- everything is much more dramatic that way. Someone should invent a temperature scale which sets the boiling point of water at thirty billion degrees or thereabouts so I can whine with appropriate flair. "Ten billion degrees today, oof!"


As I've mentioned before, people are very fond of pointing out that Turkey- and Istanbul in particular, as the only major city on earth which straddles continents- is a cultural mix of Europe and Asia (or the Middle East, if you prefer). It's all but mandatory, apparently, to touch on this in your opener if you're writing a guidebook or a travel article about this place, and even Lonely Planet lists "crossing between Europe and Asia" as one of the top ten must-dos in Turkey. I'm personally of the opinion that the spot would be better occupied by something else. The transition is unspectacular if you go via the bridge, just a sign welcoming you to the other side and a staggering taxi fare to pay on arrival. Incidentally, GPS devices seem to agree; someone told me this morning that upon reaching the bridge's midpoint, they'll instruct you to "turn right".

(As an aside, I think it's interesting that nobody's thought to cash in on this with a little booth at the ferry terminal offering I CROSSED THE BOSPHORUS TO ASIA passport stamps for a lira or two. I smell big business.)

In any case, yes, Istanbul is a city of opposites. Women in burkas and women with halter tops and full sleeve tattoos; centuries-old mosques next to H&M stores; Starbucks built across from the entrances to the winding alleys of covered bazaars. But for the most part, the city seems to take no particular notice of the juxtapositions which fascinate us foreigners. Istanbul has spent so long at the center of come-and-go empires, both west and east, that it's difficult to even frame a photograph illustrating the contrast. It's all a blend. Not the two separate identities of Asia and Europe "meeting" so much as centuries of disparate influences creating a third independent identity.

That's a big part of why I like living here. Theres's enough Western influence to make life straightforward for an American- I don't spend my days muddling through a swamp of cultural misunderstandings the way I often found myself doing in Palestine- and enough of the East to keep me fascinated. Also enough of the East, apparently, that I'll never have a working relationship with a Turkish man, as my coworker kindly informed me.

We were sitting in his apartment a few days ago and he was struggling to find a way to politely tell me that I had to vacate his living room. I wasn't upset- I'd already been sleeping there for two weeks, which is probably longer than I'd let anybody monopolize my own couch. His reason surprised me, though.

"I got back together with my girlfriend."

"Ahh," I said, remembering that he'd mentioned the original reason for the breakup had been her jealousy over one of his female friends. "And she wouldn't like it that I'm staying here."

"Not exactly," he answered. "She would literally kill me."

We talked for a while about jealousy and its role in relationships. When I said that I wouldn't be okay with a boyfriend telling me I can't hang out with other guys, he seemed a bit taken aback.

"Turkish girls like that. They like the man to be... a man. They want him to keep her away from others."

"Well, the day a boyfriend of mine starts telling me who I can and can't spend time with is the day we break up."

He frowned at me. "Then you can never marry a Turkish man."

Well, there go my hopes for Turkish citizenship, I guess. But he's probably right. Turkey is a very liberal country in some ways, and a very conservative one in others. Dating seems to fall, uncomfortably, somewhere in the middle. Arranged marriages are almost entirely a thing of the past in Istanbul and young couples walk around freely, hand-in-hand. But gender roles are very much alive and well- the man is the protector (and to a large extent, the provider) while women cook and clean and fluff their boyfriend's pillows and do everything possible to take care of them in a domestic sort of way. When I then told my coworker that there would be no pillow-fluffing from me, or at least limited pillow-fluffing on a voluntary basis, you could almost see him mentally adjusting my relationship potential into negative numbers.

Which is sad, really, because Turkish men look like this:

From The Jaundiced Eye

Oh well.

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Sunday, July 17, 2011

On language learning

Nine pm in Beyoğlu. I'm out on the third-floor balcony of the spare office room I'm inhabiting until I can afford an apartment, looking out over the goings-on on Asmalımescit below. It's calm down there- the little delinquents who spent the afternoon plotting on the stoop with cigarettes dangling from their mouths seem to have moved on. The corner-shop man is pacing and stroking his moustache; couples are eating çiğ köfte at outdoor tables, wearing Sunday-evening clothes (less revealing than Friday night, more revealing than Wednesday morning); the doorman at the Grand Hotel Pera looks bored underneath the American flag hanging, inexplicably, upside-down.

("But wait!" you cry. "Out on the balcony? Didn't your laptop mutiny months ago?" Well, yeah. I'm writing this by hand, to be typed up later, due to the ominous whirring noises which started emanating from the office computer. The lifespans of electronics are halved in my hands, and if I'm going to break it, I'd prefer if it's in the presence of witnesses who can testify that I was only doing Normal Computer Things to it and not, like, kicking it).

A bar street off Asmalımescit, courtesy of Elif Ayiter

Moving on. Unrelated wittering taken care of, I now feel free to get to my real point. Which is a two-parter:

a) My parents like to say that I'm really good at languages, and
b) They're wrong.

I'm actually only marginally better at languages than I am at calculus, which is to say, not particularly good at all. Oh, I have a decent head for remembering new vocabulary, and foreign grammar constructions usually make a certain amount of sense to me. My real failing is this: I don't actually speak them. That is, I'll speak if I have to- in stores, or with somebody who doesn't know any English. But I'm criminally awful at making myself say anything in Turkish out of the desire for practice rather than out of necessity. Most people handle this really well- they're either playfully encouraging or totally unconcerned. Every now and then, though, someone will get it in their head that I must speak Turkish, and begin a campaign consisting of "come on, just say something. How about now? Just a few sentences. Come on. Don't be shy. Come on!" They're right, of course, but that approach brings out my stubborn side (and prompted me to look up the phrase "I am not a trained monkey"- it's "eğitilmiş maymun değilim" in case you ever need it. I'll probably never use it, actually, because every time I do in my head they just go "ooo how cute, Bonzo's learned some new words!")

Okay, I'm back to being an adult now. I guess my point is that I can see why so many people never learn a second language (looking at you, Anglophones). It's a long, difficult, and often embarrassing undertaking. But still. I hear so many Americans- and Brits and Australians and Kiwis, so as not to leave anyone out- proclaiming how awful they are at languages. Look at the Swiss! They all know, like, seven! Look at the Togolese! Look at the French! (Okay, maybe not the French). With a twinge of nationalistic dignity, I always want to say, well of course we're monolingual. We start our underfunded, short, non-compulsory language classes in middle school at best. Imagine if you started learning how to add in the seventh grade and your Chinese penpal was already going on about imaginary numbers. Of course you wouldn't get the sense that you're especially bright when it comes to math.

I think everyone should learn a foreign language. Read Rumi in the original Persian, watch Amélie in French, chat up that tanned Brazilian, talk art history with the museum staff in Italy, crush the ignorant American stereotype one "tengo un gato en mis pantalones" at a time.

Step one: Stop saying you're hopeless at languages. You probably aren't.

(Step two, and this is mostly for my own benefit: Then, actually speak the language)

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Istanbul (Not Constantinople)

After eight months of hibernation, pressure from adoring fans has become too much to handle and I've been forced to reopen my blog. Alert readers may notice that there have been some changes around here- really only two, actually, which I'll quickly explain by way of reintroduction and then forget about.

1: The picture at the top there. Nice, isn't it? I lifted it from someone's Flickr, a guy called Caner apparently, who (unlike me) both has a camera and knows something about photography. His caption says it's taken from Edirnekapı. I've never been there, but GoogleMaps places it just across the Golden Horn in Sultanahmet and I guess now I sort of have to go to justify having this as my header.

2: The title. Once again thieved, but this time from a much more reputable source- Orhan Pamuk, Turkey's best-selling author and first Nobel winner. I have a tendency to underline things in books, and I liked this line in Benim Adım Kırmızı:

Işıklar içinde yaşayıp giderdim, iki karanlık zamanın arasında.

Which means: I would go living in lights, between two dark times. It's on the first page of the first chapter, so I didn't yet have a chance to get tangled up in the plot and the Turkish and all of that; unlike some of the other lines I've marked, I'm actually quite sure of the context of this one. It's a dead guy talking- he just got murdered and dumped in a well, now he's reflecting on life.

[Have one more O.P. quote for good measure. I'm circling and starring things like mad in this book, and I sincerely hope it's all as poetic to native Turkish speakers as it is to me.

Ama aşk, o ara, İstanbul'a ilk girdiğimde, şehirdeki hatıralarım kadar uzak ve unutulmuş bir şeydi.

But love, in that time, on my first entrance to Istanbul, was as distant and forgotten a thing as my memories in the city.]

Oh, one more thing, I guess:

2.5: The title of this entry is, as every schoolboy knows, the name of a somewhat annoying song by They Might Be Giants, and is found in every single Turkey-related blog on the entire Internet. (I thought I should get my reference out of the way early). Surprisingly- or not?- the residents of Istanbul love this song, and on any given night you will hear it playing at full volume at least once, whether you're in a bar or walking down the street or just sitting in the office trying to get some work done for the love of god. Luxus does a good version of it, though. Also, it's stuck in my head now.

Anyway. Istanbul is a very big city, and I have a tendency to refer to parts of it offhand as though someone who doesn't live here has any reason to know where Üsküdar is any more than I have a reason to know where Dorchester is in Boston. Still, the unique geography of the city- that is, the fact that the central part is on both sides of the Bosphorus, one side European and the other Asian, and that the European part is further divided by the Golden Horn- means that it takes a lot of explaining to get across where anything actually is. Being a fan of concision and laziness, I'm going to supply you with a map for future reference.

Roughly speaking, the pink is Beyoğlu (where I work) and the red is Sultanahmet (where most of the historical monuments and things are), both on the European side, and the part colored in purple is the Golden Horn, a little armlet of the Bosphorus which separates them. On the other side are Üsküdar and Kadıköy, in green, Asian side, where a lot of people live to take advantage of the cheaper cost of living and the awesome ferry ride to work in Europe every morning.

My city

That's a pretty typical view from the ferry at sunset, so you can hardly blame them. (Sadly no photo credit to me there either; that one's by Atilla1000).

Although this post is still content-free for the most part, it's the best I can do on a lazy Sunday afternoon with the temperature hovering around 95 degrees. Stories, facts, history, and all kinds of wonderful things (hopefully) to follow!