I would go living in lights

I would go living in lights

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Survivor's Guide to CELTA

Confession: I check my blog stats all the time. All the time. I suspect that many (most?) bloggers do this. There's a sense of great satisfaction when one of the numbers clicks up. Someone read a thing I wrote! A stranger in Somalia! A stranger in Belgium! I am an Internet Ambassador!

Okay, maybe not quite. Here is the number one Google search which has led people to my blog: turkish men. Here is the number two: turkish man. And number four: türkish men. Five: turkish guys. Not much farther down the list, we have "dating in istanbul". Good lord, people, it's like all you think about is sex!

I'm glad we had this little talk.

You know what nobody ever asks me about? The CELTA. It's kind of frustrating, really. I feel like everyone probably has something like that, something which you know is miserably and utterly uninteresting to most everybody, but which you simultaneously want to talk about so badly that their sobs of boredom seem almost worth it. My "Ask Me About The CELTA" buttons I had specially made sit moldering in my closet.

This is what we have the Internet for. People who want to talk about boring things like cars and baseball can find dozens, possibly even hundreds of people across the world who are also interested in these things. Nobody in my real life (apart from my parents, credit where credit is due) has ever asked me for a slideshow of my travel photos, but on the Internet I can write about my trip to Europe with my boyfriend and there are people out there- people I don't even know- who will read it on purpose. This, as I said, is the beauty of the Internet. Here, too, I can talk about the CELTA at great length and nobody will suddenly remember that they have a dog grooming appointment.

Would you like some quick facts? Don't mind if I do!

-Cambridge-accredited course offering certification as a teacher of English as a second language
-Taken by around 10-12,000 people each year
-Offered more or less year-round in over 50 countries at more than 250 centers
-Costs a few thousand USD, plus airfare, expenses, and accommodation
-Can be done full-time over four or five weeks, part-time over a longer time period, or online

Back in March 2011, in the weeks between my first inkling of "hmm, you know what, working at Wendy's is kind of terrible, perhaps I should do something different" and actually boarding a plane from Raleigh to Prague, I did a lot of frantic Googling. It turns out that there are an enormous number of very professional websites out there which will tell you Basic Things about CELTA. There are surprisingly few- that I could find, anyway- attempting to convey what taking the course is really like as an Average Human. When I searched something normal like "oh god oh god does anybody pass the celta" for instance, I would turn up unhelpful things like its Wikipedia article or the webpage of a testing center, and the banner advertisements in my email would start to hint that maybe retail was for me after all.

oh god oh god does anybody pass the celta

Yes! Very nearly everybody! I found a page today with a detailed breakdown of scores by country here. It varies by a surprising amount, really. Some countries (Bangladesh, Slovenia, Japan) seem to hand out the coveted Pass A's like Halloween candy, while most everywhere else awards the highest grade to only around 1-7% of trainees. Armenian and Venezuelan centers seem unaware that a regular Pass exists. Ethiopia fails everyone outright (???). On average, though, the Fail and Withdraw categories put together only total up to about 5% of students. You have a 95% chance of passing.

As I understand it, training centers will generally not accept your candidacy unless they feel that you have a strong chance of doing well in the course; that's the purpose of the pre-acceptance phone or Skype interview, to weed out the unmotivated and grammatically unstable.

most effective bribes for celta interviewers

The phone interview is really, and I can't stress this enough, really not a huge deal. You send in your initial application with a little quiz on grammar and how you might teach certain concepts, and this is one thing that will come up. You don't need to get a perfect score. You just need to think about it, do your best, and be prepared to explain your answers. They will make sure that you understand the volume of work the course entails, and check that you are not planning to hold down a job at the same time, which would be a monumentally horrible idea if you opt for full-time.

I did the phone interview twice. The first time I enrolled in CELTA, I backed out at the last second to work at a hostel instead. The second time I went through with it. Both interviews were easy, laid-back, thoroughly unterrifying. Never fear.

celta + stress related fatalities per year

Full-time CELTA is an enormous amount of work. You will be at the training center for roughly eight hours a day, five days a week (100% attendance is mandatory excepting legitimate emergencies). From day one onward, you will have several hours of homework to complete each night- mostly lesson planning and essays- and will more likely than not find yourself showing up at "school" an hour or two early in the morning to finish printing and classroom prep. You will probably drink a lot. By week two, you will lift your head from the puddle of drool on your desk and survey your fellow trainees with a bleary eye. Susie will be crying. Bill is clutching his head- another stress headache, probably. Jonah is rhythmically hammering his forehead into his worksheet on participles. Everybody yawns in unison.

I don't think anybody has actually died on a CELTA course. You may take comfort in this fact I just made up.

Woody Allen said that 80% of success is showing up. This has never been more true than in CELTA. It is not at all difficult to pass... provided you do the work. Of which there is a lot.

by Nazreth, very possibly taken during a CELTA lecture

do you listen to theory lectures all day or what

I am one of those people who like to get the worst stuff out of the way immediately. I eat the eggs (disgusting) before the sausages (delicious). You will never hear me say "no, give me the good news first". CELTA is designed for people like me, apparently, because here is what you do first thing in the morning:

teaching practice

I was the only one in my unusually small class of eight who had previous classroom experience (in Korea and Palestine). Turns out, though, it's kind of a different ballgame when you know that you're actually the one getting graded. The whole thing becomes somewhat more stressful than teaching a bunch of Korean kindergartners the ABC had been.

Each trainee gets at least six hours of observed teaching practice. Our full CELTA group was split into two subgroups of four for morning TP (as they call it, being very big on acronyms). Each group was assigned a different teacher trainer and a different class level, pre-intermediate or upper intermediate, both to be switched after week two. From day two onward, everyone taught a sample lesson on alternating days, during which time the other trainees and the teacher trainer would take notes (what worked well, what was terrible, how was the energy in the classroom?). Snoozing gently on your desk was cruelly forbidden.

Afterwards, the students would shuffle out and we would discuss the day's lessons. I seem to recall that the criticisms we leveled at one another were very tame and hesitant during that first week. A fellow trainee of mine seemed deeply apologetic while explaining that perhaps I had spoken a bit too loudly, which in retrospect probably meant that my primitive bellows were reverberating mercilessly from the walls of the classroom. "Your lesson was good... supremely excellent really... a marvel..." we would tell one another, and then quickly and quietly tack on a minor bit of criticism at the end ("butmaybejustmaybe andIcouldtotallybewrong, Ithinkthepartaboutparticiples waspossiblyalittleconfusing").

This politeness took a nosedive, along with our collective energy levels, after about week two. Don't get me wrong, we weren't, like, jerks or anything. But I think it's really something that CELTA does well; it fosters an environment where everybody understands the value of constructive suggestions. Nobody was offended (I think) when we would openly say things like "the part about the vocabulary made no sense to me. I don't think it worked at all. And your overhead slides were..." (laughter here, our ongoing battle against outdated technology being just one of the many factors working constantly to unite us). And the trainee whose vocabulary lesson had sucked would be happy about this. Pleased to receive useful suggestions.

what is the point of celta?!

To open up a world of glorious possibilities, of course! When I first heard about teaching English as a Foreign Language, I believe I was twelve and poring over a second-hand copy of Work Abroad (overall a fairly disappointing book as I remember, but I won't be too harsh on it here; I was, after all, twelve). "You can DO that?" I thought. "People will PAY me for this?"

Years later, I was still somewhat surprised to discover the sheer number of expats or would-be expats who had the same happy realization. But maybe I shouldn't have been. Teaching English is pretty much the single easiest way for its native speakers to live sustainably overseas. It seems to be getting easier every day as English becomes increasingly crucial across the world and language schools spring up like weeds anywhere the demand is great enough.

So do you really need CELTA certification? There's a lot of debate around this question. The short answer is no, not really. There are certain countries in which your chances of employment don't seem significantly impacted by certification (South Korea among them, which is possibly the number one destination for ESL teachers globally). Others will depend on the particular school you're applying to, some of which may accept you with a different qualification, even one from the often-scorned online certification courses, or no qualification at all. If you have a degree in teaching, you will be able to parlay that into a good job in many places.

The long answer, though, is yeah, kinda. If you're serious about teaching English, getting reputable certification (meaning, essentially, either CELTA or Trinity TESOL) is a very, very, very good idea and will open a whole lot of doors. Now that the weeks of pounding headaches are a distant memory for me, I can heartily recommend it.

Extra-special shoutout to AKCENT IH Prague, who mailed me my certificate from nearly three whole years ago with nothing more than a "huh, we were starting to wonder if you still wanted it."

Happy teaching :)

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Friday, October 25, 2013

Alaska Pride

Winter is creeping into Anchorage. Snow has been perched up on the Chugach range to the east for weeks, ebbing and spreading as the weather toys with us down here in the city- fifty degrees one day, twenty-five the next.  Each day, the sun lingers a little less in the sky and we're left in what feels like unfairly premature darkness, even in October. Opening up my blog again for the first time in months, I can't help but notice the irony of the title I chose back in Turkey. Living in lights? Not so much. I never imagined then that I would soon enough be back in the United States, this time sharing a latitude line with Helsinki.

I've moved around a lot in my life, but there's one thing that always seems to stay the same. People really like complaining about where they live. 

I used to offer, unhelpfully, "if you hate it here so much, why not move?" Well, Young Sierra, first of all, not everybody shares the desire to pack up their lives and replant hundreds or thousands of miles away every six months. But more importantly, I finally realized they aren't whining in earnest. Inside the moaning is a certain bizarre but apparently universal pride found in the oddities, discomforts, inconveniences, and annoyances of home.

Something as simple as the weather quickly becomes a strange kind of race for last place. "Where I'm from, the humidity is so intense your clothes are soaked through five minutes after you leave the house," the Floridian will half-brag, half-complain. "You can't imagine how bad mud season gets up here," the Vermonter will say, seeing a one-up opportunity. At this point, the Alaskan senses weakness. "I am from Alaska," he announces. "The sun barely rises in the winter, and never sets in the summer. Winter, which lasts eight or nine months, is bitterly cold and terribly depressing. Lower 48ers who find themselves in our frozen northland after its onset can do nothing but huddle together for warmth and pray for a swift death."

I may possibly be exaggerating a slight fraction, but really now.

Midtown Anchorage by Mark Kimerer

Anchorage is a strange place, that's for sure. I'm not sure what I pictured on the long drive west from Boston and then north from Arizona, but it wasn't quite this.

"Everything here looks like it's from the seventies," I remember saying to my boyfriend as we climbed out of the overloaded Suburban to stretch our legs in the Taco King parking lot. The faded colors, the nail salons with misspelled names, those hokey fan-driven balloon people bowing and straightening in front of tax attorneys' offices and sushi restaurants. The... um, oh no, I'm compelled to use the phrase "antique charm"... of Anchorage gives it a small-town America feeling, which, combined with the city's vast sprawl, makes it easy to forget that fully 40% of Alaska's population lives here.

There's a sense of disconnect, I think. The 38% of the population who was born and raised here, along with a surprising number of immigrants, seem to view themselves as Alaskans first and Americans a distant second. "In the States" doesn't mean "in this country we all live in," but rather "down there in the lower 48". Very little west of Anchorage is accessible by road, meaning that the majority of this mindbogglingly enormous state is effectively marooned in the snow for the better part of the year. Not much of a surprise, then, that Alaskans hold six times more pilots' licenses per capita than any other state.

Not a surprise either that people up here in this middle-of-nowhere, Last Frontier, former Gold Rush state seem generally pretty psyched about the things which set them apart. Anchorage's dubious honor of being the least fashionable city in America and the completely unshocking fact that Alaska is the coldest state year-round are relayed in a tone of voice normally used by proud parents whose son got straight As.

Here's what I think: Alaska is weird. And expensive. And remote. And freezing. And people up here pretty much like things like that. 


Saturday, April 20, 2013

Bulgaria: We wish to retract previous disparaging comments

It's a beautiful day in Bulgaria.

I feel compelled to mention that. I've been back in this country for a week now with my boyfriend, Adam. Spring arrived before we did and the air is fresh-smelling and cool. Red and white bracelets adorn the branches of flowering trees- the leftovers of Martenitsa, a uniquely Bulgarian March tradition in which these tokens are given out for good fortune. Out here in the west, the mountains remind me of the ones at home.

This was not my initial impression of Bulgaria during my visa runs to Plovdiv a couple of years ago, as my friend Jessica reminded me recently ("Dulllllllgaria"). I still maintain that Dullgaria is a Very Good Portmanteau, but it felt far more accurate on a cold winter morning shivering at a grey bus stop in the city. So I'm sorry, Bulgaria. That was uncharitable and it won't happen again.

Bulgaria tastes all right

I'm reminded, actually, of a guy I met on the interminable bus trip down from Prague to Istanbul in 2011. He was an older gentleman, very friendly, but also one of those greatly feared public transport chatterboxes who can somehow sense weakness in their seat partners and dive in for the kill. We made small talk, if I recall, for eight hours straight. When our bus eased to a stop in front of the Bulgarian border, he announced, "people come to Bulgaria only three times. The third time, they stay." Given that we haven't yet come across a single other foreigner here, I'm inclined to doubt that, but it's a nice sentiment.

Not everybody seems quite as full of optimism on that point as Bus Man, anyway. A man from Botevgrad- who studies near London and spoke the best English we've heard this side of Romania- laughed and said, "everybody here wants to go to the United States. You are from the United States and come here. Hahahah!" (Then he pointed out some prostitutes on the side of the road). And there was the customs official as we entered the country. Attempting to get a thorough list of Bulgaria's surely extensive tourist attractions, we were presented with the names of three nearby caves. Any other sites? Yes, here is a fourth cave, slightly more distant. Okay, other stuff? Cave.

Don't get me wrong, I like caves. You could even say I like caves *a whole lot*. But I can't help picturing Bulgaria's tourism department as a single old woman snoozing under a flag and, probably, a poster saying BULGARIA: WE HAVE CAVES.

According to this, Bulgaria is doing a resounding "sort of okay, I guess" on the international charts; the annual tourism arrivals stats place it forty-first out of the 188 countries for which data has been gathered. Most foreign visitors here are from the neighboring countries (Greece, Turkey, and Romania) but over eight percent are Americans.

Even Wikipedia manages to give the reader an "eh, Bulgaria, take it or leave it" impression. I will admit that I did not giggle audibly when I discovered that one of its links to a "picturesque Bulgarian village" leads instead to a rather nice *Slovenian* village, but I did think it was comical enough to share.

I hope it doesn't sound as if Bulgaria-Sierra tensions are rising again, because this is not the case. I hope the tourism department keeps snoring away because hey, more deserted forests and mountains for me.


Monday, October 10, 2011


Two Google Images results for "eastern turkey"

After some undefined number of months living in another country, the major contrasts between Old Home and New Home fade into the background. I guess I've grown accustomed to rhythms of Turkish life. I get a strange sensation of uncertainty sometimes, indecision- firetrucks screeching up the street and missing their turn, playing board games at the office during the second power outage in as many days, men in suits attempting to heave a stranger's car onto the sidewalk so a bus can maneuver around a tight corner. Would these things happen in the States? I can't remember.

I used to read a lot of travel forums even before posting on Thorn Tree and BootsnAll became a major aspect of my job (I'm not bragging... or am I? Maybe a little bit). These days, unsurprisingly, I'm clocking up a lot of hours on the expat subdivisions, where I can whine with other Americans and Canadians about how hard it is to open a bank account in another country, muse about how the nosedive of the Western world is looking from these parts, share the articles our friends and family send us about the allegedly direct correlation between beard length and likelihood of concealed weaponry, that sort of thing.

One recurring thread in expat forums is- as you might well suspect- a discussion about the things we miss most from home. Nearly all the Americans who posted their responses included Mexican food. Like, nearing 100%. That strikes me as funny. The thing we miss the most about our home country is another country's cuisine? I thought we were more patriotic than that! "Cattle rustling" was conspicuously absent from the lists. Nobody put "sitting around with a case of PBR and brainstorming new racial slurs," or "singing the national anthem," or hell, even "baseball." Mexican food.

I came across an article by Charlotte McPherson in which she observed that Westerners "tend to become more patriotic and nationalistic when away from their homeland." My instinct is to disagree, at least when it comes to us Americans. For every United States citizen singing the praises of our Great Democracy abroad, there are three discreetly sewing Canadian flags to their backpacks. Of course, most people aren't so easily pigeonholed, and as a whole, an expat's relationship with their native country is far less likely to revolve solely around boring the locals with endless tales of the superior majesty of the motherland or solely around raging about the worst aspects of home. I miss my family and roadtrips and bluegrass and sledding in Vermont, and I enjoyed a few moments of snobbish delight upon finding out that Americans are apparently viewed as the "coolest" nationality on earth. On the other hand, I also frequently find myself overcome by the impulse to preemptively assure people that I don't think executing innocent people is a terrific idea and that neither my family nor the family of anybody I know actually owns a Hummer. Living in a different country means that for better or for worse, I've come to take both praise and criticism of America much more personally than I used to. I'm quicker to point out the great things about the US and sadder about the hateful, shocking, dysfunctional ones. So maybe I am more patriotic.

With nationalism on my mind, it occurred to me to wonder whether Americans or Turks are prouder of their country. The reputation of the States overseas is as a land of rabid superpatriots- and in fact, a poll by MSNBC found that we're the world's most enthusiastic flag-wavers.

But is it so simple? I've never seen an American rush to George Washington's defense with any particular passion (have you?); in Turkey, insulting Atatürk is actually a crime- a law which is rigorously enforced. According to 2011 polls, only 17% of us in the US have a favorable view of our federal agencies, compared with 61% and climbing who support the government over here. The Turkish language has undergone, in the last century, a radical overhaul to purge the common vocabulary of thousands of words with Arabic or Persian roots in favor of Turkic equivalents, many of which had to be made up on the spot- an overhaul which met with resounding success and acceptance. Despite polls and reputations, it seems that Turkey is in many ways more patriotic than America.

I looked up "aspects of culture" with the assumption that culture is a central concept to this idea of nationality- we rally around our flags and our symbols because they represent an unspoken commonality that we all share. I'll admit that I didn't look very far. Wikianswers, possibly the least authoritative source on the entire Internet, provided me with the following list:

1. Food
2. Clothing
3. Recreation
4. Government
5. Education
6. Language
7. Religion
8. Transportation
9. Economy
10. Environment
11. Culture
12. Arts

(Apparently culture is an aspect of culture, but there are also eleven others! Who knew?)

Some of them aren't very handy when discussing patriotism. Transportation, for example. Even sitting in the Greyhound terminal in Murderton, Detroit, waiting for my eight-hours-delayed bus and nervously mm-hmming my way through a chat about prison tattoos with a highly pungent and frightening gentleman, it never occurred to me to think, "bad public transport. THAT'S what's wrong with America." Similarly, despite the comfortable seats and smiling stewards aboard the trains and planes here, I've never seen anybody smugly waving Turkish flags outside Atatürk airport. Their beheading rates are infinity percent below North America's and even their food is not the nauseating sludge we Americans have come to expect on our travels ("Make sure you don't miss their hazelnut snack," Cornell Prodan raves in his review of Turkish Airlines. I'm not sure why I find this so funny).

But I digress.

Some of the others, I think, are better barometers of national pride. Some things we have in common because they're institutional and/or unavoidable. An American can't really choose not to have Obama for a president or live in a bad economy or come from the country that gave the world Hollywood. Others are more... um, opt-in, I guess, and more nebulous. Faith. Traditions (which should be on the list but isn't). Even language, to an extent. It occurs to me that maybe American nationalism is born of our strange contrast. Countries like Turkey are more historically, religiously, ethnically, linguistically homogenous than ours (we'll leave the Kurds out of this, and I doubt many of them would identify as strongly patriotic anyway), and that's THEIR source of solidarity. Maybe ours stems from different values entirely- our perception of ourselves as independent, free, self-starters, a bit rebellious in our determination to make it together despite our varied roots and backgrounds. If Turkey is a noble family with centuries of pure blood, we're a rags-to-riches businessman who bootstrapped his way up from nothing.

What do you think?

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Sunday, October 2, 2011

Tarlabaşı: ghetto living

Reporters speak of Tarlabaşı like it's the dark heart of some fairytale forest- you can stroll down "glitzy," "vibrant" İstiklal, but don't stray too far from the path. Mere minutes away, it's all too easy to find yourself in a sunless slum where the trees whisper to each other and the birds are all reporting to their ogre overlord and you're more likely than not to find yourself getting shoved in a witch's oven or initiated into a gang.

"Istanbul's Tarlabasi district, is famous for all the wrong reasons - drugs, prostitution, crime. Photos of mysterious figures in the shadows, pimps, transvestites smoking cigarettes, and men slinking up to hotel rooms..."
-David Hagerman

"It's located right next to the commercial and cultural heart of Istanbul and, yet, most Turks consider Tarlabasi a no-go zone."
-NPR's Ivan Watson

"Tarlabasi is burdened with a reputation as a haven for drug dealers and prostitutes, and few would wander its lanes at night."
-Robin Eckhardt

Ahhh, home sweet home. Always nice to read a glowing review of the neighborhood you live in, don't you think? Sure, the panorama outside the iron bars on my window might not be majestic, exactly (hissing cats picking through a sort of post-apocalyptic windswept dump), but nobody throws loud parties here and it's been at least two weeks since anybody traded gunshots on Kurdela Sokak, two streets over.

Drug deals, I will admit, are not uncommon, unless I'm reading way too much into the huddles of shifty-looking youths which spring up after dusk. Nor are transvestites and prostitutes (my Halloween wig shopping is going to be cake this year). Seedy hotels? Check. Out of all the journalistic allegations above, the only one I can really take issue with, actually, is this:

most Turks consider Tarlabasi a no-go zone

Do they? I mean, I guess it wouldn't spring to many minds as a top-notch destination for moonlit strolls carrying a month's salary in cash. But on the other hand, even the Turks who consider going to bed with wet hair a highly risky activity and hurl themselves in my path when I attempt to jaywalk across empty streets- as if I were diving out into a spray of bullets- don't seem particularly horrified when I walk home to my apartment alone.

I like Tarlabaşı for the same reason my parents took home the most hideous kitten they could find from the Humane Society. Because it's ugly, and because that gives it a kind of eccentric charm. It's got the faded glory effect, with little now left to remind us of its past as an affluent district populated by Greeks and Armenians. Forced to leave en masse in the first half of the 20th century, their abandoned houses were slowly filled with Kurds, Roma, and illegal immigrants (as well as a recent upswing in European Erasmus students enticed by the low prices)- the ragtag misfits of Turkish society, in other words, whose Little League team will surely someday win a heartwarming victory over a richer and better-equipped team from a wealthy suburb (now accepting suggestions for the title of the Disney movie... I'm thinking Starlabaşı).

I'm constantly trying to get people to come to the Sunday market (the pazar, a word which means both "Sunday" and "market" in Turkish). It's one of the oldest in İstanbul and also one of the most frenzied (read: fun), a fact due in large part to the very economy and demographics which apparently make it such a terrifying place to visit on any other day of the week. You can get black market loot from Georgia, fresh vegetables for the equivalent of 26 cents a kilo, toy guns, any sort of underwear your heart desires, massive watermelons, spices... it's like Christmas day (if instead of visiting your aunts and uncles, you visited a bunch of large men shouting in Kurdish).

By Karpuz11

Tarlabaşı, really, is not that frightening. The man at the corner store, intent on slicing up his cheese, will try to give you some. The toast lady will hand you a free bag of popcorn, just because. Women will lower buckets on ropes and holler at you to fetch them some bread. The tiny boy on his dad's parked motorcycle will whisper "vroom" noises and make you laugh (until he starts shouting rude words down the street after you, anyway).

Unfortunately, maybe the toast lady forgot to smile at some government official one day, because Tarlabaşı's future is looking grim. İstanbul's Urban Transformation project, targeting around 31 neighborhoods citywide, looks certain to drive out most of the area's current residents- pimps and barbers, drug dealers and pilav sellers alike. Tarlabaşı may be... well, scruffy. But I think this is sad.

Tarlabaşı Photo Report From MSNBC

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Tuesday, September 27, 2011


I stayed home from work sick yesterday. I'll spare you the macabre details, but I'm assigning direct blame to food poisoning, and indirect blame to the little beast pictured below. Convinced by Deniz (aka Peter)'s adorable purring and very soft fur, I've been leaving my window open overnight so he can curl up with me on his own schedule and go root through trash (or whatever he does out there) the rest of the time. Unfortunately the night air in İstanbul is getting increasingly icy as October approaches, and I think it's doing bad things to my immune system. If I'm not sniffling, I'm snuffling; if I'm not snuffling, I'm sneezing or coughing or whining about a headache. A sort of walking illness.


On arriving at work this morning, a coworker told me that I wasn't the only one. Except for him, everyone else in the office had been out yesterday too. "It was like a haunted house in here," he said. "İn cin top oynuyordu."

That turned out to be one of those awesome Turkish expressions with no English equivalent, the kind which give me endless glee and inspire blog posts. Used for lonely, empty places, it can be translated roughly as "djinn and things were playing ball." ("İn" means lair or den according to my dictionary, but in this sense it seems to be used as a sort of placeholder, as in the common fairy-tale question "in misin, cin misin?"- "are you human or are you a djinni?").

As an aside, etymology nerds might be intrigued to learn that our two words for the supernatural Middle Eastern beings come from different stems entirely. According to Wikipedia, "djinn" (singular "djinni") comes from the Arabic root ǧ-n-n meaning 'to hide' or 'be hidden'; meanwhile, "genie" derives from the Latin genius meaning "tutelary spirit", which entered English via French around 1750 when the first French translation of One Thousand And One Nights used it in place of the similar-sounding Arabic word.

Anyway. In the Western mind, the word "genie" conjures up Robin Williams' voice booming out one-liners from a dusty lantern in the Cave of Wonders, or maybe Barbara Eden comically ruining Major Nelson's day.

"First, that fez-and-vest combo is much too third-century. These
patches. What are we trying to say? Beggar? No. Let's work with me

But in Turkey, and across the Muslim world, djinn are much less... well, goofy. While mentions of them aren't particularly common in religious texts, certain examples do exist; the Qur'an, for instance, states that djinn were created by Allah from a smokeless fire, as men were made from clay and angels from light. They are believed to have free will, just as humans do, and can choose their own religion and the manner of their interference with our lives from the parallel world they are thought to inhabit. Wikipedia also has this to say about the genies: "Jinn have the power to travel large distances at extreme speeds and are thought to live in remote areas, mountains, seas, trees, and the air, in their own communities. Like humans, jinn will also be judged on the Day of Judgment and will be sent to Paradise or Hell according to their deeds."

Interesting, no? Unearthly yet fallible and accountable. As far as I'm aware, most of our own supernatural sagas have no element of conscience or liability on the part of the demons or ghosts... which makes them, to me at least, less fascinating. Maybe that's why folk tales from this part of the world, like those in One Thousand And One Nights, take on a different tone than the campfire stories back home. It's all cunning and trickery, much less of the Paranormal Activity-type senseless draggings-out-of-bed we see so much of these days in America.

Just as prevalent as djinn in Turkish superstition is the nazar, or evil eye (my source, an Actual Turkish Person, estimated that 95% of his countrymen believe in both). According to Hangama Ahmadzai here, praise or envy from even well-meaning individuals is thought to expose people to bad luck. Often blue eyes are considered by Mediterranean cultures to carry a particularly heavy dose of ill fortune, maybe because they're rarely seen- and when they are, it's usually on tourists, who are inclined to further prove their untrustworthiness by fawning over local infants, who are among the most susceptible to the nazar. Fortunately, having brown eyes and no particular fondness for babies, I am still universally popular. In case you should run across some blue-eyed fiend in your travels, though, you might consider purchasing a nazar boncuğu- roughly, "evil eye bead." You can see these everywhere in Turkey, from necklaces to paintings to airline logos.

In other respects, though, I haven't noticed that the people here are much more superstitious than we are back home. I did find an extensive list of purported Turkish beliefs here, but aside from one or two (such as throwing water after a departing traveler to ensure their return) I've never seen or heard of anybody actually subscribing to them. Much like the United States is not a nation of people inching down sidewalks on their tiptoes to avoid the cracks and fleeing in horror from black cats, your average Turk does not seem especially terrorized by the following prospects:

-A boy who drinks coffee do not have moustaches, he becomes beardless.
-Hair in comb after combing is not thrown to street; if it is thrown, it may entangle in a leg of chicken, so you may have headache continuously.
-Cackle of hen implies to bring a bad-luck.
-If girls eat something between two meals, their luck to find a husband becomes impossible. (The tragic dangers of snacking!)
-It is forbidden to jump over a child, otherwise the child remains short.

Still, I'm hoping this one is true for Jessica's sake; she was lucky enough to be pooped on by a Turkish bird during her very first week in İstanbul. When excrement of a bird falls on the head, it means that the person is lucky and will earn money. Glorious riches await!

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Monday, September 19, 2011

Dialects and conquests

As you can tell, I've become very lazy busy and important recently, and let this blog fall by the wayside. Maybe we can start off my first entry in months with a little puzzle?

The janissaries sat in their yurts eating shish kebabs, then they washed down some baklava with yogurt.

You know I'm up to something because I just shoehorned a bunch of seemingly random words into an awkward sentence. Any idea what's special about these words?

The yeniçeris sat in their yurts eating şiş kebabıs, then they washed down some baklava with yoğurt.

How about now?

Yeah, they're all Turkish loanwords. It's a pretty short list, really (I desperately wanted to include "chock a block" on the recommendation of Wikipedia, which claims it's from "çok kalabalık" meaning "very crowded". Every other source I can find, unfortunately, insists its origin is actually nautical).

The number of Turkish words which have made their way into English is fairly small. If you look at it the other way around (English to Turkish), the list is much more extensive. As a student, I find this simultaneously helpful and annoying. I like to think of Turkish as a sort of awesome, top secret code- I dont spend hours slaving over coursebooks just to be able to discuss what would happen when şarapnel hits a bungalov or the fiyasko of the rising karbon
dioksit levels. The influence of English on other languages, in its role as a kind of global compromise, gets a lot of attention. Plenty of people think it's horrible that the "purity" of Turkish, French, Russian, and so on, is being corrupted by English. Many more don't care one way or the other. I'm not sure I've ever heard anyone make a case that it's strictly a good thing; the closest anyone tends to come is pointing out that language evolution is both natural and inevitable, and to take steps to block the entrance of English vocabulary in various lingua francas would be to artificially hamper their legitimate course of development. As for me, I come down on the side of the purists, with a grudging nod to the evolutionists.

Click here for an interesting essay on the role of English in Turkey!

Still, I think language interaction is pretty fascinating. I never realized, for instance, how much Spanish crops up in my daily conversation until Turks fluent in English started raising eyebrows at what I considered perfectly understandable and commonplace expressions- gracias, adiós, vamanos, amigo... things that most Americans, even the xenophobes in our midst, would probably take in stride without a second thought.

Let's back up six or seven years. I was a junior in high school studying abroad in southern Sweden, and learning a language which seemed to be under assault from every angle. Most Swedes, particularly of the younger generation, speak excellent English; that, combined with the two languages' similar backgrounds and structures, has led to a huge number of Americanisms (and okay, fine, Britishisms) establishing themselves in the common Swedish lexicon. Yet generally speaking, Swedes seemed less concerned about the influx of English than about about a related, but much more politically-charged phenomenon: Rinkeby svenska, so-called after a district of the city of Malmö home to a massive population of eastern European, African, and Arab immigrants. Rinkeby svenska, which you can read more about here, is in short an emerging dialect incorporating elements of the native languages of immigrants from all over the world, while mainly staying true to the grammatical components of Swedish. Turkish and Arabic seem to be the biggest players here, with words like "guzz" (girl, from Turkish kız) and "yalla" (let's go, from Arabic). Books have even been written in this new pidgin- for example, Ett Öga Rött by Jonas Hassen Khemiri.

And it's not only in Sweden. I read an article this morning- which prompted this entry- about the same deal surfacing in Germany. Turks are the second largest population group up there after the Germans themselves; some estimates go up to four million, making one in every twenty of the country's inhabitants Turkish. With immigration already a hot-button issue in western Europe, I'm surprised we don't hear more about this kind of stuff. Not being German or Swedish myself, I may lack perspective, but I for one think Rinkeby svenska and Kiezdeutsch are really intriguing and frankly pretty cool. I read somewhere that the rise of literacy vastly slowed down linguistic evolution (and popularized the idea that there's one "correct" English and if you don't follow it to the letter then you're objectively wrong... which is an argument for another day). Yet here we have the chance to watch other forces at work, shaping a new dialect right before our eyes. Awesome. Of course it's awfully political as well, considering how closely language is tied to cultural identity. Some people will always be upset about the implications of an "impure" Swedish/German/what-have-you. But on the other hand, it's not like blond-haired Sven Olsson, professor of literature, is going around shouting "yalla yalla" at his colleagues. And really, isn't the immigrant experience a culture in and of itself? Why shouldn't it have its own particular vernacular?

I'll leave you with one final thing...

The successes of Turkish aside, it hasn't been treated quite so well in certain other countries. The conservative Islamist Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan recently received a hero's welcome on his visit to Egypt- excited crowds held up signs and banners to greet him, among them one which seemed to have been translated through English and set a lot of Turks to chuckling.

İyi Cetvel Merhaba Erdoğan

"Good ruler, hello Erdoğan". Unfortunately, cetvel is the wrong kind of ruler, the kind that you measure things with. Erdoğan: effective leader or top-of-the-line office supply? You decide.

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