Sunday, December 30, 2012

Taking Time for the Setting Sun and Emerging Thoughts

These days I am trying to see the reason in all that happens, or at least to find the silver lining on stormy days.  This week of sickness in Turkey is no exception.  I have tried to avoid feeling sorry for myself by appreciating this down time.  While I do get a bit antsy after a full day indoors, I am trying to take this time to rest and relax.

After one of the worst days of my stomach issues, where I had spent almost the entire morning and afternoon in bed, H. called me to come look at the setting sun from the kitchen window.  We sat and watched the city as the colors changed behind the mountains.  

The early colors of the setting sun
(Photo by Turklish)

We watched the cars drive by with men and women returning home for dinner or perhaps heading out to visit friends or family.  We watched the women on the sidewalk waiting for the bus with their recent purchases in hand and pairs of men walking side by side with their matching long strides.  

Me enjoying the view
(Photo by Turklish)

As we watched this city of Kahramanmaras, we thought about our future life in Turkey and what it might be like.  Would we really want to live in a big city with millions of people and horrible traffic?  Or would we rather live in a city like Maras?  Maras, a city of about 400,000 where traffic is relatively mild, but opportunities are limited. 

Or perhaps we thought, can we find our sweet spot in a mid-sized city in Turkey?  Can we find a balance of chaos and culture?  Well, this questions will not be answered for some time to come.  I'll just have to accept that and stop worrying about the future.  For now I'll enjoy these beautiful sunsets along with many sweet glasses of çay.

The last colors of the day - not a bad place to ponder life's big questions.
(Photo by Turklish)

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Hastayım! I'm sick!

It was inevitable - I'm sick.  It seems that the end of the semester stress, the travel exhaustion and visiting several hospitals on my first few days here in Turkey caught up with me.

I have been semi-housebound for the past few days trying to heal and recover from whatever sickness I have that is plaguing me.  At first it was all digestive related, and unfortunately on this trip I didn't bring any of my standard traveling Pepto Bismal tablets.  For a few days I didn't eat much more than soup and crackers, but even that didn't sit well.  Finally I am past that stomach-sickness and I am able to eat, but I can't taste anything! 

After not eating much for days my body was weakened and susceptible to more sickness.  So now with a head cold and my nose plugged, I can eat, but the flavors are lost on my pallet.  It's a shame to not taste the food in Turkey - I'm hoping for a speedy recovery so I can enjoy all the dinners we will be attending next week.

Luckily, I am very well taken care of here.  The minute I started feeling ill I was offered many home remedies to help me feel better, and medicine from the pharmacy as well.

For my stomach we tried Turkish coffee with lemon.  H. made me this special concoction and brought it to me with a smile on his face - as he knew I was avoiding it all morning.  Basically half a Turkish coffee glass full of cold coffee and the other half lemon juice.  This was meant to halt the freeway running through  my body.  The taste was horrible and quite bitter, as I'm sure you can imagine.  I managed to get it down and it seemed to work for a while - but after eating again I felt worse.  Eventually, we had to rely on store bought medicine to do the trick.

Next, for this cold we have been battling on two fronts - with vitamins to strengthen my immune system and with some small doses of medicine to help me breath a little easier.

When I say vitamins I'm referring to vitamin C, of course.  We make mint tea with lemon and honey, soup with lemon, cauliflower with lemon, salad with lemon, tea with lemon….lemon juice - all lemon! 

It feels like it is slowly working it's magic and I'm starting to feel better this evening after lentil soup with lemon. 

There is never a good time to get sick.  The last thing I wanted was to spend my time in Turkey stuck in bed or on the couch.  At least I am surrounded by loving, helping hands doing their best to help me feel better.

I do not have consistent access to internet - so I'm posting a little less than I had hoped (especially with feeling ill).   I have ideas many new posts - both from events before I became sick and the rest that is to come.  So stay tuned, hopefully I'll be back on the blog shortly with lots to report from Turkey!

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Two days, two hospitals, two cities: Experience with the Turkish Healthcare System

These first few days in Turkey have been quite chaotic - but, hey - such is life.  Within my first two days in Turkey I visited two different hospitals in two different cities - one planned and one unplanned visit.  It has been interesting for me to see some of the inner workings of the Turkish healthcare system and so far, while different is some aspects - it seems that the system is quite efficient. 

Trip 1: The Planned Visit

We woke at six in the morning to get ready for our trip.  I was perhaps a little too lethargic getting ready and cooking my eggs so that we ended up running around last minute - me gulping down my American coffee and throwing on my unzipped boots as we quickly got into the elevator.   We had an appointment at a private hospital in Gaziantep where H. would be having a minor surgery.  The appointment had been arranged by an old middle school teacher of H. and had helped us avoid weeks of waiting, so we didn't want to be late.  We had good intentions at least...

This was the view of the road - on a good spot.  It was quite beautiful, but not good for driving.
(Photo by Turklish)

The weather was still foggy and wet, not the best for driving in an unknown area.  We ended up missing the correct exit to Antep and had to take a round-about way to get into the city.  We eventually found the right neighborhood, but we were already one hour later for the appointment.   Now we had to find the hospital and a place to park.  Not as easy as it might seem.  With the fog it was hard to tell what was around us and there were large open areas with crumbling buildings - it didn't seem like we were in the right place.  We stopped to ask for directions from some men huddled around a coal fire next to the road. 

"Keep going up the hill."  One man directed. 

So we went.  We eventually found the bright, clean, new hospital atop the hill and after roaming for a parking spot for 10 minutes we finally made it inside. 

The next several hours were a little confusing for the both of us as we maneuvered around the hospital from doctor to doctor, office to office making all the necessary arrangements and payments.  Finally we were in the hospital room and all we could do was wait.  I was quite enjoying the cozy chair, managing to sleep a few minutes in my jet-lagged haze.  Then all of a sudden a patient was rushed in on a gurney and I was relegated to the hallway.   The once quiet hallway was now buzzing with the chatter of women, the play of children and the men practically screaming on their cell phones.  H. stood in the doorway in his hospital gown trying to help me decide where I should go and wait until he was done with his surgery.  I eventually went down to the main hospital floor to get a Nescafe and when I returned to the 4th floor my canım had left for surgery. 

I leaned against a wall in the hallway between four ladies and a little boy to my left and four men further down the hallway to the right.  They were all one big family I later learned.  The ladies opened a conversation with "geçmiş olsun" - "may you get better soon".  Soon I was doing my best to decipher their questions and respond with all the clarity I could muster.   I learned they were from another city nearby, Urfa, and that they were Kurdish, which they would revert to speaking among themselves at times before asking me another question. 

H.'s cell phone rang almost non-stop as family called to check in on how we were doing and if he was done with surgery.  I did my best, but apparently my Turkish is not up to par for communicating on the telephone.  Noticing my exasperation and continued use of "anlamıdım", one of the ladies took the phone and helped field questions from the family, her sisters giggling behind her. 

After half an hour or so, we had exhausted the small talk that I could muster and we all sat around in silence.  They took their leave down the hallway and I waited.

Soon the sister of the neighboring patient came out to the hallway to test my Turkish.  We did our round of questioning.  This time I pulled out my dictionary to try to answer some of her complicated medical questions. 

Despite my exhaustion, the language practice was good for me and helped me renew my confidence that I could indeed "get by" with my Turkish. 

To my relief, soon H. came out of the elevator.  Twenty minutes later we were leaving the hospital and making our way back through the fog to Maraş.

Trip 2: The Unplanned Visit

Not quite as dramatic as it may sound, this unplanned visit came about around 10pm on Thursday night.  H.'s little nephew had a lingering fever all day and while he was happy and running about, all were worried and decided to go to the hospital.  This time we went to the public children's hospital in Maraş.  Quite a different experience.  There was one doctor sitting in front of a hospital bed and the children were brought before him as he took their temperature asked some questions and then prescribed the necessary medicines.  The moment the children were laid on the table they all began to cry.  They all seemed to remember the pain they felt the last time they were in a hospital (or so we imagined).  There were many worried parents around, and with the late hour, the hospital was somewhat dark and depressive. 

After the quick visit with the doctor, we were ushered into a room with several beds and two nurses.  This room is probably where all the bad hospital memories were born.  The toddler was quickly put on a bed and suffered a shot in the leg from a needle 2 inches long!  I got a little bit queasy myself just watching it.

Screams filled the air and we were happy when it was over and we could leave.  As we left, I noticed a trail of blood down the hallway and no one seemed to be eager to clean it up.  Food was being prepped near the doorway for the night staff not more than 10 feet away.  Not very appetizing.  I was happy to get out into the fresh, cool night air.  

While I was a little disturbed by this last experience, I have to say - it was all very efficient.  In less than thirty minutes we saw a doctor, got the necessary treatment, went home and the fever went away.  How long would that same hospital visit have taken in America?  Probably several hours in my experience (and would cost at least a hundred dollars with the crappy insurance I have).   

The reality is there could have been blood on the floor in any American hospital as well - especially in an emergency waiting area.  Later, thinking through the experience, the quickness of it all (and the fact that I didn't understand what was going on) might have enhanced my anxiety of the hospital.  Most of my hospital experiences in America have involved private rooms with lots of waiting and the appearance of cleanliness through lots of paper and disposable gloves.  

In general I was impressed by the service we received at these hospitals and the very low cost.  Even without insurance, H.'s surgery was very affordable.  With insurance visits to the doctor or hospital are extremely affordable.  It is a great service to provide healthcare to your people - I hope Americans can come to an agreement on this issue as well.  

Friday, December 21, 2012

The long journey to Turkey - Part 2

This is the second part of the story of my journey to Turkey that took much longer than I had planned and was a true test of my ability to navigate this country solo, which I unfortunately failed.

I awoke to a stiff landing at my final destination.  My eyes burned as I forced them open and I sorely got up to get my coat and backpack, prepping myself for the cold and rainy weather outside.  The plane was unnaturally warm and I was feeling quite closed-in and annoyed as all the other passengers impatiently pushed each other and me to get their bags and get out.  "What is their problem!" I thought.  We will all get out in due time, no way to get ahead by pushing in this line.

As we went inside I noticed there was a lot of milling about and talking on cell phones, which is pretty normal at an airport and especially when the flight is several hours delayed (as we were at that point).  I grabbed my 23 kilo bag when it came around and made my way outside to hopefully find benim canım so we could go home!  I didn't see him.  "What is this - he couldn't wait for me to arrive?"  I thought with some anger and disappointment.

The security guard motioned to the private buses waiting outside - "bus" he told me. 

I told him "hayır", "I don't need a bus, someone is picking me up".  He shrugged his shoulders and went about his business.

When I didn't find H. I became worried and asked for a telephone.  The nice security guard offered his own cell phone for me to use.  I called H. and told him I was at the airport in Kahramanmaraş "where are you?" I asked.  "I was just there, they told me you were going to land somewhere else, but I'll come back I'm really close by". 

"Okay", I thought.  "That's great, I'll just wait right here in the warm, albeit smoky, doorway for him to come."

Then I looked up at the screen showing flight information and realized for the first time that I was not in Kahramanmaraş after all.  We had landed in Gaziantep.  Everyone was getting on private buses to be escorted back to the appropriate city.  I went into panic mode, went back in to ask the security guard "Maraş değil mi?"  "Evet, Gaziantep  - bus to Maraş"  he replied.

Oh no!  I rushed to get on a bus.  I headed to the last one that looked like it still had room.  The passengers motioned to me in the rain that it was the wrong bus - "Orada Maraş" the pointed to the middle bus.  "Tessekur ederim!" I hollered and ran to jam my bag under the other bus.  Luckily they had taken notice that the American lady was going to Maraş and helped me to avoid that disaster.

I got on the bus and sat down in one of the few empty seats, surrounded by men on all sides.  All the empty seats were likewise, so it was really the only option and I wasn't that thrilled by it.  A young man sat next to me with short cropped light brown hair and a large crystal stud in his ear.  After I sat down I was in the mid-stages of travel panic.  I had just told H. I was at the airport in Kahramanmaraş and I didn't have any way to tell him otherwise.  I saw the young man playing with his phone and I asked him if I could make a phone call.  I knew enough of those words in Turkish to be understandable, but for some reason I could only blurt it out in English.  He reached for his phone on his lap and then stopped looked at me and said "No English".  Even though I had said it in English, telefon and telephone, really sound the same.  So I knew he just didn't want me to borrow his phone (in Turkey most people have credits and you are charged for the phone calls you make, but not the ones you receive).  I turned back to face forward and my eyes started filling with tears.  I should have just said it in Turkish again and showed him that it was a local number I needed to call.  Instead I closed up and didn't say another word.  I casually wiped my tears as they overflowed my eyes and tried not to appear too distressed.

I noticed how everyone around me was making calls and figuring out new plans for their travel.  I felt so helpless as I was unable to. 

I rehearsed in my head how I would ask to borrow a phone in Turkish, but I didn't want to try again.  I hoped that H. would return to the airport and get the news that we were coming on a bus and realize my mistake.  Then I also thought, he might panic and drive to Gaziantep - thinking that I was there waiting for him and missed the private bus.

I tried to sit back and relax.  The journey was quite beautiful as the rain turned to snow and the landscape around me was transformed into a white, winter snowscape.  While beautiful in the landscape, the snow also meant that the bus trudged along at an extra slow speed, which only amplified my anxiety that I had somehow caused major confusion and that H. would be braving the dangerous roads up to Gaziantep. 

For some reason, I couldn't help but feel anger towards the young man sitting next to me, who seemed to not care at all that I was obviously not Turkish, somewhat confused, and distressed.  He answered his phone a couple of times (it was his mom calling) and I heard how he rudely spoke to his own mother who (from what I could understand from my eavesdropping) was obviously a little worried for him as well.  There are jerks everywhere, so I just ignored him and focused on what I would do when the bus finally arrived.   We passed the airport (where I thought we would be dropped off), so I asked someone where we were going?  "Nereye gidiyoruz?"   "Seyir merkesi" the man sitting in front of me replied looking straight ahead.  As we pulled into the city center, congested with cars and pedestrians maneuvering in the slippery, snowy streets the bus abruptly stopped and everyone got up and the push to get out began anew.

The slushy and dangerous roads in the city
(Photo by Turklish)

When I made it to the front, I rushed around to get my bag, and then I planned to head to the nearest store with a kind-looking attendant so that I could borrow a phone.  I stopped cold when I heard my name and turned to find a familiar figure bundled in a hat and scarf coming my way.  I embraced H. as the tears streamed down my face. 

 "Why are you crying?  It's okay." 

 "I caused so much confusion - I told you I was in Maraş and I thought you might go to Antep and… " I took a breath.  

"Let's get your bag."  H. replied.

Avoiding the cars, we slid along the side of the bus to get my luggage and walked as fast as we could on the slushy sidewalk, pulling the 50lb (23kilo) bag to the parked car.  I felt so relieved.  Of course, my brilliant canım could figure out that I was jet-lagged and confused, but that I would eventually get on that bus.  He found out where the bus would come and waited for me. 

As we drove home among the crazy drivers in the slippery streets, I eventually relaxed - excited to finally get home to the warm apartment where I would be greeted by happy people, sweet tea and delicious food.

Later, safe and warm inside, we could enjoy the beauty of the snow that may only fall once a year - I just happened to be lucky enough to see it.

The view from the kitchen window
(Photo by Turklish)

Children playing in the snow and building a snowman
(Photo by Turklish)

Thursday, December 20, 2012

The long journey to Turkey - Part 1

I have been quiet for some days now due to a tiresome journey to Turkey that took much longer than usual and left me more jet-lagged and exhausted that ever before.  Along with a day at the hospital yesterday.  There is a lot to tell…I'll post the full story in several posts - please stay tuned!

It all began with a good deal I just could not pass up…

Earlier this fall I got an email from Turkish airlines advertising a good ticket price, $690 for a flight from New York to Istanbul.  I jumped at the deal and booked a ticket for Monday, leaving some time for getting to New York from my home in the Midwest after I finished my finals on Thursday.  I spoke with a friend that lives in Manhattan, NY and we decided to make a weekend out of it - I would stay with her and her husband and we could spend some time together before I flew out to Istanbul on Monday.  So after a crazy busy week and an incredibly exhausting day on Friday…at 4:30AM on Saturday, I awoke to the sound of rain splattering the window and the worry that my travel plans might be a little complicated.  I threw on some comfy clothes, dragged my way-too-heavy bags to the car and got on the road to the airport.  As I drove, I thought how fitting that it should rain on the day I have to travel - it hadn't rained much for months as my part of the country had been in a major drought since early summer.  It seemed like bad luck for it to be raining on a travel day, but then again, the rain was much  needed, so I took it as a good omen. 

My flights to New York were on schedule without any problems.  At the airport I grabbed my bag without an issue and caught the M-60 bus into the Upper West Side.  It was sunny in New York that Saturday afternoon and we had a great night of food, wine and conversation at a Greek restaurant.  We made big plans to hit up all the outdoor Christmas markets in the city on Sunday.  The sound of rain in the morning was again an indicator that things may not go as planned.    It seems I had brought the rain with me from the Midwest.  The wet day dampened some of our plans, but we managed to visit the Christmas market in Bryant Park for an hour or so.  In fact, I was surprised to find a Grand Bazaar store and a stall selling Gozleme and Turkish tea and coffee - Turkish culture is alive and well in New York it seems!

The Grand Bazaar New York stall at the Bryant Park Christmas Market
(Photo by Turklish)

 Despite the rain, I still had a good time in the city with my friends.  Since my bag was already at its weight limit, I limited my shopping to only a few small gift items that could still be squeezed into my overflowing luggage.  For the first time in a while I stayed away from my laptop for several days (even though I was still connected through email on my phone) and it felt nice to leave it tucked away and turned off.

On Monday I made my way to the airport on the other side of New York in a still dreary landscape.  No snow, just yucky, drizzly rain that didn't seem to do much to cleanse the city streets and sidewalks but instead left a sickening stench in the air that I was happy to escape from.

A Turkish food vendor in the New York (JFK) airport near my departure terminal. I had a nice cheese gozleme to hold me over until my flight left.
(Photo by Turklish)
I arrived early morning to a dark Istanbul, but once the sun came up it was a beautiful day.  As my 8-hr flight from the US to Turkey left at 1pm - I never felt tired enough to sleep on the flight.  Instead, I watched 3 and half movies and tried out the free games on the console.  Though when I arrived in Istanbul, just about at my proper bedtime, I felt the exhaustion kick in.  I waited two hours for my bag to come so that I could go through "customs" (which is really a joke because nothing is checked and not even one tiny piece of paper is required).  I finally asked around with my meager Turkish and found that they had put my bag somewhere else, as it was marked to be transferred to my next flight.  (Yet, everyone told me again and again I still needed to pick it up in Istanbul.)  Annoyed, but relieved - I picked up my bag and re-checked it in the domestic terminal.

Finally, exhausted, I crashed in the waiting area outside security.  Kicking myself for forgetting my Turkish Lira at home and not wanting to wander around and find an ATM to get some cash, I stumbled over to a store to buy a coke and some crackers to head off my caffeine headache before it caused my head to implode. 

I collapsed again on a chair in the waiting area, using my backpack and coat for a pillow, and fell into a troublesome half-sleep where I could hear everything around me, but felt unable to open my eyes or move.  Finally, I jerked fully awake and I decided to make my way through security and continue my half-sleep at my gate.  Yet, after moving I was unable to rest again.  I sat alert waiting for my flight to board, the boarding time passed, then the scheduled flight time passed and still no flight.  First it was delayed 30 min and then 1 hour due to weather conditions in Kahramanmaras, where we would be landing.  Unfortunately, just as the weather followed me from the Midwest to New York, unknowingly it had also followed me to Turkey.

Eventually the time came and we all crowded on the plane.  I found my seat, strapped myself in, and fell into a real sleep this time,  where I occasionally awoke with a start as my head lolled forward too far or my feet jerked (as they often do) filing me with a sensation that I was falling out of my chair.  I occasionally heard the dull, scratchy hum of the pilot's voice in the background - "landing would be difficult", I thought I heard … and I fell asleep again.

To be continued...

Friday, December 14, 2012

Finding the Light

Light streaming through the clouds at the Konza Prairie in Kansas
(Image by Turklish)
As this never-ending week finally does…end.  I am finding myself even more breathless running around with knots in my stomach and so many loose ends left raveling away.  This week has been a rough one to say the least.  I definitely underestimated the time I would need to finalize many, many details and projects and I did not take into account the inevitable wild card failures - like my computer model crashing and corrupting - twice!  Or such as computer issues that will not allow me to install the software I need most to continue my research while in Turkey - leaving me with no choice but to go for the next month without it (which is a blessing and a curse all wrapped in one). 

With the harried pace this week and with the one I love most so far away and somewhat out of reach, it has been the many interactions with family and friends that have helped buoy me out of the murky water for a breath of air when I felt I was too tired to keep swimming along. 

In fact, I just arrived back at my office to try to give one final burst of effort at this gosh-darn-so-frustrating-I-just-want-to-smash-my-computer model, after a lovely Turkish coffee and pastry at a friends house.  As I now watch the model plug along, hopefully doing what it is suppose to do, I have some time to contemplate and evaluate the potpourri of thoughts sprinkled throughout my mind.

While I feel downtrodden,  I am trying to keep my thoughts on the big picture of "Life", because my problems are really small fries compared to the large issues of the week.

For example, today has been another dark day for Americans, with another school shooting - one of the worst yet - with 27 murdered.  Facebook is buzzing with anti-gun posts and comments, which I couldn't agree with more.  This country has the worst death rate by personal weapons IN THE WORLD!  Yet we cling to our second amendment rights to bear arms and refuse to see that the historical precedence to bear arms during the American Revolution is no longer necessary in our present society.   I think we all have a heavy heart today, and I don't want to go on a political rant so I think I'll stop here.

The second dark bit of news should actually be the subject of a more complete, complex, well-thought out post. (Which I hope to write soon.)  For now, let me just say that the political ramifications of the Syrian war are now at our doorstep in Turkey. 

I'll leave things here and try to see the light that should be pulling me through this dark tunnel right now.  In the end, work is just work and love is what really matters in this world.  I have so much love around me right now and I feel it so tightly wrapped around me that I have to choke back a few tears. The world is a very dark place at times, yet we can all make it a little brighter if we could just share a little more love and compassion.  So yes, of course, grab your closest loved one and give them a squeeze right now and make them feel loved.  But also, smile at the lonely man sitting alone on the curb with pain in his eyes, and forgive the driver hovering on the road 20 mph too slow in front of you, let the little things go and remember to always love.

Monday, December 10, 2012

The typical end-of-the-semester ruminations

As another semester winds down and the craziness of life gets turned up a notch, I'm finding myself in yet another internal battle between getting it all done and sitting down with a nice cup of çay while imagining all the other things I could be doing with my life.  For some reason this seems to happen each semester around this time - in the end everything gets done and turns out fine, but those introspective moments plant various seeds of discontent in my psyche that are not so easily transplanted when my slate is wiped clean.

This semester is a little different because I have a massive motivating force propelling me forward to finish my work and not rest on my laurels - a month long trip to Turkey.  More on that in a bit...

Yet the topic of work-life balance and carving a path through life are hot topics in my face-to-face conversations and online-conversations, such as the one I've been following over at the blog Slowly-by-Slowly.  E. at Slowly-by-Slowly has been blogging daily on topics related to work this month and I'm riveted following each post.  You see, E. is a tenured-professor in an American university and also living in a Turkish-American marriage.  Although I have never met her, it seems that we have many things in common and I hope one day to be on a similar career path.  Yet, I question my career choices on a nearly daily basis.

This weekend, as I was spending all Saturday evening working on a take-home exam, the good ol' doubts flared up again.  

"What is all this for?"  I questioned.  "Why am I spending my weekends studying and doing homework when I could just work for a company or a government agency and double (if not triple) my current salary?"  

Back and forth my mind threw me - "You aren't interested in money." I told myself.  

"Then why not work for a non-profit" I retorted.  

"If you can find a job in that sector - the economy is in shams, or have you forgotten what sent you back to grad school in the first place?"

True, true.  I did return to graduate school with the hopes of getting an engineering MS to boost my much-too-interdisciplinary undergraduate degree, and then return to the job market.  It wasn't even a week into the application process that I got willingly sucked into the PhD pathway with the promise of interesting fellowships and research that sent my nerdy wheels spinning with excitement!

In fact, it is my love for knowledge and the desire to constantly improve myself that makes me feel that academia is a good fit.  It is also my hope to make a difference in the environmental field, while helping cement the 'natural-social science environmental knowledge nexus' that drives me to keep plugging along.

For now, all I can conclude is that the future is unclear and that it's best I succumb to the forces of life and let my path unfold before me, rather than tearing down the bumpy (yet solid) stone path I have built up until this point.

My Metaphorical Stone Path

If I look at the bright side of my current situation, while I may have to give up a lot of my weekends and free nights to work, at least I can take off for a month to Turkey with few questions asked.  I don't think I would have the same flexibility to travel if I worked for "the man" (i.e. government) or "the bigger man" (i.e. big business).  

So here is to long nights working and long vacations relaxing.  Without one, the other wouldn't be quite as sweet.  

Thursday, December 6, 2012

The Morning News from Syria

First thing this morning after I came reeling into consciousness from the call of my alarm, I checked for news from Turkey - first from the one closest to me, and next from the wider world. I was eager for news from H. about his first day back in Turkey and after reading his sweet email I laid back under the covers, resting easy knowing he was safe in Istanbul (mashallah). 

Next, I did as I usually do, and turned on NPR to hear the morning updates while enjoying my cozy covers for a few more minutes.  Not soon after I had settled back onto my pillow, I heard the news from a Syrian refugee camp near the Turkish border.  Images of children's faces red and pinched with cold and desperate families sleeping in a frozen olive field filled my mind.  I no longer felt so cozy in my comforter, so I sat up and paid attention to the details of the story.

NPR has been covering the Syrian conflict with almost daily reports in their morning broadcast, so the conflict is not something new to my ears.  This morning, however, I was shocked from my bed while hearing about the miserable conditions that Syrian refugees are currently living in.  With winter just at the door, refugees are confined to their tents until the day warms up a bit and they can come outside to wait in line for water to fill their plastic buckets and some meager rations of cheese and bread to stave off hunger.  Blankets are in short supply and tents are too few for the many refugees that arrive each day with the hopes of safety and survival.
Refugee Camp near the city of Azaz on the border of Turkey and Syria.
 Odd Andersen
/AFP/Getty Images

While I hear daily updates about the Syrian conflict on the news, I do not hear much talk about Syria in the street (or hallways, shall we say).  Only a few people have asked me about the Syrian conflict and the relationship to Turkey.  My immediate relatives and family are concerned about the closeness of H.'s home town and Syria.  We will be approximately 142 km (88 miles) from the border, which is equivalent to the distance either H. or I drive every weekend to see each other (a 75 min drive in the States). 

I'm not a political expert - so I'll refrain from any commentary on the war and I'll stay away from the complex relationship between Syria and Turkey at the present moment.  What I would like to discuss instead is the obligation I feel to help in whatever way I can.

This holiday season I have been evaluating my options on where I could donate some money or gifts. The number of families wanting to be "adopted" for Christmas in my local town has skyrocketed and there simply aren't enough donations to help out in this downtrodden economy.  My family has always adopted a family for Christmas - providing gifts, clothes and toiletries for the family.  This always felt right and it was something my mom and I enjoyed doing together.

This year, I've considered adopting a local family or child  by myself, but I'm considering re-directing those funds to someone with a greater need - to the families that are living on the edge, literally and figuratively, they are on the edge of conflict and safety, they are on the edge of Syria and Turkey, and they are on the edge of misery and survival.  
Zaatari camp, in Mafraq, Jordan, Aug. 29. Credit Mohammad Hannon / AP

To add some numbers to this discussion, the United Nations reports that there are about 1.5 million people displaced within Syria's borders and more than 200,000 registered Syrian refugees in other countries, while the actual estimate is around 500,000.  Of the registered refugees, 75% are women and children. 

I'm not even sure what I can do to help.  What should I donate and how much?  Should I donate to an organization here in the US?  Or wait and find an organization in Turkey where my donation may go straight to those who really need it?  I'm currently in the process of researching.

“To give away money is an easy matter in any man’s power. But to decide to whom to give it, and how large and when, and for what purpose and how, is neither in every man’s power nor an easy matter.”

— Aristotle (Ethics, 360 BCE)

One of the things I heard in the news was that some of the refugee camps, especially those in Syria, are being run by a few activists.  They do not all have help from international aid organizations. When I search online for "donate to help Syrian refugees" the first links (besides the ads) are for the Syrian campaign through the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees or UNHCR.  At the bottom of the webpage, under the "Donate Now" button, in very small print, it says "The UNHCR Syria Appeal is providing vital humanitarian support in numerous countries where Syrians have fled."
I understand this to mean, the aid is not going to refugees inside Syria, but only those that have managed to make it across the border into a neighboring country.  Not sure how I feel about this.

The next link was from  This organization allows donations of blankets to a family and food to refugee families IN SYRIA.  Yet, what they say $150 will provide does not seem that much when I compare to the same donation dollars through the UNHCR.  Through an organization called "Global Giving" donations to the UNHCR are matched 30%.  I'm possibly leaning towards the latter for now, and then seeing what I can do when in Turkey.

I'll admit - I know what you might be thinking, because I think it too.  We all have conflict fatigue.  Turn on the radio, open the newspaper, or watch 5-min of international news and you are sure to hear about conflicts raging around the world, recently the Congo and Syria, but there is poverty and suffering everywhere and we are likely to not hear about many others that simply do not reach our mainstream news.  After a while it is feels like the norm, and we are so far away from many of these serious problems, with oceans and deserts and forests and borders, oh so many borders, in between us all.  

I understand.  I feel emotion when I hear the news, but then I get up and do something else and the feeling passes.  I soon start worrying about something trivial in my own life and forget about the real problems of the world.

Yet this time it's different for me.  Perhaps it is realizing that just 80 miles away from where I will be in about a week, there will be immense suffering.  Perhaps it was the juxtaposition of learning about cold children and hungry families as I laid warm in my bed with plenty of food in my fridge.  Perhaps it is also that my mind is fresh from finishing "Gardens of Water", a novel set predominantly in a refugee camp  after the earthquake that devastated Istanbul in 1999.  For whatever reason (it doesn't really matter why), the image of cold and hungry women and children just would not leave me this morning.  On my chilly walk to work, as I thought about this issue, I  made a promise to myself that I will do something.  I will do my best, to just add a drop to the bucket in aid.  If we all add a few drops, soon it will fill a bucket and if we really all pitch in, the bucket may runneth over.  With this help, possibly some Syrians may get the hand they really need to be able to stand on solid ground again after these many months of quivering concrete and shattered glass from bombs and bullets.

When we forget about the humanity of others, we neglect our own humanity.  So let's not forget.

If all else fails, 'tis the season of giving and generosity after all.

If you are interested, here is where you can find more information on the conflict and on donating to the cause:
Panetta Warns Syria:'Whole World is Watching'  : this is an NPR article that shares links to a variety of different sources providing news on the conflict

U.S. Steps Up Aid (But No Arms) To Syrian Exiles

As Numbers Swell, Syrian Refugees Face New Woes

Organizations that are collecting donations to provide blankets, food, and shelter to Syrian Refugees:

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Hot Pink Fingernails and Lessons Learned

Act like the sun in love and compassion!
Act like a river in friendship and fraternity!
Act like the night in covering the faults of others!
Act like the soil in humility and selflessness!
Act like dead one in anger and furry!

Either act in accordance with the way you look,
or look in accordance with the way you act!

(Either exist as you are or be as you look.)

Rumi's wisdom lives on and on through his poems and famous quotations.  This poem speaks to me on many levels, but the last line is critical to the topic at hand.  "Either exist as you are or be as you look", which I would summarize to - just be yourself!!

While I would not call myself a "girly girl" I do try to look put together and I enjoy  the occasional (i.e. once or twice a year) pampering manicure.  Before my first trip to Turkey I was running around ragged with split-ends and hang nails.  I had read in Turkey - Culture Smart!  that "When wearing sandals, toenails should be neat and clean.  Turkish women love to have manicures and pedicures." I wanted to make a good first impression, so I thought I'd get myself a little dolled up with a manicure and pedicure the morning before my flight.  I even splurged and did a gel manicure, which stays on for a couple weeks without chipping. 

Oh, but what a mistake that was.

With very limited color choices in the gel nail polish, I tried to find a tasteful pink.  The bottle was no indication of the color inside.  I started to sweat as the manicurist applied the first coat.  I respectfully asked her to switch to a different color after one coat of the first horrid pink.  It was not any better.  I ended up with Barbie-hot-pink fingernails.

The only evidence I have of my poor color choice.  In all the other photos my hands are either strategically behind my back or folded to hide my nails.  
On the drive to the airport I explained to my mom what happened and how I really didn't want to have hot pink fingernails.  "Can you just take it off real quick?"  She asked me.  That was my indication right there of how bad it was - and no, I couldn't just take it off - gel nail polish has to be soaked in acetone for 15+ minutes!  We were driving to the airport!!  Plus, I'd just dropped $30+ bucks on those hot pink pointers, I felt like I needed to at least get a little wear out of them. 

"Well, it is early summer" my mom replied to my sigh, "pink is festive."  So I decided the pink would stay.

The rest of the trip I felt self conscious of these Barbie fingers that were not my own.  H. was even surprised - "why did you paint your fingernails that color? " he asked.  "You usually don't paint them at all."

"It was a mistake!!  And the Turkish culture book said ladies like to paint their fingernails."  I admitted.

I realized how ignorant that sounded the moment I said it - like a thin, 100-page book could really tell me all the cultural norms of a country.  As we went around town, and as we visited families, I noticed that most ladies did not have their nails painted on a daily basis.  In fact one young woman explained that her daughter's fascination with my neon fingers was because she never painted her own finger nails.

While a book like this can provide some solid information on basic cultural norms, it does not represent the many diverse facets of culture that constitute reality, which cannot actually be written in any one book.

I later learned, as the Turkish-Culture Smart! book failed to mention,  that Muslims have to remove their nail polish to perform the pre-prayer cleansing, called Wudu

As explained here in one of the steps:
Wash the right arm  up to  and including  the elbow.  Three times. 
The arm extends from the fingertips, including the nails, to the lower part of the upper arm. It is essential to remove anything stuck to the hands before washing them, such as dough, mud, paint, nail polish etc, that could prevent the water from reaching the skin.

Some Turkish women may paint their nails, some may not, and some may only spend the time or money very occasionally.  Culture is complex - and female fashion and personal preferences of an entire country can not be summed up into one paragraph in a tiny book.

From this experience I learned a lesson about reading too much into "cultural guidance".  I decided to just be myself.  Myself was just fine.

I also learned another lesson.  While I was stressing over how ridiculous I looked and imagining how all of Turkey was thinking I was a stereotypical blond, hot-pink inspired, American bimbo from American Pie - the reality was that no one really cared what my fingernails looked like.  No one judged me by my color mistake at the salon.  Whether I chose to paint my nails hot pink or bright red or black - they would not care.  They took me as I am - they saw through the colors of my hair, my eyes and my nails to see the real me.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Planning for Two Weddings: The Cross-Cultural Couple's Dream (or Nightmare?)

I have started prepping for my upcoming trip to Turkey, and besides buying gifts, I'm starting to make a list of all the things I need to accomplish before I get on that plane, as well as everything I hope to do while in Turkey.

Besides work and school requirements that consistently hover in the background and foreground of my life, for the past several months wedding planning has really gotten underway.  I have many 'party-planning' duties (or decisions) I need to take care of here in the USA, and in Turkey as well.

Many little girls dream of their wedding day.  They may draw pictures of themselves as a bride in a beautiful, white princess gown, or imagine all the special moments, or start collecting items for their future home. 

I was not one of those little girls.

The only time I can recall my younger self dreaming about a wedding was after a trip to India.  "I want an Indian wedding!"  I told my mother after I came home.  The colors, the music, the procession, the henna night and the celebration - I loved this idea of a wedding.  But my destiny was not to have this type of wedding.  I am an American and thus American wedding it is (and now, a Turkish wedding as well - so I get my henna night after all!)

When I actually became engaged to H. and the prospect of planning a wedding became a reality, I told everyone "I just want a simple wedding".  Little did I know that my idea of a "simple wedding" was an oxymoron.  A true simple wedding would be driving to city hall and saying "I do" with two witnesses and a couple of signatures (which I have often contemplated doing in recent weeks). 

My false hope of simplicity was having a family affair, in an outdoor setting, with tasteful food and a informal attire.  It seemed so simple - as in "not fancy" - but the reality is "not fancy" does not equal simplicity.  There are so many details, so many decisions and so many expectations that come with a wedding.  Unfortunately, all of these many different components, along with my ill-defined concept of simplicity, have led to several explosions in the wedding planning process.

At this point I have come to terms that my wedding will not be simple, and I will have to compromise with family wishes for certain traditions and details that they feel are important.  I also have to accept that I am not so simple and that my family is not so simple as well - differing world views and values are at the core of many of our complications.  They are who they are, and I am who I am - but, in the end we all love each other and hopefully that is enough to accept was is.

Throughout this mentally-challenging American process I have held the hope that wedding planning in Turkey will be different.  (See we will be having TWO weddings…not so simple at all.)  As I have learned through H. and his family, wedding are typically at a local salon and that there are far fewer decisions that have to be made (as compared to American weddings).  The wedding is fairly standard with some minor personal details.  You see - I don't think they have The Knot, or all the thousands of wedding websites that explain just how important it is for you to personalize every wedding detail down to the cocktail napkins.
Cocktail napkins like these...

With a Turkish marriage there is more focus on "opening" a house or apartment.  The couple are moving in together and they need to create a home.  This home is prepared with all new furniture, appliances, curtains and all the appropriate accessories in advance of the wedding.  The night of the wedding, the couple arrive exhausted to their new home with a full fridge and all the details in place.   In Turkey, the real money is spent in prepping the house for a lifetime and not on flowers that die the next day or little matchbooks that say your name and wedding date for all the guests to take home and remember the special day. 

Well I guess I am blatantly showing my bias here (and overstating some of the details a bit, if I may). 

Through my experience thus far, I am realizing that the 'typical' American wedding is primarily a reflection of our consumer culture and an exaggeration of etiquette and tradition (the average cost of an American wedding is around $27,000!!!!!!).  But, but, but...perhaps it doesn't have to be so.  By trying to keep our purchases local and straightforward, H. and I are trying to needle out some of the blatant consumerism.  We are trying to keep the day real and true to ourselves, which means a little Turklish, with a combination of American customs and some added Turkish details. 

To be fair, our Turkish wedding may not be as easy and simple to plan as I am envisioning - I shall soon find out.

During our trip this December-January we will be making decisions with regard to our upcoming wedding - what food and beverages will be served, what invitations we will order, who will play the music, and more.  The "more" will hopefully not be too difficult.  At least I can sit back and ride through this one - my Turkish is in no condition for negotiations.   I'll let conventions be what they are and I'll keep the decision making easy and straight forward.  Or so I hope.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Gift Giving and Packing for a Trip to Turkey

In about three weeks I will be getting on an airplane and heading to Turkey for a month-long trip.  Although I've already planned out (in  my head, of course) most of what I will bring, there are still some loose ends to tie up regarding gifts.

Tis' the season for gift giving so it shouldn't be all that difficult, right?  Black Friday was just a couple days ago and with Cyber Monday knocking on the door there are plenty of "super deals" out there to be had.  I've never played into these big shopping days and I'm fairly certain that it is all a scam, but the reality is that I do need to do some shopping fairly soon and I'm looking for ideas.
I love this!  Kudos to Owen Good at Kotaku for finding an old movie poster that seems to truly reflect the essence of the shopping Black Friday - "man-made monster is on the loose!"

"Why do I need to bring gifts?"  You might wonder. 

While some people in Turkey might celebrate Christmas (like Christians and ex-pats).  H.'s family does not.  Christmas will be just like any other day for them - except that H.'s nephew is turning two, so that should make it a fun, special day.

Gifts are not to celebrate any particular holiday, but instead are given as a response to warm hospitality.  Typical Turkish etiquette involves bringing chocolate or flowers to the host when invited for dinner.  On our last trip H. and I were invited to many, many dinners and breakfasts and afternoon teas and even for midnight fruit….    I loved it!  Meeting relatives and spending time eating good food with laughter all around - what's not to love.  Even though I only understood about 50% of what went on (and that was mostly due to H.'s translations) I enjoyed the atmosphere. 

I was prepared on that last trip with some local-themed gifts, but I did not expect to be getting gifts as well!  As our trip winded down and we were getting ready to leave, H.'s relatives surprised me with the most generous presents - many different locally made Turkish handicrafts - the best possible gifts for a girl like me.   I was taken aback by all the generosity - and this was aside from the overflowing hospitality I received throughout the entire trip. 

Now I am heading back to Turkey where we will attend wonderful family dinners and breakfasts and teas.  I am planning to head back with my arms full. 

I'm still brainstorming some good gift ideas.  Here is what we have so far: Ghirardelli chocolates, a combination of souvenirs that we have purchased on several trips in the past 18 months, some locally handmade gifts and toys for some of the young kids.

Despite the Italian name, Ghirardelli's is a true American company
(or as far as I could tell)
(Image from Ghirardelli Website )

I'm looking to fill up my suitcase - any suggestions?  

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Finding My Motivation Again at "The Everyday Language Learner "

Studying a language can be an exciting, exhausting and exhilarating experience.  There are days where it feels like it will be impossible to become fluent or to even be able to communicate well enough to buy a bottle of water.  Then there are days when you are feeling the rush as you understand a full conversation for the first time or you are able to communicate without doing simultaneous translations in your head.

When I began my Turkish language learning journey I started scanning the internet to find free or cheap resources that I could use to teach myself.  It surprised me how much I found.  There is quite a bit out there and in varying different forms to satisfy all types of learners.  I am putting together a list of these resources, which is posted as a separate page called "Turkish Language Resources" on this blog.

For now, I'd like to bring your attention to an excellent language coach.  Aaron Myers has created an amazing resource for self-directed language learners over at the Everyday Language Learner Blog, which covers a wide range of  language learning methods and self-directed language learning tools.  Aaron also spent some time living in Turkey and has a particular expertise in Turkish language tools

The blog banner for the EDLL site
(Copyright: Aaron Myers)

What I like about Aaron's writing is that he makes very clear recommendations for both starting and continuing the language learning process.  He does not sugar coat the difficulties or shy away from discussing the pitfalls - he gives an honest overview of his journey and what has and has not helped him and he provides some excellent guidelines for setting goals and planning your language learning activities.

In his most recent post, Aaron discusses how to make a plan that will lead you to your end goal.  He lays out the first few phases to get a learner on the right track. 

Stage 1 involves exploring available language learning resources, finding your learning style, working on immediate language needs and connecting with a native speaker.

The latter stages involve daily conversations with native speakers, reading some interesting material in the target language, developing vocabulary, working with a tutor and writing journal entries. 

I've been on the Turkish learning path for about 2 years now - at times spending around 10-15 hours a week studying and attending classes.  Now it's down to about 2-3 hours a week….

It's time for me to me to re-evaluate my progress and start taking action.  Aaron has a lot of posts that provide ideas on quick and easy language learning activities that, when combined, create an effective plan forward, for example:

Also, for a great overview article of Aaron's strategy and useful links, check out:

So what is my action step today?

I signed up (for the second time) for Aaron's Ten Week Journey course that consists of a series of emails that come each week and provide useful tips and encouragement for language learning.
(Which you can sign up for by clicking on "the ten week journey" image on all of his blog pages)

Just go to The Everyday Language Learner Blog and
click on this image to get signed up for Aaron's Ten Week Journey and get ready to be inspired!

I'm also going to spend some time this weekend putting together my plan for the next few weeks before I head to Turkey.  I plan on taking advantage of the month in Turkey to tune up my Turkish and expand my vocabulary, but first I want to be ready to go there.  Some review is definitely in order.

Do any of you have any ideas to help guide the language learning process?   Feel free to share ideas and experiences in the comments below.

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