Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Last Post?

It's been, what? Nine months? Ten months? And in three days (two days, I suppose, since it's past midnight) I'll get on a plane to Istanbul. I'll spent a day or two at an AFS camp watching people cry and exchanging hugs and making promises to reunite that may or may not ever come to fruition. For me the AFS camp is kind of a bookend. With two or three notable exceptions, I never really bonded with any of the other AFSers. A lot of the other AFSers have spent the last two-three months traveling around Turkey, staying with the other AFSers. I didn't.
Why? Partly because of the money, although I have money and financial self-control is not one of my strong points. I've worked since my freshman year of high school and I've never really had to deal with living on a budget - the money always came in faster than I could spend it, especially when I was constantly getting handouts from my parents.
Anyways, why didn't I travel? Part of me regrets not doing so, but most of me doesn't. For starters, this isn't going to be the last time I visit Turkey. For me, AFS isn't about hanging with the other foreigners. I don't say this to disparage those who chose this; I made my own choices and respect others' right to do the same. I traveled with fellow AFSers once to Izmir. It was okay; I had fun. But it wasn't really the experience I wanted.
I went to Istanbul last week and stayed with an old friend of mine. We went to Morocco together three years ago and met up in NYC once. He came and visited me in Antalya and I came and stayed with him in his university dorm in Istanbul (the European side). For those of you keeping score at home, that means that every time I've met him, it's been on a different continent. Fate will probably dictate that the next time we meet will be in Colombia or Argentina - either that or Australia.
Anyways, we had a great time. I turned 18 while I was in Istanbul, so we celebrated that. My friend has an internship in Istanbul, along with 8 of his fellow Yalies. We had a great time touring the city - neither one of us had any real objection to just wandering around aimlessly for hours in Istanbul, so that's more or less what we did. We saw some pretty cool stuff, a lot of which wasn't the touristy stuff in Lonely Planet. Good times in Istanbul.
Hanging with the Yalies was also... perhaps "fun" isn't the right word, but it definitely got me thinking about my rapidly upcoming college years. I had fun. It was nice being with intelligent people my age who knew how to lighten up and have some fun. I'm definitely thinking about going home a lot more fondly than I was before I went. Yeah, I'm going back to stay with my parents and work and I'm going be sharing a car with my kid sister. But really, I'm just spending a month and a half revisiting my high school life - something that seems so remote and far away I'm getting nostalgic. I'm sure in two weeks I'll be bored of Freeport once more. But now, I'm actually OK with the fact I'm going home. That's not to say I won't miss Turkey, or that I didn't enjoy my time here. But as I've said before, I'll be back. I'm not going to forget Turkish, as everyone here seems to think.
I'm ready to be back in America, I think. I guess I'm lucky in that I have a lot to look forward to. I studied abroad in my senior year - a decidedly non-traditional path (most of the seniors I know who are studying abroad are either applying to less-competitive schools or else delaying college altogether). Yet I don't know what I'd be doing if I were a junior or sophomore. Not only would I have to deal with the high school bureaucracy to ensure that my credits all lined up, but I'd have to go back to high school for another year. Not that my Freeport High School experience was terrible but... I'm ready to be someplace else. I feel like a very different person that I was 10 months ago.
Part of the reason for this change, I think, is that being a place where you can't speak the language instills humility in you pretty quickly. I was many things before I came to Turkey, but humble was certainly not one of them. I don't know what will happen once I go back to speaking English. We'll see.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Belated post, can't think of a title

I realized today how rarely I actually get in a car here in Turkey. I get around on the dolmuş – basically a small version of a public bus. The dolmuşlar (lar/ler is the plural suffix in Turkish) in Antalya aren’t actually true dolmuş. The real dolmuş is just a van (we’d probably call it a 14-passenger van in the US; in Turkey, it’s about a 30-passenger van), that may or may not have any markings saying where it is going, and may or may not follow an actual route. The word dolmuş is related to the word dolu, which means “full”. Some connoisseurs of Turkish cuisine may be familiar with dolma, which is also related – dolma means “stuffed”. I think my readers can probably understand where I’m going with this – the dolmuş is pretty full. I have a priceless memory of an old British man getting furious at the driver, yelling “it’s full up! It’s full up!” It’s doubly funny, because saying “it’s full up!” is one of those British expressions that just strikes me as ridiculous, and also because no one paid any attention to him. In Turkey, public transportation is never too full to accommodate a new person. I’ve ridden in a normal-sized sedan (4 people in the US, maybe 5) with a total of 7 other people. I’ve seen 15 people in a taxi (Fiat Doblo, in case you were wondering and have nothing better to do than Google “Fiat Doblo”).

I probably ride in a car, at most, once or twice a month here. In America, I probably get in a car every day. As AFS would say, it’s not right, it’s not wrong, it’s just different. There are times I definitely miss having a car, but to be honest, most of the time it doesn’t bother me. There’s basically no parking in Turkey anyway, at least not in the massive, well-tended, paved sense that we enjoy in America.

I actually wrote the two proceeding paragraphs a while ago. I’m writing now because I have a few essays to write. I’m applying for a program at Duke called Focus which is basically several clusters of related classes. Students in the same cluster live together and have small seminar based classes which is a neat way of making friends, or so I’m told. I have to write four essays, which is a bit of a drag. I gotten out of the habit of actually having to study anything except Turkish and I’ll probably be in for a little bit of a shock once I get back to the states and actually have to start hitting the books. (Multiple books, plural, instead of just my pocket Turkish-English Langenscheidt dictionary.)

What else? I suppose that I should write something about the “Kurdish issue” here in Turkey. My first advice would be to read up on the issue well, although take every thing you read with a grain of salt. In my opinion, anything you read about any extant conflict should be treated this way, whether it’s about Israel, China, Russia, Sri Lanka, Congo, or even, dare I say it, our own United States of America. You can’t believe everything you read, no matter what the name at the top of the page.

So. The Kurds are a trans-national ethnic group living in the southeastern region of Turkey, as well as parts of Iran, Syria, and Iraq. There has never been a census in Turkey that asked about the ethnicity or race of Turks, mostly because according to the Turkish government, all Turkish citizens are Turks. Indeed, in Turkish, there is only one word, Türk, that describes both ethnic Turks – i.e. members of the ethno-linguistic group that came from present-day Mongolia, settling down throughout the present-day Central Asian Republics – and citizens of the modern Republic of Turkey. For many years, the official Turkish government line did not even accept the fact that Kurds were ethnically different. This is pretty much nonsense – the Kurdish language is Indo-European (a Kurdish-speaking friend of mine tells me that it has some similarities to Russian).

The Kurds make up, probably, about 20% of Turkey’s population. Some of them live in large cities like Istanbul, Izmir, and Ankara, and are highly successful. Many, however, still live in very rural and undeveloped areas in the southeast of Turkey.

One should not confused the “Kurdish problem” with the “terrorism problem”. The terrorism problem primarily comes from the PKK, a (theoretically) Marxist organization that espouses Kurdish nationalism. It is based mostly in northern Iraq these days, and has lost a bit of power since its leader, Abdullah Öcalan (“Apo”) was captured in Kenya in 1999 by MIT, the Turkish intelligence service. It still, however occasionally manages to kill Turkish military targets. This tit-for-tat struggle has been going on for decades. One of the reasons I’ve heard for Turkey’s generally close relationship with Israel is the fact that both have been plagued since their inception by terrorism. It’s an interesting comparison, full of realpolitik and irony (the Kurds are sometimes called “the Jews of the Middle East” because of their lack of a state, although, then again, so are the Armenians.)

Turks, no matter what their political stripe, take this issue extremely seriously. You will never hear a joke or lighthearted comment about a “şehit” – martyr, any soldier or policeman killed in the line of duty – nor will you see the PKK ever referred to as a “militant” or “guerilla” organization as you sometimes will in the western press – in Turkey, they are simply “terrorists”.

There is also the “Kurdish problem”, which stems not from terrorism but just from the fact that Kurds do not have as many civil liberties as Turks in Turkey. They have virtually no access to Kurdish-language education. Some Kurdish names that do not have equivalents in Turkish are illegal, making it impossible for parents to register for identity cards for their children. In some cases, Kurdish children born in Germany have been reused entry into Turkey because of their names. The situation is definitely improving, though, for Kurds, albeit slowly. Twenty five years ago Ankara referred to Kurds as “Mountain Turks” and claimed that the word “Kurd” was a nickname that came from the sound of their sandals as they walked through the snow. Today, there is a TRT channel (the Turkish state broadcaster) that broadcasts in Kurdish. The current prime minister of Turkey has even tentatively uttered the previously taboo word “Kurdistan” to refer to the autonomous region in northern Iraq. Many of these gradual reforms are being spurred as Turkey tries to comply with various EU treaties and agreements regarding the rights of minorities as part of it’s 50-year Quixotic quest to be admitted to the European Union.

I’m happy to try my best to answer any other questions.

On a lighter note… how many of my readers know what Eurovision is? If you have a sec, Wiki it. Basically, it’s like a cross between World Cup and American Idol. Every nation in “Europe” (for the purposes of this discussion, let’s assume that countries like Israel count as Europe) is eligible to enter a song. The results are, in general, hilarious. Any person residing in any of the European countries sending an entrant is eligible to vote via text message, the only caveat being they cannot vote for their country of residence. Each country picks its favorite ten entries and points are awarded to the other countries accordingly. While it would be nice if people voted based on the artistic merit of the performers, what usually ends up happening is “bloc voting”, where all the Scandinavian and Slavic countries vote for another. Cyprus and Greece, without fail, award each other the maximum 12 points every year. Turkey receives a huge amount of votes from Germany, France, Belgium and the Netherlands, thanks to the Turkish Diaspora in these countries. I was shocked when Serbia awarded 12 points to Bosnia & Herzegovina – perhaps they were feeling guilty? Most of the former Yugoslavian countries, in fact, ended up awarded points to each other. I guess that having a neighbor win a song contest can trump years of ethnic cleansing.

So? Norway won. If you want you can probably find the winning song, on YouTube, by Alexander Rybak, who looks like he is about 12. I liked the Azerbaijani entry better myself.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

University, Izmir, Public Transportation, and other anecdotes

So it’s been a while. I’m trying to think what’s happened since I last wrote.

The biggest thing was probably that I once more found my life, to a certain extent, taken over my university applications. (Because I’m in Turkey, even when I think to myself English, saying “university” seems much more natural than “college”.) Luckily, I had some amazing options from which to choose. The Robertson Program, an amazing scholarship that is offered at UNC and Duke (Google it if you’re curious), paid for me to return to the states for a week to interview for a place as a Robertson Scholar at UNC. I had the chance to visit both UNC and Duke. In the end, however, I was not offered a spot as a Robertson Scholar, but I did get the chance to have some quality time with my dad – suit shopping, staying in fancy hotels (actually, just one fancy hotel), and eating all the meat I could in the course of 5-days. I hadn’t had one of those incredibly oversized, environmentally-unfriendly American steaks in 7 months. As Don King would say…

So for the past month I’ve been considering my options. Considering what a terrible year it was economically, and, by extension, for college admissions, I’m very lucky to have received only a small number of rejections, at schools that were tremendous reaches. To make a long story short, and spare my readers more waiting (I’m very aware it’s been months since my last blog entry), I’ll just go ahead and say it. I’m going to be attending Duke. Cool, right? I’m pretty excited to be done with high school. It’s just so incredibly rewarding to know that all those years of work I put in have paid off and I’ve ended up exactly where I wanted to be – maybe not at precisely the school I would have guessed 3 or 4 months ago, but at an amazing school, with genuinely knowledgeable and enthusiastic people, studying something that I love.

Yeah. I’m pretty damn excited.

I spent the last week with some AFS friends of mine in Izmir. Izmir is known for being the most liberal part of Turkey, and for having the most beautiful girls in Turkey. We toured around with the AFSers who lived there, mostly. I ate an entire fish, which is something I’ve always hated doing – it’s so much work. It’s worth it, though. I’ve heard for years that the eyes are the tastiest part, and it’s true, although the “eww” factor is definitely present.

I had a lot of time to think about my college decision whilst travelling to Izmir. I took a bus, and it’s about 7 or 8 hours each way. As the crow flies, it’s not tremendously far, but to get to or from Antalya you have to traverse the Toros Mountains. The road is not particularly windy, but instead you just have long, long bends that take you slowly from side to side. The panorama is beautiful. I’m glad I didn’t fly.

Turkish inter-city buses, in general, are awesome. Round trip, I think I paid about $45. That includes the “servis” that take me from the bus station back into the city, so you don’t have to pay like you would if you went to the airport. There is snack and beverage service on the bus – not much, but it’s about what you get on a short-haul flight in America these days. I elected to pay slightly more and take the “comfortable” service. The bus only has 3 seats abreast – 2 and 1, instead of 2 and 2 – so you get a nice wide seat and I didn’t have to have someone sitting next to me. The bus stops a few times so you can go to the bathroom. “Turkish transportation” is listed as one of my interests on my Facebook page, and it’s true – I find it to be, in general, convenient, cheap, and fairly reliable. I wish we had something like that in the US, although the US is simply much, much bigger.

So… that’s my post. Sorry I didn’t write more, but I’ll try to once more take up the writing mantle and keep the folks back home up to date.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

My excuse for not ever posting any more...

... college. My responses have come and I'm trying to filter through them. I was actually in the states last week for a college interview at the University of North Carolina. Unfortunately, I didn't get offered the scholarship for which I interviewed, but happily I have some other fabulous options from which to choose from. This makes my life a little difficult as I'm having a bit of a difficult time making a decision.

Hopefully, at some point, inspiration will strike and I'll write a detailed description of what I've been up to for the past month and a half. Unfortunately, that time is not now. I am aware that I've neglected my blog, however. In the meantime, though, my education comes first (sorry!) and keeping everyone posted comes second. My apologies.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Answers to my dad's questions

I figure I might as well strike while the iron is hot and respond to the multitude of questions posed by my dad.

- How observant religiously are mainstream Antalyans?
Not at all. Less so, in fact, than the United States. Turkey is laik, similar to the French model. The separation between church and state is present but it manifests itself in different ways. Turkey is, in general, aggressively secular. This may seem like a peculiar use of words, but it is, I think, the best way to describe the predominant mindset. Of course, this mindset isn’t actually all that predominant, considering the religious party has a majority. But in general, city-dwellers and people who live further west tend to be less religious. For example, I don’t think my host brother has ever actually been inside a mosque, except historical ones that have been converted to museums.

- Are mosques prevalent? Are there muezzin in the towers?
In Antalya, somewhat, although no more so than churches in a similarly sized American city. It isn’t like Cairo, “the city of a thousand minarets.” There are muezzin and they do chant the call to prayer five times daily. I can hear it from my house but it doesn’t bother me; it’s must less irksome than the guy who is up at 6:00 yelling about how amazing his simit is (simit is sort of ring sesame-encrusted bread).

- What Muslim beliefs are honored and observed, and which are not?
No one eats pork, just because it is impossible (or extremely difficult) to find, and while most people wouldn’t care about eating it on religious grounds, most people think pork is dirty. There are wild pigs in Turkey, though, and I’m told that there are some farms where pork is produced for export to Bulgaria and other (Christian) places. The vast majority of people have no religious objection to drinking alcohol, at least not in Antalya. Antalya is pretty secular, even by Turkish standards. Not nearly as secular, as, say Izmir, but more secular than Istanbul and much more so than Ankara.
A lot of other things are not so much Muslim as they are just folk traditions. The evil eye (nazar boncuk) is everywhere, on basically every door and sometimes on babies, to ward off bad luck. People invoke the name of God by saying “mashallah” and “inshallah” and similar expressions that come from Arabic, even if they aren’t religious. A lot of people play with tesbih (prayer beads) in their idle time. These have 33 beads, which, if counted 3 times, equal 99 – so one can recite the 99 names of Allah if one is so inclined. Most people aren’t, though, and just use them as worry beads. I have a set that I like to play with – I don’t smoke, so I need something to do with my hands while I wait.
Most people don’t pray at all. I can’t stress enough the fact that Turkey is secular, and most definitely not Arab.

- How does your host mom shop for dinner? Does she shop every day, or does she shop for a week? What are grocery stores like as compared to a Hannaford’s here? What choices do you have?
A little of both. There are little shops on basically every corner. If you like, they will even have someone send up whatever you want to your apartment. Every morning our kapıcı (doorman is perhaps the best way to translate this) bring us the newspaper and a fresh loaf of bread. If we run out of yogurt or bread, we can go to the little store. For more regular shopping, there is a small grocery store in a mall near our house that my mom probably goes to once or twice weekly. Most things we get about once a week, some things fresh (like bread and fruit). Maybe every month or two we go to a big “hypermarket”, which is about the size of a standard supermarket in America – maybe a little bigger, but definitely not as big as a Sam’s Club or BJ’s.
The choices are not nearly as extensive as what we are used to in America. For some items – instant coffee, tea, nutella products and associated knock-offs – there are more choices, but in general it’s less. There aren’t nearly as many different types of soda: you have basically Coke, Diet Coke, Fanta and Sprite, although you get a choice of a few different brands. There is basically one type of beer in Turkey – Efes, and imports are expensive. There’s also Tuborg, but it’s produced under license by the Efes company, so it doesn’t really count. There is no ice cream in the stores, just individual serving-sizes. We don’t have a regular freezer anyway, just a deep-freeze. It’s a tiny bit difficult to find normal coffee (filter, non-instant, non-Turkish). A lot of things are made by Ülker, which is a Turkish company that produces a lot of candy and also Cola Turka. The money that Ülker makes, though, is called yeşil para – green money (green being the color of Islam). Ülker tends to give money to conservative causes in Turkey and my family, for instance, generally prefers not to buy Ülker products.

- If you go into a pharmacy, is everything out on a shelf or do you have to ask someone to retrieve every item for you?
Yep, you have to ask someone. Pharmacies are a lot more common here because a) grocery stores don’t have their own pharmacies and b) hospitals don’t really have their own pharmacies, so you have to get the medicine yourself. They also seem to make a lot of money selling Viagra, at least judging by the large window displays. (I don’t know if you need a prescription for this or not; somehow I doubt it.)

- Are there more misconceptions about Americans that Turks hold that you could share?
Nothing all that new or interesting, other than that our government isn’t particularly well-liked in this part of the world. There is a best-selling novel here called “Metal Storm” which describes a US-led invasion of Turkey, and people actually seem to think that this is something fairly realistic, and something they worry about. There is also a movie called “Valley of the Wolves: Iraq”, which features, among other things a (Jewish) American doctor who sells organs from Iraqi prisoners in Abu Ghraib to businessmen in Tel Aviv. During the invasion of Iraq, US forces captured Turkish commandos operating in the north and pictures were taken of the hooded Turkish soldiers. While the prisoners were eventually released, the “hood incident” was not exactly a high point in US-Turkish relations. The movie is based on the embarrassment caused by this incident.
What else? A lot of the stereotypes are just based on what people see in the movies: we all have big cars, eat fast food 24/7, snort coke 24/7, we all love basketball, etc.
A lot of people think that the Armenian and the Jewish lobbies are very powerful in America, which is, to a certain extent, true.

- What do they think of other nationalities, such as the British, or Germans, or Asians?
In Antalya we get a lot of tourists, along with people who retire or move to Turkey. Most Turkish people believe that pretty much all foreigners from central or northern Europe are “cold”. While Turkish people are a warm and hospitable people, the worst of the tourist stereotypes are as follows: British people – kind of white trash. Drink a lot. Not wearing enough clothing. Germans – cold. Extremely cold. Also drink too much. Russians – cheap. (Think 5 or 6 people in a 2-person hotel room cheap.) Drink too much. Israelis – same as the Russians. Maybe because a lot of them are from Russia. Asians – there is only one country in Asia, and that is Japan. I feel bad for the Thai students, who have to deal with “Japan? Japan?” and “konichiwa” whenever they go outside. In general, Asian tourists (read: Japanese) prefer to go to historical places, such as Istanbul and Kapadokya, and stay away from the beaches. Americans – surprisingly, people like us. We don’t come to Turkey so much, so there aren’t nearly as many stereotypes just because they are’t as well known.

- It would also be interesting to hear more about students in your school. Do they pay attention in class? Do they write everything diligently? Do any of them pass notes, or throw paper at each other, or throw pencils up to stick in the ceilings? Are there disciplinary issues for harmless, mindless mischief?
Not so much. There is more discipline in the sense that teachers yell a lot more, but less in the sense that no one really listens to the teachers. All the teachers have decided to crack down on people bringing food into their classrooms, which most people solve by just putting their food in their bag or waiting until the teacher isn’t looking. Classes are a lot bigger here so the teachers can’t really enforce discipline as much. Side conversations pretty much occur all the time. Students don’t form lines (“queue up”, as I’ve been taught in English class), instead they just form a mob. I’m tall, so I actually do okay for myself. People sometimes pass notes, but usually its easier just to talk across the room to whoever you want to speak with.
In Turkey there are no substitute teachers. If the teacher doesn’t come, you just have a free period. Sometimes people play football (soccer) with a piece of paper, or have fights with the chalk. In general they don’t pay as much attention in class, but they somehow manage to write all the important things down. A lot of times students will sleep and the teacher will either not notice or just not care. People also have all sorts of cool tricks they can do that involve twirling their pens.

- Do some kids drop out?
Yes. If, after 8th grade, you want to stop school, you just stop going to school. Some people do. Some girls do because it is forbidden to wear the headscarf in school, but most of them just wear it outside of school. I’ve heard that in some places girls wear wigs to get around this, but, as I’ve said, Antalya is really secular, and I’ve only actually seen one girl in my school who wears the headscarf while not in school.

- What if a kid loves sports - you mention that in 11th and 12th grade all they do is prep for the exam - do the athletes just give up their sports for two years?
Pretty much, if they want to get into a good university and get a job. There aren’t really school teams – we have matches with other schools, but usually they just organize a team a week or two before the match and practice during lunch. After school, everyone has private study classes to attend, and there aren’t sports teams (at least not at my public school – perhaps some private schools do). If you want to play sports, you rent a field and get a group together to play football on the weekend. Same goes for music and just about any other hobby outside of school.
I was late to class yesterday and rather than showing up late, I decided to sit in on a conference with all the 12th graders in my school. One of the teachers asked if any of the students were still trying to have any relations with people during the weekends – social activities and whatnot. About 25% of the students raised their hands, and laughed nervously. The teacher then basically told them, good for you for wanting to have fun and be young, but you really should be studying more for your own good. And he’s right.

- Do any kids hold after school jobs? If so, what do they do?
It’s hard to get a job in Turkey, even for university graduates. That being said, I know a few people in my school who work in hotels during the summer, and they tend to have better English than their peers. Some of them have even picked up a few bits of Russian. It’s not very common though. Bulatcan, my host brother, had a tourism-related job for a week or so. I think it was kind of like a bellhop type-thing, but he had to stop after he hurt his wrist. Some of the kids from poorer families help out around the house or the job, I think. Having an actual job during the school year is unheard of – actually, the same is true in Europe to a large extent.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Money, and a quick story (not in that order)

I got back from our mid-stay camp yesterday night. I’ll probably talk about it in a different post. After only 3 days away, I had 28 new messages in my email inbox. I read about 3, gave up, and decided to write a blog rather than address the backlog of emails.

A few hours ago I was walking back from the gym I’ve recently joined. It’s kind of nice having joined a gym in Turkey. The differences between a gym in Turkey (or at least the one I go to) and a gym in America are kind of like the differences in shopping. In America, the employees are there if you need them, but they pretty much stay out of your way unless you ask them for help. When you walk into a store in Turkey, the first thing you usually notice (depending on the time you are there) is that there are frequently more people working than there are actual customers. This is especially true of Turkcell stores, which seem to be able to employ massive amounts of people despite the fact that they are everywhere – I have literally seen a block in Turkey where the storefronts were Turkcell, Vodafone, Tobacco Shop, Turkcell, Avea (another cell phone company here), a general store, and another Turkcell. All 3 Turkcells had customers. If you walk in a clothing store, and show an interest in a certain item, the employee won’t hesitate to offer you his or her opinion on it. At first I thought they were a little pushy (“so do you want to buy it? Do you? Do you?”) but now I’m actually a little disappointed when I go in a store an no one comes forward to helps me.

Anyways, the gym is the same way. When I first started, Tolga, the guy who works there said, “okay, let’s get started.” And he sits me down and works me mercilessly for the better part of an hour. It’s basically like having your own personal trainer to tell you what to do, especially if I go at a time when it isn’t so crowded – of course I’m not the only one who gets this “special treatment”.

Another thing. We have municipal elections approaching in Antalya. It’s pretty likely that AKP, the conservative, somewhat religious party, will win here, because the current mayor is from AKP and is pretty well liked. That, and the fact that AKP has several times more money to spend on this election than anyone else. AKP puts that money to good use by having vans drive around with pictures of the candidates and loudspeakers on the top, playing surprisingly additive songs like “Muratpaşa (a district in Antalya) is our home”. I always have to suppress the urge to dance whenever one of the vans passes by, because the song is very addictive. Luckily, I can’t understand all the Turkish, so I don’t get the full Orwellian effect. CHP (Social Democrats) and MHP (Nationalists) have vans as well, but I don’t see them as often. So basically campaign advertising in Turkey is like the Blues Brothers, I think. At least they don’t have those stupid little signs on the side of the road. I feel like people are much more likely to vote for someone because they have a song stuck in their head than because they’ve seen someone’s name written more than the other guy.

So I’m still walking back from the gym. Even though I’m actually really skinny (hence the reason why I go to the gym), I’m taller than nearly everyone in Turkey, and when I’m wearing a rain jacket (because it’s always raining in Antalya) I can look pretty big. Someone got my attention while I was walking by the mall parking lot near my house (I live within 2 minutes’ walk of 2 medium-sized malls), and asked me if I could help him with his car. He pointed out that I looked athletic and could probably manage to push the car, and his flattery must have worked, because I, of course, agreed to help him with his car. He asked me if I was from Antalya, and I said, no, I’m actually from America. He told me his wife was Russian, and pointed out his half-Russian son, trotting alongside.

So after we got his car running, he thanked me with a wave and an (English) “thank you very much!” At first I was a little upset. I generally don’t like it when I tell people in Turkish that I’m from America, and then they say something like “welcome”. I guess I feel like if I’m speaking Turkish and getting along fine, why not continue in Turkish with a “hoş geldiniz” instead of a “welcome”. And then I remembered what I said upon hearing his son was Russian: “privet”. So I guess it cuts both ways. People try to be friendly and hospitable. All I can do is enjoy the friendly sentiment, and respond in Turkish.

So that’s the story part of this post. The second part is just a brief explanation of the money here, with thanks to Wikipedia for the dates.

Until 2005, Turkey used a currency known simply as the Turkish lira. This worked fine until the 1980s, when inflation necessitated constantly adding zeroes to the money. Although the Turkish government kept adding zeros, it never reached “hyperinflation” – it wasn’t like Zimbabwe. People could still afford everything, it just made international trade a little more difficult, and, of course, all those zeroes get confusing.

It got the point where in the early 2000s, a can of coke was usually around a million Turkish lira. For a tourist-oriented country, this was seen as kind of embarrassing, not to mention confusing for foreigners when they look at a menu and a cup of tea is 2.500.000 [2.5 million], or see that their hotel bill for the night is 220.000.000 [220 million], or they want to buy a car and it is [70 billion] (in Turkey they use periods instead of commas).

Anyways, in 2005, the government had had enough. Luckily, the lira had stabilized and was actually rising against the dollar. They decided to remove 6 zeroes from the currency, so the 2.5 million lira cup of tea was now only 2.5 lira. Except to distinguish, they called this the “New Turkish Lira”, commonly known by its Turkish abbreviation “YTL”. The YTL was divided into 100 sub-units, called “kuruş” – basically like cents. There is no 1 kuruş coin – people here don’t care about exact change like they do in America. All the prices are rounded to the nearest “5”, and because tax is included in everything, not just added on top of the normal price, you don’t have to worry about this like you do in the states.

Another thing about the kuruş coins – the 50 kuruş coin and the 1 lira coin look almost exactly like the 1 euro coin and the 2 euro coin, respectively. They are made from the same metals, and weigh, I’m told, the same. While it could be that this was purely coincidental, it was more likely a political move, saying “look, we’re ready to join the European Union, because our money looks rather similar”. Either that, or it was a way for Turkish people living in Europe to cheat vending machine owners, because I’m told as well that the coins will work in vending machines that accept Euro. So it’s kind of like how you can use Canadian money in the US. The major difference is that a Canadian quarter is worth almost the same as its American counterpart, whereas a 1 YTL coin it worth ¼ of its Euro counterpart.

On 1 January, the money changed yet again. The “New” was dropped, and now the currency is known once more as the Turkish Lira, or TL. The value hasn’t changed at all, just the name. For a year you can continue to use your old money, and after that, you have to take it to a bank to exchange it for new notes. I’m kind of amazed, though, how quickly the money has changed. I still sometimes see an old $20 bill when I'm in America, even though the money changed... what, maybe three years ago? In Turkey, probably 2/3rds of the bills in my wallet right now are new, and it hasn’t even been 2 months since the money changed.

The coins have been changed so that they no longer look like the Euro coins, and, in my opinion, the new coins are prettier as well. Everyone, however, seems to hate the new paper money, and I agree. The old money was made of some sort of cloth-type paper, whereas the new one seems like it is made with cheap printer paper. Furthermore, on the front side of the money, there are pictures of people. It’s the first time that the Turkish Republic has ever put anyone other than Atatürk on its money. Some people think that this is a deliberate AKP attempt to diminish the role of Atatürk in every day life. I just thing its stupid that there are people on the money, and no one has any idea who any of them are. Literally. Except for the 200 lira note (which, because it is worth like $120, I don’t see very much), which has Yunus Emre, the other people are completely unknown. The old money was bigger as well, and had pictures of historical sights instead of the “famous” Turks who no one knows. The new money also, according to some, looks like the Euro (it’s colorful, which is a major improvement over American money), and also features, on certain notes, a smiling Atatürk. A lot of people don’t really like that either – they grew up accustomed to a serious, stern Atatürk, and the idea of him cracking a smile on the money seems a little bit weird, I guess.

The money can be a little confusing, because even though they got rid of all the zeroes, many people still say “million”. So if your sandwich that costs 3 TL, the waiter may say “3 million”. How much is the water, you wonder? “Five hundred thousand.” My mom doesn’t understand the new money, and she always tells me things in millions and billions. As if that wasn’t confusing enough, sometimes people still say “YTL”, even though now it is just “TL.” So your sandwich is “3 YTL” (pronounced yay-tay-lay). Fun, isn’t it? And many places don’t accept credit cards. The little corner store accepts credit cards, but the electric company, for instance, does not. To pay your bills, you have to go wait in line and pay in cash.

I’ll write about the camp later, maybe. Anything else people want to here about? I might write more about the election, but writing about politics in Turkey makes me feel a little uncomfortable just because I really don’t understand it so well and I don’t want to misrepresent things.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

The rules of Turkish cuisine, as noticed by me

- add salt to everything. Everything needs more salt.

- yogurt makes everything better. Pasta, rice, meat, soup... yogurt is also an elixir that has the power to solve any and all health problems.

- drinking while you are eating a meal is optional. One glass of water is more than enough to last an entire meal.

- you can drink tea with anything. While I was in Norway at a pizza restaurant, my host brother drank tea. With pizza.

- on that note, tea is always available. Much like the fact that many workplaces have coffee pots in America, teakettles are pretty much ubiquitous.

- if you are my host brother and you are drinking something hot, add 3-5 sugar cubes. I've seen him add sugar to hot chocolate.

- if you buy something from the canteen at school, offer to share it with anyone who passes by, no matter what it may be. If they don't want any, insist.

- if someone offers you food and you don't wish to accept, patting your hand on your stomach a few times is an acceptable refusal.

- everything at the school canteen is made by Ülker.

- ayran (yogurt + water + salt) is delicious.

- so is kokoreç (lamb intestines).

- it seems like you drink Coke and/or Fanta more often than water.

- everybody loves American fast food: McDonalds and Burger King are the favorites, but Pizza Hut, Dominos and Dunkin' Donuts (in Istanbul) are also liked. Starbucks is nice, but expensive.

- real coffee is hard to find. People drink instant coffee, usually pre-sweetened. Turkish coffee isn't drunk all that regularly.

- ketchup and mayonnaise are the main condiments, used not only on fries, but also on pizza and pasta.

- eggs are always a little runny.

- white bread is delicious and should accompany all meals.

- a salad is topped with olive oil and lemon juice, maybe vinegar. Sometimes nar eksısı, which translates as... pomegranate vinegar?

- simit is the ultimate "grab and go" food, and you can buy it on the street for 50 kuruş. (Simit is a round type of bread covered with sesame seeds. Wiki it:

- people love to extol the virtues of rakı, fish, and white cheese when consumed ensemble.

- dinner (at least in my house) always has soup.

- there are dozens of restaurants, yet they all serve the exact same thing. You can walk past a row of dönerciler (döner restaurants), all of which have exactly the same menu.

- (non-Turkish) ethnic food does not exist. (Italian pasta is an exception. I've heard Mexican food also exits, although I've yet to see any.) Turkish food tends to be simple, some might even say bland. People don't mix tastes - if something is spicy, it's spicy, and if something is sweet, it's sweet. Rice tastes like rice. Pasta tastes like pasta.

- the word "pasta" means "cake", while "kek" can also mean "cake", and "makarana" means not only macaroni, but all types of pasta.

- no pork.