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Victory is mine! Or, on visiting all of Turkey’s UNESCO sites

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Catalhoyuk

One of the benefits of being posted to a country where I’ve lived for years is that I have the time to finish things that started as a “Wouldn’t it be great if…” thought. When you live in a country without a set timeline, it’s easy to get a lot done without accomplishing much finite – there’s always more time, and who knows how long you’ll be in the country. You want to save something for next year.

This is how I managed to arrive in Turkey for my tour, with four-and-a-half years in-country under my belt, having only visited five of Turkey’s 11 UNESCO sites (n.b. TO BE FAIR, Çatalhöyük was added in 2012, after I arrived this time. So, five of 10). Visiting all of Turkey’s UNESCO World Heritage sites had long been a hazy goal of mine – I really liked the idea, it seemed like an interesting and medium-difficult accomplishment, and few foreigners (or Turks, really) ever do. But pre-this job, I ran into one steep problem that kept me from going too far in my quest.

I didn’t have a car.

Far be it from me to champion vehicle ownership. My current car is the first car I’ve ever owned. I hate driving in the city. But when I was posted back to Turkey, I knew that if I really wanted to see everything I didn’t see before, I’d need my own wheels. Intercity busses only go so many places. So I acquired a car, and set out to see the remaining UNESCO sites on my list. Halfway through, I realized that UNESCO had sneakily added one additional site in Turkey to its World Heritage list in summer 2012, slightly lengthening the endeavor. But I finally made it to the last Turkish UNESCO site and crossed that line off my list of life goals.

Following, I’ve written up Turkey’s UNESCO sites in the order in which I first visited them:

1. Istanbul Old City, February 2006

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It was February. I was an exchange student at a university in Ankara, visiting Istanbul with several fellow exchange student friends. We went out, stayed out late, saw the Blue Mosque, and accidentally got tear gassed. My first Turkish UNESCO site and also my first teargas experience. This being Turkey, neither would be my last. In June 2009, I moved to Istanbul, actually within the walls of the Old City. So for 16 months I lived inside a UNESCO site. It didn’t feel that historic at the time.

2. Göreme, May 2006

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As someone who really enjoys exploring Turkey but often lacks a significant other, I got used to traveling solo to the sites I really wanted to see early on. This was my first solo trip in Turkey, and it was a success (My second, to Georgia, is a slightly less successful but much more interesting story). I grabbed a dolmus to the Ankara bus station, hopped an evening bus to Goreme, and spent a long weekend exploring Cappadocia. It was gorgeous. I rode a camel. In retrospect, that was about the most touristy thing I could do aside from a hot-air balloon ride. I’ve been back to Göreme, but I still have not ridden in a hot-air balloon.

3. Nemrut Dağ, September 2008

Fresh off a summer of intensive Turkish classes, I was on a roll in the Fall of 2008 – I had intrepid travel companions and the Southeast was an open road. So off we went over the end-of-bayram holiday, three American women in search of historical sites and adventure from Van to Gaziantep. I’ll spare the details of the non-UNESCO portions of this trip, but we met up with two acquaintances living in Gaziantep and caravanned up Mount Nemrut from Şanlıurfa. It was absolutely gorgeous, and absolutely freezing. The sunset wasn’t as bad, because we arrived when the sun was fully up, so had time to explore the whole mountaintop before the sun fully set and temperatures dropped. In a decision that in hindsight was incredibly misguided, we had booked a tour with a sunset and sunrise excursion on Nemrut. We woke up at 3:30 a.m. It was so cold. I was so unhappy to be away from full flannel blanket coverage. My friend was unseemingly chipper for the miserably freezing early hour, and kept trying to get us to pose for “interesting” or “active” photos. She later told me the only time she ever knew that I Was Not Joking Around, Was Completely Serious, and Was Not Compromising About Any Of This Guff was when she suggested some pose involving jumping, at about 4:45 a.m. on the top of the mountain. I peered through the giant fleece blanket I was wearing as a hooded cloak, and said, eyes narrowed and teeth gritted, “I’m quite comfortable here where I am, thank you very much.”
There is no dawn-time jumping photo of us on Nemrut.

4. Troy, March 2009
My best friend from when I lived in West Africa made the trek out to Turkey when I was living in Ankara for a jam-packed week of adventure. She was here for seven days, and during those seven days we hit seven cities in two countries – Istanbul, Çanakkale, İzmir, Hatay, Aleppo, Gaziantep, Ankara. I’d never been to Troy before, so I suggested we stop on our way from Istanbul to Izmir. It was interesting to see, but frustrating to tour, because the signage was … lacking in explication. The replica Trojan Horse at Troy itself looked like a (really awesome) kids’ treehouse. The one in the city of Çanakkale, though, was left over from the Brad Pitt movie Troy, and looked much more impressive. I’ve heard they’re working on building a museum at the site, which could help quite a bit.
This was the first site where I encountered the very real impact of the century-ago decisions to take the yields of archaeological excavations in the Ottoman Empire out of the Empire and back to “the West.” It’s really unfortunate, because the sites have been so denuded that the average visitor won’t find much value in visiting the original sites, and the visitors to museums in Germany, Austria, New York, etc., just see random pieces in a display box, divorced from any sense of place. This isn’t to say that I agree with those who say that these artifacts should be given back wholesale, especially as there are insufficient mechanisms in the “home countries,” if you will, to protect these artifacts from damage from the elements or from looters or sophisticated thieves. It’s a complex issue.

5. Selimiye complex, June 2011
It was summer and I had a tight group of friends with a sense of adventure. We met up with a friend in Edirne, because she’d had a work trip there, and explored the mosque area before hitting the road for our ultimate destination: Bulgaria’s Black Sea coast. I’ll be honest with you, this site made less of an impression on me. Truth be told, I’m just not a fan of Mimar Sinan’s style. I appreciate the Bursa style of Ottoman monumental architecture (and the French Bursa-inspired Ottoman pattern books) much more. So, yes Selimiye is stunning and grand. But it’s just not my cup of tea. I did quite enjoy Edirne, and Trakya in general is a lot of fun. I came back to Selimiye in the summer of 2012 for the oil wrestling festival which is a UNESCO intangible cultural heritage. It was amazing.

6. Safranbolu, August 2012
I moved to DC, thinking I wouldn’t be back in Turkey for several years at least, and then found myself back in Ankara in short order. Now that I had a defined time frame and also a car, I set out to make more progress on the UNESCO list. A few coworkers and I set out for Safranbolu one sunny morning, and spent a day wandering the quaint streets, shopping, and chatting with a very nice metalsmith. We also took a mildly terrifying touristic go-kart ride through all the town’s notable places. Safranbolu is pretty much exactly as advertised – adorable restored Ottoman houses along a winding river, with souvenirs for all buyers. I visited again in February 2013 on my way back to Ankara from Amasra and bought more metal trays.

7. Pamukkale/Hierapolis, August 2012
Two days after my trip to Safranbolu, a friend and I set out for The South to visit two UNESCO sites over the bayram – Pamukkale and Xanthos/Letoon. Honestly, once I got to Pamukkale I kicked myself for not going earlier. It’s lovely, and it’s huge, and it’s just great to explore. My intrepid co-explorer and I have a knack for taking the leisurely way to any site, and this was assuredly the case in Pamukkale – we may have been on deer trails at one point, but we did see parts of the complex that very few other tourists made it to. Wonderfully, at the end of the day after we’d clambered all over the ruins in the August heat, we arrived at the travertine pools and were able to cool off. Unlike the Russian tourists at Pamukkale, I have no photos of myself in a bikini posing on a Byzantine column.

8. Xanthos/Letoon, August 2012
The day after making it to Pamukkale, I set out with my intrepid friend for Xanthos and Letoon, a double-site UNESCO listing. We found the main town, Xanthos, and had much of the place entirely to ourselves, clambering over giant stones and wondering what the original buildings and monuments must have looked like. It was gorgeous, it was eerie. Once we had finished exploring Xanthos (again, some of the principal finds are in Western museums), we set out for Letoon, a temple/religious complex. If is currently half-submerged and full of very vocal frogs, but the series of three temples are beautiful and full of surprises, such as original mosaics. Xanthos and Letoon are definitely underappreciated for the treasures they are.

9. Hattusha, May 2013

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With a car, Hattusha is an easy day trip from Ankara. Without a car, Hattusha is a bit trickier. Luckily, a friend and I climbed in to my trusty rusty Honda and set off for scenic Çorum province. In terms of the Turkish government’s investment in the development of its UNESCO sites, Hattusha is hands-down the best: the sprawling site has a well-maintained wide cobblestone road allowing you to drive from one noteworthy and informative interpretive sign and accompanying artifact to the next. We did end up in the middle of a Turkish elementary school group, but we were able to lose them and enjoy the ancient Hittite capital. Although many artifacts from Hattusha are in the Ankara Museum of Anatolian Civilizations, there’s still enough at the site to allow visitors to picture what the area must have looked like with a full ancient city within.

10. Divriği, August 2013

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This was another solo trip – try as I might, I just couldn’t convince anyone to come to Sivas with me. My Turkish colleagues were horrified at the thought. So off I drove, through Çorum, stopping overnight in Sivas city, which seemed like a fun place to explore, before setting off down a few hundred kilometers of back roads to the town of Divriği, home of the Most Beautiful Doors in the World. The doors in question are attached to a Selcuk mosque and hospital complex. While the mosque is still operational (and very popular), the hospital is not, and has not been for several hundred years. The patterns and designs carved into the three large monumental doors of the complex are colloquially said to be proof God exists. They are most certainly impressively carved and designed. Divriği is often referred to as Turkey’s most remote UNESCO site, and I would not argue – it was a long drive down a pretty desolate stretch of road to reach the town, and it was pretty clear that the gas stations around there didn’t get a lot of non-local customers.

11. Çatalhöyük, October 2013
When I was planning my Divriği trip, I initially assumed that it was my final UNESCO site on the list. A last-minute scan of the official list showed me that I was wrong – Çatalhöyük had been added in the summer of 2012. I wasn’t too put out, because I’ve seen the Çatalhöyük collection in the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations since 2006, and it is a site with a very impressive history – a Neolithic town, and a site with extensive artifacts that have survived. Recently, two coworkers and I set off for Konya to explore the area and cross the last UNESCO site off my list. It was about three hours out of Ankara, and at first glance looked fairly promising – there was a site caretaker and a visitors center, in addition to a walking path to go to all the main portions of the site. While the English-language texts in the visitors center were hilariously overblown yet informative, it may have been a better site to visit during the summer, in dig season. Çatalhöyük is an active archaeological excavation site, so while we were able to see everywhere the archaeologists had excavated, none of the artifacts were on-site – all of them were in the museum in Ankara or the museum in Konya. It was still cool to wander around the bones of a 9,000-year-old city, and they did a pretty good job of explaining what was there on-sight. We took a few pictures, and with that I had completed my Turkish UNESCO quest.

Unfortunately I won’t be able to see all the UNESCO sites at my next post. While there are only two UNESCO sites in the country of my next post, and while I’ve already visited one of those two, the other is currently not possible for me to visit. I’ll have to come up with some other goal.

About last Friday

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Mustafa Akarsu with his son, Sami

Last Friday I had my Turkish language test scheduled. I was a little stressed, because even though I chat with dozens of applicants every day in the language, that’s not the “right sort” of Turkish to do well on the test. So at lunchtime, I grabbed a salad from the cafeteria and went back to my desk for a last-minute cram session instead of joining 2 of my friends for lunch.

I was knee-deep into trying to remember the difference between “istirah,” “istikraz,” “istikbal,” “istiklal,” “istikrar,” and “istidam” when there was a deep, echoing boom. Instinctually, I knew there had been an explosion, and I automatically swiveled to the window in time to see the cloud of dust and debris sweep across my line of sight. Academically, though, my brain insisted that I must have heard cargo falling off the back of a truck. Surely, my mind reasoned, there couldn’t have been an explosion. Not here. Not in Ankara.

But there was, and at that moment so much changed. I was under my desk within seconds, and was in a safe area the rest of the afternoon. About 5 or 10 minutes in, I was madly surfing Twitter for updates and realized that this wasn’t just an explosion, it was a bomb.

I’ve found that when one is calling from a crisis situation, it’s always best to start with “I’m ok.” The second sentence is where you can get into “but I was bitten by a cobra” or “but I’m in a foreign country with no pants,” but you avert a lot of heart attacks if you open with “I’m ok.” On Friday, I woke up my parents at too-early-o-clock with what no parent wants to hear: “I’m ok, but there’s been a bomb. I don’t know much more, I’ll call again when I can.”

Obviously, my Turkish test was cancelled. It’s funny how what once was the most important, stressful part of my Friday now seems utterly inconsequential.

To take a more serious turn though, the reason I and many of my coworkers are safe today is because of the heroic actions of one of our local guard staff, Mustafa Akarsu, at 1:13 p.m. on Friday. Mustafa Bey was killed by the suicide bomber that attacked the Embassy. Directly because of his actions between 1 and 1:13 p.m., my two erstwhile lunch companions escaped serious harm.

Mustafa Akarsu (the photo above is of him with his son Sami) had over 22 years of service as a local guard at the Embassy. He was in the process of applying to immigrate to the United States on the strength of that service, so that his children could be educated in the U.S. He left behind his wife, a 19-year-old, and a 14-year-old. His dream was for his children to receive an education in the U.S.

U.S. Embassy Ankara has set up a fund to collect donations for Mustafa’s family. It is our goal to be able to fund his children’s education in the United States. There is a Turkish donation account through Garanti Bank, but we’ve also set up an Indiegogo page to coordinate international contributions. You can visit the page and contribute here: http://www.indiegogo.com/projects/mustafa-akarsu-family-fund .

I know that the Foreign Service community and the Blogosphere are vast and well-networked. If you can, I ask that you please go to the Indiegogo page and donate, and pass the word along. Too often the work of locally employed staff is overshadowed or goes unremarked-upon. Mustafa went above and beyond his job to prevent the suicide bomber from gaining access to the Embassy, and in doing so prevented a much larger loss of life.

I went to the burial service on Saturday with several coworkers. There are two things about the bombing that I will never forget: a phone call from a friend during the attack, and the face of Mustafa’s son, Sami, at his father’s grave. Saturday was a day full of a lot of tears.

This week life has both slowly gone back to normal and changed in ways both expected and unexpected. We may have been targeted by a suicide bomber, but people still want to get visas. I imagine over time I’ll stop jumping every time a door slams, or carrying my cell phone around the office with me, but for now that’s my status quo.

I’m just so glad it wasn’t so much worse, and I’m so grateful to Mustafa Akarsu for his actions on that day.

Let’s call it a Christmas letter

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While I haven’t updated this blog in a while, it certainly hasn’t been because I had nothing to write about. I hit the ground running when I got back to Ankara last spring and it feels at times as though I haven’t stopped since. So, since it’s year-end and I feel terribly guilty for not updating this earlier, let’s hit the highlights:

March was the month of moving, as I packed up my temporary DC life and boarded a plane back to Turkey, where I promptly jumped on to another plane to Istanbul for the wedding of two of my closest friends. Through some sort of kismet, I was able to see a significant swathe of my Istanbulfolks within my first 5 days back in-country.

I returned to Ankara in time for April and the start of my new job. In short, it is awesome. The position I ended up in seems like it was made for me, it’s a great blend of things that use my current skills and abilities and things that challenge me to develop in ways I’ve been wanting to develop for some time. It’s a lot of work, but it’s interesting, rewarding work. Of course, work environment makes a lot of difference in one’s experience, and luckily my coworkers are wonderful – supportive, funny, heartwarming people.

May brought, as you might have noticed from past posts, Eurovision! I traveled to Baku with 2 friends for several days of Europop and Azerbaijan, an unexpectedly good combination. We saw the jury final live and then watched the grand finale with a group of expats. It was cheesy, loud, colorful, and fabulous. I’d started to make plans to go to Eurovision 2013, in Sweden, but with the recent news that Turkey won’t be competing this year, that might go on hold (after initial news that Tarkan would be the Turkish entry! Those are pretty severe highs and lows).

The summer kind of jumbled into a chaotic, busy spree of new friends arriving, trips to Istanbul, house parties, dance parties, and exploring Ankara. One of the highlights was finally getting to see something that’s long been on my Turkey bucket list – the oil wrestling tournament in Edirne. Luckily, my Ankara friends and coworkers by and large were enthusiastic when I asked around whether anyone was interested in watching large groups of Turkish men wearing leather pants get covered in olive oil and then wrestle each other in a grassy field. This is how I ended up driving from Istanbul to Edirne in 1 of 2 brand-new rental Mercedes Benzes for a day of oil wrestling, followed by a leisurely day of driving along the Marmara shore and visiting a winery with six of my new Ankara friends. It was absolutely worth it – the wrestling was really interesting, we all got commemorative T-shirts, and then as a bonus we got to stroll around Edirne and visit a really charming winery (Chateau Nuzun, if anyone’s looking for a day trip from Istanbul).
Later in the summer, I had a joint birthday dance party with a friend in June, and then in July I ended up in Istanbul to see the opera Murat IV, which was shown at Topkapi Palace. The opera also is set at Topkapi. It was incredible to see operatic janissaries exiting the Topkapi gates and murder schemes played out on the palace doorstep. The Topkapi palace cats were slightly less enthused, though, and they strolled all over the stage and the performance throughout, which I think added a certain je ne sais quoi to the opera.

In August, several of my coworkers and I hopped into my car and set out for beautiful, exotic … Corum. For those of you not intimately familiar with inner Anatolia, Corum is roughly the Turkish equivalent of Bismarck, North Dakota – middle of nowhere, and it’s not even Fargo. We headed there because one coworker had read an article in a THY in-flight magazine about a gastronomy hike in the Corum area, with one particular 11-kilometer stretch which sounded delicious, as though you could hike along the trail and end up at a variety of charming local cafes and restaurants, all offering local specialties.
This is decidedly not what we found in Corum. We rolled up to the town where the gastronomy hike was supposed to start, Iskilip, and started asking around for the start of the trail. No one knew what we were talking about. We asked for any hiking or walking paths, or hiking areas. No dice. We had just driven over 3 hours to get to Corum, and my car’s air conditioning was broken, so we were not about to give up so easily. Over ice cream we regrouped and did some emergency Googling of the Iskilip area. We ended up exploring Iskilip’s castle, walking around town, trying the town’s famous sugared chickpeas, and ended up for lunch at a great restaurant where we tried Iskilip dolmasi and some sort of kebap that tasted like tacos. We never did find the gastronomy hike. On the plus side, we all now have a crazy amount of street cred in Turkey, and I can shock and amaze my Corumlu taxi drivers when tell them, “Oh, Corum? I visited there!”

This summer neatly came to a close with the bayram, and I ended up doing about a million different things over the holiday (mainly because it was seker bayram, zafer bayrami, and Labor Day all within about 2 weeks). I ended up spending about 16 hours in Istanbul, visiting friends, before jetting off to Vienna, which was a really good vacation. I stayed at a place I found on AirBnB, downloaded a Vienna travel guide to my nook, and spent several days just walking across the city, gazing at architecture and drinking coffee and white wine spritzers. I speak approximately 10 words of German, but luckily Austria has a large Turkish migrant population, so I was able to communicate with very few problems. This is probably one of the few places outside of Turkey where Turkish is useful. When I got back from Vienna, I turned around, jumped in my car with a few friends (AC was fixed by now, luckily) and headed to Safranbolu, a town about 2 hours outside of Ankara that also happens to be one of Turkey’s UNESCO world heritage sites. One of my goals for this stay in Turkey is to finally see all of Turkey’s UNESCO sites, so we explored the charming restored Ottoman town of Safranbolu on a day trip before returning to Ankara, where I repacked my bags before setting off with a friend for two more UNESCO sites – Pamukkale/Hierapolis and Xanthos-Letoon. Pamukkale was beautiful, and the ruins were incredible. I lucked out in that my travel companion was also the sort of off-the-beaten-path, make-it-up-as-you-go-along traveler that I am; we started out our exploration of Pamukkale by taking a tiny dirt path that we thought was the only way to get to the theater, only to arrive at the theater, turn the corner, and see a giant paved path coming from the other side. Whoops. The odd thing about Pamukkale is that it’s a gorgeous ruins site and also a thermal spring site, so there were surprising numbers of European tourists wandering around the agora and other ancient temple sites in minimal clothing (Speedos. What the heck people? Why are you posing on a column in a speedo??). The next day we sped off to Xanthos and Letoon – they’re two separate sites but together they are a UNESCO site. They’re surprisingly not very crowded, and it’s clear that the Ministry of Culture has put more resources into Pamukkale, but they were both stunning. Xanthos was the Lycian capital way back in the day, and both were full of hidden surprises and just very charming. At Xanthos, we again ended up off the beaten path and clambering over an overwhelming amount of ruins. It was gorgeous. On the way back to Ankara, we stopped at a town literally named “Opium Black Castle” for a delicious Ottoman lunch. Must have been the opium (n.b. there was no opium).

September brought with it another trip to Istanbul for a boat party with friends and a second trip to Istanbul for work, where I showed my Iraqi colleague where the best falafel in the city can be found. Other than that, it was a fairly quiet month, which was a good thing because then came October.

October ended up being much busier than expected. I took a trip down to Amman for work, and then at the end of the month my Dad came for a weeklong visit. We saw a whirlwind of Turkey – started in Istanbul, ended up in Selcuk, drove back over to Ankara, and flew back to Istanbul, all in a week. It was great to be able to show my dad just what I find compelling about this country (and to show off my Ankara life – this apartment is the biggest I think I’ve ever lived in). While Dad was in town, we were able to meet up with a friend of mine and his family, who also happened to be in town at the same time.

November in the Foreign Service is the month of the Marine Corps Ball, and I was so in the November spirit I went to two different balls. First I road-tripped to Istanbul with a few friends for the Istanbul Marine ball. We got our hair and makeup done at the hotel, danced the night away, and got up early the next morning to walk across the Bosporus Bridge as part of the Istanbul Intercontinental Marathon (No, we did not marathon. We did the “people’s walk.”). It was a party on the bridge, metaphorically and also literally. For part of the way, we walked next to a Korean-Turkish friendship group that was singing Gangnam Style a capella. We finished up the day by meeting up with a friend of mine from Istanbul and another friend of mine from Beijing for a late lunch at Ciya for some amazing Gaziantepli food. The next weekend I again donned my sparkly red dress and went to the Ankara Marine ball for round two of dancing and merriment. Ankara’s ball had 3 times as many people, and at this ball I actually knew a lot of the other attendees. It was also a lot of fun. The next weekend was Thanksgiving, and also featured a weeklong visit from an old friend currently living in Istanbul. I went to two different Thanksgiving dinners on Thanksgiving itself and then co-hosted a Friendsgiving on the weekend. It was a good test of my hostessing skills as well as a good way to tell which kitchen implements I needed to pick up (pastry blender and meat thermometer, mainly). We had way too much food and someone broke my balcony door, so I think that counts as a successful dinner party.
That nearly brings me up to the present. December so far has been as busy as always – seasonal parties all month, holiday baking, a lot of work as well. Last weekend I again hopped in my car with a group of friends and drove down to Konya for the Mevlana festival – after nearly 5 years here in Turkey, I finally saw the whirling dervishes and Rumi’s tomb. It was a cold day, but Rumi’s tomb was beautiful, if crowded, and the dervishes were incredible. The show started with a musical group, then a talk by a man from the Ministry of Culture and Tourism about Rumi’s teachings in today’s world, and then finally the dervishes. There were about 2 dozen dervishes, and they were ethereal. I’d never been to Konya before, but it was quite a nice city.

That brings me, finally, pretty much to today, where I’m just about to start making a green bean hotdish to take over to Christmas dinner. It’s been a long year and an overall really good year for me, and I’m hoping that 2013 is even better, for all my readers as well! Merry Christmas!

A rough week

In hindsight, I wish I’d maintained some of my blogging over the summer so that my foray back into the blogosphere could have been on the subject of something a bit more positive than the events of last week. But hindsight is 20-20, while my vision is closer to 20-400. So instead of a post on my trip to Eurovision, or my many exploits and travels this summer, I’m jumping back in with a much less lighthearted topic.

If you’ve been following the news, or if you are part of the Foreign Service community, then you know by now that last Tuesday four State Department employees, including Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens, were killed in an attack on the U.S. compound in Ben Ghazi, Libya. To say this came as a shock would be one of the more significant understatements one could make. It’s often said that the Foreign Service is a tight-knit family, and although I recognized this before, it was brought home particularly sharply last week. I never met Ambassador Stevens, Sean Smith, Glen Doherty, or Tyrone Woods. However, one of my closest friends is stationed in Tripoli, and I cannot imagine the mix of thoughts and emotions she has been experiencing since Tuesday night.

Many other Foreign Service bloggers have already said most of my sentiments more eloquently or poignantly than I could hope to express them. But to take a step back, September 12, 2011 was my first day in the Foreign Service. In the interim year my life has changed both much more and much less than I could have imagined – I’m still living in the same country I called home 13 months ago, but in circumstances that are markedly different. So far, I love what I’m doing here, and I love the opportunities to interact with a variety of people and explore more of a country I find fascinating. But the deaths on September 11, 2012, on the last day of my first year with State, bring home exactly how dangerous or difficult this career can be. Over the rest of the week, as protests spread to other countries in the region, the round of “Are you ok?” emails from family and friends made me realize that even though I feel perfectly safe here, that may not always be the case at future posts.

We did have a protest here in Ankara today. Luckily, according to local news reports, it was very small and nonviolent. After burning an American flag, the protestors dispersed. Most of the media (and protestors!) in Turkey have been much more focused on a mine attack on Turkish soldiers in the Southeast, and on other clashes with the PKK that left several dozen dead, not on a badly edited YouTube film clip that’s not even in a language they speak. Media coverage of the protests in Tunisia, Sudan, Egypt, and of course Libya, among other countries, shows a very different situation. It’s sometimes easy to gloss over the difficulties and dangers of this job, especially with the common perception back home of a diplomat’s job being mostly cocktail parties and evening gowns. But not this week.

It’s the most wonderful time of the year

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“But B,” I can hear you saying. “It’ s May. Christmas is seven months away. I know the season starts earlier every year, but this is ridiculous.”
This is true. But I’m not talking about Christmas. This week is even better: it’s Eurovision.

In 1956, the European Broadcasting Union held an intra-Europe song contest, broadcast live on television from Lugano, Switzerland. Seven countries entered, Switzerland won. Since then the Eurovision Song Contest has been an annual event, sometimes serious sometimes wacky, occasionally regrettable but always fun. In the U.S., it seems to be most known as the launching ground for ABBA, who won the contest in 1974 with “Waterloo.” The Seventies were a bit of a heyday for Eurovision, preceding what I would call a bit of a decline in the 1990s. In the past decade, I think it’s bounced back pretty well. It’s kind of like Doctor Who that way.

I first was introduced to Eurovision via a BBC article on the 2008 contest. Finding out about Eurovision is a bit of a dangerous rabbit hole – hours later I poked my head up from the dozen YouTube videos of Eurovision entrants past on my computer and realized I had found something amazing.

That year, in 2008, Dima Bilan won for Russia with his song “Believe.” You have to see the performance: In addition to Bilan, the live show featured Hungarian composer and violinist Edvin Marton and Olympic figure skater Evgeni Plushenko* skating on a sheet of artificial ice. Eurovision is that kind of a big deal:

That 2008 contest also featured perhaps the most glorious and baffling entries ever: “Pokusaj” by Elvir Lakovic. There are no words to do justice in describing the running, the supertall singer in an ‘80s-era headband, the quartet of knitting brides, and the laundry. An earlier version of the song included a live chicken, just hanging out on stage. Seriously, if you watch nothing else in this post, watch this video:

Turkey’s entry was Mor ve Otesi, a pretty popular band here:

In 2009, I was in Turkey during Eurovision Week. Even better, I was at a resort in Antalya with a bunch of other twentysomething Americans, most of whom had never heard of Eurovision before. We held a viewing party with mojitos and snarky commentary (n.b. if your Eurovision viewing does not include significant amounts of snark, I’m pretty sure you’re doing it wrong) and watched the adorable elfin Norwegian entry, Alexander Rybak, win with “Fairytale.” This entry is, at least for me, the earwormiest Eurovision winner:

Also noteworthy in 2009 was Greece’s entry, performed on what appeared to be a giant stapler emblazoned with the Greek flag:

And Turkey’s sparked controversy domestically due to the content of the lyrics and the fact that the singer, Hadise, is actually a Belgian-Turk:

2010’s Eurovision was won by Germany, with Lena’s “Satellite,” which is about the most mainstream-pop song I’ve heard win Eurovision in recent history. It’s fun and bubbly:

Then last year, Azerbaijan took the trophy with “Running Scared,” sung by El and Nikki. Fun fact: Nikki’s real name is Nigar, but the country committee decided to change it for the contest out of concerns that people would make detrimental associations.

In celebration of Azerbaijan’s win and the fact that the country is hosting this year, 2 Peace Corps volunteers in Azerbaijan made a spoof of “New York State of Mind,” titled “Baku State of Mind,” which is a pretty good introduction to Baku life (says the person who’s never been there…):

I originally planned to go into this year’s entries in this post, but 1. I already have 10 videos embedded in this post and 2. Baku State of Mind is a good note to end on, actually. That just means if you’re lucky/I’m motivated, all 2 of you regular readers will have three posts in about a week. That’s how awesome Eurovision is. Three-posts-a-week awesome.

Anyway, the semifinals start tomorrow, and I know you all must be at least half as excited as I am. After all, Eurovision only comes once a year.

*Incidentally, if you’ve never seen Plushenko’s routine to “Sex Bomb,” you are missing out and I will remedy that for you immediately:

On blogging, baking, and böyle şeyler

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I’d be playing coy if I pretended I didn’t know why there was a small but noticeable spike in traffic to my blog from my employer’s career site today. It can be difficult to engage with social media for people affiliated with my employer, and I’m sure those of my readers who have followed my writing on earlier blogs have noticed a difference in what I choose to write about – not even at the level of subject matter, but at the level of writing opinions versus analysis versus whimsy. That’s about all I’m going to say at this time, but I really enjoy writing, I have a lot of fun blogging, and I hope to be able to continue doing so for some time to come.

But that’s not what I intended to write about today. I’ve been sitting on a collection of short thoughts for awhile that I think I’ll just throw together into a smorgasbord of a post:

– Last weekend I stopped by the local manav (greengrocer) to stock up on tomatoes and such for the week. Apparently, it’s the beginning of sour cherry season! After stocking up on a kilo of cherries (and a kilo of strawberries, because why not?), I came home and opened my Joy of Cooking to figure out what to do with a kilo of cherries.
– Side note: I had been mentally berating myself for packing my cherry pitter in my air baggage. “Why on earth did you pack your cherry pitter?” I asked myself. “You’ve needed your collapsible measuring cups and your pastry cutter millions more times than you’ve ever used your cherry pitter [NB: I use a lot of hyperbole in internal conversations].” One kilo of hand-pitted cherries later, I now am actually quite glad the cherry pitter made it in my air baggage.
– Back to Joy of Cooking: Baking abroad can be simultaneously liberating and disheartening. I went through recipes after recipe in my cookbooks and on allrecipes.com that I couldn’t make because I lacked some random yet vital ingredient: shredded coconut. Oatmeal. Corn starch. Corn syrup (I was actually ok with not having corn syrup around). Cherry liqueur. Brandy (A surprising amount of Joy of Cooking recipes call for brandy).
– The other half of my recipe angst was the multitude of recipes, especially online, that included premade or prepackaged ingredients. “Add cherry jelly.” “Use dried cherry bits.” “Start with a packet of cake mix” – local cake mix in Turkey is nothing like cake mix in the U.S. And my mother would have conniptions if I started baking with box mixes.
– The end result was that I got creative and added or substituted cherries in three different recipes this weekend: muffins, cookies and what was originally a sweet, chocolatey bread recipe but ended up pretty darn brownie-like after I added cherries and walnuts. Thank goodness there was a bake sale at work so I didn’t have a freezerful of sugary goodness. Cooking and baking abroad is great for experimentation, but that’s usually out of necessity.
Unrelatedly:
– I am pretty much the best daughter ever because for Mother’s Day, I woke up my mom with a pocket dial. At 5:56 a.m. her time. This is the danger of time zone differences and smartphones.
– Somebody sent me an invite to Salamworld, the new (new-ish? There was an article about it in the Istanbul papers last summer) Muslim-compliant Facebook. Somebody doesn’t know me all that well.
– After I got all ready to go attend a lecture on the historic banking districts in Istanbul and Ankara, I realized that the lecture’s start time wasn’t listed in any of the fliers or emails advertising it. It also wasn’t listed online. So instead I watched BBC shows at home in my yoga pants, because sometimes I am a stereotype.
– Somehow all of my winter sweaters made it into my air baggage but my hand weights and all my books aside from my Turkish textbooks are on the slow boat over. Packing fail. Also on the list of things that should make it into the air baggage next time: cutting boards and knives, more shoes, Tupperware, slippers, some DVDs, a selection of things to put on the wall. And I probably didn’t need all of my scarves and shawls immediately upon arrival. With age comes experience, yani.
– I’ve also been enjoying access to relatively fast and reliable mail from the U.S. and indulging in some nostalgia and optimistic thinking: a package containing a bicycle helmet and DVDs of Troop Beverly Hills and Shag arrived last week. Amazon is the best!
– And finally, I’m sure you’re all as excited as I am about next week! That’s right, it’s the most wonderful time of the year: The Eurovision Song Contest! I’ll end this post with Turkey’s entry this year, Can Bonomo’s Love Me Back:

Back in the Başkent

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Hello from Ankara!

Since my arrival a month ago it’s felt slightly like I’ve been running-running-running straight through. Luckily today’s a holiday so I have a bit of a chance to catch up on things like blogging.

Also my housecleaner is here for the first day and it’s a little awkward if I’m sitting around doing nothing.

As Thomas Wolfe famously said, you can’t go home again. Ankara isn’t really “home” for me, but my life here now has so far been quite different from my life here as a student or as a researcher. Part of it is of course the day job – no haphazard schedule or spur-of-the-moment weeklong trips now. And another part of it is the accoutrements of the job – my pantry is stocked with Commissary loot, like Cream of Wheat, chocolate chips and taco fixings, that I certainly didn’t have access to before. My location has changed, too: instead of my garden flat directly downtown, walking distance from the Embassy and from Tunali and Kizilay, my current housing is behind the central district. I’d say in a U.S. city I’d be on the edge of town, but not quite in the suburbs. I’ve been taking a lot of cabs. The apartment itself is much nicer than my garden flat though, and unlike my previous flat it is not decorated in heavy, garish faux-gilt. Also unlike my last Ankara flat, I have not found a machete in my china cabinet in this one.
As a Fulbrighter here before, I occupied a strange space in the expat social fabric of the city – I wasn’t really a student, nor was I on official government orders. I wasn’t a teacher or working with one of the NGOs. I think partly because of that I ended up with a really varied group of people that I spent time with. Many of those people have moved on since 2009, but a few are still around luckily. In my current position, it seems pretty easy to end up with a very insular social circle. There are a decent amount of Embassy community events, which is very welcoming and especially great if you’ve just moved here and are unfamiliar with the city/country/culture, but it also makes it easier to not venture far beyond the community. I’ve really enjoyed getting to know the people I’ve met so far, but I’ll also enjoy branching out and exploring a bit what else Ankara has to offer (step 1 is renewing my ARIT membership I think; step 2 may be yoga).
So the past month in Ankara has been different. Not great or bad, just different.

I’d say it’s been a generally good month overall though – I’m really enjoying my job so far, my coworkers are great, my Turkish skills alternately impress and annoy me, and I’m loving being back in Ankara and Turkey in general.