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Almost perfect

I’ve been Stateside for a few weeks, including an initial first week in MN, which was a good idea in terms of getting over jetlag and reacclimating to la vida Americana. Overall, the US is much the same as I remember. However, I keep on running into things that throw me for a loop, and they’re not always the most logical or relevant things. For example:

When did Pomegranate-Blueberry become the new “it” flavor/scent? Seriously, when I left I think we were on cranberry, or maybe cranberry-acai. Pomegranate-blueberry was not an option for salad dressing, yogurt, candles, granola or body wash. Not that I’m complaining toooooo much, because I do love me some pomegranates, and I’ve been rediscovering the joys of blueberries since my return.

Tipping. How does it work? Tipping is something I’m always a little paranoid about when coming Stateside, because I know that it’s done for many, many services, and I never remember which services or how much is appropriate. I think, judging from reactions, that I’ve been flagrantly overtipping. Not just at restaurants, either: at the hairstylists, for the baggage guy at the airport, and for my taxi to my flat. I guess overtipping is a lot better than flagrantly undertipping though.

Store discount cards actually make a difference in the final price of one’s purchase, significantly, and are thus used more often than not. Well that’s new. The few stores in Turkey that had cards didn’t really make them worth one’s while, but I knocked 1/6 of the purchase price off my Safeway run when I picked up a Rewards Card. One sixth!

Oh boyyyyy are credit/debit cards susceptible to theft or misuse in the US. One thing I loved about my debit card in Turkey was its Chip & Pin. It could not be used without the pin number. Of course this leaves the card vulnerable to skimming still, but if the card is lost or stolen, it’s much harder for someone to fraudulently use the card. Here, if someone grabbed my card, I’d have to call Card Services immediately and embark on a long and tiring journey of cutting off that card and getting another one while ensuring that I wasn’t charged for any fraudulent purchases. I wish the States used Chip & Pin.

I am no longer relatively a giant. Most of my female friends in Turkey were, as they say, hella short. Five feet? That’s kind of average. 5’4″ is the average American woman’s height, and coincidentally it’s my height as well. I am appreciating not being the outlier here. Minnesota was even better — with all the Scandinavian ancestry, I’m short.

Accents! They’re everywhere! American English-speakers abroad tend to have a basic, broad American accent — think newscaster English — with a little twinge of wherever they’re from — a muted Southern drawl, my lengthened Minnesotan “o”s, the flat vowels of the Bronx. It’s easy to forget that in the US itself, there are fantastic varieties of American English. I have to listen twice sometimes. My ears will get used to it, slowly but surely, but until they do I find it kind of enchanting.

Less enchanting: My Turkish is messing up my English pronunciation. I’m mangling words left, right and center. Uff da.

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The Taksim Starbucks bathroom code is 1237*

…and other things I learned in Turkey.

As you may have heard elsewhere, I’ve moved from Istanbul to DC — a weeklong move via Minnesota that now, at least for me myself, is thankfully over. My stuff is a different matter; hopefully the boxes will start showing up soon or I’ll basically be wearing business suits for everything. It’d be impossible to sum up nearly four years in Turkey in one pithy blog post, but I thought I’d devote some time to sharing a few of the things I’ve learned through painful experience or lucky happenstance while living in Ankara and the ‘Bul.

First, of course, is the titular Starbucks code. Starbucks branches in major Istanbul locations started password-protecting their bathrooms sometime in the past year, and printing the code on their receipts. If you’d rather not quickly down a cappuccino before running off to the Ladies’, though, you can use 1237* at the Taksim branch, and the year of Fenerbahce’s founding, which I believe is 1908 (it may be 1907), at the Kadikoy waterfront branch.

If you’re flying in to Ataturk airport and have a residence permit, you can use either the Turkish citizens or the Other citizens passport line. If you happen to land at the same time as a package tour charter flight, this can be phenomenally helpful. I’d take my advice with a grain of salt though, because while I’ve done this with no problem whatsoever, a friend recently reported getting to the front of the Turkish line only to be told she had to go to the back of the Other line and start her wait allllll the way over again. No good.

Avocados can be found fresh, ready-to-eat, and relatively cheap at the Kazanci Manav year-round except for June and July. If you’re me, the manav will run out into the street in August to let you know the avocados have returned.

Vanilla extract can now be found in some larger grocery stores in Istanbul, but if that’s too easy for you, you can buy vanilla pods on Birthday Street, next to the Spice Bazaar, and make your own with a bottle of vodka. Best start that project a few weeks before you’re planning on making a cake though.

Eminonu’s costume shop district is just west and to the left of its toy shop district, which in turn is just west of Birthday Street. If you’re looking for pirate-type swords, only one toy shop has decent options, but Star Wars-like swords abound. Buy one for all your friends!

Most bureaucratic tasks take three tries to get done. This applies to getting Internet, getting a phone line to be able to then get said Internet, renewing a residence permit (although to be fair, last time it only took me two trips! Wooooooo!), or getting small repairs around one’s flat completed. Burasi Turkiye, yaaaaa?

If you get bitten by a potentially rabid animal in Istanbul, you’ll need to get a rabies shot, which is administered at one hospital in the city, in Çapa. This is unpleasant. Try not to get bitten by a potentially rabid animal.

For all that it has 70 million people, Turkey’s totally a village. Expect to run into people you know in the oddest places, like on a ruined fortress in Van. Or in Izmir. Or basically every time you walk down Istiklal. Keeping with the village theme, everyone in your neighborhood knows your business. When I moved out of Cihangir, a man I swear I have never seen before in my life called out my name, asked if I needed help with my suitcases, and asked after a friend of mine who had moved from the neighborhood six months earlier. I visited another neighborhood I’d lived in a year after moving out, and the restaurateur across the street came out to ask what I was up to and when I’d move back.

Americalife has been on my mind a bit more than Turkeylife the past few days, so I’ll close now so I can start my next post, Things About America That Keep Weirding Me Out. I’ll work on that title.

Hot times, summer in the city

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Sudden rainstorms aside, this summer has been hot-hot-hot in Istanbul (and apparently in many other places around the world, insert global warming barb). Consequently, I haven’t felt much like cooking/eating hot food, which has the potential to seriously cramp my culinary style. Not to worry though, as I’ve been able to assemble a delicious set of dishes for when it’s too hot to think.

I find when it’s too darn hot out that it’s easiest to just think ahead, prepare a bunch of meze, and have them plus beverages at hand in the fridge. First up: my mainstay, hummus.

Hummus
Drain most of the liquid from a can of chickpeas. Put chickpeas in blender. Add tahini, lemon juice, olive oil (optional: garlic, sumac, roasted red pepper cut into littler bits). Blend. Add more liquid ingredients when it comes out chunky/creates giant air pockets around the blade. Blend again, til smooth. Scoop the hummus into a sealable container and refrigerate — hummus tastes better after it’s been allowed to sit and combine for a few hours. Sprinkle with sumac when serving if you’re like me and pro-sumac.

Piyaz
Nothing hits the spot for lunch in my unairconditioned apartment like a cold bean salad. I take a pretty laissez-faire approach to my piyaz, adding whatever I have on hand to the mix.
Drain a can of white beans (or barbunya, or any bean really. Also you could use dry beans, but then you’ll have to heat them, and that’s something I’m trying to avoid when I make this). Put the beans in a bowl. Add a slivered onion (any onion, but red onions are prettier) and a diced red pepper or two. Add sumac. Drizzle red wine vinegar (or…grape vinegar, when in Turkey) and a little olive oil over everything, and toss the ingredients together. Throw in a carrot, cut up, if you’ve got one. Maybe even a potato, go crazy. Add a hard-boiled egg, cut up, and tomatoes and enjoy. Other things you could add: tahini, parsley, spinach, lemon juice, hot red pepper, cayenne pepper.

Eksili Patlican
This is my it’s-hot-out-but-for-some-reason-I-need-to come-up-with-something-impressive dish. Make it ahead of time, let it sit in the fridge overnight/for a few hours. I use the recipe published by the fabulous folks over at Turkey’s for Life, and highly recommend it.
I make it really spicy — spicy food and peppermint both help your body feel cooler midsummer, although I wouldn’t recommend trying them together in the same dish.

For beverages, I usually go with carbonated water with lemon juice or my summer standby, mojitos. When I’m feeling more ambitious, though, I go for a drink I learned to make in West Africa: bissap.

Bissap is a cold hibiscus drink that’s actually quite easy to make fresh and tastes delicious either by itself, concentrated with carbonated water, or with rum (or with rum and carbonated water!). In Istanbul, I buy my dried hibiscus flowers in the Spice Bazaar district, from some of the spice guys on Birthday Street, a little ways in from Kurukahveci Mehmet Efendi.
Add hibiscus to a medium-large pot. I do this all by eyeballing amounts, but I’d say you should go for about the amount of hibiscus it’d take to fill a 1-liter bottle. Add water.
If you’re making concentrate, or like very strong fruit/floral beverages, add 2 liters or so of water. If you’re making the juice itself, add 39-4 liters of water. If making juice, add sugar to taste, up to 2 cups (I think this makes it a little Kool-Ade-y, but you should add some sweetener if you’re not a fan of very sour drinks) — if you’re going for concentrate, you can make it without sugar and add sweetener while mixing your drinks later (or mix it with Sprite! Or somesuch).
Put the pot on the stove, bring the bissap to a slow boil, and let it simmer for somewhere between 15 and 30 minutes. Turn off the heat and let the mixture cool a bit. Strain the flower bits out of the bissap and refrigerate the bissap. Serve with fresh mint leaves in a glass.

I also have been making good use of my Ikea popsicle molds this summer. The New York Times had a recent article on summer popsicle ideas, and I’m trying their avocado recipe right now, but I also have enjoyed bissap popsicles and instant chocolate pudding popsicles.

Stay cool!

Playing catch-up

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I’ve been following two stories here this week, although by now they’ve both been covered excellently by others across the blogosphere. First, of course, is the Turkish elections this Sunday, which Aengus Collins, Yigal Schleifer, Frederike Geerdink, Jenny White and Alex Christie-Miller have already covered in more depth than I can hope to. That’s what happens when you stop working in the Turkish media I suppose. The quick recap: AKP won, as expected. MHP stayed in Parliament, as pretty much expected.
Interesting notes:

  • AKP became the first ruling party to increase its share of votes for three consecutive elections
  • Even though AKP increased its portion of the popular vote, it lost seats in Parliament
  • Turkey elected 78 women to Parliament, up from 50 previously. This is equivalent to 15% of deputies
  • Four handicapped candidates were elected
  • Several newly elected deputies are in prison or are facing charges as part of the Ergenekon/Balyoz cases.

The big issues, post-election:

  • The new constitution, of course, as well as whatever politicking will have to be done to get it passed in Parliament. I don’t expect mountains of cooperation here.
  • The presidency. With these elections done, attention will now shift to the presidential elections and whether Erdoğan will run. The Turkish papers this week have been speculating that Erdo wants to beef up the powers of the president before taking that office. Of course, the government will have to settle the question of exactly how long Abdullah Gül’s current term is and whether he is eligible to run for a second stint. This should be fun!

The other issue in the regional news here has been, of course, Syria. More specifically, at least this week, it’s been the revelation that the person behind the A Gay Girl in Damascus blog (appears to have been locked or taken offline), widely believed to have been taken into custody a week prior, was actually A Straight American Guy on Vacation in Istanbul. Again, this has been covered pretty darn well elsewhere. I am concerned with the issue of false online personas, not just being anonymous or pseudonymous representing one’s self as a complete, ostensibly living, other person. There’s a paragraph in Liz Henry’s follow-up post that I think gets to one of the cruxes of my issues with the Gay Girl in Damascus hoax:
“Many people have good reason to conceal their identity and to develop relationships online under a screen name. They might like to express an aspect of their personality that would not mix well with their
professional life. They might have gender identity issues they are working through. They might be in a family situation that makes it unsafe for them to come out as gay. They might write fiction using characters whose stories are under copyright. None of those, however, are excuses for deception and manipulative behavior.”
Narrative aside, by representing himself as a person who had been kidnapped in Syria by (ostensibly) government figures MacMaster caused large amounts of resources to be spent by multiple parties, both
government and nongovernment, in attempts to identify and locate “her” and ultimately to get “her” out of custody.

I also think entering into a relationship with a woman while masquerading as a woman, and continuing that relationship for six months, is absolutely cruel.
The initial apology posted to the blog rang exceedingly hollow; as Alex Christie-Miller noted after interviewing MacMaster, it seems as though MacMaster truly doesn’t get what consequences his actions have had. And of course there’s the irony of his skewering “liberal Orientalism” while behaving precisely as a liberal Orientalist.
In the past few days there have been some excellent pieces by members of the Middle East GLBT community about what their experiences in the region actually are, and they are fascinating as well as entirely unlike the narrative presented in the Gay Girl in Damascus blog. Hopefully they both get more international attention for their perspective and are able to stay out of the sights of the Syrian government.

Ankara’s crazy plan

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Turkophiles have no doubt heard of Prime Minister Erdoğan’s “çilgin projesi” or “crazy plan” to build a canal from the Black Sea to the Marmara Sea in Istanbul, announced several weeks ago to great fanfare and head-scratching. A bit less conspicuous was this week’s announcement of a “crazy plan” for Ankara as well. No, they’re not stretching a canal from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean by way of the capital city.  The prime minister’s plan, as unveiled Wednesday, is to make Ankara a “world capital” with a series of projects, including new defense facilities, a new giant courthouse (perhaps they’ll make it the largest in Asia, to match Istanbul’s “largest courthouse in Europe”?), a new football stadium (they already have a pretty darn new one, built in Sincan in 2008. Virtually no one goes there, and the city’s two Super League football teams play at the old 19 Mayis stadium, because Sincan is fantastically inconvenient) and new top-of-the-line hospitals. Erdo also announced a plan to create a second city in Ankara, similar to the two new cities he announced would be created in Istanbul.

Today’s Zaman has even more of the laundry list of plans Erdo cited for the “improvement” of Ankara. It all seems a bit odd to me, although I suppose if everything succeeds Ankara’s airport will finally start seeing the amount of usage it was designed for. If ever there was an underused airport, Esenboğa’s it.

I understand the motivation behind the announcement is probably in large part the upcoming elections, and I’d be surprised if the entire project comes to fruition, but I do wish the focus was more on improving the city that already exists. What about opening the section of the subway system that’s been nearly completed since before I first arrived in Ankara five years ago? A subway rail link between ODTU and Kizilay would have a direct, immediate positive impact for a lot of residents. Extend the line to Bilkent and the impact would be even larger. Then maybe ODTU could start operating its intracampus monorail, already built but as of my last time on campus nonoperational because it was built to ferry students to the subway entrance, which has been fenced off since at least early 2006.

Or instead of building “the biggest zoo in the Middle East,” how about turning Ankara’s zoo into the best zoo in the Middle East? Just two-and-a-half months ago a tiger escaped its enclosure at the Ankara Zoo and killed a lion. Two years ago, a boa constrictor escaped its cage. Of course, one can compare that with the recent escapades of a cobra and a peacock at the Bronx Zoo, but perhaps Ankara should strive to a higher standard of exotic animal husbandry. Sure, people may flock to a big zoo. But people will really flock, in droves, to a zoo in Turkey that takes proper care of its animals, makes an effort to show animals in their proper habitat rather than in concrete cages and pairs the animals on display with trained naturalists and well-done interpretive exhibits. Maybe a section called “Wild Anatolia,” featuring animals native to various parts of Anatolia and explaining conservation efforts?

Nope, instead Ankara’s slated to go big. I do love the city, and I’m a fan of investment in its infrastructure, but it feels like this particular crazy project was brainstormed mostly as a campaign trail scene, rather than as a considered plan for a healthy, successful city. Çilgindir.

Oh shiny

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I’ve got a whole new blog to fill up, and will inshallah get a start on things straight away. Until then, patience please while I make all those fun decisions like whether to ‘port in posts from previous projects and whether this theme’s really a winner.