30 January, 2010

Not so easy

One of the pre-departure handouts UMaine's Office of International Programs gave out describes in detail eight phases of the intercultural adjustment cycle students who go abroad experience. First comes application anxiety, followed by arrival fascination and initial culture shock. The fourth stage is mental isolation, and we need go no farther for now.

At first it seemed so easy. I would recommend to anyone studying abroad three things that helped ease the transition for me: setting your destination university's website as your home page for a couple of months, meeting and spending time with any friends from that place before you leave, and boosting your immune system with supplements - to cope with lack of sleep, jet lag, and the other physical and mental stresses of the transition. And for six days since leaving home, those seemed to work.

Day 6. I feel a cold coming on. An experience last night at a club left my mind full. And the veil of novelty over everything begins to wear thin. I could not say the phases occur as clearly as the sine wave used to represent them; nonetheless they are tangible. Especially as the amount of work required to build a new circle of relationships, learn a new language, and succeed in school becomes clear.


I wandered the streets of Kızılay and Maltepe alone for the first time, in search of a SIM card for my second-hand cell phone. I could have gone with the other Erasmus students to buy a SIM card, but i had a mission of sorts - to find the shop on Necatibey Cad ("Nejatibey Street") where Emin and i had asked last Sunday, and a very helpful associate who had given us his card.

Really, though, the mission was trying to communicate without assistance for the first time. Along the way i bought simit and borek from a street vendor, 3 pieces for 1 TL. Across Atatürk Boulevard i found myself on a wide pedestrian street lined with shops - Amerikan Pazarı, Japon Pazarı; fish markets and small groceries open to the street, bins of produce spilling colorfully towards a crowd of walkers. And at last i was on Necatibey. Trouble is, street numbers are hard to find here, and on Necatibey, TurkCell shops are a lira a dozen. Feeling lost and suddenly nervous, i stepped into one and asked, "does anyone here speak English?"

The manager understood, and repeated the question in Turkish. A young sales agent stepped over; his name was Selçuk. His English was slim; it was just enough to complete the transaction. "In three hours," he said, "the card will be activated. Call 8090 and …2…". Struggling for the word he wanted, Selçuk turned to Google translator.
"Press?" i asked.
"Yes," he said, relieved. "Press 2 for English menu."

It was a strange encounter. A safe enough one, as the plan and price were marked, and there was little incentive to take this hapless foreigner for a ride. Instead, the manager and another sales agent gathered around. It seemed serving an American customer was a novel thing for them, a novelty they thoroughly enjoyed. As we completed the transaction, Selçuk said, "Tamam. It is no problem...(translator check) at all. If you need anything, here is my number and email. And," he laughed, "facebook. Come back any time. We wait for you."

The open-air book market on Karanfıl seems to be a favorite spot of mine. Granted, most of the books are in Turkçe - but Emin told me there are English books here too - and, i had heard, textbooks. Sellers welcomed me to their stalls, only to find they couldn't communicate with me. In one, i found not one but two Organizational Behavior textbooks. Right class, right language even. Wrong authors.

As i crossed the city's core back to the bus stop, i couldn't help but notice afresh the English language centers. COPE. TOEFL. Acronyms for proficiency tests filled fifth-story windows. Makeshift blue-tarp shelters filled a side street. As i passed them a second time, i heard chanting, and realized this was the Tekel strike i'd heard about. (Tekel - literally, "monopoly" - was the government-owned alcohol and tobacco cooperative; when factories were recently privatized, many workers were dismissed without pensions.) It was the 47th day of the strike.


On the bus ride home i couldn't help but meditate on the role English plays in modern Turkiye. There is no immediate threat to their unique Altaic language, though global brands slowly erode the monolingualism of the marketplace. More than any language, my native, highly irregular tongue is, ironically, the language of uniformity and opportunity. In Real, the local answer to Walmart, i am looking for shampoo. A young female attendant asks if she can help (or at least that's what i think she's asking).
"Turkçe bilmiyorum," i reply, and she launches into a clear, if tenuous, English.
"Welcome to Turkiye. How can i help you?"

Bilkent University offers another example. It's a school of the upper crust, a storehouse of global opportunity, and with the exception of history and Turkish literature, classes are taught in English. Nonetheless, campus signage is almost exclusively in Turkçe, and support staff - the dormitory attendants and blue-collar workers of campus - speak little to no English at all. (One other notable exception, to my chagrin, is the 1-credit strength training class i signed up for. The Athletic Dept. director encouraged me to give it a shot anyway, suggesting classmates could translate if the instructor could not. Did anyone say "immersion"?)

Cooking dinner with the roommates, i realize why they call this an exchange. We're constantly making explanations to each other, as tavuk, pilav, and sebze simmer on the stove for a late meal. It turns out that in Turkçe, "olmak" - to be, to happen - is a multipurpose term. When they're hungry, my roommates explain, they ask "yemek oldu mu?" - has food happened?

I test the sebze (vegetables). Translating without thinking, Oğuz asks in English, "is potatoes happened?" We share a hearty laugh.

29 January, 2010

The subtle differences

A fellow student remarked that it seemed the cultural outlook displayed by each exchange student is remarkably similar. And it is true; we meet in the common space, the shared social role of being international students. In that role-space our differences dissolve along with the roles and spaces of our lives back home. Through conversations, it becomes apparent that the meaningful things in cross-cultural encounters are not the big, granite monuments and national flags. They are the way people wait in line at a mall; the small clear glasses in which tea is served.

bardak çay

Bilkent is one of the wealthier, more liberal schools in Turkiye. But aside from the architecture, and the marble everywhere - there is marble in the library, marble in the business and science faculty buildings, marble in the gym - one of the largest difference between this campus and home is the distribution of eating spaces. There are small, apparently privately-owned cantinas serving a variety of foods - döner, hamburgers, çay, cola, and the traditional yogurt drink ayran - all over campus, in the dorms either side of the street from mine. Near the library lies Marmara, a cafeteria-style eatery where lunch with either of two entree options is 5.50 Lira at most.

Hamburgers are a perfect example of the subtler differences. At the cantina nextdoor, the patties are thin, and burgers are served with tomato slices and something resembling coleslaw in a bun grilled panini-style. The first bite was both surprising and surprisingly good, as i discovered peas in the mysterious condiment.

A short walk away from Yurt 72 lies the "Oğrençi Yurtlar Spor Salonu", or student dormitories fitness center. Here again, the contrast of familiar and foreign was a jarring one. The fitness machines are the same make as in the Student Rec Center back home, save a generation or two older. I could use them in my sleep. But on my first visit, i was informed that muscle shirts or tank tops - anything less than a full tişört - are prohibited, and nearly asked to leave.

28 January, 2010

kar, ve hüsranı (snow, and frustration)

I awoke alone in the quad room and looked out the window. Last night's stray flakes had accumulated to three inches or so, and where yesterday there had been smog, the city lay invisible beyond a white curtain.

I was more prepared for cold and snow than for the academic frustration before me. Only the night before i had found out that, unsure which department to assign me to, the study abroad coordinator had chosen to place me in the chemistry department. I planned on taking a range of electives, and without consulting me, she had based her decision on the single chemistry class in the list. It wasn't even one of my first choices.

This might have been alright save that the chemistry department had not hosted an exchange student - ever, i gathered from the discussion - and thus they at once welcomed me with a combination of joy and dismay. "Our" exchange student, they called me happily, possessively. But at the same time my advisor, a wiry, intense woman named Gülay, seemed disappointed i was only qualified for two courses the department offered. "You don't have a chemistry background. How did you end up here?" Believe me, i wish i knew.

Snow continued to fall as we trudged across campus. Of the seventy international students, only Janki and i had ties to the life sciences, and Azer, one of the Erasmus Student Network volunteers in biochemistry, had been assigned our guide and aid in registering. Long story short, i hadn't quite figured out how to read the academic information system, and didn't realize how potential conflicts among the three courses i wanted most could be obviated. I wanted to go back to my room, investigate, and regroup - but we were there, the Chemistry department secretary could register me. Suddenly the schedule i had looked nothing like the one i hoped for. As my new advisor gave us a tour of the chemistry department, i struggled to smile through the frustration; Janki, on the other hand, knew her way around each spectroscope we saw - and ironically, a double major at her home institution, she had registered to biology here without much welcome from the department.

It might have been a lack of sleep, or an overwhelming sense of helplessness, but exhaustion overcame me. I'd agreed to go shopping with Torbjörn, and after a ten minute nap we left for the bus stop. I forgot the pocket dictionary. We wandered the downtown streets, frustrated because another two international students tagged along without asking. We drank çay to warm up and wandered some more. It seemed the day's only bright spot would be seeing Karanfıl Sokkak (Carnation street), its piknik booths and book market powdered with new snow. The Turks around us didn't seem bothered by the weather; like mischievous boys, middle-aged taxi drivers threw snowballs at each other across a crowded street.

Back at campus Torbjörn was shivering; i was still at a loss. Still without groceries or any of the items i'd hoped for. But there were my roommates. Can and Oğuz (pronounced Oh-uze) welcomed me to the room. Ayup, the outgoing roommate, arrived, and we kissed in greeting as if i was one of them all along. For the most part they spoke Turkish, but slipped back and forth into rough English when i seemed lost. "Do you want some food?" they asked at ten. Ayup hired a taxi, and next i knew i was sandwiched shoulder to shoulder with my new companions.

We stood in a snowy parking lot by the East Campus eating medye, mussels stuffed with rice and smothered in lemon. At first i refused the appetizer, but Can squeezed the lemon on one and held it to my mouth. It was amazing. Shoveling mussels from their shells, we waited beside a bus with a grill inside and a stovepipe out the roof. Inside, two men made music with knives and cutting boards, chopping sheep intestine to make the traditional kokoreç; kofte (beef) for doner sizzled on the grill as we talked and laughed in the snowy night. We ate standing there in the parking lot, chilled, but the döner was warm, spicy, laden with vegetables - delicious.

Under Construction

Have you ever thought how rare it is to see a place of worship under construction? I didn't until this morning, when i saw the dome and minarets of a nascent mosque sheathed in scaffolding.

Consider this blog likewise in process, a work in progress in more than a simply chronological sense. You, my readers, began as an audience of friends, and may soon grow to include others who navigate this-ward from the University of Maine website. Here's hoping it spreads even further from there.

Now that i've caught up on the flurry of transition, and have a solid list of future "rainy-day" topics, it's time to think about approach. My goal is to post daily at least a single paragraph and photograph on some topic, supplemented as possible, and envisioned as less a running personal narrative than a collection of insights and reflections anchored in that narrative. To that end, i welcome constructive criticisms of format and content at any time.

27 January, 2010

Cross-cultural conversations

Corrado, from Genoa, Italy, was my seatmate on the way back from the immense four-story AnkaMall shopping center.

Corrado: When i think of Maine, i think of Jessica Fletcher.
Me: Who?
Corrado: "Murder, She Wrote". A character, she was from Maine.
Me (drawing an utter blank): Oh. When i think of Genoa, i think of Salami.
Corrado: What?
Me: Salami, the meat. (I gesture, trying to conjure a loaf of salami in the air.)
Corrado: Huh. You're the second American who has said that to me. We don't have such meat.
Me: Okay, then we're even.

Genoa is, i learn, locally known for pesto sauce. More than that, i learn from this bus-ride dialogue the things we think of first in relation to another culture - might not represent them at all. We were posing for a group photo this morning, and someone called to Sofia in the back row - "Come on, we can't see you there. Swedes are supposed to be tall!" And so it is we live, learn, and laugh at our stereotypes.

Life in Yurt 72

In Turkish, the word for dormitory is yurt. This 9-floored split-level building bears little resemblance to a goatskin tent. It is stucco-surfaced, and easy to spot at a distance: a bright lemon shade amid the blander beige of the other dorms. Inside, it is arranged around a central staircase; a shared kitchen and dining area on the third floor, and three to four student rooms and a bathroom on the floors above.

Here, unlike UMaine, we are allowed to do our own cooking on the three stoves and three grills, and small pets (including hamsters) are allowed with permission from the dormitories administration. But the differences are not necessarily positive: in the opening day of orientation we were told that residents should be in the building by 0:30 on weekdays and 2:00 on weekends. If not, we were asked to call ahead. The consequences for noncompliance are unclear, but the RFID cards one waves magically at the door will cease to work when curfew comes.

I'm sure all the peculiarities of yurt life at Bilkent will surface only with time. For now, here are few i have noticed thus far. The dorm attendants - a full-time employee at each hall's front desk - sometimes play their music loudly, and it echoes up through the tile-floored open stairwell.

Each resident is given a roll of toilet paper, i'm guessing one per week. As an RA at UMaine, people often expected me to make sure the restrooms had TP on the weekend - so i rather like this arrangement. If you're out of toilet paper, it's your own fault. And speaking of toilets, in our men's room there is an foreign bit of porcelain beside the more familiar fixtures: a squat toilet.

This morning, the first of my three Turkish roommates arrived. His name is Can - pronounced "Jahn". It might have been a poor idea to tell him i guessed from the sticky-notes on his desk that he is an engineer. The notes disappeared shortly after.

A second roommate was lounging in boxers when i returned from the final ESN orientation meeting. "Welcome to our room," he said, bridging the awkward moment.

26 January, 2010


backdate: 25 January

Meeting seventy international students is no easy task. Somewhat settled in the dorm room, i walk across campus to the opening breakfast. There are four Swedes, two from Ireland, three to represent Poland, five or more delightful Frenchmen, students from Austria, Korea, Hong Kong, Japan - and of course my fellow Americans. I can't keep track of all of them.

So it's meet and greet, walk the campus, forget everything we've heard. True to form (and much to the entertainment of my peers), i nod off and get whiplash in the afternoon session, including a powerpoint where the dormitories manager found the same information repeated on four separate slides (and seemed genuinely surprised each time). Ah, powerpoint. By the time the afternoon social rolls around, seventy exhausted students are standing in an atrium eating carrot and cucmber slices, borek, tiny meatballs, and other finger foods. Poly-liguistic exchanges flare across the room, finding their way back to English or dying off as cliques form and dissolve.

It feels unfair in a way. Already one of the Italians has singled me out as a clear and precise speaker, and asks my help when another's English is hard for him to understand. I don't begrudge the help at all, in fact i enjoy the task. Yet i feel like a slacker, sitting comfortably in my native language while others grasp at it. For the most part, we are all strangers to Turkçe - except for Akın. Akın resides in France, but holds Turkish citizenship as well. For him, this journey is an opportunity to experience his heritage for a long period, coming as a Turk, and not a tourist, for the first time. In addition to his two native tongues, the guy with twinkling eyes is fluent in Italian and English. Which makes me feel more like a privileged, lazy American than ever, and, as i introduce the Frenchmen to each other and the conversation slides instantly out of my grasp - a little isolated by that privilege.

After this social marathon, everyone is tired, so what do we do? Climb on a bus downtown to Tunus street, and after foraging for döner and eating it on the frigid sidewalk, climb the stairs to Corvus Pub. In this fifth floor nest, there is a woodstove where we warm our hands, and this is where the real connecting happens. Whether people put down pint after pint, or abstain entirely (like a few Muslims and several of the Americans), the cameras come out. Akın and i observe that taking each other's pictures across the pub table is yet another rite of coalescence, as the travelers who were until this morning strangers become friends and colleagues overnight. And, as a certain facebook group claims, "alcohol improves my foreign language skills."

We won't go into detail about the price of those improved language skills, save that i learned not to drink competitively with the Polish students.

24 January, 2010


Emin and i walked the streets of Ankara, carrying my baggage all the way. It was about twenty minutes walk from Mesnevi street to where we stopped in Kızılay for çay (tea) and simit, a traditional Turkish snack. Simit seems to hold the place of donuts in local cuisine, but it's considerably healthier, rather like a circle of pretzel dough smothered in sesame seeds.

We ventured forth on our way to the bus terminal, but hoping to find me some electrical adaptors for the 2-prong recessed Turkish outlets. On a Sunday afternoon the city was quiet and some establishments were closed, but we eventually found the adaptors in Maltepe Pazarı. The Pazarı is a large open market, populated by stalls of sellers, where one can find eveything from luggage to knockoff Timberlands and A&F clothing. I felt like a marked man, shouldering the Kelty pack and a laptop case, especially when one seller loudly approached - Merhaba! Hoş geldiniz! (Hello, welcome!). At another booth, Emin, always a patient guide instructed me ask the seller his favorite football team. "Hangi football - ?" i stumbled, forgetting the word for team. But the man was tickled by my attempt. "Galatasaray," he chuckled.

Maltepe had a different feeling than Çankaya and Kızılay, a seedy feeling. "Keep a low profile," Emin directed as we crossed a pedestrian bridge behind four young men.

More than the other districts, Maltepe reflected a certain ethos of soulless Eastern-bloc idealism. "Ankara," my guide mused, "is a reaction to Ottomanism." That statement struck a chord of sociological truth: architecture itself can be used to reinforce a vision of the state as a neutral, secular body and disallow alternative worldspaces.

In modern Turkiye, though, Islam is omnipresent. That afternoon we heard the call to prayer over loudspeakers in Ankara's subway mall. Subway mall? "I never thought about it that way," he said. "But, no, i've never seen another subway mall." The Ankara metro is not much of a subway system - but the underground galleria in Kızılay station sets it apart.


backdate: 23 January

One of Seçil's relatives arrived at Asti to pick up the carry-on i brought from America for them, and kindly gave Emin and i ride to his home on Mesnevi street. The Okutans welcomed me warmly with traditional Turkish hospitality and a delicious dinner. First came a lettuce salad and hot yogurt soup, followed by potatoes stewed with meatballs in a delicious sauce. Broccoli was cooked with lemon juice and garlic. Emin's mother set before me a plate of pilav, the traditionally prepared white rice dish, and then a pudding made of rice and milk. By custom, it is impolite to refuse food. Emin's family is a bit more progressive, but still, it was nefisti - delicious. Dinner conversation was mostly in English - since i had arrived just hours before, they said they didn't expect me to show much skill with Turkish.

After the meal we sat for a while around the television - discussing the pervasive role of politics in Turkish society - a role felt more deeply here than in America, perhaps. In 1923, following the defeat of the Ottoman empire in WWI, general Mustafa Kemal Ataturk founded the modern Turkish Republic, moving the national capital from Istanbul to Ankara, at that time a small provincial town, to escape old-regime associations. The belief that the Turkish government should be wholly secular is referred to as 'Kemalism' - and has, since its foundation, been continually challenged by the pervasive role Islam in daily life. In addition, the drastic gradient in development and economic prosperity from east to west within the country, and the presence of Kurdish, Alevi, and other minorities within society creates a diversity of voices: while only four parties hold seats in the national assembly, a total of fifteen were represented in 2007 elections.

Of course, politics isn't the only thing on TV. Music programming is common - and it only took ten seconds to recognize Turkish public television. Some things look the same the world over.

Later that evening Emin, his brother Ozgür, and i met with Arda, a UMaine graduate student who lives just up the block from them, and walked the streets of the Çankaya neighborhood. Emin observed this as a strange convergence in his life - describing the feeling when people from one period appear in a new context, blurring lines between social circles and overlapping threads of time. "It feels like i'm walking to Woodman's again," he said.

We sat and drank tea at a cafe, then moved to a basement bar with a clientele not unlike Woodmans: for the first time i saw long hair and dreadlocks. Turns out there is only one Turkish beer, Efes, though it comes in several flavors - including Efes dark brown Kahve aromalı. Yep, coffee flavored. Alcohol and caffeine merged neatly in one drink.

Back at Mesnevi street, i called home for the first time. Emin and i planned for the next day, and i rolled into the bottom bunk in his room. When he climbed into the top bunk i couldn't tell if it was reality or a strange dream.

Being "that guy" / First impressions

backdate: 23 January

Over the Alps, it crossed my mind that travel is like crack: the more you get, the more you need it. (Also you wake up with no money and you don't know where you are, commented Emin later.)

It turned out my seatmate on the flight from Munih to Ankara was another international student, from California. Named David. Needless to say we hit it off, and soon the cloudcover that had obscured all of Europe began to break, just as we reached Anatolia. The landscape was sheathed in snow, low, crinkled hills with scattered bushes and scarcely any roads or rivers.

Then a village, then a valley full of tenements, then a mosque slipped by beneath us. On one side of the aircraft everything was blanketed white; on the other, the landscape was green, like early spring. We slipped safely into Esenboğa airport and through passport control in a matter of moments.

There were actually several of us on the plane - Janki from the U.S., Bruno from France, Isabela from Slovenia, and Giorgio and another Italian. The little queue of students waiting for the Bilkent shuttle grew; University ambassadors welcomed us. But i had to be "that guy": ditch the university shuttle, with helpful directions from one of the student ambassadors. My friend is waiting for me at Asti. I set off with a few, barely functional Turkish words in a bus full of Turkish speakers. Thankfully nerede (where?) is one of those words. Already i notice cultural differences - the bus driver embraces, and stands with his arm around, another male. Two female passengers kiss on both cheeks, a common expression of affection between friends and even acquaintances.

Asti was half an hour bus ride away. Seçil asked for my first impressions so here they are: beautiful color. The social stratification of Turkish society is almost instantly apparent. Dozens of identical, obviously low-income apartment blocs sprout from the hillsides in scores. At first, you think of a communist republic. But these buildings are all different shades, even the identically constructed modern high-rises, different shades of green and carmine. More traditional buildings have roofs of red clay tile, while some commercial structures are light blue metal. Soft mustard yellows and browns blend naturally into the steppe landscape. The only trees - and they are infrequent, like hybrid poplars, lanky and tall - grow near the narrow streams.

As the highway gets steeper and more curvaceous, the architecture gets interesting. Pedestrian bridges are built in the fan cable-stayed style (think Boston's Zakim bridge). Car dealerships crowd the edge of the street, one atop another. Each place is small, with few vehicles for display - Audi and BWM. A city of four million crowds into this valley - three times as many people as the entire state of Maine. There's the first market with bins of oranges and onions on the sidewalk. On the right, crowning a hilltop building, 'Turkiye Voleybal Konfederasyonu' spreads in huge red neon letters. AnkaMall is three stories at least.

Asti terminal is like Grand Central Station. Enormous. Full of vendors, and a thousand and more milling people with luggage. I walk through a security checkpoint and set off the detector. A Polis officer says something in Turkish - but i understand from his body language "just keep going". Security checks here are pretty meaningless. I keep the panic in check: Emin said to meet him at the escalators, and thankfully, there's only one set.


The feeling was not predictable; it did not grow with each day before departure. Instead it came in fits and starts, in fleeting moments of existential weirdness. Of going to get a glass of milk, and looking at the glasses in the cupboard the way they've been all these years. Wondering how long the familiar order of things will persist in absentia. But for the most part, that i am "across the pond", and scheduled to be here for five months, is still obtuse. From the air, the snow-dusted agricultural fields surrounding München look uncannily like Pensylvania this time of year. The flughafen (airport) here is like Detroit: long, narrow parallel terminals, polished granite floor that stretches as far as i can see.

Yet there are differences that tell me i am no longer home: German falls upon my ears, and announcements (since i boarded the flight from Boston) come first in German, then in English. Camel-branded smoking lounges, small enclosed spaces ventilated separately from the concourse, pop up every few hundred meters. And if airport food is expensive, airport food in Euro is veryyyy expensive. Lufthansa claims "there's no better way to fly." From the quality of the in-flight hot dinner, the selection of entertainment, touch-screen TVs for each seat with twelve movies on demand, complimentary nightcap, and breakfast, i would have to agree. Only problem was that i chose the wrong moment to leave my seat, and missed breakfast. On the layover in München i ordered an orange juice. Five euro - for an orange juice - is nearly ten USD.