13 February, 2010

Tunalı staircase, with pickpockets

backdate 11 Feb 2010

The second week of classes is so much messier than the first, when you haven't quite adapted to a new schedule yet and mix up the meeting times. Here, by contrast to UMaine, most classes meet twice a week - or once, for one to three hours. Just to keep things interesting, they usually start at different times on different days - for example 13:40 on Tuesday and 15:40 on Thursday - which i managed to transpose, of course, and miss Tuesday's class. So it was Wednesday night; i'd been beating my head against the last two assignments for a year-old incomplete course all evening, missing bus after bus into the city. Around eleven, i took the last bus from campus to join the Erasmus students for the weekly gathering at Crow Pub, high on a fifth floor in Tunalı.

Tunalı is the club district, just uptown from the Rixos Grand Ankara hotel. Along the gradient of neighborhoods, it's considered the safe end, next to the bourgeois Çankaya district full of embassies. As you travel north on Ataturk boulevard, though, neighborhood reputations become increasingly cautionary: be wary in Kızılay, never go to Ulus alone, don't go to Altındağ period. So what occurred on to that fifth floor pub was a surprise.

The stairwell is open to the street; on each floor a door leads to a different pub. It was about the third landing where two boys, in their young teens, loitered. One sat on the sill of the open third-story window, hanging precipitously over the alley, smiling. The younger one engaged me, friendly. But of course i couldn't understand his Türkçe. "Anlamadım," i said. I don't understand.

The kid was insistent. He began to lift my shirt; i pushed him away. Then he switched to something i could understand. "One lira. One lira."  I gave him a lira, which only increased his insistence; the older one now sat on the railing beside us, laughing. I began to push the kid, to try to shoulder my way past. So the older one approached me - and i knew he was talking about futbol when he said Fenerbahçe. I know, Oğuz, i'm a Galatasaray fan, and i'm sorry, but i figured playing along was the best course of action. Fenerbahçe, i cheered, and the boy gave me a hug. I felt a hand slipping toward my pocket.

Did one of them have a knife? I didn't know, so i tried to avoid escalating the situation. I just keep pushing, and the little one with his brown face screwed into an expression of sheer determination, gripped the railing and pushed back. It was a stalemate, his Türkçe growing more rapid and me saying, Anlamadım. Anlamadım.
At last four young men and women ascended the stairs on their way to Crow. We'll send someone down to help, they said as they squeezed by. But they didn't need to. It was one moment of sheer disorientation, and then i slipped past the boy. Bisiktirgit! he said. (The thing about learning a language from your roommates is you learn all the küfür, the swears, first. It was one of the few things he said that i understood.)

It could happen anywhere. That i understand; a classmate was concerned, when i told him, that the experience not affect my perception of Turkiye. And it does not - instead it is another of the facets of moving to a city with three times the population of my entire home state. But i walk the streets - still alone - with a new caution. I know the street kids have nothing to lose.

11 February, 2010


Fun fact about Türkçe: vowel harmony. There are two groups of vowels, front (e,i,ö,ü) and back (a,ı,o,u). A bona fide Turkish word will contain only vowels from one group or the other, and vowel harmony determines the suffix, for example whether a plural is formed with -ler as opposed to -lar. Çilekler, arabalar.


We're learning colors (renkler).

Mavi, sarı, kırmızı, yeşil, pembe, turuncu, beyaz, siyah (note that some of these are borrowed from other languages, hence they lack vowel harmony). I remember most of them from playing with Rosetta Stone software months ago. But there's one color i can't for the life of me remember: brown. I remember seeing the word and thinking, that's the strangest name ever for a color.

Kahverengi, our teacher writes on the board. That's when it hits me. I turn to Muhammad, the student from Djibouti sitting next to me, to share the little epiphany. "Kahve.....rengi. I get it!"

Coffee colored. Yeah, i used to think it was the strangest name for a color ever; now it's the one Turkish word i will never forget. Kahverengi'yi seviyorum. Where the heck did English come up with "brown"?


It started as a joke - a play on words, really. Foreignity - like virginity, innocence - something you arrive with but, as you grow, inevitably lose.Conceptually, the two have something in common, but the losses are different. Though your perspective with foreignity is a limited resource, you can renew it by traveling someplace else, someplace you're still a foreigner. What makes you a foreigner, though? That question is one i have been mulling on since i arrived. Can't say as i have a good answer yet, but i'll give it my best.

It all begins with language, of course. The first thing you notice about a place isn't the architectural styles or the clothes people wear. It's the fact that, aside from the occasional brand name, and the multinational corporations peppered here and there, you can't read any signs. The thing that alienates you the most is hearing conversation all around you, and not being able to understand a word of it.

And when you've been there a few weeks, and learned the basic words - hello, what's your name, goodnight, numbers, colors - it turns out that language is a lot more than words. By that i don't mean grammar. Grammar goes right out the window; it doesn't matter one bit. Around my Turkish roommates my English grammar slips, and they don't care; i have no sense of Turkish grammar whatsoever. You string together words any way they make sense, and come up with expressions like "wife of spoon" when you forget the word for fork. I say "sweater" when i mean "squash" (kazak instead of kabak). What language is, you discover when you communicate even though nothing makes sense, is the meaning that transcends words, the words that mean too many things to have a direct translation.

So language makes you a foreigner - and then there's custom. There's knowing all the little things that locals know: where to find the cheapest clothes. Neighborhoods to avoid. Which futbol team to cheer on.

As we walked the streets of Ulus, i mused aloud to Emin - i wonder what it would be like if one of the local children found an old videocamera? As a premise for a short film, what would it look like? And Emin replied, "as a foreigner, you see the landscape like a child". Learning a language certainly brings you back to - grammar school, at least. If not kindergarten. Perhaps foreignity could be an advantage, a resource to conserve?

After a few days mulling, I'll let nature take its course on this. As interesting as it would be to see the landscape through a child's eyes - to use whatever perspective foreignness provides - there are things i need to know.

07 February, 2010



Boza is a traditional drink found throughout Turkiye, eastern Europe, and the Balkans. It's a fermented beverage with low (only about 1%) alcohol content, served here with cinnamon on top. The consistency - and flavor - bear a slight resemblance to a pudding or custard - thick and mildly sweet, but with sharp lactic acid undertones. It is made from various crushed or milled grains, mainly wheat or millet depending on the country of manufacture. Considered highly nourishing, with several vitamins and around 1,000 calories/litre, boza was - according to my Turkish friends, but not verified - once available with higher alcohol contents, a situation not unlike the shift from apple cider (a.k.a. hard cider) to unfermented apple cider (a.k.a. "sweet cider") in New England. Like many fermented foods, it requires cool storage to remain high quality, and was thus traditionally made and served only in winter.

Crosswalk ii

Crosswalk ii | Kızılay

Reading Heidegger in Ulus

I'd say i rolled out of bed on the wrong side - but since the bunk Oğuz and i sleep in is against the wall, there's only one side to roll out on. The trouble was, last night i was exhausted. I had been working, or trying to, interrupted by friends who wanted to chat online and some drunk, giggling girls who called for Can and decided since he wasn't in they would flirt with me - while i was trying to make a skype call, putting cell phone service stateside on hold.
     "How old are you?" the girl asked.
     "26. I really can't talk now - i am on a phone call over the computer - "
     "I don't understand. You can talk to me."
     "Bilgisayar. I am talking on bilgisayar."
     "Are you more handsome than Can?"
     "No, i don't think so."
     "Now you may ask me a question," she said. 
     "Can we talk later?"
Foreignness, my turkish friends say, gives me an edge with the ladies. Should i care? They called back again, more giggly than the first time; i felt like this was the middle-school experience i never had. Mostly i was annoyed, but by the time i shaved at 0:30 to be presentable for the 4AM bus, all feelings were subsumed in exhaustion. And then i missed the bus to Kapadokya, slept right through the alarm. I have never awoken so frustrated.


When the campus shuttle reached Sihhiye, i asked a fellow rider how to get to Gençlik Park. Of his halting directions, the hum of traffic obliterated all but "walk straight, it's on the left." 

I have never been in this part of the city before, and it amazes me how difficult it can be to translate from a map to the architectural snarl of a downtown. Simple enough to walk straight, and turn left, but am i walking straight in the right direction? It is only when you begin to know the city through your own eyes and feet that a map becomes a useful reference. And no map could fully represent the complexity of Ankara.

On the bus i'd been reading "The Age of the World Picture", an essay by the phenomenologist Martin Heidegger:
      "And it is precisely the opening up of such a [procedural] sphere that is the fundamental event in research. This is accomplished through the projection within some realm of what is - in nature, for example- of a fixed ground plan [Grundriss] of natural events. The projection sketches out in advance the manner in which the knowing procedure must bind itself and adhere to the sphere opened up."

Heidegger's language is unfamiliar; in footnotes, German words like vorstellen - a bringing to stand as an object - sketch out a foreign ground plan of relations among events in Being. In the text, as in an unfamiliar neighborhood of the city, i search for orienting concepts, orienting landmarks. "If you don't understand," Dr. Mutman said in his opening lecture - in reference to Heidegger, and other assigned readings - "this is good. It means you're going to learn something."

Ahead, i see a ferris wheel and a high rise - which i had seen from Maltepe two weeks ago. But the landmarks completely disorient me; they turn upside-down any sense of where i am in relation to where i was. And then i am standing in a thin strand of green on the map, a narrow park winding along Ataturk Boulevard, and Gençlik Park lies just under the next overpass. Inside, a broad pavement runs from the street down through trees and tea houses and spreads to the pond, sand-hued stone broken by slate-color accents. The pond is edged turquoise, and sheathed in thin ice on which gulls by the hundred stand. People walk to the pond edge and pose for photographs; across the water is a small amusement park from which the beat of Turkish club music pounds. I can see now that the ferris wheel seats are fashioned as little, stylized hot-air balloons - the name Montgolfier springs to mind.

Gençlik Park

Just after noon, Yiğit met me at the park's Ulus Gate; a few minutes later Emin arrived, and we set off through the streets of Ulus, after stopping for lunch and the traditional winter drink boza at Akman Bozacısı on the courtyard at Ulus square. (Post on boza coming soon.) Yiğit is a generous guide - but our peregrinations were directed as much by his shopping list as by mere sightseeing. First we hunted up a basement used bookseller. There Emin asked for books in English and we discovered a volume on "Mevlana and the Whirling Dervishes" - along with an entire shelf of Steven King in Turkçe: Tom Gordon'a Aşık Olan Kız. Along the way we searched for leather shops, and paused to examine stopwatches.

It was up, up through Ulus quarter, and through the narrow alleys lined with open-air shops. From where he sat among stacks of sweaters and pants, young boy saw my camera and motioned, "take my photograph." Blue tarpaulins formed a makeshift roof, and sunlight streams in on bins of nuts and dried fruits, belts, hardware. Smoke rises in shafts of light, and sellers beckon passersby toward their stands - "buyrun," they say. Please come in!

on the "dowry street', Ulus quarter

These narrow streets are a labyrinth. On one, boomboxes thirty years old sit in front of a shop. Here, in Ulus quarter, nothing is too old to be useful. Ankara is a city of the east; here there are AnkaMall and Armada, modern shopping centers four stories deep, and just across town lie things i have seen only in national geographic. A young man stands at a folding table in the middle of the cobblestones; on closer examination the table holds just a few pornographic DVDs. Up another street: my guides call this one the "dowry street," where women come before their wedding. Shop after shop on the quarter-mile stretch displays wedding gowns, housewares, upholstery, brassieres. Dresses by the hundreds hang from the rafters.

Out of the back-alley bazaars, on the main roads, the shops display more touristic wares. We climb until blacktop gives way to ancient stone. Shops fashioned from old mud-walled houses fill the oldest quarter, the heart of Ankara. They sell spices and raw wool; symbolic charms, copper cups and brass-plated tea sets. The last few meters rise steeply to the Citadel.

Emin and Yiğit (L to R) atop Ankara Citadel

Ankara citadel is a relic from the Hittite period. Standing at 978 meters elevation, it rises from the valley, the true anchor of Ankara. The view is unparalleled, as the city sprawls away on every side. Within the castle walls stand the oldest buildings in this city; especially on the approaches to the inner castle, many have been converted to shops and restaurants. Yet many are still homes. Here the juxtaposition of past and present is particularly jarring. Looking down, the red clay rooftops and mud walls are studded with satellite dishes. 

I am sure the citadel will return in later posts, when i know more about it. And there will be more images - since it is a fantastic place to watch the sun set. After we did that, we three travelers drank tea and ate gözleme (a very thin flatbread; spinach gözleme for the main course and honey-walnut for dessert) at one of the restaurants within the castle walls. It was delightfully traditional - we removed our shoes before entering, and sat on cushions around a low table - and surprisingly affordable. And as we left i noticed yet another juxtaposition: the clock by the front door was a promotional clock from a multinational drug company.

Click on any of the pictures for links to the full photo album.

south: the new city