18 March, 2010

Canakkale day

Americanism, a book title suggests, is "the fourth great Western religion", and it is with a religious fervor that nationalistic Americans uphold their identity. At times too often and too close to home, it's difficult to tell where religion ends and the nationalism begins. Yet as a nation of immigrants, we hold no truly native traditions in common, and our common values are precious few. What it means to be "American" is a good, provocative question - one of those subjects that makes for better questions than it does answers.

It might come as a surprise to readers stateside that what it means to be Turkish is a similarly thought-provoking matter. Turkish identity, conversation with many of my friends suggest, is the state of living a contradiction: free, undeniably secular by contrast to Türkiye's eastern neighbors, and yet stifled by comparison to Europe. Türkiye Avrupa'da, veya Asya'da mı? The best answer you'll get around here is, "neither." Inşallah, this only the first in a series of musings on that living contradiction.


When morning broke over the Bilkent campus, all the dormitories, and many of the lecture halls as well, were draped with immense Turkish flags. I asked a fellow student what the occasion was.

18 March, 1915, is an important date in the history of the modern Turkish identity. On that day, Ottoman forces, including then-general Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, scored an important victory at the port of Canakkale. The ensuing conflicts, known to Turks as the Canakkale wars, after the province in which they were fought, are best remembered by the Allied nations as the battle of Gallipoli. In fact, a series of campaigns stretched throughout spring 1915 and continued until the following year; 25 April is remembered by the Allied nations as ANZAC day. It was the victory at Canakkale that struck a chord with Turks, galvanizing a nascent national identity that fueled the 1922 Independence War, and birthed the modern republic from the crumbling remains of the Ottoman regime. It is this day on which the events of World War I are most prominently recalled. That said, my classmate had only a vague knowledge of the day's significance. He too had been wondering 'why all the flags?'

That said, even when campus is not draped in crimson, flags are ubiquitous. Viewed from Bilkent, several huge crimson banners punctuate the Ankara's skyline. There are no international displays; in Guvenlik Park, dozens of Turkish flags fly, a crescent and star held high into the blue. I suppose it is the capital city.... i'm just not used to living in a national capital!

From the perspective of someone who's American and not in general a fan of nationalism, Turkish nationalism is intriguing. Here, it feels different; less the bellicose idealism of a superpower than the delicate cohesion of a nation that is still comparatively young. Türkiye observes no less than four public holidays observing momentous dates in the foundation of the modern Republic. The vibrant nation i awake each morning in has to wait another thirteen years to celebrate its centennial, inshallah.

17 March, 2010

Tren gibi

Today in Türkçe, we covered the future tense. When we got to future negative - for example, bakmayacağım, "i will not look", i commented to the teacher, "çok heceler". Many syllables. Thus she gave us an example of a truly mind-boggling Türkish phrase:

Afyonkarahisarlılaştıramadılelarımızdan mısınız?

Which is a question to plural you about the village of Afyonkarahisar that, in English, requires seventeen words to ask. This is Türkçe at its complex best. It's phonetic - very easy to speak, once one has mastered the short ı and long ü and ö vowel sounds and the pattern of suffixes - but that pattern of suffix rules, which depends upon the last vowel and consonant of the stem word for its phonetic character, is pretty damn tough to internalize. 

Türkçe, the instructor said with delightful metaphor, is tren gibi - like a train. The stem word - çok önemli, very important - is the engine, followed by car after car of modifications. Bak. Look. Çok, çok önemli. The stem tows the cumulative meaning of the following syllables, in some cases separated with consonants whose only purpose is connective - y between two vowels, or soft ğ replacing k when followed by a vowel. Bak + ma + (y) + aca(ğ) + ım : look + not + will + i. She drew a little train on the board.


Thanks to a conversation with Chris and Laura, Canadian adventurers i met in Antalya, there's now a Turkish pronunciation guide in the sidebar. Because as my language skill improves, and i get used to typing with an i where the quotation marks should be - there's a train coming. Meanwhile, check out Chris and Laura's beautiful blog Out There Somewhere.


Here goes nothing. İ've set my Mac keyboard to replicate a Türkçe PC keyboard, so i can learn to type more efficiently and ınclude Turkish characters without cutting and pasting all the time. I'm slow to type already, and now i have to think… what fun! (Not to mention the frustrating and inexplicable absence of quotation marks. Oh, ctrl - here they are! Questıon mark still missing.)

Learned a new word the other night, a fun word: yavşak. According to google translate, it means "a bad hat". According to my neighbors in the dormitory, it means "bastard".

I suppose for slang, the etymology makes sense. The reference, you see, was to some of the fellows i met on a recent trip. One of my friends knew them, and said i ought not to trust such fellows. Of course, other friends have said not to listen to him. Which raises an intriguing question: why do people so readily pigeonhole others?

Of course, some folks are simply not to be trusted. Especially when you've limited command of the language. Some of them, in the sage words of a certain Eurythmics song, want to use you, and ... some of them want to abuse you. Still, i am a bit surprised at the ease with which my acquaintances write off others as ill-intentioned. Türkiye, like many nations who lag behind the pack economically, presents an intriguing mixture of generosity and opportunism. In retrospect, some of my beach acquaintances might have intended to use me as a means of meeting the girls i traveled with. But tell me, in all honesty, how often we act from singular intention. More often i think, our motives change with time. From the way those soldiers waved goodbye from the bus, i'm rather certain that whether or not their original intent was dishonorable (as my friends assumed), in several of their minds i was indeed a new friend. And whatever the case, if the guy's intent is dishonorable, there's a particular dangerous fun in staying one step ahead of the yavşak.

14 March, 2010

Antalya - day 2

Our hostel, Sabah Pansiyon, was located on Hesapçi Sok in the heart of Kaleiçi. From there it was less than two hundred meters to the sea, and a park which overlooks the waterfront, across the bay to Konyaalti beach and snow-capped peaks rising just behind it. The tallest of those peaks, 13km away as the crow flies (see this nifty distance calculator), rises over 8,000 feet (2.5 km) above sea level. Yes, i mean to say a mountain far taller than Katahdin looms just behind the beach. Though just a dozen kilometers distant, on Friday morning, the peaks were almost completely obscured by haze. When they emerged clearer on Saturday, it was a spectacular view.

As my friends slept Friday morning, i enjoyed the company of Pen and Ben, an Australian couple fresh from trekking the Lycian way. Then i set off on my own, wandering past the soccer stadium where Antalyaspor plays; i wandered down a street where men were hard at work - operating heavy equipment, gutting buildings, rebuilding the sidewalk, wheeling barrows of cement by hand, shining shoes - and cutting hair. In a basement barber shop i had my beard trimmed, and in the bargain got ear hair singed off by a flaming alcohol-soaked swab. Interesting, to say the least. Just outside, a flower seller - pushing a baby stroller brimming with buckets of freesia - stopped for a shoeshine.

After a couple hours in the web cafe, i stepped back onto the darkened street. The Mediterranean breeze cooled a city that grows more vibrant with night. Aggressive sellers in the narrow streets of Kaleiçi covered their spices, and carried carpets and hand-carved serpentine stone indoors. Along the maze of streets small bars came to life. With friend Johanna, our little band of travelers visited a pub called the Secret Garden, and then dispersed to various clubs around the marina. I found a street seller grilling köfte at 1 AM.

Saturday. We left the hostel mid-morning and boarded a bus for Lara Plaajı (Lara Beach) twenty minutes' ride south of the center. The palms were hung with banners celebrating the CHP - Cumhuriyet Halk Partısı, the Kemalist, oldest established political party in Turkiye. Aboard the crowded bus, young men stood grasping the ceiling rail, arms around each other, laughing. It was another glimpse of the affectionate style of friendship so common here. Passengers disbarked as our distance from the center lengthened, and the young men found seats. They carried grocery bags full of long green peppers, onions, lemons. Then, on a corner, onions spilled and rolled all over the bus. Passengers once divided into Turks and tourists united in laughter, and helped each other round up the wayward vegetables.

We all disbarked at the beach. But the encounter didn't end when we left the bus. We met again at the changing rooms; a halting conversation began. Nerelesin? one asked.
     Amerika'dan.... i replied.
     Deniz! Güneş! Su! Kizlar! Çok gözel! the fellow said as we walked toward the water.

I haven't swum in the sea in years - and i've never been all that comfortable with open water - so i stood, hesitant, in the surf. Two new friends urged me on - and after a few minutes' coaxing i dove into a wave. Into the Mediterranean! Buoyed by wave after wave of surreal moments i had to continually remind myself i am here. In Turkiye. At the Mediterranean Sea. (I'll confess, the ancient human history of Anatolia and the Med - aside from the history of long-cultivated plants - had not seemed interesting to me. Until, that is, i saw this broad swath of blue, and thought how much human effort has sunk beneath its waves. It was there, in the rising and falling waves, that the ancient rise and fall of civilizations seemed more immediate.)

It was a perfect day at the beach. Children played with trucks and flew kites. A group of boys were playing soccer, and they let me join the game for a while. Older men fished. My traveling companions built a sand castle, and we lay in the sun. Soon the other Erasmus students were ready for lunch - but i wasn't ready to return to Kaleiçi. Nearby, nine young men sat in a circle with a guitar. The center of the circle was littered with Efe's bottles. I walked over, and soon i was sitting, singing and sipping beer with them. Y'know, if you really want to immerse yourself in a culture, learn the popular songs. Sing along on the beach. It helps learn a language and makes you an insider rather than a tourist.

As i sat with these guys (students from Akdeniz University), i couldn't help notice another circle of young men a hundred meters away, all looking at me. It was the guys from the bus. Turns out they were off-duty soldiers, out for a day of barbecue and sun. They too shared their Efe's, and sang some traditional music - followed by an impromptu traditional dance performance. I learned each of their names; where they were from. We talked as much as we could given my rudimentary Türkçe - for example, i formed my longest sentence to date explaining that where i come from, the sea water is much colder than the Akdeniz.

I parted ways with the soldiers midafternoon, but stayed there at the beach until sunset with a classmate who just happened to be in Lara for the weekend. When it grew dark, we stopped buy our return tickets - and found the sales agents from competing coach lines sitting on the walk between their offices, eating dinner together. Offseason in Lara is a slow time; time for those who live in the tourism industry to sit back - and worry. During the summer months, an influx of Russians swells the area, filling the hotels Antalya is famous for. But in March the only thing filling Antalya is the scent of orange trees here and there. A friendly restauranteur explained that he enjoyed Americans, Australians, and Brits for their outgoing personalities, but that they did not mix with the Russians much. Observing poor economic times, he wondered aloud if he would continue to work in Antalya, or move to Cyprus.

On the municipal bus back to Kaleiçi i asked my seatmate how i'd know when we had arrived at the nearest bust stop. He didn't know, but asked another rider - and then pulled a handful of pistachios and leblebi (dry-roasted chickpeas) from his pocket and offered me half. So we sat snacking in silence. The day's lesson was clear: there are many different ways to travel, and mine is not to follow the guidebook, or to check out the restaurants with the best reputation. Frankly, i find it boring. Going out on a limb to interact with locals, buying some fruit and crackers at the corner market and eating them by the sea? That's the way. This said, i rejoined my Erasmus friends for an excellent if pricey dinner at Vanilla - a delicious grilled goat cheese salad. Then headed for the bus station: two days in Antalya was delightful, but i needed to feel prepared for the week ahead, a thus raw and rainy Ankara beckoned.

The full photo album, including some pictures of naturalized flora along the shore, is on picasa.