Thursday, February 25, 2010

Happy Kuwait Liberation Day!

On Tuesday in Turkish class, the medium-sized guy with a beard that I thought was from Libya informed the teacher that he would have to miss Thursday’s class to go to a party commemorating Kuwaiti independence*.  He invited the whole class, and the teacher, eager to attend a party rather than teach a class, announced that we would all attend.  At this point, I was under the assumption that this was a low-key event, likely a few ex-pats and some music.  Still, free Middle Eastern food is hard to pass on, and I hate to be a party pooper.

My assumption was pretty incorrect.  Apparently, the fact that the party was held in the Ankara Sheraton (which has in the past hosted Barack Obama, among others) should have been something of a giveaway.  Let me put it this way.  Imagine the kind of party an oil-rich Middle Eastern nation might throw to impress the elite in a nearby regional power.  This was roughly the scenario for the party that we (mostly a bunch of mangy college students too poor pay the coat check fee) found ourselves at.  No sooner had children in regional dress welcomed us with myrrh-scented perfume** in crystal vessels, than we saw our fellow student from Turkish class.  Turns out he is a high ranking general (!?!) and some sort of military attaché in the Kuwaiti embassy.  We greeted him along with a bunch of other important-looking people in traditional garb and walked inside to the ballroom.

The food was superb, to say the least.  It got to the point where we were eating spreads with forks because we didn’t want to waste room in our stomachs for bread.  It looked like most of the crowd was rich, politically inclined, or covered in military medals.  Obviously, we had no reason to be there, but that didn’t seem to be a problem.  Again, this is party was sponsored by the extremely wealthy government of Kuwait.  I’m pretty sure nobody would care if people came in off the street.  Somewhat intimidated, the members of our Turkish class generally kept to ourselves, though we did have a lovely conversation with the Kuwaiti ambassador to Turkey.  Our general-friend introduced us to Arabian coffee (I was mostly impressed that it was poured out of gold-plated pitchers, though if you ask me, it tasted more like cardamom tea) and some traditional dessert (which tasted roughly like a gelatinous version of the coffee) and thanked us repeatedly for coming.  We left impressed, satisfied, and looking for ways to befriend more Arabian government officials.

*This being independence from Iraq in the first Gulf War.  It seems to me like this is probably the only nationalist holiday in the Middle East where it helps to be an American.

**The perfume thing is common in the Middle East.  Bathing is hard in a region that does not get much rain.  I hear that most Turks still only shower every other day, and I can only assume the showers are sparser in the Arabian Desert.  Perfume helps to mask unpleasant smells, which is especially big in cleanliness-obsessed Turkey.  As such, it is a common sign of hospitality to offer perfume.  The Turkish prefer lemon perfume for what I can only assume is its cleaning solution-like scent.  As it is impolite to refuse, I begrudgingly take some whenever offered.  This is fine in ventilated areas, but on the long-distance bus (where perfume is the first order of business) it is torturous.  As a side note, I am pretty sure I saw Cihan’s wife huff some lemon perfume in an attempt to ward off a cold.  She didn’t look happy about it afterward.

I think the point of this footnote was that that expensive myrrh perfume is many times better than lemon perfume.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Forty-Two Years

A week or so before David and I headed off to our respective places of temporary residence, my mother asked us (out of curiosity) whether we would tell people we were Jewish. David, inspired by a(n awesome) stunt I pulled two Christmases ago, decided he would say he was Episcopalian, since Turks tend to still really dislike Jews. From what I had read in books and heard from friends, though, it seemed like the Spanish regarded Jews with a mixture of curiosity and national guilt. It has been only 42 years since the Alhambra Decree, the one that expelled all Muslims and Jews from Spain, was repealed. Jews have actually been living here since the 19th century, with limited degrees of freedom. As a result, it's not surprising that the Spanish regard Jews sort of like Native Americans - we're an important part of the national history, but no one really knows that much about us and a lot of truths are mixed with wild assumption and imagination.

Such has been the case with living with Pilar. Pilar is a genuinely wonderful, caring, and intelligent person. She's remarkably well-read and has a lot of compassion, so I'm not sure if she's a good sample case, but religion is one of her fascinations. Though not religious herself, she told me on one of my first days here while we were watching coverage of the earthquake in Haiti that she respects voodoo like all religions. Judaism came up later in regard to eating. She was commenting on how I eat anything, whereas many of the BU kids are Jews and don't eat pork. "I'm Jewish as well," I said, "but I don't follow those rules." This has become one of her prime curiosities. One Sunday, I told her I had spoken to my parents. "Did you tell them you have been eating pork here?" she asked. "Um...we eat pork at home. My mother loves pork," I said.

Actually, I think we rarely go three days at this point that she doesn't ask or mention something about Judaism. For instance, she's reminded me three times in two days about a polemic art exhibit in which a Jew is holding a machine gun. Judaism, for her, holds the possibility of mysterious, magical religious practices. When I mention that we eat horseradish in a ritual, she immediately asked if it was for voodoo. The actual explanation let her down a little.

Anyway, this weekend, a friend (the guy who hates NJ) invited me to the synagogue. He said it was a nice social experience, since there were people there from all over. It sounded like a good opportunity, since I tend to have a hard time meeting people with which to speak in Spanish and my program can be a bit insular.

I had been warned by my friend Evan, who had studied on the same program, that you can't get into the synagogue without a passport or identity card. What I hadn't anticipated was the degree of the interrogation required before entrance. While the regulars passed unmolested, I was immediately stopped at the door.
"Stop here for a second. Is this your first time here?"
"Where are you from?"
"The United States."
"Oh, so I can speak in English. Why are you in Spain?"
"I'm a student. I study at the Autónoma"
"Where do you live?"
I gave my address.
"How long will you be here?"
"Until June."
"Can I see your passport?"
He flipped through to read my information and visa.
"Are you carrying a cell phone?"
"Yes, but it's off."
"Can I see it?"
He made me turn it on and off again to show that it was a real cell phone.
"Are you carrying any weapons?"
"How did you get here?"
"How did you find out about us?"
"A friend told me."
"What's his name?"
I gave his name, but it didn't seem to ring a bell.
"Will he be here tonight?"
"He said he was coming. I don't know when he'll arrive."
"Did you know that we have dinner for you tonight?"
"I didn't know."
"Oh, well, you're welcome to stay after the service."

The service was pretty standard orthodox (although most of the people were not), though I guess the tunes were Sephardic, so I wasn't familiar with many of them. Afterward, there was kiddush, complete with standard tapas (I assume the ham was fake). I ran into a girl from my program, who had been invited by a guy (who was from Gibraltar!) who worked at a bar near her house. There were probably less than 50 people in total, so I find it amusing that she was among the crowd. Although the meal was probably the worst I've had in Spain, dinner was, as promised, very social. My table was mostly people around my age, with a few Americans, a few Argentinians (one of whom was actually named Brian, in honor of the movie "The Life of Brian" - ironic that he was essentially named after Jesus) and a couple people who seemed to move around so frequently that they didn't identify with any nationality. After dinner, they brought out hard liquor and mixers so that everyone could drink and sing together. There were a lot of invitations to Purim parties for next week (when we wear costumes and drink until we can't remember the difference between good and evil) and some more conversations.

Perhaps the most interesting part for me was how weird it seemed for everything to be conducted in Spanish. When a man with a bushy gray beard and a black suit and hat stands up, I expect him to talk in Yiddish-tinged English, not in Spanish. Similarly, I was a little confused when people started sprinkling their Spanish with Hebrew phrases. For instance, when I asked where are tablemates had gone, the girl sitting next to me told me "netilat yadayim" (to wash hands). I had to have her repeat twice before I realized she wasn't talking in Spanish and that I knew the phrase. Language was actually an interesting issue, since some people there didn't know Spanish. I was talking to one Israeli couple who I originally thought were just humoring me by speaking in English. When I switched into Spanish, they looked confused and then asked, "could you tell us how you learned Spanish? We've been here for a month, but we don't know how to go about learning it." Sometimes, you just had to negotiate through a few languages before you arrived at one or a combination of a few that all members of the conversation understood.

In all, it was probably my successful evening in terms of shear quantity of social interaction since I've arrived, especially since later on I got into a club for free because someone else from the synagogue works in the coat check. It also has invited a whole new round of questions from Pilar, which, I have to admit, is much more interesting than being told every day how it has been raining a lot.

Friday, February 19, 2010

My First Week of School or Why One Should Not Learn Foreign Languages

Yesterday marked the end of my first week at the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid, the Spanish university where I am taking classes. My academic program is a little weird - I took a four-week seminar when I first got here with my program on Spanish culture, and now I take two classes and, if the coordinator ever responds, an internship. My classes are, perhaps, a little narrowly based: Politics of the European Union and Economics of the European Union. If I have to take a third class, it will probably be History of the European Union, just to keep the theme going.

The funny thing is that, since people always talk about the EU in the same way, a lot of the material has already overlapped. For instance, you always start at World War II, discuss the Marshall Plan and OECD, the Schuman Declaration, early European supranational organizations, the European Coal and Steel Community, and the European Economic Community. This means that a lot of the material I learn in EU Econ is repeated in EU Politics later that same day. As a result, when my politics professor asked if anyone could tell the differences between a free trade area, a customs union, a common market, and an economic union with an example of each from the history of European integration*, I was the only person in class who knew.

The most surprising aspect of my university experience is, perhaps, my classmates. I met an American on his second semester at UAM, James, on my first day in my econ class. On my second day, he introduced me to another member of his program, Daniele, who it turns out was my classmate in high school (!). I've been sitting with them and Wei, another Brown student who is still shopping sections, so my interactions have been pretty American-heavy. The Spanish kids didn't show up en masse until Wednesday, even though classes started almost a week earlier. They're really disruptive and don't show up or participate. The professor has actually said repeatedly that he wishes the Spanish kids would act more like the foreigners. He's really nice to us, and said he would do anything to help us out except speak slower (which he said was impossible, though he mumbles a lot and speaks at conversational volume in a huge classroom with bad acoustics). One day when there were few Spanish kids in class, he asked us each where we went to school. Yesterday, he even called on me to back him up on his impressions of Anglo-Saxon spending habits. I was a little confused at first, since I've never ever considered myself Anglo-Saxon, but Spanish people don't really understand the concept of multiethnic cultures, so I played along. Interestingly enough, the question was not directed at James, because, while we would consider ourselves both American and not Anglo-Saxon, Spanish people would never consider that there are multiple ethnicities of white Americans, or that Hispanics are equally American.

Politics of the EU is an unusual class if only because there are only a handful of Spanish students. The vast majority are there with Erasmus, the intra-EU study abroad program. While Boston University reserves the UAM for only the most advanced Spanish speakers, Erasmus couldn't care less. As a result, many of my classmates have had as little as a year of Spanish instruction. On the other hand, everyone speaks English very well and it is sort of a lingua franca, despite the fact that this is, by all means, supposed to be a legitimate Spanish class. The professor doesn't seem to care and even encourages this, much to the anger of the Spanish kids, who are neither required nor expected to understand English to attend the UAM. She said we would be allowed to present in English if everyone was ok with it and, while she lectures in Spanish, her powerpoints and some of her handouts have been in English. The resulting mix of languages can be a bit confusing.

On a whole, the experience feels a bit like high school. The buildings are, architecturally, much more similar to an American high school than a college. Especially in the main complex, the classrooms are squarish with desks and the hallways are long, wide, and littered with students wasting time. Everyone commutes and my Pilar packs me a sandwich everyday (technically a bocadillo since it's on a baguette - Castellano has something like four words for sandwich, one of which being "sandwich", each with a slightly nuanced meaning). People don't pay very much attention in class and sometimes it feels like speaking in Spanish is more of an act than a necessity. I'm really enjoying it, though, and it brings back some interesting memories. Also, long live the European Union!

*For those of you interested, the answer is as follows:
A free trade agreement involves eliminating customs on products and services produced within the member states, but products traded between the states that were produced externally are still subject to customs. Examples include the European Free Trade Association (a mostly defunct early rival to what became the EU), though NAFTA is probably more familiar.
A customs union allows for free trade of all product and services regardless or origin within the member states by coordinating and harmonizing customs rules. Historical examples include the Benelux Customs Union and the early years of the European Economic Community.
A common market is like a customs union, but allows for free movement of factors of production (capital and labor) as well. The later years of the European Community are a good example, though the liberalization of barriers for factors of production was pretty gradual.
An economic union coordinates economic policy to maintain its common market. The modern EU is a pretty reasonable example, though it has not coordinated fiscal policy very well. For this I am thankful, because it means that the financial crisis in Greece has put the Euro in a nosedive against the dollar.

Why Bariş Is a Funny Man

First, a great deal of background is in order.  It is probably skippable, but as long as you have invested the effort in reading this post, why not just read through the whole thing?

There are a bunch of language schools in Ankara, particularly around the city center in Kızılay.  I am actually a little surprised that they can all stay in business, since it must mean that a sizable percent of the population is taking language classes at any given time.  In my own experience, this seems to mesh.  I know two Turks (independent of those that I know from my own language school) that are taking some foreign language at one of these schools.

The schools usually teach English primarily.  Apparently, English is seen as a pretty critical skill.  Even if you are not fluent, it helps when applying for jobs (and the unemployment rate is still pretty high in Turkey) to say you have taken some English.  Because of the importance of English, most of these schools have the work English in their title.  There’s Wall Street English, English Time, and Royal English (this one was a block from my house in Kocatepe and had the great motto (English for the Royal!).  My school is called Active English.  I get the impression that it is one of the more reputable schools in the area, though still not as well known as TOMER.

Active English is actually a serious misnomer.  Though English is still the school’s bread and butter, there are also courses in Turkish, Spanish, German, Chinese, French and various computer programs.  There is also a Russian program, but it’s located on a separate floor (which we have dubbed the Russian Quarter) and it may be owned by someone else.

Anyway, and to get more on topic, our Turkish classes started as morning classes three times a week (for a rather long four hours each day).  The teacher was pretty good, especially when it came to charades.  She was also wildly attractive, and personable in a way that made students not want to cross her for fear that she might get upset.

Unfortunately, because of our university schedules, we had to switch to an evening class.  Our new teacher, Bariş, did a good job in his first day of convincing us that he was the dullest teacher ever to set foot in a classroom.  He was alarmed that we were a week ahead of his class, and spent a lot of time marveling at all the workbook pages we had done.  We agreed to come back in a week and see if the class had picked up to the point where we had left off.

Class two with Bariş was a lot better.  The man is outright goofy and always wants to impress us with how cool he is.  It turns out that Bariş is not very cool, but that is exactly what makes the class so entertaining.  In addition to some useful Turkish, we have now learned:

How to say “I hate myself” in Turkish.  For those looking to pick up on some Turkish phrases at home, you say “Kendimden nefret ediyorum.”

A rather long list of things that Turkish women like to receive as gifts, in both Turkish and English

How to ask to get off the bus four different ways (mostly varying in how rude they are)

How to ask “Are you available?” for both busses and romantic interests (Müsait misin?)

How to say both “shit” (bok) and “same shit every day” (bi bok yok).  The latter of the two is actually more useful, since my Turkish friends often ask how I am, and love to hear foreigners swearing in Turkish (I think this is actually universal across languages).

That raw oysters sold off the street are apparently safe to eat.  Several other Turks have disagreed with this assertion.  Fortunately, two of the students in our group, Johnny and Nick, decided to test for themselves last night.  I saw Johnny this morning looking about as healthy as he does every morning (that is, not very much until his first cup of coffee).  I’m still not sure how long it takes for food poisoning to set in.

Things one should say at various points in a relationship (reproduced from my notes, below):
     o         Gün 1: Ben senden çok hoşlanıyorum (Day 1: I like you a lot)
     o  Gün 15: Seni çok seviyorum (Day 15: I love you very much)
     o  Gün 60: Senden nefret ediyourm (Day 60: I hate you)

That Hooters is one of the finest restaurants in America, specializing in chicken wings.  As Bariş explained in half-Turkish, half-English, he is aware of Hooters because his friend from America gave him a Hooters shirt as a gift.  I think that Bariş was convinced that voicing his love for Hooters (which again, he has never been to) would make him more popular with the Americans in the room (none of whom have actually been to Hooters).  We told him that it was indeed a very famous restaurant, known for its wings and other offerings.

Long story short, I haven’t been looking forward to Turkish class this much since I went for two weeks without being able to use verbs.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Life in Jesus IronMoon Dorm

So when I last left my mark in the blogosphere, I had just moved in to my temporary dormitory.  So much has changed since then.  To start with, I have moved to another, much nicer dorm.  Isa Demerary Yurt (or translated into English, Jesus IronMoon Dorm) is apparently one of the nicest public dorms in METU.  It is so desirable that you have to be in the top 5000 students or so in the country to get a room in it.  You could also be an exchange student, and find yourself there under no circumstances of academic merit, which I think attracted some resentment from my temporary dorm mates.

So how nice is Isa Demeray?  Whereas Dorm 9 was better than a Belarusian dorm but worse than a Serbian dorm (this information was provided by my new Serbian and Belarusian friends), Isa Demeray is roughly the quality of a dorm you would find in America (except for the squat toilets again).  The dorm is spacious in the work and sleeping rooms, forgoing bunk beds but keeping the four to a room arrangement.  The space breakdown per person is probably about the same as at Mudd, but the bathrooms are public (and did I mention squat toilets?).  A couple of added features include a kitchen, a computer lab, two restaurants and a study room that looks strangely like a sweatshop sans sewing machines.  As another perk, the three massive Demeray dorms stacked next to each other have a nifty soviet-era vibe.

Because the dorm only accepts the best students, the population breakdown makes me have flashbacks to Mudd.  There are a lot of unkempt beards, people shuffling down the hall with their eyes on their toes and the like.  My roommates include Johnny, my fellow Mudder (they like to keep exchange students doubled up, apparently) a quiet guy name Emere and a fairly personable guy named Yusuf.  Yusuf and Emere are both first year electrical engineering students studying for their English qualifying exams.  If they pass at the end of the year, they will be able to take real classes.  If not, they will be stuck doing English for another year.  Fortunately Yusuf seemed amiable to the idea of helping me practice Turkish by speaking in it a good deal of the time.  In reality he is mostly out of the room playing a bizarre card game that seems to mostly require card counting.  Still, I appreciate the thought.  Emere on the other hand has mostly remained silent on that and every issue.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

My Excitement of the Day

The man in the apartment above me is screaming. It also occasionally sounds like he is moving around furniture very quickly. It doesn't sound like he's talking to anyone, though. I asked Álvaro if he thought the man was watching the same soccer match as he had been. "Could be," he said, "but I'm not watching it anymore, so I wouldn't know. That man is crazy. There are a lot of drugs in that apartment." I wonder if perhaps he is playing floor hockey. That would explain both the scuffling and the yelling.

I had a very uneventful day. I have no classes on Tuesday (I'll write about classes soon) and my internship hasn't started yet. Also, it has been raining for a few days with no sign of stopping. For entertainment, I got a haircut. The barber didn't seem like he had a lot of foreigners come by. He was also very concerned that my hair was "tough", whatever that means, but he did a good job, and since people don't tip here, it came out to about the same price as Supercuts. Since I get reimbursed for watching Spanish movies, I went to the movie theater with some friends to see the movie that won the Goyas, the Spanish equivalent of the Oscars. Pilar has been telling me to go see it since the day I arrived, so I was a bit disappointed that it was only good, but not mind-blowing. Apparently, she hadn't actually seen it; she was just going on positive recommendations.

Now the man is clapping. This is reinforcing the sports-watching theory, but I still have to explain the scuffling sound.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

A week-old post

Yesterday I left home for the dorm at METU.  I am living in a state dorm for the next week until they move us into our permanent housing arrangements (could be the same dorm for all I know) (Ed. It’s not).  My host parents were of the impression that the state dorms would be awful.  In reality, they compare favorably to a dorm I stayed at in Michigan State.  There are four people to a room (though only three in the room for now) with a separate desk room for working and a useless foyer.  I will have to adjust to (read: figure out how to use) the squat toilet, but I assumed that I would have to take the plunge (hopefully not literally) at some point during my tenure in Turkey.

Leaving home was sad.  I really got to like my family and given my limited Turkish, I couldn’t really even express that to them.  They told me that I should be sure to visit and I told them I would.  As I will still need to make the trek to that part of the city twice a week and the bus leaves right outside my dorm, it will be easy to pop my head in on occasion, perhaps being able to hold a conversation without a dictionary.

In other news, I went out for dinner yesterday and lunch today with some Iranians.  They were friends of the temporary roommate of a Pitzer student.  They were all from different parts of the country, different ages and had been in METU for different amounts of time, but they were sticking together as an issue of national camaraderie.  We talked a good deal about politics and such.  They were universally opposed to Ahmedinijad and the forces keeping him in power.  The whole thing made me feel pretty hopeful about Iran actually.  The people are genuinely fed up and believe that it is only a matter of time before the country becomes a democracy.  I also learned that America’s most powerful tool of foreign democracy is “Friends.”  Apparently Iranians love the show and it is pretty common among wealthier Iranians to have a DVD box set of the entire show.  The man sitting across from me seemed equally concerned with Chandler’s antics as he was with election fraud.

Turkish television, on the other hand is terrible for America.  Turks love action shows about spies or the mafia.  Americans are usually evil gang lords.  One of the most popular shows (the name roughly translates to Wolf Valley) pits the good Turks against the evil Americans and Israelis.  The best scene of the series has an American soldier in Iraq screaming “GIVE ME MORE ORGANS!!”

In short, the culture war is very real, and it is our job as Americans to combat foreign influence through superior television.

Cooooooookies? For Breeeaaakfast?

My rant of the week has to do with the health of the Spanish diet. I think, due to our obesity problem, Americans always think that other developed countries are more health-conscious or practice some sort of traditionally healthy diet. My experience in Spain has taught me that none of this is true:

Breakfast is, perhaps, the worst culprit in terms of health. The most traditional breakfast, churros (aka porras) y chocolate, consists of three or four sort of long doughnuts served with a cup of thick hot chocolate. Not exactly the breakfast of champions. Typically, however, it is coffee, some sort of sweet pastry, and fruit. In my house, this pastry is usually prepackaged and neither filling nor healthy, such as pound-cake, mini croissants, or mini muffins. The most hearty option appears to be "digestive" cookies. Let's not kid ourselves - these are not health food. They consist of two biscuits, about two inches in diameter, sandwiching a layer of chocolatey goodness. They're pretty good, if I do say so myself, especially with coffee between bites. It just doesn't exactly stave off hunger until 2:00 lunch.

It would be one thing if the Spanish were self-aware of their silly eating habits, but this is not the case. This Sunday, I woke up at 11:00 or so and went to get a cup of coffee. Pilar asked me if I wanted breakfast, but I said I would just wait for lunch, since it was so soon. She then made a big deal about how breakfast was the most important meal of the day. "What are you talking about?" I said, "people in this country eat coffee, cookies, and fruit. It's not exactly a healthy meal." She just shrugged. To drive home the point and because they're delicious, I got a cookie to take with my coffee. "Better?" I asked, and to really reemphasize what I was saying, in my best Cookie Crisp voice, I said, "Galleeeeeetas? Para el desayuuuuuuno?" Pilar looked at me like I was crazy. I guess she never saw one of their English ads.

My daily breakfasts, however, have palled in comparison to this week's. Always concerned (just like my real mother) that my diet is monotonous*, Pilar bought a couple of pre-packaged breakfast pastries. The first one I had wasn't anything absurd, but the second was what can only be described as a circular, chocolate-covered twinkie. I was a bit offended that it was even a bit better. While it lacked the quintessentially American artificial fluffiness, the cream was identical.

This makes even less sense in contrast with the attitude taken towards fruit. Not only is fruit considered an appropriate, if not standard, desert, but it is thought of as downright unhealthy. Pilar has said that Lili, the cleaning lady, got fat eating grapes and bananas, for example. She even recommended that Lili switch to apples, which are apparently much healthier.

Other meals are not so bad, though everything is laced with salt and there are few vegetables. I suppose the only real health improvement is in snacking. Snacks are sort of a planned social thing, and usually involve coffee or beer and a mini-sandwich, often of tortilla (a potato omelet). I'm slowly adjusting, though, and Pilar is a great cook. I guess I should just lay off on the American product jingles.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Meet My New Best Friend

I would like you all to meet my new best friend. His name is Sr. Abono. We have lots of fun together...riding metros...riding buses...riding búhos (night buses)...riding trains...ok, he tends to only want to join me on adventures in public transportation, but we're still great buddies. He cost €53 per month (because I'm old and I go to university outside of the city limits), but it's completely worth it. My first day, I took 7 rides on public transportation. I'll even take the metro to go one stop now if I feel like it. The lack of technology bothers me, though. All the information on the card is filled in by hand and the picture is just a passport photo that was glued on. To use it, you have to remove the little slip of paper with a magnetic strip and feed it through the machine, though if you don't bring the whole thing, you can be fined.

Today, I went to the Plaza Mayor to see the marketplace there. It was just about the coolest place I've ever been. All they sell on Sunday mornings in the street is coins, paper money, stamps, propaganda, and military memorabilia. If anyone is looking for a particular piece of currency or wants something from the Spanish Civil War or World War II, let me know. I will have to limit how frequently I go there, since I have a hard time refusing fascist military propaganda posters. I spent the rest of the morning (read: pre-2:30 pm in Spain) in the Rastro, which is the weekly open-air flea market that sells everything from shirts to rubber tubes (I really don't know what they were for) to crafts to extension cords.

Also, Pilar announced at lunch that she would like to learn English, with the ultimate goal that she would speak exclusively in it to Álvaro's hypothetical children. This scenario seems unlikely in the relatively near future, however, as Álvaro, at 33, does not appear to be with anyone and doesn't seem to be in much of a rush. It doesn't help that Pilar's English vocabulary consists of "how are you", "very", "how much does that cost", and a few other words. She also thinks that "very fine" is a common response to "how are you". Furthermore, when Pilar announces plans, it usually means that she has no intention to do anything about them. For instance, her plan to quit smoking has so far consisted solely in her buying (but not using) nicotine pills.

As an editorial correction, I would like to apologize for telling the story about the Spanish guy who got angry when I mistakenly told him I was from New York. I ran into him again and it turns out he's from Maryland. He claims that his hatred of New Jersey comes from having cousins there.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Kan Is Not Mentioned In This Post - Happy Now, Evan?

After a trip to the internet café (I now know the correct case to say “I am going to the internet café,” by the way) today, I decided to take a trip to Beğendik.  Beğendik (the ğ is silent) is listed in my guidebook as “the Sears of Turkey” and conveniently located under the giant mosque a block from my house.  I think that in terms of the scope of things available the store is perhaps more of a Super Wal-Mart than Sears.  My family eats food exclusively from the supermarket on the first floor.  There are also reasonable home furnishings, clothing, stationary, book, plant, toiletries, toy and bakery/specialty foods sections in addition to several café-like setups.  The only thing giving Sam Wal the upper hand in the comparison (besides the low low prices offered by Chinese sweat-shop workers) is the selection.  Beğendik has somewhere between one and three choices of most items.  The one exception is in the toiletries section, where there are more toothpastes than I have ever seen before.  Still, you have to give them credit for including the wares of every store in Kızılay (about five blocks away) under one roof (or mosque, as it is).
So why would I need to check out Beǧendik for my shopping needs?  I was looking for some boxers.  Pitzer had recommended that I bring two pairs, I think, in addition to one shirt, a pair of pants and some organic, fair trade granola in case I got hungry.  I had fortunately ignored most of the suggestions, but I had not packed two weeks of boxers, and it was clearly the limiting factor in laundry.  I could have gone to a variety of other stores around Kizilay, but I was hoping to avoid sales people.  You see, Turkish sales people are of the belief that your presence in their store is a sure sign that they have what you want.  If they do not, it is the sales person’s job to convince you otherwise.  If the product is too expensive, or it is not your style, this is when the salesperson believes you are playing hard-to-get.  To soften you, they may try to become your friend.  I now know a clothing salesman in Ankamall that has a dream of moving to America and becoming a dentist.  His favorite basketball team is the Los Angeles Lakers.  See what I mean?  In a small store, the moment you walk in, you are accosted by some excited sales person saying “buyrun!”  At Beǧendik, all you have to do is not be too interested in anything you are looking at and not stick around in a single part of the store for too long.  These self-created rules were easy to abide by, and I spent a happy half hour browsing the store unbothered.  In the end, I bought the only two pairs of some reasonably priced ($3 US or so) boxers in my size and walked out entirely satisfied.  Even though I leave the neighborhood this weekend, I doubt that I have made my last trip to Beğendik.
The real excitement today though was not Beğendik, but a lunch with my international student advisor at METU (my soon-to-be university).  My advisor, Esra (that’s a girl’s name, though to the best of my knowledge there is no rule of thumb to determining gender from a name), was the first counter culture person I have met in Turkey.  When I met up with her, she had just come back from a morning-long protest over benefits for newly fired tobacco and alcohol producers.  The tobacco and alcohol businesses used to be government-owned (as was most of Turkey in the ‘80s) and the privatization of the industry has resulted in a lot of job losses.  Esra does not work for the industry, but sensing some sort of injustice, she had to protest.  Esra is also the first Turk I have met to:
1.      Share an apartment with non-family members of the opposite gender
2.      Consider vegetarianism legitimate
3.      Mention the words “Kurd” (I have heard of the PKK, the Kurdish terrorism organization, but never of the Kurds themselves)or “Armenian Genocide”
4.      Complain of a lack of things to do after midnight
5.      Have a serious facial piercing
6.      Use the word “overconsumption”  (In a country where the better-off have had the ability to over-consume for no more than 20 years, it is assumed you will buy as much as you can possibly afford)
No doubt, the semester that she spent in the Netherlands probably made a huge difference.  Were I to meet Esra in America, I would consider her a typical liberal teenager.  In Turkey, which has a secular Muslim “Leave It to Beaver” vibe going on, she was a breath of fresh air to have a conversation with.  As an added bonus, her English was not bad.

Now I Actually Tell You About Things... the weekend begins I figure I should catch up on the previous week. I know I've told a lot of people some of these stories already, but it turns out more people are reading this than I thought, so you'll all just have to suffer.

Friday and Saturday were trip days. Friday we had a class trip to Toledo, the ancient capital where supposedly Muslims, Christians, and Jews all lived in harmony until the inquisition drove them out. It notably contains places of worship named "Synagogue of Saint Mary the White" and "Mosque of Christ the Light". On Saturday, I went by bus with a couple of friends to a city called Buitrago in the north of the province. It was pretty interesting and still has its old Arab wall. It also contains a tiny Picasso museum in the basement of the municipal building. Apparently Picasso was very close to his barber and gave him lots of books with marker doodles, among other things. Said barber was a Buitrago resident and donated his gifts to the town government in his will. We later took a walk to the next village, Gascones, which had little of interest to offer other than a population below 150. I have pictures of everything, but I'm still working on getting them online. I'll link them soon.

Friday evening, some friends convinced me to go to what looked from the flier to be a fairly risque cabaret but ended up being a standard drag show at a bar. The first drag queen, Traumática, told reasonable jokes (I think - I don't understand colloquial Castellano well when it's spoken that quickly), but the second performer, Lady Noche, was truly a worthwhile experience. While something seemed wrong at first glance, it took me a minute or so to realize that she was wearing blackface! I was sort of horrified, but not quite as much as the African-American woman (and only other American there, it seemed) standing in front of us. Lady Noche also pretended to be American for her act, and actually had an American accent in Spanish down pretty well, though she didn't quite have it in English. This gave us an opportunity to hear the American stereotypes of the evening, which seemed to be (1) we're extremely religious and always dedicate things to Jesus, (2) while we assume everyone speaks English, we put an effort into speaking Spanish, but do so extremely poorly with hilarious effects (she at one point said "tengo maricones en mi estómago" for "I have butterflies in my stomach"), and (3) we're really naive about foreigners and think they're all friendly.

For the beginning of the week, we had a new professor to talk to us about immigration. She was an anthropologist of Cuban descent and clearly didn't like how immigrants were treated in Spain. After the first day, which she spent telling us how much better the U.S. treats its immigrants than the Spanish, she began going radical. On Tuesday, when I suggested that I thought countries had a right to regulate their borders and determine who could immigrate, and that developing all of Africa was not a plausible short-term solution to immigration, I got a half-hour lecture about how I apparently wasn't recognizing the historical background of immigration and believed that Africans should be doomed to poverty. The next day, I tried to be less controversial, but apparently failed again. When I pointed out that the author of an article had made insufficient distinction between Northern and Sub-Saharan Africa and that this led to incorrect analysis of immigration flows and cultural connections, I was given another lecture on how if we can't talk about Africa as a whole, we can't talk about anything at all, because we'll just have to keep sub-dividing and sub-dividing. Any attempt to clarify myself caused her to repeat her lecture in a louder and angrier voice. Eventually, trying to end the conflict, I said I wasn't going to continue because I didn't speak Spanish well enough to clarify (Pilar's suggestion). Rather than putting the issue aside, she told me to explain it to the class in English so I could "get it out" even if she couldn't understand. I didn't exactly make a lot of friends that day it class.

Wednesday was also out visit to the stock market. Pilar and Álvaro had told me it was a peaceful place, which seemed like a strange description to me, but I didn't really expect how peaceful it was. Despite occupying a "temple to economics", the trading floor was almost completely empty in the middle of the morning. It turns out that trade aren't really conducted on the floor anymore, but rather are mostly online. As a result, most of the people were reading newspapers, chatting, or aimlessly watching the ticker. On the floor, an older man (like almost everyone else in the room stopped me. "What are you guys here for?" he asked.
"We're university students at the Autónoma"
"Do you guys study economics?"
"Some of us do, but we all study different things. I study economics, though."
"Oh, it's great that you're here. Kids these days don't know anything about stock markets. They just want to go and become the chief of a bank without understanding anything. I was an intermediary for years, but now that I'm retired, I still come here every day, just like everyone else. I hope you all learn a lot!"
Note to self: The Madrid Stock Exchange is, rather than the heart of the Spanish financial system, a beautiful financially-themed senior citizens' center.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

I Would Have Written a Funny Baby Post Too, but Spain Hates Families

Soon, I will have to post some sort of catch-up post in which I describe meandering through the countryside, seeing a drag queen in blackface pretend to be American, getting yelled at daily by an angry anthropologist of Cuban descent, and chatting it up with some retired intermediaries who like to hang out on the stock market trading floor for old time's sake.

In the meantime, David's post reminded me about something I've been wanting to talk about: Spanish society signals the destruction of the family. Seriously. I think Spanish people hate the family. This place is is exactly what conservatives fear.

My first indication was the day I arrived at Pilar's house. We went to the bar for a pre-lunch snack, where we ran into her neighbor and his middle-aged son.She told me the son has three kids. Everyone there agreed that you had to be crazy to have three kids in Madrid. I thought it was a funny exaggeration, until last week when Pilar and I were watching the news over dinner. Spanish news dwells on the unimportant, and today was no exception. Taking a break from discussing, for the third day that week, how it was below freezing outside, they ran a report about how expensive it is to have a kid. I made some joke about it, to which Pilar responded that they were right; no one here would want to have kids. I mentioned the neighbor from before, but she dismissed him as actually crazy in multiple ways. What do the Spanish do instead of having kids? They go out. They get drinks or go on vacations. Think of how many drinks and vacations you would have to give up if you had a kid? All the time it takes?

In fact, sometimes it seems like the entire family structure is falling apart. Thanks to really poor economic policies, there aren't really any jobs, so kids stay home until their mid-thirties. When the do, especially the sons, their mothers make food, do laundry, and clean the house. Maybe the kids get married eventually, but I haven't heard anyone mention weddings. A professor even told me that the reason gay marriage was approved here was becuase no one really cares about marriage anymore (also, the socialists are like an über-progressive bulldozer of social legislation). Are the Spanish concerned? No. The birthrate has fallen way below the replacement level, but that doesn't mean that wants to allow immigrants to replace those leaving the workforce.

It's well-known that Spain went crazy after Franco in a period called the destape, but I find some of this is a bit over the line. For instance, I was walking around Gran Via, the main drag, around 2:30 AM on Saturday (ok, technically Sunday). I had known their were prostitutes there, but I guess I had never been out that late before. The street was littered them. They were all over the place. At first they were just calling at me if I looked at them, but as I got further down the street, they started to just call to whoever walked by. As I got to Plaza del Carmen, they actually started coming up to me and grabbing my shoulders. I mentioned this to Pilar, who said the same thing happens to her.

Usually in the U.S., the phrase "destruction of the family" is used in the context of homosexuality. Here, too, the Spanish are on a totally different level. Unlike the U.S., where gay men (people rarely talk about lesbians here) are admired in pop culture as the best friends of women, in Spain, gay men are valued in culture for the fact that they have formerly controversial sexual relations. Actually, sex in general is just glorified. Graphic pornography is sold at newsstands alongside everything else. Honestly, people just seem to love taboo things. It doesn't even matter what it is.

I've never felt so conservative in my life, to be honest. Yesterday, my host brother confided in me that, though he realizes it's not politically correct, he doesn't believe sex reassignment surgery should take place on waiting lists ahead of dental surgery. This was, based on the context of the conversation, the most controversial conservative thing he could think of.

The moral of the story: Fascist dictatorships do not end in conservative societies. Quite the opposite...

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Kan is Back and I Fear For His Life

 Kan and his mother have returned, bring laughs and blood curdling shreaks back to my temporary abode.  This clearly means that my next objective learning the name of Kan's mother\Cihan's wife.

Anyway, I know I may have been overconcerned about Kan eating honey.  After all, most honey is fine for babies and adults and he was fed so little of it.  On the other hand, I am convinced that Kan's newest toy is not a good idea.  It is one thing perhaps to see if a baby takes interest in a red mylar (that shiny plastic they make balloons out of) bag.  It is another thing to give it to him as toy to play with when everyone is in the other room eating dinner.  The poor guy doesn't even like playing with it, but they keep puting it in his hands.  I may be out of line, but I might teach myself the Turkish word for suffocation if this continues.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Photos and I Now Know the Baby's Name... Too Bad He Is Missing

Yesterday at dinner my host mother said something about Kan not existing.  I assumed that Kan was some sort of food product or service, but figuring that this Kan might be important, I looked quizically at her.  She sadş 'the baby' and I make an oooh sound (which unlike 'umm' is not vulgar slang) and we went on with dinner.  To be fair, I should have guessed this.  My host mother loves saying 'Kan... Kan... Kan...' to the baby, but like 'gel' (the imperative of to come and a popular thing to say to babies) I assumed that Kan was just some sort of command.  Now that Kan and his mother are gone (seemingly temporarıly as they left their things and husband\father behind) the house is quieter, but at least I know the names of almost everyone in the family.

Now for photos to prove I am not still living in the basement of my\my parents house.
 Kocatepe Mosque as seen from my Turkish classroom.

Kocatepe Mosque as seen from my bedroom.  The classroom has a better view.

Kocatepe Mosque inside.  Perhaps the best view.

Ankara at Night.  Seen from the Citadel.

The mausoleum of Ataturk

Beautiful Safronbol.  The tourist destination of locals.

We examine a Turkish excercise park.  The conclusion: fun, but it's not going to get anyone in shape.
The view from Turkish class.  Ataturk looks down on us as he does in most every Turkish building.  He eveng greets me as I come though the door home each day.

Nıck shows off a fez, illegal in Turkey since the 20s.  We found this one in a house museum.

Steps Forwards and Backwards in Turkish

The exciting news from Turkish class this week is that we finally got around to learning verbs. Having just spent two weeks trying to communicate without them, I can tell you that they are pretty necessary for most conversations (though saying that things do and do not exist actually got me pretty far). So overcome with joy over learning the present tense, I decided to teach myself the more useful of two past tenses (one is used to describe things the speaker witnessed, while the other is used to report events that the speaker was told secondhand). Verb conjugation is thankfully easy, and I think I might teach myself the future tense by the end of the day so I can tell warn my host family of future events such as my ultimate departure this coming weekend.

Anyway, it appears that I am not reaching the point where I can sometimes have conversations not directly related to my wants and needs. Last night, I had an extended and lovely conversation with my host brother (again, he seems to mature to call my brother, so let’s call him Cihan, which is apparently his name) about my life and future plans. I believe that he works for a large defense contractor in Turkey. When he heard that I was a studying mechanical engineering, he wanted to know if I was going to work for Lockheed Martin (or wrote it, Locked Marlin).

I also had a brief discussion about vitamins, as my host father had picked up a pamphlet from a purportedly well-respected (read: I have never heard of them) American vitamin company. Cihan’s wife (name as-of-yet unknown) asked me what I thought about vitamins. In America, this is usually the point when I launch into a lengthy speech about how most Americans get enough vitamins as it is and that multivitamins are at least expensive, if not (particularly in the case of excessive fat-soluble vitamin consumption) somewhat detrimental to one’s health. Because on a good day, my Turkish vocabulary is limited to about a thousand words, I instead said that I did not think vitamins were good. Cihan’s wife kindly referred me to the pamphlet, which said that these vitamins were not only the winner of the Vity (perhaps the Grammys of the vitamin community?) award, but they were also approved by the ABD, a very respectable American organization. At first I thought that maybe the acronym was the Turkish translation of the Food and Drug Administration, but there was no word for “drug” in ABD, so I told them that I did not know of the ABD. The family, having all gathered in the kitchen because of the commotion caused by the vitamin pamphlet, looked at me like I was crazy, reminded me that the ABD was American and very famous, and ignored me. Later on, I at least managed to get in that Vitamin E supplements were probably a bad thing, but I fear that my anti-multivitamin crusade* has failed to take route in Turkey.

Partially as a result of the previous night’s events, I did not attempt to stop Cihan’s wife from feeding the baby honey this morning even though I am sure that is not a good idea. Feeding the (6 month old) baby food from the dinner table is the new game around the house. My conclusion is that the baby really does not like any of it, but the fact of the matter is that the baby hates eating baby food as well.

I have also learned to play “Okey,” which is a tile-based version of rummy and a Turkish obsession**. Though the game is not excessively difficult, I needed the Americans in my group to teach me in a game saloon. I played at home too, which was fun. My host mother attempted to teach me a similar card game, but my Turkish was not quite good enough to catch all the rules.

Finally, I have a quick one of those look-at-what-silly-things-happen-to-me-because-I-know-no-Turkish stories. Yesterday, I went to the Avea (my phone service provider) store to buy more minutes (or kontor, which are different from minutes, but I don’t know why). Every store has signs outside advertising how cheap the minutes are, and it really is a good deal to call domestically. I went inside, walked up to the nearest desk, and asked for 500 minutes. The man pointed to a computer-printout with minutes and prices that were twice of the sign outside. Stupidly assuming that he was going to charge me the price advertised by the signs inside and outside the store, not the one he was pointing to, I said that was fine. He added my minutes and then asked me for quite a bit of money. I gave a half-hearted protest about how the price should have been half that, and the man said something I didn’t understand. I paid him, realizing that though it was an Avea store, I apparently bought kontor from another company. Had I walked to the next desk down, I could have bought Avea minutes. Live and learn, I suppose.

*I do approve of Vitamin C, which is at least not bad for you and in excessively large doses may be good for your immune system. Assuming it does nothing, I think the placebo effect offers a net benefit.

**This is also why Turks do not say “okay.” For what is supposed to be the second-most-recognized word in the world, it is sort of funny that I have heard it once during the past three weeks. Fortunately, the word “tamam” can be used as a near direct translation. I think my host father tried to teach it to me the first day so I would not say “yes” all the time. Since them, I have embraced “tamam” with open arms.