Friday, March 26, 2010

Tidbits From Turkish Class and Photos

First of all, I now have a link for photos.  Johnny has compiled a whole bunch of them here:

The gallery is still missing pictures from my first month in Turkey (I sort of fell bad taking up space on Johnny's profile with pictures that have nothing to do with him.  I'll probably get over myself soon) but it has a whole bunch.  Feel free to vicariously visit Turkey!

In other news, I saw a movie called "Devrim Arabası" in Turkish class yesterday.  In it, General Cemal Gürsel, having just taken over the government in a coup, declares that Turkey will start an automotive industry.  This is 1961 and apparently not just anyone can build a car, so the public declares the whole thing impossible.  Cemal Paşa orders a small group of railway engineers build a prototype entirely from Turkish parts in 150 days.  Turkey at this time has almost no industrial infrastructure, and the budget and work conditions aren't exactly ideal for the projects.  The engineers toil away, barely sleeping or seeing their wives (in Turkey in 1961, women were not allowed to engineer anything but dinner) and finally construct two working prototypes for a national celebration.  The media, meanwhile reports that the project is doomed to be a failure.

---SPOILER ALERT (not that you're ever going to find this on Netflix)---

At the end of the movie, the engineers load the cars onto the train to bring them to Ankara.  As per safety precautions, they siphon of as much gas a s possible, leaving only enough for the cars to make a trip from parliament to a parade.  Unfortunately, the gas gauge is slow to respond, and they take too much gas out of the tank - a mistake they realize just before the demonstration run.  The car runs out of gas with Cemal Paşa inside, and the whole thing is a public nightmare.  Even though the cars are perfectly good, the project is scrapped as a result of the public humiliation of the event.

This was the best engineering-themed movie I've seen.  In fact, it is one of the only engineering-themed movies I've seen, but it really was quite good.  The engineers were these lovable tragic heroes, doing the impossible just to have the product of their tireless work ruined by clueless higher-ups .  It was like a Dilbert was turned into a sports movie.  If only engineering was popular enough to inspire a similarly stirring movie in America.

In other news, Turkish is a strange language.   The language is almost entirely gender neutral, but the exceptions are ridiculous.  He, she and it are all the same word (O).  There are, however, different names for maternal and paternal relatives.  Your maternal aunt is your teyze, while your paternal aunt is your hala.  The same sort of scheme goes for uncles, grandmothers, grandfathers and (I think) cousins.

Look At Me! I'm Culturally Aware and Indignant!

The craziest thing happened to me this week - I got homework.  It’s nothing like the levels of homework I've done at Mudd, it does include assignments for all of my 6 classes, and in some of them I have had to teach myself how to do things that all the other students learned in previous years.  While this is by and large a good thing, it has required me to prioritize my activities, and obsessively blogging has not seemed as important as passing my classes (in the typical Mudd fashion, this means I need a B or higher), traveling or spending time with friends.

Over the past two weeks, I’ve been on two trips that showed a pretty serious contrast in traveling styles.  The first, to Tuz Gölü (Salt Lake) was a pretty ideal adventure to a not-particularly-nice place.  The lake is huge, and about an hour from Ankara on a major road.  Johnny and I were sold on going after seeing pictures of miles of salt crystals on the base of the lake, shown on a blog of an American expat in Turkey.

There was actually very little information about the lake outside of this one blog.  The Turks think that visiting a giant salt lake is a stupid idea.  They believe that lakes are dirty (partially because the country has a nasty habit of dumping raw sewage into lakes) and prefer to sip tea by massive artificial water features instead.  In checking my story for this post, I asked two of my Turkish friends whether they had swum in a lake.  One had once, but it had been in another country.  The other had never even considered the possibility.

We took the bus from the main terminal, arriving at the town of Şereflikoçisar (to our confusion, just about everyone calls it Koçisar).  From the town (which had the sort of charm you can only find in dusty, forlorn Turkish towns) we had a nine kilometer walk to the lake.  It was quite a nice day and everyone was out, though we had no clue exactly what they were doing.  There were a lot of families that seemed to be picking trash up from the side of the street.  Others apparently were burning small patches of grass.  All seemed friendly, though not particularly talkative.  Eventually we made it to the side of the lake, which was still pretty wet, but had some sizable salt deposits.  We hitched a ride back to the city from an insistently helpful but marginally talkative guy, ate some pide (sort of like pizza), and talked to some inquisitive locals before our bus departed.

The following weekend we went to Cappadocia with most of the Erasmus (European exchange) students at METU.  As I dislike many of the Erasmus students almost as much as I dislike taking bus tours with 40 people, I had low hopes for the trip.  Pitzer agreed to pay for a single Erasmus-based trip though, and as Cappadocia is a little hard to see without a car, I decided to go with Johnny, Nick (from Pitzer) and Müjgan, (my closest Turkish friend).

The trip consisted of a lot of what Müjgan called "Halı Kilim Turizm."  The term was a little confusing at first, since Turkey is all about carpets.  While the tourists no doubt are exposed to tons of carpets, the locals line their homes with them, and the roads out of Ankara feature miles upon miles of carpet factory outlets.

Site-by-site on our bus route, I worked up a rough definition.  The parts of the country heavily traveled by tourists are full of elements of the Turkey of lore – less like real Turkey than like the average western conception of the country.  I spent a weekend searching for camels during the heat of camel wrestling season and saw not a single camel.  This past weekend, I saw no fewer than four camels, their garishly-dressed owners offering rides to tourists craving that “Authentic Turkish Experience.”  “Turkey Night,” held in a massive cave full of foreigners, was an improvement in that it resembled a meyhane (rakı bar), but the decision to have traditional wedding dancing rather than depressing music (a must in a meyhane) seemed like a cop-out.

Now this really wouldn’t have bothered me, except I get the impression that these same attractions crowd almost every popular tourist site in Turkey.  Shuttled in air conditioned bus from one site to another, there are probably some tourists that leave the country still convinced that people ride camels and wear fezzes (the latter of which have been semi-illegal for 80 years).

This is probably a bad thing for Turkey.  I’ve spoken to a bunch of Turks that studied abroad, and they all complained that they constantly had to convince people in their host countries that they did not ride camels to school or keep women in harems.  Some of these westerners had even been to Turkey, but all they saw were camels and belly dancers.

An hour away from Cappadocia, Şereflikoçisar is poorer and more isolated, but a tourist there would have trouble distinguishing it from Eastern Europe.  I have little doubt that if it were to suddenly become a major tourist attraction, it would start to look a whole lot more like a trading village in Yemen.

Anyway, that’s enough self righteous complaining.  Here are the links to some pictures:

Tuz Gölü


Monday, March 22, 2010

Of Firecrackers and Huge Pillars of Flames

This weekend, I decided, after being convinced by the constant advertising of a certain bus company and some friends, to take a trip to Valencia on the east coast of Spain for Las Fallas, a traditional festival.  Unfortunately, in my wavering, I missed the sign-up with Erasmus Student Network (the name is in English for some reason), the exchange student social program at my university.  I ended up having to having to buy a ticket with said bus company, which was more expensive, but at least left from a much more conveniently located station.

From what I have heard and been told, Las Fallas (Falles in Catalan*) is a month-long celebration of Saint Joseph, but has turned into a demonstration of Valencian heritage.  The central part is the building of Fallas, which are giant satirical sculptures, in every neighborhood square.  Each day, there is a wake-up call by a brass band and 2:00 pm firecracker events.  The celebration becomes more intense towards the end, with an offering of flowers to the Virgin, which are later turned into a statue of the Virgin herself, and four consecutive nights of fireworks shows.

The last day is really the culmination of the festival.  We arrived around 1:00 pm, having received an text from a friend that there were "explosions" in the municipal plaza at 2:00.  It was immediately clear when we had made it to Valencia.  All around us, we could hear what sounded like gunshots at frequent but irregular intervals.  After finding a map and asking many people for directions, we began to get into the old part of the city.  We were shocked to find that the sounds were not any sort of official celebration, but rather people in the street just throwing around firecrackers.  Perhaps that descriptions is too tame: by "people", I mean mostly kids under the age of 15, and by "throwing around" I mean dropping them from windows, setting them in the street and running away, or even just throwing them at people.  While a few, mostly those under 5, had poppers, most had the real deal.  They would light them with special fuses, drop them, and five seconds later there would be an incredibly loud sound as they exploded.  They were small and you couldn't really see if they were lit, so we had to constantly scan our surroundings to make sure there wasn't one near us.  Parents didn't seem to think anything of handing live explosives to their kids.  In fact, the only discipline I saw was when a teacher halfheartedly scolded a elementary school student for throwing one at us.  It felt like a war zone.  I'm really glad I didn't have battle PTSD.

By 2:00, we reached the municipal square, which was absolutely packed to the brim, to witness the final Mascletà, a display of firecrackers and fireworks that is supposed to be a loud as possible.  We were far enough off that it was just sort of fun, but in the center, I hear it can be hard on the eardrums.  We also ran into a few parades, full of people in traditional dress.  The rest of the afternoon was spent looking at the fallas and avoiding firecrackers.

As the sun set, we went to the parade.  While the first few performers were just people in traditional costume and bands playing the local oboe-like instrument, it quickly descended into more and more ostentatious displays of Roman candles: grim reapers carrying scythes with Roman candles, devils holding pitchforks with Roman candles, giant statues of bulls lit up with Roman candles, jesters running around with Roman candles, etc.  It was fantastic.  The climax was a giant metal turtle with people under it swinging around fireworks on sticks between the cracks in synchronized patterns.

After the parade, we went off to look for paella (which is originally from Valencia), which was difficult since the streets and restaurants were both full of people, not to mention avoiding firecrackers again.  We eventually found a man outside of the cathedral selling to-go containers of paella for a reasonable price.  He gave us a long lecture about how what we had been eating in Madrid was not legitimate paella, how it requires a special giant pan, and how we were lucky to have found him.  It was, in all fairness, very good.  The special pan allows the bottom of the rice to fry and become crispy.  Between that and the many varieties of fried dough, I was pretty happy with Valencian food.

The ultimate part of the celebration was la cremà, or the burning of the fallas. Around 11:00, the children's fallas are burned, which are smaller and tend to deal with lighter themes.  We saw one burn near the cathedral, and then went to the market square to a falla we thought would be less crowded, but large enough.  While they were supposed to burn at 12:00, ours was delayed by a lack of firefighters until 1:00.  We got places about four people back in the crowd.  Eventually, the firefighters arrived and pushed everyone back.  A barrage of fireworks was let off and the falla was lit.  I sort of expected something slow, but I was gravely mistaken.  The whole thing immediately burst into flame.  It was REALLY HOT.  The same crowd that only reluctantly moved a little when asked by the firefighters suddenly ran as quickly as they could to escape the heat.  Within 10 seconds, it was nothing but a burning wooden frame.  The band played a bit and the firefighters sprinkled the crowd with their hoses.  It was great.

We went back to the cathedral to see two more fallas burn.  The first lit slowly, but promptly fell over.  Safety is sort of a new thing at Las Fallas.  Apparently this was the first year they implemented barriers and other precautions, but the whole thing was still many levels below American standards (and did I mention the little kids in the street with firecrakers?).  We next saw the falla in front of the cathedral burn.  It was very much like the first, but without the searing heat and pain since we were further away.

Unfortunately, by the end of this, it was only 3:30 AM or so.  Our bus didn't leave until 6:30.  After waiting around in the square and dodging firecrackers (people started to release Roman candles, which would fly around the street in random directions with little to no warning), our interest in staying in the old city waned.  Having nowhere to go, we went to the bus station, where, in our exhaustion, we fell asleep on the cold tile for an hour or two.  There were enough people there that it was pretty safe, but we woke up really cold and with achy backs and necks.  I was also not ready to deal with the drama of my bus not showing up.  See, Avanza, the company I took, had a huge advertising campaign for Las Fallas.  As a result, there were supposed to be 6 buses for my time slot, but number 5, mine, did not come.  To make matters worse, customer service doesn't really exist in Spain like in the U.S.  Employees don't see themselves as representatives of companies, but rather reluctant semi-slave laborers**.  If something isn't their direct fault, they don't see how it concerns them - they hate their company just as much as you do.  When we complained about our bus not coming, the manager told us the driver probably slept in or so, and that while he'd look for a bus, it wasn't his problem and Avanza (his company) shouldn't have booked so many buses for the weekend.  Fortunately, one came within an hour, and I was on my way.

So, the moral of the story is that fire can be deeply entertaining, even for an entire day.  Also, if you give little kids firecrackers, most of them will be just fine.  Except for the kid who had a bloody face after running through a line of Roman candles like they were sprinklers on a hot day.  His parents didn't seem too concerned though.

*Valencians claim to speak their own language, called Valenciana.  This is a patent lie.  No linguist would classify Valencian as a language distinct from Catalan, since it's really just the series of Catalan dialects that happen to fall in the Valencian community.  Even some Valencians admit they just speak Catalan.  In many ways, Valencia seems to me like Catalunya's overshadowed little brother - they retain the same flag, language, culture, and history, but claim they're really different and unique.

**My crazy Cuban anthropology professor claimed this was because of Catholic ideology: Spanish people see work as a punishment for original sin.  This neglects the fact that no one in Spain knows the first think about Catholic ideology, or that Cuba was also Catholic until recently.  Still, if you consider most of them don't believe in original sin anymore, it makes sense why they see working as such an inhuman activity.  Or, it could just mean that my professor was really bitter.

Three Countries in Two Days

Last weekend (sorry, I'm really bad at finding time to write long posts), I took a bus down to Marbella, a beach resort town on the Costa del Sol in Andalucía, to see my aunt and uncle, who were on vacation and graciously invited me to stay for a few days with them.  Due to my stinginess and late planning, I decided to take a bus down.  This was, in many ways, a really good idea.  The trip by bus is about 7 hours, which is a good night's sleep.  It would also drop me off in Marbella, rather than the provincial capital of Málaga, where there was an airport and train station.  Furthermore, it was about a quarter the cost of any other option and could be done at the last minute.  The bus ride itself was pretty uneventful, except for when an angry man demanded that I give him back his seat at 3:00 AM when we stopped at a rest stop, only to realize that he was on the bus going in the other direction.

I got into Marbella, a small city on the sea, around 6:00 AM.  Though my uncle had told me to take a taxi, google maps suggested the walk was not that difficult or long.  After wandering a little, I arrived at what should have been my destination according to the map.  It was a crowded residential area near a main road.  There was absolutely no evidence of any sort of hotel, nor would it have been at all an attractive location to put one.  I should have realized this from the beginning.  Firstly, the address was in an urbanzación, which is sort of like a gated suburb without a local government, while the map indicated I should be in the middle of the city.  It was also not by the water, which was probably a bad sign for a beach resort.  Eventually, I called the hotel and explained to them where I was.  They told me that the hotel was not, in fact, in Marbella and that I really needed to take a taxi.  I got a taxi number from a nearby bread story and called a cab.  The hotel was, in fact, nowhere near the city, but rather 10 minutes down the highway.  Still, I got there not long after the sunrise, and with the help of coffee and Aquarius, a sports drink and common hangover remedy, I was ready to function like a normal person.

The hotel was a welcome respite from Spanish life, conveniently located in Spain.  The Costa del Sol is a huge foreign tourist spot (it actually was the cause of Spain's economic development), so it is not surprising that everyone in the hotel spoke English.  Having been used to speaking Spanish unless someone is a) an American or b) given a really convincing reason why we should use English, it was strange to switch back to it.  The hotel also boasted an American style restaurant and many other Americans (including my aunt and uncle, who do speak English awfully well).  I had just had a week in which I felt pretty anti-Spanish (it happens to everyone from time to time), so for me, this was doubly a vacation.

That day, we took a trip down to Gibraltar.  For some reason, this has long been on my list of places to visit.  I think I learned the Gibraltar anthem in middle school, which I bet even most people there don't know, and can still get through at least two verses.  It's basically a British military stronghold on a mountain island off the coast of Spain.  The Spanish have been veritably pissed about this for centuries, even though the hold virtually identical territories off the coast of Morocco.  It turned out the place was even more interesting than I expected.  For one, Gibraltar is really small.  Most of the island is too steep to live on, so despite "reclaiming" some land from the sea, the whole city is walkable.  The economy is dominated by tourism.  For these reasons, taxis are used almost exclusively to bring people up the steep switchbacks of the mountain on tours.  There are a good many views, as well as some caves, fortresses, and many monkeys.  Technically apes, the monkeys have adapted well to their lives as tourist attractions.  While the national park feeds them a healthy diet, they live almost entirely on the sandwiches and pastries that tourists feed them for kicks.  They're actually really entertaining, until you get in the way of them and their food.  Then they're terrifying.

The other interesting part of Gibraltar is the people.  They're a bit hard to pick out from the tourists, but they seem to live an interesting collective life.  For one, they're extremely proud to be British.  Union Jacks are everywhere, though not as common as local flags.  They don't really speak English, though, but rather Llanito, a mix of Andaluz Spanish (which is pretty weird itself) and English.  It's sort of like Spanglish on steroids.  Best I can tell, people switch languages multiple times in a single sentence, often mispronouncing words so as to harmonize the phonology.  I couldn't really understand it, despite speaking both languages.  Furthermore, there are a ton of Jews there.  Wikipedia says it's only 2%, but they seem to be a pretty significant presence.  I guess I shouldn't have been that surprised being that I've met Jews from Gibraltar in Madrid, but to be fair, there are 584 Jews in Gibraltar and only 3,500 in all of Madrid.  Everywhere you went in Gibraltar, there was someone in a kippah.  Outside of the synagogue, I don't think I've seen a single one my whole time in Madrid.

The next day, we took the ferry over to Tangier.  The trip was enjoyable, though more or less what I expected.  We got a pretty good taste of the city, walked around one of the older neighborhoods, went to the market, and ate some local food, among other things.  While it was fun for the day, it reminded me of why I chose to study in a developed country.  Economic differences between countries mean it's really difficult to be anything other than a tourist in a country like Morocco, and least as it seems to me.  Even when I chat with Mohammad, my local Moroccan store owner (who recently sold me a leather belt and tie for 8 euros), the economic statuses of our home countries are really salient.  We have conversations, but he always brings up that I'm from a rich country.  It creates a pretty serious barrier between us, even though we're friends (or so I believe, since we always talk for at least a half hour when I stop by).

On my third and last day in the area, we went to Ronda, a mountainous town (the road to get there was carsickness waiting to happen) north of Marbella.  I had never heard of Ronda before, but it is apparently a popular destination.  Pilar even has paintings of it hanging in the kitchen.  It's a "white town" meaning that almost every building is covered in white stucco.  I had to wonder whether there was zoning behind it, or whether it was just tradition.  The city contains a very impressive bridge over a wide gorge, as well as the first bullfighting stadium.  One of the more surprising things about our trip to Ronda was dealing with the language.  Andalusian Spanish has a reputation for being weird.  For instance, they either lisp everything or nothing, while in the rest of Spain, we lisp c's and z's (plus some d's for people with really strong "Madrith" accents).  I had to admit that I had a really hard time understanding them.  For instance, for "goodbye", they didn't say "hasta luego", like in Madrid (actually really funny, since you say it even to people you have no reason or intention to ever see again), but some set of sounds that seemed uniform, but didn't remind me of any word(s) I knew.  Also, while I had noticed I've been picking up a bit of a Madrid accent (for instance, dropping d's towards the end of words - it's really ugly, though I haven't gotten to lisping them yet), I was hyper-aware of it when talking to people there.  I know someone must have been asking themselves why an American who doesn't even speak good Spanish would also be pretending to be from Madrid.

For dinner that night we went back to Marbella, the beachside town that I had wandered around hopelessly pre-sunrise a few days earlier.  It turns out it's a much nicer place when you're not searching for imaginary buildings and when you stay in the parts nice enough for actual hotels.  At midnight, I got on another bus and headed back, waking up to the arrival at the beautiful (sarcasm intended) Estación del Sur.  I realize that even though I regularly feel the need for a break I'm always glad to get back to Madrid.  Although a friend described is as the bland least common denominator (my words, actually, but I promise mine are better) of all the really interesting and diverse cultures of Spain, I'm beginning to actually feel like I live in Madrid.  While fried calamari sandwiches may not have the culinary nuance of Andaluz or Valencian cuisine, or, it turns out, taste good, it's still comforting to see them advertised in the window of every bar again.  If it took a pleasant vacation to realize that, I think that's something I can live with.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

(Uninteresting) Run-Ins with the Po-Po

I promise I'll write about my weekend travels soon...I just need to take more time to do it.

So, today was a beautiful day. After putzing around, I finally got a call from my program's internship advisor. I've been out of the seminar and without an internship for about a month. This means that in the average week, I have only 6 hours of class, which is a little less than stimulating. At first, it was a lot of fun spending the days wondering the streets, going to art museums, and walking through parks, but it got really dull after the middle of the third week or so. It also means I usually don't have a lot of human contact during the week other than Pilar, so it was pretty welcome to get a call from Nuria about the internship. I have an interview tomorrow.

After going to the university to add my name to a waiting list (I should plan these things) to go on a trip to a bonfire-based festival in Valencia and to print out my resume again, I decided do go read in the park. It was a really nice day out and I had almost finished my book (Brief Interviews with Hideous Men - I highly recommend it). I saw a nice place in the sun to sit down and started reading. I thought to myself that this would be a really nice opportunity to air out my feet. Best I can tell, it's really rude to have bare feet in Spain. We were told not to walk around barefoot in our houses (though I'm not sure to what degree just socks are acceptable) and I hear that people here never wear sandals. A book I read even emphasized that a man was barefoot in a woman's house to show how strange he was. This means that my feet are confined to shoes almost all the time, which I resent. I saw a woman on my way in who appeared to be barefoot, though, so I assumed it was at least minimally acceptable for me to do the same. Feeling the sun and open air on my feet was well worth whatever mild discomfort the people around me might have felt.

After less than 10 minutes of reading, I saw a police car drive slowly down the park path. It was from the Cuerpo Nacional de Policía, one of the two national police forces, and the one that enforces immigration and works in urban areas. I don't see why they were in the park, since there are a ton of municipal police there, as well as a special park force. I also really don't like police. I get stopped on a regular basis in New Jersey for the horrible crime of walking around after midnight and the officers are usually less than friendly.

I am most familiar with the Cuerpo Nacional from when they stop non-white people and vagrants at the subway station near my apartment demanding identification. I didn't know why they were in the park, but I didn't want to deal with them. See, in Spain you need to carry identification at all times and the police can demand to see it for no reason (in the U.S., they can ask for it, but you don't have to comply if you didn't commit a crime). For Spanish people, that means your national ID card. For foreigners, I presume that means your passport, but I don't carry mine for fear that it will be lost/stolen. We were handed copies of our passports and visas by the program for this reason, but I accidentally ripped the visa part in half, so I don't carry it. I think you're allowed 24 hours to show it, so I guessed I was safe in the unlikely even that I was stopped.

My two thoughts upon seeing the car were a) I really should put my shoes on just in case that's illegal; b) I don't have any identification on my other than my NJ driver's license and my university ID; c) if I put my shoes on now, they've already noticed; and d) I should stop staring at them. Sure enough, two police officers got out of the car.

"Good afternoon. Do you have any identification papers on you?"
"Do you have any identification?"
"Uh, I only have my driver's license from the U.S." (I handed it to them and one examined it)
"Are you a student?"
"Yes, I study at the Autónoma. I can show you my student ID if you like."
"No, that's OK. What do you study?" (Are they trying to have a chat or validate my story? One would think the student ID would do a better job of the latter.)
"Politics and economics."
"OK, thank you. Good bye."

They left, not stopping anyone else on the way out. I am still totally confused as to what happened. If the issue was* my lack of shoes, one would think they would have mentioned it. If it was a routine check, one would think I wouldn't have been the only one stopped. If it was immigration, the real question was how the knew I wasn't Spanish. Pilar tells me on a regular basis that I pass well if I don't speak, and it seems like the consensus that most Spanish associate foreigners with being non-white. Was I that suspicious for looking at the police car while not wearing shoes? If I was suspicious, how was this all explained by saying that I was a foreigner studying politics and economics? Do political scientists and/or economists have a reputation for not wearing shoes and being uncomfortable around police?

I won't pretend to understand.

On an unrelated note, the IP address tracker I put on the blog seems to indicate that there is a regular visitor in the Stockholm area, though neither David nor I think we know anyone there. As I'm going to Stockholm for a few days over spring break, I'd appreciate any tips you have for the area, whoever you are.

*Editorial note: Should these sentences be in the subjunctive (were, rather than was)? I've tried it both ways and I really can't tell.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Gondol - A Water Heater for Russian Roulette Fans

As a crazed coffee fan, I've had some trouble adjusting to Turkey.  Tea is something of the official drink here, cooked in double boilers and consumed in tiny little cups, three or so at a time.  Though there is drip coffee, it costs roughly 7TL ($4.50) a cup, priced so high mostly for the prestige associated with drinking something so cool and American.  This leaves me two different options for coffee, Turkish coffee and Nescafe.  Turkish coffee is great, but people don’t drink it daily (probably for the best, since it is surprisingly high in fat).  This leaves me with Nescafe, or more precisely Nescafe Gold, which is like Nescafe but tastes like coffee for a small price increase.

Nescafe is available at most of my university’s cafeterias, but in order to enjoy a large enough mug to satisfy my American sensibilities, I prefer to make (though make is perhaps too strong a word for instant coffee) Nescafe in my dorm room.  To this end, I bought myself a water heater at the local supermarket about a month ago.

Said water heater, the Gondol G122 Supreme, is an example of why one should not be too stingy in Turkey.  I was pretty drawn to the 3.50TL ($2.25) price, but the extreme "value" of the device and the fact that the water heater was made by a plastics company (!?!) should have warned me that the G122 Supreme would not live up to my American expectations of consumer safety.  Also alarming was the only block of English text on the device, claiming “Our products to not contain any harmful material for human health.”
Three lira of water heating goodness!

It turns out that Gondol was telling the truth.  None of the individual materials were as harmful to human health as the device itself.  Initially, we only were concerned about the uninsulated heating element, which meant a swift electrocution for anyone dumb enough to use a metal spoon instead of the included plastic one.  This was apparently not enough precaution, as after a month of tireless service, Gondol #1 died in a storm of sparks that blew the circuit breaker for our wall and almost killed Johnny.
Smile all you want, people featured on Gondol's website.  Your days are numbered.

Somewhat shaken by the near-demise of my friend and roommate, but resolved in my desire to drink coffee, I set out to find another water heater before Turkish class one afternoon.  I went to a part of Kızılay that I knew had a bunch of home appliance stores, only to find a collection of Gondol G122 Supremes in a variety of fun colors in each store.  I was disappointed, but faced with the prospect of not having coffee the next morning I went ahead and bought myself another one.  When in Turkish class, my teacher asked me what I did that day, I showed her my new purchase. She looked alarm and taught us the Turkish word for "dangerous" (tehlikeli).  Apparently Gondol has quite a reputation nation-wide.

I finally bought a legitimate coffee heater this past Saturday, by which time Gondol #2 had already paid for itself by heating water for four cups of coffee.  At least now, the only life-threatening thing I do every day is crossing the street.
The new, non-homicidal, water heater

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

A Trip To Two Entirely Different Places

This weekend, Johnny* and I decided to take a trip to Bergama and the surrounding area.  Bergama is a small city north of Izmir that includes some fantastic Hellenistic ruins.  For some reason, it lacks the popularity of Efes (Ephesos for you Greeks out there).  Efes is a well-preserved and compact site near Izmir, and is appropriately packed (or so I hear) with tourists, at least in the summer.  The main site of Bergama, on the other hand consists of acres of dilapidated stone structures over an entire mountain.  The situation of the site on a mountain an hour from anywhere makes it pretty inhospitable obese cruise and tour bus crowds.  For two spry college students however, the site made for four or five hours of great hiking all over ruins, complete with a great view of the city and surrounding city and lake (I’ll have pictures up soon).  As an added bonus, in return for avoiding the 5km road and walking straight up the mountain (past ruins the whole way) we got to bypass the ticket booth.  To be honest, the site was worth a whole lot more than the $6 entrance fee, but we weren’t going to go 5km out of our way to pay it.

After returning from the ruins to the town and rewarding ourselves with crepe-like gözleme (our two hosts in the empty restaurant were apparently so serious about their signature dish that they got indignant when we asked to see a menu) we had a bit of a conundrum.  Our original plan for the night was to go couchsurfing** in a nearby city.  Unfortunately, our host had to decline because he had lost his job and was living with his parents.  We could have gone to the same city for the night, but we were sort of ruin-ed out, and the weather wasn’t nice enough for the nearby beach.

Now one of the best parts of travel inside Turkey is the overnight bus system.  It has been my primary mode of inter-city transportation here and is really deserving of an entire blog post.  In any city, you can just walk in a bus station, find a booth for a company that goes to your destination (if looking for city names on the signs over each booth is too hard, there are pushy men to help), bargain down the price, and get a ticket.  The bus ride itself is comfortable and features nicer seats and much better service than coach flights.  Considering that the overnight bus costs as much as a cheap hotel and you wake up somewhere else Johnny and I decided to skip the hotel idea altogether and catch the bus to Konya for the night.

Konya is the fifth-largest city in Turkey and the most religious.  It is famous for the Mevlevi religious sect, better known as the whirling dervishes.  Though we did not get to see any dervishes, we did visit the sect’s museum, which was pretty good despite failing to live up to the guidebook’s assertion that it was “one of the most gratifying experiences in Turkey.”  Besides the museum, the rest of the day was seemingly spent in conversations with the friendly people with Konya.  At 5:30 AM, for instance, we went to bus station café for some coffee (we had assumed the bus ride would have been longer).  The waiter asked where we were from, and when we told him America, he started asking about the Armenian Genocide issue.  We managed to give him some excuses about politicians trying to get the votes of Armenian-Americans and he seemed placated.  
He brought us a free round of tea, and we talked for another hour and a half.

Our next extended conversation was a little strange.  On our way back from the museum, we met a carpet dealer (his name escapes me, as does the contact information he gave me).  We talked for a bit and he invited us in for tea.  Though under most circumstances we would have refused, the guy seemed genuinely friendly and interesting, and we had nothing much planned for the rest of the day.  We spent two hours drinking excessive amounts of tea and chatting.  Our dealer had reportedly started selling carpets at 13 years old and had worked himself into the wholesale business.  He also to have sold a carpet to the US ambassador (we actually saw said ambassador during our Kuwaiti reception) and to have translated for King Juan Carlos of Spain on an Ibex hunting trip.  I still have no clue how much of what this guy said was truth, but he seemed to have pretty well-thought stories and written documentation pertaining to his part time job as a hunting translator.  At about the two hour mark, he said something like “I would be happy to keep on chatting, but if you want to buy a carpet, I can sell you one for a good price.”  Johnny had been looking for a tapestry, so he said he would take a look.  The tapestries were beautiful, but with a “no bargain” price of 130TL.  Having bargained for everything from bus tickets to backpacks, we went to work complaining that the tapestries were not that nice, arguing that we were so poor that we were eating mostly bread (this was partially true, since everyone in Turkey eats mostly bread, but the dealer begged us not to use that argument) and threatening to walk out.  With a final price of 80TL, or 60% of the starting price, I decided to buy one for myself.  We walked out, still not sure if we had a good deal, but assured that the four hours of entertainment and 7 cups of tea were worth at least 20TL.  We spent the rest of the day at the bazaar and the central park, and took the night bus home.

The overall moral of the trip is that our Turkish is getting better, and it really helps.  Away from tourist attractions (bazaars, bus stations, buses, parks, etc.) we are frighteningly popular simply by being from America and speaking some Turkish.  In touristy places, we get a huge leg up.  In Bergama, when a taxi driver told us that we would never make it to the ruins without his help, we told him off in Turkish, and hailed the dolmuş into the center of town.  This all said, we need to start checking what time busses arrive at their destination.  Waking up at 5 AM in Konya was a little irritating, and I think I only stopped feeling tired yesterday.

*Currently going by John, since Johnny is a nickname for an American soldier in Turkey.  Also, John (spelled “Can”) is a common Turkish name.

**Couchsurfing is a like a cross between hitch-hiking and finding a hotel, all made possible by the internet.  Users create profiles and obtain references that they are not serial killers, from which they can ask other strangers to put them up for the night.  The system works pretty well, and I have a bunch of friends that have either hosted or traveled through couchsurfing.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

I Live In Fear of My Cell Phone

I woke up this morning after a pretty late night (by my standards, coming home at 5:30 is pretty late, but the Spaniards I was with just rolled their eyes, reminded me the metro wasn't open yet, and said that if I was really tired, they guessed it was sort of acceptable) to something I was not intellectually capable of handling without first having a cup of coffee - a voicemail.

It should be said that I had thought that I had been receiving voicemails since I got here. Every once in a while, I would get a text message that would say that some number had made a call to me at some time at that I could press talk to return the call. I guess I should have realized that was just a missed call alert, but I'm not really all that observant.

Anyway, the messages appeared to be from a cell number I didn't know, so I tried to call the voicemail number. I was immediately put on an automatic set-up menu. I don't know what it is, but I cannot understand Spanish over the phone, especially when there is a machine involved. Do you mean I should make a new pin number, or give my old SIM card pin number? Does that word you keep saying I should push mean the pound key? Did I not have voicemail for the first two months I owned the phone? Finally, I got it all set up, and got to my messages. There were two, from the same number, which called me twice. The only thing I could understand in either of them was the name "Christian", who was one of the Spaniards I was hanging out with, but it wasn't from his number. I tried to listen to the messages again, but no luck. I think I may have deleted them. You see, at the end of each message, I was given three options, all of which included the word "return". Not really knowing what to do, I picked the third option. This must have deleted them, because I'm now told I have no messages.

This is only the latest in a long string of cell phone related confusion. While I feel perfectly capable with most technology and I set up my phone to display most things in English, I cannot figure out what my phone is doing. For a while, for instance, I was resending texts over and over again, because even though they would go out perfectly well, the phone wouldn't move them from the draft folder to the sent folder. I also can't forget the drama of trying to set up the phone, which I wrote about in an earlier post.

The other confusing part is related to the cost. Ever since the terrorist attacks of March 11, 2004, it has been almost impossible for foreigners to get a contract cell plan. The only option is to buy credit, which is available in a variety of places, including tobacco stands and atms. Charges, however, are a mistery. Rumor has it I have free weekend calls to anyone in my network, but I can't find any evidence of it. Charges depend on who you're calling and the time of day. A mobile to land line call is prohibitively expensive and we were warned on the first day not to make calls unless we needed to due to the high cost. Even so, having figured out how to check my credit only yesterday, I realized that, though I've only put €25 on my phone, I still have €25 left. I know that I got some credit free with the phone and I inadvertently won some promotional deal, but between using the phone for a month and a half and making some calls to and in Italy, I would assume that I would have been over the free credit a long time ago. Unfortunately, I can't really track it, since you get charged for making too many inquiries. It's best to save them for when you need it, because if you run out of credit, your cell phone becomes incapable of receiving calls or texts, even though these are free. Actually, you wouldn't even know you ran out, since it doesn't tell you other than by cutting off your call if you go over.

This is also not the first unusual call I've received. Last week, I got a few calls one afternoon from a woman would would say hello and immediately hang up. The third time, she asked me why I was calling her. After asking who she was and getting no answer, I said I hadn't called anyone. She then accused me of being a Moroccan. Not remembering what the word "marroquí" meant at the time, I was able only to say no and then ask her what she meant. Eventually, I just gave up and hung up on her.

Anyway, I sent a text back to the number that called me asking who it was and what they wanted. I guess next time I'll pick option 1 or 2 in my voicemail menu.

UPDATE: It turns out that they were from Christian, who was just calling to make sure I got home ok. It sounds like he doesn't trust the night bus. Anyway, the confusion stemmed from the fact that apparently many Spaniards have two cell phones. The reason was not explained to me, but I think it has something to do with being able to call in-network to all one's friends. He said something about how one was for every day and the other was for the weekends.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Cursing and Tacos

So, ever since I came back from Italy, I've been sort of irritated (as I indicated in the last post) by how surly Spanish people can seem. It isn't so much a matter of content or language so much as it is about tone. If someone doesn't like something, they say an interjection and then complain about it in a really negative tone. This is in comparison to the Italians Hannah lives with, who never seemed negative.

It took me a while, but I think I've found the reason. If the Italians were angry about something, they would just curse about it. They would call whatever they didn't like cazzo (not sure about the exact definition, but I don't think it matters), but with such a calm demeanor that had the word not been explained to me, I would have no idea there was any negative sentiment. The content of the sentence conveyed the emotion sufficiently well that it was unnecessary to use anything other than a calm voice.

In Castilian Spanish, on the other hand, the range of curses seems extremely limited. By the way, an expletive is a "taco", which confused me quite a bit at first. I thought Pilar was telling me that she was making tacos for dinner, which made me really excited, especially since Spanish food is seeming awfully bland lately. I think I accidentally betrayed my disappointment. Anyway, although there are exceptions, the vast majority of curses are used as exclamatory interjections. Generally, you use them either to show surprise or use them to mark the fact that you are about to say something that makes you angry. For instance you would say, "joder, the government is fool of crooks," with the most indignation as possible on joder, continuing with disgust on the rest of the statement.

My theory, and if anyone knows anything about this, please let me know, is that the surly tones may be a linguistic necessity. Since there are no expletives capable of distinguishing which part of the statement you're so angry about, you just have to do it through intonation. In English, you could say "the government is full of [expletive] crooks" or "the [expletive] government is full of crooks" or even "[expletive] the [expletive] [expletive] government is [expletive] full of [expletive] crooks." You don't even need to change your vocal tone - your feelings are obvious. Since Castellanos can't do this, they have to use tone to convey anger or disgust. The initial interjection is just to indicate that they are, in fact, trying to intensify the statement and didn't just have a bad day. Also, since none of their expletives are really that bad (Pilar uses all the standard ones pretty frequently, although she denies it), even using one as an interjection doesn't really convey a lot of feeling.

I lie. Gilipollas ("jerk") can be used as a noun, but I don't really think it's that vulgar.

On an unrelated note, I went to a bar last night that does intercambios or language exchanges every Wednesday. It was pretty cool, though no good stories. I just chatted with a lot of people from really different backgrounds.

Second unrelated note: I'm thinking of going to this festival, Las Falles, in which they basically burn things all night. I was planning on taking a bus down Thursday night, waking up Friday morning in Valencia, hanging out, and then taking the bus back early Saturday morning. I figure I don't want to pay for a hostel and I don't want to sleep anyway, lest I would miss the fires. Sounds awesome, right?

Ankara and Street Vendors

Last week I was spending some time in Kızılay (the city center) before and after my Turkish class, and I was reminded how much I like Ankara. To be honest, in terms of attractions per capita, Ankara ranks last among Turkish cities. This was something that weighed on my mind a good deal when I first got here. After all, there are two good (though not as good as METU) universities in Istanbul, and there would be tons to do in the city. I am learning now that attractions can be pretty serious detriment in addition to a benefit. In Ankara, I am a foreigner rather than a tourist. The city has tons of foreigners, both businessmen and students, and they are treated like mildly entertaining oddities.

In the interesting parts of Turkey though, everyone is out to get money from tourists. Since tourists are easy to mislead, one always has to be on their guard not to be fleeced or at least held up in a carpet shop for a couple of hours of patiently refusing to buy anything. Attempting to blend in works until I have to speak, at which point everyone switches to their “English used to sell things.”

Meanwhile, in Ankara, people are genuinely friendly to foreigners. Last week, I was with a friend attempting to find an office when a man stopped us and asked in English if we needed any help finding our destination. Apparently his daughter was heading to Los Angeles and he wanted to get our email so he could give it to her. He invited us over for a tea and chat sometime and we went on our way. The funny thing was that we were on our way to have tea and a chat with another guy that stopped me on the metro in a strangely similar scenario.

This brings me to the other point of this post: street vendors. They are tons of fun in Ankara. Yesterday, after buying some textbooks, I decided to supplement my light dinner with a çiğ kofte durum from a street vendor. The vendor asked where I was from, and when I told him he got very excited. He gave me excessive amounts of free food while I was waiting, and asked me all about myself. I had some trouble answering, since Turkish people don’t understand that it might help to talk to foreigners slowly, but the conversation was pretty good. On top of that, I got some great çiğ kofte for two lira. This thing happens every other time I buy food off the street, and combined with the eclectic food choices, I am pretty enamored with the street vending system (especially since nobody I know has ever gotten sick from it). Because the selection is pretty strange, and I am in the mood to type, I figured I might give an introduction to Ankara street food:

Çiğ Kofte – Red pasty stuff served in meatballs or in roll-ups. It took us about a month to figure out what çiğ kofte is. The confusing part is that çiğ means “raw” but isn’t really used that way in food. For instance çiğ borek is cooked as much as regular borek, but shaped differently. Only half of çiğ kofte has raw lamb meat, and I am not sure how much they usually include. The other half is “etsiz” or meat free. It is mostly made of bulgur wheat and served with pomegranate and spicy pepper sauces.

Kokoreç – Tripe-ish sandwich. The only thing grosser than the name (sounds like a cross of cockroach and retch) is thought of eating stomach lining. These problems aside, kokoreç might be my favorite street food. It’s salty, spicy and fatty all at the same time and served in a roll. To top that, the kokoreci are some of the friendliest vendors since it takes them a while to cook and prepare the sandwich.

Bardakta Mısır – Corn in a cup. It took me a while to appreciate corn-in-cup, since de-cobbed corn reminds me of school lunch in elementary school. The beauty is that you get to decide what sauces to put on your corn. Better vendors have 20 or so options. My best combo to date has been pomegranate sauce, spicy sauce, crushed red pepper, lemon juice and mayonnaise (everything in Turkey has mayonnaise).

Simit- The Turkish answer to the sesame seed bagel. There is a simitici on every corner in Ankara. The food is good, but the interesting part is the price scheme. Customers can either buy one simit (50 kuruş or about 35 cents) or one lira of simit. The one lira deal gets better as the day goes on. In the morning you get 2 simit, changing to about 3 after noon. After that thing get crazy. Late afternoon deals hover at about 5 simit per lira, while the simitici that haven’t sold out by 8pm generally give a 7 for 1 sale. At that point, it gets hard to skip on such a deal, especially if there are people to share with.

Medya Dolma – Raw mussels with rice. This one is not on my to-do list. Raw mussels sold on the street should be a bad idea all the time, but given that Ankara is six hours from the nearest ocean, I am unconvinced of the freshness. The Americans that have tried them say they are pretty bad, but nobody got sick. I think it is sort of a social thing, since you generally buy five, and eat them one by one at the stand.

Also available are fresh juice (the pomegranate juice is superb), roasted chestnuts and make-your-own rice pilaf.

The Return Home

This past Friday, I invited myself over to my host parent’s house. Inviting oneself for a visit is a common element of Turkish social life. As long as you give enough warning for your hosts to make themselves presentable and such, you can come over whenever you want. This makes me extremely anxious. American hospitality puts an emphasis on being a good guest by not overly-inconvenience the host, so I asked my host father on the phone what day or time was best for visiting. His answer was “any day or time is good, just call before you come by,” as I expected. I decided to stop over on Friday at dinner time, but still felling unnecessary guilt for potentially picking a bad time, I picked some baklava up on the way over (suggested by Esra, my host student at METU). As directed by multiple guide books, I made no mention of it upon arriving and dropped it off on the kitchen table. Turns out my host mother already made rice pudding, but I guess you can’t win all the time.

As with most families, not much had changed in three weeks. It appears Cihan and his family are still living in the house. Everyone reports to be doing well. Cihan seemed a little stressed out about something involving a university (I couldn’t quite follow the conversation). He also seems glum about his growing paunch, or at least became so after he weighed himself and, assuming he weighed less than me, over-guessed my weight by 15 kilograms.

My host father and I chatted a bit about the coup trials taking place in Turkey. For a short summary (I should give a longer one in another post), the widely-loved military had drafted plans to overthrow the current government. Because they have not been very secular, the current government has probably done enough to deserve this (despite some reasonable governing) and there is historical precedent for such a coup. The government appropriately doesn’t like the idea of being overthrown and coups aren’t exactly legal, so they brought about 40 generals to trial. Many people, and especially old secularists like my host father are furious about this, and see it as another example of the current administration overthrowing everything sacred in the government. On the other hand, semi-legitimate and frequent coups are part of why Turkey is not joining the EU anytime soon.

Kaan, who is undoubtedly the most popular character in my blog posts, (did I mention that Kan means blood and is not my host-nephew’s name?) was his usual baby self. He started crying hysterically when he first saw me, though we made amends over the course of the night. He can now stand by holding onto a wall, but he hasn’t quite figured out crawling. His newest toy is a plastic silver bull with an ethnic (south Asian?) boy playing a flute on top. The bull walks to a repetitious techno soundtrack while the boy swings on top. To top things off, the bull’s eyes have red LEDs inside, giving the whole toy a demonic overtone. To say that the toy is age-inappropriate is missing the key issue. I can think of no reason why such a toy exists. It is a plastic Frankenstein of thematic elements, but at least it won’t suffocate Kaan or give him seizures as I feared previous toys would.

So in summary, my host family seems to be getting along just fine without me. Not that I had any concerns (save for someone accidentally killing Kaan).

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Fratelli d'Italia!

This week, I made a somewhat split-minute decision to run away to a foreign country. I realized that I had been in Spain for more than a month and a half and my travel schedule was rapidly filling up, considering that I like to spend every other weekend or so in Madrid. After a week of considering my destinations and agonizing about how my schedule could change if I ever get my mysteriously elusive internship (rumor has it we'll learn something this week), I decided to buy a ticket to Bologna, since Ryanair flew there, I had friends there, and I had never been to Italy. Pretty soon, I was on my first discount air flight.

It turns out that Ryanair is not fun and not quite what I expected. I sort of envisioned an airline with no frills and little service, where they basically run a flying bus. Rather, they cut few of the services, but mostly just use every mechanism available to trip you up with their silly policies, such that they might force you to inadvertently pay more. For instance, Ryanair retains a baggage check, it's just that at €35 per bag, it pays for itself itself. Furthermore, making you print out your tickets in advance doesn't really save any costs, but it means that you'll have to pay them €40 to reprint it should you forget. There are just as many flight attendants as any other flight; they're used to make sure your bag is small enough (you actually need to put it in the box before boarding) and to sell you food, drinks, duty-free items, travel packages, and lottery tickets. Is it worth it for the price? Probably, if you manage to avoid too many additional fees (i.e. €10 to use a credit card, as if there were another option). Will I use it again? Yes. Am I glad my flight to Germany for Spring Break is with Lufthansa? Unbelievably so, especially after David's description.

So, after finishing my flight and taking the bus into the center of Bologna, I met up with my friend Hannah and went back to her apartment. Hannah is one of my suitemates from sophomore year and we will be housemates this coming year. She decided to study in Bologna for fall semester and then take a semester off in the spring to stay in Italy, work a little, and travel around the rest of Europe. She got a room in an apartment with three other college students, though one doesn't leave his room. The other two, Leo and A (who has a real name, but it's not anything I can remember or spell) were really nice guys, even though we couldn't communicate too well. A's Valencian girlfriend, Tatiana, was also at the apartment for the weekend. She was more than pleased to be able to speak Spanish with someone, so we chatted quite a bit. Actually, it appears that she's forcing A to learn Spanish as well, but he's fairly bitter about languages. He went on a rant about how, by his account, no one should need to learn English because it's actually a group of different languages (American, Australian, etc.).

Communication was, it turned out, a central point of the trip. As Pilar assured me (though she's been getting weird ideas lately - like making the same pasta dish more interesting for the second night by literally encasing it in a thin shell of scrambled eggs) Spanish and Italian are somewhat mutually intelligible. That is to say, I could understand most of what Hannah's housemates said, provided I knew the topic. The real issue was that I was completely unable to respond, except by switching to Spanish (weird, didn't always work) or English (elitist, rarely worked). More often than not, I just kept quiet until Hannah or Tatiana were around, and then asked them to translate. I once pulled off a full conversation with Leo, but it was pretty rough.

Friday night, Hannah happened to be having a dinner party for all her friends in Bologna. Most were Americans, with some Italians and a few other nationalities thrown in. Really, a dinner party was a great luxury, since we aren't allowed to invite anyone to our host families or use the house in my program. I tried some Italian wines (not actually that impressive - cheap wine is cheap wine) and had my first of many pastas.

The next morning we woke up pretty late, but Hannah was determined to show me Venice, even if it meant a four hour round trip for four hours to spend there. It was pretty worthwhile. The city is exactly how it seems on postcards. The whole thing feels like it must have been made up just for tourists, but historical evidence (i.e. the dominance of the Venetian Republic over much of the Adriatic) seems to indicate otherwise. While I'm not sure that boats should ever be used as buses (or at least that they should not have floating loading platforms), I will indeed be sad when the city sinks. It joins Paris on the list of cities I really didn't want to like as much as I did, for fear of being an elitist/overt tourist.

Upon our return to Bologna, we had some pizza for dinner, but Leo surprised us with some pasta al forno, which was delicious, though not anything special, despite his claim that it was a special local dish from his hometown. We then went to hang out with some people from Brown, including my friend Lauren, who were in their residence. On Sunday, Hannah attempted to show me the city, but after explaining a few sights, her tour insight began to include lines like, "this is an old, big building. I think it was important for something. It has free wifi," and "this is the Piazza Maggiore. It's a major plaza." It was more funny in the end for it. Perhaps the height was a trip to a pasta restaurant, where I had two dishes with bolognese sauce. Despite the views of some naysaying vegetarians at the party, it is so much better than just "greasy meat". Or maybe greasy meat is just surprisingly delicious. Actually, scratch that: greasy meat is obviously delicious, and it takes a truly enlightened culinary culture to claim it as a native dish.

So, I'm back in Spain. Actually, getting away to Italy made me appreciate Madrid so much more. I really value understanding my environment and people around me again, even if only partially*. Italy was sort of like a dream where everything seemed mostly familiar, but it didn't make any sense. However, my return to surly Mardrileños was not helped by spending time with cheery Italians. Seriously, guys, you don't need to act indignant all the time.

Maybe I just need to spend more time with shopkeepers from other countries. Yesterday , I met Mohammad, my friendly local Moroccan storekeeper. I bought a cheap watch from him, but when he asked me where I was from, we started to have a pretty in-depth conversation. Now I just need another excuse to visit his cheap-junk store, or I fear our potential friendship will never develop.

Another awesome thing I discovered: non-ironic graffiti. There was an ad at a metro stop for a cruise company. Someone then decided to add comments in pen to the pictures. However, the comments (originally Spanish, though I'm listing them in English, as with every other piece of quoted text on my posts where it is not explicitly stated otherwise) were of the most mundane nature possible. On a picture of playing kids, they wrote "kids!!". On a picture of the sea, they labeled it "the sea" in two places. Other comments included "how cool!" and "how relaxing!" We need more non-ironic graffiti in the States!

*For instance: kissing. I sort of get the rules for cheek-kisses in Spain. Unless you're a woman of higher status from certain regions, you always do two kisses, first on the left, then on the right. You do it when meeting a woman (regardless of your gender) for the first time or when saying goodbye or hello if a long time has passed/will pass between encounters. You can shake hands in business settings, but otherwise it's considered weird or stilted. Kisses are expected with a foreigner from another country, but when dealing with someone from your own country, you can use your own customs. Gay men can also kiss, but only (it seems) if everyone in the group is gay. In Italy, on the other hand, kisses are first right, then left. I almost went for the lips the first time as a result. Also, I can detect no rhyme or reason for when people kiss versus shaking hands. They don't do it as frequently, but it appears that it has a lot more to do with the actual relationship you have with the other person. This requires evaluating the closeness interpersonal relationships, which I would prefer to avoid doing.