Sunday, January 25, 2009

Volunteering at the Ankara Rehabilitation Center

As part of the IB Diploma Programme, our students have to obtain 150 hours of community service, creativity, and action. With her big heart, a Turkish colleague of mine, Kivanç, arranges a variety of community service outings for the kids to choose from, from building libraries at rural impoverished schools to volunteering at local hospitals. This Sunday, I went along with the students to a government-operated rehabilitation center for children, aged 1-9, who have cerebral palsy. The children stay at the hospital with their mothers, as they are poor and it is free, and many of the women's husbands have left them when they gave birth to a disabled child. Our school's weekly visit entails 1-1/2 of playing games with the children that help them develop their motor skills as well as socialize with each other. For a government-aid facility, it was simple yet clean. There was only one nurse on duty, and the mothers sat around knitting and watching as we played with their children. We raised money to buy the educational toys that would help them with their motor skills, playdough being a favorite. I thought I would find the experience terribly depressing and cry, but in fact, the kids were so smiley and happy to be around us that their lack of depression was catching. It was especially warming to see some of my own students in a different light, paired up with a child 1/2 their size, playing games and trying to make the little ones smile. I plan on going back, but first need to work on learning colors, shapes, and animals in Turkish so I can talk more with the kids rather than just smiling when I don't understand them.

My Writing Group

Because I so looked forward to and was inspired by my writing group in Montana, I started one up here with three fellow English teachers, and when I met Bob, the back end of the dragon in Aladdin, asked him to join as well. I am again feeling supported by friends who are also writing, encouraged by feedback, and inspired by the tangential conversations shooting off of our writing. It has become a great part of my routine here as well. We meet once a month, and each are working on quite different pieces. An exercise we worked on together which yielded good results for me involved a magazine called The Sun that has a section entitled, "Reader's Write." Each month there is a different broad topic, and readers send in short autobiographical stories related to the topic. This month's, Fences, inspired me to recall the following memory on paper and send it in. I won't hear for awhile whether or not they'll publish it, as this topic is for the August issue. But here it is:

Katie and I were at least three years older than him and stuck together like glue. "Double trouble," our neighbors called us. In the hierarchy of neighborhood kids, we were popular, being the only girls and rough and tumble tomboys at that. We had no reason to pick on Derek other than that he was annoying because he was younger and he talked funny. He wasn't part of the neighborhood gang. He wasn't a threat in any way so most of the time we ignored him, gave him cold stares, talked about how weird he was from behind our fence. His house backed up against ours and its fence spanned the length of four of our backyards. It was tall; you couldn't see over it. Even when I climbed my wild cherry tree, I just stared at even taller pine trees in his yard. He bragged to us once from behind the fence that he set traps for rabbits and killed them. We said, "So?", unimpressed and continued our game of pretend. In the summer, Katie and I would peel rhubarb stalks while swinging on the porch swing, barefoot, the bitter biting our jaws behind our ears, another testament to our tom boyishness. We'd throw the leaves over Derek's fence and giggle because we heard rhubarb leaves were poisonous. On one particular snow day, he came out of his fence and was in my backyard. This was the first time he had ever entered our space, so Katie and I pegged the shit out of him with snowballs. After years of being unable to dodge icy hard snowballs from our older brothers, this victory reassured us of our rough and tumble status. At one point, when he was down and we were on top of him smashing clumps of snow in his face, I realized Katie had backed off and Derek didn't really have a chance of getting up. I stood up, and when I noticed how red his face was and that we had nothing to say to one another in this awkward moment, I suddenly felt bad. It was just part of the neighborhood hierarchy I guess. We were older and cooler and had no need for him and we wanted him to know it. Sometimes when we were playing pretend outside, we heard his dad yelling. We would look at each other with raised eyebrows, thinking, "No wonder Derek's so weird," and continue creating our perfect pretend world of boyfriends, lipstick and popularity. A few years later, we overheard our parents whispering about how "Derek's neighbors" had put the house up for sale. After a little prodding of my mother, I learned that they had accused Derek of molesting their little girl. I instantly ran over to Katie's house, and told her the news. We went out and sat on the porch swing, and with the fence looming behind us, tried to digest the idea of weird, quirky Derek hurting the little girl in that way. A few years or so later, Derek and his family quietly moved away, once again not upsetting our neighborhood hierarchy.

Anit Kabir: Ataturk's Final Resting Place

The last few weekends, I have enjoyed feeling a part of this city I live in through going out to brunch with friends, visiting the Mausoleum where Ataturk is buried, running into people I know while downtown and grabbing an impromptu coffee, finding a great yoga center/instructor who translates her instruction into English, and finally today volunteering at a rehabilitation center for children with cerebral palsy. Let's start with the Mausoleum:

Anit Kabir is Ataturk's final resting place, and a great museum interpreting his life has gone up around the mausoleum. It was snowing the day I visited, and I caught some neat pictures of the changing of the guards. The mausoleum itself is a squared-off, neoclassical temple with huge bronze doors. The interior is almost completely bare with the focus on his plain sacrophagus. And, yes, that is a new word I learned.

Although the museum was extensive and I suffered from fuzzy, museum-overload brain by the end of my experience, I was most interested in learning about Ataturk's vision in the 1940s of what would make his country more "civilized" in the eyes of the western world: a unified language with a latinized alphabet, westernized clothing (men in top hats and walking canes, women with hair cut into a bob without headscarves), taking religion out of education, and a unified history that was not a history of Islam but a history of Turkey as a country. And what was even more amazing to me was that this man made these giant changes within a short period of time, changes that somewhat stripped his people of aspects of their culture, and that the people in no way resisted. Why did they not resist change? Was it the timing: Were they numb from of the series of wars, one war after another occurring in their country? Was it his promise that these sacrifices were needed in order for the nation to prosper? Was it the personality cult that arose around this man, and which was still evident through the Ataturk paraphernalia, like walking sticks and pocket watches, that were spread out through the museum for people to visually fawn over?

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

New Years in France

As soon as I entered the roped-off area at Ankara International Airport for those leaving the country, a rush of excitement overtook me to be leaving Turkey for the first time since I moved here in August.
When I arrived in Nice, FR, my observational eye was heightened; I couldn't stop noticing all these differences between Nice and Ankara, between the French and the Turkish, etc.. I think when I moved to Turkey, everything was so overwhelmingly new and different, I couldn't take in any of the subtleties. But traveling westwards to a country a tad more like my own made everything stand out: the faucet water was clear and drinkable, the hotel restaurant was arranged with aesthetics in mind, my hotel room walls weren't crumbling and flaking away, there was no sewage smell coming from the drain...all reminders that Turkey is not quite the West nor of EU potential yet.
I had 24 hours to kill in Nice before I was to catch a bus up into the mountains where my guides would pick me up. I spent the day walking around, visiting an outdoor Xmas market, drinking tea, observing people, and eating. Nice is on the Mediterranean Sea and used to be a part of Italy at one time. Corsica is not too far off the coast.

After a day of taking in the differences, these are some observations I jotted down in my journal:

France: Mother loudly yelling at son; Father violently scolding child.
Turkey: Parents letting children cry, scream, and bother strangers in public; men and women cooing over strangers' babies; 11th graders acting entitled after years of being treated as little angels who can do no wrong

France: cars stopping for pedestrians
Turkey: cars speeding up as non verbal communication to pedestrians to not even think of crossing

France: store owners saying "Bonjour" then leaving you to your shopping
Turkey: Store workers totally invading your personal space following you around the store as you shop until you feel like even though they are trying to be helpful you should try to steal something right in front of them and then act stupid about it..."Oh, what is this doing in my pocket?"

France: grey, black, and brown wardrobes
Turkey: mismatching brightly colored garments, loud styles and patterns

France: impossible to eat dairy free; it needed constant clarification at the chalet where I was staying; I am used to the "Can you eat eggs?" question, but my French host even asked at one point, "Can you eat PORK?" Not only is pork the most unconnected thing to dairy products, but OH, MAN, can I eat pork!!!
Turkey: possible to eat dairy free; they cook with LOTS of oil, not butter. However, PORK, "the other dairy product," is extremely hard to come by in a Muslim country.

France: Easy to figure out how to get around, reliable public transportation, posted fares and schedules, lots of signs
Turkey: No signs, no fixed fares posted, strange men ushering you onto mini-buses until magically you arrive in your destination city for quite a cheap price

France: tidy appearances of buildings, artful architecture, sound structures, quality and appearance thought of during construction
Turkey: One architect designed every single new building in Turkey and painted them different shades of pastel; everything is made of chipped, cracking cement; building parts break and fall apart easily

Gosh, this list sounds quite negative on Turkey's part, but really it's a comparison of rich, clean, tidy, efficient Europe to a not-quite-Westernized poorer country. And the latter is the adventure I moved abroad for.

Moving on to Mercantour National Park and the guiding company, Space Between... After 24 hours in Nice, I hopped on a bus that took me 90km north up a mountain valley twisty-turny road out of the Mediterranean and into snow. Liz, of Liz and Mel, the couple that is the guiding company, Space Between, picked me up and brought me to Le Grand Chalet where 9 other guests were staying. People came and went during the 6 days that I was there so that other than our guide, Mel, and a UK couple, Neil and Judith, I met and hiked/skied with different people each day. However, upon arriving that first night to 8 of the 9 people being over 50 years old, my heart sank as I thought my fear had been realized: I had accidentally joined an Elderhostel group. Whoopee! Happy New Year! However, as you will see, I met a variety of cool people over the course of the week from all over and of all different ages, and had a great time.
Here are some pics of Le Grand Chalet where I stayed the entire time.

Day 1 Hike: The Vesubie Valley is known for 345 days of sunshine, but this day happened to be quite dreary. Rather than shoot for the views, we hiked at the base of the valley, and I was happy with a flat hike to warm up the ol' hip flexers...snowshoeing is hard work! This day, all ten of us hiked, and there was such a mix of ability (ah hem, age) level that there was lots of stopping and starting. Urg. At one point, someone explained as we waited for some guests, "Well, you see Agnes only has one lung." Oh God, did I sign up for the wrong trip??

That night, after a sit in the sauna, I enjoyed the first of Christine and Luke's (the Chalet owners) amazing 5 course French meals. Apparently, there is a type of chalet/pensyon you can stay at in France which when translated into English means "At the host's table." This means they cook you amazing multi-course meals and then sit at the table with you. Everything is home made or locally made/bought. We started off with homemade citrus or cherry sweet wine, then moved to the table and had some kind of pureed vegetable soup, then had an appetizer like a piece of quiche, then a green salad, followed by the main dish ie. ratatouille and lamb, followed by slices of all different kinds of cheese to clean your pallet, followed by the 5th course, dessert, and then tea or coffee and a digestive liquor. The meal would take at least 3 hours every night, and included homemade red and rose wine that kept magically refilling itself. Even though it seems like a massive amount of eating, all the courses are small and eaten over such a long period of time that you don't feel nasty and bloated at the end of it, unless they slipped cream into the soup and forgot to tell you. Whoops.

Day 2 New Years Eve: Six of the guests left that morning, so it was a small hike of Neil, Judith, Mel and I. A very rainy day, so we travelled down the valley a ways and started our hike in a medieval village.

We worked our way, snow-free, up to a peak that has a Spanish-looking church on it, Madonne de'Utelle. It was snowing and foggy and so when we reached it, it was quite eerie to see this church slowly becoming visible through the fog. The story: Two Spanish sailors were in a storm at sea near Nice and thought they were about to die, so they prayed to God and said if he saved them, they would dedicate their lives to Him. In that instant, the storm ceased, and a ray of light shone on the top of this mountain, so they decided to build this church here, and it was known for being able to heal cripples. I am unable to think of a smartass comment at this time.

The plan that night was to spend New Years Eve at Mel and Liz's house with their other guests from South Africa. It was a really wonderful evening, especially meeting the South Africans, one of which worked in Ankara teaching English 10 years ago. It was great to sit with him and swap stories about Turkey. At this point in the day, the snow had created a hazardous condition on the mountain road leading to the pass where our chalet was, so Mel called the gendarme to see if the road was open, and in fact it was advised we were not to travel that night. So four of us slept on their family room floor, an impromptu row of sardines.

Day 3 New Years Day: Since I brought my tele skis with me, I had to leave the group this day to take advantage of the fresh powder and ski at the little resort within walking distance from my chalet. It was a crystal clear day, the first since I arrived, and at the top of the lift, you could see miles into the Alps. I wish I had my camera up there. Fun day, first ski of the year, jelly legs, but the powder was hoppy fun. Since my legs couldn't handle a whole ski day, after skiing, I took a walk down to Valdeblore, an old medieval town and strolled around taking pictures. Sounds like something out of Harry Potter, doesn't it? Apparently, you can tell the church is of a certain order of knights because of the rounded back.

Day 4- This day was GORGEOUS! We drove high into Mercantour National Park and began our snowshoe with a full panorama of the Maritime-Alps. As we crested a snowfield, we caught sight of old Napoleanic forts (this used to be the border of Italy); it was one of the most striking images I have seen, castle remnants half buried in the snow with the blue-blue sky off-setting them. We could also see all the way to the sea in the other direction, and even make out the outline of Corsica. This day, we were joined by Scott, a Canadian yacht engineer working off the shore of Nice. Please excuse my 70,000 pictures of the forts; it was just so cool!

Complete with old shell holes...

Day 5- One last telemark ski day. The legs held out for much longer, and I soaked in all the beautiful mountains and sunshine one last time before we had to head back into Nice. The resort was never terribly crowded, and it was super cheap (17 Euros for a day pass). This whole area is off the beaten path. Most tourists stay in Nice to be near the Med, but this amazing area is so close by and has so much to offer. This is why Mel and Liz, originally from the UK, moved to France 5 years ago to start this guiding company and call it Space Between; it really is between places in the sense that not many people know about it. Except, now, for you all, my faithful blog readers.
Upon returning to Nice and checking into my hotel, I visited an Asian Art Museum next to my hotel and made up stories for all the pieces as all the placards were in French. Then Scott invited me out to dinner in the old part of Nice with some of his "yachties" as he called them. We had a really nice meal, and they introduced me to the world of people that travel and see the world by working on rich people's yachts. A niche I never even knew existed. Then off to bed, and up early to catch a flight home to Ankara. I really understand why people fall in love with the south of France. I have returned to Ankara with a mission to find the snowy Turkish slopes...