Thursday, September 30, 2010

It happens sometimes...

It just happened again; a motor somewhere purrs down some street on a normal night, and there is a sound like a garbage dumpster being dropped. After that, the motor is silent. Sometimes there are rapid-fire voices immediately afterward, and the men at the tea shop downstairs stop playing their game. For an instant, the voices of people on adjascent balconies stop... just long enough to listen to the nothing that happens after the crash before resuming their conversation. The men at the tea shop start to play their game again, whatever that game is. Even from my apartment on the eighth floor, I can hear the plastic pieces moving around on the game board.

Tonight it was a motorbike that went suddenly silent, and the script played out predictably. Now, only minutes after the crash, I can hear the usual sounds around my apartment as if nothing happened. Maybe in Turkish people wondered aloud, "Was that a crash?" "I don't know. Maybe not..." before the hiccup in their converstion passed and the topic turned back to the usual. I don't know. I don't speak Turkish.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Guns, God, and American pundits.

The truest test of your beliefs is to get yourself out of context... way out of context, and see how ridiculous it looks when other people do it. For me, major voices of those actually in politics and the paid mouths of network pundits in the American political scene began to look quaint, like plastic figures in a snow globe... or like little cars and people viewed from the window of an airplane. As the old cast of characters fade into the horizon of stage right, new figures come onto the scene, a referendum as horrible as the Patriot Act is adopted, and a mob of religious fanatics assault art gallery patrons.

It was as God demanded in the bible: "The viewers of art and drinkers of punch from plastic cups shall be maced and beaten with sticks by a dim-witted mob."

The dumb junk that American pundits say, particularly the ones slow on foreign policy, sounds twice as dumb and removed from the world when it's broadcast over an ocean. It just lacks immediacy. Their work is for the semi-skilled; the non-expert who has a good voice and can put on a nice suit. The important tone of voice is present, but the issue begins to look silly when the picture gets bigger.

It's as though they're living in Plato's Cave, but instead of looking at shadows on the wall, let's imagine there is a tornado outside of a house:
The pundit says, "It's drafty in here. There are too many windows open."
The politician says, "My opponent voted to leave the window open. If elected, I promise to close it."

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Found the Road to the Flag

I found the road to the flag at the top of the mountain... now it's not as alluring as before. I can go anytime I want. Just take the bus to Cankaya and walk past the hat shop straight north to the big flight of stairs. There you are. I'll probably go this weekend and it'll take just a few minutes.

Actually, it's a pretty exciting walk... lots to pass and some good hawkers with good stuff to hawk. Furniture. I really need furniture, but I'm happy with my 'yoga room', which is a room that is completely empty except for a yoga mat because that is all the furniture I could afford when I first moved to Izmir. The yoga mat cost about $12 or $13 U.S., which is a real bargain when you consider the fact that I have a room that is always clean, and hiring a cleaning lady costs about 60TL.

In truth, I'd rather have a sofa. I'd rather have a table and chairs, but those are things that can be purchased or built, kept or thrown away. Over the years I've seen a lot of nice furniture come and go, get recycled, outlive its usefulness... but I've never seen a yoga mat that looked old or even used.

About my apartment, I know that it's the first place I saw in Izmir... the rent is reasonable, the neighborhood is OK, and it's a livable couple of rooms, but I'm beginning to envy the places my friends have. I think I'm going to stay here only as long as I need to before making some kind of move to a better neighborhood. The area is a little bit conservative and I'm having trouble with the Ramadan drummers at night... actually, they came around yesterday asking for money, a young guy and an old guy (I filmed them waking everyone up before, so I know it was really them).

They looked so sweet, so sincere, that I actually paid them. My anger over the sleep I'd lost these past few weeks melted away completely. I'm a sucker for tradition, and these guys seemed genuinely nice.

The recommended amount was about 5TL, but I only had small coins, about 1TL, in my coin bag. At the very least, these guys are doing their jobs well night after night, playing their drum to wake everyone up between 3:30am and 4:30am and deserve a few coins.

At the very, very least, I didn't kick their asses and take their silly drum.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Urfa Kebab, Two Museums, Climbing the Mountain, Hawking the Hawker, Buying a Hat

Today there are sweat salt and sunscreen deposits on my shirt, my dogs are barking, and I learned how to use the metro in Izmir. It was a very, very good day that started out with on simple mission: to eat Eskender Kebabs on the Kordon with a big glass of beer. That was the simple Sunday task I set before myself to complete my day. I didn't manage it, but I managed much, much more.

First off, I didn't find Eskender Kebabs on the Kordon. There are a lot of good looking places to eat, but at one point I took a quick right away from the water and had an Urfa Kebab sandwich. It did the trick, but because there was no beer on the menu, I had a glass of ayran (the frothy kind), and it was heavenly. So far, so good.

In addition to failing to find an Eskender Kebab, I also failed at a game of 'capture the flag', although I played a pretty good game.

At the top of the hill overlooking Alsancak, there is a Turkish fort with a giant flag planted at its highest point. Today's mission was to get that flag. OK, the mission was to stand next to it and look like a tourist, take pictures, buy a bottle of water, then find my way back down.

I love walking (fancy people call it 'hiking'), old architecture, and strange, dodgey neighborhoods, so I trekked up the mountain through the streets of Kubilay, finding all of that and more in its maze of narrow roads and old women sitting on stoopes in front of colorful little houses. It was beautiful, but I spent most of the time wondering how all of those thousands of people llived up there where there was no industry, no work; There were only little bakkal stores that sold things like bottled water and ice cream bars. Traffic-wise, it was living in the narrowest point of a bottleneck in the messiest maze in the nastiest traffic in the world. Going to work would be so much work that (guess what?) no one would ever go to work.

Once or twice I saw some daring person driving (and Turks are all daring behind the wheel), some trucks that were too large for those streets, which forced them to slow down. I even saw a small delivery truck intentionally bust its plastic bumper on someone's front steps in order to get around another truck, with the person inside pretending to stare lazily at the sky with plenty of room to move (another thing I've learned in Turkey is that the people here are always "on". They don't miss anything. If it looks like they don't see something, they're only pretending).

It was hectic, it was heaven. I walked uphill for a long, long time, then downhill... my leg muscles actually shaking from the workout. The reward for me was finding something in the form of an old building, and there were quite a few of those, as well as some good views of Izmir down below, hugging the Aegean (It's about time I learned how to spell "Aegean"!)

In the end, I got pretty close to that flag... but not close enough to score a point at horseshoes. Only close enough to say that that particular road had taken me as far as it was going to. To the right was a short cliff, not visible from below. To the left there may or may not have been another way up, but heading away from the flag. All around, there were people eyeing my suspiciously, since no one had a reason to be in this neighborhood unless they lived there. I smiled and said, "hello" in English. They sometimes smiled, sometimes looked at me like I was retarded. Somehow, being retarded gave me the courage I needed to take pictures. I took out my camera and grabbed a few choice shots.

One person spoke to me, a man named Mehmet. He was sitting in his doorway with hsi wife, watching his three children play. He told me ruefully that he used to date an American for seven years, but ended up marrying his wife. His wife looked sad and he dismissively ordered her to a bakkal to get me a bottle of water. I didn't like it. I told him that I had water in my bag. I'll also add here that Mehmet's wife, a covered woman, was smoking hot and that he was a bit of an ugger.

So it goes.

After I got down from the hill near Basmane, I took a left and headed towards Konak, where some street children hassled me (my Turkish wasn't even good enough to get rid of them, but I didn't give them any money), had a coffee at Konak Pier, and then went into the bazaar to find a new straw hat. With all of the sun here, it's really surprising that Turkish men don't wear hats for protection. When Turks did wear hats, it was fez!

After walking through the stalls for an hour or so, I found only one that sold straw hats, and they only had three types for men. One was kind of a costume cowboy hat, one was too flimsy, and one looked exactly like the one I already have. I guess I'm stuck with it.

On my way to the main street to catch the tramway back, a guy stopped me and started speaking English with me, saying "Where you from?"

The hawkers are so friendly and so natural that when they speak English to a foreigner, it's both soothing and threatening. It's nice to hear your own language, and they speak it well. It also means that unless you immediately do something rude, you're in for a long, unwanted sales pitch. When the young guy acosted me, I was not in the mood to be rude, and I wasn't even particulary adverse to a long sales pitch. I had ideas of my own.

First I told him to help me to understand how he knew I was a foreigner. He hedged and said I looked like a tourist without saying why. I didn't like that.

He told me that he had a shop, and I was honestly interested in seeing it. The shop was even worth seeing; lots of nice wood and high-quality merchandise; all of it very "ethnic" and potentially attractive to if you wanted to export it to people in the States. I tried to talk turkey with him, telling him that I wasn't a normal buyer, but an aspiring businessman (and potential burden to him). He got tired quickly and ali-ooped me to his cousin, who showed me some lamps. I told him immediately that I didn't want to buy lamps today, but I wanted to start a company with him and export lamps to America. It became kind of a game. He sent me upstairs to another cousin, who wanted to sell me leather jackets, carpets, and counterfeit bags. The cousin was the hardest seller they had, but he used the word, "gavur," which I didn't care for. He asked if he could sell me a carpet, saying that they could send it to the United States. I said "no," several times and he responded with a very sharp "WHY NOT?"

In the middle of all of those counterfeit goods, I told him that he needed to have a catalogue to show customers overseas and that I could find customers. He was excited, the giant dope, but I don't know why. He said he was going to help me find suppliers for soap and spices, but kept pushing carpets. I started to describe a convoluted business plan that had no real benefit for him (probably not me, either... ). His eyes glassed over until he looked like a fish. I told him that carpets were too expensive, that we needed something smaller and cheaper than carpets, and not fragile, like waterpipes or lamps. He asked if i was going to open a shop like his. I said no. I was going to open a website. Suddenly, he didn't want me in his store anymore.

From that little bit of anti-sales experience, I think I actually got a little bit of sales experience. I also found a new way to deal with obnoxious Turkish salesmen.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Permission to live and work in Turkey

The cost of the yearly Turkish residence permit is the only barrier to living here - about $600, and marriage to a Turkish citizen or proof of being able to support yourself with about 2,000 Euro in a Turkish bank.

For some foreigners (like the enraged American I saw stomping up and down the halls), the cost is prohibitive, so you'd better have a good plan and a reason to stay here. Employers will hopefully pay the cost of your work permit application (if they care to - luckily mine does), but they won't pay for the residence permit.

A lot of people, like someone who will never leave and just wants to do a simple job, probably won't pay for residence or bother with work permits.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Where You End Up

In Hollywood movies, a charming and hapless protagonist sometimes ends up in the middle of a situation - in a basket floating down a wild river, in a large crowd of people during a panic, surrounded by friendly or unfriendly natives, or in the middle of a car chase, but in the back seat. The protagonist hunkers down, using their hands over their head to show the audience that they're keeping their head low, mashing a well-chosen hat (thanks to the costume department) stylishly over their dome.

I guess I've felt this way on a few occasions - and enjoyed being in some pretty weird territory, but my hat is ugly (just 5 TL), and no one was there to film it. Sometimes it's hard just to order a burger, and instead of hunkering down and being hapless, you need to try and employ interpersonal skills and keep others around you from feeling inconvenienced by your lack of language skills.

The first step: Smile. It helps. Really.

Friday, July 16, 2010

İzmir Gypsy Street

To a simple midwestern American searching for something to compare this place to, maybe it looked like a renaissance fair... a purpose-built, festival grounds, but without the costumed re-enactment fetishists and their false British accents. The action was real, the crowds real.... no false fronts on the buildings or the people, just winding narrow streets lined with neat, colorful little concrete/brick homes and shops that looked too make-believe to be beleived. There was also a whole lot more shouting and life on the street than a fesival - five fights and one wedding while we were there, lots of cars and scooters, kids playing and getting into trouble, and business being conducted.

We sat with our host and his family on plastic chairs drinking tea for most of the evening, and the night hadn't even started when we left at about 10:30. Our hosts were extremely gracious; gypsy hospitality must be the finest in the world.

We thought the wedding was starting when a '64 Chevy Impala convertible, decorated with rows of lights and carrying a mother, father, and two children dressed in white satin, came tearing through the main street to celebrate the boy's circumcisions.

I was cursing myself all night for not having a camera, but that moment really made me feel the misery of my failure.

Monday, July 12, 2010

I rode the Turkish minibus for the first time by myself - OK, I find them intimidating. Anyone in their right mind would. Hey, at least I rode in the front (OK, so the driver told me to sit up there because he was feeling helpful). Such is the life of a foreigner - a very fine line between the joy of freedom and independence and occasional total dependance on others. One minute you feel like Indiana Jones, the next minute you're a helpless infant.

Anyway, while bouncing around up front, I hear the driver talking on his cell phone (while counting money and negotiating some of the world's meanest traffic with a bus filled with people) ordering food. I assumed he was making a call to the garage, but after a few blocks, he suddenly stopped the bus. Then a man from a small stand ran across five lanes of traffic to bring him his sandwich.

Lunch service in Turkey is truly heroic.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010


(this is not where I'm staying)

To move or not to move? For that question, there is no choice... I simply can't stay here no matter how comfortable it is. For one thing, this is someone else's bedroom. Whatever the sleeping arrangements are when there are no guests in the house, someone probably wants to sleep in the bed I'm occupying.

Also, wherever I go, I hope it is quieter than this place. Even a relatively lazy street like ours is filled with noise.

The night before last, we were ready to leave at a moment's notice. My bags were packed and we collected a list of phone numbers for a new apartment. Last night, there was talk about having me paint the kitchen (my wife said that I love painting) and I had to unpack part of my suitcase to have clothes today. This is getting silly. We need to go.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Some Photos

This is a Tofaş Şahin, a typical Turkish car. These things are everywhere. They're relatively cheap, so it's the kind of car kids might trick out with rims, neon lights, and Cadillac emblems, then drive around playing obnoxious club music. Despite this and the fact that I'm going to get tired of seeing them around, and that driving in Turkey is a dangerous pain in the ass, and that if I owned a car, it would get banged up in no time at all, I want one of these things in the worst way.

This is the view from our roof... by all accounts, it's a pretty busted up part of town, but I love it. It's charming. It's starting to feel like home.

Nine Days in Turkey

I've only been here nine days? During that time, I've probably learned four whole words. Learning a new language is not easy, and not many people here speak English.
Soon, my wife isn't going to be around to translate for me, so it's definitely time to step up and start actively learning to speak Turkish. In Japan, it's possible for a foreigner to function without having to learn the language, but in Turkey the bureaucracy is too thick, the city too hectic. There is a feeling that you have to be "on" at all times when you're out and moving around.

In other news, Bilgi University throws a nice party. Armağan's graduation ceremony was followed by a cocktail party that was held in a very beautiful space that used to house an old factory. Whether the campus was beautiful or ugly was something that we didn't agree on (I liked the old factory buildings), but the view of the city rising up around it gave it a feeling of being at the heart of things, of serving a necessary function. I was immediately envious and wished I had gone to University there.

Today's mission: learn to use the tramway.

Sunday, June 27, 2010


At night, the relative silence of the city is broken by the sound of dueling ezan – the prayer announcements from the loudspeakers of the local mosques. I like them. The speakers give a little crackle and the muezzin gives their most beautiful call, trying to stand out from the others. I tried to look at a mosque during prayer yesterday, but the doorman gave me stinkeye because I looked like such a tourist.

The first sound of the morning is hammering. Downstairs there is a recycler who breaks up old appliances with a hammer to get the metal. He does his work out on the sidewalk. We’re away from the main street, so our street doesn’t see too many cars. There are a lot of voices and kids playing outside. The number of people goes up until at night, streets are filled with men, women, and children wandering around. Anytime you need something from the store, just call to one of them and throw some money down and they will get it for you. Little convenience stores are everywhere, along with bread shops and internet cafes, and an assortment of other types of businesses, including restaurants and “secret” shops that sell pirated DVDs.

The money isn’t as much of a problem as it was eight years ago, the last time I was here. The old Turkish currency was counted in millions and tens of millions for purchasing small items. That was just too much for anyone to get their head around, which was probably good for rip-off artists. Now the money is easy; 1.60 TL is equal to about a dollar. For convenience’s sake, I think of 1TL as a dollar.

Today, starting in the morning until late at night, their was rhythmic hammering, like steel on concrete. I don't know what they were doing for 8 - 10 hours, but it sounded like they pounded down every last wall.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

6/22/10 - Some kind of hard medicine

The nagging urge that had been bothering me for years, the urge to get on a plane and jump off the face of the earth since leaving Japan, suddenly disappeared the minute I passed throught the first security gates at Detroit Metro. It's exciting and frightening. No going back. Buy the ticket, take the ride. Afterall, I asked for this.

The energy in the terminal is distinctly different from anywhere else. Without a suitcase, anyone in this crowd looks like they could be in a shopping mall except for one key difference: Everyone here feels a purpose. It is the overly casual, bored faces that stand out.

Detroit to Amsterdam

A restless time in a cramped airplane seat - aching, itching, and squirming for eight or nine hours in a flying cattle car. I'm a zombie.

Pure fatigue keeps the nerves dull enough to kill any anxiety I might have had about the trip - sitting in the terminal I feel too fogged over to properly understand where I am.

I'm reading American Shaolin, by Matthew Polly, a perfect fish-out-of-water story that is particularly good to read while traveling.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Packed and Ready

There's not a lot left to do - just a couple of fussy details to take care of so there won't be any problems with checking in at the airport or getting through security.

Once I arrive in Turkey there'll be a couple of bureaucratic hoops to jump through before I can start working, and we need to figure out once and for all what Nilu is going to do about her school.


None right now. Dogs know instinctively when they're about to go to the vet, but most of my head is too thick to process the fact that I'm going somewhere for a long time. The ticket, the passport, these bags, and people hugging me to say goodbye should be enough to help me realize that I've already spent my last night here in Michigan, but it still feels very unreal. Twelve hours from now, I'll be in the air. In less than 36 hours I'll be in the heart of one of the world's biggest cities, jetlagged and disoriented.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Preparing to go...

A couple of months before Go Time... it's difficult to know exactly how to prepare. No two people are the same, I'm sure... and it kills me that I'm not able to bring my bike, at least not at first. It looks like Turkey isn't the greatest place for cycling - maybe I'll find another sport.

As for what to bring, I've started buying little things... like a little computer.

I just don't want to get bogged down in decisions about what to bring and what to leave, so I'm prepared to make some deep, painful cuts - starting with my bicycle. When I moved from Japan back to the U.S., I brought a ton of useless junk that I never looked at again, and it cost hundreds of dollars. This time it's going to be bare essentials only.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

And the winner is....


It looks like I'll be moving to Izmir.

Why Izmir? Well, it's sunny, and there is a very good school there that will pay me real money to work.

...and maybe there'll be a good bread shop around. I love Turkish bread.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Korea? Thailand? Vietnam? How about somewhere in Europe?

Decisions, decisions...

I love Japan. I have spent the better half of my adult life there. The question is, should I move on? Where to next?

It's possible that I've found a nice position in Korea, starting in July. Good stuff.

Korea is a place I've always been interested in, but I haven't applied to many jobs there (my strategy may be flawed: apply, apply, and re-apply) unless I'm able to apply directly to ads by the company themselves. This is because Korean recruiters are so aggressive that they feel scammy and probably are. Also, they seem to have no internal communication; one person will be communicating you via e-mail and another from the same recruitment company will be calling you.

I've looked at Vietnam and Thailand as well (and Italy, I love Italy, but all of the schools there seem to require candidates to have EU working permits), but it seems as though Korea is going to win this job hunt.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

The Business Hotel in Ueno

Ueno, Japan:
In Alice's Wonderland, everything was strange, but still reasonably clean. Its characters had motivations that were odd, yet constructive and to a bizarre end. In my wonderland, the room had the same bizarre sense of being practical, but in the wrong scale and smelling like stale sweat, smoke, and urine. The novelty of the place was that corners were cut dangerously close, to the detriment of accomplishment its practical end - a hotel that approximated being a hotel while smelling like an ass.

Near my window, there was a vagrant moving around on a ledge or fire escape, clanking bottles and cutting a monsterous, jagged-looking sillhouette. The window was locked with a pretty secure-looking clasp, but couldn't help thinking that whenever my particular room was vacant, the vagrant crept into my room and slept. My thoughts hung onto that image, convincing myself that the he was going to come in and rifle through my bags the minute I fell asleep.

As disturbing as those thoughts were, as bad as everything smelled, and as dirty as the blankets felt, I slept like a baby. My last thought of the night was, "So what? I'll offer him the floor."

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The First - A kind kid, a couple of smelly guys on the train

(Old journal entry - first night in Japan)
It started.... where? Where to start?

Next to me, two good old boys bumping along on the train from a big night of drinking, my tired head and stomach filled with butterflies and a willingness to accept anything. These guys smelled bad, and I don't mean bad the way unclean people can get to smelling after a few days of sweating in the same clothes, but bad in the way that reminds one of pollution and aggressive, self-destructive smoking, drinking, greasy food, and overwork. Their alcohol-poisoned breath permeated everything until even public the transportation, if it could speak, might complain about the smell of public transportation.

Before I had the two old boys kept me company on the way to a mysterious place called Ueno with the rest of Tokyo fluttering by, there was a kind young kid in the airport who spoke English and helped me to send my bags ahead to yet another mysterious town, leaving me with only my backpack. My conversation with the kid; lost to memory. Probably in college, he smiled a lot and invited me to visit his family in Tokyo sometime. When that would be, I don't think we ever agreed upon. My soupy jetlagged head never thought to collect his number.

To all of you people in the world who have helped a dumb, fish-eyed American find his own ass in a strange town, thank you. Honestly, you'd be doing yourselves and your countrymen a favor by turning us right back around and putting us on the next returning plane a small souvenir to give our friends back home. That would be standard protocol. I will also tell you a secret, you saints of lost travelers: After my bags were taken care of, I was just happy to be rid of them. We only care about where our bags are when we're in the comfort of our hotels and our shirts begin to smell. Between the airport and the hotel, feel free to steal our bags so we won't have to carry them.

On the way to Ueno, sitting in a cloud of stale smoke with the smell of alcohol sweat, those two old guys were probably best train buddies I could have had at that time. Iike me, they were mellow, exhausted, and fogged-over; completely out of step with the rest of the world. They tried in vain to communicate with me and it didn't matter that they couldn't. It was my first cultural exchange with the real Japan, and the first of many more to come.