Saturday, August 21, 2010

My New French Sidekick

Anyone who knows me will undoubtedly know that I always have a French sidekick. They may not be thrilled to learn that they're the sidekick and not me, but hey - WWII.

First there was Morgane. Ah... lovely Morgane. Morgane La Fey, Morguse La Balayette, ma amie de le scatologie. Unfortunately, continents do take their toll on friendships, but every time I flush a toilet, I think fondly of you...

And then there was Thomas, whose life was a 1970s kung fu dream. I never meant to hurt you or your so easily sunburned soul. It was the burden of being a superhero - don't you know the masks weigh so heavily upon us? I hope you're content in your exile, in your jungle paradise of rituals and romance.

Thus, it came to pass that I was Frenchless for the first time in a decade. What was I to do? Should I pass out croissants at the French embassy and smile provocatively? Or maybe starte spelling alle my importante wordse withe the lettre "e" at the ende? No, no, no substitutes for me. It was clearly time to find a new French sidekick! Without a moment to spare, I broke up with my girlfriend (all my stories start this way, if you hadn't noticed) and went off in search of a noveau ami!

The first place I looked was Bulgaria. Sofia is dirt cheap, relatively lawless, and full of women of loose morals. Therefore, you can usually find a Frenchman or two wandering around on the streets. And what do you know? I found one! Unfortunately, he was already taken.

My search took me next to southeastern Serbia, to the city of Nis. I didn't find any Frenchmen there, but I did find a pleasant Serbian man named Dimitri. He told me that his grandfather lived to 100 by starting each day with a spoonfull of honey, a Turkish coffee, and a shot of Slivovitz. We decided to give his grandfather's diet a try, but quickly found that if you start the day with liquor, the day never gets very far...

So, from Serbia I continued westward to Kosovo. For those of you who don't know, Kosovo, like pretty much everyplace else in the Balkans, used to be a part of Serbia. As my Bulgarian friend Ivo is fond of saying, "What do Serbia and Nokia phones have in common? Every year they come out with a slimmer model!" Of course, this is in direct response to an oft-repeated old saying in Serbian, "if you have nothing to do, attack Bulgaria."

Anyways, following the fall of Yugoslavia, the region of Kosovo, despite being a generally pretty poor and crappy place, decided that they preferred being poor and crappy to being poor, crappy and full of Serbs (a pretty common attitude in these parts) and declared independence. After some good ol' ethnic cleansing, the UN rushed in, starting throwing around a bunch of Euro for some reason, and the Kosovars fell to their knees in thanks. They were so happy, the even built a statue of their new national hero... Bill Clinton.

You know, you'd think with the fact that their country exists solely because of the goodwill of foreigners, they'd be some of the friendliest people around, right? Well, sort of...

In the bus, on the way to Macedonia, I found myself sitting next to a nice, beautiful young lady named Fitore. She was an Albanian Kosovar, going to her friend's birthday party in Skopje. She was soooo excited, because it was her first time abroad! When she realized that I was American, she could barely conceal her delight! Her, Fitore, on an international bus trip, speaking English to an American! We had a fantastic conversation all the way from Pristina to Ferizaji. Here's one of the highlights:

Fitore: Aaron.
Aaron: Fitore.
Fitore: Sky. Very good.
Aaron: Yes, good. Sun very hot. Good.
Fitore: Yes, good.

When we arrived in the Ferizaji bus station, the driver announced a 15 minute break. I said to Fitore, "you coffee?" She replied, "yes, coffee". So with that, we jumped off the bus. While Fitore was looking for a coffee, I was approached by a nice young Kosovar boy of maybe about 16 years, who said,

"Give me cigarette!"

Now, thinking that his English was perhaps quite poor, I assumed he meant, "Excuse me, could I please have a cigarette?", so I smiled and gave him one.

"Give me light!"

With my smile faltering slightly, I produced a lighter and lit his cigarette.

"How much money do you have in your pocket?" he asked. I briefly considering willfully understanding this as, "do you have sufficient funds for the rest of your trip, because I'd be happy to help in any way possible," but I'm not an idiot.

"Not much," I replied.

"Why you talk that girl?" the boy asked.

Annoyed, I answered, "because she's on the bus". It was then that I noticed he had one hand in his pocket. My spider sense began tingling.

"Why you not talk girls your own country?"

"I'm not in my country," I said, and took a few steps towards the bus.

The boy followed me and shouted, "you go! I see you again, I cut off your head with my knife and I fuck your sister!" Well now, I knew that was an empty threat because I don't have a sister, but I didn't want to argue. I got on the bus and sat down in the front seat while the boy stood directly in front of the bus, glaring at me.

A short time later, Fitore returned with a defeated "coffee no," and sat down next to me smiling. I glanced at my feet awkardly. The boy stared threateningly. Fitore reached in her bag and produced a small photo album. "Photo good ok?" she asked. I grunted. The boy stared threateningly. Fitore flipped through a collection of what were mostly pictures of her pursing her lips at the camera or posing in a bikini. I shifted uncomfortably. The boy stared threateningly.

Finally, the bus driver started the bus. At this point, the boy decided he was just going to kill me anyways and jumped on the bus. I jumped out of my seat, prepared to fight to the death. The boy rushed at me. I steeled myself.

The boy made a semicircle with his hands and shouted, "Watashi wa anata o hakai suru!"

I threw my head back, levitated a few inches, and screamed, "Baka, watashi wa imōto o motte inai!"

Then, the attendant pushed him out the door, and we drove away.

Soon, I found myself crossing the border into Macedonia. 2 countries and 1 independent autonomous region later, I still had no Frenchman. Would Macedonia be different? Did I dare to dream? After saying goodbye to Fitore, I hopped off the bus in Skopje and began following the vague directions to the hostel that I had found on the internet. Thoroughly shaken from my encounter in Kosovo, I stopped along the way and picked up 4 bottles of wine. You know, to share.

When I arrived at the hostel, I plopped down on the picnic table outside, across from one of the other guests. "Man, you won't believe the day I've had," I began. "You want a glass of wine?"

The tall, bearded man replied, "but of course, za wine is good here, no?"

Nervously, I whispered, "Are you... French?"

"Mais oui, my name is Renan," came the reply, and I began to feel my palms sweating in anticipation.

But wait! How could I keep him? We were just travelers, ships passing in the night. He'd return to France, and I to Istanbul, with nary an opportunity for us to sip a cafe latte, or break a baguette together. I needed an angle.

"So, Renan, are you just traveling around this area, or what?"

"Non, I have six month. I will journey many place, I think." Check.

"Oh, really? You don't work?"

"But of course, I teach anatomy at universite. But I only work for the six month in a year. Then I journey six month." Check.

"Oh yeah, that's cool. Where are you going next?"

"I think I go to Istanbul next." Check.

"Oh really? I live in Istanbul. Here's my number. Why don't you call when you arrive? We'll go out for a drink..."

All the signs were looking good. I had him where I wanted him. Now, in order to truly make him my new French sidekick, I needed bait. How could I keep him in Istanbul? The wine is shit and the cheese isn't nearly stinky enough... I would need an angle.

When Renan arrived in Istanbul, I threw everything I had at him - İskender kebap, kokoreç, and a Turkish girl. Renan knew that he'd been beat. With a sigh that was half defeat, half contentment, Renan moved into my spare bedroom and spent the next 5 months in Turkey.

Renan quickly grew into the French sidekick that I've always wanted - the kind that will stare at maps with you for hours and brings over beer every night. The kind that sips espresso and talks equally enthusiatically about existentialism and excrement. Oh yes, Renan and I went on to have lots of legendary adventures throughout Turkey and Bulgaria before he eventually rode off into the sunset with a cry of "Have no fear, I'll be back next year!"

In fact, when last Renan was seen, he was even wearing a hat of his own.

Friday, January 15, 2010

An Infidel in the Middle East

Come one, come all, and gather around your monitors for yet another session of vicarious living.

The backdrop for our story this evening (depending on your time zone) is not the mouldy minarets of Istanbul, and our yarn is not one of a börek binge across the Balkans, for once. No, no. This harrowing tale takes place in the desert, and involves mostly falafel (and a mediocre chicken dinner one time). Listen (read) closely (at an optimal viewing distance) as I shock and awe you with the mother of all my journeys in...

(1/3 of) The Axis of Evil!

It all started something like this:

Aaron: Hey, Nisha, for semester break, wanna go someplace kinda scary and backwards?

Nisha: Sure! How about France?

Aaron: Nah, too far away. How about Syria?

Nisha: Well.... Ok. But I'm warning you that I'm going to lose my passport at least once, and probably lots of other things like money and credit cards, which will more than likely make our trip far more stressful than is necessary.

Aaron: I know, that's why I've invited you.

With that, Aaron packed up a few pairs of clean underwear, his now-outdated "I don't like Bush either" t-shirt, kissed his very, very angry girlfriend goodbye, grabbed Nisha and jumped on a slow train from Istanbul that wound its way southeast, across Anatolia and over the Taurus Mountains, pausing briefly in Adana for some kebap and spicy beet juice, and eventually arriving in the Middle East (gasp!), where Aaron was prepared to risk life, limb and head in order to prove to himself once and for all that America and her government are profoundly and irrevocably full of shit.

What he didn't expect to find was a bunch of pot-smoking bisexual chicks dancing the tango on a mountain at midnight. Needless to say, he was pleasantly surprised.

Let's take a moment here to give some background... See, what you have to understand here is that during Aaron's formative years, he briefly fell madly in love with a Syrian girl. And then her sister... who, coincidentally, was also a Syrian girl. Unfortunately, the first would only let him kiss her if he put a razor blade in his mouth, and the second wouldn't let him put a razor blade anywhere near her mouth, so he got confused and began a lifelong string of unsuccessful relationships with women, characterized by an unhappy mix of sadomasochism and algophobia.

Thus, it should come as no surprise that the Syrian sisters' stories of female repression, family members being imprisoned and tortured for ideological reasons, and life constantly under the discriminating eye of the secret police caused young Aaron to fantasize about that faraway land, Syria, for his entire adolescence and young adulthood. 15 years later, here he finally was, poised at Bab al-Hawa, the Door to the Wind, the entrance into الجمهورية العربية السورية, the country of his worst dreams and best nightmares.

Now, you'd think that with George Bush Jr. calling Syria "evil", they'd be a bit reluctant to let Americans in their borders, wouldn't you? Well, you'd be right. When Aaron flashed his American passport at the border, conspicuously bereft of visa, the border guards all just shook their heads and told him to sit down. And wait. For an indeterminate period of time.

In fact, Aaron became the focus of a kind of game for one border guard in particular, who would sit behind the counter, smoke cigarettes and drink tea, and occasionally stand up and wildly beckon Aaron to come, as if his visa were ready. As soon as Aaron jumped up and took a couple of hasty steps forward, the guard would laugh, take a big gulp of tea, and shake his head dismissively. After a couple of hours, when the border guard realized that Aaron would, without fail, fall for this EVERY SINGLE TIME, he eventually grew tired of it and started looking at a porn magazine.

Nisha, on the other hand, had no problem getting a visa. She just walked up, black as the night sky (on a clear night, when there's a full moon, and lots of street lights in the general vicinity... or maybe a football stadium...) flashed her Trinidadian passport, and the border guards went, "Ah, Africa! Ok, no problem" and gave her a visa. It was only when Nisha, being the sweetheart she is, tried to draw a map of her country to entertain the friendly policemen, that they went, "wait, that's not Africa!" and snatched the visa back, leaving us both sitting on the bench, watching our favorite border guard drink his tea and snicker at us. All day.

7 1/2 hours of Syrian coffee and hopelessness later, night fell, and Aaron and Nisha were still on the bench. So, Aaron decided to try a new tactic. He found the biggest, meanest, nastiest looking border guard of all, walked up to the glass, stuck out his lower lip and made a puppy dog face. The fat man's stern visage broke. He smiled at Aaron, nodded his head, and picked up the telephone. Within minutes, Aaron and Nisha's passports were being stamped, and they were ushered into a private car and whisked away to exotic Aleppo. At night. With no Syrian money. And nowhere to stay.

Fortunately, Aaron often reads travel literature instead of working, and so was able to produce the name of the Hotel Baron, internationally famous for being so bad that Lawrence of Arabia didn't pay the bill, which has ironically become such a point of pride that they've framed and displayed the unpaid bill in the lobby. Well, it turns out that Lawrence had decent taste, and after becoming intimately acquainted with the hotel bar, Nisha and Aaron extricated themselves from the premises and stumbled into the tautologically named Tourist Hotel.

The first thing you notice about the Middle East is how Middle Easty it is. I mean, lots of people remark they've gone to New York or L.A. and been surprised to find that it's EXACTLY as they saw it on TV. Which makes sense because, of course, TV never lies. So, recalling the thousands of videos of Middle Eastern nations that Aaron has seen on Fox news, Aaron wasn't at all surprised to see dust, palm trees, white blocky apartment buildings, dirty men wearing turbans and posters of sunglassed generals waving at the people. In fact, he was only surprised to see himself in the middle of it.

Now, although Nisha understandably stood out like a sore, black thumb, Aaron was more worried about what the locals would say when he admitted to being American, for as ashamed as Aaron perpetually is of his birthplace, he vowed upon leaving it that he would never lie about his heritage. Thus, when a smiling Arab selling fried meat inside fried bread dipped in boiling fry-oil asked Nisha, "Where are you from?", Aaron steeled himself. When Nisha repiled "Trinidad", the man exhibited a puzzled look, put his hand over his heart and said, "welcome in Syria!"

Next, the man turned to Aaron and repeated the question. What should Aaron do? Pretend he doesn't understand English? Beg forgiveness? Shout "!Bush أنا أكره" and run? I mean, he didn't want to be kidnapped and decapitated on the first day! He hadn't even tried the falafel yet! With an audible swallow, he looked the Arab directly in the eyes and evenly stated, "America". Shock stole into the Arab's face, but was quickly replaced by a warm smile, and when the man placed his hand over his chest, this time he bowed and uttered the words, "you are MORE than welcome in Syria!"

You see, my brainwashed buddies, you have been LIED TO. Syrians don't hate Americans. They LOVE Americans. Every single person that Aaron met in Syria LOVED that he was from America. He got the royal treatment. He was scarcely able to pay for anything, from coffee, to food, to chocolate cake. They didn't hate him because he was free (he's not). They didn't hate him because he was rich (he's not). They loved to see him in their country because he was proof that Americans aren't all oil-hungry, racist, hyper-religious, capitalist pigs. They loved him because he confirmed universal humanity. They loved him because his white skin and fresh smile, right there in the dirtiest, poorest neighborhood Aaron had ever seen in his life, meant that there was hope - hope that we wouldn't all eventually just kill each other in a chaotic mass of intolerance and misunderstanding. And Aaron loved them all too.

Except the fucking taxi drivers.

See, the taxi drivers in Syria REALLY don't want to use the meters. They'll argue and argue about price, but will very rarely just flip the fucking meter on, no matter how many times you ask. This is because taxis, like the price of petrol, are laughably cheap. If they can squeeze 20 more Syrian pounds out of you, their seven children can each get their very own spoonful of hummus that evening. In fact, if you get in a taxi anywhere in Syria and ask to go to the bus stop, they'll ask "where are you going?". When you confusedly reply "the bus stop," they'll reply, "yeah, but where are you GOING?" Once you tell them your destination, which may be totally across the entire country, they'll insist that they drive you there personally, no matter how long it takes, for less than you'd pay for a taxi from JFK Airport into Manhattan.

Despite a barrage of smiles, pleas, and eventually curses (wow, that sounds a lot like the stages of most of Aaron's relationships), Aaron insisted on traveling by train to Damascus, the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world, the City of Jasmine, the City that Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him) spied from the mountaintop and proclaimed to be heaven on Earth. That may be a bit of an exaggeration, but it was still pretty cool. Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him) had a pretty good eye, he did.

See, Damascus is where Aaron met Rana and Rahja, two cool chicks living in the shadow of subjugation. They met in a smoky little bar in the Christian district, whence the young ladies whisked Aaron across the crumbling city, from secret shops in the souks to vine-lined cafes full of shisha smoke. On the top of a mountain, under the light of a haloed moon, Aaron and Rahja danced the tango like there was no tomorrow... until approximately 11:45, when Rahja announced she had to go home. After a winding minibus trip down the mountain, Rahja smiled goodbye and told Aaron to be careful, because the minibus driver was high on cough syrup and was considering stabbing him and taking his money. Aaron smiled, kissed Rahja's cheek, and ran.

From Damascus, Aaron and Nisha headed east into the desert, 150 km from the Iraqi border (yes, Aaron tried to convince Nisha to go all the way. No, she wouldn't go. Yes, Aaron is glad about that now), to the ancient ruins of Palmyria, still home to thousands of Bedouins.

Ah, the Bedouins... The peaceful, nomadic Bedouins. These paragons of a forgotten culture come from a simpler time. A time before the world moved on. A time when people's spirits weren't soiled with modern evils like money, technology, or mortgages... O, who hasn't dreamed of embarking on a trek across the desert on your camel, sharing a fire with your friends in the evenings, greeting fellow nomads with a hearty "As-Salāmu `Alaykum!" What a life that would be!

Of course, even your average Bedouin needs a double cheeseburger every now and then, and unfortunately, McDonalds won't supersize your meal for a handful of camel-bone beads. Thus, to feed their repressed need for things like transistor radios and the occasional night out drinking and whoring, they will follow you and bother you and they will never ever ever stop until you buy some of their thrice-damned necklaces. And I say some because if you only buy one or two, another 14-year-old boy will come and say that you've shamed him and ultimately yourself by not buying his necklaces and instead buying his friends'. And then dozens will appear and follow you across the desert, circling and crowding you and alternating between scowling and sulking while shaking headscarves and camel-hair bracelets and all kinds of SHIT at you that you don't want in your face. Just buy it all, my friends; save yourself the trouble. They make nice presents, and even Ahmed's gotta get a leg over every now and then.

Now, Palmyria itself... A 4000-year-old city built on the only oasis in the Syrian desert. An oasis that is, as our tour guide explained while he tore his clothes and wailed at the evils of the white man and their fat women and little yapping dogs, being drained to service the five-star hotel on the outskirts of town. Nisha and Aaron instead stayed in a Bedouin hotel, which made no sense at all to Aaron because Bedouins are supposed to be nomads, but was still pretty cool for like 8 bucks a night.

After a quick camel tour around the ancient ruins at dawn, Aaron and Nisha's desert escapade was about to end, and the pair saw themselves heading back north to comparative civilization and the aforementioned angry girlfriend, who was to meet them in Aleppo. The three, reunited again, pranced about the city, stalked a group of Erasmus students, and reveled in the Middle Eastern mystique of it all. Until the Sheraton incident...

It was the last night in Syria. The three were in the restaurant of the Sheraton hotel, enjoying arak (Syrian Rakı - they just put the syllables in the wrong order) and imported cigarettes (Alhamra, the Syrian brand, literally tastes like smoking slightly damp straw pulled from a dung heap). Suddenly, a well-dressed, clean-shaven young Arab popped over to their table and asked for a light. When they produced one, he invited the three to his table for a drink with his friend. They were day traders, apparently, making thousands by day, spending thousands by night - cool, suave, Westernized. After a week and a half of meeting some of the most genuine, honest people our heros had ever met, they were prepared to believe them. Until one of them accosted Aaron's girlfriend in the toilet.

Well, tried to, anyways. She darted out of the toilet, came back to the table and said she'd wait outside. Thinking that she'd fallen ill, Aaron followed her out, where he found her crying. After she had reluctantly explained to Aaron what had happened, he moved to storm inside with the intention of confronting the forked-tongued devil, but she held his sleeve, pleading "please don't cause a scene, please!"

Now, Aaron isn't generally one to make a scene with normal people (you don't count, taxi drivers!), and this time was no exception. While the damsel in distress (and as he would later discover, dementia) sat with Nisha, drunkenly bawling her eyes out and unnerving everyone around, screaming about Arabs and how terrible they are, Aaron called the man from the lobby (he had given his phone number) and demanded an apology, which the man gave without hesitation. The matter was sufficiently taken care of. Or so Aaron thought.

When he returned to the table of woe, he whispered, "it's ok honey, there's no problem anymore. The bad man has gone." However, the security guards were eying him strangely. "Honey, please calm down," Aaron continued, while she screamed, bawled, cried, shrieked, and generally annoyed everyone within earshot. Finally, a well-groomed young man wearing a uniform approached our hero and asked him what had happened. After Aaron explained, the man asked, "so why did you hit her?"

Wait, what the fuck?

Yes, that's right dear readers, for protecting his girlfrend's honor in the most civilized and pacifistic of ways, Aaron was accused of assaulting a woman in the Middle East. He denied it, of course, and they brought the security guard who "saw" it over to shake his head disgustedly at Aaron. Aaron implored his girlfriend, "please tell them that I didn't hit you!", but she was too busy blubbering and blabbering incoherently to save her boyfriend from a Syrian death squad. Finally, after nigh 10 minutes of furious denial, Aaron said to the manager, "but why would I hit my girlfriend?"

"Oh, wait, she's your girlfriend?" he questioned, surprised.

"Yes, she's my girlfriend!"

"Oh, well, ok then, why didn't you say that?" he muttered, apparently satisfied, and escorted the three out the back door.

See, their only concern had been that Aaron had hit a guest. What he did with his own "property" was of little concern to them. Now this was the Syria Aaron had expected.

Thus, the next morning, it was with a mixure of sadness and relief that the three sped down the Syrian highway, zigzagged through the border traffic, and arrived in southeastern Turkey yet again. Their journey would lead them back across Anatolia, where they would hear the legend of the Lake-That-Kills-You-When-You-Swim-In-It-On-Tuesdays, learn how to roll their own sarma, and finally come to accept that the best way to get what you want is to be a whiny bitch.

But I'm getting carpal tunnel, so you'll just have to wait.

Monday, October 12, 2009

I Get Knocked Down

“Ben içeri düştüğümden beri güneşin etrafında on kere döndü dünya
Ona sorarsanız: ‘Lafı bile edilemez, mikroskopik bi zaman…’
Bana sorarsanız: ‘On senesi ömrümün…’
Bir kurşun kallemim vardi, ben içeri düştügüm sene
Bir haftada yaza yaza tükeniverdi
Ona sorarsaniz: ‘Bütün bi hayat…’
Bana sorarsanız: ‘Adam sende bi hafta…’”

- Nazim Hikmet

Since I’ve written my last post, the moon has circled the earth 358 times
If you ask the moon: “It’s a microscopic slice of time”
If you ask me: “It’s a year of my life…”
I bought this laptop a year and a half ago
And ran its battery down writing this post
If you ask the battery: “That’s an entire life…”
If you ask me: “Man, it’s only a couple of hours…”

But, in some ways, this last year has been an entire life for me as well. These three hundred and fifty eight days began by puffing my puffing my chest out, raising my chin, and daring the world to kick me in the nuts. A beautiful young girlfriend. A great new job. A luxurious house (with a huge bathtub!). I was ready to join the upper crust of Turkish society – dinners on private yachts, luncheons in Ottoman palaces overlooking the Bosphorous, beds with actual legs instead of just mattresses on the floor! Oh yeah, this was gonna be a great year!

But somebody forgot to say “maşallah”, and the world, as it is wont to do, kicked me in the fucking nuts. Then, when I bent down, cupping my wounded testicles in agony, it stuck its fingers in my nostrils, pulled my whimpering face up, and sprayed cat urine in my eyes. I fell to the ground, writhing in agony, and it proceeded to whip me with a cat of nine tails, reciting a list of my sins, blacker than the fluid that began dribbling out of my abused genitals.

It was that bad.

Actually, things started off pretty cool. The job was going great, and I decided to rent this classy flat in a relatively quiet, upscale area. My university was close by, so I walked home from work in the sun, whistling all the way. I would arrive at my house, whereupon my girlfriend would fling open the front door, apron around her waist and a sheet of freshly baked cookies in her hands. I would smile, tip my hat, and nonchalantly break into song. Sometimes, we would meet at the Starbucks a couple blocks down the street. We would sip iced lattes and laugh like “har har har” at all the people less fortunate than us. Unfortunately, that misfortune was closer than we thought.

My mom’s factory was bought out by evil capitalists from Denmark (or some other equally evil place), and her unemployment wasn’t enough to pay her bills. First she lost the house, then the car. She rented a room in a den of iniquity (her sister’s house) and knitted socks for orphans for two cents and hour until her fingers bled. She was forced to sell one of her kidneys just to afford enough money for beans, which she would add to the soup she made from boiling leather boots in a trash can out back.

It was that bad.

So, I says: “Mom, come join me in smiling, happy Turkey, where all the smiley, happy people smile happily!”

And she says: “Um… ok”

But things aren’t always what they seem… Mom arrived in January, where I immediately put her to work for a family of rich Jewish freemasons. She spent her days running after a crosseyed autistic boy who spit on her and beat her with a big stick. As the family gathered for their wonderous feasts, the likes of which we wage-earners will ne’er see, she would eat her scraps in silence in the kitchen with the other hired help. She cried herself to sleep every night, singing “Neden geldim Istanbul’a”

*That last sentence was a lie. She doesn’t know that song.

Slowly, the darkness that rested over Ohio (and most of the rust belt), spread across the world like a cloud of… darkness… and all the smiley, happy people in Turkey hung themselves.

Mom quit her job, my girlfriend couldn’t find work, and then… my father died.

It came as a shock to everyone, at least to everyone who didn’t know that, in an all-too-common display of Rotsinger stubbornness, my father had convinced himself that he had somehow miraculously cured himself of diabetes and cardiomyopathy and stopped taking his medicine half a year prior. (Previous displays of the aforementioned stubbornness include my grandfather refusing to get a voicebox implanted after successful throat cancer surgery, leaving a gaping hole in his neck which he would clean with a pipe cleaner; and my great-grandfather, who died from complications resulting from a hangnail, not bothering to go to the doctor until his foot basically fell off).

Although I was entitled to 5 days of compassion leave, I only took 3, not wanting to spread any burden to my overworked colleagues. Upon returning to work, I was immediately informed that my contract was not being renewed. That I was, essentially, fired. When I told my students, they exploded in tears (and one in blood, but I think she has a medical problem) and resolved to do something. Letters were written, meetings were held, signatures were collected, curse words were written on pants (they were my pants, and I gave them permission!). The result of all this is that the rector called me into his office and said:

Aaron, I don’t think you should be here anymore.

And I said: er… huh?

And he said: We’ll give you approximately ten thousand American dollars if you go home quietly and don’t cause any more fuss.

And the air around me went: whoosh! As I ran out the door.

Three and a half months. Paid holiday. What should I do?

I immediately downloaded every James Bond movie ever made and sat down to watch them all (Everyone prefers Sean Connery, but I find Roger Moore to be superior in many ways). Then, I downloaded Battlestar Galactica. Then Star Trek. Then a bunch of movies. Then I got really fucking bored.

So, I left. I packed up my Mom and my girlfriend, and we headed down to İzmir, a sunny, liberal Turkish city on the Aegean coast. The nickname of the city is “Beautiful Izmir”, and it’s known for its gorgeous women and unusually modern way of life.

However, Izmir… is full of nothing but whores and horses, and I’m not going to explain that any further.

I was offered a job at the Izmir University of Economics, the most prestigious university in Izmir. When I saw the salary, I immediately laughed and bought a train ticket out of there. I could make more money selling pork in Mecca.

We continued down south to Ephesus, an ancient Roman city, containing the ruins of John the apostle’s tomb (sans the mosaic tiles that I stole and are now in my living room). We spent a relaxing few days there whining about how we had to return to Istanbul, and then returned to Istanbul so I could keep looking for work.

But I couldn’t find any.

Neither could Mom. Neither could my girlfriend. Mom began to hate the bright lights and big city and started to miss the bigotry and incest of her quaint little Ohio town. After much deliberation and many tears, we put her on a flight back to Ohio, where she is now happily working and putting back the pieces of the life that those Norwegian bastards shattered.

Yet I still found no job. The luxury apartment began to weigh heavily on my budget. We switched from kebab to rice, from baths to showers, from beer to diluted antifreeze (which really isn’t much cheaper unless you conserve it by drinking your urine afterwards). I had a slew of interviews, from the most prestigious university in the whole city to a ramshackle campus of peeling paint and exposed wires. (I was actually interviewed by a smelly, unshaven Irishman wearing jeans and a Simpsons t-shirt).

Yet I still found no job. I lost all hope. I drank too much and beat the dog. Then the dog ran away. Then my finacee beat me for making the dog run away. Then we ran around Kadıköy together, looking for the dog so we could beat it for running away. We didn’t find it, so we stopped beating things.

In my lowest point, I did the unthinkable. I applied for a job in the northern reaches of Siberia, in a town called Нижневартовск. I had a video interview over Skype, and they offered me the job. My girlfriend and I talked about it, and it was eventually decided that as much as we were tired of beating each other, moving to a barren oil field in the middle of a vast vodka-filled tundra was probably not going to make anyone very happy, so I turned it down.

However, out of nowhere, I suddenly got offered a job at Bilgi University, one of İstanbul’s best private universities. It couldn't have happened at a better time.

My reply to them:

“Yes yes oh thank you yes yes please yes yes pay me pay me pay me yes”

Exactly two days later, I hired some villiagers to destroy everything I own, throw all the broken pieces haphazardly onto the back of a truck that can simply not be street legal, and carry it far, far away from my little Kadı villiage, to the inner city. To Kurtuluş. To freedom. To... a ghetto?

Let me explain how we chose this apartment. We were walking around this area called Kurtuluş, wondering why all these nice apartments were so cheap, when I said to my girlfriend:

“I really like this area, it’s really cosmopolitan and diverse”

A man turned around to me and said, in perfect English:

“This place isn’t for you. It’s for refugees. From Iraq. Like me.”

I smiled, turned to my fiancee and said, “Great! We're home!”

That was a little over two months ago, and since then, I’ve been quite happy here. There have only been two bombs since we moved here, and I missed the closest one by at least 5 minutes, which is, like, a pretty long time. *not exactly fair – it was detonated by the police.

Actually, I think most of the Iraqis are quite happy here along with the transvestites and their little dogs. And the Africans with their duffel bags full of perfume. And that one strange Saudi guy who sits at the börek shop ALL DAY EVERY DAY. (Sure, the börek is good, but come on!).

I even managed to squeeze in a little late-summer holiday to the southeast of Turkey (I couldn't actually leave the country because I was techically here illegally), where my girlfriend and I danced through the fairy chimneys, slept in a cave and narrowly avoided a train crash. (It wasn't my fault!)

Yes, yes, this year has been HELL, my friends, but it’s all looking up now. Dog (yes, that was his name) has been replaced by a cat (to whom I’m terribly allergic, but love means sacrifice...). Özyeğin has been replaced by Bilgi, where I work 6 hours a day (2 of which are my lunch break). My Mom is irreplacable, but she knows how to use teh interwebs now, so we stay in touch.

And the hat, well, the hat shall always remain.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

What is Wrong With you People?

I'm sure you're all familiar with this sort of story:

Mecca pilgrims trample hundreds

At the Haj pilgrimage in Mecca each year, there is a ritual in which people throw stones at a pillar that represents the devil. But the proceedings often get out of hand, and the mob of stone throwers start trampling each other to death. At the 2001 Haj, 35 pilgrims were killed in a stampede, and in 2003, 14 more were trampled. The Moslems regard such horrors as God's will.
When I read about this, more often than I'd like, I'm revolted at the disgusting nature of humanity. People gather together to celebrate something they consider beautiful, spiritual and sacred, then they go fucking nuts and start killing each other. I wonder... What possesses people to push, to shove, to force their fellow humans to the ground, not even out of angry, but out of pure frenzy? How can they, with total, empty, disgraceful disregard, step on another man's face TO DEATH? How can they not notice the jaw cracking in half, the teeth chipping, the eyes popping, the blood welling up under their soles from the torn flesh of their fellow man? I can understand if they're fleeing a burning nightclub, or fighting a war, but when they are gathered together in peace, in brotherhood, how in God's name can this happen? Muslims must really, truly be savages...

But wait, it's not only Muslims, is it?

A human stampede occurred on September 30, 2008, at the Chamunda Devi temple in Jodhpur, Rajasthan, India, in which 249 people were killedand more than 400
injured. The 15th-century temple is dedicated to the goddess Chamunda Devi and is located within the premises of Mehrangarh Fort.

About 25,000 Hindu pilgrims were visiting the temple to mark the first day of the nine day long Navratri, a major festival in Hinduism dedicated to Goddess worship and celebrated across the world.

Aren't Hindus supposed to be peaceful, spending their time in mediation and oneness with the universe? They're not crazy and bloodthirsty like the Muslims, the desert savages, the backwards scapegoats of the 21st century. Maybe it's not about Hindus or Muslims or Christians - maybe it's about all religions. Maybe it's the passion, the excitement, the ferocity of people's love for God that carries them away to a state where they're not able to understand that they're trampling their neighbors to death.

Actually, no. A quick search on Google reveals not one single incidence of any sort of barbaric stampede or trampling at any Christian holy site. Nothing in the Vatican, nothing at Mary's house (here in Turkey), nothing even at any of the shrines down in South America. Clearly, the problem is with the rest of the world - the crazy Indians, the savage Arabs, the barbaric Africans - they just can't control themselves, they can't surpress their basest insticts when their simple brains enter into in a mad, instinctual, animal rush toward their paganistic idols. The poor fools...

On the AP wire today:

A worker died after being trampled and a woman miscarried when hundreds of
shoppers smashed through the doors of a Long Island Wal-Mart Friday morning,
witnesses said.

The unidentified worker, employed as an overnight stock clerk, tried to hold back the unruly crowds just after the Valley Stream store opened at 5 a.m.

Witnesses said the surging throngs of shoppers knocked the man down. He fell and was stepped on. As he gasped for air, shoppers ran over and around him.

“He was bum-rushed by 200 people,” said Jimmy Overby, 43, a co-worker. “They took the doors off the hinges. He was trampled and killed in front of me. They took me down too…I literally had to fight people off my back.”

…Before police shut down the store, eager shoppers streamed past emergency crews as they worked furiously to save the store clerk’s

“They were working on him, but you could see he was dead, said
Halcyon Alexander, 29. “People were still coming through.”

Only a few stopped.

“They’re savages,” said shopper Kimberly Cribbs, 27. “It’s sad.
It’s terrible.”

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Things I Didn't Know I Loved

it's 1962 March 28th
I'm sitting by the window on the Prague-Berlin train
night is falling
I never knew I liked
night descending like a tired bird on a smoky wet plain
I don't like
comparing nightfall to a tired bird

- Nazim Hikmet, from Things I Didn't Know I Loved

I was sitting in my university library last week. Everyone was scrambling around, looking at all the EFL books and materials, when I found a massive photobook called Konstantinopolis'dan Istanbul'a. From Constantinople to Istanbul. I grabbed the book, sat down at a nearby table, and heaved it open. Inside, I saw a picture of Beşiktaş from the 19th century. There were a few Ottoman-style houses scattered across sparsely forested hills. Where were the crowds? Where was the traffic? The stained, crumbling, soulless apartment buildings? They were absent. And in their absence, I realized something important. I grabbed the nearest teacher by the arm and gasped, "Look! Beşiktaş was a park!" She nodded, and walked off with her grammar books.

Why was this so important to me, and not to anyone else? They had all seen pictures of Istanbul in the past, but so had I. I had looked at similar pictures before and thought, "Wow, I bet Istanbul was cool back then." The difference this time was that before, I was looking at the crown jewel of one of the world's great empires in it's glory, impressive, but distant; this time, I was looking at the history of my city. At that moment, Istanbul's history became my history, and I realized that I'm finally home.

Why was it so difficult to see this for the last three years? I've been thinking about that for the last few days, as I've been sitting in Sofia, waiting for my work visa to be processed so that I can return to Istanbul, to my home and my job. I think I've found the answer. Istanbul could never be home to the boy who left Ohio 3 1/2 years ago. I wasn't ready for a home. I was ready for gothic cathedrals, for biergartens, for espresso mornings and jazzy tobacco evenings. I carried my Americanness with me to Europe, and I kept that image of myself: quiet, reserved, bitter, hopeful, wanting something better, but unwilling to adjust my definition of good. Coming to Istanbul was a shock, and I raged against it for the first year, accepted it in the second and came to secretly love it in the third. But admitting that love to myself was tantamount to admitting that I was no longer the boy wearing the tweed jacket and fedora who stepped off that plane in Philadelphia 3 1/2 years ago.

But I admit it now, as I begin my fourth year.

It's a funny feeling, you know. Home is what most people are born with. But I've grown into mine, as it's grown into me. I may not live in Istanbul for the rest of my life, but when I think of home, I'll always think of my dear, dirty Kadıköy.

Belki tanışmak zor, iyi anlaşmak zor, peki görüşmek çok mu kolaydı. Çok kısa bir zamanda belki birazda zorla, bence gayet iyi de anlaştık.

I'm heading to the consulate now to pick up my visa, then I'm jumping on the train home. It's been a long week, and I miss the city I never knew I loved.