Friday, February 27, 2009

Turkish Cells

... a very minor saga.

I suppose I should apologize for the title of this blog since, for most people, the words 'Turkish' and 'cells' conjure up images of nasty Turkish prisons. Alas, this blog has nothing to do with anything even smacking of Midnight Express (a much despised film in these here parts, not least of all because of its fake fictional rape scene).
What it does have to do with is telephones. Or more accurately, cell phones. And more precisely, our visit to Turkcell - Turkey's leading & Europe's 3rd largest mobile phone operator and all-round fun place to lose several hours of one's life.

Surely the picture of the chicken with the antennae on its head was your first clue.

And before I begin my tale of frustration, let me first say that thus far in my travels, I have had a contradictory - if not inimical - history of sorts with cell phones: in Morocco, buying a cell proved to be a Kafkaesque descent into Mobile Phone Hell; in Spain, a nice man met us at our hotel and delivered our prepaid sim cards to us; in Slovakia, we just walked into a store, waited a bit in line, and bought sim cards. Now where would Turkey figure in all of this?

Let me als
o add that in Turkey, after you purchase a sim card for your phone, you have to then register both it and your phone with the government The Powers That Be.

So, Mr. This Cat's (Not) Abroad and I, not having any credit left on any of our three sim cards (Morocco, Spain & Slovakia), really need Turkish sim cards. Our Place of Gainful Employment lends us the use of one of their administrative assistants who speaks marginally more English than I do Turkish to navigate the murky waters of cell phone acquisition. Our communication is limited to grunts and a lot of pointing. I work at an English school. Office Boy works at an English School. In all fairness, my expectations were too high: when I asked him (three times) what his position was, he told me 'office boy'. I didn't know that 30-year old men could still be office boys.

And because this is Turkey - or anywhere in Europe or Africa or Asia - there is a mobile phone dealer every 16 metres on any given street in any given city or fly-blown village.
In truth, Mr. This Cat's (Not) Abroad and I hope to save enough money so that some day, we can open our own cell phone store, say, in Berkina Faso or Belarus. We'll be so rich!

Unfortunately, I have forgotten my cell phone - so I cannot buy a sim card or register both it and my phone with
the government The Powers That Be - but nonetheless, we set out with Office Boy to the nearest cell phone store. No that's not true - we pass about 6 competitors until we reach the first Turkcell shop. Apparently the decision has been already made for us: we are getting Turkcell sim cards. I'm fairly ambivalent about it (although it would've been nice to have been asked) but I cannot for the life of me figure out what its mascot is. Is it a cricket? An ant? A space alien? (Mr. This Cat's (Not) Abroad thinks its an aardvark, which means that someone's getting a Mattel Barnyard Animals See n' Say for Christmas this year). I prefer their other mascot, the chicken with antennae - although why they didn't choose a turkey boggles the mind. (Mr. This Cat's (Not) Abroad thinks it is a turkey. See what I mean?)

We pop in and are told that we cannot buy sim cards at the Cell Phone/Sim Card shop. At least that's what we think because Office Boy grunts, shakes his head apologetically to us, and walks out of the store. We follow. About half a block later (= 4 competitors), we enter another Turkcell. The saleswoman here knows a fraction more English than Office Boy and in no time we leave with a sim card for
Mr. This Cat's (Not) Abroad's cell phone. His phone will be activated and ready to use in 24 hours - and it is. Huzzah! But as we leave the shop, in the time that it takes to pass 2 competitors, I pose the question: at which point was Mr. This Cat's (Not) Abroad's phone and sim card registered with the government The Powers That Be? The answer: at no point.

We express our concerns to our Place of Gainful Employment (we are unable to express anything to Office Boy) who advises us that Office Boy has been derelict in his duties. No shit. So the next day we return, two phones and one rogue and probably contraband sim card in tow to the same store. (The second same store.)

This time, there is no Helpful Saleswoman but a Nice Man whom Office Boy greets and to whom he explains our situation. Still a little weak on the vagaries and intricacies of Turkish, I believe that the Nice Man is telling Office Boy that this should have been done yesterday and that we had no business leaving the shop until
Mr. This Cat's (Not) Abroad's phone and sim had been registered with the government The Powers That Be. He is quite insistent on this (or some other) point.

Office Boy looks downcast.

The Nice Man calls over a salesman who speaks very good English and he gladly takes upon himself the mantle of Assistant to the Idiot-Foreigners. Huzzah! Office Boy, although possibly nice (we have no clue) has been less than stellar so far and spends most of his time with us feverishly sucking on cigarettes, so we are happy to throw him under the bus. Metaphorically. The Nice Man deals with us directly and translates everything into Turkish for the benefit of Office Boy. We buy my sim card, stand in line, and pay for it. Then the Nice Man calls over to Office Boy, explaining (we think), that we need to now join another line (in the same store) to register our phones and sim cards.

Mr. This Cat's (Not) Abroad joins the queue, the Nice Man offers to activate my cell phone in order to complete the registration. Huzzah! - no 24-hour wait for me! But no! - my cell phone is locked! I confess that in a fit of childish, adolescent, puerile frustration with my cell phone, whose battery was beginning to die a horrible death, I had thrown the phone in the garbage a week ago. It is unlikely I can still retrieve it as this happened in Italy and because the garbage bins at the Shelter for Wayward & Unemployed English Teachers were guarded by two large and particularly fierce geese. One of our Life Counsellors at the Shelter for Wayward & Unemployed English Teachers took more pity on me and gave me her cell phone. Purchased in Spain, it was - unbeknownst to me - still locked by her cell phone provider. Mine - i.e., the one in the geese-guarded garbage bin - had been unlocked in Morocco for just this very occasion. Colour me stupid.

"Your phone is locked," says the Nice Man. "But since this is Turkey, we have solutions for everything." And he advises me to complete the registration process and then pay a visit to my current unlocked pity-phone's dealership. Or more accurately, any Nokia store.

Mr. This Cat's (Not) Abroad's line moves slowly. The girl behind the desk, sensing that she isn't being paid by the client, is typing with the efficiency of a sting ray - or something else without hands (be imaginative). Finally we make our way to the girl who in as lackadaisical a manner as possible and while conducting separate conversations with 2 people, photocopies our passports including our Slovak residence visas (?), types in a whole bunch of shit into her computer, prints unknowable forms in Turkish (which we duly sign) - all very slowly - and says something equally unknowable to us but points to the cash register. We rejoin that line, eventually procure receipts, and hand them to the girl behind the desk. She says (we think) 'goodbye'.

As we leave, Office Boy begins to shepherd us towards the other phone dealership to unlock my phone but
Mr. This Cat's (Not) Abroad tries to explain that this step is not necessary. Office Boy is confused, not because he doesn't understand why Mr. This Cat's (Not) Abroad should say such a thing - for this would contradict what the Nice Man had translated to him in Turkish - but because he has no idea what Mr. This Cat's (Not) Abroad has just said.

That night
Mr. This Cat's (Not) Abroad unlocks my phone with a spiffy little google search.

So now we are the proud owners of two legal, properly registered sim cards and cell phones. The fact that our phones required registration by
the government The Powers That Be irks me a bit (Not the government! Our Place of Gainful Employment assured us. But if not the government, then who?). But at least it's given me a taste of what fun it'll be to apply for our residency papers. I have a sinking feeling that Slovakia's red tape follies will have been a cake walk compared to Turkish bureaucracy. After all, Byzantium or Constantinople (or Turkey for that matter) didn't give the world the word 'byzantine' for nothing.

Maybe the Midnight Express analogy wasn't too far off the mark.

Monday, February 23, 2009


I awoke yesterday morning and padded to the living room window, where I threw open the curtains, admired the snow-capped mountains across the valley and listened to the tinny tones of the late morning call to prayer from one of the six mosques a stone's throw from our front door.

It took me a moment to realize, as I had yet to have a cup of coffee and was feeling particularly stupid , that I wasn't in Italy. Or, to put it another way, I woke up in Turkey.

Having gotten into our apartment (it's a loaner which is great because I look forward to giving it back) rather late the night before, the impact of waking up and seeing a different country in daylight was, well, impactful. (Yes, impactful is a word and yup, it does suck and yes, I promise to never use it again.) Hence the mountains and the minaret warbling to life, and didn't we pass the Sea of Marmara last night?

Izmit - a city of about 250,000 which no guide book apparently worth its salt deems to include between its covers - is now home. Except for the fact that we're not really in Izmit but rather in a village north, south, east or west of Izmit (I really have no clue where we are), connected by a tiny sunshine yellow mini-van of a bus. We know only the bus number (although I think that information is superfluous since there's only one bus that climbs the foothill to our apartment) and the bus fare - so, this being our first day here, we set off for the bus stop.

In a short time
the tiny sunshine yellow mini-van of a bus picks us up and we begin the labyrinthine descent towards Izmit - taking care to commit landmarks to memory as we have no idea what the names of our neighbourhood, village, or even street are. (I was not exaggerating when I said that we only knew the name of our bus and the bus fare.) Unfortunately, our comprehensive Orientation-to-Izmit package, left in our flat by our welcoming committee, proved to be a figment of our imaginations. As we approached the city, I espied a mall with a Carrefour hypermarket and we decide to jump off and investigate.

After passing through the mall's metal detectors - a first for me, I might add - we beetle to Burger King because our dear friend Miss K had once sung the praises of the veggie burgers sold at the BK in Ankara's airport - and Allah be praised! - didn't they have them here too!! The Bean Burger! We'll order two! - how difficult can this be, being that we don't know a single word of Turkish?
(I was not exaggerating when I said that we only knew the name of our bus and the bus fare.) Pshaw! - it's a photo menu isn't it?

Nonetheless, we approach the young girl at the counter with no little trepidation because we know that English words adopted into foreign languages never sound remotely like their linguistic forebears (MacDonald's in Moroccan Arabic was a bit tricky), and ask for two (two fingers) bean burgers and French fries. Blank look. Repeat. Blank look. We point to the menu board. Ahhhh, she nods.

Then the young girl has the audacity to ask us a whole string of questio
ns in rapid-fire Turkish. The gall of some people! If we are unable to master the number two (two fingers), how are we to understand if she's asking us if we want the menu meal, or what size of fries we want, and which soft drink? O the horror of it all! In time - and she truly deserves an Employee of the Millennium gold star for not walking away to take her coffee break in the middle of all of this -
we seem to reach an rapprochement of sorts and we take our seats in the middle of Burger King's smoking section - not really knowing what we were going to get, besides secondary smoke.

Fortunately, it was more or less what we ordered - secondary smoke aside. And it was good. But to put our inability to communicate with this young girl and her failure to understand us into perspective, take a shufti at the receipt we received with our meal. And bear in mind that all we got was 1 order of fries, 1 Pepsi and 2 burgers.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Would You Like Fries With That?

Even if you hate Italian food, you have to admit that Italy's culinary heritage is a thing of wonder; after all, it brought the world balsamic vinegar and bruschetta. Cappuccino and chianti. Limoncello and lasagna. Mozzarella and macaroni. Penne and parmesan. Risotto and rigatoni. Zuppa and ziti.

And of course, pizza: pizza marinara, margherita, alla napoletana, siciliana, romana, pugliese, capricciosa, quattro stagioni, ai quattro fromaggi, and ai funghi. Capers and anchovies, sausage and mushrooms, olives and boiled egg - it's all there on a thin crust and topped with fresh mozzerella. Yum! (- not the boiled egg though.)

Oh! - and French fries.

French fries? Indeed. Because Mr. This Cat's (Not) Abroad and myself were a little green around the gills today (thanks primarily to one of Italy's culinary legacies: cheap red wine), we sought out grease to sop up whatever had metamorphosed from that cheap red wine in our stomachs overnight. Being in Italy, the logical choice was pizza. And as we waited for our slices to be heated, I spied with my little eye something that was, well, odd. Odd bordering on disturbing. It was a French fry pizza.

Now, I did a little research on the French Fry Pizza - admittedly using Google as my scholarly resource of choice - and all I could find was one reference to it with an accompanying photo which I stole borrowed. This particular pizza was born and bred in Italy as well but perhaps because this pizza hailed from Sicily - and food here is nothing if not regional - it was slightly different from the one I saw today. The fries in the Veneto version were nestled under the top layer of melted cheese, rather than under. Ah, the joys of Italian cuisine.

Did I mention that I wanted to hurl?

Monday, February 9, 2009

Tutti a Tavola!

When I think of Italy - or perhaps more accurately, when I think of Italians - the things that best define it (or them) are: an abnormal attachment to mothers, the inviolable belief that it's the most beautiful country in the world, and the supremacy of its food. Mama, Italia & pasta: that's Italian. At least in my mind.

And with the rallying cry: tutti a tavola - everyone to the table! - Italians dig into their antipasti and primos and secondos and contorni, their frutti and dolci with gusto. Did they not give us the word gusto? (- actually they didn't. It was the Greeks.)

But I'm not a huge fan of Italian food. At least Italian food in Italy. And it's not because the guidebook staring at me defiantly from the coffee table advises that " ... vegans ... can all be accommodated in Italy with some planning." Planning?!! Is this not the home of the tomato?
(- actually it isn't. It's native to the Americas and was brought to Europe, probably, by Cortes. A Spaniard.)

Yet, in a rare moment of self-indulgence self-reflection, I must own to the fact that it's not Italian food I take exception to but rather the Italian food served in restaurants which by definition are Italian restaurants as they are in Italy. And more specifically, restaurants in the north of the country. So, with no further ado, I present ...

What I Take Exception to

1) Cover charges. In theory the c
operto takes care of the cost of the breadsticks on your table and/or a glass of tap water. In reality, it takes care of the restaurateur's kids' tuition at university. The cover charge can range from a euro & a half to a whole fistful of euros. I have yet to eat a breadstick worth 5 euros. Which leads us to ...

2) The Breadstick. Or the bread. Buy it fresh and you will willingly inhale a whole loaf in 7 seconds. On the table of a restaurant it is invariably cold and hard. Hard meaning stale. Restaurant bread is sad bread. Bread should never be sad.

3) Ordering the primo. Ordering a first course is a
problem for me because, more often than not, pasta is my primo and ordering only a primo effectively brings my meal to an end, and this seems to irritate my waiter. I really don't want to order a meat dish - being a vegetarian notwithstanding - and a vegetable dish to follow my spaghetti al iol. Stick a fork in me because I'm done. Seriously.

4) The pacing. This isn't about the slow food movement - I have no bone to pick with pacing your meal over 4 hours. My issue is that when you order a primo, secondo and a
contorni, you normally receive all 3 courses separately. So a typical meal of pasta, a plate of some dead animal and then a salad or side of veg will be brought to your table one after the other. Thank God those breadsticks are there.

5) The flavour. Again, limiting myself to vegetarian dishes, I've been on the receiving end of a lot of bland food. The Land of Basil has let me down
(- actually it isn't. It's native to India and Iran.). Why is everything created with a tomato here so tasteless? Friends of mine never cast their shadows inside a restaurant without a bottle of spice tucked away in a purse. It astounds me to admit that I have had better - and by better I mean more flavourful - Italian food in Morocco. O the shame of it all!

Perhaps food is served up differently in the south where the sun kisses the earth with more - well - gusto. After all, it's overcast and rainy and foggy here and perhaps that's coloured (or discoloured) the food somewhat. And frankly, I am disappointed that I've been disappointed. After 4 months in Slovakia my taste buds yearned to be titillated. But this is not to say that I haven't had excellent meals since I've been here because I have: I can now recommend a kick-ass Indian restaurant in Ferrara and an equally fabulous Middle Eastern one in Venice.


I do accept the fact that most people would disagree with me wholeheartedly because, for many, Italy is a sacred cow. But to conclude rather hamfistedly with that analogy, the Italian sacred cow would be served up with stale dinner rolls and a plate of green beans to follow and have a cover charge smacked on top. Thank God the wine is so good.