Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Random Thoughts About Romany Radar

They seemed benign enough in Spain, they scared the crap out of me in Bratislava but here in Izmit, they just bug my ass. No, I'm not talking about my employers (although I could be) but rather the local Romany population. Or rather, the local gypsies.

It's not that I have anything against gypsies because I don't, unless they - or anyone for that matter - gets in my face and hovers around me
like a freaking mosquito, following me up & down the street, asking for money. Wily creatures that they are, they have pegged me for the non-Turk that I am and have cut quick to the chase, eschewing all languages save English. Money, money, money.

And I swear to Allah, who keeps me awake at 5 in the morning, that they are equipped with some sort of homing device - Romany radar - and can find me within seconds of stepping foot outside my door. In another world, they would be tax collectors.

Now, it's not that I have anything against gypsies because I don't unless they send their grubby little kids out to do their dirty work. Grubby little kids who get in my face like a freaking mosquito and hover around me, following me up & down the street. Asking for money. Money, money, money.

And yes, I know how I sound. And I know what you're thinking. Noblesse oblige, perhaps? What's a few lira here or there in the big scheme of things? And it's not that I'm unsympathetic to the poor - Mr. This Cat's (Not) Abroad will tell you that I have been known to give money to beggars. Really, I have. I am not an ogre. (really.) But, there's a principle at work when it comes to me and beggars, and while in Morocco, I developed a code of ethics which, in my mind, the successful beggar has to adopt should s/he wish to separate me from my money. The gypsies - or at least their dirty grubby kids - are light years away from ratifying this agreement, and until that happens, there will be no professional relationship between us.

I know that as a non-Turk, I have a big bullseye on my back, so I can put up with the constant demands for money, money, money. I can even tolerate being followed up & down the streets of this town. What I can't abide is being touched. You touch me and any chance you have of walking away with a few lira has effectively ended. Period.

Of course, I - as a non-Turk - am not their only target. They pester and harangue the locals as well who will either give them a coin or a cuff on the side of the head. (Another few weeks of this and I won't be muttering ignore her, ignore her to
Mr. This Cat's (Not) Abroad but rather hit her! hit her!) Of course, this is little consolation since one of the grubby little kids just skulked into the café we're sitting in and found me. See? - they do have some sort of homing device. Romany radar maybe. God those grubby little kid bugs my ass.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Vexing Thoughts about Vexillology

Vexillology is the scholarly study of flags. The word is a synthesis of the Latin word vexillum and the suffix -ology, meaning "study of". The vexillum was a particular type of flag used by Roman legions during the classical era; its name is a diminutive form of the word vela meaning sail, and thus literally means "little sail".

(Like you didn't know that.)

I had a Morocco (flag not shown left) Moment in class yesterday which is annoying because I haven't had one of those since I left - wait for it - Morocco. It came in response to why Canada has a maple leaf on its flag which came in response to the question "what's that flower on your flag?"

Did I mention that there is a poster of world flags in my classroom? No? There is.

After I disabused my students of the notion that a leaf is a flower (for the botanically challenged, it is not), I - out of politeness rather than a gnawing interest about the Turkish flag (shown - sort of - above left) - inquired as to its origins. Which brings us to my Moroccan Moment ...

In Morocco, I could ask any given number of individuals - say, five -
a simple question - say, what time is it? - and receive any given number - say, five - different answers. It was, to say the least, annoying. And as I am loath to suggest that this is an Arab trait (since Turks are not Arabs and would probably poke your eye out with a baklava fork for even suggesting such a thing), I'll make no attempts at cultural or racial or religious parallels but say that I've now experienced a Turkish Moment.

To recap:
I - out of politeness rather than a gnawing interest about the Turkish flag (shown - sort of - above left) - inquired as to its origins. Seven students and seven - well, six because one is a sullen pouty thing who doesn't talk - different answers. After about 15 minutes of violent vociferous inter-necine warfare discussion, the two interpretations which tied for the most likely correct response - as decided by my students - were:

1) The star and crescent moon are symbols of Allah and the Prophet Mohammed (respectively).
2) The red background is a symbol of the Prophet
Mohammed's blood - the actual battle in which he spilled his blood no one knew.
3) The star and crescent moon are just that - a star and a moon - which represents the sky - or heaven with a big H - reflected in a sea of blood, which brings us to ...
4) the red background represents the blood (i.e. "sea of blood") of those martyrs killed to create Turkey - the actual battle in which they
spilled their blood no one knew.

Wow. Needless to say, there were five -
well, four because one is a sullen pouty thing who doesn't talk - other knowing pronouncements on the flag's design & symbolism but those two students who swayed their peers with their own theories and won the day were the two who ultimately spoke the loudest.

So, for the record, let me introduce the Turkish flag (
shown - sort of - above left): the star and crescent moon are pre-Islamic symbols - they've been found on coins dating as far back as the 300's in the (then) Greek city of Byzantium to honour the moon goddess (i.e., not Allah and not the Prophet Mohammed). And red? - red is a cardinal directional colour as well as red the colour of the Caliph Umar I who ruled in the 7th century.

So there you go. Of course there are a host of other theories - I like the one about the Ottoman emperor who dreamt that the star and crescent moon just appeared on his chest and then got bigger and bigger and bigger - and at least one includes
Atatürk, who is credited here for pretty much everything except inventing the kebab. Although he undoubtedly perfected the kebab. And yes, perhaps I'm being unduly unfair since Turkey has a long and sometimes chequered past, and it's easy to see how things can get gobbled garbled over time.

My class' homework - which they will never do - is to research the history of the
Turkish flag (shown - sort of - above left) and report back what they find. I'm not expecting any presentations which include the words "pre-Islamic" or preclude the words "sea of blood". With seven students and seven - well, six because one is a sullen pouty thing who doesn't talk - responses, I suspect that it won't take long for my patience and my interest to flag. How vexing.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

An Impromptu English Class on a Tiny Bus

I admit it: it was not my finest moment. At least not at first.

As the
Veritable Stuffed Grape Leaf of a Bus which takes us from Izmit to the Middle of Nowhere pulled up at the bus stop, a Gaggle of Schoolboys stormed the door, knapsacks and elbows flying. Fucking kids, grumbled one of my colleagues.

You took the words right out of my mouth
, I muttered as I just barely avoided a knapsack in the face and dodged an elbow.

Having just finished teaching for 4 hours, as well as clashing with giving voice to alternate pedagogical theories with my
thwarted porn star of a head teacher supervisor, the last thing I was in the mood for was a Gaggle of Schoolboys bouncing off the walls of a tiny bus. For the next 40 minutes.

Jesus, Mary and Joseph, the bus was packed because it always is and we headed towards No Man's (or No Adult's) Land at the back of the bus amongst the Gaggle of Schoolboys. The Veritable Stuffed Grape Leaf of a Bus wheezed, shuddered and lurched off. The boys, remarkably, were chatty and boisterous but not so much as to make my ears bleed. Then they heard us speak English.

hello!how are you?where are you from?do you like football?do you like to dance?do you like puzzles?i am very happy to meet you.what is your name?my name is mustafa.do you like books?i like to read.do you like manchester united?do you like christian rinaldo?i hate puzzles!

It was a volley of verbs, a fusillade of phrases, a salvo of sentences - and by
Atatürk's beard (actually, he didn't have one), they were cute. And well-mannered. And articulate. And unlike my students - ten years their seniors and placed in more advanced classes - the Gaggle of Schoolboys could form sentences with nouns and verbs.

And thus the impromptu English class began. They showed us their books. We traded questions with answers and more questions. They laughed; we laughed. We looked for the sudden appearance of Rod Serling at every stop but no, it seemed that these kids were normal.

Aren't they lovely? enthused my colleague. (She's European. Europeans grossly overuse the word 'lovely'.)

But she was right: they were lovely.

Twenty minutes ago they were just 'fucking kids', I reminded her. And I had agreed with you. I hang my head in shame.

I hung my head in shame.

And then the merriment ended. Just like that. The bus driver barked something quite incomprehensible to us but crystal clear to the Gaggle of Schoolboys. It seemed - from both the boys' immediate reaction as well as the hair standing on the back of our necks - that we were disturbing the Driver of our Veritable Stuffed Grape Leaf of a Bus.

He barked again - but this time in English: the lesson is over!

We were too loud. We were laughing. We were having fun.

People aren't supposed to have fun in Turkey, pronounced our colleague sagely.

Our class had ended. We continued our ride deep up and into
the Middle of Nowhere in silence. Five minutes before we reached our stop, the bell rang, we heaved to a standstill, and the Gaggle of Schoolboys descended en masse from our Veritable Stuffed Grape Leaf of a Bus.

Goodbye.it was very nice to meet you.goodbye.goodbye. have a good day.goodbye.

They waved; we waved.

Fucking bus driver,
I grumbled as
the Veritable Stuffed Grape Leaf of a Bus wheezed, shuddered and lurched off.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Random Inflammatory Thoughts on a Tiny Bus

Given that Mr. This Cat's (Not) Abroad and myself still live out in the Middle of Nowhere, we find ourselves on buses far more often than we would normally like. The particular breed of bus which services the bustling metropolis of Izmit is known as a dolmuş. This is a rather à propos name as dolmuş means "stuffed" in Turkish and these mini buses - veritable stuffed grape leaves on wheels - are often packed to the rafters.

Being a seemingly polite country, it is usual for seats to be offered to the elderly, the pregnant and those generally encumbered with children and shopping bags. Today, I was one of those so encumbered - laden with grocery bags, I took the last available seat as Mr. This Cat's (Not) Abroad stood in the aisle.

About 20 minutes into our trip home to the Middle of Nowhere, a gaggle of niqab-ensconced Covered Women boarded the bus, which at that point was standing room only. With only their noses and eyes visible, they quickly scanned our stuffed grape leaf of a bus for available seats. Immediately three people hopped up and offered their seats, leaving two women standing. I looked at Mr. this Cat's (Not) Abroad (who was still standing) and said, they're not getting my seat. I had bags. Granted, manoeuvering about in their niqabs doesn't appear to be a terribly easy feat, but their choice in dress shouldn't have impeded their standing.

And then I got a better look at them. Four of them were young - under 30 young. The eldest, who had scored a seat from a dolmuş-riding Good Samaritan, was certainly under 40. Certainly younger than I. No wrinkles - no crow's feet. I look at these things. I am vain. Why should I give her my seat? Why did anyone on the bus relinquish their seats? They were all young enough to be standing, Had they been wearing dresses - with or without headscarves - no one would have offered them a seat.

And that annoyed me. A lot.

The Covered Woman has become a hot button issue in Turkey - a country which is predominately Muslim although not a Muslim country - these last few years. To say that it isn't political would be naive at best and dishonest at worst. The founder of modern Turkey, the secularist Kamal Ataturk disapproved of Covered Women but didn't legislate against covering. Having said that, many women willingly abandoned the practice as Turkey became more progressive.

A military coup in 1980 ushered in a ban on headscarves in universities which was enforced until last year when the ban was lifted. Some see it as a step backwards; others as an affirmation of women's rights; while Islamicists praise it as a return to conservative Islam. Covered Women make me sad but I have already squawked about this.

I'm not suggesting that the three individuals who offered their seats to these Covered Women did so in support of any political agenda; after all, of the three dolmuş-riding Good Samaritans, two were young Uncovered Women. Nor am I saying that the gaggle of niqab-ensconced Covered Women dressed so for political reasons. What really annoyed me was the special treatment they received. For a choice in clothing that they made.

That's all.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

In Search of Louis

Mr. This Cat's (Not) Abroad was the one who noticed it: where were all the illegal immigrants with their groundsheets stockpiled with designer knock-off's? Granted, we've only been in Izmit for 2 1/2 weeks and 274 hours of those weeks we've been imprisoned in a classroom, but still - where are the Louis Vuitton bags, the Dolce & Gabbana sunglasses, Rolex watches (often with 2 x's) and the heaps of pirated dvds?

The obvious answer is that they're all in Istanbul or Anakara - or maybe Izmir where the sun dances on the Aegean - or anywhere other than Izmit. Perhaps Izmit's propensity for earthquakes has left a sour taste in their mouths.

... the coast guard recovered 191 corpses of illegal immigrants from the sea in 2007 and 204 heavily wounded would-be immigrants were hospitalized. The coast guards also seized 4,772 immigrants trying to pass the border by sea while the gendarmerie forces caught 42,140 immigrants crossing over land.

The number tossed about by Turkey's Talking Heads is that over 500,000 illegal immigrants - some 6,000 of which were human traffickers - have been nabbed by authorities since 1996. Turkey was once a transit country for illegals; now it is a destination country. Word must have finally gotten out abou
t the coffee here - or maybe it's the Turkish Delight.

Fifty percent of the illegals who slip past the coast guard & police - there are an estimated 1 million plus in Turkey - work as servants, nannies, prostitutes, restaurant staff, construction workers. And now English teachers.

So yes, it turns out that Turkey does have a problem with illegals and in no short time, two of them will be
Mr. This Cat's (Not) Abroad and me. We have been advised by our Trusted Colleagues at Our Place of Gainful Employment that, although we will be assisted in gaining residence visas - during which process we are obliged to perjure ourselves to Turkish authorities - work visas are about as tangible as the Holy Grail. Nice to offer a prayer to, and maybe even instigate a few wars over, but at the end of the day it's nothing but a pipe dream.

We are not too happy about this. We have been down this road before. We do not want to be caught or detained by the police. We do not want t
o be deported. But no! - my Scrupulous Supervisor has put all of my doubts to rest. No one will stop to question me - no matter that Izmit's booming tourist industry accounts for 0% of its economy - because (she assures me) I look Turkish.

I do not look Turkish.

On the other hand, I do not look Afghani or Pakistani or Myanmarese (assuredly not a word) and these people seem to make up the majority of illegal immigrants in Turkey. Or so I've been told. Besides, I'm sure there are heaps of sub-S
aharan Africans selling Versace belts in Istanbul. And phew! I don't look like them either.

Of course, I've also been told that I look Turkish.

Perhaps, just in case, I should grab a cheap pair of D & G knock-off sunglasses for a quick & easy disguise. If only I could find a pair ...