Monday, August 4, 2014

What we've been up to

Herkese merhaba!!

So it has very unfortunately come to the point where, in a week, we will be leaving Turkey. :(
I definitely plan on writing a big post about my feelings in regards to that, but for now, since it's been quite a while since I updated you all on what we've actually been doing, I think I'll focus on that for now. The feels can wait a day or two. xD

Üçüncü hafta (the third week):
Generally, the third week was much more relaxed and not as busy as the second. We started it off on July 14 by heading to a musical center at Merinos, one metro stop away from our school, to start off our dance and music lesssons! The Municipality of Bursa organized these lessons for us, and we started off learning a traditional dance from one teacher, and an old Turkish song from the choir director. We will be performing the dance as well as the group song at our farewell party later this week. I will post video footage if I can/if everything turns out well. xD
Anyway, on the 16th, we headed to the Children's Shelter as a volunteer activity. After given a brief tour of the premises, we spent most of our time teaching the children typical American games from our childhoods, such as kırmızı ışık, yeşil ışık (red light, green light) and ördek, ördek, kaz (duck, duck, goose). Overall, it was a pretty good day, and the children seemed interested and enjoyed playing the games we taught them, which was nice. :)
The 17th is the day which I would tentatively label as the most productive, at least for my class specifically. I don't know, we just all were quite on top of things for the most part, learned a lot, and got stuff done, which felt quite satisfying. :) After class, I headed over to Kent Meydanı for some refreshing cold drinks and frozen yogurt in a cafe with Salma, Gianna, Maddy, and Ruth, which was great fun. :)
On the 19th, we had an (optional) group outing to a lovely little village in the mountains near Bursa called Misi Köyü, which was a little gem - a tiny, quaint little mountain village perched in the mountains. We arrived and were greeted by a wonderfully refreshing shower of rain, which was a welcome change from the suffocating heat which we've been dealing with for a while now. After getting something to eat at a cafe in the main square of the village, we were essentially given freedom to explore by ourselves. I spent most of the time with Maddy - we made our way past some quaint little houses and farmer's plots up to a hill with some breathtaking views of the village and the lush mountain forests surrounding it. It's reassuring that such beautiful nature exists so close to the urban hustle and bustle of Bursa. As we wandered back into town, we also got a look at a really pretty and mysterious looking old Ottoman home that has since been converted into a museum. We ended our day by settling down in a cafe right next to a beautiful little stream, which was beautiful and relaxing in the extreme. I sat at a table with Gianna, Salma, Maddy, Şeyma, Salma's host sister, and Cat, sipping çay, talking endlessly about everything and anything, and sharing some laughs. :) Overall, I'm super glad we got to see Misi Köyü - I feel like we're all in on a little-known secret, having been there. 'Twas a good day. ^^
That's really all there was to the third week. Much more relaxed and less chaotic than the weeks prior.

Dördüncü hafta (the fourth week): 
The fourth week was a little busier than the third, but still no match for the second. On the 21st, we started our fourth week off with a real treat: a whirling dervish ceremony! After iftar (the daily breaking of the fast at sundown during Ramadan), we headed to the Karabaş-i Veli Cultural Center in a distant and maze-like neighborhood in the center of the city, to witness this quintessential and typical Turkish experience. The ceremony itself was absolutely breathtaking - watching the way that they moved as the relaxing music typical of these ceremonies was played in the background was soothing and hypnotizing (which I guess showed, since several of my friends later remarked on my apparently quite mesmerized facial expression xD), and it made me feel happy and peaceful inside in a way I haven't in a long time. It reminded me of a time that I was lucky enough to attend an event several years ago at which the Dalai Lama was speaking, and I felt like my head was swimming in positive energy. I think those words describe how I felt this time around quite accurately as well. What else can I say? It was beautiful, incredible, a highlight of my time in Turkey for sure. :) After the ceremony, a guide gave us a quick tour of the Mevlevi Dervish Lodge where the ceremony was performed, and gave us a brief but informative rundown of the Mevlevi traditions and history, how the dervishes are trained, and the significance behind various things that are a part of the ceremonies in and of themselves.
On the 23rd, we were able to visit another little gem of a mountain village, Cumalıkızık, where we had a chance to wander through some fantastically preserved Ottoman architecture (it's a UNESCO World Heritage sight to boot!) and cobblestone streats. Most of the shops and restaurants were closed since it was Ramadan, but we did have a chance to peruse a couple of stands and buy some much-desired, fresh grown, mouthwateringly delicious fresh fruit (peaches, strawberries, etc.) from kind old ladies selling them in the town square. Rose and I even managed to befriend a friendly cat that followed our group for a little while. :D Another great village, another great day.
We came to the general consensus 24th was a bit of a weird day, in a bit of a weird week. Everyone felt a bit off for some reason, and tempers flared a bit. We also seemed to agree that we couldn't particularly nail down just why it was weird. We thought it might have have something to do with the weird timing during the program - we were at a point where the novelty of being in a new country had largely worn off, but going home was also a while off. There was also something of a torrential downpour that day, so I waited inside the TÖMER Center with Gianna, Salma, and Maddy, and we chatted as we waited for the rain to stop, managing to cheer each other up quite effectively (they're good at that kind of thing  - I love you guys! :) <3). After the rain stopped, we also made a quick stop before going home, grabbing a bite out with Cat at a restaurant on the way to the Osmangazi metro stop, where we had some pretty fantastic conversations and laughs.
The next day, the 25th, we finished up our last week with an unusually long dance and music practice, where we not only made significant headway on the dance and group song we're learning, but some groups were set up for solo and duet performances, one comprising Brendan and Sophia, the other Salma, Gianna (who later had to back out due to a severely sore throat, but has since recovered :)), and myself. We will be performing these duets in addition to the dance and group song at our farewell party later this week! Towards the end of the practice, we even had an impromptu visit from the mayor of Bursa, who got to hear Brendan and Sophia practice their solo. After that, we all went our separate ways for the several days of vacation we had for Bayram, the feast marking the end of Ramadan, ready for a well deserved few days of rest and relaxation.

Beşinci hafta (the fifth week):
This week was pretty relaxing, and not many specific things happened that are worth going into detail about. I originally was supposed to go to Ankara with my host family, since that's where most of their extended family lives, but since my host family recently sold their car, we were unfortunately not able to go. As disappointed as I was not to experience a typical Turkish Bayram celebration with tons of extended family, and that I didn't get to see Ankara, it was a very relaxing few days. I got lots of conversational Turkish practice by talking to my host parents, and I achieved my coveted "oh my God, I can speak and NOT sound incompetent!" moment when I managed to brokenly communicate to my host parents that I am applying to college this coming year, and how the American college selection process differs from the Turkish one. :D I also swam a lot with my host dad in the pool we have in our apartment complex. So as un-noteworthy as it may have been, I had a good Bayram. It was just the break I needed, and I headed back to class on July 31st refreshed and ready to learn. We only had two days of class in the fifth week, and they were not especially noteworthy in any significant way either, just...normal. But a good normal. :) It was super nice to see all mah NSLI-Yers (I missed them!), and be together again.
Finally, on August 2nd, a small group of us (me, my host brother Erinç, Maddy, Emily, her host sister Defne, and Brendan) headed to Kozahan (the Silk Bazaar) and some of the surrounding bazaars for some heavy-duty souvenir shopping. I managed to get most of my shopping done, and we even had a crazy chance encounter with a girl from New York state who is here with the AFS summer program! She heard us speaking English and came up to say hi. xD It turns out that the AFS-NSLI-Y kids, including Krista, are in Ankara, but there are also a number of "core kids" who are traveling on the AFS Turkey summer program without a scholarship, many of whom are scattered in different cities with no other exchange students nearby. This AFSer we met was the only one in Bursa, and also learned all of her Turkish through pure immersion, without the cushion of language classes. Very admirable (and rather similar to my Egyptian experience in many respects, particularly in the second semester when I was the only AFSer in my chapter xD). But it any case, it was a crazy chance encounter which made me very happy. :D
So that's the uneventful fifth week in a nutshell.

Bu hafta - altıncı ve SON hafta :'(
This week has started off quite nicely today for the most part. We had music practice, where we made significant progress, and then Maddy, Salma, Sam, and I went back to Kozahan together, where we wandered for a while, making a few additional purchases here and there, and then sat down for a quick çay at a cafe, having some fantastic, open-ended philosophical conversations and bonding time. It was just a great outing and a great day, one which I'm quite sure I'll never forget. :) Obviously there's not much to say about this week at this point, since it's just started.

Phew! So that's the rundown of what we've been up to in the past few weeks.
Hope you all enjoyed it!
Get ready for the onslaught of pictures.

Pretty great view.

I liked the colors of this house.

Inside the old Ottoman home.

The cafe by the stream.

Inside the Cultural Center where the whirling dervish ceremony was performed.

The musicians who accompanied the ceremony. 

I can still see it in my mind, still feel how mesmerized I was. I'm getting goosebumps just thinking about it.

Village dos. 

A cat I photographed because she looked just like my Ginsberg back home! :') (Sidenote: I miss my kitty!)

The friendly cat that Rose and I befriended. :)

Just a pretty sunset. 
Thanks for bearing with me, my lovely readers. :) I hope this at is at least somewhat interesting, as I've procrastinated quite a bit on tonight's homework to finish it (what else is new? :P).
I'll be back later this week to update you on the exciting activities we have planned, as well as some pre-departure jitters and reflections I've been wanting to get out.
Be back soon! 
Thanks as always for reading,
Nico ^^

Friday, August 1, 2014

Fark ettimğim şeyler - Things I've noticed

So this is a post that I've been wanting to write since pretty much the first day we got here, but for a number of reasons I haven't gotten around to writing until now. Enjoy some at least semi-organized rambling of my observations of just...things in general that I've noticed here. Enjoy!
  1. Turkey is overall a pretty secular country. - Perhaps I'm a bit biased in saying this, as I'm living in a very secular family in a very secular neighborhood of a generally pretty moderate city in a part of this country which is generally not a very religious area. Perhaps if I were experiencing Turkey in a different city - or, indeed, perhaps even in just a different neighborhood or family - I might have seen a very different side of this country and its culture. But generally, lots of Turks seem to be passively Muslim in the same way many Americans are passively Christian, perhaps only observing religious traditions during important celebrations. My family is quite secular for the most part, and actually did not fast during Ramadan due to a combination of both health issues which prevented fasting, and secularism. One of the things I was looking the most forward to when I learned that I had been selected as a finalist for Turkey was getting to experience Ramadan in a Muslim country. Unfortunately, I must say that I still don't feel like I truly have. 
  2. Related to the above: Turkish society is becoming quite polarized these days in many respects. - It's difficult to talk about this and avoid getting into the vicious dog-eat-dog dynamics of contemporary Turkish politics, so I'll do my best to avoid discussing this in great detail. But suffice it to say that these days, aside from a number of cultural norms and values (such as hospitality, honor, friendliness, sense of community, etc) which more or less unite all Turks, the country is socially and politically divided these days into the very non-religious and western oriented secularists, and the very religiously conservative Islamists, with not much in between, as I've noticed. Aside from some of the uniting values I previously mentioned, these people are very different, and have completely opposing worldviews and ideas about how their country should be run. Let's say that tensions run high.
  3. Again somewhat related to the above: This country is quite safe for the most part. - In the months following my selection as a finalist for this program, I was a little worried about the political situation here in Turkey and how it would affect our program. I was surprised when I got here to discover that it's really a non-issue; for the most part, contrary to misconceptions among some more ignorant people I talked to before coming here, this for the most part is a very clean, developed, and well-kept country, and it is also perfectly safe. I have heard a little about skirmishes going on in the more notoriously volatile southeastern region of the country, but given that these are very far away from Bursa, our program has been left completely unaffected as a result, and as far as I can tell, the same goes for our companions, the NSLI-Yers who are being hosted in the capital city of Ankara.
  4. Turks LOVE their tea. - As an avid tea drinker myself, this is something which pleases me in the extreme. Unfortunately, there tends not to be quite as much variety in types of tea here compared to the States - back home, I drink chai, rooibos, green tea, fruit tea of all kinds, herbal tea, yerba mate, the list goes on. Here, fruit and herbal teas are definitely a thing, but they tend to be recognized more for their medicinal properties than anything else, and therefore people tend to drink them only when they're sick, usually sticking to their staple black tea (çay), which is typically grown on the Black Sea coast. It's served in these elegant little cups with cubes of sugar to mix into it (as it is a bit bitter unsweetened), and Turks drink it continuously - offering guests tea is part of typical Turkish hospitality. Like I said in my "30 ways you know you're a NSLI-Yer in Turkey" post, drinking it up to six or seven times a day is quite normal (though I suppose it's important to know that the cups are very small, so these are pretty tiny portions we're talking about here). Interestingly, it's also customary to leave just a little bit of tea at the bottom; though I have yet to ask why, it's apparently considered rude to drink every last drop. 
  5. Turkish is an amazing and fascinating, but very difficult language. - This I knew from the beginning, but now I can talk about it first hand. Turkish is written in the Latin alphabet, each letter has only one pronunciation, and the pronunciation is not all that alien to a native English speaker, so that's been pretty nice. But the grammar is very different. Very interesting, and thankfully consistent, for the most part. But very different and very complicated. Oftentimes a lot of grammatical information will be smushed (for lack of better terminology) together into a single word, and then the words will vary greatly based on conjugation or based on vowel harmony, meaning that there will often be great variation between different versions of the same grammatical concept or phenomenon. It's a bit hard to explain, and it's quite hard to understand, I can tell you that. xD But I really do love this language. I love speaking it; it's very elegant, it's like a puzzle. So different and unique from anything I've ever known before. I definitely plan on holding on to what I've learned from this experience, and hopefully mastering it as well, so I can perfect my Turkish in the future. 
  6. I like the relationships between Turks and their stray animals. - This may seem a bit random, but let me explain. I noticed right from the first day that not only are there good official policies towards stray animals in Turkey - for example, in Istanbul there are initiatives in which stray dogs and cats are periodically captured, given all the appropriate shots and vaccinations to ensure their health, and are then re-released with little tags on there ears to indicate their healthy status - but Turkish people generally seem to be quite friendly to strays. On our second day in this country, when we were hanging out in Ortaköy back in Istanbul, there were some stray cats (one of which took a nap in our shadows as we stood around :D) that were hanging around near a group of fishermen, who proceeded to gently pet each cat and later offer them bits of fish they caught, if I remember correctly. ^_^ In other places I've been, strays are sometimes avoided and feared for reasons of disease, and are considered pests, so it was very reassuring and just plain heartwarming to see that stray animals are treated quite well in this country, generally. :) 
  7. Part of the above: Turkish has a couple of letters that are either pronounced differently than in other languages, or that are slightly modified with accent marks. - Most notoriously, the "c" in Turkish is pronounced like "j" in English, so the word "cami" (mosque), for example, is pronounced "jah-mee." Then there's "ş" and "ç," which are just pronounced as "sh" and "ch," respectively. Turkish also has some unique letters: there's "yumuşak g," or "soft g," which looks like this: ğ. It is basically a silent letter that elongates the vowel sound which precedes it. So, for example, my friend Doğukan's name is pronounced "dough-kahn." Then there's "ı", a dot-less i which is pronounced as "ih;" for example, the word for light, "ışık," which sounds like "ih-sh-ihk." And finally, we have "ö" and "ü," which are pronounced roughly as the "er" in "her" and the "ew" in "few," respectively.
  8. I've discovered that Turkey actually has some pretty interesting ties to Balkan nations. - This was a very interesting discovery for me - basically, due to imperialist expansion during the Ottoman Empire, ethnic Turks ended up moving to a large number of conquered territories, especially Balkan nations, and so after the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, lots of these Balkan nations ended up with large minority populations of ethnic Turks. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, many of them ended up fleeing their adopted homelands to escape conflict and sought refuge in their ancestral country, resulting in large resettled communities of these Balkan Turks, and there is a particularly large community of them here in Bursa, from Bulgaria in particular. In fact, as I had no previous knowledge of this community and am interested in exploring these connections between Turkey and the Balkans which were previously unknown to me, I will be doing my "culminating project" on the Balkan Turks, in which I will interview various people I know here on their knowledge of this community, as I am curious to see if Balkan Turks feel more connected to Turkey or the countries where they grew up, and if there are any that still maintain connections with their old countries, or if they are pretty well integrated, or both. I will see (as I still have yet to start my interviews...I'll get on that this weekend...). 
  9. Speaking of which: This truly is the bridge between East and West. - That tends to be a pretty cliche exaggeration in reference to tons of different places, certainly in reference to Turkey. But, as I've discovered, as cliche a statement as it sounds (and is), it fits Turkey well. East Thrace, the 3% portion of Turkey which lies in Europe, and the remaining 97% of the country which lies on Anatolia - and therefore Asia - are joined by the one and only Istanbul. I've got to say, although we never got to make the stereotypical and legendary crossing between continents while we were in Istanbul itself (most of the monument-y things that we saw were on the European side), it's still, for lack of a better term, pretty badass that there's a city where you can so easily traverse continents. Anywhere you go in Turkey, you will find this baffling and omnipresent juxtaposition of modernity and tradition, East and West, Europe and Asia. Turkey cannot fully be described as European, Asian, or Middle Eastern, it defies classification. It is all three, it is none, it is something all it's own, it's all of the above at the same time. It is Turkey, and it is incredible. 
  10. The variety among different geographic regions of this country is pretty cool. - We learned in one of our Turkish classes a few weeks ago that there are seven main bölge (regions): the Marmara Region (Marmara Bölgesi), in which Bursa is located, the Black Sea Region (Karadeniz Bölgesi), the Aegean Region (Ege Bölgesi), the Mediterranean Region (Akdeniz Bölgesi), the Central Anatolia Region (İç Anadolu Bölgesi), the Eastern Anatolia Region (Doğu Anadolu Bölgesi), and finally, the Southeastern Anatolia Region (Güneydoğu Anadolu Bölgesi). Although united under overarching Turkish culture, history, and identity, each one of these regions has its own interesting quirks, traditions, culture, and unique characteristics, which I have enjoyed learning about a lot. 
  11. SO. MUCH. AMAZING. HISTORY. EVERYWHERE. - Not much more to be said about that. I just find it petty amazing to be able to be in a place where in an hour's time, you can reach milennia-old Greco-Roman ruins, Ottoman mosques and palaces, Byzantine basilicas, and pretty much anything in between, when back in the States I have to go out to the East Coast to find anything much older than 100 years. The amazing history and its proximity elicits a lot of fangirl-like reactions from me. That's it. xD 
  12. This country is very green. - Something which pleasantly surprised me. Not that I expected Turkey not to be green, but it's definitely not something that I expected. In some of our trips to other cities and villages nearby, we've had the chance to see up close during our bus rides just how lush the forests are which cloak the mountains and hills surrounding Bursa. I love me some nature, so that was a very welcome discovery. :) 
  13. The food is nothing short of a blessing. - As much as I do miss the food back in the States, both homemade and foreign cuisines, Turkish food is one of the best things ever. It tends to be very heavy in meat, yogurt, and bread as staples for dishes. Like I've mentioned, oftentimes food will come with cold, salty yogurt in which to coat it. Some of my favorite Turkish foods include dolma, which I mentioned in my last post; simit, a bagel-like circular bread usually encrusted with sesame seeds; mantı, little dumplings served with yogurt and various seasonings; and lahmacun (lah-ma-joon), bread topped with minced meat. I'm also a big fan of Turkish breakfasts, which include a wide selection of honey, fresh fruit jams, cheese, bread on which to put them, olives, cucumbers, and so forth. 
  14. This is really an observation only relevant to my personal experience, but: I have experienced a near-complete lack of anything which could be described as culture shock or language shock. - Why, I am not sure. Perhaps it's because this country is significantly more familiar to me, as it combines a large number of aspects of both Italian and Egyptian culture, and it was easier to get used to. Perhaps it's because in this experience and program there have been a lot more of group activities, and I've been spending lots of time with other exchange students as a result. Perhaps it's because I went through intense culture shock and language shock in Egypt already, and therefore knew what to expect/was bracing myself ahead of time (and I guess it worked if that's the case?). Maybe it's because this experience is less intense, given that I haven't found the cultural differences as extreme as I did in my first exchange. Maybe it's a combination of all of the above and more that I am not even aware of. I don't know. All I do know is that I had very little to know culture or language shock this time around, and perhaps if I did on an even subconscious level, I was completely numb to it. 
  15. Similarly, I haven't felt much homesickness either. - Although here have been a number of moments when it has crept up on me - on the 4th of July when I was missing the quintessential experiences of the annual fireworks show at my old elementary school and barbecue lunch at my local pool, missing my dad on his birthday on the 5th, and various moments during conversation with family and good friends that have triggered reactions leading me to miss things and people back home, I haven't felt much in the way of homesickness either. And these moments haven't lasted very long either. However, I find this much more logical - I left home knowing that I would be back in a mere month and a half, and since I've been gone, I have been living an exchange which I worked very hard to achieve, and which has been one of the most amazing experiences of my life, in which I've not only been seeing amazing things, doing amazing things, and making strong connections with amazing people, but I've also as a result been very busy. There just hasn't been time to be homesick, for the most part. And as much as I love and appreciate my home, I always make it a priority to absorb everything I can from experiences like this and enjoy them as much as possible as well. So that, at least, makes a tad more sense. 
So this a list of some general, overarching observations and thoughts of mine regarding Turkish culture and life here. I hope you all liked it! Sorry it got a bit lengthy and ramble-y.
I'll be putting up another post about how things have been generally going in the past few weeks at some point during the weekend.
But that's all for now.