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No kissing in the classroom

My friend Cansu (pronounced “Johnsue”), a fellow English teacher in Çorum, invited me to come to her Wednesday classes and speak with her students. It was quite a different experience from the relaxing lunch time conversation groups I have grown accustomed to. First of all, unlike my English conversation classes which are filled with university faculty and administrators, Cansu’s class was all university students between the ages of 19 and 22. Second of all, we worked out of a textbook and work book rehearsing generic dialogues. Third of all, grammar was a huge part of the lesson.
We had a great time and the students were so excited to participate that they were shooing their arms up to answer questions and literally jumping out of their seats to be an actor in a dialogue in front of the class.
At the end of the second lesson one of the girls in the back raised her hand an said “Kayla, you are so sugar, so beautiful, and so skilled” I walked to the back of the room and have her a Turkish hug with two kisses cheek to cheek. After that all the guys in the room stood up and shouted “Kayla, you are sugar! You are sugar!” with their arms wide open hoping I would kiss them too. I didn’t and in the third and final lesson Cansu smiled and told me not to kiss anyone.



Turkish Hospitality

One Wednesday I went to lunch at the Vocational Higher Education School in Çorum. Tony (my fellow American English teacher) and I got our trays of food and sat down at a table full of strangers and one woman who came to our weekly discussion groups. Before we had even been formally introduced, the man sitting next to Oznur, the woman we knew, invited us to his daughters wedding. He handed us an invitation to share, told us his name, and then picked up his tray and left. Oznur explained that he wanted “the Americans” to experience a Turkish wedding and it just so happened that his daughter was getting married that coming Saturday. We were delighted because as everyone in Çorum knows, there is nothing to do on a Saturday night except listening to live music at Baraka (a local café) or going to a wedding.

That Saturday morning I asked Aslı (one of my friends) to borrow a dress for the wedding because unfortunately when packing for Turkey I had not considered packing a suitable party outfit as I was much too concerned about dressing conservatively. It turns out even in Çorum people wear sleeveless dresses to weddings. She invited me to her room where her and her two roommates went to work taking out all the dresses in their closets for me to try on. With every dress I put on there came an “ooh” or an “ah” and finally we were down to two choices. The black lacy dress was my favorite but I was worried about wearing so much black to a wedding. My friends told me that wearing black to a wedding was completely normal in Turkey. I took the two dresses back to my room as well as a bottle of bright blue nail polish. I painted my nails and I put on black tights and grey socks. I decided on the black dress, but was still worried that I was wearing too much black. I did my makeup (eyeliner and all) and I went back to her room for approval. As she opened the door the first thing out of her mouth was “Çok güzel!” (very beautiful). She said something to her roommate and pulled a chair out in front of the mirror. “Sit” she said. She took out her hair blow dryer and plugged it in. She began brushing and drying my hair. After it was dry they spoke in Turkish again and she pulled out her hairspray and curling iron. I didn’t protest. One girl held the majority of my hair while the other curled it. In the end I looked like a grown up Shirley Temple. Then Aslı took out her earring wall (which is indeed a corkboard wall full of earrings) and picked out a pair of bright blue feather earrings that matched my nails. I put them on, Aslı took what seemed like one hundred photos of me and my hair, and told me to meet her in the canteen at four.

Aslı and our friend Rosana (from Spain) met me in the canteen at ten after four and since I had a lesson at four thirty Aslı said they would walk me to my class. I told her it was no problem and that I could go alone, but she tsked at me (meaning no) and said it was dangerous for me to walk around alone looking so pretty. It was four o’clock in the afternoon and it was still light out so I wasn’t worried, but since she was I let her walk me to school.

After our lesson Tony and I were picked up by a car with two men who we also met that Wednesday. They drove us for five minutes or so until we reached a street covered in lit up signs saying “Leblebi” (Çorum is famous for it’s leblebi which are roasted chickpeas). Our driver rolled down the window and said a few words in Turkish to the car next to us and we were ushered out of the car we were in, to the next one over. The woman in the passenger seat of the second car was Oznur. From there we drove for about ten minutes to a salon or banquet hall outside of the city center of Çorum (the city of Çorum is small and has a concentrated population, but the province of Çorum stretches very far in terms of land).  We approached the banquet hall, but shortly realized that there were two weddings happening in two different parts of the salon. We stopped to figure out which side was the right one. Oznur gestured for us to follow her and we walked up a red carpet lined with beautiful white roses. Inside the banquet hall there were about twenty five long tables that each had sixteen chairs. Since this wedding was not necessary to RSVP to, every seat was paired with a plate of baklava and a salad as well as another large plate (which told me more food was coming). The chairs were white and wrapped with an iridescent pink bow. Upon entering we shook hands with what seemed like innumerable people including the grandmother of the groom and bride, as well as the brides father (the professor who had invited us). Each of them took our hands and said “Hoş geldiniz!” (welcome) to which the correct response is “Hoşbulduk!” (something along the lines of thank you for welcoming me).  We took our seats and began eating our salad and baklava. After I had finished my baklava and people were still arriving the woman across from me who had just taken an English class in New York  offered me her baklava because she was on a diet. Obviously I said yes and I told her that it was no problem because I did pilates everyday. Immediately she invited me over to her house to do Pilates because she was a Pilates instructor and loved to work out with friends. We exchanged numbers and she said she only lived about a ten minute walk from my apart.

Finally the procession started. I had been wondering about the television screens around the room, but it became immediately apparent that the entire wedding would be videotaped via a live feed and would be screened upon these televisions so that everyone could see every part. The bride and groom got out of a car and began walking along the red carpet. Fireworks went off above them and like paparazzi there were about ten or so people surrounding them, taking their photos. Inside they had a bride and groom dance and then family members were welcomed to dance among them for the second song. After this everyone sat down to eat. The bride and groom were alone at their own table in the front of the room, side by side, like royalty.

The food was delicious (like Turkish food always is) and after three more courses including soup, borek, rice and meat, a table was brought out to the middle of the dance floor and the bride and groom rose. At the table a man (I can only guess he was officiating the marriage) said a few words, the bride said “evet” (yes) and the groom said “EVET!” The entire room erupted in applause and they signed a piece of paper and the whole thing was over in under five minutes. They removed the table and the dancing began! I danced to every song and some of the Turkish women took it upon themselves to teach me how to spice up my Turkish dance moves by adding more shoulder. In Turkey men and women both dance with their arms raised and snapping while moving their arms back and forth. The only dancing that was not like this was either a slow dance or halay. Halay involves linking pinky fingers with the people next to you and following the dance steps led by the leader (the first person in the line who is holding a shiny swatch of fabric in one hand). Usually the dance moves get faster and faster as the music continues and can be challenging at first, but after a while the steps become second nature.  The dancing was stopped due to the cutting of the cake. A large cake was brought out and the bride and groom cut it with a very long sword. They fed each other bites and the cake was taken away (it later returned in small pieces at our seats). The gift giving commenced. In Turkey there are two gifts you can give at a wedding: you can pin a gold coin onto the bride or grooms dress or you can pin money. At some weddings they announce “Susan gave two gold coins, Doreen gave fifty lira, George gave three gold coins,” etc. However at this wedding they did not. After the gift giving, which took about half an hour the dancing began again. There were over 150 guests, but only thirty of us were dancing.

At the end of the wedding we took a picture with the bride and groom and they thanked me in English for my attendance. They said they were very happy to share their special day with an American (or so I gathered from the bits and pieces of Turkish I understood). I thanked them in Turkish and we left. Oznur handed me two of the dancing leader swatches and told me to keep them as souvenirs. Oznur’s friend drove us home and when I walked into Bilge Apart I began dancing halay by myself. My friend Aslı joined in and so did Gül (meaning Rose) the nice woman who works the night shift. We danced into the kitchen where we picked up Sate Teze (the chef) and we danced for a bit longer until we were tired. They asked me if I was hungry and I said no and ran to my room. I know very well that “are you hungry?” is not a question and no matter how you answer it, if you stick around long enough food will arrive in front of you.

The generosity and kindness of the Turkish people extends far past anything I ever could have imagined. I look forward to attending many more Turkish weddings in the future, and was even lucky enough to get invitations to four weddings in the Spring.



şaka yaptı

A dolmuş looks like a 15 passenger van that has been converted into a small bus. There are only fifteen seats, but that doesn’t stop the driver from picking up more people. They will try to fit upwards of twenty-five people on one dolmuş (which appropriately means stuffed or full) and there is even a bar installed in the ceiling to hold onto for those who are expected to stand. Unfortunately for me, the space between the floor and the ceiling is only about 5’4” and I am upwards of 5’11”. In the few cases where I have taken a dolmuş and had to stand I had to bend like a paperclip and it goes without saying that I was very uncomfortable.

Although I wouldn’t say it is uncommon to find people who speak English in Turkey, I would say that generally no one follows a conversation between me and another native English speaker. However I am always conscious of the potentiality of being understood and am cautious with my words. My friend is a little less careful and spends much of her time on dolmuş' casually people watching and sharing her observations out loud. Even mentioning how “the man in the red shirt is totally looking at you. Maybe he wants an American girlfriend.” yadiyadiyadda. I thought it would be funny if one day the person she was talking about spoke back in English.

While I was staying with this friend and her roommate in Samsun (a large Black Sea city in Turkey) we decided to go on a boat cruise. Her colleague picked us up from her home and I became aware that he spoke little to no English. After the cruise we were driving in his car and my friend was telling us a story about her lesbian American friend who met her girlfriend in Turkey. I looked at the guy and since he didn’t flinch when she said the word “lesbian” I asked if the word for lesbian was different in Turkish. As a joke I guessed “lezbiyen” (with an emphasis on the yen) and he laughed. He said something in Turkish, which my friend translated as “Of course I am the only man in a car with three other girls. I thought first that I was lucky, but instead they are all lesbians.” We all laughed, but I wonder if he though we were being serious. Good thing that one of the first things I learned was “şaka yaptı" (I am joking).

Learning From Your Mistakes

Everyday I go to a different university faculty for an English conversation lunch group. In Çorum there is one university but each faculty is in a different part of town. The food at each is delicious, at least in the staff lunchroom, which is where I eat. I hear the student cafeteria isn’t quite as good.  Lunch always consists of a soup, a plate of bulgur, rice, or noodles, a bowl of stew, a roll of bread, and fruit. Nothing is ever vegetarian and there are no options. You either eat what they serve or you don’t eat at all. Luckily I have not found any Turkish food that I don’t like so I am always quite happy. On Thursday’s we, the American English teachers of Çorum (there are four of us), go to the Nursing Faculty for lunch. We eat in a tiny room with fifteen seats and they are almost always full. After lunch we go outside and drink çay (tea), Nescafe (coffee), or Turkish coffee. The Nursing school has surprisingly good Nescafe cappuccino’s so I almost always have one of these.

Side note: çay (tea) is something Turkish people drink many times a day. Before I left America my dad told me that Turkish people drink more tea than British and Indian people. He wasn’t kidding. Some days I drink as many as eight cups of tea. The reason for this is, everywhere I go they offer me tea and it is rude not to accept (plus, who doesn’t like a good cup of çay?). On my repeated visits to the police station in Çorum I would arrive to find all of the offices open, but without anyone sitting at their desks. I quickly learned that if you need something you have to walk around to all the rooms and find the one full of men drinking çay. When you tell them what you need, usually one of the men will get up and walk with you to his office where he will help you.  

Back to my story: The last time I went to the nursing school for lunch it was freezing outside. We decided to move from the garden, which is where we usually have our after lunch drink, to the canteen. We walked inside and one of my students, a Turkish nursing school professor turned to me and said “shut up”. My friend Vicki and I looked at each other confused. He pointed to the door. “Oh!” I exclaimed “Shut the door!” I began laughing as did Vicky and when the Turkish professor realized his mistake he began begging me for forgiveness. I told him not to worry about it and I thought back to all of the times I had made similar mistakes in foreign languages. It felt nice to be the one watching the embarrassment instead of feeling it.



Cultural differences and language similarities

I’m sitting outside under a large gazebo drinking çay. I’m in the company of Vicky and Tony (my fellow American English teachers), and seven members of the faculty at the vocational university in Çorum. We are having quite an intellectual conversation about the differences between culture and religion in Turkey. The topic of marriage is brought up and soon we begin to talk about the importance of virginity. For women, being a virgin is extremely important and some families have even killed brides who turn out to have lied about having their virginity. Note the word woman because for men it is not necessary. One female professor even said she was happy her husband had slept around before he married her because he knows what to do (in bed). After a while everyone got up to leave and Vicky and I walked accross the courtyard to another building. We still hadn’t wrapped our brain around what we learned so we continued talking about virginity and sex and the hypocrisy of men being able to mess around with other girls (ruining these girls’ lives because without their virginity it will be almost virtually impossible for them to get married), while women set for nothing else than self preservation) stay “pure”. As we are walking Vicky says a sentence with the word “sex”. She doesn’t lower her voice and that is when we learn a valuable lesson. About 10 guys turn around to look at us and Vicky gasps. It turns out that the word for sex is the same in Turkish. We ran away laughing.



Ekmek varma?

Breakfast is included in my rent for the apart. It is delicious and every morning there is cheese, tomatoes, sliced cucumber, olives, various homemade marmalade, honey, and sometimes potatoes and or hard-boiled eggs. Occasionally they have delicious bread pastries that are savory, not sweet. This was a dilemma because although there was homemade marmalade, I could not for the life of me figure out what to eat them with. I began eating the salty cheese from the middle of the bread pastries so that I could use the bread to try the jam. I must have looked crazy, but no one said anything probably figuring that it was the American thing to do.  Then I began to see people with baskets of bread, but I had no idea where they were getting them. I didn’t want to ask because I didn’t know how to say bread in Turkish and I presumed you had to pay for it separately. For days I wondered how to get my hands on some bread. Finally one day a Turkish girl sat down next to me at breakfast and I asked her in English where the bread was. She took my hand and led me over to the silverware and sure enough right below it was a aluminum tray with a cover. It was lined with plastic so I had just assumed it was a trashcan and I never opened it. I recalled seeing a few girls throwing their extra bread in there, but I felt odd taking it out and eating it because I thought it was their waste. My friend showed me the baskets and piled one high with bread and we went back to the table. I tried four different types of marmalade and smiled at my success. The girl pointed at the bread and said “ekmek”.




Living in a girls only dormitory in Çorum has its pros and cons. Before i made friends the biggest con was not being able to ask about things I didn’t understand. one day i was sitting in the common area reading my book when I heard a bird chirping “cik cik” (pronounced jeek jeek). I turned around, but could not find what had made the noise so I continued reading. Every hour or so I would hear the noise again and it was so timely that I decided it must be a clock of some sort. A couple days later I was in my friend’s apartment when I heard the same noise. I looked around and my friend got up and went to the door. When she came back she told me it was the doorbell. I was so relieved to find the source of the chirping and for the next week I forgot all about it as the sound dissolved into the sounds of the room around me. At breakfast one morning a couple of girls sat down with me. No one at the apart so far had been able to speak more than a handful of words in English so I had almost given up on trying to make friends. I was a bit lonely until I realized how many of the other girls were away from home for the first time and didn’t already have large friend groups. The girls who approached me at breakfast spoke a bit of English and were very interested in learning more. I took them under my wing and in return they took me under theirs. After dinner that night we met up to watch television in the common room. As we were sitting I heard the chirping again and one of the girls asked me if I had met the bird. I explained to her that I knew it was the doorbell. She looked at me with a dazed expression and asked again if I had met the bird. I said “yes, the doorbell,” I said with a dumb expression on my face.
“No, not the doorbell, the bird,” she replied.
She grabbed my hand and led me to the corner and sure enough in the corner was a bird cage and in it was a tiny parakeet.



Accidental Boob Show

Over the summer I worked as a camp counselor/ English conversation leader/ tour guide for international high school students. Over the duration of two weeks the students participated in many activities including pool time. One afternoon I was laying out by the pool on a nice stretch out lawn chair. I decided to get my tan on and one of my co-workers suggested that I untie the knot in my bathing suit top that strung along my middle back. I obliged and dozed off. When I woke up I decided to flip over. I got up to turn over and of course I had forgotten that I had previously untied my suit and was lucky enough to catch my top before everyone at the pool had the chance to see my breasts. I tied my suit back together and breathed a sigh of relief after my surging panic attack. I walked over to the pool and sat on the edge with my feet in the water.

One of my favorite students, Matteo (an Italian student age 18), came over and sat down next to me.

“I saw what happened,” he said.

“No you didn’t!” I replied, embarrassed.

“Yes, I did,” he countered.

“Well then you are very lucky,” I smiled.

“It was nothing special.”

“What?” I was offended. How could he say that? I threatened to push him into the pool. My friend came over and after I had regaled her with the story she and I both began laughing. Matteo looked at us and asked why we were laughing. We explained to him how at first I had been offended by him not being impressed by my accidental boob show and then how repeating the entire story had made me laugh. Finally he understood and he also began laughing. He said “Kayla, I did not mean that your boobs were nothing special. What I meant was that I barely saw any of them because I was behind you.” At this everyone around us started laughing because by this time we had a crowd of three or four Italian boys and five or so American counselors. My pride had been healed, but of course then I was asked for a re-play of the event, so I got out of the pool and left.  



Flushing Impossible

Sometimes it seems that the hardest thing for me to navigate in other countries is the bathroom. In Turkey they are very fond of the squat-toilet, otherwise known as the Natural-Position toilet. Unfortunately for me and almost all of the other Fulbrighters, this was not communicated to us in any of our twenty plus sessions about Turkish culture, nor did it become apparent until we left our hotel that conveniently had European toilets. Luckily, I was with a friend and our University representative when I first experienced such a toilet. We were in the house of our University Representative’s parents and I was led into the bathroom and shown to switch my slippers to those of the communal bathroom shoes, and that the flush was the blue lever on the wall above the toilet. I felt very lucky that I had run into this traditional style restroom while I was with friends, and not while I was alone. The thought that I had mastered the tricks to the traditional Turkish toilet was premature.

Oya, our University representative invited us to her cousin’s wedding. It was overwhelming and everyone seemed to be speaking to me, but I just kept smiling and saying “Turkce Bilmiyorum” (I don’t speak Turkish). About an hour in I told Vicky (my sitemate) and Oya that I had to use the restroom. They walked me there. We waited in line and when it was my turn I went into a stall, squatted, and did my business. Thankfully I only went number one because when I got up to flush I realized that I could not find the lever. I spent a minute looking at all the walls, but there was nothing. I opened the stall door and poked my head out and cried “Oya. Vicki.” They came to me and pretty soon we were all crowded in the same stall. I told them I didn’t know how to flush and Oya pointed to a little watering can in the corner next to a small faucet. She told me to fill up the watering can and pour the water down the hole to simulate a flush. I did so and we all shuffled out. There were five or six women in line for the restroom and it was clear by the looks on their faces that they were very curious as to why three women had just come out of one stall.



Tuvalet Kâğıdı

Right now I am living in an apart house which is a place similar to a residence hall. It is women only and there are common areas such as the cafeteria (breakfast is included), a small gym with two machines, and a living room area, all of which are connected to one another. There are over 100 women living here including professors, police, university students, and even some high school students. I am something of a celebrity here being one of two international people to ever have stayed in this apart house (there are three in Çorum) and the only one ever to come from America. I am stared at a lot, and when I turn to look they continue to stare and whisper to each other in Turkish. I don’t mind because they are all very nice to me. Their excitement peaks at just a single word of Turkish issued from my mouth. I have a maid here (or so they say,but my room hasn’t been cleaned yet), unlimited wifi, a European toilet (not a hole in the ground, which is what most Turkish people use), a private room, a mini fridge, a television, and my own balcony. Having all these fine amenities I thought they might also have toilet paper available and since I ran out I thought I may as well go and ask. After breakfast I went to the directors office. She is a very nice lady, but unfortunately no one except for a young girl who is also staying here speaks English. It wasn’t until I began to ask, that I realized how difficult and vulgar toilet paper was to explain. At first I tried to say it “toilet paper varma?” (do you have toilet paper?). She looked at me inquisitively. “lavabo?” (bathroom?) I said. She began speaking Turkish to me and I understood the words “problem var?” (is there a problem?). She obviously thought I was having a problem with my bathroom. I quickly said “problem yok” (no problem). It was then that I knew what I had to do. Turkish people will not let you give up. If you begin to ask a question they will not let you say never mind and walk away. You must continue or else they will stare at you with a very confused and almost saddened look on their face. I began to charade. I said “lavabo” and then I picked up an imaginary roll of toilet paper from the side and used it to mime wiping my hoohah. She finally understood and said she didn’t have any and that I would have to buy it at the market. In all honestly I figured that would be her response but I didn’t want to be that girl who bought her own toilet paper because she was too afraid to ask. The most embarrassing part was not the look on the face of the director when she realized what I wanted, but was the girl sitting in the corner watching the whole production in silence. Sometimes you just have to bring along your English to Turkish dictionary. I plan on carrying it with me from now on.