January 25, 2015

Germany Trip

Alan and I made it to Germany and back. Our work contracts allow for a full week off between the 2nd and 3rd quarters, so we decided to visit my grandparents and then see Dresden, a city neither of us had been to.

Selected highlights of the trip:

Breakfast selections prepared by Oma. German breakfast might even beat Turkish breakfast...don't tell anyone. Oma's breakfast spread includes aged pork sausage, several varieties of light cheeses, the most delicious homemade bread, homemade jam, and boiled eggs. There's a pot of coffee ready, and German oldies playing on the radio. It's awesome.

German beer. There is beer in Turkey, but I can't say that it's good. It's sort of light Keystone light. But maybe worse. Anyway, Alan and I filled up while we could, enjoying one of Germany's traditions--when you are thirsty, drink beer.

Speaking some Deutsch. You may or may not know that I can speak German. I'm not as fluent as I once was, but compared to the ridiculous time I have speaking Turkish, using German is like a hot knife through butter. I felt my brain synapses firing in ways they haven't for a while. I ordered food, translated, and even managed some conversations with my grandparents. Learning languages--it's a good thing!

Using some Turkish. Although we are beginners, Alan and I know enough Turkish to say nice things during service encounters. At the Frankfurt airport, there are plenty of Turks, and we made use of our Turkish while getting our rental car. It was fun.

Tour of Melsungen. My grandparents live in a small village in central Germany, which means they often visit neighboring towns for shopping. In the past, both of their sons worked in Melsungen, a small town just down the road. The town is well-known as the home of Braun pharmacuticals and for its Fachwerkhaus architecture. Opa and Oma gave us a tour of the city after we strolled along the Fulda river. When we were chilled to the bone, they took us for coffee hour at a cafe.

Coffee hour is pretty much the best thing ever. Germans often break in the late afternoon for a cup of coffee and a slice of rich cake. Over the week we we in Germany, I tried a cheesecake and an special Egg cake (it's like cheesecake and custard had a delicious baby). I drank too much coffee.

Touring the Bergpark in Kassel. Oma and Opa took us to the park, but only Alan and I climbed the million stairs to the top, where the Herkules statue watches over the city. Then we all had lunch before continuing to the surprising awesome castle nearby.

Hanging out with my grandparents. I don't know how many grandkids are this lucky, but I've got awesome grandparents on two continents. My German grandparents are a lot of fun. They like to host, share good food and drink, and make jokes. Spending a few days with them was good for my soul.

Spending time with my husband. Of course we had challenges of vacationing, including driving in a foreign country, but we also had the awesome random parts, like walking around in Pirna and Jena (awesome city with an even finer name). We learned that a little coffee and cake fix a lot of things between 3 and 5 PM when lunch has worn off. We learned that navigating is better when you don't worry about messing up. We were also able to hold hands in public (comfortably) for the first time in a while...yes, we live in Kayseri.

Kurt Vonnegut tour in Dresden. If you've read the literary classic Slaughterhouse 5, you know that Dresden was destroyed in World War 2. Vonnegut's novel is set partially in Dresden, and a tour guide offers a walk and learn session just outside the city center to the actual Slaughterhouse where Vonnegut was himself held as prisoner. Although the walk was cold and I hadn't finished the book yet, the tour was excellent and enriched my Dresden experience.

Guacamole. Our funky hipster neighborhood in Dresden offered a Mexican restaurant, and for these two Arizona transplants living in Turkey, it was too good to resist. We went there twice actually. The chimichangas were good, the guacamole appetizer was amazing, and the BBQ ribs--a little slice of American Tex-Mex heaven. Actually an enormous slice. I think I gained three pounds in that sitting.

Bastei Bridge. In Saxony, the region of Germany bordering Poland and the Czech Republic, there is a fantastic bridge to what was once a mighty castle. It's hard to describe, but on our particular visit, the weather was pretty bad. It was totally foggy so we could just make out the whimsical rock formations jutting up from the valley floor. Not unlike Utah or Cappadocia, the strange formations added an air of mystery, especially when coupled with the fog. We enjoyed touring the former castle, treading carefully on parapets suspended in the mist. We looked out over the river Elbe, we imagined riding horses up the steep hill to the imposing castle. Despite the weather, it was cool.

Dresden city center. I mean, you will be hard pressed to see more beautiful buildings in one place. The rebuilt and renovated structures in Dresden are stunning. I actually enjoyed strolling aimlessly, which isn't something I'm good at.

Drinking hot white spiced wine outside at a cheery winter market. Add an outdoor fireplace and my husband, and I've got a winning combination.

So basically: family, pork, alcohol, bad weather. Did I mention that basically it wasn't sunny at all while we were in Germany? Not once? Yeah. That happened. Grey holiday. That was the trip in a nutshell. It was awesome, but I'm ready to get back to my routine in Talas. My body also is ready for a little break in the intense food and drink action. Bring on the Turkish tea and whole wheat bread, please.

By the way, I want to add that coming "home" to Turkey was surreal. Every day that I spend in Turkey makes this the longest I've ever been out of the US. My home is in Turkey now, which is totally weird. It feels good to be back, and I'm looking forward to what's in store for us in the coming semester.

January 15, 2015


I've survived my first, and maybe only, Turkish dentist appointment. I was worried about a spot on one tooth, so I figured I better have it looked at.

I thought it would be good for Alan to have a check up too, and our Polish friend also wanted to go. Three's company when you're going to the dentist.

We took the bus downtown, walked past the awesome castle, and turned down a crowded shopping street. Three floors up, nestled inconspicuously above several opticians, orpir dentist and her staff warmly greeted us. 

I had chosen this dentist because she came highly recommended to me by an older colleague who has probably had a lot of dental work done. He is also American, and said she spoke English. Let's just say that I still think one of those things is true...

Anyway, between our Turkish and their English, we got settled in. I was propped up in an exam chair, and I opened my mouth for the exam. I've never heard "masallah" so many times without a baby present. Masallah is an Islamic expression that I think translates to "Wow! How beautiful. God protect you!" My teeth were "çok güzel", very beautiful, and I had no cavities. Alan and our colleague were not so fortunate. Alan was anesthesia-ing almost immediately so they could fill a cavity, and our colleague was downstairs for x-rays just as fast. 

Anyway, I still requested a cleaning. Let me just say that I'm pretty good at the dentist, especially considering how squeamish I am at the doctor, but this experience was miserable. I've never felt a cleaning like that before. My tooth nerves were getting overly stimulated by the knife machine they were using to break up the tartar deposits I always get. She asked whether I wanted anesthetic, and I declined, despite the discomfort, hoping that my pain receptors would tell me if the cleaning was doing more harm than good. I could also see the syringe sitting in a bottle of unmarked liquid, and though I could assume it was anesthetic, I wasn't quite ready for the leap. Between our lack of language proficiency, the dentist and I established that the sign for pain was for me to raise my left hand. I can't say that I was necessarily in pain, but I was certainly uncomfortable, especially when she cleaned my lower front teeth. I thought my dental nerves were going to scream. It was like the worst tickle sensation imaginable. When she finished, she handed me a mirror. I don't know whether American dentists rinse your teeth befor handing you the mirror, but when I looked, the gums between each tooth were bleeding and my teeth were smeared with blood and saliva. It looked pretty horrific. After I rinsed it was definitely looking better, but still feeling sore. And still bleeding.

The last part of our appointment was a 25 minute educational lesson on toothbrushing. The dentist showed us some high quality brushes, asked about ours, which I coincidently had in my purse, and proceeded to show my the faults of our brushes by touching the bristles. That was unexpected. My American dentist would have probably disagreed with some of her advice, but it was pretty funny to watch her brush Alan's teeth using her special technique (it made his gums bleed a little too). Alan got a free specialty toothbrush out of the deal, a nice touch. 

A couple hundred Lyra later and we were finally finished. We stopped by the big grocery store for alcohol--necessary to wash down such an experience--an also to buy me a new toothbrush as mine had been somewhat defiled...

Anyway, if I can avoid the Turkish dentist from here out, I might. I'm not down with discomfort and blood during a cleaning.

January 11, 2015

Yanbancı Paradise

My post today is short and sweet. And very...Turkey?

At the big grocery store downtown, you can never be sure what kind of music you'll hear as you browse imported toothpastes, bulk snacks, and Kayseri's finest booze selection (yes, it's yanbancı (foreigner) paradise).

Today, the store's radio mix served up Coolio's 1995 hit, "Ganster's Paradise."

As I walk through the valley of the shadow of death
I take a look at my life
And realize there's nothin' left.

For those unfamiliar, it's a serious rap song about the trials of living the gangster lifestyle. Although it won a grammy 20 years ago, it only smacked of double-irony today. Like a Turk wearing a tacky Christmas sweater all winter. A strangely awesome reappropriation, I guess. The Turks were unmoved by the dark lyrics and connotations the 90's flick "Dangerous Minds."

And my homies is down so don't arouse my anger, fool
Death ain't nothing but a heartbeat away,
I'm living life, do or die, what can I say
I'm 23 now, but will I live to see 24
The way things are going I don't know

Thank you Coolio for making my day a little more interesting, and for reminding me that life is too short not to pick up that bottle of wine.

January 7, 2015

Quarter 2 Success

Two quarters complete. One semester down. Half way through my first year teaching in Turkey.

My tumultuous first quarter prepared me for many of the challenges in this teaching context, including student motivation, last-minute changes, and difficult classroom management. However, the second quarter provided me a reprieve from the struggles of the first. I taught the top two sections of a CEFR B1 level listening and speaking class, using a textbook designed for English for Academic Purposes--my specialty. I also taught a mid-range section of CEFR A2, which kept me grounded in what the majority of teachers here trudge through on a daily basis.

Our classes work like this: based on proficiency and achievement test scores, students are sorted out first into A1, A2, B1, B2 levels. Then, within those levels, they are further divided into sections. The first quarter, we had 31 sections of A1 and handful of the others. The second quarter, 27 sections of A2. Our students basically progress en mass through the four levels. Each quarter, though, some teachers are assigned to teach in the other levels. I considered myself lucky to be one of the few teaching B1 students--they were absolutely awesome. My A2 section was fun in its own way, too. We managed to push through some very difficult material in A2, and I'm really proud of my students for picking up as much as they did. We had a lot of inside jokes in that class--"çay accidents" for spilled tea; "BRReak, BRReak, BRReak" for the end of a lesson. It was fun.

While I can chalk up a lot of the success I enjoyed in the second quarter to awesome students and different classroom dynamics (every teacher can relate to the seemingly random nature of groups of students who are productive together, and groups who are...not); I can also congratulate myself on personal growth as a teacher.

I handed out a syllabus on the first day of class with my expectations about classroom behavior, homework, and where empty tea cups belong (this is Turkey, after all). I was consistent with my "lights off means silence" policy all quarter, and it worked much better this time.

I did my best not to take students' behavior personally. I often reminded myself that these  are 18-year-olds who are experimenting with adulthood, meeting new friends, and experiencing university life for the first time. They want attention from each other. They want to be social. They don't care about relative clauses. I thought a lot about something a very zen colleague once said. "When I see students not paying attention, I think, he isn't ready to learn today." I like how that phrase takes the burden off of me. I focused on students who were ready, and did my best to get the others on board when I could.

One of my favorite experiments this quarter was using Facebook groups with students. Each class had a group where we could post and share things. I assigned students to make videos of themselves speaking English, write paragraphs, answer questions, and watch YouTube videos using Facebook. It was way better than I expected. Some students really took to it. Some were nonplussed, but that's normal. The students who liked it really seemed to enjoy posting and commenting on their friends' posts. Many students took advantage of the chat function to ask me questions, or wish me well on the weekends. While sometimes I wanted to escape from the messages, they were almost always important things or messages that made me feel good as a human being. Sometimes that doesn't happen enough to teachers.

Of course some students dug through my Facebook with a fine-toothed comb, finding some pictures that I might not choose to show them otherwise. You can imagine the horrifying moment shared by me and a student when a third student blurted out "Jena! Can I ask you about a picture Mahir sent to me? I didn't know you were like that!"  Oh no. What did I forget to delete? By the way, Sent to me??Yes, they've been texting my FB profile pictures to each other. Oh boy. I'm not sure who was more embarrassed, me or the sender, but we actually talked about the picture, featuring a friend and me decked out in gothic Halloween make-up from 2007, and I think we all felt much less awkward after that. Even empirical studies suggest that sharing Facebook inherently makes teachers a little more open with student, and this is part of building a trusting community. See Mazer, Murphy, and Simonds (2007). Of course, the natural consequence is built in--students know more about you, and in this digital world, there can be an awful lot to know.

Did I delete that picture after school? Yes I did. I thought I had eliminated most traces of my undergraduate life from Facebook, but I guess I missed that one.

So, I'm leaving the second quarter on a high note, full of momentum. There's a pretty good chance that I will be slowed by the one month break from teaching, and that my next teaching schedule won't be so awesome, but I can take comfort in my newfound confidence and my expanding knowledge of this student population.