June 24, 2015

Iftar Dinner Kayseri Style

Earlier this month, my boss selected Alan and me to teach two groups of female high school students. We earned a little extra cash, and I had an awesome time with 12 of the brightest, sweetest young ladies I've ever met. They destroyed (in a good way) the games and activities that I planned, and we even had deep discussions about current events and their dreams for the future. Easiest teaching ever.

On the last day, we had a pizza party where they got certificates and they gave me and Alan gifts. It was incredibly sweet, and the goodbyes were painful. One of the students even invited me to her home to break the fast during Ramadan, the Islamic Holy month.

Yesterday, Alan and I went to her home in downtown Kayseri. She and her mother sweetly greeted us, and we chatted in their beautiful dining room while he mother finished cooking. The conversation was in English, and included some translations for the mother who was really curious and interested in the guests. My student's 27-year-old quantum-mathematics-studying-motorcycle-riding-all-around-awesome sister woke up from her resting and joined us just before the call to prayer (or in this case, call to eating). 

Her mother had prepared a meal fit for royalty. We started with a rich and creamy soup made mostly with butter and yogurt. It was incredible. For the next course, I had requested mantı, the Kayserian version of dumplings, which were prepared to perfection, and topped with homemade tomato sauce and homemade yogurt. Delicious. Then, we had sarma (grape leaf-wrapped rice) and börek (pasteries), and bread, and salad. Just when I thought I'd explode, the next course came out: delicious baked chicken and potatoes, smothered in a tomato and pepper sauce.

It was a lot of food. We were gracious guests, and complimenting all of the foods, in Turkish, as best we could.

We moved to the couches for a post-meal Turkish coffee and delicious deserts (including the brownies I made with the mix my mom sent from the US), and we talked about everything. I was particularly interested in the mom's recent trip to Mecca and Medina on Hajj. We heard about the food, the traditional aspects of the pilgrimage, and even her opinions about Arabic coffee. My student's sister had a lot to say about her country and her plans for a PhD either in Holland or Canada. Alan and I tried to give her our best advice, even though we don't know much about either country. It was refreshing to experience a real Ramazan iftar in the company of women. I had only experienced a non-traditional iftar with my male Saudi friends back in Arizona. Normally, men and women wouldn't eat together.

The older sister stepped out for a few minutes to go to the mosque. Normally uncovered, she came back in a long black coat and headscarf. I'm still not fully aware of all the Islamic customs, so she explained to me that even if you don't usually wear a scarf over your hair, when you go to pray, you need to wear a scarf. I also learned that women pray on the second floor of the mosque (men on the first).

Later came the tea service and fruit plates. My stomach was incredibly full, but I never turn down a Turkish tea (or three). 

The night ended with promises to travel together, to have more meals together, and maybe even explore another country together. It was a great night of human connection. It's another memory of Turkey that I will cherish. 

We have about 6 weeks left in Turkey. Sometimes that seems too few, and sometimes it still feels like a long time to survive. I hope to squeeze all I can out of the next few weeks before coming back to the US for a brief visit.

Happy Ramadan!

June 7, 2015

No pictures, but an experience to document

As a member of a generation who is obsessed with documenting everything on Facebook and Instagram and Snapchat and Twitter and whatever else, I feel that in some ways, I failed yesterday. I didn't manage to take any pictures of anything.

A former student of Alan's (and a volleyball player of mine!) invited us to his family's home in Keskin, Turkey. Keskin is between Kayseri and Ankara, nestled in a picturesque landscape of rolling hills of green crops. The hills are dotted with farm houses and groves of fruit and nut trees.

I watched the RPMs drop as I put in the clutch in on the bigger hills. Saving gas, I thought. We cruised past sign after sign advertising local nuts, almonds, and raisins. We met our student on the main road in town. He had headphones in as we pulled up. A strangely modern element of this sleepy village.

"You're probably the first Americans here," he said, as we pulled up to a stop light next to a tractor. We accompanied him into a small shop selling meat and Coke products. We came out with a couple kilos of ground beef and a 2 liters each of Coke and Fanta.

Alan drove as we left the village on a dirt road behind a tractor pulling a huge trailer on grain. As a Nebraskan, I feel I can claim some farm heritage, but really I grew up in a medium sized city and haven't spent hardly any time on any farms anywhere, so I guess maybe I shouldn't claim too much.

We pulled into the driveway of his farm, and we were greeted immediately by his Kurdish-speaking grandmother, followed by mom, younger brother, and teenage sister. Our limited Turkish was enough for this interaction, and to get my purse inside the house. It turns out that my purse (containing my picture-taking iPad, tissues, and eyedrops) would be the only thing of mine that ever went in the house, but that's kind of another story--one that goes like this: most Turks are embarrassed to invite you inside their houses for whatever reason, so you'll probably eat in the garden or at a restaurant.

So anyway, there went my purse, and we and our student went on a long walk around the farm. We saw chickens, chicks, roosters, dogs, and ducks. We walked next to growing vegetables, sunflowers, grains, and many beautiful wildflowers. It was a long hike and the three of us were all suffering from allergies by the end.

When we came back to the farm, the women of the house, plus several female relatives who had arrived while we were gone, were cooking food on a homemade grill (more later). I was invited to sit with the men. Before I even sat down, I asked if I could use the restroom--you know I love to write about this...

His sister apologised that they didn't have a WC inside the house as she led me down a corridor between two barracks used for housing the family's cows and bulls. I prepared mentally for a new bathroom experience, and I wasn't disappointed. Cambodia has nothing on this one...

It was a concrete floor with a hole. There was a stiff-bristled brush and broom (in case your aim isn't so hot) and a large container of water with a small bucket (for self-cleaning). Although I've nearly mastered the squat-pot from a year of squatting in teacher clothes, the small opening in the floor did me no favors. My black (thankfully) tennis shoes got a little more than they bargained for out of the deal.

Anyway, I came back out and his sister showed me into one of the livestock barracks. The air inside was very hard to breathe. It was like State-Fair-Air concentrate in there. I admired the cows as best I could while holding my breath, and then escaped back out to the garden area.

I decided to follow Turkish tradition by joining the females, rather than sitting with the males, even though my only English speakers were at the male table. I sat on the porch swing with Grandma and we had a conversation about her grandkids, her hometown, and the prospect of having tea later. I also got in on a short conversation about the barbeque. It was a new technique: a slab of limestone laid across a fire pit. All the meat, potatoes and peppers were arranged on the limestone, cooking beautifully. I tried to explain that yes, I do cook, and yes, I have eaten barbequed food; but never in this way. Boy, that stretched my Turkish. I sampled a potato before heading to the boys' table.

In true Turkish style, the meal was enormous. The table was covered in plates of salad, Köfte (Turkish meatballs), chicken, Sarma (rice rolled in grape leaves), bread, homemade pastries and cakes, and a cold yogurt soup. The men and I ate while the women watched us. I have to say, there was enough food for everyone who was there to have at least three helpings, but not everyone ate. I didn't see the women eat anything, in fact. Anyway, after I couldn't eat anymore, I had another glass of Coke, and then we moved into the gazebo for tea.

This gazebo was incredible. It was shaded and had a nice breeze. There were benches covered in Turkish cushons. There was a Turkish flag gently swaying above us, and we (student and his friend, me, Alan and student's father) sat together making conversation about school and music. His sister brought us fresh tea--which I've really come to love after a year of constant tea.

One of the puppies (which I had previously been advised against petting because it's not friendly) came up to the entrance of the gazebo. I couldn't resist, so I got up and introduced myself to it. Within seconds we were best buddies and it was rolling around enjoying a belly rub. I later wondered if I shouldn't have petted the puppy because I'm not totally sure how dogs are used on the farm and whether me petting it would ruin its ability to be a vicious guard dog, but in any case, I got my puppy therapy for the month.

A quick handwash from the well pump and we were off on a strawberry mission. We picked fresh berries together, and I can say they are were some of the best I've ever had.

Back at the farm, the student's mom gave me a tour of her tractor tire flower beds, and I tried some of the lemony salad greens. Delicious!

Although I could have stayed relaxing in that garden for hours, Alan and I decided that it was probably time that we left. The student's mother presented me with a gift of two scarves, from the 1980's she told me, and invited us back whenever we wanted. It was so sweet. If I had spoken better Turkish, I would have told her how much it means to a foreigner to be invited to someone's home (or at least near to it) for a meal. I would have also said how much we appreciated their generosity and the hard work that went into the meal. I did my best with limited phrases, and I hoped that the baklava that Alan and I had brought from Kayseri would somehow express what I couldn't.

As we backed out of the driveway, it felt like we were leaving our own family somehow. They were waving and wishing us well as we turned onto the dirt road behind our student. He drove the family tractor into town to help us find the highway. It was so strangely familiar, and yet, passing under the election banners and passing by Turkish men astounded by our golden hair and foreigner license plates, I felt so far from home.

This kind of experience is why I live abroad. Making connections with people. The world gets a little smaller and more friendly when you spend time with people who have a different background from yours. I'm so grateful to our student for sharing his life with us, and while I wish I had some pictures, I'm happy that I got to see everything with my own eyes and not from the screen of my iPad. Besides, a blog-entry is the highest form of flattery in my travels.