Friday, December 30, 2011

Buying Gas in Italy

I'm tired tonight...Traveling usually energizes me but I think the stress of buying gas in Italy just about wiped me out. Our Fiat, dubbed "The Clown Car" by Alex held about 6 gallons of gas, so even though it got good gas mileage, we still needed to fill it up frequently. The first stop was in Sienna, Italy on December 26th. The date matters because nothing was open except self serve gas stations and coffee shops. We pulled up to the pump at a Shell station with a mini-mart/coffee shop. Then, we found the machine that took cash and credit cards and tried to pay. First I tried the credit card but the machine kept spitting it back. Then, another gas patron said "Euros only" so I pulled out a 50 Euro note and fed it to the machine. Alex filled the tank and the machine spitted out a receipt with a 12 euro credit. I walked into the shop where the cashier indicated that they only sold coffee and I would have to come back the next day for more gas or my refund. Even though I don't speak Italian, I'm sure there was nothing on that machine that said, "under estimate the amount of gas you will need and pay for the minimum because we don't give change."

The next time we bought gas was at a service area on the freeway. I liked this place because they pumped the gas for us and accepted a credit card. The problem was that I never specified "regular" or whatever it's called, so The Clown Card had steak for dinner that day. (easily $10/gal)

The last time I bought gas was the night before returning the rental car. This was another self serve place so I was smart this time. I went to the coffee shop, got 20 euro notes, and tried to insert a 20 euro into the machine. I tried and tried but could not get the machine to suck up the bill. Finally, another patron came over and showed me that the slot was over-sized (probably for money they don't even print any more) and showed me how to line it up with the right edge. Trust me...there were no words or pictures on the machine to explain this. Unfortunately the 20 euro note did not fill the tank and I had to repeat the whole process...get smaller bills (10 Euro notes this time..I certainly don't want to leave another credit in Italy) , have a stranger teach me again to insert the bills (I'm a slow learner..), unlock the gas cap, etc...
Just writing about this is making me even tireder...

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Living on a movie set

Today I felt like I was living on a movie set. I was James Bond driving on the road to Sorrento even though my car was only a tiny rental Fiat. I was Lucy Honeychurch with the view from our attic hotel room in a " A Room With a View". I bumped elbows with several Matt Damons in "The Talented Mr. Ripley". And the narrow, winding path that takes us into town reminds me of the postman delivering letters in "Il Postino." This place is beautiful!

Monday, December 26, 2011

Waking up to bells

This old monastery with modern facilities is about the coolest place I've ever stayed. The walk up to our attic room through twisting hallways and irregular steps reminds me this place was built a long time before building codes. Waking up to the sound of chimes and gazing out onto tiles roofs with an occasional bell tower peeking through is peaceful and beautiful. I wish we had more time to spend here.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Today we visited the Roman Coliseum and Forum. I can appreciate the attraction of watching gladiators fighting until death against either man or beast, vestal virgins keeping the fires burning, and large public spectacles because they seem similar to today's football matches. I'm totally sold on Rick Steves' free podcasts to entertain me along the touristic journey, and I especially enjoyed tossing Alex and Ellen some tidbits of information like the origin of the word "vomit" as we roamed (a copy of Rick's pun intended) along the levels of the stadium. The Roman Forum was also interesting and I imagined that I was walking on the same stones as Caesar and could hear him saying "You too, Brute?" moments before his death. Now it's Italian Siesta time to get enough energy to eat another big Italian meal and stay awake through Christmas Eve Mass.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Cool Gift

Today the teachers at my school surprised me with their excitement and support for my upcoming Christmas holiday. (Keep in mind that they will have to cover my classes while I'm gone so their work load actually increases...)Their thoughtfulness was genuine and moving. One teacher wrote the following words, "You are my Mary Poppins." What a gift from a wonderful colleague!

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Christmas Pencils

Yesterday I donned a Santa hat with a red blinking light, sang "Jolly Old St. Nicholas", and gave my second graders a "present" (new vocabulary word) of a lollipop and a new pencil. Their eyes lit up as I called each of their names and they waited patiently for everyone's name to be called. Patience is not something I see very often. When the bell rang, the boys and girls jumped out of their chairs saying "thank you" and knocking me over with hugs and kisses. Even though these kids can make me crazy sometimes, they are really cute and really loving.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

celebrate local foods week

Last week many classes had parties with lots of food. Not only did I see the quantity of food, I had the pleasure of a last-period-on-Friday-2nd-grade class whose behavior gave testament to the number of empty calories consumed during the day.It took my questioning of several different teachers to understand the reason for the parties. And, I'm not sure this is an exact translation but I think the purpose of the parties was to eat food prepared only from local ingredients. Based upon the quantity and variety of food prepared, Malatya must be the food belt of the country. Aside from the expected apricots and pistachios, there were tons of sweets and savories, an abundance of fresh produce and a large assortment of nuts and dried apricot seeds. I'm finding the sweets here are either too sweet as in honey-dripped baklava, or too bitter as in a chocolate cookie that tastes like it has cocoa powder but no sugar. I have my best luck with the savory snacks like a cookie or pastry filled with spinach. They tend to please my palate the most. Also, the apricot seeds are as good or better than almonds.

I love the food experiences but the quantity of food is daunting. And my polite refusal of any snacks or asking for a tiny taste gets either lost in the translation, is not understood from my accent, or is just incomprehensible to the Turkish portion standard. So, I follow the lead of the other teachers, allow the students to load my plate to overflowing, carry the plate to the English teacher work room, nibble a taste of everything and then place the rest in trash bin.

By the way, the green colored cake on the plate was colored with spinach. (Ah, ha moment...)Using spinach explains why I can't find food coloring at the store. I guess I'll skip the green frosted Christmas tree sugar cookies this year.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Vacuum Cleaner Bags

When I moved into my apartment, I was excited to see a new Hoover vacuum cleaner, an American brand, smiling at me in the hall closet eager to be put to use. Actually, I was not excited at all about the prospect of cleaning a foreign apartment. I was just intrigued by the brand name. It was the only thing that made sense. It was a comfort after facing the fact that my new home was only equipped with a Turkish toilet. The "Hoover" was like a security blanket. I can remember when Hoover was like Kleenex. Hoover was both a brand name and noun. You didn't just get the vacuum out of the closet. You got the Hoover.
Hoover and I had been meeting weekly for a walks around the apartment, but recently our dates have ended. I haven't "Hoovered" since Eric left about two weeks ago. You see, Eric, in his zeal to be a great husband, a modern American husband, a man who is not too proud to admit that he can run a vacuum, decided, while I was at work, to remove the almost full vacuum cleaner bag, throw it away, and venture out to purchase new bags.
Unfortunately, I'm beginning to realize the problem with having an American brand name vacuum in Eastern Turkey. Vacuum cleaner bags...or should I say, the lack of Hoover #64 bags. Eric has been to many places. I've been to at least 8. I've asked the man who furnished my apartment for help. So far, nothing. But there is a silver cleaning with a clear conscience!

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Taxi ride

I seldom take a taxi to or from the mall because 1 ) the 40 minute one-way walk is filled with lots to see along the way thus making the time pass quickly 2) I have the time because I have no responsibilities 3) I don't want to fork out the 10TL or $5.00 fare (forget the fact that I never used to think twice about filling up our cars once a week at $60.00 per fill-up..gosh, I could take a taxi 12 times for that amount of gas) and 4) I'm a health nut.

But, tonight I made an exception and took a taxi home from the mall. The reason is pretty silly but here it is. I had a lot of shopping bags and I was really self-conscious about the quantity. It's one thing to carry home a lot of grocery bags...kind of a symbol of martyrdom. But I was Christmas shopping, not X-mas shopping as the mall displays called it, and I was carrying a few more "wants" than "needs".

Anyway, I hopped in the taxi at the front of the line and said my accent-laden "merhaba." At this point in the past I would have stopped talking, pulled out my cell phone, brought up my name under "contacts" and pointed to phone to show the driver where I wanted to go. But tonight I was feeling brave. I had just found some great Christmas gifts. It was time to actually be an adult and say my address in Turkish. I took a deep breath, said my street name and the name of the mosque that I'm near. And guess what? It worked. Even better, the driver replied with some pleasantries is Turkish. In the past, I would have frozen and said in English, "I don't speak Turkish" which, by the way, doesn't work at all because the Turks in Malatya don't usually speak English. But tonight was different. I remained calm. I remained calm even when the driver turned up the radio to blare some American rap music making it even more difficult to hear. I listened intently. I asked him to repeat or say more slowly. I replied in Turkish. We carried on a conversation the entire drive home. Here's what I learned: He's got two children. The oldest son is in high school and speaks good English. Yes, he could give me a special price to drive me to the airport. Would I like to stop and have tea? (no, thank you) Could I come back tomorrow and have tea..etc. etc. Yes, I am proud of myself!

Do I speak Turkish? I still say "chok az" or "very little." But, yes, I can speak a little Turkish. Was the taxi ride worth it? Absolutely!

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Fish Market

I've been keeping my eye on a outdoor fish store that is usually packed with people and loaded with piles of fresh fish. I love fish, but because the market is not close to my house, I needed to visit on a trip home from the mall when I was not laden with bags. So, last night was the perfect night. As usual, when approaching a mob of people in Turkey, I have two questions in mind: "Where is the end of the line?" and "What do I say in Turkish."

Lines are tricky in Turkey because they don't really exist. For example, it is chaos when boarding and de-boarding planes. Passenger in seat 15 B will remove his or her seat belt before the plane stops taxiing, hop across passenger in seat 15A, and be at the front of the plane before it stops at the gate. The rest will squeeze into the aisles and push themselves to the exit. It is chaos at the Walmart-like superstore because people feed into the line from both sides and, if I stand at my American-space-bubble distance of 16 inches, I will never get to the cashier. The fish market is no different. Actually, it's more chaotic. It took me 20 minutes to figure out that some people had ordered their fish and were waiting for it to be gutted and cleaned, some people had brought their own stainless steel pans from home and were waiting for the fish to be breaded and cooked in the large, hot ovens that I was finally close enough to see, and the rest were just speaking better, faster Turkish and reaching over my shoulder like I was a lamppost holding all while holding out their liras and shouting out what they wanted to order. On several occasions I heard, "I'll take 5 kilos of sardines." And, I'm thinking to myself, what does anyone do with 5 kilos (over 10 pounds) of raw sardines?

In addition to the time I'm spending trying to figure out the line, I'm also practicing what I will say when I actually get the courage to speak. Shouting out the name of the fish in Turkish is not the problem. I can just read the sign on the display. Trying to buy just one fish and not one kilo is the tricky part. So, I've watched and waited, and been jostled, bumped and ignored. I'm ready to order. I reach in my purse to pull out some lira and lo and behold, I've only got a 100 lira note. The fish I want to buy is 15TL per kilo and I don't want a kilo. Will I stop this entire operation if he can't make change? (I'd already been given a free coffee because the coffee store couldn't make change) After 20 minutes of observation, I actually contemplated leaving, but then I noticed there were several 100 TL notes in the cash box so I'was hoping it wouldn't be a problem.
I finally hold up my note, make eye contact with the fish monger and shout out "bir lekvent balik ve bir solmon". The buzz of activity stops...The fish monger gives me a quizzical look of non-comprehension. There are stares from all sides. (Do I really want fish for dinner?) Thankfully, the nice old Turkish woman standing next to me understood what I said and repeated in her native Turkish and emphasized that I wanted only one fish. I stood proudly, gave her a big smile of thanks, and accepted my tiny bag of fish and my 90 soggy, fish smelling TL in change....

By the way, the fish was worth the wait. It was delicious. And, no, I don't know what kind it was.

School exam answer sheets

To the best of my understanding, the determination a Turkish student's future is determined almost entirely by the ability to score well on exams. Thankfully, students get lots of practice taking exams. It seems like every two or three weeks every class has a unit exam. These exams are comprised of exactly 50 (I guess the computer can't calculate percentages for numbers different that 50) multiple choice or true false questions and students answer on forms similar to our SAT answer sheets. Students who are good test/exam takers, especially at the end of 8th grade, will attend the best high schools, which, in turn, leads to the best universities and on to the most prestigious careers. The pressure is on. Many students also take additional classes on Saturday and Sunday which means additional homework and additional tests, and more money, of course. Students take a lot of exams. (By they way, I always want to call them "tests" but they don't know that word so I'm trying to use the word "exam."

Ok, so let's get back to answer sheets...Considering the middle school has 300+ students taking 8 classes per day, and for ease of calculation, each student takes one exam per class per month, that's 2400 answer sheets generated each month. (Oh, and I think the students have to buy their own blank answer sheets.) Here's where the school is pretty smart. We make photocopies on the back (blank) side of the answer sheets. Not only is the paper free to the school, even better, the bubbles on the answer side make great mindless activities for active students who want to bubble and/or make designs and/or read the name of the test taker and say, "Oh, that's my brother's friend" rather than pay attention to the teacher or complete a worksheet. So I say, "Why buy copy paper when you can create handouts and fidigity finger activities for free on the back of exam answer sheets?"

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Ways to get in the Christmas Spirit

1. Have your picture taken in front of mall Christmas decorations.
2. Celebrate St. Nicholas'Day (Dec. 6) and give candy to students who inquire about the sign on your uniform that reads, "Ask me...'What day is today?'"
3. Repeat #2 on Dec. 7 only change your sign to read, "Ask me...'What day was yesterday?'" (kills two birds with one stone...the need to get some Christmas Spirit and the need to reinforce vocabulary: "yesterday", "today", and "tomorrow".)
3. Teach preschoolers to "Run, run, as fast as you can't catch me. I'm the Gingerbread Man." Then have them chase you around the room. Then make Gingerbread men stick puppets and have them chase each other around the room.
4. Bargain for red and green sparkly fabric in Istanbul.
5. Run on the treadmill while exercising to Michael Buble' singing "Ave Maria". This was powerful physically and emotionally...
6. Buy molasses (At least, I think I bought molasses. Is molasses made from grapes because that's what I think I bought?)
7. Buy red and green pencils and green construction paper for student Christmas presents.
8. Read Facebook posts about Christmas and enjoy the photos but be happy to not feel the shopping stress.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Two Weekends in Istanbul

A visit from Eric and the meeting of friends in Istanbul for the past two weekends has caused a shortage of recent posts but provided a increased dose of happiness that all traveling provides me. First, I had the great fortune to meet a high school friend in Istanbul for shopping at the Grand Bazaar and the Spice Market. Even Martha Stuart agrees that shopping any time at these places is fun. Add the expertise of my friend the shopper who has come to Istanbul two times a year for like the last 1000 years and you've got the key to special prices, hidden stashes, and quality shop owners. It was a blast. Then, add the introductions to another "new" friend who I hope to meet in the future either here or in Bend, a husband who graciously leaves us gals to shop, and some delicious food on the floor of a carpet shop and you have a perfect weekend.

Following the weekend of fun, Eric, then, flew home to Malatya with me and made my work week perfectly enjoyable. He introduced me to P90X, a killer exercise program that we slogged through every morning before work...five days of sore muscles... After the workout, he cooked me breakfast and walked me to my bus stop. I came home each night to good smells of a hot dinner, a clean house, and clean laundry. However, I wish I could have captured the look of dismay on one of our male Turkish friends when we described Eric's domesticity. His wife thought it was pretty neat, though..

A text from Eric on Wednesday asking if I would like to return to Istanbul the following weekend to meet a friend of his from a prior job was the cure for getting over the mid-week slump. Of course I would!.... We caught the Saturday 9:30 a.m. flight to Istanbul and were walking on the Bosporus by early afternoon. It was fun to see the city like a native rather than a tourist, sipping coffee with the locals, walking along the water of the Bebek, taking pictures of the bridges at night, and driving up and down the hills of Istanbul. We dined on fresh seafood and drank raki at a wonderful restaurant, savored brunch and enjoyed the gardens in the 1867 Mayor/Viceroy of Egypt's Mansion house and enjoyed the company of a lovely Turkish couple and their 6 month old daughter.

So, it's back to work but energized andthankful for my husband, my friends both old and new and the new experiences over these past few weeks.