Saturday, December 29, 2012

Happy Christmas/New Year!

It's Christmas/New Year in Izmir and I feel a few pictures and comments are in order to help me explain how my family and I celebrated "Christmas" along with the Izmirian version of the Turkish New Year.

Lobby Decoration at the Hilton
The Christmas season officially began for me on the first weekend of December when I was in Istanbul at a student conference. We were at Uskudar American High School, an international school decked out with Christmas trees in all the buildings and an organ in their performance hall. I was fascinated by the number of Christmas trees decking the halls and the Christmas books lining the shelves of the library This is a Turkish School after all.

Additional Christmas cheer was added when I taught my 9th graders the "Twelve Days of Christmas." They were super enthusiastic and great participants in learning and singing this song on stage in front of the entire high school.

The arrival of Ellen and Eric signaled more happiness. Eric always comes loaded with good ideas and it was his suggestion that we find a Christmas dinner at a major hotel. The 31st floor of the Hilton for Christmas Eve dinner fit the bill. (Keep in mind,  December 25th is a normal work day here. So there were no activities on Christmas Day.) The view was stunning and the four course, 3 hour long meal was delicious.
Decorations at Bodrum fish restaurant

I was supposed to work on Christmas Day but thanks to one of our British teachers who had the nerve to ask if all the native speakers (I'm one of those..) we were granted a "day off." Of course, our Turkish counter parts had to cover our classes so treats and many thanks were in order, but I was so grateful to NOT be working. I'm not sure my emotions could have survived working on Christmas Day.

Festive red and green cheese plate
Sightseeing to Pergammon and Bergama, the site of one of the seven original churches of the ancient world and a magnificent well-preserved Roman City were our "presents" for the 25th. We ended the tour of historical sites at one of our favorite restaurants in Bostanli,  called Paprica, where the owner remembered it was Christmas and treated to a lovely appetizer with a candle to make it festive.

On Friday afternoon, the English department hosted the High School New Year's Party. My 9th graders sang and passed out 240 candy canes that Ellen had brought from the USA. Both the singing and the candy canes were big hits.

Konak New Year's Lights
Last night's outing to Konak brought the surprise of beautiful New Year's Lights illuminating the path along the Aegean Sea and the Clock Tower Square. It was spectacular.

Ali and Ellen in front of the Virgin Mary's House
Today's trip to Ephesus followed by a visit to the Virgin Mary's House which was decorated in olive greens, poinsettias, and an elaborate nativity scene was also "Christmas" festive. In case you're wondering, the Virgin Mary's House is supposedly the place where she spent the end of her life. It may or may not be true, but the fact remains that the three of us felt a peacefulness and presence there.

Tonight  as I dropped Ellen and her friend off at the mall and could only find a parking place 2 blocks away, I was reminded of the frantic last hours of Christmas shopping. Not all, but many people in Izmir exchange gifts on New Year Day and, because Monday is a work day, that leaves this weekend for shopping. Life-sized singing toy Santas with their hips shaking and their bellies jiggling were greeting shoppers at numerous store fronts. Toy stores were filled to the brim with games, stuffed animals, and candy. Grocery shoppers were greeted with bins filled with lacy red panties, rows of Lindt chocolate and an Absolute Vodka display promising a free pink, blown glass, music box Christmas tree for purchases of extra large holiday cheer.

There are a couple of things I don't understand about Christmas in Turkey:
1) Santa - they have displays but I don't think the kids write letters, hang stockings, or understand the difference between naughty and nice. They can however buy little Santa suits and dress up like Santa....kind of like a Halloween costume.
Hotel Lobby in Bodrum

 2) Christmas trees - They have them everywhere and they call them "Christmas trees" but I don't think they associate Christmas with Christ...although they do believe Jesus was a prophet like Mohammed...just not the last or most important prophet.
3) Their love of Christmas music, secular and religious. Michael Bubble's Christmas album (Thank God they have good taste) has been playing in the hallway of our school every day for the past two weeks.

4) Wrapping Paper or Gift boxes - or the lack thereof..I cant' find any anywhere...

So as I sit here reflecting on the past week of Christmas, sure I had to work 4 out of 5 days. Yes, I miss my family terribly. No, it's not the same as Christmas in America. But, yes, I can say I survived, with most emotions in tact and with the balance on the scale tipping towards the positive.
Christmas Breakfast

Friday, December 21, 2012

Finding Christmas Spirit

Volumes have been written about  the excited-for Christmas expectations not meeting the reality-based Christmas actualities. So far this year is a poster year for anticipated vs. actual including, but not limited to, travel-preventing snowboarding accidents and travel-delaying absence of airplanes. Add to those problems the idea of working in a country that does not celebrate the Christmas I've grown up with or honor the traditional one-week "holiday" between Christmas and New Years and it takes some extra effort to stay "jolly."

I've been trying to keep my spirits up including exercise, eating well, getting plenty of sleep, and looking for  Christmas cheer in different places. Someday it's hard to find but today it showed up in a very unexpected 9th grade class. Here's the background...

About two weeks ago our department head informed us that the English department plans a New Year's party for all the high school students. This includes some songs and games, Santa Claus, a Christmas tree (yep, they call it that), and gifts... I'm not sure about food. Anyway, I volunteered to get a group of students together to sing a song (easy and appropriate considering my experience in the States..) Anyway, I  thought I could teach the 12 Days of Christmas and we could even use the song for an English lesson where students could write their own modern version....But, then I got nervous..I've been teaching young students and I wasn't sure if the older ones would want to stand on the stage, wave silly posters around, and...even more importantly...sing.. We'd had a "run-though" in class and it went OK. Most everyone either sang or pretended to sing. And, like most students, they seemed pretty willing (eager is more like it) to take a class period, head to the performance hall and practice.

Upon arrival on the stage -  my first time there - we were greeted with not one, not two, but probably 9 live microphones. Once I saw the students fighting to be "live" and be "heard", I knew there would be no problem. Most of them are "hams" (interesting pun that popped into my head) O I knew there would be no problem.

I would also thrilled to see a real piano! I had planned on accapello but the sight of a piano was another Christmas present. Thank goodness playing the 12 Days of Christmas is like riding a bicycle. Practice is not necessary. Anyway,  I gave a loud, peppy introduction and the students launched into the song. They were amazing...their loud, joyful, silly, English-with-Turkish-accent voices filled the concert hall...and they gave so much "spirit" and "joy" to a tradition that is not even part of their "culture" that I almost forgot where I was. We had a blast and I was filled with Christmas spirit.

By the way, these students also wrote some great lyrics with their friends. One of the funniest, albeit inappropriate, was the group who wrote On the of Christmas my principal gave to me...and then they listed all the things they can't have at school including: shots of tequila  make-up, painted nails, short skirts, and no homework.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Man on the Ferry

Making myself visible to automobiles by wearing a bright yellow reflective bicycle jacket has its pros and cons. For the positive I think drivers see me better than when I'm dressed all in black. On the flip side, the strangeness of a female dressed in neon yellow and carrying a mountain bike onto the ferry empowers total strangers to strike up a conversation.
Today I met a gentleman probably age or older. He asked me a question about my bike in Turkish and when I replied in Turkish that I don't understand he was not discouraged. He smiled, shortened his sentences, spoke more slowly, and kept at it, trying to converse with a yabanci (foreigner). The conversation was so pleasant. It's common for the Turkish to ask"how much?" "Where did you buy it?" "where are you from,"etc. So, I'm honest and don't bat an eye even though we don't generally talk so freely about money. I'm frustrated with myself because my vocabulary is so lacking. But we managed.

As the ferry pulled away from the port, he pulled out his cell phone and called his daughter in Istanbul. I was eavesdropping (my listening far exceeds my speaking) and I'm pretty sure the conversation went something like this:
"Hi honey. How are you? how's it going? I've met an American. I thought you might like to talk to her."

"Hi dad, I'm fine. What am I supposed to say to her?"

"Well, you could say 'hello.' "

(he passed the phone to me)

So we said hello. And it actually turned out quite well. She lived in Virginia, Pennsylvania, and New York so her English is quite good. I told her she has a very nice, friendly dad. She agreed that he's never met a stranger (I hope my kids are reading this...Im pretty normal ) Anyway, I've got a name and phone number for a new fried in Istanbul, and I'm once again reminded of the joy in making personal, human connections wherever I am.
The neon yellow attention grabber.

Friday, December 14, 2012

A Record Week

To say that Turkish students take a lot of exams would be an understatement. They take exams to test the previous exam questions which may have been about topics that had just been introduced on the exam.  And, someone's got to write these exams which takes a lot of time. Now, I've never been a really quick exam writer. As a matter of fact, I'm so aware of the impact of bad questions on the outcome of test results, that I agonize over test questions and the relevance of what I'm actually testing. I also figure if a student is going to spend a lot of time taking tests, maybe the least I can do is find relevant and current reading and listening topics so perhaps they will glean something from the actual test itself. I can spend several hours just trying to find "good" reading samples and write "good" questions. And, that's only one part of the test. But this week, I had to throw away my idealism and desire to write an interesting test...a good test...a relevant test..a test on material we had actually taught...and just produce..So produce I did.

I am proud to say that I have written eight exams since Wednesday. (I have to keep changing the vocabulary because I used the word "test" in America,  but the students here only understand the word "exam".) Eights exams...Think about that. Five of the exams are three-hour long exams  and one is a one-hour exam. There are 18 students in each class and there are 5 classes. Therefore,  I will keep 90 students busy for 4 hours each this week.  That's 360 hour of testing. In addition, since the exams have to be proctored, I will give 15 teachers an extra prep period (or two)  where they are not responsible for plans or work. 

With the sheer quantity of tests I had to write,  I had to forgo my idealism and quit looking for current topics online. I took my supervisor's advice and just copied reading passages from old textbooks. ("Why create anything new? It's not possible," she urged.) However, I still have my standards. I drew the line at any articles that used the word "gay" as in "merry" or  "happy". And, I did a quick skim for dates and numbers that would be so "dated" as to be almost ludicrous. For example, to say that the population is going to reach 270 million by 1982 is just too close to the actual "Weekly Reader" numbers I had to memorize as a kid so it might be confusing.

All in all, it's been a productive week..I've met my deadline  thanks to two classes being off campus yesterday giving me an extra 4 hours of planning time. Plus, now I've got lesson plans for the beginning of next week... teaching some of the things that we actually put on the exam....

Time for beer and pizza...

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Crises: Real or Imagined

(Note, any references to real US security events are purely coincidental..this is fiction...)

All Model United Nations advisers including me had been briefed Sunday morning that the student leadership for the conference had planned a "crisis" that would involve an emergency Security Council meeting and would then move into the General Assembly where all the delegates (students) and me and most of the advisers although some had made a trip to Starbucks, had just started watching a short video briefing of the student created "crisis".

Imaginary "crisis" mode started like this:

"We've just learned that China has "accidentally" bombed some imaginary island in the Pacific Ocean,  Hilary Clinton is dead, and Robert Downey, Jr. has just been named the new Secretary of State. The ambassadors of Japan, China, the United States,  North Korea and the Security Council have been called to a special session to "solve this crisis."


Real crisis mode started like this:

My cell phone buzzed announcing a Viber (free call using wifi) call from our son. Trying to be respectful of the "no talking on cell phones" rule, I texted him back and asked he needed to talk because I was in a "conference." He texted in reply, "Um, Well I'll let you decide....accident...snowboarding...kind of broke my back..."

I leaped over five pairs of legs, tripped in the aisle, and raced to the auditorium's entryway. With my  pulse racing and my mind jumping to the worst possible scenario, I called him right back....yes, a crisis, yes, broken bones in his back, no, not spinal cord injury.

Back to imaginary "crisis":

The US asked China for a public apology for bombing the "wrong" island. (Is this the foreign students' view of American diplomatic relations or youthful idealism?")

Back to real crisis:
We are saying a million prayers of thanks. (Seriously...Thank God.)

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Club advisor

I'm sitting on a comfy bed in a brand spanking new Holiday Inn Express in a suburb of Istanbul, üskülar, I think. I'm an advisor for a MUN club (Model United Nations )and our team is here along with schools from all over Europe and the Middle East participating in a mock United Nations assembly
My job is very easy so far. My co-teacher is the real leader so I just tag along and make sure i get to the meeting place on time and go where she tells me.
My first duty today was to attend the opening assembly followed by the advisors' cocktail party complete with wine and appetizers in the school library. At the meet and greet we were assured that the techie man would give us the wifi password for our iPhones and laptops tomorrow morning so we'll be free the surf the net at leisure. Other than that, we're pretty free to relax. I like this job already.
I have mixed feelings about this club. The research, public speaking, and debate skills this club develops are great. But the resolution topics seem a biased against democracy and capitalism. It will be interesting to see how it plays out these next few days.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Movie Reviews

Today I asked some students to write a journal response to the quote, "Drama is life with the dull bits cut out." This seems like a pretty easy reflection and I have bright enough 11th grade students to tackle this type of creative thinking, but there are a couple of problems for non native speakers. The first is the word "drama" which I helped them define as films, television shows, and theater. I won't even begin to peel away the layers for other meanings of "drama" and the idea of a metaphor. The second problem is "dull bits" which is fairly synonymous with "boring/uninteresting parts" There were still lots of blank stares (not all...some really got it...) so I wrote a brief paragraph stating basically that I agree with the quote and used the example of James Bond 007 "Skyfall" and made up some BS response that I learned about the life of a spy, M16, some interesting deserted islands, etc. without the boredom of watching James do paperwork and all the slow parts of life in between. In other words, drama is very exciting life.

Well, my brief paragraph led to a discussion of "Skyfall". Because I liked the movie so much, and because there was nothing else playing, I saw the movie twice. I love the setting in Istanbul, the crazy bad guy, and the fact the James does not take the easy way out and retire, but rather comes back and uses his skills, experience, and talent to save the world...well M16 at least. As a matter of fact, I thought everyone liked this film. But, I was mistaken. My students did not like "Skyfall" or at least the scenes in Turkey. They were irritated that the film only showed the old parts of Turkey; the covered women, the old bazaars, the dusty streets, the donkeys and old motorcycles. They felt the movie showed only the less-developed parts of Turkey. They are tired of being asked by foreigners if they ride camels. They thought it was very unfair that all the new, shiny parts of  China were shown. They want the world to know they, too, are developed and modern. (Hence, the idea for this blog and this public service announce that parts of Turkey are developed and modern.You should come and visit...)

So, then I asked them what movie they would recommend. The answer from both the boys and the girls was "Twilight....." (whatever the third one is called) I asked "why" and they responded because it's "good." (Note to self...vocabulary lesson is necessary.) At this point the bell rang for lunch. With a smile on my face and the good fortune of finding my male co-teachers at a table, I grabbed a seat and gave a quick summary of the movie reviews from my class. Like me, they had only made note of the setting for "Skyfall" because we could secretly think "I've been there!" As a matter of fact, one teacher thought he would see the movie again just so he could see the scarves...he didn't even remember them. And, like me, my colleagues were more than amused to hear about "Twilight." Think American style guffaws that echoed across the very large dining hall. We were trying to think of one time when a boy would willing go to "Twilight" in the States, and we both agreed that it would only happen if his girl friend had a noose around his neck.

This brings me back to my original quote, "Drama is life...."

Saturday, December 1, 2012


It's the last Friday of a very long month and it's payday. I generally like paydays especially after a very long month (short in days but long in hours and work time) because it's a small reminder of one reason we work. But, today's payday was a reminder that I haven't solved my inability to access the bank account in which my school direct deposits my salary, so it's like getting paid but not really because I don't have access to my money.
So after five calls to the telephone banking center, squeezing back tears of frustration and trying to convince them of the correct spelling of my mother's maiden name where each call meant I got an new operator (an"e" in English sounds like an "i" in Turkish) I finally got a password to try internet banking. Then after numerous attempts to log-on to the internet where each log-on meant a new password plus a new temporary password  (they like passwords over is never enough) sent by text to my cell phone, I was finally able to locate, hidden at the very bottom of the web page in size 5 font the "continuance"  button (Google translate has confused the verb "continue" with the noun "continuance") which finally took me to internet banking.

From the bank web site, (keep in mind it's mostly in Turkish)  I think I was able to pay a bill to my landlord for December's rent. (I guess I'll get a late notice if I didn't.) I also think I was able to ascertain that my bank card has been sitting on a manager's desk at my school since October. Knowing that a bank card has been sitting there for over a month, even after I asked a Turkish teacher to call the manager last week to "see" if the card had arrived, really irks me. But, it's also a reminder that communication is still not 100% effective and I can never be totally sure that my requests are understood or translated properly...

There is a golden lining to my Friday meltdown. The last banking phone operator I spoke with understood that I was upset and calmly asked me to send her a screen shot of the web page problem. Then, she called me back with further information about 5 minutes later. She was a gem!