Saturday, August 4, 2012


This year Danielle and I had the chance to go to Kırkpınar, the Turkish oil wrestling festival that takes place every year in Edirne. This was the 651st annual  event. You can find more details about the event on its wikipedia page, but I think that our experience is better shared through pictures.

Before going onto the field, the an oil man (Yağcı) would come with cans of oil and the wrestlers would help each other coat themselves in oil, from head to toe.

The wrestlers went out in groups. Starting in this line, they'd walk out into the field, slapping their knees as they walked, before beginning a match with one of the others in their group.

Each wrestler would walk out and present himself to each side of the stadium, raising his arms to slap his knees while he walked.

To win a match, you have to flip your opponent.

After wrestling, they would find whatever shade they could to cool down.

Wrestlers also poured cans of cold water over themselves after a match to cool down. The temperatures during these games were brutal.

The musicians are a central part of the oil wrestling tradition, and one of the main points of interest for Danielle.

For the championship match, the crowd jumped the fence from the seating area to watch from the fence.

The championship match lasted for more than 45 minutes, and people began to get bored. Throughout most of the matches, the wrestlers would simply hold on to each other, legs as far away as their opponent as possible, and hit or swipe at the other to try to take their balance. Wrestlers would do what they could to get a grip on their opponent, reaching down the other guys pants or trying to throw them off balance, but this required little movement. Most of the activity in the match came in the final three to four seconds. While the matches from the first day went quickly (three to 10 minutes, usually), the championship was long, as the opponents were really equally matched. As a result, it could get a little boring staring at these guys as they tried to find an advantage.

Once one of them gets an advantage, the action happens fast and the match is over in seconds. This is the final throw of the championship match.

Press taking pictures of the champion.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Learning Turkish

Like having someone explain an integral function in calculus, the first time I heard the Turkish language spoken on an audio CD (“Learn Turkish the fast and easy way”, my ass…) I had a dull sense that this could mean something to someone, but it would probably never be important to me. Even when I started taking Turkish classes, it was hard for me not to feel a little like it was more of a novelty than something I would actually use. This proved somewhat true on my first trip to Turkey when I discovered that, as long as Danielle was always within earshot, I would never have to worry about saying much other than “Bir tane [insert snack of choice here]” (“I’d like one [snack of choice]”) or, “Afedersiniz, neredeyim?” (“Excuse me… where am I?”)

But, even giant novelty remote controls can still change the TV station, and much to the credit of my brilliant Turkish teacher, when I finally did move here I was actually able to get around the city pretty well on my own. From the grocery store to the ferry, I could ask directions and (sometimes) understand them, and even exchange basic pleasantries with the attendants in shops. The more time I spend exploring the city, the more words I recognize, and I can slowly regurgitate useful phrases that have finally stuck in my head after hearing them for the hundredth time. Sometimes, I even conjugate the verb.

It’s easy to laugh at myself as I try to learn how to speak, and when I think about the process of learning Turkish so many analogies come to mind. “Learning Turkish is like learning to play music: the more you practice, the more you the sounds are there before you even start to play.” “Learning Turkish is like riding a bike: as long as you can stop and start, you’ve got plenty of time in between to figure out where you’re going.” “Learning Turkish is like going through puberty: while you know that it’s all a part of growing, you wish no one was there to see it happen.”

But, I think that the best analogy I can think of is that learning Turkish is like being introduced to someone who shares all my same interests, but who is much (much) smarter than I am. Early in the friendship I stand there dumbly, desperately hoping that the other person at least thinks I’m keeping up with what they’re saying and occasionally I insert a word or two that is off-topic enough that they think I’m contributing something just a little over their head. The longer I keep up the façade, the more I learn and actually begin to keep up. While I still typically assume I don’t know what the other person is talking about, occasionally I’ll be in the middle of a conversation and about ten seconds after giving my semi-inane stock response, I’ll realize that I actually understood what they said, and I give the right answer: "Yes, I do have 0.50 TL." Then, just as I’m feeling so proud of myself for finally keeping up, they're realizing that I was faking it all along and switch easily to speaking English. But, at least now I have a little more knowledge, so the next time I meet someone, I can feel really smart as I pretend I knew this all along.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

“In Turkey, you’ve got to be ‘flexi’.”

When I first arrived here in May, Danielle and I took a couple of days to ourselves, putting off the process of setting a new routine and settling into it. We got a hotel in Sultanahmet and relaxed. We saw an art exhibit with friends, went out for dinners, explored new neighborhoods and revisited some of the same sights we’d seen when I was visiting in the winter. After the first few days of hiding away, we took the ferry across the Bosphorous to our new home in Kadıköy, where we would be living with our friends, Jim and Mehraneh. On the way, Danielle began giving me advice and filling me in on things I would need to know to get started in the city: how to deal with public transportation, how to put money on my Akbil, what cell phone I should get, etc. But, she told me that the most important thing was that I had to learn to be “flexi”. 

This term (coined by our friend, Mark) has proven to work as well in my mind for describing Turkey as it has for helping me negotiate life in this country. Turkey is flexi. In its culture, its local economy, its relationship to time, and its environment, Istanbul (and Turkey, generally) has been a negotiable space, in all senses of the word.

The idea that Turkey is “flexi” became clear to me last week in Izmir while talking to our friend, Cenk. We had been staying with him for several days, and on our way to the bakery one morning to pick up simit and other pastries for breakfast, I asked him if he thought Turkey was more a European country or a Middle Eastern country. While I have most often heard it described as Middle Eastern, Turkey’s bid for membership in the European Union and a strong sense of European metropolitanism in new developments and economic life have left me curious, and I wanted to get an “insider” perspective. Cenk replied in no uncertain terms that Turkey is Middle Eastern. He said that what makes Turkey Middle Eastern is that it’s ruled by emotions and tradition, rather than by laws and regulations. To illustrate the idea as we drove, he pointed out to me that everyone routinely ignored stop signs, traffic lights, and other rules of the road. They went where they wanted to go whenever they saw an opening. He told me that, in Turkey, the only time these laws mattered was when something went wrong, in which case the laws allowed officials to identify who was responsible. Otherwise, its flexi.

In a different way, the same negotiations reveal themselves tacitly every day. When I was visiting Ephesus (a major tourist site where everything is overpriced) I went up to a stall outside the ancient city and, in Turkish, ordered a large bottle of water (which typically costs one or two lira). In English, the man said it was three lira and asked if I wanted cold or normal. I responded in Turkish that I wanted it cold, and he asked (now in Turkish) where I was from. I handed him my money and told him I was from America, but living in Istanbul (“Amerikalı'yım, ama İstanbul'da oturuyorum”). After speaking briefly about the US and Istanbul in Turkish, I went to leave, and he reached back into his cashbox and handed me back one lira, saying that he’d misspoken, and the price was actually two.

More explicitly, while we were traveling up the Aegean coast last week, we stopped in Cunda where Danielle had spent two months in 2009 so that she could show me the island and we could spend some time swimming in the ocean. We arrived at a pension that we’d seen in our (outdated) guidebook and asked for the price, which the man quoted at three times the price listed in our book. Danielle protested, and then man told us the book was old, and the prices had gone up because of upgrades to the hotel (AC, internet, TV, etc.). Danielle protested again, saying that we were only students and couldn’t afford so much, and he cut the price nearly in half. We walked away, saying that we had to think about it, and he offered to throw in breakfast for free.

The same flexibility is evident in basic makeup of the city. Walking down Söğütlü Çeşme Caddesi (the main road near our apartment) you pass the local mosque with bustling street markets and vendors of every kind, selling sneakers, spices and fish, all from open-air stalls. Across the street from the mosque there are billboards for Dodge Cars and the latest Blackberry, and right behind it is one of three Starbucks that are within easy walking distance from home. And, sadly, just like in the States, they won’t negotiate prices in Starbucks.

While busses and ferries are mercilessly punctual, you’re usually safe if you miss one because whatever event you’re trying to get to will probably start anywhere from 10 to 30 minutes late (and, from what I hear, sometimes it’s more). Catch a cab one day and you’ll be taken for a ride around the city to run up the meter, catch one the next day and the driver will refuse to let you pay in-full because he got you someplace five minutes later than he said he would. Try to cross three lanes of traffic and two lanes will stop for you while a car in the third almost runs you down and a motorcycle forces you to stay in the road as it races up the sidewalks. Consistency and patterns are found in the places you go and the people you meet, but not in the city itself. Turkey is flexi, and even just to make it across the street on any given day, you need to be, too.

Since I got here a lot of people have asked me what I think of Turkey. For my first month here, it was hard to say, but traveling has helped me gain some clarity. Leaving Istanbul for Amsterdam, it was all but surprising when cars stopped at corners to let you cross the street, and everyone we ran into and asked for directions politely (often happily) responded in perfect English, making it all too clear what Turkey is not. Going from Istanbul to Izmir (two substantially different cities, politically and culturally) and seeing what stayed the same helped me further clarify my answer to the question. Turkey is flexi, and it seems to work.