08 November 2007


So here we are in England, and we have a new website to advertise our new jobs.

It's called English Torq.

That's because we are living in TORQuay, in Devon, and you TALK English, and we are ENGLISH teachers.

Go on over and have a look.

14 September 2007

Not here any more

Hey, we're not here any more, we're there.

I mean, we are not there (in Turkey) any more we are here (in the UK).

Look at my new blog here.

31 July 2007

The longest seven hours

The 31st of July. Time for Peter's interview at the British Consulate in Taksim.

Travel to Taksim is best by dolmus (shared taxi), and usually this involves a few minutes of queuing as vehicles arrive, fill, and leave, until there is a space. We thought maybe it would be different early in the day, so we went down on Monday morning to have a look. This was different, at 7am there were ten or so dolmuses queuing, waiting for passengers. And there was hardly any traffic. Catching a dolmus early would mean a short trip, maybe half an hour, but catching one a few minutes later after the traffic started to build would mean a long trip, over an hour.

So this morning we were up bright and early and we went there soon after seven - too soon. We were in Taksim in half an hour ... and the interview wouldn't be till nine.

We wandered around the (fairly) quiet streets, walking slowly, enjoying the cool (though humid) air. By 8.45am we were tired of walking and we showed up at the consulate anyway.

The British Consulate is not a very obvious place - no signs at all, just a crest on the wall to give the clue. But there is heavy security (after a bombing a few years ago) and we have been there a few times now so we know where it is. We went to the guardroom window, and were quite surprised when they said I could not enter, only Peter. So I sat on the stone wall outside and waited. He was finished and back out before 9.00, even before his interview appointment time ... but the rest of our day didn't follow this pattern.

He had good news, and bad news. Yes, he was granted the visa, and would get it today, but he had to come back at 4pm to pick up his passport with the visa in it. (Good thing we didn't book our flights for today!)

What to do? An hour back to Bakirkoy, and then returning later - another hour in the dolmus - and then another hour in the dolmus home again. Or hang around Taksim for 7 hours?

We decided to hang around, after all it seemed fairly cool. We wandered slowly up to one of the three Starbucks in the main street, and sat in big comfy chairs in the third floor lounge for about two hours. That was pleasant, but slow moving - its not like we could grab an (English) newspaper to read or something.

Then we went out and wandered some more. We went for a ride down the hill on the little tram. Then we walked back up, and decided to look for a cinema showing English movies - most of the movies here are in English with Turkish sub-titles. We found a cinema, with several bad choices of movies, and chose to go in to watch one that had just started.

It was called "28 weeks later". If you ever get the chance to see it ... go to the dentist and have some teeth pulled instead, it will definitely be more worthwhile.

We counted off the minutes and hours we had managed to waste already, and decided to go give the Consulate a try - who knows, maybe they will be running early.

The man in the glassed-in air-conditioned guardroom repeated the four o'clock starting time. We noted there were already a few people sitting in a patch of shade on the ground under a tree near the Consulate, so we wandered off looking for a cool shady place to perch and wait for two more hours. The day had heated up considerably, but the Consulate is on a steep hill and there are places you can catch a cool breeze off the Golden Horn.

At 3.30 we were back, and waiting in the shade across the road from the Consulate. We watched as various people came and asked at the window and then joined the growing group crowded into the shade under the tiny tree. A few noticed us, and came across to join us.

By four o'clock there were more than 20 anxious people. The traffic had reached a crescendo, and the sun had developed quite a sting. Everyone started queing at the window, which made the guards nervous, so they erected a metal barrier over against the wall that was receiving full sun, and got everyone to queue behind that. Instructions were given in Turkish, which was a bit discouraging for English people wanting to get into the British Consulate.

One older balding man in the queue (not Peter!) was holding his hands on his head trying to protect himself from the sun. He became distressed, so the nice man in the guard room gave him a glass of water to pour over his head - well, maybe it was for him to drink, but his head was so hot it was all he could think of to do. I nipped into a little supermarket I noticed just down the road and grabbed some cold cans of iced tea for my man - who was glad to be wearing his codger hat!

At 4.30 it finally all happened. They took people through the gates five at a time, and a few minutes later Peter had his shiny new "Settlement Husband" visa.

We are going to England!!

29 July 2007

Hot Summer Evenings

They said Istanbul has 'miserable' winters. Well, it hardly rained, it didn't snow, we didn't see any fog, there was barely any wind, and it didn't really get cold.

But summer in Istanbul? Now that is miserable!

At the moment the middle east is in the grips of a heatwave - temperatures pushing the high forties day after day - and we are just on the edge of that. It's hot, and the place isn't geared for heat. Many places do not have air conditioning. And there is a water shortage and electricity shortage, so they turn off water or power to whole suburbs for up to a day at a time.

End of Time

Our contract ended precipitously somewhat sooner than we had originally intended, but we can't go anywhere until we get Peter's passport back from the British Consulate after our visa interview there on July 31st. We still had test writing to finish for Dilko, so that kept us inside and at the computer (by turns) for a while. We finished that, and then we packed our stuff, and weighed it, and re-packed ... and still there are days left.

Going for Walks

Walking is good - healthy, cheap.

Walking in Istanbul can be a wee bit hazardous. The sidewalks are narrow, and even the walking streets are unbelievably crowded. It's like always pushing through a fair-ground crowd. You can't just walk in a straight line, you are always dodging and weaving, watching out for bikes, motorbikes, and sometimes even cars or trucks that have chosen the pedestrian way. People do not specifically walk on the right, or the left, they come in from the side and they meander, and many of them seem fairly unaware of the presence of others - wearing a scarf or a burka would be a bit like wearing blinkers.

And you don't see many prams or pushers, these old Istanbul streets are incredibly rough with a variety of cobbles and brick paving, pot-holes, bumps and dips, drains, broken off metal pipes sticking inches out of the ground, rubbish in piles and scattered - there's definitely no room for power walking.

The Promenade

That's what the path along the sea-front was called in England, I remember. Great place for a walk. We went there quite a few times during the "winter" and were puzzled by the emptiness and desolation, the only other people were a few exercise enthusiasts.

But now it's the summer holidays. The kids are at home and everyone is hot and bored.

Its obviously the place to be. Someone even provides little tiny tables and stools under the trees.

Great place to snuggle with your girlfriend, or do a spot of fishing. People catch tiny hamsi - like sardines - we have seen one guy catch seven at one time.

There's even enough space for a kid to kick a football.

Then if you think you are really clever at kicking footballs, there is some kind of little competition here - I'm sorry, we haven't really worked out what the idea is.

Actually there are a few ways you can throw a few coins and have a go at something.

You can shoot a pellet to pop a balloon, or break a glass bottle into the sea. There is also a man with two or three cute white bunnies sitting on top of a wooden box, very tame. People come and play with them and stroke them, and then they buy a ticket to try and win one. What a racket!

And what a great opportunity for all the little people to set up stalls and make a bit of extra money.

You can feast on fairy floss,

or sweet corn - steamed and/or barbecued.

Then there are lots of varieties of seeds and nuts, and the ubiquitous simits (bread with a hole that is very popular here).

Some chaps are cooking fish or kofte (varieties of meatballs) on a portable barbecue, and selling it in bread with tomatoes and peppers.

You can buy various evil-looking things in jars,

or even just a cooled bottle of water.

These photos were taken about 6.30 pm while it was still bright and sunny. But we are often down there at 9pm - when it is just starting to get dark. By ten o'clock we have pushed our way back up the crowded streets to our soggy bed and humming fan, but we have no idea how long everyone else stays - maybe all night. Some of them are just lighting little fires and settling babies into prams at that time.

In less than a week we will be in England. Cool, wet, green England.

23 July 2007

Turkish Girls

This Sunday was the big General Election in Turkey. For weeks before we had put up with political rallies, vans driving around with blaring election speeches and rousing patriotic songs. There were fireworks at night, and huge "vote for me" advertising posters replaced the football team banners.

Everyone was wondering if the ruling AK party would get back in, because there had been some concern about this party being strongly pro-Islamist. The big deal in Turkey, for which we all love the man Atatürk, is that the government must remain secular, while the country is generally very religious. In practical terms, this means, for example, that women cannot wear religious headgear in government jobs.

Well, the AK party did get in. But they have promised to maintain the status quo, secular government. Otherwise the military have promised yet another military coup - they will just step in and take over like they did before.

So. What about the girls?

Turkish girls are beautiful. These are some of the ladies we have been privileged to teach English to.

Besides being beautiful, they are intelligent and strongly independent. In an English school like this we get a few - not many - of the covered girls.

But we see a lot of them around the streets, like this friendly group of high school students.

Of course there are also a few completely covered women in the black burkas, some showing only their eyes, some revealing their nose and even mouth. (I've never seen any completely covered with a veil as well like in some countries.)

What we've noticed about these young covered girls is that they are always slim and pretty, and they take great pride in choosing the colours and designs of their head scarves and full covering clothes.

As far as I can tell, the rules are that the hair must be fully covered as well as the neck, and the sleeves, and they must wear a coat or dress to cover the shape of their legs.

That doesn't mean they can' go all out to choose clothes that are fashionable and colour coordinated.

The thing that really bothers me is that this is all well and good in cold weather, but this was a particularly hot day.

The un-covered girl is comfortably dressed for the day, her covered friend is wearing a long-sleeved shirt, and t-shirt, and skirt and jeans, as well as her headscarf.

I couldn't do it. I don't even much like wearing a scarf in winter.

Most of these girls (covered and not) end up in arranged marriages - and are quite happy about it from what they tell us. And then the expectation is that they will stay at home, inside, doing housework and watching TV, covering appropriately when they go outside, or even stick their heads out over the balcony to hang the washing.

Eventually they all turn into sacks of onions - with inner beauty.

17 July 2007

Frustration and the Golden Rule

We have finished working with Dilko English here is Istanbul - a little earlier than we originally intended. The how and why is a story for another day.

So here is another little story that just gives a hint of what it's been like working here.

It's July now, and most of the teachers have already left or gone on holiday for the summer. Charlotte has gone back to England for a month. Dilko didn't pay her as she left what they owed for her previous month of work because "that's not how it's done" - payment is always on the 15th of the following month and she left at the end of the month. So she asked them to give her pay to her flatmate, Stephanie, on the 15th. That was ok, they said, they could do that.

However Stephanie was flying back to the States for a holiday in the early hours of the 16th ... so Charlotte gave us her bank details, and Stephanie would hand us the money and we would put it in the bank so she could access it in England.

Simple. What's so hard about that?

Well, first of all, the 15th this month happened on a Sunday. Never been a problem before - we work on Sundays, harder than any other day. We've been paid on a Sunday before. They knew well in advance that pay day was going to fall on a Sunday.

We turned up on Sunday for our pay, and were told "Yok", meaning 'there isn't any', and that we could not be paid until Monday. We graciously left (with a bit of a sigh...). Remarkably they managed to rustle up Stephanie's money, so she got paid before her early Monday morning flight. However Stephanie had no time to go to the bank - it's ok, we could bank hers at the same time as Charlotte's on Monday.

On Monday we turned up, smiling brightly, and accepted our pay for the work we had done in June ... however they told us that they couldn't pay us Charlotte's money because she had asked to have it paid to Stephanie (who was now on her way to the US and of course they had been unable to pay Charlotte's money to Stephanie before Stephanie left because it was Sunday ...)

Emails zoomed across the 'net as Charlotte sent new instructions, and we turned up again Tuesday morning, ready to get our hands on Charlotte's money. Oh, sorry! The lady who gives out the pay is not here, come back at 2pm.

Returning at 2pm. Oh, sorry! She is still at lunch. Come back later.

Returning at 3.40pm. Oh sorry! There is no money today. The owner of Dilko hasn't been to the bank yet. Try again tomorrow.

Somehow we thought that as we are now in Europe and no longer in China, we wouldn't have these problems. The second biggest language company in Istanbul with branches all over the city should be able to come up with teachers' wages on the promised date and not need to make up stupid stories. I would have thought.

Remember the Gold Rule? (The one in The Wizard of Id of course.)

23 June 2007

The Stiff Upper Lip

I've been practising keeping the stiff upper lip lately because ...

I'm British now, apparently.

Yesterday I went into the British Consulate here in Istanbul and picked up my brand spanking new British passport.

Actually, I always was British. I was born of British parents (who later became Australian) and I was born in a British colony. When I was 21 and married to an Australian, I chose to become Australian ... but underneath I was still a "Pommie" of course.

Now I'm one of those people with Dual Nationality.

The tricky part is going to be turning Peter into a Brit, because he really is an Aussie.

So ... it was our day off and we had just picked up my passport from the hallowed (and very secure) grounds of the British Consulate in Istanbul. The task of assessing visa applications has been outsourced to a Turkish travel agent over at Üsküdar on the Asian side of Istanbul.

Well, how hard can that be?

The Consulate is in Taksim, the steep hilly centre of Istanbul - part-way down the hill. The last time we went there we just wandered on down the hill, discovered the Galata Tower on the way, and eventually found ourselves at the Galata Bridge across the Golden Horn. Intending to repeat the experience, we set off through the narrow, winding, traffic-snarled streets ... we figured that as long as we just kept going down we would eventually end up on the bridge again.

We were quite hot and tired by the time we stepped out across the bridge ... and stared out over the water of the Golden Horn at the Galata Bridge, the one where we wanted to be. We had got ourselves totally lost and ended up on the wrong bridge. Down there, near the Galata Bridge, we could see ferries lined up - one of them would be going across to Üsküdar, so we just had a bit more hiking to do.

Really hot and tired, but now very relieved to be no longer lost, we stepped onto a cool, airy ferry. A waiter came and offered us a drink - the freshly-squeezed orange juice barely touched the sides and we were soon relaxing our way across the Bosphorus, enjoying some of the most beautiful sights of Istanbul.

Stepping off the ferry in Asia, we showed the waiter the address we had on a piece of paper. He pointed off to the right, and assured us a taxi would get us there for 5 lira. We climbed into a waiting taxi, and showed our paper to the driver ... who promptly took off to the left. The ride in the taxi was considerably longer than one would expect for 5 lira. We went to all sorts of interesting places, along a nauseating high-speed tight switch-back road, up and down some hills ... Well, we were quite relieved when he "only" charged us 11 lira for our little tour, and dropped us in a very out-of-the-way place that looked like a housing development.

After the customary security check, we joined a queue where they looked at our IDs and photographed us then pointed to the reception desk. The nice lady gave me a large, heavy plastic tile (at least six inches square) with the number 77. We sat among the waiting crowd for a moment, spoke briefly to a fellow-Aussie lady, and decided this wasn't good enough - we must surely need to fill in a form or something.

To the consternation of all the non-English-speaking staff (considering this is an outpost of the British Consulate) we reappeared at the reception desk. Runners were sent off and people called for and a mere 10-15 minutes later they found someone who could maybe answer our questions. Finally someone handed us a 10-page form and a black pen, and pointed to a desk where we could work.

During our wait by the reception desk we did notice a schedule of fees. My passport had 'only' cost us 300 lira, but apparently this visa was going to cost us 1400 lira! We surreptitiously reefed through our wallets, and although we had left home feeling "loaded" we came up a hundred lira short.

Nevertheless we ploughed on through the form. Endless stupid repetitive questions - designed to check up on 'visa marriages' but meaningless for an old married couple like us. We were taking so long that the queue went way past our "77" tile, they were well into the 80s, and the whole centre was waiting to close soon - they close at 2pm - so they finally found a staff member to sit down with us and work through the form.

At a quarter to two it was all done! Nothing left to do except pay. Knowing we were 'a little' short we asked if they could accept debit card, or was there an ATM nearby. No, and no.

Back out on the deserted hot streets with our sheaf of papers to return with next week, we had to work out how to get back down to the ferry. Not a taxi in sight, nothing but houses in three directions, and then a fenced, empty parking lot, and over there past those houses what could be a bus station. We squeezed through a gap in the fence into the parking lot, and from there gained access to the bus station. The buses here were all empty, but down the far end we could see a crowd of people.

"Feribot?" we asked, and were directed to the already-full but still loading dilapidated articulated bus. We waved our akbils, but apparently it was a free bus ... no wonder it was so full.

Where was the bus when we went in the taxi?? It only took a few minutes to get down the hill to the ferry - and no switch-back or scenic tour - arriving from the direction the ferry-man had originally indicated.

So, now we are back into the weekend - wall-to-wall classes for the next four days for both of us.

And then ... more fun. They have promised us that next time it should only take about ten minutes for us to pay the money ... and then return again a week later to pick up Peter's passport with the visa in it.

England here we come! You'd better be ready for us.

14 June 2007

Büyük Ada - Big Island

A trip to the Turkish Islands

We live on the coast of the Sea of Marmara, so it's just a ferry trip across to the nearby Turkish Islands - a popular destination among Istanbul-ites this time of year.

Everyone told us it's beautiful out in the island - but then we have had years of island life on a beautiful tropical island ... so we are not easily impressed.

We got up early-ish, hiked down to the sea-bus (14 minutes) and went across to Kadıköy, on the Asian side, ready to catch a ferry to the islands.

At Kadıköy there is this strange structure. In winter it was just an open frame, but now they have the balloon in place and apparently you can take a ride in that blue thing at the bottom. We have seen it rising straight up, and then they pull it back down again after a few minutes. Its obviously not a regular balloon - we saw a workman open a little round door in the bottom of it, and then he climbed up the side of it and did some work on the top.

We had quite a wait in the hot sun and in a pushy crowd before the island ferry showed up - already fully over-loaded with people who had boarded at the previous stop on the other side of the Bosphorus - at Kabataş, on our side but near the city centre.

As we struggled our way aboard, clambering over luggage and bikes and teenagers sitting on all the steps and leaning against walls, we were quite surprised to spot a couple of wooden seats near the window in the inside cabin.

It was early in the day and the sea was still misty, but the sun beat through the window where we were sitting and we were soon regretting our choice of seat (not that we actually had any choices really).

We stopped at the first small island, and several hundred (mostly teenagers) of the couple of thousand people on board disembarked. Much relieved, we gave up our hard-won wooden seats and moved around and found some soft seats available in the cooler open section of the ferry.

The ferry stopped at two more islands, and each time hundreds of people disembarked. Finally we reached the big one: Büyük Ada, "Big Island".

There would have been well in excess of 2000 people on the boat, so there were still several hundred waiting to get off at the big island.

But remarkably within a very few minutes they had all disappeared along the island streets.

These islands have almost no petrol-driven vehicles, only a few service vehicles belonging to the council. Everyone else travels on foot, by bicycle (there are lots available for hire), or by horse and cart.

We paid 40 YTL for a "big" tour, right around the whole island. There were dozens of horse-drawn buggies, and bikes. But we seemed to have snagged the slowest pair of ponies. In fact our little dappled pony kept trying to canter, while the brown one trotted. And we were endlessly overtaken by other carts carrying up to six people at a time.

The big island is very hilly and steep, and we saw quite a few cyclists grabbing a bit of help. Of course it was very difficult for our two little ponies coming back down the hill, the driver had to keep applying the brake and slowing them down.

At the top of the hill was a wooded area, and we saw lots of family groups and young people picnicking among the trees. It all looked very dry, though.

At the top of the hill a breeze was blowing, and there were great views.

We saw a lot of different houses - most of them large and stately, others more homely and belonging to the permanent islanders, not just rich holiday makers. Instead of a garage, many of them had a buggy parked and a horse or two grazing out the back.

Then we left the main village, and the road became quite narrow and rough. The back of the island was bushy and quite inhospitable really.

Finally we returned to the yard where the horses and buggies were gathered waiting for their next turn.

There were several dozen carts, with their drivers taking a nap, watering their horses, or having a meal and a chat while they waited for the next boat-load of eager tourists. The tourists, though, were almost all Turkish, we only heard one family of people speaking English.

So we wandered around the village a little, stopped and had some çay at a little outside cafe. People here also support Istanbul football teams - well, FenerBahçe, of course.

There were, of course, lots of cafes and ice cream shops. Turkish ice cream is a little different, sort of chewy.

So then it was time to join the madding crowd, and get back on the ferry to Istanbul.

We got to the dock a little early, wandered slowly past the people waiting on benches, and went to stare through the gate to see if the boat was coming. Turning, we were surprised to discover that our actions had unwittingly started something of a stampede - the whole crowd had leapt up and were crowded in behind us, and we were at the front of the pack!

We had no trouble finding a spot on the soft seats right next to the open door, and we had a delightful trip home.

These seagulls flew alongside the ferry, keeping pace with us. Then we noticed that people on the (open) top deck were throwing food to them, and they were trying to catch it in flight. Actually, not many of them were successful.

It was a lovely day out, though we don't have much of a hankering to return. There are hardly any beaches - mostly at the first island, and a few patches on the others - and the beaches have pebbles. I guess we have been spoilt by our Australian beaches.

If you are thinking of going out there ... unless you want the whole cultural experience of an hour or more on a steamy, over-loaded ferry to be part of your adventure, it's probably worth getting up to Kabataş to catch one of the high-speed ferries (35-45 minutes). They are enclosed (air-conditioned), so you won't get the wind in your hair ...

Well, whatever blows your hair back.