29 January 2007

Running Away

We're a weird mob - us ESL teachers. We are none of us boring. We all have different reasons for doing what we do, we all have stories to tell.

We are of different nationalities, from different backgrounds, and have different beliefs ... and yet we work together, and some of us even live together. We get on together, one way or another.

So when young Sarah joined our particular crew at the beginning of this month, we were mostly a little startled. "She's too normal," was a comment I heard repeatedly.

The whole teaching situation here was new to Sarah, and she asked lots of questions, and everyone pitched in and answered as best they could, and everybody seemed happy enough.

On Sunday morning we wondered why Sarah wasn't teaching her class - its our busiest time and no one can help or cover for anyone else. Her flatmate said when she had left home that morning Sarah hadn't been there, but she had been there the night before.

And that was the end of Sarah. When they checked her room they found her stuff was gone. And on a computer they found where she had booked some tickets.

Yeah, we get some ESLers who "do a runner" from time to time.

26 January 2007

Into the Palace

Friday - our (one) day off, and this Friday is of course Australia Day.

We decided to try again to go and see Dolmabahce ("filled garden") Palace, the place where the great Ataturk breathed his last.
Charlotte thought maybe the place was "filled" with flowers ... but actually it's name comes from being built on reclaimed land, right by the Bosphorous.

The gardens were beautiful, with some flowers, and a few statues of lions playing with their babies and fighting off crocodiles.

At the gate we joined a crowd standing around photograhing the guard. Well, you must admit it is rather tempting to count the number of times he blinks.

While he appears to be standing "at ease", he is in fact battle ready. When you go around the back of him you find he is far from relaxed.

The Tour
I hate guided tours. I want to stop and look at things that interest me, and hurry past the rest ... and even chat to those I am with about what amuses me.

At the Dolmabahce palace :

  • You must join a tour group - they have English and Turkish at least.
  • You have to pay for the right to use a camera - you pay 6 lira for a ticket (10 lira for video) which you tie to your camera with a little red ribbon. And then you are not allowed to use a flash - which is a problem in a lot of the rooms which are not well lit.
  • You have to wear these cute little plastic slippers over your shoes. Ah, well, I love watching CSI!

The tour group was big, and we seemed to always be at the back of the group. We were told we had to walk on the red carpets as the floors were handmade wooden parquetry and not glued in.

The rooms were full of exquisite furniture and magnificent chandeliers. There was a huge number of salons - sitting rooms - and variety of styles.

We spent an hour looking at these rooms, trailing around after the tour group. The guide was reasonably interesting to listen to, what we heard of her, but it was hard to imagine what life would have been like for those living here in those times.

We finished looking around the main palace, then we went into a little cafe for a cuppa before going on the tour through the harem quarters. This time there were beds and rooms with children's furniture, and the bed where the founder of Turkey died.

This was part of the ceiling of the grand meeting hall.

Stephanie was already tired after the main palace, and set off home by herself. Charlotte, Peter and I battled on, but by the time we finished and walked to the bus stop we were totally weary.

A lovely day out. I guess our family in Oz are watching fireworks and celebrating Australia Day.

24 January 2007

A slight miscalculation

I heard on the news that the funeral for Dink - the journalist who was shot the other day - would be on Tuesday, and I made a mental note to stay at home on Tuesday.

However said piece of information must be very small, because it slid right through the sieve of my mind. So when Charlotte appeared at my door on Monday evening asking me to come with her (and Jordanian Ali and New Girl Sarah) to see Dolmabahce Palace, I agreed. Peter couldn't come - he was teaching a class.

So in the morning I was up and dressed and ready, and Charlotte was here in the flat waiting for Ali and Sarah. At the moment when he should have been ringing the doorbell, Ali rang, and said he couldn't come because he had no money.

That wasn't useful. Not coming because of Dink's funeral would have been a better statement. Charlotte and I decided to go anyway. That was a slight miscalculation ...

The queue at the Taksim Dolmus stop (shared taxi) was longer than usual - especially seeing as it wasn't peak hour. But finally we got a ride. Charlotte takes this route every Saturday to teach some classes at Besiktas, one of the other centres for our company. But a few minutes later, as we were sitting in one of those impossible Istanbul traffic jams she commented, "I have absolutely no idea where we are! I've never been here before ..."

Nothing to do but sit tight - the Dolmus was obliged to eventually arrive at Taksim Square. So our shared taxi fare of 1.6 New Turkish Lira bought us an extensive tour of the backstreets of Taksim. I love the tiny streets of Istanbul, but we went to places I would have thought a motor vehicle shouldn't - couldn't - go. Up steep hills, and around tight corners, between ancient dwellings - in Australia the whole place would have been a museum - and in those tight streets our dolmus was squeezing past other vehicles, trucks, buses ...

All the big wide streets were closed. All of the traffic was in the lanes and steep places. And in among the patient drivers were motorbikes, police everywhere.

At thıs point Peter phoned me to ask where I was because one of the teacher's at our school - who lives in Taksim - had been unable to get to work.

The square

The square, usually bustling with people and cars, was eerily empty. But all around the edges there were hundreds of police. Charlotte and I felt quite out of places and a little nervous - I remembered our government website's warning about staying away from places like this. We felt very brave dragging out our cameras to sneak a couple of shots. In this pic you can just see one of the walls of police with their riot shields. There were lots of guns in sight, and a couple of tanks and armoured personnel carriers. We decided to wander nonchalently past rather than point our cameras at those.

We decided to soldier on ... sorry, bad metaphore. We headed out of the square and climbed aboard another dolmuş to go to the palace. Withşn minutes we were once again in gridlocked traffic. We saw the palace - from the dolmuş - with lines of police guardıng the entrance - and we stayed on the dolmuş.

So we had a wander around Beşıktaş, and then we went on to Ortaköy - a beautıful spot by the Bosphorus.

We sat down in this lovely waterside restaurant, and had kumpır - a dish that this area is famous for.

Its a very large baked potato, with all sorts of additional fillings. First they stir some cheese into the cooked potato flesh, and then you choose what else you want - bit like choosing your fillings at Subway.

Maybe on Friday we'll have another go at visiting the palace.

20 January 2007

A hint of trouble

When we first thought of coming to Turkey, friends responded with questions about how "safe" it would be.

Well, apart from the occasional whisper of an earthquake, it seems as safe as anywhere nowadays.

Along with Sara, a new teacher from America, we accompanied Jordanian Ali yesterday to a part of town where there are a number of music shops, looking for a particular keyboard for his brother. We travelled there by dolmus (shared taxi) and then hoofed it from shop to shop. This part of town is particularly pedestrian-unfriendly with little or no sidewalk and we had to clamber over guard-rails and scurry across traffic lanes between speeding heavy vehicles.

We finally checked with the last shop and were assured that the keyboards we were looking for were sold out. Leg-weary and footsore, and not a little hungry, we were looking for a restaurant. Ali recently found a restaurant in the area where they cook the style of (Jordanian) food he had grown up with - and in fact the proprietors are quite familiar with members of his family back home. So we agreed to go there, and all climbed into a taxi to relieve our tired limbs, expecting a very short ride.

However we soon found ourselves in one of those traffic jams that happen in Istanbul's narrow streets. After a long period of time sitting in the one spot Ali commented that there must be a problem - "an explosion or something", the main streets have been closed. So we got out of the taxi and walked.

We sat in the tiny restaurant enjoying felafel, and 'fool', and humus, while Ali regaled us with tales of back home.

Coming back out of the restaurant, we heard a lot of shouting. It was reminiscent of political rallies (and political training in the schools) we had seen in China. It was a demonstration, a crowd of people were shouting something together as they marched. There were police everywhere as we headed back to the dolmus stop to catch a dolmus home again.

It wasn't until this morning that we heard about a famous reporter who had been shot, and this was what all the fuss was about.

Nothing for us to worry about.

19 January 2007

Great Food

I don't know why Turkish food isn't world famous. Why aren't there Turkish restaurants in all the capital cities of other countries? I never saw any in Perth.

Mornings are long and gruelling (I mean, hard work) with classes going from 9.30 am through to 1.30 pm. By then we are tired and very hungry.
Some days we head out of the office and turn left to the little restaurant right next door for soup (corba) and the special thin Turkish pizza called lahmacun.
Other days we turn right to the restaurant called "Yedi Bolge". The name means 'seven regions', and the restaurant serves food from the seven regions of Turkey.

Everything in this restaurant is just delicious. As we come in the door we walk past the food display, and point to what we want - various choices of 'yemek' (cooked food) and cold salads and deserts too. Then we seat ourselves at one of the little tables with their richly-coloured Turkish table-cloths and soft benches or tiny stools to sit on. Sometimes we sit downstairs, but sometimes we go up the tiny creaky wooden staircase to the mezzanine floor - but the ceiling is barely head-height for most people - or the top floor where we can stare out onto the street and the people bustling past. A few minutes later a waiter will bring our chosen food and drinks and find out if there is anything else we require.

There is always a basket of bread with every meal. We often choose a portion of something like this - a chunky meat casserole with a cheesy topping, or a "kofte" (meatball) base with vegetables and cheesy top, and a plate of rice and/or a selection of delicious salads.

And the foamy drink? Most places we go if I order "ayran" (salty yoghurt drink) it comes in a sealed plastic cup. But at Yedi Bolge there is an ayran fountain (you can see it in the first picture) and it comes out really frothy, and sometimes with an added hint of mint.

Its all delicious.

16 January 2007

The Game

In the old days you would join "The Foreign legion" - if you were running away from a relationship (or the law) or just wanted a more interesting life.

Nowadays we play the ESL game, we go and teach English overseas. And we meet so many interesting people, some of them colleagues, some students, and some employers of ESL teachers.

While the teachers have a variety of reasons for joining the game - only one of which would be the need for money - employers join the game to make money.

With our experience of three schools in two countries as well as having talked to many other ESLers, we have found that payday comes once a month, on a particular day of the month. But - just like playing "Snakes and Ladders" there are a lot of traps to avoid!

Pay Day Game

Its always hard to know when is the best time to head down to the pay office on Pay Day. Sometimes we can end up spending most of the day waiting for the cash to arrive on the premises ... its all part of "the game" of course.

Yesterday was Pay Day, but we all had to attend a staff meeting in the afternoon. On a "Snakes and Ladders" board this would have been a "ladder" - but we didn't see that yet. At the end of the meeting we were quietly discussing whether to go down to the Pay Office together, or one at a time, when we received the news that there was "not enough money" today, we would only receive 30%, and the rest in three days' time. Hmmm - that would be a "snake"!

We decided we would definitely be attending the Pay Office together, united we stand. We told our slightly startled-looking manager (through an interpreter) that we would all return to work as soon as we were paid in full - that was us climbing our "ladder".

The rhetoric that followed was largely lost in the translation - he's sorry, he has been a teacher too, he knows we come to work on time and have the right to be paid on time, if we knew him better we would give in at this point, and (the clincher, as always) he would help us if he could but its out of his hands ... He hoped we would at least accept the 30% and take the evening lessons because it would be difficult for him to contact all our students in time.

We (all) smiled sweetly and professionally, and - clinging to the top of our "ladder" - reiterated that we would return to work as soon as the money was paid.

Then we went out and had coffee together - something we had not managed to do before. We started taking bets on how soon the money would appear. Would we be having a full 2-day "holiday"? Or would they suddenly remember which drawer they had hidden it in ... We were all quite keen to get paid rather than be off work. Some of us had borrowed money from each other to get to this point, one lucky colleague had even scrabbled around under her bed and found a few coins to buy breakfast.

Oh look, there it is!

Well, it took an hour - even less time than we expected! There was our pay, all neatly divided up into pay envelopes. After our coffee together we picked up our pay, grabbed our books, and got back into class.

This is the game we are part of.

15 January 2007

Gaining Weights

We have been looking for a gym in Istanbul. Peter really enjoyed going to the gym in Wuxi, China - he was probably one of their most regular clients. But the only one we have found (a fellow teacher, a Turkish lady, goes there) is small and very expensive compared to what we are used to. It costs a lot of money and then you are only allowed to go a couple of days a week. To go more often you must spend even more money.

Peter had decided he might have to buy his own weights. But - we couldn't find a sports shop locally, only shops that sell sports shoes.

So the other day he headed out the door to buy our daily fish ...

And came home with a set of weights.

They were just lying beside the road outside the shoe shop. Peter popped inside the shop to ask the question - " ....er... ?" a noise, raised eyebrows and a gesture towards the weights. They said 100, he said 50, and the deal was closed at 80 - still much cheaper than the gym.

Of course they have taken up residence in our "spare room" which is in fact the "sewing room" not (as Peter is suggesting) the "weights room"!

13 January 2007

Don't you hate winter?

Before we went to China, Peter had never seen snow. He (and our daughter Beatrice) soon discovered that snow is pretty to look at, but after the first few minutes it can be really unpleasant and even painful.

We had hoped that winter in Istanbul wouldn't be so bad. All people had told us was that "Winter in Istanbul is just miserable weather".

So we have been waiting to find out just what "miserable" means. We've been waiting beautiful day after boringly beautiful day!

No wind, no rain (other than an occasional shower), no snow ... beautiful clear skies. A couple of nights ago it was foggy - that was different!

Middle of January, here are people sitting around at the railway station waiting for a train. Miserable weather? I suppose there are still a few weeks left for it to rain or snow or whatever.

What were we doing sitting around watching people sitting around at the railway station?

Well, at our favourite railway-side 'bufe' - little cafe/kiosk place with outside tables. For a couple of lira - less than a couple of dollars - you can get a delicious, fresh chicken doner, with all the fresh veges you could wish, and a cup of ayran (salty yoghurt drink, my favourite).

Yeah. Don't you just hate winter!

05 January 2007

True Lies

Our students in China mostly wanted to learn English so that they could get out of China, to go and study overseas and maybe even make a life for themselves overseas.

But not the Turks. They seem to love their country and have no desire to leave, they just want to learn English so that they can get better jobs or do better at their present jobs here.

One of the places that we have heard the best standard of English here in İstanbul is the Grand Bazaar. After all, that is where all of the tourists go, and that is where the tourist dollars flow.

What really intrigued us was the way the sellers in the Grand Bazaar tried to win our custom.

"Ah there you are! You are the customer I have been waiting for all day!"

"I have been waiting for you for a whole month ..."

"Welcome! Come in! I am here to sell you things you don't need..."

Well, at least they were honest about that.

04 January 2007

Table Talk

Our living room table is awash with cables and devices - and that's with the scanner being put away in the cupboard. I did have my sewing machine on there too but, well ...

So then I took the kitchen table out of the kitchen and set it up in the spare room - now my 'sewing room' - and although the table is small, and round, I found that I had more room for my sewing than when I used the main table in the living room.

However, every time we come home with shopping Peter stands and pines for our kitchen table to put the shopping onto (not that he has ever sat there to eat ...)

So we have been on the lookout for another table. Over the last few days we have been looking into second-hand furniture shops - which has been difficult because they have all been closed over Bayram (the religious holiday).

Yesterday we were walking around the quiet streets, and quite suddenly they became the crowded streets. It was 5pm and Bayram had suddenly ended and the crowds were eagerly pouring into the shopping centres.

In our little street we saw a man pushing a cart with a little folding table in it - "Oh, look! There's our table!" I told Peter. We wandered slowly towards our apartment, and noticed that the second-hand shop just down the street was open at last. Cart Man stopped there too, and tried to sell his table to the proprietor, as we stood by and watched. Shop Man wasn't interested, so we rocked up and asked if the table was for sale, and how much he wanted.

He said 15. We suggested 10. (Yeah, I know, should have said 5 at the most.) Cart Man's face lit up, it was his lucky day.

And ours. We had what we wanted, and we were only a few metres from home.

03 January 2007

The pigeon did it

We are still on holiday - today is the last day of Bayram (religious holiday), and its raining and blowing outside - finally. The weather so far this "winter" has been cool and clear, quite pleasant.

So after getting up early to listen to the Ashes cricket on the computer, Peter went back to bed. I got up and fed the damp doves on the kitchen windowsill, and then put some bread in the toaster for myself and went back into the living room to use the computer.

Suddenly there was a loud "bang" from the kitchen. Peter popped out of the bedroom all bleary-eyed, wanting to know what had happened. I looked into the kitchen - there was a large wet grey pigeon with a slightly startled look (but don't they always) on the windowsill along with the doves. I figured maybe as it landed on the wet sill its little feet had slid and it banged into the window.

Then I noticed that my toast was 'up' ... but it wasn't even toasted as such. I pushed it back down into the toaster, and of course it wouldn't stay.

So the 'bang' was the toaster ... but whose fault was it? It had to be the pigeon, there was no one else there. Except, of course, the doves, but they are only small.

Peter has always been curious about how things work.

Well, it doesn't work now.

I guess we have voided the warranty too.

01 January 2007

Mutlu Yillar - Happy Years

I have just finished washing out everything we wore to last night's party - I sometimes think we are the only people in Istanbul who do not smoke.

Despite all that, we had a delightful time at the New Year's party at Jordanian Ali's place.

The balcony acted as a bar fridge - after all it was colder than the fridge which was full of food such as delicious mixed salads as only the Turks know how to make. At the end of the party the balcony was still full of drinks because everyone was relaxed and having such a good time they hardly needed much to drink. During the party however the air in the room became so thick with smoke that the window had to be kept open for long periods to allow the fresh - but freezing - air to fill the room again.

So how do the Turks go about seeing in the New Year?

Well, these particular Turks (and one Jordanian) shared a deicious meal of chicken cooked in foil, and rice, and sumptuous salads. And then they talked and sang along to some Turkish music, occasionally indulging in a little dancing (belly-dance style, but not dressed that way). There was a balloon floating around to occasionally bat away, and there were funny hats and tinsel wigs to try on, and lots of photos to take with mobile phones.

All in all I am not sure that it was greatly different from how friends anywhere in the world might celebrate New Year together.

After the countdown there were Turkish-style kisses (both cheeks) all round and lots of hugging. And then Burcu and Ömer - the delightful young couple who were at Ali and Dilek's place at Altinova when we went down there last Bayram - gave everyone gifts.

Ali was talking about going onto another party - a friend who has a discotheque right in his apartment - but I had already turned into a pumpkin, so we headed home. The narrow streets were dimly lit, and crowded with families heading home after their parties - mums and dads and kids and young adults all chattering and laughing as they strode along.