Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Life and Times at a Turkish University

Hello all!

I'm sitting in the library here at my University, just starting on the incoming flow of readings and homework I'm expecting to hit. School is finally starting! I'm still figuring out my class schedule a bit, but I've mostly chosen my courses, and getting into the swing of things. I spent last week trying out classes, often ending up quite frustrated. Two of the classes I tried are going to be taught only in Turkish, one didn't happen (the professor didn't show up)... finally on Friday I managed to attend two classes that I think I'll stick with: Turkish, and Politics of Nationalism. I tested into upper intermediate Turkish, so I tried out that class on Friday and although there was only one other student there, it was very difficult—I could hardly understand anything the professor was saying. I studied Turkish on my own, so naturally my speaking and understanding are worse than my writing and grammar. I'll keep up with it... I also wish I had more people with whom to practice my Turkish—I haven't met many Turkish students yet, so hopefully I will once I get into the swing of classes.
On Saturday I went out with my two American roommates, my Turkish flatmate, and her Turkish boyfriend. We drove to Ortaköy, a really nice neighborhood along the banks of the Bosphorus and wandered around, checking out a market and eating Turkish ravioli (mantı) with yogurt and garlic sauce. (They eat yogurt with everything here!). Afterwards we stopped at a café for some coffee and backgammon. Many turkish cafes have nargile (hookah) and board games—it's a fun environment. My roommates and I managed to win a bunch, as well!
After that, the night wasn't over. We headed to Galata to a wine bar, where we enjoyed some red wine and cheese and live music. Our flatmate and her boyfriend spoke Turkish with each other and English with us (though I tried out a bit of my Turkish on them...). They headed home after the bar, though my roommates and I went on to Taksim, one of the hubs for nightlife here. We ended up going to an erasmus (study abroad student) party at a club and dancing the night away (well, until around 2 AM...)
Sunday and Monday were days for relaxing. The weather hasn't been great here, so I've spent a lot of time inside, and managed to find a nice coffee shop near my dorm to get some actual work done (working in my room doesn't do it for me). Yesterday I tried out another Turkish course, though this one was even harder than the one on Friday—I'm surprised I tested into it, because I obviously do not know enough Turkish to read poetry. Inşallah ("God willing"; hopefully) I'll pick some up.
Today is an exciting day because it's February 29! Wooo! Otherwise, nothing much exciting going on. Went to another class this morning and discovered it to be all in Turkish, so I'm hoping to get into an English-speaking section of it. Tomorrow I have a meeting with a sociology professor to work figuring out my independent project, so hopefully I'll see where to go with it from there. I'm sorry this update hasn't been very interesting; I'll try to have some more blog-worthy adventures soon!

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

A scavenger hunt, a sheep sacrifice, and back to school

Hello everyone! Greetings from my yurt!
Yurt means dormitory in Turkish (though it also means yurt...). I am all moved in, and enjoying getting to know my neighborhood. I went to my first class today, so things are picking up at university as well.

We continued our seminar last week with a visit to the Tuesday market in Kadiköy, on the Asian side of Istanbul. We had a scavenger hunt in the market, where we were given a list of things in Turkish to buy, and were encouraged to practice bargaining. In the end, we came home with quince (one of my favorite fruits!), some interesting spices, condensed pomegranate juice, and many other interesting finds. We had lunch at a nice place in Kadiköy, and enjoyed wandering around in Asia before hopping continents again.

On Wednesday we took a "religious minorities walking tour" around Istanbul, where we visited a Catholic church, a former Jewish temple, and the Greek Orthodox Patriarchy (the Patriarch is still in Istanbul, not in Greece). Although religious minorities are not prevalent here (Turkey is 96% Muslim), there used to be more, and it was interesting to learn about the history.

After that we finally were able to go see our university! Although there are around 12,000 undergraduate students here, there are only two academic building complexes. The campus is right next to the Bosphorus, though, and the views are beautiful! We had a lecture on religion and philosophy that afternoon, then found our way back to the dorms with public transportation.

Thursday was so interesting—we first met with an Imam at a mosque in a non-touristy area. The imam (Muslim religious leader) had prepared a wonderful mid-morning snack for us in a building next to the mosque—so although it wasn't a mosque space, women and men still sat on opposite sides of the room, and we wore headscarves. For a few hours, the imam answered our questions about Islam (our guide translated from Turkish), and I was glad to learn a bit about this religion that I don't know very well.

That afternoon, we sat in on a Shi'a Alevi ceremony, an experience like no other. We started out by stumbling upon a sheep sacrifice, then ate some sacrificed sheep meat (I think) at a communal lunch where I attempted to hold a conversation in a mixture of Turkish and German with some of the Turks at our table. Afterwards, we went to the religious service room, where we took off our shoes and put on headscarves. Women and men sat on opposite sides of the room, and most of us were sitting on the floor. The Alevi tradition is different from other forms of Shi'a Islam, and very different from Sunni Islam (that of the imam whom we had met). There were paintings around the room of Ali, whom Shi'ites consider the rightful successor to Mohammed (I'm hoping I'm getting this history right!); images are forbidden in Sunni Islam. The service was led by a man who spoke (in Turkish, not Arabic) at the front of the room, and various people with ribbons around their waists participated by dancing or moving around the room. At some points, the leader picked up a saz and sang, strumming until the energy in the room built up; at one point, one of the worshippers went into a trance and started shouting and jumping on his knees. The service was two and a half hours long, so I spent a lot of time shifting around, trying to keep my limbs from falling asleep. Often I closed my eyes and let my brain wander, listening to the music and reflecting on such a new experience. At the end of two hours, the other women there were curious to know why we were there, so I sputtered out a few words of Turkish ("we're American, we don't speak Turkish"), and then we all headed back to the dorms, feeling reflective.

On Friday we had our orientation for international students—there are many students here on erasmus, and a few others from American universities—including a cocktail party and a party at a club in Taksim (one of the nightlife hotspots here). It was fun to meet a few other foreign students, though I was quite tired, so we left before midnight.

Saturday and Sunday were days to relax and get ready for the first week of classes. Bahçeşehir University holds most classes once a week for three hours, so my schedule will be pretty unusual, I think. I'm still trying out classes this week, and will register for them by next week. I'm hoping to take something in the sociology department, plus my program's required "Contemporary Turkish Politics" course. Yesterday I took a Turkish placement exam (hoping to place into an intermediate level), and today I sat in on a class that I probably won't end up registering for. I will keep you updated about school next week!

Monday, February 13, 2012

From Troy to Gallipoli (and many other adventures!)

Wow, where to begin with this week! Everything has been sort of a whirlwind since my program started on Thursday.

Here are the basics: I'm with a group of 21 students, about half of whom attend Syracuse. We started off the program with a week-long stay in old Istanbul (the Sultanahmet area). Our hotel was a short walk from the hippodrome, the Blue Mosque, and Hagia Sophia (which are basically next to each other). We started each day with a 2-hour lecture on Turkish history (starting around Roman times), then headed out to explore the sites. Naturally, we visited Hagia Sophia on the second day—as breathtaking as expected. We also saw the archeological museum, and a very cool underground cistern, all of which I had seen on earlier trips, but it was great to see everything again. Many of our visits were in the snow/freezing rain and I still don't have a winter coat, but there was plenty of tea to warm us up, and I discovered a new favorite drink—salep. It's made out of orchid root, milk, honey, and spices, and vendors sell it from ornate jugs on the street.
We've hit a lot of Istanbul in a short time—we visited the old walls (and climbed on top, being careful to not fall off!) and the ancient imperial palace, as well as Istanbul's largest pigeon market (which happens to be next to the old Byzantine imperial palace). Apparently, collecting and training pigeons is a favored activity here.
On Sunday we had the day off, so besides going out for some lunch (we've been discovering all the nice little kebab and pide—Turkish pizza—restaurants around our hotel) I took the day off. The other students take "Survival Turkish" classes each day, but since I studied some back at school in the states, I've had some extra free time.
Monday was dedicated entirely to Topkapı palace, one of the most beautiful gems of Istanbul. It's a huge palace complex which had many parts added over the years. We got a detailed tour of the harem, which was beautiful, but essentially an ornate prison for the sultan's concubines—they were often taken from Christian territories and enslaved in the harem for their entire lives. We also had a 4-course meal in a restaurant at Topkapı, and left feeling a little luxurious.
Naturally, we visited the beautiful blue mosque as well, and the Islamic arts museum, and took a boat tour on the Bosphorus. Istanbul is huge (15 million people, have I mentioned?), and it was great to see some of the other neighborhoods, and the beautiful palaces and mansions on both the European and Asian sides of the Bosphorus.
Currently, I am on a ferry somewhere between Europe and Asia, traveling across the Dardanelles/Hellespont. How cool is that? We headed out on a mini-excursion on Wednesday, starting in Bursa the ancient capital of the Ottoman Empire.
Ok, now I'm not on a boat. I will tell you where I am later. But first... our trip. We took a ferry across to the Asian side of Istanbul, then drove to Bursa, a city of around 3 million people. We saw an Ottoman mosque, a silk market (a beautiful courtyard-like area selling some wonderful scarves!) and an impressive tomb, though I spent most of the visit freezing. After a stop for warm salep, we moved into our hotel and tried out the Turkish bath there. It was amazing—basically a giant hot tub which turned me into a puddle of relaxed goo. Afterwards, a nice dinner, and then we were on our way to Troy the next morning.
I was so excited to see Troy, and it turned out to be a very cool site. There are bits and pieces of Troy 1-9 that have been excavated, so we got to see many parts of the walls and listened to a few verses of the Iliad in a small ancient theater. There was a model trojan horse there, which we all climbed in and imagined riding into Troy as a "gift."
We moved on to Çannakale, a nice town on the Dardanelles—the straight separating the Sea of Marmara and the Aegean. Çanakkale is home to the model trojan horse used in the film Troy (which we had watched on the bus ride), though our main visit there was to Gallipoli, site of a famous World War I battle. We saw the beach where the ANZACS (Australian and New Zealand soldiers) landed (and died, in many cases), as well as many memorials, and even had a chance to wander around the snow-filled trenches. My boots still have WWI trench-mud on them. It was a pretty cool and moving day.
We spent another 6 hours on the bus (this time on the European side of the Sea of Marmara) and headed back to Istanbul, where we moved into our dorms. The female dorm (no boys allowed! these rules will take some time to get used to) is quite nice—I'm in an apartment with 4 others girls from my program, and a Turkish girl. We have a small kitchen and cooked dinner last night for the first time in a long time, so that was nice. Today was a day off, so I did some exploring, and navigated the public transport system a bit. Our orientation seminar continues this week, and classes start on Monday! I'm so happy to have stopped living out of a suitcase, and I'm excited to see what Turkish University classes are like. Stay tuned!

Sunday, February 5, 2012

The City of Constantine

So I am in Istanbul! And is blocked, so I'll be sending my blog entries to my mom to post here. It's inconvenient, but I'll still be blogging!

My last few days in Nice were fun. I had tea with three classmates at a friend's apartment on Thursday, which was great fun; we represented Spain, Italy, Australia, and the US, but the common language was French (with a bit of Italian, Spanish and English thrown in!). I love polyglot situations like that.

On Saturday I went to Italy. I had been meaning to go, and finally just hopped on a train (~40 minutes) to Ventimiglia, right across the border. There wasn't much to see there, so I hopped on a bus to San Remo, which had a cute old town just begging to be explored. It was so much fun just being in Italy; I love border crossings in general, but it was also great to just note the little differences between the two sides of the border. Linguistically, I was confused—I can understand a bit of Italian, but can't speak any at all, so I made do with French, English, and some "grazie."

I enjoyed wandering around the narrow, windy streets, taking in views of the ocean, and drinking wonderfully rich Italian hot chocolate (another difference across borders!). It was raining the whole time I was there, so by the end of the day I was pretty soaked. But I'm strange, and I don't mind being rained on. I just bought a cannoli, boarded the bus and the train, and admired the scenery on the way back to Nice.

Sunday morning started at 4:30 AM—I was at the airport a little after 5, for my flight at 7. I flew over the alps to Zurich, and then to Istanbul, and went to a wonderful hotel, where I stayed for the next five days. Strangely, Istanbul was channeling Minnesota, and it snowed heavily for most of my stay. I spent a lot of time relaxing at the hotel, drinking apple tea and mentally preparing myself for the semester ahead. I also visited a few of my dad's friends, who are all wonderfully hospitable and kind. I did some wandering around old Istanbul, which often culminated in getting lost.

Istanbul has certainly presented its share of culture shocks: one of the biggest so far is the fact that around 85% of people on the streets are men. I went into a shopping mall the other day to look for a coat, and found that all of the stores catered to men (not sure if that's a usual occurrence, but it certainly seemed very different from the US!). It is strange, but doesn't feel threatening. Nevertheless, I've gotten good at ignoring shopkeepers calling after me to try to get me to come inside and buy their products.

I also tried my hand and shopping and bargaining, because I was in desperate need of waterproof shoes and a coat. I managed to do some successful shopping (with a bit of bargaining—I'll work on it!) all in Turkish! I'm really excited to get to practice this crazy language.

Today (well, Thursday, when I wrote this) was the official start of my study abroad program. I've gotten to know the other students a little bit; we had lunch, then an orientation session (involving a detailed powerpoint presentation on what to do in the case of an earthquake), and a short walk around Istanbul. After a nice Turkish dinner, I'm back in the hotel room with my two roommates, who are also on the program. Tomorrow is our first lecture on Istanbul's history, followed by a visit to some pretty amazing historical sites! I'll keep you updated :)