Friday, January 29, 2010

Outsider Art

I picked a piece of drift wood out of the Flint River yesterday (although my mom warned the rangers would shoot me). It reminded me of when my Dad and I would spend an afternoon combing the woods by the Santa Fe River in Florida, or else out by some creek near Gainesville, hunting along the banks for driftwood. We'd collect an armload and dump them into the back of his El Camino or whatever he was driving. Then we'd cart them home and glue some eyes on them and shellac them and transform them into deer, or raccoons, or armadillos. The plan was always to sell these at the flea market in Waldo (also near Gainesville) or to have some hifalutin Yankee come down and declare them outsider art (I'm sure he was joking about that). The one I picked up looks a bit like a horse head without the ears or back of the skull so I think I'm going to buy a plastic eye and if we go to Omega where my dad's buried, set up my own piece of outsider art on his gravestone.

Amidst chaos last night, my sister prepared one of her signature Southern meals--fried yellow squash, collards with fatback, mashed potatoes, biscuits, creamed corn, and pork roast. It was so good it'd make you want to slap your mama--an old saying. Of course, we all get ready to slap each other without food instigating it. In the car on the way to the barbecue restaurant last night, I was riding with my niece, Caylyn, her husband, Michael, and my mother.

Michael: Where are we going?
Caylyn: Y'all aren't listening.
Mom: If you don't know where we're going then why are we going there?
Caylyn: Y'all aren't listening! We're going to that barbecue place down past Griffin! I can't exactly remember where it is.
Michael: I just want to know where we're eating!"
Caylyn: The barbecue place!
Mom: Well, you can't drive around and around 'cause you don't have a tag and the police will get you.
Caylyn: It's right up here!
Mom: I thought you didn't know where it was!
Caylyn: I don't but it's right up here.
Mom: You're going to run out of gas. And you're going to get a ticket.
Michael: Do you know where we're eating?
Caylyn: It's right there. I see the sign.
Mom: I don't see it.
Caylyn: It's right there! Southern barbecue!
Michael: That barbecue is racist, then.
Caylyn: It is not!

Thursday, January 28, 2010

More Food and Fun in the South

Nature. Today we went down to Flint River. It had overflowed its banks and the silt brown water had swallowed several trees and picnic tables. There were rapids shooting up and spraying out over rocks in the middle of the flood. A loan palmetto grew from the bank. A hike up through the pine woods brought us to a wooden deck that overlooks a turn in the river. You could see all the way to the hills in the west, brown mostly in January, but striped with dark pine greens. There were deer prints in the clay, and coon. Mom and I sat on the banks and talked--about Delal, about Kurds, about Obama and grandma. I made her do a little dance for the cheap camera Jeremy bought her.

For lunch, we had slaw dogs and Brunswick stew at English's cafe in town. The slaw dogs were excellent, the cabbage finely grated like I like it. The owner of the cafe specializes in a kind of sloppy joe burger--ground meat topped with sauce. She says some local boys had fifty pounds of them freeze dried and sent over to their unit in Iraq. "Lord, they fought over 'em, them boys," she said. It was barbecued ribs for dinner down in Griffin. The cracklin' cornbread was especially good. This was one of those places out in the woods with "antiques" hanging on the walls. Old plow handles, road signs, irons, washboards etc. Michael, my nephew in law, says "no black people in sight." Then he looks back in the kitchen and says "Figures. There's some guy back doing the dishes."

I had forgotten what starry skies looked like. The moon is near full tonight. Orion hangs over the Western horizon--"there were so many they nearly jingled together" to quote Orhan Kemal.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Back in the South

A sunny day in Georgia (the state, not the country). I'm typing from my sister's living room. My mom is napping through her soaps (the Young and the Restless) even as she insists she's not, and the puppy she's just adopted is staring at me from the couch beside her. I'm back in the South. Thomaston, Georgia, just north of Macon.

Breakfast this morning was at the barbecue restaurant downtown. We had eggs, biscuits, and bacon and country ham. There were the usual covens of old people talking lazily as the waitress, Edie says, "More coffee, hon?" The biscuits were huge and fluffy, homemade buttermilk biscuits according to Edie, and the bacon was thick and crisp. After breakfast we went to the Upson Country Historical Society where I browsed through their collection of Creek arrowheads and their Civil War files. (There was one story of General Wilson, a young Yankee firebrand who didn't hear about Lee's surrender and decided to set the South ablaze. He went on to devastate every mill and factor from Alabama to the Atlantic. His army captured a train engine in Thomaston, set it on fire, and sent it full speed barreling into town.)

We picked up supper this afternoon at the Steve Brown Fish Farm--a catfish farm out in the hills. It's an old fish camp surrounded by shallow ponds. The water is a brown-orange--just like the Georgia clay--and aerated by fountains. Everything looks just like my GrandpPa Carl's old catfish farm down in Florida. Back in the 70s, we used to take our cane poles and go fishing, and I remember loving it because you were always guaranteed to catch something, and something you could eat, too. (On the lake with Dad, I never caught anything but gar which, my dad said, only white trash ate.) The smell of the fish camp was the same smell as my grandpa's shed where he used to keep all his tackle--a musty blend of old wood, rubber worms, and of course, fish parts. The cats are two dollars a pound. Their heads and guts have been removed but in the name of freshness, I guess, the woman running the place doesn't filet them until you pay for them. You can go catch them yourself if so inclined.

The results tonight: fried catfish (really really good), hushpuppies, cheese grits, cole slaw, and a pecan pie.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

More Snow Stories

The snow died off during the day, but came whirling back tonight. I was at Lemon Cafe playing backgammon with Delal and between turns I looked out the window at the snow tumble-falling through the sodium lights. There's a street on the way home lined with bars--out front they have neon lights, green, blue, red, pink. The snow danced past those. And it fell into the Ottoman graveyard too, where there are no lights, just century old graves written in Arabic script and topped with turbans where the snow gathers. There's something lonely about those grave stones standing in the shadows gathering snow--it reminds me of a Robert Lowel Poem about King's Chapel cemetery in Boston, if I'm not mistaken. Where the snow gathers on graves of dead colonialists. This cemetery stretches miles all the way down to the Bosphorus, but only in pieces from here to Uskudar. It pops up here and there between buildings, over railroad tressles, on a busy street corner, behind a gas station. (As I write, it's 9:30. The boza seller is wandering through the streets shouting in slow, melancholy bass notes "Boooooooooooooza". Boza is a hot vanilla drink they sell in the winter--perfect for this weather)
A record snow fall in Istanbul yesterday. It's the first time I've seen the city in snow. I crossed the Sultan Mehmet bridge and the Bosphorous was completely whited out, but floating out their in the whiteness was the gothic mosque in Ortakoy, looking very bit like a space ship coming through the fog. The whole city is giddy with snow fever. I went to Taksim to meet Ekrem. Both of us were so reminded of Boston that we were almost high on memory, and kept slinging each other down icy Istiklal and laughing for absolutely no reason. At night, I stayed in with Delal and the housemate and we watched a Turkish film called "Yol". It was pretty good, with a couple of really heartrending scenes in the snow that echoed the howling windstorm outside.

The director of this movie has an interesting story. His name is Yilmaz Guney, a Turkish Kurd from Adana. He was a political prisoner at the time Yol was being filmed and so he had his assistant follow his written directions when directing the movie, which he had spelled out in minute detail--in effect, directing vicariously. When it came time for the premier, he escaped from prison and took the negatives of the film to Switzerland. Like so many of Turkey's writers, directors, artists, and everyone else, he spent the rest of his life in exile. Yol was banned in Turkey until 1999.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Last Day of School and A Visit from a Superstar

A blizzard is forecast. And we are only getting rain. The students who have not been at school all week suddenly descend upon the school like flies landing to feast upon a rotting carcass. Today is report card day. They must come. Trying to run a class is like trying to herd rabid street cats. I get so frustrated at one point (I just want to play a game!) I drop the F bomb and the giggling little goblins hear.
During the break, I have to go down to the accountants office to clear up some paperwork for my direct deposit. As I'm coming out, I'm rifling through my documents and not watching where I'm going. I bump into someone, say "sorry" out loud, mumble "idiot" under my breath, and do not look up. I follow this person halfway down the hall before I notice the line of suits standing at every door, grinning like school boys waiting for their Christmas present. I look up and realize that the person I ran into and the person I've been following is none other than Alex De Sousa, captain of one of Istanbul's football team and one of the most famous men in Turkey! (Imagine running into Curt Schilling at work). Two other less popular players flank him and he's being strung along as if on an invisible leash by the team (and school) owner, Aziz Yildirim.
They pop into each class room to say hello, starting with the one at the end of the hall. I duck in with one of the English teachers (the room located smack in the middle) and pretend I've been there teaching the whole time as we all wait together for the celebrities to descend. The girls are saying how they don't care about football in the slightest as they adjust their hair. The boys are jumping around like chimps. When Alex enters, they all go wild except Ercument--the self-proclaimed handsomest boy in the school. He walks up and deftly slips his arm around Alex's shoulders, whispers something in his ear, and then laughs. Alex laughs, too. They shake hands, and cameras flash. You would think famous Ercument was the one paying a visit to lowly Alex. This kid is slick.
After school, I walk to the bus stop in the sleet and catch a ride to my Turkish lesson. I have written an essay about the sounds of Florida and my memories of Lake Santa Fe, and my teacher, Sevim, puts my paper down and begins telling me about old Istanbul. "Just on the outskirts of the city, it used to be so green. We had such a garden! Every fruit tree you can imagine! Pears, apples, apricots, cherries, oranges, lemons. Mom had a little garden just for lilies. Their scent filled the whole yard. She would cut just two, white ones, and lay them in a basket and then pile in fruit from our trees. These we'd take to the neighbors who would fill our basket with things from their own gardens. Oh, I remember walking through the grass in bare feet. And lying in my room at night and hearing the rustling of the poplar trees outside my window. There was a man named Mahmud--he used to live with his mother until she died and then he was all alone in his big house. We called him Mad Mahmud. He would walk around in bright colored clothing--purple, orange, green--and we used to follow him around and sing songs about him."
And then she burst out crying.
"There's no place left like this anywhere! No where. The smell of lilies, the taste of fruit right off the trees, grass, and wind in the poplars! And those neighbors! Nobody bought groceries in the summer! We just kept bringing food to each other! This city is just houses and buildings and more houses now! And mama and dad! They're gone, both gone!"
I never know what to do in the face of people's losses. And this one clearly affected her deeply--home, parents--all gone now.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Last Days at Fenerbahce High School

This is the week after finals, the week before winter vacation. School is a little bit like an Apocalyptic wonderland. The halls are empty. Papers and abandoned notebooks litter the floor. An eerie silence pervades. Most classes are empty, but the students who are here have reverted to a more primitive state, maddened by the shortage of lessons and books. The loosening of rules and regulations plunging them into a state of primeval chaos. They can only be handled with tranquilizing darts or perhaps, stun guns. They command the classrooms with a sort of rabid fanaticism, and teachers only enter at risk to their own lives or when ordered to stop sleeping in the teacher's room by the principal. The Lord of the Flies dawns upon Kayis Mountain.

It's snowy outside in the hills around school. The rooftops are all white triangles stacked on top of each other with black chimneys in the middle spouting smoke. The minaret is coated in ice, the railings frosted over. Fog and flurries hide the sky and hill behind. Seagulls circle around, white wings on white, like shapes broken free of the snow.

In the park, there are 'excercise machines' that result in the exertion of not one single muscle cell in the body. For example, you step onto two metal plates, put your hands on a rail, and then swing right and left. The machine offers no resistance. There are no weights. No stepping up and down. You could do this for all eternity without your breath speeding up in the least little bit. During the day, the covered ladies take walks to this "sports park". They wear head scarves and long dowdy robes that hide their feet. They flock to this machine and one after the other, swing the afternoon away. Against the white snow, their dark dresses make them look like Scooby Doo ghosts floating and twitching over the park, or like spastic Star Wars jawas, maybe.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

High School-Turkey style

So I work in a high school up in the hills on the Asian side of Istanbul. It's a little like being back in high school (or in a sequel to Heathers). There are eight women in the office with me and they have, according to some evolutionary imperative, divided off into cliques. We have a cafeteria downstairs and free seating. If I sit with one group, then the other snubs me for the rest of the day. If I sit with the other, then I get side-long smirks from the first. If I sit alone, everyone wonders who that dork is. The first group is generally the cool girls, and the second would have all been geeks in hich school and are just normal now, so I tend to lunch with them. Gossip is always on the agenda. Or at least that's how they translate "dedikodu" into English. I'd be more inclined to call it "backbiting and conniving."
(Today's menu, chicken nuggets and fries, tomato soup, pasta, baklava and a salad bar that includes yogurt salad, bulgur salad, green beans, and raw red cabbage. There are no sweet lunch ladies, but kindly lunch gentlemen.)
It's odd, but I'm in Muslim Turkey, among descendants of the great Ottoman Empire and the wild invaders led across Asia by the Khans, and yet you would never know the difference if you could have a translator-implant in your head. You have the dikey female PE teachers. The overzealous drama teacher who behaves as if every school function were her shot at the Oscars. The pot-bellied male P.E. teacher who tools around with the female teachers and tries to be the students' friend. The spinster English teacher, and the airhead whose class is like a jail cell full of coked up gorillas.


Istiklal Caddesi means Independence Avenue. It's jammed with shops--Abercrombie and Fitch, Benetton, Starbucks--and fed by side streets, like an artery is fed by capillaries. There's a constant flow of people. Tourists and the leeches that feed off them predominate. You can't walk five feet without someone giving you a ingratiating smile and saying, "Welcome my friend. Come to my restaurant?" And if you accept you'll be assaulted with all kinds of Disneyesque kitsch--surly waiters in fezzes, for example. Luckily, I date a leftist Kurd who studiously avoids this kind of buffoonery. She pulled me right at one of the mosques, led me right past the Authentic Ottoman Cuisine in five different languages, and turned me down a narrow cobblestone sidestreet where, on the left, we walked through a door that had no sign of any kind. I thought it was someone's apartment. Inside was a sparse room with flowered curtains and a man scribbling out copies of a menu. He handed us one.

Everything is very do it yourself. You write your order, take it downstairs, hand it to the cooks ( very tall, lithe, red headed woman who is also the owner) and when your food is ready it rides up a little elevator and a bell rings. You get the plates, put them on your tray, gather up your silverware, napkins, and drinks and repair to the table. It reminds me of a dream my father used to have, of opening his own restaurant for ham and navy bean soup--it would have been a simple place, no waiters, no menus, no fuss, just home-cooked meals every day. He wanted the menu to be simple--cook one thing but cook it perfectly. Maybe have a side of corn bread, collards, and pepper sauce.

Anyway, the food is astounding--simple, fresh, hot. We order something called Meksika usullu patates, "Mexican product potatoes" to translate literally, but it was a light egg souffle with Montezuma spices and cheese. We also had karalahana dolamsi "Black Cabbage Rolls", but of course black cabbage looks exactly like collards to me so I am going to say "Collard Rolls" which are cooked collard leaves wrapped around a meat pilav and draped with a light coating of garlic yogurt sauce and red pepper oil.

We sat in a little enclave near the window and watched the rain drizzle down the panes. Yum.

Istanbul Weekend-Armenians

Istanbul has finally started to be cold, halfway through January. On Saturday, I went with Delal to the European side. In Taksim Square there was a memorial march for Hrant Dink, the Armenian journalist assassinated here a couple of years ago. The killer was a teenage boy, but everyone is certain that some nationalist/fascist government organization was behind the whole thing. So we marched.
Everyone had signs. Mine was in Kurdish and Turkish, "For Hrant! For Justice! Ji bo Hrank..." Delal's was in Armenian. Three of her friends from work were there, a red headed bearded Armenian man (the accountant at her company), his buddy, and then a third guy who thrust his hand into the middle of all of our introductions, and in a stern unsmiling face loudly announced his name. "He's classic Armenian activist!" Delal whispers. "You can tell by looking." He wore a beret, a black and white scarf, and devil's goatee. He darted around like a piece of popcorn, looking here and there with jerks of his sharp chin. When the shouting started, his voice was the loudest. It exploded behind me and made me jump, everyone else turned to stare before shouting themselves. "Hepimiz Hrantiz, Hepimiz Ermeniyi-iz!!" We are all Hrant!! We are all Armenian!!" Delal grabbed a bunch of fliers to hand out and thrust some into my hand. A man with thick, flowing white hair and a bushy moustache made some opening statements through a megaphone. "We must remember the broken body, shot dead on the sidewalk! He died because he spoke out for brotherhood!" Then began the march. We commanded the whole width of the Istiklal Avenue and the tourists and shoppers and teams of boys out scouting for girls had to pull to one side and flatten themselves against the shop windows as we passed. A few people glared at us in hatred, many smirked, some took fliers. "Hrantin katili biliyoruz! Adaleti istiyoruz!" We know who Hrant's killer is. We want him brought to justice!" I did my best to shout, but felt self-conscious. I'm just not used to this sort of thing. Delal asks me how to say "kortej" in English. "Dunno. What is it?" I ask. "Uf! You know, when you march, each political party lines their people up in rows and they move together, each with their own signs." "I'm not sure we ever do that," I say. "Don't you protest?" "Well yeah, but, it's not really organized into groups or whatever. I have no idea what you'd call that." "Kortej! We get it from English." "Sorry, never heard of it."
There are cameras everywhere, TV cameras, big photojournalist cameras, zoom lenses, polarized lenses. Many times they are pointed at my face. I try to smile. Istiklal, where we are marching, has been the scene for a lot violence in the past. Police tear gassed May Day protesters, for example, just last Spring. And we are marching for an issue we are technically forbidden to discuss. Armenian is a naughty word. I can't help wondering where these pictures will end up. "Half of these photographers work for the government," Delal whispers. The march stops at the Galatasaray High School, an old building from the Sultan's days smack in the middle of Istiklal. The Sultan's seal is in scarlet and gold on top of the spiked gate. From an opera house across the way, a writer comes out. He's so short I can't see him over the heads of the crowd. He reads something, a statement of solidarity, and everyone cheers, whistles and ululates. Behind us I can't help notice a table that says "America! Get the Hell Out!" Young leftists in yellow and red are handing out fliers. "Should I go talk to them?" I ask Delal. "They don't mean you! They mean your government."