We’re Bad at Celebrating our Anniversary… and That’s Okay

My husband and I haven’t had much luck in celebrating our wedding anniversary.  Granted, we’ve only had two chances, but both times were kind of a failure.

For our first wedding anniversary we were on opposites sides of the world, separated after the failed military coup in Turkey.  He was in Istanbul and I was in the US, waiting for my visa to be approved.  The separation was largely unplanned (as was, obviously, the coup, at least on our part) and the day was, quite frankly, depressing as hell.

This past anniversary– two days ago– both of us forgot about it until mid-afternoon.  We had flown into Istanbul the night before from the US, missing a night of sleep in the process, and we were jet lagged and disoriented.  I slept until 1pm that day.  My husband called me from work around that time, we chatted, neither of us remembering that it was our anniversary.  I remembered maybe a couple of hours later, and at some point, he called back and was like, “Uh, I forgot about something earlier…”

We celebrated by snuggling on the couch and going to bed early, after talking a bit about how gift-giving is relationships is kind of overrated anyway.

And that’s totally fine.

For starters, our anniversary was always going to be a little muddled.  We got married three times: once by officially signing the papers at the courthouse in Istanbul and getting our “Uluslararası Aile Cüzdanı” (International Family ID), and then by celebrating with one wedding in the US and one wedding in Turkey.  (Yes, I know we’re spoiled.  But with all the logistical difficulties of having an international marriage, it’s nice that it comes with some perks too!)  All of our “marriages” happened on vastly different days– at the beginning of August, the end of August, and the beginning of October.  So, we took the courthouse date– the day we officially got married– as our anniversary, but apparently we’re not very good at remembering it.

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And then we went on our honeymoon the following February, because why not stretch out the celebrations for six months? (Okay, the real reason was my work schedule. But it sounds fancier the other way.)

The real reason, however, that not doing very much for our wedding anniversary doesn’t bother me is that we already felt married by the time we actually *got* married.  Our lives didn’t magically change after that day; it truly just feels like a piece of paper, something official to let other people know what we already knew.

The anniversary of our first date always sticks in my mind, and holds a lot of meaning for me– that is a day that definitely did change my life.  And I knew pretty early on that we’d get married.  I know that some of my family members (ahem) were pretty appalled when I moved to Turkey with him when we had been together less than two years and weren’t even engaged yet, but I never had any doubts.

Recently we went back to North Carolina to see friends and we visited some of the places that, in our minds, were instrumental to the early days of our relationship.  We went to the cafe where we had our first date (an awkward couple of hours of chit-chatting over lattes), a diner where we got breakfast often, and, maybe the best one, the spot on the University of Chapel Hill campus where we used to sit on weekend mornings, drinking coffee and eating donuts (bought from the now-closed Krispy Kreme on Franklin Street) and people watching.  Both of us have strong associations with that perch under the trees; it’s more or less where we fell in love that first spring and summer that we dated.

Anniversaries are nice, and a good mile marker of sorts– it’s fun to see the years pass by with the person you love and have chosen to spend your life with–but so much of romance exists in the quiet everyday moments, some that you don’t even realize at the time, like how good it feels to have a relaxing Sunday binge-watching a TV series together or, sometimes, the simple act of drinking cheap coffee out of styrofoam cups under the green canopy of a college campus.

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Going Home/What I Miss

I leave in a couple of days for a two-week trip to the US to see my family.  Two weeks seems like a lot of time but it always goes quickly, and it’s never enough time to see the people I want to see; nevertheless, I’m looking forward to it.

I’ve been living abroad for three years now and it’s funny, the things I end up missing.  It’s never the things that I thought I would miss.  (This isn’t including people, of course– I always knew I would miss my friends and family.)  I was pretty homesick my first year in Turkey but it got a lot better after some adjustment, although Christmases away are still pretty hard.  But the things I miss most are things that I barely even noticed while living in the US.

I miss peanut butter.

I miss being able to walk into any clothing or shoe store and finding my size.  (Turkish women are tiny!… They don’t even sell my shoe size here.  The woes of being an almost-5’9” American woman living in Istanbul.)

I miss being able to find lots of different cuisines at the grocery store.

I miss stores and cafes opening earlier in the morning.

I miss central A/C.

I miss closets!  Oh how I miss closets.  One wardrobe is not enough storage for two people living in an apartment, and I don’t even know how families with small kids manage.  Where do other people store their vacuum cleaners?  The fake Christmas tree between seasons?  (Okay, maybe not too many Turkish households have to worry about that one…)  The sports equipment?  The luggage?  I NEED CLOSETS IN MY LIFE, DAMMIT.

But the thing I miss most of all is…. driving to Target.

Let me explain.

When I was living in the US, I didn’t have any particular affinity for Target.  I liked Target a regular amount– I went there when I needed to, but I never went around talking enthusiastically about how much I loved it or how great it was.  It was just a store I went to sometimes.

But now, when I think about things I’m excited to do when I go home, one of the first things that pops into my mind is getting in the car, driving to Target, and walking around.

I think it’s less because Target is just that awesome, and more because it represents everything that I can’t do in Istanbul.  Istanbul is a city of about 15,000,000 people, which is actually probably a low estimate, so hopping in a car and doing *anything* becomes difficult.  Istanbul traffic is horrendous.  This sometimes makes running mundane errands difficult.  We try to do most of our errands in our neighborhood, where we can walk to the stores, but on the occasions when we need to go to a bigger store elsewhere in the city, we take a deep breath, gird our loins, and accept it’s probably going to be at least half a day of battling with traffic and crowds.  There’s nothing fun about it.

And Target has everything– one stop and you’re done.  Again, this is very different from Istanbul, where we end up going to multiple stores to find the things we need.

So the thought of getting in a car and driving on calm, mostly clear roads to Target and being able to get everything in one fell swoop sounds almost Utopic.

Of course, there are good things about living abroad that balance out the things I miss– I might miss Target, but not enough to move back for it.  And there are things that utterly confuse me about the US now when I visit.  (The serving sizes are huge! … Why is the smallest size of a milkshake 16 ounces?  You can’t even get a milkshake that big in Turkey!  And why oh why does someone need that many different options for toothpaste?)

Bags are (almost) packed, passport is in my purse… I’m ready to go.

 

 

 

 

Hidden Gem Istanbul: Süleymaniye Mosque

I have a love/hate relationship with Sultanahmet, otherwise known as the historic peninsula in Istanbul, where most of the oldest sites and tourist attractions are.  On one hand, it’s a beautiful and deeply historic neighborhood, and everywhere you turn there are buildings and monuments that are hundreds and thousands of years old.  It is where the Grand Bazaar, Topkapı Palace, Hagia Sophia, and the Blue Mosque are located.  It’s clean, well-kept, and beautifully  landscaped.  It is worth seeing at least once in your lifetime.

On the other hand, the areas around the ferry stations and Spice Bazaar are so crowded, both with tourists and sketchy people trying to scam the tourists, that walking through it all to get to the other sites is irritating at best and deeply unpleasant at worst.  The scammers don’t disappear in the other areas and you have to be careful of who you talk to, which gives it a seedier feeling than other parts of the city.  And the one time I went to Sultanahmet without my husband– I took my (female) cousins when they were visiting– men yelled after us and harassed us all day long, which was infuriating and embarrassing since I was trying to show my cousins how great Turkey can be. (Never judge a city or a culture based on the most touristy area; it seems to be where jerks tend to congregate.)

Still, I end up going to Sultanahmet about once a year because the sites are too amazing to stay away from for long, and this past weekend my husband and I took the ferry over.  We went to the Basilica Cistern, which is normally amazing but is currently undergoing a renovation that will last until 2019, so it didn’t quite have its full glory.  Still, the Medusa heads are always interesting to see.

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Fun fact: The Basilica Cistern dates back to the 6th century and was commissioned by the Emperor Justinian, but no one knows where the two Medusa heads came from or why one is upside down and one is on its side

Afterwards we wandered over to Hagia Sophia and took in the sights there, including petting the cat that lives in the 1,500 year old church-turned-mosque-turned museum.

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Hagia Sophia: No filter needed

And then we decided to check out one of the lesser-known mosques, Süleymaniye Cami (cami means mosque in Turkish), and it turned out to be the highlight of the day.

It’s easy to find Süleymaniye Mosque: you directly see if from the ferry area or the Galata Bridge, depending on how you go to Sultanahmet.  It sits on top of a hill overlooking the Golden Horn and cuts an impressive image even from far away.  I remember staring at it during my first trip to Istanbul in 2013 and thinking, “Huh, that looks important.”

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Picture of Süleymaniye Mosque taken from the Galata Bridge in 2013, on my first trip to Istanbul

And it is important.  It was built by the most famous architect of the Ottoman Empire, Mimar Sinan, in the 16th century, and it is the burial place of the Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent (hence the name) and his equally-famous wife Sultan Hürrem.  (Their story has been made even more famous by the TV show Muhteşem Yuzyıl, or the Magnificent Century, which oddly enough is available on Netflix in America but not in Turkey.)  They each have their own buildings with their tombs inside.

Süleymaniye Mosque’s beauty starts before you even go inside the building.  Since it is on top of a hill, it offers an amazing view of Istanbul, including the Golden Horn, Galata Tower, Bosphorus, and the first bridge of the city that connects Europe to Asia.  It feels like you’re on top of the world.  And the grounds are meticulously kept, with lush green lawns and a beautiful cemetery.

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The cemetery spanned one side of the mosque and surrounded the enclosed tombs of the Sultan and his family

On the day that we were there, it was not crowded at all, and there were very few tourists.  There were a lot of Turkish families that were lounging on picnic blankets on the lawn, in the shade of the many trees, and their children were running around.  There were no scammers and the people working at the mosque were friendly and laid-back.  It had a completely different vibe than the tourist-inundated Blue Mosque, where workers have to be strict to control the throngs of people.

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The mosque courtyard
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Before going inside; I might have been living in Turkey for almost three years, but I’m not too proud to take a selfie while sightseeing

Inside, the mosque has been restored as recently as 2007, and it doesn’t look five hundred years old.  It has a red-orange carpet and the typical tiles and calligraphy of Ottoman-style mosques, but its main dome is interesting and sets it apart from others: it was destroyed by a fire in the 19th century and when it was rebuilt, they painted it in the Italian style that was popular at the time in Europe but is rarely seen in Turkey.  They also have young, very friendly, and English-speaking volunteers who are happy to answer any questions you have.

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A bit blurry, but you can see the painted dome ceiling done in 19th century Italian style, very different from most Ottoman mosques

(As a bit of an aside that might be helpful for people who are visiting Turkey for the first time, here are some tips for visiting mosques: women should cover heads and shoulders; short sleeves are okay; shorts and short skirts are not; some mosques will not let in anyone who has the bottom part of their legs exposed, including men in knee-length shorts, but it really differs from mosque to mosque with how strict they are with that.  You have to take off your shoes before going in and every mosque is VERY strict with this.  There will always be a place for you to leave your shoes close to the door; some mosques will let you carry them in as long as they are in a place bag, or if you are just carrying them in your hand, make sure the soles are pointing up.  If you are wearing shorts/a tank top/don’t have a scarf to cover your head, they will have clothes and scarves there that you can borrow–I have seen many men wearing borrowed skirts over their shorts in mosques–but I recommend just taking a more modest outfit with you to wear on the day(s) that you will be visiting those places, and sticking a scarf in your bag to throw over your head.  Also, there are usually separate entrances for people going into the mosque to pray and those who are just visiting, so follow the signs, which will most likely be in English.)

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Shoes off in mosques, always, without exceptions

I’m really glad that we decided to branch out a bit and visit someplace new.  I definitely recommend going to the better-known Blue Mosque because it’s absolutely stunning and worth seeing, but the Süleymaniye Mosque is worth a visit too, and is especially great if you’ve grown tired of the crazy atmosphere and crowds at the tourist sites.  This was also a really good reminder that even though I’ve been living in Istanbul for almost three years now, there are still so many places here I haven’t seen.  Sometimes it’s fun to go sightseeing in your own city.

And overall, the thing that struck me most about the Süleymaniye Mosque was just how quiet and calm it was, up on the hill all by itself.  In a city of 15+ million people, that is worth its weight in gold and jewels; even a sultan could tell you that.

The Twenty-Something in the Mirror

On Saturday morning, my husband and I went out to run errands– nothing exciting, just walking to the grocery store and a couple of other places in our neighborhood, normal weekend stuff for a married couple in their thirties.  I had zero interest in making myself look nice for something so mundane, so I skipped taking a shower, skipped putting on makeup, threw my hair up and tied a thin scarf like a headband around my head, put on rolled-up jeans and a zip-up hoodie and a pair of Birkenstocks, and we headed out.

There is a full-length mirror in the front foyer of our apartment building, and I often pause there for one last look before leaving, making sure nothing is out of place.  I did the same on Saturday and stopped, surprised by what I saw: I looked like me.

What I mean was, I looked like a younger version of myself.  Not because my skin magically smoothed out overnight or the gray hairs growing out of my temples disappeared, but because that outfit was identical to the outfits I wore for years in college and throughout the first half of my twenties.  I looked comfortable.  I looked natural.  And with that realization came a strong burst of nostalgia for my younger self.

I don’t dress like that much anymore; I make more of an effort to look nice when I go out now.  I wear pretty scarves and lipstick.  I have to dress professionally at work, even though I abhor it.  There’s nothing stopping me from tying my hair up in colorful headbands and wearing hoodies during my free time, I just don’t think of it as much.

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Biking the National Seashore on Cape Cod, 2011

I miss her sometimes, the twenty-something I saw in the mirror.  I think my twenties were well-spent and I wouldn’t change any of my decisions, but you can only live them once; there’s no going back.  And there are a million things I love about my life now.  I love being married and having a partner to spend my life with; it’s so easy, so much less exhausting than dating was.  I’m excited for our future.  I still travel and have adventures and learn new things; that’s something that I hope will always be part of my life and that I don’t think will disappear with age.

But there are some undeniable truths about getting older.  Decisions have more weight to them; if you mess up, there’s less chance for correction.  I worry a lot more.  I spend a lot of time thinking about how long it’s going to take me to pay off my student loans, about whether or not I’m making the right choices for my future, whether or not my career will ever advance or if I’ll just be doing the same thing thirty years from now, like a dog running in its sleep, legs churning but getting nowhere.  I still travel and have adventures, but I’m more cautious about it; I’m less likely to walk around cities by myself at night, less likely to be as confident when traveling by myself.  As someone who spends a lot of time in airports and on airplanes, I worry about terrorism and the possibility of my plane crashing, something that never crossed my mind when I was younger; I used to think turbulence was exciting.  I was also undeniably more outdoorsy in those days– hiking made me happy so I did it often, but it’s difficult to get far enough out of Istanbul to reach any real nature.

Probably the biggest difference is that, in my early and mid twenties, I really felt like anything was possible.  I still have goals, but it seems more of a marathon slog rather than a glory sprint to the finish line.  (Seems? Is.)

I know this is a case of rose-tinted glasses.  When I really think back to those times, I might not have worried about student loans or about whether or not my career was advancing, but I worried about other things, things that seem kind of silly now but definitely did not seem silly then.  I wasn’t happier then than I am now.  It’s just that hopeful feeling of youth that lasts for such a short period and then leaves before you even realize it’s there– that’s what I saw in the mirror, even if it was just for a second.

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Badlands National Park in South Dakota, 2009

How To Eat Like A Turk

I was cooking dinner tonight and as I got a lemon and a container of yogurt out of the fridge, it occurred to me that I use both of those things almost every day now– a habit that I only picked up after moving to Istanbul.  It got me thinking and I thought it would be fun to write up a post about some of the awesome food culture in Turkey.  Enjoy!

1) Put Lemon On Everything

Cut open a lemon and give it a squeeze over whatever you’re eating.  Seriously, it works with almost anything, and really brightens up flavors.

2) Put Yogurt On Everything, Too

One of the best things I’ve learned from living in Turkey is that yogurt is super versatile, not just for a sweet snack with tons of added sugar.  Turks use regular plain yogurt (sour-tasting) and süzme yogurt (strained yogurt, similar in texture to Greek yogurt) as a regular part of meals– both by itself, with spices (I love putting a bit of garlic powder and mint in plain süzme yogurt and eating it as a snack or a side), dolloped on meat, lentils, into soups…. it’s everywhere in the cuisine here, and it’s delicious.

3) Accept That Your Fish Stares Back At You

Fish in Turkey are almost always served whole, with head and scales and tail, and you de-bone it yourself and pick out the meat.  It’s also common to get little fried anchovies called hamsi and eat them whole, even the bones.  The first time or two it’s weird, but then you get used to it (mostly because it tastes so good).

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4) Realize That Small Dishes Are Amazing

Meyhane is a type of restaurant where you get a bunch of mezes (small dishes similar to Spanish tapas) for the table to share, along with a bottle or two of raki (anise-flavored liquor similar to Greek ouzo) and each person typically gets their own fish course.  However, I love mezes so much that my husband and I often skip the fish course and just have a long dinner of nothing but side dishes, and enjoy the heck out of it.  This is my favorite kind of Turkish dining.

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And sometimes, a kitten wanders over to help you eat your mezes

5) Carve Time Out Of Your Weekend For A Long, Glorious Breakfast

Turkish breakfasts are my other favorite kind of dining here.  Like in meyhanes, proper Turkish breakfasts are long and made up of many different small dishes.  Of course most Turks don’t eat like that every day (and who has time for that before going to work?), but oh man, Turkish breakfast is like brunch on steroids.

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6) Cut Down On Sugar

There isn’t much added sugar in Turkish foods, not even really in their baked goods.  Most of their cookies and cakes are way less sweet than their American counterparts.  There are exceptions to this, of course– like birthday cakes with lots of frosting, and tres leches cake has become very popular here– but generally cakes don’t have frosting at all.  When desserts are super sweet, it’s usually because it’s been soaked in syrup.

7) Drink Tea, Not Coffee

Turkish coffee is a cultural institution and great (albeit very, very strong– imagine a shot of espresso with the grounds still in it), but it’s usually only drunk after meals to help with digestion.  Instead, Turks typically drink black tea in the mornings and throughout the day.  The tea is strong too, brewed for 15-20 minutes in a double boiler until a concentrate is made and then mixed with warm water according to taste, and is drunk in little tulip-shaped glasses.

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8) Be Open To Weird Flavor/Texture Combinations

There are some Turkish dishes that most Americans would never imagine working.  Some of them I love, like künefe, a dessert that has melty cheese surrounded by shredded wheat, submerged in syrup, and topped with kaymak (a kind of sweet, creamy butter) and sometimes pistachios.  If it sounds heavy, it is; don’t expect to be able to move afterwards.  But it’s delicious!  Others, like ayran, a frothy yogurt drink with salt, have been more of an acquired taste.  Regardless, there are a lot of flavor combinations that seemed weird when I moved here that now seem totally normal and appealing.

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Yogurt and salt– what’s not to love?

9) Put Egg On Your Pizza

Or pide, to be more specific.  Pide is the Turkish version of pizza, and it’s the same kind of idea– there’s dough, and you put stuff on top of the dough, and you bake it.  Simple.  There are some differences, though, like the fact that pide doesn’t have tomato sauce.  Another (amazing) difference is that you can get an egg on your pide.  Either scrambled or just kind of cracked on top.  Such a great idea, I don’t know why more cultures haven’t picked this up.

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10) Speaking Of Eggs… Cook Them With Peppers And Tomatoes

I’ll be honest, even after two and a half years here, I don’t know how to cook many Turkish dishes– a lot of them require lots of hands-on work and long cooking times, and, well, I’m more about the quick dinners after work.  But one thing that is super easy to make and super delicious is menemen, where eggs are scrambled with chopped peppers, tomatoes, and olive oil (or butter).  My husband used to make an improvised version of this using salsa when we lived in the US, but real Turkish menemen is heavier on the green peppers.  You can also add different cheeses and meats to it if you want, or you can eat it plain.  Here is an English-language version of the recipe from Ozlem’s Turkish Table.

11) Roll Your Bagels In Sesame Seeds

Turkish simit are like thin, crispy-on-the-outside, soft-on-the-inside bagels that have been covered in sesame seeds.  We used to find frozen ones in a Turkish store in North Carolina and they are worth the trek if you have an international foods store in your area.  Or you can try to make them at home, if you’re feeling ambitious.

12) Eat Raw Meat

Okay, not really… but there is a dish called çığ köfte, which literally translates into “raw meatball,” and did indeed used to be made out of raw red meat.  Now, though, there’s a wonderful vegetarian version made out of bulgar mixed with bread crumbs, tomato paste, walnuts, and spices.  Typically it’s eaten wrapped in a lettuce leaf and squeezed with lemon.  It’s a great light lunch or dinner.  My back-up life plan is to move to the US and market çığ köfte to hipsters as exotic health food (vegan! served with lemon and lettuce! made with exotic oriental spices) and charge them a lot of money for it without mentioning that it’s one of the cheapest foods you can get in Turkey.

13) Load Up On Lots Of Fresh Fruits And Vegetables

Unlike in the United States, fresh produce is one of the cheapest foods you can buy in Turkey, and there are vegetable and fruit stands literally on almost every corner of Istanbul, so it’s easy to grab anything you need on the way home.

There are so many more things I could talk about, but these are the things that immediately came to mind.  Hopefully it inspires some people to either book a trip to Istanbul or maybe just find a Turkish restaurant in their area.

Stranger in a Strange Land: When Being an Outsider Makes You an Insider

During lunch today with a coworker, our conversation turned to the different places that we’ve lived.  I’m American, and have lived up multiple places on the East Coast– from small rural towns to big cities– and have been living in Istanbul since 2014.  My coworker is Australian but lived in London for six years before moving to Istanbul in 2016.  The conversation turned to how difficult it can be to move someplace new as an adult, specifically how difficult it can be to make friends.  One thing we agreed on: making friends in Istanbul has been far easier than any other place we’ve lived, in large part because there is a thriving expat community here and everyone is looking for friends.

I went to university about an hour outside of Washington DC and then moved to Boston after graduation with two of my college roommates.  Making friends in high school and college is easy because you spend all day with hundreds of people your age, and you’re bound to like at least a couple of them.  There are also school-organized social events specifically created to let you meet and bond with people.  It’s a whole different ballgame as an adult without that scaffolding– it’s up to you, and you alone.  I loved living in Boston and did make some casual acquaintances through writing groups, but since I was living with my two best friends, I never bothered getting that close to anyone else; I was already having all of my social and emotional needs met.

That changed completely when I moved to North Carolina for graduate school.  I moved by myself and lived by myself– my first time living without roommates.  I was lonely and had a really hard time making friends.  My grad program was small, almost everyone was older than me, everyone was married or in a serious relationship, and many of them had kids.  I was a very single 24-year-old who didn’t have much extra time for socializing, given my coursework.  I lived in North Carolina for five years and did end up making absolutely wonderful, close friends there, both in grad school and then later at my job, but it took awhile and I felt very isolated for a long time before finally finding a social group.

Then I moved to Istanbul, and making friends here has been so easy.  I was looking online for a local writers group to join, and in the process I stumbled upon a women-only expat group.  I joined the group, went to one of their social get-togethers a week or so later, and BOOM, met my first batch of friends– out of that first group of maybe ten or twelve women, a couple become close friends and I kept in touch/socially hung out with a few others.  Later, I went to other social gatherings put together by the expat group and continued meeting people.  I wasn’t working my first year here because it took nine months to get a work visa, so I had plenty of time to socialize and ended up meeting dozens of women whom I could call friends.

If you randomly throw fifty women into a room, it doesn’t mean that they will all get along, or have anything in common.  However, it’s different when you’re an expat.  There is something– a few somethings, really– about being a stranger in a strange land that brings people together.  Everyone is in the same boat and is building their social network from scratch and looking for friends.  We automatically have at least one thing in common: we are the kind of people who are willing to move to a new country.  Being so far from your support network means that people are often almost desperate to connect to and talk to people who might understand them.  And just the mere fact that you’re both outsiders creates a weird sort of bond; we are yabanci, the Turkish word for foreigners, and that alone makes us identify with one another.

Rather than having difficulty making friends, the problem I’ve run into here is that people come and go quickly.  I have made incredible friends here, and watched most of them leave one by one for various reasons– usually for a job in another country.  The expat community is transient and friendships often feel like a long goodbye, when it’s known that someone doesn’t have plans to stay.

I’ve become less social these days.  I work long hours as a high school teacher and, quite frankly, when I’m not at work wrangling teenagers, I prefer to spend time at home or sightseeing with my husband rather than going to big meet-ups.  I also am incredibly lucky to have wonderful coworkers who have become friends, which has at least partially filled the gap of friends who have left.  I’m pretty happy with my muted social schedule.

Still, it’s nice to know that in this city 6,000 miles from home, new friendships are waiting in Istanbul’s crowded, hectic streets if I decide to seek them.  It’s counter-intuitive, to think that going so far from your own culture would make it easier to make friends, but somehow that’s exactly what happened.

Frederick Douglass and Donald Trump: Why Black History Month Isn’t Enough

Every February, K-12 schools across America scurry around making preparations for Black History Month.  Elementary school kids learn about George Washington Carver and his peanuts, middle school students read MLK’s “I Have A Dream” speech, and high schoolers spend a half hour or so on some Maya Angelou poems in English class.  There might be a Civil Rights documentary thrown in, just to mix things up.  At the end of the month, the decorations and xeroxed copies of noble-sounding black histories are stuffed into the supply closet until next year.

I know it’s not this way at every school, but it is at a lot of them.

There are many things that baffle me about Donald Trump, but one of the main ones is that he consistently gets away with saying things that make absolutely no sense, or have absolutely no basis in truth.  Examples of this abound and it would be impossible to list them all here (although I’m sure someone has, or at least hope someone has), but to name two, I about spit my drink out when I read his comments about Frederick Douglass at a Black History event earlier this month, and I got incredibly angry when he had the audacity to be disrespectful towards John Lewis in January, before Trump even took office.

At the Black History event, he talked about Douglass in a vague yet thoroughly bizarre way where, among other things, he seemed to think Douglass is still alive.  (For the record, Douglass died in 1895.)  For the second, he attacked Lewis on twitter, calling Lewis “all talk, no action.”  It is galling to think that he would even dare to say such a thing to someone who has a long history of activism and civil service (action and activism have the same root, in case Trump isn’t aware), including marching beside MLK Jr., being physically assaulted, literally risking his life and watching as others were murdered for the same cause, and repeatedly arrested.  It’s even more galling to think of Trump,  who was handed his wealth from the time he was born, to accuse Lewis, whose parents were sharecroppers, of not taking action.

Each time, I wondered to myself: How does he get away with this?  And then I realized… he gets away with it because a lot of people really have no idea who Frederick Douglass and John Lewis are, any more than Trump does.

The way we teach black history, black contributions, black lives to our children is extremely limited and extremely whitewashed.  We don’t do it much to begin with, and we tend to present the rose-colored glasses version anyway; we exhort MLK for his peaceful methods but don’t talk about how hated he was by white people at the time, how he was spied on by the FBI, and how his peaceful methods got him killed.  We celebrate Angelou’s “Phenomenal Woman” poem but don’t talk about how ownership, figuratively and literally, of black women’s bodies is a dark and ongoing part of our social and political narrative.

And we tend to teach race from a white perspective.  When I was teaching 11th grade English and AP literature in North Carolina, I got pushback from parents on teaching Frederick Douglass and Toni Morrison; in both cases, the parents suggested I teach The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn instead– in one instance, it was literally phrased to me in an email, “If you have to teach a race book, why don’t you teach Huck Finn?”  I explained that I *do* teach Huck Finn in 11th grade, in tandem with Frederick Douglass, but that it’s also important to teach books that are, you know, written by black people, not just about them. (And let’s not even touch the problematic usage of the term “race book” in the email.  The parent ended up removing their son from my class.)

The argument was that the Douglass memoir was too violent– because it is okay to portray slaves as bumbling but good-hearted fools in Huck Finn, but not to show the actual, horrible reality of slavery written by a slave himself.

The argument against Song of Solomon was that the language was too rough– because it’s okay to read the n-word 219 times in Huck Finn but 18-year-olds can’t handle reading the f-bomb a handful of times.

What I’m saying is, we have to do better.  We can’t just trot out the Harriet Tubman picture books once a year in February and read them to squirming groups of third graders during story time; we can’t just use the same texts like the “I Have A Dream” speech and Huck Finn over and over and over, until the students are so freaking bored that they want to bash their brains out, all while learning a very narrow slice of black history.  We can’t have Martin Luther King Jr. and Mark Twain (!!!) represent all black experience; we can’t just mention that the Founding Fathers owned slaves in a sidebar of a history textbook and ignore it the rest of the time while telling our own history.  America was literally built on the back of unpaid black labor; you can’t tell me that’s not important.

We need to teach black history alongside white history throughout the year, not just in 28 days.  We need to assign books, essays, and poems by black writers who talk about their own experience, not white writers who talk about the black experience for them.  We need to look at more modern black history in context and realize that MLK is not the only prominent black person from the last 100 years.

We need to educate citizens who know who Frederick Douglass is– and Phyllis Wheatley and Countee Cullen and Jean Toomer and Stokely Carmichael and Angela Davis and thousands of other names worth knowing–  and can call bullshit when a president attacks a preeminent civil rights leader on twitter.

Black History Month is a starting point but it’s not enough.  It’s never been enough, and each one of us needs to do our duty as educators to work a wider view of black history into our curricula throughout the year.  As tempting as it is to say that it’s more important than ever, the truth is that it’s always been important, but now is the time to buckle down and make it happen.