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.

 

Your Language App is Lying to You

Lately a targeted ad has been showing up a lot in my Facebook newsfeed: it shows a picture of a smiling woman above the headline “Three weeks to learn a language?”  It’s from Babbel, a language learning app.

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Screenshot from my phone: LIES, ALL LIES

Every time I see it, I end up either wanting to laugh or throw my laptop out the window, because that claim is 100% bullshit.  Learning a new language in three weeks is impossible.  I know that.  You know that.  Babbel knows it, too.  Why they claim it’s possible, I don’t know.

Don’t get me wrong– language apps and programs like Babbel and Duolingo can definitely serve a purpose.  If someone is going on a short-term trip abroad and just needs to know the basics, like how to politely greet someone and ask for prices and directions, they can be immensely helpful.  Or, if someone is a beginning or intermediate language learner who is taking a class and just wants a way to learn/practice vocabulary, they’re good for that too.  But anyone who has put the time in to actually learn, really learn, a new language knows that’s more than just memorizing some words and phrases.

Here’s the truth: I’ve been living in Istanbul for two and a half years and my Turkish is still really rough.  I can bumble my way through most interactions by now, and I can understand or at the very least get the gist of most of what is being said, but I still make a ton of mistakes and I am a far cry away from being fluent.  (I read once that it typically takes 3-5 years of immersion to become conversationally fluent in a new language.  I’m apparently on the 5-year track.)  (And, according to the same article, it takes 7 years of immersion to become academically fluent in a new language, in case you were wondering.)

When I first moved to Turkey, I arrogantly thought that I wouldn’t have much trouble picking up the language.  After all, I was a foreign language major in college (Italian) and am typically pretty good with words, plus I would be immersed in it– how hard could it actually be?

Really freaking hard, it turns out.  Turkish is nothing like the other languages I’ve studied.  I took Spanish and Latin in middle and high school, which helped with learning Italian in college, but Turkish is so completely and totally different that, looking back, it’s hilarious that I thought I would be able to teach it to myself.  I got a couple of grammar books and I bought the Mango Languages computer program for Turkish, and for a few weeks, I really did sit down and work on the Mango program each day.

Then I stopped, because I was learning nothing from it.

For starters, it mostly taught tourist Turkish; secondly, it didn’t explain grammar at all.  It was literally just memorizing a bunch of phrases.  And when you’re living in a country, knowing how to ask “How much do the evil eye beads cost?” or “Can you show me where Hagia Sofia is on the map?” (and even that is an incredibly difficult sentence in Turkish that beginners could never hope to actually say) only gets you so far.  What I needed to learn was how to build sentences and how to adapt what I was saying/understanding depending on context and how people were responding to me.  I needed to know those things even at the very beginning, when I was just starting out.

And that is exactly what you can’t get from those programs and apps.

Instead I signed up for an intensive language course which met for three hours a day, four days a week, for six weeks.  Taking an actual course, with an actual teacher, taught me the grammar basics that I so desperately needed in order to put sentences together.  Like Finnish and Japanese, Turkish is a languages of suffixes, where you pile suffix after suffix onto the end of a word rather than splitting ideas into separate words.

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Like this.

I absolutely needed someone to guide me through all of it, step by step, and yes, it involved a textbook and a lot of grammar exercises and repetition.  Even learning the basics wasn’t easy.  But it gave me the foundation I needed to absorb, learn, and adapt as I continued to be immersed in the language by living here.

Even with the language course, the first year or so of really trying to use Turkish on a daily basis was a challenge.  There were so many times when my language skills weren’t enough and I wasn’t able to do the things I needed to (like deal with the administrative staff at my former job, who spoke little to no English), or where I ended up feeling stupid and embarrassed.  It still happens sometimes– I ran into my neighbor in the hallway the other day and we exchanged pleasantries, then she asked me a question.  I understood that she was asking a question, and I understood the kind of question, but I didn’t know the main word she was using.  It was one I had never heard before.  So I couldn’t do anything but smile and say, “Anlamiyorum,” which means, “I don’t understand.”  And she smiled back and nodded and said, “Anlamiyorsun” (“You don’t understand”) and said goodbye and went into her apartment.  She was perfectly nice about it, but I wanted to shout after her, “I swear I do know some Turkish!  I promise I’m trying!”  (It turns out she was asking if we had bugs in our apartment.  I didn’t know the word for bug, since it’s not something that had ever come up class or at work or in a social situation.  Something tells me the Babbel app probably wouldn’t teach that one, either.)

Yet, even with all the frustrations and feelings of inadequacy, I know I’m getting better.  At some point along the way, I was able to start joking around with my husband in Turkish (or, as he calls it, being sassy in two languages).  There was the thrilling moment when I watched a 10-minute environmental PSA video in Turkish and was able to easily follow along.  In fall of 2015, I went to the bank to open an direct deposit account for my job and had to speak all in Turkish, and it was an unmitigated disaster; the banker and I couldn’t communicate sufficiently, she kept yelling if there was anyone who could help translate which led to about thirty people standing around and watching as I blushed deeper and deeper red and as she got more and more frustrated.  It took forever and did indeed end up requiring a translator.

However, this past fall, I went to a different bank for the same reason (direct deposit accounts are required for each job in Turkey) and was able to figure it out.  I knew I was making grammar mistakes as I was speaking, but the banker was able to understand everything I was saying, including when I explained the US tax system to her.  To me, it was a huge victory, in large part because I remembered vividly how humiliating the previous bank experience had been.  It’s times like those, when I have a measuring stick of sorts to see how far I’ve come, that make me want to continue rather than throwing in the towel.

Learning a language is a slow crawl, an uphill climb, a journey rather than a destination, a vast and ever-changing ocean that overwhelms as often as it delights (more often, usually).  And if all you need is to learn how to ask for directions to the Eiffel Tower or how to tell a waiter you want chicken for dinner, then by all means, download a language learning app.  But if you’re in it for a the long haul, gird your loins and prepare for a lot of setbacks.  It doesn’t come easy.

European Jews and America’s Inadvertent Moral Amnesia

When I was younger– I can’t remember how young, but I would guess I was about 10 or 11 years old– I read the fantastic young adult book Summer of My German Soldier by Bette Green.  The book is about a Jewish-American girl who hides an escaped German POW in her small Arkansas town; her family’s maid, who is black, discovers their secret and helps them.  At the end of the book (spoiler alert!), they’re caught and she and the maid are put on trial for treason.

Honestly, my memory is fuzzy on a lot of the details, since I read this about twenty years ago, but one thing completely confused me at the end of the book and shocked me so much that I never forgot it: one of the characters, either a police officer or lawyer or someone else with authority, said something along the lines of, “I’ve never seen a case with the three most hated groups in America,” to mean Jews, African-Americans, and Nazis.

To my young, rural-South-raised mind, I understood why he would say that about African-Americans and Nazis– we were taught about the Holocaust and Civil Rights movement in school, after all– but I didn’t understand why he said that about Jews.  At that point in my life I don’t think I’d ever heard anyone say anything bad about Jews.  There also weren’t many Jews at all in the small Virginia county where I was raised, and the ones that were there, I don’t think I knew that they were Jewish.  As far as I understood at that time, I only knew about Jews as the victims of the Holocaust and had no idea that anyone other than Nazis has any problem with them.

I think this has a lot to do with the way WWII and the Holocaust are taught in schools in the US, or at least the way they were taught in my schools.  Our history books and teachers always portrayed the Holocaust as one bad man who somehow inexplicably rose to power and did some very bad things with the help of some very bad henchmen.  The truth is, of course, much more complicated than that, because the history of Jews in Europe goes way farther back than then 1930s.  I knew about Old Testament-era Jewish history and I knew about the Holocaust, but I didn’t know anything that happened in-between.

One of the perks of living in Turkey is that it’s very easy, quick, and cheap to get to Europe from here (no transatlantic flight needed!); I’ve had the privilege of traveling to several countries over the past couple of years, including many with long, complicated, and shameful histories when it comes to how they’ve treated Jews.  Spending time in places like Berlin and Vienna and Prague has given me an entirely new knowledge of just how the Holocaust was allowed to happen.

Did you know that the word ghetto is Italian and one of the first Jewish ghettos (forced segregation) was in Venice in 1516?  Or that Jews were expelled from England in 1290?  Or that Jews were blamed for the Black Death in the 14th century?  I took a walking history tour of Prague, which included a stop in the Jewish Quarter.  The Jewish Quarter in Prague dates back to the 13th century, where the city’s Jews were forced to vacate their homes and settle in a neighborhood that was in a bend of the Vltava River– the first place to flood in heavy rains, which caused a long history of sickness and disease there.  The Jewish Quarter includes Europe’s oldest synagogue (established 1270) and also the Old Jewish Cemetery, which is a walled, raised cemetery– our tour guide told us that bodies there are 12 layers deep, piled on top of each other, because the Jews living in the quarter weren’t allowed to bury their dead anywhere else in the city.

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Old Jewish Quarter in Prague

Discrimination against Jews existed long before Hitler came along.  You can read a fuller (but still abbreviated) history of Jewish discrimination in an interview with Tara Zahra, who writes about European migration.  It’s easy to convince a population that an entire group of people aren’t human when most people have already been thinking that, either explicitly or in the back of their minds, for centuries.

But more than their history, it’s interesting to see how those cities deal with their past in the present.  Berlin is very open about confronting their history, with many monuments and museums; Vienna has stolperstein, literal stumbling blocks placed around the city with the names and dates of those persecuted by the Nazis, to remind themselves of what happened; in Budapest, there are bronzed shoes on the bank of the Danube River where Hungarian Jews were executed.  Many of the synagogues in the Jewish neighborhoods of these cities are still heavily guarded.

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Entrance to the Dohany Street Synagogue in Budapest, the world’s second-largest synagogue

In addition to the moral aftermath of WWII, Europe is still dealing with the practical aftermath, like how to locate and return art stolen by Nazis to their original owners.  (Or, in some cases, how to convince cities to give the art back to its original owners.)

What I’m saying is, in Europe, WWII is still a living history in a lot of ways.  We do not get that same feeling in America.  We like to think of our involvement as purely heroic and a very long time ago.  I’m not saying anything against the American soldiers who fought in WWII– my own grandfather earned a Purple Heart on the beaches of Normandy and recently received a French Legion of Honor medal because of it–and America did take in many Jewish refugees (although we turned many away too, including Anne Frank and her family).  But I’ve never met an American who feels any sort of personal guilt or personal moral reflection about the Holocaust.  We like to think of ourselves as the good guys who of course would never sit back and let anything happen like that again.

And I’m not claiming that we should necessarily feel any sort of moral responsibility for the past, but I do think that it harms our ability to see warning signs of history repeating itself.  I think those of us who grew up in the 80s and 90s in America have a false sense of security that nothing that catastrophic could ever happen again– after all, WWII, segregation/the Civil Rights movement, and most of the Cold War happened before we were born.  We grew up with a relatively stable world order.  We assume that world leaders and the people voting for them are mostly rational adults, and rational adults do not let other people kill people en masse.  But the Holocaust happened recently enough that many of the people involved in it– concentration camp prisoners, refugees, and soldiers alike– are still alive, although it won’t be that way for much longer.

(I still remember studying abroad in Orvieto, Italy, when I was 19, and our professor pointed out the metal “M”s welded above several of the town’s gates, for “Mussolini,” and having the uncomfortable realization that many of the charming old people I saw walking the streets during passeggiata each evening might have been Mussolini supporters back in the day.)

I think resting in that assumption that we can count on the people in power to not lead us down another path of death and destruction– always aimed at groups that are already oppressed and vulnerable– is a mistake.  It is up to us to look for the warning signs and make sure it doesn’t happen again.

As so many people have said before, it wasn’t just Nazis who were responsible for the death of eleven million people: it was also the average citizens who sat back and quietly did nothing.