Thursday, December 31, 2009

New blog

Hello my blog friends and readers,

I have started a new blog and am going to be transferring my current blog over to that site too, as soon as I figure out how to do it.

Anyway, this is the new site, if you want to check it out.

Okay, see you over there!

And happy new year!

Monday, December 28, 2009

Thinking of a fresh start to a fresh year...

Well, only a couple more days left in this old year. The mighty 2009 is coming to a close, and 2010 is about to come bursting onto the scene.

As you know, if you've been following my blog for the past few months, I've been going through difficult/interesting/crazy times. I am really trying to keep things in perspective as much as possible, riding the rather ferocious wave of change and adaptation sweeping through my life. I realize that times of hardship, suffering and change are the stuff that life is made of, and that the challenges in life are what shape us into the people we are and the people we become. Even though I'm in the thick of it all now, and its hard to see where all of this is leading, I am holding onto the belief that the ability to live more fully, with greater love, compassion and wisdom for oneself and others, can only come out of learning how to deal with these internal and external difficulties when they are dropped on your doorstep. Or when you're fool enough to jump right into them by moving to a foreign country! Haha!

Anyway, new year, fresh start. Here's what I'm thinking. I'm trying to think of all kinds of life-affirming, energizing, encouraging little (or big) things that I can do to turn my mind away from dwelling on my own difficulties and all the hard stuff that life entails, and to focus more on the positive things in life. I'm going to make a big list that I can go back to again and again, when I feel all worn out by the world.

So, to all of you reading this blog, this is me asking for your help.

If you have the time and the inspiration, I'd love to hear your suggestion for what I, or anyone for that matter, can do to help focus on the good, the beautiful, the inspiring, the life-affirming stuff that the world is full of. I know its there, I just need a bit of help to get back in the moment and see it all again.

So, if you have any words of wisdom, any inspiring stories from your own life or someone you know, anything positive that you've done this year to improve your life or someone else's, any ideas for turning down the pessimism and turning up the optimism, poems you've read, songs you've heard, lessons from people who have inspired you, big dreams you have for the new year, little daily practices that you've found to be tried and true for helping you to live well and in the moment, etc. I think you know what I mean.

Throughout the years, so many people have helped me in both good times and tough times, have given me just the encouragement or inspiration that was needed at the right time, have spurred me on, challenged me to think and live in new ways, have shown me that the world is full of interesting, beautiful and amazing people. Now you're all very far away, but I want to thank you all for your past help and inspiration and I hope you'll spare a minute or two to help me again now. I think I'll compile a list of whatever ideas you send my way and publish them on the blog so they can benefit more people!

Please leave a comment here, or on Facebook or you can email me.

Thanks and enjoy the ending of this year, and the beginning of the new one.

Lots of love.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

I just finished another great weekend of teaching. It was hard to work the day after Christmas, and at just about any other job it would be unbearable. But, lucky for me, I have great students. It was a pleasure to be there.

I love my new job!!!!!!

Well, I'm just brewing some relaxing chamomile tea now, and then we're going to finish the biscuits that one of my students gave me yesterday in class, while watching The (American) Office, which we've downloaded off the internet. I'm planning to go to bed early tonight, to catch up on some much needed rest. Then tomorrow morning I have yoga. Can't wait.

Okay, I'll put up some Christmas photos soon, but right now, I just want my tea.

Hope you all are enjoying the holiday weekend, and I am so happy I got to talk to so many people for Christmas! I love you all!

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Why Turkish students are the best...

1. They are friendly, full of life and have a good sense of humour.

Even though my job isn't ideal in a number of ways, one thing I have to say is that my students are very lively and they make my life more interesting. It seems that Turkish people are very chatty in general (which often means they aren't listening to my terribly interesting and important English lesson), are always laughing and joking, and being in a room full of 24 of them is never boring.

During breaks they occasionally break into song and do a little dance. Sometimes when I come in the room, they chant Mc-Wa-ters, Mc-Wa-ters, which I think is meant to be a good thing. They get great entertainment out of me attempting to say things in Turkish. They laugh because I can't roll my 'r's, or properly pronounce various different Turkish vowels, but they seem to think its great fun whenever someone tries to speak Turkish at all.

Also, a few of them have started trying to imitate American gangster rappers. Just today I was called emcee(MC) Waters, and there's the occasional 'yo Yo', or 'keep it real'.

2. They get really attached to you, and, in my opinion, you can't help but get attached to them too. They are very endearing.

In Turkish, teachers are called Hocam (not sure about the spelling), but it translates to 'my teacher'. They really form a bond with you, and they are really upset of you are sick for a day or if schedules change and they get a new teacher. Its like they adopt you and want to keep you for life.

Last week I was sick for a day, and when I came back the following day, everyone was distressed about having a new teacher. They wondered if I was okay, and said they had missed me. It was a nice welcome back!

3. They are generous and very kind.

Sometimes they bring me a cup of tea during break time. They hold the door open for me and always let me enter the classroom first.

And tonight, as a treat after their mid-term exams, most of the class and I went out for dinner and a drink in Beyoglu. I was not allowed to help pay for the taxi, or pay for my dinner, or to give any money toward the drinks. I tried to argue but they said they would be very sad if I gave any money. I protested that I'm the teacher, and they are the poor college students, but they wouldn't have it. They insisted that I was the guest.

Overall, I think they are lovely, and I would recommend coming to Turkey if you want to teach English and meet some really lovely students. Its hard to imagine meeting nicer people anywhere in the world.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Christmas shopping in Istanbul

Richie and I spent most of the day doing some shopping in cool places along Istiklal Caddesi. We explored some interesting hidden shops and markets. Its amazing what you can find if you just have a wander around!

We found some cool shops with souvenir type stuff, as well as really interesting antique shops, all hidden away in a beautiful covered market with ornate architecture and statues to decorate.

We also found a sort of market that just seems to have second hand book shops. There were tons of them! Sadly, they all seemed to have just Turkish books. This second-hand book area once again confirmed an Istanbul trend that we have observed: all the shops of a certain kind seem to flock together, if you will. There is a light district, which is streets with just lamp shops. Lamps of all kinds, chandeliers, ornate lamps, trendy lights, etc. Pretty cool. Then there's the musical instrument district. Tons of shops with drums, stringed instruments, you name it; all on a few streets clustered together.

After our shopping we stopped to refresh ourselves with a warm cup of sahlep, a traditional Turkish winter drink made from ground tapioca or orchid root. Its served hot, and its white, and has a sort of milky texture with a generous sprinkle of cinnamon on top. Lovely.

Anyway, it was a good day. Unfortunately, I developed a headache, which is decidedly un-festive, so I stayed in while Richie went to meet friends for some holiday cheer. I think he's treating himself to a Guinness at the Irish pub.

And now I'm off to bed.

A small mosque on Istiklal Caddesi

The ornate gates to one of Istanbul's most elite high schools, Galatasaray Lisesi. About two seconds before I took this photo there were about 30 police officers standing outside the school, because just to the right of the school a Turkish Communist Party gathering/protest had just finished. There are always large groups of riot police on Istiklal when ever any sort of protest or march is taking place.

A small part of the second-hand bookstore 'mall'

Some beautiful antique silver Turkish coffee serving sets

Lots of really interesting and beautiful antiques

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Antioch/Hatay/Antakya... a place where Christians, Muslims and Jews all live together peacefully!

I had an interesting talk with one of my students today. Her name is Polyana and she's very sweet. I was talking with a few students on our break about Christmas, and she mentioned that she's Christian too, which I had guessed before, but I didn't think it was appropriate to ask.

So, anyway, I asked if she was going home for Christmas, but she said her hometown is too far away to go, so she was just staying in Istanbul. She drew me a map of Turkey on the board and told me that her town is called Hatay, also known as Antakya, which, for all you Christian-history-savvy readers out there, is called Antioch in English. This is the ancient city where the term 'Christian' was first used and both Sts. Peter and Paul preached there at one time.

She explained to me that Hatay won the Nobel Prize because there is such a mix of religions in the town/city all living together peacefully, which hasn't always been the norm in the last hundred years of Turkish history, nor I suppose in many regions of the world. There are five different types of Christianity to be found there: Syrian Catholic, Maronite, Greco-Melchite, Greek Orthodox and Syrian-Tacobite. I don't even know what all of those are. There are also obviously Muslims, including the Turkish Muslim minority the Alevi, as well as a Jewish population.

According to my guide book, Hatay/Antakya was Arabic in culture and language until 1939 when it was unified with the Turkish Republic, although it says that a number of the locals still speak Arabic. It sounds very remarkable for this one city to have such a mix of different varieties of Christianity and Islam, plus Judaism.

So, I told this student that I would research more about her hometown and in the summer on our big trip, I'm going to go and visit her at her parents house! Who knows if that will happen, but it would be pretty cool.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Early, early stages of summer travel plans...

Well, I know it may seem a bit premature, but I've decided to start doing some research for our GREAT SUMMER ADVENTURE around Eastern Turkey. I am planning to research different cities and towns, as well as general regions that we might like to visit during our travels, and find out as much information as I can about transportation, accommodation and interesting things to see. So, then we should have a decent idea of where to go and where to skip, etc.

So, a possible start for your journey is the city of Trabzon, on the Black Sea coast.

Well, Trabzon, founded about 756 BC, began its life as an ancient Greek city. Since it was on the route of the Silk Road, it was a place where people of different religions, languages and cultures met and mixed. It was a focal point for trade from Russia, Iran, the Caucasus and India at various times in history. Trabzon was first a Greek city, then part of the Roman Empire, and was the capital of the Empire of Trebizond and eventually became part of the Ottoman Empire. The city still has a small population of Muslim Pontic Greek-speakers. And the Laz people, who also live in neighboring Georgia, are the native people of this region. It sounds like traditional rural life is alive and kicking in the Trabzon region, apart from the rather modern urban center of Trabzon city.

Modern Trabzon's major exports (it is a port city) are its famous anchovies and hazelnuts, as well as tea. Yummy.

Apparently it has warm, humid summers and winters are cool and damp.

There seem to be a number of sites to visit in the city itself, but I think it is more important as a starting point for seeing some amazing places nearby, like the Kackar Mountains, some impressive old monasteries, and that sort of thing.

I really think travelling around Turkey is going to be so interesting. Turkey seems to be made up of a number of different minorities, and there are distinct variations in culture between different regions of the country. And this part of the world has been traversed by so many different peoples over the course of history. Greeks, Romans, Mongols, Persians, Ottomans; those are just the bigger groups, and more recognizable to people like me, I guess. But there's a lot more going on over in that corner of the world and I can't wait to see it for myself! Yeah for travel!

The city walls of Trabzon. Licensed by Creative Commons.

Hagia Sophia, Trabzon. Licensed by Creative Commons.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

A festive night with my 'dudes'..

Tonight I went to sing Christmas carols in a nearby church with some friends tonight. It was very festive. There were classic Christmas songs that we English speakers know and love, with verses in English and the second half of the verses in Turkish. I could pick out odd words and things that I understood. It was interesting to see that in the religious songs, the Turkish name for Jesus- Isa Rabbe (I guess, Rabbi Jesus?)

Actually, this reminds me of something else I learned today. I was chatting with one of my new Turkish colleagues today and she was asking me about Richie's name, and if its short for something. So, I explained it was short for Richard, as is Rick, Ricky, etc. Then she mentioned how she doesn't get why Bob is a short form of Robert (I can't say I understand it either). Just to really blow her mind, I gave her the crazy example of Peggy being short for Margaret. She laughed and told a couple other people about it. So then I asked her if there were any names like this in Turkish. She explained that two rather popular Turkish men's names, Mehmet and Mehmut, are actually short forms of Muhammad. In Turkish, unlike in other Muslim countries, it's taboo to name someone Muhammad, just like it's a taboo to name someone Jesus in English speaking countries. Anyway, just a little cultural tidbit for you.

So, anyway, after our multi-lingual Christmas singing, a few of us went for a dinner of Chinese food and then had a beer. And now, its off to bed. In the morning Richie is teaching, and I have my meditation group, followed by a bit of breakfast and coffee and then an afternoon of teaching. And on Monday, I get a whole day off work!!!! So exciting.

My teaching buddies (aka my 'dudes'), Erika and Amanda.

Amanda's cool neighbor, Jill.

A posh part of town...

So, I took some pictures during the week of Levent, one of the nicer areas of Istanbul. I come here three days a week for my tutoring job. For all you shoppers, this is an amazing shopping centre, which I think competes with the Dundrum Shopping Centre in Dublin, for all you Irish readers. The family that I tutor for live in a very posh residence attached to the shopping centre. They live on the tenth floor if the building and there is a nice view overlooking the city.

Anyway, here are some pictures. I'm not sure if they really give a very good sense of what the area is like, but you can make of them what you will.

Well, despite having a cold and not having a day off for over a week, I had a good day.

My classes at my new school are going well. I think I will really learn so much about teaching at this job, which I look forward to. It is so motivating to have students who really want to learn, who participate, and even ask to have homework so they have more opportunity to practice during the week!

And, it sounds like there are more hours available for me to work in the future, so I'm really happy about that. The woman I work for seems really nice and positive, and it is so good to feel valued for my work. I also met some of the other teachers at the school today. They were both really friendly and said that if I ever needed anything or had any questions, they would be happy to help. Again, it is so nice to be in a place where the staff help each other and to feel like part of a team.

Now I'm off to hear some Christmas caroling with a friend! Yeah, something Christmassy! Very exciting. Hopefully I'll even get a picture or two to add to this blog! I know its been a while. Well, better go. Caroling starts in 20 minutes! More later.

Thursday, December 17, 2009


I have a cold.

I am sleepy.

I want soup.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

I'm feeling rebellious!

Well, as you may have noticed, I am like a yoyo in terms of my emotional status, opinion of teaching, my ability to cope with life in general! Its all crazy, and I completely acknowledge that.

Today I just feel full of restless energy. I am sick of my main teaching job, which I will soon be leaving (I hope). And I had a strange and not very productive night of tutoring. Nothing dramatic, just not enjoyable and not particularly successful or gratifying.

I just want to cut out all the stupid annoying stuff in life and just do the good stuff. I'm sure most people feel the same :-) I don't want to waste my time doing mentally draining, depressing or stressful work when there is better stuff out there. I had such a great weekend at my new job, I don't want to wait until Saturday to have that experience again! I really want to try and be a good teacher, and I want to be in an environment where I can really do my best and learn to do my job properly. And I want to enjoy myself at the same time!

I have just gotten so caught up in worry and always thinking about teaching; feeling anxious and stressed and obsessing about my job, and whatever. I know that the problem exists in the way I am perceiving all of this, the way I'm worrying about my own success or failure, the expectations I have about the job, the students, my role as a teacher, etc. I just don't know how to detach myself from all this worry, all these thoughts that keep swirling around in my mind.

Today, all I want is for me and Richie to pack our bags and just hit the road. I want to forget about all the stress, all the worry, and go out and feel alive again. I'm sick of buying into the whole idea that I am defined by my job, and especially by my own interpretation of 'success' or 'failure' in that job. I'm not actually failing at my job at all, but I just have this nagging, irrational fear of failure about the whole thing.

I want to be on a bus, with all my worldly possessions packed into a rucksack, a good pair of shoes on my feet and a map, and just head for the horizon, some place I've never been before. I want to shake the dust off my feet, forget about the rat race and go live it up in the big wide world, meeting people, enjoying the amazing things in life, seeing beautiful places, walking out in the wilderness, seeing the sun come up, sleeping soundly, hearing birds sing...

Maybe this is just my after-5pm cappuccino talking. Maybe its the fact that I'm a nature loving person trapped in a huge, busy, polluted city. Maybe I'm meant to be some kind of crazy wandering gypsy type person roaming the earth, instead of trying to climb up the career ladder. Or maybe its just past my bedtime and I'm delirious. All I know is that one half of my brain is certain that a person is more than their job title, that life is about more than the things you can write in your resume, that people and relationships and experiences are what life is all about, but that isn't getting through to the other half of my brain at the moment.

Anyway, all I can really do is try to get a good night sleep and let this internal warfare play itself out in its own time. But in the meantime, I'm gonna think rebellious thoughts!

Saturday, December 12, 2009

BEST DAY EVER! ( I know I've said that before, but this day was really amazing.)

Today was fantastic. I knew that teaching could be enjoyable and rewarding!

This morning I started new classes at a new language school. Actually, Richie got hired there first and also gave them my CV. So we both started there today. It was strange and very nice to be working in rooms next door to each other and then heading home together on the metro.

Anyway, I had two one-to-one classes. Both were lovely. I had classes with two women, both about my age, I think. Since it was our first lesson, and they both are really keen to get more comfortable in everyday communication, we just talked and talked. It was nice.

I especially loved talking with my second student of the day. She is Armenian, and I learned so much during our conversation. In case you don't know, Armenians were an important minority in the Ottoman Empire. They were significant in trade, and I think, in administrative positions in the government, and played an important role in Ottoman society. Now, there are very few Armenians left in Istanbul, or Turkey, for that matter. Many have emigrated to various parts of Europe and America, and there is also Armenia the Country, which is where, presumably, many Armenians live.

So, basically this three hour class was me and this lovely woman talking about culture, travel, Armenian and Turkish culture, religion, marriage, family, children, etc. She showed me Armenian script, which is a form of writing unlike anything else I've ever seen. She taught me how to say some basics in Armenian (I have obviously forgotten those already), and since Armenians are Christians, she is going to give me directions to a place where I can get a Christmas tree! So exciting.

It was crazy to have a day at work where I just felt like I made new friends. And the school itself has a lovely manager/co-owner. And its in a great location and a nice old building. I think this is going to be a pretty good job. I'm so happy about it.

I really can't wait to go to work again tomorrow afternoon and talk with my lovely student again! I am so interested in learning more about Armenian culture as the weeks go by! So cool. It is so rewarding and encouraging to know that there really are nice teaching jobs out there.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

A good but exhausting day

I'm absolutely wrecked tired, so I'll keep this short and to the point.

Got up at 6.30 am. Took Metro to Taksim Square. Met a friend and waited for our driver to pick us up. Went to Security Department office to collect my residence visa. Waited for about an hour or so, so friend could get some paperwork done to get her residence visa.

Went back to Levent, and drank coffee. Talked about politics, world travel, culture, quality of life in various countries, etc. Went to get the service 'bus' to go to college to teach for five consecutive hours.

Taught for five very long hours.

Went to Besiktas for job interview. Had no idea where the school was.

I go into a random shop and say 'pardon' and point to an address on an email from the school. A very nice Turkish man walks me to the language school. This probably takes about 20 minutes and we talk using random words of English and Turkish. I shake his hand and say 'cok iyi!' and 'cok tesekkur ederim' which means 'very good!' and 'thanks very much!' He seems happy to be helpful and I am amazed that a stranger left his cup of tea and friends to walk me all over the place. Turkish people are great.

Had strange meandering 'interview' sort of thing. A teacher at the language school didn't show up for classes. I am asked to 'teach' the class for an hour or so. No preparation. Mental.

I stumble through a conversation class with students I've never met before. We talk about Top 10 Places to Visit in Turkey, and I receive a geography lesson. We also talk about Utopia to fill up time. I survive for about 57 minutes of class and let the students loose.

I am basically given a job and promised an email with a prospective schedule. Lovely. Will start this weekend. Went out to dinner with Richie and a couple of friends, had a drink and now its 12.30am. I have to wake up at 8-9 and plan for a full day of teaching and private lesson.

Not a bad day.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

A turn of events....

Well, my last post was less than cheerful, but I think in the course of the last 24 hours there has been some good news. Or at least some potential for good news.

One happy thing is that Richie has found more work! He'll still have a few hours a week at his current job, but he's starting some one-to-one English lessons through another language school this coming weekend. We're not sure of the details yet, but he should have a fairly full teaching schedule once all of that gets started. And that is AMAZING news, indeed. I think we'll finally be in better financial standing, and I can stop stressing out about the money situation.

On another positive note, I have two schools to call today about potential work. I'm not sure what hours they are looking to fill or whatever, but still. I will be very happy to have some alternative teaching work sorted out, so I'm keeping my fingers crossed that at least one of these jobs works out. Hopefully I'll have some news this evening.

So, that's it really. Richie has gone to get some eggs and I'm going to cook up some big, fat vegetable omelets soon. Ah, he's here!!! Food!!!

Saturday, December 5, 2009

It was a tough week, but I made it through!

Well, its been an 'interesting' and exhausting week, but I survived.

The good news is that I started some evening tutoring with an 11 year old Turkish/Spanish girl. I met her mother a week ago at the meditation group a friend and I started, and she asked if I could do some intensive English tutoring with her daughter. Its good pay, and it should be fairly enjoyable work, so I'm happy about that. It also takes off some of the financial pressure we've been under, so I think now we'll be able to take a sigh of relief, at least for the moment.

It was a particularly busy and stressful week though, and I'm pretty tired today. I don't like to sound all negative or anything, but I'm really feeling the strain of all this new living experience and the stress of teaching. I feel like I've been through a bit of an emotional whirlwind for the past month or so. The teaching job I have is quite challenging, and it really isn't what I expected. Class sizes are huge, students have very little motivation, resources are scarce and there isn't very good support for teachers. And unfortunately, the university I work for seems more interested in making money than providing quality education for students. With the cut in hours and pay that happened a couple of weeks into my 'contract', I'm earning very little money in comparison to the number of hours I'm working, and in comparison to the wages offered by other language schools in the city.

I don't know what to think of it all. I guess no matter where we went, I would probably feel this way at some stage. It is difficult to live in a place where you can't speak the language and communicate easily with most of the people you meet. I think adjusting to a different culture and way of life is always difficult, but I also know that its a valuable experience, even if it doesn't always feel like it. I'm trying to stay as open minded as possible during this emotionally trying time, and to use this as an opportunity to better understand what life is like for other people in the world. So many people in the world have to leave their homes in search of work, better opportunities for themselves and their families, to escape all types of disasters, persecution and suffering. They don't always have a choice in the matter, and they have to go through all the trials of adapting to life in a new country, learning new customs and cultures, struggling to learn new languages while trying to make a living. And often they are treated poorly in the countries where they relocate, facing racism, prejudice and lots of uncertainty and financial insecurity. It must be so difficult to cope with so much change and challenge. And many don't have the option of returning home because things are too hard in their new country.

Richie and I chose to come here, and this is only for a year or so. We know we can eventually return home and settle down into good jobs and have our old life back, more or less. We also get to look forward to some travel and adventure in the summer. Even though we don't have tons of money at the moment, we're not really in really bad financial trouble. And we know that if for some reason, things don't work out, we can return home and we have family and friends to help us. I realize how lucky we are. I am dealing with just a tiny fraction of the difficulty that many other people face every day, and my heart goes out to all the people in the world who are trying to survive and cope in a new place, facing difficult odds, and who don't have any other choice.

Well, on another note entirely, I should have my residence permit sorted out this week. That will be one less thing to worry about and it will mean I won't have to do a 'visa run' once every three months.

I think this year, at least until June when my job is finished, will be hard work, and we won't really be able to do much travelling or anything, since Richie's working weekends at the moment and I'm working the other five days of the week, but I've decided that to help me get through it, I'm going to really plan for about a month of travelling around Turkey and maybe some of Greece, Bulgaria, Croatia, etc., when my job is finished. I really want to get out there and see some of this amazing country. Having that goal in mind should help me stay positive throughout the next six months or so.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

A horrible, long day looming ahead...

Well, tomorrow I am supposed to get my residency visa. That sounds great.

The bad part is that I have to wake up practically in the middle of the night, get the metro at about 6am, and travel about an hour to the language school headquarters to be picked up by a driver who will then take me to the Security Department office or something. Then I may wait around there for any length of time: 5 minutes, hour and hours, who knows? to get my visa sorted out. Then will I travel the hour back home, or just hang around waiting for my afternoon of teaching for 5 hours followed by 2 hours of private tutoring?

I won't get home until around 9.30 or 10pm. Long day. At the moment, I think I'm about to lose my mind thinking about it. I know its only Wednesday, but I am so, SO looking forward to the weekend. Sigh.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Some holiday gift ideas

Well, the holidays are coming up, and that's something to be happy about! I only get a day off for Christmas, but since Christmas is on a Friday this year, its nice to know we'll be able to enjoy a long holiday weekend.

I've been thinking about gift buying a bit, and I know I have to overcome my procrastination tendencies and shop early, otherwise things won't arrive in Ireland or America until weeks after Christmas.

Anyway, I was also thinking about some creative and helpful gifts to give this year. We are all so fortunate as to have our basic needs met and to live pretty comfortable lifestyles, even despite all the economic difficulties so many of us are dealing with at the moment. I always think that the holiday season is a great time to think about how good our lives are, how much love and support we get from and can give to our family and friends, and to think of how we can spread that love and goodness to people who lack our abundance and good fortune.

I've made a list of some of the charitable organizations I think are doing really important work around the world. Maybe some of you will be inspired to give a holiday donation to one of them. And, as it might not be the easiest thing to ship anything to Turkey for Christmas, maybe you'll consider supporting one of these charities instead of sending me a gift. I won't speak for Richie though! I don't want to deny him any Christmas gifts that may be heading his way!

In Tibet, 1 in 15 women who become pregnant die before or during delivery. And among children born healthy, 1 in 5 will not live to see their 2nd birthday. According to statistics, it is three times safer to be a US soldier serving in Afghanistan than to become pregnant in Tibet.

The Surmang Foundation medical clinic provides valuable healthcare, training for health workers and education support for monks, nuns, and common people of Eastern Tibet. Their important work is improving the lives of so many people.

I hope you will visit the Surmang Foundation's website to learn more about the various projects helping the people of Tibet and consider supporting them in their work through the Prayer Flags: Make a Wish campaign. For a $25 donation, your wishes, intentions or prayers (for yourself or others) will be written on a prayer flag and flown at the Surmang Monastery in Tibet.

Prayer Flag Promotion

Last year I read the amazing novel called What is the What, by David Eggers. It's about the life of Valentino Achak Deng, a Dinka man from Southern Sudan and one of the 'Lost Boys'. His story is so inspiring, and this man not only survived the horrors of the Sudanese civil war, but has earned himself an education in America, has overcome the trials and difficulties of making a life for himself in American culture, and has started a foundation to support education and development in his home region in Sudan. I strongly recommend that you read his book and visit the Valentino Achak Deng Foundation website to see the great work that is being done in Marial Bai with the Foundations support. Also, if you are interested in reading the book, you should know that all the profits from the sale of the book go to the Valentino Achak Deng Foundation. So, you can kill two birds with one stone there!

There are great pictures, videos and information about what you can do to support peace and development in Southern Sudan. You can also make a donation that will really help the foundation continue its education centre project and provide opportunities to young Sudanese people, especially girls, who need a quality education if they are to survive in the world.

The WWF is the biggest international conservation organization in the world. They work on so many projects helping to protect vulnerable wildlife, conserve endangered habitats and work with and assist local people in working towards sustainable development. I think they take a realistic approach to conservation and are also very concerned with the human element involved, making sure that habitats and animal species are saved from extinction while helping people to make a better living and enabling local people to benefit from their natural resources in a responsible way.

You can learn more about the WWF's work around the world. There are many campaigns to support, and you can even write a letter to your local congressman or a government official thousands of miles away to encourage them to protect endangered wildlife. Or you can visit the Gift Centre to symbolically adopt an endangered species on behalf of an animal lover in your life.

Anyway, these are just a few interesting charitable organizations doing compassionate and life changing work in the world. If you support a charity, I would love to hear about it and I will add it to my holiday charity gift list! Please leave me a comment.

I hope everyone's holiday season is off to a good start! Happy gift giving!

Friday, November 27, 2009

Kurban Bayram

Well, today is Kurban Bayram, which is one of the most important Muslim holidays. Kurban means sacrifice and Bayram is the Turkish word for 'holiday'. So, this is the Sacrifice holiday.

This day commemorates the story in both the Bible and the Koran, when God commanded Abraham to sacrifice his son. In the Bible, its Isaac whom Abraham is supposed to sacrifice. But in the Muslim version, its Abraham's first son, Ishmael. The founder of Islam, Mohammad, was an Arab of course, and Arabs claim to be decedents of Ishmael, which makes them sort of cousins of the Jews I suppose.

Anyway, God commanded Abraham to kill his son, but at the last minute, God said he didn't have to, and a sheep appeared nearby, which Abraham offered to God instead. In the Bible version, Isaac is said to have had a stutter, quite possibly because of this very traumatic event in his young life. It is a very strange story in many respects. Poor Isaac. Or Ishmael.

So, the custom on this day is for families to buy a sheep, goat or cow and have the animal sacrificed. Because its rather expensive, a few families might cover the costs together and share the animal, or if you are particularly rich, you can afford to buy your own animal. You can then kill the animal yourself, by slitting its throat in the 'hallal' way, or you can have a butcher do it for you. The animal is then butchered and you are then supposed to give most or all of the meat to the poor; perhaps homeless people, or poor people in your neighborhood, or even institutions who will use it for the benefit of the needy.

Near the college where I teach, there have been big tarp tents set up for the past week. Inside are tons of cows, all waiting for today. In Istanbul, being a very large city, there are certain areas designated by the government for sacrificing animals, but I think in some traditional neighborhoods, people ignore the law and sacrifice their animals in their back garden or out in front of their house or apartment. It is sort of strange to think that animal sacrifice is still something that a number of cultures and religions sacrifice. In Christianity, animal sacrifice is something that happened in ancient times, and it seems like a very distant practice.

Actually, I was on the bus leaving school with a couple of my fellow teachers, and we saw all the cows in their tents. One of the teachers commented that sacrificing them is a very outdated practice and really unnecessary. However, one of the other teachers pointed out that really its not much different than having animals killed commercially for food. And at least if you kill your own animal, you have to connect that yummy steak or burger your eating came from a once living animal. I think their are many people who are squeamish about animals being killed, but have no qualms at all about eating them. I don't think that everyone should be vegetarian or anything, but I think that people should be realistic about the connection between enjoying eating meat and the treatment of animals. Another thing I would say in defense of Kurban Bayram or any other animal sacrifice, is that it is a way to redistribute wealth in society. Rich people pay for the animal and then give it to the poor, who might not usually be able to afford the luxury of meat. And I would guess that just about every culture had animal sacrifice at one point in their history. It acted as a way to alleviate the guilt and uncleanliness of killing another living creature by sacrificing it to a god.

Okay, well, anyway, those are my thoughts on Kurban Bayram. Enough of my rambling.

Oh, and for all of you Americans reading this, I hope you had a great Thanksgiving!

Thursday, November 26, 2009

My first conversation in Turkish!

It was extremely short and extremely basic, but I think Turks are very gracious and if you even make an attempt at speaking Turkish you are warmly rewarded with a big smile, a look of pleasant surprise and some good hearted laughter.

I talked with the guy who works in the cafe at the language school where I did a class last night. I was able to say hello (Merhaba), ask him how he was (Nasil sin?), tell him I was fine (Iyiyim), wish him a happy holiday (Iyi Bayramlar) and say good evening to him (Iyi aksamlar). VICTORY! It involved a lot of me looking at the ceiling trying to remember things and lots of 'uuuuuh's but still. This was a major breakthrough!

The Blue Mosque Revisited

Last week myself and Richie returned to the Blue Mosque with a fully charged camera, ready for action. It was pretty annoying last time to have the camera die in the middle of our excursion. So, we took some more photos this time to fill in the gaps.

First of all, when you come to the Blue Mosque, you see a wall surrounding the whole structure. All the mosques I've seen in the city have this sort of outer wall, and in the case of smaller mosques, they keep the inside building from the eyes of passers-by. You get a glimpse of the mosque and some people coming and going from the street, but its as if the inner spaces are protected from the outside world and the curious onlooker. The Blue Mosque is, of course, huge, so it is impossible to hide it behind a wall. But this wall sort of creates a sense of coming closer to a sacred space, and its a little bit quieter, a little bit more peaceful, than the busy bustling world you've just come from.

This garden area is very simple. Just grass, some trees, some simple plants and shrubs. Nothing to flashy or ostentatious. Its just very natural feeling and fresh. Here you can see the place where those heading in to the mosque for their prayers do their ritual washing. It varies with different Muslim denominations, but in general, before prayer Muslims wash their hands, feet and face. I think Turks take the idea of keeping the dirt of the world outside the home quite seriously, and I've read that they are known for having immaculately clean houses. Some of the same applies here. In both a physical and spiritual way, you should clean off the dirt and impurities before you come into a place of prayer. On this particular day, I could see a few men sitting on the marble benches washing their feet.

From here there are stairs leading up in to the inner courtyard. The huge mosque is right in front of you and it is just so impressive. It is such an artistic building, and yet very simple. It is beautifully proportioned, with its six minarets and lovely arches. Above the big door/gate to the inner courtyard, there is a big green plaque with gold script in Arabic. I would imagine this is something from the Koran, but I'm not sure.

So, you go up the stairs, all marble of course, and enter the inner courtyard. Everything is white marble, and clean and crisp. As soon as you enter this space, you can feel the calm and quiet of the atmosphere. The noise of the outside world is far away and all you have is this lovely peacefulness like a blanket around you. This is a place where I would love to just take up a place in the corner somewhere, and sit and sit. It felt so good, especially in a noisy bustling city like Istanbul, to find such a serene space.

That's me in front of the old fountain.

Richie having a look around.

We didn't go into the mosque again. It seemed like afternoon prayers might start soon. So we went for a cup of tea, and then as we started heading home, we did indeed hear the call to prayer. We were between the Blue Mosque and another smaller mosque and it was so cool to hear them taking turns singing. It lasted for at least five minutes I'd say. I really love hearing the call to prayer. When I hear it, it just reminds me that 'Oh my god, I'm in Istanbul!' I like to take it as an opportunity to wake up from my thoughts or whatever I'm doing, to take a deep breath and remember I'm alive and what a wonderful thing that is.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Byzantine Cistern

Today Richie and I visited the Basilica Cistern in Sultanahmet. This underground cistern was built during Byzantine times in the 500s or 600s AD. It was quite amazing. Luckily, pictures can show much better than I can describe it. I love to see buildings and things like this. I can't help but be amazed that hundreds or even thousands of years ago, people were creating such beautiful architecture, despite having much more limited technology available than we do. Also, it is sort of humbling and awe-inspiring to be in such ancient places and to think of how many generations of people lived and died here, and how many layers of history are evident wherever we go.

This stone pillar marked the official centre of the Byzantine Empire. All distances in the empire were measured from this point.

This is the remains of what was once a Roman triumphal arch.

Here are pictures from inside the cistern. There were hundreds of columns, and these were brought from all over the Greek and Roman world. It was fed by aqueducts and stored the water used by the Emperor's palace. Its pretty huge!

This is called the peacock column because of the design carved into the stone. One story connected to the column is that the carvings are shaped like tears, and symbolize the suffering of all the slaves who built the cistern. Very melancholy.

There are tons of fish swimming in the couple of feet of water in the cistern. Some of them are huge! I wonder what they eat? Here are a bunch in the 'wishing well' next to the peacock column.

These are two gorgon heads at the base of two of the columns. Apparently there are two stories about Medusa the Gorgon. In one, the Gorgons are three sisters. Medusa is the one who had snakes for hair and turned anyone who looked at her to stone. In another story, Medusa was a beautiful woman, who was always boasting about her black eyes and beautiful hair. She was in love with the hero Perseus. However, goddess Athene was also in love with Perseus, and was jealous of Medusa. So, Athene turned Medusa's hair into snakes and made it so that anyone she looked at turned to stone. I imagine that this greatly reduced her chances with Perseus. Eventually, in both stories, Perseus kills Medusa by cutting off her head. Then he uses her head to overcome many of his enemies by turning them to stone by showing them Medusa's head.

Since the Gorgons were creatures of the underground, images of them were placed in underground places, such as this cistern, to protect the structure. Their heads are placed sideways or upside down so that the people looking at them won't turn to stone.

Saturday, November 14, 2009


So, Tuesday 10 November was mine and Richie's third anniversary! It was a lovely day and we enjoyed celebrating three happy years together in this great city we're in!

We had dinner at a local place known for its excellent homestyle Turkish food, and went out for a drink and tea and talked and talked. It was great and so relaxing. Can't wait for our other third wedding anniversary in July!

We visited the Museum of Modern Art with a friend. It was interesting to read about the development of modern Turkish art and how politics and art can be so interconnected. For me, not being the most sophisticated critic of art, reading about the history and politics aspect is more enjoyable than actually looking at the paintings.

On our walk back home from the museum I just had to stop and take pictures of some of the beautiful mosques and other buildings we passed. And it was a beautiful autumnal afternoon, with lovely light and clouds, and the sun low in the sky. The mosques were of a very interesting architectural style. Rococo? I'm not sure. Pretty cool though.

Turkish flags and banners of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk displayed in preparation for Republic Day, Turkey's national day, which was October 29th. The whole city was draped in bright red giant Turkish flags.