Sunday, 28 December 2008

Honest (S)crap

I wasn't going to post again until January 2009, but my blogging mate Jacqui kindly gave me this wonderful award and having pasted it into my blog, I now have to come up with some pithy and honest things about myself, so here goes:

1) I am crazy about cats. If I had a lot of money, I'd have dozens. I will walk across the street to pet a cat and as far as I'm concerned, all cats are lucky, no matter what their color and no matter whether they cross my path from left or right. So what if I'm allergic?

2) I'm an awful liar and I can't figure out why this is. When I was a kid, I fancied myself a pretty good liar, but now I wonder if I really was. After my mother died, I happened to find one of her diaries and I found out she'd known all along that I stole dimes from her purse when I was five. I think this shook my confidence.

3) I hate being accused of things I did not do. Nothing enrages me more than someone who tries to blame me for his or her own mistake. It drives me wild when my husband and kids ask me what I did with their things. Why don't they just learn to keep better track of their own possessions? Why should it be my responsibility?

4) Whenever I can't find something of mine, the first thing I do is look for someone to blame.

5) I love country and western music, and gospel. I am also crazy about enka, both Korean and Japanese.

6) I had a horrible time in high school due to shyness, nerdiness, and the fact that my sisters and I never figured out how to behave like everyone else.

7) I have no fashion sense; I depend on others with better taste to help me pick out clothes when I absolutely have to look good.

8) I have no sense of direction. This has caused me a lot of misery throughout my life, but I am convinced it has also helped me learn languages.

9) If I don't spend at least part of my week writing, I drive people insane by talking too much. If I don't write, it's tough on everyone around me.

10) There are times I think my IQ must be well over 160 and I wonder why the people around me can't understand the things I understand; there are other times I wonder if it's even 100 and I hope to God the people around me never figure out just how much I don't know.

And now I pass the honest baton on to Kim, Kara, and Kanani.

Saturday, 20 December 2008

Fast Food Angel

The woman didn’t look like an angel. She was short and squat and tired looking, with three squabbling kids, all under the age of ten. My friends and I were just behind her in line and we watched as she negotiated the counter, getting her children’s orders straight, taking her coin purse out of her shoulder bag and carefully counting out the money. She was wearing some sort of cleaner’s uniform and a pair of old shoes with the heels turned down, and she looked as though she’d had a long, hard day.

Just as she received her order, an ill-dressed man sidled up to the line. “Spare change?” he muttered.

The man reeked of alcohol. His long grey-streaked black hair was dull and greasy and he had obviously been sleeping in his clothes for God knows how long. We all shook our heads and averted our eyes, and so did the cleaning lady.

“You can’t give money to guys like that," one of my friends said. "If we gave him money, he’d just go out and get drunk with it.”

The rest of us agreed. We were students, after all. We didn’t have much money and we weren’t about to waste it on some street person who’d just blow it on a bottle of cheap wine.

Just across from us, the cleaning lady was getting her kids settled, pulling hamburgers and packets of French fries out of paper bags. Two of her children quarreled over who had asked for the cheeseburger and she sorted that out, then distributed drinks. Her own meal sat untouched on the table.

My friends and I had just started to eat when we saw the woman get up from her table and get back in line. We assumed that she’d forgotten something one of her kids wanted, but after she'd paid for her second order she walked over to the ill-dressed man, who was sitting by himself at a table, trying to get warm. Silently she handed him the food -- two hamburgers and a cup of coffee -- and placed them in front of him.

It was hard not to watch as the man tore the paper off his first hamburger and began wolfing it down with swigs of coffee. He almost spilled it in his eagerness to get food and drink to his mouth.

My friends and I watched this in open-mouthed amazement. “She’s one of those Jehovah’s Witnesses or something,” someone at another table muttered. We all watched and waited for the woman's save-your-soul pitch to begin.

But the woman wasn’t rummaging through her bag for a religious tract; she was finally eating her own dinner, reaching to steady the drink of one child, to wipe the nose of another. She ignored the street man, who all but inhaled his second hamburger. It was clearly the first meal he’d had in a long time.

The man finished his dinner in very little time and got to his feet. Stumbling over to the woman’s table, he mumbled his thanks. The woman barely nodded back at him, and he left, letting in a frigid blast of wind as the door slammed behind him.

Decades later, I still remember that mother and her unselfish act of kindness, and how it humbled and touched us. Though my friends and I were students, all three of us were better dressed than she was, and we almost certainly had, if not more money, better prospects of getting it. But her generosity given her circumstances was not the only thing that impressed us; this woman saw a need and immediately knew the best way to meet it. She had no agenda, and unlike us, she didn't immediately think of reasons why she should not give; instead she spontaneously spotted the very thing that was needed and gave it. What a great example she was to her children -- and to us. To this day, I can think of no better personification of the Christmas spirit than that tired mother, my Fast Food Angel.

Merry Christmas to all of you and your families, and I hope to post again in 2009!

Monday, 15 December 2008

Bad Taste, Good Feeling

"CHINA EMPORIUM" the sign shouts in huge red capital letters. We've passed this place half a dozen times on our way to Nicosia, but last Saturday, longing for decent Chinese food, we finally cracked and decided to investigate.

"No way is that really going to be a Chinese food market," said my husband, the pessimist. But hope springs eternal, and after a few disappointing experiences at expensive restaurants that served stale chicken-fried rice, predictably bland chop suey, and won ton soup straight out of a can, we were ready to try anything.

As soon as we stepped through the entrance, all thoughts of black bean chicken, bok choy with oyster sauce, and mabo dofu were quickly abandoned. We weren't in a Chinese supermarket, we were in the Turkish equivalent of a five-and-ten. Instead of noodles and tea, we had plastic Santa Clauses drinking Coca Colas; simpering angels made out of wire and feathers; lamp shades done in glittery purple. We went from aisle to aisle with our mouths open in horror as we saw serving dishes encrusted with plastic sea shells, huge plastic puppy dog statues with giant pleading eyes, and velvet paintings depicting dancing ladies in skimpy costumes.

I've seen some tacky stuff in my time, but nothing to rival this. There were things so awful that we actually had to go up and touch them: great, cumbersome combination paperweight-and-clocks filled with bright shiny heart-shaped confetti; ashtrays so horrifyingly tacky they almost took your breath away. I found myself amazed: here we are teetering on the brink of a world depression. The prices of food and household goods are steadily increasing. Given that, you would think that schlock like this would never have a hope of finding a home. And yet, people were buying freely. Shopping carts were being filled. Hideous items were being picked up and fondled lovingly.

My husband and his brothers have a thing about exchanging tacky Christmas presents, so he was in heaven. "I've GOT to have this," he almost wept, nudging me. I had to cover my mouth with my hand: he was holding a plastic clock radio in the shape of a mosque with Arabic writing across the face. A metal-lined depression in the top gave me pause until I saw the grooves along the perimeter, each one the width of a cigarette. Yes, it defied belief, but it really was a mosque-shaped ashtray, clock, and radio all in one.

"Mom, come and take a look at this!" one of my daughters hissed, pointing to a giant-sized twin kitten figurine. And suddenly I didn't know whether to laugh or cry. Because those kittens brought back sweet-sour memories: I grew up around junk like this, and as a child, I thought it was beautiful.

My mother grew up in rural poverty. She and her family counted themselves lucky when there was food on the table. Every summer, my mother and her brothers and sisters went without shoes. All their clothes, handmade by their mother, were well patched and mended, generally hand-me-downs from older siblings. Doctors were only summoned when the patient was near death; my mother never went to a dentist until she was in her twenties.

Given the family's lack of money, anything store-bought was seen as automatically superior to its handmade equivalent, and my mother never got over this prejudice. I can remember going past a bin of cheap plastic airplanes in a toy store when I was ten; my mother picked one up and fingered it lovingly. "Do you like this?"

I frowned. "No. It's cheap-o."

My mother shook her head sadly as she put the airplane back into the bin. "You know, I would have done anything for this when I was your age."

Although my mother was educated, she never developed artistic sophistication. Our house was furnished with items purchased with S & H green stamps. Over our tatty green sofa hung a luridly-colored print in a cheap gilt frame, entitled 'Moon Over Capri', my mother's pride and joy. On top of our television sat a pair of ceramic Siamese cats with plastic aqua-colored eyes. This decoration could be plugged in; when it was, the cats' eyes glowed. We kids had a high opinion of this. I'm not sure how old I was when I realized how hopelessly tacky it was -- and felt ashamed.

I felt ashamed now too, but for different reasons: as a stroppy adolescent, I can remember making mocking comments about my mother's highly prized light-up Siamese cats. I wanted to distance myself from her kitschy taste -- to show that I knew what real art was.

"Aren't they awful?" my daughter whispered, pointing to the cats. And yes, they really, really were.

I saw an elderly woman pick up a pair of ceramic puppies covered with hideous spray-on fuzz. I watched her as she turned this aberration over in her hands, looking for a price tag. It must have been within her means: she put the puppies into her shopping cart, a look of quiet satisfaction on her face.

"The kittens are okay," I said to my daughter. "But I've seen better. You can't plug them in and their eyes don't light up."

She's lucky we made it out of the store without a velvet painting.

Tuesday, 9 December 2008

Personal Statement

Yesterday, Acquired Daughter asked me to look at the personal statement she is sending to the university she hopes to attend next year. Eldest Daughter, who wrote her own personal statement last year, helped her compose it and the two of them felt I might be able to make some useful suggestions about the writing.

No sooner had I read the third paragraph than I snorted in amazement. I enjoy playing sports, in particular, tennis and rugby.

Now, Acquired Daughter has a good build and, unlike me, perfectly good coordination, and I have no doubt that if she wanted to play rugby and tennis, she could. But the fact is, she doesn't want to play either, so she doesn't.

I pointed an incredulous finger at the offending sentence. "Excuse me, what is this about you enjoying rugby and tennis?"

Acquired Daughter had the goodness to look embarrassed. She told me that Eldest Daughter felt she should 'have a sport'. And really, I could not agree more.

When it came about that Acquired Daughter would be joining us for our year abroad, my hope was that she and Eldest would inspire each other to be more active. Although they are strong, capable girls, they also have strong couch potato tendencies and, given the choice of whether to spend a day hiking in the hills or sitting on the sofa watching Korean dramas on their laptops, there is no contest. I find this so sad. At their age, I was skinny and even more uncoordinated than I am now, and my parents did not push me to be more athletic. When I realized our daughters had inherited my husband's physical grace and coordination, my relief was huge. I should have realized that adolescence was just around the corner: even our youngest daughter now elects to stay inside instead of joining us for a walk. The joys of the internet combined with inertia and sheer teenage rebellion have given us three pommes de terre de divan.

Acquired Daughter won't go near water and she has no head for heights. That takes out hill walking and swimming, two activities that could easily be pursued here. Whenever my husband and I ask if anyone wants to accompany us on a walk, one or the other them will invariably come back with the following: I'll go if they go. 'They' -- needless to say -- never go.

Smart, huh?

"Listen," I told Acquired Daughter, "you can't write on your personal statement that you play tennis and rugby unless you actually do."

"Yeah, I know," Acquired Daughter admitted sheepishly.

Eldest, when cornered, bristled. "But she played it last year!"

"Come on, she played it only a couple of times and you know it."

"Well, we had to put something! She needs a sport!"

"Oh, I agree," I snapped. "You both need a sport."

"You know what I mean!"

"Yes I do, but you still can't lie about something like that."

"Why not?"

"Because a lie like that will come back and bite you on the butt."

"So how are they even going to know?" she sniffed.

"They'll meet her, eventually. And they'll see right away that she isn't a tennis or a rugby player. And then they'll wonder what else on her statement might not be true."


"What sports did you put on your own personal statement?" I asked with some trepidation.

"Same thing really."

I swallowed a sigh. Way back when our kids were small, we did everything we could to ensure that they would have active lifestyles. We took them swimming every weekend. We played ball and Frisbee in the park with them and we cycled miles together every Sunday; we watched them do ballet and gymnastics and jump rope for hours on end. They weren't exactly athletic, but they were very good. I was so sure they would grow up to be sporty, active teenagers, but how very wrong I was.

"Okay, so we'll take the rugby and tennis out then," Eldest conceded.

"There is an alternative, you know," I said, aiming for a nonchalant tone.


"You two could go out and find yourselves a tennis court. Rent a couple of rackets. Play some tennis." Please oh please oh please!

Dead silence.

"That way," I continued, "it wouldn't be a lie. And it would be great for both of you..."

Eldest looked up at me, appalled. I might as well have suggested setting fire to her hair and parading through the town backwards on a donkey.

Well, you can't blame me for trying. I suppose I can't blame them for trying either.

Sunday, 7 December 2008


Every morning on my way to my school, I go up a long flight of stone stairs. I'm an ungainly person, so I tend to look down at my feet as I climb, and I generally have a lot to think about too, so I am always lost in thought. And because of this, I invariably don't see the cleaner, the lone person up as early as I am, until I am almost past her. She is a woman about my age who looks as though she could tell a story or two. She wears a bright red headscarf over her pitch-black hair, and she is very light on her feet, so I never hear her coming. And -- shame on me! -- the following exchange takes place every single time:

Me (Flustered and caught off guard) Oh -- good morning!

Cleaner (Pointedly) Günaydın!

Every single time this happens, I cringe. Here I am in this woman's country and I cannot even manage a simple greeting in Turkish! What kind of self-respecting resident alien am I?

I've been here for almost three months now and I cannot even manage Good morning in Turkish. Because my Turkish is nowhere near basic. After three months in Japan, I knew greetings, seasons, the days of the week, even a few proverbs. I could make simple sentences, ask for directions, get train tickets, order meals, and even understand some of the conversations I heard around me. It is true that I studied Japanese before I went to Japan, but I had to get a kick-start on Japanese, given the different writing system, so I don't really count that. It is also true that I am much older than I was when I started Japanese, but I don't count that either; I am convinced that even with my aging brain I can still learn a language if I put my mind to it. Personally, I'd like to blame my teenagers, both the ones I teach and the ones I live with -- they get me so bamboozled and take up so much of my time -- but deep inside, I know very well that they're not the reason.

In fact, my failure to learn Turkish might be a combination of all the above factors, but I suspect the main problem is that I have no real motivation to learn. When I lived in Japan, I lived by myself with only a handful of English-speaking colleagues to converse with for a few minutes every day. Very few people around me spoke English and none of my neighbors did. I quickly discovered that I needed Japanese if I wanted to get my toilet unblocked in a hurry or find the one brand of orange juice that didn't have added sugar. Learning Japanese also gave me a means of making friends, and because I was very lonely on my own, this became a huge motivation.

Here, I live with my family and have no time to be lonely, so where is my motivation?

Motivation is a huge factor in learning a language. Years ago, one of my fellow English teachers commuted to a factory in Japan every Wednesday to teach a group of engineers there. Like a lot of Japanese men, the ones she taught tended to put in ten- and twelve-hour work days. They were perpetually sleepy and exhausted, and the last thing they wanted to do was learn how to speak a language they were convinced they would never need. She planned the most useful, interesting, stimulating lessons she knew how to plan, but her class remained a group of disgruntled, monosyllabic drudges who could hardly open their mouths without yawning. Then one day they got the news that their company was planning to open a factory in Wales. Some of them would be needed there. Overnight, the drudges turned into driven, committed men. They stopped sleeping in class, sat up straight in their seats, and greeted her with enthusiastic smiles every morning. Every session fairly zinged with energy and good cheer. Wednesday quickly went from being the day she dreaded going to work to her favorite day of the week.

I envied my friend from the bottom of my heart. As it happened, I also taught a group of engineers at a factory, in Morioka. I used to have fantasies about their company building a factory in an English-speaking country, but it never happened. Every Tuesday, I set off to work with a heavy heart; on my last day there, I don't know who was the most relieved -- me or my fifteen miserable students.

By far the most motivated class I ever taught was a small group of housewives whose children all attended the same middle school. This little group of women had formed and bonded when their children were tiny and they had decided that one day, when their children were old enough, they would learn English. When their husbands retired, the four of them planned to see the world together. "What about your husbands?" I asked, but they laughed. "They don't want to go to places where they can't use Japanese!" Every week, these women brought me articles they wanted to discuss -- all of them as eclectic and interesting as could be. We discussed bullying in schools, race relations in America, Japan and South Africa, Machu Picchu, pedigreed dogs versus mutts, cooking, fairy tales, poisonous snakes and spiders, and Frank Lloyd Wright. Never have I had a group of students so dedicated or passionate about learning English: they were motivated to learn because they had a dream.

No doubt about it: I need a dream. I need motivation.

Here is how much Turkish I have learned thus far: I can ask someone if she can speak English and I can tell her that I cannot speak Turkish. I can say my name and ask for someone else's name. I can ask if there are persimmons, apples, or bread in the market; I can count to 29. I know how to say good morning, good day, good evening, and good night, but the sad truth is that I never remember which is which half the time. I can say please, bon appetit, and thank you, order a cup of coffee or a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice. I know the words for water, trash, cat, lazy, new, open, closed.

Now, what I know may not be much, but you've got to start somewhere, right? And nothing is as motivating as someone who doesn't speak your own language. My Turkish colleagues all speak beautiful English, but the cleaning lady is the perfect person to start with. And while I can't very well order a glass of orange juice from her, I can certainly wish her a good morning in Turkish. And who knows? Maybe we'll go from simple greetings to brief exchanges about the weather -- and beyond.

So last Monday, I got my Günaydın! ready. I rolled it around in my mouth a few times, repeating it nervously under my breath as I began my ascent, one eye out for the cleaner in her bright red headscarf.

She was not there.

On Tuesday, I was ready for her again, but sadly, our paths did not cross. On Wednesday, it happened: she was there, cleaning pail in one hand, a cigarette in the other, her shiny red headscarf bright under the December sun.

I smiled bravely and took a deep breath. "Günaydın!"

She took a drag on her cigarette and smiled back. "Good morning!"

Wednesday, 3 December 2008

To Teach Or Not To Teach

Heads are rolling here. We are told that this is in light of the worsening world economic crisis, but no one really knows if this is really the case.

Last week, we heard a rumor that a lot of people were going to be laid off. Not long after, one of the senior staff came in, flustered and upset. "There's a crying woman in my office. Would someone please come and help her? She's in a really bad way."

One of us did, subsequently coming back with the disturbing news that this woman was our department's first job casualty -- last in, first out. She'd been given scarcely a week's notice. My heart went out to this woman, a competent and dedicated young teacher, but I found myself very nervous too: as it happens, I was one of the last in myself. Will I lose my job?

I am of two minds about my job right now. On one hand, I love teaching again. I love seeing the light of reason dawning in students' eyes. I love seeing my students' confidence grow as their English improves, and I love teaching English when people genuinely want to learn. But here is the awful thing: I have discovered that I hate teaching people who don't want to learn even more. And boy oh boy oh boy, do I have a lot of them.

"We've got a useful lesson today!" I tell my reading skills class, trying to infuse my voice with energy and enthusiasm. Actually, I'm exaggerating: we've got a dull-as-dust lesson in point of fact, but it is potentially useful. The students have to scan a website about academic subjects to glean pertinent bits of information from it. Sounds boring, right? Well, it's on the curriculum, so I have to teach it. And however boring it might be for the students to learn, trying to teach kids who spend one-third of their time sneaking peeks at their watches, one-third ostentatiously yawning and casting longing looks at the door, and the remaining third yakking to each other in Turkish, is a heck of a lot more boring.

"Ahmet and Tufan, could I have your attention please?" I cry for the fourth time, trying to keep the exhausted desperation out of my voice. Ahmet and Tufan are virtually fused together, their heads touching, deep in conversation -- I'm guessing about football. I thump my book on their desk; annoyed, they barely glance up at me, but the shy, diligent girl from Kazakhstan jumps half a foot. She studies hard, never misses a class, and listens to every word I say. And whenever I yell at the others, she blushes and practically cringes, as though she is the guilty party. I reassure her that she isn't the one I'm upset with and in doing so, lose Ahmet and Tufan entirely. They are back to their engrossing -- and very noisy -- discussion about football and the poor Kazakh girl still looks faintly shocked.

I take a deep, steadying breath and move back to Ahmet and Tufan. It's time for me to roll out my big guns. "If you continue to ignore me," I say in a low, menacing voice, "I will be forced to mark you absent."

This finally reaches them; they know I'll do it. Marking them absent is the one bargaining chip I have, and thank God for it.

"But we are here!" they sputter in righteous indignation.

"Your bodies are here, but your minds are elsewhere."

They sigh and make a great show of rolling their eyes and slumping in their chairs, but they stop talking.

"Now who can tell me if you can study sociology at University A?"

The class stares down at their books, foreheads furrowed. One boy yawns widely, flinging his head back in an exaggerated fashion, and his neighbor jabs an elbow in his ribs. They both giggle. Someone lets out a tremendous burp and half the class titters in appreciation. Several boys in the back row start talking again; I move meaningfully towards the roll book, business in my eye, and everyone immediately shuts up. Pure magic.

"Tee-cha, what means sociology?" the thick girl in the back row asks loudly.

Please bear in mind that I have explained what sociology means half a dozen times this morning. Please also bear in mind that I have drilled What does xx word mean? another half dozen times; it is even on the board.

By Herculean effort, I manage to resist the urge to roll my eyes and sigh. "It's the study of society." I know what the next question is going to be.

"Tee-cha, what means--?"

"People. Culture." God give me strength.

"Tee-cha, what means--?"

But her classmates interrupt her. "Tee-cha, break time!" two boys call triumphantly, in chorus.

The entire class lets out a collective groan. We've been through this easily thirty, forty times. "Tee-cha, break time" is the one phrase that even the most reluctant English speaker will bring herself to utter. My first month here, I got so tired of hearing Tee-cha, break time! that I taught my students the following sentence: Excuse me, Mary, I believe it is time for our break already. If anyone forgets and resorts to the illiterate-sounding Tee-cha, break time, I make the whole class repeat the full version. If anyone forgets the word already, the whole class has to say the entire thing again. I'm sorry to say that I take sadistic pleasure in enforcing this.

"Excuse me, teacher!" roar Ahmet and Tufan in what I am sure they believe is a perfect parody of me. "I believe it is time for our break already!"

Will I lose my job? I suppose it is within the realm of possibility. So thank God for Ahmet, Tufan, and the thick girl in the back row.

Friday, 28 November 2008

East: Far And Near

For the past two weeks we've been trying to get letters from our local muchtar so that we can apply for residency permits. A muchtar, as far as I can tell, is a neighborhood official whose job is sorting out all the paperwork and odd bits no one else wants to concern himself with. We've been trying to meet ours for the past three weeks and he's been an elusive guy to hunt down.

The first time we went to his house, we had a Turkish-speaking friend with us. We were on our way back from work and had all the kids in the car with us. Two of them were not on speaking terms with each other (or us) and all of us were tired and hungry. My husband and I picked our way over broken concrete paving in the dark, past pots of geraniums and portulaca. The air was scented with rotting citrus and jasmine and the smell of someone's laundry detergent.

But the muchtar was not at home. His little boy had a fever and he'd had to go to the hospital with his family. We talked to his neighbors instead. They were eating dinner, but seemed friendly.

"Maybe next week he will be home," our friend translated. "Inshallah." God willing.

The second time we went to his house, I had a fever myself, but thankfully we didn't have the kids with us. I huddled in the car, shivering, while my husband went to talk to the neighbors who at least spoke a little English. Again, they were eating dinnner. The muchtar still wasn't at home.

The third time we went to the muchtar's, our Turkish-speaking friend could not go with us. With some embarrassment and great trepidation, we went and knocked on the muchtar's neighbors' door. They were all eating dinner again, but the mother of the household obligingly got up to take us over to the muchtar's house. It was dark and I stumbled on the uneven pavement.

The muchtar was not at home.

The next time we went, he wasn't home either, but the neighbors, once again, were eating dinner. They invited us to have a cup of tea. We declined.

There are times we find ourselves wondering why it always has to be so hard at first. And we've had to remind ourselves what it was like when we first went to Japan with a nine-month-old baby.

During our first months in Tokyo after our eldest was born, we stayed with friends while I went to work and searched for suitable housing. My husband was not employed at the time, and although my school gave me a generous salary, unlike a lot of other companies, they would not sign on as rental guarantors. It is very difficult to rent in Japan if you don't have someone to agree to be your guarantor, so the only places we were able to consider were those so old and dilapidated no one else wanted them.

For three weeks, I made the rounds of every real estate agent in our area. Sometimes they took one look at my face and wanted nothing to do with me.

"No foreigners!" several called out as soon as they saw me at the door. Most were more polite, but you could see it in their eyes: they were certain we would not be able to communicate and dreaded engaging in tedious bilingual wrangles. I quickly learned to barge right in, speaking Japanese, before the agent could open his mouth to send me away. That way I was able to tell when the prejudice against me was nothing more than a perceived language barrier. Once we'd started talking and the estate agents saw that my Japanese was sufficient, everything was fine. The only problem was getting around that pesky guarantor issue. The minute prospective landlords heard we had no guarantors, they got cold feet.

After two months of imposing on our long-suffering friends, worried sick that our baby was keeping them up nights, we were ready to give up and fly back to the U.K. And then one day it happened: we found a house with sympathetic landlords whose daughter had studied abroad herself, in Vienna.

"We know how hard it is," the wife murmured. "Looking for a place to live in a foreign country."

"Our daughter has some real horror stories," the husband agreed. "It's not easy for someone who plays the piano to find a place. And I imagine it must be a lot harder with a baby."

Three days later we had moved in. That house was our home for over nine wonderful years.

Last night we went to the muchtar's house again. It didn't look like he was at home, but he was.

"Come again tomorrow and I will give you the letters," he told us as we stood in his veranda, surrounded by washing on the line and his children's scattered tricycles.

We've got our fingers crossed.

Tuesday, 25 November 2008


We finally got the internet installed yesterday.

I remember when we did this a few years ago in Scotland. A man with a black bag came and did a couple of clever things with tools and that was it -- we were connected.

Here it was a lot more complicated. My husband and I went down to an office and waited until someone who spoke English was available. We chose a packet and arranged for a suitable day. What we forgot about was the fact that we have not been given our address here. In fact, nobody seems to know it.

"You're in a brand-new unit," the estate agent told us. "We don't know what it is yet."

So on the day we were due to have the internet installed, I had to leave work early. I had to take a dolmush from my university instead of driving home with my husband in the evening as I usually do. I stood on the busy road until a dolmush came along and once it arrived, I wrenched open the door and squeezed myself inside. There was only one seat available, next to the oldest woman I believe I have ever seen in all my life outside a hospital. She was tiny and bent over and in one gnarled brown hand she was clutching a walking stick. Her head-kerchief was tied under her chin and and her full, multi-layered skirts swept the floor under her little black boots. I had to stop myself from staring at her so great was her resemblance to the witch in Hansel and Gretel.

The dolmush driver took off with a great burst of speed, scattering chickens along the side of the road. I've never yet ridden in a dolmush that didn't have loud Middle-eastern music playing, the kind you associate with belly-dancing and plaintive, passionately-sung lyrics, and this one was no exception. Because I was sitting in the front, I had the job of passing fares and change back and forth from departing passengers to the driver. At one point, I held a five-yetele note in my hand for a good minute while the driver negotiated with a noisy woman who appeared to be lost; finally he took her money and passed over the change and I was able to lean back in my seat and watch my little old lady neighbor out of the corner of my eye. She sucked the few of her teeth she had left and ignored me.

I would love to know her life story.

When I got to my stop, I managed to get off without incident. God knows how the little old lady coped; getting off a dolmush takes a heck of a lot more than un poco de gracia and if there is a way to do it that does not require one to bend over and display one's rear end to one's fellow passengers, I sure haven't found it.

When the internet man called, I was ready for him. Although we live almost next door to a mosque, it is obviously not a very successful or prosperous one: no one happens to have heard of it. So I arranged to meet him at the better-known one that is five blocks away from us -- we are spoiled for choice when it comes to mosques around here -- and he even managed to understand my awful attempt at the name in Turkish.

I stood by the side of the road for fifteen minutes, waiting for the internet man to show up. The mosque is beautiful. It is surrounded by orange, palm, pepper, persimmon and pomegranate trees. There is a tall, gruff old bushy-eyebrowed man who lives next door to it, but I know his secret: he talks what sounds very much like baby-talk to his goats and cats.

As I watched the old man and his cats, I was suddenly seized with such a yearning for my cat in Scotland that I could hardly stand it. I remembered how she would settle, purring, in my lap on cold winter days when I sat writing, a cup of coffee at hand. When I got stuck on something, I would always go outside to pull weeds or rake leaves and my cat would follow me, always a good five-minute face-saving distance behind. As I weeded, she would hunt nearby or show off prettily until I reached down and scratched her belly -- just like the gruff old man was doing with his cat. And I remembered more: how easy and convenient it was to use my computer, how plentiful our supply of hot water, and how vividly red our maple trees always were at this time of year. I pictured the Christmas lights going up in our town, a scattering of snow frosting the tips of the trees, the smell of coal smoke in the chilled winter air.

The computer man figured out who I was right away. I hopped in the front seat and we drove down the bumpy, pot-holed road, me navigating as best I could.

Along the way we passed the little old lady from the dolmush, slowly making her way home, walking stick in hand as she hobbled along the dusty road. Obviously she lives in this neighborhood.

I wonder if I will ever know her life story.

Friday, 21 November 2008

Invigilator Woman

Sometimes I look at my students and remember the thrill of being a university student. Of meeting new people and having fantastic new experiences -- and the sheer joy of a long, interesting (I was positive it would be interesting) life stretching out in front of me. But there are other times -- like these past few days -- when I think that I would not repeat my youth for any amount of anything. You see, I've been invigilating these past few days.

Personally, I hate tests. I hate the fact that in most tests there are only absolutes: everything is A, B, C or D, true or false, one and only one answer. I've never met a test without at least one question that made me sigh and wonder what the test-writer wanted me to answer, right or wrong. I hate the way tests seem to sum a person up. You scored 100%? Great -- the world's your oyster. Only got 75%? Got to try harder next time! 65? Yep, you're destined for a life of mediocrity. Human beings are so complex and tests never take into account quirks, special talents, or personality -- or whether you're the kind of person who will do the dishes when your mother has a headache. Taking tests is like being made to jump through hoops. Plus, I happen to be crap at them.

Sadly, after having taught for all these years, I do see the need for tests. At the very least, I'll finally be able to look my rowdy group of kids in the eye and say, "See? You really didn't know the present perfect! Now will you settle down and listen to me?" And if you've got to give tests, you've got to make sure that they are as good as possible, and you have to make sure that they are given fairly. Which is where the invigilator comes in.

I have to say that although classroom control is not my strong point in teaching, I am a great invigilator. The first time I ever gave a test, I caught a girl calmly copying her neighbor's answers while my back was turned and I hit the roof. Sure, tests are hoops to jump through, but I still hate cheating. I've never let it happen again. If any of the students whose tests I invigilated managed to cheat, I would be well and truly impressed.

Way back when I was a student, kids resorted to things like crib sheets and notes scribbled on hands and arms. These still exist, but there are also cell phones, tiny little cameras, and other sophisticated devices I won't even bother trying to describe. Divesting students of their coats, sweaters, bags, cell phones and assorted documents took up a good fifteen minutes.

"Check their I.D. cards," my Turkish colleague murmured, and I moved around the classroom doing this. All of the photographs had been taken a good five years earlier when these kids were still in high school, and the changes they'd gone through were amazing. One kid, a tall, bearded, bushily unibrowed young man with a sullen look on his face, seemed reluctant to produce his card. Why, I wondered? What was he trying to hide? When he finally pulled it out of his back pocket, my question was answered: the photograph showed a pimply, bespectacled nerd with a lopsided grin, but indisputably him. Smiling and blushing furiously, he shot me a look that clearly said Now that you know, please don't tell!

Once the I.D. cards were all checked and the students were all seated where we wanted them to sit -- if allowed to pick their own seats, the weaker students invariably seek out the swots for obvious reasons -- we distributed the tests and answer sheets, and the test began.

And boy, did I feel like a fraud. Because even as I stood there raking the class with my eagle-eyes, keen to prevent cheating, I could remember all too well the sheer sweaty-palmed terror of that smooth white sheet being handed to me, the sickening hush as the entire classroom quietly absorbed the horror in front of them, my mouth going dry as I saw the questions I'd never anticipated -- and the ones I had but knew I could not answer. I remembered seeing the looks of quiet satisfaction on the smarter students' faces, their calm, self-assured expressions as they completed their equations or worked out their hypotheses with disgusting ease. And I could also remember the one and only time I tried to cheat -- and failed. The teacher had wisely shuffled the test questions so that number 8 on one sheet was not necessarily number 8 on one's neighbor's.

Scanning the students' faces I could almost feel the air around me crackle with fear and panic. A girl in the front seat chewed the end of her pencil and looked up at me with desperation in her eyes. A boy in the back cast his eyes heavenward and sighed deeply. You could see it in their expressions: absolutely nobody wanted to be there. The sun outside shown brightly; the ocean was a blaze of shining blue with frothy white-capped waves. And here they sat, trapped, taking an English test.

"No talking!" snapped my colleague with perfect justification, as one boy turned to his neighbor, ostensibly to borrow an eraser. He frowned and shrugged his shoulders and looked back down at his paper.

Time passed so slowly. Scanning faces endlessly, I got so bored that I found myself irked at my colleague for marking off the time on the board -- the one interesting thing to look forward to, and it only came along every fifteen minutes!

Then suddenly I heard a low mumble and saw my unibrowed former nerd leaning forward to confer with a friend. I slapped my desk and they both looked up, stricken, twin deers caught in my headlights. "If you have any questions, direct them to us!" I said sternly.

But I felt such a fraud.

Friday, 14 November 2008

Teenager-proof Voice

I seem to spend a lot of my time nowadays yelling at teenagers.

In my classes, I have mainly boys and most of them are Turkish. Practically all of them are great loutish kids who seem determined to speak Turkish through the entire class period. Nothing delights me more than getting the odd student from a country where Turkish isn't spoken, but these students are thin on the ground. When I'm lucky enough to get one, I try to make sure that he -- it is almost always a he -- sits between two of my more talkative, boisterous kids who will then be forced to communicate with him in English. Anyone who thinks that boys don't talk as much as girls is welcome to sit in on one of my classes and find out The Truth.

I take roll in the midst of huge pandemonium. In vain, I call out for silence; I may get as much as thirty seconds of it, but then the natural restlessness my students all seem to suffer from takes over and they are back to talking, shoving, and calling back and forth. The fact that we have yet to have a spitball fight in class doesn't mean that it isn't going to happen.

"Mustafa!" I scream, knowing that I should be taking the roll in a calm, quiet voice. Mustafa, sharing what must be a hilariously funny joke with Hasan, ignores me. So does Hasan. After class, though, you can bet that they'll both be at my desk, keen as all get out to make sure that I've marked them down as present.

"Tee-cha, we are present?" they will ask anxiously, pointing at my roll book.

"I don't know, are you?" I am always tempted to rejoin; for the past hour, they've been talking up a storm and only reluctantly consenting to answer the odd question or opening their books to the right page, but sarcasm just sails over their heads. So I tap the register and show them that yes, I have marked them down as present. We have covered classroom language ad nauseam -- all the questions that students may find it necessary to ask me in class such as What does this word mean? and May we be excused? -- but I still get "Tee-cha, break time?" -- by far their favorite question -- and, more rarely, "Tee-cha, what means this word?"

Because they don't listen to me. In fact, I think I must have some sort of special teenager-proof voice that cannot penetrate the adolescent brain. Back in the States when I was doing my teaching practice, I had to project my voice over a room full of noisy adults. Traffic sounds of screeching brakes and honking horns outside wafted through the classroom windows, causing me to further strain my vocal cords. And frankly, classroom management has always been a trial for me, but I look back on that loud, noisy class of adult immigrants with nostalgia. I look back on every class I ever had in Japan with nostalgia too, because most of my students listened to me. Sure, sometimes I had to repeat myself and I almost always went home hoarse, but they listened. As far as Mustafa, Hasan and all their buddies are concerned, I might as well be a noisy diversion standing at the front of the classroom, unaccountably ruining all their socializing opportunities.

Today, though, we had a breakthrough and I'm truly amazed.

The day didn't start out well. Our water pump has some sort of malfunction and in the midst of my shower, just as I'd lathered up my hair, the pipes went dry and once again I had to rely on mineral water to rinse. Chilled mineral water, I might add. Then I found that the kitten my daughter brought home (despite the 'No Pets' stipulation in our lease) had dug up my pot of herb seedlings. My own kids require a lot of shouting themselves from time to time, and they are just as impervious to my voice as my students are.

"Want to meet me?" I asked my youngest. "Our classes finish at the same time."

"Hmm?" she responded dreamily, fiddling with her mobile.

I repeated myself.

"Sorry -- what did you say?"

Sucking my breath in, I repeated my question and the bit about when my classes finished.

"No thank you."

So at school, I anticipated the worst. My morning class is probably my most obtuse and obstreperous, and we'd already had a break in the schedule when we'd gone to see a movie -- Shall We Dance? -- in the student union. Worse still, they were expected to write about their favorite character in the movie, definitely a tall order for this lot. And sure enough, when I made this announcement, I might as well have been asking them to drink plutonium.

Then they started to write and a small miracle occurred: they really got into it.

"Tee-cha, what is main character name?"


"What is beautiful dancer lady name -- Jennifer Lopez?"

"Um, Paulina, I think."


And they were off, pencils scratching, brows furrowed, erasers passed back and forth. Dictionaries came out of bags and were thumbed through. Whatever Turkish was spoken was entirely to do with Shall We Dance? -- even I could tell.

"Tee-cha! What is name of John friend, big friend?"


"No! Chick is not big -- I mean BIG friend!"

"Sorry, I don't remember. You'll have to describe him instead."

And bless him, he did.

"Tee-cha! How do you say girl has --?" Mustafa held his hands shoulder-width apart and described a curvaceous body in the air, his eyes alight with bare-faced lust.

"A good figure," I murmured primly.

"Good figure? Please spell!"

"It starts with F. Go on -- use your dictionary."

And so help me, he did.

The same group of kids who never stop complaining about how much homework they have to do (a tiny pittance by even the laziest American's standards), were actually reluctant to put their notebooks away. No more "Tee-cha, break time?"

I left the class in starry-eyed euphoria. Maybe I'd cracked the code! Maybe I was finally getting through!

Then I saw the message from my youngest on my mobile: Mom, when do you finish work?

Friday, 7 November 2008

Water Of Life

The water man came the night before last.

Good luck seems to come in fits and starts here. We seem to go through long, difficult stretches with nothing but work, problems, and squabbling, then several good things will happen, one after another in a dizzying rush. But just as there is no cloud without a silver lining, so, it seems, is there no silver lining without a cloud. Every good thing that happens to us here seems to be followed by a not-so-good thing. Sometimes our life seems like the ultimate good news/bad news joke.

We've had water problems since almost the day we arrived. To begin with, the showers in our house had no stalls in them so the water went everywhere. Then there was no hot water and all that came out of the taps was barely lukewarm. Finally, even the lukewarm water stopped and we were left with cold showers every night. Then the water stopped altogether. For several days, we all cleaned our feet with bottled water and went to bed grubby.

Our house, it turned out, had a number of other problems too, though the rent was comparatively high. The gas leaked and the stove could not be turned on without a significant amount of trouble. The electric circuits tripped out at the drop of a hat. The oven tended to burn everything you put into it. One of the rooms got so hot during the day that the airconditioner had to be kept on 24/7 to keep it cool -- an expensive practice in a country that gets as hot as it does here. There was no dining room table, so meals had to be consumed on a plastic table outside. One of the rooms did not have a proper bed or any other furniture.

So we moved to a cheaper place where the water supply seemed secure. The first night we stayed there, we all enjoyed a cold shower, though we had to keep it down to one minute per person, ever-mindful of the possibility that it might soon run out. Who would have thought that a cold shower could feel so luxurious?

That morning the taps in our house let out their last pitiful drops of water. The one in the kitchen was the last one to give out, but before we'd had the chance to start on the breakfast dishes, it emitted a gasping sound and a few squirts and sputters of water -- then nothing. We could not wash our clothes or even our hands. The toilets would not flush. When we checked our tank, we saw that it was empty. When we asked when the next delivery would be, nobody could give us an answer.

At work, I was far too busy to do anything about this until the last minute. Fortunately, someone knew someone else who had a number. This someone knew someone who was prepared to make an emergency delivery -- for a rather high price, of course. By that time, though, we would have paid just about anything for a halfway decent shower.

Thirty minutes before the water man was due to arrive, we were outside waiting for him, flashlight in hand. Few things have looked so good to me as his truck rounding the bend, the shiny steel tank flashing as it passed under the street lights. And bless him, he even spoke English.

We watched as the water man's 13-year-old son backed the truck up to our tank, then turned off the engine, hopped out, and detached a huge hose from the side of the truck. The water man opened our tank and fit the nozzle of the hose into it. By the beam of our flashlight, we watched as the water poured out in a frothing silver stream. It was like watching an anemic person getting a transfusion; you could practically hear the tank sighing in relief and pleasure.

After the man left, we all ran into the house and flushed the toilets. The girls started washing the dishes and we all had a shower. When we tried to turn on the immersion heater, though, it tripped all the circuits and we had no electricity. The next day, we noticed that water was overflowing from our tank and creating a great lake of a puddle in which mosquitos were already beginning to collect. The town, it seemed, had finally delivered the water, only hours after our expensive emergency delivery. As usual, it was feast or famine for us. We couldn't get a tank full of water; we needed a whole flood -- and we had to pay for it, too.

My first class was at eight thirty. Preoccupied with marking papers and our electricity and water woes, I looked up in surprise when I saw my lone West African student wearing a beautiful, traditional-looking outfit.

"What's the occasion?" I asked him. "Is it your birthday?"

He smiled and shook his head. "Today I am very, very happy."


His smile widened. "I am wearing this for Obama."

Later that evening, we all watched on wide-screen t.v. as ecstatic crowds of Americans wept and cheered and hugged each other. People of all ages; people of all classes; people of all colors.

Our silver linings will always have big, fat clouds attached, but for once there wasn't a cloud in sight.

Wednesday, 29 October 2008

Talking Religion

"My country is so full of sh*t," said one of the boys waiting for the bus. "Not so much the people, but I mean the government. Just one stinking pile of sh*t."

"All countries have some wrong," his companion replied in heavily accented English. "My country has many bad things too."

I immediately moved closer, the better to hear their conversation. This sounded interesting. We English teachers are, with very good reason, forbidden from discussing religion and politics with our students, and in any case, the English level of both boys was far higher than my students' -- so much so that it was a real pleasure to overhear their conversation.

The boys were quiet for a few moments, making me worry that they had noticed my interest, so I took a book out of my bag and pretended to read it.

"The government used to be perfect! They used to treat the people with respect, you know? Like adults."

"I know."

"Now, it's religion all the time. The women must cover themselves. The men must behave a certain way--"

"My father says that religion is like alcohol," interrupted his friend, pronouncing it al-co-HOL, like almost all of my students. "A little bit of it is good for you; too much of it is like poison."

I loved this so much it was all I could do not to turn around and congratulate the boy on having such a sensible father. I turned a page instead.

"Religion is sh*t," muttered the first boy.

"Religion can make our lives fresher," parried his companion in his soft voice. "No, not fresher -- richer. It can make us better people--"

His friend snorted. "Religion makes people stupid! It makes politicians even stupider."

Turning around, I frowned and pretended to consult my watch as I surreptitiously studied them. The first boy took me aback: he was the spitting image of David Levi, a boy I went to school with; if he'd only had waist-long hair and been a few inches shorter -- and several decades younger, of course. His companion was dark and swarthy, with liquid brown eyes and black curly hair.

"But it doesn't have to make them stupider," the darker boy insisted. "Only too much religion--"

"Even a little religion can be too much for some people!" the first boy practically shouted. "If you came to my country, you would see!"

"My country too," sighed his companion.

Now I was desperate to turn around and talk with these boys. I wanted to find out what countries they were from. I wanted to ask them about their families, their own religious backgrounds, what they believed in. I wanted to tell them about myself, too -- about all the religious zealots in my family. About the holidays that were ruined by arguments over religion; the family feuds that began when my mother made the difficult decision to leave the fundamentalist church her family had belonged to for ages. But instead I scratched the back of my neck and turned another page of my book.

"Still, people can use religion to help each other," the darker boy started again, and I thought of the charity coffee mornings, the fund-raising events, all the good things so many churches do. I agreed with him.

"Help each other!" muttered David Levi's dead ringer. "They say they help people, but really they help themselves!"

Damn it, I agreed with him too.

"After monsoon," murmured the dark-eyed boy and his voice was so low that I had to strain to hear him over the noise of the traffic. I took a step back and tried to resist cupping my ears.

But just then the bus came.

Thursday, 16 October 2008

Around The World With English

Years ago when I was in graduate school, I did my practice teaching in a school where the student body was largely Hispanic and Indochinese. I taught beginning English to fifty-three adults, and one of the skills included in almost every lesson was how to extend short, informal invitations. One morning when I'd told the class to work in pairs, inviting each other to a block party, I listened in on two men, one from Vietnam, the other from Nicaragua, who were working together. I heard the following conversation:

"So you can come, yes-no?"

"I can come yes, thank you so much. Wife okay come too?"

"Of course wife okay and childrens too! All family is welcome!"

"What foods we bring?"

"Not bring anything! Bring yourself only!"

At first, I thought these men had merely improvised a script, but then I realized that their communication was the real deal. Ngoc Bao was inviting Jorge Perez to a family party. It might sound odd, but this gave me a huge thrill: a man from Vietnam and another from Nicaragua had become friends in my class and were using English -- their new lingua franca -- to communicate. What a great job I had.

Not long after this, I found myself learning Japanese in a small town. At first, I was nervous about speaking Japanese with Japanese people. I worried that they were monitoring my language for infelicities -- that they would look at my face and concentrate on the fact that I was different, not what I was saying. I gravitated towards other foreigners who were also learning Japanese: Brazillians, Chinese and Koreans, in particular. They didn't speak English and I didn't speak their languages, so there was no choice but to speak Japanese to communicate with each other. Our conversations were never at a high level and sometimes we reinforced each other's awful mistakes, but we never worried about the embarrassing faux pas we might be making. In fact, whenever we did make these, we shared them around and had a good laugh. We were all in the same boat.

Teaching English in Japan, I missed the multi-cultural multi-linguistic make-up of the classes. Almost all my classes were 100% Japanese, but the odd foreigner could really liven things up: a homogenous group of Japanese students in an English class will quickly lapse back into Japanese when the going gets tough and the teacher's back is turned; put in someone from Indonesia or France, and it is almost miraculous how quickly the brighter students will start speaking in English even after the teacher has left the classroom. Suddenly the students see the purpose to what they are doing. They see that studying English isn't just a painful exercise in futility, yet another tiresome chore to cram into an already too-busy schedule. Suddenly they can talk to people they might never have been able to communicate with if they did not share a language, however tenuously. They aren't just parroting nonsense; English is clearly the means to an end -- and an interesting end, too.

Before we got here, I had the idea that our students would be all Turkish-speaking. I pictured a group of the kind of Turks I have tucked away in my horrible bag of stereotypes: the men, swarthy and well-fleshed, smoking, six paces ahead of their modest, head-scarf-wearing womenfolk. In fact, many of our students are Turkish speakers, but they are hardly anything like the shadowy characters I pictured. And there are plenty of people from so many other countries here: Iran, Nigeria, Vietnam, Kuwait, Kazahkstan -- and many more. Every day, I hear conversations in the corridors that make me want to smile, cry, laugh out loud. Every day I hear honest-to-God communication between the most fascinating -- and unlikely -- groups of people. I could write about this country, these people, and the interesting combinations they fit into until hell froze over and I could not possibly do them justice.

But I'll give it my best shot anyway.

Saturday, 11 October 2008

Saying Something

"I had to get all American again," the elderly woman moaned to her companion as she set a pile of books on the check-out counter with a resigned sigh.

I looked up. I'd been thoroughly in my own world, happily browsing among the shelves, delighted to be in such close proximity to so many books I could read again. No one, to my knowledge, knew my nationality and since everyone around me appeared to be British, they no doubt assumed I was one of them.

"It's hard to know what to pick out," her friend agreed rather vaguely, shifting her own selection of books from one arm to the other.

"And there are just so many American books," the first woman moaned again, causing me to give her a hard look that sailed right over her silly head.

For a brief moment, I had a nasty fantasy of sticking this woman in a room with one of my English-people-hating acquaintances or relations. Part of me delighted in picturing this; part of me winced at the very thought. I really ought to say something...

"Mmm," murmured her friend, "there are a lot of American books, aren't there?"

I found myself grinding my jaw and counting slowly to ten. Of course there are a lot of American books available. There are a lot of British books out there too, to say nothing of Australian, Canadian, etc. Aren't we all lucky?

"Have you got The Secret Life of Bees?" I asked the woman at the check-out counter in my best American whine, and I spoke as loudly as I could too. Decades away from my country of origin have leached away much of the American from my accent, but I did my best to put it all back in now. No way did I want this woman to go on. I swear, if I'd had my passport on me I'd have flashed it at her. In fact, I was desperate to make it obvious that I was not Canadian.

"Got your books?" my husband asked, joining us at the check-out counter. He looked happy: he'd just found that the tiny library we were in stocked a full selection of Terry Pratchett.

"Just this one!" I said brightly, watching as the woman's friend checked out five Catherine Cookson books. "But this is such a good book, I'm just thrilled I found it!" And I'm betting the author is American too, so nyaa nyaa nyaa!

My husband was too absorbed in his books to notice my brand-new southern drawl. If the two women noticed it, they never batted an eye.

"I've read all those," the whiner remarked to her friend, tapping one of the Catherine Cooksons with her finger. "In fact, I think I've read ALL of hers."

I found the snob in me rearing its ugly head. It might be hard for some people to know what to check out, but I never have any problem figuring out what NOT to check out, and Catherine Cookson is way up there on my list. On behalf of the hard-working American novelists who wrote whatever books the whiner checked out (I tried to see, but she was holding them in such a way that I could not) and all the good British authors whose works this woman cannot possibly have read, I felt well and truly vexed. And what business does she have complaining about American novels when she's been checking out Catherine Cookson anyway?

Wish I'd said something, but it probably wouldn't have helped if I had.

Later I saw the reluctant American-novel-reading woman chatting with another friend outside. There was a charity jumble sale in benefit of a cancer society and both woman, originally light-skinned, had tanned their skins to a dark, leathery brown. They were hatless and the noontime sun was blazing down. And both women were smoking. "Put those cigarettes out!" I longed to tell them. "Giving money to a cancer charity is well and good, but you guys are crappy examples for my children. And for pity's sake, get a hat on and slap on some sun screen. Your skin can't take getting fried like that."

Wish I'd said something, but it definitely wouldn't have helped.

Saturday, 4 October 2008

Taking The Cake

Early this morning, my husband got a phone call from one of his new colleagues. There was a car for sale at a fairly reasonable price, parked in front of a hotel in the next town. Were we interested?

Personally, I don't want a car. Cars, in my opinion, are unnecessary luxuries. The house we hope to rent is not far from a good grocery store, and there are small vans, called dolmas that run from our neighborhood to our respective schools. Why buy a car when you can get around so easily on public transportation? My husband, though, has pointed out that a car will be useful when we want to tour our new country, and all the girls are keen.

So I have given in. We've been lucky enough to borrow a colleague's car, and, after very little discussion, I capitulated on the car issue. I figure it's all about picking your battles. There is little recycling in this country; maybe I can encourage everyone to start a compost heap this way. God knows the soil has little enough organic matter in it; if I agree to turn the stuff, maybe everyone will go along with this again.

We bought the car from a man called Mahmout who runs a small coffee shop surrounded by date palms. My husband, youngest daughter and I drove out in our rented car to look at it and although I was intellectually aware that there was a tiny likelihhood I might be needed to drive one of the cars back, my heart sank when I heard my husband tell Mahmout what he'd already told me -- that yes, he wanted the car. "My wife will drive it back," he said with a certain nonchalance.

And suddenly, the enormity of this hit me.

Now, I am proud to have passed my road test two years back the very first time, after a mere three years of intensive and expert instruction. That might sound like self effacing humor, but I'm dead serious. I'm not a natural driver; I'm scared stiff of machines, have utterly no sense of direction, and I have a far too healthy sense of mortality. Learning to drive trumps lots of other things I've done in my life. But driving in our new country leaves much to be desired, and I am someone who has witnessed rush-hour traffic in Paris.

"You'll be fine," my husband assured me after watching me run through the gears in our rented car. I had my doubts; just a week earlier it had taken us ten minutes to turn onto the main road we were on. I'm awful at doing things like merging and knowing when to turn off a roundabout. Still, I nodded gamely and watched as he and youngest daughter got into our new car and turned onto the main road, pulling in by the side of the road to wait for me.

It took me ten minutes to get across; the first chance to go I got, the damn engine stalled.

In fact, it did that a lot. The clutch stuck like nobody's business, and no sooner would that miracle occur -- a break in the traffic -- than the nasty thing did it again. Finally, after many false starts, I made it, but after the signal buzzer clicked off, there was still an irritating bzz bzz buzz that would not go away. I checked the signal hastily, my heart in my throat as a motorcyclist passed me suddenly, weaving between me and my husband in daredevil fashion. No, the signals were both off! It took me a nerve-racking two minutes to realize that I'd been driving with the handbrake on.

Drivers here do not seem to have heard of the 'tires and tarmac' rule that my driving instructor took such pains to drill into me. "Now are you sure you can see both rear tires and road?" my instructor must have asked me half a zillion times as I pulled up behind another car, and even now, whenever I've gotten too close to the guy ahead of me, I can hear his voice in my ear. In my desperation not to lose sight of my husband, I threw the tires and tarmac rule right out the window. I followed him so closely my heart was in my mouth lest I rear-end him. But I was so nervous about losing sight of him and spending the next several hours circling the crowded city center, I'm sure a lot of other drivers must have assumed I was being towed by an invisible line.

I'm hard put to remember when I've spent a more miserable thirty minutes. Well-fleshed ladies in head-scarves dashed out from between parked cars right in front of me. They might have been less nonchalant if they had taken in my expression of frozen terror or my white-knuckled death's grip of the steering wheel, but the looks they wore were so provokingly blase that I marveled that they had lived so long. Trucks tried to cut ahead of me; children -- off school for the Bayram holiday -- swerved crazily on their bicycles, nearly side-swiping me. My heart was in my mouth every inch of the way, and I am very sorry to say that for part of the way, I drove like an asshole. An apologetic, timorous asshole, but an asshole nonetheless. I jumped the gun entering a roundabout and got honked at, and had to put my brakes on fully when a man with an enormous bundle jaywalked in front of me. I stalled and used up every foul word I know, and when an ambulance came shrilling along behind me, damned if the engine didn't go and stall yet again.

But the ambulance made it past me -- thank God! -- and I made it home safely. Thank God, really; I certainly have -- many times over.

And when I got back to our guest house, guess what was waiting for me? In all fairness to the baker, it had spent two hot nights in the trunk of my friend's car and the jaunty bow has melted into a rather wilted mess. But who cares?

I know a miracle when I see it.

Saturday, 27 September 2008

Happy Bayram, Whatever That Is

I peek inside the packed reception room. I don't know a single person in there, and they all appear to be speaking Turkish.

Nope. No way am I going in there.

It is four o'clock, but the sun is still pouring down like melted lead. A stream of people flow through the wide open doors, joining a noisy reception line. There is much hand-shaking and kissing of cheeks and I am utterly lost. I look all around me and I cannot see one familiar face.

Because there are so many of us new teachers, no one has been able to explain just what this Bayram reception we are expected to attend is all about. "Something about Ramadan," my husband informed me hastily just before leaving for work in the morning. "To mark the end, I think."

I take a deep breath and think I've just about worked up the nerve to go in, but a quick peek reveals another volley of kisses and as I hear the enraptured greetings exchanged, I feel immensely self-conscious, as though I am crashing a private party. Worse still, a private religious party. The people inside will quickly spot my lapsed Christian soul and chuck me out in short order, as well they should. My mouth is dry.

Then I see another new teacher who looks almost as nervous as I do. She is Turkish, I know, and accompanied by one of the older teachers, but there is no mistaking it: she is quaking in her boots. I quickly latch on. "Can I go in there with you? I don't have an idea what to do."

"Neither do I! Come along, we will follow her," she says, pointing to her companion, who has already crossed the threshold. She is greeted with delighted exclamations and a volley of hands are extended for her to shake. My new friend and I trail after her like waifs, our hands timidly extended. We too are met with happy smiles and handshakes and the same phrase, repeated over and over.

Inside, the noise level is tremendous. There are little tables set up with plates of cookies and snacks, but almost no one is eating. I follow my new colleague as closely as I dare. "We just go from group to group and shake hands," she whispers over her shoulder. "They told me this would be easy, and I see they are right!"

They told me it was no big deal too, but I didn't believe them. And now I see that this really isn't a big deal; much like coming here in the first place, the only really tough thing was making the decision to cross the threshold.

By the end of the reception, which lasted barely half an hour, I believe I must have shaken over a hundred hands. Small hands, big hands, brisk hands, limp-as-dead-fish hands, moist hands, dry hands, hot hands and warm hands. The difference in human hands and each and every handshake is surely as diverse as the difference in faces and personalities.

Everyone without exception greeted me kindly and warmly.

"Happy Bayram!" the other foreign teachers and I said to each other afterwards, though our Turkish colleagues explained that the greeting they had been exchanging was more to commemorate the end of Ramadan than to enjoy it as a holiday. One woman told me that the day should be spent in quiet contemplation, not in drunken revelry. "People have lost the whole point of the holiday," she fumed. "They think that after a little fasting they can go out and get drunk as lords."

The very next day marked the end of the working week and the beginning of a one-week holiday. To our amazement, all the teachers, new and old, were given a cake to mark the end of Ramadan. Most of us pictured small confections in boxes, but when we went to collect our gifts, we were astonished to see that they were whole, fully frosted white cakes pristine in their boxes. Each one must have weighed at least a pound and they were all decorated lavishly with pink frosting bows.

Sadly, I left mine in the back of a colleague's car and forgot all about it. My girls, when they heard about this, were broken-hearted, but I reminded them that we did not fast in the first place and so were hardly entitled to it. My husband had a beer, but no one got drunk. We spent the rest of the evening in fairly quiet contemplation.

Tuesday, 23 September 2008

Have Angst, Will Travel

Ismail runs a very successful auto repair shop. I've never met Ismail or had need of his services, but I know he is successful because his shop is directly across from the guest house we are staying in and he gets a lot of business. At all hours, from fairly early in the morning until well after seven, Ismail or one of his workers is out there revving up an engine -- vrooom, vroooom, VROOOOOOOM -- and chatting with his customers. His work also entails the dragging of extremely heavy items over a gravelled stretch of tarmac, and the sound this produces really has to be heard to be believed. If you are the sort that grimaces at the sound of a fingernail dragged along a blackboard, you'd definitely have to give Ismail's gravel-dragging a miss.

It is hot here, and dusty, but it is also unbelievably beautiful From the minute our plane touched down in Istanbul, I have marveled at the trees and shrubs that grow here in profusion -- ones I grew up with, but have not seen for decades. There are eucalyptus, pepper trees, bougainvillea -- a whole botanical world I used to be familiar with. Just walking outside and seeing olives, figs and oranges on trees is enough to make me cry. And things have gone so well here that for a long time, I wondered what to write. I'm not a huge fan of travel writing where everything goes right; I'm the nasty sort who enjoys reading about the passport that went AWOL, the bottle of shampoo that decided to make a break for it, the umbrella that the traveler toyed with taking, then left behind, only to encounter the first rainfall of the year at their travel destination. So how could I be a hypocrite and treat readers to stories of balmy Mediterranean beaches and affable Turks? True, the area we are now living in resembles a building site. There are many British expatriates here, and they and the people who cater for them, seem to feel the need to post billboards every square meter, generally in lurid colors. A huge boom in property development has obviously come and gone, with many of the building sites abandoned in various stages of development. It is not unusual to see a completed villa with mature and manicured garden stuck between the concrete foundations of two other buildings, piles of bricks and bags of electrical cables still in evidence, all just a stone's throw from a massive billboard advertising a casino in flashing purple and magenta neon. Think of the tackiest stretch of road you have ever seen in Southern California, add signs in Turkish, a light, but somewhat destructive earthquake, plus a great deal of hastily-executed half-finished buildings and a generous sprinkling of rubbish, and you will have a pretty good idea of the landscape we currently enjoy. But who really cares about that when you can get freshly squeezed orange juice every 200 metres? When you have a job you were trained to do, and could, if you wished, swim in the sea up until October?

And we have been lucky: our kids are more or less coping at their new schools, and our colleagues seem an interesting, kindly bunch. My husband mentioned to one of his fellow teachers that it was difficult to get around without a car, and this man offered us his, giving us the chance to tour the countryside and visit beaches. So I have honestly pondered what to write about. So far, it almost feels like a holiday -- and who wants to hear stories of how delightful someone else's holiday is?

Then yesterday I went to meet my husband and kids after school. Wearing khaki trousers and a rumpled shirt, I got dissed by a memsahib-type in a fancy designer suit, heels, and full make-up. Youngest daughter whined that her best friend Fatima was a jerk because she thought Chinese people were the same as Japanese and insinuated that all Far-east Asians were less than civilized. She said that Ben, who is from Leeds, is a jerk because football is all he can talk about other than how many girlfriends he has. She complained that she had too much homework; that she is tired of singing the Turkish national anthem and marching around the gymnasium. Eldest was in a grumpy mood and informed me that her flip-flops were disintegrating. And flip-flops, I have seen, cost big money here -- more than I am prepared to dish out. My husband called us just after we'd walked all the way to the supermarket in the pounding heat to get muesli, which does not appear to exist in this country, along with other staples like Ryvita or peanut butter. He could not pick us up, he told us; the car had only just broken down, black smoke pouring out of it. And suddenly it hit me: this place is starting to feel like home.

Sounds like Ismail's got another customer out there. I'm betting it's a big one this time -- maybe a Landrover.

Home is where the angst is.

Tuesday, 16 September 2008

Shrink Rap: A Review

Dr Robin Altman's Shrink Rap is several things in one book: a brief introduction to the mental health problems many kids suffer with today, and a working woman's guide to managing a profession and children. I might well have bought this book to read even given our impending move, but the fact that I got a free copy absolutely clenched the deal.

I warmed to the book as soon as I read the chapter Blaming the Mother -- A Time Honored Tradition in Psychiatry. While most mothers would agree that we have a huge impact on our children, even a brief study of Freud shows you that when our offspring suffer any kind of emotional trauma, we are bound to be cast as The Bad Guys. Freud, as Dr Altman puts it, saw women largely as "a bunch of neurotic, castrating bitches desperately longing for our own penises." I'm sure some would say I'm in denial, but I've personally never bought that whole penis envy thing. The only time I've ever yearned for my own penis was on a bus trip from Guadalajara to Mexicali, when the bus driver made several stops by the side of the road for all the men to relieve themselves, but never once for the women. Clearly, when one of the underlying premises of Freudian psychiatry is that women resent not being men, we're hardly going to get a fair shake once we've become mothers.

If I were in the market for a psychiatrist (and after this move, I may well be), I would give the Freudians a wide berth and make a beeline for another woman who did not view me as a neurotic male wannabe. While Dr Altman recognizes that mothers, as primary care givers, have a great influence on their children, she also allows that "fathers, grandparents, siblings, teachers, coaches, and peers may all contribute to screwing up a child." Mothers, she points out, can have "a great deal of healing power at (their) disposal," and parents who cooperate with family, school, and society, have the most powerful influence of all. Personally, I find this commonsense and compassionate view of mothers both refreshing and reassuring.

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, eating disorders, autism, oppositional defiant disorder (I reckon one of my kids had this one and how I wish I'd had this book back then), bipolar disorder, and psychosis, among others, are all issues that are briefly discussed here, and, being a glutton for detail, I found the descriptions interesting and useful, if perhaps a little too brief.

I also liked the chapter on "working" versus stay-at-home mothers; having been both, I could easily relate to this. I feel uncomfortable now when I hear either side disparaging the other. Life is tough enough for mothers whichever path we choose. What a great world it would be if we could just support each other and resist the urge to take pot shots.

When my eldest was born, I pored over books with detailed descriptions of illnesses like measles, mumps, and chicken pox. I learned about teething and sleep problems and became knowledgeable about developmental stages. In fact, I read a lot of parenting books in general, but this is the first one I've seen that covers mental health exclusively. Too bad it wasn't out when my kids were small. I'd have gotten a kick out of telling every concerned person who saw me bent over my frothing-at-the-mouth toddler that she was suffering from an acute case of oppositional defiant disorder.

When we first blithely signed up for this parenting lark, most of us -- mothers and fathers alike -- had no idea what it was going to involve. We thought of cuddly babies, soft toys and people who would grow up to look and act a little like us. What we didn't think about was kids who would sick up on our shoulders every two hours, wake us up five times every single night, and wet the bed until they were nine years old. Also, while most of us may fleetingly consider childhood illnesses like German measles and whooping cough, I wonder how many of us ever imagine having kids who are too freaked out to use the toilet at night even when they can; who suffer night terrors, walk in their sleep, or are slow to socialize. Or worse still, who develop eating disorders as teenagers or maim themselves. When this happens -- as it well may, even in the best of homes -- what you need isn't some pontificating What are you doing wrong? type, it's someone who will help you through with humor and sensitivity. This book is a great start.

Tuesday, 9 September 2008

Making Do

Eldest daughter has been helping me pack boxes. So far, her ratio is about one to my eight, but never mind: you've got to start somewhere. And at the end of every day, we each have a pile of junk that we are loath to recognize as such.

"Let's face it," I tell eldest, staring in dismay at her monstrous collection of toiletries, "you're never going to use half of that stuff."

She stares down at the drawers her dozens upon dozens of bottles and jars are virtually spilling out of, her features tight with denial. "I might."

I cross my arms over my chest and sigh. "It's all old stuff anyway; you might as well throw it all out."

She frowns and presses her lips together. "But it's still good."

I pick up a bottle of lurid pink, full-strength body spray 1/8 full. "You're telling me you want to keep this?" I'm not a big fan of body spray.

"Mom, you can go now," she says, but I'm on a roll.

"And this?" I query, holding up a bottle of shampoo with two inches left.


So help me, we could open our own hairwashing salon here. I don't know what there is about using up the last few centimeters of shampoo, but not one person in this family seems able to do this. When I was cleaning out the bathroom, I counted almost two dozen bottles with only a smidgen of shampoo left in each one, but eldest takes it to a new plane entirely. I'm not telling how many almost-empty shampoo bottles she has; I'm trying to convince myself I must have imagined it.

"You're not going to want to see this stuff in a year's time. You're not going to want to lug it all to your dormitory now, are you?"

She sticks her lower lip out and glowers at the jumble of bottles and jars. She knows I'm right.

Later on, though, she catches me sitting there, reading picture books. We've got what I'm certain is one of the biggest Japanese picture book collections in Scotland. "Remember this one about the oni who eats donuts and chocolate and green peppers and spaghetti?" I say fondly, showing eldest the picture. She scrunches up her face and rolls her eyes, but I know she does remember. She's not ready to throw that one away.

"What are those?" she asks, pointing her foot at the pile of notebooks in one corner.

They are my guilty secret: I've saved all the homework she did in elementary school, in Japan. I fished her completed notebooks out of the trash when we were moving from Japan to the U.K. All of her carefully formed hiragana and katakana, every childishly-penned kanji with its precise stroke order: how could I just throw those notebooks away?

She bends down for a closer look, recognition beginning to dawn. "Those are my old notebooks, aren't they?"


She has a look of triumph in her eye. "You saved them."

"Only a few."

"Like anybody's ever going to use them!" She picks one up and looks at it, her lip curled.

I took a break and washed the clothes. Eldest hung them out on the radiators, then we lugged a huge pile of things down to Oxfam in the car. When we got back, the whole house smelled like Herbal Essence shampoo.

"What's that smell?" asked eldest, looking around. "Isn't that Herbal Essence shampoo?"

I nodded. "I washed the laundry with it. It seemed a shame to waste it."

Eldest sat back in her chair. "You washed the clothes with shampoo? You've got to be kidding!"

"No, I'm not. We were running low on laundry detergent and I had a bottle with about two inches of shampoo in it, so I figured why not? Anyway, it did the job."

She shook her head and grinned. "Mom, you're a genius!"

"Aw, shucks."

"No, really! And I know what I'm going to do with all that stuff upstairs now!"

Oh God: the house is going to reek for the next few days. What have I done? Still, it's freezing cold outside. The picture books have been safely boxed away, but her old notebooks will make a nice, toasty fire.

Thursday, 4 September 2008

From England To Scotland Via Wales

Something wonderful has just happened: I had to go into the hospital for minor surgery and I have been told that under no circumstances can I cook or do any work tonight. I am sitting in a room with virtually no furniture but my computer table and chair, and on all sides of me are pure chaos: china and glassware sitting in stacks; piles of neatly-folded winter clothes we won't need for at least a year; bedding, towels, and still more books, but tonight I can indulge in guilt-free dereliction of duty. So I am going to write about how I left Scotland for England on Monday and managed to end up in Wales on my way back.

We set off for Manchester Airport at seven o'clock. Our eldest sat huddled in the back, plugged into her MP-3 player, while our newly-acquired daughter and our youngest traded excited banter. Eldest is remaining with me to get everything packed up and the house closed; all the rest are off to our new home and country in the Middle East.

As soon as my husband's passport arrived, reservations were made for Monday. "You can drive back from Manchester, right?" he asked me as I sat surrounded by boxes of china, books, clothes, and general clutter. And like a dumb ass, I went and said yes. After all, he's taking two teenagers to a foreign country, starting a new job, learning a new culture, language -- the works. Surely I, a qualified driver for the past two years, could drive back to Scotland on my own. Piece of cake, right?

I began to get the jitters as we pulled into the many-tiered parking lot at Manchester Airport. I've never driven in one of those multi-storied parking lots before, though I've been driven through them on countless occasions. We drove around and around now in a dizzying circle and I wondered aloud how well I would negotiate the descent.

Eldest has just been learning to drive and when I voiced my worries on getting out of the parking lot, she commiserated. When I was learning to drive, she stood behind me while I did my hazard recognition on the computer and offered superfluous advice. She informed her sister that she would easily master driving; she had watched her father drive and she knew she'd be fine. God knows how I stood this, but I did.

Acquired daughter comes from a carless home, and whether that has anything to do with it or not, one of her greatest ambitions is to become a car racer. She loves speed and demolition derbies and all of the sorts of things that I find quite daunting, and though she has had no driving lessons herself, she too knows it will be a snap.

"It'll be easy!" she scoffed now, adding something of a non sequitur: "I've been in dozens of these!"

"Well I have too," eldest daughter said, frowning, "but I've never driven in one."

"Ach, it'll be easy!"

"How do you know?"

"I just do!"

"But you've never driven in one, have you?"

"No, but I know it'll be easy!"

Good thing she couldn't see my face.

After we'd seen everyone off, eldest and I made our way back to the car. With trembling fingers I started the ignition and inched slowly out of the car park. I managed to overshoot the exit on each floor and was a bundle of nerves at the end of my ordeal, but five minutes later we saw daylight and the first hurdle was over.

Then came finding my way out of the airport. To make a long story very short, I got lost.

"You can do it! Just follow the signs to the north," my husband had assured me. But even after years of marriage, he still doesn't get it. Some people can find their way using the sun and the stars and their own inherent sense of direction. My husband is one of them, and I am his diametric opposite.

And there were no signs to the north.

My eldest and I saw this right away. There were no big, Mary-friendly directions-for-idiots billboards that said SCOTLAND THIS WAY! FOLLOW THE RED LINE! Instead there were signs for places I only remembered fleetingly, like Preston, Birmingham, and Wrexham. Preston and Wrexham, I vaguely remembered, were in the north, but Birmingham wasn't, so what was the deal?

I stopped and asked directions at a hotel, managing some pretty hair-raising parking between two cars that made my daughter whimper and put her hands over her eyes, oh she of no faith. The receptionist was kind enough to print us out a sheet of directions, but neither my daughter nor I could follow them, so we managed to find the motorway again and bore, we hoped, towards the north.

Everything was looking pretty good until I started noticing that the signs were in Welsh. I stopped and asked for directions again, and I give the worker I interrupted real credit: he kept a perfectly straight face as he confirmed that we were indeed in Wales, though I'm sure he must have wondered at a frantic woman with an American accent asking him for directions to Scotland. He treated me with great kindness and gave me excellent directions, as did the man in the petrol station, and as by the time we got to him I was close to tears, I give him bonus points.

At the next place we stopped for directions, I wrote everything down but my daughter could not read my handwriting. At the next place, I got her to write out the directions, but neither of us could figure out what they meant.

"You're scaring me," said my eldest as I launched into my umpteenth impassioned tirade against husband for not walking me through the precise instructions. "Calm down!" Easy for her to say.

I'll spare you the nitty-gritty of the next hour of torment; let's just say that as I threaded my way through narrow streets and unfamiliar junctions, all the time trying desperately to follow my daughter's muddled and conflicting directions, I could feel individual white hairs popping out on my head. As massive trucks lumbered past and our car stalled for the fifth time in first gear (it even does this to my husband), I might as well have been main-lining free-radical-promoting poison. Never mind: all that matters is that we finally found the right motorway and got on it. In the right direction. And kept on driving until we got to Scotland, at which point we both broke into Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah and would have started on Handel's version too, if only she hadn't fallen asleep from pure nervous tension.

When we got back, the eldest said something to me that she's said several times now, ever since her first driving lesson -- something I can hardly hear too many times. "You were so right about driving. It's really tough. I'm sorry I acted like it was going to be easy."

If she can do that, maybe some day I'll acquire a sense of direction.