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.