Thursday, 25 February 2010

Short Cut

Not far from our house is an abandoned resort complex, only three-quarters built. It covers an extensive area and ought to be beautiful with views of the Mediterranean and half-landscaped gardens full of olive and orange trees, lantana and jasmine, but instead it is eerie and sad.

It is also in our way: every time we've walked past it on our way back from the beach, I've wondered out loud if we couldn't just walk through it and spare ourselves half a mile down a long dusty road with no sidewalks, scary dogs, and many potholes. Somehow, we've never had the time to chance this, and it has really irritated me. Cliche though it is, nothing ventured, nothing gained. And looking for shortcuts in weird places is just the sort of adventure I love.

Yesterday, my husband and I went for a walk down to the beach. The weather was perfect for a change and on our way home, as we walked past the rose-flanked entrance for the umpteenth time, it was just too tempting. "There's bound to be a way out," I said. "And it would be a great short-cut to know, wouldn't it?"

My husband shrugged.

"There's no keep-out sign," I pointed out. "No fence or dogs."

My husband considered this. Fierce dogs are a common feature in this area, given all the half-developed building sites just begging to be vandalized. The fact that we couldn't hear any barking was a real plus.

"If there's no way out, we can just retrace our steps. Extra exercise! We'll only be out the time and the shoe leather. Right?"

He cracked. "Okay."

The driveway itself, winding, upward sloping and tree-lined, took five minutes to negotiate. We could hear our footsteps echoing through the empty courtyard as we made our way past the empty pools filled with dried leaves and debris. Parts of the complex were almost complete, while other parts were mere skeletons, waiting to be finished. We skirted the main building, a dark, scary, cavern-like space with no floors and cables dangling down like so many snakes from the unfinished ceiling. There was something really odd about walking past gleaming sheets of marble and glass, stacks of cinder blocks still hermetically sealed in plastic, case after case of brand-new pipes, sparkling porcelain-white toilets, bathtubs and shower stalls.

As the sky darkened, we could see a few lights flickering on in the empty blocks of rooms, very strange considering the fact that there were almost no windows or doors. It was a long, weird walk, through half-formed gardens with the once-churned earth now full of weeds. In fact, there were weeds everywhere, vigorous and healthy as corn, poking up behind packing cases, through piles of cables and building rubble, around the slender trunks of year-old saplings already withering.

The main path that led us through the complex looked as though it was heading straight for our neighborhood. We could practically see it through the trees. It looked very promising.

"See?" I said, nudging my husband. "If we hadn't tried this, we'd never have found this great short cut!"

"We still don't know if we can get through."

I scorned this. "Of course we'll be able to get through!"

Barely a minute after I said this, the path curved around, revealing a chain-link fence topped with barbed wire. On the other side of this, the path continued indefinitely, disappearing into a thicket that surrounded a farm. The kind of farm that has scary dogs on the premises, just waiting for a couple of trespassers to stroll past and make their day. After a game attempt to pass under the fence, my husband wiped his hands on his jeans and shook his head. "This won't work. We'll have to go all the way back."

And so we did.

It took over twenty minutes and my husband led me right through that horrible, dark, unfinished main building. He was even nasty enough to grab one of the cables and make a bzzzzt noise as though he'd been electrocuted, making me jump out of my skin.

Still, we were only out the shoe leather and a little time. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, and even a small adventure is worth something.

There's a sheep farm-cum automotive garage just down the way from this complex. My husband says I'm crazy, but I'm betting there's a path through that.

Friday, 19 February 2010

The Hexadecimal Representation Of Color

One evening, I stood outside with my husband admiring the rapidly darkening sky. A thin sliver of moon hung low over the mountains, surrounded by a whole array of stars, sparkling and flashing like so many diamonds. I craned my neck back and asked, in a purely speculative way, "I wonder why it is that some stars shine so brightly...?"

My husband cleared his throat. "Because their cores contain massive fusion reactors which release tremendous amounts of energy. The gravitational friction of stars crumbling inwards makes their cores heat up, and that causes nuclear fusion. So hydrogen atoms fuse into helium atoms, and -- in a nutshell -- that releases an enormous amount of energy which pushes outward against the gravitational contraction of the star..." He went on like that for some time, too, and the amazing thing was that I understood him. Briefly.

My husband does things this all the time. If you ask him what the five kinds of life are, he'll tell you: monera, protist, fungi, animalae, and plantae. If you need to know the capital of Sierra Leone or what the Five Pillars of Islam are, he'll tell you. If you're struggling to make sense of simultaneous equations, he's your man. In a game of Trivial Pursuit, if you're not on his side you don't stand a fighting chance. He's not patronizing and he's not really a know-it-all. He's a teacher.

Teaching isn't a glamorous occupation like fire-fighting or being an astronaut; you'd be hard put to find groups of fashionable people breathlessly hanging onto a teacher's stories at dinner parties. It's not a particularly well-paid occupation either, and unless you've got tenure it isn't really a secure one. You're around grubby, noisy, unreasonable, squabbling people all day long, so teaching is generally an infuriating, demanding, exhausting, and only sometimes, exhilarating job. But there is one great perk of being a teacher: you tend to Know Stuff. There are real benefits to being a teacher -- and being married to one as well.

Last year, on a trip to a local castle, I found the English explanations on the tourist information plaques a little confusing, so I asked my husband if he knew when the castle was built. A guide was standing nearby and out of the corner of my eye, I saw him open his mouth to speak, but my husband launched into a long, detailed explanation of how the castle wall was built during the Byzantine period to defend the town against Arab raids, then further construction was done on it during the Luisignan and Venetian periods -- and I saw the look of amazement in the guide's eyes. We looked like every other middle-aged tourist couple around and in fact we were like every other middle-aged tourist couple around, except for the fact that my husband knows his local history inside-out, having taught it here. I love this because I love learning things.

Before we got married, my husband and I were colleagues, and he had the reputation for being a teacher who would do his level best to get through to the thickest student. I've had complete strangers walk up to me on the street and compliment me for having the good sense to marry a man who can explain things so well and so patiently. And I know I profit from being married to someone who likes to teach. Someone who, knowing full well that I have a hard time with math, will do his damnedest to talk me through an equation or a mathematical formula.

But every teacher has to meet his own special Waterloo, and my husband's has been trying to teach me math. I have a brain that is virtually impermeable to math and anything vaguely math-related.

Still, my husband's math teaching attempts have their uses. As a lifelong insomniac, I'm always on the lookout for things that will lull me to sleep and I prefer natural remedies. Whenever I'm particularly desperate, I just tap him on the shoulder. "How does it go again, the hexadecimal computer color representation thing?" I mumble, and if he's awake, he almost always obliges.

"Okay, hexadecimal -- or base 16 -- is a positional numeral system. Remember?" I nod happily.

"It uses sixteen symbols, generally the numbers 0–9, to represent values zero to nine, and A, B, C, D, E, F to represent values ten to fifteen -- got that?" I nod again, but my head is beginning to swim. Already it's starting to work!

"So, for example, the hexadecimal number 2AF3 would be equal, in decimal, to two times sixteen to the third power -- I haven't lost you, have I?"

I smile and shake my head. "No, I've got that." Which is a total lie.

And, obligingly, he goes on. And on. Something about binary, something else about only zero and one being used to represent on and off...And in no time at all, I'm fast asleep.

A guaranteed cure for insomnia. Just one more perk to being married to a teacher.

Sunday, 14 February 2010

Generation Gaps

My daughter sits, curled up on the sofa, giggling her head off. She is reading Terry Pratchett, one of her favorite authors. From time to time, she reads parts out loud to us, but she can hardly pronounce the words for laughing.

All I can do is stare at her in wonder. I was a somber, graceless, awkward teenager, and pretentious too. When I was fifteen, Dostoevsky was my favorite writer. When anyone asked me what books I liked, I always gave them a long, harsh dose of Raskolnikov and Prince Myshkin. I look at my funny, engaging daughter and wonder how I ended up with a kid like her.

My daughter's entire life is so different from mine. My mother used to say this about her life and mine too. She grew up in a house without running water or electricity and used to tell us stories of walking miles to school in the snow, pumping water from a well, having to make her own clothes. It always amazed us to imagine growing up without telephones, radios, televisions, cars, shopping malls, or dentists. When I compare my life with my mother's, it's almost as though we grew up in different countries. But when I compare my life to my daughter's, I'm amazed at all the differences. Here are just a few ways her life is completely different from what mine was at her age:


I can hardly imagine what it would have been like at age fifteen to be able to contact my friends on my very own mobile telephone, to have the privacy to discuss anything with what few friends I had. Our telephone -- and we only had one -- was tethered to the kitchen wall, barely a foot from my father's favorite armchair. Unless I managed to call my friends when my father wasn't at home, he heard everything I said. In fact, it wasn't that he just happened to overhear my side of the conversation, he actively listened and would frequently make comments to my desperately muttered exchanges. The stereotypical image of a teenage girl sprawled on pink chenille, yakking away to her friends for hours in the privacy of her bedroom couldn't have been less in keeping with my personal reality.

My daughter can talk to her friends whenever she likes. She can talk in her bedroom, in the car, walking down the stairs, strolling down the street, even sitting in a dolmus. If we're around and she wants privacy, all she has to do is text.


When I was growing up, nobody had them. I learned how to type on an Underwood with a sticky A key. You had to bear down hard (being cheapskates, we used the ribbon until the very last smudge of ink was gone) and when you made a mistake, you either scored over it and retyped, or, if your parents were prepared to fork out for it, used expensive correction fluid. (Guess which one applied to us?) If I wanted to get in touch with someone in another town, the phone was off limits; parents who won't pay for correction fluid absolutely won't pay for long distance phone calls.

My daughter can actually write pen-and-paper letters: we've taught her. She knows you have to fold them up, insert them into envelopes, address the envelopes and affix a postage stamp (she knows which corner you paste it on too); she knows it goes into a special metal receptacle called a postbox. But she's gone through this cumbersome, old-fashioned process half a dozen times in her life, because she has computers.

As I write this, my daughter is Facebook-chatting with two friends in Scotland. Sometimes she 'chats' with them on MSN; even in the method of at-your-fingertips effortless communication, she has several choices.


I inherited my mother's old Brownie camera, a large, clumsy-looking thing with a strap that went around my neck. You stood ten feet away from whatever you wanted to photograph, flipped open the lid, fixed the object in the tiny window, and pressed a button. Then, days, weeks, even months later, when the roll of film was finished, you carefully wound up the last bit of film, put the roll in an envelope, and took it to be developed. Then you waited breathlessly for up to a week (life in the sixties was all about deferred gratification) until you got a call from the drugstore telling you that your pictures were ready. Full of anticipation, you picked up the envelope with your shiny, black-and-white images (color was for rich people) -- and perhaps found that only three pictures had come out. When my father took real pictures of us, he fooled around with things like focus, flashbulbs, and F-stops and swore a lot under his breath while we fidgeted.

My daughter takes dozens of photographs on either her mobile phone or our digital camera (once again, she has choices). Virtually all of the pictures come out perfectly, they are all in stunning color, and she can see them instantly. Moreover, she can share them with her sisters and friends in Scotland, with people in Japan, Turkey, America -- anywhere. In seconds, she can copy someone else's photo onto her phone and post it on her Facebook account.


When I was very young, we went three times a week and were strongly discouraged from missing worship. We went on Wednesday night, Sunday morning, and Sunday evening. If I had back all the time I spent listening to scary hellfire and damnation sermons, I'd be able to write a couple of books. But I'd be a completely different person. After the age of eight, we changed religions and only went once a week. But not going wasn't an option.

My daughter doesn't go to church for many reasons. But she grew up almost next door to a Buddhist temple. And if she wanted to go to a mosque, she'd be spoiled for a choice: there are at least three within easy walking distance from our house.


At the age of fifteen, I yearned with all my heart to learn a foreign language that wasn't French. I really did not enjoy French. I wanted to learn Russian, Japanese, or Hebrew -- anything with a writing system I could not understand. Someone gave us a pile of old Japanese magazines once when I was ten and I spent ages poring over them, trying to copy out the symbols, desperate to crack the code.

Japanese was my daughter's first language. Until she was seven, she spoke it as well as she did English and was ahead of her peers in reading it. She can still speak it, albeit haltingly, and she reads it fairly well. She has made more progress than I have in Turkish and she is currently teaching herself Korean. She can do this on the internet; tutorials on Hangeul, the Korean symbols used to make up sounds, can be downloaded from the internet.

Some years back we went to Kentucky, to the farm where my mother grew up with all her sisters and brothers. The old house had burned down, but the grindstone where they used to sharpen their tools was still standing, as was the old well. We walked through the tiny graveyard where my grandparents are buried and I tried to picture them and what they might have thought of me and my Japanese-speaking non-church-going millenium girls who had grown up half the way around the world. We left eucalyptus leaves and origami flowers on their graves and I told my girls about their difficult lives, the hardships they'd gone through, the things they had accomplished.

Then we got into our rental car and drove away.

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

Living In This Time Of Peace

Years ago, I found myself in a small village in Shikoku one evening, needing a place to stay. I had been counting on getting a room at a youth hostel in a nearby town, but when I got there, I found it was full. So I walked four miles to the next village where I had been told there was a temple that put people up. Unfortunately, the temple was no longer functioning as an inn and unless I felt like sleeping outside, I was out of luck. The mosquitoes were fierce that night and I was exhausted and desperate for a good night's sleep. A woman who worked at a shop near the temple told me there was another youth hostel in the next village. I walked there in the growing darkness, tired and hungry, my backpack tearing at my shoulders, blisters forming on my heels.

After a long search I found the youth hostel -- an old farmhouse in the countryside -- but was disappointed to see that there were no lights on. But before I could turn away, close to tears, the door opened and a little old lady in kimono stood there, obviously surprised to see me. She and her husband hadn't expected any guests, but yes, there was a room, though it was a bit musty. The room was dormitory style and perfectly fine, but when I asked the woman where the bathroom was, she frowned. "I'm sorry, but you won't be able to have a bath tonight."

My face fell. I was filthy; I had walked at least twelve miles and there wasn't a muscle in my body that didn't ache.

"It's just that we weren't prepared for you," she explained. "Normally, people make reservations and we're able to provide for them."

I said I understood and the woman left after telling me what time breakfast was served in the morning. As I was unpacking my backpack, there was a knock at my door. The woman was back. "You can have a bath," she told me. "It's been arranged." She pointed to the bathhouse, smiled at my effusive thanks, and left again.

I gathered up my furo dogu, literally 'bath tools': a small plastic basin, soap, shampoo and towel, and made my way across the garden to the small bathhouse. An elderly man in hakama waved to me; he seemed to be collecting twigs, stuffing them into a large basket.

I pulled open the bathhouse door and almost gasped: I could hardly believe how primitive it was, just a small tub in a tiny room with vents along the floor and ceiling. There were the customary spigots and wooden stool near the floor; in Japan, you clean yourself off before you get into the bath. The tub was full of warm water. As I bent down to test it, I saw the little old man outside carrying his basket of wood across the yard. Smoke billowed out from under the bathhouse and suddenly I realized what was happening: he was gathering wood to warm the water for my bath. I felt like crying: I'd had no idea of the inconvenience I had caused by showing up so late at night, needing a room and a bath.

At breakfast the next morning, I thanked them profusely and apologized for putting them to so much trouble. The old woman smiled. "Years ago, we went to England," she told me. "It was just after the war -- we were there for a conference -- and it was bitterly cold. When we got to our hotel and tried to run the bath, we were only able to get one inch of lukewarm water." The old man joined in: "We tried to explain and the staff understood us, but they told us that no one could get more hot water than that." His wife nodded. "We were so miserable! All we wanted was a bath." She patted my hand. "When I saw your face last night, I knew I couldn't let you down. I knew just how you felt, walking all day like that."

During breakfast, they came into the dining room to talk to me individually. They asked me what books I liked, how long I had been studying Japanese, why I had decided to study it. They wanted to know about my favorite Japanese authors, what I thought of Japanese politics, where I had been in Japan. I could barely answer half of their questions, but I was still grateful to be asked; I'd grown tired of being asked my shoe size, how old I was, whether I could use chopsticks or eat raw fish.

After breakfast, they showed me around their hostel. And gradually I began to see that this couple were extraordinary, not only because they were prepared to light the fire for an unexpected stranger's bath, but for many other reasons. Their house was filled to bursting with books in both Japanese and English, yet they spoke to me only in Japanese. In Japan, where English-speaking people are naturally keen to show off their skill, this was a first for me and an incredible honor: from the books on their shelves, I have no doubt that their English was superior to my Japanese. There were also photographs of them with dozens of different people from around the world, former guests of their hostel, and a book filled with thoughtful, heartfelt expressions of gratitude signed by people from dozens of countries. You were so wonderful, like my mother and father! wrote a girl from the Philippines. I loved delicious soup too much, Sachiko is excellent cook! wrote someone from Brazil. This guest book with its multinational comments was obviously an object of great pride and pleasure.

They stopped in front of a Delft plate; the old man reverently lifted it off the shelf. "We received this from a lovely Dutch boy. He visited us five years ago, and the next year he came back with his parents." His wife wiped a spot of dust off the plate. "They spoke Japanese. Do you know how that was possible?" I shook my head. "As children, they were both incarcerated in a detention center run by the Japanese in Indonesia." The old man gently set the plate back on the shelf. "They send us a Christmas card every year," he said proudly. "We count them as our dear friends."

"We are so fortunate," his wife added. "So fortunate to have lived to see this peace. To be able to meet young people like you, from foreign countries." She nodded once and tilted her head. "Please remember this: how fortunate you are -- how fortunate we all are -- to live now, in this time of peace."

When I left, greatly refreshed, relaxed, and well fed, I thanked them many times and yet it was not enough.

It will never be enough.

Friday, 5 February 2010

A Few Things I Never Knew

Can pats the chair next to him as Shokan enters the room. "Sit with us, brother!" Furkan quickly pulls his legs back so Shokan can get past him. Shokan sits down next to Can, but I see his eyes flicker over to where Dania is sitting.

This isn't a rare thing: in my classes, boys almost always sit with other boys and girls with other girls. During the break, however, Shokan gets up and joins Dania after a quick, brotherly smoke with Can and Furkan outside. And the two remain together for the second half of the class. That is rare.

Dania and Shokan are very different in appearance. Dania is petite, stylishly slim, blonde and blue-eyed; Shokan is tall and sturdy, with black hair and brown eyes. If you were casting Dania for a Hollywood movie, she'd be a Russian ballerina; with his great physique and Asian looks, Shokan could be an extra in a Jackie Chan film. Dania and Shokan aren't an item: she's got a boyfriend and I know Shokan is looking for a girlfriend. But Dania and Shokan share a common language (Russian) and a culture: they are Kazakhs. In my class, they are almost always together.

No one else will talk to Dania. This is partly because Dania has distanced herself from everyone (the boys were a little too eager to get to know her, the girls a little too shy), but there is also a language barrier. While Dania's English is probably the best in the class, she doesn't speak Kazakh, which means she doesn't understand Turkish either. Shokan does.

Before I got here, my knowledge of the Near East was sadly lacking, but I've made up for lost time. Since my arrival, I have met and talked to people from every single -stan country there is, with the exception of Afghanistan. (And I've learned that we've got at least half a dozen Afghan students at the university, so it's only a matter of time.) I can't get over how much I've learned about Turks, people who speak Turkic-based languages, and the countries they come from. This is not to say that I am very knowledgeable now, but I'm pleased with the progress I've made. I always tell my students that as long as they're trying to learn, that's all that matters to me. I'm not proud that I knew so little to begin with, but I know I'm trying. And I'd far rather confess to ignorance than stay ignorant.

When I first got here, I was thrilled to have Kazakhs, Azeris and Uzbeks in my classes. I sat them next to my Turkish students and foolishly imagined that this would force them to use English. I had no idea that people from Azerbaijan practically are Turkish, that they certainly understand Turkish and can communicate almost perfectly with Turks.

Kazakhs can do this to some degree as well. My first week here, I stopped an Asian man to ask him where the administration building was. "Sorry, I don't know," he said in excellent English, "I'm new here too." I asked him where he was from and he told me he was Kazakh. "But wait; I'll ask someone where the administration is." I thought to myself that he would find this impossible; I'd asked half a dozen people and none of them knew English. But to my amazement, he stopped a man and asked him in Turkish. And then, more amazingly, he understood the answer. "How do you happen to know Turkish?" I asked, astonished. He shrugged. "I don't know Turkish. Kazakh people and Turkish people --" He clasped his hands together "-- like that. They speak, I understand. I speak, they understand. Same with many countries -- Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, sometimes Kyrgyzstan." He clasped his hands together and smiled.

The Ottoman Empire, my new friend told me, spread the Turkish language far and wide. Over the next few months, I was to find this out firsthand.

Like the Ottoman Empire and the British Empire, the Soviet Empire too has been linguistically influential. Whenever you see Belarussian, Kazakh, Kyrgyz, and Azeri students together, you can hear them speaking Russian, their lingua franca. It always fascinates me. They look Korean, Russian, Chinese, Swedish, Mongolian -- but they all speak Russian. Like Shokan and Dania.

Whether it's part of their Soviet legacy or not, Shokan and Dania are much more studious than their Turkish classmates. On the last day of class, they were the only ones who bothered to show up. We decided to scrap the lesson and chat.

"Nobody knows Kazakhstan," they both insist.

I have to agree with them. Embarrassing though it is, most of what I know about Kazakhstan is what I learned from Sacha Baron Cohen's fictitious Borat Sagdiyev. I'm too much of a wimp to tell Shokan and Dania this, so I simply mention his name. Have they ever heard of Borat Sagdiyev? What do they think of him?

Their eyes flash and their cheeks flush. You bet they've heard of him. "Teacher, he is LIE," Shokan hisses. "Kazakhstan is not that country he says!"

"Our country's people not stupid, not so --" Dania and Shokan confer briefly "--not so ignorant." Dania gives me an aggrieved look. "American people see Borat? They believe Borat is Kazakh?"

"We think he's funny," I have to tell them. "But I think he's more popular in the U.K." Like I say, I'm a wimp.

"We have good schools," Shokan tells me. "Theatres, hospitals, parks, department stores, restaurants..."

"We have churches," Dania insists. "We have--" She confers with Shokan and a Russian-English dictionary is pulled out "--mosques." Shokan nods. "And we have also--" He pulls out a pen and draws a Star of David on the back of his notebook.

"We have everything," they tell me angrily. "Why he make fun Kazakhstan?"

"It's because your country isn't well known," I tell them. "It's because it is so small--"

They both practically jump out of their seats. "NOT SMALL!" Dania cries. Shokan rolls his eyes so expressively it's pure poetry. "Teacher," he says with remarkable patience. "Kazakhstan one of ten largest country in world." (He's right too: I checked. Kazakhstan is number 9, larger even than Sudan. Did you know that? Because I had absolutely no idea.)

"I'm glad you guys speak English so well," I told them. "Or I'd never have learned that."

Good thing I don't mind confessing to my ignorance.