on cups of çay and paper fans

Day four in Bursa. It feels as though I’ve been here a month. My mind is nothing but a jumbled mess of broken Turkish and deteriorating English, recalled through a cloudy haze brought on by summer heat.

It was only today, though, that it really hit me that I am well and truly in Turkey, strolling through the Ulu Cami and feeling inexplicably insignificant against the majesty of its domes. It felt nice in the same way one feels nice after a good cry and a warm bath, almost as though you’re a different person by the end.

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Not that my previous three days have been uneventful. Quite the contrary. I ate more red meat and yogurt in those three days than the entirety of my undergraduate experience. I got lost on what should have been a 7-minute bus ride for an hour and a half. I had an entire cafe full of Turks crowd me at a table and find immense pleasure in trying to communicate with the illiterate foreigner (read: me). I got peed on by an overexcited rabbit named “Maya.” I explored the shopping center on my own and managed to purchase a Turkish-English dictionary without any help and with much pointing (though the fact that I was purchasing a Turkish-English dictionary by miming was probably a good indication to the cashier that I would not have been able to handle any actual conversation). I’ve drank more çay (chai) than actual water since I stepped foot off the plane. I’ve become exceptionally close with my host sister, Çisil. I’ve been taught the equivalent of three week’s worth of Turkish courses in three days of class (the learning is another story entirely, of course).

Point being, it has been busy. It has been hectic and exhausting and stressful.

But I am beginning to speak a language that, four days ago, I would have been unable to identify out of a linguistic lineup. So, it has also been pretty lovely.

(And I cannot possibly make a bigger fool out of myself than I did at that cafe yesterday, so I am nothing but optimistic about the rest of the summer.)

Today, though, I was able to go out and actually see Bursa for the first time, without the distraction of worrying about which preposition to use before such-and-such verb and whether or not I’m pulling out the correct amount of money for a bottle of Ayran (which I failed to do on three occasions at aforementioned cafe). A no-stress excursion to visit the Ulu Cami (Bursa’s Grand Mosque) and the Koza Han silk market, watch a shadow puppet play, and order some çay (a necessity for any movement beyond two blocks in this city), reveling in the gentle breezes brought on by cool Bursa evenings.

And let me tell you, this place is beautiful.

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R. Şinasi Çelikkol

Bursa is home to both the Turkish shadow puppet tradition as well as silk, having been the center of the silk trade during the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires.

Shadow puppetry, one of the oldest forms of story telling, is particularly special in Bursa, where the story of Karagöz and Hacivat is thought to have begun. According to legend, two hoodlums were among many workers constructing a Bursa mosque in the fourteenth century. Their silliness proved a massive distraction to the other workers, so naturally, the sultan had them executed. Apparently though, making rash decisions (like decapitation, for example) without having really considered the consequences thereof is not a good habit, as the sultan regretted his decision almost immediately. Because Karagöz and Hacivat were so sorely missed, they were immortalized as shadow puppets throughout the Ottoman Empire for centuries.

We visited the shop of Turkey’s most famous shadow puppeteer, R. Şinasi Çelikkol, who put on a play in true Karagöz and Hacivat fashion. I could not understand a bloody word, but still found the performance deeply entertaining. A testament to his mastery of shadow puppeteering, I think.

The silk market can be best described as peaceful, with shawls and scarves blowing lazily in the breeze, bright colors lining the stone walls of the plaza as evening crept upon us. We stopped for çay after touring the market, lounging in plush chairs outside with an unwarranted feel of opulence permeating the air, as men around us indulged in tavla (backgammon) and the heat from the tea inspired in us a profound lethargy.

I think I may fall asleep like that, one of these nights. Total bliss.

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I do want to hit on one more point before I sign off for the night, and that point is, of course, the food. Oh, sweet heart disease, how quickly you will become a part of my life while I live in Turkey.

I’ve mentioned already that I’ve had more red meat here than in all of uni. I would just like to point out that this was not an exaggeration.

My first day of class was followed by my first lunch out in the city. A group of us walked for what seemed like weeks uphill, through the scorching heat I’ve not yet stopped hating, all in the hopes of finding iskender. I was more or less pulling out pages of notes to use as makeshift fans for the trek, all the while cursing the locals who were so seemingly at home with the abnormality of the Turkish heat index. This better be some damn good meat was the only thought crossing my mind. And oh, how naive I was.

Now, if you’re familiar with iskender, then you know very well that I am not exaggerating in any way when I say that eating it is a truly transcendent experience. And if you’re not, then you’ll just have to take my word for it.

It is basically an entire lamb’s worth of meat that has been grilled to perfection, basted with spicy tomato sauce over layers of pita bread and served with a generous ladle of thick yogurt and slices of tomato. Then, once you’re about to stab the grilled lamb with your steel trident of gluttony, a garçon appears out of frakking nowhere, wielding a pot of sizzling (and by “sizzling” I mean you can literally hear it going off like poprocks next to your ear), melted sheep’s butter, of which he pours approximately a stick on top of the whole damn dish. And then you’re expected to eat it. And you don’t think you’ll allow yourself to eat the whole thing because — are you serious? There is an entire cake recipe’s worth of butter on your plate — but you do. And you hate that you don’t hate yourself for it because it is the physical embodiment of perfection.

Plato spent his entire life on an intellectual search for the form of the Good. It’s too bad he never got to eat iskenderbecause then I wouldn’t have had to spend three semesters reading The Republic.

The next day’s lunch was çiğköfte, which at one point I believe was served raw, but is now probably cooked to USDA standards (note: this is unlikely): bulgar kneaded to oblivion with ground beef, tomato paste, and a medley of hot spices, rolled out as meatballs, grilled, and topped with briny pickles. Incredibly spicy, and incredibly amazing. Later that night I had döner and my second lavash-wrapped-around-ground-meat, followed by even more köfte for lunch before Ulu Cami today, so I think I will take a break from the red meat for some time (note: this is also unlikely).

Last day of class for the week tomorrow, a picnic on Saturday, and a day off on Sunday, which I’m sure will be spent in the company of çay and Turkish textbooks, mastering the art of ordering food at a restaurant. Priorities and all that.

Gürüşürüz, darlings. Until next time. xx

Bursa, part I
Bursa, part III
Istanbul, part I
Bursa, part IV
Bursa, part V
Ankara

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