aikido evenings and ankara weekends

I am notoriously terrible at packing for trips. I am also consistently and unfoundedly shocked by this fact, since usually my luggage is a good 10 to 15 pounds under the max limit.

Take this summer, for example. I packed three pairs of shoes (I wear two), three pairs of pants (I wear one), two dresses (I wear neither), a handful of shirts (of which I wear three), the heaviest purse/camera bag/backpack ever created, and no overnight bag. It’s like I both underpacked and overpacked in one of the biggest shows of idiocy imaginable for someone who is spending 1/6 of her year in a foreign country.

(This is, of course, second only to the fact that I have since purchased nine scarves, eleven shirts, four skirts, two pairs of pants, and am trying to smuggle an antique Ottoman gramophone back to the States, so I actually have to go out and buy another suitcase next week.)

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This all became very apparent to me when I was in Ankara last weekend, carrying a too-small bag (no overnight bag, but I did have the good fortune of remembering to pack a totally useless cloth gym bag), buying too-many things and having to lug it all around the city, slowly watching the straps on my bag fall apart and mentally berating myself for putting myself in this same freaking situation no matter which city you travel to do you remember Italy at all?!

(Obviously, I do not. But at least I will get to throw a bag away to lighten the load a bit.)

Broken bag and dented wallet aside, Ankara was astounding. A city full of intrigue — starkly different from Bursa and İstanbul — with something subtly awe-inspring about it.

Granted, much of that may be attributed to the statues and frames of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk lining every street corner and building, emitting a sense of conviction and patriotism that sinks into the very cobblestones beneath you. Only heightened by the pink-orange government buildings looming in the distance as you step off the metro at Kızılay, the high, steel fences surrounding the Embassy buildings to your side.

But somehow you’re drawn to it without the realization that it’s happened, until you find yourself standing in Anıtkabir, fully prepared to drop 60 TL on a gold embellished pocket watch sporting an engraving of Atatürk’s face.

(My bank account was indescribably grateful that I did not. Meanwhile, I’m still trying to figure out if this was a decision I regret.)

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I traveled with two girls from the program, Layla and AH (names have been creatively changed upon request), taking a bus and train from Bursa on Friday afternoon. Much of the bus was spent in semiconsciousness, since we left immediately after four hours of Turkish lessons, but the train ride was pleasant. I had, at that point, seen only Bursa, İstanbul, and a few cities along the Sea of Marmara, and the terrain going eastward was considerably varied. Every few minutes felt as though we were traveling through a new country, making the journey all the more exciting.

I was reminded of why I adore trains.

When we finally arrived in Ankara, sporting four hours of travel BO and sore arses from the rock-hardest seats ever made, we set off to meet a close friend of Layla’s. She introduced us to one of the loveliest apartments I’ve seen to date (and fostered an insatiable need to move into the spare bedroom), letting us put down our bags and freshen up before taking us to a Mexican joint for dinner.

(Apparently, there is a neighborhood in Ankara close to the government buildings that has an ample collection of international cuisine. I almost started my house-hunt at our dinner table.)

I tucked in early for the night, headache blossoming from an oncoming illness and tiredness from travel, and managed 8 hours of undisturbed sleep for the first time in 6 weeks.

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The next morning was spent just as a lazy morning in Turkey should be spent: lounging about in PJs awaiting the arrival of freshly baked simit at the door (you can also have simit delivered to your house in Ankara, so I am doubling my efforts in this house-hunt), sprawled on chairs at the kitchen table with sunlight streaming in from the open window, sipping at coffee and pawing through bowls of peynir and olives. Layla’s friend regaled us with tales of work and life in Ankara, her new apartment, her love of Turkey. It was singularly lovely.

By noon, the four of us were making our way to Ankara Kalesi, reveling in the cool dryness of Ankara weather as we hiked a mile of stairs. The trek was well worth it, though, once we reached the top and were met with a stunning panoramic view of the city, rolling hills in the distance. A charming village surrounds the castle, so we spent a few hours strolling through winding streets, stopping at every vendor selling 2.5 TL earrings, stocking up on winter scarves and spice grinders. We had tea at a cafe nearby, castle looming behind us as we sipped on çay and Türk kahvesi.

We set off for Anıtkabir — Atatürk’s mausoleum — after tea, and it was then that I stopped observe, for the first time, the Turks as they peeked in awe behind glass cases of Atatürk’s possessions, reading about his exploits, about how he transformed Turkey and allowed it to grow into the magnificent country they hold so dearly. I’m no stranger to Atatürk, of course — politics has been a massive interest of mine since I stepped foot off the plane, engaging in conversation with Seyhan Anne, M Bey, and Turkish friends alike about the goings-on these days, and Atatürk’s name is never scarce — but it wasn’t until I was at Anıtkabir that I realized just how highly he is regarded. Understandably so, of course, but beyond that even; almost a martyr for an ideology that has not yet left the hearts of his people.

It’s hard not to feel as though, through knowing him, you’re a different person. I would have liked to meet him.

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As we left Anıtkabir — my mind was still reeling from the decision not to purchase the pocket watch — we ran into three tourism students from Gazi Üniversitesi. They asked if we wouldn’t mind filling out a survey for a research project, and, of course, we obliged. A few minutes later, we were, of course, in deep discussion, them having taken an interest in our efforts to learn Turkish, as all Turks have done since the moment we arrived. Layla and AH, lucky for me, have quite a command of the language together, so they were able to navigate us through conversation as I offered “evets” when prompted and nodded my head stupidly.

What I soon realized, though, was that we’d signed ourselves up to spend the next 7 hours with them, traveling to Hamamönü — a historical district of the city nestled alongside the Hacettepe campus — for (more) çay, iftaar, and strolls through narrow streets lit by strings of lights hanging from the surfaces of its Ottoman architecture, live music and the scents of frying dough weaving between its buildings. We got to know our new friends — our yeni arkadaşlar — quite well, and took turns practicing Turkish with them in exchange for English lessons, swapping obscenities in our native languages and helping each other over fumbled grammar.

It was well into night when we sat down for künefe — cheese nestled between two layers of pastry, deep fried and soaked in an inappropriate amount of sugar syrup, and Layla’s favorite Turkish dessert — swapping stories as we pulled bites from the pastry with strings of cheese clinging to our forks, hands sticky from syrup, dizzied from the sheer quantity of sugar entering our bloodstream. We made plans to meet them at a bar a few hours later, and the rest of the night was spent in a haze of red bull and electropop.

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Bottom photo features künefe and yes, that is, in fact, a mound of butter sitting on top.

Sunday saw a short visit to Kocateppe Mosque — Ankara’s largest mosque — where we kneeled on its plush carpet under a canopy of Arabic painted in reds and blues, enjoying the calming silence of the few Turks praying inside. I thought back to my visit to İstanbul a few weeks ago, about the near-claustrophobic crowdedness of the Sultan Ahmet Camii, of tourists packed shoulder-to-shoulder with cameras flashing like bursts of lightning in the fleeting hope of capturing some of its beauty. Ankara was so different to me at that moment. Not quite as stunning or grand as İstanbul, certainly, but just as inspiring; quiet and unpretentious and almost untouched.

I could have sat in the mosque until sunset, eyes following those coming in to pray and trailing the script lining the walls and ceiling. Just watching. Searching, maybe, for something hidden in the Arabic. But what I’d have been searching for, I couldn’t tell you.

I’m hoping I’ll be able to come back, sometime. Perhaps with a question in mind then, and an answer waiting for me in the mosque.

We made for Bursa in late afternoon, arriving well after we intended after a few mishaps at the train station (a story I just do not have the stamina to get into ever again in my life), and I’m quite sure I fell asleep before I had time to change out of my shoes.

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Since my return, Bursa has been as pleasantly uncomplicated as ever, and I’m always startled by how much I miss it once I’ve left. What Bursa lacks in complicatedness, though, is made up for in full during class, in which I now feel just about as incompetent as I did during my first week in the country.

Still, M Bey has his truly miraculous way of not making me feel like a total arse for my ineptitude, and class time has been broken up with aikido classes and cooking lessons, which were not nearly as disastrous as I imagined they would be. Primarily because I did not break any further bones or require any limb amputations, but also because they were, quite honestly, incredibly fun.

M Bey has been doing aikido for the past three years and, after scrolls through Facebook photographs of performances and tales of its peaceful philosophy, had been telling us that he’d bring us to one of his lessons. I always assumed that would entail us watching him perform aikido while I sat in the sidelines, trying my hand at sport photography. Little did I know it would actually mean donning a white robe, mastering the art of defensive martial arts (I use the term “mastering” loosely here, as more of a metaphor for “attempting with great failure”), and experiencing four days of soreness that left me incapable of climbing the six stories to class without wanting to commit homicide.

It was, without a doubt, worth every wince and burn; our tiny sınıf 16 — almost its own dysfunctional family, at this point — getting the chance to hang out with M Bey outside of class, chatting about anything and everything, laughing at ourselves and each other in good humor as we ungracefully crashed against the padded floor of the Dojo.

A cooking lesson yesterday brought us together again for an afternoon of hilarity and ineptitude, whipping up all kinds of glutinous masterpieces (that I did not partake in, having experienced a second round of whatever landed me in the ER a few weeks ago, but enjoyed photographing immensely), twirling about in aprons and chef’s hats. It reminded me quite a bit of my Italian cooking course in high school, less sophisticated than expected with much more knife-waving than should be permitted.

Almost indulgently fun for a group meant to represent leaders of cultural exchange and academic drive. #snort

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Still, the past few days have made me come to the realization that I will find it hardest to leave the language institute when it’s time to bid adieu to Turkey, to say goodbye to our class and to M Bey. I’ve been writing for weeks now about how much his course and this country have inspired me, but I didn’t believe that, 6 weeks in, I would find something new each day.

Luckily for me, though, that particular thought is incomprehensible at the moment, so I will continue about my days as though there is no looming goodbye. At least, not for another few weeks.

For now, there’s quite enough to look forward to: a night out with Çisil, Hanne, and Cenk; a few more days to learn impossible Turkish; a looming weekend trip to İstanbul to visit the spice market and soak up the Bosphorus; and an aggressive hunt for a new suitcase.

Will write again soon. All my love until then. xx

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

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