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Sé sa mwen yé, sé sa mwen ké rété.

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Today the Turks are voting, so I have a holiday. I may be a foreigner and ignorant of the complexities of Turkey's volatile political scene, yet I have still determined without a doubt who should win: Mehmet Ufuk Uras.

That's right. Ufuk Uras. Maybe no one else will find this funny, but I do. Don't believe it's real? Click on the banner to visit www.ufukuras.net!

That aside, I have a new job starting in September, after I come back from my brother's wedding in Canada. It's a good job, I think, at a private elementary and high school. It'll pay more than my current job, marginally, but will allow me much more free time to do private lessons.

Now Matt and I are going to spend the rest of the day filming episode 2 of our ridiculous youtube-based Turkish cultural magazine.
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The last time I wrote an entry for this journal, I was on the bus coming back from my border run to Bulgaria. That trip marked three months on my Turkish visa. This week I bought airline tickets to Malta, where I will spend my second border run with Keelty and Australian Jim (known to my students as Hamburger Jim, because in my improvised sentences illustrating various points of grammar, "my friend, Jim" is invariably stealing my hamburger, eating too many hamburgers, or wishing he had a hamburger. Come to think of it, I've never actually observed any behaviour on Jim's part, nor any tendency in his diet, to merit these examples. If you're reading this Jim, I'm sorry!). This reminder of time's swift progress prompted me to take up the laptop and write again.

Since Bulgaria, I have been busy teaching full time, but I have also been making the most of my scant few days off by doing reckless and adventurous things like going to Turkish baths, asking local hairdressers to "make me look Turkish", buying potted orange trees, and taking road trips with Turkish women. How I almost lost my face.Collapse )
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I am on a sleek new Metro Tours bus, riding home to Istanbul after a restful four-day exile in Plovdiv, Bulgaria. Plovdiv was known to the ancient Romans as Philipopolis and to readers of the New Testament as Philipi. It was an important outpost of Byzantine power after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, and was later a centre of Bulgarian culture before being subjugated by Ottoman Turks in the 1800's. Now, after half a century of Soviet rule, the town is still remarkably well preserved. Resolutely perched on the cliffs of a steep, rocky hill that rises abruptly from the Thracian countryside, the Old Town consists of fanciful timber and plaster abodes jutting their upper storeys out over the treacherous cobblestone lanes. Some of the brilliantly painted and gilded manors rise gracefully from the remains of the Byzantine city walls; others seem to have sprouted naturally from the fluid-looking rock formations of the hillside; still others peer down from the walls of a beautifully preserved and seasonally functional Greek amphitheatre. When not ambling the rolling streets of Plovdiv, Jim and I improved our visa-renewal holiday by exploring orthodox churches and monasteries and indulging our three-months-deferred craving for pig-meat, a virtually unprocurable commodity in Islamic Istanbul.
Despite the aesthetic and culinary delights of Bulgaria, Jim and I are both happy to be heading homewards. It is strange to think of any place so far from my own country and family as ‘home’, yet I find myself missing the familiar sights and sounds of Istanbul and the Turkish spirit of congeniality and frank openness with a keenness usually reserved for ‘home.’ Now, the Bulgarian countryside sweeps by the window and into my memories: rolling green fields and neatly furrowed cabbage patches; grazing donkeys and plodding horses drawing wooden carts; decrepit Soviet-era trucks and rusting little Ladas; occasional bleak industrial wastelands and soulless concrete apartment blocks of Communist factory towns whose tenants now cling to life more from habit than from purpose. I cannot help but feel whistful when turning my back on a country I have enjoyed so briefly and superficially, that surely has so much more to offer. But I am also content, knowing that as good and as intriguing as this place is, I have found better, and I am going back there now.
My laptop battery is running low, and Jim, reading in the seat behind me, serves to remind me of Hunchback of Notre Dame, lying unfinished in my bag. The acrid smell of cigarette smoke wafting back from the driver’s newly lit cigarette reminds me that there are some things about Istanbul I don’t miss, but only a border crossing and a few hours of reading stand between me and home, and I am happy.

A Soviet statue ala Rio de Janeiro
Randy Ronald McDonald checking out a risque Vodka billboard
Walking through an ancient gate
An old house
Jim and Joel in the mountains
A house perched on a wall
View of the old town hill from a churchyard below
Inside an old orthodox church
Monastery courtyard
A street in Old Plovdiv
Door to a courtyard in Old Plovdiv
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Life has been moving along at quite a clip for the last couple months. I have taught every single day since the start of December, and have regularly been putting in over 40 hours of work a week, not counting prep time and marking. I have worked every day, that is, except for a delightful two-day holiday at Christmas, spent making eggnog and singing Christmas carols with other stranded foreigners in the teachers' residence, and a four-day break for Kurban Bayram, which fell on New Years and was spent traveling to some of Turkey's most impressive historical and natural wonders. Despite the busy work schedule, I managed to play an occasional game of chess, take up Turkish-influenced cooking, argue endlessly about the finer points of logic, morality, and bowel movements with friends, and spend far too much time scouring ancient Pera, Istanbul, looking for a place to live. In the end, Keelty and I settled into a beautiful studio apartment. It has two private rooftop terraces with a view up the Bosphorus to the Marmara Sea beyond, framed by the elegant towers of Topkapi Palace, from which the Ottoman sultans ruled, and the glittering roofs of the Hagia Sophia and Sultan Ahmet's famed Green Mosque. It is a mighty view, and it makes Bartholomew Cubbins feel mighty small.

The view from our terrace

The view from our kitchen.

Our kitchen

Jim, Joel and Chris at the Apartment Warming Party

Joel and Matt: Domestic Bliss

There's plenty to see in Istanbul, but the most impressive thing by far is the Hagia Sophia. I can't do it justice with a description, certainly not in the 15 minutes I have till class starts, and none of my photos turned out of the golden Byzantine mosaics and the Islamic plasterwork that half conceals them. Here then, a discarded column from the original church juxtaposed against one of Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror's later minarets serves to illustrate the beauty and the paradox embodied by the Hagia Sophia, holy to two religions and revered around the world for its architecture.

Cross and Minaret at Hagia Sophia

Lights on the Golden Horn

Kurban Bayram, or the Festival of the Sacrifice, is an Islamic holiday that purports to commemorate when God stayed Abraham's hand from slaying his only son Ismael, who went on to be the father of the Arabic people. Where the Jews come from is anyone's guess. None of the Turks I have talked to are aware of a competing version of the story. At any rate, for the occasion, Turks take a rare break from their endless work to kill a lot of sheep and cows and eat them and kiss each others' hands and foreheads. This was just the excuse that Jennifer from America, Jim from Australia, and I needed to explore some of the sights of Turkey beyond the bright lights of Istanbul.

The Ruins of Ephesus

First we went to Ephesus, the best-preserved ancient Roman city, and once the largest city in the Empire outside Rome itself. Ephesus, known to the Turks as Efes, was Ostensibly founded by the Amazons, but those sexy, barely dressed warrior princesses evidently left it to a lot of hungry cats and two friendly but stupid dogs, who have let the place go a little. Still, it was nice. The outdoor toilets were particularly congenial.

Crunching one out in tandem.

Well preserved Greco-Roman villas in Ephesus

The Library at Ephesus

In the amphitheatre where Paul and his companions faced an angry crowd of Artemis-worshiping Ephesians, we raised a can of Turkey's most popular beer, the aptly named Efes.

Drinking Efes in Efes

In nearby Selçuk, Jim and I broke into several historical sights, including an old Selçuk Castle; the Temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, whose many marble columns were ransacked to build several other major edifices, including...; the Basilica of St. John, were John the Apostle is said to be buried; and Isabey Mosque. All of these were largely destroyed by an earthquake in the 15th century, but the remains are quite impressive and speak of both the architectural beauty of the structures themselves, and the sheer volume of marble that must have once glorified the Goddess of Fertility in the valley below.

Old Selçuk Turk castle

Partially ruined Isabey Camii (Mr. Jesus Mosque) with the more ruined St. Jean's Basilica on the hill behind

The last pillar standing at the Temple of Artemis. Appropriately, birds nest upon what's left of Diana's house

The next day we went to Pamukkale, were springs pour hot, calcium- and lime-laden water down the a mountainside upon which the water has formed natural calcium pools.

Joel at Pamukkale

Above the springs is the ancient Ionian Greek city of Heriopolis, which under the Romans served as an imperial resort city to which emperors came for the soothing waters of the Pamukkale. The ruined city is also home to the numberless tombs and sarcophagi of a large necropolis. Above the city and the necropolis lie the remains of Phillip the disciple, whose Basilica was once a church of the cross to which monks and crusaders pilgrimaged.

Joel at Heriopolis Theatre

Streets of Heriopolis

Joel and Jim in Heriopolis at sunset

Joel atop a piece of St. Philip's final resting place

Joel and Jim in the gates of Heriopolis
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Last night, I dreamt I was in Constantinople. From the slender spires surrounding me, the soulful strains of Allah's praise spilled out across the city. They bounced off the marble edifices of pashas' palaces, reverberated down labyrinthine lanes bustling with the most robust rug and spice markets in the world, rolled over the cool gardens of the Sultan, and drifted out above the port on the wings of endlessly wheeling gulls. Upon waking, I realised with a sudden thrill that I really was surrounded by opulent Ottoman palaces, elegant minarets, and ancient bazaars; I realised that I was living in Istanbul and that it was my day off.

I left my room and found Jim, my new Favourite Australian, backpack strapped on and ready to explore. With a little prodding, Keelty dragged himself out of bed too, and we all set out in search of adventure and donairs. Along the way, we debated this and that, and, as usual, solved most of the world's problems. After Turkish class and dinner, we challenged some locals to a game at one of the many popular backgammon houses.

Now, I'm back in my room, it's almost one in the morning, and no doubt some people are sleeping soundly. We call those people clinically deaf. Over the caterwauling cats and the equally piercing arabesque music from the restaurant next door (one of ten within a twenty-pace radius of the teacher's residence), a lone man is shouting "Ahmet!" into the night at regular intervals. He's on about his fourth set of 30 reps, and he doesn't seem to be letting up anytime soon, so I might was well keep writing for a while.

I had just been sighing contentedly over my good fortune to be in Istanbul, blithely assuming that everyone else was aware of how significant and cool it is to be in Istanbul, when an unnamed friend brought me back to reality with this shocking MSN conversation:
Friend: So, don't they run bulls down the streets of Istanbul, or what?
Joel: No, they play backgammon.
Friend: Oh. But don't they do something like that? I know Istanbul is famous for something...
Joel: (aghast) Famous for something? Do you mean like famous for being the largest city in Europe?
Joel: (aghast and indignant) Or famous for having been the capital of three of history's great civilizations -- Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman?
Joel: (aghast, indignant, and clearly getting carried away) Or famous for being the home of the Hagia Sophia, one of the most celebrated pieces of ancient architecture in the world and considered by many to be the eighth wonder of the ancient world?
Friend: Oh, it's the largest, eh? Yeah, that must be it.
Joel: (sputtering helplessly)
Friend: Soo..... Have you visited this Home of Hagia Sophia then?

Viewed from a certain perspective, my life must seem pretty meaningless.
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Today is my first day off since I started working, and I'm relaxing in my big new room at the teachers' residence. It's on the third floor (which is really the fourth floor since Europeans can't count) and far enough above the street that I'm no longer woken up by the mournful song of every passing street sweeper. The high ceiling of my room was undoubtedly once adorned by a glittering Ottoman painting, but it's since been whitewashed and all that remains are the ornate flowers of the plaster fresco. In other respects, too, the teachers' residence is quite satisfactory. The bathrooms and long winding stairs are all marble, and the floors are a pale hardwood.
It's not perfect though. The old windows, even the few that aren't cracked, admit more sound and cold than light. Only one out of every two fridges is functional, and I'm pretty sure the washing machine predates the Ottoman if not the Byzantine Empire. I don't doubt, either, that it has been stoutly denying clean laundry to all comers throughout its proud history: once you put your clothing in, you can't get the door open again without entreating it, coaxing it, and offering it hefty bribes of unmarked small bills.
The toilets have little nozzles that Keelty calls bidets with which you are supposed to clean yourself, since toilet paper must not be flushed into the ancient sewer system. I had my reservations about the physics of this idea, and perhaps you, gentle reader, will share them when I explain. The nozzle itself is set about two inches below the rim of the toilet, at the back. When turned on (by a knob on the wall), a jet of water shoots out horizontally across the toilet bowl. If the seat is unoccupied when the bidet is turned on, the water hits the front of the toilet bowl, logically a couple of inches below the rim. When the toilet is occupied -- as it was when I was sitting on it moments ago -- the unclean orifice of the occupee is supposed to interrupt the flow of this jet before it reaches the front of the bowl, thus becoming clean (always assuming that the nozzle itself is reasonably uncontaminated by the bacterial cultures and virii sometimes known to inhabit the bowls of toilets). It is, however, generally acknowledged by most medical experts that the human dietary tract terminates some distance from the extreme edge of the buttocks; that is, that our anal orifices are tucked away inside a crack of some depth. I ask you, gentle reader, to imagine how a jet of water spraying two inches below a toilet seat can clean an orifice set within a crack some distance above said seat. It cannot, as I recently discovered. Imagine then, if you will, what happens instead when the jet of cold water continues on, uninterrupted by a bum. For a man, the result is quite shocking. I shut off the bidet and leapt from the seat in a single motion, but I was determined to master this contraption, so I ventured to try again. Taking matters in hand, as it were, and pulling myself up by my bootstraps, if you will, I wedged the rest of me as far into the toilet as I could. Gingerly reaching for the knob, I cranked the bidet to full blast. Instantly, I was soaked by water splashing off the front of the toilet bowl and all over my butt and thighs. Water sprayed out under the toilet seat and onto the floor beyond, not to mention all over the hand I had been using to keep my other parts from interfering. Having pulled my pants down to my ankles, I was somewhat more fortunate than Keelty, who failed to heed my advice, and the next day came out of the bathroom with the back of his trousers soaked from belt line to calf. So I'm back to toilet paper, and if the Byzantine pipes can't handle it, I'll just have to invest in a chamber pot and turn mediaeval. It'll give the street sweepers something truly miserable to sing about.
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It has only been a week and two days since I left Canada. I always marvel at how many more days seem to cram their way into a week when one is in a new place and doing new things. I'm now in Istanbul and have been since early Saturday morning, but before I even arrived here, I had had a week overfull with visiting and adventuring, so naturally I have stories and photos to share.
Click for travelogue.Collapse )

Here's a photo of the whole gang in front of Istanbul's beautiful Dolmabahçe Palace: Princess Diana, Wilhelm III, Thomas, Coğıl, Jean Val Jean, Keelty, Myron, Atatürk, and Amenhotep III.
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Tomorrow, I leave for Turkey, with stops in London and Köln.
Why Turkey? Why indeed. Perhaps pictures, with their vaunted verbosity, will do a better job explaining than I will.
Stolen pictures of my home-to-be, that offer, I hope, some explanation for why I want to go to Turkey.Collapse )
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I almost stapled myself in the medulla oblongata today. Last week, I stood on a roll of plastic and slid off a roof into a pile of shingles. The week before that, I shot a three-and-a-half-inch nail lengthwise through my thumb and into the palm of my hand. A couple weeks before that, I tried to swat a blackfly while using a pair of electric hedge trimmers and nearly cut my left index finger off. Six hours and four stitches later, I emerged from the hospital with my finger bound in thick bandages, which I was admonished to keep dry. I was given latex gloves to wear in the shower, but was advised that a condom would work better since the gloves would admit water at the wrist. Rather than going to Shoppers Drug Mart and asking for a single small condom ("No, you don't understand! It's for my finger!" "Ewwwww!"), I wore the glove and held my hand above my head, doing a sort of Pentecostal shower dance.

Why all the failed attempts on my own life? Why the near catastrophes? Because I am currently working in construction with my contractor uncle in Parry Sound while I finish off my Masters Degree. And because, as I often say, there is nothing more awkward than a historian with power tools.

Perhaps, given my propensity for disaster, it's a bad idea to be moving to the middle east next month.Collapse )
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