Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Quick update

Today is the "hump day" of the busiest three weeks since I graduated from school. It began last week, when I had class every day of the week because of classes I had to reschedule. Then on Friday I went to the English Language Teachers Association (ELTA) conference in Belgrade. I gave my presentation on teaching American culture through media - it went pretty well. The high point of the conference was when I was manning the U.S. Embassy booth together with one embassy staffer. Our booth featured materials for English teachers published by the U.S. Government and TESOL. The two of us stepped away to get a coffee. When we came back, the booth had been totally ransacked. Almost all of our books, brochures, and CDs had been taken by random strangers unaffiliated with the conference. Half a dozen elderly Serbs were clustered around, searching under the table where our personal possessions were, asking if they could take copies of various books even though they didn't speak, much less teach, English. One man insisted on his right to a book with pictures of the Statue of Liberty, on the grounds that he went there once. Back from ELTA to another week chock-full of classes. Then this afternoon Meaghan and I gave a presentation at the university to a group of (mostly) primary-school teachers. We spoke about ways of motivating kids to learn to read and write. It was great fun and involved storytelling and artwork. Tomorrow I'm off to Lithuania to speak at another conference. I'll be there until Monday, arrive in Belgrade at 8 Monday night, in Kragujevac probably around 11, and then leave Kragujevac at 5:45 Tuesday morning for a trip to south Serbia. I'm speaking at the American Corners in Vranje and Bujanovac, and the Bujanovac staff has offered to show me the Serbian high school and the Albanian high school, and introduce me to the mayor. I hope I'm awake enough at that point to shake his hand. I'll fill you in on everything when I get back. Look for an explanation of why academic egos are like the wild dogs of Kragujevac.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Istanbul, Part II

Before you read this, check out Meaghan's account of our trip to Istanbul. During our five days in Istanbul, we stayed in the Sultanahmet neighborhood, location of Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace, and the Four Seasons Hotel. Our hotel was located on the old Byzantine hippodrome, directly across from the Blue Mosque. Here's the view from the terrace restaurant where we ate breakfast every day: Sultanahmet is probably the most touristy place I've been since the Upper City of Quebec - or perhaps Disney World. Walking out of our hotel every day, we would hear French, Italian, and English as much as Turkish, and pass enormous white tour buses with Korean signs in the window. This presented an unrivaled opportunity for international people-watching. Take clothes, for instance. To look like an authentic Turkish man, dress in the following costume: stylish but poorly tailored gray pinstripe suit, white dress shirt, light brown loafers, hair gel. Sunglasses and bright green tie are optional. Italian men, on the other hand, can be recognized at fifty paces by their dark sweaters over check dress shirts and their square spectacle frames of thick black plastic. Whatever they're wearing, women who visit mosques are usually requested to cover their heads. Non-Muslim women, unused to wearing headscarves, come up with a number of solutions. Meaghan bought a scarf in the Grand Bazaar and did a reasonable approximation of the Turkish style, although without that lower layer she did have some hair peeking out. Other solutions were less elegant, ranging from the knot-under-the-chin toothache look, to the one girl who actually tied the arms of her sweatshirt around her head, to a few who chose not to cover their heads at all. Having been to Morocco, where non-Muslims are not even allowed to enter any mosques except this one, we found their disrespect pretty classless. Our guidebook had its own suggestion of how we should show respect to our Turkish hosts:
At all times show respect for Ataturk, whose picture you will see in offices, shops, and public places.
In fact, you do see pictures of the founder of the Turkish Republic, a snappy dresser with piercing eyes, everywhere you go. When you step off the train, you see a three-foot-high bronze image of his face emerging from a marble wall. Our favorite restaurant, whose walls were covered with pictures of every sort, reserved one wall for Ataturk alone. Every denomination of the Turkish lira bears his picture. Now, it never would have occurred to Meaghan and me to make fun of these pictures. We're live-and-let-live sorts; every country shows its patriotism in its own way; and besides, he's a handsome fellow. But having read this advice in our guidebook put the idea in our heads, and much like Tolstoy and his white bear, we couldn't stop thinking about it. Every time we saw a picture of Ataturk, it made us want to laugh - at our guidebook! We were lucky not to embarrass ourselves. Istanbul is a great vacation destination that I would recommend to just about anyone. Its tourist hordes and hard-sell shopkeepers are overwhelming at times, but the locals know how to help you get what you want; it doesn't seem quite so foreign as Morocco does. Our book said that "nothing can prepare you for the Grand Bazaar," but compared to the sensory onslaught of Marrakech's Djemaa el Fna, we felt practically at home. We read one tourist brochure that described Istanbul as "the capital of three empires;" its most famous sights outline the history of civilization. There's one moment when you're walking into the Hagia Sophia and you see above the arch an Orthodox Christian mosaic of St. Michael; as you look down, the arch frames a giant wooden circle bearing the name of one of Muhammad's relatives in Arabic calligraphy. In that moment, you sense a coming together of east and west, past and present, and the historic weight of our ancestors' actions.