Saved by sardines

It seems that lately I am always biting off more than I can chew, but I think it is symptomatic of birthday season (or actually, of Baki’s birthday, which never seems to end). Baki had a semester break, so we went up to Istanbul for a few days so the boys could see their grandmother and celebrate Baki’s birthday with Ali’s family. On our first day there, we went to the tulip gardens in Emirgan park.Image

It was a glorious spring day, and we were surrounded by thousands of tulips in full bloom. Every great city has spaces where you can forget everything, and Emirgan park is definitely one of those places. It was like something out of a fairy tale. Kaya loved all of the flowers, and wanted to smell them all. Baki declared himself thoroughly bored. (Though he did perk up when we encountered swans in the pond.)


But for some reason, even though we got our trip off to the best possible start, the whole thing felt a bit like swimming in quicksand. I just felt stressed out while we were in the city and had the sense that I was fighting it all the time. The kids were bouncing off the walls, high on sugar and too much TV, and I never seemed to get anything done. It was wonderful to see everyone, and we had a lovely little party for Baki, but mostly I felt really frazzled.

Ali picked us up at the airport yesterday, with me nearly kissing the ground I was so happy to be back. We packed Baki off to school this morning and went out to the garden, stopping, as we always do on Mondays, at the market in Kemer. I stock up on vegetables for the garden and for the apartment, and always stop by the fishmonger – Mondays mean fish for lunch. Now while I was in Istanbul, Ali’s mom and I would sit and have tea before the boys got up and one morning we got to talking about fish because we always eat fish while I am there. I mentioned to her that I had gotten some fresh sardines at the market not too long ago and she said that I ought to cook them in the oven with a bit of olive oil and lemon juice. Well that sounded really good, so I got a kilo of sardines, which the fishmonger cleaned for me, even taking out the backbones. And I took them to my kitchen, which is now scented by white wisteria.


I shaved an onion on my deadly mandoline, laid the sardines on top, put some more onions over them for good measure, then scattered some lemon peel around. I poured on the juice of one lemon and some olive oil, sprinkled on a bit of salt, and baked the whole thing for about 20 minutes at 200C. With leftover stuffed grape leaves from Baki’s party and a big salad, it was just the thing to restore my sanity.Image

Sardines to the rescue!


Istanbul Rising

Dear Dad,
In Gezi Park, just a five minute walk from your old house in Cihangir, something incredible is happening. It’s been occupied by peaceful protesters who gathered there to prevent the park being bulldozed to build a shopping mall. There is a tent city there now, and the park is festooned with posters, art, and graffiti expressing a full spectrum of ideas. The protestors are standing up for their right to express these ideas, remaining steadfast in the face of intimidation and attack. And I mean real attacks, with tear gas and water cannons (and I know you’ve seen what the police can do with a baton).
That this nucleus of peace can remain in spite of it all has made these protests into a beacon of hope. Suddenly, it seems, there is a vision to carry us into the future. It is an idea that dares to look beyond economic growth and grasps for something deeper for us all. And most of all it is the protestors’ integrity – that alignment between belief and action – that is so hard to ignore. The actions of all those who are taking a stand has rippled through the country and has given rise to urgent conversations – over the phone, over coffee, late at night while kids sleep, or in sporadic bursts on the internet.
It makes me wish I could go to your house in Cihangir, and find you on the top floor in your creaky rocking chair. I’d flop out on the sofa and stare at the carpets hanging on the ceiling while we talked about all that is going on while the chair popped and creaked.
The energy and creativity that has come out of all this is so exhilarating that it is unbearable to think of the protests being crushed, of these brave voices being silenced. So we gather what news we can and hope that the protestors will stay safe. I stay up late after the boys have fallen asleep and try to make out what is happening in the square.
Last night, there was a piano in Taksim, I read, and protesters sang songs together. Tonight I read that a group of mothers joined hands to make a protective chain between protestors and the police after PM Erdogan urged parents to bring their children home from the square so they would be safe.
It is hard to know how things will turn out, but I have no doubt that the mark of Occupy Gezi is indelible. The boys will ask me about it one day, I am sure – this feels like a defining moment. I wish you were here to share it.

Gold medal slob

I remember when I gave my notice at work before moving to Antalya, I mentioned in passing to my boss that I was hoping to learn how to spin wool. He commented that I ought to have plenty of time for that, living in the middle of nowhere. As it turns out, although I did start to spin wool into yarn, it was more out of sheer determination than an excess of free time. Living as we do, off the grid and miles away from the nearest store, I have found that the basic mechanics of daily life seem to fill the day.

Of course, there are plenty of people in this world that live the way I do and get much more accomplished than I ever will. I think I am an inefficient person because I never seem to have enough time in the day, yet I never end any day feeling like I have achieved superhero amounts of work. Still, whether I am actually doing anything useful or it is just taking me way too long to achieve next to nothing, I am more or less busy all day.

Now here is why this is by no means a bad thing — the more free time I have, the more time I am likely to waste. It is true — I am a thwarted lazy person. By this I mean that although in my heart I am deeply committed to a life of laziness, I just don’t have a lifestyle that allows me to be a practicing lazy slob. And it’s a good thing, too — if I had more time to myself, I would not write the great American novel. I would probably spend most of my newly freed time doing next to nothing.

I know this for a fact because I am in Istanbul for a few days at the moment, taking Baki to the dentist to get fillings (which fills me with parenting guilt) and emptying my storage space here in order to move my stuff to Antalya. Being in the city means that I have TV and I have spent hours (and I am not speaking figuratively, I actually mean hours) watching the Olympics.

The boys, at the site of my undoing.

Okay, so there’s nothing wrong with watching sport, and the Olympic games are pretty heady stuff. There are all these amazing athletes, brimming over with potential, and you get to watch the culmination of all their hard work. You witness unbelievably emotional peaks and valleys and it all unfolds live on TV. What elevates me to the level of a world class slob, though, is that to truly enjoy this spectacle, I like to settle into a comfy chair with junk food and diet cola while I watch these dedicated athletes sweating it out. I munch munch through the events and munch faster while waiting for scores. In the back of my mind, some part of me with scruples is howling, but I ignore it and wonder if Baki ate all that popcorn that my mother in law got him.

Tomorrow, I load the moving truck and we go back home on Thursday. I think, in the interest of saving me from myself, that it won’t be a moment too soon.

Sowing the seeds

10 years ago, I was a fledgling English teacher, and Ali was a tour guide and translator. One of the highlights of our year was the Istanbul Film Festival (which is going on now) because we worked on subtitles and got passes that let us in to any movie.
I still remember the thrill of slipping into a side door to a showing of the Chinese film noir, Blind Shaft just as the lights went out and finding two empty seats that seemed to have been waiting for us. And there was also a memorable translation that I still laugh about from a Turkish film that I was editing the English subtitles for: “Cut the crab!”
When I think back on those days, we seem like different people now. We’ve got two kids and a two acre garden. We’re more likely to fill sacks of manure together than go out to a movie or duck into a restaurant.
However, we were always headed here. Because there is one thing that we have done together without fail every year and that is sow seeds together. In February and March every year (with a few weeks on either side added in for good measure) we spend hours making paper pots and filling them, dropping seeds into little holes and writing labels. We’ve planted our seedlings in other people’s gardens, on our terrace, at my parents’ house, and now here, in our very own garden, which is literally our dream come true.
So although we never go out to do much of anything on our own anymore, I know we’ll have that time side by side with the seed packets when Spring approaches again, just as we have every year for the past decade.

Little old me

Some of the best ideas are the ones that make us rethink our own. While I was in Istanbul at the end of January, I indulged in one of life’s greater pleasures and visited a bookstore. They had a whole table of the Penguin Great Ideas series, and I hovered over it for a good long while. I eventually walked away with St. Augustine’s Confessions of a Sinner and Henry David Thoreau’s Where I Lived and What I Lived For.
Now, either of these books has plenty of grist for the old mental mill, but just to be superficial about it, let me confess that I didn’t so much as open the Thoreau before falling deep into thought over the quotation on the cover:
“Rather than love, than fame, than money, give me truth.”

It sounds so upright and good, and I can think of people in my life who would wholeheartedly espouse this (I’m married to one of them). Myself, I could easily turn down fame, and we all know what money can’t buy, but therein lies the rub. You see, I’m pretty sure I’d settle for love. And reading that quote, with the stark trees etched beneath it, I felt somehow smaller for that.
Then again, isn’t the truth supposed to hurt? What’s so great about that?


We are back in the garden at last! Four days in Istanbul was more than enough running around for me. It was so busy that I didn’t even have time to stand still long enough to wish all and sundry a very happy year of the dragon (or, for that matter, to thank anyone for their new year greetings).
Somehow, though, we did manage to sit down for a new year’s meal. My mom and I had experimented with making dumplings using lamb; while I was teaching in Harbin, I had really nice lamb and cabbage dumplings (and rather a lot of them too, at an establishment known as Eastern Dumpling King. While scarfing dumplings, you could flag down waiters with kettles of hot dumpling water to wash them down with. And I won’t even start on the black vinegar for dipping. I could bathe in black vinegar.)We picked a Chinese (Napa) cabbage from the garden, parboiled it, and made a dumpling filling with lots of ginger, green onion, a bit of sesame oil, soy and salt. We froze it raw and brought it to our friend Maia’s house, in my mom’s old neighborhood, Cihangir. Maia, in addition to making a dumpling wrapper (she’s something of an expert) made Georgian chicken with walnut sauce; our friend Ranit made Baki’s all time favorite super spicy Sri Lankan chicken drumsticks; and of course, we steamed a fish. We all pitched in with folding the dumplings. As usual, none of mine stood up, which spparantly means I am lazy (how true. The dumplings know the truth of it). It was a great way to start the new year: among good friends and good food.
I am also starting this new year with a new name. Three years ago, I began the process of applying for Turkish citizenship, and while we were in Istanbul I was finally awarded a Turkish ID card. I asked if I could use my maiden name, but that’s not allowed; you can only add it to your married name. So that’s what I did. And since we were in Istanbul to get Kaya his US passport, I applied for a US passport with my new name in it. I’ve had trouble traveling with Baki because our surnames are different, so I guess this might help.
A name is just words, but it is a bit like putting on a costume to assume a new name. I remember when I went to China, it felt strange to use my Chinese name, as if I were pretending to be someone else. In a way I was, since speaking another language is another thing that can remove you from yourself by a step or two. It also made me realise how strongly attached I was to my name, which surprised me. I grew into the name though, as I am sure I will into this one. And thankfully I get to keep my father’s surname as well, since I don’t think I’ll ever be ready to sever that tie.

Unwanted attention

“Why don’t you have a nazar bead on your son?”
I never put evil eye beads on Kaya, just as I failed to put them on Baki. Moreover, Ali is adamant in his belief that pinning tiny beads (choking hazard) on to a baby using a cheap little safety pin (poking hazard) is nothing short of completely idiotic.
The question had come, as it always does, from a complete stranger, while we were in Istanbul last week. I am always amazed at how forward people are about how wrong they think I am in how I dress/carry/protect my baby. I usually carry Kaya wrapped in a Didymos wrap-style sling, sitting upright with his face towards me. I know these slings aren’t all that common in Turkey, but I have had people actually come up and pull the fabric aside, asking me if he can breathe. Other times, it’s that he’s wrapped too tight, or else he’s sure to fall out, which presumably means he’s wrapped too loosely. He’s too cold or he’s too hot. He’s not wearing socks. Or, simply, I have made the grievous error of leaving the house without pinning the ubiquitous blue-eyed evil eye bead on his shoulder to ward off malignant wishes.
While in Istanbul, I decided to try pushing Kaya in a stroller. Kaya adored it, though he was pretty much overstimulated by it all; it took lots of nursing and holding to calm him down for sleep at night. At least no one had any comments about it like they did my sling.
On our fourth and last day in Istanbul, though, I went back to my trusty old sling because it was cold out, and I had to move quickly to run a few last errands. It felt great to have him all bundled in front of me, and in spite of the weight of him (7.8 kg/17 lb) it was so much easier on the metro to just walk through the turnstile and onto the escalator instead of all the rigamarole you go through with a stroller.
The previous day, a friend had given me an evil eye bead for Kaya, and as I got ready to leave the house, I pinned it onto pthe sling. It may or may not have kept away evil thoughts, but I can attest to one thing: it gives the dispensers of unsolicited advice one less thing to chastise me about, and that is worth a good amount of peace of mind!