Week One: Crazy Drivers to Sacred Spiders

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Haley Drozdowicz
Sunday, September 18, 2011

My first moments were pretty much what I had predicted: I got off the plane in Izmir and immediately put on my blue Rotary blazer, went through to get my visa stamped, got my bags and walked out the exit. Now in case I never told this story on my blog when I was in Brazil, when I got to the airport in Brazil in ’09, no one was there to greet me. Turns out my host parents’ car broke down on their way there. But eventually my host mom and sister came to get me via their friend who lived in the city. So needless to say, I was somewhat nervous that my luck would repeat itself and no one would be waiting this time around. To my great surprise and even greater relief, 4 people stood waving at me with a sign that said, “Welcome, Haley” in Turkish... except they spelled my name wrong, but they tried. I remember that HUGE sigh of relief when I knew I wasn’t alone and a smile crossed my face as I felt all my worries melt away. The four people waiting were my host mom, Demet, my Inbound Coordinator (a kind of counselor/organizer for the incoming students) Zeynep and her husband, and Ulas (pronounced “oo-lash) who I take to be the Assistant Inbound Coordinator. I said “hello” in Turkish (“merhaba”) but that was about all I could remember at the moment. My brain was tired from traveling and confused with the time difference, not to mention trying to take in all the thousands of new sights, smells, and sounds around me. We sat down at a cafe in the airport and Zeynep gave me a run down on some of the customs so I wouldn’t be completely shocked when people kissed me on both cheeks to say hello/goodbye. She also told me that elderly men and women may push their hand toward you when they shake it (while kissing your cheeks) and if they do, you must kiss their hand and touch it to your forehead as a sign of respect. I borrowed a phone to call my parents back in the US to tell them I was alive and safe so mom could finally exhale. Actually, I just called my dad, who then called mom, but I made the call short and sweet, but it wasn’t until he said, “Stay safe, we love you.” and hung up that the tears started rolling down my face. I didn’t want to cry, I didn’t feel like I was going to, I honestly wasn’t even that upset at the moment! I think it was karma getting back at me for not crying when I said goodbye to my parents in Chicago. But once I got ahold of myself, we went over some more scheduling stuff, some things I’d have to do this week, then they put my bags in my host mom’s car and that was it! I was officially starting this exchange and there was no turning back. It was a pretty quiet drive home, but I was too enthralled with looking out the window at the city to care. It was late at night, but everything was lit up. It was beautiful!!

A million things have happened since then. My Turkish-English dictionary has become my best friend, as well as my host mom’s. The very next day, she bought one of her own so we each had one to bury our noses in. We also went to a hair salon so my mom could get her hair done. She didn’t cut or dye it, just got it blow dried a certain way so it was straight. I was content just watching, but they forced me down into a chair and did my hair too, which actually turned out pretty cool. As far as the plans for later that day, I gathered that we would be staying overnight in a hotel outside Izmir for an engagement party for one of my host mom’s friends. That was the reason for the hair thing I guess. In my opinion, it could have been a wedding reception. The bride-to-be had a big poofy purple princess prom dress, the wedding party was all dressed in black (men with purple ties), and the entire pool area of the hotel was full of beautifully decorated tables. We got there in the late afternoon and the party didn’t start until a bit later, and my host mom saw how jet lagged I was, so she told me to take a nap before I had to get ready and she would wake me up in time to get dressed. That was a much needed power nap, but I was still tired when I woke up. An 8 hour time difference isn’t the easiest thing in the world to get used to, and I hadn’t even been in the country for 24 hours yet! But there were girls in very formal, elegant dresses (homecoming type if that helps you imagine it), high heels, professionally done hair, the works. There was a Turkish music group that was there playing, which consisted of a woman lead singer, a keyboard, drums, a clarinet, and that harp-type instrument but it lays flat and has a back to it... I can’t remember the name right now, sorry for the bad explanation. And first, the bride & groom-to-be did a dance alone, then other people got up to join in. I was forced to dance as well, but it was TOTALLY different than American and Brazilian dancing. If you’ve ever seen the movie “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” picture the dancing from that... that’s pretty much what it was: arms raised and snapping fingers, that kind of thing. And they dance with their shoulders here more than their hips, which, if done properly, looks positively amazing. Another strange thing I saw at the party was the father of the bride (I’m pretty sure) and others flinging one dollar bills in the air and giving them to the drummer as he walked around with his big drum. If you’ve ever heard the term “make it rain,” that’s what was happening. There was a woman there in the wedding party from Istanbul who spoke pretty good English, so I asked her why they had American money and why they were throwing it around. She explained that it’s an old custom from when the dollar wasn’t such a small amount of money. Back then, a man who could afford to throw dollars, or just possess them in general, was seen as rich and successful. The custom just never died. There was also a belly dancer there, who, in my opinion, wasn’t all that great, but I still wish I knew how to dance like that. As she danced too, men took dollars and Turkish Lira and tucked them in what clothes the woman had on. At one point, the father of the bride went around giving all the women dancing 5 lira bills, which I thought we got to keep, but turns out we had to give them to the dancer. Lame!! :P


So yea, that’s my first whole day in Turkey, which I would say is a pretty good start! That was definitely a culture shock, seeing as an engagement party here involves a small cake, a few people, and maybe some lemonade. Oh, I forgot to mention that the cake at this party looked like a wedding cake and was carried out on a table that had firework fountains shooting out from the sides... no joke. But that was just one day of 7 that I’ve had so far!!

The next morning, I was reluctant to wake up, mostly because I couldn’t sleep at night and got about 4 hours total. At some point during the early morning, I wrote the following in my journal. “I feel tired, but I can’t fall back asleep. I try to keep my mind off of Brazil, home, my new Turkish words, but thoughts flood in fast than I can get rid of them. ... But I need to give Turkey the same chance I gave Brazil. It’s beautiful here... I think these things I’m feeling are what I was warned about when I decided to become a yo-yo. My Rotary, family, and friends are proud of me; I don’t want to let them down. I just forgot how hard the beginning was. And I think I was over-confident that I would ‘dive into the culture’ much easier and not be homesick.” Needless to say, I had a lot on my mind! So when I woke up, I went down to breakfast with my host mom, then went back up to take a nap. But while I was eating my cucumbers, tomatoes, bread and jam, I saw the front page of the paper my host mom’s friend was reading. It was a photo of Ground Zero. I couldn’t understand what it was saying, but for some reason it made me want to cry. My mind raced back to 10 years ago that day when I watched the news all night with my family, horrified and incredulous at the images we saw. I took the front page with me upstairs, and my host mom followed me up just to be sure I didn’t get lost or whatever. As I looked at the picture, I asked her, “Do you remember this?” Her answer was both heart-breaking and eye-opening at the same time. She said, “Yes. A very bad day. I was very anxious about the terrorists coming here too... The whole world remembers.” I knew the world heard about 9-11, but I guess I didn’t realize how shaken everyone else was. True, Americans feel it the deepest because the fatalities were OUR policemen, OUR firefighters, OUR mothers, fathers, daughters and sons. But other countries, especially ones who live as neighbors to the terrorists who did this, have the memories burned into their minds too. Pretty interesting, isn’t it? Kinda makes it feel like the people in this world aren’t all as different and separated as we think.

That afternoon, we went to what I take to be the bride-to-be’s parent’s house and chatted with people there for a while. I tried Turkish coffee for the first time there, which actually wasn’t as bad as I expected. It’s a very different taste from American coffee, which I can’t stand, but I think maybe I could get used to this. One of the bride’s cousins told me he had just returned from California after spending the summer as a bike taxi driver in San Diego. He pointed out something very interesting to me that I never would have pin-pointed on my own. He said, “When I was in America, and looked someone in the eyes, they smiled at me. Even if they were strangers, they were just being nice and it’s normal there. Here, people won’t do that to you.” He warned me especially not to smile at men my age or older than me, because they might take it the wrong way and think you’re asking for something more. I’ll definitely keep that in mind! But ever since he brought that to my attention, I’ve seen that it’s true, people here don’t really smile to each other unless they know them. I discussed it with another exchange student from America (Oregon to be exact) and we talked about how hot-headed people can be here. They get mad EXTREMELY easily, but they also get over it pretty fast too. To say they have “road rage” is definitely an understatement. My Inbound Coordinator explained, “When 2 men get into an accident with the cars, they jump out and yell and fight and maybe even hit each other. But then in 5 minutes, they hug, get in their cars and it’s done.” It’s not that people are rude, I’ve been treated very well and met plenty of friendly people. But maybe it’s only with people they’re familiar with and strangers are treated very... different.

Anyways, after that little chat, we drove back to Izmir where we went to a place called Kipa, which is a grocery store and mall all in one. We went grocery shopping, which was interesting to see the different foods they have, and also the ones they have that are similar or identical to ours. We bought tons of fresh vegetables, fruits, and herbs, took it all to the car, then went to the food court for lunch. To my surprise, when I got to the top of the escalator, I saw 4 familiar signs shining down on me: Burger King, KFC, Pizza Hut, and yes... McDonalds. I knew McDonalds had spread throughout the world, but all four in the same food court?! sigh... We ate at Pizza Hut, which tasted the same dough-wise, but the toppings were much more.. Mediterranean. As I approached my side of the car to go home, I saw the back tire was flat. I pointed it out, and long story shot, there was a BP gas station nearby that we fixed it at. But I learned a new word in Turkish as a result of my host mom’s road rage to all the people honking at us as we creeped down the street towards the gas station. I swear people drive with one hand on the gear shift and one hand on the horn here.


That night I found an odd similarity between my host mother and myself. After dinner we sat down to watch TV, and we stumbled across the show “Castle,” which I love to watch with my mother back in the US. So I decided that Castle was going to teach me Turkish!! We also watched some Grey’s Anatomy and some HBO show called “The Big C”. So yes, they have some American TV shows either dubbed or subtitled (obviously we watched them with subtitles), but with one huge difference. In America, every so often they’ll break the episode up for a 3-5 minute commercial break, so a show that’s really 47 minutes long takes a full hour to watch. Well here, they watch the episode straight through starting on the hour, and when it’s over, they have like 20 minutes of commercials before the next one starts. It’s an interesting system.

Day 5 was relatively uneventful, other than the fact that I had internet for the first time since I arrived here. I followed my host mom to work (which is at an insurance company) and used the internet there. At first I was excited and did everything I had to do or wanted to do on the web, but still had to stay quiet sitting at a table in my host mom’s office for the rest of the day. We did leave for lunch to the restaurant next door and I tasted döner for the first time, which is shaved lamb on top of pita bread covered with tomato sauce. It was pretty good, although today I had some that was even better. When my mom finally got off work, we walked a bit to get to a part of the city called Alsancak which is basically the heart of the city. It’s the “new downtown,” which replaced what is now the old bazaar. We walked around, looking at the restaurants and shops, walking past the sea for a bit before stopping for ice cream. Although it tasted very different, at the same time, I caught a hint of Culvers taste in there, which made it all the more wonderful. As we walked back to the car, we talked about the Muslim religion and how some people pray 5 times a day and some don’t pray very much at all. I asked her why I hear a strange music several times during the day and night, and she said that it’s a priest-like figure chanting prayers for the people. During these times, restaurants shut off their music and TVs, and for those who practice the religion seriously, they are not allowed to lay down, along with other rules.

The next day when I woke up, I didn’t feel very good. I told my host mom I needed to stay home to rest, which made her a little nervous because I would be home alone, but I entertained myself all day between the computer, sleeping, and writing in my journal. Thankfully, I started feeling better in the afternoon (my body is still adjusting to the food) so I ate some food and continued relaxing until my host mom came home. But that night, we had Ulas over for dinner, then afterwards we went over the “First Night Questions,” which are basic questions families should discuss within the first week to help everyone understand the rules and expectations of the household. Also, I tried Turkish baklava for the first time which was AMAZING... definitely one of the best things I’ve eaten here so far. After we discussed the questions, Ulas left and my mother and I decided that I needed to learn more words in Turkish, and teach my mom a few English words at the same time. So we got out some pink sticky notes and ran around the kitchen, living room, my bedroom and bathroom, writing down the names of things we thought I should know. So now, if you look at our kitchen, you’ll see about 12 sticky notes and 3 more in the silverware drawer. I hope the strategy works, but only time will tell!


Wednesday marked the day that I met the first of many of the other exchange students here in Izmir. Total, there are 19 in the city and 1 in another city nearby. My host mom walked me to a restaurant/cafe where I met Maggie, from Oregon, whose host parents owned the place. It was nice to have someone to talk to about all the strange things in Turkey we’re not used to and compare notes from what we’ve observed. So I spent pretty much all day talking with her at the restaurant and playing computer games with her little sister, who is 11 and speaks English incredibly well. While we were there, her little sister went to get an extra chair to sit by the computer and it had a little spider on it. She asked if I could get it for her because she doesn’t like them. So I did what I usually do: grabbed a napkin, walked over and squished it. Well the look on that little girl’s face told me that I had just done something wrong. She asked, “Did you kill it?!” ... to which I replied with a hesitant “..uh, yes?” Between her and her father, I gathered the story as to why killing spiders is bad. Apparently, Muslims believe that spiders are rescuers or protectors of the Muslim people because a long time ago, a group of prophets were running from their enemies and decided to hide in a cave. While they hid, a group of 4 or 5 spiders spun a web covering the front of the cave. When their enemies ran by looking for them, they paid no attention to the cave because they figured if there was a web there, no one could have gotten inside. So, as a thank you to the spiders for saving the prophets, many people here try to save spiders instead of killing them because they believe the spider will rescue them if they are in need. Well I felt like a pretty bad exchange student after I heard the story, but at least I know now!

The next day, I went back to Maggie’s cafe and chatted with her again. Then, by some random coincidence, our Inbound Coordinator, Zeynep, and the Mexican exchange student who is living with her (Diana), walked by. We ended up eating lunch with them and had a very eye-opening conversation about the way countries are run and religion and things like that. We walked to the school Diana would be attending to register her (it was just something new to do), then went back to Zeynep’s apartment (which is like 3x the size of mine) and talked about the city and looked at a map to get more familiar with where things are. Since that day happened to be Mexican Independence Day, Diana cooked an authentic Mexican dinner of chicken fajitas and rice. Before dinner I was made to try some sort of wrap with lettuce and something strange in it, which I found out after the fact was chopped up liver mixed with some sauce and spices... I could have lived without eating it, but I tried it! After meals, it’s normal for people to drink tea or coffee and chat, so while we were drinking our tea, we talked about the differences in schools between the US, Mexico, Brazil, and Turkey. I was somewhat concerned that my school here would expect me to get good grades and do all my homework and stuff, but according to Zeynep they don’t really care what you do, which was a relief. I just graduated from high school! If you’re putting me back into one, don’t expect me to be eager to pay attention in Chemistry. But school starts on Monday (the 19th), so we’ll see how things go I guess. When I got home, I got the chance to Skype with one of my best friends, Alex, for a while, which was wonderful. I think I miss him more than I miss Culvers.. and that’s saying something. Well they actually go hand-in-hand, because Alex and I always used to eat at Culvers together... but that’s beside the point!?

So! There is an overview of my first week in Turkey!! Although each day has seemed to go by slow, I look back and think, “Wow! Where did that week go!?” So as I enter my second week, I’m expecting lots more crazy experiences, especially with school starting. I’ll get into the details more next time. For now, I’ll let you get back to your day. Thank you for sticking with me and reading about my adventures!! Can’t wait to tell you more!? (P.s. below is a picture of my host mom and I at the engagement party)


Last updated: 10:42 am Wednesday, August 28, 2013

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