Semester Break: Greece, the Hamam, and Other Adventures
On January 18th, Michelle and I were spontaneously dragged along on a field trip with the Photography club. They drove us pretty much to the other side of the city to a photography museum that was centered around a famous Turkish photographer and about the evolution of the camera. It was an interesting hour in my life, especially to see the cases filled with huge cameras that were once called “The latest in photographic technology”. It was also cool to see so many old pictures of Turkish families and Turkish life. There were even some pictures of Izmir from the 1920s before all the tall buildings started being constructed all over... It looked like a completely different place, even though I’ve stood in the same spots those pictures were taken in. We got back to school from the museum half an hour after school ended, meaning we had to take a taxi home. Michelle came home with me because that night, the last day before the 2 week break officially started, we went to a dinner with our class at a fancy upscale restaurant. But because we’re exchange students and have to pay for our own food, we couldn’t afford the 40 TL dinner that all our other classmates got. Instead, we split calamari and manti (kind of like mini-ravioli). This is the group in front of the photography museum:
That Saturday morning, all us exchange students were up and on our way downtown to the Hilton hotel for a Rotary Exchange Seminar, blue blazers and all. It was basically our 2 main officers explaining Rotary Youth Exchange (RYE) to any Rotarian that came, as well as the possible outbounds, or students who will be leaving on exchange in the coming exchange year. We sat there for several uneventful hours until 2:45 rolled around and I had to sneak out. Don’t worry, they knew I was leaving. Why did I jump ship? Because Alfonso, Emily and I were going to Greece that weekend and my bag was sitting (ready) at home. I took a taxi home, changed clothes quick, and took a taxi back to Alfonso’s house. Alfonso and Emily met me there with our passports, and after we gathered up Alfonso’s host brother, Omer, and his bags, we were off to Çesme. Çesme, pronounced “chesh-mey”, is where Alfonso’s host grandmother lived- who is originally from Germany and speaks German, English, Turkish, and Italian- so we stayed the night at her home Saturday night and went to Greece on Sunday morning.
After a wonderful homemade dinner, Alfonso’s host grandma took us on a walk around the village, which was very relaxing considering the complete lack of people, traffic, or noise. Çesme is mostly a summer town where many Turkish families in Izmir own summer homes and go there as often as they can during the summer. But during the winter months, hardly anyone lives there, which explains the silence. We walked back to the house and watched a movie before going to bed much later than we should have.
We were like zombies walking to the bus stop, then on the bus to the ferry station, then waiting for the ferry to come. But there was a family on the ferry that was speaking English. Eventually, we struck up a conversation with them and found out they were from US/Canada and they had sold all their belongings to travel Europe and Asia with their daughter for a year. The girl was only 10, but she was the most intelligent, mature 10-year old I’ve ever met. They had been in Turkey for 5 months and were now taking their camper back to Europe to see southern Europe before returning the camper in Amsterdam and going back overseas. They were incredible to talk to, even though we were all still half-awake.
The city of Chios is famous for two main things: The first is for being the supposed birthplace of the Greek poet Homer, who wrote the Odyssey and the Iliad. The second is for being one of the only places on earth that grows mastic trees. Mastic, or “sakiz” in Turkish, is the main ingredient in chewing gum. The taste is very prominent in gum here, but not so much in the United States. But Chios has produced mastic in several other forms besides just chewing gum. I bought a jar of mastic in a jam/spread-like consistency for my family and friends back home to try.
When we got to the harbor in Chios, the real excitement set in and we forgot how tired we were. We set foot in Europe for the first time ever (outside an airport). We walked around the whole city, visiting archeological museums, a beautiful park, and even a Greek Orthodox Church. Most stores and restaurants were closed due to it being Sunday, which was a bit frustrating, but it was still an amazing day. We ended up walking around in circles and loops most of the day trying to find something to see or do, but even just walking through the city was exciting for the three of us. As you might expect, there were statues all over the place of famous Greeks and famous Greek Gods.
The weather was perfect for it being winter, the sun kept us warm with our jackets all day. We ate at a small restaurant type thing and ate gyros, with REAL PORK! After 5 months without it, oh, it was heaven! We also stopped at a cafe and ate a slice of Oreo pie... I died all over again. It was beyond delicious after not having eaten proper pie or Oreos in so long. Oh, and may I just add quickly that as hard as Turkish is to learn and speak, I am very glad I didn’t go to Greece instead... You can’t even guess at what the letters in THAT alphabet sound like! (although, when spoken, Greek and Turkish sound somewhat similar and share some of the same words.) We caught the ferry back to Turkey around 4 and Alfonso’s grandma said if we wanted to stay another night, we could. So, we did! We didn’t stay up as late this time, though.
I was woken up in the morning by Omer singing & shouting, which turned out to be pretty funny. We gave him the new nickname DJ Bro-mer after that day, which has stuck ever since. We ate breakfast, then played cards for a few hours. Alfonso’s grandma found a ride back to Izmir for us so we wouldn’t have to pay for a bus, but the guy didn’t come for us until 3 or 4 in the afternoon, so we ended up eating lunch there as well. Oh, and by Emily’s request, we watched “Mamma Mia!” on my computer until our ride came. We cranked up the radio and blasted English songs down the highway and we all danced and sang along... made for a great end to a great weekend.
I created a video about our trip to Chios and put it on YouTube, so here is the link, for anyone who wants to see more pictures and videos from our adventure:
The next weekend, the Rotary exchange students living in Istanbul came to Izmir on their tour of Western Turkey, so we all agreed on meeting on that Saturday afternoon and showing them a little bit of the city. We started at the infamous clock tower, then walked over the bridge and along Kordon (right next to the sea) to a plaza with a giant statue of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the most important man in Turkish modern history. (I’ll let you Google him for yourself, it would take too long to explain his importance.) The group of approximately 35 students started getting confused as we continued walking, some people wanting to shop and some wanting to take taxis to an old castle... it was messy. We ended up going back to a cafe on Kordon and drinking tea/coffee and talking, which was nice too. It gave us all a chance to get to know each other better, which we of course enjoyed. It was weird having so many guys around though, but it was refreshing! Their group had a perfect balance of country diversity and guys/girls... so very different from the Izmir group that has 20 students, all but 2 of whom are girls. Hopefully we’ll get to meet again when the Izmir kids go to Istanbul later this spring.
On Thursday, February 2nd, the city of Izmir saw something they hadn’t seen in over 40 years, if not more... snow. I woke up that day, got ready to meet my host mom downtown, and when I took a quick peek out the window to see how cold it was, I couldn’t believe my eyes. It wasn’t much in Wisconsin terms, but it was there, falling steadily on rooftops and lightly covering cars. As I rode the bus downtown, I realized that as strange as it was for me to be seeing this, it was even stranger for the people who have been living here most of their lives, if not all. Kids and elderly people alike came outside and played in the snow, touching it like it was some foreign substance... which if you think about it, it kind of is! Most of the people here have never seen snow like that... not in their own city at least. All day as I walked around, I saw little snowmen built on tabletops at restaurants, and even one on the hood of a car. It was perfect packing snow, which made for more than a few snowball fights in the streets as well. However, by the time I met with my friends around 2 in the afternoon, it was pretty much gone already, except for the slush (the worst part in my opinion).
Two days later on Saturday, we had our final Turkish lesson... and with it, our final exam. We thought it was going to be much worse than it actually was. For the most part, the test was multiple choice and fairly easy. I ended up with an 85%.. a B... not too shabby! The second part of the exam was done orally, which again left us all shaking in our desks, but wasn’t as scary as we imagined. They took us two at a time into another room and basically just had a short conversation with us, asking us the same general questions people ask us on a daily basis.
On another night, one of the Americans wanted to celebrate her birthday by going out to dinner at a fancy restaurant. 6 or 7 of us ended up at a Chinese restaurant, but decided we would go to the bar at the top of the Hilton hotel afterwards (for non-alcoholic beverages of course.) Turns out we couldn’t have afforded alcohol even if we did want it... I ended up getting a glass of Sprite for 9 Turkish Lira (TL), which usually costs 2.50 TL... not cool! But it was a nice view from the hotel and made us feel like upper-class snobs for a few minutes, so it wasn’t all bad.
February 11th, a Sunday, and the second-to-last day of the semester break, I got up at 10:15am and prepared myself for my first experience at a Turkish hamam. It was very... interesting and... culturally insightful... and relaxing too! I prepared my eyes for a lot of mostly-naked women from all stages of life, and my host mom reminded me not to be frightened by it; it’s just a normal part of Turkish culture. When you first walk in to the hamam, there’s a room with several small rooms branching off of it for you to change in and leave your clothes in. Most women wear bikinis, but some go in their underwear and just bring an extra pair. In the main “bathing” room, the roof is almost always a large dome with small holes in it for the steam. Along the walls is a long stone bench to sit on, and every 6 or 7 feet there’s a faucet and basin with a small bucket type thing in it. Before the scrub down, you use the bucket to get your entire body wet and soften up the skin cells so they come off easier. I know it sounds gross, but trust me, you feel as soft as a baby afterwards. One woman was 100% completely naked laying on the scrub-down stone in the center of the big room, which yea, isn’t the most common sight in the world, especially not in the United States, but the whole “group of women all naked in a room” thing wasn’t nearly as awkward or uncomfortable as you’d think. No one pays attention to anyone else’s body really... they just sit and chit chat like they’d do if they were sipping tea in a cafe. In a way, it was kind of a relief to know that fat or skinny, busty or not, no one would judge you, or even think twice about it.
Anyways, after you’re nice and soaking wet, you lay on the big heated stone in the middle and a (clothed) woman uses a loofa-glove type thing to scrub your body. I didn’t know that much dead skin could even come off of a person... after you shed a layer of skin, the women covers you in soapy bubbles and massages you from head to toe. For the record, I had my bottoms on the entire time, but may as well have been naked because the woman moved them everywhere but off of me completely. After the massage, they stand you up, dump a few buckets of water on you to wash off the suds, and then you return to your spot on the bench and your faucet and rinse off some more. When you’re through, you take your cloth, cover up, dry off and change back into your clothes, and go about your day. Like I said before, I’ve never felt so clean and pampered in my entire life. It’s just not something I documented with pictures.