Let me share my tale…

You must only to love them, Ann Marie Mershon, annmariemershon.com, https://www.amazon.com/You-must-only-love-them-ebook/dp/B01DFUGIEI

I spent some amazing years teaching in Turkey, and I’d be happy to send you copies at a discount. Contact me to share this tale with friends and family. And if you haven’t read it yet, well, prepare to be surprised. Five Stars on Amazon with 53 reviews. Order before December 15th, because I’ll be off on yet another adventure.

Shameless self-promotion, I know.




You must only to love them.

It’s the truth, according to my friend Uygar. To control Turkish students “you must only to love them.” He was right, and his ungrammatical advice is the title of a new memoir about my years in Turkey—finally, finally, finally finished! Complete! Finito! Bitmiş!


PINK-Rose-Colored-Glasses-300x193I must admit, I wore rose-colored glasses much of the time, but this book does explore some of the darker sides of my experience, too, like being caught in a big demonstration with riot police:


And then there was the disastrous soccer match–Oh, my!


And believe me, it’s honest. You’ll see when you read it. No holds barred on this one.

If you followed my escapades over the years you might find this account a walk down memory lane. If you haven’t, perhaps it will pique your interest in Turkey, a country I grew to love—deeply.

Turkey has a wealth of history, amazing edifices and artifacts, and astounding terrain, but the true beauty of the country is its people. I hope I’ve shown that in my stories.
I don’t want to spoil the book for you. In fact, I’d love for you to read it. The e-book is under four dollars, and it’s also available as a paperback. Reviews so far have been excellent, so I’m confident you’ll enjoy it. Click on the book below to transport yourself to Amazon:

Cover 795KB

And if you’d like to try something new, there’s a rafflecopter giveaway for the book through May 16th. Here’s the link for that.






Disturbing Protests in Turkey

I’m haunted by news of protests in Istanbul, praying that this upheaval is followed by another of the governing party in the next election. Under the rule of the AKP (an Islamist-leaning party), the country is moving away from the secular democracy established by Ataturk in 1923. In recent years more than 180 military leaders have been jailed by this government, along with more journalists than in any other country in the world (even China). What kind of democracy is this? Now the government is tearing down one of the city’s only parks to build a mall and an Ottoman barracks as a museum. WHAT???

bp1Photo of protester from Boston.com

My former Koç student, Cansu Ozgul, explains the situation succinctly and effectively. Kudos to her efforts—I’m doing my best to pass it on.

Ann Marie

Here’s Cansu’s message:

June 2, 2013

Dear Friends,

We would like to call your attention to the recent turmoils in Turkey, because we believe it pertinent to all those striving to live in peace and with dignity, and because we really need your help.

Right now, in Turkey, innocent people practicing their democratic right to peaceful protest are suffering at the hands of government organized police brutality. This urgent issue, which threatens the very notions of natural and democratic human rights, is one of universal relevance. And it must be affirmed, in front of the whole world, that government oppression will never be tolerated – not in Turkey, not anywhere else; not now, not ever! And this is why we’re reaching out to you, calling you to action.

A peaceful sit-in in Istanbul’s Taksim Square in protest of the attempted demolition of a beautiful public park to instead erect a commercial mall, faced violent police crackdown on May 31st. The brutality began with the police burning protesters’ tents, and continued to escalate with the police making heavy use of water cannons, throwing excessive tear gas at groups, and shooting rubber bullets targeted directly at people. There are even reports that the police have now started using the infamous chemical Agent Orange, once a war weapon, against its own people. Hundreds of serious injuries, as well as fatalities, have resulted by this unprovoked and disproportionate use of police force.

taksim_2579289bPhoto of protest from Boston.com

What began as a peaceful environmental protest has now grown into an outlet for the Turkish people’s grievances against an authoritarian regime. The protesters have remained peaceful, but police brutality has been increasing steadily. We fear for the safety of our families and friends at the hands of such relentlessly excessive police force. We further worry that the government has not only remained silent in the face of this violent injustice, but has even stood behind it.
The local mainstream media has effectively been censored. The potential of trouble if they cover events that shed an unflattering light on the current government seems to have deterred the media from providing informative, objective and comprehensive coverage. Given that thus the Turkish people are left in the dark with very little recourse, we must call on the rest of the world to pay attention to our plight and stand in solidarity with us, with all those fighting for democracy.

Governments all across the world, international media, our fellow humans: We need your support. And it is our ultimate hope that with international encouragement, the Turkish government will finally listen and respond to the peaceful, rightful voice of its own people. It is our hope that those responsible for allowing this massive violence against innocents to perpetuate, such as Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, resign their posts. And we need international support to get our voices heard.

bp8Photo of protesters from Boston.com

What you can do: Get informed and spread the word. Some videos and news articles are attached below, which you can start sharing via Twitter and Facebook. We are counting on the intellectual prowess and human sensitivity of our amazing friends. Please stand with us, please speak up with us.

With wishes that peace, freedom and kindness prevail everywhere, always,

Cansu Ozgul

Twitter hashtags: #direngezi #direngeziparki #occupygezi #occupyturkey

Several videos:




An apology and an introduction

I’ve been slacking on this blog since I got home (last July), thinking there was little reason to continue it. Little did I know I could also use it as a platform for making contacts for my new memoir (yet to be finished) about my years in Turkey.

I just attended a Writer’s Digest Convention in New York last weekend, and I learned that if I want to interest an agent in this project, I have to build a huge “platform” of many thousands of contacts I can use to promote the book when it comes out–followers, so to speak. In spite of the fact that I’m scared shitless of Twitter, I’ve just joined and I already have eleven followers. Now I just need to figure out what to post. I don’t really use a cell phone, so it’s going to be just computer messaging. In due time…

As for the memoir, I’ve written just over 40,000 words, so I’m about half done. I think what I’ll do is start posting excerpts here on my blog in hopes that some of my friends will start following me again. So—for your information and edification, here’s a bit of the introduction to my book. If you have suggestions, please share them with me.



THE BIG DECISION~ Introductory ramblings

by Ann Marie Mershon

Ann Marie over Istanbul

“Why Turkey?” my son said with a tone of doubtful concern. His reaction reflected that of many friends and family when informed of my move.

“Oh, I’m jealous! Turkey is my favorite place in the entire world,” was another reaction—this from people who had been there.

So—Why Turkey?

One of the silver linings of my divorce after 32 years of marriage was the freedom to teach abroad. I’d long dreamed of teaching in another country, but my husband was unable—read unwilling—to make that shift. My tight finances as a single also meant at least three extra years of teaching, so I decided to treat myself to a grand finale. I would teach overseas—a reward for 30 years of dedication to thousands of adolescents and their fluctuating devotion to literature and writing.

In the spring of 2003 I attended a session on international teaching at an English teachers’ convention. My heart pounded as I scribbled copious notes. Moderators Bob and Carol Strandquist had taught in both England and Norway, and after tantalizing us with fascinating tales, they shared information about websites, fellowships, and recruiting fairs. I was a bit jealous of them. Why hadn’t I married a teacher interested in overseas teaching? At the same time, I was eager for my own adventure. The next day I registered with TIE Online and the University of Northern Iowa, the cheapest and most accessible recruiting tools available. I paid their fees and posted my resumé on both sites.

Then I waited.

I set my sights on Spain, since I wanted to improve on my paltry knowledge of Spanish. Barcelona sounded exciting, so I sent them a resume. In the spring of 2004 my district was in the midst of disheartening contract negotiations, and my heart fluttered when TIE Online posted a drama opening at a mountain chateau school in the Alps. Unfortunately, I’m responsible. I was committed to another year in Grand Marais, so I swallowed my excitement and stayed put.

I puttered around online regularly, soon receiving queries from overseas school directors.

Enter John Chandler, the director of the Koç School in Istanbul, Turkey. (Pronounced Coach) He sent an e-mail encouraging me to consider a position at his school. Koç? Weird name. Istanbul? Pretty exotic. I wasn’t even quite sure where it was, much less whether I wanted to go there. I searched it out in my National Geographic Atlas, then visited the school’s website. Hmmm…nice apartments, good pay… Maybe I’d consider it. I envisioned dark-mustachioed Bedoins galumphing across the desert on camels. Probably not.

Mr. Chandler courted me online, showing far more interest than any other school director. I’m good at responding to emails, but he was better. I had an encouraging reply within minutes of every message I sent. Koç looked intriguing. I pored through the information he sent, wondering whether I was willing to give up my dream of teaching in Barcelona, Salzburg, or Paris. Barcelona with its captivating Gaudi buildings, Salzburg with its Blue Danube and snow-capped Alps, or Paris’s cobbled streets with the Musé d’Dorsay and street cafes. I had a love affair with Europe, but this guy seemed to think I was perfect for his school. I read his interest as genuine and heartfelt. I think it was. Chandler is an intuitive reader of people, and he knows what he wants.

Finally in February of 2005 I was flying through a snowstorm to the University of Northern Iowa International Recruiting Fair in Waterloo, Iowa. Waterloo is far from picturesque, especially in a February freeze, but the conference was incredible. Over 600 teachers and 160 school directors filled the convention center on that first day. As I perused  my information (reams of school descriptions) and sifted through the latest openings, my mind raced. What did I want? Would I get a job? What if I didn’t? Every teacher had a folder filled with notes from school directors, invitations for interviews, etc. I decided to pass on the Koç position because of a reference to rote learning; I wouldn’t compromise my teaching philosophy with drills and memorization. Not for two whole years. And why would I want to live in a country that bordered Iraq? Like it or not, America was at war there. And then there was the Islam thing. I sure didn’t want to wear a scarf. Yup, I’d avoid the Mid-east. It would be good old Western Europe for me! Barcelona or Paris would be just fine, thank you.

I found John Chandler on the arena floor at his school’s table. He was distinguished—white-haired and thin-lipped. I introduced myself and apologetically cancelled my interview. He nodded and smiled knowingly. “Can I ask why?”

“It’s the rote learning,” I said. “I’m a hands-on teacher; I prefer active learning and inquiry in my classroom.” (I wasn’t going to mention the Islamic thing—probably politically incorrect.)

“That’s exactly why we’re interested in you,” he said. “You must have misunderstood. We frown on rote learning. That information was about the dersani classes the seniors attend after school and weekends. Our system is dedicated to stimulating and involving them. You might want to reconsider. Why not take a look at Koç?”

Well, I did. I took a good look, and I liked what I saw. After two interviews with John Chandler and incoming director, Tony Paulus, I was offered a position. I was also offered three other positions.

I chatted with experienced international teachers about my options. “You can’t pass up an opportunity to teach in Istanbul,” one said. “It’s a cultural mecca,” said another. “If I could get a job in Istanbul, I’d go yesterday,” one man told me. Another teacher was familiar with the Koc School and spoke highly of it. Hmmm…

I called Luana Brandt, a former teaching compatriot who had traveled throughout Europe and Asia. I thought she might lend another perspective. When I shared my four options, she responded immediately. “Istanbul. No question.” That clinched it. Everyone had pointed the way, and I would be a fool not to follow.

Turkey it would be.

The Call to Prayer

What most caught my eye on my first ride through Istanbul was its many hills and many mosques. Every neighborhood had a dome, each punctuated by at least one minaret spiking toward heaven.

Blue Mosque

The Blue Mosque in Sultanahmet is the only one with six minarets (one is hidden).

We could barely hear the call to prayer back then at the Koç School, though as the city encroached on that easternmost “suburb,” more mosques were built and the call to prayer became a part of our soundscape (along with jets flying over). Here in Arnavutköy I wake to the ezan (call to prayer) before sunrise, though I usually go back to sleep. I love hearing it repeat throughout the day.

Sokullu dome

Sokullu Paşa Mosque dome, Sultanahmet

There are six different times that the muezzin (crier) sings the call to prayer through a loudspeaker in the minaret. When I first came here, I thought they must be recorded and played electronically, but I was wrong. Each mosque’s muezzin is trained to fulfill his duty of singing phrases from the Koran to call Muslims to leave their daily tasks, face toward Mecca, and worship Allah in prayer.

Sokullu Paşa Mosque-night

Sokullu Paşa Mosque at night

The ezan is chanted at different times each day, depending on sunrise, sunset, longitude, and latitude. The exact same verses and music are repeated from every mosque in the city at the same time. It’s amazing when you’re in an area with many mosques, as they’re a bit out of step, so it sounds almost like echoes. From my apartment I can hear a few faint ezans from across the Bosphorus at the same time as the one from the Arnavutköy Mosque, loud and clear.

Laleli Mosque praying

Men praying in the Laleli Mosque (The Tulip Mosque)

Laleli Mosque womenA separate space for women to pray at the back of the mosque.

These were the times for the call to prayer in Istanbul when I wrote this (March 30, 2010):

Imsak (“abstinence”) 5:17 am: before dawn, to awaken the faithful for prayer

Günes (“sun”) 6:51 am: Sunrise

Ögle (“noon”) 1:09 pm: Midday, when the sun passes the zenith

Ikindi (“afternoon”) 4:42 pm: Afternoon, when the shadows cast by objects are equal to their height

Akşam (“evening”) 7:27 pm: Sunset, when the sun has disappeared below the horizon; beginning of a new day in the Islamic calendar

Yatsi (“bedtime” or “two hours after sunset”) 8:56 pm: When the last light of day has disappeared

Laleli Mosque fountain

The Laleli Mosque ablutions fountain

Laleli Mosque spigot

A spigot for ablutions

A Muslim is expected to pray five times each day to Allah (God—the same one worshipped by Christians and Jews, by the way), so I guess they throw in that sixth ezan for good measure. Maybe it accommodates early risers versus the night owls. I really don’t know. Only a minority of Turks pray five times a day; this kind of devotion is more common in Eastern Turkey and among recent immigrants to the city. In Istanbul habits range from no prayer to full compliance.

Blue Mosque domes

Cascading domes inside the Blue Mosque

Friday is the Islamic holy day, so that’s when many visit the mosque to pray. People first perform ablutions, washing their feet, hands, and head at a fountain in the mosque’s courtyard.  The main prayers are held at Oğle (noon), so mosques are the most likely to be busy then. The imam, the prayer service leader, will often give a sermon as well.

I find the call to prayer captivating—it’s one of the things I miss when I leave Turkey, and I can’t help but be moved by it when I’m here. I know some people find it irritating. I have to admit, if you’re near a mosque during the ezan, there’s often no point in trying to talk over it. People manage.

Laleli Mosque shoes

Shoes remain outside when you enter a mosque.

Four years ago my friends Dee, Terri, and I stayed in a hotel in Trabzon (NE Turkey on the Black Sea) during Ramazan. We were relaxing with an evening glass of wine when the call to prayer blasted us from a loudspeaker mounted directly outside the window. We clapped our hands over our ears, it was so loud. Since it was the final weekend of Ramazan, it went on and on and on and on. We heaved a sigh of relief when the singing finally stopped—but there was more! An endless sermon  finally drove us from our room. Oh, my goodness! No WONDER that hotel was such a bargain!

Uzungöl Mosque

Uzungöl Mosque, near Trabzon (not the one by our hotel)

As I see rabid reactions to Islam in the United States (and in other Western nations), I can’t help but feel frustrated. I know Turkey is a secular country, probably the most liberal of the Muslim countries, yet I am dumbfounded at the prejudice that has arisen from a knee-jerk reaction to Islamic extremists. The Islamic faith is a peaceful faith, one that combines a worship of God with service to others. Makes sense to me.

Beyazit Mosque

Beyazit Mosque courtyard

Burak Sansal is a tour guide who has established an excellent tourism site called “All About Turkey”. He describes the Muslim faith in these words:

“Muhammed was born in Mecca in about 570 AD. He preached that there is only one God and that he, Muhammed, was God’s messenger. Those that accept him as such are called Muslims, which means ‘one who submits to God’. The Koran  (Kuran, Qur’an) is the Islamic Bible, believed to be an exact record of the words revealed by God through the Angel Gabriel to Prophet Muhammed. Its basic theme is the relationship between God and his creations, yet at the same time it provides guidelines for a just society, proper human conduct, and an equitable economic system.”1

Now, I wonder, who can find fault with that?


The Bebek Mosque—where I recorded this call to prayer

Here is a recording I made of the call to prayer in Bebek while Libby and I were enjoying the park. Each separate phrase usually has a long pause before the next one, but I’ve edited them out to shorten it. The call to prayer usually lasts around four or five minutes, but this recording is only about a minute. You can still hear the voices and activity in the park. Life goes on, doesn’t it?

Bebek Mosque Call to prayer

tulip tree blossom

Blossoms from a “tulip tree” near the mosque in Bebek Park

So—there you have it, The Call to Prayer in Istanbul.

A  bit of the Turkish soundscape.

1 Sansal, Burak. “Islam in Turkey.” All About Turkey. Burak Sansal Tourism, 2010. Web. 1 Apr 2010. <http://www.allaboutturkey.com/islam.htm>.

My last week at Koç ~ sigh…

I’m sitting in the Munich airport enduring the four hours before my flight to Toronto—then to Thunder Bay, where Dad and Eileen will pick me up.  I have a tight connection in Toronto, so I’m not too optimistic. I’ll get home somehow, though. I wish I could trade one of these hours for one in Toronto.

It’s nice to fit in here in the Munich—unlike in Istanbul where my height and fairness attract attention. Here I’m one of many tall, light-skinned people, and there are even other gray-haired women. In Turkey all the women dye their grey hair, which I didn’t notice until it was pointed out to me by Uygar’s mother. She said, “You should grow your hair long and dye it dark so you look younger. All Turkish women do.” Hmphhh.

It’s been a busy last week for me, in spite of some serious thumb-twiddling at school.

Instead of thumb-twiddling, some more creative Koç teachers filmed \

Instead of thumb-twiddling, these creative teachers videotaped “The Plagiar-Busters”. Left to right, Celine Clark, Andrea Ball, and Tracey Zimmerman

Last weekend I coaxed my friend David to load up his car with my “apartment belongings” so I could move into my new Arnavutköy digs. We left at the crack of dawn (well, actually 7AM) to beat the traffic, and it worked. It took us about a half hour to get there, which would have been nearly two hours later in the day. Robert College has already delivered some furniture, though it isn’t set up yet. It’s sort of piled at this point, but the progress is encouraging. My small three-room apartment is bright with a lovely view overlooking the Bosphorous. It sits right at the top of Arnavutköy, and I’ll have a 5-10 minute walk to school each day. Lucky me! I think I’m going to bring my bike, too. I’ve missed biking, and I hope bike along the Bosphorous early each morning morning.

A preview of my future Arnavutköy living room–:)

After we moved everything in, we walked up to Bebek for coffee at the most beautiful Starbuck’s in the world.

David and I lift a toast to life on the Bosphorous at the Bebek Starbuck’s

We watched the C. SWEEPER in action (Sea Sweeper—get it?) Fascinating. It’s a huge tug-looking boat that picks up trash from the water. One man stands on the deck directing the pilot as he maneuvers to pick up bottles, cans, and other refuse floating on the water. The hull of the boat is open, with a conveyor belt that lifts the garbage up to a bin on the deck.

The famed “C. SWEEPER”

At one point, too, the deck hand used a long-handled net to pick up a bottle. It seemed like a mighty big boat for such small tasks, but maybe it also cleans up oil spills and stuff. Who knows?

The “C.SWEEPER” in action–see the plastic bottle at it’s mouth?

We walked back up to the apartment (a serious uphill hike), and I opted to stay behind and hike to Ortaköy to pick up earrings requested by a friend. It was just an excuse to stay in the city, actually. I’d catch the 2:45 service bus to school from Taksim. Saturday and Sunday are always busy in Ortaköy (which means “halfway town”—it’s halfway up the Bosphorous). The streets and plaza down by the water are chock-a-block with jewelry, antique, and clothing vendors. It’s sort of an artsy street market. Once I found Jess’s earrings, I decided to hop on the ferry cruise for an hour (costs a whopping $5). There’s something about water that absolutely captivates me. I snapped a few more photos of things I already have scores of photos of: the Egyptian Consulate, the Rumile Castle, the Bosphorous bridge… Then after the ride I lingered over one last Turkish breakfast for the year: tomatoes, cucumbers, olives, white cheese, egg, and bread.

The Egyptian Consulate under renovation along the Bosphorous

Ortakoy Offerings–every weekend all year

The other big event this week was the Koç School End-of-year Gala. Over 500 employees were transported in big tourist coaches to the Asian side of  the Bosphorous (our bus took nearly two hours), then we were ferried up to the Portaxe outdoor restaurant, where we enjoyed a lavish meal and dancing right there on the water.

Transport step 2: The ferry after a 2-hour bus ride

Approaching the second bridge…

Drinks and mezes awaited us at the waterside Portaxe Restaurant

The clouds that threatened rain were kind to us; the evening stayed dry and warm for the festivities. The crowd was a lively one, and the dancing great fun. Turks are sociable dancers; we all laughed as Hande and Ayşe exlained the lyrics of a song about discarding husbands and how many it takes to find the right one. Pretty funny. I was astonished to realize that it was 12:30 when we were herded onto to the ferries. Once on the busses, it was a mere 30-minute ride. What a difference!

Last night I finished off the year on campus by sharing a barbecue with friends. I’ll miss them, but I’m happy to be heading home again.

Winding Down (and up) in Istanbul

Things are winding down here. Grades are done, tests are bundled for the Exam-collection-in-the-sky, and I’m cleaning out my desk before we face our last flurry of correcting the Lise Prep Exemption Exams. Meredith directed a VERY professional moderation session for us yesterday morning, but we have four more days of thumb-twiddling before the students take the exam. David’s reading, I’m writing, and Celine is writing e-mails. (We have the smallest office).

Neil just popped his head in after delivering all his exams to what we call “The Dark Side” (admin is on that side of the building). It’s down three stories, across the building (about 150 yards) and up a story. We have no carts, so we roll desk chairs piled with packaged exams (luckily, we have an elevator). Neil announced that after humiliating himself rolling an exam-laden chair through the corridors to the other side, he realized that they’re then piled on a cart and rolled back over to be stored on this side of the building. Go figure.

Exams await delivery

David transports our bundled exams.

I have more interesting news, though.
Last Friday I went to the European side to check out an apartment the Robert College director sniffed out for me. I took a teacher service bus to Bebek (which means “baby”), where I hopped off to enjoy the most stunning Starbuck’s on the planet—or so I’ve heard. It’s located right on the Bosphorous, with upstairs windows overlooking the waterway and a downstairs patio right on the water. Oh, my! Does it get better than this?

Bebek Starbuck’s: The best in the world?

After the last few slurps of my frappucino, I moseyed along the water to Arnavutköy and Robert College. I was early, so I took my time climbing the hill to the school (sweat, sweat). Along the way I met former students who had heard I’m returning. What joy to feel appreciated. As I waited for Mr. Chandler outside the main building, more students and staff stopped to chat, again warming my path to yet another year of teaching.
The apartment is sweet, bright, and has a view overlooking the Bosphorous, and it’s only about a 5-minute walk to school. The only drawback is that it has no closets—none. Interesting. The school will furnish it for me, but I’m sure I’ll have to buy something to hang my clothes in. Maybe IKEA? Where there’s a will, there’s a way.

My new kitchen (photo: John Chandler)

View from my living room (photo: John Chandler)

That evening I hiked back up to Bebek to join a bunch of Robert College staff celebrating birthdays at TAPS, yet another venue on the Bosphorous. We sat at an upstairs bar-like table overlooking the water, boats skimming by as we sipped our drinks. Ah, does it get better? Well, read on.

View from Bebek TAPS—the Bosphorous

As the sky darkened, we walked the mile back to campus, where we congregated at Phil’s waterside apartment (in Yali) to chat, sip, and enjoy an INCREDIBLE bowl of homemade soup. Yup, it got better. Finally, I hiked up the steep hill with Gaby to her apartment, where I slept on her couch listening to night sounds and waking to yet another incredible view of the Bosphorous. Oh, my! Unfortunately, Gaby is leaving Robert, moving on to Bilkent University in Ankara to train teachers and to continue her turtle trips (see my blog from June 2008).
The next day we woke early, and I headed off to meet my friends David and Nia in Beşiktaş. We hopped a bus to Ortaköy, where we relaxed over breakfast at a water-side restaurant, then shopped the “artsy” street bazaar.

Catnaps at the Ortaköy bazaar

After that we headed to Sultanahmet to meet Dee and visit Musa’s rug studio. I bought two rugs, one for me and one for a friend, and David ordered one.

Musa’s early masterpieces

When we asked for a restaurant recommendation, Musa insisted that we share a BBQ on his 5th story balcony. We refused twice, but the third time was the charm. We were IN! When I protested that we would help buy the food, Musa scowled at me. “Ann Marie! You don’t know about Turkish Hospitality?” Yup, the weekend just kept getting better! Musa yelled to the produce man as he passed by the window, and I chopped veggies for a salad as he mixed the köfte (spiced meatballs).

Musa chooses veggies from the produce truck in the street outside his studio.

Everyone helped carry food and beverages up to the fifth floor, which was soon transformed from an empty balcony to a cozy restaurant. Amazing!
It took us a few hours to get home, but it was well worth the extra time we’d spent chatting, eating, sipping, and reveling in Musa’s incredible view overlooking the Marmara. Istanbul is all about water and views. Well, there’s a little history, too, I guess.

Musa’s fresh grilled köfte, shepherd’s salad, bread, cheese, watermelon, and wine.YUM!!!

Me cluttering up the stunning view from Musa’s terrace

At 8:00 we turned right back around; 21 of us hopped on service buses to the Arkat Restaurant in the Taş Han for dinner, a floor show, and dancing. The highlight of the evening was a phenomenally talented belly-dancer—a MAN! Our French teacher got up with him, and since Jacqueline can bellydance, she was a real hit. The down side was that the traffic was horrid, and it took us 2 ½ hours to get there (about 20 miles). We missed part of the show, but many of us made up for it by dancing, dancing, dancing.

Mr. Belly Dancer at the Arkat (photo: Andrea Ball)

Mr. Belly Dancer joins Jacqueline dancing after the show (photo: Andrea Ball)

Well, that’s it for my big weekend. Sunday I stayed home to recuperate. This weekend I’m headed to Gallipoli to learn about Turkey’s Gallipoli Campaign (which launched Turkey toward independence). More on that later…


I feel compelled to do a bit of ranting about grades. Hope you don’t mind.
Today is the sixth and last day of final exams here at Koç. The kids sit two exams a day, ranging from 40 to 80 minutes. Most students go into an exam knowing exactly what percentage they need to earn the final grade they seek. Weird, huh?

A few weeks before exams—Friday morning blues on the 3rd floor

Grades are the Be-All and End-All of the Turkish educational system. That and the Ö.S.S., the university entrance exam (but that’s another story). Actually, I find the grading system here both unfair and enabling. Hence, my rant:
First of all, 45% is a passing grade in Turkey (in the U.S. it’s 60%). Here’s the curve:

  • 85 to 100%  is a 5, the top grade (no pluses or minuses, thank you)
  • 70 to 84% is a 4
  • 55 to 69% is a 3 (considered average)
  • 45 to 54% is a 2 (still passing, but unimpressive)
  • 25 to 44% is a 1, not passing
  • 0 to 24% is a 0, a dismal failure

Each student has 1-3 oral grades (usually class work) and 2-3 written grades (exams) for each class in a semester, depending on how many times the class meets per week. The system for oral grades is determined individually by each teacher, while the written grades come from uniform common exams. For example, we have about 10 or 11 sections in each grade, and all those sections take exactly the same exams for each course they take. That’s to keep things equitable.

The kids arrived bleary-eyed today after a week of late nights studying.

The other thing we do to make grading fair is moderation—sometimes a struggle. Everyone on the English team grades the same 2 or 3 exams according to the rubric, then we compare the grades we gave. Next we discuss differences and figure out how to adapt our grading to an agreed-on norm. It’s hard. After hours of grading our own students’ papers, we have other teachers re-grade (moderate) some of them, particularly the highest and lowest ones. It’s VERY time-consuming, but it’s important in this culture where parents sue the school over grades. Really.

Few studied this morning, though other days they were more focused.

At least a few of the girls studied…

…as did a few in room 304.

Now, imagine a teacher who feels philosophically opposed to grading in the first place, and plunk her in a situation like this where life is all about grades. I’ve had to rethink my approach to education and move from my preferred  +, √, —  “evaluation system” and go back to a traditional 100-point system. ARAUGHH!!!!
Oh—but there’s MORE!

My own juniors (in another testing room), focused as usual (that’s Nisan waving.)

In the end, the student who squeaks out a low 4 with 70% gets the very same 4 as the student who earned 84%, fourteen percentage points higher. Enter: THE BEGGARS. Yes, folks. We have them. They’re well-intentioned, of course. “Oh, it was so close, can’t you just give me/him/her a few more points?” Grades are so important here that parents get into the act along with their kids. Not only is final exam time stressful, but it sets off a barrage of BEGGING! PLEADING! BARGAINING! (Gosh—I haven’t been offered a bribe yet. Hmmm…)

Hard at work on the history exam–one more to go!

Think that’s enough? Well, there’s even more, my friends. It’s the way the grades are averaged. Within a semester, grade percentages are averaged together to find a numeric percentage, which determines the semester grade. BUT—the two semester grades are averaged in a new and enabling way. If you get the same final grade both semesters, that’s all well and good. A 3 and a 3 average out to a 3. If you do better one term, though, the top grade rules. For instance, a 3 and a 2 make—not 2.5, but 3! (Remember, no pluses or minuses.) So, for instance, a student who finishes the first semester with a low 3 (55%) and does a bit of slacking off the second semester and barely squeaks out a 2 (45%) should have an average of 50%. Right? Well, that 50 magically becomes not a 2 (which it should be) but a 3, just the same as the student who earned 69% both terms for an overall average of 69%, a high 3. There’s nearly a 20% difference over the year for the same grade. Hmmm… Something’s wrong. It just doesn’t seem fair.

Saffet takes every exam seriously. He wants 5’s, and usually gets them.

I figured out that a student who fails with a low 1 first term (25%) and a low 2 the second term (45%) ends up with a passing grade of 2—with a mere 35%, ten percent below the (already low) passing grade of 45%. Such a deal for the low achiever!
And there’s MORE, my friends. If, after a dismal year a student is unhappy with his or her grade, there’s the option of taking a grade-changing exam during the summer. These exams are difficult, but for the intelligent but lazy student, they’re a godsend. I don’t even want to KNOW more about them.

They’re all focused—except Yunus. No surprise.

Zeynep just asked me, “Are you writing about grades in Turkey or grades at Koç?”
“Aren’t they the same?” I wondered.
“I think it’s worse at Koç,” she said. “There’s more pressure here.”
Point taken. Poor kids… No wonder they dragged themselves to school this morning with bleary eyes and collapsed into their desks. Six days of this would undo anyone.
If I sound biased, I am. I hate grades, and it breaks my heart that they’re so important in this country. I also hate it that the system is so unfair yet at the same time so enabling.
The flip side is that it’s been a joy to teach these kids. I love them, and somehow we slog through the grading mire together. We get through it, and my hope is that they learn something in the process.
I always thought education was more about learning anyway. Did I miss something?

Checking out Istanbul’s Ads

Teaching at Koç (pronounced “coach”) is similar to teaching just about anywhere. I have motivated kids and lazy kids, bright students and slower ones, and everything in between. For the most part, though, I have to say that Turkish kids are wonderful. They’re warm and respectful (for the most part), though a titch chattier than their U.S. counterparts. Usually it’s an endearing feature, though. Turkish charm. I teach both 10th and 11th graders, and right now I’m enjoying it.

Yağiz, me, and Pinar

My juniors just finished a whirlwind poetry survey, and now we’re diving into a lengthy media unit—the businesses behind it, the advertising that promotes it, and the social propaganda that pervades it. This is a weighty and interesting unit, to say the least. We started with a PBS video called “Merchants of Cool,” which investigates the researchers behind marketing to teens, the group with more discretionary income than anyone else on the planet. Not only do they spend over 150 billion dollars a year (in America), but each teen filters over 3000 discrete advertising messages a day. EVERY day! Unbelievable.

So—I made it my mission to document how that translates here in Istanbul, this ancient, beautiful city. Actually, the real truth is that I needed an excuse to go into the city last Sunday. The sun was finally out after three weeks of clouds and rain, and the weatherman had promised a full day of sun. How could I resist? After a leisurely Turkish breakfast with a friend at the Marmara Café (egg, tomato, cucumber, cheese, olives, and bread), I headed out, camera at the ready.

Istiklal Caddesi, early Sunday under hanging decorations and Turkcell bugs

İstiklal Caddesi (Liberty/Independence Street) is a mile-long pedestrian street that may well be the busiest street in the city. It’s about 30 feet wide and paved in marble blocks, with a quaint red tram clanking up and down its center. Early on Sunday morning Istaklal is relatively quiet, but by noon it’s mobbed.

Decorations are strung overhead year-round, with both seasonal symbols and ads hanging from them. In past years red coke bottle cut-outs graced the skies (embarrassing to Americans), but now it’s the Turkcell logo—some kind of a cutesie little bug. In case you’re wondering, Turkcell is the major cell phone company here.
Everywhere I looked, I found ads: neon ads on storefronts, ads painted on metal roll-down doors, banners, billboards, and entire buildings covered with humongous ads—even over the windows!

Istiklal’s neon signs

a roll-down door ad

The full-building “billboard” ad

Everywhere I looked, there were ads, ads, ads. I took a bus to Ortaköy, a magical spot on the Bosphorus, and even the handles on the bus (for standing passengers) sport ads. Imagine!

…and even the “handles” on the bus!

While wandering the weekend arts market in Ortaköy, I came across a group of young men promoting Nescafe (something they love over here) with yard-long  pillow-like Nescafe envelopes. When I explained that I was taking photos for a media and advertising unit, they were happy to pose for me. AND—I came away with a pocketful of Nescafe Cappucino envelopes (little ones). Go figure!

A Nescafe Marketing ploy—cute guys!

I’m particularly intrigued with the contrast between the old and the new here; it’s no surprise that glitzy ads compete with the city’s historical sites. Photos say it best, I guess.

Turkcell bugs invade Ortaköy.

Can you find the Russian Orthodox Church behind the ads?

Unfortunately, the advertising here is mostly clutter—just visual noise—while the lines of Istanbul’s centuries-old buildings are striking and awe-inspiring. Gosh, which do you think will endure?

Another rainy Sunday in Istanbul

Let’s see. I’ve been in Istanbul for 12 days now, and I think it’s rained for 10 of them. Today was looking good for a while (sunny while we were in school), but it clouded over before we got out, and I had to drag out my umbrella for the walk to study hall tonight. Sigh… It frustrates me that the weather affects my mood, but it seems to be all about sunshine for me.

Last Saturday (damp) my friend Dee invited David, Andrea and me (all singles) to a VDS dinner (Valentine’s Day Sucks). Great food, delightful company, and a little too much wine. Oh, well…

In spite of a steady drizzle on Sunday morning, I decided to hop on the service bus to Taksim. It leaves bright and early, and believe me, I wasn’t all that bright so early. Since my only off-campus visits had been to malls (4 times) since my arrival, I needed a CF—a city fix.

A typical corner “convenience store” in Istanbul

There’s no traffic on Sunday mornings, so we got to Taksim in less than an hour. First I took the funicular down to Kabataş, then caught the tram to Sultanahmet (the old city). My goal was to visit my friends at the Harem 49 rug shop to share my amazing Mexico experience.

Here’s my tale:

When Susie and I visited Cozumel in January, we noticed a shop called Istanbul Carpets. Right. “What are the chances that anyone speaks Turkish in there?” I asked. Susie urged me to check it out, so I stepped inside and said, “Merhaba. Nasilsiniz?” (Hello. How are you?) Well, one of the two men sitting by the window jumped up and strode over to me, answering in Turkish, grinning warmly, and extending a hand for a handshake that became a hug, complete with cheek-kisses. Very Turish. We continued a short conversation in Turkish, which was about my limit (I’m not exactly fluent yet). To make a long story short, Engin, the shopowner, used to work for Hussein at Harem 49, my favorite Sultanahmet rug shop. Not only that, but his cousin Ümüt works there now. I mean, what are the chances of meeting a man in Mexico who knows the same people I know in Istanbul, a city of over 15 million? Amazing.

Engin and I pose in his Cozumel rug shop

After chatting with Ümüt over a cup of tea (admiring photos of his beautiful son), I headed off to do more exploring. I wandered my beloved cobblestone streets, snapped a few photos, then climbed to a rooftop restaurant to enjoy a cappuccino and warm my toes (not only was it wet, but damnably cold as well.)

After buying an evil-eye keychain for my new lojman (apartment) key, I hopped back on the tram toward Taksim. I still had three hours, but no point in pushing my luck. The drizzle had abated, so instead of taking the funicular back up the hill, I opted to hike up and pay my respects to the Galata Tower along the way. I ducked into a little restaurant for my first bowl of mercimek soup, my FAVORITE—a lentil soup beyond compare. They serve it with a mountain of white bread for a whopping 3 Turkish Lira ($2). I didn’t eat all the bread.

The famed Galata Tower

Ah, mercimek soup!

When I got back up to Istaklal, I still had plenty of time, so I decided to check out the new exhibit at the Pera Museum, a Koç family art museum. This museum is a class act, with rotating exhibits on the top two floors and permanent exhibits of Turkish art and ceramics on the lower floors. The featured exhibit was a collection of impressive storyboard paintings by Japanese filmmaker Akiro Kurosawa, but I was most taken with the Turkish artwork this time. Maybe because I’m so happy to be back.

Now that I know the city well from working on a guidebook of historical walking tours, I actually feel like I’m stepping back in time when I see these centuries-old paintings. I’m fascinated with what the seaside and city once looked lik

Stepping back in time through Ottoman art at the Pera Museum

My favorite painting is a mere century old: the “Tortoise Trainer,” probably the most famous (and valuable) painting in Turkey ($3.5 million).

It was painted by Osman Hamdi Bey, an amazing man who was not only an accomplished painter but also an archeologist. He established the Istanbul Archeological Museum, no small task. I’ve read that this painting depicts Osman Hamdi Bey’s frustration with getting the Ottoman rulers to change with the times. The implication is that it’s like training tortoises with a flute, and tortoises have very poor hearing. Interesting analogy, huh?

The Tortoise Trainer, by Osman Hamdi Bey

Even the elevators at the Pera are painted!

A quick hello to the ceramics display, then off…

Finally, a trek through the rain to the service bus, provided at no cost by the school. Lucky us.

So—there’s my rainy Sunday in Istanbul. Here’s to sunny days ahead!