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It’s Never Too Late to Study Abroad: Turkey Part IV

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CHASS Dean Jeff Braden is traveling in Turkey as part of a delegation from North Carolina’s Divan Center, a nonprofit committed to promoting cultural understanding between the United States and Turkey. He is sharing his experiences and perspectives through a series of blog posts.

5:55 pm On the Bus to Izmir from Ephesus 4 July. Turns out I’ve got more time than I thought to catch up with my blogging. I can write offline, but can only upload pictures and text when I’m online. It’s been a bit of a challenge; the Internet (even when it’s strong) is spotty. Still, I’m kind of amazed that literally everywhere I’ve been, there’s been wireless (free) in the hotel, and there’s always a cafe that offers “free” access (in return for buying something, of course!).

St. Mary's House

St. Mary's House

Our flight in to Izmir was happily uneventful, and we were met with a large, modern tour bus, our local guide, and our local host, a retired military officer. We went directly to the Virgin Mary’s house, which (even though I had visited there 11 years before) surprised me with it’s modest size (a small house of a few rooms and little else). The one thing that stood out to me from that visit was the Wishing Wall, a

The Wishing Wall at the House of St. Mary

The Wishing Wall at the House of St. Mary

place where people wrote prayers and wishes to the Virgin in hopes of an answer. The practice reminded me of the Western Wall (sometimes inappropriately called “The Wailing Wall”) in Jerusalem, where it is a Jewish tradition to write your prayers on small slips of paper and stuff them into the cracks of the foundation of the Temple Mount.

Our next stop (after lunch–and no, since it was at a restaurant and I was not concerned about insulting our host, I didn’t eat!) was the ruins of Efes, or Ephesus. Although it was a hot, sunny, and dry afternoon, I was looking forward to revisiting the ruins. Our guide (who provided tours in Turkish, English, and Norwegian) was informative as he explained the contemporary and historical highlights of the region. The centerpiece of the ancient city is the library, whose spectacular facade had been restored in the seventies.  Built with double walls to protect the manuscripts inside from humidity, the library was the state of the art–and lasted only about 40 years before it was destroyed by an earthquake! As I toured the city and admired the central location the library enjoyed in the life of one of the jewels of the Roman (and, before that, Hellenistic) Empire, I reflected on the importance of Hunt Library for our campus. It, like the library at Ephesus, is wonderful and imbues our campus with the meaning and excitement that comes from study and knowledge creation; I only hope Hunt lasts (much) more than 40 years!

Facade of the Library at Ephesus

Facade of the Library at Ephesus

As I write this, we are headed back to Izmir, where we will join a family for dinner. This is the third time our plans have changed; our original itinerary had us being hosted by a family for dinner. Our local guide announced that there had been a change of plans, and that we would be at a restaurant. Within 30 minutes, he had changed his mind again, and told us all that we would, indeed, be hosted by a family, but not the one who had originally planned to host us. I can’t imagine who could decide at the last minute to have a dozen people over for dinner… but I’ve no doubt we’ll be welcomed with the utmost hospitality.

Dinner in Izmir

Dinner in Izmir

4:10 pm Flight to Istanbul 5 July 2013. Of course, I was right–the family hosting us last night was utterly gracious and delightful. We ate at a small folding table on the back porch, once again enjoying absolutely fantastic food and the genuine warmth of person-to-person contact. The young (five year old) son ran about getting into everything much as our son had done at the same age (in fact, we learned that they were not running the air conditioner because they couldn’t find the remote he’d been playing with to turn it on!). On the one hand, it could not have been more normal; on the other hand, we learned that he had recently had his circumcision ceremony. The thought of circumcision at such a late age (they typically have the ceremony some time between birth and puberty) challenged our Western sensibilities, but was a point of celebration to them. I’d seen the special garments that the boy getting his circumcision wears (they are typically quite fancy, made of satin and trim reminiscent of an Ottoman prince), but had not met a family who had celebrated the procedure before. We were exhausted, and so we bid adieu to the family and headed back to the luxury of the Izmir Hilton. Although I’ve often repeated the sage observation “All hotel rooms are the same once you fall asleep,” it was a treat to have a night of working Internet. As a result, I posted two blog entries at the same time… but at least I got them out!

The Breakfast in Izmir at the Women's Center

The Breakfast in Izmir at the Women's Center

Our first stop this morning was a breakfast hosted by a women’s center. It took us a while to find the place, and it was five flights of stairs to the flat that housed the center, but the homemade food that awaited us was  more than worth the trouble. Platters of grape leaves, olives, eggplant, walnut cookies, and more awaited us–but the highlight of the meal for me was the clotted cream and honey, and the fig jam. We learned about their social and charitable efforts, enjoyed tea and then coffee, and then it was off to our next meeting.

Allow me to digress for a moment and consider some of the differences I see between Turkey and the US. Before doing so, I need to say again the commonalities far outweigh the differences–everywhere there are cell phones, similar sized cars driving on expressways (perhaps with more/slower traffic), cafes and clubs pounding out dance music, and most importantly, the joy and love found in friends and family. However, there are differences that are subtle but tug at the senses. One that strikes me is the inconsistency of sidewalks; they are sometimes wide and smoothly paved, and then suddenly narrow, have odd angles, cracked tiles, deep ruts or holes, and sometimes disappear altogether. Small and unexpected changes in the elevation of interior floors (an inch can be trouble for your toe!), steps, and curbs appear suddenly–and provide impassable barriers for people with physical disabilities. The problem is exacerbated by a lack of zoning laws, and more important, enforcement (it’s still somewhat routine for people to build apartments on public land without permission in a hodgepodge, slapdash manner in hopes of then being grandfathered into legitimacy in the next municipal election). In fact, one of the most striking images of the trip so far happened this morning. As our bus took the ramp up to a modern, elevated highway, I saw a man with no legs below the knee in a wheelchair wheeling his way on the side of the road with a huge IKEA sign behind him. The juxtaposition was jarring; while the highway and the IKEA sign testified to Turkey’s modernity, the fact that this man had no other way to get to where he was going than taking an expressway attested to the yet-unrealized commitment to accessibility that we take for granted.

Two young ladies making Wolfpack signs

Two young (and future?) members of the Wolfpack?

The Mandalan Kolleji (College) is one of the first high schools founded by the order. Our meeting with the faculty was warm, and we learned that the school had students from all over Turkey and was highly selective. The headmaster was a bit of a character; for some reason, we talked about US Presidents, and he insisted on telling us about the intersections between Lincoln and Kennedy (e.g., they were both assassinated on Fridays; had vice presidents named Johnson; Lincoln had a secretary named Kennedy and JFK had a secretary named Lincoln, etc., etc.). The highlight of the trip was without doubt meeting two wonderful students. Both were female, and both were studying chemistry. One had one a silver medal; she finished in the top 16 in Turkey in the annual chemistry competition, and just missed going to the international chemistry tournament. I gave them both NC State lapel pins, and encouraged them to think of NC State as they considered university plans for the future. I think we may have a couple of future members of the ‘Pack in Turkey!

Go ‘Pack!

Jeff