Friday, March 18, 2016

Quick Update to Readers

March 19, 2016

Dear Readers,

Thank you so much for your readership, and special thanks to those who email or write to me with their thoughts. I love hearing your feedback and stories. It means a lot to me that you are following my blog and my adventures. Having an audience to write for motivates me to continue.

I wanted to let you know that I’m clearly behind on my blogging. However, I’m catching up, slowly but surely. Here is a list of topics that still need to be blogged about – stay tuned!
  • Berlin (last leg of the Europe trip)
  • My birthday celebrations
  • Snow tubing in Isparta
  • Singing in Turkish class
  • What do we actually do at the university?
  • Eskişehir
  • Bursa/Yalova
  • Lowest point of my Fulbright experience
  • Reaction to the dangerous events in Turkey
  • Reaction to Bowdoin College’s cultural appropriation
  • Family visit to Turkey

As some of you might know, my family is coming to Turkey this weekend for a one-week visit. We will split our time between Istanbul and Antalya. However, given the recent Ankara bombings, there are red-flag security alerts in major cities including Istanbul and Antalya. This Sunday is also Nevruz, a cultural (sometimes religious) holiday which welcomes spring. Many young people abuse the holiday and use it as an excuse to party. Given the recent events in Turkey, authorities believe that events such as protests and demonstrations will be politically-charged, and as a result, have warned U.S. citizens to avoid large gatherings and tourist areas. As you can imagine, the timing of all this absolutely awful. My family is expected to arrive to Istanbul on Sunday at 4pm, and I am going to Istanbul on Saturday (staying with a friend) just to be able to welcome them. I cannot cancel these plans. I even created a 3-page itinerary for them. I have informed the Turkish Fulbright Commission of my plans (they strongly recommended against traveling this weekend), and will use caution during the four days that we are in Istanbul. I know my parents are a little nervous about coming, but I pray that nothing will happen. My fellow readers, friends and family, I ask for your prayers that nothing major happens this weekend. The last thing this beautiful country needs is another terrorist attack.

Here is the message from the U.S. Embassy in Ankara:
Embassy of the United States of America
Ankara, Turkey
Security Message for U.S. Citizens: Nevruz Celebrations
March 17, 2016
U.S. Embassy Ankara informs U.S. citizens that in light of recent events and the upcoming Nevruz holidays, citizens should be mindful of their security precautions. Nevruz celebrations are anticipated in various locations throughout Turkey on March 17-21. Local authorities have banned large gatherings during select dates over the Nevruz period citing security concerns. Celebrations in Ankara, Istanbul, Izmir, and Adana are expected to take place Sunday, March 20. The celebration in Diyarbakir, traditionally the site of the largest Nevruz festivities, is currently scheduled for March 20. The entire period is expected to see festivities that could be large and/or spontaneous.
Nevruz is a festival commonly recognized as the Kurdish and Persian New Year and a celebration marking the beginning of spring. Public Nevruz observances typically involve roadside bonfires in addition to large celebrations. Nevruz has political as well as social connotations, and in some recent years has been a flashpoint for spontaneous demonstrations.
Demonstrations and large events intended to be peaceful can turn confrontational and escalate into violence. We advise U.S. citizens to continue to avoid political gatherings, protests, and demonstrations and to exercise caution if you are in the vicinity. Review your personal security plans, remain aware of your surroundings and local events, monitor local news stations for updates, and follow local authority instructions.
The U.S. Embassy also reminds individuals that terrorist organizations have targeted transportation hubs, Turkish government facilities, and public spaces in the recent past.

That’s all for now. Please keep Turkey in your prayers. I’ll write as soon as I can.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

"Over The Hill" Birthday - Turning 25

February 7, 2016

I turned 25 on February 7th. I have reached the quarter century mark, and I must admit, it feels a little old. Our generation calls this the “over the hill” age and I’m definitely feeling over the hill.

Alex was very thoughtful and planned a surprise birthday party for me on Friday, February 5th  with our colleagues Meltem and Asli. She was very sneaky about the entire plan; they even got a cake and gave it to the restaurant ahead of time. We ate at a fancy restaurant called “Çatı” which means “roof.” It had a live band, the atmosphere was very family-oriented, and the aroma of good food filled the entire place. One bizarre thing that happened during our evening was that roof windows above our table opened and closed every 10 minutes to let the smoke out, even though it is prohibited to smoke in public spaces like restaurants. Alas, this is Turkey. After eating Adana kebab and drinking şalgam (turnip juice), the live band started playing a tune that I recognized…and all of a sudden, “doğum günün kutlu olsun Mariya” and I was shocked! The entire restaurant clapped and cheered. My friends are great, they made me feel so special in that moment. Meltem and Asli gifted me a poncho that I had been wanting for a while, and Alex got me some magnets from places we had visited together, as well as a wallet to carry my change in—all of these were thoughtful gifts and very much appreciated by me.
Two days later, on my actual birthday on the 7th, I was surprised by another birthday cake by my Pakistani family. They also managed to surprise the gullible me. They told me they forgot to pick up my cake, and that they hope I don't mind. Then, after dinner, the lights went out, and a glowing cake was carried out to me. I’m so grateful to have all these people in my life. 

Videos from Amsterdam & Berlin

Enjoy these unfiltered videos from Amsterdam and Berlin!

Amsterdam: City of Bikers

Reichstag, the German Parliament building

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe (Berlin)

Another view of the Memorial for Jews

Berlin, Germany

January 27-29, 2016

Guten Tag! (Good day!) This is my last post from my Europe trip in January. Even though it’s taken me a while to get around to writing about Berlin, I am grateful that I have the time to collect my thoughts and process them here. So here it goes.

Like the previous two cities on our trip, we stayed in Berlin, the capital of Germany, for two days. This decision was dictated by our university’s draconian rules, as well as my roommate’s discomfort in crossing the line and potentially getting in trouble As I mentioned in a previous post, getting permission for winter break from our administration was an uphill battle. I like following rules, but I also liking taking risks where appropriate. This is a situation where I don’t think the world would have crashed had we stayed in Berlin for four days instead of two. In other words, I don’t think the school would have cared if we stayed Friday through Sunday, but Alex felt otherwise so we ended our trip early. The good thing about coming back early was that we got to relax that weekend. Alas, it is what it is: we stayed in Berlin for two quick evenings and made the most of them.

We took an overnight bus from Amsterdam to Berlin. It was Casey’s birthday that midnight, January 27th, so Alex and I sneakily bought him a cake from a convenient store before boarding our bus, and surprised him on the bus by singing him a birthday song and presenting the cake to him. We arrived to Berlin in the middle of the night, and we stayed with Casey’s friend Jesse who has been living in Berlin for a few years now. He was a very hospitable host, offering not only his house but also his time to show us around. We thanked Jesse with the chocolates I had won from volunteering at the Brussels chocolate demonstration.

Before I dive into the specifics of what we did, I would like to say that Berlin was by far my favorite city that we visited. This is because it had such an interesting culture of where the past met the future. There is no doubt that Berlin is a significant historical city, but it is also a city full of rebellious and defiant street artists who invoke a progressive culture. The mix of the two was a breath of fresh air. The confusion of the two was just plain beautiful. I cannot speak any German but if I learned the language, this would probably be a city I would like to live in one day—or at least visit for longer than two days for sure.

Walking Tour – On our first day, we took a walking tour of Berlin. We met at the Television Tower (368 meters tall) and were led by a young lady who took donations at the end of the trip. It was nice to have a really knowledgeable guide who was able to tell us about the politics of the hip city that is Berlin. We saw a lot of beautiful street art and graffiti on walls, buildings, and rocks. There was even one that read “Refugees Welcome!!!” near a river. According to the guide, there is rivalry between street artists who try to promote their artwork through expressive and provocative political statements. This “underground” world fascinated me; even though the government knows about it and has tried to crack down on vandalism, I think they, too, know that Berlin would not be the same without these artists. What was also interesting to learn on this tour was the development f Turkish neighborhoods throughout the city. Turks are apparently the largest ethnic minority in Germany. This is because there was a large-scale migration of Turkish citizens to West Germany developed during the Wirtschaftswunder ("economic miracle") of the 1960s and 1970s. At the time, Germany was suffering from a labor shortage because of the economic boom, and the West German government therefore negotiated a trade of labor agreement with Turkey. Turkish workers moved to West Germany to fill in this void, and worked primarily in factories to do simple repetitive tasks. I smiled every time I saw restaurants for “Adana kebab” or “Döner kebab,” or I recognized a Turkish word on a sign. As is true with any group migrating to a new country, it’s only natural to bring your culture to your home. Second and third generation Turks in Germany, who have never visited Turkey, probably feel an identity crisis similar to the one that second and third generation ethnic minorities, who are born in America, feel. Some things in life transcend national borders, sense of identity is one of them.
Berlin Wall – The famous Berlin Wall is something, let me tell you. It’s hard to believe that Germany was actually divided into an East and West side during World War 2. The pain of separating families and communities by a physical barrier seems like a ridiculous idea, absurd even. Makes you wonder how crude politics truly can be. Presidential hopeful Donald Trump promises to build a wall on the Mexican border and have the Mexican government pay for it. Does history teach us nothing?! Is the Berlin Wall not example enough for the social, psychological, economic, and political destruction that these structures can bring? And the decades-long consequences they bear! Sorry to go off on a tangent, but as I walked along the Berlin Wall, I could not help but try to imagine life in a war-torn Germany, international turmoil at the time, and the horrific Holocaust all happening at the same time. Here are some photos I snapped.
Meeting Christine – It was such a privilege to meet Christine, my Maine host parents’ first international exchange student. Christine, who is now married with two children, went to the United States for the first time when she was in high school. It was so nice to meet her and learn about her experience of growing up with Rani, David, and Sarah (Wanda and Erv’s children) at Brunswick High through her exchange program. We shared stories of the kind-hearted Snyder’s and joked about my soon-to-be "over the hill" age of 25. The weather was quite cold, so we enjoyed warm coffee at Wohzimmer Bar, which had a nice antique feel to it, with colorful couches and chairs from all decades. I promised Christine I would return to Berlin for a longer period next time, whenever that may be.
Meeting other Fulbrighters – Turkey Fulbrighters are everywhere! We ran into quite a few of them in Berlin. We ate Mexican food in a Turkish neighborhood and caught up about each other’s lives. Some folks had been out and about for winter break for over a month, some had just started. My vegetable burrito was delicious!
Famous Tourist Sites – On our second day, Jesse was our personal guide and showed us Berlin’s famous tourist sites, including the German parliament building of German Bundestag, the Brandenburg Gate, the Berlin Victory Column, and the concert hall buildings of Konzerthaus. These buildings had architecture similar to the ones we saw in Brussels, Amsterdam, and Paris. Fair to assume that all of Europe has Roman and Greek influences of architecture. Jesse is a history buff so I learned so much about each of these famous buildings and structures. The Victory Column, for example, was designed by Heinrich Strack, after 1864 to commemorate the Prussian victory in the Danish-Prussian War. I’ll try not to sound like a history book, so I’ll encourage you too look up the other places yourself if you’re interested. Oh, I forgot to mention that I got my passport stamped with Checkpoint Charlie—what a souvenir!
Holocaust Memorial – We also visited the chilling “The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe,” also known as the Holocaust Memorial. It had a solemn atmosphere. We walked through the concrete slabs (stelae), arranged in a grid pattern on a sloping field. According to Wikipedia, “the stelae are designed to produce an uneasy, confusing atmosphere, and the whole sculpture aims to represent a supposedly ordered system that has lost touch with human reason.” You can see a video in the next blog post.
Mustafa’s Gemüse Kebap – Our wonderful Berlin trip came to an end on a very lovely note, bringing us full circle: Turkish food. Mustafa’s Gemüse Kebap’s is a very famous food shack located at Mehringdamm 32. It draws locals and tourists alike for cheap yet super delicious döner kebab sandwiches. The sandwich was more delicious than any döner I’ve had in Turkey thus far! I got very excited when I practiced my Turkish with the stand owner who was pleasantly surprised and pleased to acknowledge my attempt. He added extra döner on my sandwich, smiled and winked at me.
Visiting Poland – On our last evening, Jesse took us to Frankfort (the town, not the big city) for a small gathering with his girlfriend’s friends. It was nice to mingle with new people, real Germans. But the highlight of the evening, in my opinion, was when we crossed a bridge and touched down in Poland. This was completely unexpected, but at least now I get to say “I’ve been to Poland!” We took a group picture next to a sign that read “Polska” in case someone wanted to proof later…you know what they say nowadays: if there are no photos as evidence, then it didn’t happen.
We caught an early morning flight out of Berlin, and then an afternoon flight from Istanbul to Antalya. We crashed as soon as we got home! We used that following weekend to relax and catch up on sleep as well. I can now check off “backpacking through Europe” off my bucket list.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Amsterdam, The Netherlands

January 24-26, 2016

Like Brussels, we spent two days in Amsterdam, the capital of Holland (or more formally, The Netherlands). This was the perfect amount of time to see the city.

Similar to how I almost missed my Barcelona plane, Casey and I almost missed my stop in Amsterdam. When the bus stopped to let passengers off, Alex got off and told us she would wait for us outside. I collected my belongings (I’m a bag lady at this point, with my duffle bag, chocolates, purse), and began to bundle up. Casey was on his phone still hooked to the wifi. All of a sudden, the bus started moving! We jetted down the stairs (the bus had two levels), and ran towards the bus driver to tell him to stop the bus. When he finally did, we got off in a parking lot about 30 feet away from the original stop. Alex got worried that the bus drove away with us. So that happened. Now, of course it was also the middle of the night so public buses were going to be rare. After waiting about 20 minutes in the cold, we finally decided to split a taxi with strangers. It turned out that our taxi driver was Turkish! We practiced our Turkish and made small talk until we got to our hostel, also owned by a Turk. We stayed at the Slotania Hostel, and shared 10 bunk-bed room with other strangers.

Bikes – The first thing I noticed about this quaint city was that people LOVE biking. Even that might be an understatement. Biking is part of their soul, their everyday life. There were so many bikers, and the public roads are feasible to this lifestyle. Bike lanes on the road, bike lanes sidewalks, and bike parks were common. Bikes of every color, size, and style could be found at these stations. I am curious to compare the mortality rates of this city to other major cities of the world. If I had to guess, these people will live longer than the average human.

Canals – As you may know, Amsterdam is known for its canals. The entire city is built around beautiful canals running through it. Walk (or biking) along the water is lovely and peaceful pastime. There are daily boat tours that attract tourists and city dwellers alike. We didn’t go on one, unfortunately. Some of my favorite scenes of canals were those that had bikes resting against railings.
Anne Frank House Museum – We waited 45 minutes in a long line before having the unique opportunity to enter the Anne Frank House, which is now a museum (9 euros). Anne Frank is the famous young Jewish girl who wrote a copious diary about her experiences during the Holocaust. Her family escaped Germany and hid in this house in Amsterdam. Walking through this tour-guided house was a chilling experience. Many of the rooms are kept the same way as they served the Frank family. The door to the hiding place was behind a shelf. Almost all rooms were tightly shut and windows were covered in black curtains, permitting zero light. The rooms were dark, dusty, and small. There were small plaques with quotes from Anne’s diary throughout the museum. In the final area of the museum, there were short videos from WW2 and the Holocaust, interviews with those that knew Anne, and pages from Anne’s diary on display. During the tour, I was struck by something Anne’s surviving father, Otto Frank, said in a video interview: “most parents don't know really their children.” This got me thinking about how well my parents know me. I wonder how different my parents’ views are from my own understanding of myself. The truth is many immigrant children, particularly Muslim-Americans, lead two lives; one that their parents know, and one that their true friends know. I don’t think there is anything wrong with living two lives, although it is often burdensome to keep the two spheres separate.
Van Gogh Museum – Europe has so many artists! It was a privilege to visit the Vincent Willem van Gogh Museum, which cost 17 euros. The expensive ticket was worth it to see Gogh’s original artwork. We saw hundreds of paintings that were produced throughout his lifetime. There were different galleries on each of three floors of the museum. Each gallery had a paragraph of text plastered on the wall, which introduced the time period and provided context for Gogh’s artwork. It read in a timeline fashion; from the time Van Gogh went to boarding school in Zevenbergen, to the time he spent in Paris, from the time he had his ear cut off to the time he shot himself. I don’t know why amazing artists are often mentally ill. They so beautifully capture the world around them yet almost always, their personal lives are a mess. Maybe painters seek another reality through their artwork; perhaps depicting the world around them is their escape from their own world. I was inspired by Van Gogh’s work, particularly his famous paintings that include “The Potato Eaters,” “Vase With Fifteen Sunflowers,” and “Self Portrait.” Note that Van Gogh’s “The Starry Night” is exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City and “The Bedroom” is housed at the Art Institute of Chicago. We were not allowed to take pictures of the original artwork at the museum, but I have compiled them here from the Internet.
Rembrandt Museum – I actually hadn’t heard too much of the Dutch painter Rembrandt until we visited this museum. His full name is Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn. He is considered one of the greatest painters and printmakers in European art. Like the Van Gogh museum, Casey, Alex, and I all experienced this museum on our own through the audio tours. Rembrandt used a lot of oil paints, and depicted scenes from famous stories from the Bible or Greek mythologies. I loved learning about these contextual details when listening to the audio recordings while starring directly at the paintings. Here is some of this artwork – we were allowed to take pictures in this museum.

Dam Square – We roamed around the Dam Square with food. Casey bought blue Doritos chips and Rise Krispys; I was craving coconut water and tangerines; and Alex bought Coca-Cola. Dam Square typical hosts large events like concerts and public gatherings. It is a town square surrounded by nice buildings, just like Brussels’ La Grand Place.

Other things – People often joke “Will you eat a brownie when you go to Amsterdam?” The joke continues to popularize the marijuana-bearing brownies. My friends and I ate no such thing. We did, however, walk through the Red Light District. It's really unfortunate that we did not have time to explore the "postcard beauty" of Holland, as Rashid Uncle recommended to me. Next time, insha Allah!

Hesselbein Friend – Our trip ended with dinner with my friend, Nauman Janjua. He is of Pakistani origin, but has been living in Amsterdam for almost all his life. I met him in July 2013 at the Hesselbein Global Academy conference at the University of Pittsburgh. He was so kind to pick us up from our hostel and drive us to a restaurant near our bus station. I wasn’t feeling too well, so I had tomatoes soup and bread while Alex and Casey both enjoyed a burger and Nauman had salmon fish. The four of us enjoyed great conversation. Towards the end, Nauman excused himself for the bathroom; little did we know that he would got to the cashier and pick up the tab. Turks often use this strategy as well, when they want to be sneaky about their hospitality. We accepted Nauman’s kind gesture and promised to show him American hospitality whenever he was back on the stateside. Connections like these are worth nurturing.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Videos from Brussels

Three short videos from Brussels -- enjoy!

A peeing mannequin outside a restaurant filling up a beer cup.

Evening at the Grand Place.

Evening at the Atomium before leaving Brussels.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Brussels, Belgium

January 22-24, 2016

Two days was just enough to visit the small yet beautiful city of Brussels. The capital of Belgium is known for a few things: waffles, chocolates, and a peeing mannequin. Other notable things include historic architecture, shoes and street art. Here are some of the highlights from my experience there.

It was quite brisk, so we stayed in our jackets and scarves throughout the entire trip. My scarf from Paris came in handy! Our Airbnb host was not the friendliest person, as she let us in the apartment and was distant the entire weekend.
Waffles – we started our first day by eating Brussels’ best waffles at a place called “Maison Dandoy.” This is not to be confused with the candy store, which also has the same name. Funny story; we actually mistakenly walked into the chocolate store initially, and were directed to the waffle place by a grumpy lady, who seemed to be far too well versed with tourists confusing her place for the breakfast restaurant. She did offer us a sample though. The waffles were indeed quite delicious at this place, and rightly overpriced (8 euros compared to the street 1-euro waffles). My favorite part of this place, however, wasn’t the waffle; it was a sign that read “No wifi, talk to each other, call your mom, pretend it’s 1829.” These days, everyone—myself included!—is addicted to always being connected to wifi.
La Grand Place - Also known as Grote Markt. This is Brussels’ main square surrounded by these opulent buildings. I felt like I was in a pop-up storybook standing in the middle of the square, as the buildings towered over me and people passed me in every direction.

Chocolates Tour – In the town world-famous for its chocolates, it would be a pity not to learn how they’re made here. We bought online tickets for the “Planete Chocolat Bruxelles” chocolate tour; while we didn’t learn the secret recipe, we did gather some interesting facts, such as how Latin America is the biggest exporter of cocoa plants/beans. You won’t be surprised to learn that I volunteered for a demonstration on stage, where I was instructed to pour creamy chocolate into pans of various shapes (wearing an apron and net hat, of course). I was rewarded with an owl made out of chocolate, which we ended up saving for our Berlin host (Casey’s friend). It is true though, Brussels' chocolates are indeed unmatched in taste! I bought a few boxes for friends and family back home, and convinced Alex we should get some for our colleagues as gifts. She was initially opposed to the idea of getting chocolates for our administrators, but I reasoned that we should favor professionalism over personal grudges. Not that it’s worth any details, but I remember this being a heated debate in Barcelona. In fact, Alex ended up buying some chocolates off of me later when she realized she hadn’t gotten any for her sisters.
Peeing Mannequin – Brussels is famed for an odd thing known as the “peeing mannequin.” It is exactly that: a little mannequin who is shamelessly peeing (water fountain, really). But apparently this attracts tourists from around the world to come see it. There’s even a woman version of this mannequin—the woman is squatting, of course. I was confused by such a statue, but realized it was probably just good fun. It was very common to see replicas of the statue at restaurants, outside shops, and in chocolate-format (see video in next blog).
Brussels Cathedral – Like most of Europe, Brussels is full of churches and cathedrals. We stumbled upon the Cathedral of St. Michael and St. Gudula and walked through it. There were many elements similar to the Notre Dame in Paris. It was a quiet place, and many devout people could be seen worshiping.

Musical Instrument Museum – According to Wikipedia, the Musical Instrument Museum is “part of the Royal Museums for Art and History and internationally renowned for its collection of over 8,000 instruments.” George’s friend had recommended it to us in Paris, so we decided to check it out. It was a very cool museum—I’ve never been to a museum devoted to instruments from around the world. The audio tours allowed each person to tap on an exhibit to learn more, creating an informative yet individual and quiet experience. There were instruments of unseal shapes and materials, such as animal fur, coats, bones, and pots. It made me realize that music is truly the creative creation of sounds. You can see some of the interesting instruments below.
Palace of Justice – Upon one of our walks throughout the city, we stumbled upon the “Palais de Justice.” Much to our surprise, this court of law was run down, trashed, leaking, and used by skateboards, local teens, and open to anyone including foreigners like us. Despite a football and many beer cans caught in a net between two columns, we walked through the "Palace" of Justice more like inspectors than tourists. So much respect for the law, huh? How ironic. Maybe this building was under construction, we don’t know, but we found it humorous nonetheless. Plus, its architecture was beautiful and worth capturing.
Atomium – Before leaving the city, we made a quick evening stop at The Atomium monument. The Atomium was originally constructed for Expo 58, the 1958 Brussels World's Fair, and is in the shape of a unit cell of an iron crystal magnified 165 billion times. CNN named Atomium Europe's most bizarre building. And quite bizarre it was. It's unlike any architecture I have ever seen. It reminded me of my AP Chemistry class with Mr. Relton in high school, when I actually used to love molecules and thought I’d grow up to be a scientist. It also reminded me of the infamous “molecule project” where every high schooler in America had to construct an atom or a molecule using Styrofoam balls, pipe cleaners, fuzzy balls, Popsicle sticks, and materials of the like. In fact, my 14-year-old brother Dani, a sophomore in high school, just built a carbohydrate complete with outer membranes. Even though people are allowed to go inside this Atomium, it was closed when we got there. We enjoyed the structure from the outside, grabbed some ‘frites’ recommended by our Airbnb host, and caught an overnight bus to Amsterdam. Goodbye Brussels!