Friday, 19 September 2008

Baklava Overdose

There's a holiday coming up. Kids will go door to door and get candy. People will eat sweets and drink cola until they've had enough to keep them on a sugar/caffeine buzz for days to come.

I'm not talking about Halloween.

It's Seker Bayrami... the Sugar Holiday!!

At the end of the month of Ramazan, people celebrate for three days straight by getting together and eating. Isn't that what you'd like to do after a month of fasting? I know I would. Kids get new clothes, sometimes ridiculously nice clothes, like pristine white suits for a 7 year old boys. Women spend the last week or so of the Ramazan cleaning their homes from top to bottom and cooking up all sorts of delicious treats, especially baklava. And then the day finally comes. No one goes to work. Kids get up early, wondering what time they can start knocking on all of the doors to collect candy. All the men go to the mosque for the early morning prayers, and a few hours later the fun begins.

Turks dress in nice new clothes and begin making visits by order of importance. They'll start with their oldest relatives then work their way down. By the second and third day they're visiting neighbors and friends.

The last few years we've taken part in the festivities by visiting scores of friends and neighbors. I always half dread /half look forward to it, and James always LOVES it. The Sugar Holiday is one of James' favorite times of year because: 1) He loves baklava. 2) He loves cola. 3) He loves baklava, and 4) He loves cola.

Here's a picture of what a typical day of making bayram (holiday) visits looks like:

6:30 am: wake up (not by our choice but because our kids absolutely can't sleep past 6:30)
7:00 am: breakfast of fresh bread (delivered to our door that morning by the building door man), tomatoes, cucumbers, cheese, olives, and tea. This is the typical Turkish breakfast, eaten by all Turks every morning of every day. We don't eat it every day, but for some reason we always eat it on Turkish holidays.
8:00 am: We all start getting dressed up in nice clothes. James wears slacks, a nice shirt with a tie, and shiny shoes that he'll complain about the rest of the day. I wear a skirt, blouse, nylons, nice shoes that I'll complain about the rest of the day, and gold jewelry (gold is very very important to Turks, I talk a little about it here, and I'll put a whole post up about it in the future). The girls wear dresses and we tuck a change of clothes into a diaper bag for each of them because we know they'll soon be covered in chocolate.
8:30 am: The early bird building kids are up ringing doorbells and collecting candy. We open the door to be greeted by a bunch of nicely dressed smiling kids yelling "Iyi Bayramlar!" (translation: Happy Holidays!) and holding out their little sticky sugar covered fingers for some candy (or money... but we never give money).
9:00 am: We can hear neighbors stirring - going in and out of homes and up and down the elevator, so we venture out as a family for our first visit of the day. We always go to the old woman in the apartment below us first. I don't know her name. Everybody calls her Haci Anne. That means mother who has gone on the haj (the trip to Mecca that all Muslims are supposed to take at some point in their life). It's not that she's actually gone on the haj. It's just that she's so old that she probably could have. Since she's the oldest, out of respect we visit her first. Here's how it goes: Haci Anne's granddaughter Tuna (yes, her name is Tuna. She's my age.) opens the door to let us in. I kiss her on each cheek and James shakes her hand. We're shown into the salon (the nicest and most richly decorated room in the house, saved just for when guests visit), where Haci Anne is waiting for us. We say "Iyi Bayramlar!" (Happy Holidays!) and kiss her on the back of her hand then touch it to our foreheads. She says "Hos geldiniz! Hos geldiniz yavrum!" (Welcome, welcome my little baby animals! - kind of like saying my dears) and then we all sit down. After a few rounds of how are you and how are all your relatives, her granddaughter brings a bottle of lemon cologne around and douses our hands with it. We rub them together and then they're all clean, disinfected, and lemony fresh! Then Tuna brings out the baklava and the cola. The baklava is homemade (made by Tuna supervised by Haci Anne) and the cola is served in a wine glass.
This time we're also really lucky because in addition to the baklava, there are also stuffed grape leaves (I'm salivating as I write this... my neighbor's stuffed grape leaves are absolutely sublime! I don't know what sublime means, but I can't think of any other word to describe the succulent deliciousness that these stuffed grape leaves embody.) There are also some hard cookies and some other sort of soft syrupy cookie with a hazelnut in the middle. Haci Anne goes all out for bayrams. We eat up all our food, say thank you, chat a little longer, then say, "With your permission we're going to get up now." She says, "But we were sitting so nicely!" (These are the set sayings that everyone says at the end of a visit.) And then she motions to Tuna who brings out some more baklava, and a beautifully wrapped chocolate for each member of our family. James eats his, I put mine in the diaper bag to save it for later. Elise is covered in olive oil from devouring stuffed grape leaves. Since she's grown up in Turkey, she senses good stuffed grape leaves when she gets them, and she goes into vacuum cleaner mode, eating as many as her little belly can hold, and only stopping when someone gives her a piece of chocolate. Elise unwraps the chocolate, and eats it up (all the while I'm cringing and wiping her as quickly as possible because she has olive oil and chocolate covered fingers and is sitting on a white sofa). I forgot to mention that Marie also gets handed a piece of chocolate. Never mind that she's only 3 months old. It's a holiday, so she's given a chocolate too. I generally say thank you and put it into the diaper bag, but sometimes if a neighbor or friend is holding her they actually unwrap it and try to feed it to her!
9:20 am (That's right! That whole sugar and stuffed grape leaf eating fest was only 20 minutes long!): We again ask permission to go, and this time we get it, although it's always given reluctantly. We make our way out into the hallway then up one flight of stairs to ring our next-door neighbor's doorbell. They open the door, we all yell "Iyi Bayramlar!" And the whole baklava-and-chocolate-eating-cola-drinking-frenzy starts all over again. We repeat this process over and over throughout the morning. The same greetings, the same questions, the same almost everything. Sometimes we're only offered baklava and cola. Sometimes we're offered an assortment of other Turkish goodies alongside the baklava, but the basic visit is always the same. Bayram visits are almost always just 15-25 minutes long. You pack them in. It's more of a courtesy than a time to really get to know somebody.

12:00 noon: We have completed 5 or 6 bayram visits, our teeth our covered with sugary sweaters. We decide to go home for a lunch break and to give the kids naps. The only problem is that we don't want lunch. We're stuffed. We try to feed Elise something somewhat nutritious to counter-balance the sugar she's consumed all morning (Haci Anne's stuffed grape leaves were the only non-sugary thing we've eaten all day). Elise is stuffed too. She doesn't want cheese or sandwich. She's exhausted, but high on sugar. We try our best to get her to take a nap anyway. Every time she's almost asleep our doorbell rings and we open it for kids yelling "Iyi bayramlar!" and holding our their hands for candy.
1:30 pm: James and I decide who else we'd like to visit. Some people we visit because they're our friends and some people we visit because they'd probably be offended if we didn't. We're about to leave the house and press on in the visits when Elise finally falls asleep. We tape a bunch of napkins over our door bell ringer so that the sound is muffled and pretending not to be home, we don't answer the door when kids or neighbors come knocking.
4:00 pm: We've taken naps too. Now we're ready to hit the streets again and make more visits. We change the kids clothes and head out.
10:30 pm: We get home from our final visit of the day and carry our sleeping kids to their beds. We brush our teeth, but it just doesn't seem to cut it. Everyone goes to sleep and has strange dreams about floating on pieces of baklava in a cola sea.

The next day looks very similar, and by the third day we're at home more. The third day of the holiday some friends and neighbors come to visit us. Since we're young, and we're not any body's relative, we're pretty low on the totem pole when it comes to visiting order. I serve store-bought baklava (I have no idea how to make the stuff), some homemade cookies, and cola to our guests. We douse their hands with lemon cologne and give them fancy chocolates.

By the end of the three day holiday, I don't want to see another piece of baklava for the rest of my life. When James and I first moved to Turkey we were in the habit of going to a shop and buying baklava for dessert every couple of weeks. After our first Seker Bayrami (our first experience overdosing on baklava), we didn't buy any for an entire year. Now we usually go a few months after Seker Bayrami trying our best to avoid the stuff and then we start buying it again when guests come over.

Since we're in America right now and far far away from the feeding frenzy that's going on in Turkey, James is dying for some baklava. Anybody know a good recipe?

Friday, 12 September 2008

More Ramazan Memories... The Drummer

Every year when Ramazan rolls in, the neighborhood drummer rolls on in along with it. He's up before the crack of dawn, before any rooster would dream of crowing, before the early bird is up to get its worm. He's punctual and he's LOUD.

Somehow the noise from the drum penetrates walls and spaces so that even though he is on the street below, and we are in our bedroom on the sixth floor, we can hear him as if he is in our living room. During the 30 days of Ramazan, every morning he jolts us awake with his sometimes almost beautiful, sometimes absolutely horrific, serenade.

The first few mornings of Ramazan, I think the drummer silently sneakes up to our building garden then starts in with a LOUD LOUD marching song, making everyone wake up and hop exuberantly out of bed. I suppose if I were Muslim, and if I were observing the fast, I would be happy for the peppy tune getting me up and moving:

Boom batt-a Boom batt-a BOOM BOOM BOOM!!!
Boom batt-a Boom batt-a BOOM BOOM BOOM!!!
Boom batt-a Boom batt-a BOOM BOOM BOOM!!!

But I'm not Muslim, and I don't observe the fast, so instead of hopping jubilantly out of bed, I'm jolted awake trying to figure out why there's a marching band in our home. Then once my brain has un-fuzzed enough for me to realize that it's the Ramazan drummer, and I'm not about to be trampled by the UC Davis Marching Band-uh, I have too much adrenaline in me to drift back off to sleep. On these mornings I generally end up lying in bed awake envisioning myself spilling a bucket of water from my balcony and onto the drummer's head.

Just kidding about the water... maybe.

A few days into the fast, the drummer has lost a little of his pep, and so rather than sneaking up on poor unsuspecting people dozing away in their warm beds, you can hear him slowly making his way toward you from way down the street. He's lost his zip. He's no longer a one man band. He's a tired half-alive man struggling just to lift his hands to his drum: Blech!

Poor guy. He's out there in the cold. He's tired, he's hungry, he's low on energy from being up so early and from fasting all day long. He sounds like an animal that needs to be put out of it's misery.

On these mornings I roll over and stuff a pillow over my head. I pray that the horrific drumming wont wake my kids up so that I can stay in bed. I try to go back to sleep, but then I start wondering just how many of my neighbors are in fact fasting. I can't help but get up and peek out the window to see how many homes have their lights on. If I spot a home where it seems everyone is still asleep, I pass the news on to James who rolls over, groans, and tells me to shut up. Then he puts a pillow over his head and envisions dumping water on me to get me back for keeping him awake longer than he has to be.

Just kidding about James telling me to shut up. He's more polite than that, even early in the morning. But I think he's thinking it.

Somewhere in the middle of the fast, the drummer seems to have adjusted to his new job, and he's back at jolting me out of bed with his peppy drumming:

Rat-a-tat-a BOOM BOOM BOOM!!!
Rat-a-tat-a BOOM BOOM BOOM!!!


BOOM-ba BOOM-ba rat-a-tat-a BOOM!!!
BOOM-ba BOOM-ba rat-a-tat-a BOOM!!!

and many many more variations along this theme.

After 30 days of waking up this way (did I mention this usually happens somewhere between 2:30 and 3:45 am?!), my nerves are frazzled, and the bags under my eyes extend all the way down to my jaw bones. And then to top it all off, one day he comes to the door asking for a tip. A TIP!!

Everyone in the neighborhood pitches in to thank him for helping them faithfully keep the fast. If you think I was kidding about wanting to dump water on his head in the early morning, then believe me when I say that when he asks me for money for his services, I really really do want to toss water, and the bucket, in his face. But instead, I politely tell him that I'm not Muslim.

He stares blankly back at me. This was not the response he was hoping for or expecting. Probably in his entire carreer as a drummer, he's never ever heard these words and he really doesn't know what to make of it (Turkey is a nearly 100% Muslim country). He generally stands there staring at me until I explain that I didn't observe Ramazan and therefore didn't need or want to wake up early, and for that reason I didn't need or want his services and I'm exempt from giving him a tip.

At this point the drummer either says OK, turns away and goes on to the next neighbor, or he sees it as his opportunity, no, his duty to try his best to convert me to Islam. Let me ask you, if you had suffered from sleep deprivation for 30 days, would you then want someone to try to convert you? Especially to the religion that caused your sleep deprivation, and by the person who woke you up so early every day???

Yeah, me neither.

Friday, 5 September 2008

The Ramazan Fast - Harder Than You Think

My husband James loves eating. It's one of his favorite pastimes. Aside from when he's asleep, he eats at least every two hours. From time to time James decides to fast. His idea of a fast is to abstain from all solids. Liquids such as water, milk, juice, fruit shakes, protein shakes, root beer floats, steak and potatoes blended to a fine puree, these are okay with him. He'll consume them at least once an hour, probably more. . . . Okay, so I'm embellishing a teensy bit, but the point is that James likes to eat and never completely abstains from it.

So, this past year when James decided he wanted to get to know, understand, and identify with our Turkish friends and neighbors a little more by fasting along with them during Ramazan, I was a little surprised. James wasn't doing the fast for religious reasons. He just wanted to try it out and see what our friends go through. He never had the goal of fasting for the whole 30 days, just a day or two in order to experience it. Here's how his day went:

4:00 am - The drummer comes by and wakes everyone up so that they can eat a morning meal before the sun rises. James stays in bed.
5:30 am - James wakes up and eats a light breakfast. This was already cheating a bit as our neighbors were up eating at least an hour earlier, but James figured it didn't matter that much since he was just trying to get the general experience. He was going to abstain from all food and drink for the rest of the day, until he broke the fast at sundown along with everyone else.
10:30 am - James, low on energy, has a hard time being civil toward a certain member of the family (me).
11:00 am - James says he has a headache and starts getting sniffy even toward the little members of the family.
12:00 - James goes to take a nap (which somehow got him started down a slippery slope).
1:30 pm- He wakes up.
2:00 pm- James decides he needs to break the fast just a little bit by having a glass of milk.
2:30 pm- James reasons that since he already broke the fast, he might as well snack on a few pieces of dried fruit.
3:00 pm- James fixes himself a sandwich.
3:15 pm- James is in the refrigerator eating leftovers from the night before.
3:30 pm- All food in the kitchen (with the exception of a few raw potatoes and the soy sauce) has been devoured by James.
3:45 pm- James takes another nap.
6:30 pm- Our family (including James) eats dinner.
6:40 pm- The cannon shoots off. We can hear our neighbors chairs scooting and creaking above our heads as they have their first bite of food and drink of water since dawn.
6:45 pm- James decides that one day of the Ramazan experience is enough for him. He doesn't want to try it again the next day.


A few things we learned:
1. We have a little more understanding and pity for the angry drivers who honk at everyone and are always shouting. Those guys aren't just tired, hungry, and thirsty. They're also having withdrawals from smoking.
2. The Ramazan fast is HARD. We've come to respect people who set out to do it and actually stick to it the entire 30 days.
3. We also have more understanding for why we can't find anyone who is actually getting anything done during Ramazan. It's hard to find a plumber, repairman, etc who will get a job done during this month. One year our toilet flusher broke about 3 days into Ramazan. No matter how many plumbers we called, we couldn't get anyone to come. We ended up flushing by pouring buckets of water down the toilet until well after the month of Ramazan ended. People are either sleeping or wishing they were sleeping during all daylight hours. Since they're not eating or drinking, everyone wants to expend as little energy as possible.

Wednesday, 3 September 2008


Since we're currently in the States, I'm pretty out of touch with life in Turkey. The other day a friend mentioned that Ramadan (Ramazan, in Turkey) started a few days ago. If I were in Turkey this wouldn't have come as a surprise to me. There would have been signs of it everywhere - from the posters at the grocery store to the man with a drum walking by to wake everyone up before dawn, to the cannon that blasts in the evening at sun down signifying that the fast is over for the day.

Ramazan is the yearly month of fasting in the Muslim world. All Muslims (with exception of the pregnant, the sick, children, and those who are traveling) are required to fast from all food and drink (and cigarettes too) from sun up to sun down for one month a year. Some people observe this rule more strictly than others. In the city where we were living, Ramazan was very strictly observed. We rarely saw people eating in daylight hours. We didn't want to offend anyone, so when we ate we always hid behind closed doors and curtains.

To be honest with you, I think it's pretty amazing that all these people can observe this tough religious duty. Do you know how much will power it takes to eat nothing all day long, and how much more it takes to keep yourself from drinking any water?! And I really like the community oriented "we're all in this together" mentality of it. But there are also things about it that I don't like. One is the fact that if I eat anything in public I get really really mean looks. If looks could kill then I would have been dead within the first few days of my first Ramazan experience.

James and I were living in Ankara, the capital. Ramazan had been going for a few days, which meant that we were extra tired due to a drummer coming around our neighborhood, banging on his drum around 3:30 am in order to wake everyone up. People get up well before dawn so that they can eat a big meal before the daily fast starts, then they drift back to sleep until they have to go to work. James and I would often be startled out of a deep sleep and then be unable to drift back off... and that's just not a fun way to start the morning, ya know?

James had an office downtown. He would go there to study Turkish and meet with a few college students he'd hired to give him language lessons. On this particular day, I came downtown to do a little shopping and then met up with him after his lessons were over. We were hungry and decided to find a restaurant and eat downtown rather than going home and preparing dinner.

I should insert here that going home and preparing dinner meant waiting up to half an hour for a bus, then getting on that crowded bus (often being forced into someone's armpit in the standing room that was left over), and riding 30-40 minutes home. Once home we would have to prepare dinner. Dinner in Turkey is no 20 minute deal. Forget about using a jar of prepared spaghetti sauce, or anything of the kind. Cooking in Turkey almost always means cooking from scratch. So you can see that if we had waited until we were home, dinner would have come at least an hour and a half later, but I digress.... back to the story.

We found a restaurant that looked good. Iskender (one of our favorite dishes which translated is "Alexander the Great") was advertised on a banner outside as the "Ramazan Special" for an amazing price. It was crowded inside which is always a good sign that the food is tasty. We walked in and immediately noted that no one was smoking. Since it seems almost everyone smokes in Turkey, and we weren't yet used to being in smoke filled rooms without feeling like we were about to choke, we were delighted to see that none of the people in the restaurant were smokers. What luck!

We walked up to the counter and said "Iki Iskender (translation: two iskender)" The man taking the money said a bunch of unintelligable words to us (remember, we hadn't been in Turkey long enough to understand much of anything). We gave him a blank look, held up two fingers, pointed to the picture of Iskender, and repeated, "Iki Iskender." He motioned around and said a bunch more stuff, then he asked us very slowly if we were from Germany (which is the first thing he said that we actually understood.) We said no, we were Americans. He said a bunch more that we didn't understand and then looked at us for a response. Again, we held up our fingers, pointed, and said, "Iki Iskender." Finally the man shook his head, picked up a couple of plates of Iskender, some lentil soup, and motioned for us to follow him.

We followed him down a staircase to a huge crowded dining room. He seated us at the one free table in the entire place (directly in the center of the room), set our plates in front of us, and left. I grabbed my spoon and started digging into the soup. All conversation from the room around us stopped, and I noticed icy cold stares from the rest of the room. James and I looked around and saw that no one else had any food in front of them. No one was drinking water. No one was smoking. The only table that even had a basket of bread was ours. Our eyes grew wide as we looked at each other. It finally dawned on us that everyone, EVERYONE in the crowded restaurant was waiting for the fast to break before they ate anything.

We wanted to crawl into a little hole. We wanted to get up and run screaming for home. We wished we could rewind time and start the day over (preferably with our brains turned on this time). We wished we were anywhere but in the middle of that dining room with everyone else staring at us as if we had a giant neon sign with the word "Infidels" flashing above our heads.

Instead of any of those options, we quickly discussed it and decided that the best thing to do was to eat our food as fast as possible and then get out of there. We thought about waiting for the fast to break, then finishing our food with everyone else, but we'd already started, everyone had already seen it. And, we reasoned, our food might be cold by the time the fast broke.

We tried to ignore the rest of the room as we shoveled the food into our mouths. Finally, just as we were taking our last bites, the call to prayer came over some speakers and baskets of bread started being passed around. Everyone took their eyes off us as they lit up their cigarettes, drank some cool refreshing water, and started their meals. And we got up and left. We walked out of the restaurant with our heads hung in shame, trying to avoid any eye contact.

Once we were on the almost empty bus home (empty because everyone else in the city was eating their evening meal), we laughed about how clueless we were. All the signs were there, including the literal sign advertising "The Ramazan Special." No one smoking. No one eating. The man behind the counter asking lots of questions. All of this pointed to the fact that, Hello! it's Ramazan! Everyone is fasting! But we were such unexperienced Americans that it all floated right above our heads until it was much too late.

After that experience we were much more careful about eating in public. After an experience like that, how can you not be??

Boy am I glad to be in America right now!

Tuesday, 2 September 2008


While we were getting ready to move, James took down all our light fixtures and then headed down the elevator to get into the basement (which is used as a giant storage unit for all of the people living in the building). We had a few of our home owner's light fixtures stored in the basement and wanted to get them out so we could box our own up.

Our building is kind of run by this guy, the door man, named Mr. Friday. He cleans things up, keeps the garden looking nice, takes out trash, and is just kind of an all around helper. On this particular day, James went to see him because he has the keys to our building's basement.

James: Can you open up the basement for me? I have some stuff to get out of there.
Mr. Friday: You'll have to come back here later. I can't go down to the basement.
James: Why not?
Mr. Friday: There's a belly down there. It tried to bite me.
James: What??
Mr. Friday: There's a baby belly down there, and it's mom. They're dangerous.
James: Totally confused. Um... okay. When should I come back?
Mr. Friday: The owner will be back this evening. We'll go down there then.

James went back up to our apartment on the sixth floor and told me the situation. Together we figured out that there was a KOPEK (dog) in the basement. Not a GOBEK (belly). Sometimes people from our city have an accent where they pronounce K like a G. As if learning a foreign language isn't hard enough, I sometimes think that language-wise, we live in Turkey's version of the deep South.

A few hours later James returned downstairs in hopes of having better luck getting into the basement.

James: So, do you think we can go down there now and get those lights?
Mr. Friday: The owner isn't around yet, but if you really want to, then I'll open the door up for you and you can go down there yourself. Those bellies (translation: dogs) are dangerous. Did I tell you they tried to bite me?

James had been putting quite a bit on hold waiting on the stuff from the basement, so he decided to brave the dogs and go down to the basement.

James: Let's do it.
Mr. Friday: Unlocking the door with a look of complete and utter terror on his face, Okay, if you're sure. But be careful. . . I think they're wolves.

Since Mr. Friday was obviously scared out of his socks, James was a little scared too. Upon hearing that the dogs were actually wolves, James was quite a bit more nervous, but he started down the dimly lit staircase anyway. Mr. Friday armed James with a rake. He bravely followed down the staircase, still uttering warnings from a few steps behind. He was armed with a big push broom (hey, if the main parts of your job include sweeping and gardening, these are probably the best you can do in the way of weapons to fight off dangerous wolves). Pretty soon the wolves made some sort of quiet growling noises from a dark corner of the basement. Mr. Friday shrieked like a girl then ran back up the stairs, and James was right behind him, his heart pounding out of his chest. Mr. Friday re-locked the door with shaking hands, and James decided to put his work on hold until the owner of the wolves was around to help control them.

A few hours later Mr. Friday called up to our apartment to tell James that the owner was back and it was safe to go down to the basement. James went downstairs and looked at the front of our building. He found the owner sitting on the front steps with his "wolves" in front of him. His three year old son had his arms wrapped around the little "wolf's" neck in a big hug and the other building kids were petting it's mother. They seemed to be two of the tamest, friendliest dogs he'd ever seen. Mr. Friday was watching from about 20 feet away, still armed with his giant push broom, ready to take action just in case one of the dogs decided to go for his jugular.

A few things I'd like to point out about this story:
1. Turks are generally scared of dogs. They are usually not seen as pets, but as ferocious wild animals that terrorize the streets (probably because many of the dogs in Turkey really are ferocious wild animals that terrorize the streets).
2. More and more Turks are getting dogs (probably due to western influence), but I'd say that as a whole, unless proven otherwise dogs are seen as vicious and mean.
3. Even if a dog can prove its sweetness and worth to others, some Turks, like Mr. Friday, will never be convinced. They are sure that if a dog comes up to them it is always after raw human flesh, not a pat on the head. Period.
4 After a little thought, we realized that there were dogs, not bellies, in the basement. Imagine how many times people have had perfectly normal conversations with us and we've come away thinking totally strange things, all based around one misunderstood word. This is one instance where we figured it out. Think about all the times we didn't. Yikes!