I have never been to a more beautiful place, yet nothing is more beautiful here than the hearts of the people. Turkish people (at least those that I have met) are the kindest and gentlest souls I have ever encountered. The sights and smells of this place are like nothing I have ever known, but now I cannot imagine living life in ignorance of them. The whole of Turkey smells like my host mothers kitchen: saffron and garlic and basil mixed with the sweet smells of pepper and dark Turkish tea added to the smell of salt on the breeze.
My host sister and I have become fast friends and every night after the customary cleansing of the palate with rich tea, she and I walk the cobblestone paths around the apartments. She teaches me new words in Turkish and waits patiently as I shape my mouth to the sound of the word, making my inflections just right. I have been here twenty days, and already I am in love. With the place and the people. Being here is like being thrust into a part of history that before my arrival I could only wonder at.
Everything about this place speaks of time-honored tradition and ageless customs of a people unchanged by the nuances of the modern world. They will watch all the new American movies on their plasma televisions, but still take off their shoes as they enter the house. A custom that began in the time of Christ. When they drive, it is with the aggressiveness and speed of a seasoned New Yorker, but do not even walk past a stranger without exchanging the traditional words of long life and prosperity.
These people have truly welcomed me into their lives and their hearts, but it is made clear that I am here to learn to share in this beauty and culture. This is a place steeped in love for its history and traditions, proud of everything that it stands for and the sacrifices made to make it so. Here breakfast and dinner are more family traditions than the necessity of a meal. We sit together and laugh over carefully prepared food and tea. Nothing is wasted, and you are expected to finish everything on your plate. What we cannot eat, we leave out for the dogs and cats that come around at meal times.
I have just returned from a four day trip to Avsa Island, in the Marmara Sea. My host mother's parents live there and went to visit them. While there, everything that I ate was grown in a garden behind the house. Red Peppers were hung out to dry next to the clothes on the balcony. When taking a Hybrid taxi up to the house, we had to stop and wait for a herd to sheep to cross the road. Everyday we woke early to swim in the chilly sea. Gizem and I hiked through the mountains of Avsa with Enes and Halil, to boys that live next door. We climbed into the wind, the three of us silent as we stood in awe of the views surrounding us. When we reached the top there were wild blackberries for the picking, a taste that I am sure I have only shared with my companions and the birds. We looked down upon the sheep grazing in the hills below us and the seaside town just quieting down for the evening. In a moment I realized how lucky I was to be in such a place with people that (even though I have only known them for a few weeks) have already changed me for the better. Turkey has welcomed me with more spirit than I could ever have hoped, and I know that my view of the world will never be the same.
Today is the one month anniversary of my arrival in Turkey. I wish that I could sit here and write something profound about how this experience has already changed my life, but the more time that I spend in this place, the more I realize that it is not Turkey that is changing me. I am changing myself. Everyday I am fully amazed by how much of the world there is to know outside of the United States. I feel like I have lived my life inside of Sandy’s tree dome. I have been underwater breathing a limited supply of air for my entire existence. Don’t get me wrong, it's great down there, but I have broken the surface of a whole different world. Istanbul radiates energy from its every street corner. There is beauty here in places that I would never even think to look. I am like a child, learning the ways of the world all over again, but this time, I have the unique gift of knowing what it all means. I walk through Taksim and smell the flowers from the street vendors mixed with the sweet smell of warm Simit. I hear the pounding of hundreds of feet moving towards separate destinations, and the music of the call to prayer over the swell of happy voices. Every type of Döner sizzles on its spits as you walk by. I will catch a phrase of Turkish here and there and realize that I am translating it automatically. When I accidently bump into someone on the metro, I quickly say pardon, instead of sorry. Sitting on the bus, a stranger may ask for the time, and I can easily give it to them.
I started school two weeks ago, and I have already made many friends that I meet with after school. My lessons are all in Turkish, so I spend my days in school practicing the language or journaling. Except in English class. I spend that class learning that Americans speak English entirely wrong. Who knew? I have joined the swim team, and we meet every Thursday for the last two lessons. I have become the star of my Spanish class as well. I guess growing up in Florida is finally paying off. A special thanks to Senora Deluke as well! Did I mention that we have recess? It’s rather amazing. Plus my class is on the 10,000th (on bin) floor, so when this year is over, I am going to be really fit. Well, maybe not with the way I am being fed here. I think everyone is convinced that I was being starved to death in America. (Compared to how much I am eating here, I really was.)
Living in Turkey is causing me to change myself. When I had my Outbound Orientation before I left, we were asked to define culture. I remember writing some cookie-cutter definition and feeling very proud of myself for it, but I am finally beginning to understand. Culture cannot be defined by any one person. Culture is what happens when the hopes and goals and love of a people are joined together in a way of life. It has taken me immersing myself in another culture to fully understand my own. There is something truly amazing about people and culture that cannot be understood through words on a page. What I am just beginning to discover about this country is a knowledge shared only by others who have been where I am. I do not wish for world peace; I wish that every high school student would go on exchange.
Expectations. Assumptions. Ignorance. Three things that I swore I would never bring with me on exchange. I left America an idealist. I would prove to everyone I met that their perceptions of America were wrong. I would show them that I could be open-minded and willing to learn. I would make friendships that would one day save the world. I left America an American.
What I failed to realize is that trying to leave without expectations is like sticking your hand in a pot of boiling water and trying not to burn it. Unrealistic. Of course everyone creates an image in their heads about what their lives will look like in their new country. The challenge is to not compare what you find to what you expected. If you hold on to those initial expectations you will only be disappointed. Especially if the expectations lie in yourself and not your surroundings. I arrived in Turkey expecting to change the world. Instead I have learned that for me to change the world, I must first let the world change me.
As for assumptions, it is so easy for someone who has lived a life of privilege to take so many things for granted. Of course I understood before I left that I needed to stop taking anything for granted. So I did. But the reality of taking things for granted... is that you simply assume you will always have them. So.. clean drinking water out of a tap or my favorite brand of toothpaste are things I assumed I would always have. A clothes dryer and lint rollers are givens right? Chewing gum? Ice in your McDonalds cola? Would you ever assume not to have conditioner separate from shampoo? I am not only adjusting to a new people and culture; I am adjusting to an entirely different way of life.
There is a saying that I have had stuck in my head ever since I was a child. Maybe it was etched into a forgotten coffee cup or written on the back of a favorite t-shirt, I do not know, but I will always remember “Ignorance is bliss.” There was never a more true nor more false statement. Ignorance IS bliss, but it also the cause of so much hatred. We have just celebrated Kurban Bayrami or the Feast of the Sacrifice in Turkey. It is a holiday in which every financially able family sacrifices a sheep and distributes a third of the meat to the poor in honor of the sheep that Abraham sacrificed in place of his only son. It is a holiday celebrating a story existing in all three major religions in the world today. I bet you did not know that. Ignorance is bliss. I knew that in order to survive as an exchange student, I could not afford to be ignorant. I researched my country. I learned about its passions and fears. So that when I was asked my opinions on Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, I could answer with intelligence. But it did not matter how much history I knew or how many guidebooks I had read. I arrived in Turkey ignorant of everything that was most important. These last three months I have felt like a first grader all over again.
For all you new exchangers... a piece of advice. This is the same piece of advice that comes from at least one outbound every year.. and still no one seems to take it. I still remember when Al asked us to read the journal of Katie O’Brien, an outbound to France last year. He said that it was the most important piece of advice that we would get. I read the journal and dismissed it all, because who does not like to think of themselves as special? But, here I am, three months in, just like every other outbound in the world, thinking.. damn. Rotary was right. So if you, like so many other new outbounds cannot take the advice of anyone more than thirty years older than you.. take it from me. Rotary was right. Being an exchange student is the hardest thing you will ever do. This year will be full of bad days and frustrations that make you want to cry and pull your hair out. You will want to go back home and curl up in your mommies lap. I know, because I am living it. But this is the part they never give enough credit. Every second is worth it. When my host sister storms in after school shouting in Turkish about her exams or my host dad shows up three hours late smelling of fish because he decided to stop and throw his pole in the Bosphorus on his way home from work or we wake up at ten and don’t go to sleep until two a.m. because we are visiting family and eating inane amounts of Baklava and Turkish delight, that is when I know that no matter what, without a doubt, this is going to be the best year of my life.
Do not try to get rid of your expectations, you cannot. Only expect them to be shattered. Do not try to throw away any and all assumptions, you will not. Only assume that they will be wrong. Do not try to eliminate all your ignorance, there is far too much for you to learn. Only be willing to learn from you mistakes. And.. above all, remember that in order for you to change the world.. you must first let the world change you.
I am walking through my house in America. I see my family and my friends gathered to welcome me home. I see all the things that I have missed within my reach, just waiting for me to go to them. But I do not. I tell myself that this must be a dream. I pinch my arm over and over but nothing changes. I cannot understand why I do not run to my family or the table covered in all the foods I have missed so much. I can only wander my house like a ghost thinking about why I am home so early. I know that I have not finished my exchange or learned to speak Turkish fluently. I am determined to find a way to go back. I am not supposed to be here.
When I finally wake up to find myself nestled in my bed in Turkey, I can only feel relief. I am not back home and I do get to finish my exchange. I have this dream fairly often here. It reminds me that no matter how hard it gets, I could never go back. Right now, I have nothing to go back to. They say that your third and fourth months are the hardest and that everything is downhill from there. I won’t say that these past two months have been easy for me, because nothing about exchange is ever easy but they were not what I was expecting. Of course, as my new mantra says, never hold onto expectations. I thought that these months would be filled with homesickness and frustration with my lot here. Instead I found clarity. Over the last month I have come to realize that this is an experience that I will wake up wishing to have back every day for the rest of my life. As the saying goes, “Youth is wasted on the Young”, but I suspect that much of youth exchange is wasted on the outbounds. I feel as though I have spent every moment since I got here waiting to settle in. Waiting for the point where I could speak fluent Turkish and no longer stick out like a tourist. The problem is that almost half of my exchange has passed me by. A minute ago I was getting off the plane, a second ago it was December 1. Now it is New Years and I have two weeks until my first trip, then another two weeks until I turn 19, four weeks after that parents are going to be starting to visit, and just another couple weeks after that its my second trip then my district retreat, and then the outbounds start going home. My exchange is going to start moving at lightning speed from now on and there is nothing that I can do to slow it down.
The lesson learned? I am here right now. I am an exchange student in Istanbul, Turkey for six more months. It is time to stop waiting for my exchange to catch up with me, and for me to start trying to catch up to it. This is my home, my life, my year. I will never get one day of this experience back so I cannot afford to waste a moment. The older I get, the more I realize that life is a big confusing mess. Everyone has a set of problems that may seem insignificant in comparison with someone else’s, but they are never insignificant to whoever they belong to. Life takes and it gives and it has ups, downs and sideways but for now, life is all we have. It is so hard to know exactly who you are and even harder not to forget yourself. Right here, right now, I know who I am. I know what my purpose is. I am here to discover the world. I am here to let this place and these people teach me everything that they can and in turn to teach them that I am willing to be taught and to be wrong.
Last week I spent Christmas in a country that is 99.8% Muslim. Everyone back home wanted to know what is was like. Did I wear my cross or go to Church? Was I allowed to go to Church? Did my school friends make fun of me for being Christian? Everyone wanted to know about the friction they assumed was created when I tried to celebrate a Christian holiday in a Muslim country. Well, Christmas Eve fell on a Friday which is the holy day of the week for Muslims, so I spent an hour in a Mosque while two of my guy friends prayed in the early afternoon. I covered my head and since women are not allowed into the interior of the Mosque on Friday’s, I held their shoes for them as they prayed. Later that night, they both came with me to church. They crossed their foreheads with holy water as we went in (it was a catholic church) and lit candles as we sang Christmas carols. They even asked me to teach them the words. We ate Christmas Eve dinner in a cafe at the top of hill called Pierre Loti. It holds the grave of a man who housed the Prophet Mohammed for several months. It is a very holy place for Muslims.
For my eighteenth Christmas I did not have a fireplace with stockings hung all in a row. I did not spend hours decorating a tree with my family or fight over frosting cookies with my sisters. I did not write a wish list to Santa or run downstairs on Christmas morning to open gifts. Instead, I spent my Christmas not so far from where it all started, learning the value of true friendship, the kind that is ignorant of fear and hatred. My Christmas was one of mixed religion and a common bond of faith. Despite common perception, there is far more that brings us together than separates us in the worship of God or in anything else. “I am standing in a place of peace. This is what the world should be.”
These are the facts: It is Monday, March 7 at 5:11 P.M. Eastern European Time. I have been in Istanbul, Turkey for 6 months, 8 days, 23 hours, and 16 minutes. I can understand enough Turkish to know everything that goes on around me and speak enough to get by in almost any situation. The relationships I have with my family and friends are ones that will last for the rest of my life. I have stopped counting the days that I have left because I am terrified of going home. I am forgetting English words. (I scored a 53 on an English test that I took for fun at my school.) (yes, the test directions were also in English.)
When I arrived in Turkey, everything was so new and different that I didn’t think that I would ever get used to it. I kept telling myself that I would eventually stop feeling like a stranger here and I couldn’t wait until the day when I woke up to routine. Somehow that happened without me ever noticing. I have stopped thinking about the apartment like it was someone else’s home. It is my bed, my pillow, my towel, my closet, my family. I have a set curfew and a key. When we need bread, I pick some up at the Migros on my way home. Gizem (my sister) and I make appointments at the hairdresser together, share clothes, and argue over who’s turn it is to shower first. We watch American movies together and I think how foreign the settings look. Walking down Istiklal Caddesi in Taksim I hear people speaking English and balk at how foreign it sounds in my ears. The waiters and waitresses at my favorite places to eat and the guards at the entrance to my apartment complex know me by name. Every Monday and Wednesday after school, Gizem and I work with a trainer at the sport center of the apartment complex. Every Saturday and Sunday the whole family eats breakfast together and every weeknight except Monday we eat dinner together. There is a routine to my life here. I have become a permanent fixture in the day to day life of Istanbul.
My little sister, Anna, is getting ready to go on exchange to Brazil. I was so proud of her when I learned that she wanted to go, and I truly hope that my youngest sister Lillie also decides to go on exchange in a few years. I want this for them because I know that an experience like this teaches you something that nothing else can. Having the opportunity to leave the world you have grown up in and forever known to share in another culture is like walking through a plain old wardrobe to find yourself in Narnia. (I especially feel like that here since Peter develops such an affinity for Turkish Delight and Aslan is the Turkish word for lion.) The whole world looks different, but once you take the time to get to know the world around you, you realize that its not that different at all.
Our lives follow patterns. No matter what race or gender or what age we are living in, human lives all share the same hopes, dreams and desires. Our bodies long for air and nourishment, our minds for knowledge, and our hearts for love. We are all born and we all die, even if the manner is different. We will all leave this world with the memories of countless smiles and countless tears. We will have love and we will have loss. If my six months in Turkey have taught me anything, it is that in the end, we are all human. The kids that I go to school with here speak a totally different language than I do. They will live with their families until they are married, and most of them will never leave Turkey. Yet, they wear Abercrombie and Fitch jeans and listen to Kanye West and The Black Eyed Peas and go to the movies with their friends on the weekends. They hope for a future in which they achieve their dreams. They all have plans for what career path they want to follow. They spend their time stressing about boys (or girls) and the college entrance exam. In fact, there really is no they and no us. There are only people trying to live the lives they were given.
People are always asking me if I think I will come home different than the person I was when I left. I used to believe that I would come home a survivor, like a POW that was released. I imagined this year would be like a trial that I had overcome and it would have made me a better person for it. I know now that I will not come home like I have been liberated from struggle, nor will I return home feeling proud of my accomplishments of this year. I will, if anything, return home feeling humbled to have been able to be a part of the lives of the people that I have known and loved here. My life will be forever changed by this exchange, not because of what I learned, but because of what they taught me.
I have been trying to write this journal for weeks now. Someone the thought of writing this, my penultimate journal, scared me into a serious case of writers block. I had so many things that I wanted to say, and yet they all seemed so insignificant in comparison to the actual emotions I had about ending my time here. I had no words for how it felt to be counting my time left in weeks and days, not months. When I first arrived in Turkey, I would dream of the day I would return to America, a changed person with the knowledge of the world holding me up. Now that that day is moving ever closer, I dread it. After a year away, what will I say to the people who have been missing me? What will I say when people ask me what I learned? What will my answer be when they ask me if I am happy to be home? I have no answer.
Time is a funny thing. Always moving so slowly when you want it to move faster, and then when you want the seconds to barely tick by, they seem to speed up in spite. Then you realize that time has always ticked by at exactly the same rate, and that it is you that changed. I suppose it is just another great lesson of life that “it must be lived forwards, but can only be understood backwards.”* I now understand that I should not have taken one single moment of my time here for granted, but I cannot live it over again. So now I must begin to say goodbye. For a long time, I had no idea how to even being to do that. My family, my friends, my life: how could I say goodbye to all of that? My answer came a few days ago as I was riding a train through the farming country outside of Istanbul.
I watched out my window as we passed fields covered in the yellows and blues and purples of spring wildflowers. Plump turbaned women moved in the fields tending to crops and milking cows. Men with toothless smiles and skin stained the color of clay and dirt picked tea by the roadside. I felt so separate from them, speeding along in the air-conditioned train; two different worlds. We came upon a small farm with chickens and dogs running wild in the dirt. A small foal pranced around its mother in a nearby grassy pen. The foals mother reached out her neck and nipped the foal in the ear. The little horse looked up at its mother with an expression that looked so human, and so indignant. I laughed out loud in the train and caught the eye of a boy leaning along the fence by the two horses. He held a huge grin on his face as he met my eyes and then gestured back at the horses just in time for me to see the foal stalk away from its mother in an even more indignant fashion than its earlier expression. I laughed again and looked back at the boy. He smiled up at me and then was lost behind a copse of trees as the train sped on. The entire scene had happened within the space of a few seconds but to me it had lasted a lifetime. For just a moment, two people from lives as different as they could possibly be, were able to laugh together about the beauty of life. I will never know that boys story, or even his name, but for a brief shining moment in time, our stories came together.
My year in Turkey has taught me many things, and I had always considered my knowledge of the culture and the language to be the most valuable of those lessons. That scene from the train, however, has pointed out to me something else that I discovered here, something that I think surpasses the rest. The last few lines of the movie “The Polar Express” go like this, “At one time most of my friends could hear the bell, but as years passed it fell silent for all of them. Even Sarah found one Christmas that she could no longer hear its sweet sound. Though I've grown old the bell still rings for me, as it does for all who truly believe.” My year in Turkey has taught me how to believe in the beauty of the world. Just like the boy in the movie, I have had an experience that so many others will never have a chance to share. So many of my friends and family will start out their careers with faith in the world that it can be a better place, but like so many others that have gone before them, they may lose that faith with time. Because of what I have seen here and lived here, I will never lose that faith. I will forever truly believe in the beauty of the world and the people that live in it. I will forever have memories like the one of the boy and his horses to remind me how much more similar we are than different. So as I prepare to leave this place and the people here that I have grown to love, I can do so with a clear conscience because I know that I will forever carry the lessons of this year with me. No matter what turns my life takes in the years to come, I will remain forever changed by my experiences here. I walked off the plane in Turkey as a gap between the two cultures, but I will return to America as a bridge.
So here it is. My final journal. As I write this, I am cruising at 34,000 ft somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean. I am a person in between right now. I have left my new home and everything that it came to stand for over these past 11 months. I have still not arrived back in my old home where friends and family wait for me. I am alone with my thoughts at 34,000 feet, and I am really doing a lot of thinking. This moment has always held so much gravity in the exchange experience. This is the when I go back home to everything I left behind and learn that even though everything seems different, what has really changed is me. The trouble is that I know all that already. I know exactly how it is supposed to go. I get off the plane and begin my new life with my old people. I learn to be patient with them as I share what I have learned about different cultures and people. I become an ambassador for the country I have left, just as I went to that country as an ambassador for the United States. My family and friends forgive any oddities in my behavior and mannerisms because I am going through cultural re-integration. Its normal. I forgive any ignorant statements they may make about the place I lived and loved, because they never had the opportunity I did. It’s normal. Eventually, I am reintegrated and I go about my life normally again, but forever with the outlook of someone who has been on exchange. The end.
But it’s not. I remember in the beginning of the year I would wish for my exchange to speed up so that I could get to the part where I went home a new person to everyone that was proud of me. I wanted to skip the rest and live the bit where I was the successfully returned exchange student. I wanted to be praised for what I had accomplished and back home with the people that the praise mattered from. I didn’t care what happened in between. All I could picture was wearing my jacket at Rotary functions and speaking Turkish when people asked me too. I wanted people to look up to me the way that I looked up to all the Rebounds and Rotex that I had ever met. I never thought that they would feel anything other than on top of the world. How could they? Despite all the hardships Rotary had talked to us about, they had done it. They made it. Of course they would be totally and fully happy. I even listened to my best friend come back from her country and talk about how much she missed it, but I just figured that was part of the job. Talk nice about your host families and friends and how great your country was. Then speak in a foreign language so everyone can be impressed.
I have some apologies to make. To every Rebound and Rotex that I ever met. You deserved more credit. I should also apologize to Rotary itself. You told us that every moment would be like a slap in the face and I never listened. At every step of this exchange and every journal, I have had something new to be wrong about. This trumps them all. I honestly feel completely safe in saying that I will never do anything harder in my entire life. I have spent the last two weeks saying goodbye to an entire life. Every few days a new inbound would leave. These inbounds have become my family. We spent a year relying on each other to get though the hardest, scariest, and most wonderful experience of our lives. Here’s to Victor, Conor, Logan, Yu Jang, Chiami, Emma, Alex, Laura, Lauren, and Amanda. You guys saved my life this year. Then comes school friends. I cannot tell you what the first day of school is like in a foreign country where you don’t know the language yet. I cannot tell you the relief you feel when someone comes up to you, takes your hand and say’s HI! in English. Here’s to 11- TMB, but especially Irem, Mirac̹, Feyza, Lara, and Asli. Oh and a special shout out to Mr. Gary Fletcher. You know what you did. Then comes Rotex. They are the lifeline to Rotary, the greatest friends and best support system outside of family and other outbounds. Bulut, Arda, C̹ağakan, Emir, Emine, Dilek, Deniz, Umut, and all the rest of you. I couldn’t have done it without you. Now for the hardest part. My family. My anne (mom), Öznür. You taught me to make the bed every morning and keep my room ... mostly.. tidy. You were always there for me when I needed a mom. You called me your daughter and made me feel like one of the family from the very beginning. Seni Sevioyrum Annecim. Unnutmayim. My baba (dad), Nuri. You made sure that I was always safe and comfortable. You taught me about Rotary in Turkey and showed me why you love your country so much. You talked to me about things that no one else would. You taught me how to.
So I am sitting in a plane cruising at 34000 ft. I am a person in between and I am learning all that it means. I have spent the last two weeks saying goodbye to my life. My friends and my family. People that I love. Some of whom I may never see again. This year was so much more than I ever imagined it could be. I succeeded this year at what I set out to do. I will land in the States a successful Rebound with all that it entails, but I will also land there a teenage girl who has just said goodbye to what feels like a lifetime of friendships and new family. There are no words to explain what the people that I met on my exchange meant to me. I did not even know how much they meant to me until I said goodbye. Life is funny that way. You never know what you have until its gone. But maybe that is yet another lesson that Rotary Youth Exchange will teach me. How important our relationships are. I could never tell all of you that I left behind how grateful I am for everything that you did for me. I can only hope to show you by never forgetting the things you taught me, wether I learned them or not! Don’t worry, it’s not goodbye, it’s just Görüsürüz.