Right now it feels like 5 years has been wrapped up into a few days. Often I get confused for how long I’ve been here; has it been a week or a whole year? But then of course, as I sit down at this random computer to type and struggle 20 minutes to learn how to use the foreign keyboard, I then remember it has only been four months.
The past four months have felt like a lifetime. Exchange thus far has not been what I expected because it has been so absurdly normal, ama not normal in the sense that it is akin to my life back home. No, it is very different but a life all the same. I hang out with friends, be with family, go to school, eat and sleep. I feel very at home here and perhaps that is why it feels this way for me.
When I first arrived in Turkey I went directly from Miami to the New Istanbul Airport which was a 12 hour flight. It was so weird because I had never flown alone before, nor had I ever been so far away from the US. In fact, Istanbul was my first city outside my country, and following that, Ankara, the capital of Turkey. It was all so exhilarating and rather frightening. Ever since I found out what country I was going to go to, I was super nervous about the travelling alone part, but on the plane I spent the majority of my time wondering, “How in the world did I get here?” rather than “What am I going to do!”
It was strange. I think I was in some sort of shock, so shocked to the point my brain decided all of what was happening was normal. I felt ready for it.
I spent my first and second official days in Turkey at a Rotary Orientation which held Rotexes, all inbounds, and all outbounds. This was held in Ankara at a hotel and needless to say, it was the strangest, yet most awesome experience ever.
It was insanely loud and people were swarming the area and crowding around me, all greeting me in so many different ways. People shook my hand, kissed me on one cheek, on both cheeks, hugged me once or hugged me twice. I had no idea what to do so I kind of just became a lump who was moved around and being made to answer the same questions over and over again like,
“Where are you from?”
“What is your name?”
“How old are you?”
“When did you get here?”
Despite the fact I had been abnormally confused, I was extremely excited. I was meeting so many people from so many different places! It was and still is such a dream.
Anyways, that was how my exchange began. Since then, I have been pretty busy most every day with the exception of the first month.
The first month of my exchange was pretty humdrum actually, and there were an awful many awkward parts. I don’t think the doors like me here. On my first few nights I could not get this one door open or closed. It would always get stuck and I would have a ten-minute battle with it, and once or if I succeeded in opening, it would not stay closed! And I’m really sad to say there were many cases like that following. In my defense, I am not the only one who has made an enemy of doors here.
I eventually did learn how to open and close all the house-doors because I stayed inside a lot. I did not have any friends or know any of the exchangers ın my area because I was a month early for school, and at the orientation I did not get the chance to really meet the exchangers who would be living in my city. In a way though it was nice because I got to spend time with my family and they even took me to their summer house in Mersin, a city an hour away from mine; however, once the first month had passed of my exchange, my life went from staying at home most of the time to being out and about a ton.
I didn’t have many friends in the first month of my exchange as all inbounds arrived a few weeks before school started. So, much like my fellow exchangers, I spent the majority of my first days inside and/or with my host family. The first week or two were pretty great; however, I started to catch the infamous Exchanger Depression and Loneliness. It was only cured when I went to my first Rotary meeting, because that was where I met my best friend.
Note- The good thing about (most) exchangers is that they/we are always looking to make more friends, so İ thank the friendly spirits for this. It can take a lot to go up and talk to new people, but honestly having the label of “exchanger” behind you really helps take away the fear and usually initial awkwardness too because there is always something to talk about. Not to mention, every student is in the same situation- we are in an entirely new place! So making friends is essential for us, which leads to fellow exchangers being some of the easiest friends to make (typically)
At the Rotary meeting I met my best friend and kardeşim (brother) here. His name is Mathias and we both live in Adana about 20 minutes away from each other, and in fact, we both share host families. Technically anyways. His first family is now mine, and now his current family is my old family. We switched, which was a little strange during the process (to be frank, the process in general feels weird) but nevertheless because we got to know each other, it made things easier.
He has been my brother veya, “Kardeşim” ever since. And because I met him It was easier to get to know the other exchangers who live in and near my city Adana. Through Mathias I ended up meeting another one of my close friends-- Simon from Argentina. The three of us first hung out in the middle of August. It was merely USA, Paraguay and Argentina in the beginning. Ever since then, we have adopted more people into our “crew” and have traversed the streets. Now İ know most of the City like the back of my hand.
Overall the first month (and second) is by far the strangest, and I discovered there tends to be an awful lot of downtime, but as soon as you secure some good friends things start to become much better. The only issue with making a bunch of friends is that you end up spending less time with your host family during the day so night becomes the best time to really do anything. It is really important to make time for your host family though, during the day AND night, as not only is it important to bond, but they have the real power when it comes to travelling and seeing your host country. Not to mention, for me at least, annem and baba helped me so much with my Turkish. I would be even more confused than I am right now without them.
Turkish is pretty difficult once you move past the basics and start speaking. Understanding and reading is easy but actually speaking it is difficult, primarily for English-speakers. Turkish is in it’s own language group called the Turkic Group however it can be classified in the Altaic Language Family. Like Finnish, it is an agglomerate language where it adds suffixes to the end of a word rather than having individual words in a sentence in order to convey a particular meaning/ For example:
Go = Gittmek
To say “I am going” (With English we use three separate words)
You say, “Gidiyorum” (With Turkish you only use one word)
To say “I went”
You say “Gittim”
With the word “Gittmek” you essentially drop the “mek” and replace it with another suffix such as “yorum” which means “I am” in the present simple tense. In the process you might have to change some letters as well in order to cohere to the Vowel Harmony and other rules in the language.
Nothing is impossible to learn if you set your mind to it, but it is not a cake-walk either. It isn’t something you can expect to pick-up on without trying.
Anyways, I am currently with my second host family. I switched about a few weeks ago and so far it has been really nice. I do miss my first host family a lot though. 1st Anne and Baba and my host brothers will always hold a special place in my heart.
Though it is nice now, and I really do love annem (my second annem, she is actually Russian not Turkish), I have had more problems with this family than I had with my other family. A lot of this is do to our language barrier. Annem’s first language is Russian, mine is English. We use Turkish to communicate but always there is some misinterpretation that not even a translator can solve. Nevertheless, I do actually feel very close to annem despite our disagreements and misunderstandings. I find myself easily speaking conversational Turkish now because I talk with her so often.
I have overall adapted to her and how she wants things done in her house (as it is usually just the two of us). She has some different and confusing values to me. I come from a very Western Culture obviously and growing up I rarely ever sat down to have meals at the table, for example. But to annem, sitting down to eat together is often a priority and she almost always wants me home before sundown so we can have dinner together. Thing is, I did not know this at first and I accidentally made her upset when I stayed out until 9pm one day (because my other family was usually okay with that if I asked). She was so mad at me that she didn’t even speak to me when I got home. That was scary for me because the last thing I want to do is upset her. So recently I have become much better at getting home on-time and communicating better. She really is a great woman.
Şimdi! Now, I want to talk about the city where İ have lived for the past several months.
I live in a city called Adana which is in the southeast of Turkey by the Mediterranean Sea. Around Adana there are two other, smaller cities which, when you look up on google, might say they are in Adana even though they are not. There is Tarsus (where İ go to school) and there is Mersin (a port/coastal city where a lot of people have summerhouses in). Both are about an hour away from Adana itself.
All three cities are very different. Adana is a bigger urban center and kind of reminds me of Boston but hot. In one part of the city there is actually an American Airbase called Incırlık so there is some American presence around, though it presents itself mostly through English. Normally, people will know at least a few words in English, for example. But that doesn’t mean you should go on the street and expect to be able to have a conversation with anything but Turkish.
In Adana, there are a bunch of buildings that look like apartments but they are actually homes. Typically, Turkish cities don’t have houses-houses like we do in the US. İ actually do not think İ have seen a “normal house” since I arrived here and İ have so far been to Adana, Mersin, Tarsus, Ankara, Konya, Adıyaman, Şanlıurfa, Gaziantep, Kapadokya and technically İstanbul. Every Turkish city, or at least most, except for more rural ones, have apartment-houses and they are actually pretty nice.
Alongside the numerous apartment buildings, there are many small and big shops throughout Adana, especially in the City Center where I first lived during my first four months. In the day and ın the night, the city is very busy. There are beautiful lights all around and during the winter-time it is even lovelier, albeit cold. One of my favorite memories so far was when me and my friends from Paraguay, Argentina, Mexico, Brazil and Venezuela were walking through the City Center with ice cream, at night, with a chilly breeze blowing by. It may not seem like much, but I can’t remember a time when I felt so amazed, content and happy. Who would have thought a bunch of teens from half-way across the world would find each other on the streets of Turkey speaking a strange mix of English, Spanish and Turkish? None of us ever did.
In the streets of Adana there are some really cool things, but also some strange things too. For example, dogs and cats are everywhere. You cannot walk in Adana without coming across a “dog gang” or a “cat party”. At first this was such a shock to me-- İ have never seen anything like it. Ama now, I am very accustomed to having dogs and cats walk alongside me like people going about their normal business on a normal day. Some of them I even consider my friends, as I can call them and they will walk with me when I want to go somewhere. Both cats and dogs.
In Tarsus, at least the parts I have been to, I have not seen nearly as many dogs or cats goıng around like I do in Adana though they definitely are around.
Tarsus is a much more rural and run-down city compared to Adana. A lot of the buildings are very old, as it an extremely old city that actually used to be a port. Some people refer to Tarsus as having villages rather than it being one big city. My school, TAC, will do trips to some of the more poor villages in order to teach English or deliver books.
My friend from Mexico and a lot of my Turkish friends actually live over in Tarsus. This makes it difficult to hang out with them because one or more of us have to take a train in order to get to the other, but I go to Tarsus everyday for school (except Saturday and Sunday) so I am fairly comfortable with it. Tarsus actually has a mall called Tarsu where we sometimes go to play billiards.
Mersin also has some good places to hang out such as the Marina, which is a popular mall-type place by a major port. Mersin is a very beautiful city in most areas, and some parts remind me a bit of Florida. Still filled with apartment-buildings for regular living and summer-vacationing like the other two cities, but İ feel that Mersin is a little more pristine and cleaner than Adana and Tarsus. At least, the areas I have gone to.
All in all, these three cities are very historical (Tarsus especially -- it even has one of the oldest churches in the world AND an old part of a bridge where it is said that Cleopatra went to). You can find statues almost everywhere you go, mostly of Atatürk, the founder of the Turkish Republic, and there is always a shop to go to and visit, whether it be for food or clothing. In addition, there is always a Pazaar somewhere. A Pazaar is one of those market-places where people sell fresh fruit, vegetables and other things and it moves around every now and then.
Side Note-- Pretty much all of Turkey loves Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, and when it gets down to it, most Turkish people are very patriotic. Flags are everywhere, statues and commemorations for Atatürk permeate the landscape, people take the National Anthem very seriously (they will even stop in the middle of doing something if they hear it playing), and overall there is a strong sense of love for the country across the board. One can never say “all” for sure, but certainly for the most part people take a lot of pride in being a Turk.
Anyways, travelling between cities is like travelling between states in the US, but Turkish people definitely travel way more often. It doesn’t even always take so long, sometimes just an hour drive. It is strange to me that they do this, and also that they refer to different places like Adana and Ankara as cities rather than states. And I mean strange in a positive way, not a bad one. It is very different.
I think about my time here very often, as it is something I will treasure forever. The cities of which I live in have allowed me to garner many new experiences and gain so much knowledge. A big reason why I had chosen to go to Turkey was because I knew I could really learn a lot here. My world has definitely been opened up to a new way of understanding things.
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