Wednesday, August 25, 2010

It Takes All Types

We're nearing the halfway point of Ramadan - I've been to my fill of iftars, and I still have more to attend.  Iftars can be a political statement here: anyone who's someone hosts one, which leads to novelties such as the Jewish community's iftar (biggest social/political event in town, I swear).  It's lovely to see the decorations for the holiday and the massive feasts every restaurant, family, and store puts out on display.  Each neighborhood has a tent, sponsored by a charity organization, where the community can come together to break their fasts.  These tents are mostly for the lower social strata, but anyone can go.  Not everyone fasts, of course; many secular people just indulge in massive feasts at sundown as a cultural and communal experience.  Others fast, but only partially: a friend saw a piece on CNN Turkey this weekend about how people fast in varying degrees.  Every other day, only until 3 PM, only if their mom is watching, etc...  with Ramadan moving into the summer months for the next few years, it's too environmentally stressful for some people to make it all day long without a drop of water.  I admire people for admitting it up front; in many places the social pressure to fast is so strong that no one would dream of 'fessing up, despite having a secret stash of cashews and a water bottle in the desk's bottom drawer.

We plan our evening travel plans around sunset, because most people (whether they are fasting or not) are in place at home or a restaurant in time for the meal, so the roads are emptiest in the half-hour after sunset.  I love seeing the city at its stillest right at sundown, when the call to prayer rolls down the hillsides and the traffic has mostly parked on the side of the roads while everyone eats.  It's beautiful, especially since the summer heat and humidity has broken recently - there's no haze over the Bosphorus in the evenings now, and you can clearly see the sunset reflected in the Asian hills.

That stillness is increasingly broken by the tinny cry of the campaign trucks.  Turkish citizens will go to the polls on 12 September to vote on a package of constitutional amendments, and it's gearing up to be a huge political battle.  Political parties are pulling out all the stops to energize their voters to turn the results one way or the other.  (Lucky me, the biggest opposition rallies all seem to occur within 3 blocks of my house.)  Each party has its own fleet of trucks that drive around at slow speeds, blaring canned messages exhorting the masses to vote YES or NO, complete with patriotic or martial or choral music in the background.  It's amusing for the first few times...  I'm just glad I can't hear it from my apartment!  (Yet.)

Sunday, August 22, 2010


Last Sunday I went to Trabzon to observe the Orthodox liturgy being held at Sumela, a monastery that was built into the side of a cliff in the sixth century.  Sumela has been abandoned since the population exchanges of the 1920s emptied the Black Sea coast of its Christian populations.  The state has restored the monastery and turned it into a museum, and as a state property, religious ceremonies cannot be held there.  However, this year the Ministry of Tourism and Culture gave permission for an annual service to be held at Sumela and at the church on Akdamar Island, an ancient Armenian Orthodox church that has also been turned into a museum.

Sumela from one end of Altindere valley
The valley, from the entrance to the monastery 
Looking out one of the
monastery's windows
The Ecumenical Patriarch entering the monastery,
with entourage.  Did I mention that this
place is on the side of a cliff?

A few thousand pilgrims came from Greece, Russia, Georgia, and the US, as well as Turkey's own Greek Orthodox population.  Most of the pilgrims were descendants of Pontic Greeks who left in 1923, although for the last ten years they have been returning to Trabzon every summer on holiday, to see their old villages and to find the few remaining speakers of their own dialect of Greek.  A few villages high in the mountains still have Pontic Greek speakers, Muslim Turks who are as valuable for their cultural preservation as for their utility as guides in the tourism sector.  (It's a strange world we live in, in this modern era.)  In my hotel, the night before the liturgy, the Greek tourists all gathered in the rooftop restaurant with musicians and cameras to dance the dances their parents and grandparents had taught them.  My host and guide for the weekend, the hotel owner, told me that the instruments, music, and dance steps are indistinguishable from the traditional dances of the region.  The music was even passingly familiar to me from Azerbaijani folk music, which isn't surprising given that Trabzon is in the foothills of the Caucasus.  Most of the time, an old Greek man played the kemenche and sang the accompaniment, but at one point a young Turkish man played while a young Greek sang.  Many of the older pilgrims wept during this song, and at the end the room was filled with deafening cheers from the visitors as well as the locals, who had called their friends to come see the sight.

The dude on the right has a kemenche.  I have no idea what
role it has in the liturgy, but there you go, visual evidence.
My host and guide, Gokhan, with his son Batuhan

I'm not an expert on Orthodox ceremonies, so if anyone can weigh in and explain the photos I've taken or correct my terminology, by all means, do so.  

The crowd of pilgrims at the heart
of the monastery, with a view of
the mountains outside the walls
Pilgrims lighting candles
outside the monastery
The makeshift altar, framed
by the old frescoes on the walls
of the monastery buildings
The Ecumenical Patriarch holding a
crucifix aloft during the liturgy
Reading aloud at the altar
Clerics watching the ceremony and the
crowd.  No one's immune to technology!
One Russian pilgrim near me
Pilgrims kissed this icon after the ceremony
I'm not sure what the significance of this
cloth is, held over the Patriarch's head 
while he blesses (?) the communion wine.  
However, I saw a museum exhibition 
earlier this week that included a communion 
cloth from the 1600s - one presumes it's 
an important part of the liturgy!
Taking communion
Communion bread is distributed
through the crowd

Sadly, the frescoes have been badly damaged by years of neglect, harsh weather, and vandalism.  The next step in preserving the monastery is to repair the icons, paintings, and mosaics to their original state.

The decorated, damaged walls
Even with damages, the
frescoes are beautiful.
The vandalism is equal-opportunity: there are Turkish
names and Greek initials scratched into this fresco.  I
don't know who you people are, but I hope your
mother smacked you for this!

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Two Degrees of Expatriate Life

Last night I met up someone (1) to talk about his process of joining the Foreign Service over beer.  He's the brother of a friend/contact (2) I met through work, and as it turns out, he (1) is a grad student in the same US program as one of my friends (3) from undergrad.  Afterwards, I went with him (1) to a friend's (4) apartment nearby for a small dinner get-together.  As it turns out, this friend (4) knows the intern (5) in my office very well, and the hostess' (4) roommate (6) knew my predecessor (7) at the Consulate.  To confuse things even more, one of the other guests (8) at the dinner is on the road to the FS, and his (8) fiancee (9) is a lawyer at one of the major corporations in town.  She (9) does business stuff by day, but pro bono legal work in my particular field of interest at work (minority community rights).

I love my life.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

It's Tenure Season!

Congratulations to my friends and colleagues who just got the magical stamp of approval from DC.  You're good enough, you're smart enough, and gosh darn it, the tenure board likes you!  You can't be fired now!  (Unless you do something really bad, like trade visas for gold bricks or sexual favors.)  Sorry about that no-more-overtime thing, though.  Hope your housing down payment has already been taken care of.

I missed the cutoff window for this season's tenure review by about 6 weeks, which is fine by me.  When the next one rolls around in the spring, I'll have 2 annual reviews (known as EERs) under my belt, which hopefully will be enough fodder for the Gods of Tenure.  Due to the nature of my assignments and training schedules, by the time I hit my three-year mark next month, I'll have spent 20 months in training at FSI, 14 months at post, and 2 months and change on home leave and R&R - not really enough time as an apprentice for DC to decide if I'm likely to cause a major cock-up in international relations.

So, since we are far away from EER season and my own tenure review, it seems appropriate to mention an article my mother sent me from NPR a few weeks ago: "Annual Job Review Is 'Total Baloney,' Expert Says."  While it's mainly geared for the private sector (the comments about bosses determining pay raises, for example, don't really apply to those on the GS or FS scale), the article says all the things we kvetch about during EER season.
  • Annual reviews "do not promote candid discussions about problems in the workplace."
  • Instead, workers under review (the rated employees, if you will) are only "going to talk about all their successes."
  • Most importantly... "Once you set up the metrics, that's the only focus for the employee... The problem with performance reviews is that the metric that counts most for the employee is the boss's opinion. So the employee starts doing what he or she thinks is going to score in the boss's mind, and not even talk about what he or she believes is necessary for the company to get the results that really matter."

Radical, revolutionary talk!  I have only been through one EER process, and let me tell you, it was god-awful.  I got happy-to-gladded to exhaustion, we nearly lost multiple versions of the draft in the archaic computer system we use for submitting the review, and then the final, hard copy got lost in the gaping maw of HR for a few months and didn't get to DC until long after I was into language training.  I can only imagine what the process will be like once I have a unique identity in the office, not just "one of nine entry-level officers* adjudicating visas."

The article helpfully provides a quiz to determine just how much you hate performance reviews.  (There may, perhaps, be a few slight biases in the question phraseology.)  I found the photos included in the test to be an accurate representation of what whelping an EER looks like...  and yet, my score shows that on the issue of annual reviews I am not decisive enough (which probably violates one of the 13 precepts, or the 6 core values, or the 11 tenets of holiness, or the 15 inalienable rights, or something): "You are torn. You want to be a team player, you really do. But the rules just seem so stupid."

Don't get me wrong.  I know the ratings and promotions bureaucracy would be just as frustrating in any other large organization.  And, when my review comes around in May, I'll be just as eager to sip the Flavor Aid and use the same style and key phrases that everyone else does.  Still, there's no reason not to take a humorous look at the entire ordeal when we have the chance.  And, to close on a positive note, here are words of wisdom from someone who just served on a promotion panel.  As my boss would say, read and obey!

*Which brings me to another point: will someone kindly pick an acronym for us novices and stick with it?  When I first came in, we were Junior Officers (JOs), but that was found to be demeaning by a pointy-haired type somewhere, so we then became Entry-Level Officers (ELOs).  I feared being confused with "the English guys with the big fiddles," so I was relieved when we were re-reborn as First- and Second-Tour officers (FAST officers).  

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

How Not to Unpack Your HHE

So my HHE has been sitting around since its arrival 10 days ago, waiting to be stored in nooks and crannies.  "Love me, unpack me and put me in my own special drawer!" each box seemed to cry.  Realizing that there was just too much to attack in hour-long increments in the evenings after work, I decided that last weekend would be the best time to devote to figuring out where to put all of my stuff.  And it's a lot - some things I never bothered to unpack in Riyadh (winter coats, long-sleeved shirts, extra linens), so many of these boxes I haven't seen since I graduated in 2007 (age alert!!).  On Saturday, I channeled the spirit of General Pickett and attacked the piles of mess head-on, with about as much success as he had.  The piles of crap sustained significant damage, but any semblance of victory on my part is Pyrrhic, as I dropped a shelf from a chest-of-drawers on my left foot and broke a bone.

The plus side: The break isn't serious enough to require a cast or even a boot; just careful handling and icing for a few weeks.  An excuse to wear "business casual" at work for a week or two (khakis and tennis shoes, hellooooo comfort).  An excuse to get out of heavy lifting in the office for a while - this certainly preempts me from organizing the 4th of July event for 2011, right?  Acquiring amusing nicknames, like Gimpy and Peg Leg.

The minus side: I broke a freaking bone!  Not badly, but still.  Being the neurotic planner that I am (as my coworkers can attest) I'm looking three decades in the future and seeing horrific, crippling arthritis in my left foot.

Oh well.  It could have been a lot worse.  Plus, today I got final approval from our budget people to go to this event this weekend, which is totally awesome.  (Scaling the cliff face will be fun with the foot, but I'll burn that bridge when I get to it.)

Friday, August 06, 2010

Kolbi and Shannon Have Their Toe Shoes...

...but I have the power of Google Reader!

I came in from a briefing this morning to find everyone in my office crowded around one computer screen.  As I walked in, they all simultaneously turned around and froze when they saw me.  Clearly, there were shenanigans going on here.  Turns out, everyone was reading this blog.  So, to all my coworkers in the office, stop slacking off on a Friday!

After everyone dispersed, I kept talking to my cubiclemate, who asked how I keep up with so many blogs.  When I started describing Google Reader, her interest grew...  and then I showed her how to set up her own feed.  For the record, this is the fifth person I have converted to using Google Reader, including my own sainted mother.  The Google Reader hegemony grows!  (Though not as fast as the toe shoe invasion.)

Thursday, August 05, 2010

Accents and Insecurities

Recently I've had a number of conversations with coworkers and friends about accents, specifically my perceived lack of a Southern accent.  (Before I continue, let me say to those who took part in the conversations and who may also read this: I'm not mad, and don't feel awkward about this!  I just think it's an interesting issue I want to explore more.)  Maybe it's because I've met more people in the past few months than I do on my normal timeline, but several have said something to the effect of, "Wow, you're from Arkansas, but you don't sound like it!  How'd that happen?"  Now I've never been one to limit my own Arkansas-bashing.  I'm glad I grew up there, I wouldn't change that fact for all the world, but I'm also very glad I no longer live there.  To me, home is people, not a place, and the fact that there's no (relevant and interesting) job I could find in Arkansas or Memphis makes me even less likely to call it home anymore.  Still, I get a little defensive when people make assumptions or judgements I perceive to be class-based, region-based, or accent-based.

I know that, as a white person who grew up in relative wealth compared to the sharecroppers on our farm, I am and have been incredibly privileged in my life.  I went to college mostly for free, and got an advanced degree in the process.  I'm employed, and I support myself.  These are all Good Things, and it's pretty hard to find a way to belittle someone for them.  The most obvious position on which someone could discriminate against me, gender identity, is one I actually welcome: I enjoy verbally and professionally eviscerating anyone who assumes that my particular set of genitalia means I'm inferior.

So maybe regional identity is the only place where I feel my armor is weak, the only thing I'm sensitive about.  And that's true - I do feel that being labelled as a Southerner can be detrimental.  I purposely started trying to drop my accent when I was a teenager, because I was afraid of the impression it could give people.  I have friends from college who were also from the South, and many felt the same way that I did: it's okay for people to assume that our accents mean we're stupid or bigoted.  Not everyone has those assumptions, of course, but enough do that it's better to be safe than labelled a redneck.

And maybe that's just it: even though I want to believe otherwise, I've internalized the concept that your accent indicates your socioeconomic class, your respectability.  Even though many people I love have Southern accents (some quite strong), I still look down on those accents in a certain way, because I don't want to be perceived as being what those accents mean to me.

Next-day post script: At lunch today I had a conversation with coworkers, including the one who'd asked me the question yesterday, about accents and the social codings they carry.  It was really interesting, and no one was upset by my defensiveness.  The conversation meandered into other region-based stereotypes and how we have to deal with the ideas that exist in the world about our homes.  Interesting stuff, all in all, and I feel better for having had the conversation with people.

Monday, August 02, 2010

Best Weekend Ever

So my friend Regan is in town for ten days, on vacation from her stressful job in Doha.  It's only natural that she should crash with me, as I used her couch in Bahrain as my escape from Riyadh on more than one occasion.  This weekend, we had basically the best time ever, under perfect blue skies and weather that wasn't too hot or humid.

My HHE arrived on Friday - 3000 pounds of stuff from Riyadh and DC, including my books, throw pillows, artwork, and all the other stuff that makes me feel at home.  After unpacking it all and deciding to leave the real work for later, we went to a brief happy hour with coworkers, then spent the rest of the evening sitting by the Bosphorus in my favorite neighborhood in the city, smoking and nibbling on cheese plates under the stars. On Saturday, we set out for a day in the Grand Bazaar, where we sipped tea with merchants, negotiated better prices for jewelry, and in the star attraction of the weekend, spent three hours chatting with an antiques dealer I know about history, life, and politics.  We walked out of the store a little poorer but much happier for the experience.  Like any good salesman, he knew how to read his customers, and he found the perfect prizes for us among his piles of copper, brass, and iron wares.  We were worn out afterwards, so nothing would do but a Turkish bath and a massage, followed by dinner on the Hippodrome.

Sunday brought us to Taksim Square and Istiklal Avenue, from which we wandered to Galata Tower by way of a number of small specialty shops on the side streets.  After buying homemade soap and hitting a wine cellar for samples, we hopped on a ferry to Asia for dinner, going to one of my favorite places that does Turkish food simply and very well.  We returned to the old city as the sun set, and we got to the roof of a hotel overlooking Ayasofya just in time to get a bottle of wine to sip as the evening call to prayer sounded.

The perfect weekend, yes?