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excuses, excuses

Forgive me for my absence, friends. The two months since I wrote you last have flown so fast my head is spinning. There’s been a great deal happening and I should have been recording it meticulously for posterity’s sake, but I didn’t, and I can only say… it’s not my fault. Blame:

  • Turk Telekom, for cutting my internet (for a total of 13 days)
  • İSKİ, for cutting my water (twice, for a total of 6 days)
  • That time I thought I had lice (false alarm)
  • That time I thought I had bed bugs (false alarm)
  • That time I really did get a violent stomach flu

I will just note here that, contrary to popular belief, living abroad is incredibly unglamorous.

But in all honesty, the reason I haven’t been blogging much is because my time in Turkey is rapidly drawing to a close, and I refuse to process that yet. It makes me feel a bit sick to my stomach. I am actively not thinking about my departure. I’m not going to talk about it.

I will say, though, since I’m making lists, that there are a few things I am looking forward to, if only because a year away has transformed the mundane into the novel. For instance, over the past 11 months, I have not:

  • Drunk tap water
  • Worn blue jeans
  • Driven a car
  • Eaten anything pork-related
  • Baked in an oven that didn’t plug into the wall
  • Flushed toilet paper without thinking about it first
  • Purchased fresh (as opposed to long-shelf-life) milk
  • Put wet clothes in a clothes dryer

The things I have done, of course, more than outweigh these–buying my bread hot from the oven of a morning, getting fresh-squeezed fruit juice pressed to order from street vendors, ferrying back and forth across the Bosphorus every single day–and I already grieve to think of giving them up. I’m going to miss everything: baklava, the call to prayer, public transportation, crappy beer, fist-fighting fishmongers… everything!

I’m not thinking about it.

Instead I will think about what to make for Thanksgiving dinner tomorrow, and whether or not I can incorporate persimmons.


Just one of several thousand things which, while I have them, I’ll be thankful for.


holy ground.

“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing!” Matt. 23:37

It’s been nearly two months since I set off for the Holy Land, but truth be told, I’m still not quite ready to talk about it. Not because it wasn’t a spectacular trip—it was. Not because I wouldn’t go again in a heartbeat—I would. Not because there aren’t plethoras of beautiful, hilarious, heartwrenching stories I’m aching to record and share—there are. But because, not surprisingly, this is the kind of place that gets under one’s skin and seeps in deep. And because it’s a very broken place, I left pretty broken, too.

Part of my problem was that I set out on this journey practically on a whim. My sweet friends Kali, Jessy and Sam had already dreamed up the itinerary, and invited me along essentially because I was in the neighborhood. The plan was to see the sights for a week, and then do something meaningful for a week—in our case, to volunteer at Tent of Nations, a reconciliation organization/Palestinian olive farm mash-up. I signed up enthusiastically. At the beginning of August I left the lap of luxury I’d been living in in Bodrum, hurriedly unpacked and repacked in İstanbul, and arrived in Tel Aviv with an acute case of culture-shock-whiplash 24 hours later.

Jessy having arrived from Tunis a few weeks prior, she’d already served at Tent of Nations for a while by the time we joined her in Jerusalem. It only took a few of her anecdotes for us to unanimously veto our Palestinian farm plan, and to begin looking around for better options. We decided to see as much of the region as was feasible, and to visit as many organizations dedicated to ending the conflict as we could contact during our two-week stay. We made the spectacular rooftop of our hostel in the Old City’s Christian quarter the base for our operations, and dove right in.

Intrepid girls.

It only took a few hours in the souq for the painful complexity of the place to rankle. How many IDF assault rifles can you count on the Via Dolorosa? Listen as the ultra-orthodox Jews crank up the blaring Zionist music just as the evening call to prayer rings out. Watch out, it’s Shabbat and Ramadan, so be careful what you wear, where you walk, how you eat, how you act. Slip-sliding over slick cobbled pavement, the same stones in place since Roman times, we couldn’t help but think of the multitudes who had walked these streets before us. Jesus. Jesus carried his cross here. How surreal to be swept along in the throng of adherents of the three great Abrahamic faiths, amid the pandemonium of light and color and noise and smell, and think, This city is holy for each of us.

We saw some amazing things. The hot dusty roads that wound up the Mount of Olives and the cool, starry-night stillness of the basilica in the Garden of Gethsemene stay with me. But Jerusalem is a study in contrasts. A quiet visit to the Garden Tomb (where many suppose it is more likely Jesus was buried than at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre) includes a vista overlooking Golgotha, where he was crucified–or what you can see of it, anyway, behind the bus terminal built in front of it, the Muslim cemetery on its summit and the massive tilework phrase, There is no god but God and Mohammad is his prophet etched across its face. It didn’t sadden me the way it might have; the complexities of the city served to prove to me that it is a living, breathing, pulsating creature, and I had crossed its path at a moment of metamorphosis.

I wasn’t on a pilgrimage. I knew too much and cared too deeply about the region’s sociopolitical history for a truly contemplative journey to be thinkable. But I couldn’t call myself an activist, either; even in meetings with pro-Palestinian resistance fighters, I couldn’t set aside the sacred long enough to pursue the purely political. The in-your-face injustices were too real and too violent to leave room for God; yet without crying out to him their weight would have crushed me. What I saw bewildered me. How could a city feel so holy and at once so God-forsaken?

I didn’t feel safe there. It was surprising and unsettling to feel such sharp discomfort walking the sprawling streets and winding alleys, which were in many ways much like those of the chaotic megalopolis I call home. Many of the people were aggressive, physical, offensive. As a woman and a foreigner I was perpetually on my guard. More than once our day’s activities were cut short in favor of beating a retreat to the safety of the hostel, where leering looks and groping hands had trouble following. We were blessed to have Jessy, who had lived in Jerusalem the year before and had made good contacts; she speaks a little Arabic, to boot. We were lucky to befriend two wonderful guys at our hostel and to coerce them into traveling with us for a few days–being Dutch, they were tall and formidable-looking, and with them in tow we glibly ventured into territory we could not have braved on our own. (So wonderful were they, in fact, that I schlepped them home to İstanbul with me, where they continued to treat me with the utmost care and to make sure everyone else did, too.) Nevertheless, there was never a moment when I was utterly at ease.

Travel with us always, Mark and Thom.

But we knew that, really, going in. That it wouldn’t be easy, that we couldn’t be carefree. We congratulated ourselves on what perfect travel companions we were for each other, agreed as we were that the best travel is the kind that opens minds and softens hearts. Jerusalem will linger with me not because I had a blast and got a gorgeous tan (I did, though, do you see? Do you see my gorgeous tan?!) but because I learned faces and names, prayed with people, shared meals with people, listened to stories of heartache and provision, and carried those things home with me.

And, despite my philosophizing, it really was a wonderful trip. I slept under the stars every night and woke every morning to the chiming of cathedral bells. I learned the meaning of truly great falafel and hummus. I had good coffee and good conversation. I swam in the Mediterranean and danced like a madwoman in the old market of Mahane Yehuda. I learned a lot, a lot, a lot.

And though this is all the processing I’ll do for now, you haven’t heard the end of it by any means. Don’t even get me STARTED about Palestine.



On my birthday I have lots of thoughts, but this one is foremost among them.


turn, turn, turn

I’ve had a nostalgic week. As my beautiful Turkish summer unfolds, I find myself thinking back fondly on memorable summers past. A year ago this week I was in California, surrounded by my dearest friends, celebrating Tommy and Cynthia’s new life together. I miss it. It’s funny to think how much has happened since then.

I have been talking a lot lately with my friends here in Istanbul about seasons. Most people in Turkey have begun to prepare for Ramazan, the month of fasting and feasting, that begins this Friday. Preposterous amounts of lights are being strung between mosque minarets, buses are bedecked in so many colors they’re almost unrecognizable, and long communal iftar tables are being set out on the waterfront and in public squares for friends, neighbors, travelers, strangers to break their fast together every evening at sunset. I have a great deal of reverence for the rhythm of  Islamic life: the seasons they observe corporately, the five daily prayers I have come to love and measure my days by, the age-old tangible rituals of worship all challenge me to remember my own heritage as a follower of Christ. I find myself considering the cyclical nature of the Church year, the rhythm of liturgy, the seasons of fasting and feasting we too have kept throughout the generations more than ever now that I am very much in the midst of a new season of my own.

I’ve often been encouraged by the image of a life lived in seasons, a cyclical experience rather than one long trajectory, since it helps me to make sense of the places I find myself, literally and figuratively. The people I’ve met in Turkey, be they expats, travelers or refugees, seem to know this too: there’s a time to be on the move, and a time to build a home; a time to invest in loved ones and a time to serve others; a time to rest and a time to find meaningful work; and hopefully many many times to experience life abroad! It’s likely that I’ve already passed the halfway mark of my time in Turkey, the thought of which ties my stomach in knots, but God willing/inshallah, this won’t be the last season I spend here.

Which brings me to a very long, and long overdue, update on the seasons within this season: spring and summer and the unique flavor that accompanies each passing month. Let’s begin in April, with tulip season. I promised you this photo months ago.

You’re welcome.

It was also a rainy season, with plenty of frogs. This one I met in the stunning Belgrade Forest (which, contrary to popular belief, is not in Serbia.)

April showers brought May flowers, enough to knock you out.

Next came my favorite season: the time I got to share my city with my favorite boy. Stephen flew all the way to Turkey to cheer me up during a particularly lonely stretch, and we spent practically our entire two weeks sitting at various street cafes learning to play backgammon–just exactly what my heart needed.

Here he is, enjoying my neighborhood, being even more handsome than I remembered. Backgammon board not pictured.

We did take a brief break from board games to visit the Black Sea, which may be the most spectacular place on earth.

I sure miss you.

Next came a series of wonderfully welcome visits of some really dear friends, notably my childhood best friend Rachel and her awesome boyfriend Dave, whose company was so refreshing, but whom I somehow managed to not take any pictures of. I did however take a picture of the Sriracha they brought me (THANK YOU).

Note the packaging.

June brought with it a whirlwind of activity and new opportunities, as I was able to connect with some really delightful people and begin to volunteer again in the refugee community I love so much. In addition to home visits (one to a brand-new Sri Lankan mama and her perfect three-day-old daughter) and moms & tots lunches a few days a week, I got to participate in prenatal classes, a fantastic week-long VBS for the kids, an international worship night and a summer kick-off picnic that involved homemade Ethiopian food and literally hours of running through sprinklers.

Eyob: Ethiopian/Sudanese, fluent in Turkish and a total heartbreaker.

I’ve spent some good time lately this this unbelievable family. Nuriye and her husband are both double-amputees, but have managed to not only make the move from Iraq, but also to care for their two beautiful children, and to be the most resilient people I’ve ever met.

Baby Amir, who has me completely wrapped around his little tiny finger.

Now it’s July, and the season I find myself in presents a stark contrast to the happy one that just came (temporarily) to a close. With my tutoring jobs on hold for the summer, I had the leisure to volunteer as much as I wanted–but there quickly came a time when the rent was due and the gas bills were accruing, and I had to look out for something, anything to do to earn a little cash. Teaching jobs are hard to come by, but I managed to snag the next-best thing: an au pair position. And it seems I’ve landed in clover.

Meet Shiraz, my beautiful spunky 3-year-old charge, with whom I’ll be lounging poolside for the next few weeks.

I thought their house in Istanbul was the most luxurious thing in the world, until I saw their house on the Aegean.

You heard me. Here is the view from one side of the veranda…

…and from the other.

As strange and unsettling as it is to go from the things I’d been doing in Istanbul to the things I’ll be doing in Bodrum, I know that Shiraz needs just as much care (though in different ways) as the kids I’ve been loving on lately. I’m excited to pour into her these next few weeks… and it doesn’t hurt that THIS is where I get to do it. I’m soaking it all in while I can, since I probably won’t even honeymoon anywhere so nice. What a ride. I have so, so much to be thankful for, and I can only imagine what’s to come in the seasons ahead. (Spoiler alert: August involves a trip to Israel/Palestine. Buckle up!)

the longest day

I haven’t seen many İstanbul sunrises since the initial jetlag wore off. What’s my city like before all the bustle begins, I wondered? The summer solstice seemed a perfect occasion to find out. 


5:32 AM // 8:48 PM

The verdict: it’s beautiful every minute of every day.

finding love in İstanbul

POP QUIZ for those of you who know me: What are my 3 favorite kinds of people in the world, ever?

(Brent’s first guess of simit vendors, döner vendors, and people who sell Magnum ice cream bars is incorrect, but an excellent runner-up.)

ANSWER: 1) Refugees 2) Uzbeks 3) People with Down Syndrome

So now that I’ve refreshed your memory, let me tell you all about my afternoon with Servinaz, a beautiful 2-year-old Uzbek refugee girl with Down Syndrome. As far as I’m concerned, the trifecta! Never before have I fallen in love with someone so instantaneously.

First off, a little background. One sunny day in February when Steph was visiting, she and I were sitting together in the shade of a statue of Atatürk waiting for our ferry to dock, scooping off-brand Nutella out of its container with simit chunks, when an American girl approached us and introduced herself. (She didn’t need to ask whether we were Turkish, our snack choice was a giveaway.) Our shared interests (Nutella and Jesus, primarily) became readily apparent, and these days I’m pleased to number Lauren among my ex-pat friends. We grab lunch once a month or so, and recently, while working through a particularly excellent meal at a sidewalk cafe in the Kadıköy fish market, she recognized a passerby as a friend who works full-time at a refugee organization and pointed her out to me. I leapt at the chance to network, and the rest is history.

Now Leanne, this friend of Lauren’s, is unbelievable. When once we’d chatted over tea about my interests and experiences and been duly impressed with one another, she swept me into the fray and I am once again busily and blissfully at work amongst the refugee community I love so much. Leanne spends a lot of her time paying house calls, and chatting in her enviable Turkish over fantastic homecooked ethnic food with beautiful ladies from all over the world (ahem, my dream job). Today, since she knows about my refugees-Uzbeks-Down Syndrome thing, she asked me to tag along!

EVERYBODY, OH MY GOODNESS, I’M SO HAPPY. If I came to Turkey for no other reason than to meet this family, I’m happy. I’d met Sevara, the gorgeous young mama, earlier this week at a moms-and-kids get-together the program hosts, and through Leanne, we chatted about her daughter. Refugees in Turkey are given no government assistance whatsoever while they wait (sometimes for years) for the UN to grant them asylum and send them elsewhere, which means they can’t see doctors much, and Sevara hasn’t really been able to consult anybody about what to expect. I was able to assure her that all the little quirks and developmental delays she was worried about were perfectly normal, and to share stories about my own brother, who’s happy, healthy, and headed to high school! She cried a little bit and I cried a little bit, and I couldn’t wait to visit her.

So this afternoon, Leanne and I sat on a sweltering, rickety public transport train that left from Sirkeci Station (the terminus of the Orient Express!) and chatted about what we were in for. We didn’t know we’d be meeting Sevara’s rosy, twinkling, apple-cheeked grandmother, come to visit all the way from Kyrgyzstan. She had crinkly laughing eyes and a full mouth of gold-plated teeth, and kissed me firmly on both cheeks. Conversation took four people and had to be translated Uzbek to Turkish, Turkish to English and back again, often with loud, garbled input from Servinaz, as she emerged and reemerged from hiding under the table to clamber onto chairs and into laps. But we lingered over lunch, expanding our circle as more Uzbek friends came to spend the afternoon, and it couldn’t have felt more natural.

Leanne says Sevara’s 4-year-old son speaks Turkish like a cartoon character, having learned it mostly from watching TV. I can’t wait to see him at his rambunctious best, since today he was understandably petulant—he was circumcised earlier this week. He lay languidly on a fold-out couch, a laptop playing Turkish-dubbed Caillou cartoons, wearing (hilariously) not much but a taqiyah prayer cap to modestly cover his sore parts. Once he’s healed up, they’ll hold an after-party, to which I’ve been invited—such are the bounteous rewards of cross-cultural friendships.

I wish I could explain how blissful it is to sit with a family on their living room rug, a hot dusty breeze blowing smells from the street through gauzy lace curtains, communicating mostly with broad smiles and gestures. There’s a deep joy that comes bubbling up when, while playing and laughing with a little girl, I look up and learn that there’s no better way to show love to her mother. For me there’s no delight quite like engaging with Servinaz, and seeing that she’s vocal, social and energetic, and encouraging her family because of it. When I can share life in all its difficulty with people like this, I feel like I’m in full bloom. I really don’t know what more I could ask for.

Geçmİş Olsun!

The most charming little Turk I know has been sick for two weeks now, and I’m pining away for want of his company! Let me introduce you to Toprak, looking as spunky as he will be again once he kicks his little flu bug.

I love the picture of him studiously working on something Atatürk-related. Really warms a teacher’s heart!

I was unsuccessful in my attempt to capture his hilariously villainous Snidely Whiplash one-eyebrow-raised melodrama face—but I promise I won’t leave the country without photo documentation. It consistently makes my week.

Join me in wishing a darling boy and a happy student geçmiş olsun—get well soon!


I am bewildered by the magnificence of your beauty
and wish to see you with a hundred eyes.
I am in the house of mercy
and my heart is a place of prayer.

Jalāl ad-Dīn Muḥammad Rūmī

What a delight to experience a semâ in person! I have to admit that my first exposure to this centuries-old tradition was a 2006 Bollywood movie. But take a look! Wouldn’t this be on your bucket list?

Come, come, whoever you are,
Wanderer, idolater, worshiper of fire,
Come even though you have broken your vows a thousand times,
Come, and come yet again.
Ours is not a caravan of despair.

next year in jerusalem!

(First off, please don’t take that literally.)

Spring in İstanbul has meant fresh fruit and big thunderstorms and bringing the sunglasses but leaving the coat. It’s meant 11,650,000 tulips in 104 breathtaking varieties (yes, really) bursting open right on schedule for the annual International Tulip Festival. It’s also meant spending my first (and hopefully last) solo Holy Week and Easter. Celebrations really are meant to be shared!

I found ways to incorporate a little of the sacred into my day-to-day in the weeks leading up to Easter, but I knew I’d have to give most of my traditions a miss this year (including church, unfortunately–this girl works Sundays.) There was one thing I couldn’t stomach going without, though, especially since I’m as close to Jerusalem as I’ve ever been or may ever get: the Passover Seder.

Now, it was toward the end of the last Passover meal he shared with his disciples that Jesus broke bread and poured wine and spoke of the unprecedented sacrifice he would shortly be making. When a family reaches this point in the Seder service, they do the same, essentially “taking communion” together just as Jesus did with his disciples that night in the upper room, when he charged them to “do this often in remembrance of me.” Could I take communion on my own, I wondered? I could prepare the symbolic dishes, light the candles and read through the liturgy just as I would if  I had company, but is it legitimate to take communion, without the community?

The answer I received from a countless throng of Yahoo! Answers contributors was a resounding “If you’re ‘taking communion’ on your own, just call it what it is–drinking a bottle of wine alone. Admit you have a problem. Wino.” I did it anyway.

A little diptych as evidence.

I had to get creative with the Turkish ingredients I had available–no guarantees that this Seder was kosher. That’s a purloined United Airlines blanket functioning as a tablecloth. And once again this year, Elijah the forerunner of Christ remained noticeably absent from the place I’d set for him. But despite feeling a little lonely without loved ones to share with, bustling around preparing charoseth to the accompaniment of the Prince of Egypt soundtrack (just like always) and taking my time over the Seder just as I would with friends and family really made my little apartment feel like home–and when Easter came, my heart was ready for it.

I’ll leave you with this:

“The Seder of Passover is now complete, even as our salvation and redemption are complete. Just as we were privileged to celebrate it this year, so may we be privileged to do so in the future. O Pure One, Who dwells on high, restore Thy numberless congregation; speedily lead the shoots of the garden Thou hast planted, redeemed, joyfully to Zion.


(Tulip pictures forthcoming.)

My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going.
I do not see the road ahead of me.
I cannot know for certain where it will end.
Nor do I really know myself,
and the fact that I think that I am following your will
does not mean that I am actually doing so.

But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you.
And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.
I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.
And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road,
though I may know nothing about it.

Therefore will I trust you always,
though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death.

I will not fear, for you are ever with me,
and you will never leave me to face my perils alone

Thomas Merton