I’m a Question: Arkadaşım, Kardeşim, Kardashian?

“What did she ask me? Do I have a Kardashian?” I thought. When what my Turkish teacher was really asking me one morning was whether or not I had a sister. “Kardeş” means sibling. Then it took me what seemed like several minutes to formulate the answer, which in direct translation means something like, “My sister there is.”

In addition to verb conjugations for the present and the past tenses, we’ve been learning a whole lot about suffixes for going to somewhere, coming from somewhere, placing something on something, getting something from someone or some place and other such assorted combinations.

Did you know that in Turkish you can conjugate adjectives and nouns?

Well, you can.

There is a “to be” verb in Turkish, “olmak.” Apparently, it’s just not used the way we would use it English. All of that “being” stuff is handled with, what else, suffixes.

This has been driving me crazy. To start, just like with the verbs, you attach a different ending depending on who or what is something. Look at my notes.


You don’t say, “I’m a doctor. You’re a doctor. She’s a doctor. You all are doctors. We are doctors. they are doctors.”

Instead, you say, “Ben doktorum. Sen doktorsun. O doktoru. Biz doktoruz, Siz doktprsunuz. Onlar doktorlar.” And you do that with every adjective or noun.

Then, if the word ends in a vowel, you have to add in a “y” for the pronouns “ben” and “biz.”

Why the “y,” you ask? Because in Turkish, vowel harmony is very very very important. So all kinds of accommodations are made in the service of this all-powerful, governing principle.


“Öğrenci means “student.” It’s pronounced “eu-ren-jee” The ğ (called “yumuşak g”) is silent.

Oh, and if the word ends in a “k” or “p” or “c” or “t,” then the “k” becomes a “ğ” and the “p” becomes a “b” and the “ç” becomes a “c,” and the “t” becomes a “d.”


This is all for the present tense. For the past tense, you put on different endings so that you can say, “I was pretty. I was fat. I was skinny.” Etc.


It gets even messier when you start asking questions, like, “Were you fat?” or “Where were you before class?” or adding locations or the direction of an action depending on the verb….My head is filled with suffixes. In dreams I conjugate Turkish nouns and adjectives with those suffixes.

At one point on the day of the Kardashian question, after the teacher had gone around the room having each us students conjugate an adjective, she said, “Rich, soru?” I proceeded to say “Ben soruyum…” and everyone started laughing. And so did I. “Soru” is the word for “question.” In effect, what I had said was, “I’m a question.” I defended myself by pointing out that I did have the correct vowel harmony, which my teacher did acknowledge.

I knew then my brain was fried for the day.

I have one more week in the class. Next Friday, I take a test in order to pass the course. If I want to take the second elementary Turkish course, I’d better keep working at memorizing these various endings in order to keep track of who was what, who is doing what to whom where, and who does what every day or every weekend in some place, and so on.

Note: I realize that my primitive, printed handwriting tells the world the following: “Hi, my name is Richie and I am a big boy who is 9 years old.” I normally write using my messy, cursive writing. It’s faster and when I’m writing, I’m usually in a hurry. For Turkish, I need to make sure I can distinguish between the i’s and dot-less ı’s, the c’s and ç‘s, the s’s and ş’s, and the o’s and u’s that have the umlauts and those that don’t.


Opera Is a Feast: Tosca

We have been lucky to have the opportunity to make some new friends with some of the other people here in Istanbul who are on a Fulbright Fellowship. One of them is Jim who works in urban planning. He also happens to be an opera lover like me.

The Istanbul Opera and Ballet company normally performs at the Ataturk Cultural Center. The building, in Taksim Square, is currently being renovated. So the company has moved temporarily across the Bosphorus to the Süreyya Opera House in Kadıköy. This smaller venue is very elegant and quite intimate.

One of the operas he heard was going to be performed was Puccini’s Tosca. I thought, perfect. I love Tosca. And, even better, it was supposed to be free.

At first we thought we were going to an orchestral performance of Tosca; a performance without costumes and staging, etc. Which would be fine with me and Jim, too.

Then after some back and forth between Jim and our Fulbright Fixer, it was determined that it was not a performance per se, but some kind of interactive presentation by the singer Zeliha Berksoy.

From our email conversation:


If it’s an “interactive” show I’m still game. Does that mean we can heckle Zeliha if she screws up “Vissi d’arte?” I’ll be curious to know what [our Fulbright Fixer] finds out. It won’t be dull, that’s for sure!

– Rich

Rich- ok, now it isn’t the football team! Still, maybe if she needs a little help we can add our two cents…


Apparently, the people who put together the program don’t know the English word “lecture.” Because that’s what it was. The program was titled “Opera Is a Feast: Tosca.” I agree that opera is a feast of the senses. But there wasn’t anything interactive about the presentation except for the argument Berksoy had with the projectionist later on during the lecture.

Berksoy took the stage and sat on a chair next to a small table on which were set a bottle of water and a small stack of notes. Behind her was an enormous screen on which an image of the Süreyya Opera House was projected. She spoke in Turkish, I’m assuming, in a very knowledgeable way about the opera and certain performances.

My Toddler-level Turkish was not enough for me to understand what Berksoy was saying. Jim, who has been taking private lessons for several months had a better idea of what she was saying but not much better.

At one point Berksoy played a very old recording of the aria “Vissi d’arte” while on the screen was an image of a woman, who I can only assume was an opera singer from the first half of the 20th century. Then she talked for several more minutes.

After awhile, the lights dimmed and on the screen in English it indicated that what we were about to see and hear was from a performance of Tosca with Titto Gobbi and Maria Callas at Covent Garden in 1964. Wow, both Jim and I were thinking, this must be some remarkable footage. We were right. Except the images were in slow motion while the music was at normal speed.

This lasted for several minutes with the music and images never syncing up. Zerliha said a few things into her microphone. The projectionist went back to the start. The sound and images were still out of sync. Zerliha said a few more things. The projectionist tried again. The sound and images were still out of sync.

The lights went up. By now Zerliha was visibly angry and started speaking rapidly with a raised voice. A few people from the audience chimed in. The projectionist said something back to her that Jim said was along the lines of, “I’m doing the best I can!”

Jim also said it was probably best not to piss off the old mezzo-soprano. I said it was best not to piss off the old soprano who had played Tosca, that you were likely to get the Scarpia treatment.

After several more minutes, the lights dimmed and finally the video from Covent Garden played as it was supposed to. The footage, which was from the second act of the opera, of Callas and Gobbi was remarkable. I managed to find a video on Youtube of it. Sadly, the excerpt shown at the lecture was shorter than what’s available in the embedded video below. No “Vissi d’arte” or Tosca sticking the knife in Scarpia, but feel free to watch it now. It’s riveting.

After the footage was shown the lights went up and Berksoy spoke some more.

“If you’re ready, we can go,” whispered Jim to me.

“It’s up to you,” I said.

“I’m ready if you are.”

We quietly made our way out the nearest exit.

Outside we agreed that it was worth the trek across the Bosphorus to see the opera house and the vintage footage of Callas. Even if we couldn’t understand a word of what Berksoy was saying. And I do plan to see an opera or two before we leave Istanbul next summer.

Thundersnow in Istanbul Without Boots

The first snow of the season fell the other day, wreaking havoc across the city. Here’s how it looked yesterday morning from our terrace.


The snow had started falling the night before along with the rumbling of thunder. A very rare occurrence. The snow was so heavy it caused the Galatasaray-Juventus Champions League match to be suspended after just 32 minutes.

In the morning I waited with the kids for their bus to take them to school. The bus never came. We stood there for an half hour in the entryway of our apartment building watching other minibuses go by. I called up to wife and asked her to check with the bus company. She couldn’t get through to the bus company or the school. I brought the kids back upstairs. My wife was finally able to get through to someone at the school who confirmed that school was not closed.

I was going to take the kids to school then head to my Turkish class. But my wife Stephanie offered to take them so I wouldn’t be late for class. For my sake it was a good thing. For her and the kids’ it turned out to be miserable. The kids didn’t have boots. Not having boots turned out to be a Serious Fashion Oversight.

Stephanie walked the kids to the Metro where they rode up to the Gayrettepe stop. It took awhile for them to catch a taxi. When they did finally get a taxi, the driver refused to take them directly to the school because it required going down a steep hill. So he dropped them off at least a mile from the school in an area that was unfamiliar to my wife. (Taxi drivers can be selfish assholes everywhere.)

Stephanie led the kids to where she thought the school was. It turned out she was going in the wrong direction. They were all very cold, especially Henry. Henry had forgotten his winter coat at school the day before. I don’t know how you do that. But my son did. So my wife took off her long winter coat and put it around him. He tried to keep it from dragging in the snow and slush but that proved impossible not to do.

The kids, wearing gym shoes, had bitter cold feet. Stephanie at one point carried Meredith, who was crying.

My wife then realized they were a lost and asked two women on the street where the school was. The taxi driver had not dropped them off near any street near the school. Hence the confusion. The women were kind enough to walk her and the kids right to the front of the gates of the school.

They finally arrived at the school around 10am, just as one of the school minibuses was pulling in. My poor wife and kids; it had taken them a total of two hours to get there. My wife explained to the principal that if conditions were the same the next day the kids would be staying home. That’s when he explained that if it had been up to him he would have declared a snow day, but that he doesn’t have that authority. Even though it’s a private school, only the governor of Istanbul has the authority to close schools.

The school ended up letting the kids out early, at 2pm. The kids were brought home on the bus. We gave them a snack, let them warm up a bit, and took them to the mall to buy them snow boots.

While walking outside we were struck by white pellets from the sky. I thought the pellets looked more like sleet. But I learned a new term from Today’s Zaman: “graupel.”

Many İstanbul residents also noted the odd shape of the snowflakes — like miniature, lightly packed snowballs, not dense enough to be hail. Meet “graupel,” the small, foamy pellets that form when snow crystals encounter droplets of supercooled water. Supercooled water is extremely cold water found high in the atmosphere that doesn’t freeze because it’s pure. The moment it encounters something impure — like a snow crystal — it freezes rapidly, in this case into the fluffy little snow pellets that have blanketed the city.

When we walked into the Cevahir mall, we saw a large group of people (mostly men) standing near a cafe that’s usually half-full. Once I saw that the men were wearing red and gold and that they were watching two large flat screen TVs I realized what they were doing. The Galatasaray-Juventus match was being played. Our timing was perfect. I stood nearby as Sneijder scored the only goal of the match and the crowd erupted into cheers of “Cim Bom Bom!!!!!”

I then raced to catch up with my wife and kids on the escalator heading towards the children’s clothing stores. Henry was easy when it came to shopping for boots. He quickly found a pair he liked. They’re blue with a pattern containing all sorts of different sports equipment on them. Meredith kept shaking her head “no” at the boots we showed her. After what seemed like the 30th pair she said “yes” to a pair of very dark blue boots.

Afterwards, we took the kids up to the food court where we all ate some dinner before heading back home.

This morning, despite the cold and the slushy road conditions, the bus came on time and the kids went off to school without any misadventures. I went back up to the apartment write and took a little time to make a small snowman.


What would winter be for us Americans without a snowman?

Back to School for Vocal Harmony

It is a fact universally acknowledged that Turkish is a harder language to learn than English.

Well, at least among those I polled in my Turkish class, all of whom speak English to some degree. They range from the Philippines, Germany, Serbia via Italy, Syria, and Palestine. All of them told me English, even with its irregular spellings, is easier to learn than Turkish.

It’s not just that there are over two dozen verb tenses of which I have yet to master one (the present), it’s that in addition to all the tenses and their purposes, there are all kinds of endings that have to be thrown onto the ends of nouns depending on what’s doing what to whom and where.

When they (and by “they” I mean people in books and on web sites that provide guides to Turkey) tell you that Turkish is an “agglutinative” language, they are not kidding. According to Merriam-Webster “agglutinate” means “to combine into a compound: attach to a base as an affix.”

Suffixes are added for all kinds of reasons. Then there has to be what’s called “vocal harmony.” Certain vowel sounds have to be pared with other vowel sounds. And then if the word ends with certain letters (f s t k ç ş h p; pronounced fuh-stuck-chuh-shuhup in order to remember) then the suffix has to start with the letter “t.”

Here’s a reference sheet our teacher gave us. It shows the suffixes along with the verbs to which they apply. The suffixes are not used on the verbs; only the nouns.


Then our teacher said, wait, wait, hold on. This is too complicated and gave us a simplified version.


As difficult as it is at times, it’s a lot of fun. I’m in class four hours day, five days a week, for a four-week intensive course. The teacher is excellent. My classmates are friendly. Most importantly, I’m learning a lot very quickly. I can’t yet hold a conversation, but already I’m able to understand a lot more of what I read and hear.

After a lot of back and forth with my wife Stephanie about it, I had decided to enroll at Dilmer, a language school near Taksim square that was recommended by one of the other Fulbrighters. Stephanie doesn’t have the time for this kind of intensive course anymore. She has too much work to do.

I, on the other hand, have plenty of time which I have been filling with working on a new novel. But I’ve gotten frustrated by my inability to communicate with people in stores or on the street or in restaurants. So, hi-ho, hi-ho, it’s back to school I go.

Rich, you ask, what happened to your work prospects? You said you were going to get a job teaching English?

Yes. Yes, I was. And that still might happen. If the Turkish bureaucracy wills it….The tale of the myriad twists and turns of my employment attempts here in Istanbul will have to wait until I am safely back in the Good Ole U. S. of A. 🙂 Just like I’m not going to tell you how we watch TV a la Turka.

Besides, I don’t even have a Residence Permit yet. The paperwork is in process for that, too. At this rate, I’ll be fluent in Turkish before I’m a legal working resident. If that came to be, that would be a very Turkish Experience and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

In Memory of Charlie Waller

My wife wrote a wonderful post about a dear friend of our daughter Meredith’s and his remarkable family. Five-year-old Charlie died yesterday. We’ve known the Wallers for several years and feel lucky to call them our friends.

A Year Without Bacon: Our Expat Life in Turkey

I have been working on this post in my head since before we left Michigan. Since that afternoon in August when we had lunch with our friends John and Abby Waller, and their children Esther and Charlie. I knew that afternoon that I probably would not get to see Charlie again.

Back in April 2011, Charlie Waller was diagnosed with a particularly devastating form of brain cancer, diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma, or DIPG. It is a type of tumor that grows like grains of sand on a person’s brain stem. It is inoperable, has practically no effective treatments, and affects primarily children. Abby and John were told that without treatment, Charlie would die within a couple weeks. With treatment, he had maybe nine months. At the time Charlie was not even three years old.

Over the past two and half harrowing and joy-filled years, Charlie and his family have beaten…

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