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Turkey 1 Bios

Joan Hammer Grant
2011

Post Peace Corps I traveled in the Middle East for months, returned to Turkey then headed home via Europe, visiting friends there. Days before Xmas, I boarded an ill-fated Icelandic Airlines flight from Glasgow to NYC. Ill-fated because an engine caught fire as we were landing in Iceland. When I saw the flames, I wasnít scared, I was pissed. "This is a crappy time for me to die. Iíve just finished two years in Peace Corps and Iím ready to start my REAL life, and besides, my poor family is waiting for me to celebrate Christmas together."  

Needless to say, I didnít die. In fact, I was the second person to jump from the plane thanks to a cute law student who I got to know while we were stranded in the airport for 24 hours. We later dated for a year in NYC.  

I tried to get a job in DC with no luck and settled for NYC and working at AFS International Scholarships. A great job with good people at very low pay. At the request of my aunts, I lived with my grandmother in Weehawken, N.J. She was dying of cancer and it was a privilege to be able to share in her care, but it did put a cramp in my social life.  

After a year I returned to Turkey to sort out my "personal life" there and to apply for a job with the Peace Corps. Neither worked out. I returned to NYC having sworn off men for life. Within a few weeks I met Frank Grant, an artist, and the following year we got married in Maine and bought a house in Round Pond.  

After four years of back and forth, we realized we were a lot happier in Maine, so we made the permanent move. Working with foreign students was not possible, so I got a newspaper reporter job with the Portland Press Herald, a daily. On the side I did travel writing which paid poorly but had great travel benefits.  

We also dabbled in antiques. Then I was asked to be editor of a Bath-based weekly. Our son, Evan was just entering first grade, so the timing was right. Nine years later, Courier Publications which owned 6 weekly newspapers decided to start one near my home town. I jumped at the offer to be its editor. We had a great staff and ended up winning many awards and having a lot of fun doing it. Only trouble was we were working 55 -60 hours a week which didnít help my already failing marriage. So we divorced, which was a good move for both Frank and I who continue on friendly terms.  

Ten years later, thanks to the takeover of our company by a big corporation from South Carolina, our paper was closed down and my job was eliminated. At first I was angry and then I realized how great it is to have time to do things. With severance pay and unemployment $$, I took many trips that Iíd been wanting to do for years.  

I've decided that full-time work for others is no longer the way to go. So I do freelance writing from home and also do publicity and press releases for art galleries. I have 5 on my list now and other odd jobs keep turning up such as helping a holocaust survivor write his book, doing photography etc. And to get away from the computer and make money, Iím back in the antiques game and sell my wares at fleamarkets.  

I continue to enjoy living in Round Pond and a few years ago bought a charming condo apartment in a Victorian house smack in the middle of Portland. I now live in both places, teach English to refugees, work with peace groups, especially one helping Palestinians and am doing quite a bit of writing. Other good news is that my son, Evan, now 32, is a really nice person, concerned with saving the planet.  

I often think of the Turkish "Hayat bazan tatlıdır". It is.

-------------------------------------------------  

Thanksgiving in Turkey  

November 1962, Bandirma, Turkey  

Itís Thanksgiving and Iím feeling blue. No family, no football, and especially no Thanksgiving feast. Iím far from home, teaching English in a Muslim country. My students have never heard of Pilgrims and Indians and probably donít care about their gathering together to celebrate the harvest and friendship. They surely have never seen a football game, although they are rabid fans of their "futbol," our soccer.  

But itís Thanksgiving and I should be thankful, especially since I landed a plum of a Peace Corps assignment. Bandirma is a beautiful small seaport town on the Marmara Sea several hours south of Istanbul, but far more conservative than that metropolitan center.  

My Peace Corps site-mate, Carolyn, and I got a small top-floor apartment on a hill overlooking the harbor. The view from our window would be wonderful but for the fact that the terrace outside also holds the washlines for the entire building, so the scenery is perpetually blocked by waving laundry. In addition to its beauty, Bandirma is a "plum" because of the receptivity, hospitality, and kindness of the people. Carolyn and I not only are the first Peace Corps volunteers here, we are the first Americansóif not the first non-Turksóto live here. Our arrival in late August caused a major stir and generated an overwhelming welcome. Even now, we are followed daily by small troops of childrenósome who want to learn a few English words, others who are just curious.  

Our teaching assignments are great, too. A full load of middle- and high-school classes and a school principal who has afforded us much freedom. Thus, we were able to start an English club after school, a student-run English newspaper, a student theater group, and English classes for adults in the evenings. With so much work to do, we still have endless social obligationsóresponding to many dinner invitations and especially attending "gŁns" (pronounced "goons"), which are teas that various women put on each week. Since Carolyn and I donít want to offend anyone, we go to all the "gŁns"óas many as 10 to 15 per week.  

Frankly, Iím exhausted. Iím also sick. I have a perpetual cold thatís turned to bronchitis and my coughing is so bad that the Turks are worried that perhaps I wonít survive. Teachers and neighbors are plying me with home cures, ranging from herbal teas and soups to rubdowns with olive oil and hot pepper.  

Maybe itís my physical deterioration that has me down in the dumps this Thanksgiving, but Iím determined to rally. I have no afternoon classes, so I decide to surprise Carolyn by making a real Thanksgiving dinner.  

I grab my string shopping bag, some money, and a fistful of handkerchiefs and head out to the market. First stop is the meat market, to buy a turkey. Simple enough? Not here.  

The meat market is in the center of the town market. A dozen small butcher shops encircle a plaza where the "meat" is kept alive, on-the-hoof. The butchers only slaughter one animal at a time. The carcass hangs in the shop and the buyer points to a section. Leg? filet? liver? Then the butcher slices off the chosen segment and wraps it in paper.  

Meanwhile, huddled in the plaza are the next victimsólong-tailed, curly-wool sheep marked with dots of colored dye that indicate the owner. Butcher Ali might use blue dots, while Mustafaís sheep sport red ones.  

It is not unusual to see the face of a kitten or two peeking out from between the dye-dots on a sheep. The meat market is a favorite place for stray cats, which live off entrails tossed out to them by the butchers. Since Turks believe it is bad karma to kill a cat, and few Turks would consider keeping "the filthy animals" as pets, stray cats abound and vie with each other for food and shelter. The mother cats no doubt long ago spotted the woolly sheep as great places to park their offspring while they are out hunting up food. The sheep, for some reason, seem to tolerate this, hence the cute kitten faces nestled on tomorrowís supper supply.  

But my mission today is not lamb chops, itís turkeyócalled "hindi" in Turkish. I head for my favorite butcher and ask for a "hindi." Looking dismayed, he says he doesnít have any. (Come to think of it, I had never seen turkey served in any Turkish homes, but I was sure they must be available.) In my weakened state, I become teary-eyed, saying, "But I must have a turkey. Today is our American Ďbayramí when we eat turkey."  

The word bayram strikes a chord with the butcher. In Turkish, "bayrams" are not just holidays, they are religious holidays, and therefore quite sacred and serious. The butcher panics and runs out of the shop to gather with the other butchers. After much discussion about the American teacher who MUST have a hindi to celebrate her bayram, a plan is laid. The butcher comes back and tells me "not to worry"óthere are no turkeys in Bandirma, but the butchers will find a very large chicken for me. Will that do? I smile through my tears and thank him.  

The butcher pulls up a stool for me and dispatches a small boy to fetch a glass of tea. In a flash the boy returns, holding a Turkish-style tea tray with one finger, which balances two tulip-shaped glasses of dark tea and a small dish with a pile of sugar cubes. (Turks drink endless glasses of tea all day long, and they consume it with enough sugar to cause early diabetes.)  

After about 10 minutes, I see another small boy running toward the butcher shop, carrying a big fat red chicken in one hand and a white one in the other. The chickens are clucking furiously, maybe because they know where they are headed, but certainly because it canít be much fun to be hanging upside down with hands gripping your legs.  

The pleased butcher then asks me to choose a hen. It doesnít matter to me, but the white one looks fatter and cleaner, so I go with "beyaz" (white). To my surprise, the butcher takes the hen, ties string around its legs, and hands me the birdóalive and well and complaining loudly.  

I hadnít expected this! Even though Iím a meat-eater, the thought of killing something myself is not in my nature. I donít want to look like an American wimp, but I just couldnít do it. So I hand the chicken back to the butcher and, since I donít know the word for "kill," I make my request by indicating a chop to the neck with my hand.  

The butcher gets the message. In a flash he whisks the chicken to his chopping block and with one swing severs its head, spraying a bit more blood on his already bloodstained white apron. Then, with sign language, he asks if I want him to pluck out the feathers. Indeed I do.  

When the hen was nearly nude, except for dozens of small pinfeathers, the butcher wraps the bird in paper and puts it in my string bag. He refuses to accept payment, insisting that the chicken is a gift for my bayram.  

After picking up carrots, potatoes, onions, and some flavorful tangerines for dessert, I head home to prepare the Thanksgiving feast, which I know will be a challenge.  

Our kitchen appliances consist solely of a two-burner hot plate hooked up to a cylinder of natural gas. In lieu of a real oven, we have a movable, top-of-the-stove tin oven that looked like a miniature Quonset hut when placed on one of the burners. It has a door on front but the interior is only large enough for about three baked potatoes. My fat chicken is never going to fit.  

I turn to the only other kitchen gadget available, a pressure cooker recommended by the Peace Corps office in Ankara. I have never used one before and worry about blowing up the apartment or something. But it will hold the chicken, so it will have to do. Since I canít understand a word of the Turkish instructions that came with the cooker, I turn to the cookbook I had brought from home and look up "pressure cooking." On page 12, it says, "Just follow the simple instructions that come with the cooker." Thanks a lot, Fanny Farmer.  

I decide to turn my attention to the chicken, which is still quite warm, since it hadnít died that long ago. The feet are still attached, but I screw up my courage and hack away at them until they finally fall to the floor. Next I turn on one of the burners (which have to be lit with a match) and singe off the remaining pinfeathers. I am feeling pretty proud of myself . . . so far.  

Setting the chicken aside, I prepare stuffing, using bread, onions, olive oil, and thyme. When I am ready to stuff the bird, though, I realize it was missing the usual convenient opening where the stuffing goes. Uh oh, the innards are still in there. Well, I had dissected a cat in Biology 101, so I take a scientific approach to what otherwise would seem a gory experience. I cut a slit by the anus, reach inside and start to pull stuff out. The entrails are even warmer and bloodier than the outside of the chicken. In my determination to be "scientific," I start to name the parts as they slide through my hands. Ugh. It isnít pleasant, to say the least.  

Back to the pressure cooker. I cram the stuffed bird into the pot, throw in the carrots and potatoes, put in some water, and crank the top down tight. Carolyn would be home from school soon, and I figure that in an hour, the entire delicious feast would be ready.  

I set the table and pull out a container of wine from the cupboard. Of course we have no such luxury as a refrigerator, so the white wine will have to be served at room temperature.  

Carolyn is delightfully surprised by my efforts, and we sip some wine while waiting for dinner to be ready. When I open the cooker after an hour, I find that, even though the vegetables look done, I canít even dent the chickenís skin with a fork. Oh well, maybe a really fresh chicken might take a bit longer to get tender.  

A half hour later, the chicken still is as hard as a brick. Another glass of wine is in order. By 7:30 p.m., we are getting very hungry, if not a little tipsy. I open the pot once more and the damned bird still wonít yield.  

By 9 p.m., we have had it. Carolyn is now griping and I am frustrated and coughing my head off. The Thanksgiving dinner is going to be served NOW, do or die. Out comes the chicken, still tough, as only a really old bird can be. It is surrounded by the most overcooked vegetables ever.  

We are starving, so we cut off whatever meat we can manage to remove and proceed to chew and chew and chew. We wash it all down with the last of the wine and completely forget to say "Thanks" for our blessings.  

All in all, it was the most memorable Thanksgiving in my life.
 

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10/30/16