Friday, May 28, 2010

Blue Plates or Volvo Dreams

Volvo 200-Series wagon photographed in USA.Image via Wikipedia

Many foreigners in Turkey drive cars with licence plates with MA or MB on them. These "foreigner" plates are also known as blue plates, but are not actually intended to identify drivers as foreign.

Rather, these plates indicate that the car was either brought into the country by a foreigner or bought in Turkey by a foreigner, and that said foreigner invoked their right to pay no Turkish taxes on the car -- a substantial savings for the car's owner!

Without going into the technicalities of who can own and drive a blue plate car and how to get one, let me tell you why I decided not to to take advantage of my right to the blue plate special and passed up on a ten-year-old Volvo station wagon for only 2000 Euros.
  • Being foreign doesn't automatically entitle you to a blue plate; I qualify because of my work visa. Should I ever decide to stop working, I'd either have to sell my car quickly, or "park" it in a duty-free zone.
  • I could only sell to another foreigner.
  • No one else can drive the car (a slight overstatement, as my Turkish husband could get

    OLD - VOLVO - WAGONImage by CARLOS62 via Flickr

    special permission to drive it)
  • A hefty deposit or security of some sort (calculated according to the car's value) needs to sit in your bank account.
  • Just like a work visa and a resident permit, the plates need to constantly be renewed -- except whereas my employer takes care of the former, I'd have to deal with Turkish bureaucracy on this one. And like anything involving foreigners in Turkey, the process is longer and more complicated than for Turkish citizens -- this would be no routine plate renewal.
  • Every time I leave the country, I'd be supposed to "park" the car in the above-mentioned duty-free zone.

Volvo 940 photographed in College Park, Maryla...Image via Wikipedia

I'm still thinking about that Volvo wagon for just 2000 Euros. Even though I've made my decision, I think it'll take me a while to get over the thought of what could have been ...

Disclaimer: as is often the case in Turkey, conflicting information exists and it is sometimes difficult to be sure that information is correct. The above is a summary of the strictest version of the rules I've heard governing blue plates; I've heard for example that people just leave their cars at home when they travel abroad and that it isn't a problem.
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Monday, May 24, 2010

Turkish Gnocchi

Every time I come across a Turkish dish I truly love, one that really makes my taste buds hum, I rejoice in being one step closer to home in this adopted country of mine. One such dish is sarmısaklı köfte, or "garlic balls," which I will from now on always think of as Turkish gnocchi.

I first tasted sarmısaklı köfte a few years ago, and loved them. One of my husband's sisters-in-law had made them, and I unabashedly ate far more than my fair share. After that, anyone else's were a disappointment -- until my son's nanny made them for us a few months ago. They were as good as the first time I'd had them if not better. She struck the perfect balance between dense bulgur and flour, a köfte you could really sink your teeth into, and a light but intense spicy garlic and lemon sauce.

But I've been busy and old habits die hard. It'd been ages since I'd enjoyed a delicious creamy bowl of real Italian pasta; the kind you get in Toronto's Little Italy -- loads of butter, cream, Parmesan, wine. In my old life, I'd satisfy that craving with a meal at one of my favourite restaurants.

But I've yet to find a good Italian pasta here in this part of Turkey, so in a burst of energy earlier this week I decided to take matters in my own hands and make gnocchi. I was motivated by a combination of my own Happiness Project and just wanting to eat pasta.

I researched recipes and settled on one of Mario Batali's from the Food Network, which you can see here. I admit I took liberties with the measurements; and having never made gnocchi before, I didn't know what consistency to look for in my dough. Nevertheless, I had fun mixing and kneading and rolling my dough into long snakes, then cutting them into little thumb-sized pieces and dropping them into boiling water. I dutifully fished them out as they rose to the surface and transfered them to an ice bath. It felt good, both to get my hands (and counter!) dirty, and to focus so intently on one task for an hour.

I ate a few immediately and even without the sauce thought they were quite good -- although admittedly not as melt-in-your-mouth-divine as I'd hoped they'd magically turn out to be.

As per Batali's instructions, I generously coated them in canola oil and put them in the fridge. I'd reheat them later that evening in a sauce and serve them for dinner.

But somewhere between making a great sauce and reheating the gnocchi, things went awry. The little dumplings fell apart with each gentle turn of the sauce and I soon had a mushy mess. It's amazing how important texture apparently is!

I didn't wallow in my disappointment, although I think if I hadn't had such a good time making the gnocchi, I would have been in tears. As it was, my positive mood allowed me to remember sarmısaklı köfte. The very next day I had our nanny teach me how to make them, and although they're labour intensive, I've promised myself to add them to my repertoire.

I'll leave the instructions to the experts and direct you to this recipe from Almost Turkish Recipes if you're interested in making "Turkish gnocchi."

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Snow Days

I'm trying to hire a nanny for September, when we move to Istanbul. Today one asked whether she'd get snow days off. Snow days? Snow days!

Here on the Mediterranean our weather is pretty much the same all year round. It took me a while to get used to not checking the weather forecast first thing each morning -- will I need an umbrella? A sweater? An early start on my way to work? But I'm not complaining; who would, if they woke up each day to a cloudless turquoise sky and knew that every day was t-shirt weather?

With time I've learned to see the subtle differences between this region's four seasons, and I appreciate them. Spring and fall are long, not rushed like they are in Toronto; and although most bahar days are as hot as a summer day back home, they still have that distinctive smell that neither summer or fall have. Sure, July and August here are unbearably hot, but there are ways around that -- air conditioning and the beach!

But I miss snow. There is no snow brush in my trunk; no skates in my closet. And I miss the feeling a snowfall excites. The other day, we took a walk after a rainfall and I started to warn my husband of a slick black spot up ahead on the pavement. (The sleep-deprived brain is a tricky fellow!) But I stopped myself mid-sentence -- it was twenty degrees out; the nearest black ice was six months and 2000 kilometres away. But the incident made me realize the extent to which winter is in my bones.

Which is why one of the reasons I'm excited about our upcoming move to Istanbul is its climate. There will be snow in winter! (And snow days!)

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Relaxed about Hygiene and Appreciating Turkish Cheese

Perhaps it's motherhood; perhaps Turkey has just relaxed me in general. But as I calmly pulled a piece of hair from the cheese on my plate this morning and went right on eating, I smiled at myself.

I should add that it wasn't human hair, but rather a piece of goat's hair -- the cheese was a lovely strong dry white goat's cheese, cured in a (hairy) goat skin sack. Deri peyniri has made up for the lack of cheddars and some of my other favourites (Appenzeller; Monk's Head) here, and the best ones come from one of the many little bakal or grocer's in the neighbourhood, not sterile or packaged in a factory.

Many of my favourite edible things here are indeed homemade and I happily consume them at my own risk -- something I would have thought twice about when I first arrived in Turkey four years ago. Most notably, I now buy all my eggs, olive oil and nar ekşisi (the gorgeous pomegranate syrup I've mentioned before -- I think one day soon I'll devote an entire post to the magical genius of this ingredient) from small local shops selling their own or a friend's product. I'd buy fresh milk from the cow's owner, too, if I could get organized enough; our supermarkets and grocer's only sell UHT milk, which I begrudgingly continue to buy.

Tête de MoineImage by vincen-t via Flickr

And now I'll leave you with a small story, just to show you how far I've come. It was October 2005 and I was on a whirlwind trip to Turkey for the first time. Determined to have me see and taste and experience everything in two short weeks, my Turkish hosts took me into a sort of delicatessen to taste nar ekşisi for the first time. The obliging proprietor took a bottle off the shelf, twisted off the lid despite the safety seal, and poured a little syrup into the cap. He extended it to me, but I declined, feeling sorry for whomever would later buy the bottle after I'd stuck my finger into its contents. My surprise turned to shock, however, when my guide took the proffered red cap and with one swift movement lifted it to his lips and let the syrup run into his mouth.

Unimpressed with that particular brand, he shook his head and repeated the taste test with another bottle, while the proprietor nonchalantly screwed the cap back on the first bottle and returned it to the shelf. Needless to say, I was left speechless.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

More "Expat Entertainment," or Successful Isolated Expat Living

My father grew up in Tanzania and later Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia), and his stories of his expat life fueled my childhood imagination. There are few photographs and one precious film reel from that distant time of his life, but in my mind's eye, I've always been able to picture everything in great detail. As a child, I would retell my father's stories to my friends, and without realizing it, made his memories my own.

And these memories periodically return to me as aspects of my own expat life echo that of my father. Food was often scarce, and if someone brought several dozen eggs to the farm, they would eat eggs. For days. In every imaginable reincarnation. Those of you who read this blog regularly know that while my husband and I are thankfully well-fed, we too are often the recipients of someone's bounty. And like my grandmother, I too endeavour to find as many different ways to use the seven heads of Romaine lettuce or the five kilograms of yogurt.

Recently, memories of my father's African evenings have been coming to mind. I picture him and his six siblings sitting in the family's living room, knitting or reading or listening to the shortwave radio, trying desperately not to disturb their father as he reads or writes. My grandmother is writing letters and perhaps someone is rereading a precious letter from Europe aloud to the others. Or they are singing. Or telling stories, erupting into fits of laughter. My father and his siblings, all of whom are still alive today, still enjoy simple, quiet pastimes -- corresponding with each other and far away friends (although a few of my aunts, into their seventies and eighties now, have mastered email!); listening to the radio; and knitting. But I credit their expat upbringing in rural east Africa, which, despite the fond memories, was far from easy.

And so whenever I feel sorry for myself, isolated from fancy restaurants or museums, I remind myself of all the resources I do have. I'm happy to say that I really am quite resourceful in this regard; I've written about our murder mystery dinner and our dependence on good books, and now I want to tell you about another secret to successful isolated expat living: finding and tapping into others' expertise.

My friend Oriana Sutorius-Lavoie is an artist and a teacher; my friend Carole and I share the need to 'do art' but feel we lack the talent. So we asked Oriana whether she'd consider teaching us to paint. As so often happens when one simply asks, we discovered that Oriana had already been thinking about how to start an art class! We started a week later, and for a few months now, Carole, Oriana, my husband and I meet every Tuesday evening for a lesson.

We use one of our school's art classrooms and its easels; supplies are unfortunately harder to come by -- either ridiculously expensive or impossible to find. But ever resourceful, we found some at Kitapsan, others at local hardware stores; we order some items online from the States or stock up on trips to Europe.

We started with drawing and have only recently begun painting, but we've been fueling our creativity and satisfying our need for 'something more' for months. If I were back in Toronto, I'd either be too busy to take an art class at all (as so often happens when you have everything you could possibly want at your doorstep, you take it for granted and put off taking advantage of it), or I'd be travelling through rush hour traffic one evening a week and paying hundreds of dollars to be one of two dozen students.

*I'm working on a series of 3 paintings based on windows and doors of our current home, Sadık Paşa Konağı, and inspired by Henri Matisse.

*The top photo is of my grandparents' coffee plantation in Tanzania in the 1930s.

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Saturday, May 15, 2010

My Happiness Project

Our nanny arrived one morning last week with five gorgeous artichokes.

Fresh. Artichokes.

Now, I'd seen them before, had even watched Martha or Rachel or someone prepare them on TV, but I'd never prepared one myself.

They were beautiful. The sight of them lying in the wicker basket on the kitchen floor, an exotic still life in my very own home, brought me pure joy. As if I lived in the south of France or Italy or ... Wait, I live on the Turkish Mediterranean! Note to self: appreciate what I've got.

But within minutes, visions of the week bananas invaded my kitchen (you can read all about that here if you missed that post) and the more recent grapefruit invasion had crept into my consciousness. Fear and anxiety, aka stress, started in my toes and quickly worked its way up my entire body. Memories of lovely black-flecked yellow bananas slowly shrivelling and blackening before my eyes; memories of a rotten grapefruit collapsing in my hand as my grasp unwittingly punctured its rotted interior, threatened to ruin my happiness.

You see, I know myself well enough to predict what was going to happen. While mulling over what to do with the artichokes for a few days, not wanting to do anything less than perfect with them, they would go bad. And I would feel awful.

But one of my recent reads, Gretchen Rubin's The Happiness Project (as displayed on my Shelfari shelf to the right), has me determined to put an end to what she helped me label "sabotaging my happiness." It seems I have a "fear of tackling unknown and therefore scary things."

I'm proud to say that our nanny brought the artichokes to us on a Friday and I tackled them on Saturday. I called my friend and neighbour and fellow Top Chef fan Carole and asked her if she wanted to join me in "preparing artichokes three ways." (Sorry ... a little Top Chef humour there.) And no, I don't consider it cheating to enlist help when tackling my fears; I consider it resourceful and just plain realistic.

Anyway, I'll spare you the details, since we didn't produce anything ground-breaking. But not only did I spare myself extreme unhappiness as the result of wasted food, I got tremendous satisfaction out of the sight of those cooked green beauties! And I had fun doing it! And I'm no longer scared of artichokes!

And now I want to try and make gnocchi. I have no idea where that came from, but that's next on my list.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

It Really Is the Wild West

I bought a phone with a camera so that I could snap a picture whenever I saw something interesting; goodness knows I see enough odd things in the course of a regular old day here in Turkey. But I never imagined the first thing I'd capture was this (and please brace yourselves, it isn't pretty):

Just an ordinary dumpster, right? Perhaps a little messier than what you're used to seeing, but still pretty normal, right? Look closer:

I considered not posting this, but then I thought that would be somehow breaking an code of journalistic honesty. Perhaps I take myself too seriously. But I did feel like I'd be lying to you if I didn't report this latest incident.

I think I may have jinxed myself with yesterday's post about lawlessness. It seems people can dispose of their livestock carcasses (I think it's a sheep? a long-nosed calf?) anywhere they want.

Monday, May 10, 2010

More Lawlessness

I'm a hypocrite. But does it make it any less bad if I know it and admit it? You see, for all my complaining about the lack of standards and regulations here, the truth is that I like the lawlessness here. As long as it suits me.

Here's what happened last Monday:
  • Baby was really out of sorts and wouldn't stop crying all morning (could happen anywhere);
  • I called his pediatrician on her cell phone (not likely to happen in the organized world), who agreed to see us right away (would never happen in the organized world);
  • The receptionist tells another patient (who was there without an appointment! gasp!) the doctor is at lunch (in the organized world, the receptionist would be at lunch too), but then calls the doctor to tell her we've arrived;
  • The doctor appears one minute later (would never happen in the organized world);
  • There are two policemen standing beside my car when we get outside (in the organized world, policemen travel alone. And parking officials write parking tickets);
  • One of them had my husband on the phone (gasp!) (why on earth would this ever happen in the organized world? Oh. It's registered in his name. Not so alarming after all);
  • It seems I'd parked illegally (could happen anywhere, although not likely to happen to me in the organized world, where there are clearly marked 'no parking' signs);
  • I gave an excuse, hoping to get out of the ticket (who'd even bother in the organized world? Parking police are definitely proponents of the tough love philosophy. Come to think of it, who'd even have the chance in the organized world; the ticket would have been swiftly written and left on the windshield, the officer long gone);
  • To my surprise, one of the officers asked for my license (was I really going to get a ticket?);
  • I retrieved crying Baby from the car and made sure the officers understood why I'd parked where I had (I don't think mothers in the organized world would stoop so low as to use their children that way; I think there was a time when I wouldn't have either);
  • The officers gave me my license back and told me to take that poor sick child home before they became the cause of any more distress!
No ticket.

I drove to the pharmacy to pick up Baby's prescription, and left the car right out front with the hazards flashing. I was only going to be a minute ...
Baby's just fine, by the way.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Why Turkey isn't Europe - Part II

It turns out that in addition to "changing" our son's birth date (click here if you missed that post), we could have also fudged his birth place.

My husband is from Adana, although we live in Tarsus, 35km away and part of another county. Naturally, we registered Baby's birth place as Tarsus. But friends and family continue to express surprise that we didn't have Adana put on his kimlik, the Turkish identity card.

But that's where his father is from, they say.

And, It's not like he's going to grow up in Tarsus!

True, but it's where he was born. And that will always be a part of him. As will his father's Adana roots and his mother's Canadian ones. Living everywhere but his birth place just may turn out to be a defining part of his identity, as it is mine.

(pictures: typical Tarsus homes; Adana kebab)