Sunday, May 2, 2021

Spring 2021 Communique

The Constantinople Communiqué

Hagia Sophia

Tekrar hoş geldiniz!

Welcome back, and a late Yeni Yıllar Mutlu Olsun!  //  Happy New Year to you!

I’m reasonably sure that no one will feel in the least bad about putting the year 2020 behind us.  I know I won’t.  It sure was a looong decade.


A Challenging Fall

Perhaps the three of you recall that I arrived in Turkey back in August – in the midst of the pandemic, of course – but that I traveled here without my best girl or Riley The Wonder Dog.  Kate remained behind at the time to wait on cooler weather for travel with the dog, and also because her mom was having some serious health issues, so she and Riley had gone to Madison to help care for her.


As her mom’s health deteriorated in mid-October, I took some use-or-lose leave time and returned to the US to be with the family.  I flew to St Paul to meet up with Sophie, and then Kate and Riley joined us there a few days later.  The three of us were together when her mom passed away on the evening of October 28, and while not unexpected (she was 83, had several semi-serious underlying conditions, and as she dealt with treatment for bladder cancer, her kidneys and liver went into failure), it was, of course, very difficult and heart breaking.  She was well cared for, both by the health care professionals and by Kate and her sister Amy, and during those last days Barb had the chance to say her goodbyes to lifelong friends, neighbors, her sister Aunt Squeezy, and to all of her nine grandchildren.  Her wish for everyone was that they make a plan to vote and to always be preparing for the next party, and no doubt now she’s together with her beloved husband of 50-odd years doing just that.


Given the circumstances of the pandemic, no service was held at the time, and a memorial is taking shape for summer 2021, when her ashes will join those of Kate’s dad Tom in a local park, and a big party will be held. 

The holiday season here was quite the muted affair for us, as I’m reasonably sure it was for you as well.  Typically, there are quite the celebrations to be had here in Istanbul to ring in the New Year, and is one of those places often seen on television as the networks broadcast fireworks and festivities from the world’s major cities.  While 95% of Turks are Muslim, Christmas was indeed widely marked, mostly in the commercial sense and especially in the local shopping malls which tended to feature somewhat ostentatious decorations.

Christmas lights in our housing complex

Fancy Christmas decorations in the shopping mall

But of course, big celebrations were not to be this year, and so virtually everyone spent their time quietly with friends and family.  In a country such as Turkey, with its national government more able – and willing – to use its authority and exercise strict controls over the populous, there wasn’t much choice in the matter.

Life at the Speed of Riley

As I noted in the fall communiqué, those restrictions have been in place to one degree or another over all manner of activity since my arrival last summer.  Like many places around the world, the limitations have fluctuated over the past months. 

Riley's spirit animal
Because the virus was spreading rapidly in late 2020, we have had full-on weekend lockdowns in place since early December, meaning only that deemed essential was allowed (grocery shopping, doctor appointments, that type of thing).  Given that the situation, once again, is getting worse – and will continue to get worse before it gets better – these have remained in effect, except for three Saturdays in March when we had relative freedom to move about the cabin.  In addition, curfews are in effect every night; everyone is required to have a QR code on their phones, issued by the Health Ministry for contact tracing; many places require on-the-spot temperature checks; and restaurants and bars are limited to no more than 50% capacity.  Since case, hospitalization, and death numbers are all going the wrong direction in Turkey, stricter measures (more widespread travel restrictions, tighter curfews, things like that) were just implemented to coincide with the month of Ramadan.


Consequently, we live in one of the great cities on the planet, a city in a country literally filled with the culture, music, art, architecture, cuisine, and history of the world, and yet we are able to see and experience very little at the moment.  Of course, this is a necessary, and most certainly not unique, situation.  And therefore, our lives are currently moving at the speed of Riley, which is to say pretty darn slowly.


From a U.S. government perspective, our leadership and Emergency Action Committee has instituted strict controls over the standard work environment.  This means our American staff is on a staggered rotation, one week on (in the office), one week off (work from home) schedule, with the additional understanding that if we can work from home, we should work from home.  Many of our local colleagues have been working from home full-time for more than a year now.  As a matter of fact, I have only met two of my local Turkish colleagues, in person and in the office, since my arrival eight months ago, and one of those meetings was for a matter of minutes when they had to come to the Consulate for IT help.  Each section in the Consulate (Political/Economic, Management, Consular, Foreign Commercial Service, Foreign Agriculture Service, Public Affairs, and more), is allowed a bit of flexibility based on the essential nature of the work, but for all practical purposes, the Consulate is closed for all but emergency or otherwise essential work.  (To the best of our ability, however, we do what we can virtually, with obvious limitations.)


From a personal perspective, it’s a pretty small world.  We live in a lovely apartment in a nice housing complex called Istinye Park, about ten minutes from the Consulate by car.  There is enough green space for Riley, a small café, gym and swimming pool (all on restricted hours, or closed altogether), and the complex is attached on one side to a large, modern, high-end shopping mall which includes a small grocery store.  The mall remains open, but also on restricted hours, and the grocery provides us with basics and a bit more if we’re unable to get to the larger supermarket (the French chain called Carrefour).  The three of us spend the majority of our time together, unless it’s a week when I can go to the office (in which case I will go three or four times).  Riley gets his three walks a day around the complex, and when all you do is see the same streets, the same buildings, and the same people and dogs all the time, you begin to notice other things, principally sounds:  the haunting sound of horns from large ships navigating the Bosporus about a mile away; the report of guns from the local gun club a few blocks from here; the ezan, or call to prayer, which of course happens five times a day; and the near constant mosquito-like buzz of little motorbikes delivering all manner of things, all day long.  (They really have that system down pat!)  I work out of our third bedroom, and Kate takes virtual Turkish lessons, hosts a virtual book club, fusses over Riley, and spends time with a couple of good Foreign Service friends we have here in Istinye Park.


It’s All Gone to the Dogs

The other thing we see all over Istinye Park, in fact all over Istanbul, are cats and dogs.  In October 2019, a Turkish journalist and filmmaker wrote a column in the New York Times in which she reported on the estimated 130,000 dogs and 125,000 cats freely roaming about the city.


But while they are strays, they are not a nuisance.  In fact, such animals in all of Turkey’s major cities receive regular veterinary care, food and other services all from local governments.  Wandering the streets of old Istanbul, it isn’t uncommon at all to see large, well fed, tagged dogs (indicating they’ve been spayed or neutered) snoozing in parks or the open doorways of shops, standing expectantly outside the butcher or fishmonger, or wandering the narrow alleys.  Rarely aggressive, the people of the city take great care for these fellow inhabitants of their city, often spending their own money to provide makeshift shelters, food and water for them.  We live about 30 minutes by car from the historic center of Istanbul, and even along the highways in the grassy areas off to the side we’ll see dogs lying about and wandering freely.  (It scares the dickens out of me to see them so close to major highways, though!)  It’s the same for cats, but of course they are far more aloof and independent.


It hasn’t always been this way, however.  Like many large cities in the developing world, the Istanbul of the mid- to late-twentieth century had its problems with large packs of stray dogs and cats, and they tried animal control of all the usual kinds (typically culling, often in rather inhumane ways), with little success.  One small group of local Istanbulus, after witnessing this gruesome task in the late 90s, decided to take action and unleashed the new power of social media.  In June 2004, the Turkish government passed a law requiring local governments to rehabilitate the animals rather than kill them, requiring governments to provide staff and funds to sterilize, vaccinate, care for and clean up after them, and return the animals to where they were found.  The tags in the ears also include microchips and are visible signs to the public and municipal workers that the animals have been sterilized and vaccinated.  Across Turkey, the teams of workers who once were “extermination teams” are now “animal welfare teams,” and people and animals have developed a kind of easy harmony everywhere we’ve visited.


One day Kate and some friends were out walking near our apartment and came across a very scared, but clearly domesticated puppy they named Phil (he had a collar but no name tag).  They managed to coax him over, and once they had ahold of his collar, he calmed right down, clearly knowing they would keep him safe and out of nearby traffic.  They walked him down the hill to the local vet, who said he would keep Phil until they found the owner, if one could be tracked down.  Kate and her companions begged the vet not to put Phil down, and the vet chuckled and said, “We don’t do that in Turkey.” (The owner claimed Phil the next day.)


No system is perfect, but it seems to work very well, and the people we’ve seen have uniformly shown care and gentleness toward their four-legged friends.  It’s all quite refreshing.


Wishing You Good Lucks Learning Turkish!

The most charming aspect of the Turkish language to me is the propensity to make positive wishes plural.  Even the standard greetings are often pluralized.  So rather than iyi gün (good day), you often hear iyi günler (good days).  Instead of iyi akşam (good evening) you hear iyi akşamlar (good evenings); iyi şans (good luck) you get iyi şanslar (good lucks); and so on.


I mean, who doesn’t want more good days, good evenings, good lucks, and so on?  Those things should always, and for everyone, be plural, shouldn’t they?  How pleasant is that?


Another element of Turkish I find interesting is naming conventions, particularly for given names.  English doesn’t have an easy way to determine a male name from a female name like Russian does (female names in Russian end with the vowel ‘a’), you just have to know which is which.  Turkish is the same, and like any language there are historic and family names passed down over the generations, or names that originate from a place where the family may have settled many moons ago, or historic family tradesmen or women. 


There are pretty standard names that one might recognize anywhere in the world, such as Ali (which is my “Starbucks name” when I go to Shakeshack, because I always get that blank look of incomprehension when I say my name is, you know, Dave), Yusuf (Joseph), and Mustafa, or Defne (Daphne), Meryem (Mary) and Fatima. But it’s also really common to impart bits of wisdom, hopes or enjoyable ideas or concepts on a newborn child, as is the case in many languages.  Some examples of names that have such underlying meaning include Arzu (which means wish or desire), Müge (lily of the valley), Fulya (daffodil), Deniz (sea), Mücevher or Cevher (jewel), Güven (faith or trust), Fatih (conqueror or victor), Ipek (silk), Ilknur (literally first light, and uses the Arabic word for light ‘nur’), and Elif (the first letter of the alphabet in Arabic). 


Not suprisingly, the naming convention gold medal goes to the father of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal, better known as Atatürk.  At birth (in modern-day Thessaloniki, Greece) in about 1881 he was called Ali Rıza oğlu Mustafa, which means Mustafa, son of Ali Rıza (you might recall that Turkish is generally read in reverse order).  He was born Mustafa, but his math teacher gave him the name Kemal, which means perfection or maturity.  Mustafa Kemal later became a gifted military leader and made his name (haha) at the Battle of Gallipoli in World War I, then after the war led the War for Independence after which he established the Turkish Republic in 1923.  He was the first president of Turkey, and with the passage of the Surname Law in 1934, the National Assembly bestowed upon him a new name:  Atatürk, which uses the Arabic and Persian word for gift (ata), which is also the Turkish word meaning forefather, so his name literally means “father of the Turks.”  He had no biological children when he died in 1938, but had adopted 13: one boy and 12 girls, one of whom was both the first Turkish female pilot and the world’s first female fighter pilot.  (Her name, Sabiha Gökçen, appropriately uses the word gök (sky) and graces one of the airports in Istanbul.)  Atatürk’s name and image appear on all the currency, across the country in place names and on statues, and his image is even very common in stores and shops, usually on a wall somewhere behind the register.  As we’ve traveled around a bit, I’ve even seen many cars with a sticker of his signature on the rear window.  A close American comparison could be made with George Washington, although we don’t usually see an image of George prominently displayed in stores these days.


Mustafa Kemal Atatürk cut a dashing figure, seen here in the 1930s
 (Wikimedia Commons photo.)

Statue of Atatürk providing literacy to the children, and a nice place to nap for the doggos

Atatürk astride his steed.
The text reads "Turks are a nation that does not accept slavery"

A Taste of What Will Be

Despite the pretty heavy restrictions due to the pandemic, we did manage one weekend away back in February for the long President’s Day weekend.  As we had only recently received the license plates for our car, we decided to take advantage of the good infrastructure here and make a road trip to an area where Aristotle once had one of his famous Academies and where Saint Paul once visited during his missionary trips around Asia Minor.  This place is filthy with history.


View of the Aegean Sea from our hotel balcony in Assos

Turkey has a very well-developed tourism industry, and given the geographic and historical diversity here, one can find anything from alpine skiing in the mountains, to archeological ruins waiting to be explored (even some which are underwater!), to hot air balloon rides over fantastical geologic formations, to the turquoise sea of the Turkish Riviera along the Mediterranean coast.  Our trip was a relatively quiet one, coming as it did in the middle of the winter, amidst the worsening pandemic, and with our destination catering more typically to summer crowds.  We packed up the car with Riley and our adventure gear (for us that basically just means hiking boots), and headed southwest of Istanbul for Assos, or Behramkale in Turkish, along the Aegean coast. 


Typical Turkish Breakfast

We set out along the highway in Thrace (the European side of the country) and headed towards the Gelibolu peninsula, known to most of the rest of the world as Gallipoli, famous for the battles fought there during World War I.  I only managed to get off the beaten track once, but it took us off the main highway for about 90 minutes or so, bumping along the rural, pothole-strewn asphalt until we reconnected to the highway.  Still on the European side, we grabbed the car ferry and crossed the Bosporus to the town of Çanakkale on the Anatolian side in Asia.  The trip was pretty uneventful, and the countryside was pleasant but generally unremarkable, although it became quite stunning as we neared the coast.  We stopped only once, in Çanakkale, for a quick photo of the giant model of the Trojan horse (used when making the film Troy), positioned just off the ferryboat pier along the corniche.  Continuing south, we passed the signs for the ruins and museum for Troy, but it was still an hour or so to Assos and we were not interested in driving in the dark, so we left Troy for another day.


"It's only a model!"
Trojan horse model from the 2004 movie filmed nowhere near here

Our little inn was a clean and very simple family-run affair just outside the town of Assos and along the rugged coastline of the Aegean.  I imagine that in the summer it would be fully occupied and the many terraces overlooking the water and the Greek island of Lesbos just across the straits would be packed with diners.  Mid-winter, however, we were one of only maybe five other guests, and I learned later that upon check-out the inn would close for two weeks so they could do some remodeling in the kitchen.


Greek island of Lesbos from our hotel terrace in Assos, Turkey

The weather was temperamental, with one calm day of pretty decent winter sunshine and cool but not cold temperatures, but then came the winds and periodic rains.  And wow was it windy.  We drove around this little corner of Aegean Turkey, peeking through the fences of sites that were closed on the weekend due to the nationwide lockdowns (tourists are exempt, but 1. We are not considered tourists, as we have temporary residency, and 2. It doesn’t much matter to be a tourist if all the tourist sites are closed), and hoofing it around the open-air places of interest. 


Entrance to one of the baths at the ruins of the Baths of Herodes Atticus

Our long weekend featured visits to the Baths of Herodes Atticus and the Altar of Zeus (both outdoor and therefore open to explore during the weekend lockdown); the small village and fortress of Babakale (literally translated means Father Castle), evidently famous for hand-made knives and reportedly the western-most tip of Asia; and scenic drives through the hilly countryside and coast.  Lockdowns and curfews end early on Monday (evidently the pandemic only rages on the weekends), so on President’s Day we visited the ruins and museum of Ancient Troy, as they were open to visitors.


The ruins of ancient Troy

The biggest adventure, however, was the trip back north to Istanbul.  As it was mid-winter and there was a bit of weather this time of year, we encountered a bit of rain, lots of wind, and then some snow.  Now, I imagine that none of the three of you really think “snow” when you think of Turkey, but indeed it does snow here, and not just at elevation in the mountains.  All weekend we would get a blowing rain-snow mix, but it was never more than a light coating of the white stuff.  Until, that is, we started back.


Shelter in the snow to protect the local kitties

RTWD does love galivanting in the snow

If you don’t stop, the trip from Assos to Istanbul is about six hours or so.  Being the smarty-pants that I am, I thought we’d go a different route home than the one we took to get there.  Not long after we departed, however, the snow started in earnest, and as we entered more hilly terrain it really started coming down.  By the time we were about two hours into the trip, the we were in a veritable blizzard, and when we reached the town of Balıkesir to connect to the main freeway, it was actually closed due to snow.  I mean, completely closed, with no sign at all that it would open any time soon.  I’ve never seen anything like it, honestly, and we come from snow country up north.  And it’s not like, say Florida or Mississippi or something, where snow is so rare as to completely shut things down at the first sign of a flurry.  Nope, they have snow plows and everything here (which was a surprise to me), but this was a lot of snow.

These trucks were literally going nowhere, and therefore neither were we

We pulled into a gas station in Balıkesir to take stock and have a not-too-terrible convenience store sandwich, and decided we had no confidence the road would open at all that day.  Now the key was to find a place that would allow Riley to stay with us, and doing so might prove a bit of a challenge.  Fortunately, the cell service is also well-developed here, so we were able to sit in the car at the gas station and search for a place to stay.  I happened on the site for the local Ramada Inn, and while it made no mention of whether or not pets were allowed, we were burning daylight, and if we didn’t make arrangements soon, we might be sleeping in the car.


We made our way along the snowy streets to the hotel, and Kate took Riley for a little walk to find a patch of snow-covered grass or something while I went in to do battle with my Turkish and get us a room.  The desk staff was very friendly, and it turned out they had one room left, but it was a suite, “Would that be ok?”  In my Turklish and the desk staff’s pretty decent English, I asked if they would allow our friendly and gentle doggo as well. 


“Oh, I’m sorry sir, we don’t allow dogs in the hotel,” said the front desk manager.


“Ah, I see.  Not even for just the one night?  You see, we’re stranded because of course the highway is closed, and have nowhere else to go tonight.  He’s very quiet, very gentle and will cause no trouble,” I pleaded.


“Hmm…” he mumbled, glancing at his colleagues, “Let me call my boss,” he said.


“That would be great, I’d really appreciate it,” I said.  “If not here, can you recommend a place for us to go?” I asked.  “We just need it for the one night, and as you can imagine, it’s not easy to find a place at the last minute like this,” I hinted.


Holding his phone and ready to dial, he said, “Well, what kind of dog do you have, sir?”


Like a gunslinger of the Old West, I whipped out my phone and showed the short video I had just taken of Riley romping in a snow bank less than an hour earlier.  “Riley the Wonder Dog is a gentle old Golden Retriever!” I nearly shouted.


His face melted into a big smile, and he said “Oooooh, well in that case, I think we can make an exception – but I must take a picture with him, because he will be the first – and probably the only – dog ever to stay at our hotel!”


The local bakery down the street was still open after we checked in, and not long thereafter the desk staff had a dozen fresh macarons to share as a small token of our thanks.  A decent (albeit not terribly hot), steak, salad, and a pretty good bottle of red for room service, a hot shower, and a quiet room helped us to weather the storm, so to speak, and shortly after a nice Turkish breakfast the next day, the highway opened up and we made our way back without further trouble.


If you ever find yourself in Balıkesir, stop in to the Ramada and tell them you’re friends with Riley the Wonder Dog, they’ll take good care of you.


Şimdilik güle güle!

Well, we’re nearly nine months in to this three-year tour, the vast majority of which has been spent here in Istinye Park.  But we have had other small adventures here and there, like trips into the old city on those three lockdown-free Saturdays and on the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday.  Kate has had a few adventures of her own, with a day trip to the famous town of Iznik, also known by its ancient name Nicaea (of the Nicaean Creed), which today is known for the workshops producing hand-painted Iznik ceramic tiles.  She and her friends venture out of the apartment complex every week to the local park nearby, down to the waterfront of the Bosporus, to visit an old Byzantine fortress along the water, or to tour the Ottoman palace closer to the city.


Historic streetcar and the Taksim Square Mosque

Some of the millions of tulips in the park near us

Charming street in Kadıköy

Sophie is still in St. Paul working for Fairview Health Services, and like many who started new jobs or careers mid-pandemic, she has yet to work in the office, creating a small home office in the apartment she shares with her good friend Claire.  


Tommy and Jenna moved from Arlington into Washington, D.C. back in early January - coincidentally, the same week as the failed insurrection at the Capitol and only a few blocks from it.  Jenna continues her accounting work from home full-time, Tommy will be leaving his job as a contractor in the IT field later this summer as he will be starting graduate school in August at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, a two-year program at the D.C. campus that allows his first year to be completed in Bologna, Italy.


My mom and dad completed the successful process of moving from their home of 50+ years back in the fall, and just weeks ago the house was put on the market, selling within just a few days.  Given that we are, you know, kind of far away, I will be forever grateful that my Milwaukee-based brother has been there to help shepherd them through this stressful and challenging process.


Fully vaccinated, or scheduled to be shortly, the Team is very much looking forward to the return of something akin to normal travel opportunities, which of course also means we are very much looking forward to your visit! 

The onset of 2021, and more to the point the entire year 2020, has us a bit metaphorically bruised and battered, but we all remain healthy and safe, and we hope you can say the same.



The symbol of Istanbul, created for and winner of a 1969 design contest, shows the Bosporus separating Europe from Asia in a crest along the bottom, topped by the ramparts of the ancient city walls.  The only city in the world that exists on two continents, it also is said to have been founded on seven hills (the triangles), and of course is home to some of the world’s most iconic mosques like Hagia Sophia, shown with the four minarets and the domes.

The opinions expressed within are my own and not those of the U.S. Government.

Please do not disseminate widely without permission.