Healing Contradictions

Healing Contradictions

We’re back. Nashville, TN, U.S.A.

Our beautiful and at times arduous journey around the world has brought us back home. In the midst of glowing hues of Sri Lankan sunsets and fourteen hour rickety train rides through the rainforest, we realized that our emotional and spiritual health needed the support of a consistent space, truthful friends, and wise guidance.

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“The many contradictions in our lives – such as being home while feeling homeless, being busy while feeling bored, being popular while feeling lonely, being believers while feeling many doubts -  can frustrate, irritate, and even discourage us.  They make us feel that we are never fully present.  Every door that opens for us makes us see how many more doors are closed.” -Henri Nouwen

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We unpacked all of our belongings from storage into a temporary apartment yesterday. As I unwrapped the coffee mugs in our new kitchen, I felt the tugging contradiction of being so glad to be back in Nashville, where I can share a cup of tea and heart stories with a childhood friend on my cloud couch; and at the same time feeling the sadness that this chapter of our world journey has come to a close and I won’t be drinking tea with sherpas in the majestic mountains of Nepal learning from their way of life. This traveling journey door has closed.

Nouwen continues, “But there is another response.  These same contradictions can bring us into touch with a deeper longing, for the fulfillment of a desire that lives beneath all desires and that only God can satisfy.  Contradictions, thus understood, create the friction that can help us move toward God.”

As I move through the friction, I’m continuing on a deeper spiritual journey yet in a familiar place. God also continues to open doors here at home and show me that ultimately my soul connection with Love is of the utmost importance, and that he has me anywhere and everywhere in the world.

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Thank you to everyone we met along our journey. Each story, smile, and tear that was shared has deeply changed me, and will continue to transform me as I spend the next six months exploring all of the footage and photos I captured over the past months. Be on the lookout…

And finally, my deepest, and grandest gratitude for the Michael B. Keegan Traveling Fellowship for this opportunity and dream come true. Thank you to Sandy Stahl for your guidance and understanding, Sara Bickell for your smile and encouragement, Linda Carter for your unwavering support, Christopher Peak for walking along side me, Sam Girgus for your words that have changed my course, Will Akers for wearing many hats and being the best at all of them, Jonathon Rattner for your supportive critique, all the previous fellows for your advice and inspiring passions, and Mr. Keegan for giving me the opportunity to grow in ways I never knew possible.

Onto the next chapter…

Great Love in Addis, Ababa

I wish you could have seen her smile. Her lips curled at each corner like a cusping wave and opened so wide that her pink gums reflected the florescent light tubes up above.

I think she knows a lot about God. She looks up the entire day, except when she’s sleeping and that’s just because her eyes are closed. Sarah has a condition called Macrocephaly,when the head is abnormally large, hers being five times larger than the average child her age. Her large head keeps her gaze constantly heavenward and the weight of it locks her to her chair. It’s been 6 years since I’ve seen Sarah, but she doesn’t look a freckle different. But this time I see her completely different.

When I first walked into the Mother Teresa orphanage for children with special needs in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia as an 18 year old, I doubt I hid the fright from my face when I first saw Sarah. She laid reclined in her black padded wheelchair, smiling of course. I say of course because she always, always smiled. I quickly looked away as my grandmother’s souther drawl rung in my head, “It’s not polite to stare, Ashley.” But how is she alive? How does her brain function? What’s in her head? How long will she live? These questions kept my eyes glancing back at Sarah for answers and only receiving radiant smiles.

Over the next 2 months, our relationship consisted of exchanged glances, stares, and smiles. She was different from all the other children in that she couldn’t do anything for herself. That’s where Anna, her Italian nurse and guardian angel stepped in. Now this guardian angel didn’t have a harp and rosy cheeks. No, Sister Anna’s voice barked orders, and her presence intimidated everyone by evoking the fear of God at a mere 5ft tall stature. She fed, bathed, clothed, read, and sang to Sarah. Tough and all, Sister Anna gave and gave and gave.

Fast forward six years to today and the smell of sweet budding roses loft through the air that I only remember smelling of piss, bile, and tears. Today, life sweeps through the compound through bright yellow and blue painted walls, volunteers dancing and painting the patients faces, and freshly made beds with flower speckled sheets void of stains. I can barely contain my joy in the change. This place for the sick and dying, for the discarded by society, is one of the cleaner, happier places I’ve seen in Addis. Many of the patients are going to meet their Maker, and they are going with dignity, company, and care.

As Hailu toured us around the compound, I expectantly and hesitantly looked for familiar faces. To see the children I remembered meant great joy and reunion. To not see the children meant they had not only left this compound, but left this world. We walked into the men’s handicapped wing where immediately I saw two of the boys who had previously been with us on the children’s side 6 years ago. Shiny faced volunteers from Brazil fed the group as each child was able to be attended to, contrasting to the shortage of workers and volunteers that left many children alone and tied to a chair years ago.

When we walked into the women’s wing, I saw Sarah’s smile and pink gums before I saw her large head. Not believing my eyes, I ran to the back of the room, in awe that Sarah lived and that she still radiated that joyous grin. As I approached her and wondered what after all this time she had discovered about God, I saw Jesus sitting right there next to her bed, dressed in the same white apron, and singing the same angelic tune.

Sister Anna attended to Sarah with the same great love today, as she had done six years ago, and for the six years before that. Sister Anna truly embodied the charge from Mother Teresa painted in blue letters on the wall under her picture, “Do small things with great love.”

Walking out through the garden at the Mother Teresa Home for the Destitute and Dying, I realized that Sarah didn’t come to know a lot about God through looking up at the sky, but she knows God deeply through the hands that fed her, bathed her, and loved her. She smiles because she is loved greatly.

Jerusalem to Johannesburg

Today I experienced one of the treasures that comes from traveling around the world in one year: Connection.

These connections can come through friends of friends, which make you feel known in an unknown place.

These connections can come through random acts of fate and destiny that assure you of your path.

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These connections can come through understanding our shared humanity.

Today I experienced a connection and realization of shared humanity. Unfortunately, it is the dark, evil part of humanity that connected for me today.

Within one week I have seen images of lifeless limbs sprawled out in disarray in fields and streets. I’ve heard speeches that speak of purity and advancement with a shocking sense of fear. I’ve seen racial categorization in the forms of ID cards and gold stars in order to draw thick lines between us and them. I’ve walked through the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem and the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg within a week to witness the accounts of appalling racial injustice.

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Border Wall, Aiyda Refugee Camp, Palestine 2012

All the facts, statistics, and dates collide in my head forming a wreck of information that looks all too disconcertedly similar.

The scary thing is that the commonalities I see are a collision of past and present. Of far away and close to home.

Seeing the black and white photos of ghettos in Europe where the Jews were displaced and the townships of black South Africans remind me too much of the Aida refugee camp in Bethlehem, where Palestinian refugees live. The images of the black student protests in the 1970′s in South Africa look shockingly similar to the black student protests during the Civil Rights Movement in my hometown of Birmingham, Alabama.

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Berlin Jews forced to wear the Star of David – late 1941

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Aiyda Refugee Camp, Palestine 2012

I’m not a historian with an in depth understanding of the past or present conflicts, but my observations and feelings see the commonality of a deep rooted fear in all these peoples involved on every side of the conflict.  Israelis fearful of being alone and hated by the entire middle east, which reinforces the barricade walls and resettlement of Palestinians. Palestinians afraid of not being remembered or heard, thus shouting with stones and bombs. White South Africans afraid of being the minority, thus reinforcing racial lines through Apartheid.  Black South Africans fearful of being dominated so dominating through crime. (I also want to recognize there are many dissident voices advocating against these norms and many exceptions to these generalizations, praise for those.)

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Students protest at UWC, Cape Town, 1976

Civil Rights March in Birmingham, Alabama. March on Washington, 1963

Civil Rights March in Birmingham, Alabama. March on Washington, 1963

Everyone is afraid of “the other.” Much of these racial injustices focused on the identification of “the other” through identification cards, gold stars, signs–whites only, coloreds only, etc. The French philosopher, Emmanuel Levinas, talks about “the other.” He says, “The Other precisely reveals himself in his alterity, not in a shock negating the I, but as the primordial phenomenon of gentleness. To meet the Other is to have the idea of Infinity.” To me this means that in some sense or another we meet God in the other. Ethically, for Levinas, the “Other” is superior or prior to the self; the mere presence of the Other makes demands before one can respond by helping them or ignoring them. Levinas said, “My relationship with the Other as neighbor gives meaning to my relations with all the others.” I believe the other affects us more intimately than we may imagine.

I once heard that the opposite of fear is love.

The glaring and imperative thing about all of this, is that it’s still very prevalent today. Maybe we don’t have the same cards or stars, but the deep rooted fear of “the other” haunts society spreading its poison in the barbwire fences and security systems in Joburg, the informally segregated neighborhoods and schools in Birmingham, Alabama, and the 300 foot concrete wall between Palestine and Israel. Everyone is so afraid of the other, that we can’t even live next to each other, or sleep soundly at night.

Each of these peoples have undergone tremendous injustice and oppression, and I know that takes time to heal. At the same time it seems like we are hiding, reinforcing “the other” and our fears through lines and walls rather than going out in love to know the other. I wonder when will “the other” become our neighbor?

I just made a new friend in Cape Town named Lee, who is a professor and PhD candidate at the University of Cape Town. She has both black and white ancestors, and is a practicing Muslim. In a conversation she said, “It’s the personal interaction that changes everything.”

Love is an action.

For 2013

“Each day holds a surprise. But only if we expect it can we see, hear, or feel it when it comes to us. Let’s not be afraid to receive each day’s surprise, whether it comes to us as sorrow or as joy. It will open a new place in our hearts, a place where we can welcome new friends and celebrate more fully our shared humanity.” -Henri Nouwen

I received these words this morning and on this first day of 2013, I feel a calling to be receptive.

For 2013, I hope to be receptive…

of travel delays and discomfort so that I can really enjoy a bed at night.

of different people so that I can learn to see brothers and sisters.

of my body, so that I can appreciate its miracle and cherish its health.

of my failures, so that I can grow into new places.

of hard conversations, so that I can have deeper understanding.

of my imperfection, so that I can laugh at myself.

of my grief, so that it can grow and change me.

of God’s love, so that I can love more abundantly.

of my uncertainty, so that I appreciate the resounding Yes.

of gifts from strangers, so that I may also pass them on.

of my present, so that I can live fully in each moment.

I’m really enjoying exploring yoga more on this journey as it is teaching my body to flow, when I too often battle my body. It’s also teaching me to let my mind go, when I too often fight my way through life. I’m noticing there is a flow to life that is so much bigger than me, and this year I hope to explore what it feels like to go with the flow rather than constantly trying to swim against it.

I still believe in challenging myself, people, institutions, laws, governments, and injustice, but my prayer for 2013 is one of my dad’s favorite prayers, that I think grew him into the wise man that he was.

God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.

Living one day at a time;
Enjoying one moment at a time;
Accepting hardships as the pathway to peace;
Taking, as He did, this sinful world
as it is, not as I would have it;
Trusting that He will make all things right
if I surrender to His Will;
That I may be reasonably happy in this life
and supremely happy with Him
Forever in the next.
Amen.

May your 2013 be full of serenity and surprises.

What things do you hope to be receptive towards? (Please share in the comment box for discussion… since that’s what this whole journey is about.)

Landed in Summer: South Africa

Left my down jacket in Israel and put on my flip flops because we have officially switched seasons with a 12 hour journey from the wintry middle east to sunny South Africa. Thanks to my friend Alice Bator, who lived in South Africa this past year on a Fulbright scholarship, we were directed to the lovely Idube Pension Hostel in Melville, a town on the outskirts of Johannesburg. We’ve already met some great people here to usher us into the African way of life.

First impressions:

  • Sunshine makes you happy. I’ve seen more radiant pearly smiles here in 2 days than I did for weeks in Europe and the Middle East.
  • There a hundreds of thousands of walls. Walls and gates surrounding everything. Every household, every business, and soccer field are blurred or hidden from vision through their preferred method of crime deterrent from barbwire and spikes, to broken glass and electric wires.
  • I have a hundred double takes a day because I keep seeing small children driving cars… then I remember the driver is on the right side of the car.
  • Fruit is better in Africa. Mango, banana, and pineapple drip with the sweetness of the land and the ripeness of the sun.
  • No Problem. Today on a tour of the Soweto township, a luminous black cloud with mile long roots of lighting began to form overhead. I said, “It’s going to rain, we need to get back to the car.” Our smiley local guide replied, “No, it’s not.” Five seconds later a giant raindrop smacked me in the middle of my forehead and splattered over my entire face. The raindrops here are ginormous; they feel like getting pelted with a water balloon by my younger brother. I pointed to my wet face and he just smiled and said, “No problem.” Then the water balloons turned into icy snowballs of hail , to which again, Landela said, “No problem.” With my nice camera in tote, those were the last words on my mind… I’ve got some chilling out to do… and an African “no problem” mindset to adopt.IMG_5037
  • African animals are badass. We drove through the Lion Park on our first day where time stood still as we watched giraffes gracefully stride across the fields, zebras buck and prance with humor, cheetahs relax with a regal and disinterested pose, guinea hens scamper through the grasses with gossiping secrets, and a lion couple play hard to get before some sexy business. 
  • Reminders to count my blessings. This reminder came through those literal words this morning at an Anglican church across the street from where we are staying. The priest spoke of focusing not on the harm others have done to you, so that you can focus on what good you have done or left undone. She said to count your blessings of 1. being alive, 2. health, (to which my eyes landed on two small girls disfigured from burns with scars reminding them of how hard they had to fight for their health), 3. safety, (my mind raced with the endless tales of crime in Johannesburg and the fences that paradoxically only made me feel more un-safe), 4. employment (I thought about all the people hustling on the street outside), and 5. friends and family (over 1/3 of the congregation came alone to church.) Yet Amens and Hallelujahs rang as people chose to see the sunny side of life. If this congregation can be thankful, I am thankful and thankful for them.

Conversations with Nezzy

When Nezzy walked in the door, she wasn’t at all what I expected. Then again I didn’t really know what to expect of a 21 year old from Bansko, Bulgaria. Dressed in loose jeans, a billabong hoodie, vans, and chunky glasses, she welcomed us with a nice hug, and the perfect English greeting. Christopher and I had heard a lot about Nezzy through her aunt Daria, who connected us with her family in Bulgaria. Nezzy had been traveling all day from Sophia, the capital city, where she lives with her mom and brother and works in a ski/clothing/skater shop. Exhausted from her 10 hour days, she grabbed some of her grandmother’s delicious food and we told her we could meet up tomorrow to go up into the mountain.

The next day, Nezzy drove us into the country to one of the surrounding villages to visit an old church that was famous for it’s fresco depiction of Jesus riding a spaceship. To our dismay, it wasn’t actually a spaceship, but rather the “light” that was coming from Jesus that had a rough semblance of a spaceship. Nevertheless, it was a fun adventure and bonding experience to search for the UFO Jesus in the freezing cold.

On our drive back to Bankso, Nezzy told me she hated Christmas. She also said it was hard to be in Bansko. She told me about an ex-boyfriend that she didn’t like very much and that she felt like she needed to start doing some kind of activity. We stopped in a flower shop where she ran in and bought one red rose. She told me her dad always bought her roses. She dropped us off and told us she would see us later after she went to go spend some time with her dad and give him the rose.

As I got out of the car I had that suffocating, dry knot in the back of my throat that is a mix of tears and fighting them off at the same time. There were so many little things that Nezzy said that seemed to pinprick the tiniest spots of my heart to make it beat harder. I hadn’t said a word, but I couldn’t wait for the time for us to talk.

At dinner that night, I could hardly believe all the similarities in personality that I shared with Nezzy. Behind our individual ways of coping, my unhealthy need for control and her everything is okay attitude, were messages and stories that couldn’t escape or fool the other. It’s hard to lie to a fellow griever. I stayed pretty quiet as she shared, but time after time, I felt the words in my heart keep saying, “me too.”

After dinner I asked Nezzy if we could sit and talk for a while, just the two of us, and if she would be okay if I filmed it. She said she would be cool with that. I didn’t want to put her on the spot to talk about the loss of her dad and her grief, I really wanted us to have a shared conversation, so I decided to put the camera at a 90 degree angle from us, so that we both were on the spot. It was good for me to be in front of the camera for a change, and at the same time, neither of us really noticed it because our horizontal connection was so strong.

After I hit record, I felt that same suffocating, dry knot forming in the back of my throat as I began to tell Nezzy about why I feel like we are alike and how we have similar stories. It’s always hard telling someone about how my parents died, but it felt good to tell Nezzy because I knew she wouldn’t be afraid, feel shame, or feel scared.

At the end of our 2 hour conversation where we talked about everything from how we found out our parents died and the things we miss the most to how we don’t feel our age and why we hate Christmas, I felt  the knot release. I felt like I could take deep breaths again, because while we didn’t fix anything, we shared something sacred. We shared a “me too.”

Here are two excerpts from our conversation:

Beirut: Talking about Home

“So what do you think about Lebanon?” asked Alain, a new friend and architect in Beirut.

“ It’s great, we’ve really enjoyed it thus far,” I replied.

“I mean is it what you expected?” he questioned.

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“Well, no.” I replied after some thoughtful silence. “I expected to feel a much more conservative atmosphere, and I didn’t expect to see such a beautiful, clean, posh downtown. I didn’t expect to feel so safe, and I also didn’t expect to get so many looks either. I didn’t expect to hear from so many youth that they love their land and at the same time criticize the culture and politics. But most of all, I didn’t expect for life to feel so normal.”

beirut at night

The fighting in Tripoli, a town 46 km north of Beirut has escalated, we learn on the news. Last night 4 people were killed and 40 injured. It’s an argument between the Shia and Sunni, two Muslim sects. Skirmishes have broken out in the town on and off now for about 21 months.

In Beirut, Tripoli feels like it could be another country in terms of distance. People are aware of the fighting, they talk about it, and they also continue drinking tea and driving their taxis. As safe as I felt, I don’t want to say you couldn’t even feel the fighting in Tripoli because you could, but it didn’t feel physically threatening.

The possibility of an outburst of gunshots on the street, or a car bomb in front of a church are everyday realities for the Lebanese, but the way that people congregate at Starbucks over lattes and shop at high end designer stores wouldn’t make you think there is any instability. Their awareness of these violent possibilities seems deeply ingrained in the collective conscience since the majority of the Lebanese have grown up with political and economic unrest.

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“It’s crazy to me to be driving by the pristine waterfront and high-end boutiques of Hermes and Prada and then see a tanker full of soldiers drive by,” I told Alain.

“Well you better get used to it, because that’s how it always is here,” he replied.

How it always is. So people choose to continue living their lives. Is it resilience, denial, or survival?

A few weeks ago one of the top government officials was killed in a car bombing. After the dust settled, people filled the streets that night, going out, drinking, playing backgammon, and smoking shish. It’s understood among the Lebanese that they will always respond like this. They won’t let the violence win. They won’t let it take away their lives, so they carry on day by day. Yet, I wonder at a deeper level how the instability is affecting the youth and thus the future of Lebanon.

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Memorial that remains today for Rafic Hariri, former primer minister, who was killed in 2005.

The instability of people’s homes here has me thinking a lot about how I define home. Security. Belonging. Protection. Acceptance. Peace. Support. No home is perfect, and here it seems like the definition and geographic location of home is constantly be redefined.

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After selling my parent’s house a year ago, and having all my belongings in storage, I’m personally invested in this idea of home, and wonder how do people cope when their homes are lost, threatened, or taken from them.

In Beirut, Christopher and I were blessed to stay in the lovely home of our friend Sally and her roommate Susan. Sally is from my same hometown in Alabama, but we actually met six years ago in Ethiopia. Being able to share space with them, talk about southern foods, and drink tea in the morning gave me a since of place and home on this journey where we feel like perpetual nomads.

Sally and Susan connected us with a bunch of their friends in Beirut that we were able to ask about their homes. We asked university students from Syria and Jordan, as well as a former Lebanese UN worker about their definition of home, and found a complex web of understandings of what home means.

Below is a small taste from one of our table discussions with international students at the Lebanon American University, where they each shared their definition of home.

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Name: Shuhd

From: Yemen

“Home is my family because the accept me.”

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Name: Ghid

From: Lebanon

“Home is what I want to reflect… all what I gain from all over the world and give back, fix, and sacrifice for.”

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Name: Bauik

From: Jordan

“Home is sacrifice, devotion, and pride.”

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Name: Tala

From: Jordan

“Home is a familiar, secure place that has given me a lot and I want to give back to.”

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Name: Leen

From: Jordan

“Home is where my parents are.”

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Name: Saukaina

From: Morocco

“Home is a place that has given me a lot, where I belong to and fit in.”

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Name: Lana

From: Jordan

“Home is where I feel loved and accepted.”

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Name: Basim

From: Egypt

“Home is made of Love alone.”

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Name: Tala

From: Jordan

“Home is where I can feel comfortable showing the real me. Where there is unconditional love and no judgement.”

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Name: Margueritta

From: Lebanon

“Home is the place I wish I was at during a hard time.”

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Name: Mohamed

From: Egypt

“Home is my comfort zone.”

Istanbul Eats

My father instilled in me a respect and love for refined food. His tastes buds grew quite sophisticated over the years as he could tell you the different years of a Bordeaux or the exact days to eat a wild Alaskan salmon. When my dad knew he was going to have a good meal, he wouldn’t eat the whole day so that he would savor each bite that much more.

My brothers instilled in me a creative and flavorful palate. My younger brother’s diet consists 97% of meat, and that includes the entire spectrum: tenderloin, ribs, tongue, duck, quail, venison, and I think he even sautéed some liver last week. Our kitchen cabinet has the most extensive collection of spices and hot sauce in all of Alabama that the boys would use in their food chemistry experiments of sauces and marinades.

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Today in Istanbul, I felt the culmination of the training from these three men pay off as Christopher and I ventured on an epic taste bud journey through the Old City on a tour called Istanbul Eats.

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We woke up late, so we dashed across town, arriving out of breath, but just in time to meet our guide, Meghan, an American expat who has been living, studying, and working in Istanbul since 1998. There were four other lovely women on the tour, three twenty something age girls from the states, and one woman in her forties, also from the states. We stood shaking hands, chatting, and tummies grumbling at the smell of fresh simit, the Turkish “bagel” covered in sesame seeds, lofting through the air.

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9:30am- The spice market is already in full bustle, as well as the vendors selling breakfast sandwiches and Turkish coffee. Our first stop in the market was a cheese shop where we picked three different kinds of cheeses, all from the northwestern region of turkey. Next, we stopped  at the olive vendor, who let us taste each different variety of olive: salty, sweet, shriveled, stuffed, hard, soft, and plump. Then to my squirrlish delight (I’ve been nicknamed squirrel because of my love of all nuts, dried fruits, and of course the mixes), we went to the nut vendor who had giant vats of every kind of nut, roasted in every kind of way, and nuts where you actually taste the flavor of a nut. You know how almond extract tastes completely different that almond nuts in the states? Yes, subtract all those GMOs and you have a true almond and that’s what’s in Turkey.

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Meghan led us into a tiny back alley, lined with huge burlap sacks of coffee beans. At the end, a table waited for us, covered in newspaper table cloth with 7 cups of steaming Turkish coffee. We spread out the cheese, olives, and simit for breakfast munching as Meghan told us our plan for the day. Then our treat arrived from one of Meghan’s vendor friends…in retrospect it is one of my top favorite dishes of the day: fresh buffalo mozerella with golden honey drizzled over it from the man’s hometown in East Turkey. Deeeeeevine.

  Turkish Coffee

A turn here, a turn there, I’m not even sure which way we wandered through the market my eyes were so busy taking in all the colorful and packed shops. We stopped on a side alley to meet the man of the hour. The young 26 year old, famous in all of Istanbul for the best Kokorec, sweetbreads wrapped in intestines. Apparently he has a secret source who builds 15 Kokorec each day for him. Only the freshest, since most others are frozen, he sells completely out of them before lunch time. When we asked him what his secret is, he just grins.
10:30am. I could smell our next stop all the way down the street. The pastry shop smell spoke louder than it’s simple furnishings, and that’s exactly they way they wanted it. Let the Katmer speak for itself. The baked to order layers of philo dough are brushed with butter, stuffed with fresh cheese and then folded over, dusted with pistachio and then baked to make me never want a sweet roll again. Gaziantep, a city in southeast Turkey, is known for the best pistachio baklava, which was just officially named that it originated from Turkey and consists of 85 layers of dough. The owners and employees of this shop come from the city of Gaziantep, so we knew this is the best of the best.C20C1956C20C1961On every Turkish menu you will see red lentil soup. I say that with thanks and praise because I ordered it at ever meal and every time it rocked my world. Rich red earth color, not to creamy, not too watery, the perfect consistency, and flavorful spice (brothers, take note) made this soup the perfect warm up and wake up. At 10:45 the little dive called Halis Brothers was full of men eating their soup for breakfast and I thought, if I lived here, I think I might just join them every morning as well.

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Ahmad loves the camera and knows how to work it too. But more than that he knows how to work pide dough (Pide = Turkish pizza). Mesmerized by the quick, repetitious movements of his hands, I forgot to look at his eyes. When I did remember to look up, I caught his eyes and realized he never once had looked down because the motions were known by heart. Ahmad studied for years under another pide baker and you could tell he had mastered the art of the whole process: mixing the perfect dough, forming the boat shaped pide, heating the wood fire oven to the perfect temperature, and placing each ingredient with precision.

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Meghan explained to us that Ahmad’s children are both studying at Istanbul university, physics and biology hoping to be doctors. She further explained that in Turkey, often times it is looked down upon for the children of a parent to follow in the same line of work because that would be too easy. “The Turks value and respect hard work. They believe in making a way for yourself, and not just taking the easy road, “ Meghan said.

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Meghan and Ahmad are good friends and one day she arrived looking a little down and he said to her with a locked gaze, “Do you trust me?” She stared right back, and said, “Yes.” The pide we got to try was the “Do you trust me pide.” A meat lovers pide of pastrami, sausage, and cured beef, it was gone just as fast as it was placed on the table. The whole group sat silent, savoring the spicy flavors and warm dough. We liked it so much that for our last meal in Istanbul Christopher and I walked an hour across town to Mavi Halic Pidecisi and asked Ahmad for the “Do you trust me” pide. And yes, we trust him.

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“Two savory dishes, must be followed by sweets,” says Meghan. After some more maze wandering we are led into the original, authentic, true Turkish Willy Wonka. Made from pure, fresh ingredients, the rosewater and almond apricot Turkish delight made my mouth water. Now I know why Edmond in Narnia could hardly resist the White Witch’s turkish delight.

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Doner (Shawarma) cones twirl at every corner in Istanbul. Their abundance makes me question how they could taste all that different, and then we saw the mecca of all donners. This doner was layers of beef, lamb, tomatoes, peppers, jalepenos, and onions. The succulent meat and fine shavings tasted ever better than it smelled.

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After a stroll through the more residential area, we stopped in a shop that reminded me of an old soda fountain with a mahogany wooden bar, swivel stools, and colorful blue and white tiles. The comparison worked halfway since they did serve a delicious milky drink, but no dairy. Boza is the only thing they serve and it’s a digestive drink/shake made from fermented millet, dusted with cinnamon and roasted chickpeas. In my mind, boza is the distant, twice removed cousin of applesauce and tastes of a crisp fall afternoon.

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At our next stop we met another young protegy in the Kurdish quarter know for his kofte, which means raw meat. Before I could say no and be repelled at the thought of eating a raw meat ball, Meghan interjected that it’s not acutally raw meat, but made from crushed walnuts, bulgar, spices and parsley. The mixture is the secret, and wrapped in a lettuce wrap I was quite a fan of this heart healthy dish.

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At 3pm and with quite full stomachs, Meghan announced, “Okay, now it’s time for lunch!” We all burst into laughter thinking it is impossible for us to eat another bite, which we quickly forgot once we sat down in the Kurdish restaurant Seref Buryan, know for their famous pit roasted lamb. We watched the chef carve the lamb with great precision and enjoyed the rack of ribs, only hungering for some barbeque sauce to taste like home.

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Our final treat, looked like just another variation of baklava, however the haystack crust, warm sweet cheesy center, and pistachio sprinkle dessert called kunafe filled us to the brim and finished off our epic journey through Turkey’s fine, complex, and tasty cuisine. The Istanbul Eats tour gave us a literal taste of Turkey, as well as a figurative as we were able to learn about the different regions, their specialities and the social implications of many of the foods. I’ve decided this is the way to see a city, meet its people, and discover it’s culture… foodie delight!

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Istanbul: an enchanting light

This place makes my eyes twinkle in wonder. And if you look in the reflection in my eyes, you’ll see why… it’s all twinkle here. Bright lights enlivening the historic mosques, rock music jamming out of the bustling cafes on Istiklal Street, funky boots and antique jewelry pouring out of the abundant collection of vintage shops in Cihangir, warm apple smells of shish lingering on the back alleys near Galata Tower, constant clink-clink of tiny silver spoons dissolving sugar in Turkish tea, endless vendors and aromas of kebab street food drawing travelers on epic taste bud journeys in the Old City, old men chatter and clatter of dice being rolled on backgammon boards, and Turkish delight that makes the word delight make all the sense in the world.                

We arrived in Istanbul after an all night bus journey from Sophia, Bulgaria, which included 3 bathroom stops, customs at the Turkish border for 2 hours at 3am, and duty-free shopping at 4am. Not exactly my idea of a fun late night. However, the savory spices, squawking seagulls, and echoing prayers woke us from our slumber with energy to explore the Old City. As we walked by the Starbucks to behold the Blue Mosque, I realized that Istanbul truly is the place where the east meets the west and this intertwining makes the city ravishingly compelling.

Blue Mosque, Old City, Istanbul

The light sparkles through the trees in Istanbul that also illuminates the people. There is a kindling fire of energy among the people as you can see all the entrepreneurs before you very eyes, selling boat trips along the Bosphorous or boza, a drink made from millet. Fifty percent of the population in Istanbul is under the age of 30, so there is a youthful passion and drive, yet few job opportunities. Sound familiar? Just like in the states, this generation of youth must create their own jobs, define new markets, start their own doner (shawarma) business, and fill new techno-industries. Many people see Istanbul’s western approach to business and civic liberties as a beacon of light for other Middle Eastern countries.

“The greatest asset and liability of Istanbul is its’ youth,” says Ziya, a fellow Vanderbilt alum, who studied at the Owen Graduate School of Business. Ziya sees the youth as an integral part of Turkey as to whether which direction the country will go, which is uncertain. An entrepreneur himself of a media agency, Ziya sees many similarities between Istanbul and the US in terms of opportunities for people to start their own businesses. Ziya said, “I’ve worked in both the big corporate and start-up world, and they both have their advantages, but I prefer the passion and flexibility of having my own company.”

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It’s not a piece of cake though. Ziya languishes over the many struggles of starting your own company in Turkey, from high taxes to poor infrastructure; his company has many hurdles to overcome.   When I asked Ziya where he saw himself in 10 years he said he wasn’t sure. He quoted the saying, “Turkey is like a ship going east, but a man running west.” The economy of Turkey is relatively stable, attracting many foreign investors and most people are happy with their leaders because of it. But not everyone.

While the economy may be doing well and business is moving in a western direction, many people feel the current government is grooming the country for more conservative culture of the east like that of Dubai. Recently the government banned tables and chairs from being outside on sidewalks because of traffic, but everyone knows it is to limit public drinking. Turkey was also just named the most dangerous and oppressive country towards journalists, having jailed more journalists that Iran, Eritrea, and China. There is something the government is hiding and people know it. Many are also too afraid to say anything about it because of the way the government will respond.

“The government has done amazing things for our economy and that’s keeping the people happy, but what people don’t realize are the freedoms that the government is slowly taking away that will be gone before anyone can do anything,” says another friend from Istanbul.   When I asked Ziya what his goals were he replied, “My goals for my life are now the goals I have for my children. I hope that they will live in a healthy and safe environment and go to good schools. I hope that they can stand on their own two feet, then I’ll be happy.”   Ziya’s goals for his children seem like a reality today in Istanbul, but as the government continues to move towards conservative measures the future of Turkey as the poster child of a progressive nation in the Middle East is in question.

The beautiful chaos of culture, religion, east, and west of Turkey has captured a part of my soul. Istanbul in particular is one of the most enchanting places I’ve ever been. Its’ geographic location of being on two continents, Europe and Asia, makes it a strategic player in both world politics and economics. It will be interesting to watch Turkey over the next 10-20 years to see if it does become the ship or the running man.

Bulgaria, the…

Bulgaria, the… I’m not quite sure what to name Bulgaria.

… the beautiful.

Bulgaria without a doubt is a gorgeous country for it’s landscape. Glorious snow-capped mountains, sparks of yellow trees that poka-dot the hills, winding country roads, and colorful farm plots. Every single person we asked what their favorite thing about Bulgaria was, replied, “The nature.”

… the tired.

As soon as we pulled into the college town Blogovegrad, the air felt thick as mud. The energy felt low, even though Blogovegrad has many young people. People were tired of being unemployed, tired of the corrupt government, and tired of not being able to change things. We spent two days at the American University in Bulgaria on campus asking students what they thought about Bulgaria, to which the exchange students from the US and Ireland replied “Ugggg. The people aren’t warm and friendly. It’s a sad place. We can’t wait to leave.” The Bulgarian students replied, “It’s okay. We will leave as soon as we graduate. There is no future here for us. Go to the villages and visit the old people. They are the real heart and soul of Bulgaria.”

… the familial.

We arrived in Bankso to be greeted by a handshake of giant love and a smile as wide as the crescent moon. Meet Borislav (Bobby), our friend Daria’s father, the sixth family generation in Bansko. After a car ride of gestures and more smiles we arrived to traditionally designed compound to the warm and lengthy embrace of Nezy, Daria’s mother. That is a hug I will never forget. Our days in Bankso involved a lot of non-verbal communication with Nezy and Bobby. Either through delicious homemade feasts of moussaka, banitsa (pastry filled with cheese), and sarmi (stuffed cabbage) or the warm fires Bobby made every morning and that glowed for us each evening when we returned, we felt the warmth of family with Nezy and Bobby. Their family is one of the oldest families in Bansko. When we walked through the small village center, Nezy said hello to every other person, and not just a greeting. Each encounter was a friendly and in depth conversation. When we told Daria (who lives in Harrisonburg, VA) over Skype about walking to town with her mom, she said she remembers as a little girl her mom’s lengthy encounters with neighbors. She said, “Here in the states we have to have all these community building exercises, but in Bulgaria you don’t have to build community because it’s been there for generations and generations.”

… the corrupt.

Bulgaria has a long history of occupation and oppression with over 500 years under the Ottoman rule. The country always seemed to get on the wrong side in the wars and has not had good luck in the realms of politics. Over the past century they have been under communist, socialist, and democratic rule. Each party seems full of scoundrels and rather than feeling passionate about change, the people seemed to feel that all government is corrupt. The corruption breeds disenchantment and disengagement in creating a future for Bulgaria.

…the hopeful.

Tsvetan has a quirky smile that let’s you know he doesn’t always take life so seriously. His laugh also serves as evidence to this point. But the 4 hours we spent with him on a frigid morning in

Bankso made us see a seriously powerful side of Tsvetan. Tsvetan is a psychologist and predominantly works with children and families of children with either physical or mental disabilities. He took us to three centers: one day center for children and adults with disabilities, one home for orphaned young people with disabilities, and one transitional home. After seeing these places, and walking through with Tsvetan, I felt like the entourage of a movie star because it was obvious that all the staff and participants adored Tsvetan. Afterwards we went to a coffee house for older adults in Bansko town center where Tsvetan shared his own story. His son has a mental disability, which has enlivened and empowered Tsvetan to desire to change the way Bulgarians think about disability. He said, “We need to have people with disabilities out in society so that people know that they exist and that they are just as much a part of our society. We must change the way we think.”

… the healing.

Nezy’s grandaughter is named after her. So young Nezy, who is 22, and I have crazy similarities. When she was talking to us on our walk to dinner one night, Christopher kept squeezing my hand at her every sentence because it sounded like something I might say. We seem to have similar life experiences as well as similar personalities in the way we think and respond. My favorite evening in Bansko included a hot cup of tea, a roaring fire, and a conversation with Nezy about the loss of her father and the loss of my parents. A friend who lost their mom told me that once you lose a parent, it’s like you become the member of this secret club and only the members can understand so many newly tainted things in life. I felt like Nezy and I were in our secret club quarters talking about all the things from why she hates Christmas lights to why God can be confusing. We both shed tears of healing for being able to share our experiences in words and in life, knowing that we aren’t alone.

 

Bulgaria. I’m not sure what to name you. You are a complex creature. I felt sad in your borders from the lack of hope and energy of the people. Yet, you surprised me with several gems of human beings like Nezy and Tsvetan that made me think you aren’t so bad. I’m sorry for the years of oppression that you have undergone, and I pray for peace in your land. Most of all, I pray that all the turmoil in your soil will not go to waste, but rather be fertile ground for new growth for all your peoples.