Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Currently: Turkey edition

I've been working in southern Turkey for more than a month now (crazy!) so I figured it was high time to record a slice of what life looks like right now.

Exploring: the mosaic museum, the old castle, and the Euphrates River. This part of the country is not highly-touristed by international travelers and it doesn't have the flashy Mediterranean views or fairy chimneys of other part of the country, but the corners I have seen of it have been delightful. You can't really travel in the Middle East and North Africa without tripping over a Roman mosaic, so I thought I had seen them all, but the mosaic museum here is mind-blowingly good. And last weekend we drove down to a spot on the Euphrates River where you can take a boat ride past an ancient castle, man-made caves in the hills, and a city that sunk during the Birecik dam project, and eat dam fish in a delightful village.

Enjoying: doing work that's in that elusive sweet spot where I'm comfortable enough with what I'm doing that it's not totally overwhelming, but it's challenging enough that I'm learning. Where I have enough work that I need to keep a close eye on my to-do list but not so much that I want to cry.

Writing: like I'm running out of time. Which I am for submitting a couple of additional grad school applications to Boston-based schools.

Eating: so well. During the day, folks in the office often order in or go out for Turkish or Syrian food. It makes for a quick and delicious route to cultural tourism. Gaziantep is famous throughout Turkey for its kebab and baklava since we are in a major pistachio-going region. In the evenings, I generally cook for myself and it's nice to have that familiar routine to balance it out. As snacks, I've also been eating a ton of pomegranates and Magnum bars. When traveling I am much more likely to treat myself - unfamiliar and sometimes challenging circumstances demand comfort food.  I only occasionally buy ice cream bars at home but here I eat one most nights and I am not sorry. Even better is the fact that they come in pistachio, hazelnut, and tahini flavors.

Running: a lot. I live conveniently very close to the gym within my already convenient gated community and I've gotten in a good habit of regularly going a few times a week. For the last three years I have set the goal of running 365 miles and then as my interest in running waxes and wanes over the year, I quickly fall behind. This year is no exception, but with no Bar Method to keep me away from the treadmill, at least I am finishing strong. Work trips often mean late nights, heavy food (so much shawarma!) and little opportunity to work out, the combination of which leave me feeling sluggish, so I'm glad I've been able to build in a consistent exercise routine here.

Listening to: Harry Potter and the Sacred Text. I am always reluctant to subscribe to a new podcast because I listen to so many, so new pods really have to prove themselves if they are going to stay in rotation. This is, as promised, a reading of Harry Potter as a sacred text. I initially thought that meant they would talk about the literary and biblical allegories ("Lupin means wolf!") in the text, which I feel like I've gotten plenty of over the years. Instead it's a close reading of Harry Potter with a view towards its spiritual lessons. done by folks pursuing non-traditional ministries at the Harvard Divinity School. It is like a balm for the soul, especially when my political podcasts have my heart racing and my head spinning. It reminds me a bit of Unitarian church (where, appropriately enough, the head minister looks just like Harry Potter to me).

Laughing: at myself for writing more in the Harry Potter paragraph than anywhere else in this post.

Watching: Outlander. As a story of a 27-year-old stranger in a strange land, it's proving to be surprisingly resonant for me at the moment. And the Scottish scenery feels very cozy this time of year.

Reading: Life after Life. Loving it even if the passages on Hitler's rise to power are hitting a little too close to home these days.

Buying: a lamp, wine, and cheese. Even though Turkey stayed on summer time this year (i.e. did not end Daylight Savings Time) and the sun sets an hour later than it might otherwise, it still gets dark early. Better lighting and creature comforts are making all the difference on long winter evenings.

Missing: Halloween and then the election and now Thanksgiving. I'm so glad to be here but a little wistful about being far away during such an eventful time.

Learning a ton - just how I like it.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Thanksgiving in Turkey

Thanksgiving at the Hagia Sophia seven years ago and Thanksgiving in my apartment elevator today.

This was the second Thanksgiving I have spent in Turkey, with all the delightful pun opportunities that provides (plus the sad irony that Turkey the fowl is difficult to come across in Turkey the country). The first was Thanksgiving 2009, when I was studying abroad in Egypt and a few of us took advantage of the long weekend to get out of dodge. Turkey felt like a breath of fresh air after the chaos and challenges of Egypt and I completely imprinted on it. I don't remember exactly what we did on Thanksgiving day, but we were probably seeing the sights around Istanbul. When we were back in Alexandria, our cohort simulated a Thanksgiving dinner as best we could.  I missed my boyfriend, whose studies abroad had been curtailed early.

I came back to Turkey for the second time in spring 2012, fresh off three months working in the West Bank and less than a year after graduating from college. Turkey again felt orderly and easy to navigate after the complications of life in Palestine. I stayed for six weeks, volunteering on organic farms near Yalova and Fethiye. I missed my boyfriend, who was on a fellowship having his own adventures around the world. I didn't know it then, but a few months later I would start working at NDI and begin the defining chapter of my twenties.

This year, I'm relearning Turkish phrases and paying careful attention to the security situation and focusing most of my attention southward. I'm remembering that travel, at best, lets us scratch the surface of a place. I celebrated Thanksgiving 2016 with friends from DC, roasted chicken and two kinds of stuffing, and a signature cocktail with pomegranate and rosemary. And I miss my boyfriend, who's embarking on his first year of law school.

Much has changed, much has stayed the same -- not least the regional environment and Turkish politics and foreign policy -- and I won't bore you with too much navel-gazing. Basically I have experienced the amount of growth and change that's only natural over the course of seven years in your twenties. But it strikes me that whenever I'm in Turkey, it's during a time of transition, of processing and figuring out next steps. For that reason and many others, it will always have a special place in my heart.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

An elections retrospective

In  2008, I got to vote in my first election, amidst the excitement of hope and change and getting to elect our first black president (and the ugliness that arises when people other than white men run for office). I remember watching Clinton and Obama debate in a living room full of my college friends on Feb break. My boyfriend and I had just gotten together, I was surrounded by new friends, and the world felt fresh and promising. I seriously weighed the choice of candidates in the primaries, but ultimately got swept up in Obama fever. (A choice that I would occasionally doubt over the next eight years when the going got tough for Obama.) On election day, we got Thai food for lunch in our small Vermont college town and watched Obama crush McCain as the returns came in at the student center.

In 2010... I have no recollection. The midterm elections fell during the crazy fall semester of my senior year in college, when I had decided it would be a good idea to take two senior seminars in political science while preparing to write a senior thesis. But I am pretty sure I didn't vote because when a political consultant showed me my profile in the Democrat voter database at an NDI event a couple years later, it showed that I was an inconsistent voter, to my great embarrassment. I'm sure I excused it by the fact that I would be voting absentee in Maryland, a reliably blue state.

In  2012, I had just started interning at NDI - long enough to feel like I had a front row seat on some of the action as we held our big conference in tandem with the DNC, but not quite long enough to get the campaigning itch in time to really get involved. In the days leading up to the election, we hosted a group of young North African party activists for a study mission to learn about how the democratic process works in the US and to get a front-row seat for the campaign. We visited Democratic and Republican campaign headquarters and saw Tim Kaine speak at a campaign stop when he was "just" running for the Senate. On election night, we watched the returns come in from a hotel near our office, and when they called it for Obama, we paraded jubilantly down to the White House as the North Africans shouted Obama a gagne!

I had come to NDI interested in working in international development in the Middle East, and somewhat agnostic about NDI's particular focus on democracy and politics, but that week was a turning point for me - I got to see our work up close as democratic practitioners from across the world shared and debated about political processes.

I was also on pins and needles the whole time because I had applied for a full-time opening on my team. The Friday after the election, I learned I got the job, went to my part-time SAT tutoring gig after work, picked up Chipotle for dinner, then greeted my boyfriend who had driven to DC from Ohio to move in with me and find a job - kicking off four years there together. I remember thinking, giddily, that Obama and I found out in the same week that we would both get to keep our jobs.

In  2014... I shamefully did not vote. Working for NDI brought me to Tunisia for most of the fall to work on programming for their legislative and presidential elections, and I messed up my application for a DC absentee ballot. So the great irony was that as I was working (indirectly) to encourage people to participate in elections in Tunisia, I had failed to participate in my own. I reassured myself that I would be voting absentee in DC, a reliably blue non-state.

In  2016, I was again abroad for election day, this time working in Turkey for NDI. But this time I was prepared. I knew I'd be heading out of the country, so I was vigilant in ensuring that I got an absentee ballot - no way was I going to miss voting for our first woman president, even if in the flurry of packing for Turkey I neglected to get an absentee ballot selfie.

Before I left, I also did a couple days of door-knocking in Philly with the DC for Hillary team, and a couple evenings of phone-banking to contact other volunteers. Once in Turkey, I used the campaign's online call tool to help get out the vote in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Arizona when people in those states were awake. All together, I made 200 calls. In the scheme of things it wasn't much, but it did ease my election anxiety.

I really wish I had gotten involved during the Obama campaigns, but I am proud that did what I could and glad that I've broken the ice. I also learned a lot in my brief canvassing experience. How to make the hard sell and not offer people an easy way out. How to not take rejection personally. And how to talk on the phone even though you hate it.

With the time difference, on election day I made a bunch of GOTV calls between finishing my NDI work, slept for a couple of hours, then woke up at 6:30 am to CNN and a text from my boyfriend saying "this is not going our way." At first it seemed like a solvable problem - some swing states had gone for Trump, but surely the pendulum would swing back and others would go for her - but by the time I left for work a couple of hours later, a Trump victory was all but assured. I went through the day stunned, refreshing Facebook for reactions from friends and #pantsuitnation and receiving condolences from friends and colleagues from across the world and thinking about all the ways this will affect my life.

I have so many thoughts about the outcome of the election that I will not weigh down this post with. But yesterday, I listened to the Keepin' it 1600 podcast - run by dudes from the Obama administration who have been confident in a Hillary victory - as they apologized for being smug and wrong. Throughout the campaign season, they have poked fun at "bed-wetters" wringing their hands about the outcome - and they reiterated that they did so not to allow people to be complacent, but to encourage them to channel those feelings into action. That politics are not a spectator sport.

People often roll their eyes or shut down the conversation when it comes to politics, but if anything is clear these days, it's that politics are deeply personal, and that they matter. I, like I know a lot of people are, am resolving to be much more active in them in the years ahead.