After watching this, you’ll have to come visit Turkey!

I’m hoping to get back into regular blogging after a long hiatus, but in the meantime, here’s a video I made for my alma mater’s study abroad office about why students should come spend a semester or longer in Turkey. It will give you a bit more insight to what Turkey as a country has to offer, and it also has some video of my university in K-town as well as the city center.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this blog are my own, and they in no way reflect the views of the Fulbright Commission, the United States or Turkish governments, or any other affiliated agencies.

The Craziest Small World Story You’ll Read in the New Year

This story is about my implausible, chance meeting with another American who shares with me a very small community from my hometown and how that meeting led to an opportunity for me to explore a creative outlet I have been missing for well over three years. Sound intriguing? Read on for a story that really lives up to the cliché: “Wow, what a small world!”

It may just be psychological, but it always seems to me when I’m traveling abroad that I have far more “small world” occurrences than when I’m living in the states. Maybe the inexplicable nature of some of these experiences is what makes them stand out to me–who would ever expect to run into people they have connections to back home when they’re halfway across the world?

Well, I did. And that’s just the beginning.

Before I continue, I should explain how being a Montana native makes these “small world” moments seem even more extraordinary. The best way I can explain this phenomenon is by recounting the typical introductory interaction I had with my fellow American teachers here during our orientation. It went something like this:

“Hi, my name’s Aven.”
“Hi, I’m _____________. Where are you from?”
“I’m from Montana.”
“Oh, that’s interesting. You’re actually the first person I’ve ever met from Montana.”

With the Turks I’ve met here it’s more like:

“Hi, my name’s Aven.”
“Where are you from.”
“I’m from America.”
“Where in America are you from?”
“Montana.”
——blank stare——
“Never mind. Do you know California?”
“Oh yes, of course! Los Angeles Lakers!”
“Yeah, right. Well that’s where I went to college.”

Anyway, the point is nine out of ten Americans I’ve met here say I’m the first Montanan they’ve ever met, so it’s really not statistically likely to run into someone from home. Montana just recently crossed the million person population mark. The city I went to college next to, San Jose, has almost a million people. I’m from Helena, the capital, which has around 30,000 people. San Jose State University’s total enrollment was 30,448 in 2012.

I think I’m getting off track. You get the point. Continuing on with the story.

Some of our friends in Eskişehir, Turkey threw a Halloween party and invited all the Americans to come last October. The three of us from K-Town joined the party, which over 30 Americans attended. I knew all of the ETAs, but there were some new American faces as well. Two of the American Fulbright professors teaching at Anadolu University in Eskişehir came to the party, and the typical “introductory interaction” I was prepared for took an abrupt turn right after I told Anna, an art professor at the University of Florida, that I was from Montana. In return, I got the unexpected, “Oh, I know Montana, what part are you from?”

At this point I was already quite surprised, seeing as I hadn’t run into too many people familiar with Montana, but things were about to get a lot more surprising. I told Anna I was from Helena, and to my disbelief she told me she had actually lived in Helena at two separate points in her life.

My jaw slightly ajar now, I asked her what she was doing that brought her to Helena, of all places. Her answer made my eyes open wide.

“I was a resident artist at a ceramic arts foundation. Maybe you’ve heard of it. It’s called the Archie Bray.”

I think I was trying to hide my astonishment because I knew what I was about to say would make her just as astonished as I.

“Yeah, of course I know the Archie Bray,” I said. “My grandfather was one of the founders.”

As you can imagine, at this point we both sort of just started laughing, still struggling to believe that the grandson of someone who founded a small-town ceramics arts foundation in Helena, Montana would run into someone who twice had a residency at the very same foundation, all at a little Halloween party in Turkey!

After the initial shock, I was really interested to know more about the ceramics program at Anadolu University. I did ceramics for several years in high school, took a few summer classes at the Archie Bray, and it’s a hobby that I have really been missing over the years. I was curious to see if I could do some studio work at the university.

So, after expressing my interest, Anna gave me her card and we followed up, planning a time for me to come visit. Several weeks later, I was headed on a train back to Eskişehir to spend the day getting to know the ceramics faculty, throwing some pottery on the wheel, and touring the facilities.

Before my visit, Anna asked me if I could give a wheel demonstration to some of her students (who were taking a hand-building class) because they would be interested to see different throwing techniques. I gladly obliged. What I expected was a very informal event, and that’s more or less what it turned into, but when I got to the ceramics department at the University and saw no less than five posters plastered throughout the halls with “Torna Çalıştayı: Aven Satre-Meloy,” which means “Wheel Workshop,” I got a bit anxious.

One of the many posters announcing my “wheel workshop.”

Despite my humble roots in ceramics (I am quite the amateur, I assure you), the faculty treated me like a professional artist from some heralded ceramic arts community in the U.S. A few of the funny comments I got during the day were:

“Aven, we searched for pictures of your work online, but we couldn’t find anything of yours.” I would later joke with my friends that this was due to the underground nature of my art–that the internet wasn’t yet privileged enough to see it.

Another funny comment, this one coming from a student: “Hmm, he looks really young for a guest artist.”

Students looking on as I “demo” for them.

I’m not quite sure why or how my artistry was given such high expectations, but I kind of just went with it, and after I started throwing it didn’t come up as much. Admittedly, I was rusty, but in the end, I threw a variety of pots, the students did get to see a different technique, and I got to throw alongside the wheel instructor in the department.

Throwing alongside Cemalettin Sevim, the department wheel instructor.

Afterward, we took pictures and Anna and I were both given gifts of students’ work–two beautiful glass-blown vases (the glass-blowing department is one of the best in Turkey, I think).

Receiving our gifts. Anna is next to me in the middle.

The whole day blew away my expectations. I was interested mainly in getting behind the wheel again after such a long time, but the visit turned into an experience I’m sure I’ll never forget.

The ceramics staff at Anadolu were some of the kindest people I’ve met in Turkey, and I owe both them and Anna a huge thanks for giving me this opportunity. If you get a chance, check out Anna’s website–she’s a great artist and a great instructor, too!

I was told to come back soon, and I think I will. One of the students is exhibiting in March, and he would like me to come back and do studio work throughout February so that I can exhibit with him. Fingers crossed that that might just happen.

Some of my work from the afternoon.

So, there you have it. One of the best days I’ve spent in Turkey so far and all because I ran into someone who I would never have expected to meet here. Isn’t it a small world?

The King Under the Mountain

High above the barren, stretching expanse of southeastern Turkey, we gather on the rocks scattered around the conical peak of Nemrut Dağı and watch the sun sink below the Eastern Taurus mountain range.

We are a group of nearly 30 English instructors, here to join the excited crowd of Turks, foreign travelers, and, on this particular evening, a delegation of some high ranking diplomats from Ankara.

We huddle on stacked boulders, pulling our scarves higher around our red cheeks while the temperature falls rapidly along with the sun. The waning sunlight casts a golden glow on the western face of Nemrut, illuminating the fallen heads of 30-foot tall statues that were erected here in the 1st century BCE. I imagine a lavish tombstone adorning the toppled statues might carry the following:

“Here lies the late Hellenistic King Antiochos I Theos of Commagene, the most famous of this kingdom, who has consecrated this site near to the Gods to be his final resting place. May his body be preserved for eternity.”

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The rocks we are gathered on lie next to what is presumably an enormous temple-tomb where King Antiochus I is buried. After the Romans defeated the Seleucid Empire in 190 BCE, the successor state Commagene was established to occupy the Taurus mountains and the Euphrates. The wide range of cultural influences in the area caused King Antiochus I to carry on a dynastic religious program that, besides including both Greek and Persian deities, also included King Antiochus’ own family lineage.

For this reason, many of the statues are themselves tributes to the King and his ancestors. The megalomaniac King thought himself a god, so he had the giant statues of himself placed next to those such as Hercules, Zeus, and Apollo. The fallen heads of two lion and eagle statues also stand watch over the King’s burial ground.

I can’t help but admire his choice of location for the impressive Hierothesion. At over 7,000 feet, Mount Nemrut is one of the highest peaks in southeastern Turkey. Looking out over the sprawling hills and ravines below, which stretch away from me in jagged switchbacks as far as I can see, I feel a bit divine myself. Though we took a minibus almost the entire way up the side of the mountain, we still had to climb several hundred steps to reach the terraces surrounding Nemrut’s peak. I was a bit short of breath on the way up and wasn’t sure whether to attribute that to the rapid elevation gain or to my growing affinity for endless Turkish breakfasts.

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After catching my breath and getting a closer look at the ruins, it dawned on me how impressive a feat it must have been to build this tomb. Though they have long since been toppled, the statues were once colossal; UNESCO claims some of the stone blocks used to make them weigh up to nine tons. The tomb is also heralded as a unique artistic achievement, the complex design and scale of which are unequaled in the ancient world.

For this reason, among others, UNESCO gave Mount Nemrut the deserving distinction of World Heritage site in 1987, and ever since it has been one of the most celebrated historical sites in Turkey.

Though many of the English teachers who came together on this trip took 10-14 hour bus rides to arrive, there was no doubt in any of our minds that the lengthy travel was worth it. It was the first time since orientation that many of us got to see each other, and instead of resting up before the long day of sightseeing that concluded with our visit to Nemrut, we crammed into our generous hosts’ living rooms in Malatya (a city near Nemrut where several of our group are placed) and told stories of teaching, traveling, and Turkey long into the night.

Our daylong tour began with a marvelous Turkish breakfast en route to Adıyaman, one of the nearest cities to Mount Nemrut, and then continued with a visit to the Severan Bridge named in honor of the Roman Emperor Septimius Severus. Constructed of 92 stone blocks, the bridge bends over a small creek that runs from a cavernous pool a hundred yards upstream. We stopped here for çay before driving on to the Kâhta castle, which was unfortunately closed for restorations.

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Still, we decided to spend an hour or so at a small cafe outside the castle entrance to eat a picnic lunch we packed, and I was quite sure that the Turkish man running the cafe had never had this many patrons at once–or at least not this many Americans.

The highlight of this stop for me was getting to play tavla (backgammon) with one of our bus drivers who put on the most animated, trash-talking displays I’ve seen while playing a board game. Though I retained the right to roll my own dice, I’m fairly certain he moved all of my pieces for me, in between bellowing HOOOs and HAAAAs after every roll. The Turks sure take their tavla seriously.

Finally, after gulping down several more glasses of amber tea, we packed back into the two minibuses we rented and climbed another two hours through a winding, narrow road until we reached the parking lot just below Nemrut’s peak.

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The chill is biting now, and we huddle closer beneath blankets in the fading light. Most of our group is scattered along several rock outcroppings overlooking the eastern terrace of Nemrut. Crowds gather below, faces turned toward the sun, watching it make its final descent behind the distant mountains.

It’s a strange feeling sitting here, surrounded by a group of people I met just over a month ago but who I now feel I know quite well. The feeling only grows stranger as I look down at the twenty-or-so men in pressed suits and designer dress shoes, who seem quite ill-equipped for both the cold and the dusty trek around the mountain. I’m told they are a delegation of politicians from the ruling AKP, traveling here from Ankara to visit one of Turkey’s most prized historical sites. I wonder how many of them have been to Nemrut before.

As the last of the sun dips between two far-off peaks, we quickly take in several more breaths of this miraculous view, surely one we will not soon forget. I push away the noisy bustle of shivering tourists trying to make their way back down to the parking lot and try for just a moment to imagine this place as King Antiochus I saw it–certainly a place fit for a king.

And then, with just one blink, the sun is finally out of sight, and the massive stone heads have seen it set once again. For over two thousand years they have watched the same breathtaking scene every night. I am envious at the thought.

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Disclaimer: The views expressed in this blog are my own, and they in no way reflect the views of the Fulbright Commission, the United States or Turkish governments, or any other affiliated agencies.

One Month in Turkey

Two weeks of classes, two trips to Ankara, and one trip to the Aegean later, I’m finally starting to feel settled in Turkey. Here’s a quick rundown of my classes, life in Kırıkkale, and the miscellaneous fun I’ve been getting up to recently. I plan on elaborating on the first two subjects in later posts, but this should provide a general overview of what I’ve been doing the past several weeks.

Always double check your classroom schedule

My first day of teaching, I sat in my office for several minutes to review my schedule and muster up some confidence before class. I intended to march into the room and start talking to students in English, trying to engage them in conversation regardless of whether they understood me or not.

I had seen almost all of my previous language instructors use this strategy on the first day of class (just come in and start talking; I think it’s to ease the fears of speaking a new language), and I thought I would replicate it. Also, I had the element of surprise on my side because the students were not yet aware they would have Americans teaching their speaking and listening courses.

Well, it would have worked great had I not accidentally marched into the wrong classroom.

With much gusto and enthusiasm, I began speaking in English to the class full of utterly confused students (who were expecting a Turkish teacher, not a native English-speaking American). Though I noticed the strange looks on the students’ faces, I paid no attention and assumed that their reaction was to me using only English as opposed to me being in the wrong classroom.

Two minutes later, a knock came at the door, and my Turkish colleague entered the room with an equally confused look on her face. After an awkward pause, it became clear to me I was in the wrong place and that I had just let loose an avalanche of entirely foreign English to unsuspecting students who were not my own. I smiled awkwardly, cheeks as red as the Turkish flag, and said it was nice to meet them all before I darted out of the class to find the correct room.

I suppose this story works as a metaphor for my first few weeks of classes. Things have at time seemed in serious disarray, and most of the activities I plan are hit-or-miss (if the students can even understand the instructions I’m giving), but I think the students feel generally excited to have an American who is near them in age teaching English Speaking and Listening, which is a nice reprieve from their grueling Coursebook (grammar) classes.

The classroom dynamic here is something I will certainly expand upon in a later post, but so far I would say teaching has been surprising, exciting, and many times fulfilling. The students in the prep English program may lack the maturity of American college-aged students, but they also at times seem very eager to learn and seem to have fun doing it.

Either that or they’re continually amused at my silly attempts to convey what I mean through charades, which, I must add, I think I’m becoming quite the expert at.

“It’s a good thing you’re close to Ankara”

Nine out of ten times, if you ask a Turkish person about Kırıkkale, they’ll stare at you in astonishment and ask why in the world you would ever go there. The ones who don’t have this reaction either don’t know where/what Kırıkkale is, or they have been living there their whole life.

A running joke among some of the younger Kırıkkale residents is that there are walls all around the city to keep civilization out. In fact, there are no walls around the city, so this is clearly quite ridiculous. The jab that made me laugh the most, however, is this: “Evolution stopped in Kırıkkale 10,000 years ago.”

Now, let me be clear. I really do not agree with these criticisms. Maybe it’s that I’m from Montana, so I don’t expect a big-city lifestyle, or maybe it’s just that I appreciate the slower pace around here, but I haven’t had many gripes about the town yet. I’m told when winter comes that will all change, though.

Kırıkkale, or K-Town as we call it due to its unexpectedly difficult pronunciation (every time I hear a Turkish person say it, it sounds different), is nestled in the foothills an hour southeast of Ankara. The town is primarily known for being home to several state-owned munitions factories, and every Friday we are reminded of this when we hear a booming explosion echo around the city (weapons testing, I’m told).

The view of K-Town proper from the fourth-story balcony outside my bedroom.

The view of K-Town proper from the fourth-story balcony outside my bedroom.

There are actually close to 200,000 people living in K-Town, but you wouldn’t know this if you walked around after 10:00 PM. There are no signs of nightlife, but there are some nice cafes and restaurants that the English teachers often gather at to drink tea or eat dinner.

What’s really nice about the city’s location is its proximity to Ankara. We can very easily go there on the weekends and get our “nightlife fill” in then.

All in all, I have no problem so far living here. I get the experience of an entirely foreign culture without the overcrowding or traffic, and I constantly tell my young, Turkish colleagues that while I don’t blame them for harboring such negative sentiments about K-Town, I really don’t share them yet. Though, I must admit, if one of them were headed to America to teach and got stuck in Wyoming, I’d probably apologize to them, too.

Plenty more to come about K-Town as I continue to explore and continue to hear more complaints about its “suckiness” from my Turkish colleagues.

Adventure Time

Despite the craziness of starting to teach several days after we arrived in K-Town, and despite the myriad tasks we have had to accomplish since we got here (like becoming legal residents, getting phones, setting up bank accounts, etc), we have actually had some time to travel.

We only teach Monday through Thursday, which is great because it allows us to take trips on the weekends. We were told our schedules were created with this in mind so that we could get away from the “horrible” place that is K-Town, no joke. Well, we’re taking advantage, and so far we’ve spent two weekends in Ankara and another in Muğla, which is a ten hour bus ride away.

Some of our fellow Fulbrighters are teaching in Muğla but are living a short distance away in Akyaka, which is in the beautiful southwest of Turkey right on the Aegean sea. Here’s a look from our friend’s place. Doesn’t hold a candle to my view in K-Town, does it?

A view of the Aegean from our friend's apartment in Akyaka.

A view of the Aegean from our friend’s apartment in Akyaka.

We soaked it in as much as possible during our three days there, but it was hard to leave. The sun was out all weekend, the air warm and wet with the water blowing in from the coast, and the sea speckled with hundreds of curved, rectangular kites. There was a wind-surfing competition there that weekend.

Our primary excuse for heading to Muğla was that two of our colleagues were delivering a presentation at an ESL conference, so we went to support them at the university on Friday. The rest of the time was spent lounging on the beach, eating fresh seafood, walking above the lush, green coast, and gazing into the impossibly blue water.

We also hopped on a bus to Marmaris to go out dancing with some ERASMUS (European study abroad) students on Saturday night, which was great fun. The scene was certainly foreign to that of a K-Town Saturday night.

On the long bus ride back home, I watched as the dark green forests slowly changed to tan plains and foothills, which signaled our arrival in K-Town was nearing.

We had to say goodbye to this view far too soon, but I have a feeling we may be back before leaving Turkey.

We had to say goodbye to this view far too soon, but I have a feeling we may be back before leaving Turkey.

This weekend we head southeast to Malatya for a mini-reunion with a group of Fulbrighters and to visit Mount Nemrut, where some large statues are erected around a supposed 1st century BC tomb. Plenty of pictures and stories to come.

Where this is going

It is my hope that this blog will not just merely be a travel journal detailing my travels around the country. I will, of course, write about my trajectories and the people and places I come into contact with, but I also plan to do a fair bit of writing about my impressions of the culture, education system, politics, language, and other similar topics. I also hope to do some natural history writing about the different landscapes I encounter along the way.

So, thank you for reading, and please let me know if there are specific things you would like to hear more about in the comments!

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this blog are my own, and they in no way reflect the views of the Fulbright Commission, the United States or Turkish governments, or any other affiliated agencies.

The Beautiful, Bustling Basement of Niza Park Otel

Before setting our group of over 70 English teachers loose across Turkey, the Fulbright Commission gathered us altogether for ten days of intensive orienting in Ankara, the capital of Turkey and the second largest city behind Istanbul.

While there, we were treated to lavish Turkish buffets in our 4-star hotel, a reception at the residence of the Deputy Chief of Mission for the U.S. Embassy in Turkey, and no less than 25 tea and coffee breaks. The trade-off was that we were mostly kept in the confines of the hotel basement/conference room for the duration of the program.

Within this while-walled basement, however, we began to explore together the history and politics of present-day Turkey and took stabs at learning basic Turkish with several local university professors. A number of reputable speakers from both Ankara and other cities came to tell us how Turkey transformed after its War of Independence in the 1920s and about the current political tensions in the region.

Turkey is an extremely dynamic country both politically and religiously, so look for more posts from me in the near future focused solely on these aspects.

While the first half of the orientation was focused on a comprehensive introduction to Turkish history and culture, the second half was a crash-course in EFL (or ESL) teaching. As many of you know, this will be my first time teaching English as a foreign language, so this part of the orientation is probably what I got the most out of, though there is a certain irony in being taught how to teach.

On two occasions, we were given respite from the all-day sessions to put on our tourist hats and go sightseeing. First, we went to Anıtkabir, the mausoleum of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, who, if you continue to read this blog, you will likely come to hear and know a lot about (he is the founder and first President of the Republic of Turkey). Interesting aside: in almost every single office or public space that I have been in so far proudly hangs a painting or picture of Atatürk–a testament to his demigod-like status in Turkey.

The second trip was to the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations, which exhibits Anatolian archaeology and artifacts from the myriad dynasties (Hittite, Phrygian, Byzantine, Seljuk, and Ottoman, to name a few) that spanned across present day Anatolia for over three millennia. Though I did enjoy my time there, I was surprised to find that Wikipedia claims the museum won the first “European Museum of the Year” award in 1997. It was pretty limited and is certainly not the most engaging museum I’ve visited in Europe.

Overall, aside from a few questionable speakers and from the somewhat ironic nature of a orientation that attempts to introduce Americans to Turkey by keeping them pent up in a hotel basement for 10 days, I think the Fulbright Commission put on a good program, and I was happy to have both a chance to meet all the other diversely-experienced and eager Fulbrighters as well as a small buffer period to ease my transition to life in Turkey.

I can’t say my Turkish improved that much, however, so that is still an ongoing adventure (to say the least). More on that and on my new digs coming up!

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this blog are my own, and they in no way reflect the views of the Fulbright Commission, the United States or Turkish governments, or any other affiliated agencies.

Turkish Alarm Clocks

I’m nearing the end of my second week in Turkey, and I haven’t yet had a chance to put all my thoughts, impressions, and musings into blog form yet. So, here’s my first effort in what will prove to (hopefully) be a very informative and fun collection of pictures, stories, digressions, anecdotes, and reflections on life as an English teacher in Turkey.

I’m not yet sure who all will be following along with me, so this first post will shed some light on what I’m doing, where I’m at, and what the upcoming year looks like. For those of you who already know the background information, please bear with me.

This is round two for me
During the summer between my Sophomore and Junior years at Santa Clara, I had a fellowship in Istanbul, Turkey for six weeks to work with the Turkish Cultural Foundation and Turkish Coalition of America (two non-profits working in the U.S. and Turkey). I came to love Turkey and dearly wanted to return after college.

In the fall of my senior year, I applied for a Fulbright grant to be an English Teaching Assistant at a university in Turkey. I found out that spring that I would indeed be returning to Turkey, this time to teach English at Kırıkkale University (KU) in central Anatolia.

Now two weeks into the long year ahead, I can provide a bit more context about what I’ll actually be doing while in Turkey. I, along with two other fearless Fulbrighters here, will not be assisting but actually teaching full English classes in the University prep school. A brief interlude about Turkish education is in order:

Unlike in the U.S., students in Turkey must score in the top percentiles on their placement exams upon graduating from high school in order to attend most four-year public and private universities. Students whose scores do not place them in the top percentiles must study at technical or vocational schools. As I understand it, KU is a public four-year university set up through the Turkish Council of Higher Education, but students in some fields lack the necessary English language skills to start at the university, so they must take a year of prep English (24 hours a week for two semesters) before they begin their degree courses. At KU, these students will study political science, economics, and international relations, and some of their classes will be in English, hence the required year of prep.

So, I will be teaching three classes of about 35 students each this semester, and my focus will be speaking and listening. The students will learn reading, writing, and grammar in other classes taught by native Turkish speakers, one of whom is my roommate here (more on him and my living set-up in a later post).

Other than teaching, I will be visiting cities all over Turkey (and staying with other Fulbrighters who are teaching at universities in those cities), I will hope to travel regionally a bit as well (though steering clear of geopolitical hotspots, I assure you), and I will attempt to learn the basics of Turkish while also indulging in many a kebab and glass of tea or Rakı.

In an effort to keep these posts brief (and to distance myself from my previous verbosity and longwindedness), I will end the formal introduction here. I hope to blog at least once every week or two, but I plan on posting a few more short ones later this week to get things started. Up next: my first (well, second) impressions of Turkey, my FIRST impressions of K-town (make sure not to miss this one), and some updates on my living/social situation and first week of classes.

Please tune in whenever you wish.

Before I go, I’ll leave you with a quick anecdote that I’m borrowing from one of the other Fulbrighters in Kırıkkale because I just loved it so much. We live in spacious apartments that are stacked together with balconies that look out at others on our streets, and in the mornings we are greeted by particularly Turkish alarm clocks–the echoing ting-ting-ting of little spoons stirring sugar cubes in hot cups of tea rings out across the streets as the teyzes (old Turkish women) start their morning. And as they start their mornings, so too for us begins another exciting day in Turkey.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this blog are my own, and they in no way reflect the views of the Fulbright Commission, the United States or Turkish governments, or any other affiliated agencies.

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