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LSU alum Aly Neel blogs about her first time in the Middle East.

Manship School of Mass Communication and Honors College graduate Aly Neel had many options upon graduating from LSU this past fall. Putting her political communication knowledge to use in Washington, D.C., or here at home in Louisiana were both viable ones.

Hikmet, Ali, and I in front of Roman castle ruins. If you look close you can see the crucifix and Latin letters. We munched on roasted kestanes (type of nut) and relaxed here for a while.

But Aly, never one to take the obvious path, decided to experience life by traveling to Istanbul, Turkey, for four months. Below she tells her story of the first weeks of her trip, including cultural mishaps and a prescient prediction (See her Feb. 7 post), as she experienced a new culture through its people, places and, of course, food.

Jan. 23: Today is the Day!

This is it. I leave in a couple hours for the NOLA airport, where I will say my final good-byes to family and friends and head out on the roughly 24-hour journey. I am terrified and thrilled for what the future holds, nervous and eager to begin this foreign undertaking of mine. 

This is my first time abroad. My first time being away from home – from what I know and love – for this long. Even my internship in D.C. two summers ago was only 5-weeks long. Next to this 4-month internship, that summer looks like a fun weekend.

I have prepared as much as one could, and yet I am not sure what to expect. Will the people I live and work with speak Turkish or English? Will I have my own place, or will I be staying in someone’s house? How will I get to work? How in the world do I pack for four months and for two seasons?

This, of course, makes it all the more exciting! As someone who typically plans out every minute of my day in a planner as large as my head, I have decided to embrace the unknown with an open mind and one suitcase!

I am as ready for the adventure that I know so little about as ever. Gulp. Fingers crossed. J

Love you all, miss you already, and see you in a few months!

Jan. 25: Birthday in Istanbul

It’s hard to believe it is already Day 2 of my adventure here in Istanbul.

Where do I even begin – the exotic food, the unbelievably wonderful people, the modern and historic backdrop?

Thıs small, colorful horse buggy ıs called a fayton, and besıdes bıkes ıt ıs the only way to get around the ısland. No motorvehıcles are allowed.

My new friends, Osman and Ali, brought me sightseeing! We drove down JFK highway, which Osman found hilarious, and winded through the hills of Istanbul. The two took turns playing tour guide, as one pointed out the ruins of Constantinople, and the other explained the Marmara Project, the biggest project in the country – an underwater tunnel that connects the European and Asian sides of Istanbul. I saw fresh fish markets and ornate mosques and palaces. I must have looked quite silly, face pressed against the window, mouth open and gesturing to everything we passed.

Then, I met my new roommate, the wonderful Fidan, who has given me my own room in her home that she shares with her sister, Arzu.

Here’s the kicker -- both of them only speak Turkish.

Let me remind you in case you thought perhaps that I had been taking Turkish language courses on the side last semester, I haven’t. My command of the Turkish language? 11 words.

Suddenly, I was Colin Firth in “Love Actually,” communicating hilariously with the foreigner he has hired to help him finish his book. Honestly, it was awkward for an hour as we all sat in silence, but by the end of the night, we were huddled around a mini dictionary and laughing at the absurdity of it all. Think charades, but it actually counts this time.

The wonderful sisters cooked me a delicious, authentic Turkish dinner, complete with colorful salad and lemon-juice, lentil soup, fruit nectar, and olive oil and flaky bread. Just when I had fallen in love with the girls, they turned the lights out and brought out a cake with candles. I have no idea how they found out it was my birthday, but it made for the perfect ending to my first day here.

Jan. 26: Lost in Translation

I knew it would happen. It was just a matter of time, really.

My Turkish class, most of them at least. I go to school at Fatih Universitesi Füsem on the Asian side of Istanbul (Istanbul spans the East and the West). We have students from Nigeria, Pakistan, Poland, Russia, Iran, and Indonesia. We have all grown very close as you can see.

I had a guide to show me around the last couple of days, but today I was solo. I live and work on the eastern side of Istanbul, but my language class is on the western side. In the mornings, I walk with Fidan to Altunizade (like a borough of Istanbul) where she works. From there, I travel by metro bus to my Turkish language class (which, including walking time, takes 30 minutes if you run) and then come back in the afternoons for work.

I had written down directions and talked it through with my roommate. But I was not the least bit surprised when I found myself at the top of an overpass, rain pouring down and wrinkled, smeared map in hand.

Now what did that squiggly doodle mean? Don’t turn until I get to the second street? Or was I supposed to turn two streets ago?

Getting lost is just an excuse for adventure, right? Considering that all the signs here are in Turkısh and no one around me (including the metro workers and police) spoke English, it was certainly a wild experience! In the end, it was truly trial-and-error. What about this road? Heck, why not.

However, I now am a pro and have some beautiful shots of a rose garden and historic cemetery I would not otherwise have.

And, I will never get lost in Altunizade ever again. At least, I hope not.

Jan. 28: Cultural Bloopers

My goal has been to not appear to be the stereotypical culturally aloof, arrogant American.

But here’s a helpful hint: No matter how much preparation or research you do prior to living in a foreign country, just expect that there will be cultural lessons you will have to learn.  I was no exception. 

Here are some more things I have learned thanks to trial-and-error this past week:

  • Take off your shoes at the threshold (aka do not let them touch the floor) when you enter someone’s home. It took me a few times to get this right, with me sometimes tripping over myself or accidentally leaving my boots outside for my poor roommates to pick up (Tip: “leave at threshold” does not mean “leave outside”). A teacher at my school who lived in Boston for many years explained it like this: “It is not only religious but cultural. It is a sign of respect and a way to separate the inside and outside worlds.”
  • Hugs are OK if you know the person, but don’t try to combine a hug with the cheek-to-cheek kiss. It’s just awkward. I blame my overzealousness. Also, contact between individuals of the opposite sex is much more limited. My plan is to just follow, never initiate.
  • Lunch on Friday is served later at work because it is a holy day. Of course, it was not until I stood up and waved good-bye shouting the word “yemek” (food) excitedly, prompting two of my friends in the office to try to explain for five minutes why I could not go downstairs, that I stopped joyously hopping around. We played charades for a bit (which I am getting impressively good at), and then we resorted to Google Translator. After a few moments of clicking, I read the screen: “Today is holy day. Mosque. We eat later.” 

I must thank all of my friends at work and my lovely roommates for being so understanding and patient. I am sure I have unknowingly insulted an ancestor or something.

Jan. 29: Expedition #1: Historic Peninsula

Tomorrow it is! Finally, I will be venturing to the Historic Peninsula of Istanbul!

How a week has gone by and I have not yet made it there floors me. But Turkish language and class and work do monopolize my time a little bit during the week. Not that I am complaining. :)

In fact, my Turkish course has been a Godsend. When I first found out that my internship would pay for me to be enrolled in a Turkish course, I was, of course, excited. But I was also under the assumption that the majority of people in Istanbul would speak English. Well, this will be fun, I thought, thinking the whole time about how cool it would be to, say, order my latte in Turkish.

And then reality hit me hard in the form of getting lost in a foreign city and finding no one who spoke my language. Yeah, that day I realized that I’d need Turkish for more than simply ordering my morning cup of joe.

When I first found Fatih Universtesi Fusem, I had no idea what to expect. The one-building continuing education center is one rocky staircase below the bustling main thoroughfare.

The class I’m enrolled in began a month ago, so I am a bit behind. To catch me up, I go to a different afternoon class (more like a private tutoring session) after my morning class with the other students. The morning class is a bit intense, especially since the teacher speaks very little English, but both the teacher (Mikail) and the students are very patient with me.

Today, I was offered a teaching job at the university – English, of course. I have always thought about teaching, so I jumped at the opportunity. Before my 10 a.m. Turkish class, I will teach English to Turkish students. The days will be long, but I am excited to give back in some way, albeit small. I begin at the end of February!

Feb. 6: Rock Climbing at Sunset

After work Fidan and I went to the small town Kadikoy, which is on the water and a simple bus ride away. I had no idea what the plan was, and that was just fine by me.

We strolled along the waterfront and stopped every so often to gaze at the beautiful skyline. After walking for a bit, we came to the end of the road and the beginning of the rocky coast. I thought we were going to turn back, but Fidan tugged my hand and pointed ahead. There, jutting out into the sea several hundred yards ahead, was a lighthouse. Like a 5-year-old, I clapped my hands giddily and began to scale the boulders — in my heels! We came upon the lighthouse just as the sun began to set, and there we sat, our feet dangling and cameras clicking away. 

Next, we headed to the center of Kadikoy, where both the crowds and the shopping were. After meandering around a bit, Fidan brought me down a back street to a hole-in-the-wall eatery. She asked me what I’d like to eat, but at this point, I already knew to defer to the locals. Thank goodness I did! To think I almost ordered the chicken and salad and would have missed out on glorious lahmacun! A sort of Turkish flatbread, we squeezed lemon on this thin, crunchy sheet filled with spices and meat — I thought I had died and gone to pizza heaven!

It was a surprising and thrilling evening. If I didn’t have my camera for documentation, even I wouldn’t believe it!

I have only been in this stunning city for two weeks now, and yet I am shocked at how much I have experienced. In some ways, my life here is very similar to that in Baton Rouge. I am still taking classes and working and researching politics, and the warm, sincere people remind me of the hospitable Southerners I know and love. The food is just as different and colorful as that of Louisiana – perhaps even more so!

At the same time, I am challenged every day. I am living in a foreign city where everyone speaks a foreign language. It is frustrating at times, but I have never been one to shy away from a challenge. Every day is a surprise, and every moment and person I meet is a potential learning experience and teacher!

I have no idea what the next 3.5 months will bring, and that is all right with me. Stay tuned via my blog for my blunders, discoveries and adventures.

As they say in Turkey, görüşürüz (see you later)!

Feb. 7: Cries for Freedom in Egypt – They Will be Heard:

It is truly fascinating to be here in the midst of it all – the growing protests and demands for democracy that are suspected to eventually sweep and forever transform the Middle East as we know it.

To understand the Turkish perspective, I watch the news at night with the roommates and read the major Turkish papers every day. Of course, this would all be much easier if it was in, say, the language I know and speak.

As a mass communication major, I am intrigued by not only the mainstream media coverage [of Egypt] but also new media and its integral role in the organization and mobilization of this democratic revolution.

But I can still feel it here.

I have talked to many Turks about what they think about the Egyptian protests. Here is what some have said (keep in mind: I have had to translate some of this):

“We [Turkey] understand Egypt and where the people are. We were there as a country too. And not too long ago.”

“Egypt must be free.”

“The people should be able to decide what it is they want. If it is a democracy, so be it. If it is not, that is fine too. But it is their decision.”

“Turkey’s republic is young. We [Turkey] understand the Egyptians.”

“It [the violence] is bad. I hope it ends soon.”

“The protests will end, and he [Mubarak] will leave. It will not stop until he does.”

As a mass communication major, I am intrigued by not only the mainstream media coverage but also new media and its integral role in the organization and mobilization of this democratic revolution. If and if so, how, the government tries to control and inhibit new media also fascinates me.

Any day now, I hear Mubarak will step down. Every day, the number of protesters swells and their fear of the government wanes.

The Egyptians have been waiting for freedom for more than 30 years of Mubarak’s autocratic rule. And from what I have read, from what I have heard from the people here, and from what I can sense from being here, the Egyptians will not have to wait much longer …


*Aly will tell more of her story in greater detail when she returns to the states later this year, but until then, we should keep in mind her favorite quote from Margaret Mead, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

And if you want to keep up with all of Aly’s Turkish adventures, check out her blog at alymeetsturkey.tumblr.com.