Friends: As I sat in the faculty lounge with Adnan, another bicycling university English teacher, before joining him for his eight p.m. class, he warned me his students could be a bit rambunctious. It is the nature, he explained, of the evening classes. The students have had a long day and are restless and not so attentive.
It is one of the reasons teachers are paid extra for such classes. It is an inconvenience, as well, particularly for those with a family such as Adnan, who has two children, nine and seventeen years old. Adnan, though, is one of those who offers to teach such classes. He welcomes the extra money, as despite Turkey's thriving economy, he's not feeling as much of the benefits of it as he would like.
The university where he teaches in Muğla has 25,000 students, more than a third of the city's 65,000 residents. It is six miles from the city center, not conducive for a night-time bike ride, so we drove out, my first travel other than by bike since arriving in Turkey nearly seven weeks ago. The campus was aswarm with students even at that hour. There aren't enough classrooms to serve all the students during normal hours, so classes run from eight in the morning until ten in the evening.
Adnan and I lost track of the time as we talked biking. Once I learned that Adnan was one of the organizers of a local four-day annual bike tour (http://www.muglabisiklet.org/ ) that he and his club started four years ago around a nearby bay, that's all I wanted to talk about. They were inspired by a ride a couple of his friends happened upon while visiting Santa Cruz, California. Such an event had never been attempted in Turkey. Their ride has become such a success, they have to limit the number of participants to less than 200. They have inspired similar mini-tours around the country.
Like the grand daddy of such rides, RAGBRAI--the several decade old ride across Iowa, which Adnan was unaware of--they enlist trucks to carry all the gear of the participants and arrange large group campsites. Two Americans from the air base outside of Adana participated in the last. He'd like to attract more riders from outside Turkey and make it a truly international event.
When we rushed into the classroom two floors below a few minutes late there was loud chatter coming from all corners. My appearance somewhat stilled the commotion. Several students cleared a space for me to sit beside Adnan's desk. He introduced me as an American bicycling around Turkey and said that they could ask me whatever they wanted. The first question was where was I from in America. At the news I was from Chicago that immediately set off a flurry of questions about the Bulls and the several Turkish players in the NBA.
These were younger students than those I addressed in Adana. I was asked if I knew various Turkish pop singers. I had to reply in the negative to all of them. Someone wanted to know my email address so he could send me some Turkish music. "How old are you," someone blurted. At my response of 59 another interjected, "That's old."
They wanted to know what my job was and if I was retired. Adnan had told me to keep my answers as simple as I could, so I couldn't fully explain that I like my messengering job so much that I've never considered it work, so, to a degree, I've been retired ever since I left a corporate administrative assistant job over 35 years ago. I just said that I'm not retired, and that I like my job so much that it doesn't even seem like work since I enjoy riding the bicycle so much. I consider it fun.
My every response was followed by animated kibitzing all round, so I could barely hear or fully understand the next question. I had to rely on Adnan at times to explain what was being asked. He also offered a quick Turkish translation of most of my responses.
After failing to recognize any of Turkey's present pop fıgures, I was asked what I thought of Atatürk. I said learning about what a great man he was and the many things he did to establish modern Turkey was one of the highlights of my visit to Turkey and that when I returned to America I would search out a biography of him to learn even more. That drew a round of applause. I was also applauded when I said I have traveled in so many countries it is impossible for me to learn the language wherever I go, but I like being an example that one does not need to speak the language of a country to travel there.
To the marriage question I replied that from my earliest years I never wanted to get married. My parents were supposedly happily married, but hardly shared any interests and barely even seemed to be friends. If that was marriage, I wasn't interested. If I was going to spend my life with someone, I wanted that person to be a best friend. I've had girl friends that were that way, but we were never interested in having children, so there was no need to get married. Plus I liked to travel too much to settle down. That drew thumbs up from a bunch of the boys.
I was asked if I drank beer. I said no, so that I'd make a good Muslim. That brought a round of exclamations saying, "We drink beer and we are Muslims." Someone asked if I had a place to stay that night and said I was welcome to stay at his apartment. Others shouted out that I could stay with them too. I told them I was already taken care of.
At one point several of the students in the front row started calling me Sugar Uncle. Adnan said that is a term of respect. After half an hour someone asked if he could have his picture taken with me. Adnan said that would have to wait until the class was over. When that moment arrived everyone rushed up to the front of the class and swarmed around me, initially for a group photo, and then they took turns having their own private photo with their cell phone. Everyone, boys and girls, gave me a handshake and thanked me.
It was another remarkable testimony to how desperately hungry young Turks are to meet an American and try out their English. It was almost unfathomable to them to have one in their midst. As with Zekeriya in Adana, Adnan had no space for me to sleep over, but had no problem finding students to put me up.
After initially connecting up with Adnan earlier that afternoon at a restaurant beside Atatürk's statue in the center of Muğla, we were joined by two of his students who he had arranged to be my hosts. It was a half mile walk to their apartment. It was nearly identical to the one I stayed at in Adana--a sparsely decorated rectangular living room lined with five couches, a hallway leading to three bedrooms and a small kitchen. The students prepared a dinner of finely chopped eggs and potatoes that they fried and served in the pot they were cooked in. They called it "student food" and "yumpat"--the "yum" from "yumarta" for egg and "pat" for potatoes.
They spread a newspaper on the living room floor for a tablecloth and five of us sat around it, stabbing at the food with forks and supplementing it with bread, cheese, olives and jam. The jam was an after thought when an older roommate came in and figured that was something the American would like.
Only one of the four spoke enough English to maintain a semblance of a conversation, greatly assisted by a pair of dictionaries. He had to do a considerable amount of translating for everyone else. At one point he said, "We are all Kurdish. We are like the blacks of America."
"Then one of you will become president," I replied.
"I don't think so," he said.
Unfortunately his English wasn't adequate to explain the stone-throwing culture of the east they all grew up in. Later, when he said he didn't like to use the library, I asked if it was because he felt discriminated against as a Kurd. He said, "No, they don't know we're Kurdish. I can't explain." It is unpleasant enough, though, that rather than using the free Internet the library provides, he'll go to an Internet cafe and pay for it despite his limited funds. They don't have a television in their apartment. If he wished, he could watch DVDs of American movies at the library to help with his English, but even that can't lure him.
One of the roommates came from the city where David and I were so violently attacked by gangs of kids trying to knock us off our bikes. There was a lot of animated Kurdish conversation after each exchange of English. It seemed as if some of them were trying to decide if they cared to accept the American in their midst. Feeling like second class citizens clearly left a chip on their shoulders. Still, a couple of them greatly longed to go to America, asking for my advice and wondering if marrying an American would gain them entry. One wanted to know if joining a bicycle club would help him get a visa. I'm not one to discourage anyone from riding a bicycle, so I said, "It wouldn't hurt."
Two of the four came from families with ten children. Another was to be married in six months and wanted to have twelve children, enough to field a soccer team. There was the usual religion question. It is such a part of their lives here, being called to pray five times a day, it is at the forefront of their thought. They think they are more devoted to their religion than people of any other faith, and they might be right.
We were up until well after midnight, even though they knew I normally go to sleep at nine pm in my tent. A platter of cookies was brought out at midnight along wıth a two liter bottle of coke. Two of them had classes starting at eight the next morning, but they were in no hurry to go to bed.
Two of them asked if they could be Facebook friends and sent me requests then and there on their cellphones. I was able to confirm them while I had some Internet time after my session wıth Adnan's class and he did some further teaching. They were thrilled to have an American Facebook friend, and had already perused my profile and photos when I returned from my classroom appearance.
Breakfast was another round of "student food," with a loaf of fresh baked bread. One asked, "Do you eat bread in America?" They were going to be late to class, but their session with a bonafide English-speaker would more than make up for it. All the courses of the English majors are English--four of them taught by three different teachers. As first year students, they had more than a leg-up on learning the language. If eagerness counts, they will be fluent before the year is out.