SHUT UP SHUT UP SHUT UP

I have never in my life encountered a group of fully-grown human beings as noisy as my current colleagues. Maybe a group of merry revellers being kicked out of the pub at closing time…. maybe.

These people are a mystery to me.

I can’t say it’s a cultural thing, because we’re a very international bunch. I’m in the foreign languages department at school, so our staff room has teachers of English, Spanish, and German. We consist of two Turks, one German, two Irish, one English, three Americans, two Spaniards, one South African, and one guy from somewhere on Earth (I assume, but cannot be certain).

Let’s start with him. I can’t be more specific about his nationality because I couldn’t understand what he was saying when he told me where he was from, and now it’s too late to ask anyone because it would look really bad if I didn’t know the nationality of my close colleague after nearly 2 months. He is an English teacher, and the general consensus seems to be that he must know someone who knows someone who wangled him the job, for the man really cannot speak English. I find myself getting inwardly frustrated when I’m trying to have a work-related discussion with him, because he doesn’t understand when I speak normally. I have to slow down to the speed I speak at when I teach, and simplify my language similarly.

This does not make him shy and retiring, though. Nooooo. He has the single most annoying voice I’ve ever heard. A nasal, deep, grating, whiny, harsh voice, with extended vowels and an irritating habit of ending every other sentence with “can you imagine?” for no logical reason.  It cuts through me and makes me visibly wince when he gives a sudden loud whoop or yell, as he’s inexplicably prone to doing, usually while in conversation with the South African, who is nice enough but for some reason feels the need to show huge reactions to anything being said. She does this by exclaiming “Are you SERIOUS?” (alllll day) and then jumping up and down, screaming (actually screaming) with laughter, snapping her fingers, and swaying back and forth as if she can’t contain her disbelief. At everything. Loudly.

Meanwhile, the Spanish gals are talking. Talking, talking, el talko mucho. I am not kidding, they have actually sat on either side of me and had a conversation through my head, apparently using my ears as walkie talkies. It hurts my brain. They talk so rapidly that it makes me feel stressed, even though I’ve no idea what they’re saying. I just want to put my arms around them and say “shhhhhh, deep breaths, calm down” like I do with the ADHD kids when they’re having a freak-out.

While this is going on, the Turks enter and begin yelling. Sometimes the yelling is just a normal conversation at an abnormal volume, and sometimes there’s an actual argument going on, but always, always with the yelling. About half of the foreigners also speak Turkish, so that conversation tends to become a shared roar throughout the room. Perhaps Turkish is a language which must be yelled. I really struggle to conceal my annoyance sometimes, especially if I’m trying to either work or have a conversation. The yelling just drowns everything out, including rational thought (and impulse control). I want to interrupt and ask “Why are you yelling? Why? How would it spoil the conversation if you spoke at a normal volume? Can’t you just take it down a couple of decibels?”. No wonder the children are screaming, shouting, out-of-control noise machines.

And then, as if all that wasn’t enough, there’s the clapping and laughing. The South African and the Unidentified Annoying Guy tend to clap their hands a lot for emphasis. I swear to you, it’s like if gunshots were going off inside your brain. I don’t know how they do it. I wouldn’t have thought it was possible to raise the volume of clapping, but if anyone was going to manage it, it would be my colleagues. I’ve had to go to the school nurse twice for painkillers after developing an instant migraine from 10 minutes’ exposure to the clapping and the laughing. Oh, wait, I haven’t mentioned the laughing! The two Spaniards laugh like pneumatic drills, the two Turks laugh like shrieking hyenas, one of the American guys seems to find the most mundane things funny enough to giggle hysterically at for a solid ten minutes, and the South African simply continues to scream (as if she’s having a normal conversation).

And just to top it all off nicely, there will always, at some point during the day, be someone who feels the need to blast out a song at a volume I didn’t even know iPhones were capable of producing.

I am going insane.

When I speak, no one hears me. In all honestly, about 90% of the time it’s as if I don’t exist – I don’t think they’re ignoring me or being rude (most of them are nice enough people, and a couple of them are even friendly), I think they actually do not hear me. They genuinely don’t register that I’m speaking because I have a quiet voice. And by quiet, I mean not yelling. I see no need to shriek at someone who’s in the same small room as me, unless I am particularly angry.

Yesterday I hid in a toilet cubicle.

Honestly, it was either that or explode in a fit of tortured madness and start trying to murder people with the stapler (which I had had my crazed eye on for five full minutes of screaming/laughing/clapping/random howling). I calmly walked out as if nothing was wrong, locked myself into a cubicle, put down the toilet lid, and just sat there perched on the edge of the toilet, gazing fixedly at a spot on the door, my right eye twitching slightly now and again.

I have never understood loudness. Why is it necessary to live your life at that volume? As a quiet introvert, it doesn’t just irritate me – it actually makes me stressed and anxious, to the point where I’ll choose to sit in a toilet cubicle for 15 minutes rather than endure any more noise.

Also, I don’t think I ever realised what a privilege and joy it was to have my very own classroom…

Standing on ceremony

Every Monday morning before classes, and every Friday afternoon before we leave, the entire school assembles for The Ceremony. On my first day at the school, I thought it must be some kind of terribly significant and important occasion when I witnessed The Ceremony. Turned out it was just 4pm.

Usually, so far, I’ve seen The Ceremony taking place indoors – a couple of times lately, though, we’ve gathered outside in the playground, now that the weather’s getting warmer. Indoors, each class lines up in the corridor outside their own classroom at 9am/4pm – teachers stand with them to assist with the (very necessary) shushing. At the end of every corridor, a principal or head of department will stand with a microphone, next to the child who has been elected to hold the flag. I always feel slightly sorry for the smaller kids in this role, as you see the concentration and increasing struggle in their faces as they proudly but painfully hold the heavy flagpole that touches the ceiling even at a slant.

The person in charge (on my floor, the head of the first grade) calls for attention, and either greets everyone and wishes them a week of good lessons, or congratulates them on a hard week’s work and wishes them a good weekend. At least, I think that’s what’s going on. My listening skills are still weak, but improving! Then everyone stands to attention and sings along loudly as the national anthem blasts out over the tannoy system.

Outside, the procedure is similar except that the elected child has the less strenuous job of raising the outdoor flag as the anthem begins – and that it takes forever to organise everyone in their lines, get the entire school’s attention, and file out afterwards. It’s taken pretty seriously, with the exception of the occasional chatty child who is usually shushed or given a mild clout to remind them to take it seriously. Even the very youngest kids sing with great concentration and enthusiasm. Here’s one of our ceremonies from the other week:

Click here for video, as I have no YouTube access. (Wonder what Ataturk would make of the government censoring and restricting the people’s daily lives and freedoms, hmm, hmmm?!)

It’s nice, in a way. They’re patriotic people, as is evidenced not only by The Ceremony (which isn’t unique to my school), but also the abundance of national flags everywhere you look. Parks, streets, shops, schools… hanging out of random windows… honestly, if you look up at any apartment building, you will see at least two or three Turkish flags pasted in windows, or fluttering from them. It’s intense, but it’s nice that they love their country so much. What I find slightly unusual, however, is the almost worshipful reverence there is for Atatürk. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk His name (granted to him by the country, and forbidden by parliament to be taken by anyone else) means “Father of the Turks”, and as far as I can understand it, it’s against the law to insult his memory. That sets off a few Kim-Jongish alarm bells for me. To be fair, though, he did basically make Turkey what it is today. He was pretty much the founder of the Republic of Turkey, transforming it into a modern, secular, democratic (hmm) nation after the defeat of the Ottoman  Empire in WW1. He was a military leader who led the troops to victory in the Turkish War of Independence in 1922, and then went on to make some impressive reforms – particularly in terms of education and women’s rights.

And so the Turks love their Atatürk. 

Inside any school or public building (I forget where I took this, that's how common it is!)

Inside any school or public building (I forget where I took this, that’s how common it is!)

He is everywhere. Statues, pictures, plaques, and busts adorn every imaginable location throughout the country.

My school, which does things like this occasionally...

My school, which does things like this occasionally…

...what this does to the foreign languages department staff room reminds me of the episode of Frasier where his upstairs neighbour unfurls a giant flag that covers Frasier's window, and he can't complain because it's the Stars and Stripes!

…what this does to the foreign languages department staff room reminds me of the episode of Frasier where his upstairs neighbour unfurls a giant flag that covers Frasier’s window, and he can’t complain because it’s the Stars and Stripes!

His portrait can be found in every classroom, every school book, every home, and on every banknote.

And twice a week, in case all that’s not enough, they gather around a golden(ish) image of him, raise a flag, and sing…

 

I’ll just say it again: MENTAL.

Election fever has been in the air since… well, before I got here. I was used to the Koreans making a literal song and dance about election season, but they now seem quite calm and reserved compared to the political parties of Turkey.

Today's Google Doodle in Turkey

Today’s Google Doodle in Turkey

Every borough/neighbourhood is draped in thousands of streamers belonging to one politician or another. I don’t actually know yet what my neighbourhood looks like underneath said streamers, for this is what Istanbul has looked like the entire time I’ve been here.

streamers

And the noise – oh, the noise. They drive around in vehicles blasting their political messages to all and sundry, much like the politicians do in Northern Ireland. However, the Turks are not content with a normal car with a megaphone on the top – no, they have everything from heavily-decorated vans to gigantic lorries complete with flashing disco lights. They play loud music, and when I say loud music, I mean a deafening roar of twangy traditional Turkish folky sounds set to a dance beat. With a politician yelling over it.

All. Day. Long.

When they drive past my school I have to pause my lesson, because it’s impossible to be heard over the “music” and shouting that seems determined to drown out every conscious thought other than “vote for me!”. I have mentioned, in moments of headachy annoyance, that if I were Turkish and could both vote and understand what they were saying, I would very deliberately choose not to vote for anyone connected with the noisy monster trucks of doom which seem so hellbent on assaulting my eardrums on a daily basis.

Anyway, now it’s finally election weekend, and while this apparently means that I have a Monday off work, and that the noisy lorries are possibly going to STFU at long last, it also means that I am sitting here listening to the hum of the generator currently powering my building, as this mind-blowingly paranoid government has decided to cut off the electricity in the areas where votes are currently being counted, and surround the local primary schools (serving as counting stations) with Erdogan’s minions.

 

no power to the people

 

This Erdogan guy is a laugh a minute, eh? I first heard of him during the Gezi Park protest horrors of last year, and I have honestly heard nothing since coming here that paints him in a more positive light. He is a dictator, and he throws his toys out of the pram and sulks when someone criticises him – although, unfortunately for Turkey, his childish tantrums are a lot more sinister than those of the average spoilt 2-year-old. I’ve felt the effects of the tear gas for myself. The outrage over police brutality and gradual government infringement on civil liberties is all around, in the form of almost daily protests, most of which are turned into full-scale riots when the police wade in with unnecessary heavy-handedness to crush resistance to Erdogan’s government.

They blocked Twitter last week. Just… blocked it. Not very successfully, mind you, as anyone who uses Twitter generally knows of a few ways to get around obstacles like that, but still. Twitter is officially unavailable here now. Threats were made about Facebook and YouTube, but I couldn’t quite believe it all the same, when I went on to YouTube to find a video suitable for my next day’s classes and saw that one of my most valuable teaching tools had also bitten the dust.

RIP YouTube

The most alarming thing of all is that I’m suddenly realising that the election is probably not, as I assumed, going to kick Erdogan out on his ass and sort everything out. I don’t know anything about politics, of course, but when I saw frequent mass riots, demonstrations and protests against the government, outrage over police brutality, public fury over Erdogan’s sweeping decisions which have been gradually removing one freedom after another… I just assumed that he’d got no chance of winning an election. Everybody’s furious with him, surely?

And yet the news I’m seeing coming in on the initial counts is that his party has taken “a strong lead in local elections Sunday, despite turbulent months marked by mass protests, corruption scandals and Internet blocks.”

Corruption? Fraud? Staunch supporters? Voter intimidation? What the hell is going on here?!

Seriously, Northern Ireland is starting to seem politically stable and sane to me, these days.

Dolmuş: “Apparently stuffed; filled; full.”

I’m forever telling children to share. It seems to just be the role I have been assigned to play in humanity. Sharing: under-8s division: marketing department. Sharing is good, kids! Let’s all share! When they hit their teens I’ll present them with their very first guide to socialism.

It’s not even that they’re reluctant or unwilling to share that irritates the hell out of me. It’s that it doesn’t even occur to them to share. Setting aside the problems this causes humanity in general, it’s a complete pain in the arse as a teacher. I will never forget those harrowing art classes in Korea, with several students at any given time howling in panic about the absence of a green crayon or a pencil. To this day, the mere mention of the word eraser makes my blood freeze and the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. Rarely did it occur to them to nudge the kid next to them and say “hey, could I use that crayon when you’ve finished with it?” or “do you have a spare pencil I could borrow?”…. but never, EVER did it occur to the child blessed with a pencil/crayon/eraser to say “here, what are you whining about, sure haven’t I got one here you can use if you wait a second?”.

Most unfortunately, there comes a point in every advocate’s life where (s)he must practise what (s)he preaches. To that end, in a fit of cheerful insanity, I have moved to the most over-populated city on the entire planet.

Personal space is but a fond and distant memory. Every moment, from when you step outside your home until you go back inside and close the door, is shared with an alarming number of people. I vaguely recall getting on the subway in Prague and being the only one in the carriage. Hailing a taxi by myself at any time of the day or night in Daejeon, without a second thought. Ahhh, those weekends in Ballymena, when we walked home from partying in the wee small hours and didn’t meet a single soul on the way! That plane journey where I got bumped up to business class and was able to stretch out and not come into physical contact with anyone… blissful memories. Did they even happen at all?

I can’t remember buses with empty seats on them. I can’t remember what a bus seat looks like, actually. Walking down the street alone is never, ever going to happen, as more often than not it involves me weaving in and out of Slow Walkers and tutting loudly (tutting is a very common sound here) at the ones who stop suddenly for no apparent reason or come at you in large groups that force you into the road.

As for taxis… well, with the Istanbul traffic being what it is, I quickly realised that getting taxis here, there, and everywhere as I did in Daejeon was not going to be a financially viable option. Enter the dolmuş.

The dolmuş is a cross between a bus and a taxi, in that you state your destination and get out wherever you want, like a taxi, but it follows a set route and is shared with strangers, like a bus.

dolmus Online guides describe them as minibuses, but to my mind they’re more intimate than that, more like the large cars we’d call “people carriers” in Ballymena. Minivans, maybe? Anyway, they look like large yellow taxis, seat about 8-10 people, and will cheerfully accept as many more as can squish in until the doors won’t close. Actually, more – I’ve seen them drive off with an unfortunate arm or leg still hanging out.

They gather at designated spots, and don’t leave until the driver decides he’s got enough passengers. The fee, obviously, is split amongst the passengers, so it’s much cheaper than getting a taxi, and only a little more expensive than taking the bus.

I still haven’t figured out how to use a dolmuş with a reassuring amount of certainty. Mostly I have relied on friends, occasionally on complete strangers, and once or twice on vodka-fuelled confidence.  As far as I can work out, there is no clear way of knowing where to catch a dolmuş for a certain destination. You can’t look up a timetable or station or anything like that. You have to know someone who can point you in the right direction, or spend a lot of time wandering the streets in a state of clueless bewilderment.

I am not sure if you can randomly flag them down as they pass, as I have been too timid to try it.

I do know, however, of some established dolmuş departure points on random street corners, where they sit around waiting for enough passengers to make their journey worthwhile. You look for one with your destination (or vague direction) on a little card shoved in the front window, and clamber in in the most dignified manner you can manage. While it would make sense – to my mind – to tell the driver where you want to go and pay him at this point, while he’s, you know, NOT DRIVING, it seems that the normal procedure is to wait until the journey has just begun, at which moment everyone should immediately start thrusting their money forward towards the driver, who is talking on his phone, weaving in and out of mental traffic, honking the horn, swearing, and tuning in his radio as he accepts fares and gives out change.

Meanwhile, I am hiding in an all at once terror-stricken, confused, and fascinated way at the back. I refuse to sit in the frontmost of the two rows of seats, as this means that the second we start moving all the people behind me will begin shoving money at me with instructions for me to pass on to the driver. They become somewhat irate if I look blankly at them or stammer a nonsensical reply in broken Turkish. At least if I sit at the back all I have to do is tap someone on the shoulder, thrust a banknote at them, and apologetically say my destination name several times in various accents until they understand me and convey my message to the driver. My change is dutifully passed back within a few minutes.

When you want to get out of the dolmuş, you call out a few words which I – without fail – manage to forget at the exact moment I see the spot where I want to get out. This leads to more nervous stammering in incorrect Turkish until one of my fellow passengers realises my desperate plight and yells at the driver for me, whereupon we screech to a halt and I am bodily hurled out into the middle of the road, my dolmuş experience instantly forgotten as I try to dodge traffic effectively enough to make it to the pavement in one piece.

Share, children. Share, and also in the meantime try to get a job that pays better than ESL so that you can afford a private driver, helicopter, or suchlike.

Çiğ Köfte

A couple of months ago, if you’d offered me a big glob of cold red mush and a pile of lettuce leaves, and tried to convince me it was a meal, I would have been quite indignant.

cigkofte

Nowadays, there is generally some çiğ köfte in my fridge at any given time, as I repeatedly indulge my latest ‘new food’ addiction. A pretty healthy one, I think, in the same way that eating kimchi by the kilo didn’t do me much harm! However, when I went to write a post describing it to you, I realised that I had absolutely no idea what it was. Vegetables? Grains? Pepper paste?

I was somewhat alarmed, therefore, when I went on to Wikipedia just now and discovered that çiğ köfte is, in fact, a traditional Turkish dish made from finely-ground raw beef or lamb.

Bulgur is kneaded with chopped onions and water until it gets soft. Then tomato and pepper paste, spices and very finely ground beef are added. This absolutely fatless raw mincemeat is treated with spices while kneading the mixture, which is said to “cook” the meat. Lastly, green onions, fresh mint and parsley are mixed in.

Now, while the idea of eating raw meat doesn’t particularly disturb me (raw fish, after all, is one of my favourite delicacies after my years in Asia), the fact that I’ve been just casually letting it sit in my fridge for days on end, buying it from questionable vendors, and often leaving it out on the worktop for long periods of time, suddenly became quite worrying with this new knowledge. I actually cast aside my laptop and ran to the fridge, where I spent a troubled few minutes anxiously sniffing a container of half-eaten çiğ köfte and inspecting it closely from all angles.

However, my temporary alarm was unnecessary, as I realised sheepishly when I went back and finished reading the Wikipedia article all the way to the end. It seems that selling the raw meat version (except in specialist restaurants) has been illegal for several years now, for hygiene reasons, and so what I’ve been eating is an innocent, vegan version of the traditional food, with a walnut substitute replacing the meat. They just never bothered to change the name, which means “raw meat patty”. Relief! No food poisoning is imminent!

lettuceI first had çiğ köfte (pronounced something like “chee kuftuh”…. kinda… still working on my Turkish pronunciation skills!) at the Horny Estate Agent’s house, when he pushed the dish towards me and, upon seeing my blank expression, demonstrated how to eat it. He picked up a large chunk, placed it on a crispy lettuce leaf, squeezed some lemon juice over it, wrapped it up, and ate the whole thing in one huge bite. Like an innocent child, I copied the unfamiliar procedure and proceeded to choke half to death as my mouth and throat were consumed by a thousand fires of satan.

It’s quite spicy, remarked Horny Estate Agent, rather unnecessarily, as I nearly drowned myself with a litre of water in an attempt to extinguish the flames.

The next few times I encountered çiğ köfte, I broke off tiny portions instead, or spread it thinly inside a wrap, but gradually I’ve worked my way up to a point where I can almost  - almost – eat it in the traditional manner without tears springing to my eyes. It’s surprisingly good, for a food that can cause so much pain. It’s also a hugely popular national dish, and has several chains of fast food places (found in every single neighbourhood in Istanbul, from what I can tell) dedicated to it. It even appears on several magnets on my fridge!

menu

I marvelled yet again at how quickly the taste buds can adapt and change when the salad bar at school served çiğ köfte one day last week. I happily loaded up my plate with lots of lettuce and çiğ köfte, and washed it all down with copious amounts of cooling, soothing ayran, which no longer tastes weird to me.

It’s not all kebabs and Turkish Delight after all!

Dear Turkey, that is NOT how you serve vegetables.

Getting used to the food is a big part of settling into life in a foreign country.

I haven’t really had many restaurant meals here so far (mainly due to spending most of my money on flat deposits and bureaucracy fees, and most of my time at work or waiting around for my estate agent), but I’m being introduced to the basics of Turkish cuisine in the same way that I first tried most Korean foods: school lunches.

What I’m trying to keep in mind – and what is, in turn, keeping me quite open-minded – is how much I hated Korean food when I first moved there. I mean, I hated it. Kimchi was the stuff of the devil, and the various ‘weird’ side dishes were unfilling and deeply unsatisfying to my inexperienced palate.  I lost quite a bit of weight in my first few months there, mostly due to not being able to find any “real food” as I called it in an early blog post! It’s so strange for me to read back over that now, when I can quite confidently say that my list of favourite foods is made up almost entirely of Korean dishes. How can you go from genuinely hating the taste of a food to craving it?!

But that’s what happened, so I’m not making any harsh judgements yet – and I will say that my opinion of the Turkish school lunches is nowhere near as bad as my initial feelings towards the Korean ones. Although some of the dishes are strange or unappealing to me, I generally eat most things offered to me at the serving hatch.

The school has a huge cafeteria more like the ones I remember from my own school days – in my little school in Daejeon, the English teachers were served lunch at the tiny kids’ table in the cooking classroom. Here, I swipe my school ID card to get through a turnstile, and pick up a tray and cutlery to slide along the counter and receive dishes ladled out by the dinner ladies.

The plates are small, but there are several of them. Usually there’s a meat dish (chicken skewers, meatballs, casserole-type mixtures, etc.), some carbs (rice, pasta, dumplings…), soup (usually lentil, vegetable, or a creamy mushroom one), and some kind of vegetable in sauce.

Then you move along to the condiments table, where there are various bowls of herbs and spices I don’t quite know how to use. I just chuck some red pepper flakes in a bland-looking sauce or soup now and again and hope for the best. You pick up a sealed plastic cup or two of water (can’t drink the tap water here) and move along to the salad bar. This usually has a couple of leafy salad options, and maybe a cold pasta salad or couscous, and some more vegetable options.

Being a thoughtful person, I have taken some photos of my lunches on days that I remembered to do so, just for you. How thrilling, I know! Apologies for the fact that some days I didn’t remember straight away, hence the photos of partially-eaten meals. I’m such a pro.

image-16 image-15

food

food

The third picture was taken on some kind of freaky food heaven day, when we returned hungry from our impromptu trip to the theatre to discover all the nice food in the whole world was waiting for us. Spaghetti bolognese, pizza, cheesecake, fresh bread, cheese… all on top of the normal lunch options. There was a whole extra self-service table set up! Apparently there were special visitors to the school that day, but we were all quite cheerful about benefitting from the school’s desire to impress them, whoever they were.

The other pictures show more typical lunches. So far, there is only one thing I simply will not eat (and so it’s not in the pictures!), just as I refused to eat those teeny-tiny little dried crunchy fish for about 2 years in Korea before I decided they were actually really nice. I don’t actually know what it is, but it tastes like a sour yoghurt or creme fraiche, and they ladle it over pasta and meat dishes. I have now learned to look at the sauces as I approach with my tray, and politely tell the serving lady that I want my food without that white sauce. One particularly delicious lunch was ruined by the fact that this sauce was slopped all over it, and I had to try scraping as much of it off as I could in order to enjoy the roasted, stuffed pepper underneath. Sadly, the sauce seems to be an essential ingredient, for it appears at least three times a week in one dish or another. I might have considered trying it on its own or with some fruit as a dessert, but to my taste buds it just tastes acidic and plain wrong with savoury food. Bleughhhhh.

Similarly, the one thing missing from all my pictures is the little carton of Ayran we get with most meals. That’s the watery yoghurt drink mixed with salt (soooo strange!) I mentioned once before. I’ve taken it a couple of times and can see it growing on me…. but I’m not quite there yet!

My main “this is just not right” issue at the moment, though, is with the vegetable options. They look so good, damn it! Sauteed leeks and onions, fresh carrots and broccoli, various peas and beans, brussels sprouts, cauliflower…. all very nicely cooked and presented, with lots of lovely olive oil. And every single time, as I eagerly load up my side dish and open my mouth for my first bite, I forget that they are cold.

I don’t mean that they have gone lukewarm from sitting out. I mean that they are intentionally served stone cold. My brain just can’t cope with this yet, but I’m hoping my taste buds adjust themselves soon because apparently this is A Thing. Vegetables cooked in olive oil and served cold with every meal. They’re called “zeytinyağlılar”, meaning “those with olive oil”. And they taste great, but… but… they’re meant to be hot! Served cold, they seem all slimy and wrong to me. If I had access to a microwave I would just zing them for 30 seconds and be happy as Larry, but as it is I just try to take a bite of hot food at the same time to try and fool my brain into thinking they’re also warm. Why, why must they be cold, why?! Why specifically wait for them to go cold after they were lovely and steaming and piping hot when you cooked them?! Yuck, yuck, yuck. (I started the topic of “food” with the kids this week, by the way.)

In general, though, school lunches are fine. They do the job required of them, and they’re helping me to learn about Turkish food by constantly annoying my colleagues with “….and what’s this called?” type questions.

I still haven’t encountered anything that beats the old doner kebab, though!

Happy 30th Birthday, lil’ sis!

My first memory of my sister is not actually of her, but of a doll I was given when they brought her home from the hospital for the first time.

I wasn’t yet three years old, but I was already fairly well established in my role as head of the household, and probably more than a little uneasy about the idea of this tiny pink screaming creature coming in and drowning me out. I don’t remember those first few years, other than from photos I’ve seen of me (looking annoyed) with my (equally irritated) baby sister on my knee, but I remember the doll. That was intended to be my baby, to let me copy my mother when she was occupied with essential newborn tasks like feeding and changing and bathing the baby.

It was a nice idea, but I don’t think it worked. My mother always reports her enduring memory of me watching her feeding my sister. She says I just sat there in silence, staring at her with big, sad eyes. Not a great start!

So, no, I didn’t take to her immediately… but she grew on me after a year or two. When she learned to talk and walk, she was a lot more fun, and I realised that she was a ready-made playmate! I think I was lucky. Not many of my classmates were friends with their siblings; in fact, many spoke of them with scorn, annoyance, and downright hatred in some cases.

The Sister and I had our moments, sure. We bickered, but we never actually fought, and we never really fell out. For the most part, we were friends.

Every day in the holidays, we’d watch our favourite TV shows together in the morning, and then head outside to play. We built dens and tents and houses out of whatever was to hand, from cardboard boxes to blankets and a clothes line. We played elaborate “Let’s pretend…” games, using costumes, or toys, or just our imaginations. We set up a newspaper office in a clothes horse tent, and I wrote some “articles” in sprawling kiddie handwriting while The Sister cut and glued and coloured the illustrations. We spent whole days playing with our Sylvanian families and Barbie dolls and Smooshies and My Little Ponies, acting out stories with them and sending them on grand adventures.

We made other friends, of course, but we shared even those. They came to our house and we played outside in the yard or the lane, racing on bikes and building go-karts out of skateboards, making mud pies and building ladybird sanctuaries in biscuit tins, splashing around all day in the paddling pool in summer, having water fights with the neighbours, climbing trees, flying homemade kites, dressing up our eternally patient cat. We borrowed Mum’s camcorder and made videos of ourselves singing our favourite songs, acting out stories, presenting TV shows, and making adverts.

I looked after my little sister as best I could, on occasion failing spectacularly and delivering her back to Mum in floods of tears, with blood pouring from an injury. I was always scared I’d get into trouble for not looking after her well enough, but more than that, I was upset because she was hurt. The time she fell and bust open her chin will be forever engrained in my memory, because I truly thought that was the end. I’d never seen so much blood, and I was shaking as I ran round to get the nurse from a few doors down while my mum tried to stem the flow of blood. I remember asking the nurse, terrified, if my sister was going to be OK. I wasn’t to know that a cut on the chin doesn’t necessarily mean certain death. All I knew was that my little sister was hurt, and there was blood everywhere, and I didn’t want her to die.

Thankfully, she didn’t, and we went on to make many more memories together. We got pet rabbits and discovered that they really enjoyed the country and western song Delta Dawn, so we sang it to them all the time. It made sense at the time. We fell in love with Take That, and spent hours creating dance routines to their songs and watching videos of their concerts together.

Then we chose our own paths. I became a nerd, who loved sci-fi and computers and books. The Sister became the cool one, who loved clothes and music and socialising. And yet we remained friends. She was the younger sibling, but she became the one who looked after me, from that point. When I was picked on, she stood up for me. When I was sad because someone had made fun of my clothes, she helped me to pick out something better. She still helps me with things like that, to this day, as she knows I’m clueless and need her advice! It was The Sister who helped me dress up and make-up for my first nights out, and who showed me how to mingle and talk to people instead of hiding nervously in a corner. We went out every Friday night, discovering vodka and Red Bull (ah, to be young again…), dancing, and men. We got ready together, with cheap drinks and loud music and shared make-up and clothes. We even shared a house again, years after leaving home, and to this day she is the only person I have ever comfortably lived with, without any arguments or irritation.

I don’t get to see my sister as often as I’d like, but every time I go home, our friendship remains the same. We have fun together, and we can be honest with each other. We can sit in comfortable silence, or we can talk all night. As rubbish as I may be at staying in touch regularly, and however long we go without talking, I know my sister and I will never drift apart. We’ve been friends since she could talk, after all, and we grew up together, side by side.

So today, although I can’t be there to have birthday drinks with her in person, I say a heartfelt “happy birthday!” to my sister on her 30th birthday. I love you, wee sis, and we will have a belated 30th celebration next time I’m home! Thank you for being one of my favourite people in the whole world.

Have a brilliant birthday – you deserve it.

Happy 30th Birthday Kirsty