"Does he have any physical handicaps?"
Before my friend Walker had been told he could come to Erzurum to work with us, my boss had had a few questions about him. Actually, my friend was pretty much guaranteed the job simply by being American and having teaching experience. My boss only had two questions.
"No," I answered his first question.
"Does he have any mental handicaps?"
Hmm, I thought. Walker had told me he'd previously been diagnosed with schizophrenia. His emphasis was on the word, "diagnosed". He said, intelligently, that modern medicine's definition of what was considered "normal" had never been so narrow.
I considered Walker to be one of the most intelligent people I'd met in a long time. This was evident in the way he calculated and planned his around-the-world trip. It was evident in the way he organized his writings, which painted romantic pictures of what it was like to hitchhike in the U.S. or bike through Eastern Europe. It was evident in the way he was humble and inquisitive of others, uninterested in money, and passionate about gardening as a means to independent freedom. If I were an employer, I would've wanted Walker working for me.
"No," I said, to my boss's second question.
"Tell him to come immediately," said my boss. "If he takes a plane, I'll pay for his ticket." Walker, of course, wasn't flying in planes at this time. But, I liked the way my boss did business.
His name was Gokhan (meaning: "Ruler of the Sky"). A small thirty-year-old, he kept his hands in the pockets of his long, fuzzy black coat with its tall collar protecting his neck. His short black hair reminded me of a porcupine. He had deep-set eyes, a sharp nose, and a vampire accent with which he said, "Vich?" (Which?) He was hard-working and successful. He smelled strongly of cologne.
Interviewing me, he had said I couldn't work for him for less than two-and-a-half months. I said, unyielding, I would only stay another six weeks in Turkey, and I prepared to leave. "Okay, then, I'll take you for a month," he said, shaking my hand. I liked the way he did business.
He took me and a British teacher on a work trip. In two days, the British teacher and I did no work except to give minute-long speeches at a conference. We were treated to an endless supply of delicious grilled meats and pastries made with molasses. I learned that Gokhan was silly and hillarious. While our conference room was filling with guests, I was surprised to hear, "Justin, I see you!" said over the microphone. Gokhan stood with the microphone at the back of the room, his nose and eyes smiling proudly.
A few days after our work trip, Walker arrived. At first, Gokhan wasn't sure what to think of him.
Walker was also silly, but in a different way. Teaching in our language institute, he wiggled his thin lower body while acting out words for his students. He made wacky facial expressions. Once, a girl in his class said something in Turkish, and her class-mates told Walker, "Ha! She said you look like a cartoon!" This cute girl, who wiggled her nose when she smiled, became quite embarrassed.
After two days of teaching, Walker was told by Gokhan there was a problem with his clothing. He wore a punk rock sweatshirt, old boots, and a pair of black pants he'd bought recently so he'd have something nice to look for work in. "Hey!" said Gokhan. "Do you think you can get some jeans?" Walker was puzzled by this. But, he bought some jeans.
A few days later, he and Gokhan were smoking a cigarette together and talking. Gokhan suddenly asked: "Has anyone been teasing you?" Walker thought this was a funny question and said, "No. Has anyone been teasing you?" "Ha ha ha!" Gokhan laughed, before becoming very serious. "I can take care of myself!"
Walker really liked our boss. He affectionately referred to him as "Gherkin" or "The Gherk" or "The Goke". He could often be heard saying, "The Gok e ... he's so cool."
The Goke treated us well. He provided us with two free meals a day, at the language institute. Walker and I, the new guys, shared a great apartment four blocks away. The other teachers, five guys from Australia, America, and England, were crammed in another apartment; they kept complaining they didn't have any chairs. Walker and I, meanwhile, had: two chairs in my room; two chairs and a couch and a stool in Walker's room; a chair in the spare bedroom; six chairs and two couches in the living room; two in the kitchen; and one on the balcony. When the other teachers' chairs finally arrived, they had to carry them the ten blocks from our school to their apartment.
Once, the other teachers complained that there wasn't always enough food for their free dinners. They were upset that students and outsiders were sometimes offered food their cook had prepared. Gokhan and his business partners - who usually appeased us - said, "If someone asks for food, we have to give it to them. It's our culture." This made Walker like our bosses even more.
Our young bosses also took us on excursions.
They took us to a "hamam", a traditional bath-house. We wore nothing but towels and sat in hot steamy rooms, pouring hot water over ourselves. Old, feeble men scrubbed our bodies with brushes. A silent man with a big, hairy belly poured soap bubbles over us and massaged our limbs. Afterwards, we were dressed in robes, and our wet hair was wrapped up in towels. One of our bosses, Erdem - with his walrus moustache and sandy, sad face - looked like an Ottoman sultan.
Walker had loved getting "hamammed". I, however, was afraid of the big, hairy Turk.
We next played soccer. Walker was playing for the second time in his life. His teammate, Gokhan, wasn't much better.
But, my team made me its goalie late in the game, and Gokhan scored two goals on me. He became proud, and celebrated by running around the field like an aeroplane. A minute later, he tried to score with his head, but the ball bounced from his head to the ground and off the goal-post. "No!" he said. He rolled around on the ground, in agony, ripping up the turf with his fingers.
I showed The Goke how it was done. Relieved of my goalie duties, I ran towards the opposing goal and raised my hand. My teammate, doing a corner-kick, kicked a stinging pass six feet off the ground. I lowered the top of my head, and slammed the ball into the back of the neck. It was a beautiful goal! Perfect technical execution. But, my team lost, 11-6.
"All right, guys! So, next week we play baseball?" said Walker.
The following day, when Walker and I entered the language institute, Gokhan ran to his teammate. "Hey! Winner!" he said.
And that was how Walker and The Goke came to be the best of friends ... at the expense of my relationship with The Goke. "Hi, loser," he said.
Yep. It was a lot of fun being employed by The Goke.
But, there was also work to be done. The work was a lot of fun, too.
Each teacher taught eleven classes of ten students each. He taught each class three hours a week, which made for a lot of teaching.
Most of our students were about twenty and attended Erzurum's Ataturk University. A girl adorable like a puppy, with pale skin, black eyes, and soft black hair. A guy with the fringe beard of a goat, Frankenstein hair, and a long face full of smiles. A rough boxer who loved studying physics and called himself the "Turkish Einstein."
Other students of ours were in the work-force. Older guys with tanned skin and intelligent faces behind glasses, who didn't know the first thing about English.
Some were from conservative Erzurum. Others came from cities and towns scattered across Turkey. Those who came from "Western" cities like Antalya, Istanbul, and Izmir had the free-est attitudes. (The Goke was from Izmir.) Some girls covered their hair with head-scarves. All the students had colorful personalities, and were full of laughter.
Walker and I, who had both spent time traveling around a Turkey in which females seemed non-existent, were delighted to find ourselves interacting with local girls. They wore their hair long and shiny and free - unless they wore head-scarves. The happy girl who wiggled her nose when she smiled may've had my favorite smile ever. It was amazing how, when she felt safe, a beautiful girl and her smile had the power to make everyone in the room feel good.
A tan girl with a cute smile, who covered her hair, was interested in herbal medicine, playing hockey, her mystic flute called a "ney", and religious Sufism. Another girl who covered her hair had the biggest, silliest personality ever; she assumed leadership and led her class-mates through the lessons, even though she normally had no idea what she was doing herself.
I taught girls with names like Ece (pronounced: "Eh-jay"), Esrah, Feyza, Fazilet, Berfin, Kadriye, Gulistan, Mihriban, Ummuhan, and Nagehan. I taught guys named Emrah, Erkan, Furkan, Fetullah, Emrullah, Yunus, Utku, Oktay, Mert, and Salih.
The students whom I taught, in fact, were also taught by Walker three hours a week. They loved Walker. He and I did more than just teach them.
On class breaks, we danced Turkish "halay" (we held hands and stepped slow patterns) with them. We hosted a party. I went for dinner with a class Walker had nicknamed "The Super-Babes". We took advantage of Erzurum's winter sports climate to go ice skating; ice skating with cute girls in head-scarves was like a dream.
We hung out in "Desibel", Erzurum's rock bar. I had one arm around a gorgeous, bronze-skinned girl and my other arm around a cool guy named Mohammet. Walker was in front of us, dancing to the music. And we all had our fists in the air, as we sang to the classic "Duman" song the band was covering. "Senden daha guzel!" (More beautiful than you! ... as in, "I've never seen anyone more beautiful than you.")
Walker and I loved Erzurum. But, above all, the main reason we were here was to teach people English - and make a lot of money for The Goke.
What a great boss.
the Modern Oddyseus