Snowball fights in Erzurum were dangerous. Doing anything on the streets of Erzurum in winter was dangerous.
Reckless drivers threatened pedestrians at every intersection. Huge piles of snow hung from the edges of six-story buildings, waiting to fall on your head. Snow on the sidewalks had been worn down to ice, and sometimes I thought on any given step I stood a 40% chance of falling.
Dr. Tolga, who worked in a town not far from Erzurum, said many of his patients had suffered injuries slipping on ice. Only a few of his patients had had snow fall on their heads.
He added that, in his town that loved wrestling, many men had suffered dislocated shoulders due to the sport. And during the past spring and summer, four people had been attacked by bears.
One sixty-year-old man had seen a bear, gotten his gun, and shot
it. The bear got angry and clawed him. The man shot the bear again, but
the bear beat him up some more and disappeared into the woods.
Ha ha. What a stupid, old man!
But, as we walked the icy streets of Erzurum, there was more on the
line than just a trip to the doctor. A popular saying said ...
If you don't fall in Erzurum, you'll marry a girl from Erzurum.
My roommate, Walker, fell three times. The third fall left him with a purple eye. Oh, no - my poor friend!
But, I was careful. I hadn't fallen yet. I could still marry Esra! I could still marry Seyma!
"In two years, ain't nobody gonna want to marry you." My male
student, Ramazan, informed me I didn't have much time to find a wife.
Luckily, I didn't want to get married. I just wanted to have
girlfriends and not have sex. Walker called me a "girl-crazy celibate" -
in addition to: "a little kid stuck in a big, goofy, body."
But, the girls in Erzurum were about to get a new and very real danger. Canada Dave was coming to town!
My month in Erzurum was almost over. My going-away party, to be
held in Walker's and my apartment, was two days away. The Goke needed a
new native English speaker. Who was he going to call? (Ghostbusters
He came in the middle of the night, arriving at Walker's and my
apartment. We'd been expecting a Canadian; Canada Dave, however, was a
sixty-year-old Iranian with drunken eyes. At least, his eyes looked
sixty. He already hated Erzurum. He let us know that,
unless he found a girlfriend, he was going to make up an excuse for the
boss and leave town.
He told Walker and me about a teaching position in China, which
he'd made an excuse to leave. He mentioned another teaching job in
Turkey, which he'd left suddenly because his "brother was in a coma."
Puzzled, he asked, "What do you guys do around here?" "Well, mostly
I write," I said, "and Walker plays his guitar." We were happy, in our
beautiful old apartment with no high technology. "They don't even have a
TV for us to watch?" whined Canada Dave.
"I told the bosses, 'No wi-fi, no teaching."
During our meeting, Canada Dave did all the talking. He seemed like
a person who sought to take from every relationship, but never gave.
Mostly, he talked about finding some women. "Yeah, he's pretty horny,"
our leader The Goke would say about him, with
a laugh. Walker thought he was a serious safety threat to our students.
He wanted to hang out with Walker and me the following day, when some
female students were supposed to visit us.
That night, Walker and I both had nightmares.
I go into my apartment's living room, in my first dream. I notice
that, along one wall, all the antique furniture and fancy chairs and
couches are gone. The only thing there now is a TV.
In my second dream, I'm at a work meeting held for Canada Dave's arrival. It finishes after noon,
and I rush outside to make sure I don't miss my friends who are
supposed to visit. Standing in front of the door is Selime, a tall
white-skinned girl with brown hair but a redhead's attitude. She's holding a broom. She
doesn't see me. She goes into my building.
I follow her inside. But, I can't find her. I look for an elevator.
It takes me a long time, but I finally find one. I go up towards my
floor, but the elevator doesn't stop. It keeps going, and it becomes
smaller, and very hot. I can't get out. I'm trapped.
Walker believed some people had bad spirits following them. Was Canada Dave going to ruin my going-away party?
"I only care about three things:," he said, "bodybuilding, drinking, and women." He was built like Santa Claus.
Walker led him to our language institute in the morning. As they
were getting out of the building's elevator, Canada Dave stepped in
front of Walker to exit while simultaneous saying, "No ... after you."
On the street, he took long stares at passing women. He passed a
girl covered, except for her eyes, in black; she begged every day with
her small child. "Wow!" he said. "Did you see that girl in the niqab?
She was beeeautiful!"
Walker asked him, "So, do you like teaching?"
"Yeah ... no ... well, yeah, I kind of like it, because I can't get any other job."
"Why'd you come to Erzurum?" Walker was puzzled as to why he'd chosen such a conservative city.
"'Cause no one else will hire me!"
In the past, he'd been an accountant in Iran, and then he moved to
Canada; now, he bounced around the Middle East as an English teacher.
Walker thought he was a horrible soul, a danger to people near him. On
the bright side, Walker said, "He's no Stalin.
He's no Pol Pot!"
I thought he was one of the dumbest people I'd ever met, and felt
sorry for him. I sympathized with his desire to have a girlfriend. And I
felt sorry for anyone in his forties who was still bouncing around,
without a home. I hoped I wasn't going to be
Nevertheless, I "accidentally" tripped over my apartment's internet
cable, severing it from the wall and disenabling it. Oops.
The next morning, Canada Dave was gone. Vanished.
"He told the bosses his daughter got diagnosed with cancer," Walker
informed me. "... one day after I heard him telling the whole office he
had no children!" At least, he'd brought The Goke a box of chocolates
Hooray! Walker and I danced in celebration. Now, the only thing we
needed to prepare for the party was to find a broom somewhere ...
The party was saved!
Two dozen students and teachers braved temperatures of -27 Celsius (-17
Fahrenheit) to come to our party. When Esra - a small, adorable girl
with soft black hair - arrived, her pale cheeks were so cold they were
hot pink. I felt bad for this sweet girl, whose
hands were as cold as snowballs.
Walker entertained us with magic tricks. Before he could finish his
trick, though, the student who called himself "Turkish Einstein"
grabbed Walker's cards, threw them on the table, and yelled, "Physics!"
This rough, bearded fellow saw physics everywhere.
He was probably thinking in physics while he wrestled me and Walker.
He also told us we should punch the girls who lived below us.
We'd rung their doorbell earlier, in an attempt to invite them to
our party. But, when they opened the door and saw Walker and me, they
screamed and closed it again. I recognized they hadn't been wearing
their head-scarves and probably felt embarrassed.
They, with their head-scarves on, opened the door again. But, we were
so bad at communicating that they thought we'd come by to complain about
them laughing and singing the Koran every night.
They must've been surprised, then, to hear loud music and the steps
of "halay" dancers over their heads that evening. Our smily gentleman
of a student, Furkan, led some people around a circle in a very fast
"halay". Furkan, a professional, crossed his
feet as he stepped, and leapt into the air. Dancing with him was
"Turkish Einstein" suddenly picked up one of the Eastern carpets.
It wasn't supposed to be stepped on, he communicated, as he carried it
to safety. I understood it wasn't a carpet, but a prayer mat.
He danced a dance in which he held his arms out, at shoulder level. He shook his chest and shoulders.
Walker stood across from him, stomping around to the music. As they
came close to one another, Walker kept trying to take Einstein's hands
and make this a couples dance. Turkish Einstein kept having to shake him
off, while continuing his serious dance.
Everyone laughed at this.
And that was my going-away party.
I taught one more week for The Goke, to make my stay in Erzurum total a month and a half.
The Super-Babes teamed up with Gulistan and her class ("The
Gulies") to throw me a surprise party at our school. They gave me a
great gift: a "Duman" t-shirt, showing Turkey's famous rock band.
Gulistan, with her hair and shoulders covered in sky-blue
fabric, wrote a message in the cold moisture clouding our window:
JUSTIN GOOD-BY, GULE GULE. "Gule gule" (pronounced: "goo-leh goo-leh")
was the Turkish good-bye said when someone was leaving you.
And I received other great gifts.
Seyma - a tall girl with great taste in movies, and books by
Turkey's Orhan Pamouk - gave me a scorpion bracelet because we were both
Scorpios. A religious girl gave me a copy of Islam's second-most
important book, the Hadith.
I received a "Fenerbahce" (a Turkish soccer team) pendant from
Australian Chris; a leather coat and winter clothes, which the other
teachers had found in their apartment; a scarf from the language
institute for "Teacher's Day"; and an Islamic rosary, from
my third boss Erdem.
A few good-byes were emotional.
I had been teaching one class of children, and we got along well.
I'd made them draw and write about countries from my travels. They were
so cute when they read their booklets aloud: "This is a kangaroo. This
is a koala. Australia is very hot. I want
to go to the beach." Before leaving, I wrote personal messages and
signed their notebooks. Six-year-old Ece was absent this day, and she
The Goke gave me many nice complements before I left. Maybe he gave
the same complements to everyone? He was a pretty smooth talker. I was
going to miss him!
And it made me sad to say "bye" to the student, Pinar. She was
gentle like a bird, and it seemed everything she said came straight from
her soul. She was strong and growing stronger every day. I hoped she'd
achieve all of her dreams. I was pretty sure
On one of my last nights in town, I joined Walker, and David from
San Francisco, in going to "Erzurum Evleri" (Erzurum Houses). The old,
small homes of Erzurum and the cobblestone street they lied on had all
been connected under one roof to make a restaurant.
The restaurant was decorated with interesting artefacts, like keys and
old coins and Baris Mancho records and fox skins and stuffed ducks and
carpets and mannequins in old Turkish clothes and old lanterns for
Inside a stone fireplace, we sat and ate.
I told David about a class of mine that was like heaven to teach,
whom I'd nicknamed "Dream Class". I also loved the students in a class
of David's, whom I called, "Dream Class 2".
David surprised me by saying "Dream Class 2" was also his Dream
Class 2. His "Dream Class 1" included three forty-year-old women who
were art teachers. They made fun of David's drawings on the board. And,
while having a snowball fight during a class break,
one of the art teachers had hit him in the head from sixty feet away.
Just then, the restaurant's short old doorman walked by. He wore an
Ottoman outfit consisting of navy suspenders, and an upside-down bucket
on his head. When I'd asked him, "Nasil sen?" (How are you?), he
pounded his heart with his fist to say he was well,
and he and I engaged in a funny competition to see who could pound his
chest hardest. Now, he passed us and smiled.
Walker summed up our experiences in Erzurum best, when he said:
"Turkey's a dream class."
"Hosca kal, Erzurum!"
(Stay well, Erzurum!)
the Modern Oddyseus