Tales from Two Cities

The following is a first draft of an article I wrote for a website about Singaporeans living overseas.

Sometime late last May, I received a surprising message in my facebook inbox that will change the course of my summer holiday. It was from a producer for a television production company in Singapore that has been commissioned by the national broadcaster to embark on a new arts infotainment series called “Tale of Two Cities”. Themed by countries, each episode intercuts between a foreigner living in Singapore and a Singaporean living abroad. Across nations, the show is about discovering fresh perspectives and exploring global cultures and lifestyles. They are planning to feature Singaporeans living in Iceland, Peru, Turkey, Brazil, Ghana and asked if I would be interested to be featured on the program?
A television program featuring little old me? Why, of course! This appealed greatly to the attention-seeker in me. Oh, imagine the immense pleasure I will derive from seeing my own face on television! Having started my adult working life as an assistant TV producer, this was right up my alley.

I replied immediately and set about giving them a link to my blog (marianaahmad.tumblr.com), a short write- up on how I came to live in Istanbul and a little bit more about myself. They revealed that they found me just by the sheer force of a Facebook search, much like how I found some of the few Singaporeans I know who live in Istanbul.
Armed with my background in television production, I thought immediately of what would look great on television. I wanted to steer clear of the Turkish clichés of bazaars and Turkish baths but after a few discussions, perhaps that was the very thing that viewers in Singapore liked to see as it was considered exotic and very different to what we know as a “pasar” in Singapore.

We exchanged more emails and chats on whatsapp and after a Skype session with the director while I was on holiday in Warsaw, it was agreed that they will swing by Istanbul during my summer holiday for four days after their first filming in Accra.
I wanted them to feature the gentrified neighbourhood that I live in. Rent is very cheap and people are friendly but the families living there are going to be uprooted as the land that their properties are built on have been sold to hungry developers. In the far background, there is a massive shopping mall with a towering residential block. Soon, most of the old, dilapidated buildings around my area will give way to flourishing housing and grand office developments with ambitious names like Brooklyn Park.

We agreed on several locations and I put them in touch with a Turkish production crew friend of mine who then introduced them to a fixer, a local who is in-charge of getting locations, filming permits, talents and places to feature.

On the morning of the first day of filming, I crossed continents from where I live on the Asian side of Istanbul to Sişhane on the European side to meet up with the crew from Singapore and Turkey. In the quirky lobby of the boutique hotel where they were putting up for the four days, I met the director Kok Hong and cameraman Jay from Singapore. I was also introduced to Ilkin, an audio guy from Istanbul. Başak was our fixer for the filming and she also acted as my local guide.

We first went out to film a few city shots from the Galata Bridge which afforded us a 360-degree view of the old city and the Bosphorus teeming with cruise ships, ferries and boats at almost any time of the day. We took a ferry from Karakoy to Kadikoy, one of my favourite things to do in Istanbul. This was the ferry I took when I decided I was going to move to the city back in February of 2011. This 20-minute ferry ride gave us the opportunity to see a panoramic view of Eminonu where the iconic Blue Mosque and Hagia Sofia museum were located among other Byzantine structures and mosques dotting the horizon.

The production team decided to narrow in on three experiences that was iconic in a Turkish sense: belly-dancing, baklava and the Turkish bath called a hamam. I was then introduced and coached by Asena, a big name in Turkish belly-dancing and an amazing performer. She was also a boxer which meant her physique was immaculate. Not an inch of flab could be seen. This was very different to other belly dancers I have seen perform who almost always had a bit of a belly. She taught me some classic belly-dancing moves and twirls but sadly, my amateur self could not isolate the various parts and muscles needed and my body just wriggled whatever I could muster when I was given the task of performing on my own.
The next day, we went to the Spice Bazaar (Misir Carsi) in Eminonu and the wholesale market stalls behind it known as Tahtakale. Since Seker Bayram (what we would call Hari Raya Puasa)  that marked the end of the Muslim fasting month was just round the corner, the crowd was in full force stocking up on sweets, chocolate, candies and the famous Turkish Baklava for their visitors. Baklava is a pastry made with layers upon layers of super-thin pastry dough which is then baked and dripped in sugar syrup and left to soak for a bit. Usually, it is filled with crushed nuts; hazelnuts, pistachios, peanuts etc. We filmed at one such Baklava shop and I tried my hand at dipping the sweet pastry into a bowl of finely crushed pistachios before displaying it for sale. To cater to more modern tastes, these days  there is a version of Chocolate Baklava. My favourite is the type soaked in milk and dripping with sweet, sugary goodness. Most, if not all types of baklava is saccharine sweet but this one soaked with milk seems less so. This type was impossible to pack for my family members but the crew surprised me with two big boxes of baklava that I can take back to Singapore when I went for my 2-week holiday.

After a quick car ferry ride to avoid the rush hour traffic on the Bosphorus and Fatih Sultan Mehmet bridges, we arrived in my neighbourhood Fikirtepe to film. I rounded up the children and teenagers and taught them our traditional Singaporean game of “capteh”. The boys who played football took to it like a professional and soon every child was trying his best to keep the feathered toy in the air. The experience left me known as a small celebrity and till now, the children will wave excitedly to me when I leave or arrive at my apartment block.

On the final day, we had permission to film in the Cemberlitaş Hamam. This historical turkish bath was built in 1584, more than 400 years ago by the famous Ottoman architect, Mimar Sinan who was responsible for many of the famous architecture in Istanbul. My guide explained that in the past, bath houses existed as a form of communal bathing and place to cleanse oneself, a concept similar to Japanese onsens. It was hot and stifling at first in the steaming hamam and I started perspiring profusely but soon as the masseuse started the foam massage, I managed to relax a little and enjoy the strange sensation of breathing under a mountain of soap suds. After the Turkish bath, I was also given a Turkish massage with scents and oils.

During our coffee or meal breaks, our producer shared the Turkish tradition of reading coffee grounds. We laughed our heads off as she pretended to read our fortunes from the remains of the grounds in our tiny coffee cup. Turkish coffee powder is boiled with water and drank in tiny amounts with the grounds still in the cup. You can specify the amount of sugar you want in it.

The crew enjoyed the variety of Turkish food we had for our meals ranging from chicken on shish to meatball kofte served with bulgur.

On the last day, i bid goodbye to the crew as they proceeded to film more shots of the bustling city previously known as Constantinopole. As they say in Turkish, “Görüşürüz!” Till we meet again!

Tale Of Two Cities - Behind the Scenes Tale Of Two Cities - Behind the Scenes Tale Of Two Cities - Behind the Scenes Tale Of Two Cities - Behind the Scenes

Meeting the gorgeous Asena, a famous belly-dancer in Turkey.

Filming at Sultanahmet Blue Mosque for Tale Of Two Cities

Post European Holiday Blues

I came back from my two weeks of quick gallivanting around Europe last Saturday. I went to a bunch of cities with different purposes in mind and not counting Austria, (I was in for a full 13 minutes as the bus driver from Liechtenstein stopped to rest) I clocked 6 countries in total: Krakow and Warsaw in Poland, Brussels and Antwerp in Belgium, Luxembourg, Zurich in Switzerland, Liechtenstein and ended the trip in Barcelona, Spain. Oh, I went to Strasbourg, France too. That’s the beauty of Europe, countries are close by, you can pop by on a train and within two hours or so, you are speaking a different language with slight cultural differences, currencies and attitudes.

One thing that struck me on this trip was how everything was a little dejavu. I feel like I’ve been in those old towns, in the same restaurants, in similar set ups on some other trip. Every city has an old town with the ubiquitous clock tower and nicely-restored old buildings.

I also noticed how courteous the drivers are even when I was jay-walking or trying to cross in front of a moving tram. They would stop and wave me off. Amazing! Over here, some ass would always try to run me over at the pedestrian-crossing. I also appreciated how in some of the countries I visited, people didn’t think much of switching from one language to the next to help me understand them.

In Brussels, I sat down with a bunch of European expats and they switched from French to English to Dutch and then some German with such ease that I was so envious of them. I wish I grew up in such an environment. Granted yes, back in Singapore, I thought nothing of switching from English to Malay to Mandarin to understanding my ex-boss in Cantonese and then joking in Hokkien with some crew members but it isn’t really the same, is it?

During the trip, I had a huge case of euro-envy. I defined this for Le Manfriend as a case of penis-envy sans the penis. I liked that no one was staring blatantly at me even when I was dressed normally and lot showing extra skin. Even when I was in my sun dresses, no one bat an eyelid. I can’t do that here without some men gawking. It is one of the frustrating things about living in Istanbul. I think it isn’t just because I am foreign, local women get this treatment too.

The coldest it got was 8 degrees at night in Krakow. I stayed in a hostel amidst the mountains in Liechtenstein and that was pretty cold too. I love it. This tropical girl loves the sun but only if I have easy access to air-condition like hoe we deal with the heat in Singapore - run to a mall. Now I am back in burning hot Istanbul but looking forward to a beach vacation in Belek, Antalya and probably Side where I heard temperatures get up to 50 degrees celcius. Hurrah. Not.

Don’t get me wrong. I will be indoors with the AC and chomping away at the all-inclusive buffet spread for sure.

So you want to teach English in Istanbul?

The semester is coming to an end. Barely 16 teaching days left but why does it feel like an uphill climb, even more so now than the start of the school year? It doesn’t help that they are going to close down two kindergartens and the teachers there will lose their jobs with less than a month’s notice.

Amidst rampant rumours of losing their summer salary and having to sit around till August if they want to get paid, word has it that if they manage to convince their students to enrol at the main campus located in the convenient middle-of-nowhere land, they might be able to hold on to their jobs. When did that become a core job description of a kindergarten teacher?

The private school scene for native teachers here is basically the following:

Get into a school that will pay you enough or more than enough so that it covers your rent, bills and daily expenses. Usually this is well above the local salary for someone with the same amount of experience and qualification.

Try to negotiate a return-flight or accommodation into the equation if you can.

Oh, don’t forget the SSK and Vergi deal if you want to stay in Turkey in the long run.

Add classrooms of privileged runts from high-income families into the equation and some baby-sitting. Clock an average of 25 hours of teaching per week and that’s your “career”.

Also, it really helps if they have heard of your country and the fact that you speak and have spoken English everyday since you uttered your first word.

Yup, this captures how İ feel now.

marianaahmad:

It’s been a while since I read this quote. Probably good for a reminder.

Dinner plates selection process - the start to proper adulthood and here’s to hoping you won’t have the same taste as your mum

Dinner plates selection process - the start to proper adulthood and here’s to hoping you won’t have the same taste as your mum

Adulthood and consumerism goes hand in hand

Not to sound like Renton from Trainspotting, in under two weeks, I’ve gone from owning a 160x200 mattress, a pre-loved 2-seater sofa bed and six Ikea bags of clothes to choosing a fridge, washing machine, fake rococo bedroom set and a bigger sofa bed. Not to mention, a computer table, a computer chair, a bookcase, a glass display unit, an antique wooden vanity mirror set, an ikea “lack” side table, a big square table/ottoman ikea thing and a “lack” coffee table.

To this newly acquired stash iof things, I added a set of 24-pieces of pristine white plates and bowls from Spain. They are pictured somewhere after this entry. Kerem bought a cast-iron wok for me as a house-warming present because if I had to choose one essential thing in the kitchen, this is IT. I can perform miracles with just this one item.

Since I moved in last Sunday, I’ve lost the need to decorate my new pad. The thought of the building going to be demolished in a year stopped me from wanting to paint the walls this long weekend. It is just not worth it to be spending money on painting it over. The best I can do is put up a picture or two with blu tack, my trusted friend in decorating a rented apartment.

I think back to when I started my journey with just my blue Quechua backpack in Aug 2010. Almost 4 years later, how did I end up with so much more stuff?? Stuff scares me. Stuff seems to bog me down and anchor me to a place but Kerem reassures me that you can sell off stuff or give them away. I want to hang on that.

I wonder if I will ever own my own apartment. It is such a scary thought to start a mortgage. It will mean always having to have a job to repay said mortgage. It will probably mean something to anchor you to a place. It will mean being in debt for the next how many years you signed for the loan. I aim to avoid that for as long as humanly possible.

word play

Here’s some light-hearted updates from my quiet life in Istanbul. Kerem’s sink was leaking today and he had to call in a plumber cos it isn’t the usual kind of leak. He turned to me and asked, do you know anyone who is highly recommended on dripadviser?

Kwa kwa.

The other day, I threw out some week-old guacamole from the fridge which he dubbed, GUACAMOULDY.

Kill me now.

death at a funeral

This morning, I was awoken by the urgent voices of my mum, sis and aunt who were in the living room. Nenek Uda passed away earlier when Cik Ati wanted to wake her up when she was leaving for work.

I had gone to bed early but spent the night surfing aimlessly on my phone so I barely had 3-4 hours of shut eye. We called the undertakers from last week and left for Tampines. It probably is a good thing everyone was still on compassionate leave from my dad’s funeral last Thursday. By sheer coincidence, her grave was to the right of my dad’s. Hello neighbour. The last time I saw her was at the same cemetery when she had arrived late because Cik Ati thought the funeral was after zuhr prayers.

I’m tired of being sad. I don’t even know where to start grieving. In the back of my mind, I know I’ve been putting it off long enough and it is time to go settle the bureaucracy and paperwork involved with the death of a parent. Ju, Sharyl and I are all in the same club now, the anak yatim club though by our age, we can surely deal with the death of one of our parents.

The funeral today managed to distract mum, sis and me for a bit. Tomorrow is the last day of leave that my sis will be taking. Then, it is back to the grind for her.

A part of me wants a new beginning some place else but I’ve always finished what i started unless you count that short stints at Discovery and Suria which were pretty damn shit.

Btw, i witnessed the bathing of the corpse and yup, don’t take things for granted. Even in death, there is biasedness. It isn’t one size fits all when it comes to the white cloth and cotton we will be buried in. There’s only so much cloth and i fear that when the grim reaper comes for me, I might not be able to fit into those loose cotton cloth that the lady undertaker has. Also, i hope I won’t be a burden to the living when they have to haul my large dead ass around. Gotta do something while I have time left.

one month and life goes on they say

It felt longer than a month since Dad’s passing but here we are on the 20th of April Easter Sunday, something totally not observed since we live in Moslem Turkiye.

I know there are scores of Jews and Armenian orthodox folks somewhere in Istanbul but I have yet to suss out where they live. Balat?

This morning, I woke up thinking of the time I lived in Barcelona, the first time I spent an extended period of time away from my family. The Spanish peseta was almost on par with the Singapore dollar and my father would bank in a thousand bucks every month for me. At least, I think it was a thousand, though if you asked me now, that seems like a huge sum of money for that time period in 1999-2000. I didn’t have to pay rent and I don’t know how I spent that money but I did. Maybe it was less and I’m mixing it up with the money I got from him every month when I was in Melbourne.

I can’t emphasise what this meant for my family’s monthly expenses but I was oblivious to the possible sacrifices that my mum and sis might have made on my behalf and of course, my dad. He earned around $2000 I suppose at that time and thinking back, I was a totally pampered brat for spending half of his income while I was away for those 1.5 years.

Sigh.

grief hits when you least expect it

I haven’t had much time on my own since I flew back to SG. I spent my days surrounded by my mum or aunt or the new cat Tyler we got from Fred or I would go to meet close friends who had time to sit and chat with me.

Earlier this morning, I was on my qatar flight and was sat next to an old Spanish dude in one of the few two seater sections on the 3-3-3 seat formation of the cattle class. I was watching one of the (spoilers alert) last scenes of a local film Ilo, Ilo when I suddenly started weeping st the sight of the main character boy Jia Le when he cut a bit of his maid’s hair and sniffed it as she left for the airport.

I want to remember how my dad smelled like and at that moment I could conjure up a faint memory of his scent as.hr lay on the hospital bed. Right now though, my mind is racing to the fact that I’m in an airport and i could head to the duty-free section and look for the Jazz cologne he used to use that will take me back to the 80s/90s or the green bottle of Polo with the men playing polo on horses which he used in later years.

I know people take stuff or look through photos. I took the huge 75L deuter backpack that he used on trips to Malaysia. It started out as mine but I had way too much baggage for my exchange program to Barcelona that I had to leave the brand-new backpack behind. We bought it in Queensway together. I finally decided to retire my 14-year-old Quechua backpack. New beginnings.

I could Google “dealing with grief” or “how to cope after the death of a parent” but it would feel contrived and pretentious as if I needed a format to follow as to how to behave. How should I behave? Who takes two weeks off work to grief or settle things? Don’t everyone just get 3 days off? Was I special cos I live away from the rest of my family? Is it time to relook at my priorities as one friend pointed out or do I go on living like I did for the past 3 years or so since I started my journey? So many questions, no actual right answer for any of it.

My mum started giving good firm goodbye hugs these past few years. They are close and she uses both arms and for a family that’s not really haptic/touchy feely, this is really a move in the right direction I suppose. Gosh I’m tearing again just writing this.

I need an outlet for all these thoughts. I haven’t written in ages and I’m going to use this to help me along.

one week on (wrote this on the mrt)

A week since my dad passed on. This is around the time I sat outside to take a nap and Fadila showed up. We talked about my dad and I showed her into the room when my other relatives left.
Today, I met up with Nanny but we didn’t get into the whole conversation where I cry when I explain how I just sat there on Tues nite to talk to him with the curtains closed and laid on his chest. Then, at a particularly sad moment in my confession, his hand made a few jerky movements and seemed to want to pat my head. It made me sit up cos I was afraid I might be hitting a nerve or something but for me, that sudden patting movement will be taken as a sign of closure for me. That’s all the closure I needed.