16 Feb. 2016 : İzmir

In the last entry I wrote about my first impression of İzmir. Now I’m writing about my second impression. This is an impossible task. After over a month’s worth of attempts at capturing my second impression, this version is my fourth, and final attempt. In this telling, I have cut İzmir into two halves, although like a gem, this city is cut into so many more facets, each one sparkling in the warm sun.


The yoga moms of San Francisco, the overexposed cityscape of Los Angeles, the blandification of the United States in general, it all seems like a distant dream. As if the memories are something that I forgot about and then re-remembered incorrectly. I can’t remember why I left, and my reasons keep changing. Was it the overwhelming greed? The politics? The empty libraries? It doesn’t matter what it was anymore.

I am not there anymore. I am here. In Turkey. In İzmir. Where cold nights smell like coal, the ocean is the sea, and men tussle other men’s hair just for fun.

Raechel, you asked what I am doing in Turkey. I am finally writing you a reply. Here it is. I want to say that I’m doing what I came for, which is to be giving some form of relief to the torrent of refugees that come to this city. To be documenting, writing, organizing, and teaching. I’m not doing any of that yet. I was in a teacher training program for most of the time I’ve been here, and now that I’ve finished I find myself between jobs, flats, and stages of life in general. Soon enough I’ll be doing what I came here for, but this is what my life in Turkey looks like now, in this blank space of my schedule.


I found myself in a small cafe in an alleyway with new friends. It was so small that my leg hung precariously onto the road, and I had to move it from time to time in order to not get hit by taxis. There were four of us there; Mo and myself, and two new friends; a man named Adam and a woman named Kadın. Everyone was talking and laughing and touching each other. My non-precarious leg kept brushing against the Adam’s. The contact was a foreign feeling for me, but a totally normal occurrence Turkey. Kadın who sat in between Adam and Mo, sometimes alternated between clinging onto Adam or clinging onto Mo. It was like we were all in a train car, rolling on tracks that skirted this busy alleyway.

The waitress played Bob Dylan’s Desire on the old record player and served us Turkish coffee. Sometimes she joked with Adam and Kadın in Turkish, but I didn’t know what they were saying. Everything at the cafe reminded Adam of his childhood. At some point he grabbed a handful of nostalgic candy which we all sampled. Most were flavoured lightly with cinnamon.

Turkish coffee is served in small cups that hold about as much coffee as a couple thimbles. Maybe half a shot glass or the fourth-largest Russian doll in a set of six (not including the secret extra extra-tiny one.) If the coffee is good, which it always is, the last quarter of the small cup is very fine silt. So really, with Turkish coffee you are drinking about as much liquid as would fit in the fifth-largest Russian doll in a set of six, then you are left with a thick layer of silt on the bottom of your cup.


Our flat has no internet, and cannot get internet. Nobody here has heard of this problem or knows what to do about it. I mean, yes, occasionally a horse-drawn cart can be seen on İzmir’s main streets, but this is 2016 and nobody in İzmir doesn’t have internet. Except the American couple in Karşiaka who are living like it’s 1993.

With the lack of internet problem, I have predictably begun devouring books. Luckily there is a serious book culture in Turkey. In most commercial areas there are bookstores on every block or two. Almost every bookstore focuses on selling school books, fiction, and a little non-fiction. There is a noticeable slant towards Communism and the classics – just like me.

Kadın flipped her tiny coffee cup upsidown onto her saucer. There is a form of fortune telling that uses the silt of recently drunk coffee as a medium for the sixth sense. You make a wish, flip your silt-filled coffee cup upsidown onto the saucer, and wait until the silt settles.


I have a secret that I was willing to slip at the cafe. I am a fortune teller. I haven’t done it years, and I haven’t memorized the tarot cards, but given the moment and the medium, I will happily tell someone’s fortune. Before I was 21 I would tell people’s fortunes for alcohol. It was a great system. The secret about reading fortunes is that everyone wants their fortune read, even if they’re like me and don’t believe in fortune telling.

After some time had passed I took Kadın’s saucer and carefully lifted the upsidown cup from the saucer. If the cup had stuck hard to the saucer, her wish would have come true. I liked Kadın so I wanted the cup to stick, but it didn’t stick as much as I wanted it to. Then carefully, I righted the small cup and peered into it. The thing about fortune telling is it really does involve a sixth sense. My eyes could see the silt, but then another sense of mine opened and with the new sense, I peered into Kadın’s future. My ears heard nothing, but through peering into her cup I could hear Kadın’s future as plain as you can hear these words coming out of your screen.


I listened and watched. The future is alive and factual. At least Kadın’s future was. She was a bright person, which made the act of telling her fortune easy, and luckily for me, I saw some good things in it, which made telling her what I saw especially easy.

After hanging out with Adam and Kadın, I walked with Mo to the promenade that hugs the Aegean Sea. In İzmir they call it the Kordon. It was almost warm for the first time since Winter began, so everyone was buzzing. Teenagers and couples were hanging around, listening to old music, knocking back beers on the edge of the sea, while old women and men walked amongst them selling flowers, tea, and nuts. Kids on rented bikes casually rode by us on the winding bike path.


In a Turkish book I recently devoured, an old woman complained that she missed, “the fullness of the moment.” Although the book was published before I was born I completely understood what she was talking about. When I was younger I would drive aimlessly around Los Angeles with my friends, lovers, or people who were somewhere in between. I always followed the fullness of the moment, wherever it would take me. Sometimes it was to some rocks by the ocean, where the bioluminescent waves crashed down and sprayed the air with salt. Sometimes it was into the mountains where the stars grew brighter with every mile. Sometimes it was into the unknown, where a lighthouse or a desolate cafe could be discovered. But later I divorced the world I knew, and with it, the fullness of the moment. Now finally ready to reconcile with the world, I have and followed the moment here, to Turkey. To İzmir.

After our stroll down the Kordon, Mo and I took the ferry home as the sun set. The sky had been cloudy and devoid of blue, but as the sun sunk into the sea, the clouds caught fire and warmed our open ferry as we approached the evening on our side of the bay. It was truly night by the time we made it to the produce market by our flat, and the air was thick with coal smoke.


İzmir is a city that has wrapped itself around a large bay, so it has no center. But if İzmir did have a center, it would be Basmane [Baz-ma-ney]. Basmane is one of the oldest parts of İzmir, and it has a separate feel to it. While it’s not exactly poorer, it’s certainly not richer than the surrounding area. It is like a condensed town within a city. Basmane is my favourite part of İzmir.

Basmane is a traditionally Arab area, so naturally, it became the hub of refugee activity. Perhaps because of this, time in Basmane is detached from the rest of İzmir. While most of İzmir casually strolls, people literally run in Basmane. Motorcycles swerve through the thick crowds of pedestrians like lightning bolts navigating through falling rain drops. Taxis and Polisi vans barrel down the same pathways like boulders from Indian Jones. Everyone gets out of the way just in time, every time, which is about every five seconds. Arabic music blares from cafes and cellphone shops. Life jackets, inner tubes, waterproof id holders, backpacks, blankets, flashlights, and solar powered lanterns are common wares, despite the relative lack of migration during the Winter. OK I’m just going to say it. It feels like the wild west and I love it for that.

Fruit stand in Basmane.

This kind of place, where hope and confusion and creativity and madness and despair make contact with each other, is exactly the kind of place I was born for. Don’t get me wrong, this is a place of sadness for some people, especially for those who sit on the wall of the Basmane metro station looking alone and unsure, but the refugee situation here in Basmane is not whatever you think it’s like. Unlike Europe, Basmane is not the end of the line for most refugees. It is the transit point from Turkey to Europe.

The movement here is intoxicating. The fluctuations, the tides, the inhalation and exhalation of so many different kinds of people who dart in and out of the mysterious side streets, conjure descriptions that could fill a thousand pages a second.

Mo and I stayed in Basmane for a few nights before we found our flat in Karşiaka. Now with more free time, we decided to give our old haunt a visit. Upon exiting the Basmane metro station, Mo and I crossed the main street and began our stroll into the de facto gate of Basmane: a cluster of cafes, food carts, semi-abandoned looking hotels, and a large, old, but very active mosque. At the edge of the mosque gate a woman covered in tight colourful clothes called to the people inside, presumably asking for money.

Basmane before the cars wake up.

As usual in Basmane, the place began to take over my body. The beating of my heart switched to the rhythm of the passing taxis. Swerving motorcycles aligned my line of sight so that I could see in all directions. The cats, the cafes, the smell of rock and exhaust, the people I could see lounging in the doorways and the people I couldn’t see on the other side of the old cracked paint that loomed on all sides of me.

Instead of walking straight through to the main section of Basmane, we chose a quieter side street of old broken hotels. Men (always men) watched us quietly from cafes. Mine and their curiosity constantly tangled in the silence to form a single unanswerable knot of a question. Who are these people and why are they here?

Upon glimpsing another the end of this road, I took us onto another side street. It was empty save the eyes that I felt on us. As it was Sunday, or possibly because this was Basmane, all the stores on this street appeared closed. Not wanting to go deeper into the side roads, and being a bit hungry, I brought us through a dusty alleyway into the fray of the main road.

The warmth of humanity once again flooded my senses. Women, men, children, motorcycles, cars and taxis, buzzed around in more directions than the road would comfortably allow. Mo and I joined the chaos, taking the same route that we used back when we were staying here. We comfortably got back into the groove of navigating throughout the clusters of vehicles and groups of people.

Then up ahead, there was a different kind of energy. A fight? No. It didn’t feel like that. Though something was up. As we pushed our way through the large cluster of people, aided by cars honking like mad cows, we saw a middle-aged woman lying on the ground and people swarming around her with curiosity and concern. I am colour-blind so I have a problem seeing blood, so I wasn’t entirely sure of the situation. But she appeared to be in shock, most likely fainted from the rapidly warming weather. Unable to speak Arabic or Turkish, my continued presence would have been a distraction and gotten in the way of the people helping her, so I stayed away and continued on our route. Unfortunately that was where we were going to eat.

Some time later we came close to where we began our walk. The street opened up a little and the pedestrians thinned out. A shopkeeper came out of her shop and gently shooed away some children playing under a fruit stall. When we completed the circle by reaching Basmane station, we decided to go to the bazaar.

It was Valentine’s day and I wanted to buy some boots for Mo; the kind of boots that Turkish girls wear. On the way to the bazaar, we walked through a different section of Basmane. This area was defined by a major road, had a wide sidewalk, and was lined with office buildings rather than flats. The area mostly consisted of tailors, high quality garments, and house supplies, although life jackets and inner tubes were prominently displayed among the business attire. I had been in this area a couple weeks before and there were more of these kind of things than I had previously seen. The weather was getting warmer, and with each degree of rising temperature, thousands more people will be passing through Basmane. I look forward to meeting them.


Along the way we passed a garment shop that was featured on the front page of the New York Times. I remember reading the article while standing behind the cash register at the grocery store I was working at. It wasn’t that long ago. Still just a few months past. I wrote about it a few weeks ago on my Instagram account:

After reading, I needed to go to Izmir. I had no choice. Last week I was walking down the street and ran across the shop pictured in the New York Times article. In a way, this was the exact place that pulled me here. The geographical center of my new life. I walked inside the store and bargained for a really nice shirt. It was one of the owner’s birthday and we all ate cake together and laughed a lot. Then his friend took me to a tailor to get the shirt better fitted (part of our deal that was made in the brokenest of broken English/Turkish). It’s funny to think that they’ll never know how important their store is to me. I wonder how many other moments like this happen. I wonder if we really understand how much we affect each other, even from tens of thousands of miles away.

Screenshot 2016-02-16 at 18.31.09 (1).png
Bottom: NYT photo. Top: My photo.

Passing by the store this time, I saw that they had put more life jackets out on display. Today was the warmest day yet. Tomorrow is supposed to be warmer. I walked with Mo down the Kordon for two and a half kilometers. Looking down into the clear water of the Aegean Sea, we saw dozens of jellyfish swimming in the sunshine. On the Kordon, couples, business types, clusters of teenagers, and families swam among the black and white waves of marble.

And that’s how this in-between chapter of my life ends. In half an hour I will be at a meeting with a group of volunteers who help refugee families.


First Impressions of İzmir : 3 Jan. 2016

3 Jan. 2016 : İzmir

Today begins my forth day in Turkey, my third day in Izmir, and my first moment to myself. Every day has been a series of meeting many new people and seeing new parts of the city. So far the Turks have been extremely hospitable. Our days have mostly consisted of getting in a car of someone we barely know, having no idea what is happening, going somewhere for reasons we don’t quite understand, walking around, and then going to another destination.


Yesterday we decided to meet Ahmet, the cousin of someone Mo and I met on the internet. Ahmet was offering a room for us to rent. Mustafa, our current couchsurfing host, was kind enough to drive us to the metro station so we could meet Ahmet. After driving for a few blocks Mustafa pointed out the station he was going to take us to, told us where he was going to park and how to get to the station from there, then he drove for another kilometer where we parked and ate a huge breakfast, which he insisted that he pay for. Then he drove us to a different metro station, which was a lot easier for Mo and I to access.


A couple hours later, after meeting Ahmet, the three of us ate and drank at a cafe and then got into his car. For some reason, probably a misunderstanding on our part, Ahmet drove us to an outdoor mall in Bornova, an area somewhat far from where we were. Then we looked for parking in a parking lot gone mad. It was a big shopping day for Turkey, and the lack of spaces allowed for a variety of very creative parking spaces. When we found a spot, we walked around the mall for a while, then we went back into his car and he drove us to his apartment. After looking at the room in his apartment he graciously drove us to our next destination.

This kind of thing has become a frequent occurrence in Izmir and at this point, it would be surprising to go directly to any destination.


Apart from generous detours, we have drunk an immense amount of tea, almost none of which we have paid for. Drinking tea in Turkey is synonymous with saying hello, or breathing. I know that the British are famous for liking tea, and have “tea times.” But in Turkey every time is tea time. Surprisingly, despite my huge uptake in caffeine, I have been sleeping very well.

Music is almost as prevalent as tea in Izmir, and much sadder and better. Both male and female singers usually sing in deep, low voices and are backed by a chorus and a stringed instrument that I am used to hearing from traditional Arabic music. Barış Manço, a captivating discovery, is perfect example of this style. In edition to new discoveries, I am fortunate that Mabel Matiz, a Turkish singer I discovered back in San Francisco, is as much a favorite here as I hoped for, because I get to hear him all the time.

As for a downside, the biggest one personally has been the pollution. I do not think of Izmir as a heavily polluted city, but it is definitely more polluted than other places I’ve lived, which includes Los Angeles. When I wake up and open the window of the little room I’ve been staying in, the plastic smell of burning trash flows into the room and everywhere the crisp Winter air is tainted with a lingering smell of car exhaust. I’ve learned that the tap water, which I’ve already drank gallons of, had a dangerously high concentration of arsenic in it a couple years ago. Also, most rooms in Izmir smell like cigarette smoke, which I actually enjoy, but does not help the sore throat I’ve acquired from talking for most of my waking hours. Overall, the pollution is not too acute for a city of this size, but still always present.


Last, as for the reason I moved here, I have not seen as many Syrian refugees as I expected. I have seen some Arabic writing, mostly advertising money changers or things like that, but this is far too little to reflect the immense population of Syrians that live here. Perhaps the contrast between Arab culture and Turkish culture is not as obvious to me here in Izmir as it was in Stockholm, where wide eyed Syrians carrying their IKEA bags, wandered and darted around the cold magical streets. More likely, I have just not found the main areas where the refugees congregate. Izmir is a big city, and there is still a lot of layers to discover.

First Impressions of İzmir : 3 Jan. 2016

Stockholm : Dec 29, 2015

Dec 29, 2015 : Stockholm

Today I arrived in Stockholm, Sweden by way of Oakland, California. The plane flight was uneventful but noisy with babies. Throughout the ten hour plane flight I probably got less than an hour of sleep – which in the excitement of travelling to Stockholm, I barely felt. However, I can recognize the lack of sleep in my writing. On the plus side, I spent almost the entire flight learning Swedish.

After we finally arrived at the Stockholm airport, Mo and I bought the cheapest meal we could find since we had not eaten anything during the flight. Our first meal abroad was a very cheesy bread pastry and a coffee from 7-11, which is everywhere here in Sweden.


Revived by the food and coffee we bought a bus ticket to downtown Stockholm. We exited the bus in downtown Stockholm late in the evening, and despite all shops being closed, we decided to explore the city.

We had been warned that it would be cold in Stockholm, but it was only 0 degrees (32 degrees Fahrenheit) – just cold enough for the snow not to melt. Downtown Stockholm was a winter wonderland of a city. Thin blankets of snow felt more ornamental than cumbersome. There was no wind to freeze our faces, no snow sludge to collect on clothes, and no precipitation to make us wet. Besides the perfect weather, I had never felt safer in a city. Most impressively, many of Stockholm’s parked bicycles did not have locks on them. They were simply left outside, apparently vulnerable to thieves and weather.


Wandering through Stockholm at night felt like wandering through the pages of a warm fairy tale. The empty buildings and abandoned streets were clean and glistening with ice and snow. As this was right after Christmas, every single window had a traditional Swedish candelabra in it, lit by warm LEDs. Many windows also featured large paper lanterns in the shape of stars. Sometimes we would stumble upon torches set on the ground, still on fire, burning silently outside of entry ways.


As this was a weeknight, people were relatively scarce on the streets. While many of the people we saw were Swedes, a large portion of our fellow night-wanderers were Arab refugees, which could be found scattered upon every other downtown block.

I did not expect such a strong presence of refugees, both men and women – many elderly – roaming the magical Stockholm streets. Many of the refugees carried or were surrounded by piles of IKEA bags which I assume held most of their possessions.

Upon leaving a subway station, I came across a group of young Syrian women who had set down their IKEA bags in the front entrance. Before stepping over the pile of blue and yellow in order to leave the station, I locked eyes with one of the women. She was younger than me. Her hair was covered with a colourful hijab. Her face was beautiful, made up as if she had just come from a wedding or celebration. But her body was covered in drab, dirty clothes to protect her from the winter.

I opened my mouth to say something but realized I did not have the vocabulary to express anything I felt to her. Her bright eyes said the same thing to me. What else was there to say? If I knew better Arabic I would have said, “I am here for you. What do you need here? What can I do?” But that would not have been the whole truth. I was not Stockholm to help her. I was going to where she had just left from, traveling the route of the refugees in reverse.

The experience did not leave me feeling completely empty. That moment of communication with the Syrian woman alleviated a major fear I had regarding my purposes for travelling to Turkey. Promoting communication is, by far, the biggest asset I have to give to alleviate the refugee crisis. I am not rich, I am not a politician, and I have no connections with NGOs. But I do have my film and writing, my ability to organization, and my patience. However, if those assets are not useful due to major cultural and linguistic barriers, there is nothing I can do to help. Being able to have a complex moment of communication by just using eyes gave me hope that I can work through the cultural and language barriers that I will encounter with Arabs, Afghans, Africans, and Turks on a daily basis.

The next day Mo and I woke early – well we actually didn’t sleep due to the revving motorcycle in our dorm that took the form of snoring person, but we decided to leave our bed around 6am. We wandered the still-quiet streets among refugee families and Swedes going to work. After travelling across the old-fortress island, which looked even more fairytale-like in the light of the rising sun, we travelled back to the hostel for a cheap breakfast. After breakfast we gathered our belongings (everything we owned) and waited in an indoor mall for our bus back to the airport.




The indoor mall was filled with even more refugees who were keeping warm and dry. We sat down to an African woman for a few minutes while waiting for the bus. Beside me, she sang hushed songs to herself, or perhaps us. When I stood up to leave, she stood as well, as if to follow us. “Are you going?” she asked in quiet English.

“Yes.” I said. “And you?”

“Yes” she said very quietly, from some far away place. I looked in her eyes and saw nothing I could recognize. She opened one of her bags to show me something, but all I saw was cloth. Sensing I was about to dive into a rabbit hole I backed off, smiled at her warmly, and walked away. She watched me leaving as if she expected me to turn around and come back. But I didn’t.

Now, as the sun sets in the Stockholm airport, less than 24 hours after we arrived, we are leaving – this time to Istanbul. And then to Izmir, our new home.