Things I Didn't Know I Loved

I was thrilled to "run into" Nazim Hikmet, my favorite Turkish poet after Rumi, in the quiet garden sanctuary of Cafe Privato overlooking  the Galata Tower in Istanbul.  Over our ample Turkish  breakfast of cheeses, olives, tomatoes, cucumbers, honeycomb, cream, plum jam, fig jam, apple jam, eggs, sucuk sausage washed down with pomegranate juice and tea I told Christian about his life and poetry while Xavier ran around chasing the cats.  Hikmet has been described as a "Romantic Revolutionary" and spent much of his adult life in prison or exile for his Communist political beliefs.  He was given the International Peace Prize in 1950.  If you haven't heard of him before, his words below will give you a glimpse into his optimistic and beautiful view of the world, despite incarcerations and turmoil in his home country.  His poems always remind me to look closer, smell better, listen more carefully, taste more thoughtfully and feel more deeply.

Things I Didn't Know I Loved

~ Nazim Hikmet

it's 1962 March 28th
I'm sitting by the window on the Prague-Berlin train 
night is falling
I never knew I liked
night descending like a tired bird on a smoky wet plain 
I don't like
comparing nightfall to a tired bird

I didn't know I loved the earth
can someone who hasn't worked the earth love it 
I've never worked the earth
it must be my only Platonic love

and here I've loved rivers all this time
whether motionless like this they curl skirting the hills
European hills crowned with chateaus
or whether stretched out flat as far as the eye can see
I know you can't wash in the same river even once
I know the river will bring new lights you'll never see
I know we live slightly longer than a horse but not nearly as long as a crow
I know this has troubled people before
                         and will trouble those after me
I know all this has been said a thousand times before 
                         and will be said after me

I didn't know I loved the sky 
cloudy or clear
the blue vault Andrei studied on his back at Borodino
in prison I translated both volumes of War and Peace into Turkish 
I hear voices
not from the blue vault but from the yard 
the guards are beating someone again
I didn't know I loved trees
bare beeches near Moscow in Peredelkino
they come upon me in winter noble and modest 
beeches are Russian the way poplars are Turkish 
"the poplars of Izmir
losing their leaves. . .
they call me The Knife. . .
                         lover like a young tree. . .
I blow stately mansions sky-high"
in the Ilgaz woods in 1920 I tied an embroidered linen handkerchief 
                                        to a pine bough for luck

I never knew I loved roads 
even the asphalt kind
Vera's behind the wheel we're driving from Moscow to the Crimea 
                               formerly "Goktepé ili" in Turkish 
the two of us inside a closed box
the world flows past on both sides distant and mute 
I was never so close to anyone in my life
bandits stopped me on the red road between Bolu and Geredé
                                        when I was eighteen
apart from my life I didn't have anything in the wagon they could take 
and at eighteen our lives are what we value least
I've written this somewhere before
wading through a dark muddy street I'm going to the shadow play 
Ramazan night
a paper lantern leading the way
maybe nothing like this ever happened
maybe I read it somewhere an eight-year-old boy
                                       going to the shadow play
Ramazan night in Istanbul holding his grandfather's hand 
   his grandfather has on a fez and is wearing the fur coat
      with a sable collar over his robe
   and there's a lantern in the servant's hand
   and I can't contain myself for joy
flowers come to mind for some reason 
poppies cactuses jonquils
in the jonquil garden in Kadikoy Istanbul I kissed Marika 
fresh almonds on her breath
I was seventeen
my heart on a swing touched the sky 
I didn't know I loved flowers
friends sent me three red carnations in prison

I just remembered the stars 
I love them too
whether I'm floored watching them from below 
or whether I'm flying at their side

I have some questions for the cosmonauts 
were the stars much bigger
did they look like huge jewels on black velvet
                             or apricots on orange
did you feel proud to get closer to the stars
I saw color photos of the cosmos in Ogonek magazine now don't 
   be upset comrades but nonfigurative shall we say or abstract 
   well some of them looked just like such paintings which is to 
   say they were terribly figurative and concrete
my heart was in my mouth looking at them 
they are our endless desire to grasp things
seeing them I could even think of death and not feel at all sad 
I never knew I loved the cosmos

snow flashes in front of my eyes
both heavy wet steady snow and the dry whirling kind 
I didn't know I liked snow

I never knew I loved the sun
even when setting cherry-red as now
in Istanbul too it sometimes sets in postcard colors 
but you aren't about to paint it that way
I didn't know I loved the sea
                             except the Sea of Azov
or how much

I didn't know I loved clouds
whether I'm under or up above them
whether they look like giants or shaggy white beasts

moonlight the falsest the most languid the most petit-bourgeois 
strikes me
I like it

I didn't know I liked rain
whether it falls like a fine net or splatters against the glass my 
   heart leaves me tangled up in a net or trapped inside a drop 
   and takes off for uncharted countries I didn't know I loved 
   rain but why did I suddenly discover all these passions sitting 
   by the window on the Prague-Berlin train
is it because I lit my sixth cigarette 
one alone could kill me
is it because I'm half dead from thinking about someone back in Moscow
her hair straw-blond eyelashes blue

the train plunges on through the pitch-black night
I never knew I liked the night pitch-black
sparks fly from the engine
I didn't know I loved sparks
I didn't know I loved so many things and I had to wait until sixty 
   to find it out sitting by the window on the Prague-Berlin train 
   watching the world disappear as if on a journey of no return

                                                     19 April 1962


Istanbul, 20 Years Later

I wear an amulet bracelet of nazar boncuğu, the Turkish blue eye, around my wrist and Xavier has one hanging in his room to ward off the evil eye. When he was born, we received a special note from Istanbul which said, "We are thrilled about the birth of our grandchild.  Congratulations from your Turkish Family."

Twenty years ago after graduating from high school in South Dakota, I stepped on a plane for Istanbul. It was the first time I'd traveled outside the country.  Rotary International sponsored my cultural exchange and I spent 10 months in Turkey living with three loving host families, breathing in a new world.

How did I end up in Turkey?  Rotary offered me a choice of the Philippines,  Argentina, Finland or Turkey.  Turkey sounded like the most exotic and farthest away from South Dakota, which was appealing.  I didn't know a single word of Turkish.  All of my siblings went on exchange as well:  my older brother went to Australia, my younger sister to Denmark and my little brother to Belgium.  My father told us later, "Your mother and I wanted you all to see the world, but we wanted you to come home."  None of us really ever came home.  We all went traveling and kept moving.  Looking back, I realize my time in Turkey set me on a course for studying history at university, my career in travel and my insatiable curiosity about people and places on this planet.  The more places I visit, the more places I discover I want to go.  Istanbul was my portal to the whole wide world. 
And now, twenty years later, I have returned to visit this richly-textured city with my husband and toddler son.  

Many things have changed:

My second first impression of the "City of the World's Desire" is that it has cleaned up quite a bit and seems sleeker and more modern. There was a serious smog problem in 1993 which appears in this crisp October to have improved. While I used to ride crammed buses often stuck in clogged traffic, now a modern tramline system makes it much easier and faster to get around.  

The Sultanahmet area has been closed to general traffic so it is easier to walk around the historical sites of Topkapi Palace, the Blue Mosque and Haiga Sophia. 

I remember lying down in the middle of the plush carpets inside the Blue Mosque to gaze at the innumerable blue Iznik tiles.  Now tourists are crammed behind a gate of only 1/5 of the floor space which can hold up to 10,000 men praying.  The guard motioned to Xavier "Gel, gel" (Come, come) and he was allowed behind the VIP cords to run around freely.

Having tea across from the Blue Mosque

In Haiga Sophia, half of the vast interior is now scaffolded, making it a little bit difficult to get the full scale.  I had remembered the general importance of this church-turned mosque-turned museum, but I had forgotten just how early it was built (537) and how dazzling and expressive the mosaics were with detailed facial lines, jewels and locks of hair.  

In Turkey, a Muslim country, the greatest arts have always been calligraphy, architecture, and tile work of geometric and floral motifs.  Painting and portraiture did not really get going until 1922 with the founding of the Republic of Turkey and Ataturk began sponsoring and promoting art. Twenty years there was more modern art happening by Turks abroad than at home, but now the city hosts a thriving arts scene with the recent opening of Istanbul Modern, the 13th Istanbul Bienale, and a lively gallery scene.

Istanbul Modern

Three very high-rise apartment complexes loom over one of my homes in the formerly quiet residential neighborhood of Levent, to the dismay of my host family, and the city has grown to a possible 14 million residents.

Currency reform in 2005 chopped off six zeros from the Turkish Lira, a redenomination that made something that had escalated out of control to 35,000,000 TL now 35 TL.  

When I was an exchange student, Tansu Ciller was Turkey's first and to-date only female President.  She was quite progressive and now Abdullah Gul is President and he is, well, not so progressive.

Sadly, I've lost most of the language I'd once learned.  While never fluent, I did become conversational in Turkish, partially thanks to the Turks expressive gesturing to help me understand the gist of things.  Now I'm told my pronunciation of a few dozen words and phrases is very good and when I say something, Turks respond in quick Turkish, which I don't understand.

In twenty years I've also grown up a bit. I remember sitting on the edge of my seat as my host mother Hulya read my coffee grounds to tell of a future husband and how happy we would be.  Now here I am with my husband Christian and young son, showing them my Istanbul.

And of course, some things haven't changed at all:

Ataturk, the beloved first president of Turkey, still looks down from the wall in every Turkish home, restaurant and business establishment.  Here is a portrait Hulya painted of him.

The ferries going back and forth across the Bosphorus are the same and possibly the best place to enjoy a cup of cay (tea) in the whole city. I used to take the ferry back and forth to school when I lived on Europe and attended high school at Uskudar Amerikan Lisesi on the Asian side.  A beautiful commute if there ever was one.

The pedestrian street of Istiklal Caddesi is still packed with people at all hours of the day and night en route to and from Taksim Square, shopping, dinner and lively nightlife.

Topkapi Palace will be forever timeless where Ottoman sultans lounged on low divans under its priceless tiles of green, blue, aquamarine and the now-lost red.  The Topkapi Dagger is still there and still impressive, as well as the Kisitas Diamond (also known as the Spoonmaker's Diamond).  I do remember visiting the vast  kitchen complex, which are now closed for renovations.

But most of all, what made me feel immediately at home again in Istanbul after twenty years is the warm and legendary Turkish Hospitality.  My host families spirited us around the city to see the views and took us out for delicious meals. Hulya cooked for us at home and her sigura borek, hot dolmas and Circassian Chicken tastes just as delicious as I remembered. Of course everyone fell in love with Xavier, and he them.  

                                            Xavier with my host father, Uran

Years fall away and it is wonderful to be back.  There is a saying in Turkish:  "Arkasindan su dokmek" which means "Pour water behind" to ensure a smooth departure and a smooth return. Someone must have thrown water behind me when I left after my Rotary exchange.

I can't think why it has taken me twenty years to return.


Birthday Season

Some people don't like to make a big fuss over their birthday. I am not one of these people. I like to commence my birthday season on the first day of autumn and celebrate multiple times with as many people as possible.  This year I am throwing myself an oyster-shucking dinner party. I'll also be taking myself out to lunch with girlfriends, buying myself flowers and using the occasion to go get my long-neglected nails cleaned up and painted.

Tonight I enjoyed a candlelit birthday-eve dinner party with my husband and son, using our best china.  While I drank champagne, Xavier sweetly cheers-ed me with his sippy-cup of bubbly water.  I have already talked to my mother, sister and niece and now text and facebook greetings have started to trickle in.  I'm feeling buzzy with love.  I just finished a decadent late night snack of warm toast - not too crunchy - with Theo dark chocolate drizzled with olive oil, washed down with a steaming cup of Siberian rose petal tea from the treasured teapot my husband gave me as a gift last year. And in a minute I might go swing on the porch in the autumn air with a dram of rum and think about all the happy moments in my life thus far.  If I've gained any wisdom throughout my years, it is that each birthday is a gift and something most definitely to be celebrated. The trick is figuring out how to remember this on a daily basis throughout the year.  I'm still working on that.

Since becoming a mother, I have new a new perspective on birthdays and now feel even more justified in celebrating on a grand scale.  If you don't remember your first birthday, let me tell you:  it is a really big deal.  When Xavier was born, our friends Julie and Chris gave him a beautiful illustrated book called On the Night You Were Born by Nancy Tillman.  I wish every person on the planet could read this book on their own birthday - or even better, have someone who loves them read it to them, whether they are turning five or ninety-five.

"On the night you were born, the moon smiled with such wonder that the stars peeked in to see you and the night wind whispered, "Life will never be the same." Because there had never been anyone like you...ever in the world."

Tomorrow I'll wake up happy with anticipation for the phone call from my father when he'll say, as he does every year, "The day you were born was one of the happiest days of my life."  I now say this to my son and I can't decide if it makes me more happy to hear it or to say it.

I charge you with the following mission:  Make a big fuss for birthdays of all the people you love.  Make a big fuss for your own birthday and let others do so too.  It is a very special day.  Go ahead, celebrate all birthday season long.


10 Ways To Celebrate National Family History Month

That sweet little girl in the middle of the photograph is my maternal grandmother, Dolores Foerster, the youngest of eleven children. On the back of the photograph, my grandmother wrote in her lovely cursive handwriting:  "Back row: Hilda, Ella, Leo, Sr. Luke, Otto, Bruno, Laura (Sr. Marcella), Julia. Front row:  Rudy, my father Frank, myself, mother Mary Schneider, Genevieve. Foerster Family 1919."

Happy October! Did you know this is National Family History Month? In 2003, the United States Senate granted October this official status "to encourage family history research, education, and the sharing of knowledge." Here at Shine Memoirs, I am galvanized to complete several projects including framing a family heirloom, attending a genealogy workshop at my library and finally finishing the first draft of my book. Perhaps you, too, have projects underway or have been waiting for a rainy day to start one. Herein some inspiration to get you rolling:

10 Ways to Celebrate National Family History Month

  1. Pull down your photo albums from the shelf and look through them with your family. Make sure to write the names of people, places and dates in all photographs.
  2. Organize your digital photos and print a book through Shutterfly, Blurb or your local print shop.
  3. Write a letter or an email to a family member recalling a special day you shared together. Receiving a thoughtful note, even if just a few lines, is guaranteed to make someone's day, especially if it comes on an ordinary Tuesday.
  4. Take a video on your smartphone of your child, a sibling or parents and upload it to YouTube or Facebook to share.
  5. Sit down to enjoy a leisurely cup of tea with a parent, aunt, uncle or grandparent and ask them some questions about their childhood. This can be done over the phone or skype of course, too. Video and audio apps on smartphones are an easy way to record conversations. Or if you have a video camera gathering dust in the closet, break it out! 
  6. Chart your family tree. Here is a nifty fan chart template to print. Ask around to see if any close or distant relatives have gotten a head start with your tracing your family's genealogy. Library branches like mine often offer free classes.
  7. Make a family recipe book. Send out a request for favorite family recipes and make a book, a pretty recipe file box or simply compile them in a word document to share by email.
  8. Document your family heirlooms or favorite possessions. Take photos or write a list and be sure to write descriptions of where and who each treasure came from.
  9. Make a gift of a framed photograph, a collage of letters or a memory box to hold special notes.
  10. Go make a new special memory with the people you love!