Wednesday, December 22, 2010

It's the End of the Year As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)

I'm not sure I have ever experienced a year that seemed so far apart in time and distance as this one has. As I began to gather my thoughts for the annual Familia Smith Christmas Letter, I had to really think hard about events to assure myself that they actually happened in 2010 and not some earlier year. Was it this February that Steph first left for Afghanistan? Was it really only 7 months ago that Adrie graduated from High School? Did I really perform in a musical this past spring? So much has changed so rapidly that I feel that there have been some moments that are so far distant as to be from another time and place. Perhaps this is a good thing...I have not really had any time to fret over "empty nest" syndrome...we've all flown the coop!

I guess that changing countries, jobs, living conditions, languages all play a role in the time warp continuum. I spend so much time in the "now" trying to adjust to the newness of it all that I haven't had time to reflect on how I got here or, heaven forbid, where I am going next. But the fact is that, while we are all scattered to the corners of the globe, everyone seems to be doing fairly well. Needless to say, Afghanistan is the most difficult of all four locations and I don't pretend to know exactly how difficult the day to day is for Steph. But once he has a chance to decompress, he mostly has positive things to say about the work he is doing and I think he feels that it was the right choice to make, albeit not the ideal living situation. Alex remains positive about Tokyo, enough so that he plans to officially transfer to the Temple Tokyo campus and graduate from there. And, except for the difficulty in getting out of Edinburgh in the middle of one of the worst snow storms in recent memory, Adrie adores her life at university. So we seem to have landed well and have made 2010 a year, if not to remember, at least one that is very interesting to contemplate.

For those of you on the traditional Smith mailing list, you can expect the 2010 letter sometime after the first of the year. That's if I don't warp to some other reality and forget to bring my contact list! Hoping that your year was more sequentially memorable and that you have a joyous holiday surrounded by family and friends.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

51 Going On 15

Adding on to my thoughts about teaching high school students, another benefit that some teachers glean from the close proximity to youth is a delayed or even retrogressive aging process. At least this seems to be the case for teachers who enjoy what they do, and for the most part, most educators I have met fall into in this category. For me, I am certain it keeps me a lot younger than my law practice would have, had I stayed on that career path.

Case in point: last night, against my better “adult” judgment, I joined my seven intrepid Model United Nations ambassadors on an adventure in Istanbul. Never mind the fact that it was freezing cold and raining rather heavily and no one had hat, gloves or umbrella. Forget that we had no clear destination in mind. There was a ferry that crossed the Bosphorus from the Asian to the European side of the city and there were some great restaurants to be found! Hello, what else did I need to know? Staying in the warm, dry hotel with its lure of a glass of red wine and a decent night’s sleep would be the old lady way to spend the evening. So out I went, gloveless, hatless, umbrella-less, and instantly at least ten years came rolling off my back.

Taking the ferry across the water on such a cold and rainy night would probably have been a rather mundane event, had I been just a daily commuter. We saw several people who clearly did this trip on a fairly regular basis and they did not look much different from a DC subway rider…no looking out the window, head buried in a newspaper. But that’s not the way a gang of seven teenagers travels! Loud, laughing, and infinitely curious, my group constantly went in and out of the heated covered area of the ferry to look at the passing city, to pose in Vogue style tableaus for the endless photo shoot and to simply enjoy the fact that they were together and not at home. I posed in almost as many shots as the kids, except for when I was the photographer. No sense in getting warm and dry now…we were just going to get soaked again once we reached the far shore! I was closing in on 30 by the time we stepped off the boat.

Once on shore again, we made a b-line to the street to grab a couple of cabs to take us to Taksim Square, a well traveled pedestrian thoroughfare with hotels, restaurants, stores, a metro stop and lots of people, even on such a dreary night. It reminded me a little bit of Times Square with its lights and activity. Luckily for us, one of our contingent just happens to be Turkish and fluent in the language! Cansu was able to navigate and negotiate like a pro and wrangled us two cabs, chatted up the drivers, and got us safely and quickly to Taksim Square where two of our group marched immediately to the closest shwarma vendor and downed a pre-dinner snack. If only the benefits of hanging out with teenagers included obtaining the hummingbird metabolism of a 16 year old boy!

On a Friday night at 8pm, the city was hopping with young Turks out for a meal or coffee or shopping, and it reminded me of when I was in my mid-twenties--getting out of work, we all tumbled down to the newest restaurant or our favorite watering hole to get a start on the weekend. Similarly, weaving in and out of the crowds, my gang made our way down the cobblestone street, bought cheap umbrellas (two of which immediately inverted and broke) and discovered a wonderful, traditional Turkish restaurant serving lamb kebobs, a creamy yogurt sauce pasta dish, and meat and cheese filled “pancakes” made with thin Turkish flat bread. We giggled and laughed too loudly, like I used to do with my college buddies when we went out for pizza.

After eating too much, and finally getting a bit sleepy, we ventured again out into the wind and rain and were ready to call it a night until we were saved by the discovery of a store selling cheap gloves, hats and earmuffs. After trying on almost every variety of knitted woolen hat, each of us settled on something to keep ourselves warm and, newly fortified, managed to discover some of the side streets, whose establishments seemed to be mostly bars and clubs. As we walked past the wranglers trying to give us free entry and free drink coupons, I nearly forgot that I was, in fact, old enough to take advantage of such offers…instead, I walked as quickly and directly past these spots as the rest of our group, looking into the dimly lit spaces like an underage teen wondering what it would be like to go in and order a beer, as if I had never been in a pub in my life.

When we finally had our fill of walking, and were thoroughly worn out, we let Cansu work her linguistic magic to hail two more cabs back to our hotel. On the way, the driver’s radio played American pop songs, to which I knew all the words and joined the girls in singing along with Shakira and Bruno Mars…transformation complete, albeit temporary. However short-lived, the ability to be psychologically 15 again certainly makes being chronologically 51 much easier!

Friday, December 10, 2010

Istanbul (Not Constantinople)

One of the perks of being a high school social studies teacher at a small school is that you automatically qualify to be the faculty advisor for the Model United Nations. While that may not seem like a benefit, it is when you realize that you get to go to some pretty great cities (New York, London, Washington, DC, the Hague and Istanbul) and, once at the conference, the students operate fairly independently. Thus, I had the chance to go on a tourist venture and see The Dolmabahçe Palace which is on the European side of the Bosphorous (yes, for all of you geographically challenged out there, Istanbul really is the place where “East meets West” or perhaps more accurately, it delineates the continents of Europe and Asia).

Not that I knew anything about The Dolmabahçe Palace before I jumped into the mini-van and headed towards the water. It was a grey, cold rainy morning and I was more interested in getting into a warm, dry location. Once inside the palace however, I was overpowered by the opulent and ornate palace that was built for the sultans of the Ottoman Empire around the same time that Senator Preston “Bully” Brooks was busy beating Charles Sumner on the floor of the US Senate thus inflaming further North/South crisis …(yes, I teach AP US History, so what?). Oh, right, Istanbul…anyway, this particular palace is a riot of rococo, baroque and neo-classical styles in architecture, decoration and manner and is a true blend of both European and Ottoman sensibilities. There are a number of huge chandeliers (one a gift from Queen Victoria), some amazingly detailed wooden inlay on all the door jambs and along the banisters. and one of the worlds’ largest Turkish carpets. I know it isn’t Versailles, but it looked like it could handle a pretty wild party!

Not much more I can tell you about Istanbul right now, because while traveling to amazing cities is the perk, not having any free time to explore the place is the down side. I have to stay here at the school to make sure that my Model UN students are on the ball learning how to save the world, one resolution at a time. But look for a blog entry in the future when I come here with Steph, rather than seven teenagers. Maybe I can’t go back to Constantinople, but I sure plan to return to Istanbul!

Monday, November 29, 2010

Out and About in Alexandria

For a town that was founded by Alexander the Great and housed both the great Library and the Pharos lighthouse (one of the Seven Ancient Wonders of the World), this town has remarkably little to show for it. Very little remains of the ancient buildings and landmarks, in part because of natural disasters like earthquakes, and in part because of basic neglect and lack of funding. However, on Steph's recent visit, we managed to find most of the historic sites that do exist and to bask, at least partially, in the glory that was once Alexandria.

Our first outing was to Montazah Gardens and Palace, which was the home of His Majesty Farouk I, by the grace of God, King of Egypt and Sudan, Sovereign of Nubia, of Kordofan, and of Darfur. (You can just call him King Farouk, if that is easier). Part Albanian, part Egyptian, schooled at military school in England, Farouk became the last king of Egypt in 1936 at age 16 and was initially rather popular among Egyptians. However, while everyone else was tightening their belts during WWII, Farouk was having to loosen his on a regular basis as his lavish living and copious eating habits added on the pounds to the point where he weighed close to 300 lbs and was allegedly called "a stomach with a head" by one of his friends and "Fat Pig" by the CIA. He lived in the palace at Montazah on the Mediterranean throughout the war and was heavily criticized for not bothering to turn out the lights during air raids. He lived there until he was forced to abdicate and run off to Europe as Gamel Nasser and his pals came in to save Egypt (another story, another blog posting). Ok, so enough history...the current palace and surrounding gardens is the Central Park of Alex...a beautiful place to stroll, enjoy a coffee by the sea and ponder just how many cats the place can sustain. They are as plentiful as squirrels in the US and almost as skittish.

A few days later, we were off to view some of the most famous sites of Alex, most prominent among them, the Citadel of Qaitbey. It is the castle-like fort that juts out into the Mediterranean at the mouth of Alexandria's Eastern Harbor, and sits upon what most archeologists believe is the site of the Pharos, the great Lighthouse of Alexandria. And while the fort itself is rather impressive, it is nothing compared to the view out of the windows on a beautiful, sunny day.

We went from the fort to Pompey's Pillar, a large phallic symbol of a monument that would be impressive but for the fact that it is just about the only thing on the site. And it isn't even Pompey's! Pompey was was ignominiously murdered on the shores of Alexandria by Cleopatra's little brother Ptolemy around 48 BC as Pompey was looking for a decent retirement community having picked the wrong side of the Great Triumvirate. The pillar in question was erected in 291 AD as a monument to the emperor Diocletian. Right...I had to look him up, too. Most people think Roman history ends with Julius Caesar getting offed by his best friends in the Senate (a cautionary tale for modern politicians), Antony and Cleopatra hooking up and then ending with daggers and snakes, and maybe you remember Octavian, but only if you watched the HBO series Rome. Beyond that, the Roman Empire fell, right? OK, some of you might admit to knowing something about Caligula or might cop to having watched "I, Claudius" but that would date you in a strange, and somewhat perverted way, and even then we are talking about maybe 41 or 42 AD. This was at least 250 years beyond the events portrayed in Malcolm MacDowell's second strangest movie ever. So, the historic significance of this rather large and impressive obelisk is somewhat lost. But it makes for a great photo op!

Also on this tour, we went to see the Roman Ampitheater, which, as a theater geek, I loved the most (the Scarecrow to my Dorothy). Ignore the fact that it was discovered on a site known as Kom al-Dikka. Yes, that sounds so nice until you translate to the English meaning "Mound of Rubble". But I looked beyond its ragtag exterior and could see myself performing here, maybe bringing the Little Theater Group of Costa Rica out to do another round of "I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change"...ok, maybe I didn't drink enough water that day or I ate something slightly off...but, I could see it. Just as Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland or Alfalfa and Darla could always see how to put on a show for the neighbors...OK, perhaps the Roman theater was used as a forum for political debate or local justice...but that is still good theater today, isn't it?

The final stop, I promise...and how appropriate...the Catacombs of Kom Ash-Shuqqafa. This is the biggest Roman burial ground in Egypt and it was the only place that did not allow us to bring in our cameras (maybe we would get lucky and scoop a National Enquirer cover of the Ghost of Caligula's horse Incitatus?). I know that there is an entire history of what these underground tombs were all about, but I don't do well in small, enclosed, damp, stairway-only accessible, tight,...did I say enclosed, wet,cloying, moldy...get me out of here...places.....I didn't stay down there long enough to find out anything more than that there are no mummies there (all taken out and moved to the Egyptian museum in Cairo) and that there is a great deal of water pooling in certain parts of the lower tombs and no earthquake protection.

Not to leave you on a dark note, we did surface to have lunch on the rooftop of the Cecil Hotel, a lovely spot to watch the sun set over the Mediterranean and bring a beautiful glow over all of Alexandria. And when you all come to visit, we can do this tour again, including the catacombs...but I'll stay above ground and hold your cameras.