In The Midst Of An Election

Turkey is in the midst of an election campaign. The incumbent, Tayyip Erdogan, has held the Turkish Presidency for 20 years; he faces a challenge from Kemal Kilicdaroglu. The race will be decided by a run-off vote tomorrow.

I don’t know who will win, but I do know this: the two candidates aren’t shy about posting their faces and their campaign slogans anywhere and everywhere. Erdogan’s campaign put up a colossal bedsheet poster above one of the streets near the Grand Bazaar that billowed in the breeze like a living thing, whereas both candidates took advantage of the heavy foot traffic near the Galata Tower to get some free publicity for their campaigns. Not being able to read Turkish, I’m not sure what the campaign themes are, but I’m guessing that the incumbent focuses on “experience” and the challenger promises “change.” (According to Google, “soz” in Turkish means “promise.”)

Of course, as tourists we have no insight into who might win. We didn’t bring up politics with anyone, but we did hear some grousing about inflation being an issue in Turkey. It also isn’t clear whether people feel strongly about the outcome. We did see a street brawl where one Turk knocked another Turk to the ground before they were separated and began shouting (apparent) insults at each other, but we didn’t know whether politics was the cause of the dispute or whether it was just your standard Turkish tussle in a male-dominated culture.

Black Tea And Baklava

If there is a national drink of Turkey, it is this: black tea served piping hot and brewed strong, presented, usually, in a tempered glass like this with a bulb at the bottom. It might singe your fingers to pick up, but it is delicious. It’s so good that it makes this committed coffee drinker think tea might not be so bad.

One of our guides explained that Turks like something sweet with their tea or coffee. For tea, the preferred dessert of choice is baklava, For coffee, it’s some Turkish Delight candy.

The Turks take that “bitter with the sweet” notion very seriously.

A Town With A Sweet Tooth

I’m paying my first-ever visit to Istanbul, and aside from some mishaps getting here and a bad case of jet lag that caused me to doze off in the middle of a sentence at lunch, it has been great so far. I’ll have a lot more to say about Istanbul, but for now I simply want to point out that this is a town with a serious sweet tooth. Whether it’s candy, cookies, ice cream or fine pastries, we’ve seen virtually every kind of sweet being consumed by the locals, with relish.

These photos were taken as we walked through the thriving old town section of Istanbul at about 11p.m. on a Wednesday night, as people were out eating ice cream or having a last tea and baklava before heading home. This store was open and selling high-end confections that looked delicious. I’ve always though of Vienna, Paris, Florence and Munich as the capitals of sweets, but Istanbul belongs in that conversation, too.

The Turks may look fierce, but they obviously have a soft spot for the sugary end of the spectrum.

Creating An Underground Mystery

In 1963, the story goes, a man in the Turkish town of Derinkuyu did some home remodeling that left a small crevice in his wall. His chickens kept disappearing into the crack, never to be seen again. Frustrated, he took a sledgehammer to the wall and discovered a tunnel that led to another tunnel, and then another that ultimately gave access to a vast underground city. His story got around, other neighbors started to check out their basements, and ultimately more than 600 entrances to the underground city were discovered–thanks to the rambunctious chickens and one frustrated Turk.

The “lost” subterranean city was called Elengubu and is now called Derinkuyu. It’s in an area of Turkey that is famous for its soft stone, which caused many inhabitants to dig beneath their homes and create additional rooms underground. There are apparently many such underground rooms in the area, but none are as elaborate as Elengubu, which has 18 levels, reaches depths of 270 feet below ground, and is sizeable enough to house 20,000 people. The underground city features massive support pillars, more than 15,000 air shafts, water wells, spaces for livestock and a wine press, and security stones that can be rolled into place to keep out the unwanted.

The mystery is that no one knows who built this huge underground complex, or why. No one knows precisely when it was created, either. It may have been constructed to allow for a refuge in case of invasion, or to allow residents to find cooler temperatures during the hot Turkish summers. It was evidently in use for thousands of years by different civilizations until the Cappadocian Greeks left Turkey in the early 1920s. The city was then promptly forgotten until it was rediscovered by the chickens, and their astonished sledgehammer-wielding owner, some 40 years later.

I wonder if the last person who left the underground city in the 1920s had any idea that they would be contributing to a mystery that would confound people only 40 years later? Sometime the only thing that is needed to create a mystery is forgetfulness, and time.

Turkey On The Road

With Thanksgiving only two days away, many Americans are bracing themselves.  They know that, maybe today, maybe tomorrow, or maybe — God forbid! — on Thanksgiving itself, they will hop into a car and try to drive to Grandma’s house through the gnarliest, most soul-crushing gridlock imaginable.

1009114412-turkey-klein-14-1260x800The venerable American Automobile Association is predicting that this will be the worst Thanksgiving travel week ever — which is really saying something.  The AAA forecasts that 54.3 million Americans will travel 50 miles or more from their homes this Thanksgiving, which is almost five percent higher than last year.  And if you’re one of those lucky  travelers who lives in a select American city, the AAA is even offering guidance on which route at which time will encounter the heaviest traffic and the longest delays.  According to the AAA, for example, if you leave San Francisco between 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. on Wednesday and take I-680 north, you can expect 4 times the normal travel time between exits 8 and 21.  In most cities, the worst delays are expected to occur today, between 5:30 and 7 p.m.

Over the years Kish and I have occasionally traveled around the Thanksgiving holidays, and we’ve always deeply regretted it.  The worst incident occurred when we tried to drive from Columbus to Vermilion one Thanksgiving Day and got stuck in a massive traffic jam on I-71, which was like a parking lot.  It took hours to inch along, and when we finally arrived nobody had the placid, Pilgrim-like calm you hope to achieve on Thanksgiving.  If I recall correctly, the pre-meal backyard football game that year was a tad more aggressive than usual.

This year, I’m extremely thankful that I’m not driving anywhere outside of Columbus.  For those of you who will be on the road — well, good luck.

Pardon Me

President Trump is in the news again (of course!), this time for issuing a controversial pardon of former Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio.  Arpaio had just been convicted of criminal contempt for knowingly violating a court order requiring his office to stop targeting Latino drivers — a misdemeanor that carried a maximum sentence of six months in prison and a fine.  Less than a month after the conviction, and before Arpaio was formally sentenced, President Trump pardoned him and has explained that he felt that Arpaio was treated unfairly.  The pardon has been strongly criticized by a number of groups, and polls show it isn’t very popular with the American people.

The power to pardon is one of the most interesting, unilateral, and absolute powers possessed by the President of the United States.  It’s also one of the powers that is most likely to provoke criticism — except when the President uses that power to pardon the turkey presented to him for his Thanksgiving dinner.  Through the pardon power, the President has the ability to override the decisions of the judicial branch of government and of prior administrations who decided to prosecute the individuals who are pardoned.  The President’s power to pardon was first established by George Washington, who pardoned two men convicted of treason and sentenced to hang for their role in the Whiskey Rebellion, and over time it has been institutionalized — and used in ways that appear to be unseemly.  President Clinton’s last-minute pardon of fugitive Marc Rich, who had been indicted for racketeering, trading with the enemy, and evading income tax and then fled the country for 16 years, was mired in allegations of intrigue, back room deals and campaign contributions that made it look like the pardon power was for sale to the wealthy.

Trump’s pardon of Arpaio is unusual, for coming so soon after Arpaio was convicted and so early in Trump’s term in office.  Because the pardon power tends to  be controversial, Presidents typically wait until the end of their term in office, as President Clinton did, to issue pardons, so they can’t be held accountable by voters.  Trump also acted without following the advice of the Department of Justice unit that has been established to review and recommend pardons — but of course that is the President’s prerogative, as President Washington established more than 200 years ago.

The ability to pardon puts a tremendous amount of power in the hands of one man.  With President Trump’s mercurial temperament, we can reasonably expect to see that power used in new and different ways while he remains in office.  At least Trump acted in a way that will allow voters to consider his pardon decision as they decide whether to vote for him, assuming he chooses to run for reelection.  And who knows?  With President Trump being who he is, perhaps he will break with precedent on that turkey pardon, too.

Warding Off The Evil Eye

The Wrestling Fan and his lovely wife recently spent a few weeks hiking around Turkey.  He returned from his travels with a gift for us — a blue pendant with an eye-like set of concentric circles on the front.

IMG_5958Called a nazar (in Turkish, the Nazar Boncugu) the little pendant is supposed to serve as a kind of good luck charm that can protect you from the ravages of the “Evil Eye.”  The notion that people can give you the “Evil Eye” — whether through witchcraft, or sorcery, or deviltry, or simply through the sheer force of outright, pulsating human envy and hatred, that certain people can hurt you with a glance — is one of the oldest superstitions known to homo sapiens.  And that superstition still has legs.  According to the WF, this little blue pendant is the most popular souvenir in Turkey, sold and seen everywhere.

It was nice of the Wrestling Fan to get us some protection from the Evil Eye.  But now we are faced with a true quandary:  where do we most need this important personal shield?  It would be great to have it at the office, where I probably could use every bit of help, from any source, in resisting the depredations of opposing parties and counsel.  However, I don’t want to hog the protection.  You never know when Kish might need the nazar on the homefront, to fend off the evil antics of slow-moving service providers.  And for that matter, maybe it’s greedy to keep the nazar to ourselves.  Let’s face it — the entire city of Cleveland could use a Nazar Boncugu to help one of its sports teams finally win a championship one of these years.

Now that I think about it, I wish the WF had packed a few more nazars into his suitcase.

About The Wishbone . . . .

At countless Thanksgiving dinner tables today two people will be designated to grasp the two ends of the wishbone, think of a wish, and pull — and whoever ends up with the bigger part of the bone is supposed to get their wish.

Why do we do this?

It’s an ancient practice, one that dates back to long before the first Thanksgiving near Plymouth Rock.  It goes all the way back to the pre-Roman Etruscan civilization, which used chickens to tell the future — and started the practice of focusing on the furcula, which is the proper name for the wishbone.  The Etruscans, gentle souls that they were, stroked the dried wishbone as they made their wishes for the future.

Leave it to the Romans, and their competitive ways, to decide that the Etruscans were right to focus on the furcula, but were wrong in how they treated it — and that the best way to get a wish granted was to break the wishbone in a contest that ensured there was a winner and a loser.  And as the Romans conquered the world, their bone-breaking tradition was borrowed by other cultures, including the inhabitants of the remote island outpost of the empire, who — centuries later — shipped it across the Atlantic to the New World.

Much as we might admire the Etruscans and their views on avian divination, if you’re offered the wishbone today, I suggest taking a firm grip and yanking for all you’re worth.

Thinking Of Thanksgiving Traditions

For many of us, Thanksgiving is rich with family traditions.  Whether it is food, decorations, or the timing of the big meal, the traditions connect us to earlier times and people who are no longer with us but whose spirits live on, undiminished, in our memories.  The traditions are a big part of why, for many people, Thanksgiving is our favorite holiday.

Recently Mom and the five Webner kids had dinner and reminisced about Thanksgivings of days gone by and some of the traditions that prevailed during our childhoods.

Mom putting little wax candles of pilgrims and turkeys at every place setting at the Thanksgiving table.  A large cardboard representation of a big-breasted tom turkey with deep red wattles on the front door to greet our guests.  Native American headdresses made at school from construction paper, each ersatz feather a different bright color, and from the younger kids drawings of turkeys made from the outlines of their hands.  A cornucopia centerpiece surrounded by riotously colored, warty gourds.

My father, as much of a turkey fiend as the Dad in A Christmas Story, carefully carving the bird and happily munching on pieces as he went along.  Uncle Tony lecturing us that we were really missing something by not eating the heart and liver.  A heartfelt prayer for the year’s blessings and the food we were about to enjoy.  Gramma Webner announcing the turkey was too dry.

A tube of cranberry dressing, still bearing the corrugated impressions of the can from whence it came, lying on its side on a plate and sliced to form perfect wine-colored circles.  A huge bowl of Mom’s hand-mashed potatoes, doused liberally with her thick, homemade gravy.  A mincemeat pie.  Football throws outside on a crisp autumn afternoon to help stimulate the appetite for the feast to come, and sprawling on the couch watching football on TV, groaning at the amount of food consumed but still somehow finding room for a late-night turkey sandwich and a final piece of pumpkin pie and whipped cream.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

Why Always Us?

Or, perhaps, the question should be:  why always U.S.?

President Obama apparently is weighing some kind of military strike against Syria in response to its government apparent use of chemical weapons against its own citizens.  As described in the New York Times, the use of military force would be limited, designed to cripple the Assad dictatorship’s ability to use chemical weapons but not effecting “regime change.”

It seems like an effort to thread the eye of a needle with an awfully blunt instrument — but the issue I’m raising is more fundamental.  I’m as appalled as any civilized person about the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons, but . . . can’t someone else do something about it?  Syria isn’t our neighbor.  We don’t share any kind of common cultural or linguistic heritage with Syria.  Syria doesn’t have any great economic or geopolitical significance so far as I can determine.  As a result, when it comes to Syria, our interests appear to be no greater than those of those of any other country, and much less than some.

So, when the Syrian government commits an atrocity, why do heads swivel in our direction — as they always seem to do?  And, why are American Presidents eager to spend our treasure and risk the lives of our soldiers when that happens?  Is it because they like being viewed as world leaders?  Forgive me, but I would rather have a President whose focus is exclusively on our interests, assessed with a cold and calculating eye.  In this case, what exactly would a Syrian adventure of the kind described by the New York Times accomplish for the United States?  Even if successful, it would still leave the Assad government capable of slaughtering its people — only with conventional weapons, rather than chemical ones.  And, of course, any involvement risks the possibility that some wild-eyed fanatics in the Arab world will swear out a jihad against the Great Satan because it, again, has intervened in the world’s most volatile region.

There is no reason why the United States should be involved in punishing Syria for its gross moral transgressions.  The Arab League, or Turkey, or the United Nations, or some other country that shares a border or a language or some other cultural element with Syria should assume the lead.  Our resources are not infinite, and it’s time we stopped acting like they were.

Turducken On T-Day

We’ll have a full house for Thanksgiving this year, and Kish and I have decided to mix things up a bit — but just a bit — for our holiday meal.

I think it’s important to have certain inviolable traditions at the Thanksgiving dinner.  What’s Thanksgiving, for example, without a plate featuring a cylinder of jellied cranberry sauce, still maintaining the ribbed shape of the can from whence it came, ready to be sliced, with perhaps a sprig of garnish to provide a certain presentational elan?  And mashed potatoes, stuffing, yams, and pumpkin pie are, of course, required.

Still, it’s nice to add something new to the mix.  This year, we will experiment with a turducken.  A turducken is a relatively recent culinary invention, hailing from the South, in which a duck is inserted into a chicken, which is then inserted into a turkey.  You end up with the fowlest combination imaginable.  (Sorry about that one, but I couldn’t resist!)  The turducken is supposed to be more moist and flavorful than your standard Butterball.

We’ll also have a small turkey for the rank traditionalists — just in case.