I just turned 55 last week and here I am walking to school each morning with a backpack on my back that contains a notebook, pen, pencil and my trusty peanut butter and jam sandwich. The only difference from when I did this in grade school is that there is also a laptop computer among the contents. As I walk along the streets of Istanbul marveling at the views of the Bosporus I feel just like I did when I was young. I liked walking to school each morning when everything seemed fresh and new at the start of the day. I enjoy it even more now that I am middle aged and until very recently, I started each morning either on a conference call in my home office or battling the traffic in order to get to my first meeting. The first day I did the walk here in Istanbul I kept hearing the sound of my sandals slapping the pavement and looking at the sky and the clouds. It was just the same as when I was young; you notice more when you walk. I have a vivid recollection (which is rare these days) of walking to my elementary school in a red plaid dress with red and white Keds sneakers on my feet. On this particular day there were millions of leaves on the sidewalk – wading through them, kicking them as I made my way closer to the entrance to the school I wished the sidewalk went on forever. I loved the smell and the feel of the leaves and the similarity to wading along the beach during my summers in Massachusetts.
These days, carrying my supplies on my back rather than in a briefcase, packing a lunch rather than buying one and going to class to learn rather than to inform is such a wonderful change in lifestyle. When I am in Turkish Language class and our instructor calls on me to say, or worse, write a phrase such as “I want a kilo of tomatoes, a bottle of red wine and a loaf of bread please” I may as well be back in kindergarten. If I actually have to say this to a native Turk they may think that I am indeed in kindergarten. Maybe I need to add a pair of red Keds and a scotch plaid lunch box to my current ensemble.
Middle age is a fantastic time to learn something completely new. Class time is not my everyday reality any longer so listening to lectures on Turkish history and the way it fits with the history of the Middle East is actually fun and it’s putting a lot of misconceptions to rest for me. Watching our students pick up phrases, ask intelligent questions and interact with local people makes me feel hopeful and happy. They are unique people with unique backgrounds and perspectives. They are also young adults who are impressionable and it is wonderful to see them out in the world, willing to live in a very different series of countries – way outside of the US standard of comfort – to truly learn, experience and participate in new cultures. They are not willing to take what the daily 24 hour news cycle tells us (sells us) about the Middle East, they want to experience it firsthand by living among Turks, Moroccans, Egyptians, and Israelis. But me, I’m older and though I have done more living — I have had a professional career and raised a family – most of these young people have traveled more than me. In this way I am struggling to keep pace with them. And so I walk to school with them each day marveling at the fact that we are in Turkey and that we are only at the beginning of a journey that will open our eyes and our minds to new ways of thinking about our lives and the lives of others.
I went to the track at the university today and did my typical run, the same routine that I had been doing all summer back at the St Olaf track. Sweating is the same in Turkey as it is in the US so it gave me a sense of normalcy which was nice after a week of new and different. Peanut butter and jam sandwiches taste the same here too. So there are ways to feel connected to my base or my center while venturing into the unknown.
All in all, at the end of week one in Istanbul I can say that I fell right back into being a student again, I am learning to live in a new city and I am relearning to pack my backpack for school rather than career.
Water bottle, check
and oh yeah, reading glasses, ugh where did I leave them?