ambassador by default

Lake Isikli in Denizli Province, Turkey.

The fish is fresh from the lake, the vegetables fresh from the garden, the cheese fresh from the goats. Mustafa and I are preparing dinner in his home in the small town of Civril, Turkey. We have spent the day at the beautiful Lake Isikli and its surrounding villages. We hiked to waterfalls; we talked with fisherman; we hunted down shepherds (for the cheese). An exquisite day untouched by the flashes of other tourists. I feel as those I am the only American to have ever walked these trails.

I met Mustafa, a 26-year-old social worker, through Couch Surfing – a social networking and hospitality exchange website – while trying to find a host in Istanbul. My request generated an unheard of 300+ responses (a testament to Turkish hospitality), including one from Mustafa. His generosity, welcoming nature, and proximity to Pamukkale – a geologist’s playground – sold me. I decided to take a break from the crowds of Istanbul to see another side of Turkey.

Carbonate terraces in Pamukkale.

Mustafa and his roommate, Ramazan, share a two-bedroom house outside of Civril with no neighbors in sight. Vegetables grow in the garden; almonds can be picked from the trees; mountains emerge on the horizon. While my time in Istanbul was incredible – particularly due to the generosity of my host, Dogus University, and Istanbul Traffic Control – it was equally intense. I find respite here. I am incredibly grateful to Mustafa and Ramazan for their invitation.

Unfortunately, Ramazan was unable to join our adventures around the lake, and I have yet to get to know him. He works six days a week as an agricultural engineer. Tomorrow (Sunday) is his day off. Tonight, he will get home in time for dinner, and we will get a chance to talk. Sort of. Ramazan does not speak English. He has never left Turkey. He has never met an American… until today.

The vegetables have been chopped, the salad is prepared, and the fish is ready to cook. The front doorbell rings. It’s only Ramazan – he is just letting us know he has arrived. Mustafa goes to the door to greet him. I linger in the kitchen. The front door opens; Turkish banter wafts through the hall. They come to the kitchen.

Ramazan and I introduce ourselves and sit down at the kitchen table with Mustafa in between us. The fish is cooking. Our simple introductions have exhausted our shared vocabulary. He knows I am a traveling American; I know he is an agricultural engineer. He turns to Mustafa and says something in Turkish. Mustafa turns to me. He would like to ask you some questions. Is that okay?

I nod and smile, not quite knowing what will come my way.

The questions begin, and they won’t soon desist.

…Why did Bush invade Iraq?
…Why are American presidents so aggressive towards other nations?
…Why does the US get involved in the affairs of other nations?
…How would Romney differ from Obama in international affairs?
…How do Americans perceive Islam?
…Why would it matter if Obama was a Muslim?

Each question comes to me through Mustafa, each answer goes back through him to Ramazan. And then comes another question.

I feel the weight of my words. Their importance far exceeds that of any I have written for an exam or spoken in a class debate. There, my words determined my grade; at this kitchen table, my words determine a perception of a nation. To these two young men, I am representing the United States of America. I have become an ambassador by default.

While the intensity of this conversation is a first, the situation itself is not. I have found myself in similar (though diluted) dialogues in every place I have visited. New friends, acquaintances, or hosts inevitably ask me about American politics – usually centered on health care or the election. The frequency of these topics necessitates a focused effort to avoid recorder responses.

As a traveler, I am trying to immerse myself, to experience life in another way, to begin to understand other cultures. Yet, I also bring my own cultural identity. I represent my town, my university, my nation. In accepting this fellowship, I have inadvertently accepted the role of representing Saint Louis, Vanderbilt, and the United States.

The question-and-answer session has lasted almost an hour. The fish has long been ready. I take a sip of water as my last answer is translated. I try to read Ramazan’s face for his approval (or disapproval). Like all the rest, his response is imperceptible. He says something in Turkish.

Mustafa turns to me; I brace myself for the next question. He likes your answers.

I smile.
He smiles.
We break bread.


Swiss Simplicity

The small Volvo is wrapped tightly in billows of cloud. We cannot see more than a few feet ahead. I look to my right out the window. I have a feeling I am probably staring at a sheer drop, yet I can’t even see the edge of the road. I am happy to be in the passenger seat. My Swiss host has grown up on these roads and seems relatively nonplussed by the zero visibility. We continue ahead, turning corner after corner as we make our way up the mountain switchbacks, intermittently swerving quickly to the right at the approach of two dim headlights. At one point, we have a close encounter with an entitled cow trotting up the middle of the road. She stares us down before eventually taking a slow step to the side.

We are beginning to regret our decision to take the theoretically scenic overpass back towards Zurich. Felix gestures out the window as we pass by a small parking lot. That is usually a very beautiful view. I nod my head and try to imagine what it would look like. It is hard to convince myself there are mountains behind this curtain of cloud. We are about to reach the top of the overpass. Suddenly, a streak of light breaks through. We can see 10 feet in front of us, then 15, then 20. We have broken free. I swivel around to look behind us. I am met by the grandeur of the Swiss Alps. We have ascended above the clouds.

For the next half hour, Felix and I sip coffee at a café conveniently located atop the overpass. Our conversation wanes as we each drift into thought. As we sit, the clouds rise and fall. In one moment, we have a gorgeous view of the Alps and the blanket of white below. The next, we are enveloped by the midst. With only one more day left in Switzerland – one more day in the truly Western world – I find myself reflecting on the past week and a half.

In Switzerland, everything is perfectly organized. Trains arrive at 13:17 on the dot, every time. Missed connections do not exist. For the past ten days, I have easily hopped from city to city, tram to tram, bus to bus. Planning was nonexistent. The freedom of extensive public transportation allowed for impulsive decisions, some of which led to time spent with various friends from Vanderbilt.

Though I was using a tourist-only Swiss Pass for my travel, which included all forms of inter- and intra-city transport, tickets for locals are not too different. In Zurich, each tram, bus and information board is stamped with the words ein ticket fur alles. One ticket allows for full usage of the incredibly integrated urban transit system – bus to tram to boat. Every part of the city is accessible, provided one can afford the ticket. The Swiss system is incredible. Incredible and expensive. Though the distribution of wealth is much more uniform than in the US, there are still discrepancies. The high cost of transportation, can lead to inequities of access – the one and only caveat of Swiss transportation. This aside, the Swiss have perfected the simplicity of integrated transit.

Tomorrow I will leave the ease and clarity of Switzerland, the ease and clarity of the Western world. Time to descend into the fog.

Felix and I get back into the car. We drive on. Everything goes white.

Midnight in Paris

It’s midnight in Paris, and I am slumped against the wall of an apartment building stairwell. I try to stay awake enough to hear the front door of the building open. When it does, I pop up, walking up or down the stairs as though I have a purpose. I don’t want the residents to be alarmed by the homeless American loitering in the hallway.

My eyelids flutter. My body is ready for sleep – the hours of walking have hit me suddenly. Without the excitement of the city, my energy level plummets. As I yearn for sleep, I am reminded that I am lucky simply to be inside the building.

About an hour and a half earlier, I was happily wandering the streets of Paris, lost in the lights, the people, the activity. I had come from a Democrats Abroad in France meeting. The nominated delegates from this group of American ex-pats shared their experiences at the Democratic Convention, reflecting on the speeches, the atmosphere and the outlook of the coming Presidential election. I was grateful for updates on politics back home, particularly as each European I meet seems eager for information on the subject. While I was at the meeting, my Parisian host went out to dinner with friends. He is supposed to text or call when he is headed back to the apartment – at this point, I am to do the same.

I reach for my phone and turn it on. In about ten minutes, the battery level drops from low to dangerously low. I spend the next 30 minutes turning the phone off and on again to check for messages, trying to conserve as much life as possible. Nothing. Just as I am texting Nicolas to ask when I should meet him, my phone dies. I see no reason to panic. I will simply take the metro to his apartment at a time when I am sure he will be back from dinner. As I realize the caveat to this plan, my heart begins to race.

Every Parisian apartment building requires a code to get into the front door of the building. Once you are inside, you can buzz up to whomever you are visiting. I have stored Nicolas’ code in my phone – the phone that has now lost all power. I take a hard swallow. I must reach the building before he does and wait outside for him, else I will be utterly unable to reach him. I run to the metro and jump on the first train.

I squeeze my eyes shut and try to picture the small keypad outside Nicolas’ home. I reach for the St. Christopher’s medallion around my neck – patron saint of travelers. Suddenly, my lips form four numbers. I can only hope that these are the numbers that will keep me off the streets for the night. I spend the rest of the train ride repeating them to myself.

The French voice on the loudspeaker announces my stop. I step onto the platform and walk towards the exit, all the while hoping I will see Nicolas ahead of me. He is not there. I walk the two blocks to the apartment, open the keypad, and slowly punch in the numbers. A wonderful green light signals that I have indeed remembered the correct code. My body relaxes, and I push open the door. I have a home for the night.