From Helsinki to Ankara

Trip Start Sep 07, 2006
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Trip End Sep 17, 2006


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Sunday, September 10, 2006

Helsinki and Ankara are in the same time zone, however they are degrees apart in latitude and, culturally, worlds apart. Finland is a harsh country where the average annual temperature in the south is 6C and the people are self-described as possessing a trait called "sisu", which has no English equivalent but connotates perseverance, strength and courage. The closest I can think of is the Malay word "tabah", but its meaning seems to be milder. However I'm sure there's a chinese word for it that despite 6 years of mental torture and weekly caning from Lao Sze, remains forever lost in my gray matter. Wait, it is gray matter, right? Let me not be losing my medical knowledge as well??

Anyway as I was sayingg, while the Finns are tall, blindingly blonde (but not all), slightly aloof and nationally insecure, the Turks are very short, dark haired (but not all), exuberantly friendly and secure in the knowledge that Turkey is the center of the world (which it literally is). Where does that leave us Malaysians? Can we, in our black-haired, brown-eyed uniformity, be described with one sweeping label regardless of race? Do we cling, perhaps a little too tightly, to the knowlege that we were once the world's commerce center, and that we are now, supposedly, a shining example of moon, sun and earth living harmoniously under one sky?

Speaking of sky, KLM's (Royal Dutch Airlines)food is really, er, devolving. I first noticed this flying from Quito to Cuenca in Ecuador, where, instead of some Spanish pastry (not even asking for tapas-la, just some generic bun also can) they served some sterile cardboard box containing a Kellogg's Nutri-Grain bar and a tub of yoghurt. The Nutri-Grain bar was made somewhere in the US. The yogurt was made, believe it or not, in Upstate New York, not far from where I used to live. Now, the disease has spread to its European flights. Before, they'd serve a sandwich, choice of meat or cheese. Later, it was no choice, just cheese, but at least it was good bread, great cheese. Today was the ultimate insult: a gigantic tub of yoghurt on which lid was dubiously stamped "contains fruit", and a "muesli" bar of 104 Calories, of which 80% must have been from sugar. Oh yeah, and a shrink-wrapped piece of cheese.

En route from the Ankara airport to the hotel, I saw something truly amazing: an underpass, its walls made entirely of marble. The reflection of our car flickered on its panels as we passed. Danis, a conference organizer sent to meet us, rolled her eyes. "Its only for the tourists". The recklessness of Ankara drivers is comparable to that of any Thai or Cambodian. While the traffic ahead had stopped, our driver would wait till the last possible moment before braking so hard that I could feel the ABS thudding.

While Malay girls in school are penalized for not wearing tudung, Turkish women are banned from wearing a headscarf. The prime minister's wife was uninvited to official functions because of her liking for headscarves. Some MP or whatever even got SACKED for wearing one while taking some oath. The reasons for this are historic. The founder of Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who if you remember, was the only handsome male in the Form Four Sejarah book, founded Turkey as a secular state. That secularism, some argue, is part of what defines Turkish national identity, and thus, should never be compromised.

Finally slumped on the hotel bed after 11 hours of traveling, it felt like I'd reached the gates of heaven. Only we had to delay heaven for a little while, as it was only 5:30pm and my Dad and I were meeting his friend Akyus, a Turk, and his wife, for dinner. Dinner was another kind of heaven consisting of Rocket Salad with the best balsamic vinegar I'd ever tasted, lots of bread served with Olive Oil so virgin it would have put Mary to shame, and fish and mussels fried to perfection with a garlic butter sauce. All in a garden setting with tiny fountain, creepers on the walls and French music coming from somewhere far away (speakers, actually). All the while, Akyus' English wife revealed to me intimate and shocking secrets about her beloved adopted country, a place so far away from where she grew up, with a language that she'd had to learn from scratch. Akyus' wife told me all about Switzerland.

Did I say beloved adopted country? I meant horrible, oops. Let me explain: Akyus' wife (you guessed by now, I've forgotten her name) came to Turkey when she was still a virgin, oops i mean, an undergraduate or postgraduate or something. She fell in crazy love with Turkey, met Akyus and never went back to Norwich or Ealing or wherever. After about 10-20 years of marriage, he got a job in Geneva and they've been living there ever since, with frequent trips back to Turkey. Now, the stuff she told me about Switzerland I can be more precise about. Apparently the Swiss mentality is more Paleolithic than Postmodern. Apparently its not all powdery slopes, hearty fondue and cowbells ringing across the mountains. There is a canton (=state) where the women are not allowed to vote ! By choice! They figured the men knew better lah. If you get knocked down in the street everyone will act as though nothing just happened! And, the clincher, the police came to her house because someone informed them that she had erected a trellis in her garden upon which to plant creepers! Now I knew that every apartment has an informer. But I never really believed it. I mean, when you're 14 years old and you think running across the tram tracks is a hoot and your father nastily grabs you and says "don't play the fool, informers are watching every move" it sounds like he's just doing the Agent Mulder to bully you into obedience.
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