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Smiles, Struggles and Turkmen

One of the more useful purposes of social media is being able to stay in touch with my global network of friends and family while exploring events and issues within my local community. Thanks to a certain social media site, I stumbled across a post from a woman asking for help for Turkmen refugees in Mamak, a suburb in an older part of Ankara. So I filled my boyfriend’s car with clothing, dishes, and other random items to donate and off I went to Mamak on a sunny winter Saturday.

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Depot in Mamak

As I stood in the depot shivering from the February air, I gazed around at the numerous middle-aged men talking with the 2 Turkish ladies that had led me to said depot. There were piles of clothing strewn around the studio apartment-sized concrete walled space along with numerous bags of rice, legumes, sugar, bottles of sunflower cooking oil, and jars of tomato paste. My volunteer work in high school and university consisted of, well nothing I can remember, so I was a bit dumbfounded at what was going on. Obviously my lack of Turkish added to this confusion, but I tried to absorb all the sights, sounds and smells I could ingest.

After a lot of back and forth between the cast of characters I was observing, I went upstairs from the depot, with the locals, to the Cağdaş supermarket to buy baby food and bags of rice, legumes, sugar and jars of tomato paste, which filled the shopping cart to the brim. The massive amount of packaged food in one basket was something I had only seen at wholesale stores. This was when I realized there was an issue here.

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Iraqi Turkmens fled their hometowns in the Tal Afar and Mosul districts in northwestern Iraq when ISIL invaded their cities over a year ago. While I don’t personally categorize people (aside from asshole and non-asshole), national conflict, sectarian violence and cross-border war is a result of pigeonholing people for being who they are; whether they claim certain ethnic or religious associations, or are competing for oil. The divisions created among people because someone’s grandfather may have been born near a river in a perceived holy town and may or may not be of a certain descent is a fucking waste of time. I could get into the clusterfuck of ethnic backgrounds in this region and explain that Turkic people exist from the borders of China and Pakistan to the shores of the Bosphorus and beyond who sometimes prosper and are most often oppressed, is best left to social anthropologists. I will say I have been working with Turkmen from Iraq and leave it at that. Differentiating between Sunni, Shiite or Christian is pointless when people are suffering the same fate of displacement and persecution.

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When I met the group of volunteers from Iraq (refugees themselves) in the basement of a supermarket, I didn’t quite understand the gravity of the situation.  Nearly one year into my attempt to save the world through volunteering with the grassroots organization Birlik, I have a bit more grasp on the situation, but more importantly I have a greater understanding of the impact of war on people, communities and countries. AHH_8157

Over 25,000 people-the numbers change almost daily- of all ages have come to Ankara to live in safety, however they don’t intend to stay. There is a camp in Gaziantep in southeastern Turkey, but conditions are terrible according to a family that recently moved to Ankara. Some evacuees in Ankara ran out of money- jobs are near impossible to find in Turkey as the economy is in a rut not to mention the country is trying to accommodate nearly 2 million refugees from Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria among some African countries- returned home to Iraq only to discover it was a grave mistake.

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Melek, Muhsin, Sachad and sister

On the first day of my new journey, we (local ladies and Turkmen volunteers) went to visit a family in order to see their living situation.  34 people from 3 families were living in a  2-story flat. There were 2 sofas and numerous foam mattresses lining the walls. As I walked through the home, I saw the rooms were full of sleeping material and nothing more. I was relieved they at least had a soft space to rest their heads, but little else existed there. Compared to the tarp walls of camps millions are living in from Jordan to France, I supposed it was a blessing to live within a concrete structure.AHH_8060

The following months I would visit  different families to take toys, books and sweets to the children. I quickly came to learn this was much like putting a band aid on a scraped knee. It was pointless. After all, people- mostly women and children as men have died or stayed behind-were living in apartments, wore clean decent clothes and served us Iraqi tea with heaps of sugar. Disillusionment kicked in as the haunting images of refugees the media shows us is quite different than what I was witnessing. My perception of a “refugee” changed drastically.

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Muhammed is a 10-year-old boy from Tal Afar who was near a suicide bomber when he was 2. Shrapnel from the bomb punctured his spine leaving him unable to walk. The family’s only request was for diapers. I went with 2 girlfriends to visit Muhammed and his family, which turned out to be a priceless encounter.  Muhammed’s little sisters immediately went to my friends and the smiles were infinite. Though I felt I needed to do more than just visit a family bearing plush toys made in China and cheap chocolate, I realized that creating happiness by showing interest in the peoples’ stories was something better than nothing (from my perspective). When I asked Muhammed questions he answered with a bright smile though he was unable to speak. This was enough to become the driving force behind how I would try to save the world one refugee child at a time.

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Muhammed, Nur, Ayet, Işıl

My close friend who fled Iraq 15 years ago, Mustafa, has been my foundation since the beginning. He is my translator and co-organizer for the events we have with the Turkmen. When he told me stories of trying to escape Iraq it seemed like I was listening to a horror movie script. Human perseverance is something extraordinary. The strongest statement he made regarding his past was that he didn’t have a childhood.

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Canan (volunteer Turkish teacher) and ladies

Fast forward a couple months to having lunch with two world-saving superwomen, one of whom works with violence against women here in Ankara. The organization she works for offers free psychological support to anyone, regardless if they have a Turkish ID or not. Great news I thought as the images of all the young women I had met flashed through my mind. So I took this information with pride to Haydar, one of the volunteers for Birlik “Together”, the organization that registers the Turkmen fleeing from Iraq to Turkey. He has become one of my dearest friends and biggest supporters in trying to help Iraqis transition into a new albeit temporary life. When I told him there is a place for women to get psychological support and did he know of any special cases, he laughed.

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Haydar and kids

Haydar said everyone needs help. His daughter watched a man be decapitated in the street. Some children witnessed their brothers, fathers, or uncles being killed. I had no idea where to go from there.

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Sisters

This may seem far fetched, however there are many signs the Turkish government supports ISIL, in the likes of recruitment camps based in southeastern Turkey, evidence of fighters and weapons crossing the border into Syria freely and illegal oil trading between Turkey and ISIL. The Turks’ hatred for the Kurdish people- the only ethnic group fighting against ISIL in Iraq and Syria and winning- is so deep that they will support the crazy ISIL fucks reigning terror and destroying thousands of years of history they consider haram or forbidden in Islam. Yes, the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) is a recognized terrorist group that has been waging a guerrilla war in Turkey for the past 30 years, but there is a misconception that Kurdish people support them so there is gaping wound between Turks and Kurds (Turks are mutts from the Ottoman Empire and Kurds are somewhat purebred- generally speaking of course), which is now fueling a civil war in southeastern Turkey at the moment. Innocent people are dying in the name of ethnicity and America is supporting both sides. Go figure. Let me not digress…

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Haydar said organize a picnic so I did. Mustafa, an Irish angel Roisin and I worked a few stressful weeks to create a day of release for 100 women and children. We found a beautiful place, Mavi Gol, for people to run amuck and forget about their lives for a day. Boys played soccer until they couldn’t stand. Young women made jewelry until the beads were gone. My darling friends cooked chicken until they reeked of barbecue smoke. The day was finished with bashing a pinata to ensure the kids had bellies full of sweets. This was a superficial activity that may not create world peace, but the laughter that ensued undoubtedly lasted for days and that was the point. The lovely volunteers consisted of people from Ecuador, Japan, Laos, Vietnam, Spain, Libya, Iraq, Ireland, the U.S. and a few of my dearest Turkish friends who all worked their asses off. When I advertise volunteering to help refugees on social media many people show interest, however so few are willing to actually put in the work. Yet another lesson I have learned during this emigration crisis. Support is crucial.

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Ha, Patricia and Umit

In the fall of this year, I organized an English course for 11 youth aged 10-15 with a core team that is still standing. People have come and gone as many foreigners (Westerners) want to say they help refugees, but don’t have the heart or guts to actually do it, so there has been a lot of disappointment and empty promises along the way. Despite this, I charge forward in my plan to save the world!

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First English class

Many kids don’t go to school here in Turkey for reasons varying from lack of Turkish language skills to mixed classrooms (Turkmen kids generally go to gender segregated schools) so we’re doing our part to keep a small, perhaps minute, percentage of a generation from being lost. For me at the moment the problem isn’t providing food to displaced people, but allowing minds and spirits to waste away. The idea of letting so many children live a life of despair is unacceptable.

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I could go on for days about my experience with these souls searching for a life away from conflict, which has ignited emotions from incredibly enlightening to grossly disappointing, but I think you get the picture.

I gratefully ask you to think, just for a minute or 2, about the millions of people struggling for a better life around the world.  If everyone can have a positive thought for a moment, the energy will combine and reach at least one individual that needs hope.

My heartfelt THANKS goes to all those that have supported me and continue to support me. You know who you are.

Peace.

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Picnic at Mavi Göl

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Gay Pride 2015 in Istanbul

A proud nationalist

A proud nationalist

Proud couple

Proud couple

I just watched “Edie and Thea: A Very Long Engagement,” a documentary about two women that fell in love in 1960’s America and waited 42 years to get married. It’s the first film I can remember that made me feel nearly every imaginable emotion ranging from joy to sorrow and anger to hope. In the end, I sat and cried. Perhaps it’s AHH_8575 copybecause of the “time of the month” we women suffer from, or maybe because it’s the most perfect love story I’ve seen (I’ve seen a lot). These two women are the epitome of love for every generation regardless of sexual orientation. Despite being “straight” in sexuality terms, I believe that (consensual) love is love regardless of who is involved in the loving process. There is so much hate in the world that requires infinite love to defeat it.

I tried my chance at supporting the right to love in Turkey at Gay Pride in Istanbul a few weeks ago. I left my very straight boyfriend drinking beer at Nevizade Street in Taksim to join the march down AHH_8607Istiklal Street. In order to even get to Istiklal I had to pass through throngs of riot police. As I passed a group of these young (sexy) police, I said “Kolay gelsin” or let it be easy, in terms of working. They said thank you and off I went to Taksim Square wherethe masses were formed to start the parade. About five minutes into my walk the sounds of tear gas being shot caused every to run towards the nearest shop. I ducked down and pushed through the quickly closing metal gate of some random clothing shop. There was no air

“We are normal”

circulation in the store, and the locals and two German tourists were chattering about what the fuck was happening. After a bit of translation, the guy controlling the gate opened it and let me out. When I stepped onto the street I ran into TOMA, the lovely water canon vehicles we have come to accept as part of the street scenery in various cities around Turkey. Clearly this wasn’t going to be a Gay Pride parade, but a battle with the police, yet again, over freedom of expression.

I got my ass off Istiklal at the nearest side street, as an American woman with a camera during a “protest” in Turkey is somewhat of a Molotov cocktail. My dear friend (who will remain unnamed for security reasons) was in Cihangir, a neighborhood

Dancing in the streets

Dancing in the streets

nearby, but away from the conflict in Taksim Square. He and his fellow gays had tried to reach the square, but were blocked by police. So the fun began. There was a

Ninja and friend

Ninja and friend

lively and picturesque organization of people in the Cihangir area, so we were able to laugh along with the many colorful people that passed by. When tear gas came and people ran we retreated to a side street for a few minutes. This continued for an hour or so. The police remained, but quit firing tear gas, so we were able to stay in the streets enjoying the scenery with friends and watching the creatively costumed people celebrate. There were 20-something hipster girls holding signs saying “So what if we’re lesbians,” and “What kind of world is it

Flying the freedom flag

Flying the freedom flag

where everyone is loving”, alongside various chants that usually ended with an empathic “Ay ay ay!” in a high pitched scream of pleasure similar to an orgasmic female. The afternoon had finally reached an air of a proper gay festival. After some time, we gathered the courage to venture to Istiklal St. We fucked up.

A few friends managed to walk the pedestrian street towards the main area of commotion, but found themselves blanketed with tear gas. When they ran down side streets to find fresh air, AHH_8584they were met by men beating them with sticks. One friend described the situation as a horror movie. The government was clearly trying to silence any opportunity for free speech yet again. My crew of three and I walked as far as we could until the gas burned our eyes and nostrils. This day of celebration was becoming really fucking exhausting.

We retreated to a restaurant with a Bosphorus view to reenergize and recollect. After food and beer, we were ready to join the celebration again. My friend and I wandered

“There are trans males”

easily down Istiklal to the main area where people were drinking, singing and dancing in the streets with happiness. After maybe half an hour, tear gas was fired directly at us, so everyone scattered like cockroaches in a Bronx apartment when a spotlight is shined into their tiny eyes. I ran for the nearest doorway that just happened to be a cozy little bar I had visited a few years before. The owner was telling people to run up the stairs so he could close the doors. As people inside coughed and wiped their eyes from the gas, I searched for my friends. I found AHH_8478 AHH_8503 AHH_8530two, but the others didn’t make it in. So the search began for the others, who of course had dead phones from the long day of updating the situation on social media.

We watched with nervous energy, from a broken window in the bar, people on the street conversing, aka yelling, with the police. After about 10 minutes the streets remained empty and the police seemed to return to their corner, so I peed like I’ve never peed before, and headed outside again.

As the owner of the bar unlocked the door, I held my heart and said thank you. He embraced me with a death grip that helped me relax and prepare myself to hit the streets. His hug reassured me we would be OK and to keep up the fight. At least in my panicked state that’s how it translated. I walked out the door stronger and ready for more. I ran into two friends that were looking around the empty the street wondering what the hell happened. They had been in a nearby club, so they weren’t gassed like the rest of us, but instead were dancing freely in love as they should have been! We hugged and cursed the police, then ventured onward to find our missing

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Love

friend who turned out to be having tea and simit far from the conflict zone. Moral of my story- people should have the right to love as they choose (when the other party consents); the Turkish government is hell bent on killing any freedom of expression and happiness, and I will always fight for people that are oppressed or persecuted. Love each other and let others love each other. It is this simple.

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Berlin in Spring

East Side Gallery

East Side Gallery

I’ve been to Berlin a few times over the past few years, and have left each time incredibly hung over and happy as hell. As in my normal life, I experience a wide range of emotions mixed with enlightenment and self-realization, however when I go to

Delicious trout and Miss Maria

Delicious trout and Miss Maria

Berlin it happens within a matter of days instead of years. Perhaps this is why I have a special place in my heart for the vibrant German city that offers proper European

Cem and Maria, tour guides and drinking buddies

Cem and Maria, tour guides and drinking buddies

hospitality. Yes, European hospitality seems like an oxymoron, especially coming from my

Bikes in the Park

Bikes in the Park

life in Turkey, but somehow the city and the people contained within shine like polished gems. And I fucking love them.

My dear friend Maria, who I met in Istanbul a few years ago, was the perfect hostess and tour guide. She made sure we tasted every beer possible, ate all the tasty German morsels, and explored as far and wide as possible. Drinking beer on a rooftop community garden,  Klunkerkeranich, overlooking the city was fucking awesome. Riding bikes around all major historical and government buildings, through parks, and

Art for babies

Art for babies

along the Spree was fucking great. Listening to Hip Hop heads make beats at Cafe Wendel, wandering through Bethanian, an old church converted into art studios, and eating California pulled pork during street food Thursday at Markthalle 9 were, well, fucking brilliant. Let me not forget the May Day festival in Kreuzberg, which was a mass of humanity from all walks of life enjoying live music and life in general.

Cafe Wendel

Cafe Wendel

We heard metal, Hip Hop, and traditional Turkish music all within a 3-block radius, with colorful people dancing tirelessly and imbibing freely.

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May Day

I had the honor of being a “model” for my friend Alesh’s sketch class. While it wasn’t the dreamy, romantic notion of sitting nude, draped in velvet fabric, in front of passionate artsy types, I enjoyed sitting on the pavement, drinking beer and chatting with a

Sketch class with Alesh

Sketch class with Alesh

lovely lady from Hamburg, all the while being sketched.

As I had usually visited Berlin for music festivals and short

Neus Museum

Neus Museum

stopovers, I wasn’t able to absorb the rich history of conflict that is an integral part of the city’s past. Maria is a wealth of knowledge about the GDR, Nazi regime, and the cultural implications both entities instilled into modern

Maria waiting for Korean sustenance

Maria waiting for Korean sustenance

Germany. What amazed me most was how far the German people have come in reversing the damage that was done and how progressive they continue to be. Especially when I compare to police brutality in the United States that hasn’t ceased to exist.

Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp

Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp

Cem and I visited Sachsenhausen Memorial and Museum, aka concentration camp, a short journey outside of the city. The small town of Oranienburg is very sweet, with colorful houses, children on bicycles and white picket fences. As we reached the camp, the experience became very surreal as the smell of death permeated my nostrils.

Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp

Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp

While I still have images in my memory from the atrocities displayed in the Holocaust Museum in Houston that I visited nearly 20 years ago, walking on the earth was a completely different sensation. This camp was a “home” for mostly Senti and

Hair and eye color samples to determine race- Sachsenhausen Camp

Hair and eye color samples to determine race- Sachsenhausen Camp

Roma, or gypsies, who are people I deeply respect for their cultural contributions to civilization. Walking around the land, imagining thousands of people forced into a slow demise, was sickening, yet humbling somehow. The categorization of people according to their eye and hair color made me nauseous, but also pushed me to have a better understanding of humanity, both good and evil Hatred for people based on ignorant perceptions is a concept I will never fathom.

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The Victory Column

The moral of my story? Drink beer. Appreciate art. Listen to good music. Respect people regardless of their skin color, gender, or education level. Then all will be well. Peace.

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Maria and Mathias

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History Repeated Itself last February

Jumping for Joy

Jumping for Joy

During my formative, albeit rebellious years, aka high school, I fell in love with musicians and photography. I spent countless weekends at local clubs in downtown Houston snapping photos of friends playing in Metal and Hip Hop/Metal fusion bands before they were cool. My best friend and the most influential person in my life during those few years was the multi-talented and incredibly self-confident Geoffrey. He taught me bravery, self-love and that musicians are badass. There was a particular night I “stole” my parents ’86 Chevy Suburban, much too large for my petite self, to see Geoffrey’s band play at Fitzgerald’s, in the once decrepit part of the city. It most certainly must have been his overflowing courage that inspired me to drive the ’86 Suburban that night, fearlessly, like a proper dumbass teenage girl should.

Geoff

Geoff

Fast-forward 19 years. As important life events are always put on social media, I learned that Geoffrey was on a European tour with the sultry Jolie Holland. I searched for flights to Spain and France attempting to find the most logical city to meet my high school sweetheart. Logic aside, Valencia turned out to be the right decision. Unfortunately, there was a massive snowstorm in Istanbul the day I was supposed to fly, so I was grounded in frustration at missing an extra day with my virtuoso classmate.AHH_7936

I headed to the airport the next icy morning, in hopes my flights would be on time and get me to the beautiful Spanish land I had always dreamed of putting my feet upon. On my layover in Ataturk airport, I strolled through the throngs of people from all over the world, (literally people wearing everything from dashikis to stilettos) with a skip in my step incited by excitement of this reunion. It had actually only been 11 years since I last saw Geoffrey in NYC, when we had the privilege of seeing the Beastie Boys play Madison Square Garden, but still. My heart fluttered a bit as I went through the 3rd security check, with everyone around me speaking Spanish. Fuck yeah. Let the adventures begin!

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Geoff eats patatas bravas

 

Naturally, I inhaled a few mini bottles of imported red wine on the short 3-hour flight, as I was unable to sleep due to the flood of memories from three lifetimes ago. It had been a long time since I felt like a giddy little girl.

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Breathing deep once outside the airport in Valencia, I headed to the hotel where I found Geoffrey, sitting on a sofa, in all his Texan glory. It turns out people don’t really change much with age, aside from the occasional wrinkle. He still has the death grip embrace that blesses those lucky enough to experience it. After a quick refresher thanks to the bidet (major swamp ass occurred from the lack of AC on the plane), we hit the city streets chattering away as if we hadn’t missed a day.

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Geoff took me on a tour through the architectural history he had learned in his explorations the day before. We drank delicious wine, climbed castle stairs, and noshed on cured pork and patatas bravas. We spoke incessantly of our pasts, relative presents and new found love for Valencia. It’s a city we could live in, based solely on our minimal hours of experience here. Duly noted in my infinite book of future plans. Part New Orleans, part El Paso and part Game of Thrones, Geoff and I conceded that this Spanish city wasn’t so unfamiliar, yet was different enough to incite a sense of vigor.

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Geoffrey

In the early evening, we were off to sound check at Loco Club, where I met the headmistress Jolie, and band members Breezus, Whoopi, and tour manager Thorsten from Germany. They’re unique characters that produce a band of sedating and lovely players. Speaking with Jolie, much like conversing with Geoffrey, was enlightening, inspiring and motivating. My love and appreciation for musical artists is a constantly burning fire, and these endearing people tossed on logs and spewed lighter fluid.

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Jolie and Whoopi

Jolie appears as the child of Janis Joplin and Leadbelly, who was raised by the nanny Skye Edwards (of Morcheeba). Intoxicating vocals mixed with calculated, yet captivating, guitar picking demand attention on Jolie, despite her distaste for the spotlight. Members of the audience tapped their toes and bounced their heads in the dimly lit dive bar. I felt as though I was in high school again, admiring musicians with guts enough to stand under stage lights while entertaining mesmerized onlookers. The music was a perfect mix of heart warming melancholic melodies and bluegrass enthusiasm that provided the spiritual refreshment utterly necessary for my personal growth.

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Thorsten

 

I joined these beautiful people again the next morning, and watched them eat breakfast as I had inhaled mine earlier at my hotel before racing over to theirs, in fear they would hit the road before I could spend a few more moments with a group of American souls I’ve been missing. (I won’t mention the alcohol had yet to wear off in the three or so hours of sleep that somehow happened so logic didn’t exist yet). Turns out they were still sleeping when I arrived, so my

Whoopi and Jolie

Whoopi and Jolie

indigestion was unnecessary. Ah, we live and we learn.

My final dose of Geoffrey’s utter positivity and smile brighter than the sun prepared me for a day of wandering the streets of Valencia solo, as the band was headed to the North. It was a short, but extremely sweet reunion with the delicate man that remains as my first hero. Death grip embrace number two accomplished, I was ready to take on the world, or at least Valencia city center. We have to start somewhere right?

Breezus

Breezus

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Geoffrey at Loco Club

Walking shoes ready (or so I thought), I explored the architectural wonders of the City of Arts and Sciences. I strolled through a massive kilometer long park full of palm trees, people promenading their spoiled dogs, and children running amuck chattering in their sweet Spanish. To my astonishment, I realized no one was interested in talking to me, and if I knocked elbows or bumped into someone, all parties apologized swiftly. Not like Turkey, where every body wants to ask me where I’m from and overgrown women intentionally “brush” shoulders then scowl at me as if I had run head on into them. It’s quite amazing how a slight bit of decency can change the atmosphere of a city and ultimately, an entire culture. I had almost forgotten what personal space, minding your own business, and respect meant.

Breezus and Whoopi

Breezus and Whoopi

Once my feet were blistered and my mouth parched, I made my way to Mercado de Colon, where Geoff and I made our first pit stop the day before. I sat on a cushiony wicker sofa, kicked up my feet, and ordered red wine. Oh hell yes! Drinking wine on a sunny Sunday afternoon. Yes please. The veggie paella was filling enough to get my shopping legs ready to continue wandering about, with a different focus from history, architecture, and culture. It

was time to find some cool Spanish boots.

 

City of Arts and Sciences

City of Arts and Sciences

Unfortunately, I didn’t find boots, but did manage to understand that “siesta” really means “We will look at you inside the store, but we’re not fucking working.” So I found my way back to the hotel wherein I, yes, drank more wine and ate more cured pork and cheese. This was heaven I tell you.AHH_7899

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The following morning, I somehow jumped out of bed, inhaled the buffet breakfast, and walked briskly to the marina so I could see, smell and breathe in the Balearic Sea (or a cove AHH_7892 copywithin said sea). My spirit and heart were rejuvenated, yet again, this time from seeing nearly everyone on the street walking their pups early on a Sunday morning, some purebreds, some mutts, some big, some small, but all jubilant with wagging tails. I must take a moment to give respect and blessings to people who love and take care of animals.

I made my way back to the hotel with only a few minutes to spare (thank you again my bidet friend) to get my shit and go to the airport. The wind was blowing furiously, and I secretly hoped my flight would be canceled, or at least delayed. Of course it wasn’t, but a girl can wish! As I reveled in my concluding mini bottle of non-imported Spanish wine, I reflected through three decades of existence. It seems the winds of change are a blowin’…AHH_7988

For the Sake of Women

Art by Emiko Ichinose

Art by Emiko Ichinose

In honor of International Women’s Day, which is every day by the way, I want to share stories a few women living in Turkey have given me. This isn’t a “Woe is me” piece about violence against women that plagues every corner of the globe, but a “Let’s speak out” piece to encourage women to continue the struggle to end sexual and physical violence against us.

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Following the recent death of Ozgecan Aslan, I asked women, a few Turks and a few foreigners, to share stories of their experiences living in Turkey. On February 11th, a minibus driver in Mersin (southern Turkey) abducted and attempted to rape Ozgecan, a 20-year-old university student. Aslan, which means “lion”, fought her attacker so was stabbed and beaten to death. The days after Ozgecan’s body was found, there was a wave of protests and powerful responses in several cities around Turkey. In Islam, only men are allowed to carry the casket of a dead person. The women of Mersin gave a big fuck you and carried the casket of Ozgecan themselves. A handful of men protested in Istanbul wearing miniskirts. A few politicians and celebrities had the audacity to say Ozgecan was immoral by being out alone at night. The association of lawyers in Mersin refused to defend the perpetrators, which include the murderer, his father, and a friend. The women I saw marching in Ankara numbered maybe 50 with perhaps a dozen men. It doesn’t matter how small the march, the sign that women in Turkey are tired of violence against them spoke volumes.

Photograph via We Are Against Rape

Photograph via We Are Against Rape

As a survivor of sexual violence, I wish I had reached out when it happened, but young innocence and fear prevented that. I hope the following words from women living in Turkey will act as a catalyst for girls and women to know the harassment many face is a common situation and the more we vocalize our stories of fear and survival, the more change we can create at home, in our communities, and throughout the world. I give much love and respect to all the women I know, those I don’t know, and those that have yet to exist. I exude many thanks to the men that love, respect and protect their mothers, sisters, daughters, and lovers every day.

Photo: MEGAN GILLIS_OTTAWA SUN_QMI AGENCY

Photo: MEGAN GILLIS_OTTAWA SUN_QMI AGENCY

I have heard about the news and to be honest I am terrified walking around the street when is dark. I have experienced the fear before when I first came to Turkey. Being starred and followed time to time. Once there was a sapık [pervert] even show his penis towards me and my little son (at that time he was 1.5 yrs old). When I joined the group there were few guys wrote me asking for my skype account so that we could interact/know each other better ect. I understand the feelings but I didn’t live my life in fear and now being divorced I have to really go out there to get a job for living I really feel the pressure. Anyways to be safe, for years I have changed the way I usually dressed up when I’m outside alone, also put a pair of sunglasses in all seasons, no making eyes contacts and not being friendly to people. I don’t if this helps our female members to calm down but I have 1 Philippines friend, 3 Russian/Ukraine friends – we all have the same stories. The fear is real, you know.

-H, Vietnam

I’ve been living in Ankara less than 2 weeks, I’m an exchange student here. I’d only been here a week when I had my first really unpleasant experience as a woman here in Turkey. On my first day I was catcalled by two men but ignored it. But last week something worse happened. I was on the metro from Beytepe campus to Kizilay around 16:30 and it was packed. Just as I got off the train I realised a man had his hands up my long winter coat and was touching my backside and between my legs. I froze for a second, turned around to see who it was, and he was just there, looking at me. I looked at him for a couple of seconds then punched him in the eye. He started yelling at me in Turkish, and I was calling him a dirty pervert. Then he walked away along the platform. Two men (one student and one older man in his 40s) came to ask me what he had done to me, I told them and they went to speak to him before returning to see if I was OK. They even asked if I wanted to call the police. I said that as I’d punched him, he had been punished as far as I was concerned. Plus by the time the police arrived he’d have been long gone. Several female Turkish friends of mine here have told me it has happened to them several times too. Women are too shy and reluctant to react in these situations. They explain it away as being “accidental” or claim “reacting will just make it worse”. Hopefully the guy who tried it on me will think twice before doing it again.

-R.

I have just read what you wrote on facebook on speaking about the experiences foreign women had in Turkey. As a blonde Turkish woman, here is mine: I was on a bus going home, reading an English book. There were 3 or 4 passengers on the bus. A man was next to me. And I felt something warm close to my hip. The next thing I saw was the man’s hand right there. He was enjoying the moment so much that his eyes were closed and had a smile on his face. After a few seconds of shock, I told him to stop it and go away. His reaction traumatised me: – Oh! you are Turkish- sorry. You met my sister last weekend, on summer holidays we pretend to be tourists and talk in English to each other. And listen to what Turkish guys say about us. Well, you can guess the smile on their faces. They discuss which one of them should HAVE me or my sister. Needless to say, these men do not need you to be a foreigner, blonde or young.

-C., Izmir

The Bombshell Girls @ Coney Island. Photo: Amy H.

The Bombshell Girls @ Coney Island. Photo: Amy H.

Wine, Cheese, and Scorpions

Costume party meets Turkish dance

Costume party meets Turkish dance

As many people searched for local parties or exotic destinations to ring in the New Year, the boyfriend and I headed to southeast Turkey for a costume party.

When I told a few local friends we were going to Diyarbakir for a so-called costume party, they responded with utter confusion or complete silence. See, Diyarbakir is in the Kurdish region of Turkey (in the eastern area that borders Syria and Iraq) in which many Turkish people have never traveled and if they have it’s due to fulfill the Republic’s military obligation. The major insurgent group operating in Turkey is allied with the Kurdish Workers Party or PKK, which is a branch of the Peace and Democratic Party (BDP) that is based in Diyarbakir. It just so happens the PKK consists of Kurdish nationalists that have been

The road to Mardin

The road to Mardin

waging a war in the region, around Turkey and neighboring countries for over 3 decades to establish a Kurdish territory. The Kurds are the largest ethnic group in the world that exists without a country of their own. I don’t support violence, but I support the desire for these people to gain autonomy for the sake of allowing a culture to flourish as opposed to being decimated. I could explain the nature of this conflict or you could just Google it as that will prove more useful than my candid, media-based and various first-hand observations. Generally speaking, many Turks associate the term “Kurd” with “terrorist” the same way many Westerners assume all Muslims are terrorists. Thus, when I suggested we should visit our dear friends Can and Seda to celebrate the New Year in the nest of the enemy, the boyfriend was apprehensive. A bit of convincing (and nagging) later, we were off to the land of even more mystery and conflict than the “civilized” part of this country where I live.

Our flight was delayed because of fog, in which I replied, “What the fuck. Planes fly through clouds, but not fog?” rainApparently there is a difference. I learned this as we drove though dense fog over the next few days. My educated opinion says that clouds are fluffy and fog is not.

Our friend Can (sounds like Jahn), 1 half of our wonderful guides and dear friends, told me days in advance to arrive hungry. A beer and half a grilled cheese sandwich at the airport would have to suffice. Turns out he should have told me not to eat a fucking week before! Straight from the airport we went to a typical business meeting/family restaurant with big tables and rounds and rounds of food. Appetizers (meze) consist of a variety of 4 salads, sauces and delicious yogurt and green veggie or salad-like item combinations wherein you dip bread and fill your belly. Then a massive plate of kebab comes. A slab of minced lamb covered with a sliver of delicately sliced lamb cuddled by tomatoes and sumac drenched onions arrives in which I try to burp and fart at the same time, quietly,

Mmmm salad....

Mmmm salad….

obviously, to make room for what I should ingest. In Turkish culture it’s rude to not eat or drink what is given. My acid reflux can stand up in court to support this. I ate until I couldn’t feel my legs then tried to pawn the rest of my plate off to the table, as usual.

The beginning of the journey started excellent despite being overstuffed. There was a quick run down of politics and violence (lack of) in the area, but as I ask so many questions stories would come.

What I remember of the costume party, it was amazing! When I meet someone new and talk about everything under the sun within minutes, I consider myself privileged. It

Costume party insanity

Costume party insanity

doesn’t matter whether there is delectable food; pristine cocktails or pleasurable music, if the people are palatable then the day is successful.

The following days consisted of the perfect cheese, fruity wine, and scorpions. The cheese is from Iran, Tabriz cheese, which is like cream cheese without the plastic quality typical cream cheese has; wine made by the Syriac Orthodox, people who were some of the first Christians and have been living in the area since the 1st Century AD, and Akrep or “scorpion”. These are mini-tanks police use in Turkey to drive though anything in their way or to fire tear gas at protestors and which seem to be driving around the city and surrounding areas day and night. The armored vehicles are becoming a common sight in cities around Turkey displaying the reality of an inevitable police state.

Delicious wine, the most perfect cheese in the world, and police tanks. This is southeast Turkey. And I loved it!

Brunch

Brunch

This could be a highly politicized, good vs. evil, ethnic conflict kind of piece, but I’ll save that conversation for nights drinking Raki. I prefer to speak about the delightful food, pleasant and welcoming people, and Middle Earth environment.

After sobering up enough to function the following morning, Can, Seda, Cem and I crawled into the car and headed for brunch with local friends Leyla and Omer. This is where I discovered the most mouth watering cheese I’ve met. The other 22 plates on the table filled with salty, sweet, and meat infused flavors disappeared. My hung over memories consist of fresh bread, the cheese and I.

Diyarbakir

Diyarbakir

After the indulgent brunch, we took a tour of old Diyarbakir, which hosts a wall, built in 367 AD, that surrounds the old churchcity and continues today nearly unbroken for 6 KM (3.7 MI). As I peered out at the cityscape scenes along the wall, I was transported to Beirut with colorfully painted walls of crumbling, abandoned and destroyed homes with slivers of historical

old Diyarbakir

old Diyarbakir

greatness intertwined in the form of buildings and residual energy. Once I saturated my mind with politics, humanitarian crises and forgotten lives, I turned to regional flavors that would enlighten my soul.

Just so happens tranquility came in the form of menengiç kahvesi, which appears like coffee, but apparently is not. It’s made from wild pastachios and appears like milk mixed with finely chopped coffee beans and a splash of mocha lovin’. There were slimy pieces of what I assumed was tree matter that would occassionally make their way into my mouth. After the intial shock of floaties and explanation of the warm drink, I was as happy as a clam, hand embracing my new friend and speaking of yes, everything under the sun aside from sex as men were present, sipping warm deliciousness and plotting the next adventures.

Revolutionaries and martyrs sewn into mini carpets, Diyarbakir

Revolutionaries and martyrs sewn into mini carpets, Diyarbakir

One of our local guides, Omer, fell ill, so we were stuck with our darling Can and Seda to explore the terror-ridden region. The first stop on Friday was Hasankeyf, an ancient town, Batmanroughly 12,000 years old, sitting peacefully next to the Tigris River. On the way to Hasankeyf, we passed through Batman, pronounced baht-mahn, which those that know me know I love bats and can imagine my excitement of going to Batman! Turns out Batman is a typical border town drenched in black market goods and mafia types. Alas. Perhaps a superhero really is needed. Turns out superheroes come in the form of tanks and akrepler (scorpions) coming and going from the Syrian border.

Hasankeyf

Hasankeyf

castle

Castle built for a princess

A slight drizzle welcomed us to the decaying bridge, cave homes, and homes under construction wherein the locals will be forced to live before the dam is built aka the town of Hasakeyf. There was a young man more than eager to be a guide, speaking with stuttered confidence in a mix of English, Turkish and Kurdish. Seda didn’t understand the Turkish version and I only understood “finish” in the boy’s spiel, so we bought a book translating the history of the area. Long story short, a dam is being built upriver wherein the ancient city will be flooded and history will be nearly forgotten. There is construction of an underwater museum in the works, but if I understand modern day Turkish construction as I think, the museum is a farce in order to paint a nice façade on the Republic’s scarred face.

Among the history in the village, there is a castle built for a princess, a castle for a king and numerous cave dwellings surrounded by green grass, small boulders and sheep shit. It’s very much like

Cem in Hasankeyf

Cem in Hasankeyf

Cappadocia, but more welcoming. Imagine Middle Earth without the Eye of Sauron watching over as much. The exploration through the homes and ruins were closed by the government to discourage any more tourism, so a few calls were made and a few back roads were taken in order for us to see the grandeur of the establishment. It was a fucking cool experience, but too short to absorb all of the majestic abilities within the area.

New housing in the background for when the waters rise; stork nest is on top of the minaret on the left

New housing in the background for when the waters rise; stork nest is on top of the minaret on the left

The highlight was the stork nest on top of the major minaret in the town. Apparently there have been 3 generations of storks occupying the same nest. Legend has it when the stork leaves the nest the town will be covered in snow. I’m not there currently so I can’tcomment on the local weather, however photos in the tourist book prove this folklore to be true.

Seda with our guide, Hasankeyf

Seda with our guide, Hasankeyf

My darling Seda

My darling Seda

Off we headed on the dark and winding rain drenched road to Mardin with a pit stop in Midyat. Pit stop translates into Seda and I shopping for handcrafted silver and locally produced Syriac wine. The sweet wine is made by Syriac Christians that have remained since the dawn of Christianity in this area. They sell wine from behind counters filled with stunning silver threaded, plated and coated jewelry for whatever one may desire. As if I didn’t already have a crush on this region. Wine and jewelry. Yes please.

Hasankeyf

Hasankeyf

Dinner in Mardin was hands down the best meal I’ve had in 5

Nuts

Nuts

dinner

Dinner at Cercis Murat Konağı, Mardin

years of living in Turkey. The flavors of eggplant, zucchini, chickpeas, olives, dill, mint, yogurt, lamb, and so many other earthly delights roasted, mixed, pureed and served in silver spoons convinced me food really is the best albeit simplest pleasure in life. The medieval décor and cutlery reeked of touristic indulgence, however my taste buds never noticed the overpriced dishes and iPhone selfies of patrons in the restaurant. Bellies full, off we went in an attempt to see the glory of Mardin. Turns out with dense fog and no moonlight, there was fuckall to see. I hear the

architecture, history, culture and culinary delights in Mardin are wonderful. I’ll check in the daylight and get back to you. I can say the food is an amazing representation of Middle Eastern meets Turkish.

Sugar coated almonds, Mardin

Sugar coated almonds, Mardin

Fast forward to the road to Gaziantep. As it turns out, I was actually in Middle Earth. Fields of

Halil Usta, Gaziantep

Halil Usta, Gaziantep

pebbles, stones and boulders imitated the typical fields of wheat, corn and sheep in Anatolia. Dense fog, a recurring theme in this area, mixed with stone fields and a 2-day hangover created a surreal backdrop to my journey in the mysterious East. An early afternoon nap solved the issue of the hangover for the most part, so I awoke in Antep fresh-ish.

My first perception of Gaziantep was eh. It’s a typical Turkish city with typical roundabouts and typical shitty drivers. Somehow I convinced myself I was going into an enigmatic and lawless region of southeast Turkey, however it turns out to be a typical border town region with history and culture that doesn’t match the Islamic culture most people are taught in schools in Turkey. I won’t get into politics, religion and other dividing bullshit issues, but there is air to breathe on the borders of eastern Turkey. Unlike Diyarbakir and Mardin, which are recognizably different than most Anatolian cities, Antep is like Konya, Eskisehir, Izmit, any small city with an

Poseidon mozaic, Gaziantep

Poseidon mozaic, Gaziantep

aboveground train and street side cafes.

We went to Halil Usta’s restaurant for the best kebab in town. The chaotic atmosphere unfolded with loads of waiters in white shirts constantly delivering pewter bowls of salad, lamb and bread in a whirlwind similar to dervishes, but with less Allah and more gluttony. The lamb is special because of the cut, something I don’t listen to intently so I can’t explain it fully, and the salad was a perfect balance of local herbs, spices and veggies. The vinegar and oil soaked salad helped me work down the chunks of delicate meat. My stomach and intestines were in meat overload by this point, but as I couldn’t bear the shame of not finishing my plate, I again ate until I couldn’t feel my legs.

The Mosaic Museum (the largest mosaic museum in the world) is a slice of history displaying mosaics uncovered in the

Buying baklava at Koçak Baklava, Gaziantep

Buying baklava at Koçak Baklava, Gaziantep

area that date back to the 1st and 2nd centuries BC. Poseidon, Zeus, Hera, Athena and so many other mythical goddesses, gods and creatures are represented in tiny tiles laid together with immaculate design. They were the first graphic designers some may say. I say its amazing people just uncovered these artworks less than 15 years ago. Men have gone to space yet thousands if not millions of discoveries have yet to be uncovered on Earth. Go figure.

My highlight of the city was, yep, food. Baklava from Gaziantep is officially protected by the EU and recognized as the true baklava.

Mmmm baklava...

Mmmm baklava…

Apparently the quality is declining as some shops are buying pistachios from other countries instead of buying locally grown nuts. Regardless,

Baklava

Baklava

the honey soaked phyllo dough sweet treat was fluffy and indulgent.

We made a mad dash back to Diyarbakir as we had dinner plans and a flight to catch back to Ankara. I was awake this time to see the massive refugee camp outside of Gaziantep. Though it is clearly well organized structurally, I thought of the cold mothers and children running about aimlessly with men playing simple card games by improvised fires.

Yesterday I saw on the news that refugees from Kobane are going back home. They fled the town of Kobane, due to the recent conflict between ISIL and the resident Kurdish community, into Turkey. Refugee camps and scorpions are common scenes in this part of the Republic as I imagine most border towns near countries with prolonged conflict endure similarities. If only the international community of fuckery could lessen the hardship for refugees globally I believe there would be more peaceful actions in hotspots around the globe.

The Last Supper

The Last Supper

As it turns out, I felt safer in southeast Turkey than I’ve felt in many places I’ve lived in or traveled to in this region. A village mentality exists everywhere in the country, but is less threatening in actual villages I suppose because the villagers retain some form of innocence.

Needless to say, 2015 will be full of adventures as every year has been since I was conceived. My curiosity and fascination with the unknown continues!

Our friends and guides Seda and Can, Mardin

Our friends and guides Seda and Can, Mardin

Yet Another Year that Kicked Ass

Despite the fortune teller filling my head with notions of fame and financial rewards that would be mine this year, my life still rocked. I’m sure I am famous somewhere in the world, somehow, and I’m rich beyond numbers with glorious life experiences. Blah, blah. So this was my year in a nutshell.

RIP sweet Mojo

RIP sweet Mojo

Istanbul Tulip Festival

Istanbul Tulip Festival

Eminonu Iskele -Istanbul

Eminonu Iskele -Istanbul

Popcorn -Taksim/Istanbul

Popcorn -Taksim/Istanbul

Sharing with a pigeon -Ankara

Sharing with a pigeon -Ankara

Riot Police for May Day -Ankara

Riot Police for May Day -Ankara

Museum of Anatolian Civilizations -Ankara

Museum of Anatolian Civilizations -Ankara

Wine with my gossip girl -Istanbul

Wine with my gossip girl -Istanbul

Istanbul gentrification

Istanbul gentrification

Buyuk Ada -Istanbul

Buyuk Ada -Istanbul

Drunkards -Ankara

Drunkards -Ankara

My girl Silvia

My girl Silvia

Naz

Naz

Kite Surfing -Akyaka

Kite Surfing -Akyaka

Cleopatra's Island -near Akyaka

Cleopatra’s Island -near Akyaka

Summer..yeah....

Summer..yeah….

Hydration

Hydration

My darling students

My darling students

Turkish Transportation

Turkish Transportation

My first successful dive

My first successful dive

Buyuk Ada (Big Island) -Istanbul

Buyuk Ada (Big Island) -Istanbul

Derya and Naz -Istanbul

Derya and Naz -Istanbul

Haydarpasa -Istanbul

Haydarpasa -Istanbul

Galata Tower -Istanbul

Galata Tower -Istanbul

Ankara

Ankara

Girls on Bikes -Ankara

Girls on Bikes -Ankara

The Goddess A. -Ankara

The Goddess A. -Ankara

Ankara

Ankara

Kizilcahamam -near Ankara

Kizilcahamam -near Ankara

Zeus

Zeus

Sufi

Sufi

Khaya

Khaya

Isis

Isis

Travels with Cem

Travels with Cem

my Turkish "bridesmaid" duties

my Turkish “bridesmaid” duties

My Turkish "family"

My Turkish “family”

Cem and I

Cem and I

Cappadocia with new and old friends

Cappadocia with new and old friends

Laughter is the Key

Laughter is the Key

Croatian friends + Turkish Delight= Adventure -Istanbul

Croatian friends + Turkish Delight= Adventure -Istanbul

Olive and Mary -Denver

Olive and Mary -Denver

AHH_4773

Pike Place Market -Seattle

AHH_4735

The Bride Hanna -Seattle

AHH_4693

Katy, Olive and Leo -Denver

AHH_4936

Hanna and Brian -Seattle

AHH_5460

Hendrik -Seattle

AHH_5512

Soren -Seattle

AHH_5525

Katie -Seattle

AHH_5582

Tyler and Katie -Seattle

AHH_5594

My girl Katie -Seattle

Ankara_Kholrabi

Kohllrabi -Ankara

Izmit

Izmit -near Istanbul

John_Katie

John and Katie -Los Angeles

This girl Katie -Los Angeles

This girl Katie -Los Angeles

Tequla

Tequila -Cappadocia

Seagull

A guest for dinner -Buyuk Ada

Kissy and Stacy -Uganda

Kissy and Stacy -Uganda

The Source of the Nile -Uganda

The Source of the Nile -Uganda

St. Nelly-Sade with monk E.'s painting at Hot 100 radio -Uganda

St. Nelly-Sade with monk E.’s painting at Hot 100 radio -Uganda

Working -Bahai Temple, Uganda

Working -Bahai Temple, Uganda

The Team -Uganda

The Team -Uganda

The Nile

The Nile

Family -Uganda

Family -Uganda

My Boss St. Nelly-sade

My Boss St. Nelly-sade

Family -Uganda

Family -Uganda

Friendly Foreigners - my event organizing partners in Ankara

Friendly Foreigners – my event organizing partners in Ankara

The best chicken soup ever -Ankara

The best chicken soup ever -Ankara

Cem and I -Ankara

Cem and I -Ankara

Javier and Silvia -Ankara

Javier and Silvia -Ankara

Cem -Ankara

Cem -Ankara

Aysen and Silvia -Ankara

Aysen and Silvia -Ankara

Istanbul

Istanbul

French Ambassador's residence -Ankara

French Ambassador’s residence -Ankara

The End

The End