The First Year: A Survival Guide

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It always helps if you stay caffeinated.  Also, don’t be surprised if they can’t figure out your name at Starbuck’s.

The first year of teaching is never easy.  Being a first time expat is also never easy.  Put them both together and you have a recipe for panic.

When I look back on my first year, both as a teacher and as an American living in Turkey, I am inclined to both shudder and laugh maniacally at how chaotic it really was.  I don’t even have the words to describe it properly.  Let’s just say the highs were high and the lows were low.

I know that no two people truly have the same journeys, but in the event that this advice reaches someone in the thick of it, wondering if they’ve just made the worst mistake of their life, it will have been worth the time spent writing it if it helps.

Expect to feel lost and overwhelmed

Sometimes just hearing someone else say they were lost and overwhelmed in the beginning is enough to make you feel better because you realize that you are not crazy and that you are not alone.  Everything will seem a little batshit in the beginning because it’s all new.  Often, schools abroad are less structured than what you might be used to in the U.S. or similar countries.  You may have no curriculum.  Things might change every ten seconds and then change again.  Rules and policies may not seem logical to you.  Accept that this is normal and that you are going to have to learn to deal with it.  Some of the changes will forever drive you nuts and some you may come to embrace.  That’s part of the frustration and beauty of choosing to step out of the comfortable bubble of your own culture.

Let go of the non-essential

The first year is always a trial by fire.  Give up anything that feels like too much or adds nothing to your life, even if it’s only temporary.  I remember feeling a tremendous amount of pressure because I wasn’t doing enough.  I wasn’t planning fast enough, or grading fast enough, or reading enough, or keeping in touch with people back home enough, or learning Turkish fast enough…so many things were piling up.  Just stop.  If it’s stressing you out, it’s not worth wasting the energy on…at least not at that moment.  Let some things go and take things one day at a time until you get used to all of the changes.

Take care of yourself

On the other hand, don’t just let yourself go.  The first few months, I made the mistake of spending all my time working because I wanted everything to be perfect.  In doing so, I completely neglected myself.  I stopped cooking, I stopped exercising, I stopped pursuing hobbies…all in the name of work that never ended.  While it’s a good thing to be a dedicated teacher and to take the time to improve wherever you can, that is not the only thing that you are and it’s a good way to burn yourself out very fast.  Don’t forget that the work will never be over.  There will always be something else you could have done better. Let it go. You need and deserve to spend some time just being yourself.

Find a support system

I can’t emphasize this one enough.  If not for the friends that started the same year I did, I probably wouldn’t have survived last year.  The best case scenario is working for a school that has some kind of mentor system, or at least having a few experienced teachers at your disposal.  Unfortunately, our situation didn’t quite work out like that, but our fellow newbies ended up being our second family, and together, we made it through.  Ask for help, exchange ideas, and have fun  doing it.  It makes such a difference having friends and/or colleagues who can understand what you’re dealing with and can make the bad times seem not so bad.

Go out and explore

What’s the point of moving across the world if you’re not going to enjoy it?  Have adventures and live it up.  If you’re going to work hard, you might as well play hard too.

Get to know the culture

And this goes for both the school and the country it’s in.  Learning all of the nuances and “unspoken rules” of a new place can be tricky, but it’s essential.  Figure out what’s really expected of you.  Study the language.  Understand what is and isn’t offensive.  Make friends.  Try new things.  Engage with locals.  You’ll never feel at home if you don’t.

Remember why you’re doing it

At the end of the day, it’s really about the students because they are the reason that teachers stay teachers.  I truly love my students and I love teaching and couldn’t imagine doing anything else.  Keep that love going, even when you are ready to pull out all of your hair and throw in the towel.  Too often the little bureaucratic details of a school can stand in the way of the stuff that really matters.

Sometimes it’s not about the place; it’s just about the day

This is some of the best advice I’ve ever received on being an expat, so I’m passing it on.  If it’s a bad day, just let it be what it is.  If you need to lay on the floor for a couple days crying and eating ice cream straight from the carton, so be it.  There will be bad days, but there will be good days also.  Remember that we all have bad days, regardless of where we live or what we do for a living.  Get yourself through the bad days however you must and rejoice in the good ones.

Know that it gets better

With time and experience, most things work themselves out eventually.  I can’t say when exactly, but after a little while, you will experience a moment that feels like breathing for the first time after an extended period of being underwater.  All of the sudden, things that used to get under your skin will go by unnoticed.  Things that were once so foreign will seem familiar.  You will feel more and more like yourself.  It takes time, but it does happen.  Just be patient.

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Emerging as a very happy second year expat teacher

 

HAPPY HALLOWEEN!

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Yes, I know it’s a bit early, but here at the school we always celebrate Halloween on the closest Friday, so here we are.  This year was ten times better than last year, mainly because I actually knew what I was doing this time around.

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We started off by decorating the main part of the school and doing some good, old-fashioned pumpkin carving.  None of them had ever done it before, so it was a doubly fun experience!  I loved how delightfully creepy these pazar pumpkins were!  It totally added to the atmosphere.  I think my favorite part was the look of pure disgust on all of the students’ faces when I demonstrated how to rip the pumpkin “guts” out from the hole in top with their bare hands.  So much fun!

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After lots of decorating, carving, scary movies, spooky games, and photo ops, it was time for the trick-or-treating!  This year, we decided to make huge batches of hot chocolate with heart-shaped marshmallows (a.k.a the hearts of students who don’t do their homework) instead of candy. It was quite the undertaking, but totally worth it.  Our kitchen looked like Victor Frankenstein’s lab by the end.

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After loading up on sugar, we had a costume contest and it didn’t disappoint.  We have a lot of theatrical and creative students, so many of them had a performance in addition to their immaculate costume.  It’s always hard to choose the winners.

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I stepped up my own costume game this year, which was much needed to keep my energy up to entertain 200-something teenagers all day!

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Happy Halloween, everybody!

 

 

Nöbetçi: A Day in the Life

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Only two weeks into the school year and it was time for my first 24 hour weekend duty of the year…yay!  Honestly, it’s not so bad – especially in this nice weather – but it can get a bit dull wandering around an empty campus all day.  I decided to spice my long day up a little by documenting it in photos.

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Rise and shine!

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Breakfast time! (I love my simit with a little butter and honey)

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Coffee to the rescue, courtesy of my husband!

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I love being surrounded by art!

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Admiring local wildlife

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I could hear my husband’s music blaring from across the parking lot!

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A visitor

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Lunch, with lots of red pepper

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A tunnel of pine

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No kids?  On a day like this?

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From the top of the hill

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It just wasn’t a blackberry summer this year 😦

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My favorite word in Turkish…look it up…you’ll see why

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Doodling my way through study hall…

What a looooooong day it was.  I couldn’t wait to come home at 10, kick my shoes off, and sprawl out on the floor.  At least it’s one duty down now.

The Second Time Around

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I’m only one week into this second year of teaching and it’s already been crazy.  In true Turkish fashion, all of the schedules were released at the last possible second (I’m talking the morning of…when there were already classes that were supposed to be in session), no classrooms assigned for said classes (resulting in hordes of confused kids wondering where to go), and the class groupings were all mixed up – so to recap, we had the wrong kids in the wrong classes and no classrooms to put them in.  Last year, I would’ve probably collapsed from a heart attack.  This year, I brushed that dirt off my shoulder and rolled with it like a champ.  What a difference a year makes!

It feels so good to finally be in this place because a journey like this one is never easy.  I can’t believe how enormous the gap between being a first and second year teacher is!  I’m so much  more organized.  My lesson plans are better.  I’m so much happier, which means I’m so much more capable of being present both in and outside of the classroom so I can be there for my students when they need me…because they really, really need us sometimes.  Our school is a gifted school, so a lot of the students here are very hard on themselves and therefore prone to depression and anxiety.  It’s also difficult at times because it’s a boarding school, and many of them go months without seeing family.  I’m seeing so much  more clearly this year how important my role as a teacher is in this environment.

I’m also taking much better care of myself.  As they say, you can’t pour from an empty cup.  Last year, I pretty much worked all day every day during the school weeks and then jumped into hard core traveling during all of the breaks, with absolutely no in between…not healthy.  I’ve been committed to going to the gym every evening.  I’m cooking at home most nights instead of eating at the cafeteria and actually getting some fruits and veg into my system.  I’m trying to write more and create more art.  Sometimes I just lay  on my new rug and watch T.V.  I don’t know how I ever survived last year without all of these things.

I’m really looking forward to being a better human this year.  I feel so lucky to be where I am and to be able to do what I do.

Back in the T.R.

DSC_0001After an amazing two months with our families in the U.S., I’m pleased to say we made it back to Turkey safe and sound.

I really wasn’t sure what it would feel like to leave and come back again, but I can honestly say both went better than expected. I was sad to leave people and food behind, but nothing could have prepared me for how happy I was to see our apartment again! The smell of home and our own bed! No more living out of a suitcase! (at least for a couple weeks ;))

Tomorrow we are back to the grind with some teacher in-service meetings, which means summer is officially over…but I have a feeling it’s the start of a great year!

 

The Most Breathtaking Moments from My First Year of Traveling

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Now that I’ve nearly survived all of my responsibilities at the school this first year, I’ve been doing a lot of reflecting.  In the moment, so much of it seemed like a blur, but now I find myself trying to look back on (and over-analyze) everything that has happened since I moved to Turkey.  There were some moments that felt so difficult and so dark that I didn’t think it would ever get any easier, but now that I’ve gotten through the biggest waves of culture shock, I can appreciate how amazing this opportunity really is and all of the incredible things I’ve been able to do that before seemed like a distant dream.  When I think back through this year, there are a few moments that really stand out.

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Crossing the Bosphorus for the first time

This is something that takes my breath away again and again and again.  I’ll never forget how blue the water looked or how magical the 360 view of seagulls swirling around the sea of minarets was the first time I took a ferry to Eminonu.  It has to be one of the most incredible experiences one can have in the world for under a dollar.  Even after almost a year, I still have a “holy crap, I can’t believe I actually live here” moment every single time I cross over to Europe.

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Hitchhiking from Perge in Antalya

I still can’t believe this happened only two weeks into our expat experience, but that’s also why I think it’s so memorable.  In that moment when we were deciding what to do, I remember a tiny voice reminding me that my mom would have a heart attack if she knew I was doing this, but I also had a voice telling me that it was cold and raining and the guy offering us a ride definitely didn’t look like a serial killer.  He ended up being an incredibly nice and genuine person and that experience really taught me the importance of trusting humanity when it comes to traveling.  Most people really are good.

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Experiencing a true White Christmas in Eskişehir

I had my worst bout of culture shock in the fall and I was so overwhelmed and unhappy that I really don’t remember much of that time period.  The weekend we spent in Eskişehir is kind of where my memory starts to kick back in because it was a spot of pure bliss.  It was obviously very difficult to spend Christmas away from home for the first time, but when I saw the first snow of the whole year happening on Christmas day?  I knew everything was going to be okay.

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Getting snowed in on New Year’s Eve

I saw my work/home in a whole new light when it was buried under a foot of snow.  This place is gorgeous in the spring and summer, but I wasn’t prepared for how beautiful it is in the dead of winter.  I’ll never forget how happy I was when I read the email that lessons were cancelled and all of the students and teachers who couldn’t beat the weather out gathered together for a giant snowball fight.  Definitely one of the best New Year’s Eves I’ve ever had.

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Sipping hot wine at Buda Castle in Budapest

Wine is not a drink I ever imagined would be good warm, but it certainly is.  They were selling this stuff all over Budapest and I finally caved and had to try it when we were up at Buda Castle and it was FREEZING.  They add some fruit and spices that make it taste more like a warm sangria and it was the perfect way to warm up and relax while enjoying the incredible view of the Chain Bridge to Pest.

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Walking from Hungary to Slovakia on the Maria Valeria Bridge

Another fabulous moment in Hungary was the time we spent in Esztergom, a little town that is only a short walk away from Sturovo in Slovakia.  At first, we thought we might regret stopping in such a small place without much going on, but it ended up being one of the highlights of our winter break.  There was something that felt so cool about being able to walk from one country to another in a town that’s barely changed since the Middle Ages.

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Standing before the Library of Celsus at Ephesus

Our trip to Ephesus was our first taste of warm weather after a winter that felt like it lasted a billion years.  When I first laid eyes on the Library of Celsus, I couldn’t believe how intact it was after over 1,000 years.  The way the yellowing stone contrasts with the bright blue sky is truly mind-blowing.  It is an absolute must-see in Turkey.  I even want to go back, which is not usually the case when it comes to things like ruins and monuments.

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Hiking the Fira Trail in Santorini

The hike from Fira to Oia in Santorini is an unforgettable journey.  10 kilometers of the most beautiful white-washed buildings you’ll ever see and blue Aegean water that stretches out into forever makes you feel like you’ve tripped and fallen into a dream.  I’ll especially never forget the delicious Greek picnic my husband and I had on the side of a volcanic cliff.  It felt like we had the whole world to ourselves.

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Indulging in local hospitality in Naxos

I have never received a warmer welcome than the one I got at Hotel Kymata in Naxos.  It turns out the whole island is unbelievably friendly and hospitable.  Although a part of it is definitely due to a decline in tourism following the economic troubles in Greece, I still believe that hospitality is a central tenant of Greek culture.  Much of the hospitality came in the form of free food, which is my fave.

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Nerding out in a Sci-Fi bookstore in Stockholm

Stockholm was such a whirlwind trip that much of it seems very fuzzy, but I remember almost every detail of the incredible book store we found near the main palace.  I am a gigantic nerd and this place was designed for people just like me.  They had a very unique collection of anime, comics, sci-fi titles (mostly in ENGLISH!), board games, and all kinds of nerdy collectibles.  If I ever win the lottery, I’m probably going to buy one of everything in that store.

Watching my students blow their end-of-the-year performance out of the water

Being a teacher is exhausting and time-consuming, but somehow, the students make every ounce of the blood, sweat, and tears worth it – at least most of the time.  After a hectic first year, it was so satisfying to work on a big performance with all of my first students and watch them do such a great job.  It definitely ended my year on a high note.

I am so thankful for everything I’ve been able to experience this year.  It was a lot of hard work, but it’s only proven to me how much hard work can pay off.  I’m already looking forward to the long list of adventures that are sure to come next year!

Reflections of a First Year Teacher

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My #1 teaching tool.

Last night, my Prep Year students finished their end of the year performance (and rocked it!), which means that other than a little bit of grading, my first year as a teacher is over. It’s been a crazy first year.  I think anyone who teaches will tell you that the first year is crazy.  Make that double if your first teaching gig is in a foreign country with a completely different culture.  So much of it feels like a giant blur.  There have been ups, downs, and in-betweens, but mostly, a whole lot of learning.  Here’s just a small list of the lessons I’ve learned:

-They won’t always remember small assignments, but they WILL remember big ideas

Be flexible.  Sometimes you have to scrap the lesson you planned in the first five minutes because it just wasn’t the right lesson plan for that group/day/time/place.

Challenge them, even when they complain about it.  They will thank you for it later.

Lean on your colleagues (and let them lean on you).  Support is everything. 

Don’t assign anything that isn’t meaningful.  Also, don’t assign anything for which you can’t provide effective feedback.

Be creative and have fun.  As much as possible, teach what you’re passionate about.  If you’re not having fun, neither will they.

Never stop learning.  There is always more to do, more to know, and more room to be better.  Keep the ball rolling…forever.  

Be prepared to have your heart break a little when you say goodbye to a class, even though you know they are moving on to bigger and better things.  You can never fully prepare yourself for how much you will love your students.  

It has been a fabulous year and I have grown so much – not only as a teacher, but as a person.  Honestly, being a teacher has made me a better person.  I can’t wait for next year; there will be new ideas, more life lessons, and best of all, new students!

Summer Bucket List

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Union Station in KC last summer

Summer is just around the corner.  It’s hard to believe, but before I know it, I will be on a plane back to America.  To be honest, I’m a little nervous.  I feel like I’m finally getting the hang of life in Turkey and going back will just make everything more confusing again. America feels like it was a million lifetimes ago and I know it won’t be the same when I go back because won’t be the same.  I’m just not sure if I’m ready for my first reverse culture shock experience, but ready or not, it’s coming.

More than anything, I’m looking forward to seeing all of my friends and family and EATING!! I am going to eat all of the Mexican food I can get my hands on.  In order to keep my summer from descending into unstructured chaos, I’ve decided to make a few small goals for myself to make the most of my time off in the good old U.S. of A.

Goal #1  Re-discover my old stomping grounds (and maybe a few new ones)

Now that I’m used to traveling all the time, I don’t think I can ever go back.  I want to travel as much as I can, even if it’s just small trips to local places on the weekends.  I have realized that there is always something new to discover in any place, whether it’s big or small.  I’m hoping to see the Motherland with a new pair of eyes.  I also want to use this space to shed a little light on life in the Midwest and the South since they are generally lesser-traveled parts of the country and where I will happen to be for most of my time there.

Goal #2  Sharpen my language skills

I’m not gonna lie…I haven’t been as productive on the language front as I was hoping to be this year.  It was really hard to squeeze it in amidst the chaos of being a first year teacher in a brand new and vastly different culture.  I’m hoping to hit the re-set button this summer and dedicate at least a few hours a week to studying French and Turkish.  Who knows…I may even try to throw in some Spanish…and even some English.  There is no such thing as learning too much.

Goal #3  Hit the books

Another thing I haven’t done nearly often enough  is read.  I did manage to read five books this school year, but I’d  like to have read at least double that.  I’ll have about two  months off, so I’m hoping I can get through at least two books per month…and ideally more.  I’m also going to try to make at least half of my reading in French.  I want to  make it into a habit so I can keep up with my Goodreads shelves more efficiently next year.  It doesn’t hurt that I’ll be spending a good chunk of summer within walking distance of the beach on the Gulf Coast.  It’ll be a perfect spot to chill out with a good book (or Kindle…which I will likely be investing in).

Goal #4  Step up my teaching game

One of the big reasons this year was so crazy was that I was part of a brand new teaching department (seriously…seven of us were brand new this year) with a new administration, so you can imagine what I was walking into.  I didn’t even know which classes I would be teaching until two days before I arrived (which was only two days before school started).  I didn’t have any time to plan any kind of decently organized curriculum and everyone else around me was equally lost, so it was basically a whole year of treading water for all of us.  Next year will be different.  I’m looking forward to doing some awesome, creative, and best of all, STRUCTURED things with my students next year.  I will be spending a lot of time on Amazon and in bookstores.

Goal #5  Get back in shape!

The craziness of being a first year teacher coupled with culture shock completely through me off track in terms of my fitness regimen.  In the States, I was eating fairly healthy and exercising almost every day.  Here, I’ve pretty much just eaten whatever the cafeteria was serving and have gone multiple weeks without hitting the gym more than once.  Not okay! I am hoping to re-center myself and start over with my old healthy habits and hopefully carry them through into next year.

Goal #6 Be creative

I have not been very good about pursuing my creative hobbies this year, so I want to change that.  I want to work on developing my creative writing skills more (I may even look for a workshop!) and I wouldn’t mind working on a little drawing or just some arts and crafts for fun.  Who knows…I may even convince my husband to finally teach me hwo to play the drums.  I haven’t had enough creative outlets this past year, so I’m looking forward to expressing that side of myself.

Goal #7 Soak up the freedom

Isn’t that what summer is all about?  I will certainly have some work to do, but I also want to detach from the part of myself that is always working and putting on my “professional” face, especially since I work in a boarding school.  I want to take some time to be a little wild and spontaneous and irresponsible.  There will definitely be impromptu plans, partying, long nights of gaming and binge-watching Netflix…  I desperately need to reconnect with that part of myself and remind myself that I’m still young and there’s a lot more to who I am than my job.

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Hoping for some of this!

I know summer will probably go by faster than I could ever imagine, and I know this is quite an ambitious list, but I’m feeling optimistic, so I may as well shoot for the stars, right?

To those out there reading:  What are your summer plans?  Any tips on dealing with reverse culture shock?

The Turkish Art of Construction-Watching

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After such a lovely vacation in Greece, it’s been hard to readjust to the ol’ grind back in Turkey.  This past week has simultaneously been slow and crazy trying to settle back into a bit of a routine for these last few weeks of school.

Even though I’ve been here for almost a year now (how is that even possible!?), I’m still learning something new about Turkey every day.  My most recent discovery is the traditional Turkish pastime of watching construction.  The school is currently undergoing some construction for a new Arts building (yay!), so there’s been a lot of digging, drilling, and demolition around here lately.  To me, it seemed like nothing special.  If anything, it was a bit of a nuisance to have to try to teach a class through all the racket.  The students, however, seemed fascinated by what was going on.  I had to coax my 10th graders away from the outside railing to actually come to class.

Initially I thought it was just a silly excuse for students to sit outside and duck out on a few minutes of class, but it turns out the love of watching construction is a legit thing here.  Even after classes, students were crowded in droves to watch all the action.  Even some of the cats were watching!  I finally had to ask what it was all about and the students explained that it was very normal for families to sit outside, drink some hot tea, and just watch construction.  It’s a soothing sight for many Turks.

I couldn’t help but laugh to myself at the thought of sitting and watching a large yellow drilling machine tapping at a few measly bricks all day…to me it seemed just a notch above watching paint dry.  Still, I felt like I had to at least give it a try, so as the sun was setting, I stepped out to one of the balconies as the sun was setting to see what the hype was.  It turns out it was a pretty nice way to spend the evening, although to be fair, I think it was more about the nice weather and the sunset than it was about the drill.  Also, I didn’t have any tea handy, so I guess it wasn’t the full experience anyway.

Oh, Turkey.  Seni seviyorum!