Gerald Karey writes: The First Day

A Writer Writes

I wrote this about five years ago. It was, and is, the only time I have written at length about my Peace Corps service. Not that I didn’t value the experience, but I didn’t think it, or my contribution, was all that exceptional. I came, I taught English as a foreign language (just how well is not for me to judge), and I left.

The Peace Corps was in Turkey for only eight years — from 1962 to 1970. The program was abandoned in an “increasingly fractious environment,” one former in-country director wrote. It was fueled by misunderstandings between the Peace Corps and the Turkish government, Peace Corps missteps (my TEFL group stormed Turkey with 200 Volunteers), a steady drumbeat of negative newspaper headlines, charges that Volunteers were CIA agents, and “Turkey’s descent into a morass of violence and radical politics,” the former director added. (If you’re wondering, little of that had any impact on my personal experience in my village of 2,500.)

The number of Volunteers who served in Turkey is dwindling. Perhaps we should buy an expensive bottle of Scotch for the last two standing to share.

This essay is a mere drop in the ocean of material about and by former Peace Corps Volunteers, but I thought I’d share. — G.K.

The First Day

by Gerald Karey (Turkey 1965–67)

TODAY IS THE FIRST DAY of the rest of your life. How’s that for insight? Of course, it’s the first day. Yesterday was the last first day; tomorrow will be the next. One pretty much like the other until we run out of days (downer alert), which happens to all of us.

But there are true first days, occasionally, when your life changes in fundamental ways. The day you get married should be one of the days (unless you never quit being a frat boy and continue to get drunk with your friends). The day your child is born. The first dirty diaper is a clear sign that your life is going to be very different.

One of my most significant first days began at Kennedy Airport when I boarded a Pan Am jet bound for Turkey with 200 other newly-minted Peace Corps Volunteers. We had just finished six weeks of training at Princeton University — the closest I ever came to an Ivy League education.

Training included four hours a day of language classes, and learning about Turkish history, culture and why your left hand should not be brandished in polite society. We were subjected to psychological testing, including the Minnesota Multiphasic Inventory. Questions from that test continue to haunt me: Does the top of your head feel soft? Do you hear voices? Are your bowel movements black and tarry? Do you play with your feces? (Well, no, not if it’s black and tarry). I passed and was deemed suitable for Peace Corps service. Perhaps the tests were graded on a curve.

We took off from Kennedy and flew through the night, most of us too excited or nervous to sleep. Approaching Istanbul in late morning, the pilot received permission to give us an aerial tour.

We probably didn’t fully realize it at the time, but Istanbul was unlike any place most of us had ever seen. It sits astride the Bosporus, a narrow waterway that literally separates the Asian and European continents. (Guidebook speak: Istanbul has one foot in Asia and one foot in Europe). To the north of the city is the Black Sea and Russia. To the south, the Aegean (Homer’s “wine-dark sea”), and the Mediterranean. To the west, Europe; to the east, Asia. Blessed or cursed by its location, history has washed over Istanbul or Constantinople for over 2,500 years.

The armies of Alexander the Great passed close by. Constantinople was the seat of the Holy Roman Empire for 1,000 years until 1453 when it was conquered by Sultan Mehmet who made it the capital of the Moslem Ottoman Empire, which survived until the First World War.

The pilot dutifully pointed out the famous landmarks — the great dome of Haiga Sophia, consecrated in 537, mother church of the Easter Christian faith, until it was converted to a mosque after Constantinople fell to the Ottomans, and finally converted to a museum in 1935.

Close by is the blue Mosque with its beautiful dome and six graceful minarets. Completed in 1616, it is still in use as a mosque.

Unfortunately, with the magnificent buildings and the sweep of history passing below us, the banking and turning of the plane made many on board queasy and a few of my colleagues threw up. We were more than ready to abandon ship when we landed.
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WE BOARDED THE BUSES and were transported through the city to Robert College located north of Istanbul. It was an American school for Turkish students, and where we would complete training.

For some reason, the buses dropped us at the bottom of the hill on which the campus was located, and we made the final leg of our journey on foot, dragging luggage up hill for several hundred feet.

We were immediately ushered into the cafeteria and assaulted by the smell of food being prepared. Given our recent misadventure on the plane, food was the last thing I wanted. I politely refused lunch and staggered to my room — idly wondering if I could get through the next two years without eating — and fell into bed.

Several weeks later, I would make my way to Kursunlu, a town of 2,500 about 600 miles east of Istanbul, where I would teach English at an orta okul, or middle school. I was told I was the first American ever to visit Kursunlu, let alone live there. So, there I was, a street-wise Jewish kid from Brooklyn and recent college graduate, still burdened with something of a sense of entitlement too many Americans consider their birthright. A lone foreigner in a small village in a strange land, I would have to meet Turks on their terms, not mine, and to question many of the facile assumptions I carried regarding my country and my world view. I came to respect and admire a people, culture and way of life so different from what I had known, receiving much more than I gave. Over the course of two years in Turkey, I discovered inner strengths and grew in a myriad of ways that would not have been possible had I not taken this journey.
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THAT FRIST NIGHT at Robert College I slept the sleep of the dead. When I woke the next morning, I was refreshed, ravenously hungry, and ready for the second day of the rest of my life.

Gerald Karey taught English in a middle school in a Turkish village from 1965 to 1967. After the Peace Corps, he worked as a general assignment reporter for two newspapers in New Jersey, and for a McGraw-Hill newsletter in Washington, D.C., where he covered energy and environmental issues. A collection of his essays entitled Unhinged, was published in October, 2014.

© gerrykarey@gmail.com

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  • I don’t remember reading this one before…great story, wonderful context and description of a place I’ve never visited and always wanted to. My sister visited there a couple of years ago and LOVED it.

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