In the early 1990s on a frosty winter’s weekend, I attended an international school job fair at Queen’s University. I had only been teaching in Canada for a few years, but there had been a freeze on salary for teachers in the Province of Ontario. I had taken loans to return to university to complete my Honours Bachelor of English & Drama degree. Due to the pay freeze, I wondered how many years it would take me to pay off those loans that seemed to hang over my head like the Sword of Damocles. I drove from London Ontario, where I was living and working, to Kingston, and the attractive Queen’s University campus. I was nervous and excited at one and the same time at the prospect of possibly being hired to teach at an international school. I had several interviews that went well but no offers at the fair.
Then several months later in the summer of that year I received a telephone call (landline, this was before I had a mobile phone) from the director of a private Turkish school, who had interviewed me at the job fair. Although I was not aware of it then, the private school where he was a director had long been considered one of the most prestigious in Turkey. He offered me a job and gave me a few days to consider the offer and salary package. However, that summer my mother had been diagnosed with an advanced case of COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) and given three months to live; ever a trooper, she would defy the doctors and live for three more years. Thus, due to my mother’s health condition, I declined the offer to teach at the private school in Turkey. Interestingly, I would eventually end up living and working in Turkey, but it would be the second stop in my career as an international educator.
A year after my mother passed away, I was contacted by the organizer of the job fair that I had attended a few years earlier. He had been in contact with me each year asking if I was still considering a teaching job overseas. The school year had just ended, and I was looking forward to the summer vacation. The job fair organizer said he had a few late vacancies for teaching jobs that would start within a few months. He told me about three of them and asked if I would be interested. I asked him which one he would recommend, and he said that the director of an international school in Indonesia was a man he highly respected. That was the school and position he thought would be best for me. It was in Bandung, on the island of Java.
I had never met anyone who had been to Indonesia, and I knew very little about the country. However, I agreed to meet the director of the international school, who would be interviewing candidates in Toronto, a two-hour drive from where I lived in London. I went for the interview, was offered the teaching job in Bandung, and had six weeks to sublet my apartment, sell my car and furniture, quit my job, and complete all the tasks related to moving to a new country. It was a whirlwind summer, exhilarating and somewhat frightening as well due to the foray into the unknown.
Arriving in Jakarta in August of that summer and making my way from the airport to the train station was an incredible and eye-opening experience. The odours of that massive city, the oppressive summer heat, the masses of people, the voices of Indonesians talking in a language that I did not yet know; all the sights and sounds commingled and made an indelible impression in my mind. When I arrived in Bandung, a Dutch colonial city in the mountains of West Java, the director took me to see the school for the first time. As I saw the white two-story building, nestled amongst palm trees, with green gardens and a riot of flowers to be found along every path, I remembered back to these words: “I see a building; it is white amidst much greenery; it seems to be in the mountains…I see children…it could be a school. The whitest white, the greenest green, that is what I see. I see the letters J and A; it is a country or place that starts with those letters.”
After my mother had passed away, I decided to go to a psychic, something that I would never have considered previously. I thought psychics, fortune tellers, and anyone of that ilk to be charlatans and frauds. However, I had heard of a psychic living in the same city, who apparently was an exception. Her name was Mrs. Sharp, coincidentally her actual name! It was Mrs. Sharp who had uttered those words to me the year previously, and thinking her transmitter was faulty, I could not make any connection. However, when first seeing the school in Bandung, Mrs. Sharp’s words came back to me about the white building and the greenery, and a place with a name that started with the letters “Ja”. I then made the connection. It was this school; it was Java.
I almost immediately fell in love with Indonesia; it touched my heart and my mind and living there forever changed me. When living in Indonesia there were two incidents of particular importance. One was the political uprising that had turned into an historical event, with military clashes and deaths. The other was the ever-present knowledge that earthquakes were common in Indonesia, and quite often tremors were felt and sometimes lives were lost in various parts of the Indonesian archipelago. What I did not know then was that when I left Indonesia and moved to another country, it would be to Istanbul, Turkey, in the summer of 1999. I had been in Istanbul for only a few weeks prior to the devastating earthquake that left thousands of people dead and many more wounded.
I was awakened from a deep sleep by a violent rocking and an almost indescribable noise that made me wonder if I had been caught up in a terrible dream. I still recall almost a quarter century later how disoriented both my body and my mind felt, as I attempted to swim up out of this overpowering dream state. My first thought was that I was back in Indonesia because the harsh and discordant noise reminded me of the sound the many tanks had made in Jakarta in May 1998 when the military tried to intimidate the masses of people who were protesting in the city centre against the corruption of long-time military dictator, President Suharto. I had gone with my driver, Yanto, from Bandung to Jakarta, to view firsthand “history in the making” as I had informed my family and friends afterwards. I had been a foreigner (‘buleh’) in a sea of Indonesians: the rioting in the streets and the burning of buildings had been imprinted in my mind forever. However, it was the memory of that cacophony created by the hundreds of imposing tanks rumbling down the wide boulevards in central Jakarta in May of 1998 that was reawakened in my mind the following August when living in Istanbul.
Earlier that evening I had gone with a group of teachers to a favourite bar in the Istanbul suburb of Bahçeşehir, where we lived in furnished apartments provided by the school. We had gone out for dinner and then played pool and drank in the bar which we had already decided in our few weeks in Istanbul was our favoured watering hole. I had been in bed perhaps for only an hour or so when awakened by a natural disaster in the making. It was the 17th of August 1999 at 3:01 A.M. when the 7.6 earthquake struck in Izmit, a city to the east of Istanbul.
The devastation, loss of lives, thousands injured, and innumerable homes damaged or destroyed, had an incredible impact on everyone who experienced the earthquake that night, and the aftershocks that followed. It was a formidable first impression of a new country and life, and made one realise the unrelenting reality of the force of mother nature and we are not always in control of the world around us. Although I did not personally know anyone who was killed or injured in the earthquake, I felt a kinship with the Turkish people and their resilience in the face of disaster and tragedy.
When I moved to Turkey, I thought it was a stop on the journey of my professional and personal life, and that in a few years I would move on to the next destination. However, as with so many foreigners (‘yabancı’) who live in Turkey, and particularly those who reside in the city of Istanbul, I came under the spell and gratefully gave into the allures of the country and the city. Although I would move away from Turkey twice in the intervening quarter century due to professional reasons (first to UAE, later to Israel), I returned both times to my adopted homeland with the proverbial tail between my legs. After the second return, I vowed that I would never move out of Turkey again. I had come home. I was a Turk by choice. Perhaps the creation of that reality years before had its birth and nascent awakening in the devastation and destruction of the earthquake that woke me from my sleep years before.