Karina Ek, 20, was nervous the day she arrived at a Turkish bank to begin teaching English classes to the bank’s employees. Nerves turned to fear, though, when her first question received only passive stares.
“I asked, ‘How are you today?’ and everyone just looked at me with blank faces; they had no idea what I was saying,” she said. “Here I was, a young American girl who’d been in their country like a month and I had to figure out how to teach a class of 60-year-old Turkish men. I was so scared.”
But in the weeks leading up to her departure from Istanbul, Karina, a 2006 Flathead High School graduate, was struggling with leaving the city where she and her older sister Erin Ek, 27, have been living and teaching for the past year. The sisters returned to Kalispell last week – Erin for a visit before returning to her teaching position at a private high school in Istanbul; Karina indefinitely.
On Friday, July 11, the sisters will host a “Turkish Cultural Night” in conjunction with the monthly downtown art walk at 6 p.m. at Camas Creek Yarn, their mother Melanie Cross’s store. They’ll share their experiences in Turkey while Karina presents a slideshow of photos she’s taken of the people and landscapes of the places they’ve visited, including cave dwellings in Cappadocia, the ruins of Effes and Troy, the sunken city near Kas and the diverse life in Istanbul.
Erin and Karina will serve Turkish Delight, a traditional apple tea, and the Turkish national drink raki, also called lion’s milk. Their mother will chip in the American beverage for the night: a keg of beer from Tamarack Brewing Company in Lakeside. “Even if we could bring it back, no one would want to drink Turkish beer,” Erin joked.
For the past month, the sisters combed the more than 2,000 vendor booths in the Grand Bazaar, roaming the back streets of Istanbul and searching the city for wholesale items – an adventure in itself, especially since both speak very basic Turkish. “We’ve been following leads, bargaining and drinking more than our fill of Turkish coffee and tea since it’s always served at any respectable seller’s shop,” Erin said.
They will sell the Turkish wares, including Pashmina and hand-painted silk scarves and hand-embroidered Susani pillowcases among others, at the Kalispell event.
While Erin said she and Karina are interested in starting an exporting business of sorts from Turkey to continue bringing goods to Kalispell, the focus of Friday’s event isn’t sales. Their hope is to show residents of the Flathead the side of Turkey they’ve experienced.
“People, I think, have so many misconceptions about the Middle East and nearby countries like Turkey that I think it’s important to show people what it’s really like first-hand to visit,” Erin said. “I’ve had a lot of people assume that because I’m American I’ll be in some sort of trouble here. It’s not the case at all. I’ve never been anywhere where people are so bend-over-backwards hospitable.”
Erin has been teaching abroad since graduating with a teaching degree from the University of Montana in 2004 – coincidentally, affording her younger sister a convenient travel companion. Erin speaks highly of her experiences in Mexico and Venezuela, but said she felt the most welcome in Turkey.
When she first arrived, she dropped her wallet with more than $200 in it on the streets. A little boy returned it – money intact – that day. “When I shared the story with colleagues no one was surprised; they said it ‘just happens’ here,” Erin said. Similarly, while traveling in the country she has had people go out of the way to escort her to her destination.
The Ek sisters said they think Americans often get a distorted view of foreign countries like Turkey, because they only hear about the negative or controversial events. It’s easy to misunderstand issues unfamiliar to Americans, like the recent debate over Turkey’s ban on headscarves in schools, they said.
“You may see a woman wearing a headscarf and automatically want to generalize them as quiet women without much personality who will obey anything they’re told,” Karina said. “You get to know them though and you become aware of the person under there who has a life going on and is quite vibrant and funny. They have backbone.”
Part of what’s made their experiences in Turkey so interesting, Erin added, is the mix of centuries-old culture and tradition with the new customs entering the country.
“This is a place of contrasts,” she said. “I hope we can give people in Kalispell just a little glimpse of it.”