Lonna’s Lines: Strange News from around the World (Issue 3, “Homeless in America”)

All of us face challenges.  In America, our challenges are usually not as difficult as people who face civil war in South Sudan, where children walk miles each day just to find a safe place to sleep.  Yet many people think life is easy for Americans. I say, not true. Which do you think was more difficult for this American (Lonna Lisa Williams) to do:

1. Leave my California home in October, 2010 for Russia to teach English because I could not find a job in my own country even though my grandfather graduated from Yale University, was a professor at UNC, and handed the torch of education to my teacher mother and to me. Endure a long winter where I wore chains on my boots to run across the ice that coated every surface.  Teach English to 13-year-olds only to end up speaking and reading in Russian because no one really wanted to speak English and hated America. Even though my grandmother was Russian, I learned their alphabet and simple words as a child, and I look Russia, most people avoided me because I was the “Amerikanka.” Discover that Vodka is easier to get than good tea, Russian food is bland and full of potatoes, and everyone shares alcohol and violence in the 3rd-class wagons of the Russian train from Samara to Moscow. Endure the 17-hour journey with 50 bunks to a wagon, accidentally stepping on a sleeping Russian woman who screamed when I descended from my top bunk. Cry on the trash bin in the back of the wagon. Kiss a Russian stranger between the wagons, in that blessed cold, dark connector, as snow fields slipped past and a full moon shone on frozen rivers. We, Russian and American, kissed without words, like lovers from a war movie who will never meet again, showing how tragedy is really, really Russian and American.

2. Escape Russia in April, 2011 (when snow still brushed the train tracks and no leaves adorned black trees) to fly to Istanbul (abounding with flowers and spicy food); learn a new language; adapt to another culture; teach English again; marry a Turk; cover the 2013 Freedom Protests; get attacked by pepper-spraying police; lose a job for being a Christian (but walk around the corner to get a better one at another private language school); get threatened with death for being a Christian; teach at a Turkish university; and leave for China just before Turkish police showed up to arrest me for a photo I’d published.  Later I wrote 2 journalistic-style Kindle books about Turkey which have not had much recognition. Continue reading

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Freedom Is Fleeting in Turkey

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I lived and taught English in Turkey for 2.5 years.  I fell in love with that beautiful country and even married a Turkish man.  When the Gezi Park freedom protests began a year ago today, I covered them first-hand, writing articles, taking photos, and uploading videos.  I even got attacked by the Turkish police, and my Turkish husband was tortured by them.  We left Turkey days before police showed up at our old apartment near Istanbul to arrest me for a photo I’d published.

Of all the photos I took in Turkey, this one defined a turning point.  I was in Antalya, watching some high school students march with the Turkish flag even though their Islamist Prime Minister had forbidden any parades.  I stopped being just an American English teacher and became part of the Turkish people when I witnessed how much they want freedom.

Read my tribute to the Gezi Park protest anniversary here:

http://www.digitaljournal.com/news/world/a-year-after-turkey-s-gezi-park-protests-freedom-elusive/article/385149

My Christmas Adventures Overseas

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My first Christmas away from America was spent in snowy Russia, 2010

Some of you may have read about my tragic childhood experiences of Christmas.  On a lighter note, you may enjoy reading about my recent Christmas adventures in Russia, Turkey, and China.  See how my life has progressed!

Still, as I spend my 4th Christmas teaching English overseas, I miss my children in California and wish I could get back to them.  Let’s all hope for a Christmas miracle and reunion with our families!

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Saint Anthony’s cathedral in Istanbul, Turkey, 2012

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A mall in Beijing, China, 2013

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Istanbul Lamps Shining through Glass on a Rainy Day

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My Turkish husband and I were wandering through Istanbul, near Galata Tower, on a rainy spring day.  We saw this lamp shop, a bright spot against the gray.  Traditional Turkish lamps hung gracefully behind the shop’s window and spilled their rainbow lights onto the rainy sidewalk.  This is one of my favorite photos of the fairy-tale land of Turkey, and I invite you to walk with me there.

Sky above a Castle by the Sea

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In Alanya, Turkey, on the Mediterranean Sea, a castle rises atop cliffs as the sun shines through feathery clouds.  In the distance, the Turkish coastline curves westward toward Antalya, the ancient port where the Apostle Paul once journeyed with a message of Christ’s love.  Enjoy this Mediterranean moment with me, as a southern wind blows away your cares in the fairy-tale land of Turkey.

The Photo that Almost Got me Arrested in Turkey

I lived in Turkey for 2.5 years and did photo essays about that beautiful country with its variety of landscapes, historical places, and people.  Then I began to write about the freedom protests that began last spring because of Turkey’s oppressive government.  That led to an article about censorship.  Turkey has more journalists in prison than any other country.  As I witnessed the freedom protests close-up, taking videos of peaceful people walking in unison for the right to speak freely in their own country, I felt a close bond with Turkey.

My Turkish husband, who had been tortured by the Turkish police, went with me to meet friends one Sunday afternoon for tea in Istanbul.  We witnessed police attacking tourists with water canon and pepper spray.  As we made our way home, the police chased us, and the pepper spray I was engulfed in made me sick for days.  Ironically, I left Turkey just days before police showed up at my old apartment door to arrest me for a photo I had published.

See the photo here, minus the woman whose image used to be in it (she complained to the police).  It shows the Kocaeli Book Fair building with a banner of Ataturk, founder of the secular, democratic Republic of Turkey next to its current ruler, the Islamist Prime Minister Erdogan, who makes his image as large as Ataturk’s.  Notice the flag poles like bars in the foreground, layers of oppression.

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Ancient Turkish Towers

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In Turkey, you can find the most surprising things.  Here is a photo of the ancient city wall and tower of Nicomedia in northwest Turkey.  The Greeks built it about 2000 years ago, and it still stands beside a modern restaurant at a hilltop park.  The restaurant made use of the tower’s interior by putting a door over it and using it for storage, but I like to think of it as a mysterious cave into earth’s distant past, full of shadows, carved stone, and spider webs.  Perhaps it also hides undiscovered treasure like a gold ring lost by a visiting king long ago.  His body has since passed to dust and his name forgotten, but the gold ring may still be found by a curious restaurant diner in our modern world.

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Coke at the Cafe (2 Ways)

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I was sitting alone at a park cafe near the Marmara Sea in Turkey, missing my daughter Jessica who is far away in California.  We used to sit at cafes together near the Pacific Ocean, and I haven’t seen her in almost 3 years since I’ve been teaching English overseas. Soon she will turn 21, and I would like to raise a glass for her step into adulthood.  I sent her a text on my cellphone, said a prayer, and took another photo, this time with a can of coke next to the lonely glass–for her.

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Sweet Masterpieces

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I taught a group of 9 Turkish children, ages 9-11, for a month this summer.  We learned to speak basic English:  numbers, colors, animals, places, and questions with answers.  For our last day, I printed out a book for them with spaces where they could draw pictures, color, and write things they learned.

“I take photos with my camera.  I write stories.  I mix the words and photos together to make books, and you can do this, too,” I encouraged them.  They looked at me with their sweet, feisty eyes, and I realized,

We are all a masterpiece, like a book of words and pictures.

Benefits of Being Nobody

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The 19th Century American poet Emily Dickinson once wrote:

“I’m nobody—who are you?

Are you nobody too?

Then there’s a pair of us

—don’t tell—

they’d advertise, you know.”

Emily never saw her poems published. Though a newspaper editor once offered to publish her insightful lines, she refused, stating that she enjoyed being nobody.

When I told this story to my Turkish students who were studying English, they exclaimed,

“She had mental problems!”

But maybe Emily had a point. There is great freedom in being unknown. An anonymous person, almost invisible, can walk through a crowd of famous people without being noticed.

There were a lot of professional journalists in Taksim last Sunday. They wore matching colors and had a huge television camera and tripod, a hand-held microphone, real gas masks, and backpacks full of goodies. But Turkish police targeted them, under orders from Prime Minister Erdogan to suppress the news so that Turkey doesn’t look bad to the international community. I saw a four-member team from Germany hanging in the background while I walked, almost unseen, toward the line of police who guarded Taksim Square. They didn’t notice a middle-aged woman, dressed like an English teacher, who carried a small camera.

Of course, the downside of being nobody means that you may operate on a shoestring budget and only with items you can pack into a purse. But you can travel light. That’s extremely handy when running away from police attack vehicles shooting pepper spray at your back.

Maybe someday Erdogan will know my name. That could be a bad thing. I keep waiting for that knock on my humble Turkish apartment door in the middle of the night. Until then, however, I will continue to be the nobody who records what is happening in Turkey.

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