“There must be some reason why you’re here in Turkey,” said my teacher. “Is your dad Turkish?” “French,” I replied. “Your mom?” “Italian.” “There’s got to be someone in your family who’s Turkish. “He believes you are Turkish,” said my friend, as she translated the conversation between my jewelry teacher and I. In a later class, when I attempt to dome a piece of silver, imitating the rhythm he uses to do the same, he points to me with his hands as proof, “See? Turkish!”
Although coming to Turkey has not been a homecoming for me to the land of my ancestors, he was echoing a similar sentiment that I’ve had here... that there might be some other reason that I’m here, whether it’s related to learning a new trade, having time to study and veer towards a different course (I’ve been looking into online Communication Disorders programs), or thinking about my own family history. One thing is for sure: working as a glorified tutor in an international school with no vision is not why I came. I’ve recently felt more and more disconnected here with the recent loss of my French grandmother, my family so far away, and a job that on most days makes my eyes glaze over in boredom. More and more, I’ve started asking myself, “Why am I here?” and “Why did I come?”
Last week, I got to jewelry class an hour early with a freshly baked hazelnut cake in tow. I had received the news a few hours earlier from my dad that my Mamie, my French grandma, had passed away, and I walked with a heavy heart. Although I felt a little downtrodden, I knew that going to jewelry class would make me feel better, as it always does.
When I got to the studios, I was about 1 ½ hours early. I always leave two hours for my commute and usually end up getting there with enough time to enjoy a Turkish coffee and read a little before class. I walked down the small cobblestone steps, into the secluded tiny courtyard, feeling uplifted with every step. On my way in, I was greeted by Garfield, the center’s cat, whose magnificent girth and red coat have earned him his name. He truly is humongous and mostly fluffy fur that sticks straight out on all sides, and is an instant favorite of anyone who comes to the center. Garfield lounged by the statue of Mimar Sinan, the architect of Caferaga Medresesi, whose impressive turbaned bust surveys the living space of his oeuvre. It seemed as though Garfield was trying to match the bulbous largesse of the magnificent turban.
I sat down at one of the cushioned chairs lining the inside of the atrium, pulled out my book (Birds Without Wings, by Louis de Bernieres), and ordered my usual “Khave, sade.” The waiters who work there now expect me to order the tiny, dark, sugarless coffee, served with a delicious cube of lokum (Turkish delight), every time I come for class, and simply give me a nod of acknowledgement when our eyes meet. Winter had hit Istanbul in full force that week-there had even been snow that weekend- and plastic tarps covered the arches surrounding the atrium. I kept my heavy coat on and snuggled into my scarf, as I braced myself to reenter the harsh and gruesome landscape of war depicted in my book, breathing out clouds into the cold air, while my coffee breathed out parallel waves of steam.
My teacher, on a break from his class, came to my table and started to chat with me. “Soguk, cok soguk!” we both agreed (cold, very cold). I pieced together the few words I’ve managed to hold onto, paired with gestures, to let him know I would miss the class in two weeks, since I’d be traveling for the holiday. “Gelecek, gelecek hafta, bayram. Gidiyor Francia ve Italia.” Although the sentence came out of my mouth like a shattered plate, he understood that I wouldn’t be there in a few weeks. He began to ask me about my family, and I told him that my Italian grandma would be turning 90 the day after Christmas: “Buyuk ane, doksan, kutlama!” (grandma, 90, celebration!). The last few weeks, we’ve been swapping Turkish and English words, like collector cards. He’ll tell me words in Turkish and then ask for the same words in English. “I’ll teach you Turkish and you teach me English,” he says. “Tamam,” I reply (“ok.”). It makes me feel like I’m not so much of a burden in the class. I showed him the hazelnut cake I’d brought, excited that I could also share this later, after receiving so much from this place week after week. Pretty soon, break time was over, and he waved me into the studio to start working, even though it was still an hour to soon.
I scooted into an empty workspace and prepped the four circles I’d cut out last time. That day’s class would be on creating hollow balls from flat circles. The magic of metalsmithing is the intricate three-dimensional shapes that the artisan hammers and coaxes from a flat sheet of metal. When my teacher is working and demo-ing the procedures of his craft, he describes everything like a dance. He bangs out syncopated rhythms with the hammer- da-da-da-daaaaa-da, as the silver jiggles and shimmies with each tap. When he saws, he stops to point out the soft chime of the blade, which dings like tiny church bells and fills the workshop with its delicate melodic echo, a lone alto rehearsing after hours. Filing down the edges and creating curves, he moves his hands like a conductor and twirls the piece of jewelry in progress like a partner in a dance- swiftly and gracefully. “Working with fire too is like a dance. You musn’t be afraid of the flame,” he says, heating silver wire until it rolls into a ball, heating a domed piece of silver, until it rocks gently from its newly gained energy, tip-tip-tapping the table in a fast snare drum roll.
When it was finally time for class and everyone had arrived, we all began the process of making the hollow silver balls. In every class, for the sake of demonstration, our teacher does a lot of the process for us, and I’m starting to understand more and more, that we are expected to practice at home. The family of three, who is in the class, produced glass jewelry prior to joining the metals class and had a lot of the equipment before. They’ve supplemented the missing tools and come to class with tons of examples of their trials from the skills we’ve learned in classes before. It makes me feel like a bit of a lazy student and to tell you the truth, I would love to be able to practice at home. One issue is space and the other issue is buying the equipment, which I would be willing to do, except that everything here runs on a different voltage than in the US. That just means that I would either have to sell the equipment I buy here, or that I would buy an adapter once I move back to the US. The idea of setting up a small workshop at home sounds incredible, though. And judging from the pace of the class, necessary. Still, I always feel like I can’t quite claim the pieces as my own. “Wow! You made those!!” people will say, and I sheepishly admit that most of the credit belongs to my teacher. Still, I am learning an amazing amount of skills that I never touched on in the years that I took jewelry classes in the US, and for that, I am extremely grateful.
The process for making the hollow silver balls was like this. Cut four circles of equal diameter. Glue the pairs together to file and sand the edges, so that they are a true and even pair. Heat the circles and begin to dome them- they will separate at this point. Dome each of the circles in an even fashion. Keep half-domes inside the doming tool to file down the edges. When the pairs fit together, perfectly, the filing is complete. The next stop is soldering. In other classes that I took, soldering was a long and painful process, where we had to put chips of solder on the piece, heat those first, then put the second piece of metal on top of the partially melted solder, and heat it once again. In this class, the process is so much faster, and our teacher makes it look like a breeze. He has long pieces of solder that he heats. As soon as the heat touches them, they ball up, and he places them on the surface that he wants to join. After that, he heats it a little more and the solder flows, filling in the joints completely. It really needs very little prodding and seems to follow a completely natural course.
Our teacher soldered our half-domes one pair at a time, dropping each down on the workbench when they were finished. They rolled around, looking like newly finished planets finding their orbits, created from some of the basic building blocks of the universe- heat and metal. How incredible that we can’t help but replicate the forces that surround us to create beautiful and intricate things.
After dropping them in what we call the “pickle” in the US (haven’t figured out what it’s called in Turkish yet), our teacher drilled two holes in each ball, where we stuck one longer wire (7cm) and one shorter wire (4.5 cm). These were also soldered into the balls and became the ear wires and hooks. Finally, our teacher, gave each of the balls a matte finish, and I have to say that they were really stunning earrings. Simple, yet luminous and classy.
Midway through the class, we took our usual break and I shared the hazelnut cake I’d made. Every week, someone takes the charge of bringing or making something new. Even if I still couldn’t understand much Turkish and missed a lot of the dialogue, it still felt great to be a part of the class and a part of this center. Being there, I simply felt happy. I felt blessed to be surrounded by such lovely and welcoming people, and completely tuned out the stresses and uncertainties, that had been starting to make themselves a little too at home in my head. As small as a moment as this was, perhaps this is why I came to Istanbul- to learn to find joy and contentment in the smaller things, and not to constantly question and doubt the path I am on. So I don’t have the most stimulating job in the world and have had quite a bumpy adjustment period here in Istanbul. Life is still in full swing around me. And, like metalsmithing, life is a dance… and I don’t want to miss my chance on the dance floor.