I have a confession to make. In my application for the Erasmus+ Staff Training Week at Koҫ University in Istanbul, I made a promise I didn’t keep. Brimming over with enthusiasm and good intentions, I promised a video blog. I imagined an expertly shot montage of Istanbul, Philip and I in charismatic candid moments, sensitive and illuminating portraits of the people I’d meet, all set to sweeping inspirational music. What I actually achieved in the entire six day trip was a three second video of Philip on the moving walkway at Gatwick airport. Which I can’t even show you here because it’s the wrong way up. Good work Lizzy.
The idea of the Erasmus+ scheme is to promote links and friendships between staff and students all across the European Union. You can travel to another participating university to learn or teach, supported by Erasmus grants for travel and accommodation. In our case, 18 international librarians gathered at Koҫ University in Istanbul from 26th to 30th March to share knowledge, demonstrate best practice and drink large amounts of Turkish coffee.
Our group consisted of library staff from France, Italy, Morocco, Germany, Macedonia, Azerbaijan, China, Canada, Lebanon and of course, Turkey. The working language of the week was English which is lucky considering my French and Spanish is rusty and my Turkish was…non-existent until a few days before we got on the plane and browsed Philip’s phrasebook. On the first afternoon of the trip we were given a crash course in the Turkish language which proved invaluable in our many bumbling attempts to order food in the local suburb where we were staying. The words for ‘receipt’ (makbuz) and ‘thank you’ (teşekkürler) became so much part of our vocabulary that by the end of the week I tried to say teşekkürler to the bemused Brighton bus driver on the way home.
The main aim of the Training Week at Koҫ was to share knowledge, experience and best practice. So that meant presentations, presentations and more presentations. Philip and I worked out that in total over the course of the week we listened to over 30 presentations, themed around various aspects of library work including resource sharing, reference and liaison services, special collections and Open Access, as well as learning about the libraries of the group members all around the world. With a full programme of presentations, networking, museum visits and dinners, the organisers wisely kept us fed and watered with pastries, fruit, sweets and tea and coffee. Which still didn’t stop me crashing out exhausted at 10pm every night.
I was surprised at how easily the group gelled and found common ground despite our varying backgrounds and job roles. I really shouldn’t have been surprised. Library staff tend to be some of the nicest and most accepting people you’ll ever meet, and we all face similar problems. Turns out that the shelf life of staplers is a global issue for librarians. A huge and sprawling WhatsApp group buzzed constantly throughout the day as people uploaded selfies and heart emojis, praise and support for presentations, directions to the bus. A picture of Philip in a funny hat was particularly well received. I felt welcomed and included.
This feeling of welcome and inclusion was needed because in the weeks leading up to the trip I had experienced imposter syndrome – the niggle that I wasn’t good enough for this, not qualified enough, not experienced enough. Philip and I both gave successful presentations during the week, his on the Legacy Collection, mine on the Customer Service Excellence award. Speaking for fifteen minutes to 60 people wearing translation headsets was not something I had ever imagined I would do in my career. The warm encouraging smiles of the group helped me when I glanced out at the audience, my voice trembling slightly. They even laughed at our jokes, the British compulsion to take nothing seriously somehow even stronger when abroad.
Our accommodation was in İstinye, a holiday retreat by the sea for rich Istanbulites with boats, and its distance from the centre and our packed itinerary meant that we didn’t have much time to explore. But what we did see of Istanbul made me promise myself I would return one day. The weather had been cold and foggy and drizzly all week but on Friday the sun burst out to reveal a beautiful city straddling two continents – Europe and Asia – divided by a glittering blue sea. Five times a day the city rang with the call to prayer, taxi drivers turning off their radios and winding down their windows to honour the moment. It was as busy and bustling as you’d expect a city with 15 million people to be but also strangely calm and peaceful. The Metro stations were wide and spacious. If you looked confused or lost people came over to help you. There were beautiful tiles, hidden courtyard gardens and a whole cast of alternately imperious and cuddly stray cats all over the city. It’s no wonder that Istanbul is the world’s fifth most popular tourist destination.
The highlight of the trip came on the Friday afternoon where the beautiful weather coincided perfectly with a guided tour of the Sultanahmet district where the majestic Blue Mosque, the dusky pink Hagia Sophia and the intricate Topkapı Palace dominate the landscape. Philip had been the most excited to see the Hagia Sophia out of anything else in the week and had the politeness to only look slightly horrified when I said that I’d never heard of it. The physical vastness of the space inside was impossible to capture in a photo – probably why the majority of visitors were intent on taking a picture of the two celebrity cats who live in the Hagia Sophia. One was petted by Obama on his visit there in 2009 so the cats star in the Instagram feeds of thousands of people. Oh and there was also lots of interesting historical stuff there. There’s a Wikipedia page that can probably do it more justice than I can.
This wouldn’t be a holiday debrief if I didn’t mention food and don’t worry, I’m not going to disappoint. Turkish food focuses mainly on various types of delicious meats and breads so much to the delight of Philip, staying vegetarian is not really an option. He lasted a couple of days on lentils and then gave in to the joys of the kebab. Some highlights – tender, spiced lamb on skewers at a rooftop gala dinner, chewy almond macaroons devoured after a 4 hour walking tour, fresh tomato salads to go with pide, a kind of Turkish pizza, salty corn on the cob from the street vendor, butter dripping down my sleeve in the Grand Bazaar. There were also some not-so-good moments. Turnip juice is as bad as it sounds. Ayran, a salty yoghurt drink, is as good as a salty yoghurt drink can be. A pot noodle in the hotel room is a universally mediocre experience.
The official title of the Training Week was Academic Libraries: Hubs without borders and it was this title that stuck with me during the visit. It is impossible to write about Erasmus+ and the spirit of international collaboration and friendship without feeling the dark shadow of Brexit. Erasmus+ is an EU funded programme designed to promote staff and student mobility between universities in 32 different European countries. It feels like its future is uncertain. Closing our borders and shutting ourselves off from the rest of the world is going to drastically change our university and therefore our library. I couldn’t help but feel a sense of shame run through me during our visit. A need to apologise to our European colleagues, as if I was personally responsible. Meeting new people, working together, forming links and forging friendships – if Erasmus+ no longer exists in post Brexit Britain then it will be harder to do these things. Which is a great shame.
Seeing how the libraries in Turkey work together and form partnerships to share resources was a refreshing change and I got on the plane to return to England full to the brim of ideas and inspiration. Video blog aside, the Erasmus+ training week was a success and a testament to the organisational skills of Koҫ University Library. Philip will be typing up some blog posts with practical ideas and advice learned from our global colleagues, to reassure everyone that we didn’t just spend our time cuddling cats and going out for dinner. We came, we saw, we learned. Teşekkürler Istanbul.