Sunday 17 August 2014


It is all so long ago. With my two week event horizon, 15 years seems impossibly far away.  But back then, rather than being a humble foot-soldier of science teaching in a modest Institute of Technology in the Irish Midlands, I was an international quangoman, clocking up air-miles and nicking teaspoons from a wide range of different airlines. I achieved this by being in the right place at the right time, becoming the Irish node of a European consortium that provided bioinformatics infrastructure, developed software and offered training courses. It was a classic EU initiative - equilibrating upwards so that the marginal edges of Europe got closer to the military-industrial-capitalist rich countries at the hub. Closer economically but also closer socially, so that Calabrians from Italy could meet Cantabrians from Spain at the Universitas Cantabrigiensis (as us classically educated chaps call Cambridge) in England.  I was famous in three continents back then on the back of As Easy as ABC Aoife's Bioinformatics Course which I had developed with Aoife McLysaght before she was famous herself. This time last year, I was remembering the courses I was asked to teach in South Africa, which enabled us to celebrate Dau.I's 6th birthday sipping ice-cold chardonnay on the top of Table Mountain.

But a few months earlier, I'd been doing the same thing in Turkey. I don't think the Turks are going to be joining the EU any time soon with the Greeks insisting that they don't drink Turkish coffee like the rest of us but rather the indistiguishable ελληνικού καφέ. Nevertheless, the Turks joined our bioinformatics quango and were quickly allocated money to run a training course in their country.  A handful of the top guns in the field, and little-old-me, were asked if they'd like to spend a week in Turkey at someone else's expense. The course was organised in the early part of 1999 to take place at the end of September. At 0300hrs on 17th August 1999, there was a tremendous earthquake, epicentered on Izmit, a biggish city (300,000 pop) 100km East of Istanbul.  It would have been legitimate, even easy, to cancel the course, but the Turks don't wimp out at the first hint of trouble, so we were told to come on anyway.  We yabancılar were to be accommodated in the über-swish brand-new private Sabanci University which was just about to take in its very first students, while the course itself was to take place in the neighbouring Gebze Yüksek Teknoloji Enstitüsü. Both these places are about halfway between Izmit and Istanbul, so we spent a lot of time in a minibus tooling from the üniversite to enstitüsü to seaside taverna for lunch and back again. We also spent many hours tooling around the world of bioinformatics because Gebze IT had an undamaged computer suite. What we didn't do is spend a lot of time tooling around the internet because the earthquake had severed all the phone-lines and it was like being back in 1992 downloading packets at 300 bps. In the last ten minutes each day before being whisked off for dinner somewhere interesting and delicious, I'd try to send an e-mail home. It was painful - the glacial speed of the connexion coupled with the Turkish keyboard rich in diacritics, accents and funny letters made it  v e r y   s l o w.

On the Thursday, we knocked off early and minibussed into Byzantium to see Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque.  It was, for me, a pilgrimage to be walking on the same beat-up paving that Emperor Constantine XI (Κωνσταντῖνος Παλαιολόγος) trod during the final mass before the Ottoman Turks sacked his city on 29th May 1465 and finally ended the "Roman" empire. We went for dinner afterwards at a little restaurant in a narrow street somewhere in the city. Opposite was a small hotel and, before we minibussed back to bed, I had booked two nights there for the following weekend. It was far better, even on my own nickel, than spending two nights virtually alone in the empty campus at Sabanci U.  I spent Saturday wandering around a huge covered market buying star & crescent tee-shirts and diamante Turkish slippers for my girls, and cushion covers for the sofa and a box of Turkish delight for The Beloved.  Irish pounds (this was just before the Euro) were a lot harder than Turkish pounds so everything seemed to be for half nothing.

The last day, when I made my way to the airport, I still had a Turkish lira symbol black.svg100,000 note left. I thought about buying a bottle of plonk but that would have left me with a handful of truly useless change, so I resolved to send it to the impoverished graduate students who had helped out on the course. When I got home I forgot to do this and the banknote went into a drawer with all the kroner, rand, escudos, finnmarks that we all used to accumulate back then (huzzah for the Euro!).  Sometime about 2004, I took all the foreign folding money (mostly replaced by Euros) to the bank to get what I could for it. I think I came out with a about €20. But I still had the Turkish lira symbol black.svg100,000 note because it was now, after 4-5 years of gallopping inflation in Turkey, worth 17c and the bank couldn't be bothered with the exchange.

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