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The Dispatch Monthly Mailbag with Charlotte Lawson
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The Dispatch Monthly Mailbag with Charlotte Lawson

Charlotte responds to questions from members about the University of Virginia, classic rock, and life in Turkey.

Dear Dispatch members,

Thank you all so much for your thoughtful questions (and musical recommendations). It was great to learn that I’m in the good company of other classic rock listeners and University of Virginia fans. Hope you enjoy reading my answers as much as I enjoyed writing them!

Ben Connelly and Tristangodbold asked about my time at the University of Virginia.

Thank you for the chance to walk down memory lane! I graduated from UVA in 2020, so the last few months of my fourth year were cut short by COVID-19. But I was lucky to have a great 3.75 years at Mr. Jefferson’s university.

I got my first glimpses of Grounds (UVA’s campus) as a high school student visiting my older sister, who, as in most things, beat me to the punch by four years. I knew I had a soft spot for the university almost instantly. It’s beautiful—Thomas Jefferson’s own vision for an academic community nestled in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains—and its student body exudes enthusiasm and an eagerness to learn. The phrase “work hard, play hard” has perhaps never found a truer application than at UVA.

My fondest memory was the spring of 2019, when our men’s basketball team advanced through March Madness in a series of narrow victories to win the whole thing against Texas Tech in overtime. (It was quite the comeback story after UVA’s men’s team made history in 2018 as the only No. 1 seed to lose to its No. 16 challenger in the first round of the NCAA tournament.) The whole semester was a rush. After each win, everyone flooded the streets of “the Corner”—a few blocks lined with student-dominated bars and restaurants—to celebrate together.

A year after our online commencement, the class of 2020 came back to Charlottesville in May 2021 to do graduation right. In true UVA tradition, we marched up the lawn—the center of Jefferson’s Academical Village—carrying colorful balloons to help friends and family pick us out of the crowd. It was a great opportunity to reconnect with friends after a year of semi-isolation and a special way to put a (silly tassel) cap on an amazing college experience.

Graduation was also a great chance to spend time with my good friend, Audrey Fahlberg. We got to know each other writing for UVA’s student newspaper, both started at The Dispatch in June 2020, and the rest is history!

Dave Carson: Merhaba, Charlotte! How did you like Turkey? What was your favorite dish and what was the strangest thing you saw or experienced there? Did you get to do any touristy things?

Nikki Hudson: If a person were only in Istanbul for a day or two, what would you recommend they see, do or eat?

Merhaba! I have so many recommendations but first things first: food. Turkey is a large, culturally diverse country and its cuisine reflects that. Fortunately, Istanbul’s vibrant restaurant scene affords a taste of regional fare from across Turkey (though locals would argue that it doesn’t hold a candle to their grandmother’s cooking). 

Take my favorite dish, kofte (meatballs). It can be made from beef, lamb, chicken, or a combination, and comes in all different shapes and sizes. Some kofte are reminiscent of a Persian koobideh kabob, while others are served with tomato sauce and taste more like their southern Italian cousin. My go-to restaurant is an unassuming little diner in Beyoglu where you can get a hearty serving of meatballs, bulgur rice, and bread for just 50 Turkish Lira, about $2.70. 

If you want to try something less familiar to the American palate, kokoretsi is a good choice. Lamb intestines are wrapped tightly around an offal—a mishmash of other organ meats—and slow-roasted over a charcoal grill. Folks around here usually eat kokoretsi as a sandwich after a night of drinking to soak up the alcohol. 

There’s no shortage of places to see in Istanbul, but I’m partial to the area around the Galata Tower. The historical Genoese neighborhood is full of cobblestoned side streets with cafés, vintage shopping, cozy pubs, and record stores. My favorite spot is a local jazz club called Nardis, where talented musicians—well-known and up-and-coming—perform nightly. Further up the coast is Bebek, a quieter neighborhood with panoramic views of the Bosphorus and fresh seafood.

JohnM, Honest Ape, Joe Schueller, and Rob W had questions about my favorite concerts.

A quick disclaimer: As a child of the late ‘90s, I missed the heyday of classic rock. It would’ve been a dream to see the Grateful Dead with its front man Jerry Garcia or Fleetwood Mac before the drugs and divorce drama, for instance. But I’m lucky to have parents who passed down their love for live music and started bringing me along to shows as soon as I was old enough to appreciate them. Here are a few of my favorite concerts to date: 

  • Bob Dylan, Charleston, South Carolina: My dad got me tickets to see Dylan as a surprise birthday present in April 2015. What a show. The white suit, cowboy hat-clad 74-year-old was all groove and energy through a setlist of deep cuts and classics. His performance of “Tangled Up in Blue” sticks with me to this day. (Blood on the Tracks is, in my opinion, one of the greatest albums of all time.) 
  • The Black Keys, Greenville, South Carolina: As far as more contemporary rock goes, Dan Auerbach and Pat Carney are my gold standard. I first saw the duo in 2014 during their tour for Turn Blue—a somewhat controversial record at the time because of its pop-inspired sound. But I thought the album and the show were top-notch: the bluesy and instrumental material fans had come to expect from the band with a newer, psychedelic twist. 
  • Fleetwood Mac, Washington, D.C.: This was a special one. My college roommate and I saw Stevie Nicks during her solo tour in 2017 and Fleetwood Mac in 2018. The lead singer of Crowded House, Neil Finn, subbed in for Lindsey Buckingham as lead guitarist and male vocals, and the band sang “Free Fallin’” in a tribute to Tom Petty that left the entire audience in tears. 

Adam.Zerda and Angie wanted to know more about reporting from overseas and how I get a feel for new countries. 

I’ll approach this topic with lots of humility because I’m admittedly new to this. For context, I first came to Istanbul in late September, detoured up to Warsaw, Poland on October 1, and returned to Turkey two weeks later. 

As with reporting anywhere, I’ve learned the most just by talking to people. But being abroad is particularly valuable because every conversation, whether it’s with experts or government officials or friends or strangers, offers new insight into how people think about the United States’ role in the world and what informs those opinions. Unsurprisingly, the takeaways from these discussions vary a lot depending on who I’m talking to and where I am. 

In Warsaw I encountered the most staunchly pro-NATO—and by extension, pro-U.S.—ethos of any place I’ve visited. Where in other countries foreign policy is often shaped by political rivalries and domestic policy debates, Poland’s leaders and lawmakers are uniformly dedicated to becoming a major player in the military alliance (no doubt informed by the existential threat posed by an expansionist Russian regime on their borders). National security through transatlantic unity remains the number one priority. 

Turkey is a more complicated story. During my two months in Istanbul I’ve experienced an earthquake, witnessed a police crackdown on women’s rights protesters, followed the lead-up to a pivotal election in an imperiled democratic system, and covered a terrorist attack blocks away from my apartment. Through it all has been a palpable sense of anxiety over Turkey’s precarious historical and geopolitical position, and, with it, brewing anti-Western sentiment. 

Showing their hand has never ended well for Turkish sovereigns—siding with Germany during World War I dealt the deathblow to the Ottoman Empire, for instance—which lends some context to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s slow pivot east. But while it’s easy to dismiss this shift as a passing feature of Ankara’s current leadership, animus toward an American-led world order is growing among Turkish people of all political persuasions and should be cause for concern in Washington. 

This trend is an important one but hard to pick up on from outside Turkey, particularly as Erdogan dominates in Western media headlines about the country. It’s hard to overstate the value in talking to people daily to get a sense of what drives their leadership.

Speaking of foreign policy reporting, John D. Wright and Kelly.Lutz8 asked whether I always envisioned a career in journalism and how studying history and global security in college prepared me for my current role. 

For most of college I saw foreign policy and journalism as distinct interests. I became involved in the latter as one of the few (openly) conservative students in my circles at UVA, taking to the opinion section of my student newspaper first year largely in reaction to a left-leaning campus culture. (Even then I was an avid reader of Jonah and David, who were two of my favorite voices in conservatism at a time when I felt increasingly isolated from the movement itself.)

I didn’t seriously consider pursuing journalism as a career until a few years later. I focused on Soviet-era Russia in the history department and the Middle East in my global security program, but envisioned myself going into academia. I didn’t know at the time how useful these concentrations would be in my future reporting. 

Writing my fourth-year thesis on Iranian responses to the U.S. killing of Quds Force Commander Qassem Suleimani in January 2020 gave me my first taste of covering a topic of immediate importance. It also offered a welcome break from the slow pace, archival research I’d grown accustomed to throughout college. For the first time I realized that journalism (not academia), and reporting (not opinion), were my perfect fit. 

My time at The Dispatch has affirmed this realization. With the mentorship of the most talented folks in the industry and support from our readers, I’ve had the opportunity to apply my interests to reporting on important global issues and for that, I am so grateful. 

Charlotte Lawson is a reporter at The Dispatch and currently based in Tel Aviv, Israel. Prior to joining the company in 2020, she studied history and global security at the University of Virginia. When Charlotte is not keeping up with foreign policy and world affairs, she is probably trying to hone her photography skills.