Walk inside the front door of Patt Sirk’s villa in Dawson’s Creek addition, and among the first things you’ll see is a rug-like woven wall hanging in shades of deep orange and wheat with a pattern of multiple roosters in a quilt-square-like arrangement.
A first impression might be that it’s a piece of American folk art. But first impressions can be deceiving.
The origins of this particular piece of home décor are a bit farther afield.
In Azerbaijan, to be precise, where roosters and other perching birds for centuries have been part of traditional designs in this ancient capital of rug-making at the crossroads of Europe and Asia.
The exotic textile is a fitting introduction to the retired East Allen County Schools teacher’s Fort Wayne home, which combines traditional American furnishings with pieces of exotica combed from time spent in the Mideast and travels in China, Spain, Portugal, Nepal, Turkey and Thailand.
Sitting in her den surrounded by items that include a camel blanket that converts to a cradle, a rug from Egypt and a woven white Muslim prayer cap hung from a mantel ornament that replicates the top of a mosque, Sirk tells the story behind one of her treasures – a heavy woven textile with a central floral motif that covers an end table.
When she was teaching in an international school in Doha, the capital of Qatar, she broke her foot, she says.
All my Qatari girls, local girls, they came to see me at my apartment, the petite 65-year-old recalls, her eyes lighting up. They brought me all kinds of foods and presents to make me feel better, and this was one. So when I look at this, I think of them.
She pauses a moment. Sometimes friends wonder about her eclectic décor, she says.
Sometimes I feel like I’m the only one in the world who loves this room, she muses. But it’s really me. It just brings me joy because it reminds me of all the experiences I’ve had – and all the people.
Sirk says she caught the international bug in earnest after she retired as a middle-school science teacher in 2002.
Thinking she’d be done with teaching for while, she nonetheless found out about an opportunity to teach at an exclusive international school in Doha through a brother who had taught in Thailand, Africa and the Mideast.
She initially was apprehensive – it was just a year after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the U.S. was fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. But she decided to go.
Everyone thought I was crazy. Honestly, I would say it was one of the best decisions I ever made. It was very rewarding. I have the greatest memories of what I was able to do as an educator, she says.
After some health problems brought her back to the States, in 2007, she decided sign on as a consultant with a company seeking to improve teaching standards in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates. She worked with teachers at an all-girl school there.
What she calls her plain-looking villa was built while she was overseas. She had the chance to pick her own finishes and colors, she says, but she didn’t do much about decorating it until she returned from Abu Dhabi in 2010.
But she always had her eye out for things to bring home to complement her color scheme of golden-yellow walls, wheat-toned flooring and cranberry, green and navy accents. The inspiration may well have been the fall colors in the view outside the floor-to-ceiling windows that back the living room.
This carpet I shipped in from a little carpet store called Indigo in Cappadocia in Turkey where I was on vacation, Sirk says of the Afghanistan-made area rug in her great room.
I had been looking for something with reds and yellows and hadn’t found it in Doha, but I thought this was perfect.
Similar colors are in another rug made in Afghanistan nearby and a silk patterned rug from Kashmir in a hallway. She found that rug in Chaing Mai in Thailand.
She has visited that country five times, and, she says, had the honor riding an elephant in a village where they were raised.
She brought home a stunning elephant-decorated vessel as a remembrance.
The rooster-patterned hanging was found in a carpet shop in Abu Dhabi, while a rug-like hanging over her sofa in her den was brought back from her most recent trip, to Egypt, earlier this year.
She went because she was invited to the wedding of one of her students from the international school.
Sirk, who studied college-level interior design, confesses to having a weakness for textiles.
But she’s also collected other items, including artwork – a hand-penned Tibetan mandala from Nepal, prints of architectural scenes from Doha grouped in her den over the two-way fireplace.
She has a collection of ornamental birdcages from Thailand and the Mideast, and Majolica ware from Portgual.
An octagonal wooden wedding basket from China sits on a living room side table and nesting baskets line one side of the den’s fireplace.
She found the nesting baskets in a bustling night-time market in Shanghai, where they sell everything, food, items they make by hand. I love the markets! she says, adding she went to China for a student conference sponsored by the United Nations to which some of her international school charges had been invited.
A collection of Starbucks coffee mugs from the cities and countries she’s visited line one of her kitchen cupboards.
When Sirk first went to Doha, she thought she might get homesick, so she took some traditional American quilt hangings with her to decorate her apartment – including an American flag she hung in her hallway.
Now that she’s back in the United States, she misses her surroundings abroad. She laughs and says one of her more unusual souvenirs is an alarm clock that sounds the Muslim call to prayer. You get used to hearing it five times a day, she says.
But especially she misses the people, she’s met.
Some of them – her long-time Pakistani taxi driver in Abu Dhabi, her hosts at a trekking hostel in Nepal and her Egyptian student and her family – are kept nearby in picture frames.
I have all of these connections, she says, adding she keeps in touch via Skype, e-mail and Facebook.
I’m actually Facebook friends with the Emir’s son in Abu Dhabi, Sirk says, adding she tutored the boy for a while.
How many 65-year-old Americans can say that?