Christmas is not officially observed in Turkey, since it is a Muslim country. Still, Istanbullus like the bright ornaments of the season. The glow of the streaming, colored lights adorn many streets, and you’ll even find Christmas trees standing in the plazas. For Istanbullus, the festive decorations are there to ring in the New Year.
Our school was closed for two days. On Christmas morning I woke up around noon. Outside it was a crystal-clear sunny day. Alex, one of the teachers, was having a party at his flat in Yeldeğiremi, an old Jewish-Armenian neighborhood in Kadikoy.
It was my old stomping grounds actually. On my way to Alex’s, I enjoyed having a look at the neighorhood again. These days Yeldeğirmeni is in the process of revitalization. A lot of the streets have been torn up and redone over the past year, for instance. Still, most of the buildings, the tenaments, are very old are not devoid of Ottoman charm. My Turkish friends tell me that in a few years time, gentrification will probably catch up, and most of these buildings will be renovated and transformed into high-end apartments. And why not? The location is fantastic. Just down the hill the ferry boats of the Bosphorous steam by, and there is a clear view of the Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque.
But for now, the neighborhood is home to mostly working Turkish families, old people and students. A friend of mine rents extensively to European students here on the Erasmus program, so it’s not uncommon, walking through the crowded streets, past the bakkals and fruit markets, to spot Dutch or German or Italian students, not to mention English teachers like yours truly.
Anyway, these thoughts, old memories, flashed through my head as I walked to Alex’s place that sunny morning. I stopped by my old bakkal and said hello to Bulent, one of two Kurdish brothers who operate the store. Bulent let me have some beer and a bottle of red Angorra wine on credit, and wished me Merry Christmas.
Alex’s flat was near the top of an old apartment building overlooking the crowded street where all the taxis and minibuses pass on their way to Uskudar and Fenerbahce. It was a bright, cheery flat. A few of the teachers were already there: Clare, a vivacious girl from Canada; May, from San Francisco; Corydon, from Texas via New York City, where he had studied acting before becoming a teacher; Robert, close friends with Alex (they were close friends in England and had taught in Mexico before coming to Istanbul). There was another guy who lived at the flat who introduced himself as Quentin. He was from Marseilles in France, and was studying political science at one of the universities in Istanbul. All of them were in their early to mid-twenties.
When I arrived, they had just finished breakfast and were sitting idly chatting and listening to music on Alex’s laptop. May was sitting on the bare floor making Christmas hats from colored paper. Loose garlands lay here and there, waiting to adorn the walls when anyone got the initiative.
Everyone greeted me, and I handed Alex the bottle of wine, which he took into the kitchen. Quentin gave me a a cup of a hot, sweet-tasting Turkish beverage served with lots of cinammon.
It felt really early, with all that bright sunshine spilling into the flat. Presently, Clare introduced this word game called Snatch, and everybody (except me, I sat and watched) got on the bare wooden floor and played. Clare won easily.
After that it was time to go shopping for the evening meal. We split into three teams, Team Heat, Team Meat and Team Vegetable. Team Heat, consisting of May, Corydon and Robert, were to go to May’s flat down the road and bring back her small, portable oven. The rest of us, Team Meat and Team Vegetable, were assigned the task of getting the food. We would all reconnoiter downstairs in front of Alex’s building.
Actually everything went smoothly. We found a place in the neighborhood that sold freshly roasted chickens that hung on display in the window. We bought five whole chickens (Alex tipped the man an extra 5 lira), then headed over to a local supermarket, where we stocked up on cabbage, leeks, potatoes, carrots and green beans.
We must have stood out – a group of well-dressed, festive-minded foreigners – for people in the streets all waved and smiled at us. For Turks, after all, it was just another Tuesday. While we were getting the vegetables, this one little old man, with a dapper black suit and white beard, showed his approval of us by offering to let us use his grocery basket (We kindly refused, and Alex went in to get us another one).
Our provisions in hand, we headed back.
“Somehow it doesn’t seem right – not eating turkey for Christmas,” Alex said. “But chicken’ll have to do.”
“Do you always eat Turkey at Christmas?” I think Quentin asked.
“In my house they always alternated,” I said. “Ham one year, turkey the next.”
“We have turkey every year,” Clare said.
We went on, talking this way, of Christmas traditions, until we reached the flat. Actually I found myself hanging back and chatting with Quentin. In addition to his studies, he was doing an internship at a local trade publication. I’d visited Paris some years before, and we talked about that a little too, and about living in Istanbul.
Anyway, our timing was perfect, for just as we arrived at Alex’s Team Meat arrived with the oven. Corydon was carrying the small oven, a triumphant grin on his face. Excited now, we all headed upstairs. The food was carried into the kitchen, and the preparations began in the small kitchen.
Meanwhile, out in the living room, I cracked open a bottle of Efes and found some Gypsy Kings on Alex’s iTunes. Soon the flat was filled with the sound of “Bamboleo.” At May’s insistence, the task of decorating the flat began in earnest. Clare and Corydon took care of most of that. By the time the food was ready, the living room had been transformed: silver and gold garlands hung from every angle, and Corydon on his own initiative had draped candy canes from the doorway.
During most of this I think I just drank beer and talked with Quentin. Jessica, an American girl from Florida, arrived. She was an old friend who was teaching at another school in the city. We had enough booze in the place (wine, beer, whiskey, Turkish raki) to get a whole regiment drunk. Anyway, with the food and decorations done, it was time to eat. The meal was delicious – although our only disagreement, a small one, came over the issue of salt. The English tend to go easy on the salt, the North Americans heavier, we found, especially when it comes to potatoes. Other than that, everyone settled in the living room and ate more than enough.
By the time we finished eating, it was early evening and more people arrived. They helped themselves to some of the food and drink. More bottles of wine were opened, and the music kept going. Soon a game of Twister got under way, and after that another game of Snatch.
At one point, while we were eating dinner, Alex’s family Skype called him from England, and we all exchanged long-distance holiday greetings.
I think I was the only smoker at the party (except for Corydon, but he didn’t smoke as much as I did). There was a balcony in one of the back rooms, so from time to time I would retire alone and go sit out on the balcony, glass in wine in hand, and smoke. It was bright, moonlit night. Outside below there was a nice green area, like a garden, with walls separating the different properties. Handsome cats sat on the walls in the moonlight, listening to the imam when the final call to prayer came.
It was an odd feeling, to be listening to the sound of the ezan while, inside the flat, we were celebrating Christmas. Again, as I have so many times since arriving in the city three years ago, I reflected on the vastness of the city, and of the tolerance of the city toward foreigners in general. I thought again of the old man at the market earlier in the afternoon, and the other people who had greeted us in the streets, and about how much trouble my colleagues had gone through to put this evening together. In that feline moonlight, the whole world seemed a warmer, brighter place. Istanbul can be a lonely city at times, especially if you are a foreigner and unattached. For all of us, home was far away, after all. But that evening, at the party, it didn’t seem so. Not so much anyway.
James Tressler was a reporter for The Times-Standard. His books, including “Conversations in Prague,” and “The Trumpet Fisherman and Other Istanbul Stories,” are available at Amazon.com and Lulu.com. He lives in Istanbul.