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Christmas in Turkey – Expat Style!

After an amazing blowout Christmas where the whole family was together last year, this year I felt a little lonely and out of the Christmas spirit.  So, throughout the month of December, I did little things to mimic our family traditions as best as I could with limited resources and people in a non-Christmas country.

I spent an afternoon decorating my house, baking chocolate chip cookies, and listening to Christmas music via the (it also has a collection of Paul Harvey stories).

I started collecting Christmas decorations when I lived in a cold, modern apartment in Bahrain, another Muslim country, and it’s grown over the years.  Unfortunately, although I have a couple of small, decorative trees, I don’t have anything sized like I think “the tree” should be.  Even after I gave up the hope of finding a live tree in Ankara, I couldn’t even find a decent fake one this year and settled for a sad Charlie Brown “living room pine” that unfortunately was too weak to hold much in the way of ornamentation.  So to use the rest of the ornaments, I hung some kitchen twine on the dining room wall and tied a bunch of strings to it.  Now I realize that it would have been a lot more festive with colored ribbon, but I enjoy seeing the ornaments anyhow, and the wall looks so much better than it did empty.

Cookie baking wasn’t successful.  I’m still getting to know my oven, which reads temperature in Celsius.  In between each 50 degrees are 3 hashmarks, making choosing a temperature all the more challenging: 400 F is 204 C, so I turn the knob to slightly over the “2” and hope for the best.  I also discovered that American sized cookie sheets don’t fit into my European sized oven, and thereby learned forever more to check a pan or sheet for oven clearance before I load it with food!  I only have one rack in my oven – the other levels are basically pans that fit into the shelf tracks.  I used the couple half-sheets that I have, as well as a silpat liner right on the rack, which resulted in different types of cookies from each oven level.  Some cookies were so burnt that they went right into the trash, and others were so undercooked that they stayed in the oven almost twice as long.  In the end, I had about half as many cookies as the recipe intended.  I brought most of the good ones to share with my classmates.

This month I also joined an international women’s choir.  They mostly sing Turkish folk songs, so I thought it would be another way to learn the language and get to know the culture.  In December the choir had a couple of performances scheduled, though, so we added in some Christmas carols.  I can’t really sing, but nobody seems to care.  There’s a rumor that we might be on TV next month – I’ll definitely let you know how that goes!

I spent most of Christmas Eve practicing a presentation I had to give in class on Tuesday night, but I did take breaks to watch my two favorite Christmas movies: White Christmas and A Christmas Story, and to get a little religious.  Since my family always goes to Midnight Mass together, I came as close to this tradition as possible by attending the only Christmas Eve mass in Ankara at the Vatican Embassy’s chapel, which is right in my neighborhood.   This was a true expat celebration.  Starting with the carols before mass, everything was multilingual.  Although I couldn’t keep up with the Latin, French, and Tagalog verses of O Come All Ye Faithful, I joined the choir in the final verse for a strong English finish.  Everybody prayed the Our Father aloud in his or her native tongue; and each reading was in a different language.  Even for a Chreaster like me, the great thing about Catholic mass is that regardless of the language, the program and even the cadences are the same all over the world, so even if you don’t know what’s being said you have a pretty good idea of what’s going on – when you’re homesick it can be very comforting.  My favorite part of the mass was the offering procession: accompanied by an energetic, uplifting Kenyan song, the procession danced down to the altar instead of the normal grave advance.

On Christmas Day, I went to a friend’s home for a traditional Danish Christmas lunch with some Turks and a Mexican.  We all shared a few of our country’s holiday traditions, and although I’ve mastered Merry Christmas in Spanish (Feliz Navidad) and Turkish (Mutlu Noel), even one day later I can’t remember how to say it in Danish.  Some of the spread: chicken liver pate with bacon (a rare treat here) on top, traditional Danish rye bread, pork salami, pickled asparagus on smoked salmon, broccoli salad and a cabbage noodle dish.  After lunch, we played a Christmas gift game where you throw dice and keep stealing each other’s presents – kind of like the Yankee Swap but a little less fair.  I managed to hold on to one gift at the end – it’s a Danish Christmas craft kit.  Luckily there are pictures on the package to go along with the instructions in Danish.

For me, the biggest part of December 25th had nothing to do with Christmas at all.  I had to give a presentation in Turkish to my classmates on Masculinity and Power in two ancient books: Nizamülmülk’s Siyasetname (Political Treatises) and Narayan’s Hitopadeşa (I just realized that I never learned what that title means in English).  I think drinking a few glasses of wine at the Danish lunch put me in the right spirit to give the presentation, and then when a classmate who read my blog entry about milk gave me a tetra-pak of Turkish UHT milk as a Christmas present, I was so happy that I wasn’t nervous anymore.  Although I tripped over a few words, the presentation went a lot better than I thought it would.  I think my professor’s and classmates’ expectations are low, however, as I got a lot of applause and very few questions.  With the exception of robotically looking up from my script occasionally, I basically just read the class a ten-page paper.  Hopefully in the upcoming semester I’ll be a little more nuanced with my presentations.

On the way home from class, I saw a lot of New Year’s Trees standing proud in apartment windows, which I equated with my family’s post-mass Christmas-light viewing drive.  I was so happy to get home and start what turned into a marathon skyping session with my family – by the time I talked to everybody it was nearly 5 a.m.  Since this year we’re all over the world, however, it was worth it!

One Comment Post a comment
  1. Patrick Redmon #

    Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you, Sarah! No kidding about the “Charlie Brown” Christmas tree! (ha ha) I was teaching Olivia (age 10) all about the origins of that adjective just a week or so ago while watching the original cartoon. She told me that “I’ve heard Mom use that phrase before but didn’t quite get it.” I will share this blog entry with her so she can see that everyone uses the term – even in Turkey! 🙂

    Your Christmas actually sounded like quite the adventure and kept you from feeling too homesick. I chuckled at your use of the term “Chreaster,” too! [I’ll let you explain that one to those who are not of the “bead jiggler” persuasion.] And singing in a choir to boot? Impressive indeed! And it sounds like the most important part of the week – the big semester presentation – went well. 🙂 Hard to believe that you’ve been hooking and jabbing in Ankara for more than 6 months now, huh? Doing a wonderful job, Sarah, and keep up the blogs. Be safe, be careful and enjoy the New Year’s weekend.

    December 27, 2012

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