60. A Christmas Turkey in Turkey

60. A Christmas Turkey in Turkey

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Christmas in Canada

A Christmas Turkey in Turkey

Christmas is a necessity. There has to be at least one day of the year to remind us that we’re here for something else besides ourselves.

~Eric Sevareid

When you are in a foreign country, especially one predominantly Muslim, December 25th is a working day. I was working as a teacher in Istanbul, and all the English, American and Canadian teachers told our boss we’d be calling in sick if we didn’t get the day off. We had to somehow convince him that this was serious, indeed. He reluctantly relented and gave us the day off — without pay!

There were Christmas decorations in some of the streets, but the hotels and restaurants weren’t celebrating and no special banquets were prepared that I knew of. The only solution was to try and create a Canadian Christmas in Turkey. I polled my friends and colleagues to see who would be interested in chipping in and coming to my place for Christmas dinner. Many were, so the game was on. All I had to do was plan the event.

To put everyone in the Christmas mood I went searching for a tree. The best I could find was an artificial one that looked like it was on life support — a Charlie Brown Christmas tree. It went up in a few seconds, and I left it in the hands of a friend to decorate. I figured the right person could make my tree look good — and she did. Wanting to make sure everyone got a gift, I scurried around getting little trinkets I thought my guests could use.

With guests coming to dinner I wanted a turkey. Just in case you wondered, a turkey isn’t called a turkey in Turkey. It’s called a hindi, and finding one in Turkey was a bit of a challenge. I trundled off to the local supermarket to get my bird. It should be noted that I don’t speak Turkish and the butcher didn’t speak English, but I did know that a turkey is a hindi. I boldly walked up to the meat counter and said “hindi.” Like somebody getting his photo for a passport, the response was a blank, expressionless stare. Perhaps if I said it louder. “HINDI!” I bellowed, but got the same result. I paused. What was the next strategy? As the butcher turned to walk away from this foreigner, I decided to say the word over and over, each time varying the pitch, expression and pronunciation of the word. “Hindi, hindi, hindi, hindi,” I rattled off in succession. They all sounded the same to me, but one must have clicked. Like a motor starting on a cold morning, his eyes suddenly sparked and he nodded, “Ah, hindi!” To this day I swear he said it the same way I had, but at that moment, I didn’t care. I was marched toward the appropriate aisle in the store and left to fend for myself.

There were three birds. Which one to choose? I hefted all three birds and listened for a voice from heaven, as if there might be some sign like the star in the east. I finally decided on one that was slightly over ten kilograms. Success!

But buying the turkey was just the beginning. When you rent an unfurnished apartment in Turkey it is totally empty. I had managed to buy a fridge and some burners, but there was no oven. A friend of mine, Izzy, mentioned that a bakery near him had cooked his Thanksgiving turkey for free. I could do the same. So I headed to the bakery where I usually bought my bread. My only previous conversation with the owner had been, “Bir ekmek, lutfen,” which means “one bread please.” How was I to explain to him what I needed?

When you visit another culture, shyness doesn’t work. So, digging deep into my charades background I did my best to convey my message. I don’t know if he thought I was doing the Chicken Dance or what, but I got that blank look again. Other customers moved away from me. Giving up, I headed to another bakery where I had bought my birthday cake. When I started my Chicken Dance again the owner held up one finger, rushed out in the street and dragged a surprised young man into the store to see my act. More importantly, it turned out he spoke English. Once I explained my situation, the owner smiled and took me back to the first bakery. This owner smiled, too, nodded his head and said, “Hindi.” My problem was solved. I could smell the succulent roasting meat already.

Christmas Day came. To celebrate and clean up for my guests, I decided to get my hair cut. I went to a hair stylist, put my thumb and finger a little apart, and told him to take “a little” off the top. The clippers swooped down on my head like a combine cutting hay and left “a little” stubble. When I remembered that he probably didn’t understand English, I realized I had likely told him to cut my hair very short. “Oh well,” I figured, “it will grow back.”

The next step was to lug the turkey to the bakery. The hills in Istanbul are steep; however, the bakery wasn’t far, only about a hundred metres, and carrying it home would be all downhill. When I entered the bakery the owner smiled as I slid the tray onto the counter. Then he frowned. I soon found out why. His oven was for making bread. My hindi wouldn’t fit in the opening. He started twirling knives, suggesting he cut the bird so it would fit. For me, that was out of the question. Both of us stood there frozen, but for different reasons. He was trying to figure out what I was trying to say. I had ten guests coming in a few hours for a turkey dinner and I didn’t know what to do.

His finger went up. I gasped! He had an idea! Soon he and one of the other employees started punching their cell phones and slamming them onto their ears. The owner had two going at once! Within minutes, he grabbed me by the arm and we charged outside. He had found another bakery that could cook my whole bird. Eureka!

There was one slight problem. The other place was half a kilometre farther from my apartment. It was all downhill to get there, but getting home would be all uphill. However, there wasn’t any other option. I could always take a cab home.

We entered the bakery. The owner took one look at my turkey, laughed and held up four fingers. I was to return later that afternoon. Perfect! Or was it?

At four, I had my rendezvous with my fowl. It looked and smelled delicious! There was also a lot of grease in the pan. After draining most of it in the street, I tried hailing a taxi. I must have looked like a drunk stumbling around with that ten-kilogram bird. They whizzed by as if I didn’t exist. My guests were due to arrive soon so I had no option but to walk my meal home. When I looked at the first hill I gulped. It reminded me of heading up a black diamond ski run, but I pressed on. Halfway up I started screaming! My arms were falling off. The local residents began appearing at their windows to look at this strange man bellowing and walking uphill with a hindi!

I did it! I finally arrived home. My shirt was soaked so I changed quickly and began preparing for the arrival of my guests. Like the Wise Men who arrived at the manger with gifts, I had lugged my turkey from a distant land. Few knew of the sacrifice I made that Christmas. All that mattered was that the apartment was filled with joy that day.

And so it was. Everyone pitched in to help. We ate and drank well. We opened the presents and played the silly games one plays at Christmas. When everyone left, I had a home still warm from the love that had been there, and enough leftover turkey to last me for a month.

Each holiday is unique and special, but last year in Turkey will go down in the books as one of the most memorable.

~John Stevens

St. Marys, Ontario

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