Christmas: Scent of Seattle in Asia Minor
Tree, Cards & Coffee
Shortly before Christmas at the post office on an air base in Turkey I picked up a cardboard box the size of a fire hydrant, and back at our house found an item wrapped in wet burlap and plastic, maybe sent illegally, but not drugs or looted antiquities.
It was a Christmas tree.
(Above: Christmas tree, birds, ornaments, ashtray and pack of smokes. I gave up cigarettes long ago by, well, just stopping.)
Nowadays groups send Christmas trees to the troops overseas, but we wondered if my parents had tromped on half-a-dozen international laws by mailing a living fir from my old home just across Puget Sound from Seattle. We took a deep breath and thought: Don't worry about it.
It smelled like the Pacific Northwest.
Anything smacking of Christmas, or what it's nominally about, at the mall, e.g., Christianity, was hard to find in a nation that was, and is, 99 percent Muslim. The streets of Izmir were not draped in lights, nor were store windows alive with Santas and toys and miniature villages with kids skating outside the ice cream Parlor.
The plus side: We were not bombarded by Christmas carols starting on Black Friday.
We lived there for two years, my wife and I, when I was the Air Force and stationed at Cigli Air Base in Izmir, then at Incirlik outside Adana. That first December we scrounged up pine cones outside Alexander’s Castle overlooking Izmir and its bay, and built in the 3rd century BC.
We think Fort Sumter's old.
Some local kids tried in vain to get us more pine cones by knocking them out of trees with slingshots … but pine cones are hard to hit.
We’d been married a little over a year, and had exactly two ornaments. We bought a few dinky birds and a string of lights at the base exchange, and put the tree on the coffee table wife had kept from her single years. That and a table and chairs and two skimpy sofas were the few bits of furniture we owned. And a record player.
That evening, as lights glowed on the branches and we played "Silent Night" and "Little Drummer Boy," a camel train, bells clanking, plodded by outside our living room.
(Afternoon: Camel, camel driver, donkey and base housing.)
In Turkey, unlike some Muslim states of hijabs and misogyny, Christianity chugged along, as did Judaism and even the Jehovah's Witnesses. A guy at a furniture-rental place in town was a Jehovah Witness, but I doubt he turned up at many doorsteps. And anyone proselytizing for Jesus, as young airmen occasionally did, was picked up and taken to the American air base to be flown home.
Around the same time, when the Italian priest at a Catholic church in town ran a wire to an overhead phone line so he could get incoming calls, the cops just shrugged. It helped that he had often treated them to food and drink at the rectory.
Even though the country had little or no TV back then, the young people in Izmir and Istanbul were as hip as any in Paris or London.
Now for the Cards & Coffee.
I’ve drawn family Christmas cards since I was a kid, starting before the Age of Kinko’s and The Modern Photoshop Era.
The first few cards were grade-school jobs for my folks to mail out, and they looked like it. Over the past few decades, I've drawn them for my own family. That included two when my wife and I were in Turkey. I finished the second after we'd moved to Incirlik down near the Mediterranean.
Then I couldn’t find a print shop.
Before going in the service, I’d drawn cartoons for my college newspaper, and worked one summer at a small daily near Seattle, so I did the logical thing: I hit up the local paper.
Conducting business in Turkey means following etiquette. I’d studied Turkish before leaving the States, and knew enough to discuss at least the weather. The editor of the newspaper in Adana, Vatandash (“Compatriot”) and I drank tiny cups of thick, strong coffee (I took mine orta shekerly (“medium sweet”). We smoked cigarettes (my Winstons), and I handed him my drawing.
A few days later I returned to the newspaper on a cold, damp morning. The editor and I sat in his office, drank more coffee and smoked more of my Winstons. Then he handed me my cards, all printed and folded.
I thanked him and asked how much.
“Nothing,” he said in Turkish, holding out his hands. “This is a present from Vatandash newspaper. Iyi Noeller. Iyi tatiller. Yeni yiliniz kutlu olson -- Merry Christmas. Happy Holidays. Happy New Year."
No camels this time, but as I left the paper a shepherd was moving his flock down the street.
I recently heard that sadly, like many papers here, Vantandash has closed.
Luckily for me, the magazine Pittsburgh Quarterly is going strong, and gives me a spot to do a few cartoons. They’re not political, but certainly can be as seasonal, such as this one, all warm and cuddly:
Many thanks for reading, and have a happy Christmas and holiday season here, there and maybe even in Turkey.