Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Christmas in Turkey, Part I

Ah, the holidays abroad. The time of year when you try to uphold the traditions of your own childhood and culture, both for your children and yourself. We enjoyed our Thanksgiving and even managed a traditional dinner, along with the glee of being able to say “We’re eating Turkey in Turkey!” I, in a fit of childish behavior, had to make the joke right at the beginning of the meal because I couldn’t take the tension of waiting to see who would say it first.

But how to create a Christmas atmosphere for your children while living in a country that is 99.5% Sunni Muslim? Well, as it turned out, we didn’t have to do too much work. Christmas, so to speak, is everywhere in Turkey.

Obviously, the Turks do not celebrate Christmas, but they celebrate New Year’s the exact way we celebrate Christmas – with a tree and presents and St. Nick (I will get to this in another blog posting, but the fat man in a red suit that you know as Santa Claus is actually St. Nicolas, who was, of course, TURKISH. As I mentioned in an earlier posting about the history of Turkey, anything that was important in the ancient world has to do with Turkey.) So there are lighted, elaborately decorated, and to our eyes, “Christmas” trees everywhere – in building lobbies, malls, and city squares. Conveniently, New Year’s is just a week after Christmas, so to our kids, everything was decorated for Christmas. Our apartment building has a tree in the lobby, as does the building next door. All of them are fake, but no matter where you look the spirit of Christmas is here.

But our children have never had their own Christmas tree (for various reasons over the years) and we decided that this year, they would. So began the hunt for a real Christmas tree in Ankara, Turkey. Armed with some vague addresses of where people MAY have bought a tree last year, we set out. After a couple of hours, many liters of gas and no luck, we briefly contemplated a nighttime raid on one of the many lovely coniferous forests in the southern part of the city with a saw and dark clothing, but decided it was not worth being sent home for a felony should we be caught. But lo and behold, as disappointment began to reign, my sister, visiting for the holidays, noticed a bunch of pine trees propped up on the curb a couple of blocks off the Konya highway. A few exits and U-turns later, we actually found what she had spotted – a small, well, I hesitate to call it a nursery but that’s the closest word to describe it, “nursery” tucked into the sidewalks of an urban neighborhood. The trees were spindly and droopy but live. We picked the most robust, robust being a very relative term, 3-ft tall-on-a-good-day tree, bargained the guy down to about $100, and loaded it into my trunk.

And how to decorate? Well, you can get decorations everywhere in Ankara. The large store across the street has 2 50-ft aisles of, uh, New Year’s decorations – string lights, bulbs, ornaments, candles, tinsel, Santa figurines, Santa cups, Santa mugs etc. Could have knocked me over with a feather I was so surprised.

So call it New Year’s, but my kids were treated to a lovely Christmas here. Turkey really is a crossroads between the east and the west. But the whole season could be summed up in an ornament I couldn’t resist buying, a gorgeous hand-painted tree ornament depicting Santa in his sleigh, riding through the sky….over a mosque.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Hitting The Bus

Did I mention that I had a Minor Altercation with a large red metro bus?

Mmmm… I didn’t think so. That was fun. And now I have a formal introduction to the ways of processing a car accident here in Turkey. I dearly hope I won’t need the information for future reference, but I’m not holding my breath.

The whole event was more unfortunate and annoying than anything else. I didn’t even hit the bus, I merely rolled a bit too close to it. We each remained motionless for a minute while the traffic was stopped, and then when the bus started up, his protruding back bumper hooked my headlight. Completely my fault, but really no big deal. A $14.95 light for my car, and a bus bumper that someone could have banged back with a hammer. At home we would exchange licenses and insurance info and be on our way in ten minutes. But we are not at home.

The most important thing to remember is that if you move your car after an accident here, you are automatically at fault. Each vehicle has to remain exactly in place until the traffic police arrive (oh yeah, you can imagine the possibilities). So since chances are you will be sitting there for a while, one hopes that a) the accident occurs in a remote traffic-free zone where you are not subject to the anger of delayed commuters and b) that there aren’t a lot of other accidents that morning to take up the time of the traffic police. I was lucky with neither.

It took the police three hours to get to the scene. We kept calling them and they assured us they were on their way and then finally, after two hours and many phone calls later, admitted they had 150 accidents to deal with that morning and would be a bit delayed. ANY OTHER location in the world I would have said, “Yeah, right – spare me the theatrics.” In Ankara I can only say, “150? That’s all?” The modern day Sisyphus is alive and well and He Is A Traffic Cop here in Ankara.

So after they finally show up, it takes another hour to process the accident. You each give your side of the story to the policeman who diligently writes it down. Oh, AND you have to submit to a breathalyzer test. All this for a busted headlight and dislodged bumper. Fortunately I skipped my usual beer-on-my-Cheerios breakfast that morning and my drunk and disorderly morning conduct was nowhere to be seen.

So lest you think that you are done, you need to go to the Central Police station a few days later for the judgment. They give you a copy of your statement which somehow doesn’t quite match what you said, but that you are allowed to correct. Those of you that know me will laugh at the image of me firmly but politely telling this mass of Turkish police that “no, no, I never HIT the bus, just sort of ROLLED into it. That needs to be changed.” My husband always laughs at me splitting hairs when it never matters. As it were, I was deemed 100% at fault. Which is true, although they often rule against the foreigner.

So, four hours of my time and a trip to the police station. And the epilogue? I’ve become insufferable because I can say to my husband, who hates my car, “That’s why I bought a junker. The odds were just too high.”