This is part two of my story of an Expat Christmas in Turkey, where whilst playing with words I try and answer the questions everyone back home asks me about how we celebrate Christmas whilst living in a Muslim country.
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But what about the trimmings, they ask? The all important food and booze, the turkey oozing golden with forcemeat and chestnuts, the mulled wine with smoking spices, the flickering flame pudding, the emergency box of ferrero roche in case the ambassador calls? Do you have these things? Can you manufacture a plump Dickensian spread in a land where yoghurt goes on meat?
Of course! What we can’t buy we make, what we can’t find here we cross the sea for, what they haven’t got there we do without!
You cross the sea?
Indeed, Christmas isn’t Christmas unless you tried hard and queued in the cold and got irritable and cross and crushed up in crowds, so we go to Samos, a Greek island that shines Christianity and Christmas cheer at us across the bay from here.
We queue for our bespoke ferry at a hideously early time in the morning, huddled in our layers in the unaccustomed chill, hovering under rapidly dusted off umbrellas in a sharp sudden rain whilst we wait for the desultory Turkish Customs team to finish their fiftieth glass of cay of the morning.
My friends look weird in their winter wear. Tans washed pale in the flat light of dawn, bed hair hidden under ancient woolly hats and baseball caps, sleepy eyed and sluggish as they haul mighty cases for the loot through the gates at Scala Nova Port.
The cruiser port is empty, all the lavishly lit up ships are gone, riding the swell in their home ports for the brief break between one season and the next. The pontoons lie empty, soft grey in the rain, stroked and smoothed by the lap and lick of our meagre tides. Across the bay Samos is a greyscale blur against the tones of sea and sky.
As the dawn light strengthens and the rain eases we wake properly, and all around me people stretch and begin to peer around, recognising friends, air kissing busily, twice for the Brits, thrice for the Dutch. And the music of swopping gossip begins to play, a rising affrettando of tongues, because expat life runs on gossip like horses run on oats – more the gossip, faster the talk!
We wriggle through customs in a clacking crocodile of catch up conversation. We raid duty free with precision and in some cases, greed, piling strong liquor in wire baskets, not one bottle but four or five, of every sort, including the weird stuff that no one ever drinks.
Then onto the ferry, settling in seats, all our little groups, eager to be off to the land of pork!
I look out of the window at the wide grey sea, at the bright glowing Great Green changed by Winter and a northerly blow to dark crabbed waves of spiky black. I rest my head on the cool glass and am lulled by the rise swish fall of the waves and the warmth and the conversations scattered around me.
As we pull into Samos I fancy I can hear the sound of the island’s tills limbering up for a brisk afternoon, stretching wide in this recession blighted land where The Crisis has made the normally laughing Greeks morose and fatalistic.
In the high tide, flat waters of Vathi harbour, where the pastel wash houses and brownstone warehouses jostle down to the wealth making sea, the lifeblood ferries that ply the island trade rest on their moorings, sheltered and quiet in the harbours headland arms. We, on the other hand, are eager and rushing to be ashore, pushing through the pinching doors of customs, flicking our European passports at officials, racing for taxis and hire cars.
We surge across the shoreline, like migrating beasts we follow the long learned paths to markets and supermarkets, wine shops and butchers. We fall upon treasures of cheese and meat and cheap good wine. Lumps of prosciutto ruddy with flavour, silicon squashy bags of mozzarella, saffron fatted Barbary ducks, plumptious and proud, blushing pink cheeks of baked ham sliced thick.
The laughing butcher gaily sharpens his knives and calls for extra supplies as we launch ourselves at his counter, we buy fillets of beef, tight grained and aged; dark red ribs of beef with thick barrelled bones; belly pork for pates and terrines and wide breasted turkeys trussed and ready for cramming. We buy Danish blue, marbled with opal; chalky crusted brie and sharp squares of feta for oil slick salads. We smugly smirk over the last pot of glace cherries found at the back of the shelf.
We agonise over the wines, sparkling or white, rose or red, and then choose them all! Rich fruity reds from African hills, light fresh rose from California’s chilled out vineyards, brisk German whites, dry as wit. Two of each, into the basket, like animals into the ark.
A season’s worth of seasonal shopping efficiently dispatched in an hour long surfeit of till ringing, menu planning, taste bud tempting, chortling delight!
And then we are done. Shopped out! Unaccustomed to so much choice any more, weaker in the shopping stakes than our brothers and sisters at home we are sprinters not marathon runners in the race to be ready for Christmas. We retire to warm restaurants and café’s along the seafront and eat languid lengthy lunches of fried feta and pork souvlaki and spicy village sausage washed down with carafes of light Greek wine.
Replete and satisfied in the waning afternoon light, under skies turning purple with sunset we waddle back to our ferry, rumbling our heavy cases along high curbed streets to begin the crossing back to our adopted land. We are quieter now, tired and looking forward to a night in front of the fire with a ham sandwich to savour, happy in the knowledge that we have Christmas, quite literally, in the bag.