Saturday, December 25, 2010
Pork, Leeches, Beavers and Burgers: Christmas in Istanbul
Christmas in Istanbul is nothing like it is back at home. In some ways it is a good thing, the commercialism and greediness of the holiday can be disheartening. However, I do miss the decorations, treats, piped Christmas music and festive feeling that lasts all month. In Istanbul, the Christmas tree and decorations have morphed into a new year tradition, so we still see lots of Christmasy type of stuff especially with the grocery stores full of imported chintzy Christmas decorations. Starbucks doesn't carry the Christmas drinks, but they have a Christmas blend, and all of the take away cups are red and cheery. Every now and then we will even hear the faint tune of a dancing Santa. So even though St. Nick was actually from the south of Turkey, it is kind of like bizarro Christmas over here.
The week leading up to the 25th, the neighborhood seemed abuzz with holiday cheer. We were busy with caroling, winter solstice yule log burning, and cookie baking. The big event for the boys was the faculty Christmas party; with all of the talk of a gift-bearing Santa Claus, who could blame them? So even though we had to work, it didn't take away from the merriment of the season. Having the boys at the sweet age of nearly five, the Christmas spirit was full on this year. Our house has been deep in holiday cheer all month, decorated with all the usual fixings, an overload of twinkly lights, and even a homemade advent calendar. With little ones, Christmas is all about the magic and story of St. Nick, as it should be.
On Christmas Eve, Koray and I got out for the day to buy some Santa gifts. Our main goal was to buy a Wii for Ali and Omer, but an e-mail from a friend quickly set me on another path: a Greek butcher in Istanbul. Greek means Christian, and Christian means pork, well in my logic at least. After a phone call and some e-mail exchanges with other pork loving expats, I narrowed down the location of this pork butcher. Christmas Eve was looking even better.
We found the place quite easily. Upon walking in, we were greeted by friendly faces, a display case full of pork, and little pig figurines all over the place. Bacon, sausages, prosciutto, sliced ham, even pork chops were laid out in front of us. Sampling this and that before deciding, we walked out of the joint with a bag bulging with fresh pig meat and were happily on our way. The Christmas dinner menu changed quickly from sweet and sour chicken to pork chops.
The next stop was Nisantasi, the shopping district in Istanbul. All outdoor shops along tree lined streets, Nisantasi was hopping with holiday cheer. Most of the people out were gearing up for the New Year gift exchange, so the steep, curvy streets were bedecked with decorations and lights. The main street was draped in bright red bolted down AstroTurf. Every tree along the cobbled red road was decorated with fairy lights and red, glass ornaments.
While Koray set off in search for the gifts, I took an hour and had a pedicure and manicure at the California Nail Bar an uber cool shop owned by an equally cool American lady. Soon after I was primped and polished, Koray met me for lunch. Ambling down the busy streets laden with a Wii and its paraphernalia, we headed into a diner called Egg and Burger. Being an American who knows and loves burgers, I have been disappointed one too many times by the promise of an American style burger. I was skeptical. Don't get me wrong, I love a good islak burger or kofte, but it is always a bummer when my taste buds gear up for the unencumbered taste of beef, sauce, lettuce tomatoes and bread, and the burger doesn't deliver. Being on a pork-buying high, I wasn't sure I wanted to risk exchanging that for pseudo-burger disappointment on Christmas Eve. But this place had all the signs of a good burger joint: silver round tables, red bar stools, retro coca-cola ads, and cooks decked out in white paper cook hats, slinging burgers just next to the dining area, so I decided to throw caution to the wind. Much to my delight, the burger delivered, and was even tastier then some of the burgers I had eaten back in Washington this summer.
Bellies full and wallets empty, and after a thorough search for a toy beaver (more on that later) we headed home to get ready for Christmas Eve dinner (leg of lamb) and small presents.
Christmas morning started for us at 5:45. Ali got the monster he asked for and Omer got his beaver sanctuary, minus the beaver. He asked Santa for "a beaver house, next to a river with an apple tree." He mentioned it several times after writing his letter to Santa, so I knew it wasn't a passing fancy and also knew it really would take Santa Claus to produce this unique request. I looked all over here, as did Koray when he was in Sweden, but nothing even remotely close could be found. We gave up, settling on plan B. But as Koray was walking out of a store on Christmas Eve, he spotted a tree house and immediately snatched it up. We spent the rest of the day on a fruitless mission, trying to find a toy beaver to live in the sanctuary. Luckily I had bought some beaver stickers and we put those on the "beaver house" in hopes it would work.
After it was all said and done, everybody was happy with their gifts from Santa. We feasted on a Turkish breakfast after cleaning up the shredded wrapping paper, and then headed into the city on another mission-- this time in search of leeches.
Eminonu, a part of the city perched on the Golden Horn, is home to the Egyptian Spice Bazaar and well as the animal bazaar, which sells amongst many other odd and exotic animals, big jugs of leeches used for medicinal purposes. As the man fished out five leeches with his bare hands, Ali and Omer squealed "we're getting a pet!" After that idea was quickly squelched, we meandered through the crowded streets before heading home.
(Why leeches? We are teaching Stand By Me to the 9th graders and I thought I would maximize the abhorrent leech scene by bringing in a bucket of leeches and getting them to write a poem about it. I can almost hear the shrieks now.)
So, even though we only had three days, this Christmas was a good one. I feel full in all senses of the word.
I hope yours was just as good and merry.