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Christmas in Turkey


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Of my ten or so Christmases in Turkey, one stands, out.  It must have been the Christmas of 1970.  The Peace Corps had pulled out of Turkey earlier that year, leaving a sole volunteer behind, Alex Voogel, whose school in Samsun had requested an extension of his stay.  Alex had a rather unusual living situation.  He resided not in his own apartment but on the grounds of the last manned Roman Catholic church in Samsun, and perhaps on the entire Black Sea coast.  His housemates were two Italian clerics Rome had assigned, or consigned, to Samsun to uphold the true faith and the real estate against the Moslem tide.  One of the two, a priest, was suffering a crisis in faith, his enthusiasm for serving God and winning souls dimmed by the
realities of his ministry.  He was angry at Rome and angry at God for abandoning him to a place where the only attendees at his masses were women with mostly imaginary diseases that the local hocas had failed to cure by Moslem means.  The hocas determined these women to be
possessed by Christian spirits, the prescription -- to attend a mass and huff and puff until they blew the foreign demons out. It being a good sized church, considerable blowing was required,
and the mass was soon drowned out by the sounds of hyperventilating women in various states of ecstasy.

Germano, the second housemate, was a study in contrast.  A monk for many years, he had just been ordained a priest and this was to be his first celebration of the Christmas Eve mass.  Happy he was with his life assignment and his role in the Christmas events of Samsun, Turkey, 1970.  Brother/Father Germano  (I confess to an ignorance in the fine points of these things) had scrubbed the church nearly raw, festooned even its highest reaches with boughs, tinsel, and
lights, and swaddled the infant Jesus, nestled in his manger, in ropes of Christmas lights, placing a large, flame shaped colored bulb in each of his chubby, outstretched hands.

An Armenian couple was in attendance and a French family for some reason living in Samsun; their two sons were to serve altar boys.  Also joining the festivities were two Italian counts on
their annual bird killing adventure in Anatolia.  Music for the event was to be provided by the first priest (the unhappy one) on the organ and by Alex on the violin.

We gathered in church shortly before midnight and the mass began.  All went pretty well until the music got under way.  It was, as a remember, a trifle hard on the human ear, the two
musicians being somewhat out of sync and a little off key. Whatever discomfort we felt inside the church, however, was evidently more keenly experienced by the Italian hunting dogs tied in the nearby courtyard, who howled in accompaniment whenever the music played.  No matter, Germano was having a wonderful time.   As organ, violin, and canines joined in joyful chorus, he moved toward the altar to bless the wine.  The altar boys approached from stage left.  The smaller one, no doubt pretty tired by then, failed to notice the cord that snaked across the floor from the wall to the baby Jesus' complement of lights.  His toe caught the cord and suddenly sent baby Jesus whirling through the air in a show of lights that would have been the envy of the local discotheque.  Jesus landed in a loud clatter on the floor.

I had expected that Germano would be disappointed after the mishaps of his first Christmas mass.  Not Germano. The next morning he could scarcely wait to listen to the recording he had
made of the mass.  He burst into laughter when he reached the sound of Jesus clattered to earth and played it over and over again to undiminished amusement.

It remains one of my favorite Christmases.
Diane Mott (T-17), «eşme