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Christmas in Turkey


 

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Speaking of Christmases and churches, here's a story of the church in Trabzon.

We had understood that the church (Santa Maria Katolik Kilisesi) received a special dispensation from the Sultan in the nineteenth century that allowed it to remain open so that it could serve the needs of travelers -- particularly the crews of the small European commercial ships -- who came to Trabzon.  In order for the church to remain open, there had to be a priest in residence, and proselytizing among the Moslem population was forbidden. 

Tarsicio had come to Trabzon some years before we did, banished from a cushier post because of disagreements with his superiors.  He said mass morning and evening in the church, then sped off on his Vespa scooter to say mass again at the Böztepe Air Force base on top of the hill overlooking Trabzon.  For much of the time we knew him, Tarsicio had a housemate, one Brother Benignio, who did all of the cooking.  Benignio was a devout man -- so devout in fact that he had the habit of occasionally going to pray and forgetting all about whatever it was that he had been cooking.  Father T also had a huge German shepherd named Bambi, who enjoyed catching neighborhood cats that strayed over the walls surrounding the church.  (Bambi actually consumed the unfortunate cats, providing they were first cooked.  My site partner, Allen, once wandered into Father T's kitchen to check out what was boiling vigorously in a large covered pot on the stove.  When she removed the lid, she got quite an unpleasant surprise.)

Tarsicio spoke a half dozen languages, including passable Turkish and highly idiosyncratic English.  He wrote several books while he lived there, including the most detailed tourist guide to Trabzon that I've encountered.  Unfortunately (for me), it's in Italian, but it's usable nonetheless, and I consulted it regularly when I was back in Trabzon last year. 

Benignio knew only a few words of English, and no Turkish.  (One night when the inside of the chimney on Father T's caught fire, Benignio answered the bell at the front door, then rushed excitedly into the living room exclaiming, "Excuse.  There is the fire in the house."  Fortunately, it put itself out.)

Father T's house was always open to Peace Corps volunteers, Air Force men (there were no military dependents at Böztepe), travelers and an occasional neighbor (some of whom Father T said he suspected were Christians).  If you stayed for dinner, you could put five or ten Turkish lira in a large glass jar on the fireplace.  If you were planning to stay for dinner, you could take some lira from the jar and go up the street to the bakal or the manav or the kasap and bring back the makings for the meal.  Whoever was around helped prepare dinner.  Father T provided the wine, courtesy of an annual ritual in which I once participated.  When local prices for grapes hit their lowest point, usually in early September, Father T would order two tons of them to be delivered to his house by hamals -- half on each of two successive evenings.  In the basement of his house was a large, slate-lined pool maybe twelve feet square and two feet deep.  Six or eight of us hosed down our feet and took over three hours to stomp a ton of grapes and remove the stems and leaves.  The remains of a ton of grapes fit neatly into an 800 liter oak cask that was open at the top.  The second ton of grapes was stomped on the next evening and left in the slate pool (as there was only one large cask).  During fermentation, the seeds and the skins rose to the top, and after seven days, the wine was siphoned into bulbous 25-gallon glass jars, each of which sat (and was transported) in its own wicker basket, lined with hay to protect the glass.  The narrow-necked jars were ingeniously sealed with olive oil, and the wine was decanted once more, several months later, to remove any sediment.  The resulting 1600 liters of white wine were enough for Father T's household for maybe nine or ten months, after which we had to augment the supply with bulk purchases on the open market.  (Fortunately, bulk white wine could then be had for about 4 TL a liter.)   

Father T was not comfortable as a priest.  He left Trabzon sometime after we did.  My wife Margaret and I visited him in Bursa in the fall of 1972, where he was then employed as the Catholic chaplain to the newly built Fiat factory there.  He later decided to leave the church and return to his birthplace, the town of Novellara in Italy.  There he married a friend from childhood, and they had a son.  Tarsicio changed his name to Terenzio (whether officially, I don't know), and I think was a teacher in Novellara for many years. 

Not too many years ago, he sent me a letter, and we've been periodic correspondents ever since.  When I wrote in early 1999 and told him that my wife and I and our two sons were going to visit Trabzon, he asked me to take some pictures of the church.  Margaret and I spent an afternoon there, talking with a Romanian couple that are the caretakers.  There is also a priest, but he was said to be on vacation.  The church is open to the public -- including the Turkish public -- and the place had a much less secretive air about it.  The priest's house is open as a hostel, and it even appears in some of the English language guidebooks (including Lonely Planet).  I took a whole roll of film, inside and outside the church and the house, and sent them.  Terenzio was ecstatic.

He retired a couple of years ago, and at that time he sent me a handsome picture of himself, his wife, and their son, who must be around 20 years old.  I haven't heard from him since then.  He used to send me a card or a short note, either at Christmas or on my birthday.  I didn't hear from him this past Christmas.  Maybe he'll write in the spring.
                                                                  
 --Sandy Pfunder (T-9), Çayiriçi Köyü, Tonya, Trabzon

 

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İArkadaslar
04/12/09