Jolly Old St. Nicholas

I’ve been thinking a lot about our friend St. Nick lately.

DSC_0116 - Copy

About his many incarnations; about his naughty and nice list; about the fact that some of his incarnations belong on naughty lists themselves; and about the actual man that inspired this mythical being with modern day rock star status. Really . . . just what kind of mortal could inspire so many, and such enduring, legends?

Who was Saint Nick?  Nikolaus* of Myra (present day Turkey) was a Greek bishop during the 4th century.  Many miracles are attributed to him, but his most enduring legacy is probably his generosity.  As legend has it, he sought to relieve poverty through the giving of secret gifts.  Most notably, there is a story that he sought to ease the plight of three young girls.  Their father could not afford to pay a dowry, so they were doomed to a life of poverty and, quite probably, prostitution in order to survive.  Nikolaus secretly tossed three purses of gold coins through the window of their home (this, obviously, before his chimney shenanigans in later centuries).  One version even posits extra detail–some of the gold fell into a stocking that was hanging up to dry in the house.

It is a long and winding road from the life of the actual man to the variety of legends that we find today–and it is a great variety–but they all contain the kernel of his truth. turkish st nick kilim There’s not much I can add to that truth–I’m no scholar on saints or on Nikolaus.   I can, however, tell you that he is still remembered in Turkey as a great man.  He is also embraced, to some small extent, in his modern Western guise–albeit largely for profit and the selling of kilims.  There is a town in the eastern Mediterranean region of Turkey (I wish I could remember the name, but it’s been 16 years since I was there!) where we watched women weaving Santa Kilims.   We bought a number of them, for ourselves and for our family.  We still hang turk st nick kilim at loomours proudly each Christmas season. . . but we spray it with Lysol each year. (Sorry Santa, but I think you were woven with some raw wool, and you do carry a distinct old world smell that requires a little airing out. I don’t really mind–the way I see it, you bring a little of the Bethlehem stable into my house with you, and that keeps me focused for the season.)

About that variety of legends–I don’t think that we feel it much in the States.  Our Santa is a homogenous and modern being–jolly and round, always in the same red and white costume,  and, yes, generous to a fault (is there such a thing?).  The menace of his judgment (his naughty and nice list) seems hardly menace at all–unless you’ve been outrageously naughty.  It happens.  Still, with late season penance, it all turns out well.   Seems straight forward.

Victorian St Nick and Krampus
Victorian St Nick and Krampus

But it seems less simple in Middle Europe.  Here, the judgment is real and the  punishers are frightening.  Easy salvation?  That’s for American weenies.  Here, you’d best practice good German diligence and industriousness, and even then the day will come when you have to stare down a devil for your Nikolaustag (St. Nikolaus Day) chocolate.  Yes, a devil.  Where goes Nikolaus, so goes his dark counterpart (with many faces and names, depending on the region of Europe).  Good and evil, naughty and nice–they take it seriously in Germany.

I won’t go into great detail here about St. Nick’s draconian counterparts, as I’ve written a lot about them in the post Saints and Devils, Fire and Snow .  However, I will add a few insights from a conversation I had recently with a Bavarian woman.  I met her on December 5th– Nikolaustag Eve (“boot night” in Germany, when children put out   boots for Nikolaus to leave candy in . . . but sometimes get visits from the grim sidekick instead or get ashes and coal if they have been bad).   She told me

Friend or foe, funny or frightening?
Friend or foe, funny or frightening?

that the children around Rothenburg ob der Tauber have traditionally not celebrated on December 6th, but rather on November 11th.  When she was young, that was when Belsnickel (or Pelsnickel) would visit.  Belsnickel was a fur-cloaked character, rather scruffy, who seemed to combine both the surly (Krampus, Ruprecht, etc) and the kind (Nikolaus) into one being. He carried a sack with both treats and switches.   Belsnickel might judge the children and either punish or reward them; he might toss candy around the floor for them, and then paddle their backs with twigs as they scrambled for the candy; or he might be more elfin and be more mischief prone than malice prone.   He might be a lot of things, said my new friend; however, when November 11th came around the children were really quite scared of what would come for them.

I asked this woman, once more, “And he came on November 11th?” “Yes,” came the answer.  That seemed so  early in the season to me.  I looked the date up later and found that November 11th is not only Belsnickel, it’s also Martinstag– that’s Reformation Day, a celebration of Martin Luther and the Reformation.  Ah, yes, this was beginning to make more sense to me.  If you are celebrating the Reformation, why not scare the pants off of the children, and then reward them with goodies?  Spare the rods, spoil the souls of the children.  So very German, this Christmas cocktail: hell fire and brimstone, followed by a chaser of sweets and gingerbread.

Never a dull moment with these old European traditions.  Is it awful that Christmas time boasts its own terrors and devils?  Is it harsh?  Absolutely. . .but, then again, it has some appeal.

Sante Claus The Children's Friend, 1821 William B. Gilley, publisher
Sante Claus
The Children’s Friend, 1821
William B. Gilley, publisher

I could do without Krampus devils giving my kids nightmares, but I do start to think that the American Santa is a bit fluffy.   I don’t mind him being “the love-meister,” if that’s really his focus, but when it’s all about giving out the stuff, and then more stuff– well, the guy needs to stand up for his principles.  Let’s get back to the core of the man: not necessarily a tale of saints and devils who come for your children, but at least the tale of the saint.

Be jolly–yes, please be jolly– but also please be Saint Nicholas.

Merry Christmas, Joyeux Noel, Frohe Weihnachten . . . 


*Nikolaus, Nicholas, Nicolas–so many traditions, so many spellings.

Fuzzy Photo Monday

The best adjective to describe any given Monday morning is fuzzy.   So, in honor of all those fuzzy Monday mornings, I’m posting fuzzy, dusty photos from a few travels in Turkey roughly 15 years ago.  They may be grainy and faded, but the beauty of the place and the people  still shines through.

Istanbul is a good place to start.  While in Istanbul, we stayed in a small hotel on the Hippodrome–the center of ancient Constantinople, where civic and sporting events were held.   The Hippodrome is a long, oval area today, flanked by obelisks at each end, and just beyond each end of the Hippodrome stands one of Istanbul’s most recognizable landmarks: the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque.

The Hagia Sophia is, arguably, the jewel of Istanbul.

The Hagia Sophia, in Istanbul
The Hagia Sophia, in Istanbul

The Hagia Sophia began her life in the 500’s as an Eastern Orthodox cathedral, and over the years has served as a church, a mosque, and a museum.  Despite the ravages of time and bickering ideologies, this beautiful monument to Holy Wisdom (Hagia Sophia, or, as the Turks say, Ayasofia) still impresses and humbles its visitors today.


walls of the Hagia Sophia
walls of the Hagia Sophia


Hagia Sophia inside
Hagia Sophia inside

The Blue Mosque was built in the 1600’s, so it’s no new comer either.   The interior is impressive and serene–covered in Turkish Iznik tiles and caligraphed verses from the Quran.

The Blue Mosque


The exterior courtyard of the Blue Mosque is serene and was once used as a school, but I don’t think that’s the case any longer.

Nearby, you can take a tour of the underground cistern-which is impressive too.  It was built in the 500’s, but lay abandoned and forgotten for hundreds of years.  The columns and carving, as well as the dramatic lighting, make it a beautiful and eerie place to see.

Underground cistern in Istanbul.
Underground cistern in Istanbul–built in the 6th century, still a marvel.

You’d spend a full day or more travelling from Istanbul to Cappadocia in central Turkey, but it would be worth the effort.

Goreme in winter, from
Goreme in winter, from

Cappadocia is a somewhat mountainous area, best know for its “fairy chimneys” and early cave churches.   Urgup and Goreme are probably the easiest places for tourists to get around, and they are a good homebase for viewing the fairy chimneys (rock formations that are distinct) of the area.

"Fairy chimneys" of Cappodocia and the Ilhara Valley.
“Fairy chimneys” of Cappodocia and the Ilhara Valley. You can see the dwellings carved into them.


Ilhara Valley Cave Church 2 The Ilhara Valley in Cappadocia is also famous for its very early cave churches.  They are in varying stages of preservation, but are fascinating to see.





Guzelyurt was our favorite town in Cappadocia, and was off the beaten path.

View off the back porch at Otel Karbala, Guzelyurt.

We would stay at a hotel there, Otel Karbala, which was beautiful and converted from an old Greek monestary.  The town was light on tourists, and heavy on beauty and history.

On the "Antik Road" in Cappadocia.
On the “Antik Road” in Cappadocia.

This photo especially tugs at my heart. This family was baking bread over a fire outside of a cave on the Antik Road (old road) down a hill in the town of Guzelyurt.  They were so friendly and we stopped and ate a bite of their bread–a delicious flatbread (pide) that they were eating plain and warm from the fire.  Pide is popular in Turkey, and often cooked over an open fire on a hot, convex piece of metal, but it can also be made in a large oven (think of America’s large brick oven pizza establishments).

Pide with meat
Pide with meat

Our “hometown” in Turkey had a large bakery that served, really,as a community oven and produced hundreds or thousands of pide each day.  Pide is often embelished with meats or cheese and spices.  Plain pide is also good for scooping up mezes (appetizers).



But, back to Cappadocia.  It’s probably my favorite place in Turkey, and, besides the sightseeing and natural beauty of the area, it also offered many opportunities to shop for carpets in an environment that was less rushed than Istanbul.  Here, carpet dealers feed you, play with your children and dogs, and eagerly teach you about the various types of carpets and regional styles they have on offer.

Carpet shopping in Cappadocia.
Carpet shopping in Cappadocia.

And, if you have enough time in Cappadocia, one last recommendation: visit an underground city.  There are dozens of these sites, and we’ve been to Derinkuyu and Kaymakli.  These cities are ancient rabbit warrens underground,  complete with ventilation shafts and stones that can be rolled to block entrance into any given tunnel–they are advanced and well planned, but may date back to   the Bronze Age,  and were certainly used during the Byzantine period as hiding places during times of religious persecution.

A puppy in my arms, and a flashlight on my husband’s forehead, while we wander the underground labyrinth.


As feats of ancient engineering, these underground cities are astonishing.  As history lessons, they are sobering.  As an afternoon out. . . they are a pretty good frolick . . . but not recommended for people who are claustrophobic.

I’ve covered a lot of ground at a crazy quick clip here–but it’s a fuzzy Monday, so that’ll have to do until I’ve downed considerably more coffee.

Gule, gule!  (“Bye, bye” in Turkish)


When Worlds Collide: Turkish Kebab in Germany

Turkish Doner Kabab with Cabbage
Turkish Doner Kabab with Cabbage

For three years, we lived about as far east as you can go on the Turkish Mediterranean.  Beautiful, soulful place.  We grew to love the people, the culture, the carpets, the history,  and the food.  (Oh, that food. . .)  We were aware that Germany has the largest Turkish population outside of the country of Turkey, so we’ve never been surprised as travellers (and now residents) in Germany to find lots of carpet shops and kebab stands.

So why were we surprised to find that many kebab restaurants here have married Turkish kebabs with German tastes?  And who knew that kebab and tzatziki sauce could be so fabulous with red cabbage!!!   We first had this in Trier, but have repeated the discovery numerous times in towns all over the German map.  And why shouldn’t the idea spread–it is so very, very good!   Especially if the cabbage has been marinated (in what, I don’t know–just pure, unadulterated deliciousness!).

On the SeriousEats website, Steen Bjorn Hanssen offers the following insights into the popularity of Turkish food in Germany:

Döner Kebab, or just döner, is undoubtedly the most popular street food in Germany and has become part of the German culinary culture and vocabulary, much like Indian chicken tikka masala has in the UK. The döner was first introduced to the Berliner neighborhoods of Kreuzberg (known as Little Istanbul) and Neukölln in the early 1970s by Turkish immigrants invited to contribute to west Germany’s Wirtschaftswunder (economic miracle). It quickly spread to other (west) German urban centers and following German reunification became so popular, you’ll find a döner stand in every single German town today, even in Bavaria.

(You can read his full article at

I love the comparison of Turkish food in Germany to Indian food in England–and it rings true to my ears.  Not only was Indian food outrageously popular in England, but the quality of Indian food we ate there was unmatchable.  And, if popular myth is true, Chicken Tikka Masala (England’s most popular Indian dish) is not so much Indian as an Indian hybrid–created by chefs in the UK.  Much like our German Berliner/Turkish Kebab.

Everybody likes to put their own spin on a story–even when that story is a culinary dish.  And I’m all for it!   Let the worlds collide–and our tummies and tongues will be the happier for it.


Let’s Talk Turkey

We’re beginning the November wind-up to Thanksgiving, so let’s talk Turkey. . . with a twist.    The country, not the bird

These photos are from my travels in Turkey 15 years ago.  I pulled them from a box of negatives, held them up to the light to determine which were which, and scanned them on a rinkydink digital converter.  The images are still distinct, but not crisp. There’s just a bit of a haze to them, though you can still pick out the details.  (You may even find me lurking in a shadow, where’s-Waldo-esque, if you try.)

turkey 2 picmonk collage


I remember this castle and these sites vividly–we were on the Turkish Mediterranean.  But I can’t remember the name of the place.  It’s not on tip of my tongue.  It’s not even a lingering taste at the back of my throat.     It’s just gone: swallowed and digested by the intervening years.  I’d recognize it if you offered it up to me, but after an hour of racking my brain, I still don’t have the power to conjure it on my own.

How can we be so fickle to forget places we have loved and sights that left us awestruck?  Time is a notorious thief, and I have no name for these photos, but I remember.  A brilliant day by the sands of the Mediterranean Sea and under the gaze of the Taurus Mountains.  I haven’t forgotten how I felt.

Maybe recognition is more important than recollection anyway.  It carries that power of empathy–to remember how something felt, to feel connection to the past or the place or the person, even when the name has left you.

That’s a traveller’s power–the power of connection.  We can rely on our guidebooks for place names when we have to, but the ability to connect to the people or stand in awe of the beauty, well, we have to summon that ourselves.

Forced to choose, I’d keep the feeling over the catalog of names any day:  better a fickle mind than a fickle heart.


*And, as a post script:  my travel guidebook has come the the rescue.  The castle is at Anamur, Turkey.

Here are a  few more photos from Turkey.  (More to come in the months ahead, when I get old photo negatives converted to digital.)

IMG_0005 - Copy IMG_0008



On the "Antik Road" in Cappadocia.
On the “Antik Road” in Cappadocia.

This last photo is an especially fond memory–and I can recall the details.  When I have more time, I’ll bring it back out and tell you the story.   For now, I must say “Gule, gule” (goodbye).


Throwback Thursday, Music Man in Adana, Turkey

14 years ago, baby and me.  This kind man plays his Turkish Saz for us.
14 years ago, baby and me. This kind man is playing his Turkish Saz for us.

The year is 2000.  The day is hotter than Hades in downtown Adana, Turkiye. .  .but just when we think we will melt into the dust and sand, never to be seen again, we meet up with a very cool man and his storeful of Saz.    (Sazes?  Sazi?  Sazzzzzs? What would the plural be?)

He serenandes us and gives us a cassette tape of his songs to take with us  so that we can remember him after we get back on an airplane and return to our life in the States.  Which we will do just a few weeks later.

Fourteen years have passed, and my daughter won’t remember this moment. . . but I do.  So vividly that it still cools me on a hot day and reminds me what it felt like to hold her as a tiny child in my arms.