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North Texas Artists in Turkey: David Searcy Searches for St. Nicholas

by Anne Bothwell 6 Aug 2010 11:27 AM

Author David Searcy is working on a novel in which Santa Claus may figure. So while many of us were playing in the water in Antalya, he and Nancy Rebal took a side trip to Demre, home of Saint Nicholas. What a treat to get this excerpt from his journal.


Santa is everywhere in Demre, Turkey

Guest blogger and author David Searcy is working on a novel in which Santa Claus may figure. So during our stay in Turkey, he and Nancy Rebal took a side trip to Demre, home of St. Nicholas. It’s very generous of him to share this excerpt from his journal. And it will be fun to see whether and how St. Nick finds his way into David’s future work. Thanks too, to David and Nancy for the photos.

On the mountainous road to Demre from Antalya there are pine trees. “Look,” says Nancy. “Christmas trees.” The road climbs up and in and out among the rocky Colorado-looking hills. We lose the shore for a while, then gradually after an hour or so dip down and back to find the complex edge of the deep blue Mediterranean, swerving around the inlets, some of which have cliffs and shallow caves and bathers. Here and there are gauzy Quonset huts. Then acres of them – thin white fabric greenhouses. We pass by a giant tomato held aloft in a giant hand – a public monument. The Quonset huts are empty though. The ground inside is covered in the same white gauzy cloth. “The earth is sleeping,” says our guide for the day, who most call Sam, although his name is Ufuk. “That’s poetic,” Nancy says. “Did I say it wrong?” asks Ufuk. “No,” says Nancy. “No. It is poetic.”

On the road to Demre

It’s the perfect light of noon again. Light straight down into the water so you get the depth of blue against the limestone white of the shore, the land in general – you’d expect the land to dissolve in that like Alka Seltzer. Fizz away like history.

A sign by the road we stop to photograph: a Coca-Cola Santa, old style, sad eyes gazing up as saints’ will do, and beckoning us to a local restaurant.

In Demre,  he is everywhere. Cartoony ones on signs. Greek/Russian icons. Keychains. Postcards. He is imminent.

Present: Istanbul Airport 7-23-10 7 a.m. – flight delayed 3 hours, 3 hours sleep last night. Congenial zombies, we.

I’m trying not to concentrate too much on little things, though. Keep my peripheral vision opened up. What’s here? Our driver, Dohan, who would look more at home, I think, upon a shaggy Mongol pony, calls out the window for directions. There’s a sign on a little roundabout. He lets us out and goes to park. He’ll catch up with us later as we wander about a little, taking photos of the evidence (life-size American department store Santa in the shadows at the back of a little shop) and finally along the tiny street to the ancient multiply-rebuilt 6th to 8th to 11th to 19th century Church of St. Nicholas. Motorscooters everywhere. A gaggle of Russian tourists. Little tractors pulling wagonloads of melons – some adorned with carefully handmade canvas covers -tractor cozies – over the engine cowl and headlights. One, of faded blue, has decorative scarlet zig-zag applique around the edges. Then the owner, at my interest, comes to stand beside it, lets me take his picture.

7-23-10 10:07 a.m. Flight is canceled, luggage mis-routed or something. We must go back through and re-book, get a hotel for the night if possible. Still we wait for luggage. Lights are out. The power comes and goes. Some are hungry. Mostly okay for now, but there’s a change. We’ll have to decide, at some point, what to do. If one or two must sacrifice that others may survive.

It’s really hot. There are cicadas chattering everywhere – not quite a Texas chatter. Slightly deeper. Lower frequency. Once noticed, it’s oppressive. Here I’ve come across the world to hunt for Santa in the heat. I want to make it sound like sleighbells but that doesn’t work at all. So here we are. The Russian prince who undertook the 19th century restoration apparently really screwed it up. Replaced the dome with something totally incorrect, installed a silly-looking bell tower. More confusing is the huge protective awning over the church. A recent statue of St. Nick inside the grounds is of a European type – a Father Christmas as protector of the children. There’s a tired old bitch asleep in the shade nearby. These Turkish holy sites all seem to have their complement of animals. Usually cats. But here it’s dogs. Residual spirits.

7-23-10 2 p.m. Istanbul Airport Still. Rerouted to Munich (rather than Frankfurt) where we’ll spend the night then fly to New York, then home. But this flight, too, is delayed. We’re waiting. Lost our time slot, says the pilot. I have just received an orange juice and a moist towelette.

Dogfight at St. Nicholas Church

Inside, the church is clear of all except the deepest ambiguities – going to rubble at the edges but within all dark and open with the fading light of frescoes Nancy say are by a provincial hand (11th century mostly, I think – my little guidebook’s gone on with my baggage to New York, so I can’t check; we’re staying overnight in Munich; but I think around that time with earlier post-iconoclastic glimpses peeking through), but a much less polished hand in any case, observant of the protocols, the chant of it all I guess – it feels like that. The matter-of-factness of the miracle. And St. Nicholas matter-of-factly here as well, at least in principle – his marble tomb apparently borrowed from another. He is everywhere – we know that. The cicadas sound like sleighbells. There are two dogs in the nave – the very center of the cool and shadowy nave where someone’s kneeling at the far end, at the altar like it’s real. The dogs – a red one and a white one – simply laid out on the marble, sleeping, waiting for a tummy rub. We’re told, though, not to pet them. There’s a danger of infection. They like Nancy. She has greeted them and now they’re up like beggars. Importuning. Jumping up and interfering with each other. There’s a snarl, a snap and now they’re going at it. No more play. The red and white are at that sudden full ferocity. Where’s Nancy? By the wall. The Russian tourists stop their chatter, turn to look. It’s all so clear just for a second.  At the cool and shadowy heart of things – who knew? – this blur, this swirl, the racket filling, for a moment, all the space. Replacing everything – the miracle, the frescoes. And it’s terrible the way it comes so naturally. And just like that it’s over. Dogs withdraw, resume their former life. The Russians drift away into their chatter.

What’s left strikes me as too old even to think about right now. Three miles away the ruins of Myra – not the town itself, exactly, where St. Nicholas was Bishop, but the older parts, the ruins of the theater and necropolis. And the residue – more residue (like car parts in a junkyard, stacked and waiting for redemption) than anything else. Old columns, capitals and masks. So many white, astonished Greek (or Greek/Lycian?) theatrical masks. They must have gaped from every decorative opportunity. Tragic, comic marble masks. Their mouths wide open. How I wish I hadn’t packed away my guidebook. It would tell me where they went and what they meant. All I can think – and as I say, it seems too much – is how, so close beneath the tombs on the cliff above, they seem like faces of the dead.

Nancy Rebal on the beach in Demre

On the way back, Nancy wants to visit the beach. We pull into a spot for public access. There are campers. Are they Gypsies? How do you tell? Dohan waits by the car. There are no cicadas here. Just surf. The shore arcs way around to the east and out to a postcard point of land. “Come here,” says Nancy. She is wading. Standing now in the surf and bent a little,  head turned. “Listen.” There’s the sound of surf but underneath another – dragging and abrasive. It’s the rocks. The pebbles. “Dover Beach.”  The shore is made of differently colored pebbles and the surf is doing its work. “Look,” Nancy says. She’s scooped some up and they’ve been graded – large on top and smaller and smaller underneath. There is a system here. She scoops a little deeper, brings up smaller ones – all shades of white and gray and brown and black with different geological histories, I guess, but processed here into these simple, pretty things that come so easily into the hand, the pocket. Nancy chooses a few to keep. To take home as mementos. Just to have. Right at the edge of dissolution beauty comes into the hand. We can’t let go.

  • Diana Holbert

    Beautiful writing. Thank you for delivering me there!

  • rick

    David, I enjoyed both stories. And the vivid images, written and photographed. Delighted you two got to enjoy the Med as well. All is well. St. Nick should be extra kind to you this Christmas.

  • Love your writing David. I think I know which list you will be on this year. Hopefully Santa will deliver your share of coal to me for the forge.

  • Tim Coursey

    Jeeze, David. Lovely. Sophocles heard the Aegean but still. And a dog fight in the ruined church, and a punchline to boot. Thanks, and thanks Nancy.