By Brian Kelly
Christmas involuntarily away is never the same. True, it can offer some small rewards. Being spared the pat-down tedium of interminable security lines and the crush and rush of airport terminal transiting is one. Being buffered by distance from the holiday feud spats that can blight too much festive proximity is another. But finding oneself far from the family hearthlands at the fullness of Yuletide can leave the duty-bound, work-emplaced, stay-behind feeling stranded and, let’s face it, a bit desolate.
No amount of dial tone jiggling and leap-frogged time zones delivers cheerful connection when the response is a robotic “we are sorry, your call cannot be completed at this time since all lines are busy”.
So it was that serving with the UN peacekeeping presence in Eritrea in 2000, I found myself one of the left (as opposed to “gone on leave”) staff planning to share a makeshift Christmas get-together with other holiday duty colleagues in Asmara.
The dozen or so in our particular group of “orphans” agreed to contribute what festive goodies we could round up for the occasion.
Over the next few days, individually and collectively, we set off on a scavenging hunt, plunging into the side streets and alleyways of the beautiful art deco Italianate town.
We plundered the quirky colonial-era patisseries and espresso bars and rummaged high and low in the small shops and alcoves looking for anything redolent of the seasonal spirit.
Given the UN was there because Eritrea and Ethiopia had recently suspended a vicious two-year war with one another (triggered in part by a customs union dispute), supplies, imported goods especially, were scarcely abundant.
Mindful of appearances and my need for a trim, I treated myself to a haircut by the town’s oldest barber – an Italian in his 80s who had come to Asmara with Mussolini’s forces and remained on. His hand tremors notwithstanding, I emerged suitably shorn and, reassuringly, ears intact and un-nicked.
Finding myself opposite a delicatessen of sorts, I crossed the main street and entered. What was gloomy from the outside, proved to be an Aladdin’s cave of golden opportunities and packaged treasures. Pastas and cheeses and bottled fruits. There was no order to the tumbled display. The narrow aisles in the tiny emporium were an obstacle course of strewn boxes and teetering cartons. Such labels as still clung to cardboard were loose, limp, illegible.
As I rooted about on a lower shelf, I spotted a familiar but unexpected shape. Disbelieving, I looked again. Sure enough, there it was, the undeniable, indelible white crouch of a frozen turkey. Just one. A single frozen butterball turkey. Oven ready, cooking instructions in French on its cellophane shrink wrap.
I grabbed it. I hugged it. With the tenacity of a mauling front row rugby player, I clung to it, not releasing it until I was standing square before the perplexed proprietor at his front counter till.
Ecstatic at my discovery and assured of being the star of the Christmas dinner gathering, I didn’t hear the shopkeeper at first. He was addressing me but he was looking at the turkey.
“I can’t sell you this,” he said, with a bemused shake of his head.
“You mean someone else has bought it already,” I asked, crestfallen.
“Oh no,” he said, “it’s not that – I just can’t.”
“But why?” I asked, “I want it and I really need it.”
“No,” he said, “I can’t.”
“Why not,” I rejoined, with a growing air of desperation.
“You see”, he confided, a touch contritely, “I can’t sell it because I don’t know what it is.”
“Oh, that’s alright,” I said with relief. “I know what it is – it’s a turkey and I want it!”
“That may be,” he said, “but I can’t let you have it since I don’t know and I have to get in touch with the ministry in order to know what to charge and that won’t be until after the weekend.”
“But you have to understand,” I pleaded, “I need it now because it has to be thawed right away so that we can cook it.”
And to reassure him, I said: “Don’t worry, I’ll pay you as soon as the ministry tells you the price. Meantime, here, please take my ID and phone number. Just call my office, tell me what I owe you and I’ll come directly and pay you.”
In this way, settlement was reached and I was the toast of my colleagues when I delivered the bird.
Christmas dinner was a joyous, boisterous affair and afterwards we sat contentedly and watched Casablanca on video.
At the end when, justice done, Humphrey Bogart’s Ric and Claude Raines’ Captain Louis Renault march companionably into the night, a former senior Amnesty International official among us let loose a hissing “yesss” of satisfaction, a fitting comment on the movie and a never-to-be-forgotten Christmas.
Yesss, we will always have Asmara!
Days later, the shop-owner phoned. The ministry had pronounced and instructed. The only (the last?) turkey in Asmara so memorably purchased and happily consumed was billed at $125.
Brian Kelly served with more than a dozen peacekeeping missions in the course of a UN career dating back to when U Thant was secretary-general. Between 2001 and 2007, he was Unficyp spokesperson in Cyprus. He came to Nicosia directly from Asmara.