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Maxime Nicholas Fidao's Life Story (Written in 1947)
(Page 2 of 8)
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We were taught swimming the hard way. Our brother, Christian, who was a powerful swimmer, would takes us to the bathing pavilion. He would hold each one in turn by our wrists, swing us and toss us out on the water as far as possible. We had to swim in the best we could. We kicked, and splashed, and took in water, but managed to reach shore. The purpose of this procedure was to overcome fear of the sea. No stroke was taught us at the outset.

At the bathing pavilion, and in accordance with the western custom of the time, the women were separated from the men. They had their own pool, and they bathed fully dressed, as it were, even to the hat.

At the age of six, my twin brother and I were sent to the French College of the Salle Brothers in Smyrna, which included gammer, high school, and two years of college (as known in this country). The teaching Brothers were all well educated Frenchmen. The assemblage of children in the class comprised many European nationalities and Greek natives of Turkey.

Our progress at St. Joseph's College had been found far from satisfactory by father and mother, besides they had come to the conclusion that our manners and language had suffered badly from our association with certain students.

A school for boys was being started at the time by the Soeurs de Sion, a French teaching order of nuns, who were also conducting a boarding school for girls, where all my sisters were educated. We were placed in the new school and remained there until the age of twelve. The wealthier members of the European colony sent their young boys to the new school. A new addition to the new school had been built, and we seldom saw the girl students. There was an atmosphere of serenity and wholesomeness in that school. The nuns were women of high education and ideals. There were mathematicians, physicists, as well as accomplished musicians and artists., and I am sure the boys all benefitted from their accomplishments.

We took our lunches in school. There was a dish resembling swiss steak, which we though was served a little too often. It was seasoned with some peculiar spice which all the boys found detestable. The attending sister insisted, of course, that we eat all our proportions, but my twin, Joe, found it impossible, one day, to swallow any of that meat. While the sister had her back turned, he slipped it in the pocket of his pinafore. The next morning, the little pet dog of the Mother Superior dragged my brother's pinafore to her quarters and pulled out of the pocket a piece of cold meat, which he began to eat with great relish. There was a big commotion through the school, and when the pinafore was identified as that of my brother, he was punished. The other boy and I sided with him. That particular, obnoxious spice was used only sparingly thereafter, but was not entirely omitted.

We wore the costume of French sailors, dark blue with sky blue collars and a dark blue beret with a red pompom. We had been made honorary members of the French Fleet, and our berets bore the name of the French battleship Courbet. The Admiral of the French Fleet in the harbor, in one of those displays of naval might, impress the Turkish Government when asking for some concession, or trying to obtain redress for some wrong, had visited the Convent with his aides. We had recited to him poetry composed by one of the sisters. It was then that the Admiral made us honorary members of his flagship.

At the age of eleven we were prepared for First Communion. Three days before, Monsignor Timoni gave us an examination, which I failed. It was on the subject of transubstantiation. I was sent back to my instructor and returned with the expected answer. For Confirmation we were made a black suit with long trousers, the coat having Quaker collar, which we detested. We wore that suit at my sister's wedding, acting as pages, which took place the same week.

The following year both of us went back to the College St. Joseph, which we attended till we graduated together, with honors, at the age of nineteen. The teaching brothers were all French and had received their training in France. They showed wide understanding in the handling of the turbulent youth, but occasionally they had to resort to force to subdue some of the big, recalcitrant students, and they gave good account of themselves. Most of the brothers were solid fellows and they often took part in our games. In addition to the brothers specializing in the usual subjects of a college curriculum, some of them specialized in music and other arts. Arts were taught throughout the school year. Every three months a play or an operetta would be put on by the students for the recreation of the parents and friends. I was invariable in one of them. It seems I could act and sing.

One of the games we played in College was "Balle au Camp", a mild version of baseball. Another one was Polo on stilts. This was a rough game which often resulted in injuries and affected the arches of the players.

The school hours were long for all the classes. We studied the whole day, all through the week, except Wednesday and Sunday afternoons, and our time for play for the whole day totaled about two hours, which included the noon hour. On Wednesday afternoons we took hikes into the country, weather permitting, conducted by our teachers. On Sundays mornings we were taught art. Our summer vacation was the regular two and a half months.

Flying kites was a great sport, indulged in even by the grown-ups. The kites were different from the ones usually seen in this country. The top part was a semi-circle which tapered into a "V" at the bottom. At the sharp end if the "V", a tail was attached, made of string a few feet long, to which were attached, every inch apart, two or three stripes if tissue paper. These kites were very maneuverable and could, by proper manipulation, be made to got to the right or left within a range of 180 degrees, by sagging the cord a bit and waiving it to the right or the left, and could be made to go up to the perpendicular of the string by pulling it fast.

There were kite battles going on all over the sky. Most flew kites mostly to engage in contest. The ordinary contest was to raze the tail of another kite by flying one's kite further away, the maneuvering one's string under the other fellow's tail. In a good wind, this works perfectly, and when well performed, the paper tail of the other fellow is torn from the string and flies into hundreds of strips. A beautiful sight.

When a kite losses its tail, it spins down rapidly, and gets smashed down onto a roof, or a street, or a field. When the wind is light, one can convert the opponents kite into a windmill, hanging on your string, in the same manner as the one described above. On holidays, when the weather was fine, and a fresh wind was blowing, the sky was full of kites of all sizes and designs. A healthy exercise for the chest , arms and hands.

On summer moonlit nights, our brothers and sisters formed parties, at times, to drag for shrimp in the bay. This shrimp was very large and of the size now found in the Gulf of Mexico. Broiled over charcoal fire on the boat, it was delectable.

Hunting was my hobby, but the close contact with nature while hunting in the o0pen country gave me more real satisfaction than the shooting. My room"s wide windows opened on the garden. If I happened to awaken at early dawn in good weather, I would often go to the open window and gaze on the shadowy trees and plants, and with their slowly forming outlines. On the horizon, an indefinite grey would slowly shape into streaks of merging pale blue and pink. A bird or two would whir, in unsteady flight, in semi-darkness. Nature was awakening, and it held me in exaltation. It was this same feeling that I experienced when I started out at early dawn for a day"s hunting. We always started at about three in the morning, for the railroad service was very limited. It required one or two hours of walking to reach the hunting grounds.

At about the age of eleven, my twin brother and I began to accompany our older brothers when hunting small birds, we carrying the game bag. Occasionally we were allowed to take an easy shot. We developed a liking for the sport at an early age, and we naturally handled the guns and played with them at home, when our elders were not around.

I must have been about thirteen years old when we lived in Bournabat, a suburb, during an epidemic of cholera in Smyrna. On a quiet afternoon, I was handling a shotgun in a room on the ground floor of the house facing the street, aiming at various objects and pulling the trigger. As I looked out of the window, I saw a farmer peacefully walking along the sidewalk. I shouldered the gun, aimed at his head, and was ready to pull the trigger, firmly believing that the gun was unloaded, when he moved his head down toward the house. Fearing that he may have seen me, I pulled the gun in and kept still till he got further away. Then I started looking for a target inside the room. I saw a nail on the wall, half way up the ceiling, aimed and pulled the trigger. To my great surprise, the gun went off and the plaster on the wall flew into dust all over the room. If the farmer had not turned his head in time, he would have been killed, and the Lord only knows what would have happened to me. The guns at home were always unloaded when brought in, but exceptions will happen. From that day on, I was most careful. I recall several instances when luck only saved playmates from tragedy, and others when tragedy occurred.

My brother, Emile, had a .32 rifle, in which one could shoot shells containing bird shot. It was a small charge, but good enough to kill a small bird at a short distance. It was a light little French Flaubert. When about fourteen, my twin brother and I found some bullets for it, and practiced shooting. We often went to the terrace, on top of our house, and shot at various objects in the vicinity, including wild doves which often roosted on the roof tops. We used to shoot at them, irrespective of the danger of the bullets carrying beyond the target, and landing in a window or in the street. The rifle carried quite a distance, and the queerest thing is, that we never got into trouble. Apparently no one was ever hurt.

On top of the roof of the College St. Joseph, near our house, was a metal windmill. That was a target for us when no wild doves were in sight. The vane of the windmill came to look like a sieve. After a while, it was taken down and replaced, and I don't know why not a word was ever spoken to us about it. The reports of the rifle could easily be heard, and we could also be seen from the windows of the college building.

In Turkey in those days, we could hunt almost the whole year around, even on Sundays. There were hardly any game laws. Song birds and rare bird were hunted, as well as ducks, partridge or woodcock. The hunting permit was a huge document, decorated with numerous seals. One never knew whether the man asking you to show your "teskere" was a bonafide game warden or not. His appearance was indifferent, and he wore no badge or other insignia. More often than not, he would scan the permit upside down. Illiteracy was widespread.

One of the small birds which provided a lot of good shooting was the sky lark. We would go to the meadows of Menemen and set down our mirror. This was a wooden block, about a foot long with small square mirrors, half inch square, inlaid in it. It was revolved by a means of a spring set in the box beneath it.

The larks would fly to and fro and hover over the contraption. It was then that one shot them on the wing. They were surely good eating, and there were thousands of them. The bag could easily be fifty and seventy in one morning's shooting. It was strange to see, occasionally, a wounded skylark soar straight up in the sky, almost out of sight, singing its beautiful clear song, and then drop dead in a swift dive. As I think of it, it seems as if, knowing its end was near, it wanted to give its last song heaven bound.

Another small bird, which appealed to the lazy hunters, was the becfigue (French) or figpecker (English). Oddly enough, these birds were seldom found on the fig trees. They favored the tree called tzicoudhia, bearing a purple, slick berry with a single, large and hard seed or pit. Such trees were often found in one's garden in the suburbs, and one could sit in an armchair, under the tree, with a pot of coffee, or a bottle of scotch at one's side, and pop the birds with a 28 caliber shot gun. thousands of these birds were shot every Sunday. It was an ordinary bag when one got home by noon with fifty becfigues. The word "becfigue" was more of a term which included a variety of small birds, mostly warblers, and they all favored the tzicoudhias. Sparrows were taboo. they tasted bitter.

The hunters "de luxe" of the becfigues were often at the mercy of the ridicule of the hunters who footed it all day up and down the high and rocky hills after partridge. This partridge looks much like the Hungarian Partridge and may be the same specie.

In the hills, one would often come across flocks of sheep with their shepherd and a ferocious wolf dog, or two, guarding and corralling the flock.

The dogs would invariably rush you, snarling without barking. Their exposed, vicious teeth told you what you might expect. The shepherd would usually do nothing about recalling the dog, passively enjoying the sight of helplessness in the ghiaour (infidel), who dared not shoot the dog. The shepherds were all armed with rifles. You needed all your wits to bypass the shepherd and his dog. One usually had to wait, and be on guard, till the flocks had passed on their march. If not on the move, one faced a most difficult situation. If one started to turn back, the dog would pounce. It was a question of showing no fear, but making no aggressive moves either. I feared the shepherd's dogs. If one shot the dog, one would surely be shot before sunset, either by the shepherd on the spot, or by some neighbor shepherd. They watched for each other, and they kept their eyes, from very long distances, on the shiaour hunters.

I had a muzzle loader, with which I got my best shots. One day I had gone out alone and had shot a partridge with one barrel, and a woodcock with the other barrel, in the space of one minute. I made straight for home to exhibit my bag and talk of my feat.

Another day, I was hunting small birds with a schoolmate, Michel. We were going through a field when Michel fired at a bird. A Turk stood up suddenly from behind the brush, a rifle in his hand, a scimitar at his side, and a revolver in

his belt. He acted cunningly, spoke casually, and showed some interest in Michel's shotgun. He asked to look at it. As he grasped it, he walked away a few steps, and ordered us off the field. Michel was taken aback and furious at his treachery. He had along hunting knife at his side, and while the Turk had his back turned, Michel motioned to me that he was going to plunge it in his back. I was really scared, and pleaded with him in French to desist, trying not to attract the Turk's attention. Luckily, he desisted, and I was indescribably relieved. We would, no doubt, both been dead by sunset. After many supplications from Michel, who spoke Turkish, the Turk returned the gun, on the understanding that we would leave the field immediately. I never went hunting with Michel again.

An uncle of mine had large olive groves and a home at Narlikeuy, a small village some thirty miles from Smyrna. My cousins, and we twins, spent many week ends there by ourselves, hunting in the vicinity. The watchman on the property was a handsome, tall young Kurd, who could hit a crow on the wing with his rifle. I saw him do it. With a swing of his short sword, he could sever an apple neatly from its stem on the tree, in almost any position. This particular fellow, who had had no schooling whatever, could not even read the clock.He was relating to us one day an incident that occurred in his native village, when he had to ride on horseback in an emergency to the next village. When I asked him how far that village was from his home, he answered: One cigarette. He had no conception of minutes, or hours. What he meant by "one cigarette" was the time usually taken to smoke a cigarette.

At times I would hike alone to the hills and spend my day in the solitude of the woods. I loved the quiet surroundings, where the only sounds heard were those of the birds, or rabbits in the brush. Or, I would find a shallow brook and sit under a weeping willow bending over the brook, birds singing in the trees or splashing in the brook. Apparently they enJoyed the scenery as much as I. Both of us twins were really hardy. We thought nothing of getting home early in the morning from a dance, change into our hunting clothes, and start out without any sleep for a day's hunting.

We usually read the same books, for our inclination and tastes were very much alike. "Force and Matter", by Louis Buckner, we found very interesting and revealing. It fitted in with our own early conception of life in general. We became vegetarians at the same time, but after a while, I discovered from experience, that meat was the real staff of life.

At the age of nineteen, my friend, Roger, and I decided to add one more page to our book of experience. We took the route of the donkey caravans of sailors. We got intimately acquainted at our destination, but I returned somewhat disillusioned and never took the same route again.

There were a number of beautiful girls in the European Colony, but they were not allowed the freedom that is enjoyed in this country, so that when one was attracted to a girl not already known, it was difficult to make her acquaintance.

One had to content oneself with platonic expressiveness. One form of declaration of love or admiration, however, that was tolerated by the parents of the girls, was serenading. One could hire serenaders and accompany them at night under the girl's window. The girl was not allowed to show herself at the window, and the lovelorn remained theoretically a stranger.

After graduation, and a two months vacation, my twin and I went to work. We had been together every day of our life, but he went to work for my father and uncle in the firm of N. Giustiniani at Fils, and I went to work at the Credit Lyonnais, a branch of the French bank.

This separation meant much to us, but we spent most of our free time together, sailing, rowing, fishing and hunting. We liked each other's company better than anyone else's. Our tastes were the same, and even when one of us fell ill, the other one would follow invariably.

Up to then, our needs had been provided by our parents, but now we had to look out for ourselves. We were earning our way partly through life, and a feeling of independence crept in on us.

At the bank, I had to work harder and longer than my brother, at father's office. For six months I worked without pay, on a sort of probation. After that, my pay was about a little more than half that of my brother's.

The work was interesting enough, but I was longing to make a start in a country offering better opportunities. Life outside the European circle was primitive. There was no industrial activity, and business was only seasonal. Beyond the confines of a few short miles, the country was relatively bare and displayed only limited farming.

The active Western world, as revealed through my education and subsequently in books, magazines and newspapers, had a great attraction for me. I felt isolated from it. I longed for a broader life.

I had read every book I could obtain on America. Whenever the words U.S.A. or America appeared in a newspaper, I would read the item over and over again. I felt that my longing for a gratifying way of life would be realized in America only. I was going to take advantage of every opportunity to get there. As I look back on this matter, and the circumstances of my early life, it seems quite logical that, of all countries, I should have chosen America for the place to spend my life.

I was born in Turkey, of Austrian and Italian parents, and brought up like a Frenchman. I felt no allegiance to any of those countries. Although my French education attached me to France, I had no liking for the French way of life.

In Smyrna, we lived practically an open air life with many facilities for engaging in sports. I had a taste for adventure and the story of the American Pioneers had fascinated me. I had a secret desire to emulate them. America was the land where all were welcome, irrespective of creed or nationality, with opportunities for all.

An opportunity presented itself suddenly for me to leave for Europe. I was half way to America. I was an Austrian subject. As a result (of the) Capitulations, although I was born in Turkey, Austria could take me by force for military service in Austria. I had never lived in Austria and spoke very little German. It was to be three years of a hard, regimented life, and quite different from what I had known. I made up my mind to avoid it by all means possible. Father and Mother also looked on it with disfavor.

I was to be 21 years old in May 1903, the age of conscription. My twin brother and I were examined by the physician of the Austrian Consulate. Having found that my twin was not fit for military service, because of flat feet, but that I was, I had to report at Trieste, Austria, in November 1902.

My twin brother was not really flat footed, although his arches were not as good as mine. I believe that it had been a friendly arrangement between my father and the physician to take only one of us for the three year military service.

It was decided by my parents that I should try to leave for France, where two of my brothers, Christian and Emile, were living. Christian was a merchant representing my father's firm, while Emile was a writer and contributor to French literary reviews. He wrote several books on social, philosophical and historical subjects which were all crowned by the Academie Francaise.

I had to slip out or the City unnoticed by the Turkish and Austrian authorities, for I needed a passport which I could not obtain without the consent of the Austrian Consul. I made a friendly arrangement with the Agent of a European steamer, not Austrian, then in the harbor, whereby I would be given a stateroom if I managed to get on board by my own means.

I bid good-bye to my relatives at home in the morning, and my twin brother accompanied me to the end of the street, where we just shook hands in spartan manner, and wished each other good luck. But I did not make for the harbor. I had still to see the girl of my affections.

Although enthused over my prospects of travel and freedom, and careful to make a successful exit, I could not easily tear myself away from her. She had made up her mind to be the last one to kiss me on my adventurous departure. We had arranged to meet in the morning. She, too, had to come to the rendezvous undetected. We took a "voiture", a horse drawn French coach, and made for the countryside. Together we spent many delightful hours discussing various subjects, in the searching but limited way of inexperienced youth. Her keenness, wit, artistic sense and loveliness enticed me. She was a year younger than I, but being a woman, she had a more real understanding of the world, and being a woman, she had also the reserve, which to me added attraction to her manner.

It was a beautiful morning. She wore her best clothes, was fragrantly perfumed and most attractive. In our youthful ecstacy, the hours flew. It was time to part and return. She put her arms around me, closed her eyes, kissed me, and said "Je t'aime. We parted. We were not to look back. I have not seen her since.

I hired a boat at the Quay, tipped the boatman generously (for the risk in taking me to the steamer without going through customs), and in a blazing sun, when all was quiet, I boarded the steamer with my few belongings. The Captain expected and welcomed me. Once aboard, the Turkish and Austrian authorities could not interfere. Under International law, I was on foreign soil. No passport was needed in those days to leave or enter a country, except in Turkey and Russia. I was bound for Marseille and thus could enter France without a passport.

We had a beautiful trip through the Aegean Sea, and the numerous small islands dotting it. We stopped in Pireus but were not allowed to land.

Half way between Greece and Sicily, on a very warm day, the pure sea air gradually acquired a disagreeable odor. There was nothing in sight but the deep blue waters of the mediterranean. I asked the Captain, next to whom I was standing on the bridge, where it came from. He said that we would in a few minutes overtake a boat responsible for it. We did overtake it shortly. It was a small, old and slow tramp steamer, and a multitude of people was crowding the deck. They were pilgrims returning from Mecca to Morocco.

We passed the straits between Sicily and the mainland of Italy at about midnight. The island volcano, Stromboli, was emitting a deep red flash regularly every three minutes. A beautiful sight in the night.

We stopped at Naples the next day, but there again, we were not allowed to land. Our stay was to be for a few hours only. The Vesuvius was emitting smoke in a quiet and beautiful day, and the waters of the Bay of Naples were calm and of a light blue tint. The scenery was most appealing, and we greatly regretted that we were unable to land.

We anchored at Genoa for two days, and there we landed and saw as much of the City as we could. With two other passengers, I visited the Campo Santo (cemetery) where we saw an innumerable collection of fine works of art and statuary and mausoleums. We landed at Marseilles one day later. In the harbor was a motley crowd from all points of the compass. In a restaurant I ordered the locally famous "Bouillabaisse", a soup made of lobster, crab, eel and fish, highly seasoned. I did not think too well of it. It seems true, that tastes are peculiar to localities.

I took the overnight train to Paris, sitting up in a coach.

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