Istanbul, 2010

This is a letter I wrote during a trip to Istanbul from Belgrade, where we lived.  The Pictures are street scenes from Istanbul. There are other posts that feature the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, Markets, the Topkapi Palace, and Shulyman Mosque

June 28, 2010

Dear Friends,

Coming to Turkey is like visiting the home office for the Balkans.  The food, architecture, and even some of the words are the same as “home.” I kept thinking “The Turks have baths, mosques, arched bridges, raki or baklava just like “home.”  This was headquarters — the Sublime Porte from which the empire was ruled.  Surprisingly, however, there is not much coffee.  Turks, it appears, prefer tea, or Nes (Nescafe).  I have not yet found a good cup of Turkish coffee.

Turkey is the land of the hustle, and the touts here seem more skilled at the hustle than in almost any other place.  Suzi and I were walking up toward the Hagia Sophia when a gentleman asked, “Where are you going?”

“Hagia Sophia.”

“If I may recommend, there are three cruise ships today and all of the passengers seem to be at Hagia Sophia now.  You should to go to the Blue Mosque first.  It will close in an hour for prayer.  Go there now, then to Hagia Sophia when the tourists are gone.  I’m going in that direction, let’s walk together.  Don’t worry, I’m not a tour guide.”

The walk was accompanied by pleasant conversation until he let slip “I’m in the textile industry.”  Red flag.  “In fact my business is just down this street.”  We were going to get the carpet hustle with a free cup of tea.  “I have a fine selection of carpets, and we ship everywhere.”  No doubt about it, the carpet hustle.  “So if you will just take just 5 minutes.”

“But you yourself made the point that we should to go to the Blue Mosque before prayers.  We best go there now.  Thank you anyway for your kind invitation.”  And we went up to the mosque.  Win some lose some.

We lost the shoe shine hustle, although the story was worth the price.  Suzi and I were climbing the hill toward the Shulyman Mosque.  A man rushing down dropped his shoe brush.  Suzi picked it up and called after him.  He turned around, took the brush and thanked her profusely and offered to shine her shoes, looked at the shoes, which are suede sandals and switched his attention to me.  Leather sandals, good enough.  He put down his shoe shine box and started applying polish to my sandal straps.  This is the first time I ever has a shoe shine on sandals while I was wearing them.  He was indeed skillful in both the shine and the rap, not wasting a dollop of polish on my foot.

The economic crisis had hit his family badly, he had to move to Istanbul from Ankara and was reduced to shining shoes.  He had a wife, kids, he was so poor, so was happy that Suzi had saved his humble working tool on which the welfare of his family depended.  Another shoe shine man came by.  “This is my, (the first time he said cousin, the second time) brother, Ahmed.”

Suede or not, Ahmed thought Suzi should have shiny sandals, Suzi wisely refused, but we both knew that this was not going to be a free shine for me.  The story ended at the same time as the shine.  He had a special rate for me.  18 Turkish Lira.  That’s a $12 shoe shine.  I had a few choices, I would walk away to be followed by cries about his wife, children and cousin/brother Ahmed, the ugly American stiffing a poor shoe shine man. I could bargain, which I was not up for, or I could play my own dodge, intentionally misunderstanding him, I handed him 10 lira note (still too much) saying, generously “Eight lira and keep the change.”

We saw him on the back way down the hill, he gave us a sly smile as he looked for somewhere else to drop his brush.  By the way, this is not the most outrageous shoe shine dodge I have encountered.  In India 15 years ago a shoeshine man followed me while a confederate opened a Gerber’s baby food jar and plopped something on my shoe.

“Shit on shoe, shit on show, must shine, must shine.”  And, indeed, I must.

Perhaps the most enjoyable hustle is the Turkish Ice Cream show.  “Turkish Ice Cream” is a form of kymak, sort of a clotted dairy product, frozen and flavored with the traditional ice cream flavors.  The “ice cream” is thick and sticky.  It can stick to a ladle, which is the heart of the show.  The two vendors tap out poly-rhythms on the metal ice cream cans and hit a line of cowbells hanging over the stand while crying out.  When I came to buy a cone the guys go to work pulling the whole glob of lemon kyamk from the container, stretching it between their ladles like pulled taffy and then filling a cone.  The lead guy, wearing a fancy gold embroidered red vest, handed me a cone, pulled the ladle away, and the cone was empty, the ice cream stuck to the ladle.  What followed was a two minutes of skillful slight-of-hand with the ladle, the blob of ice cream and the cone each disappearing and re materializing, once the ice cream flew high above our heads, to be plopped right into the cone, juggling ice cream.  At the end he presented a cone, filled with ice cream and the comment “See now why it’s called the ice cream SHOW?”  The four dollar cone was worth it.

Walking through the grand bazaar and the spice souk all sort of creative touts vie for your attention with offers of “no obligation” tea.  One tout asked Suzi if she wanted a leather jacket, Suzi said it wouldn’t fit so he turns to me and asks “wouldn’t your secretary want a leather jacket?”  You need to enter the grand bazaar with a relaxed attitude and a gentle resolve to go with the flow, enjoy the show and the hope that you will not come out with a carpet with a half a kilo of saffron.

So I should be forgiven when I suspected a hustle what was not a hustle.  Suzi and I were walking across a park in Buyukcekmece, the seaside suburb where our hotel sits.  A young boy sat at the foot of a statue of Ataturk playing a flute.  We passed by and smiled.  He smiled back and approached us.  I thought he would ask for a lira, which I would have gladly given him, but he, instead, opened his backpack and asked for help with his English homework.  He had a workbook with exercises. “Mary doesn’t like math she thinks math is —–.”  There were five choices of a word to insert.  We agreed on “hard.”  He used his dictionary to try to communicate.  A couple strolling by came over to ask if the boy was bothering us.  “No, just English lessons.”  When we were done the boy offered us his well marked Turkish-English” dictionary.  We were moved but told him that he should keep the book to help him learn his English.  He looked at us and said “but you may have grandchildren who want to learn Turkish.

Take Care,

Rich McClear.

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