We stood next to the car flexing our knees and gulping fresh air. It had been a long trip and we were marginally cross. We’d left the cocoon of our ship in Rome at 7:30 A.M., a tour bus had dragged us all over that city, and it finally deposited us at the airport. The flight to Istanbul was delayed for a couple of hours for reasons no one explained.
Kubilay had been waiting for us with a large cardboard sign among the crowd behind the security barrier at 1 A.M. and had quickly moved us and our things to his minivan. He closed the trunk and came toward us with a small golden box. Opening it, he said, “Please, have my mother’s Turkish delight. Welcome to my country.” The chewy candy sweetened our mouths and attitudes. This was the first of a thousand kindnesses we were to receive in the following weeks.
Most North Americans associate Turkey with its ancient sites, it turquoise beaches, textiles and spices, minarets and palaces, but its true treasure is the people. They are sweet, clever, accommodating, and hilarious.
The Turks LOVE to chat! We saw conversations everywhere – in the street, in the stores, at the monuments, on the bus stops, people taking a minute for a chin-wag and a chuckle. At least one guy cracked us up every day, even when we didn’t understand each other very well. Language is no problem when everyone is really trying to communicate.
I was processing my first look at Istanbul twinkling on both side of the Bosporus, Asia on the right, Europe on the left, with lighted bridges linking them. Suddenly we roared off the highway onto a cobblestone street and on a hill right above my head loomed the Blue Mosque, its six minarets ablaze with lights and a flock of seagulls circling it like an animated crown. It was a spectacular introduction to the city.
Kubilay drafted a kid from the hotel next door to help him haul our gear up three flights. Our tiny apartment was clean, quiet, fully equipped, and had a big balcony with a view of the Bosporus on one side and the Blue Mosque with its seagull parade on the other. We spent a lot of our spare time gawking at one or the other sight, spotting huge tankers and cruise ships heading for the port, and watching our neighbors going about their lives on the street below. We didn’t care at all that the deck chairs were plastic and we decorated the place with our undies hanging on our little clothesline gizmo on sunny days.
The bathroom was one of those wet-shower situations, which meant we had to squeegee the floor every day or risk serious injury; the good news is that all of the appliances were brand new, including an actual washing machine. The windows in what was probably a three-hundred-year-old building, had been replaced, so we heard nothing and slept wonderfully. I do not understand how Tim manages to pick winners on the internet.
Our theory is that the less time we will spend in a place, the less important it becomes. For a month or more we are willing to cough up a bit more, but for a week or less, anything quiet and clean with a reasonably comfortable bed will do. Of course, we always hope for decent internet connection!
Beginning before dawn, five times a day the Muslim call to prayer begins. Each mosque has large speakers festooning its minarets and the calls are blasted from all of them simultaneously. This singing can go on for quite a while. Each is doing his own thing, but there is a curious harmony, almost a musical conversation. Think Dave Brubeck and Paul Desmond. At dawn, midday, mid-afternoon, evening, and before bedtime these calls ring out all over Turkey. It’s exotic, thrilling, eerie, and I suppose that one would get accustomed to it. I never did. Each time it happened, I was reminded of the profound history of our hosts and their devotion. Since the secular government, which has been in charge for decades, seems to keep the religion and the peoples’ rights in balance, we non-believers never felt threatened or disrespected in Turkey.
Palaces and mosques of all sizes and ages are in every corner of the city. Each has its own colorful story about its construction and particularly about its inhabitants. Let me just stay that those sultans really knew how to live!
And today’s Turks know how to live, eat, laugh, shop, and make tourists happy.
As usual, our touring takes the form of lots of wandering, dipping in and out of ancient sites and making lots of time for indulging in local cuisine and gawking at our surroundings and people. We even take whole days off sometimes to just hang out in our digs and be quiet.
Here’s an example of our wayward style: when we went to the fabulous Topkapi Palace, which sits above the Bosporus and covers many acres, we were put off by the long ticket line. An enterprising guide told us that he would help us skip the line and see the highlights of the palace in one hour, an event which could take up to four hours. We agreed and within minutes he had rounded up another six tourists and we were off. It was just our style. We saw the highlights, looked at the views and crown jewels and were enjoying a sumptuous Turkish lunch by one o’clock.
Even though we might flunk the professional tourist test, we do take some nifty photos. So here are some images from Istanbul:
We loved every minute, well…..almost every minute, except the cold, spluttery day when we decided to find the ancient Spice Market, even though it was five in the afternoon. We set out brandishing umbrellas and when we’d gone too far to scurry home for cover, the skies opened. We were wet up to our knees and as lost as we have ever been. We had been walking for forty-five minutes searching for the bazaar and were sure we were very close. We ducked into a little restaurant for shelter and ordered drinks. When the rain finally let up we paid the waitress and asked her where the Blue Mosque was (this was our landmark for home). She was a little salty since we hadn’t ordered food, and brusquely pointed over our shoulders. ” Right there, ” she said.
We were annoyed because we just knew she was lying. We couldn’t possibly be that close to home when we’d walked so far. That would mean that we had been sloshing around in a circle! Ridiculous.
True. We were home wringing out our jeans in about five minutes. Oh, the joys of travel. We still haven’t figured out how we managed it and the next day we actually found the Spice Market, which was like mecca for a foodie.
In Turkey the shop keepers hang on the street, offering their wares with the most ingenious come-ons they can muster. One rug guy said to me, “Oh, come on, just give me your money,” and a guy on a street where we walked every day finally said one morning, “Good morning, I’ve been waiting for you.” They’re persistent and good natured and, by the way, the rugs are gorgeous. Since we are home free and permanently on the road we do not collect anything but photos and memories, but we certainly enjoy fondling the merchandise.
I was across the street saying goodbye to our friends at the market, the tour booking office, the parking lot across the street, and the restaurant owner who makes the most beautiful yogurt soup, when Kubilay appeared in his minivan. Just as we drove away the Muezzins began their call to the faithful, and we took it as our call to return to their vibrant city as soon as we can.