January 28, 2013

A New Year on the Bosphorous

We headed to Istanbul just before the New Year, looking for a place slightly warmer than Berlin to enjoy a few days of holiday. Jacob had visited once before, but we went largely untethered to a specific itinerary, embracing the idea of a schedule-less wander. We stayed in Beyoglu, a region on the European side of the city, halfway between the famous Galata Tower and Taksim Square, where, when we emerged off the bus on the chilly evening of our arrival, we were met with dozens of pushcarts painted a fire-engine red selling warm roasted chestnuts and simit [1], ubiquitous ring-shaped sesame breads far tastier than our usual street pretzel counterparts. We made our way down busy Istikal Street to our last minute airbnb find, on a narrow street looking out on a strip club pulsing with techno music. We were welcomed by our building's proprietor with the city's sign of an open heart: a Turkish tea, and given keys to our kingdom for the week.

Beyoglu is across the Golden Horn from the Old City (connected by the Galata Bridge), where many of the big (and beautiful) tourist sites are located: Hagia Sofia, The Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace, some of the more famous Turkish baths, lots of fantastic baklava and pastry shops and of course, the Grand Bazaar. Crossing the bridge was a daily activity, and always, day and night, fisherman lined up in every available spot, casting their lines into the Bosphorus, catching mostly anchovies and very occasionally something bigger. Old and young, but always men, they fished.

Across the bridge, the bazaar district is an endless maze of ceramics and kilims and turkish towels (the good stuff) as well as block after block of specialized stores selling hammers, plastic barrettes, bras, men's pajamas, sequined fabrics -- a sheer abundance of stuff with labyrinthine streets that can often dead end in ways that are sexy and allow for the discovery of semi-private courtyards and nooks in the middle of extremely high-traffic areas.

We spent our first full day wandering to and from the Grand Bazaar, eventually engaging in an extensive kilim battle, the rigors of which are taxing if both parties are to end up happy. First, there's the agreement to follow a rug seller to see their inventory. Second, the rug seller calls in a few young helpers to spread the carpets, kilims and weaves they have in stock. Third, they open rug after rug, and we nod--yes, we like-- or no, we don't. Rug after rug grows into a Princess and the Pea style stack, higher, higher, higher.

Fourth, after you've hinted at liking two or three rugs, the seller suggests we do an elimination round. The 47 rugs you didn't like are taken out of the running and put to the side. Next, you repeat the process so far. Now you have maybe 4 or 5 or 6 rugs you have said you like with 100+ in the discard pile. We go through these 4 or 5 or 6 very carefully. 6 becomes reduced to two. At this point comes the tea, "My friends, would you like Turkish tea or apple tea?" You sit. You drink tea. The seller looks you in the eye and says, "I have just one question? How important is this rug to your life? Your home?" And you think, "Well, when you put it that way..." And he cuts you off and states a price. But that price is twice what you imagined ever paying, so you start to shrug off and pack your bags. He looks at the pile of 106 rugs that you've gone through together and there is no way you are going out that door without a rug. And to be honest, you do really want that rug. So you offer him half, again. He offers you a deep discount, which is only slightly less than his original price. You offer him half, once again. He sighs and says, "Well, yes, we have other rugs for a price like that. But not this one. It is from 13th century Anatolia. Hundreds of years old. Hand dyed. Hand woven. Not a rug like this." So then we get up to leave and he says again, "Let me ask you one question. How important is this rug to your life? Can you imagine your life without this rug?" And so finally we agree to a price for the rug and we promise to send our friends.

Kilim in hand, our friend drops us at Marin Kebap, his favorite kebab shop in the Grand Bazaar and tells the owner to give us the local price. We feel we've done right, and by that night, New Yea'rs Eve, wander back to Galata Bridge for a fireworks display that goes off 8 minutes too early. But we're there, with a German couple and an elated foursome of Russians from St. Petersburg, who, upon learning we're New Yorkers start describing all they know about New York as gleaned from The Devil Wears Prada.