Our second full day in Istanbul was market day. Jakob had promised to cook dinner for Elyse and I that night, so in return we offered to help with the foraging. As we made our way through Istanbul’s crumbling cobblestone streets, we compiled the day’s shopping list: eggs, lettuce, onions, tomatoes, cucumbers, bread, peppers, oranges, and cheese.
This list would have taken about ten minutes to gather at our nearest Save-On Foods in Victoria, but in Istanbul this task was an entire day’s adventure.
First, we had to wander the market stalls with some level of disinterest. Picking up a tomato here, frowning at an orange there. A noncommittal attitude is the best insurance against price inflation. Finally, I found an onion I liked. I looked at the stall owner and raised my eyebrows as if to say, “how much?” Elyse took over the negotiations from there. The onion man laughed and shrugged. He had no price for selling a single onion to a tourist. No one buys a single onion. He asked for the equivalent of 8 cents and we offered him 16 (ya we barter in reverse). He nodded eagerly and then in a moment of guilt grabbed another onion and thrust it into Jakob’s hand.
“Just take another one, you stupid foreigner,” he begged (at least that’s my assumed translation).
With our overpriced onions in tow, we moved further into the market, where we found a German tourist curiously prodding an unusual root vegetable. Elyse tried to offer her translation help, but her Turkish vocabulary is more suited for telling off strangers than it is for identifying vegetables. We all agreed to call it a turnip and the man selling them insisted that Elyse take one for her trouble. At this rate, we wouldn’t need to buy anything.
As we made our way towards the tomatoes, I was struck with the calm demeanor of the vegetable sellers. There were no cat calls or demands that we buy their produce, just smiles and the occasional free sample. This was a very different experience from the more touristy corners of town, where Jakob and I had gotten used to shrugging off calls of:
“Hello, you can follow me.”
“Sorry. Yes. I want your money.”
Our personal favourite: “Spend your money for your honey.”
And Elyse and my favourite: “Cinderella!”
It was always easy to say no to these aggressive sales techniques, but it was much more difficult to say no to the warm smiles and outstretched arms of the vegetable sellers. That is how we ended up carting home about 20lbs of oranges, 15 cucumbers, a massive bag of carrots, and more reasonable quantities of everything else on our list. My fears that I may have contracted scurvy over the past five weeks in central Europe were instantly quelled.
As we began the hike back to Elyse’s house (I kid you not, Istanbul is all hills, my calves look amazing) we heard the first strains of the afternoon call to prayer. There was no way we could tell whether the nearest mosque was using a recording or a live singer. It basically sounds all the same to our untrained ears.
Elyse offered a helpful comparison, “it sounds like the old dial-up internet doesn’t it?”
That’s totally what it sounds like!
Except instead of my one computer trying to connect so that I can MSN chat with my friends, it is like all of my friends and all of their friends are sitting in the same house, each in a separate room, and we can all hear the echoes of each other’s dial-up attempts. Imagine that each dial tone is staggered, so that the combined effect rattles the windows and creates a virtual sound storm, making MSN the only viable form of communication anyway.
But in all seriousness, I did find something beautiful about the practice of daily communal prayer at regular intervals. There’s something undoubtably admirable about structuring a day around meeting with God, rather than making God fit into your busy schedule.
We didn’t get to see it for ourselves, but Elyse told us about one time when she was shopping in the Grand Bazaar and watched as each of the shop keepers closed up their stalls, rolled our prayer matts, and bowed down in reverent prayer. Once the call was over, they stood up, dusted of their knees, and returned to their hard bargaining negotiations. Even now, when the tourist crowd grows thinner with every reported terrorist attack, making daily sales quotas is still less important than prayer.
Our experience of the Grand Bazaar was not quite so sacred, but it was memorable. It was our last day in Istanbul and I knew this was the first place I couldn’t leave without a souvenir. I spent most of my time at the Bazaar trying to choose between hundreds of scarf patterns, each one more beautiful than the next. Jakob got busy engaging his best salesman moves on the scarf-seller. It turns out, we aren’t the cold hard barterers we thought we were. As soon as the shopkeeper pulled out Facebook and showed us pictures of his niece who lives in Canada, we were easy sells. After paying tourist prices for my scarf and a new wallet for Jakob, we made our way to the alleys behind the bazaar and found a place where we could eat a kebab for a few lira while sitting on a plastic stool under a leaky tarp. So basically on that day we broke even on backpacker travel cred.
I almost got through this final Istanbul post without admitting my biggest blunder of our time in the historic cross roads of Asia and Europe. But honesty (and my guilty conscience) must prevail. Our lovely vegetable market day wasn’t quite flawless. Let me set the scene. It was 6 pm, the veggies were safely in the fridge and we had begun dinner prep. Jakob was mixing an experimental concoction of hamburger meat, eggs, and bread crumbs because he “didn’t need a recipe to make burgers.” While I agonized over the best way to make a salad when we didn’t have the exact ingredients called for in the Pinterest recipe. Elyse was hungrily hovering over the kitchen, trying to speed along the food, while still respecting Jakob’s request that she relax and let us take care of it. I had just realized that we forgot to pick up cheese, but was relieve to find a block of familiar packaging in the fridge.
I called to Elyse in the living room, “You do have cheese in here!”
“Ya, my mom brought it last time she visited”
“Ah that’s why it looks so familiar, it’s extra old cheddar from Costco isn’t it?”
“Yes, it’s my special treat. Real aged cheddar just doesn’t exist in Turkey. I only take it out for special occasions and even then I just use the smallest piece.”
“Ah ok, we will just use a little then.”
I pulled the unwrapped block from the fridge, hacked open the plastic wrap, and began slicing the precious cheese. As I moved to return it to the fridge, I asked Elyse for a bag to cover it.
“It should have been in one already.”
“Um…no..the package was unopened.”
I have never seen Elyse move so fast as in that moment. Before I could explain, the precious cheese block was in her hands and she was mumbling, “no no no no, I’m going to kill you.” She reached into the fridge and pulled out the already opened package and held the two slightly mangled blocks, one in each hand. A look of devastation written across her face.
I began a mental list of other places I could stay that night.
Elyse was quick to forgive, considering that I messed with her most prized possession and drastically shortened its shelf life. Cheese jokes abounded for the next 48 hours.
It’s much easier to make travel friends when they are just drinking good beer and seeing cool things with you. It’s much harder to accept them when they show up at your house and eat all your special cheese. Thanks Elyse for taking both our fun and our mess for five days, for sacrificing your personal space and your sanity. You are a real gem and we are so thankful that one blustery day in Budapest, you chose us to be your travel friends. We promise to pass it on.