A Good Market Day, a Grand Bazaar, and a Great Cheese Disaster

February 19-20

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:

“Lovely couple.”
“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.

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A typically downtown Istanbul street. This photo doesn’t really capture the steepness, so you’ll have to just believe me…or look up a topographical relief map…or book a plane ticket

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.

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A not so busy bazaar

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Happy with our purchases

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A doner place with a sense of humour (or should I say ‘cents’)

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.

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Cats and “Contradictions”

February 18

Our first full day in Istanbul began with another smorgasbord of food, this time above ground, at an outdoor restaurant just a few steps away from the glistening Bosphorus. Elyse told us it was time to grow-up and order our own food, so we cautiously made our way to the buffet counter, clutching our plates like detention slips. At the counter, we became lost in the shuffle of assertive Turkish brunch-goers. Recalling one of my two Turkish words I called out, “Abi? Abi!” Which has no real equivalent in English, but means something like ‘sir’ with a weightier connotation, since it implies that the man is older, wiser, and deserves my respect. Eventually a large hairy pair of hands grabbed our plates and promised “large Turkish breakfast” and we were sent back to our table with out heads down. We confessed to Elyse that we weren’t bossy enough to order our own breakfast. Eventually plates appeared filled with slices of meat, cheese, eggs and of course more tomatoes and olives. The most delicious of the dishes came separately and bore an island of creamy cheese in a small lake of honey. The centre piece of the display was a geometricly perfect honey comb. My assumption that it was decorative was defeated when Elyse cut off a square and popped it in her mouth. Turns out honey combs aren’t as crunchy as they look and are nothing like the cereal.

Yet again we found ourselves unable to finish the meal, and I saw an opportunity for a free packed lunch to fuel our day’s excursion. While Jakob and Elyse bantered back and forth like siblings, I reached under the table and into my backpack where I found the well-used ziploc bag that usually holds gum and odd candies. Dumping its contents, I held it on my lap until a lull in the conversation. The opportune moment arose and I pounced.

“So shall I pack this up!?” I sprung the baggie from my lap.

Both Jakob and Elyse raised their eye brows and burst into laughter. Yes, thigh-slapping and hand-waving laughter.

“How long were you holding that thing?”
“Where did you get that from?”
“Oh this is so Meghan.”

Although I don’t think being prepared is that funny, I can admit that I could have picked a more casual approach. Between fits of giggles, Elyse kindly reminded me that, like anywhere, the servers here will put the leftovers in a nice little container so that you don’t have to feel like a ravenous dog sliding cold cuts into your purse.

Speaking of dogs, at some point on this first day I did manage to solve the mystery of the subdued strays:
“People in Istanbul treat each other like shit,” Elyse explained, “commuters shove to get on the metro, drivers run down pedestrians, and religious conservatives hiss at short skirts, but the animals in this city are always loved and cared for without fail…just one of the many contradictions of Istanbul.”

The stray dogs may have caught my attention, but it was the street cats that captured my heart.
Aren’t these little guys adorable?

It’s true, I did find Istanbul to be a city of confusing (at least at first) contradictions. It seemed like even the slightest observation, like a patriotic portrait on the wall or even a construction zone, could lead to a lengthy explanation. Thankfully, I had two very good teachers at my disposal, Elyse and Alev Scott. No Alev is not a new travel friend, in fact, Alev has no clue who I am. But I did find her book, “Turkish Awakening” covered in a thin layer of dust on Elyse’s bookshelf. Alev is half Turkish and half English, and at the time of writing her book (2014) she had spent two and a half years working in Istanbul as an English teacher. With her witty and wise prose, Alev explained to me not only the coexistence of animals and humans in this city, but also secularism and Islam, covering and uncovering, patriotism and political protest. According to Alev, what may seem like a contradiction to western logic, usually makes sense in Istanbul. If you’re curious, you really need to read the book for yourself.

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I can just say that one of my most humbling moments was when I read her “Women Undercover” chapter. As a feminist, I firmly support women’s right to cover whatever part of their body they see fit. As a practicing Christian, I see the attraction to dressing in a way the reminds you of your love for God and your commitment to your faith. But even with my appreciation of coverings in all shapes and forms, I was still slightly baffled when I saw two women, one with long loose curls and the other with a colourful scarf secured around her face, chatting and laughing like the best of friends. Alev scolded me from her pages: what ignorance to think that people can’t be friends just because they have different religious beliefs or personal practices! I was immediately embarrassed. Why yes of course, am I not friends with a spectrum of people, many of whom do not share my religious beliefs? Moreover, as Alev puts it,

“the ostensibly nonreligious Turkish woman might be a sincere believer who does not see the need to wear the headscarf; the headscarf-wearer might wear it from habit, but have private doubts or questions about Islam.”

As a passerby, there is no way to know and there is no need to know.

Thanks for the wake-up call Alev and thanks Istanbul for reminding me to ask questions instead of jumping to conclusions. Let’s see if I can be a bit more open minded in my next two Istanbul days…it’s almost bazaar time!

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And this is what we did on Day One other than read books, eat breakfast, and take cat pics.

Istanbul: First Impressions

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It was 11:30pm the night before our flight to Istanbul when we realized that we needed a visa to get into Turkey. We both flew into our own variations of panic. Jakob’s expressed as frustration and mine expressed with a grab for the computer and a controlling ‘calm down, let me figure this out’ attitude. Not a glowing moment. Sure enough, the Turkish government requires a 90$ fee from each Canadian who wishes to prance within its borders. Not in the budget. While Jakob bemoaned the unexpected expense I rejoiced.

“This is what travel is all about,” I patronized, “unexpected expenses means you’re trying something new, going outside of your comfort zone, taking risks!”

While Ms. Frizzle rambled on, Jakob began filling out his e-visa entry form. A few minutes later and I was on the phone with Visa trying to get them to approve the online payment. Even with the extra bureaucratic hoops, it was still the easiest visa I’ve ever obtained. Which means that once again, Jakob had to endure the story of how I once spent three days, far too much money, and all of my willpower to get a Rwandan visa while in Kenya.

For all that effort, our grand entrance at Turkish customs in Sabiha Gökçen International airport (which is named after Turkey’s first female fighter pilot!) was quite underwhelming. The only question from the agent was a mumbled “Canada?” uttered more to himself than to us while he stamped our passports and glanced briefly at the visa screenshots on our phones.

Immediately upon exiting the airport, we saw our first genuine Turkish sight: two large well groomed and well fed canines, lounging in a covered area as if they too were waiting to catch a bus to Taxsim. As we boarded our bus, calculated the lira-dollar conversion of the fare, and tried to connect to the wifi, the image of the content canines still nagged at the back of my mind. Why wasn’t I scared of those massive beasts? Nothing was stopping their 80lb bodies from lunging at me and pinning me to the ground under their rabid breath.

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A couple of adorable street dogs not unlike the ones I saw in the airport (this picture was taken outside the Blue Mosque the next day). Don’t they look so cuddly?

As the Istanbul skyline came into view there were new sights to take in and the docile dogs moved to the back of my mind.

Jakob pointed eagerly out the window, “look a castle!”
A smirk spread across my face, “that one there?”
“Ya the one with all the turrets.”
Now I was laughing out loud, “that’s a mosque, babe.”
Finding no way to recover from his mistake, Jakob joined in my laughter.

An hour later, Elyse joined in laughing too when we told her the story while sitting elbow-to-elbow in a smokey basement restaurant with the “best food in Istanbul.” When we met Elyse just moments before at the bustling Time Square of Istanbul, any passers by would have assumed that we were old friends or possibly relatives, but if you read about our adventures in Budapest you would know that we met her less than a month ago. In fact, we knew each other about as well as you probably know your hair dresser before we agreed to jump on a plane to Turkey and crash on her couch.

Our first dinner out with Elyse was worth the flight and visa alone. For the first half hour, the servers brought a steady stream of tapas-like dishes. The only things I know we ate were chicken skewers and the best hot hummus in the world! The rest was a mysterious concoction of sea food, olives, and tomatoes. Elyse giggled and dared us to guess what we were putting in our mouths, all the while toping up our glasses with a Sambuca-like clear liquor that turns milky the instant it meets water and ice.

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Getting a little excited about our complimentary dessert thing

Eventually, Jakob and Elyse sat back with their hands on their stuffed bellies, admitting defeat, while I tried to power a few more bites into my digestive system. The attempt to wash it down with the milky liquor failed instantly and I stood up looking for a quick escape from the maze of tables. While Jakob explained to Elyse my quick gag reflex, (all too familiar to my closest of friends) I dashed out to the nearest flower pot. Classy entrance to Istanbul Meghan. Thankfully, the healing power of deep breaths of fresh air cured my sudden nausea and I was able to keep all of my hummus.

Back at Elyse’s place for the evening, we took some time to take in our surroundings: the twelve foot high ceilings, the tiled mosaic kitchen counter, a shower built on a podium to accommodate modern plumbing, and the window shutters with Constantinople emblazoned on the handles. Clearly the building was ancient, and Elyse threatened us with expulsion should we break anything. Finally, I noticed a bay window jutting out over the street. According to Elyse, the window was built for the women who’s worlds at one time existed within these walls. It gave them the opportunity to peer out over the street without actually touching the profanities of the city. From this perch, the women of the house could track the neighbour’s midnight visitors and gather other gossipy intel. Seeing two chairs in the window, I assumed that Elyse still made use of the woman’s window, probably offering the street below a bit more sass than the previous occupants.

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The woman’s window

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A little daily reminder that we were staying in the heart of a very old city

With the first sights and tastes of Istanbul still filling our minds and stomachs we pumped up our air mattress and drifted off to sleep. Never thought downtown Istanbul would feel so much like home.