On Istanbul

I open the door and stand out on the terrace to our apartment. Below me on the cobbled streets are kids playing marbles. They flick the marbles and watch as the small glass balls bounce across the cobbles and run along a grove to make a strike. Bouncing around the buildings and running through the steep narrow streets is the call to prayer.

Around the corner is a coffee shop or a tea house. It’s called the former but Turkish men drink tea all day and rarely coffee. The walls of the tea house are bare. In the corner is a big screen TV that’s switched off. The door lists the times of upcoming football matches. No one is sitting inside. Unless the football is on you don’t sit inside. Outside is an assortment of men, chatting, all with their cups of sweetened tea and their tiny stools.

When you walk down the narrow streets you realise that the road is not cobbled at all. It’s printed concrete. The same stones repeat and then you see someones footprints forever baked into the cobblestone road. Down the street is a pastry shop. One that sells börek. A cheesy, oily pastry that oozes as you crunch into it. We buy a half dozen of them and head down to Taksim Square.

Later this evening there will be a protest. The police are here now setting up their water cannon and providing a presence. Tonight the cannon will be used against protesters and we’ll be required to run down an alley and hide in a restaurant where they’ll lock the door until it’s safe for us to go outside again.

Now it’s busy in a touristy way. Shops are open, touts are shouting and tourists are wandering. In the distance I can hear the rattling of cowbells as ice-cream vendors vie for attention.

Outside a shop if a man selling whistles. He blows the whistle for a while before saying the same phrase ten times in a row. It’s in Turkish so I don’t know what he is saying but it goes like this:

Buy my whistle. Buy my whistle. Buy my whistle. Buy my whistle. Buy my whistle.

Buy my whistle. Buy my whistle. Buy my whistle. Buy my whistle. Buy my whistle.

Buy my whistle.

Then he blows his whistle for a while:

WHISTLE. WHISTLE. WHISTLE. WHISTLE. WHISTLE. WHISTLE. WHISTLE.

WHISTLE. WHISTLE. WHISTLE. WHISTLE. WHISTLE. WHISTLE. WHISTLE.

Buy my whistle.

Repeat.

I thought of buying all the whistles just so we would have fifteen minutes peace while he went off to get more whistles to sell. I feel sorry for the people who have to work in the shops nearby. The shops nearby are the usual mix of clothing, food, turkish delight and trinkets. The trinket prices vary wildly from 2 lira for a set of earrings to 15 lira for the same set.

If you follow the road long enough you’ll get to the Golden Horn, an estuary, that comes off the Bosphorus. On both sides of the river are people selling fish sandwiches. The idea is that the fishermen have been out catching fish all morning and now they’re cooking and selling the fish from their boat.

The boats on the south side feel more like emplacements. I also find that the fish has bones and is not that nice. On the Galata side, at one particular vendor the fish is perfect and the extra ingredients make for an incredible lunch.

Two men work each grill. The first is frying fish, the other is lightly cooking onion and dusting it with sumac. The sandwich hot grilled fish is added to the sandwich with the onion. The bed is lettuce and tomato and the top is sprayed with lemon juice and sprinkled with salt, pepper and chilli.

!(Fish burgers)[https://s3.amazonaws.com/distributedlife.com/travel/images/DSCF9368.jpg]

The draw cards of Istanbul is the blue mosque (beautiful), the Hagia Sophia (humungous) and the hustle and bustle of the bazaars (not that hectic). The Grand Bazaar was a disappointment. It has history and interesting architecture. It also has hundreds of the same shop selling the same touristy rubbish. Ornate lamps, scarves and sets of six tea cups that they want at least a 150 lira for. The tea cups that are used in cafés, if you go to a supermarket outside of Istanbul, you can buy for 3 lira. That’s half a lira per tea cup.

The spice market is better because locals do go shopping for spices here. They just skip the Turkish Saffron (safflower), the Indian Saffron (turmeric), the Ottoman Spice mix (the Ottomans often didn’t use more than four spices at a time and so mixes weren’t necessary.)

“The Asian side, the Asian side” is the cry you’ll hear from backpackers as they try to find their unique Istanbul experience. It’s no different other than the coffee is better and the hamams are cheaper.

Istanbul has been romanticised and suffers from exoticism. It’s the Middle East where the locals consume alcohol. I’m sure there is more than a bit of I wish all muslims were like this going on. The reality is that Istanbul is trashy tourism. It’s touts and bazaars selling the same four products with slightly different patterns. A mass-produced vision of 1001 Nights.

Say what you want about Istanbul. The bottom line is that something always gets said about Istanbul.

when: Wednesday, October 01, 2014