MEETING THE UNCLES OF ISTANBUL.
I have worked out that I am really good at running away. I have done it so many times now that I must be and, so far, I have always come back. In fact I have even sort of made living from it, under the guise of travel photography and writing, and here I was doing it again. By the simple expedient of stepping onto an airplane bound for Istanbul and heading away on assignment I was leaving most of my worries behind and I was about to inhabit a pleasant little world of limited horizons and generally achievable goals for a couple of weeks.
In theory I had been planning my first trip to Istanbul for the previous six weeks but as I was dragging my enormous suitcase towards the Taxi rank outside the handsome new Attaturk airport, I suddenly realized that I had entirely forgotten to book a hotel. However, the important thing about running away is the “from” bit, generally the “to” bit sorts itself out in due course.
I reached for one of my guide books, selected a likely looking hotel and showed the taxi driver the page. He looked at it and then handed it back to me. We then set off in to the swirl of traffic that was heading towards the centre of the City. Well, when I say set off, it was more like “took off” because, after only a short time, we were travelling at speeds normally only experienced by people like jet fighter pilots and Lewis Hamilton. I am not entirely sure whether some of Istanbul’s taxis are rocket-powered but this one certainly felt like it.
My taxi driver drove with a casual nonchalance, oblivious to the danger, as we wove in and out of the traffic at alarming speeds and just a few minutes later, we were in the historic heart of the magnificent city of Istanbul. I paid the driver with shaking hands and tipped him for having simply delivered me to my destination alive, and headed into the reception. Unfortunately, the Hotel was full and so, a little deflated, I headed off to look for another one dragging my suitcase behind me.
Wandering through the streets a little after midnight in a foreign city with valuable camera equipment, is not something I generally recommend as a seasoned traveller but I can say that the people I met that night were generally hospitable and helpful directing me to several nearby hotels.
As I headed for one of the recommended hotels I found myself traversing a small park in the heart of the city, which was sandwiched between two of the world’s most spectacular mosques. On one side stood the Blue Mosque and on the other the Hagia Sophia. The Blue Mosque was spectacularly picked out by spotlights against a deep, midnight blue sky. With its fabulously ornate cupola flanked by tall, slender minarets it looked the epitome of a fairy tale palace. This unreal scene was enhanced by the ghostly-white seagulls, caught in the spotlights, that circled above it in the night sky looking like scraps of paper caught in an eddying up draft or even the physical manifestations of prayers as they circled upwards towards heaven. On the other side of me across the small park rose the imposing bulk of the Hagia Sophia, a colossal building that predates the Blue Mosque by several hundred years and which is a religious centre for Christians and Muslims alike. Inside it are some of the world’s finest Christian mosaics.
It was a fabulous introduction to Istanbul but I soon remembered that I was still hotel-less and headed on into the part of Istanbul known as Sultanhamet in search of accommodation. After several false starts I found myself standing in the lobby of the Hotel And in the historic heart of Istanbul. “Hotel and what?” I hear you ask? This was exactly what I did. The receptionist looked a bit non-plussed and simply said “And Hotel”.
I am not terribly quick on the uptake, and to be fair it was quite late, so I said “What? Hotel And Hotel?”
“No” he said patiently “Just And Hotel”
“But it says “Hotel And Restaurant” over the door” I persisted
“That’s because we have a restaurant” he replied
This seemed fair enough and I was starting to tire of this conversation anyway. He asked for my passport and riffled through the pages until he came to the photograph of me in the back. He looked at it appraisingly and then the corners of his mouth started to turn up as he suppressed a smile.
“Peter Parker?” he said “Like Spider Man?”
“Yes” I said wearily, as I knew where the conversation was going.
“Will you be using the lift or are you going to climb up the outside of the building?” he said
This was quite astute and funny I thought for a man in a deserted lobby of a hotel in the small hours of the morning, however, my sense of humour level was dangerously low and all I could muster was.
“Do you know what? I’ll think I’ll use the lift if it’s all the same to you”
I had a horrible feeling that I was starting to suffer from a rare type of arachnophobia, one of the curious side effects of which, was the urge to punch perfectly innocent hotel staff. I signed in, staggered to my room and fell gratefully onto the soft bed, and so began my first trip to Istanbul.
I like Istanbul. I always feel very special there. Everyone is so friendly and I am never lonely for long. And so it was that, within just a few minutes of stepping out in to the magnificent city the next morning I found that I had acquired a friend. Like every young man in the Turkish capital, as I was about to learn, he had an uncle who sold carpets. Apparently they were all at a very special price. Just for me! Can you imagine that?
I know that I attract odd people on my travels but in Istanbul I must have been radiating in some way the fact that I was, either carpet-less or that said floor coverings were threadbare and in need of replacement. So with a minutes of starting my Turkish perambulations a handsome young man, neatly attired and with glistening oil-black hair, was striding in perfect synchrony with me, saying how much he liked England; How he supported Liverpool football club; How he was learning English and how he once screwed a girl from Bristol. Before I knew it he had deftly piloted me, not into a shop, but a veritable emporium of floor accessories.
Once in the shop I sat down and a cup of apple tea was proffered. Within moments my friend – the slim, neat, coffee-skinned young man with dazzlingly shiny hair – had evaporated to be replaced by an oleaginous, merchant of more ample proportions. In fact his vast equator was held in by the straining waistband of his trousers. Lord only knew what sort of forces were at play on his trouser button but I knew that should it exceed “critical” and burst then I was a dead man. I imagined the button giving way with the sort of explosive force normally only witnessed in places like the Cerne particle accelerator and travelling so fast as to punch a neat hole through my skull. I envisaged that I would be found later, in a pool of congealing blood, a policeman crouched next to my lifeless body sucking air in through his teeth and nodding sagely saying “Professional job this. Nine millimetre tortoise-shell, plastic, high velocity, dumb- dumb button from close range. The guy never stood a chance”.
In later carpet-related encounters I would sip my apple tea and speculate on the sheer virility of the “uncles” of Istanbul. Hundreds possibly thousands of young men populated the streets in the touristic heart of Istanbul all of whom appeared to be related in some way to a limited number of “uncles” with carpet shops. It seemed to me to be a rather singular existence being a carpet shop owner with time only for closing sales or constantly reproducing. The phrase “shag pile” would drift in to my thoughts and I would smile to myself.
Once in the shop I passed comments about the carpets that were laid out in front of me. I struggled to remember words like “warp” and “weft”, and then struggled as to remember what they actually meant. And then I wasn’t sure how best to deploy them in the conversation but hoped by doing so I would be implying a degree of carpet knowledge on my part. At regular intervals in the conversation, whilst he extolled the virtues of some Cappadocian rug or other, I tried to introduce the notion of the likely price of the colourful carpets in front of me but this was waved away as if a mere trifle and possibly the least important bit of information required by the genuine rug connoisseur. Eventually he dropped into the conversation, almost as an aside, that the price was five hundred pounds.
“FIVE HUNDRED POUNDS” I exclaimed.
“Yes” he said. “It has taken a woman in a remote interior village months to weave this carpet”
“I am sure it did” I said hastily. “But five hundred pounds is way out of my price range even if I did have a floor on which to put it.”
He looked a bit puzzled by the final part of my exclamation – ..”even if I did have a floor to put it on”.
Whilst admiring the many carpets I had been devising a living situation that would allow me to leave the premises mercifully free of rugs. So I claimed to be living with an uncle, by way of delicious symmetry, and that he would not let me add to the general décor of the house. But if he would like to pass me his card I would be back in touch the very moment I moved out and got a place of my own.
He said “What about for your family?”
“I don’t have one” I lied
“What about a nice one for one of your brothers or sisters?
“Only child” I said with false sadness
“Surely, your parents would think much of you if you were to take them home a fine Cappadoccian rug. No?”
“I can’t abide my parents. But do give me a card and I will be in touch.”
I exited the shop carpet-less and headed down one of the main streets along which the trams rattled their way to the Old Galata Bridge. I was feeling a bit bad about having laid out so many negatives and untruths in order to escape a potential carpet purchase. However, after having swatted away half dozen “carpet nephews” in the few minutes that it took me to get down to the water’s edge and into one of the cafes that huddled in the metal super structure underneath the bridge that carried the road over to Beyolglu, I wasn’t feeling anywhere near as contrite.
I ended up liking the cafes under the bridge. They were small enterprises frequented by local people and nothing like the huge international chain establishments that disfigured the historic streets and were populated by loud tourists. They also served coffee which could have been used by mad scientists as an alternative to a lightning strike when bringing monsters, such as Frankenstein’s, to life. I also liked the view of the flying fish.
I t took me a little by surprise the first time I saw them. I was sitting happily with a coffee in one hand and making notes into a small notepad on the table in front of me when I saw my first struggling fish silhouetted against the bright sky. It wriggled furiously before disappearing upwards and out of sight.
On top of the Galata bridge, and hidden from me by route I had taken down to the river’s edge and then into the cafe underneath of the bridge, was a pavement crowded with fishermen all trying to catch some free protein from what must have been a pretty polluted waterway. They were there every day and I came to enjoy the curious view from the café; out along the river on to the Bosphorus itself, through what appeared to be some sort of jerky, fishy shadow puppet show. I presumed many of the fishermen must have been members of the “newly-arrived” in Istanbul trying to eke out a living in what is a very expensive city.
I spent the rest of my first day orientating myself by walking around the ancient streets of Sultanhamet seeking out the original wooden Ottoman buildings that still exist in some of the city’s backwaters and looking for vantage points from which to take photographs. I dined at the hotel, retired early and was happy to see that I had been given a room with one of the finest views in the hotel. Framed perfectly through one of the windows was the vast copula of the Hagia Sophia Mosque above which, on this particular evening, a crescent moon hung rather symbolically in a deep blue sky casting its silvery light on the roof tops. It was a beautiful and uplifting sight and I took it is a good omen for the rest of my trip across this once great nation that has a foot in both Europe and Asia.