We explored the western side of Turkey as part of our 2016 SouthEast Europe trip, mainly because of some heavy lobbying by some trusted travel friends that it was a country not to be missed. “Istanbul is the most interesting city you will ever visit!” we were told. For better and for worse, they were right.
We arrived in Turkey via a series of ferries from Greece, our travel ending with a sunrise crossing from Greece’s western-most island of Chios to the port of Cesme just as the town was waking up. Entering a cafe to grab some coffee, it’s hard to figure out who works here. There are a few people at tables, drinking tea or small cups of coffee, but no one with a uniform or behind a counter. We walk in and one of these people suddenly stands, asks what we’d like and gives us a wifi password. Later, we pay and he gets our change from a wad of bills in his pocket, then goes back to sipping his tea (cay) and enjoying the sunshine with his friends.
In Izmir, the ruins and ancient Agora are right near our hotel, so we go exploring one evening. We try to go all the way around the outer wall, but it’s clearly blocked off, so we have to go back the way we came, around a group of rough-looking guys (who now know we don’t know where we’re going). One shouts in English (either to us or to someone else, we were never really sure) “hey you! You! Where you from? Where you from?” And then, depending on who you ask, either says “you, you’re a sonofabitch” or “you, you’re a colourful peach!” Nothing comes of it; we just keep walking. Will proceeds to call me a colourful peach for days.
Prices of items are completely unguessable, or else totally malleable. A bottle of beer at a (rare) licensed establishment is 11TL (about $6). A 1.5hr air conditioned train ride to Selcuk/site of ancient Ephesus is just 5TL ($2.75). Everything in the Grand Bazaar is whatever price you can confidently offer to the vendors, apparently. Even elsewhere in the country (cities, islands, port towns) I quickly learned that almost everything is cheap, but nothing is free.
Speaking of the Bazaars, I got a cool new nickname in the more touristy parts of Istanbul. Everyone seemed to agree on it. It’s “YesPlease HowMuchThisForYou GoodPrice”. I really think it suits me.
We spend the early evenings in Istanbul sipping beers on our apartment’s ramshackle rooftop terrace, trying to figure out the minutiae of evening prayer calls (we can hear 2 or 3 different mosques from the terrace). They all start within a few seconds of each other. The bigger the mosque, the longer and more exuberant the call. The more minarets, the longer the echo distance. The scale is closest to Aeolian, with some occasional raised 7ths and most of the phrases starting on the equivalent of the 5th. And the most important: it is always offensive to try and imitate what they are doing.
Walking along the waterfront in Uskadar (Asian side of Istanbul), an older man walking near us asks where we’re from. By now I’m extremely wary of this opening line, but it turns out this guy is just a happy guy with a son around our age. We learn that he’s 60, he used to work for a Telecom company, and now he’s an independent fisherman (“Better”, he says). He drinks what he calls Fisherman Beer, Efes Xtra, the only strong beer in town (“better”).His wife is quite a bit younger than him (“better”). He used to be a radical Muslim (his words), but now he’s much more moderate, and eats and drinks beer during Ramadan (….“better”). Before we part ways, he asks if we want to go drink beer with his friends. It’s noon, but we do briefly consider it.
Looking around a small pastry shop in Beyoglu, a small boy no more than 10 years old comes out and points around the store, giving us samples and trying to ask what we’d like. We point at a few things and he weighs them. it’s more than we want to pay, so we ask him to put some back. He punches a new lower number into the calculator and shows it to us, pointing a few times. There’s still no sign of an adult anywhere in the shop. We shrug, pay the “new price”, and leave with our baklava and Turkish delight.
Visiting probably our 4th mosque in as many hours, we are accorded immediate respect for knowing “the drill”: shoes off, voices low, scarf over my head and shoulders. I feel like this is too simple, not impressive or worthy of admiration; it’s not so different from general church or museum etiquette anyway. But then I see a group of tourists, and I immediately understand. They are giggling while taking pictures of themselves pretending to pray and doing sexy poses with the mosque robes covering their shorts. I wish I was exaggerating.
Finally, leaving Istanbul from the coach station we emerge from the Metro station surrounded by ads: names of tour companies, food vendors, coach lines, bright, loud, and all with employees in front shouting for our attention. Will points out that it’s like an airport terminal, and I can’t see the connection until I look closer and see small numbers between the ads. It’s the platforms. Over 100 of them. Stuffed in behind this giant ads and all the tour guides are buses, like planes arriving and departing. I pause to wonder if Istanbuls airport could be like this, too: each airline vying for your attention with big ads and loud attendants, trying to rustle up new passengers right up until the last second. Could be fun.