25 Jun Istanbul again
Sights (not sites), sounds and other stuff
The city has a great transport system, from the most sophisticated to the most archaic and much in between. Top of the archaic category is the little trolley bus that trundles slowly up and down Istiklal Caddesi (Istanbul’s answer to Oxford Street) and must be a hundred years old, its lovely wooden red carriage the only vehicle allowed on the street. There are buses that look as if they should have been retired from active service many years ago; there are the various boats and ferries of all shapes, sizes and states of seaworthiness; and there are yellow ‘taksis’ driving at breakneck speed. At the other end of the spectrum there’s a flash new metro system and a tram service that cuts a blue dash through the city. Air-conditioned, clean, fast, it’s emblematic of a city that’s modern, confident and prosperous.
Much of the city conforms to this image of modernity but there remain some fascinating contrasts. The old street traders still selling their wares, the little push/pull wagons selling the crescent shaped simitci all day long, the shoe polishers with their gleaming gold pedestals, men sitting together drinking black tea from a tiny glass sweetened with at least three sugar cubes, the drink of choice all day long. The women express this contrast most sharply. They seem to fall into three groups: firstly the ones dressed in black from head to toe, some, often the younger ones, in burkas; secondly, a lot of mainly middle-aged and older women wearing ordinary clothes but with headscarves covering their head and shoulders; and thirdly, the majority of younger urban Turkish women who are western in their dress and their demeanour.
We encountered another interesting gender distinction in the carpet emporia. As a kind of gimmick, many of the shops have a token carpet weaver working away in the front of the shop. It’s always a woman, of a ‘certain age’, around 50-60, and she’s working on a simple loom using the finest of silk to make a small decorative rug. We visited two of these places and I asked about the work and how long it would take. As an example of the intensity of effort that goes into these extraordinary pieces, one weaver had a piece measuring about 12″ across; it had a detailed pattern with rich colours; she had completed about 3″; it had taken two months. I know weaving is a time-consuming activity, not for the right-headed or those with any sense of their mortality. But you’re speechless at this. How many pieces will one woman do in a lifetime? And you look around at all the emporia filled with piles ( no pun intended) of rugs and carpets, and you think of all those lives, mainly women’s lives, all the time, toil, backache and eye strain, and all the beauty they create, and the value we attach to it. And you struggle to find the sense of it all.
And then are the sounds. The muezzin gets going with the daily call to prayer at 5 am! And is at it 5 times a day, 6 on a Friday. Just how observant the Istanbulers are is not at all clear. Sometimes it’s a haunting, serene and melodic sound; but mostly it’s a kind of terrible caterwauling belted out at several decibels above the comfortable human range. Tough luck if you live near a minaret, all of them kitted out with about 4 speakers – you’ll never have the excuse that you slept through the alarm!
Istanbul is home to the world’s biggest urban concentration of cats, I swear. They are trying to outdo rabbits as the best breeders on four legs and also doing their best to be heard above the muezzin. The place is crawling with cats and kittens, interspersed with the odd sleeping dog and masses of pigeons. And, for the first time since we left Brussels, we are back with the seagulls who make their own familiar din on the rooftops around our little balcony.
We found there is a difference between the Asian and European Istanbul after all. On the Asian side you can’t find a beer! We searched and searched as the sun passed the lunchtime yardarm and the muezzin stepped up for the third time. There was none to be had. Asia is dry so we took the metro under the Bosphorus to Sirkeci, found a beer and some terrific Anatolian meze. Back in the west – phew!
There’s lots more about Istanbul – it could keep you blogging forever and we have already arrived in Vienna (more soon on that). But to end on a personal note, we discovered that the Istanbulers are seriously deluded. On several occasions we, and especially Jim, were mistaken for Aussies. In Jim’s case, this was because, wait for it, he seemed to be such a laid-back guy! I rest my case!
Oh, and they generally haven’t heard of Britain or the UK. “You are from England?” “No, Scotland” – which they do seem to have heard of. Has the referendum happened already?