ISTANBUL – I arrived at the Grand Bazaar today bearing a gift for a shopkeeper named Mehmet. We have a mutual friend, Nyoman in Ubud, Bali from whence I have recently returned. Mehmet had requested I bring him some of Nyoman’s coffee. And so I have, along with a pile of costume jewelry, all of it long in need of repair.
But how to find Mehmet’s jewelry shop out of the thousands in the world’s largest and oldest shopping mall? When my Turkish phone died in Bali so did the numbers of many friends including Mehmet’s. I called the Kybele Hotel where Ali Baba had once told me he knew Mehmet. He was on vacation, but the boy who answered the phone said, “I know Mehmet. I can tell you where he is.” “Are you sure? There must be thousands of Mehmet’s in the Grand Bazaar,” I said. “The jeweler right? He’s in the old part . Just ask for Mehmet.”
Never ceases to amaze me how the world shrinks as my travels span greater distances and time. Istanbul is a city of 20 million and the Grand Bazaar has more than 5,000 shops. One phone call and someone knows exactly where to find Mehmet.
What I think is going to be a quick drop off, an hour most – well, right. I am in Turkey where there is no such thing as a quick drop off of anything. I had planned on the requisite cup of tea before embarking on my next errand – to the PTT delivery company who was holding 3 boxes I’d shipped from Bali. But no, one hour slipped into two and then three as we sat in the back of the shop at Mehmet’s desk surrounded by dimly lit jewelry cases with glittering baubles from Nepal and Africa and Brazil. Although Mehmet rarely smiles, I could swear I saw his mouth turn up slightly when I handed over the freshly roasted coffee beans from Nyoman in Ubud, Bali. He insisted on paying.
Over the ensuing three hours, he scrutinized each piece of my broken jewelry under a light, called his shop boy and sent him off with a flurry of Turkish words. Later the shop boy would return with the like-new earring or necklace and Mehmet would hand him the next piece with instructions and we would go back to our tea and he his cigarettes. He told me about the money he has made, the customers he has had, the places he has lived, the women he has loved. And we waited.
A woman with wild blonde hair and tight jeans and heels came into the shop and looked unblinkingly at a ruby beaded set of earrings even after Mehmet told her the price was one eight hundred. I think that’s a soft way of saying one thousand eight hundred dollars. When he asked where she was from she answered Lebanon.
All this patience was making me shaky and light headed, and so I crossed the “street” to the Bedestan Cafe and Patisserie where I bit into pillow soft manti swimming in buttery yogurt. Ah… Manti – the Turkish version of spinach and cheese stuffed ravioli. I noted the larger than life portrait of Ataturk, sitting legs crossed in a chair staring down at me sternly as if to say, “If you don’t like my country, well you can just get out!” There was smoky oriental music playing. Red cushions. Dust laden light shafts through the high windows of the ancient brick arched rafters above. Huge crimson Turkish flag draped from the ceiling.
At the table next to me there were four women, 3 generations, Grandma, mom, young adult woman, and adolescent girl. They switched easily back and forth between Turkish and English.
When I finished eating, I looked up at Ataturk again, and I could swear his eyes had softened. Dapper in white pants, socks, white shoes, dark smoking jacket, the end of his red tie tucked into his while shirt. A white hanky peeking from his chest pocket. Cigarette dangling from extended hand.
Speaking of cigarettes, Turkey hardly seems like Turkey since they sewed up the last loophole on the indoor smoking ban last week. Since then, cafes have emptied out into the streets, patrons at tables and chairs on every visible piece of outdoor concrete, eating and puffing away.
Back in Mehmet’s shop, I sit down again and breathe slowly. Relax. A small muscle twitches in my left arm. This is what I am doing now. This is Turkey. Yavash, yavash.
Three hours after I arrived… “Another tea?” Mehmet says. “Well, I was thinking I’d better get going to the PTT,” I say, pulling out the receipts to show him the address. “It closes in an hour.” “Forget it,” he says. “You’ll never make it. You can go tomorrow.” Why of course. I sit back down. We drink another tea. He smokes another cigarette.
I pack the last necklace into a plastic bag. He tallies it up – 11 pieces of jewelry repaired for 44 lira, approximately $30. And he steps outside his shop to show me the way out through the maze of streets in the bazaar. We shake hands, look into each other’s eyes, and part ways. Business completed Turkish style. He has done me a big favor, and by charging me a miniscule amount of money for a load of work, he thinks he has hidden his generosity from me.
I jump onto the tram going the direction of the Topkapi stop where I’ve been told the PTT Air Delivery Depot is. It is almost 4:30. And I probably won’t make it but as long as I’m this close, I’m going to try. Elif texts me to tell me that I have another hour. When I first moved here, Elif held my hand in all these matters, but now, like a mother cat, she nudges me out of the box on my own.
I get off at the Topkapi stop, whereupon I begin playing the “ask directions game”. When lost in Turkey, you find the most alert looking person and say “(fill in the blank here)nerede?” That person then says something incomprehensible and points his finger. You say, “Tey shey kular” (thanks) and head briskly in the direction they pointed until you’re no longer sure, and so you stop to ask someone else. At least half of the people you ask, do not actually know, but they will give you an answer anyway. I suppose they figure they have a 25% chance of being correct (4 directions and all)…I’ve seen it countless times, even with each other. “I don’t know” are 3 words you will not hear in Turkey.
If you ask enough times, enough “right” directions mixed in with “wrong” ones will lead you to your desired destination. And part of the game is trying to decipher through body language and eye contact whether the person really knows. And so I ask a couple of guys as soon as I exit the tram station and they say something in Turkish and point north. I walk across an overpass for some distance, see nothing that looks like the Turkish version of a UPS warehouse, stop again to ask another guy. “Peh tey tey?” (PTT). The man points. I walk another 100 meters or so. Stop. Ask someone else, turn right, and walk through an underground bus terminal, ask again, turn right, walk back under the overpass, ask again, am told to continue going straight – I have now walked a complete half circle, and finally there it is in bright red letters: PTT.
I show my shipping receipts at a window and am directed to go to the other side of the building. Whereupon I whip out the receipts and my passport. He slowly looks them over and then sends me to window #8. I stand behind 2 guys speaking passionately in Turkish. I understand 3 words: worker, communist, and democratic. I wait. 10 minutes later the guy behind the window acknowledges me. He takes my receipts, looks through each one slowly, shuffles through the beat up boxes piled high on the shelves in the room, and returns to tell me to go to window #5. I go to window #5, and the boy brings out each box, slicing them open with a knife while 3 other employees look on to see what I have shipped to Turkey from Bali. They note the curtains all folded neatly in individual plastic wrappers, and I regret not taking them out. Will they think I am going to sell them and charge me a customs fee? They open one of the plastic bags and pull out the curtain. The air fills with the unseen but smelly mold spores of mosquito net shops in Bali. I cough and wave my hand in front of my nose. He quickly stuffs it back into the box and tapes it back together. Next window. A woman signs and stamps my receipts and tells me to go to window #1. Passport out again. He sends me to window #2 where I am told to write my name, phone number, and signature. Then I am told to take them back to window #8. That guy hands me another piece of paper and asks me to write my name, phone number, and signature again. Then he compares the two…now all of this would constitute a reasonable amount of security under ordinary circumstances, but I am the only customer left. He motions that I should return to window number 8 to retrieve my packages. They hand them over. They stack them up on the floor next to me. I say “Taxi var mah?” (Is there a taxi?) He leaves and returns with 2 men.
God bless Turkish men because they acknowledge that men are, on average, twice the size of women and refuse to let women carry heavy objects (different but equal is their M.O.). A man backs up a car up to the building and loads the boxes in back and directs me to climb into the back seat.
The call to prayer, non-syncopated rings out from all directions in the city, even on the car radio as he turns turns the key to the engine.
We pull onto the highway and I am tossed back and forth across the back seat like a pinball as he swerves and brakes from lane to lane, all along the highway to central Istanbul where I live.
From the narrow street where they park the car, temporarily blocking traffic, they carry the boxes from the car to my apartment and place them in the elevator. I thank them, give the man 20 lira, and take the elevator upstairs, drag the boxes into my apartment, look into the mirror and smile.
But then it occurs to me, that today has been dedicated entirely to the management and moving of my Stuff.
In the years following my divorce, I shuffled stuff between houses, gave it away, threw it away, and paid rent to store what was left, only to find myself collecting Stuff all over again in my next location.
True it is not the Stuff that most Americans collect – i.e the car and house in the suburbs and all that goes with them, but ethnic Stuff, mostly textiles and handmade items that remind me of the heart and soul of the places in which I have lived and loved. I not only buy Stuff I want to have with me, but gifts for others. What I can’t Stuff into my luggage, I ship. Or I convince family and friends to store the Stuff I leave behind.
Just last weekend my sister and brother-in-law in California drove to Oakland to retrieve an antique wedding chest I bought in Maine 20 years ago from a friend who had stored it but was now moving. It was one of the few pieces of furniture I hung onto. Little did I know I’d end up living one island over (Bali) from the island where the chest had originally come from (Java).
Turkish carpets – I purchased several when I first visited Turkey in 1997 and again in 2005, and had them shipped to San Francisco where I lived at that time. Only to bring them back to Turkey several years later when I moved to Istanbul.
How could I not buy the $4 per panel curtains in Bali last month to put in my apartments – major stuff also known as dwellings I’ve collected in Istanbul. And mosquito nets? Nary a one to be found in Turkey and they are on every corner in Indonesia. As I drag it all into my apartment, I wonder what I am doing. Because in the past 3 weeks, I have decided that Bali will be my winter home.
So why not just pack up and move to Bali now? Guess. It’s a matter of what to do with my Stuff. The weightiest being four apartments (I have a vacation rental business) and the furniture in them. And to think I lost sleep last night worrying about whether or not I should add a fifth. I am creating two homes – one in the city and one in the country – a dream come true, but one that requires doubling up on Stuff.
I wrote a friend on Facebook today, “Time is valuable. Every time I take on a new apartment in Istanbul, I resign a chunk of me here.”
Meanwhile, while I’ve been in Turkey managing my Stuff, friends in Bali are taking a Nityama tantra workshop and Italian friends have just disembarked from a sailing excursion off the coast of Croatia. I couldn’t be there for either because I had…well, you know…Stuff to take care of.
What would it feel like to be free? Without the weight of all my Stuff, what would hold me down? Who might I be without my Stuff?
I am a Bedouin with a stuff addiction.
OK, so here goes. Starting now I am going to begin weaning myself off Stuff. And I am going to replace it with something more light weight. Memories.
About the Author:
Robin Sparks, a former columnist for Escape Artist, has spent the past 10 years testing out expat havens from Brazil to Bali to Kathmandu and beyond. She now divides her time between Istanbul, Turkey and Bali, Indonesia. Her Turkish company Oneworld rents short-term vacation rentals and facilitates writing workshops aboard Turkish gulets on the Mediterranean Sea. Beginning in October, Robin will sequester herself in Bali for 6 months in order to write her long awaited book about expats, the meaning of home, and how you too can live abroad. www.robinsparks.com.