Or, Vending for Yourself
Thalia read my fortune on the inside of my coffee cup. It was unpredictable — large, empty white spaces told her that I had a standing date with the unknown, and crinkly dregs pointed to my need for motion. One thing was sure: facing the figure of a man with big, “heavy” feet and arms lifted and waving were the undeniable letters “A–D” — the first two letters of my name, the initials of the city I live in, and a close misspelling of my favorite kind of arithmetic. Whatever the message was, I think it was for me.
Deep in the underground cistern sixty meters away from the entrance to the Hagia Sofia (street signs are very accurate) big fish swim around in fresh water and their own shadows, just as they have been doing for the past 1500 years. Wet walkways under the round, vaulted arches lead to two columns whose bases are carved Medusas, one upside down, one sideways.
Back outside and across the mall parallel to the F1 tram line is the Blue Mosque, which, like the Blue Souq in Sharjah but unlike Bluebeard and the Blue Man Group, is actually blue. It was prayer time and closed for tourists, except those who take off their shoes by the cubbies outside, just like prayergoers, and who put them in a plastic bag, just like prayergoers, and who enter surefooted amongst the much smaller crowd. In the quiet moments after the call to prayer before the mosque begins to fill, men kneel and sit at the Qibla wall. Windows look out onto the sea (south, toward Mecca). I knelt, too, and thought about things, but I couldn’t shake the feeling of trespassing (one that will draw me in just as much as it might pull me out) and I ushered myself out in the slipstream. My mask was a scarf from east Morocco, but in loud shoes from America and stupid sunglasses from the Emirates, my costume was thin to anyone that would have minded.
No one would have minded.
Street vendors have the keenest eye, and the greatest interest for picking us traveling folk out from the crowd. One Turk swung a bag of flutes and warbled away on a small, reeded recorder-like thing he called a “trumpet”. “Forty lira,” he said, for one of the painted wooden flutes from his bag. I didn’t really want one, and they certainly weren’t worth thirty dollars (I wouldn’t have been surprised if he’d said 5 lira) — but he had smartly picked out a gull with a love of making noise.
“I only have twenty,” I lied. I thought I was lowballing.
It’s hard to back out when you know you’ve been beat. So many former barterers in tourist cities around the world have clammed up, probably to protect themselves from too many hours of arguments with guidebooked sightseers, but in Istanbul they vend by a different rule: shoot high. I asked about the trumpety oboe thing. Forty-five. I offered forty for both that and my “forty” lira stick flute.
He gave me everything I asked for, which meant he had gotten more than he wanted — I didn’t get a fight because I’d been bamboozled by a new bamboozling style. But I’d spent only two drinks’ worth, and I now had a crappy flute (he wasn’t just trilling two notes because that was some Turkish melody) and an obnoxious reed-trumpet (similarly challenged vis-à-vis making “music”, but a big hit on the metro). Oh, and I bought a hat from the guy next to him.
I don’t think I ever knew what the dancing man with heavy feet and wavy arms was trying to tell me. I had done a lot of wondering through obvious places — the majestic mosques of the Sultanahmet quartier — but I didn’t ever have a strong sense of where I was going. In the uncomfortably jam-packed hallways of Topkapı Palace, I followed the crowd through halls of Ottoman antiquities and treasures. One wing housed relics, including the Sword of David, the Rod of Moses, and hairs from the Beard of Mohammed. Whether they really were all those things or not is moot, but everything is old enough that no one can turn up and say, “hey! so that’s where I left my sword.” And many shuffling by do seem to take all the beards at face value — I had my coffee grinds, others had their ancient follicles. I still didn’t really know what the message in my cup was, but I don’t think we knew the message of the relics either; they are just sort of there, making you feel things. Don’t stand still, Jack. the coffee man might have been saying. Your feet aren’t made of joe.
Okay. By the whiskers of the Prophet, I didn’t have a clue what the future held (just in case it wasn’t clear, all this wondering has been about more than just döner choices and mosque/museum visits). So what. I just had to keep moving. And when my feet were heavy, I’d wave my arms, and I’d play my tourist trumpet with ardor. I was, after all, nothing but a tourist.
More pictures from Turkey here.