Shoe Shines and Turkish Carpets

November 2010—while studying abroad in Vienna — Emir, Hannah, Brenna, Anna, and I flew to Istanbul via Sun Express. We landed at Sabiha Gokcen airport, which to our surprise was one hour outside of Istanbul. So we got on a bus and for 10 lira it took us to Taksim Square (where a suicide bombing took place just one week earlier, inconsequential to our travel plans). After what turned out to be a two hour bus ride, we found our way over to our hostel Chambers Of The Boheme. The next few days were filled with long walks through a labyrinth of cobblestone streets, visits to mosques, haggling our way through bazaars, and endless nights of smoking hookah, playing chess, and drinking black tea.

On Sunday, we were making our way down from Galata Tower to cross the Galata bridge and head to The Grand Bazaar before flying back to Vienna the next day. We were making our descent down a quiet street when a man, who must have seen us coming from afar, wrapped up his shoe shine kit and walked ahead of us dropping behind his horsehair brush. Seeing this, my friend, Emir, being the good guy that he is, picked up the brush and hurried ahead to hand it to the shoe shiner, who evidently hadn't noticed that he had dropped it. The man thanked us and said he would give us a free shoe shine in return for our kindness. Emir and I looked at each other; well, okay why not? He offered to clean the girls’ shoes too, but Hannah and Anna weren't wearing leather and Brenna politely declined. (Her uneasy face suggested that she didn't want her boots to get ruined.)

He quickly applied some brown polish to our shoes (without cleaning them with the brush first), and as he shined them he started telling us a heartfelt story about his daughter who was in the hospital and how he was not able to afford the payments for medication and treatment. I started to feel awkward because I realized this was not about to be a “free” shoe shine. After he was done he looked up at us and simply said, “20 lira.” Damnit… The guy just said his daughter was sick, so I have all sorts of conflicting emotions going on: do I believe him or is he just ripping us off? He’s probably ripping us off. Hesitantly, we handed him 20 lira. Each. The dude made $20 in 5 minutes…

After brushing that off (pun intended), we made our way to the bridge and looked out onto the beautiful Bosphorus. Hundreds of fisherman lined the deck, each having two or three fishing poles cast into the river. We continued past them and headed towards our destination, The Grand Bazaar.

We approached Beyazit Gate, one of the entrances to the bazaar. From a distance we could see that the gate doors were shut. As we got closer, we sensed the possibility that something was a little off. “It’s closed!” we heard a voice behind us exclaim. We turned around. A well-dressed man, probably in his mid-forties, came walking towards us. “It’s closed. The bazaar is closed on Sunday,” he said. He was wearing a tan blazer and a patterned scarf. Before we could process that we would not be seeing the bazaar after all, the man said, “You want to see the bazaar? I have a shop. You can see the bazaar from there. Follow me.” Without saying anything to each other, we fumbled around with the idea of following a stranger, but we proceeded to follow the man. We went around the corner and down another alley where at the very end, next to the wall surrounding The Grand Bazaar, was the shop. We entered an empty room with only a service elevator. The man pushed the call button, the elevator doors opened, he motioned us in and closed the door. My heart started to beat a little faster. I remember thinking to myself, “This is it. I’m going to die. We’re going to get off this elevator, and there are going to be masked men upstairs ready to rob us of all our processions.” I’m a paranoid person. We get off the elevator and are shown to a small window, which supposedly had a good view of the bazaar down below, supposedly. The real reason we were here was the room behind us, a room full of Turkish carpets.

Photo taken at Galeri Selcuk Carpet & Kilim

It really was astounding. The room was full of colorful, elegant carpets- big, small, exquisite, expensive. We were offered seats around a small table, and the “boss man” came out with two other men who looked like they could have been his sons. We were instantly brought apple tea in traditional Turkish tea glasses, which we graciously accepted. Being the paranoid person I am, I thought, “This tea must be poisoned.” I drank it cheerfully anyway. This was exciting. The boss greeted us and explained that all his rugs are authentic, made of hand-woven wool and colored with vegetable dyes, which makes it less susceptible to fading over the years. “A Turkish carpet is an investment,” he argued, “The older it gets the more it will be worth.” Looking back, the Lira was worth about .7 to the U.S. dollar in 2010, and now it’s worth half of that… so, there’s that. We were given several to look at, and Brenna and I ended up buying one small carpet each, prayer rugs actually. I still have mine. It’s still beautiful and reminds me of this very time... Natsukashii.

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