I’ve never been one for shopping. My New York friends laugh at me because I shop retail. Sales shopping is definitely not my thing. And, forget the hondle. Until Istanbul. I figured the nearly six-century-old Grand Bazaar was the best place to practice. The guidebooks say negotiating is not so prevalent anymore, but tell that to the 4,000 vendors. So, I dipped my toe into the hondle pool. Look casual, make your choice, pick your price in your head, and start. I did okay for myself. I thought I did a great job with my Turkish towels until I converted those Turkish lira into dollars and realized I’d saved a whole five dollars! For FOUR of them. I got a Turkish teaglass set for only 15 bucks, although once I got them home, I realized that was probably all they were worth. At one Turkish towel joint, the man actually yelled at me for trying to negotiate: “Can’t you read the sign,” he barked! “It clearly states the price!”
In the States, we like to talk about “sustainable.” This adjective is unnecessary in Istanbul where everyday meals are, by their very nature, fresh, hearty and fabulous. Whether an appetizer of “special yogurt” (a succulent, memorable version of homemade yogurt) or simple beans and rice. You could count on most meals to include eggplant, walnuts, pomegranates. “Cream” soups were made with yogurt. Kebab lamb was simply grilled and served in small portions. Desserts could as easily be pumpkin slices (steamed and oddly candied) or baklava (albeit rich, but therefore satisfying in small bites) or a candy called “Turkish Delight” — that carried a nice dessert-y punch. A soft chew, nutty and covered with powdered sugar, cut into a half-inch square. One bite truly was enough.
CALL TO PRAYER
To me, one of the most exotic and enthralling parts of Istanbul was not a sight at all — but a sound. The call to prayer was tear-inducing. From one tower, a minaret, you would hear the plaintive song of amuezzin engaging in a type of vocal volley. One voice followed by another voice, back and forth like that, at several points during the day. I had the experience of being at one mosque during actual prayer. You watched the men wash at small fountains outside: their hands, their feet, even their ears. I removed my shoes, covered my head, and walked inside this serene, carpeted space. I respectfully observed this ritual in awe. It was an unforgettable moment in my visit to Istanbul.
OH, THE COFFEE
I had my first Turkish coffee within hours of arriving in Istanbul. It is a thickened brew, brutally rich, made by mixing the grounds with the water. If you want sugar, you have to request it by indicating how much: light, medium, I presume heavy (I never got that far — I stuck with medium). You drink it until you reach the sludge at the bottom of the cup. Yes, I admit, in my ignorance, I kept drinking, and it was horrible. I learned from one of our Turkish friends that you need only drink until you reach those grounds. Then turn the cup over, let them drop and have someone read your fortune. The coffee always comes with a side of water, sometimes with apple slivers. And, maybe a treat. At the Grand Bazaar, the coffee came on a silver tray, in a tiny cup, a small glass of water. Next to it a tiny dome-covered dish containing one small piece of Turkish Delight.
THUMB LUCKY FOLKS
In one of Istanbul’s most notable sights, the Hagia Sophia (pronounced EYE-uh Sophia), there is an oddity called the “weeping column” – so named because it is believed to have wept holy water. What is true is that people wait in line to put their thumb in a hole that has been worn down by millions and millions of hands. It is believed you will get your wish after placing your thumb into the hole and rotating your hand 360 degrees.