Ottoman Odyssey—Part One


     Two weeks ago my family set off to vacation in Turkey and Greece. We said goodbye to cyberspace and hello to sightseeing mini-marathons, interrupted by glorious relaxation at the beach.  For me and my daughter, Sarah, there was no cell phone service, no laptop, no ipad. We were content (mostly) to let it all go.  Of course, my husband, Henry, had to maintain cell and internet connection with his law office. Our newly graduated and still unemployed son, Max, also needed to stay connected in case a potential employer called and—if not—to commiserate and seek comfort from friends at home.
      Istanbul, our first stop, was full of surprises.  Upon landing, we discovered that Turkey won’t accept payment in its own currency-- even when applying for visas at the airport!  Public restrooms  were also an adventure.  Behind some doors there were holes in the floor over which to squat, while others featured toilets with no seats. (So you have to squat either way.)  Our hotel, the Park Hyatt, was lovely, but I didn’t expect to walk through a metal detector each time I entered the lobby.   This precaution was a clear reminder of the political protests and turmoil earlier in the summer.

      At one of our dinners overlooking the twinkling lights and the beauty of the Bosporus, the best dessert on the menu (a chocolate torte) included the description “sprinkled with bird shit powder.”  No, I’m not kidding.  We ordered it anyway and found it delicious.

      As for touring, we had an excellent guide Tim, for a full, action-packed day in Istanbul starting at 8:30AM.  In the morning we saw the Blue Mosque, the Topkapi  Palace and the Hippodrome.  At the entrance to the mosque, Sarah and I were required to wear a head scarf and long-sleeved tunic over our shorts and tee-shirts, while Max and Henry were permitted to enter in their shorts and tee shirts.  The message was loud and clear.  Men were free to dress (and do) as they pleased.  Women were restricted. What did I expect?  After all, Turkey was 95% Muslim. Still, entering the mosque was my first visceral experience of what it meant to be a Western woman in a country where many of the women wear black burkas in 90 degree heat, covered from head to toe with only their eyes (or eyeglasses) exposed.  Meanwhile their male companions were dressed just like Westerners.  For a few sweaty moments, I imagined how different my life would have been if I’d been born in Istanbul instead of New York.
       As Sarah and I exited the mosque, we encountered a man who was responsible for collecting the scarves and tunics which had been distributed to the “over exposed” female tourists at the entrance. Snatching our extra clothing he hissed his disapproval, hurling the loaner garments into a basket as if he were touching spider webs.

      After the mosque, we visited the Grand Bazaar, where we were shown copies of Prada, Louis Vuitton, Hermes and just about every wildly expensive designer on Madison Avenue. These hand bags and wallets were secreted into hidden closets that merchants eagerly exposed for our inspection,  swiveling them back just as quickly when we said no thanks. It was easy to resist these cheap copies, but  we couldn’t resist  the photo op when Max  stood grinning under a big sign advertising  “Genuine Fake Watches.”
     The next stop for our family was a rug company.  Seated in a showroom,  we were and served  “sweet tea” that tasted like hot apple cider while our hosts attempted to sell us  a variety of Turkish rugs—Persian, silk, Kilim—in all sizes and prices. Some, our hosts insisted (and demonstrated) could be folded and carried home on the airplane in shoulder bags which they  would be happy to provide.  The president and his assistants showed us hand-woven silk rugs that changed color as they unfurled in different directions. We were asked to observe greens turning to turquoise and burgundy changing into apricot like a magic trick in the shifting light.  Although we “oohed’ and “aahed” appreciatively, Henry explained that we lived in a small New York City apartment and lacked the palatial-size rooms these rugs deserved.

      After escaping the rug sellers, Tim escorted us to a leather store at Henry’s request.  Here we received our own private fashion show complete with runway, disco music, flashing lights, and strutting models, both male and female. To Sarah’s delight, the leather store staff invited her to model a blue motorcycle jacket at the end of the show.
      “We’re in a lot of trouble now,” Max whispered to Henry.

      “I know.”  But Henry was smiling.  I’ve heard Turkish leather is supposed to be really nice. I asked to come here because I was curious.”
      After the fashion show, we perused the full range of leather inventory, which was displayed in a room the size of an entire floor at Bloomingdale’s.  The owner was the personal shopper for the whole family.  While we tried on leather and shearling in every imaginable color and style, our tour guide conversed with the owner’s son in Turkish and sipped multiple espressos.

     “Maybe we don’t really have time to do this,” I told Henry.  I don’t like to be rushed or pressured when I shop.

     We checked with Tim, our guide, because we only had 8 hours of touring and didn’t want to miss a major sight because we tried on too many coats.
     “Take your time.” Tim smiled, refilling his coffee and leaning back on the plush sofa where he was seated.

     Obviously, he was in cahoots with the store keeper and was anticipating a commission on whatever our family bought. But that didn’t stop us from shopping for bargains.

     About half an hour later, we bought a leather jacket for Max and shearling coats for Sarah and me.

     “I’m on the schneid once again,” Henry commented with a smile.   As always, he was delighted with the discounts and with making his family happy. The coats were beautiful and practical and would not have to be put in storage like a rug.

     Since Turkey is also known for its jewelry, our last stop was a jewelry store.

     “My credit is card is exhausted and so are we,” Henry warned Tim. It was almost 6 PM, and we’d been up and running since 7 AM.

     “Just take a quick look,” Tim encouraged us. Although Sarah loves to shop, Max hates it. He sat  in a chair, reading  War and Peace, while the rest of us politely, but briskly viewed 3 floors of jewelry. The store owner was crestfallen as I shook my head at everything from an enormous sapphire ring to inexpensive evil eye trinkets.  

     We skipped the spice market and arrived back at our hotel at 7:30 PM with just enough time to get ready for dinner on the Bosporus, a long cab ride away.  Camp Elisofon kept a rapid pace. The next day we would be up bright and early to catch a 7:30 AM flight to Izmir for a full day at the ancient ruins of Ephesus and would be returning to our hotel in Istanbul for another late dinner.

     We asked for a 5:30 AM wake-up call and collapsed in exhaustion.   

     “What will we do if our flight is cancelled? And what happens if our tour guide doesn’t show up?”  Henry worried aloud as I closed my eyes.

     I worried about how Sarah would stick to her meal replacement diet on the plane.  Normally, she ate a lemon pudding for breakfast, but finding a bowl would be impossible at the airport and on the short flight.  Even if I persuaded Sarah to switch to a smoothie for breakfast and have her pudding for lunch—not so easy with someone on the autistic spectrum who clings to routine—I’d still have the problem of where to combine the powder with bottled water.  If we tried to do it in the airport, security might think we were making a bomb and cart us off to a Turkish prison.  Mixing and shaking on the airplane was also out of the question. My last thought before falling asleep was that Sarah would have to be flexible AND patient—not to mention hungry—and pull out her blender bottle after we’d landed, met our guide and were safely in the car on our way to Ephesus.  Somehow it would work out.  Que sera, sera.

 

 

 

 

 

               

 

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