Once in Istanbul I was eating at a cheap restaurant near Sultan Ahmet- the Blue Mosque. It was one of those times when a bomb had gone off or somebody had invaded someone somewhere, and despite this being a tourist area there was nobody but me in the place. And then a lady walked in. For some reason I decided she must be Korean. She had a little girl, just about to experiment with walking, but mostly an experienced and very fast crawler. And as soon as the lady tucked into her meal, the little girl was off, under the next table, round the corner, past me and straight for the door on the street. On the threshold one of the waiters whisked her up and carried her back to her mother, who paid her no attention whatsoever. Five minutes later the girl was off again, and again a waiter carried her back. On the girl’s fourth outing it was the cook who came out from the kitchen and grabbed her. He held her in his arms, put his chef’s hat on her head and stood in the window with her and they both waved at passers-by until the mother had finished eating.
The city was full of little poetic gestures like that. Every now and then someone would give you their time or something they owned in a completely unexpected way. I got really used to it, so that one day when I was trying get back to the city from half-way down the Bosporus, I got on a dolmuş bus and as I stood stooped in the small vehicle just behind the driver, I was not really surprised to find that people were handing me money. It took me a few seconds to realize that these were all fares I had to hand over to the driver and that I would then have to sort out all the change.
The only people who ever bothered me were the carpet sellers who would follow you for what seemed forever, turning everything you said into another question. No thank you, would be answered by Why not? and Because I don’t want a carpet by Why don’t you want one? and so on and so on. And if you said nothing it was even worse because they would then go through every nationality in the world in many different languages. Français ? Italiano ? English ? Deutsch ? I realised that there were not many potential customers but I didn’t see why I had to subsidise the whole trade on my own. At one point, I thought of buying a small carpet and carrying around with me all the time, so that I could show them I already had one, but obviously that wouldn’t have worked. They would have told me I needed a bigger one.
Then, one day, I chanced upon the Sahaflar Çarşısı the outdoor
book market near the Grand Bazaar and there I found a big red book entitled A Dictionary of Turkish Proverbs.
I learnt an easy one at the front of the book – At var, meydan yok – We have a horse but no parade ground. And the next time I was propositioned by a carpeteer, just to change the script a little, instead of saying No, thank you,I said At var, meydan yok. And then something strange happened – words failed him and he fell behind me – for about five seconds- then he caught up- but I had bewildered him for a bit. So I learnt some more proverbs, I thought that if I could master eight or nine I might be able to put enough distance between us to escape. And sometimes it worked. Lack of logic was not something they were prepared for.
Fish are in frying pan, hares in the plain,
If you cannot find a great man to consult, find a great rock,
When a snake has a headache it comes out into the middle of the road.
If you don’t have a mirror, look at your neighbour
If you want yoghurt in winter, carry a sheep in your pocket.
I had no idea what they meant. I actually tried carrying a sheep in my pocket one winter, but nothing happened – well, no yoghurt at least. But I did manage to get away more often and in a much better mood, go down to the Spice market and the fish market and the lane where they sold wonderful old knives and kitchenware and as in the famous poem, listen to Istanbul, or move on to the waterfront and do what I most enjoy there- ride the boats – and this poem is about the feeling I have when I am on one of them.