Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Knives, Scarves, and Gelato

As a part of the Ramadan festivities here in Istanbul, a market of traditional crafts has been erected in the Hippodrome.  It's like a little village of wonderful handmade things.

Of course this drew me like a big old magnet.

I have found myself enjoying wandering there in the evenings, moving from stall to stall and looking at the beautiful things there.  I love handmade things, especially when they can be bought from the people who crafted them.  I think (perhaps foolishly) that things bought from the hand that made them somehow have more meaning.  There is something wonderful about seeing the faces that created an object that you use and love.

Inevitably, I bought things as I walked and looked.  One of them was a pocket knife.  That sounds strange, I'm sure, but I did have reasons.  They were three.  (Ha.)  First, I wanted something practical I could use immediately to slice the fruit, bread, and cheese we've got stashed in our room.  Second, I can think of a million times lately a knife would have been useful to open something, to remove tags, etc.  Finally, the handle was made of curling ram's horn.  The light gleamed on the shades of bronze and gold inside the horn.  How could that be resisted?

Part of the market is traditional foods.  There was a pickle maker and a booth selling the heavy eggnog-like alcoholic beverage boza.  There were booths of special herbs used for medicine as well.  As any person ever having been to a fair of this type will know, there were also places to buy traditional sweets and gelato.  Maybe it's some kind of rule that a fair has to have ice cream.

The first night I went, I decided to get some of the gelato.  I stepped up to the booth and was looking at the flavors when another couple pushed in front of me.  I'm getting better about being able to deal with that.  I've noticed a difference in crowd dynamic here.  What would be powerfully rude in American culture is just a normal part of the way people move.  It seems like if you don't get in and get busy transacting commerce, you forfeit your space.  They might have been rude people in general, though, and I'm not quite sure they were from here at all.  They spoke in somewhat broken English to the man behind the counter, and they were fussy and angry when they paid, something I haven't seen in the commerce here.  They fussed about how he prepared their cones.  They fussed about the cost.  They fussed about whether or not he knew what the flavors of his own product were.  They were frighteningly unpleasant.  The teacher in me wanted to take over and end it, but I know that I can't be that person outside my classroom.

When the Nasty Couple was gone, I was finally able to ask for my choice.  I got pistachio, which seems to be ubiquitous here in everything.  I walked around savoring it.  It was sweet and creamy and cool and in every way good.  It more than made up for Mr. and Mrs. Hateful.

I have an admitted weakness for scarves.  It borders on addiction, but I'm not quite ready for the 12 steps on it.  As far as addictions go, I think it's not too bad even if it is running me out of house and home.... Turkey is not a good place to try to control this issue since culturally scarves are important for going into mosques and maintaining proper modesty for devout Muslim women.  I have seen the most gorgeous scarves on women around me as they ride the bus, walk with their children, meet their girlfriends for a night out breaking the iftar fast at a fancy restaurant, attend the mosques, buy groceries.

The quality is very high here and always has been since Bursa, one of the great silk centers of the world, is located here.  We visited Bursa and made a trip to its khan or market, the place where the silkworm growers would bring their cocoons for sale and processing.  Today, that space is still full of silk merchants keeping the public covered in comfort.  Color and luxurious texture spills out of the doors of their tiny closet-like shops and invites you to lift a corner, feel the seductive smoothness or heavy weave.  Turkey is scarf paradise, and I've been going a bit crazy with it.  The 12 step might be right around the corner.

Of course, then, this little Ramadan market is full of beautiful scarves.  There is hand-marbled silk, block printed cotton, loom-woven mixtures of linen and silk that shimmer in the evening light.  There are brights and darks; loose, open, airy weaves you can see through and heavy solids to keep you warm in the winter; there are modern patterns, traditional weaves, and Ottoman iconography.  The variety is mindboggling.

I am trying not to buy excessively.  I got a cheery, cherry-red, loose-weave scarf the first day because I could not walk away from it.  For everything else, I've tried to wait.  Last night, though, I went back to get one that had been sort of haunting me.  I'd walked past it three times, and I still wanted it.  Surely I managed to satisfy something mythic and symbolic by saying no three times, right?

It was not long after iftar.  Our group had just returned from dinner, and I'd walked around the area in front of the Blue Mosque to take a few pictures of the festivities there and of the incredibly lovely mosque with its evening glory about it.  The booth I was interested in was located in the middle of the space.  It had three men working; one of them was waiting on the customers, unfolding fabric and displaying it across the countertop.  The other two were busily breaking their fast with meals from styrofoam trays.  As I browsed, one of them saw me and nodded.  I smiled and nodded back, but I didn't want to disturb him; if I'd been fasting all day, I would probably be ready to cut somebody who showed up fifteen minutes after I was able to eat again.  I looked at different things, and when he saw I was serious about buying, he closed the lid on his tray and stood up to help me.  His companion continued to wolf down his dinner.

I was pleasantly surprised to find that the young man spoke English.  In many places here, I have found English speakers, but I think it would be rude to expect it.  It hasn't really slowed down my commerce, to be honest, as I long ago learned that hand gestures, a smile, and a calculator can help you buy anything anywhere no matter what language you speak.  This guy was quite fluent, and he began to show me different samples of their wares. He explained that they were from another part of the country and only come to Istanbul for Ramadan to sell their wares at this fair. Their fabrics were heavy, woven on a loom like the one they had somehow managed to maneuver into the cramped confines of their booth.  Their patterns were traditional, and the pieces themselves were huge.  To be honest, I would have liked to have raked everything I saw into my arms and run away.

I settled on two, a red and white striped light cotton and a heavier one with a tiny blue and white geometric pattern that was so large I actually used it as a blanket last night.  We gently negotiated on the price, I paid, and he deftly packaged them for me.  As we were finishing up, he said, "I'll see you again soon" with laughter in his voice.  I had to smile in return at that last bit of salesmanship, and I replied with a little wave, "Oh, almost certainly" as I headed out into the night with my purchases tucked to my side.  With this combination of personality and quality of goods, I have very little doubt my scarf habit will drive me back there again.

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