Sunday 3 May 2015

Street life

A city of 15 million will naturally seem crowded to someone who lives in one with a mere 1.5 million inhabitants, and nowhere is it more obvious than on the streets, which is where we spent most of our time today. The roads in Turkey are very good, but the pavements are crap. Full of holes and dips, with uneven pavers, crumbling kerbs, unexpected steps, sudden changes of level... you have to pay attention as you walk. A lot of the time we were actually on the road, trying to cross or to avoid a long detour around barriers. There are nominal zebra crossings, but they don't even bother to paint the stripes, they're just a different texture. Even that means nothing: Barçin repeatedly told us, "The Turkish are friendly, talkative, hospitable, but put them behind the wheel and they change." It's a concept Kiwis are familiar with.
So, keeping our wits about us, we walked to a shopping mall in the modern part of Istanbul, and, unimpressed, then transferred from the tour's fancy Renaissance Hotel to our more modest former hotel in the Old City, travelling by bus which meant creeping along choked roads at less than walking pace. Then we took  the funicular, and at the top dragged our cases across busy Taksim Square to the hotel, past a taxi organiser raging at a driver who had jumped the queue: shouting, thumping his fist on the bonnet, eyes flashing, teeth bared.

There was more drama opposite the hotel, as a gypsy family had a meltdown, the teenage girls stomping away, bawling, from their father who was shouting and lashing out, to the deep interest of the toddler in the family. They seem to live on the street, scraping some sort of living from selling packets of tissues, and begging. We saw lots of women begging today, holding babies, just sitting in busy places with their hands out. Or just sitting, looking miserable.
It's the May Day long weekend in Turkey and the streets were jammed - all the way down Istiklal Caddesi, to the tooting frustration of the old tram on that route, and across Galata Bridge with its thick fringe of fishing rods. We shuffled along the subway through to the heaving bus terminal and across the carpark of a road to the Spice Market and surrounds, where a solid mass of bodies choked the lanes and alleyways. Abandoning any idea of attempting the Grand Bazaar in these conditions, we fought our way back up again, fortified by an apple tea on a café terrace, serenaded by muezzins calling from the city's mosques, tooting car horns, roaring motorbikes, jangling tram bells and squealing wheels, people chattering and buskers up the hill playing clarinets, guitars, double bass, Pan pipes, a recorder, trumpet, violin, bagpipes, and singing.
Venturing out again for dinner, we were beset by restaurant touts on our cruise around the streets, and were finally snared by the clever Serdar at the Natural Grill House, who was funny, energetic, clever and hard-working. He spoke six languages and engaged instantly with passers-by, hooking, reeling in and landing group after group to fill his tables as we watched, totally entertained. Sitting down for a light meal of perhaps soup, we found ourselves persuaded to eat a delicious three-course dinner with beer, raqi and tea, using up all the cash we'd brought out with us, and not regretting it one bit. He was a star.

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