Istanbul

Between the Black Sea and the smaller Sea of Marmara, there lies the narrow passage of the Bospurus, a shallow gorge only a few hundred metres wide. It is bridged several times by new and glittering suspension bridges, and on either side, lies the ancient and noble city of Istanbul.  It is not hard to imagine that this city is not modern Istanbul, but the Stamboul of Graham Greene’s novel, or the Constantinople of the Middle Ages, or even the Byzantium of antiquity. Even the Istanbul visited by James Bond in “From Russia with love” is full of romance. 

To me Istanbul is one of the most evocative and exciting places in the world. At a cross-roads of cultures, neither Islamic nor Christian, not Mediterranean, but influenced thereby. The might of Russia lies to the north like a sleeping giant, the deserts of Arabia are near enough to the East.

And we came there, by ship. Our ship came from Constantza, in Romania, and arrived in the roads on a rainy morning one February. We were taking the ship from Constantza right round Europe to Bergen in Norway, a journey of many weeks, and the majority of the crew were gathered ready to get off and go home – from right here in Istanbul. What a place to go home from…one minute, the exotic banks of the Bosporus, a few hours later – Birmingham New Street. What a contrast!

There were all manner of ships in the roads. Rusting, nondescript freighters from Cyprus. Small fishing boats, huge bulk carriers. The wind whipped the sea, and the rain spattered down. Mist obscured the top minarets of the Blue Mosque and the towers of St. Sophia’s cathedral. It was not a pleasant morning – but this was Istanbul. What possibilities!

Our boss was a man called Marco, a big man in his late thirties, half Italian and half Brazilian, a man who spoke excellent English despite not having heard a word of it until the age of sixteen. Marco took one look at the city and said, “lets go ashore”. Even as our colleagues were climbing onto a small boat to take them ashore to a fleet of taxis and the airport, we were going to be left behind. A word with the Captain assured us we had time to go ashore for an hour or two. A moment to collect our passports and such cash as we could muster, and we were on the boat ourselves – in our work clothes, in sea boots, with no coats. But Marco was taking us to Istanbul.

The rain was against us, but we cared naught for it. Romance was in our veins. Once ashore, the rest of the crew said their goodbyes and melted away. For a brief few hours we were alone with this great city. She would surely give of herself to those who dared for a day to visit her, to those who seized the moment. Could she be romanced for a brief fling? We started with a few beers and a light lunch in a dockside workman’s café – it was that time of day and the place recommended itself to us by being a dry place to sit out of the rain, no more than yards from where we came shore. Thus fortified, we first spent a little time obtaining some local currency, and then we sallied forth in a taxi to see what we could find – we were bound for the Bazaar.

Marco was an interesting character. As a youth he had run carpets out of Iran in the days before the Iranian revolution of 1978. He had spent time in the East and was confident he could find a fine carpet here in the bazaar. He was the kind of person that got things done, quite frequently by breaking or bending the rules. I had a stormy professional relationship with him, but one of the rules of our business, strict and unbreakable, was that work was work, and it was never brought into the bar or the social setting. Here we were amiable companions, work completely forgotten about. Such people as Marco are rarer nowadays, in our modern world of Safety standards, regulations and operating procedures, work instructions, meetings and Powerpoint presentations. And our world is poorer thereby.

The bazaar was a riot of colour and fragrance, all manner of things hung up for sale, every possible variety of cloth, leather and material. Carpets and kitchen utensils, trinkets and tools, presents and gifts. Here of course one had to bargain. Marco, who knew about such matters, warned us solemnly. You MUST bargain. They will not take you seriously otherwise. They will start the bargaining at four or five times the lowest price they could sell it at and still turn a profit. Keep that in mind…

Wandering around the bazaar my eye was caught by a merchant selling waistcoats. These were in gorgeous fabrics, a sweep of colours and styles. I thought they were great, but not so great as to part with serious money for them. The trader saw me and came across to pluck at my sleeve. He named an outrageously high price; insulted, I suggested to him that he might keep his waistcoat at that price. Those were not my exact words. After some bargaining and good natured insults, this peddler of cheap cloth, this charlatan who had tried to get me to part with over sixty dollars, sold me a rather fine waistcoat for a little over a tenner. I was delighted with my purchase. My wife wore on it occasion – it was in very bright colours – for a year or so, and I think it is still in the children’s dressing up box.

I found Marco in a carpet shop, arguing with the owner. He had strung the owner along and had a dozen of so of his finest carpets laid out over the floor, examining them minutely. He clearly knew good from bad in the Turkish Carpet scene, but I don’t think he had the slightest intention of buying a carpet then and there. But Marco was a Poker player and you could not read his face, this not being helped by a big black beard. He nearly caused a scene, mind. One of the pointers to a true Turkish carpet of quality, he had opined earlier, was that it could be washed and would not stain. No substance would stain it. The truth of this assertion I did doubt somewhat, but the evidence at the time – our subsequent escape from the carpet shop –  did point to him being quite correct. The carpet merchant served strong Turkish coffee to Marco, as was the custom in such shops. And Marco, sipping this coffee, quite deliberately spilled some on one of the merchant’s carpets. It all looked quite accidental, of course, and he was all apologies, but we onlookers knew he had done it on purpose. A cheap carpet would be ruined by strong coffee. We do not know if the actual carpet on which Marco spilled his coffee was one such, because we made our exit shortly thereafter, as it became quite clear to the carpet merchant that Marco had no intention of actually buying a Turkish carpet.

Alas, our time was coming to an end. We found a taxi, and made a mad dash through the rainy streets back to the dockside, to meet up with the small boat that would take us back to our home away from home. Istanbul, goodbye! You showed us a little of yourself – just a glimpse, a tantalizing glimpse. Not for us a whole night with you, but just a hint of thigh, a hidden curve of bosom. Istanbul – well we remember you, though we visit you again as older and perhaps not so wise men.

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