November 18, 2017. Istanbul, Turkey.
After being turned away from the Blue Mosque by a man who desperately needed me to buy a rug, I made my way to the Grand Bazaar. It was a city in itself, labyrinthine and squirming with humans like maggots on trash can chicken. I didn’t want anything (minimalism has its perks), so I just drifted around and took it all in.
The main hallway was El Dorado. Every store sold diamonds and gold, and every step brought a dizzying kaleidoscope of lens flares into your eye, no matter where you looked. Men in exquisite Armani suits stood at every doorway, posing like Lucky Luciano, occasionally leering and strongly encouraging you to come in because “special price”.
The meandering side hallways were labeled in Turkish, which didn’t help orient me. To the right was the leather bazaar. To the left, antiques. The antiques section had all the beautiful junk you can conceive of: old bronze helmets, gramophone pieces, magic rocks on strings, rusty spears, decorative horns, more fancy glass lamps than I believed possible, and of course, the rugs. Millions of rugs. A city of rugs. In between were ATMs, cash changing kiosks, designer clothing shops, and the unavoidable tourist trap gift and t-shirt shops.
Eventually, the siren song of rampant capitalism became too much for me to resist, and I splurged on a $4 mincemeat peynirli creatively entitled “Turkish bazaar” and a cup of Turkish tea. Turns out, tastes a lot like other tea.
It occurred to me that I was low on clothes. My dirty laundry had been stolen at the last hostel for some reason, and I was out 3 pairs of socks and both my Barcelona t-shirts. I bought two Istanbul shirts from two separate vendors for 20 Lira each. They both started the haggling at 40, but let’s be real, dude. This is the Grand Bazaar. No one’s gonna pay $10 per t-shirt and we all know it.
Outside the Bazaar were where the real deals happened, and I bought 3 pairs of socks for 5 Lira each (totaling about $3.75). I turned the corner and found a tasteful 6-pack of men’s argyle socks for 15 Lira total. Bastards.
I dipped out of Consumerism and made my way to the square with all the obelisks, where I was accosted once again by “My friend! I remember you! You are American, you were too busy to see my shop before!”
I tried unsuccessfully to discontinue the conversation with him while I snapped these pictures. The Serpentine Column came from the Oracle of Delphi. The Constantine, or Walled, Obelisk was apparently built in the square but nobody knows when. The Obelisk of Theodosius was hauled in by, surprise, Theodosius from Egypt in the 4th century AD.
When I finished, he was still buzzing around me like a tall, foul-smelling mosquito, and I actually caught him staring at the bulge of my wallet in my pants.
“Okay, gotta go though, meeting a friend,” I said, squeezing onto a bench next to a Turkish college student in headphones. The grifter made an effort to sit between us, realized there wasn’t enough room, and shuffled off to find a new mark.
“Thanks,” I said to the guy.
He nodded, then murmured, “You have to be careful around those fuckers, man.”
“Yeah, I know. I’m a tourist, but not that much of a tourist.”
I made my way back to the hostel where I was destined to be social. My roommates and I swapped travel stories and piecemeal philosophy in the room, then proceeded up to the rooftop bar to look at the Hagia Sophia and drink cheap local beer.
As it happened, there was a pub crawl that night, and since I’d been a slackass re: nightlife since I’d arrived in Turkey, I tagged along. This was a mistake for a number of reasons, the foremost being I am absolutely terrible at structured fun.
Fun happens spontaneously. You can’t arrange for it. The best you can do is put all the ingredients together, shake them up, and hope fun occurs. I avoid guided tours and anything “all-inclusive” for the same reason. Don’t tell me what to do.
The first surprise was that the pub crawl cost 45 Lira. I was leery, but I converted more than I needed and it’s not like I can take it out of Turkey. They also promised me 3 free shots. This would be half right.
The second surprise was, none of the friends I’d made on the rooftop bar were going to the pub crawl. Uh-oh. Gotta make new friends, fast.
The third surprise was the shuttle van parked in front of the hostel. That’s not so much a pub crawl as a pub… delivery. A pub exodus. We packed fifteen people into the van and took off for Taksim square two miles away which is, tragically, right next to where my previous night’s hostel was located.
The fourth surprise was that none of the pubs were pubs! It was a club crawl.
And surprise number five: There was no return shuttle. We make our own way back.
We were brought to another rooftop bar, this one in a weird cage where they were blasting Eminem’s greatest hits from the early 2000s. As to the crowd, Flight of the Conchords summarized it far better than I ever could.
The place was so packed you couldn’t move. I’ve seen people trampled at roomier metal shows. I breaststroked through a sea of Turkish men to the bar. No one would (or could) get far enough away from it to allow the hostel free-drinkers in, so they lit the bar on fire.
That did the trick. We took our shots and danced, in the same way that you can describe sardines as dancing when tut shake the can.
I danced in the vicinity of a girl and in so doing besmirched someone’s honor. A stout bald man who looked like Turkish Pitbull gave me a gentle three-finger shove on the shoulder. Confused as to why this 45-year-old man was even at this club, let alone interacting with me, I leaned down to ask him, “What’s up?”
He responded in Turkish. Not surprise number six.
“I don’t speak Turkish,” I told him. He nodded and walked away. I drifted around the dance floor drinking my beer and got polished to a fine sheen by the bodily friction around me, a lot like a rock tumbler. Around half an hour later, somebody tapped my shoulder again.
I turned and looked down on a scrawny hipster with a Macklemore haircut (disgraceful) and a Tormund Giantsbane beard (kind of cool). His eyes were bulging and wild. He looked terribly upset. He was yelling something at me.
“What?” I asked.
He repeated himself, but still in a language I didn’t understand. I shrugged and said, “Sorry, man. No Turkish.”
This made him even angrier. He adopted a highly curious posture.
Take your right hand and raise it next to your head, palm out, sort of like you’re going for a high-five. Then, angle it 45 degrees to your left. Now adopt a bug-eyed, furious expression.
I could tell it was a threat, but it was just such a dissonant, ridiculous threat. Was he going to slap me? On the forehead? Did he have the reach? I laughed out loud, he moved forward, and then we were all being jostled around by security.
The girl I’d danced with reached around a bouncer’s arm and grabbed me by the face, pulling my head to hers.
“You did nothing! Don’t worry,” she yelled, “He is just crazy! He is just crazy!”
Ah, mystery solved.
“I really wasn’t,” I assured her, then couldn’t stop myself from winking.
The girl from hostel reception appeared at my side. “What happened?”
“Something pretty silly,” I told her.
“If that little man bothers you again, I will beat him!”
She was maybe 90 lbs soaking wet, but I’d give her even odds. I grinned at her as Daft Punk climbed onto the bar.
While that was going on, they sprayed us with what felt like foam, but smelled like feta cheese.
The next two clubs were better, but admittedly less interesting. The dude from our hostel was trying to wrangle all us drunken foreigners through the narrow streets of Istanbul. It was like herding cats, which he accidentally did because there are so many cats in Istanbul.
At the third club, shots were distributed from a tray. I did one with the toast, then I was handed another, which I downed immediately. Then we were going to toast again, so I did a third. Sort of a buy-one-get-one on the pub crawl cost.
By the time they had started playing Johnny B. Goode, it was 4 AM and I was getting bored. I ghosted back toward the hostel. Not a bad walk, I’ve done it every day since I arrived in Istanbul. Two miles. More challenging when you’re tired and staggering a little, but, eh.
Then it rained, of course. On the way I joined up with a pair of local teenagers heading in the same direction. The English they spoke was obviously just what they had picked up in a high school class. I remember knowing the same general phrases in 10th grade Spanish. Still, they were delighted by the opportunity to talk to a real, live American, presumably because of that recent visa embargo the U.S. and Turkey had (and I’d just barely dodged). We crossed the bridge and parted ways, and I stumbled into my hostel where the water was broken, for some reason. Okay. No shower or toothbrushing. That’s fine, there’s a water cooler. I drank three consecutive bottles of water and passed out for five hours, then stumbled blearily into the kitchen for the free breakfast.
Tomatoes, cucumbers, carrots, feta cheese, and hardboiled eggs.
I ate 4 eggs, a half lb of cheese, and enough assorted vegetables to feel okay about the half lb of cheese, then slept until 3 PM. I was fully recovered when I returned to the common room of the hostel, but it was clear I was the only one.
I leave you with an image of my co-author for this piece, my best friend, Zaman.
He sat by my side the entire time I wrote this, offering sage counsel. The pink on his forehead is lipstick. My dude was patrollin hard last night.