Quiet please, I'm thinking.
As one moseys around any city one sees many interesting, weird and sometimes upsetting sights. On Istiklal Avenue there are ice cream vendors whose trick it is to play with the portion placed in your cone; it’s there, it’s gone, it’s back – that kind of thing. Quite amusing unless you’re parched or starving and in dire need of sugar. On the Bosphorus, which can be seen from any semi-elevated part of the city and constitutes Istanbul’s heart, there is no end of impressive and inspiring vessels, coming in all shapes and sizes as they do. What’s hard to cope with from time to time is the hardship one witnesses so often, though it’s only fair to say that all may not be as it seems.
En route to my place of work is a pedestrian bridge connecting one side of the main Metrobus route to the platform for the Metrobus, the other side of the road and the Metro if necessary. Most days there is a little old chap selling packets of tissues for half a lira at the base of the staircase, these come in handy when pouring with sweat. He seems happy enough plying his ‘trade’ however off-putting his lack of legs may be. Further on there are additional traders selling cigarettes, perfumes, phone cases and all sorts, all of whom seem fairly content eking out their respective livings. After a little while one stops paying much attention to this relentless offering of knickknacks.
And then there are the (I don’t like to use the term but the alternatives aren’t much better) panhandlers. Every city and country has them poverty being universal and non-discriminatory, an equal opportunities employer if you will. For me it’s never easy to pass by and not give something, an unsustainable investment if ever there was one and not one ever likely to achieve much. Whenever I don’t give it’s not because I think their plight a product of their own design, nor do I consider them all drug users, alcoholics or deadbeats. I suppose the sheer weight of numbers is the real deciding factor. How much money would one really need to even make the slightest difference?
Last week I passed a woman on my pedestrian crossing, she had a child in her lap and he was obviously sick. I don’t know what the illness was but polio popped into my mind. He had what seemed to be clubfoot, an arm that I highly doubt he could do much with and he lay back in his mother’s lap, staring into the sky with big empty eyes and a confused expression. He couldn’t have been more than six years old, if that. It was another scorching Turkish day with a deep blue sky and only the occasional cloud. I found myself hoping that whatever he was looking at or thinking about was soothing.
Life is cruel.
In the heat of the Istanbul summer it is important to do all one can to remain cool, so yesterday I had my hair cut short again. This may sound like a normal, run-of-the-mill task: pop down the local Barnett-chopper; snip, snip and Bob’s your auntie, then off home with you. But this is Turkey, baby. When you get your hair cut here, like so many things, it’s quite the experience.
Last time I was stitched up like a kipper (fifty notes for a thirty minute job) so I figured I’d try something a little different this time. Someone I know, who’s lived here a while, recommended a guy (Ahmet, I think was the chap’s name). Twenty notes, not including tip, and he’ll sort you out good and proper. At least this was the understanding I had going in. In his defense, the fact that it cost quite a bit more (fifty notes again) is mostly my own fault, but this is not a tale of woe or high-priced shenanigans. No, this is a tale of fear and stupidity, and perhaps a study of how easy it is to lose the run of one’s own mind from time to time.
Ahmet, for that is what we shall call the fellow, had nary a a word of English. I believe I have touched on this in a previous post, the fact that English is not the lingua franca, as it were, which is good news for any aspiring English teacher. Nor do I possess the required Turkish language skills, that will no doubt be necessary as time unfolds. But my buddy who recommended this fellow brought me there and, one can only assume, explained the situation. Into a battered old barber’s chair I jumped, grinning like an idiot, as I used my three Turkish phrases to appease the Master; ‘hello’, ‘how are you’, ‘I am good’. Happy days!
The haircut passed off without a hitch, there’s really only so much that can happen to the top of one’s head. Ahmet offered me tea, I politely declined, unintelligibly I’m sure. He went on to offer water, milk, coffee and some other things that I also insisted I could live without. Then it happened, he asked me if I wanted a shave. Of course, still grinning like an idiot, I said ‘lutfen’.
There are few things in this world scarier than a well-built fellow standing over you with an open straight razor, even if he seems the cordial sort. From the moment I agreed to have my face relieved of its grubby stubble and accumulated detritus I regretted my choice. But one can’t simply up and run like a bat out of hell, one must see it through. So there I sat, Ahmet lathering me up with the greatest of care. He set up the straight razor, must have seen the crazed fear in my eyes, then got cracking.
Every time I swallowed I imagined that blade slicing through my Adam’s apple. I recalled that scene from Dumb and Dumber, the one where Jim Carrey uses the open ketchup pack to freak out the barber, and I stifled a laugh. ‘Don’t laugh’, I thought. ‘You’ll anger him and he has the blade, and the upper hand.’ I’m not sure if it was the heat but I sure was perspiring.
The feel of a really, razor-sharp blade is something special. It is unique. Some blades are sharp, others are pretty sharp; I don’t know what Ahmet’s deal is but that blade felt about as sharp and fine as any edge I’ve had against my skin. Hardly a rasp as it moved over my face, chopping all those little hairs it met with and felling them like tiny trees. When he finally finished, after delicately shaving my upper lip and contorting my visage into all kinds of shapes, he was done. With the shave at least. In Turkey your barber thinks nothing of manhandling your head, as though for the time he’s in charge of it he can do what he likes. In truth, were one to contest his right to do so, frictions would likely ensue.
Without so much as a by your leave Ahmet placed me head first in the sink, face down of course. Running water over my freshly shaved jowls he washed me like a baby. I hardly had time to take a breath before he enthusiastically freed me from any stray hairs. I won’t go into all the details but my head has never been cleaner. In fact, he was so thorough, I was half expecting him to brush my teeth.
I’ve been thinking about Belgium again, now that I’ve left that country, to try and figure out what it was about living there that I really didn’t like. There were many things that bugged me – excessive car horn usage for one, high taxes being another – but there was, more specifically, a feeling of being downtrodden that I have not experienced anywhere else. Most people are aware that Belgium has a reputation for being boring, and there was certainly an element of that, but I think it was/is the general acceptance, nay inclination, for the general populace to play victim. Many countries have had it bad, suffered famine, war, pestilence, and gotten on with it. There is something about the Belgian psyche that seems to revel in malaise.
I say this because, living in Turkey for the best part of a month now, I see again how helpful and considerate people generally are, and want to be. The Irish in my experience will, as a rule, often go out of their way to help you, if they can. They will also go out of their way to mess you up if you cross them, but that’s another story and not a theory I suggest testing. The English, for all their faults (and they have many), are a fairly considerate bunch, unusually good humoured as well as being disinclined to upset your day if it can be avoided. For the ten years I lived in London I found them motivated, hard-working and optimistic, if somewhat racist, opinionated and overly self-assured. Yes they had an Empire, yes it spanned the globe, but more importantly that day has long since passed. Deal with it.
Now back to the Turks. First of all, in case anyone may be in any doubt, the Turks do smoke more than anyone else alive, in my honest opinion. They smoke like it’s going out of fashion. I have been known to spark up quite regularly and I have had my dalliances with quitting too, but even I draw the line these days at chain smoking and early morning cigarettes. The Turks have no such foibles. They will spark up first thing in the morning, last thing at night, straight after they have extinguished the preceding cigarette, all that good stuff. But when it comes to helping or being friendly they certainly take the biscuit. Having come here straight from Belgium and the 5 years of my life I spent there, I had gotten more than used to bad service, limited choice of providers, poor excuses for shoddiness or tardiness, and a general lack of respect for basics of exchange, ‘I pay you for the services/goods you provide and in turn you treat me with professionalism’. I could tell you stories about this that would make your hair curl but maybe another time. When we called for an electrician recently, in Istanbul, we were told the guy would be with us in 10 minutes! I’m sorry, what was that? 10 minutes? Holy crap. I shit you not, the guy was here in 5, and he was helpful, polite, considerate etc. The corner shop down our street will deliver water to your house (drinking water generally being delivered in plastic containers from a trusted source), as well as bread, cigarettes and other assorted goodies. This takes some getting used to after my Belgian experience.
Another thing I quite like in Turkey is how individuals will refer to any female older than themselves as abla (big sister) or abi (big brother), in the case of an older male. I really think this contributes to a culture of respect, which is evident in the way one is treated in stores, cafes, bars or restaurants. I am well aware that the Turks don’t have the best reputation in many parts of Europe, though my wife would argue that this is because these are the descendants of families who moved there and never integrated whilst also not progressing with the rest of Turkey, They are now stuck somewhere between being European and Turkish, some dark and uncharted cultural no man’s land. Suffice it to say I am finding the adherence here to old world manners quite charming, and I don’t even mind being a yabangee (foreigner). Let’s see if this continues.
So, yesterday I learned that turtles are common enough in rural Turkey. These guys have everything, the Turks I mean, including snakes which stupid St. Patrick had to go and banish from the old Emerald Isle. Not that it matters that much, we don’t have poisonous spiders, killer bees or carnivorous plants either. But we do have Guinness.
Back to the turtles. These little fellas just plod around, strutting their stuff at a relaxed pace, sticking it to the Man in their own inimitable way. I’ve decided I want one. What could be cooler than having your very own shell-encrusted reptile?
Further to the above I popped down to the local stream, everyone should have one, to have a ganders and sure enough spotted a couple of little beauts. I couldn’t quite bring myself to nab one though, not least because three of the four were water turtles who made good their escape once I arrived – they may be slow on land but not in the drink, that being their natural abode. It didn’t seem fair to cart one away from the idyllic setting of dangerously low water level (banks duly adorned with empty beers cans), styrofoam and someone’s old armchair. Seriously, who goes to a beautiful nature spot and thinks, ‘this needs my old, battered, falling-to-pieces recliner’. Jerks!
One must marvel at turtles though. Up close and personal they’re not up to a whole lot; the don’t have sharp teeth (none at all that I could spot), they’re not exactly fast unless in water and, other than the shell, they have little by way of protection. In fairness though that shell is pretty impressive.
In summary, a whole piece on turtles, short as you like, providing the perfect platform for faecal jokes/references and not one until now. Unless, of course you count the title.
Until next time.