…I am short. I’ve spent most of my life being short except for one brief moment when I was 12 and was the tallest girl in the class. Had I been a boy I would have been the tallest boy then too. Over the years I’ve come to accept that I’ll never wake up with legs up to my ears and am used to most things being just out of my reach. I know I’ll always miss out on knowing what’s going on if I’m standing in a crowd.
When I first came to Turkey I could almost console myself to being short because Turkish women are short too. Initially I felt at home because eye level for them was the same for me and I didn’t feel so hampered by my lack of height in kitchens here. I say almost, however, because while we share a vertical similarity, their horizontals are so much smaller and slimmer than mine. Once again I was prepared to resign myself to the fact that I am short, when I met the first of my little men.
At that time I was living in Kayseri in central Turkey. I was working at a government university and living on campus. From there it was a very fast and frightening three minute bus ride the four kilometers into town with a driver who thought he was competing in a Formula One Grand Prix. Red lights and speeding trucks were never any deterrent to them. When we screeched to a halt at Republican Square it was always a relief to get off the bus, even though it did mean leaping several feet onto the ground from the curiously high set buses.
The old town centre was originally completely enclosed in a towering granite wall. By the time I arrived the crumbling façade had been clumsily and controversially rebuilt with poorly mixed concrete. The final result might not have been aesthetically pleasing but it was practical. Along its base an assortment of Turkish shoe shine men had carefully set themselves up to ply their trades. They were lined up next to one another, each sitting behind an even more elaborate brass plated, boat-shaped cleaning kit. They were lavishly decorated with postcards featuring portraits of luscious female Turkish singers and impressively masculine Turkish performers proudly showing off bristling moustaches. Their ranks were supplemented by five men sitting at ancient tabletop treadle sewing machine with the original glistening gold lettering, repairing shoes. All of them displayed coloured shoe laces by draping them over a piece of string suspended the length of the table. When the wind blew and the call to prayer sounded they seemed like Hawaiian dancers undulating in time to the music.
All of the trees in the row planted in line with the wall had been claimed. At each stood a man with a cart, usually made by a converting an old-fashioned baby carriage, offering a startling range of goods and services. I still smoked back then, and I went to the third tree from the left, where a little man, dressed winter and summer in a long-sleeved shirt covered by a hairy jumper, would refill my lighter. After being caught out by a burst of gas the first time I went to him, I always stood upwind when he inserted the nozzle of a bottle of butane into my lighter and refilled it. At other times I waited as he started up his portable generator and turned on his laminating machine to cover a new identity card or travel pass with plastic. Along with the men at the other trees he sold mobile phone cases, pens, worry beads and an assortment of other small things…
If you enjoyed reading this brief experience with Turkish shoe shine men, you can read the the rest of my experiences in the second collection of essays called Exploring Turkish Landscapes: Crossing Inner Boundaries.