Living in Istanbul – sights and sounds

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Our local milk delivery man.

“… Each day certain sounds can be heard echoing down my street. Early in the morning I hear the eskici come through. These buyers of old wares and junk roam the streets dragging or pushing two-wheeled, flat barrow carts, calling out “eskici, eskici”, buying old books, lamps, bric-a-brac and knickknacks. The items they collect vary greatly. One day the barrow will be covered in tattered, ripped and torn penny dreadfuls and on another day they might pass by toting an enormous, elaborate cut glass chandelier. In the past these men worked to their own timetable, but now they are regulated by the local council, each registered and licensed with a barrow number. They walk very slowly down the street, and quite often I see a neighbouring kapıcı, the caretakers some of the apartments have, hailing them. The two men will disappear for some time, and then reappear manhandling an enormous old enamel bath, an airconditioner or some other redundant item no longer wanted. The local eskici often wait in Tutuncu Mehmet Effendi Sokak, our nearest shopping street, displaying high-end glassware and other items they think the passing housewives might like. Any item they think is worth something more is taken to a nearby antique shop.

There is a particular ritual to the way they transact these negotiations. The eskici calls out to the shop owner, who comes over to where the eskici stands nonchalantly leaning on his barrow, usually smoking a cigarette. This is quickly stubbed out if the antiques dealer shows any real interest. Intense conversation follows, and money is mentioned. On one side the amount is always too high, and on the other, too low. You always know how low it is as the eskici will raise his voice in disgust, utter the Turkish remonstrance of amazement and despair “Allah Allah”, accompanied by raised hands and violent body movements. If he feels the offer is really insulting, he starts to move slowly away, indignation writ large on his back, but all the time he surreptitiously turns to see if the dealer will respond with a better offer. I can always gauge how well the bargaining is going by how close together the two men are.

Less often the hurdacı goes by. Like the eskici, they wander the streets calling out their presence. “Hurdacı, hurdacı” they cry, buying up scrap metal and spare parts. They are doing really well at the moment, because the vogue for renovating has hit Istanbul in a big way. Every week someone is having their kitchen or bathroom remodeled, and the hurdacı often leave with a full compliment of old metal pipes that these days are being replaced by plastic ones. Since the earthquake in 1999, many old apartment blocks are being torn down and replaced by taller, sleeker models. The new apartments are very expensive so a lot of people have no choice but to stay put and update.

Another type of street people you see are the Çingene, or Gypsies. In Istanbul they take the place of organised recycling programs, collecting and selling any items the eskici will not consider. They pull contraptions consisting of a metal frame on to which an enormous, dirty synthetic sack is attached. They fill these with cardboard and paper that they filch from the large metal four wheeled bins that sit outside each apartment block. Items are hooked out using vicious looking hand held metal claws, which clank ominously against the sides of the metal bins. They rarely speak to anyone, although from time to time they will sing most beautifully, and are low in the social order. When you pass them on the pavement they pull over to let you pass, unless they are going downhill at speed, with a full load. On the road they usually give way to cars, but sometimes horrify me by making mad dashes out into the traffic. It is the only way they can get to the other side, but it causes drivers to brake suddenly and honk their horns in anger and fright. The Gypsies are usually dark skinned people, and are made more so by rifling in the rubbish and handling printing ink all day. As they rip through the paper they throw on to the ground any unwanted materials, loudly and with abandon. Those who recycle wood from discarded chairs and sofas can spend up to an hour banging way at the metal frames to get to the pieces they want. When they have finished they put everything back in the bin or on the ground, with little regard to the noise they make.

Everyday at around morning teatime, the simit seller comes by. The simitçi calls out “Taze simit, taze simit” in a garbled, mixed up accent, alerting anyone who might be at home and feeling a little peckish, that these round sour dough rings, covered in sesame seeds are fresh and available now! Our local simitçi is thin and swarthy, and always well rugged up against the weather, whether it is summer or winter. On his head he carries a round tin tray, piled high with fresh simits, and under his arm he clutches a three legged stand. After walking the length of the street and back he stops at the entry to our building, and sets the tray on the stand. Within minutes one of the women from an apartment two floors up from ours is leaning out her window and debating the freshness of his stock. Once satisfied, she calls down her order. While the simitçi selects the best stock to carefully place in a plastic bag, my neighbour lets down a straw basket on a very long string. Inside the basket are the few coins the simit cost. Down at street level the money is replaced by the neatly wrapped snack, and the basket slowly bumps back up the side of the building.

Now that it is winter, the boza man comes around every night. His plaintive cry of “boza-bo” with a long drawn out emphasis on the bo, can be heard from several streets away, and sounds almost like a lament. Boza is made from fermented barley or wheat, and looks like a well-blended glass of porridge. It is served hot and usually sprinkled with roasted chickpeas. I have only tasted it once and for me it will never be an acquired taste. Some people swear by it as it is nutritious and filling, being high in vitamin B. Whatever their preference, all my Turkish friends agree you should never buy it from the man selling it on the street. Consequently when I first hear the boza man calling his wares at eight in the evening and again at eleven, I feel a terrible sadness. His call is truly heart-rending, and my imagination has him eking out the poorest of livings, due to everyone’s mistrust of him The melancholy evoked by the boza man is known in Turkish as hüzün and is part and parcel of Istanbul. Orhan Pamuk, a famous Turkish author I greatly admire writes about how the hüzün of Istanbul inhabitants casts a particular air and feeling over the city and I have to agree when I feel it too.”

I hope you enjoyed this excerpt from my memoir Istanbul Dreams: Waiting for the Tulips to Bloom. Making the decision to come was easy. It’s choosing to stay that can be hard.

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