With Amanda in Ephesus from sun up to sun down, I had the whole day to explore Istanbul on my own. Or not, because after a few messages with Jonathan, one of the San Franciscoans from the previous night, I had a lunch date with them at 2pm. How easy it is to make new friends abroad! I thought, scarfing down the chili-flaked omelet and Turkish cheese that had become my morning staple. Until then, I’ll go shopping!
Now, I am not one of those travelers who empties their bank accounts on clothes and souvenirs. In fact, I almost never declare more than $20 on my custom’s form, intentionally bringing only a stuffed carry-on to prevent such impulse buys as 400 Euro army green coats in Paris (so happy I didn’t pick up that one– thank you tiny Samsonite!) But I wanted to bring back something for my boyfriend, and I’d heard Istanbul had great leather products, so I headed to the Grand Bazaar.
My first instinct when I stepped into the legendary shopping mecca was to take a selfie. Maybe it was because the myriad of colors and shimmering objects brought out my pink lipgloss, or more likely because the frenzied consumerism spurred on the “me me me” philosophy, but that’s exactly what I did. Then, I faced the madness.
And I do mean madness. My friend Lauren had warned me before I left to go in with a plan, but I felt in no way prepared for the onslaught of men aggressively hawking their wares. The second I stepped into the leather section it came at me from all sides.
“Miss, over here, I know what you want,” one called. You do?! Awesome, please tell me so I can stop stressing about what to give Daniel!
“Everything almost free!” another regaled me.
“Ha! Almost!” I laughed.
“You can try on, you don’t have to buy,” a younger guy pointed towards some quite cute jackets. The fact that that was even a commendation made me run the other direction.
To twenty more men saying the exact same things. Overwhelmed, I snapped a quick photo of some man bags and rushed back into the main hall. Or a main hall. The Grand Bazaar has so many entrances and exits and aisles and off shoots that even Google Maps can’t figure out where you are. I decided to just browse the stalls, collecting iPhone shots as souvenirs.
When I’d tired of pretty lanterns and Turkish tea sets, I set out for the Spice Bazaar. While not as big as the Grand Bazaar, my mom had assured me it was more “photogenic.” It was indeed – no need for selfies here.
The second I stepped in a big goofy grin spread across my face. The baskets filled with nuts and spices and Turkish delights, the colorful store fronts and old men holding out sample – I was in heaven. And Daniel would’ve been too. I suddenly knew exactly what to get him.
I walked into the very first stall and bought “Love Tea,” red peppercorns, traditional kebab seasoning, and Turkish delights. Was this the best economic strategy? Probably not, but I didn’t feel like haggling. Besides, the prices were lower than the states and the short good-looking salesman flirted respectably.
“Your boyfriend would want you to go out and experience the city with a nice Turkish guy,” he insisted, offering me his card.
“I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t, but I’ll ask,” I smiled, paying for the items and stepping back into the market.
I wandered the aisles for a bit, sampling sweets from trays when the shopkeepers weren’t looking. I found my way outside o the cheese and olive and fish vendors. Now that’s what I’m talking about! My mouth watered over the huge vats of creamy white goodness. I couldn’t bring it back to Daniel, but I could at least dedicate a photo to him on Instagam.
By the time I’d finished at the market, I had just enough time to walk to the restaurant for lunch. I took side streets, weaving through less touristy, more raw parts of Istanbul. There were no kebab shops here, no throngs of people. In fact, there was no one. I tried not to be intimidated, and picked up my pace.
When I arrived at the aqueduct, a block from the restaurant, I still had 20 minutes to kill. My feet hurt, my head ached, and my illness flared – I needed to meditate, if not medicate. I sat down on a bench looking out at the centuries old waterway, closed my eyes, and focused on my breathing.
Fifteen minutes later I felt like a new person. I stood up to leave, and was immediately stopped.
“Excuse me, would you mind, uh, sitting there again. For a photo?” the man asked in broken English. I stared at him, incredulous. What are you trying to sell me?
He sensed my hesitancy and showed me his camera. “I took this of you, but it would be better centered. I can send to you if you like.”
I liked the photo, and seeing he had pure motives, agreed to model again. I wondered how many other photos belonging to strangers I appeared in. Hundreds, no doubt, intentionally or otherwise. It didn’t seem a coincidence that this one happened to be brought to my attention while meditating, a practice I’d only recently begun. The universe guides us in mysterious ways.
The San Franciscoans were running late, so I waited patiently at the restaurant, perusing the menu. When they finally arrived, it felt like a mad rush to make up for lost time – the 20 minutes of tardiness, the lifetimes we’d lived ignorant of each others’ existence. Jonathan talked faster than any New Yorker I’d ever encountered, and it thrilled me. He spoke of his current nomadic living situation, of jumping from one country to the next, not knowing where the following week would take him. Of giving back to the community and saving lives (he gave bone marrow – twice!). Of the company he was currently launching involving online dating.
“Online dating?! Are you serious?! I knew we met for a reason!” I told them about my Tinder escapades and my forthcoming book, and we laughed at the serendipity.
“Maybe we’ll be able to team up!” Jonathan exclaimed. I concurred. Again, mysterious ways.
After lunch, the four of us made our way to the Suleymaniye Mosque, Istanbul’s largest. While not as beautiful or crowded as Hagia Sofia or Sultanhamet, its austerity provided a stronger sense of spirituality. It invited mediation, contemplation, mindfulness…
But right then we were more interested in mayhem. Heather wanted to buy a few things from the bazaar, so I led the way back to the shopping jungle. This time, though, I felt more confident with friends by my side in the bartering battle.
“I’ll pay ten Lira for this mug,” I told a salesman. He shook his head, and I walked on. But Jonathan stayed to fight the good fight. He lost, but we won at the next vendor, scoring a coffee cup sporting a Turkish flag.
“Why did you want that mug?” Jonathan asked, trying to mask his judgment of my souvenir predilections.
“Well, it’s what my boyfriend and I are collecting when we travel. He’s already been doing it for years with his mother, and then I got him these mugs for his birthday, with this hashtag we created together, team no days off–” I blushed. “Oh god, we are so crazy cheesy in love, it’s disgusting.”
“No it’s not, it’s amazing! You’re glowing,” he smiled. “I love romance, tell me more.”
I told him we’d only been dating for a few months, but that we both just knew right away, like my parents. That I’d also given him a puzzle of us for his birthday, because he had all the pieces I’d been working on putting together for years. That he completed my puzzle.
“That’s funny, because my ex and I had a similar thing between us. We used to say we were each other’s corner pieces,” he confided. I smiled, feeling more and more comfortable being my hopeful romantic self.
The bazaar was now closing, and we all felt in need of a nap. But I didn’t want this to be the end of our journey together.
“Amanda and I are going to a restaurant at 9 in Beyoglu with a friend of a friend. Would you guys want to come?” I asked.
They loved the idea, so I confirmed the reservation change, and we agreed to meet a couple of hours later in Jonathan’s lobby. We had a quick drink there, then ubered over to Antiochia Concept, the restaurant chosen by Ally’s English friend Andrew.
It. Was. Delicious. Of course, I had expected it to be – Andrew is a chef currently working at an upscale French restaurant in Istanbul. If I was going to trust anyone aside from TripAdvisor, it was him. And he did not lead us astray with this hip place specializing in Hatay cuisine. From the stylish décor to the stop-my-heart-right-now fried cheese to the chef de cuisine sending us out extra dishes and feeding them to Jonathan with his eyes closed (don’t ask), everything was divine.
Especially the company. Sometimes bringing together complete strangers can be awkward and terrifying. But with Andrew, Amanda, Heather, Tony, Jonathan, and myself, it felt as organic as a health food store in Marin County. The conversation just flowed. I felt like I could talk to them about anything and everything.
And in fact, we did. Before dinner, during dinner, after dinner. The conversation just flowed. I won’t go into it here, because it got so deeply personal and unbelievably intimate and doesn’t belong on a blog, but in just 48 hours, I had managed to delve into topics with these five former strangers that many people spend their whole lives avoiding. The experiences they shared humbled me. Through each of them, I was beginning to see why we really travel: to expose ourselves to the stories of others.