Weather can be a petty floozy.
This I know because for a decade, I lived in western Washington, where torrential downpour comes down like America’s wrath on Lance Armstrong (This New Yorker blog post is also something like torrential downpour and I encourage you to read it because it is just…wow).
But I never expected the rest of the world to betray me. Call it naivety or ignorance, but I thought Istanbul weather was supposed to mild, forgiving, and gentle. Even weather.com had said, only a 10% chance of rain. At high noon, with clear skies and warm sun heating the cobbled streets to an agreeable 50 degrees, the day was golden in the eyes of a Northwestern girl. However, it turns out that weather is all the same (Even in New Zealand). It’s a dirty rotten double-crossing, two-timing, no good, unfaithful vicious trollop.
Okay fine. I still love you weather. I guess it was partly my fault too. As a Pacific Northwestern junky I guess I must expect nothing more than rain, wind, and wet discomfort following me wherever I go. Especially when I seasonally wear button downs, down vests, skinny jeans, and Chacos.
The day was like wearing a wet bathing suit as underwear, dressed like Björk, while walking around the office. It was wet and cold, I was throat singing, and everyone else, appropriately dressed, was wondering “what the crickets are you wearing” : sandals. And I hadn’t bothered to bring that one essential piece of survival clothing — a waterproof jacket.
But you know? The day was actually okay. I stumbled upon the Grand Bazaar. And some other really cool stuff. Just run of the mill Istanbul.
The thing about Istanbul is that once you’re at the essential tourist destination, you can walk everywhere you’d want to tour. But the thing is, I live 9 kilometers (I know, I know, call me Jane Fonda, put me in the Tower of London, stretch me on the rack several meters, shut me in a room at 0 degrees celsius, GAH can’t…STOP…) away from Sultanahmet where most of the historical tourist destinations are located. Let me tell you: when it comes to public transportation and a sense of direction, I have the mental capacity of what were we talking about again?
Combined with how slightly neurotic and unhinged I am normally about being in control and prepared for anything, these two traits are a recipe for disaster (okay, now I just want a cheesecake). But I think after all this traveling, that particular personal quality is now sitting in the back at the terminal along with Paula Abdul’s train of thought and…I’m okay with that. I think I like it this way because these random experiences make for good stories and being able to sit back, relax, and laugh at myself is cathartic. And if I let myself become stressed while traveling I’d be in my room like these two hamsters for days.
This is the attitude got me into marveling the blessed wonder that is public transportation freezing and wet. I was on a bus for 3 hours. And then some. I kid you not. I spent a grand total of 3 hours and 18 minutes riding a bus to go NINE kilometers (That’s 5.5 miles thou impertinent American hedge-pigs). Some tips when getting on bus: 1. check out the flashing electronic sign that tells you its route before you get on and 2. make sure it’s going in the right cardinal direction, otherwise you’re in for a long ride (and really long posts about it).
Oh, the reason I was cold and wet is because I got off the bus in İstınye when I realized I was in the EXACT OPPOSITE direction I needed to go. And by then it was unexpectedly raining. Hard. And I HUNGERED.
I stopped at the “Book Cafe” there because I thought, well oh swell, at least I’ll get to sip a hot beverage and eat a danish while I dry off. Wrong again. The “Book Cafe” had a completely empty bakery display.
I couldn’t even find their website probably because they don’t have one out of shame. Although to their credit they did have a ridiculously good looking Turkish guy who I ran into on my way out. But “cake, cake, feed American girl, wet, cake” apparently doesn’t translate into Turkish very well so I didn’t stay long. We did kind of have a “Notebook” moment, though. He was pretty much an Anatolian Ryan Gosling, it was pouring, and he probably couldn’t understand Rachel McAdams either.
How to get there: In a pastry-deprived huff, I hopped on to another bus to Kabataş (it’s the last stop for Beşiktaş busses, so get off with everyone else) where I jumped on the tram. Trams in Istanbul are essentially made for tourists. Posted in the interior you’ll find the popular sites along with the neighborhood where they make their stops. They shuffle you out, give your bum a pat, and say “go, little American tootsie, be with your kind.” You basically can’t go wrong with the tram.
The tram spits you out in Sultanahmet on a busy street lined with shops, a comforting English-speaking Starbucks, food carts, currency exchange shops, street performers, and Turkish delicacies. From there I made a left (headed south, I think) and partially English signs led me, unexpectedly easily, to the Grand Bazaar or the Kapalıçarşı (“covered bazaar”).
Let me tell you: that thing is grand. With over 3,000 shops covering 61 streets, it’s overwhelming and almost worth spending the whole afternoon to get there (Kidding. I’m just bitter about the lack of snacks in İstınye, it was marvelous. And if you do it right it should take you about 10 minutes from the tram anywhere).
You can find some really great treasures:
And gifts for your boss:
The great thing about not having any money and being on my own, for this trip to the Bazaar, is that I was able to explore, look around, and really soak things in at my leisure. If you’re in Istanbul for a few days and want to shop — treat your first trip to the Grand Bazaar like a museum — look around and marvel. Then on your second day, shop — both experiences will be magnificent and unique.
If you explore the Grand Bazaar just remember a few things:
Admission: is free and it’s for everyone, kids too. Some streets are not so stroller friendly but you’ll have lots of places to shop.
The thing is, there are thousands of merchants with some of the exact same items to share and so they’ll personally reach out to you. I heard some really weird things like “see our genuine fakes!” and “you would look great on a Turkish rug.” Unfortunately, it seemed like they all read from the same handbook because I began hearing the same funny things over and over again. But they want to know you and will want to talk.
One way that shop keepers will try is by asking “where are you from?” This is a game of “pin the tail on the American” where they will decide how much they can charge you (hello, New York, California). They’ll ask about you and then tell you about a cousin who happened to live in your home town and then skillfully embark on a sales pitch. Don’t be afraid to talk to people though! It’s all part of the fun and so you should experience it.
The Turks are also hospitable and good natured. They’ll offer you tea to talk to you more which is polite to accept but okay to decline. If you’re like me and don’t drink tea or coffee, just put your hand over your heart and say no, thank you (hayır, teşekkürler) as politely as you can.
You also don’t have to stop everywhere especially if you’re in for a tiring day. Women especially will get more often approached and yelled for. All you have to do is smile and keep walking. Some salesmen can be super aggressive and pushy but they will not harm you or follow you. Just don’t give any thought if you’re not interested and keep walking as they holler. The trick is to be discerning. Be able to tell between unique, high quality shops and made in China stores. If you do take time to shop, listen to shop owners talk about their merchandise and demonstrate their craft. You’ll walk away with a fine treasure if you listen to passionate artists and see their work.
The great thing about being ethnically ambiguous were the shouts of “konichiwa!” from shop keepers who couldn’t figure me out. The looks of confused merchants when I began practicing my smattering of Asian languages was priceless. If you stop at the bazaar have a great time and try to experience the best of being valued as a traveler. It’s a whole load of fun.
Times: 9-7 M-Sa. When the bazaar finally spit me out on the other side of town, I had a great time looking around. Unfortunately, many other places begin closing at 5 (the Grand Bazaar is closed on Sundays) and so I didn’t have time to see more. But I enjoyed the view and the sights without a clue.
All in all, despite the unpredictable weather, I experienced some of the best things that Turkey can offer like unmatched hospitality, unreal sights, and made for tourists, easy public transportation. I rode a bus. I rode a tram. I conquered my fear of hailing a cab.
Despite my confusion and unpreparedness for the weather, today I found that Turkey itself is unlike the wandering weather — she will always be there to pat your head and say “you did good my pet. Have a kebab.”