Every other week or so I walk the four or five minutes it takes to reach the main road from my house and get on bus 99A. It travels south, along the Golden Horn towards the opening up to the Bosporus and the Sea of Marmara. But before it gets there, it turns to cross the bridge towards the Galata Tower, the 67 meter tall stone tower that has been looking out over Istanbul since the Genovese had it built in 1348, more than a hundred years before the Ottomans conquered the city.
But the bus doesn’t go to the Galata Tower, because after having dropped off people in hip Karaköy near the seaside just below, it crosses another bridge back across the Golden Horn, to the big square in front of Yeni Cami, The New Mosque, which isn’t new at all but more than 350 years old, where the bus comes to its final stop and we all leave to join the bustling crowd outside. But, like most people on the bus, I have not come to visit the mosque. I’ve come for what’s around it. Mısır Çarşısı. The Egyptian spice market. Istanbul’s famous spice market.
I love coming here. I can walk around for a long time, just breathing in the life of these streets, the smells, the colours. I sometimes stop for a second in front of the pickle shop and wonder which vegetables they don’t have in pickled form – I can never think of one. After, I move opposite to the stall with bountiful strips full of dried aubergines and tomatoes and chilies and I-don’t-even-know-what hanging from the ceiling to buy another bag of Turkish chiliflakes, because one can never have enough bags of the many different kinds of Turkish chili flakes. And then the dried aubergines above my head makes me think about the dried aubergines in my kitchen cupboard at home and I tell myself to get around to finally making dolmas out of them.
But before that, I go to the coffee shop in one of the side streets. I read the hand-written, laminated notes lying in the large sacks of coffee beans lining the outside of the store revealing the beans’ origin and price, lift up a handful of beans and allow them to run through my fingers while I smell them and ponder which coffee to take home today. Then I walk around the corner to my favourite spice shop which is so full of shelves with so many different kinds of spices not a single inch of wall is visible from the floor to the ceiling and for a moment I wonder if I have accidentally stumbled upon Diagon Alley of the Harry Potter universe. I take a closer look at a few different spices, some of which I know and some of which I have never heard of, let alone seen, before, smell them and wonder what they might be used for.
Yet, one is rarely left in one’s own thoughts for very long. Everywhere is crowded: The streets, the front of the stalls, the inside of the tiny little shops that are so narrow and with so many things in baskets outside their entrance even entering sometimes poses a challenge. Then an old man shouts at the top of his lungs for people to move out of the way as he comes pulling a simple old-fashioned cart carrying heavy boxes because the streets here are so narrow that no delivery trucks will be able to get through, and even the old man with the simple old-fashioned cart needs to utilise almost the full width of the street. And, of course, the delivery must happen when the goods happen to arrive, because it cannot be planned to arrive at a time when the streets are empty. We are, after all, in Turkey.
And in the midst of all of this chaos, full of sounds and smells and colours, I find myself thinking that today, right here and right now, I’m very lucky to be in Istanbul.