Monday, December 17, 2007

Chill, saffron, cats

I am sleep-deprived, just as I am at home: grades were due this morning, or rather this afternoon Istanbul time, and I was up till all hours reading student papers and calculating percentages, and up again before the proper amount of sleep. I've been working on the stack of papers and the online reports for days, but the material is nearly endless. At any rate, the grades are in, duly reported online. After that night and day I barely had time to go out, but I did, and the cold woke me up. It is a damp day in Istanbul, or was -- it's now evening and dark -- and I had to bundle up. The weather was raw.

Today's expedition, on the tram which is very convenient and cheap, was a few stops away just on the other side of the Galata Bridge. I went to the Spice Market, also known as the Egyptian Spice Bazaar, in search of saffron, but also for fun.

Most Westerners traveling in the East, writes the author of the first Spice Market link above, discover before long that most of their expectations have been based on fantasy and misconceptions. There are, however, certain experiences that do fulfill the Westerner's romantic urge to find the Orient. The Egyptian Market, (or Spice Market as it is often called), is one of those experiences. The inviting aromas of cinnamon, cumin, saffron, mint, thyme and every other conceivable herb and spice fill the air, even before you enter the market.

The smells weren't entirely there today because of the cold. But in the back of a shop the young man to whom I can now refer as "my saffron man" the way my host talks about "my rug man" (I can't afford rugs -- maybe next time) showed me and had me smell the different types of saffron he had for sale, and also showed me their color by dropping a few filaments in warm water. The Iranian saffron (highest quality, most subtle and perfumed, very thin filaments) was vastly different from the Spanish saffron (stronger, sturdier, one smell and you think "paella") and somewhere in between in both price and delicacy was the Turkish saffron.

Besides spices, the market also sells nuts, dried fruit, lokum (Turkish Delight) and other sweets, and also pashmina scarves and some leather goods. (The place for leather goods, though, is the market just known as "The Bazaar," which is huge and is where the rug man is.) There are a few cheese and salami (presumably not pork) stores as well. Also, there are stores and stalls selling what I refer to as "tourist junk." Lots and lots of cheap exotic-looking tchotchkes. I did buy a few tiny items of tourist junk the other day at the big bazaar, particularly those little blue glass things that keep away the evil eye.

The latest tourist gimmick is a sign that some shopkeepers have next to one of their dried fruit combos, stacks of dried figs each partly split open with a fat half a walnut inside it. The sign says "Turkish Viagra." Boasting of the aphrodisiac properties of spice market wares is apparently nothing new, but this is the post-little-blue-pill twist. Mostly those "Turkish Viagra" signs are next to that fig and nut combination, but I also saw one next to some magical mix of spices.

Another description of the Spice Market says "buy Turkish Delight!" Well, sure. I read that when I got home from the market but I had already bought Turkish Delight, cheap, the plain rose-flavored kind. It is one of the few sweets I like, and it is sweet. There were free samples around, at every other store, but of a smaller kind with pistachios in it. We got some of that at the big bazaar the other day (my host also has a lokum man - but now I've told her about the saffron man so I'm catching up, slowly, though I guess he won't be my saffron man till I buy from him twice) but I had a hankering for those rose lokums and they didn't cost much.

Then it was back home for contemplation of the lights on the Bosphorus, which is an endless source of entertainment and relaxation with its boats and changing waters. Then spinach soup and a mix of homemade and takeout food. I am very tired from all those papers and grade calculations.

But I must not forget the cats. Istanbul is full of cats. Orhan Pamuk, whose book Istanbul: Memories and the City I am reading (or rather not reading because there's been no time; I'll continue reading it on the plane unless I get some café time tomorrow, my last full day here) talks about the bands of dogs that roam or roamed the city. I have only seen a few dogs; either times have changed (I hear they have) or I'm not in the right neighborhood for dogs. We are, however, overrun by cats. They appear to be street cats but they seem happy and well fed. My host tells me that people from the houses and apartments on this set of narrow streets and stairs feed them. I can verify this because I not only saw a cat pawing at a bag of garbage but twice saw another cat eating from a big dish of cat kibble someone had obviously set out for that very purpse, along with a bowl of water. I don't think the cats belong to particular humans or vice versa. They just belong to the street. Or the street belongs to them.

I mentioned "streets and stairs" above. Istanbul is built on seven hills, like Rome, and the hills are steep. One way from one of the big plazas to the apartment building where I am staying is down two narrow streets. So we are downhill from somewhere. But we are also uphill from somewhere else: another way to the apartment from another main drag is up a steep hill and then up two flights of even steeper stairs, and by steep I mean an incline of 45 to 50 degrees. I feel that in my legs. The cats, meanwhile, dart all over, up and down the stairs, and they also have little cat conventions on steps, ledges, landings, and street corners. They aren't scared of humans but they don't stick around to be petted, either. They have their own cat society, albeit a society interdependent with the human one on this densely populated hill.

Here's a nice Turkey travel report page with photos. The anti- evil eye charm photo above is from there.


Padre Mickey said...

The Lovely Mona and I would go absolutely nuts in that spice market! We're enjoying your stories and traveling vicariously through you.

Jane R said...

Glad you are enjoying them. The spice market is fabulous. Wish I could ship you two some saffron. Nothing replaces being there, of course. I leave tomorrow -- went to one church and one mosque today, using lots of public transportation, no tourist transpo.

I enjoyed your quinceañera (or however you spell it in Panamanian Spanish) celebration photos. Is the prayer and Bible part to keep them from misbehaving now that they are fifteen and gorgeous?