Istanbul is a city of surprises.
It was the cherries that first captivated us. We were stuck in mid-day traffic, the sun blazing down on our taxi. It was so hot, my thigh and shoulder were fused to my daughter's and I ached to peel off my sticky clothes. The hotter it got, the more we all started to dream of beer and ice water and air-conditioned rooms. When boys started darting in and out of the traffic hawking sweating bottles of water, we were sorely tempted. But when the boy with the cherries showed up, we all reached for our coin purses and tried to get his attention. He didn't seem to see us sitting there, stalled in the traffic.
The longer we waited, the better those cherries looked. They were piled high in a wheelbarrow, glossy and red, and the boy, who couldn't have been more than ten, doggedly pushed them in and out of traffic, his voice hoarse from crying his wares.
"I'll bet there's ice in that wheelbarrow," my oldest daughter said. It really looked like there was. The boy had stuck small green branches in among the cherries, perhaps to keep them cool. I was thirsty and hungry and tired and hot, all in one. I'd stayed up all the previous night packing and cleaning. I hadn't gotten any sleep at all on the plane, which arrived two and a half hours late. I'd missed dinner the night before, and breakfast had only been half of a small sandwich and a glass of water.
"They're dark cherries," my daughter observed longingly. "They're not those bland red ones. These look really sweet."
The boy pushed his cherries past a store with hundreds of brightly colored scarves. Women clothed from head to foot in black swished past him. They looked hot, but no hotter than we felt. We watched as the boy negotiated the uneven pavement, deftly dodging other fruit hawkers with piles of oranges, chunks of ruby-red watermelon, boxes of bright green apples. The taxi inched another five feet through exhaust-scented air. The boy with the cherries was making faster progress through the traffic than we were.
We all stared open-mouthed at the pyramids of oranges, the wedges of cut watermelon, the piles of apples. We passed a shady garden with lush, green grass. Someone had scattered what looked like crumpled cellophane of all different colors over a patch of the grass. For a split second I was incensed: how could anyone litter in such a beautiful place? And then I realized that it wasn't cellophane; someone had planted a ring of flowers in that spot: crimson, gold, purple, and blue. There was a flash of silver and red and the wheelbarrow laden with cherries creaked past us again, the boy straining and sweating behind it.
Even through our exhaustion, hunger and thirst, we could see that we were in an incredible city. Our last trips to Istanbul had simply been to change planes; now we were entering as real visitors. We caught our breaths as we drove past the crumbling city walls on our right and the Sea of Marmara a cool, shimmering aquamarine on our left. We watched as the boy with the cherries disappeared into the crowd, taking his mouth-watering merchandise away from us.
That afternoon, we bought apples from one vendor and chunks of juicy, chilled watermelon from another. We drank cold, freshly squeezed orange juice and walked through the cooling dusk past sprawling mosques with gold-tipped domes, and churches and terraced gardens shaded by sprawling grapevines. Violins competed with the call to prayer and the scent of jasmine and roses filled the air as we strolled along cobblestone streets. When we talked to each other in Japanese, some of the shopkeepers interrupted, in Japanese: "Isn't that Japanese you're speaking?" In one short morning, we met at least a dozen Turks who were very fluent in Japanese. But we did not see any more cherries.
In the evening, my daughters almost cried with joy to find a Korean restaurant not two blocks from our hotel. We ate bibimbap and kimchi and tofu and cabbage soup, and staggered home so full we could hardly stand the thought of breakfast. On our way back to the hotel, we saw two more Korean restaurants. Who would have thought there could be three Korean restaurants in Istanbul, all within walking distance? But we did not see any more cherries.
The next day, we visited the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, and the Topkapi Palace. It was fiercely hot, so hot that I got addled and forgot to collect my backpack from the security check at the entrance. I spent a miserably uneasy two hours wandering around the palace, lining up to see the sultan's treasures and the relics of saints, trying not to think about my cell phone, my prescription glasses, and the 250 Turkish lira in my wallet. Just as I'd begun to give up hope of ever seeing my bag again, I remembered where I'd left it. I could have kissed the security guard who handed it back to me. But I did not see any more cherries.
When I checked my email back at the hotel, however, I found a message from an agent expressing interest in my writing. I wrote back to him and he wrote back to me, and I got the call: an offer of representation. I've been waiting for just such an offer for a long time, so I won't even bother trying to explain how euphoric and grateful I felt. For the better part of a decade, I've imagined getting the call, but never once did I expect it to come to me in an Istanbul hotel room with trains trundling past and people selling cashmere shawls outside. I held my hand over my ear and tried to concentrate. I hoped the agent wasn't getting an earful of the trams trundling past, the hawkers outside screaming, "I make very cheap for you, pretty lady!"
After dinner, we found a boy selling cherries. They more than lived up to our expectations.
Thursday, 8 July 2010
Istanbul is a city of surprises.