Turkish Coffee, Istanbul Modern, Istiklal

The carpet salesman brought out coffee and glasses of water on a silver engraved tea tray before setting a cup and saucer before me, then his wife, then at the place he was sitting. Following his wife’s lead, I brought the tiny mug up to my lips and sipped; strong, dark and elegant. I closed my eyes; I had been waiting for Turkish coffee my whole trip.

“So what does your husband do?” the shopkeeper asked. I blinked my eyes open. Oh, right.

Ten minutes earlier I had been standing near Taksim Square, guidebook in hand, spinning in circles while desperately searching for a street sign. Just ANY street sign.

“Where are you trying to go?” a voice said behind me. A wave of relief washed over me. I spun around.

“Um. Istiklal?” I was unsure of how to even pronounce the popular street name.

“Oh! It’s just over there,” he pointed to a large street full of people across the square. “But first you come to my shop for tea or coffee.” He motioned to the store behind us.

“I’m sorry, I’m meeting my husband soon. He’s waiting for me.” I stammered, tucking my hair behind my ear with my left hand. “He’s uh, looking for a carpet at the Bazaar.” Oh. Brother.

“Well I sell carpets! You come in and have coffee. Your husband won’t buy without you, right? You’ll kick him out if he does, right?”

I laughed and he motioned to his shop once more, a middle-aged woman stood in the door and waved. I’ve heard of this Turkish hospitality before, where they dole out tea and coffee invitations to strangers. I had skeptically raised a brow to accept this friendliness before, especially after Spain, but there were no instinct bells going off.

The carpet shop was gorgeous. Carpets on the walls, carpets rolled in corners, carpets and textiles folded up and stored in innumerable cubbies. It was lovely and air-conditioned. Then came the coffee. And the husband question.

“He’s a music teacher at University of Chicago,” I said, taking another sip. “It’s new for us but he really likes it.” They smiled and nodded and glanced at each other.

“And you?” the wife asked. “You’re a housewife?” I laughed.

“Oh, no. I’m a yoga teacher. I also do copywriting, but I’m working on a novel.” A farce more intricate than the rugs on the wall.

Conversation drifted from my “husband,” to yoga, to what “we” were doing in Istanbul. They mentioned how Turkish I look. We laughed and I asked about their business. Then they told me about carpets. They laid out textiles for me–teal, orange, red, gold–that were meant for pillow cushions or hangings. I needed them, but any question of cost was met with “You bring your husband, we do a whole package for you.” Except I don’t have a husband, and I wanted those textiles. The whole thing was over in the span of  half hour, and while the wife took our cups away the shopkeeper offered me a word of advice.

“Be careful at night,” he said. “People get drunk around here. They won’t grab you, but they’ll bother you.” He paused. “But you’re tough. And you come from a tough city like Chicago.”

Yeah, I do. Yeah, I am.

The shopkeeper walked me to Taksim Square and pointed me in the right direction. What a way to start the day.

My mission was Istanbul Modern. After the Prado gave me dreams about Jesus, I was wondering what sorts of dreams a contemporary art museum might bring. Istanbul Modern is near the Bosphorus, so it was pretty much a straight shot south. Except Istanbul doesn’t have straight streets. They wind and take steep dives and sharp inclines–offering up some unexpectedly gorgeous views of the city. I stopped at a cafe for lunch, and had an adana kebap and tea. They brought a ridiculous amount of bread for one person. I think this was the first sit-down meal I had had by myself in a restaurant. It felt good to be sitting alone, though, and the was a breeze on the terrace.


It’s funny: every time I’ve been completely lost throughout the past month, or have been looking for something like a produce market, I suddenly find myself exactly where I need to be. This is what happened with the museum. I wasn’t sure of where I was, and then I was in front of the museum.

Sculptures in front of a mosque. I wanted to frolic among the transcendence of time and space.

The museum was incredible, featuring Turkish contemporary artists (obv). They were inspired by major events in Turkish history that Westerners have no inkling of–massacres, uprisings, hundreds (thousands?) of years of culture clashing and political unrest. It was strange to be utterly ignorant to these things that have left such a mark on an entire country and region of people–things that have inspired entire movements. Americans only have 300 years to learn about and master–which we can’t even be bothered to do–and the rest of the world has their morning commute among ruins, their current state a culmination of intricate political happenings spanning thousands of years. It makes me feel small and stupid.

This was one of my favorite pieces, not only because it has cats in it. It’s by Orhan Peker, and called The Fisherboy and Cats. There was also a cool performance piece by Nil Yalter, where a camera was focused tightly in on her belly as she bellydanced. Spiraling out from her navel, she writes excerpts from Rene Nelly. Here’s a link to the video that played:

The Headless Woman

Istanbul also just happens to have the most incredible view.

After the museum, I walked further down to the Fish Market, where there are tons of seafood restaurants that I can only imagine being incredible. The sea smelled amazing and the water was blue and clear and ripe for jumping into.

Amateur fishermen right along side the big boys.

Only walking north did I finally find Istiklal. It’s the main drag of the neighborhood and filled with lots of shops, not dissimilar to the Gothic Quarter in Barcelona. But this is way more amazing. Toward the sea are smaller shops and cafes, lots of musical instruments, cafes, jewelry and clothing tucking into cobblestone streets.

Stacked copper drums.
Fresh juice vendors evvvvverywhere. Three lira for a large…not bad at all.

In addition to fresh juice nooks everywhere, there’s also an abundance of food carts in this town. Simit is a pretzel-like bread covered in sesame seeds, and they also sell roasted chestnuts and corn on the cob, which you can have grilled or boiled depending on the cart you check out.

I’ve never had the urge to bathe in bread before this.

I had a little bag of chestnuts; my dad, who buys the candied nuts from the carts in the Loop whenever we go down there as a family, would be proud. There are also little carts selling mussels and lemons. You actually buy them by the pieces and eat them at the stand–the vendor opens it for you, squirts on some lemon juice, then hands it to you.

There was also an amazing band playing in the street, they’re called Light in Babylon.

I totally Liked them after this.

Now, Istiklal is lined with shops selling baklava, lokum (Turkish delight), and other pastry-like things I cannot even conceive of. I stopped in a shop to indulge after a long day of walking around. From what I can tell, there are two types: a more traditional “log” of sweetened, jelly-like candy with nuts rolled in, that they’ll cut to order for you. There’s also sweet, jelly-like candy in technicolor in a variety of flavors, cut into cubes and rolled in powdered sugar. I, of course, got both. For the latter, I chose the pink rose-flavored one (delicious and rosey!!!) and pistachio-flavored rolled in coconut (omg). Right now, as I write this, I’m enjoying the more traditional variety with coffee, and it’s fantastic, of course.

That being said, commence food porn:

11 thoughts on “Turkish Coffee, Istanbul Modern, Istiklal

  1. Love your exploits. We loved Istanbul. The palace, old cobblestone sector, Agia Sophia, Underground cistern are all in walking distance. The grand bazaar is a electric mono rail away. If it is crowded you need to sway away from wandering hands. Yes, the woman was correct, you would blend well in Spain and Turkey. I wish I knew you were going ahead of time, I would have given you money for a Kurdish carpet.

    1. Yes, Sultanahmet is a treasure trove of Byzantine sights! From what I’ve seen and heard (along with my general impression) is that pickpockets are definitely less of an issue here than in certain parts of Spain, where they will actually single you out for a picking scheme (i.e. one person asks you something while the other reaches into your bag, etc.). But a traveler needs to be vigilant always, everywhere.

  2. Nice, really enjoyed it. I myself want to visit Istambul one day 😀
    BTW, that wasn’t ridiculously more amount of bread for person 🙂 urkish people, Arabs, Pakistanis etc,… usually tend to use more bread 😀

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