In late Spring 2000, I spent almost three weeks in Istanbul, working for an international conference where delegates and staff numbered almost three thousand. We were shuttled from the airport to our hotel behind the noisy hub of Taksim Square and then straight on to the newly completed Rumeli Building. It had been erected in the same swift way Sultan Mehmet must have built the Rumeli Fortress in preparation for the final attack on the city that led to the fall of the Byzantine Empire.
After a week of day and night meetings, I wanted a Sunday by the sea, away from anyone that I knew. I took a bus over the Galata Bridge up to the Blue Mosque and walked down the hill to the docks. It was 3:00 PM, and I was hungry. Since arriving in Istanbul, I'd worked my way through a diet of spicy kebabs, but now I had a craving for fish. Fresh from the sea. Grilled. The only condiment, a slice of lemon.
A string of restaurants bordered the waterfront. I stopped at the first and sat down at a table by the deserted walkway. The waiter showed me a platter of raw fish. I picked one, ordered white wine.
At the next table sat a young woman with her young husband. A scarf shielded half of her forehead, but her nipples strained through her bra, firmly outlined against her white Lycra top. She resembled a photo I had seen of Harem women, bare-breasted but clothed everywhere else from neck to knee.
When I finished my fish and a half litre of wine, the waiter told me his name was Murat. I told him that I was working in Istanbul. He said he had worked in Germany for three years and was glad to be back home. He pointed across the sea. "I like working in Europe and living in Asia," he said. He had been married just one year.
"Does your wife wear a scarf?" I asked and glanced in the direction of the young woman.
Murat shook his head.
"Do you drink alcohol?"
"No," he said.
"One day a friend put an aspirin in my Raki. Never again."
"Do you smoke?" I said, imagining Harem women with water pipes.
Murat shook his head. "It tastes foul."
The contrasts in this city were getting to me. The noise and pollution of Taksim Square and its arteries were worlds away from the breezes of a boat trip on the Bosphorus. The palaces, once homes to sultans, were tourist attractions showcasing opulence. Up past Ortak�y, just under the bridge, Istanbul's "Golden Gate" linking Europe with Asia, were the most expensive waterfront houses in the world. A few blocks from work at the Rumeli Centre were modern boutiques: Elite, Naf Naf. On the street, women with scarved heads and long coatdresses, some in blue denim, brushed against teenagers in platforms shoes and jeans, navels peeking out from beneath short t-shirts. And here in town my bus had just brought me past crumbling facades.
Istanbul was a city where street boys belly-flopped onto the low backs of cars, daring the traffic, just to jump off before they fell. A city of more than 18 million, and I wondered how on earth they could all be counted.
"Shoes? Shoe shine?" a voice said.
I'd sensed the figure skipping up and down the walkway, but had been too caught up in my daydreaming. I looked down at my dusty loafers and shook my head.
Murat came over and ruffled the boy's hair. "This is Ahmed. One of our free ones."
I raised an eyebrow and looked at the boy. He must have been about ten, but he had that wise hungry look of the street kids.
"He lives with his friends," Murat said and pointed to two slightly taller boys on the edge of the walkway right on the waterfront. They giggled. I looked back at Ahmed. He must have been one of those who'd slipped through the census.
"Shoes dirty," Ahmed said.
"I like them that way."
The boy grinned and sat down by my side on the wooden box he'd been carrying. Murat served me Raki. 45 proof. "It's on the house. You didn't finish your fruit."
I nodded. Swore I would drink the white liquid slowly. "No aspirin?"
Murat laughed and cleared the last plates from the table.
"Only 1.7 million Lira," Ahmed said.
"You're joking." I grinned at his cheek and turned back to my Raki.
"Come here," I said. "Do you go to school?"
"Don't have school. Shoes?"
"You speak English."
"English. Danke sch�n. Voulez-vous? Gracias. Amore."
I called Murat over. "He should learn to read," I said.
Murat said something to Ahmed and the boy fired words back at him. "He can read," the waiter said.
I held out a Bic.
Ahmed shrugged. "Shoes?"
I sighed. "Try." I gave him 700,000 Lira. "Keep the secret," I said. "Show me how you write."
Ahmed grinned and pocketed the bills. His friends were watching, egging him on. He turned to them and puffed out his small chest.
"English," I said.
"Thank you very much."
"Thank you very much is not enough. I can say Tesekkur ederim, too."
Ahmed grabbed the pen. Drew squiggles and dots.
"He has written in Turkish."
"What did he write?"
"I don't understand."
"You don't understand?" I said.
"He wrote that he did not understand." Now it was Murat's turn to sigh.
Ahmed wrote again.
"I want to come to your country with you."
"He wrote that?" I asked.
Ahmed was smiling. In the background his friends were doubling up with laughter. "Learn English," I said, feeling suddenly foolish.
He grinned again and then skipped off with his shoebox. His friends hugged him and the three of them slouched down the walkway, Ahmed in the middle, his friends' arms over his shoulders. He was a hero. And my shoes were clean.
I sipped the rest of my Raki and looked out on the Samara Sea towards Asia. A rusty tanker skimmed close by the shore, its Plimsoll line hidden by oily water.
The next Friday, my husband flew in for the weekend to accompany me home. On Sunday, I wanted to take him to the restaurant by the sea. Have him meet Murat and Ahmed. Even let him see the young wife with her proud breasts defying her headscarf.
I hailed a taxi on the road up to Taksim. We had to cross over one lane. I stepped from the footpath, but my husband pulled me back.
I pulled away, holding his hand. "Eye contact," I said. "Just see who backs down first."
We got in the taxi, and he blew air through his lips. "Dangerous sport. You cross like a local."
I shrugged, feeling strangely proud of myself on my last weekend in Istanbul.
The old, black taxi careened down winding roads and past crumbling buildings. The Galata Bridge was strangled with carts and cars.
"Restaurant. Down by the sea. The docks." I said to the driver.
We seemed to be going in circles, and I had lost all sense of direction. "The docks. Water." My navigation skills had obviously irritated the driver, and he suddenly stopped by the side of a pier.
"We'd better get out," I said. "It's not far. We can walk."
My husband did not say a word.
The sun was hot, and we walked, the restaurant now a mirage in my mind. "It's just round the next corner," I said.
"Let's go back. There's nothing this way."
"We're almost there. Just one more corner."
And there they were, the restaurants, one after the other. The walkway by the sea. The fish, fresh in their baskets, almost spilling onto the street. I looked for Murat. He wasn't there.
"Let's eat," said my husband.
"Not here," I said. "There."
"I don't know anymore. I can't remember."
We were tired and hungry. We must have walked about five kilometers in the hot sun. It was 3:00 PM. We went to the nearest table and sat down. Ordered fish. Ate. Drank wine. It was not the same as the Sunday before.
Then I saw Ahmed. He held a rose. I caught his eye. He looked at me as if I were a stranger, then stretched out the rose. I shook my head and pointed to his shoes. One toe had burst through the seams of his sneakers. They were not the same ones he had worn last time. He turned away and walked out of sight.
We were settling the bill when Ahmed came back. He was carrying his polish and wooden box. But he did not stop at our table. No tourist hassling. No recognition. I didn't know what was worse.
I reached for my husband's hand. "I want to go home," I said.