I am banished from the ceramics store.
Not by the Turkish shopkeeper, who's accurately reading desire in my facial expressions and body language, but by Adam, my dear life partner and traveling companion. As consummate poker face and world-class haggler, Adam knows I'm dragging down his game, and he's having none of it. "Do you want the plate or not?" he growls under his breath and ushers me out the door.
Boy, do I ever. A foot and a half (45 cm) in circumference with a gentle, sloping curve, it's easily the most beautiful serving dish I have ever seen. Glazed in subtle shades of sand and turquoise with brilliant touches of blood red, it features a 16th-century Ottoman design of flowers, reeds, and grains. I must go home with it, so I slink out into the bowels of Istanbul's Grand Bazaar and leave Adam to barter down the price.
Instantly, I'm enveloped by the vibrant colors and pungent smells of one of the world's most celebrated markets. The aromas waft from every cluttered nook"”spiced grilled lamb, apple wood smoke, the tang of saffron, and the nose-tingling bite of tumeric. I turn a corner and the heady scent of Turkish coffee invades my senses as a teetering 12-foot (3.65 meter) pile of purses fills my vision.
An enormous maze of peddlers and stalls, Istanbul's central marketplace spills out of its 3,300 overstuffed shops. Cheap junk mixes with beautiful art and crafts"”from mundane trinkets to handwoven carpets of the finest quality. Navigating this place is, I was quickly learning, an exercise in stamina and fortitude.
It's noon on our second day at the bazaar, and our search for the perfect carpet isn't going well. Besides being sidetracked by other wares, I am simply not connecting with the right rug. "The perfect carpet will speak to you. It will call out your name," Evrim, our hotel's sagacious concierge, had assured us. But after a day and a half of searching, I have not yet mastered the nuanced language of textile floor coverings.
My quest had begun on a promising note the previous morning. Chirpy and optimistic, I chattered on about the marvelous carpet our friend Kate had purchased in Istandbul ten years before. I was sure I would have similar luck finding a carpet for our newly purchased home, and we strolled into the bazaar's arched marble hallways with a sense of purpose.
In the first few stores, Adam had been flattered by the numerous "You look Turkish" comments, until we realized it was just a come-on. After a while, we started taking bets on which of two common opening lines we would hear in the next shop, "You've come to the right place," or "So, where are you from?" It seems a startlingly high percentage of Istanbul carpet salesmen have a cousin living in Arkansas.
Yet in the early stages, these selling tactics had not dampened our spirits. We permitted the peddlers to ply us with Turkish coffee or cloyingly sweet apple tea, an Istanbul staple. We listened intently to their well-rehearsed spiels, taking in their lively words and admiring the vivid shades of the wool and silk. But by the eighth store, I was tired of hearing that each carpet was a masterpiece painstakingly woven over the course of a year by a woman in the hills of Anatolia. And it took all of Adam's restraint to keep from strangling the tenth consecutive guy to assure him that the store next door couldn't possibly compete on price.
So here I am, 28 hours and countless viewings later, and I have yet to have a meaningful conversation with even one carpet.
Adam ambles out of the ceramic store and grins at me. "It's going well, going well," he says, rubbing his hands together. "I just need to give him a little more time to chew over my last offer. Why don't we head back to Sultanahmet Square and try some of the carpet shops there again?"
Sultanahmet Square is part of old town Istanbul, dating to 660 BC. The Blue Mosque with its soaring minarets and enormous domed ceiling anchors one end. Hagia Sophia, the massive cathedral built by emperor Constantine, borders the other. A large fountain sprays skyward in the center, surrounded by neat rows of flower beds and palm trees on all sides. Now, in late April, hundreds of tulips and dozens of cherry trees are blooming at their fullest.
Striding quickly through the square and onto a small adjacent street, Adam makes a beeline for a large carpet shop.
Once we are seated, the dealer shakes Adam's hand, nods at me, and introduces himself as Salik Bayar. He switches on the store's elaborate track lighting, strategically placed to illuminate the most expensive carpets, and queries us on our likes and dislikes. He then pulls out a selection of carpets and spins them one by one in a graceful twirling arc. "This helps you to see the quality and appreciate the carpet as it moves through the light," he says. While we've heard this all before, we settle in as Bayar gives us a more detailed lesson.
"Most carpets feature abstract designs and symbols because Islamic law forbids representations of people and most animals," he explains. "The use of the Ying/Yang symbol signifies love and unity, and often denotes that the weaver is married," he says, pointing to an example. "The ram's horn figure represents fertility, heroism, and power." Knot count is an important indicator of value, he stresses, "Just as thread count indicates quality in a sheet."
Flipping the carpets from side to side, he shows us the patterns and colors from every direction, describing each motif as he goes along. After 20 minutes or so, he flips a 4 x 6 foot carpet of deep indigo, rust, and sage onto the floor. "That's pretty," I say and lean over to study it closer and see if it's speaking. Its rather fussy design of detailed scrolls and delicate flowers isn't shouting, but it does seem to be muttering a bit. I wonder if perhaps it takes a while to learn its language. Pulling Adam aside, I ask him what he thinks.
"Are you kidding?" he says coolly. "First, it's really girly. Second, where in our house to we have any of those colors? And 4 x 6? Don't you think it will be dwarfed under our furniture?"
I realize he's right and it dawns on me that this quest is not truly our own. Perhaps we are searching for a carpet because we think that's what we should do in Istanbul. "Well, what the hell, do we really need a new carpet anyway?" I say. It's a liberating thought, and the relief on his face is obvious. "You know, we don't," he agrees, and we scurry out of the shop, bidding Bayar a quick goodbye.
On the street, we look at each other, and I can tell we are thinking the same thing. We practically fly back to The Grand Bazaar.
I stand in the corner of the ceramics store watching the shopkeeper carefully shepherd the plate down the spiraling stairs from his upstairs office. As he gingerly sets it on the counter and Adam completes the transaction, I realize that it is loudly calling my name.
Apparently I speak fluent plate.