by J.D. Roth
Note: I’ve been back in the United States for almost two weeks, but still have one last story to tell about my trip to Turkey. I haven’t been able to share it before now because some of it was secret.
Sometimes it feels like Istanbul is one giant flea market. People are selling things everywhere, not just in shops, but also on street corners. Istanbul is home to the Grand Bazaar, which is basically a 1000-year-old shopping mall where men sell carpets, fake watches, and cheap scarves. It’s a tourist trap. But there’s a dizzying array of other vendors throughout the city. It’s crazy.
When I was getting ready to travel to Turkey, I asked Kim if she wanted me to bring her anything. “Some nice, fluffy towels,” she told me. No problem. Or so I thought. But with so many people selling things, it’s hard to know who’s selling quality goods and who’s just ripping you off.
Fortunately, one of my guidebooks had a paragraph about a new shop selling towels, a shop known for its quality. The place was called Jennifer’s Hamam. Jennifer is from Canada and “hamam” is the Turkish word for bath. Just my luck: Jennifer’s Hamam was within walking distance of the hotel in Istanbul.
When Nick and I were in Istanbul at the start of the trip, I stopped by Jennifer’s Hamam. It was filled with towels and soap and scarves. I spent half an hour talking with Jennifer herself. She explained that the’s the only store in the world working with the last of the Turkish families who make these products by hand using the old methods and all organic materials. She demonstrated how the products she sells are superior to the cheaper things in other stores.
I wasn’t ready to buy then, and I told her so, but I promised to come back when I returned to Istanbul at the end of my trip.
Before I left, Jennifer suggested I stop by Denizen Coffee, a place that serves American coffee (impossible to get here) and owned by a couple of guys from San Francisco. Before I left for central Turkey, I stopped in twice and chatted with Ken, one the owners, while drinking coffee and eating chocolate.
As Nick and I traveled around Turkey, I looked for other towels and scarves. Nothing I found matched the quality in Jennifer’s Hamam. I found some nice scarves to give to friends, but nothing like the ones Jennifer sells. So, when I returned to Istanbul, I went back to Jennifer’s Hamam and made a big purchase.
I bought Kim the towels that she requested…but I also bought nice scarves for Kim and for Kris (my ex-wife).
At this point, I thought I was done shopping for The Girl. I was wrong. On my last afternoon in Istanbul, I was taking a break at Denizen Coffee again, just as I had the day before. As always, Ken started chatting with me.
“You look glum,” he said.
“I miss my girlfriend. I haven’t seen her in three weeks,” I said, and I explained the situation, about how I planned this trip before Kim and I started dating.
“You should get her something nice,” he said.
“I have,” I said. “I got her some silk from Jennifer’s Hamam. I wanted to get her some jewelry, but I don’t know anything about it. And everything I see in the shops looks fake. It’s all the same.”
Ken smiled. “I know just the place for you,” he said. “Do you have some time?” I said I did. “Good,” he said. “Stay here. I know an artist who makes real jewelry.”
A few minutes later, a woman appeared in the store. She introduced herself as Nazan. “I’m a sculptor,” she said, “but I can’t make money in Turkey with my art. Turkish people don’t appreciate it. So, I make jewelry instead. Every piece is hand-crafted. When I can, I re-use antique stones and metal. Come. Follow me to my house. I’ll show you.”
She led me through Istanbul’s winding streets. After ten minutes, we reached an unassuming door. She opened it and ushered me inside. “When I bought this place, it was a ruin,” she said. “I remodeled it myself, the design and the work.”
I ooohed and aaahed. The place was beautiful. The entryway was made of stone pebbles that looked like they’d been taken from the nearby seashore. Blue rocks were interspersed with the grey to create a pattern. The two flights of stairs were made from gorgeous, golden wood. Everything was perfect — except the door to her outside balcony, which was only about 5-1/2 feet high, causing me to bump my head pretty hard.
“Sit,” Nazan said, motioning to a chair on the balcony. “I will bring you my art.”
She brought out a box filled with ziploc bags. Inside each ziploc bag was a piece of jewelry she had made. Some bags contained necklaces. Some contained earrings. Some pendants, some bracelets, some rings.
“How much are these?” I asked. “They’re beautiful.”
Nazan shrugged. “All different prices,” she said. “How much do you want to spend?”
“I spent all I wanted to spend yesterday at Jennifer’s Hamam,” I said. “But maybe I could find a few hundred dollars.” That would mean changing some of my other plans, but I wanted to see what she was offering.
“Let’s look,” she said, and she began pulling jewelry from ziploc bags. The stuff was gorgeous.
“Can I take photos?” I asked.
“No,” she said. “Please no.” (But you can see some photos on Facebook.)
I spent an hour going over Nazan’s jewelry. I loved it. I’m not a fan of jewelry, actually. (I do like Kim’s taste in jewelry, but that’s unusual.) Nazan’s jewelry was different. I felt drawn to it, as if it had some sort of vital energy. But everything was so expensive!
“Don’t think about money now,” Nazan told me, which made me laugh. She frowned. “Think about what you like. Think about money later.”
I could go on forever describing the time I spent on Nazan’s balcony. It was a unique experience. Eventually, I found two necklaces and three bracelets that I thought Kim might like — and that I could afford. Ultimately, my decision came down to the two necklaces. I was sure Kim would like the less expensive necklace. It featured two yellow eye agates, one above the other. It would have been perfect.
But I really liked the second piece: An uncut garnet still in its motherstone, which was set in a silver frame with four interesting symbols. This piece was more expensive, and I wasn’t sure that Kim would like it. I mean, it seemed like something she’d wear, but what if I misjudged?
In the end, I bought the necklace. I loved it, and I wanted to see Kim wearing it. We arranged a price, but there was a complication.
“All of my money is at the hotel,” I said. “It’s ten minutes away by foot.”
“No problem,” Nazan said. “Here, take the necklace. Go get the money. Meet me at the coffeehouse.”
An American shopowner would never do such a thing, but in Turkey? It happens all the time. There is a strong cultural taboo against theft here. It’s unthinkable, and it creates a strange sense of trust. (On the other hand, anything goes before you agree on a price. A Turk will think nothing of charging you $100 for a $10 lamp. That’s fair. But once the deal is made, it’s a case of complete trust.)
I walked back to the hotel and then up to the coffeeshop. I gave Nazan her money and thanked the owner of the coffeehouse for connecting me with her.
And note that all of this started — the towels, the coffee place, and the jewelry woman — because my guidebook said that to get good towels I ought to go to Jennifer’s Hamam.
Footnote: I’m pleased to say that the Kim likes the necklace — and it looks great on her!
Updated: 12 October 2012