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Friday, December 5, 2014

On the Fly: Turkish Delight

Posted By on Fri, Dec 5, 2014 at 11:56 AM

click to enlarge Turkish delight - JESSICA LARA TICKTIN
  • Jessica Lara Ticktin
  • Turkish delight
Turkish delight: This was the extent of the girls’ knowledge of Turkey before we arrived in Istanbul. They knew it was a dessert and that Edmund from C.S Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe wanted to eat copious amounts of it.

Our first day in Istanbul, we were lured into a shop with mounds of freshly made Turkish delight in all kinds of flavors and colors. The girls were hopping with excitement as the young man behind the counter offered them tastes of piece after piece, each coated with powdered sugar: pistachio, coconut, mint, hazelnut and assorted fruit varieties.

It was delicious, yet the girls were slightly disappointed. They had imagined Turkish delight to be a white and creamy, pudding-like dessert that Edmund heaped into his mouth, spoonful after spoonful. Although it was tasty, Dahlia and Lola couldn’t understand Edmund’s obsession with these small, gelatinous squares.

Sadly, after two days, the girls tired of Turkish delight since it was offered for free in every market place and bazaar we visited. But this knowledge of a foreign dessert was lodged in their brains, as they mentally compared it to the soft, green mochi from Japan and sweet red-bean desserts of China, as well as the various pastries, cakes, custards and frozen desserts from all the places we've been in the last three months.

After 13 hours on a plane from Cape Town, South Africa, the girls were excited to hit another continent, especially to land in a country that has a river spanning both Asia and Europe.

Istanbul is a huge city of 14 million people, and 99.8 percent of Turks are Muslim. Women in head scarves and burkas bustled past us, and we were awoken before dawn every morning by the sound of the call to prayer, blasting from speakers perched on mosque minarets all over the city. As a Jewish family, we were a real minority here.

It wasn’t always so, as we explained to the girls in our morning lessons covering the history of this beautiful, thriving, very old and populated region. In the 15th century, after the Jews were expelled from Spain during the Inquisition, thousands were welcomed into the Ottoman Empire. They made their homes and livelihoods in Constantinople, along with people of many other nationalities and religions. It was the crossroads of Europe, Asia and Africa.

click to enlarge Istanbul - JESSICA LARA TICKTIN
  • Jessica Lara Ticktin
  • Istanbul
From the living room of our small apartment — which we rented from the lovely owner of a nearby café — we could see the Golden Horn, the oldest part of Istanbul, where Byzantium began. We could see the Hagia Sofia and three other astoundingly grand and majestic mosques. They were lit up at night to cast an even more awe-inspiring glow.

Adam and I were amazed by this cultural richness, the beauty and antiquity of it all.

As is often the case when traveling with children, they were less impressed by Adam's passionate historical lectures and much more excited by the hands-on field trips. We visited the cistern, a torch-lit, cavernous space where water was stored for the city in the 6th century, and explored the Grand Bazaar, a maze of covered streets full of vendors selling everything you could imagine. The spice market intrigued the girls — with its smells and colors and merchants calling out, trying to pull us into each stall.

Our time in Turkey was marked by our many transactions in markets and bazaars. The girls learned the art of bargaining. And while we are not huge consumers, the art and wares we saw were irresistible. Or perhaps it was the apple tea and the charm of the Turkish salesmen...?

One afternoon, as the girls and I waited in a public square for Adam to take some artistic photographs, a well-dressed man approached me and began asking me questions in his excellent English. He was so smooth and charming that I didn’t realize he was trying to sell me something.

When Adam joined us, the man expertly put him at ease and pointed out other sights we should see. Then he suggested that we might want to see his store of “handicrafts."  He did not pressure us — it came off as more of a humble suggestion — and somehow we found ourselves walking to his shop while he recounted facts about Istanbul. His shop turned out to be a whole block, an elegant, family-run business selling exquisite Turkish-made rugs. 

click to enlarge Getting a feel for Turkish rugs - JESSICA LARA TICKTIN
  • Jessica Lara Ticktin
  • Getting a feel for Turkish rugs
The man, whose name was Sela, ushered us warmly into the shop, served apple and cherry tea, and offered us a comfortable couch to sit on while he told us about life, family and Turkey. 

We hadn’t set out to buy a rug, but two full hours later, we had seen about 50 different beautifully hand-crafted rugs. We were overwhelmed with hypothetical decisions: If we were to get this one, where would we put it? Did we prefer the bright blue and whites of the silk-and-cotton one or the deep reds and golds of the angora-and-cotton rug?

We learned how to say “yes," "no" and "maybe” in Turkish and each family member got to vote on each rug. Two of Sela's employees expertly unrolled each rug so we could run our hands and feet over them. Some were silky and soft, others coarse; each one had a distinct character and feel. We were thoroughly seduced by some and unmoved by others, appreciative of several and awed by the scope of them all.

When it came time to decide on the price – wow! – that is when the real hard work and showmanship began. Adam drives a hard bargain. In South Africa, if I tried to buy anything without his help, I paid three times too much by agreeing to the first price the merchant offered. At the rug shop, I watched and listened as Adam and Sela worked their way through numbers and arguments, moving from frustration to excitement and back again. It was like watching a close tennis match.

The girls had gone from sitting nicely, drinking their cherry tea, to rolling around on the rugs and playing hide-and-seek, to watching the two men in the art of the bargain. At some point, the mood was tense, and it looked as if it were going to end badly for everyone. But then, suddenly, they made an agreement. Everyone laughed, and a palpable sense of relief flooded through the shop. A bargain was made!

We left the shop a little poorer in cash but richer for the experience. And when we get home, we will find a box waiting for us with our new rug. A Turkish delight, indeed!

Kids VT contributor Jessica Lara Ticktin is traveling the world with her family, homeschooling three daughters along the way — while pregnant. She’s documenting her family’s adventures until they return to Vermont later in December. 

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