Crazy About Carpets

I’ve always had a soft spot for oriental carpets. It’s a passion that I think I inherited from my father. He wasn’t much of a shopper, but he did like carpets, the Teke or Bukhara design of Turkmen tribal rugs in particular. So our family home was full of carpets. So is ours. Some are inherited, some bought at auction in Canada, and some in the carpet bazaars of Teheran and Damascus. We have so many that the last thing we needed to bring back from a recent trip to Turkey was more carpets.

Istanbul is a throbbing city of some 14 million people that often sparkles like the emeralds in the Topkapi dagger. It’s cosmopolitan and urbane, but also an intriguing mix of old and very modern. The contrasts are everywhere and continuously apparent in the incessant stream of people you pass on the streets: moustached men crouching on the ground smoking nargils, Turkish waterpipes; others in smart business suits, carrying expensive leather cases, or in blue jeans, sweatshirts and baseball caps; women completely clothed in black and chic young girls in tight skirts and blouses bravely wobbling along cobblestone streets on four-inch heels.

We do spend time in the capital shopping, it is true, along the crowded corridors of the Grand Bazaar, looking for t-shirts, earrings, and bracelets for our children and grandchildren. We shop in the moderately quieter Spice Bazaar as well, buying almonds and cashews to munch on later during long bus rides through the countryside and on hikes in the hills and along the alluring Aegean coast.

We hunt for souvenirs and buy quick lunches from the enticing offerings of street vendors. But we avoid the carpet shops altogether. “Come in. Pleae have a look around. Have a glass of tea. You don’t have to buy.”

“No thanks,” we smile. “We don’t want to tempt ourselves,” and we walk on.

After a week or so in Istanbul, the congestion starts to get to you. You tire of the constant human flow in the bazaars , along the streets, and over the Galata Bridge that crosses the Golden Horn, connecting the old Sultanahmet district with the fashionable modern city.

You get fed up with waiting in long lines to visit Aya Sofya, the Blue Mosque, and the Topkapi Palace. The traffic jams that bring joy to food hawkers make you long to escape the heat and fumes of Istanbul for the fresh air of the coast. So carpet-free, we leave Istanbul, taking a ferry across the Sea of Marmara, and a train to the city of Izmir. It is a voyage our hotel clerk, two travel agencies, and a taxi driver tell us cannot be made. “It’s impossible. There is no train on the other side of the sea. Everyone goes to Izmir by bus.” Well , we do it, and it is unquestionably the most convenient and comfortable way of getting there. But the metropolitan area of Izmir has a population of over 4 million. Although it’s on the coast and the sea breezes do offer respite from the heat, it bustles like a down-sized Istanbul. So before long we push on by train to the town of Selcuk, still unencumbered by carpets from Izmir’s own bazaar.

Selcuk is a quiet town where everyone seems to know everyone else. It’s a place where people want your business, but where it is also important to be friendly and helpful. After we decline a taxi at the railway station, choosing to walk to our hotel, the driver shows us the best route to take. Selcuk is where savvy tourists visiting the ancient ruins of Ephesus choose to stay, for it is just four kilometres outside the entrance; you can get to the site early in the morning before the inevitable tour buses arrive, or linger at the end of the day after they have left.

Our first night in Selcuk, after dinner in an outside cafe, we wander the main streets of the town. “Hi! Where are you from?” a young man standing outside a carpet shop hails us.

Mellow after several glasses of wine, our guard down, we stop and answer, “Canada.”

“Really? I’d love to go there. Where in Canada?”

“Toronto.”

“Toronto? No kidding? My uncle–the owner of the store–has a friend who wrote a travel book. It was reviewed in the Globe and Mail.”

“Really?” I answer, my own salesman’s antenna alerted. “I’m a travel writer myself.”

“Well, come in! You must meet my uncle. He’ll be interested in hearing about your books.”

So we take those fateful steps inside. Aydin Can, proprietor of the Black Sheep, is sitting at his computer. He is on Skype, talking to his girlfriend in Paris. But he, nevertheless, turns, gives us a broad smile, and says, “Hello.” He’s delighted to hear that I am an author, and shows us the book his nephew mentioned to us. We glance at it briefly and then apologize for interrupting his conversation with his girlfriend.

“No, no. Come and say hi.” So we wave at the young woman on his screen and she smiles and waves back. She even gives us a recommendation for dinner the next night–a restaurant across the street from the Black Sheep. “They have the best moussaka I’ve had anywhere. You really must go.”

Aydin’s nephew invites us to have a look around their store, but we decline. “It’s late,” I say, “and we’ve had a long day. Besides, we’re not buying any carpets. We have too many already.”

“Well then you must come back tomorrow. My uncle will want to talk with you about your travels when he has more time.”

“We’ll try,” I answer, and we leave for our hotel.

The next day we spend in the crumbling ruins of Ephesus, and then we walk back to our hotel. We even crowd in some additional sites like the tomb of St. John in the crumbled ruins of what would be today the seventh largest cathedral in the world. And then, on our way back to our hotel, we approach the Black Sheep carpet shop again.

“Maybe we should take another route,” Dot suggests. “They’re bound to stop us and urge us to visit.”

“Maybe we should,” I answer. “It would be impolite not to when we said we would try to get back. And it would be interesting to talk to Aydin about travel writing.”

Dot grins knowingly. It’s a look I have often seen before.

“Come in! Come in!” Aydin’s nephew greets us at the door again. “It’s good of you to have come back. You have kept your word. My uncle is not here at the moment, but come in and have some tea.”

He leads us up a steep flight of stairs to a loft filled with stacks and stacks of carpets. Other prized and expensive ones hang on the walls and from the rafters. Tea arrives and we start chatting about carpets. I tell him about my father’s love of them and how I have inherited his taste for Bukhara rugs in particular.

“Ah, you know a lot about carpets,” he flatters me. “Well, here, let me show you some,” and he spreads several out on the floor for us to inspect. He even snatches some small, rather garish “magic carpets” and flings them through the air, their colours and patterns changing as they fly across the room and slam onto the wooden floor. At last he pulls out a carpet that particularly catches our eyes. It’s a kilim actually, a flatwoven, woolen rug made by Kurds in eastern Turkey. “You really like this one, don’t you? I can tell.” 

“Yes, it’s very nice. How much is it, just out of curiosity?” He quotes a price that I know is not serious. “Phew!” I laugh. “It’s outside our range. Temptation averted!”

“Well, we can come down a little. How much do you want to spend?”

“No, I’m sorry. I like it, but we’re not buying. We don’t have room for any more carpets. We have a very small house.”

“Oh, you can always find room. You can hang it on a wall, for example.”

“The nephew pulls out several more carpets, but he knows right away that they don’t have the same appeal for us. “You really want that one, don’t you? If you like it, you should buy it.”

“No, no,” I say. “I’m sorry, but we really came in only to say hello to your uncle. I want to get his address so that I can send him copies of my two travel books.” We get up to leave. “Would you mind giving me his full address.”

“No, wait! I’ll phone him. He’ll come over. He’s not far away.

So Aydin arrives and, amid smiles and much laughter, the real bargaining begins. At last my will is broken and a deal is struck.

I  don’t know why we yielded. Was it because we liked the carpet so much that we figured we could, in fact, find a place to put it? Was it because Aydin and his nephew were so pleasant, friendly, and interesting that we felt we were now friends and we wanted the carpet as a reminder of our visit to Selcuk and the Black Sheep? Or was it because of the nature of the deal we finally struck for the purchase of the carpet. Added to the final price was a commitment on my part to furnish Aydin with free copies of my two travel books. He, on the other hand, agreed that the books would “hold a place of honour” in the guest library of the Selcuk hotel he was currently building.

So was it the prospect of having my books on a library shelf in far-off Selcuk that cinched the deal? Was it the vain (two meanings here) hope that a curious tourist would one day pull a copy down from that hotel shelf, rummage through it, and like the book enough to order a copy from the publisher, maybe even both books.

In the end, authors are no different than carpet merchants. They, too, are friendly, but persistent sellers. They’re always looking to do a deal!

You don’t have to go to Selcuk to read Missing the Bus, Making the Connection: Tales and Tastes of Travel and Roaming the Big Land: Flavours of Canada. You can buy them online by contacting the publisher at: www.penumbrapress.com.

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About t. a. keenleyside

author of travel/food books and popular fiction
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