(Note: This story makes significantly more sense if you start at Part one)
A BAZAAR EXPERIENCE
A BAZAAR EXPERIENCE
Istanbul is not a city designed for wheelchairs. Come to think of it, it’s not great for cars either, or pedestrians. There are no ramps, lots of stairs, irregular cobbled surfaces and random drains everywhere. Drivers enjoy seeing how close they can get to pedestrians without actually causing injury - although it appears they don’t mind very much if they do. The combination of cobblestones, tram-lines and narrow one way streets leaves little room for pedestrians and a wheelchair is a rare sight, as every sensible disabled person has long since moved to Paris or shot themselves. I imagine this is also the reason why there are virtually no dogs or old people to be seen. There are a LOT of cats, but they are very much harder to hit than dogs and old people.
Just to really warm me up with the wheelchair, Dearly Beloved decided we should take a practice spin around the Spice Market, a smaller version of the Grand Bazaar. Most of the throng were so surprised to see a blonde in a wheelchair being propelled through the market at considerable velocity by a man shouting “coming through, coming THROUGH” at the top of his very British voice that they moved out of the way quite easily. The ride quality proved to be smoother than expected thanks to the polished marble flagstones. We were taken to a particular vendor of spices, Yacoub, who took pride in explaining the dazzling array of merchandise on display. Piles of saffron, cumin, garam-masala, teas, Turkish delight, sponges and ground nuts were all about. Several mixtures, flagged with signs saying "5 times in the night!" promised a night of carnal bliss. We crammed the wheelchair into the tiny store and sampled everything as we negotiated prices and amounts with Yacoub. Finally, laden with delicious presents for friends in Santa Barbara, we headed back to the Hotel, where Kurshitz (as we had re-named him) announced that if we wanted his services the next day, his rate would be triple;
so we fired him. Silly bugger
Dearly Beloved was up and down a bit in the night and the calls of the Muezzin woke us early. It is truly a wonderful, haunting and emotive sound. Being an accomplished producer before she became a film director, she naturally had a Plan B up her sleeve and announced that a new guide by the name of “Alp” would be joining us for the assault on the Grand Bazaar. Alp, she explained to me in an offhand sort of way, was a “shopping guide”. There are no two words that strike greater terror into a mans heart than these, but I felt that considering her circumstances I must put on a brave face, as indeed was she. It turned out that Kurshitz was the boyfriend of Miss Snotty-Slut on the front desk, so we got an extra-frosty reception when we went downstairs that morning and she snatched our key from us.
Alp fell at the first jump by taking us straight to a leather shop that was up three flights of stairs with no elevator. Not a tall chap to start with, Alp quickly found his stature reduced several inches further for this fundamental error. He followed his faux-pas with a complete disregard for the realities of wheelchair perambulation, leading us off down a hill, over a curb, across two sets of raised tram-lines in between traffic, up another curb and finally up a step into a leather and porcelain shop. Perhaps it wasn’t entirely his fault, but that of the city itself. Anyway, he was charming and chatty and much more helpful than Kurshitz had been, so we forgave him. Not finding anything to our liking, we cabbed-it to the Grand Bazaar, by which time I had hands rubbed nearly raw from the spiky handle-grips but had developed a certain technique to maneuver the chair over cobbles and other obstacles with minimum jolting to Dearly Beloved’s leg. It involved tilting her back at a 45 degree angle and using only the large rear wheels to charge across obstacles and the ancient, uneven cobblestones. Great for her, but exhausting for me. Deep into the Bazaar we went, the pitchmen outside each shop jumping on the novelty of a wheelchair bound customer as we passed. “Hey lady, what happen you”? “Mister, you come in, rest here ... and bring missus too” (yeah, like I wouldn’t) and endless others I missed but were probably priceless. Alp deftly led us to a little shop we could never have found without him. It was full of antique fabrics that had been lovingly repaired, restored or cleaned and we sat and sipped hot apple tea as the proprietor pulled out bolts of different shapes, sizes, colors and patterns and lay them out on the ground around us. Gaultier, Ozbek and many other great names of fashion were, he assured us, regular customers and his fabrics had graced the runways of the world. Dearly Beloved was in her element, shrewdly choosing a brightly colored strip of old silk with which to trim curtains.
Moving on past shops selling an endless assortment of Gucci and Loius Vuitton of questionable provenance, we visited a series of other fabric shops, jewellers, knick-knack stores and so forth before stopping for lunch at the restaurant at the center of the Bazaar. A couple of waiters nimbly hoisted the wheelchair up some steps and we were served a reasonably good meal by a waiter who had spent a number of years in Texas. We found this quite annoying, until Dearly Beloved pointed out to him that we had not travelled 6,500 miles to Istanbul to discuss the merits of DFW airport and he scuttled off, suitably chastened.
That afternoon we retired to the Miserable Weasel to rest and I put in an emergency call to a close friend who is general manager of the Four Seasons Biltmore in Santa Barbara, a bastion of eye-watering luxury. Explaining our predicament, I asked if there was anything she could do to secure us more comforting and practical accommodations at the hotel of the same name in Istanbul - preferably without the need for a second mortgage. She said she had been the GM there for a time and would see what she could do.
THE FOUR SEASONS “MIDNIGHT EXPRESS”
In no time at all, we received a phone call from Tarik, the General Manager of the Four Seasons in Istanbul, asking if we would like to be his guest for the remaining two nights we were here. Never have you seen two people pack and vacate a hotel room so fast in your life - we were out of there quicker than you can say Concierge (a word we had not yet had the
chance to use on this trip).
No more than a few hundred yards away as the crow flies, this was another world from the Miserable-Weasel, from whence we came at near supersonic speed. We were met by a very efficient Australian assistant manager, who whisked us to our room. There were no steps to speak of and the corridors were long, smooth and wide. We were shown to a vast room, with views of the tradesmen’s entrance to the Blue mosque on one side and a stunning panorama of what appeared to be a cross between an archeological dig and a hotel construction-site on the other. In any other city in the wolrd, the back door of a church and a construction site would not rate very highly on my list of desirable views; in Istanbul, it's still drop-dead gorgeous. There are so many staff per guest that you feel you are being mobbed by your own personal throng of very well-trained butlers. The staff really were fabulous, the room purpose built for wheelchair speed-trials and the bathroom as big as a public swimming pool. No one batted an eyelid when I asked for a small waterproof plastic stool and a large roll of cling-film - they are trained to be dead pan in the face of the strangest requests. I am sure that if i had asked for a stuffed parrot, a Kalashnikov and a bag of potting-compost, they would have replied "certainly Mr. Weston Smith, would that be hollow-point, or regular ammunition?"
The hotel is built on the site of an old prison and one cant help but wonder how many fingernails were extracted in what is now, ironically, the Spa; and how the quality of the food must have improved in leaps and bounds under the careful oversight of Four Seasons management - "Damn you, Mustapha, how many times have I told you not to spit in the vichysoise?" I do seem to constantly hear wailing and moaning, but apparently thats just the Muezzin calling the faithful to prayers (well that's their story and their sticking to it). Jokes about wether or not Midnight Express is available on the hotels On-Demand movie service don't seem to be terribly well received. The exercise yard, which for decades was the realm of wretched, shuffling humanity, has now been transformed into an exotic pool area with Phillipe Starck chairs and the sound of tinkling fountains instead of jingling keys. I have learned that the film was actually made entirely in Greece, a fact that has done much to cool Greco-Turkish relations for the last 30 years in addition to causing a precipitous decline in the Turkish tourist industry. The Turkish spoken in the film is apparently delivered with such a strong Greek accent that most Turks have absolutely no idea what was being said.
The team of concierges and porters immediately swung into action, anticipating our every need as they embarked on a service endurance-trial the likes of which they had never previously experienced; performing, I might add, with flying colors. They called Turkish Airlines and got us the best seat for an injured left leg, found where we could get a velcro boot for the flight, sent out for Bandages, aspirin, six extra pillows and more boot repairs. A hairdresser was sent for and the stool and cling-film used to good effect in the shower. Dearly Beloved emerged an hour later transformed by this procedure, glowing like a satisfied one-legged conductor after a particularly good performance.
We spent the next two days basking in this orgy of service, trying to restrain ourselves from going overboard from the room-service menu as the price of an orange juice was enough to make your nose bleed. All in all it was a wonderful treat that made an enormous difference - particularly to Dearly Beloved, whose patience with the Miserable Weasel was stretching waff-er thin by the time we left and a major diplomatic incident was imminent. After that experience, I can recommend the Four Seasons anywhere. Despite her injury and guided by the expert concierge, we spent our time taking well planned excursions. We visited restaurants with stunning views of the city at night, took the ferry up the Bosphorus to lunch in a charming fishing village and visited the bazaar several more times. As it turned out, there was almost nothing we were unable to do because of the wheelchair, a fact that says a lot more about Dearly Beloved's cast-iron fortitude than it does about the wheelchair accessibility of Istanbul. On disembarking from the ferry at the fishing village, the "port master" was so deeply impressed to see a woman in a wheelchair come bumping down the gangplank that he insisted we take a photograph of him personally congratulating her.
Our return flight was long and tedious so I wont dwell on that, and it was eight months before Dearly Beloved could walk again unaided - but that’s another story. We both agreed that we would like to return to Istanbul and experience this magnificent city again .... just without the fucking wheelchair.