On a sunny day, one of the sunniest we had, we went down to the water to catch a boat. We waited for a while at a Starbucks (clean bathroom and reliably the same coffee) at the wrong port, with Mum, before hopping on a tram and taking ourselves to the right port. We got a bit too clever (confident) with our schedule-reading. There, aided by a seemingly freelance spruiker, we bought tickets to the boat that would ferry us to Büyükada, one of the nine ‘Princes’ Islands’ just off the coast of Istanbul.
The boat pulled out seemingly loaded to full capacity. Mum, Queen of the Worst Case Scenario, made a few comments along the line of sinking/dying and I enthusiastically shared the tale of the plaque on Santorini which acknowledges a ferry incident in which ‘nearly everyone survived.’ We scored a seat by the rails with an excellent view of Istanbul in all her sprawling, dusty, old, glimmering glory passing us by. As we sailed, the inevitable occurred – a few cultures began clashing on the idea of a) space and b) view blocking. The queuing cultures bristled as the non-queuing cultures brazenly swooped in and blocked views. Our Swiss neighbours warded off view-blockers by keeping their legs cleverly positioned so as to make getting through to the barrier impossible. My mother thanked them at the end of the trip. There are few things she detests more than pusher-innerers.
On the boat, our freelance spruiker found us. He threaded his way through the crush of people snapping photos of water and after checking we were okay, thrust his business card at Mum. He had a restaurant on the island we were going to and it transpired his spruiking went beyond the classic ‘hanging outside the entrance and pestering tourists into entering’; it began at the ticket gates at the port on the mainland, where he helped people buy tickets, continued on the boat, when he went looking for the handful of faces he’d made an impression on at the ticket machines and ended back outside his restaurant on the island where he kept a keen eye out for the people he’d pressed his business card upon. I was gobsmacked. It was the most invested, elaborate spruiking system I had yet come across.
As it turned out we were starving upon alighting the boat and thus couldn’t wait to look for his restaurant, opting instead for a tiny pide place. So his energy was, sadly, wasted on us and our hunger impulses. But when we unwittingly found it later and passed by, it seemed to be pumping. He had clearly caught a few fish on the boat.
The Princes’ Islands were originally where, during the Byzantine period, members of the royal families were banished for various reasons. I read somewhere, and can’t remember where, sons born out of royal harems were also sent to the islands. During the 19th century, the islands became popular holiday destinations for wealthy British people and consequently the island we visited, Büyükada, is full of big, old 19th century British summer houses, mansions of white timber with lush, neatly kept front gardens hemmed in with wrought iron gates covered in wisteria.
Today, the island is home, year-round to a few thousand Turkish people and many thousands more in the summer; the big, old wooden mansions are holiday homes for many Turkish families. There are no cars, just horses and carts, bicycles and hundreds of cats. The inevitable hustle and bustle occurs down near the port where there are lines of restaurants and ice cream cafes with waiters waving their scooping spoons and calling out to passersby. But you can find peace and quiet if you keep walking, up the hills, the narrow stairs, further and further away. There you can almost see the 19th century holiday-makers sipping their Pimms and twirling their parasols.
We walked, we bought ice cream (mint), we sat in the sun and we enjoyed being out of that big, busy city, if only for a few hours. On the boat trip home, men walked up and down selling tea and drinks and chips and bread and then we were back, back among the tooting horns and jammed trams.