Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Working the Street

I’ve had some unusual jobs in my time. Somehow I was never content with McDonald’s, KFC or the local fish and chip shop.

No, my first real whack at employment in my school’s summer holiday involved standing for eight hours a day on hard concrete, my hands in cold water, shuffling asparagus on a long assembly line to the tune of Britney Spears’ latest single.

I still don’t know what my title was. Asparagus Services Representative? Asparagus Operations Assistant? Asparagus Shuffling Operative? If it wasn’t for Britney, it would have been a great job. But when I ran out of daydreams to amuse myself I decided it was time for fresh inspiration. Off I went to the local Swiss chocolate factory, where I spent every Saturday for the next two years poking a tea towel at rodent shaped chocolate moulds and developing a nauseating aversion to the smell of cocoa.

Then came the call centres, where I was coached on sales techniques by a bunch of highly charismatic Indians, whose cutting humour and ability to sell anything to anyone at any time made for one of my favourite jobs of all.

After a few more serious jobs I decided to take it international. After the stint in Dublin I needed a decent, real Turkish trade. It was without qualms, then, that I took up the offer of a one day trial in the world of carpet selling in Istanbul’s old town.

I have been sworn to secrecy on the details of this ancient trade, but I will say that carpet salesmanship is an art form and involves an intricate understanding of geography, politics, human psychology and mathematical probability. Unfortunately I was not blessed with the necessary depth of understanding and so had to look for other employment opportunities if I was to live my dream of working and living in Turkey’s largest city.

After my weeks in Georgia and the Middle East my funding and stamina for travel was running low. I was fed up with packing, unpacking and repacking my backpack on a daily basis. I was tired of thin mattresses and was looking for some stability in my pillow situation. I considered it fate then, that within two hours of being back in Turkey, I was offered the job of any insane traveller’s dream: touting for restaurant customers on a bustling street in Istanbul’s old town. The day had come to tackle 84 hour weeks, endless treks up and down flights of stairs, and setting up permanent camp in a sardine tin dormitory. In return I had free accommodation, restaurant prepared meals, and the chance to see backpacking culture from the depths of a 20 bed basement, on a crowded street side and from a rooftop restaurant and bar. Perfect.

For the next month I would have first-hand insight into the permanent and not so permanent relationships of travelers and develop some lasting friendships of my own. I would discover the answer to such complex philosophical problems as ‘Why do the French always drink such small beers?’ and ‘Why do New Zealanders always insist on wearing hiking clothes, even in large European cities?’, along with ‘Microfibre towels: to use or not to use?’

My day would start at 11am and end when the last beer was drunk, usually well after midnight. Most of my time was spent on the street, trying very badly to entice passers-by to brave the three flights of stairs to reach our sea-view restaurant terrace. The phrases, ‘Are you looking for something to eat?’… ‘We have a beautiful roof terrace’ … ‘Cold beer, good view’… ‘Delicious Turkish kebabs’ started to permeate my psyche and my dreams. I liked to observe the reactions of passers-by, who were mostly used to being accosted on every street corner by carpet sellers, waiters and lonely men with expertly crafted pick-up lines such as ‘You must be an angel… can I be your Charlie?’ By the time they got to my corner, a few would give a weary head shake, some would utter a brief ‘no, thanks’ while the majority would pretend I didn’t exist. They would pass, tight-faced and tight-lipped, looking like they’d rather be anywhere but on this sunny, cobbled street in one of the most beautiful cities in the world. I had sudden urges to yell ‘BOO!’ or tickle them.

When I wasn’t watching the street I was eating from it. It’s universally agreed on that one of the best things about Turkey is the food, especially the roadside stalls and mobile carts, which sell such delights as hand squeezed pomegranate juice, hazelnuts, ripe figs, stuffed mussels and sizzling corn-on-the-cob. So in the interest of cultural research I felt it was my duty to sample each new food item I was brought- with the exception of some very suspicious looking fried liver at 2am. I developed an addiction to Frigola, a cheap, chewy, chocolately ice-cream which became a compulsory mid-afternoon escape from workplace tedium.

There were of course many boring—painfully boring—moments along the way, and the irony of working directly opposite one of Istanbul’s most notorious former prisons (now a five star hotel) didn’t escape me. Every Tuesday, on my one free day per week, I was bursting to get out of my self-imposed incarceration.

But when it came time to leave this job and city I knew I would greatly miss this country, this city, this food, these people- and, of course- this street. Being witness to the life and energy of a street is a special and energizing gift, and I regretted having to hand it back.

City streets have lives like no other; they become a medium through which a myriad of interactions take place. Though I’m far from it now, this street- my street- in a little corner of an ancient city, can still hear the cats pat-pattering on steamy cobblestones, see the young barber hang damp towels on a small white rack each morning, taste the tobacco laced spit of overweight and overbearing men, and feel a melancholic calm replace daytime chaos each evening.


Unknown said...

Thanks for great sultanahmet post.

Anonymous said...

Thats awesome glad there are people willing to take the time to document there wonderful times in life..

David Seymour said...

Nice writing! Do you have 'stability in your pillow situation' yet?

Helen Simpson said...

Yes, I just had the pleasure of buying a second pillow. Can I say... wow?!