In Istanbul, Getting to Ikea and Back

It wasn't exactly a matter of life and death—procuring a high chair for my daughter from Ikea, in Istanbul—but that was the mission I found myself on one night several years ago.

I loaded up a leather satchel—keys, wallet, phone, a letter from a dear old friend in Riyadh—and headed down the hill. We lived in Galata above "music street," a winding cobblestone parade of shops selling drums, guitars, cymbals, horns, pianos, and the dreaded vuvuzela. A hilarious cacophony during the day, Galip Dede glows and echoes with mewling cats at night.

Stepping around garbage, I found the alley of rough-cut stairs that led to the water. Traffic was thin, and I dashed across slick streets to the Karaköy stop on one of the city's main tram lines. These days, with my wife in Iraq and little childcare, I rarely left the house without my one-year-old daughter. This evening, readying to cross the street, I reached down for her hand, surprised for a moment when nothing was there.

On the platform, affectionate couples nuzzled in the humidity and a ferry drew a long horn as it motored off into the Bosphorus chop. That day, my wife was on assignment in Baghdad; encountering Joe Biden, she said the vice president's teeth were blindingly white.

The tram trundled down the steel rails and I found a seat by a mute woman poking lazily into her smart phone. I took out the letter from one of the best friends I'd made in Riyadh: six hand-written sheets, sending sympathy for my dad, who died a few months prior.

The lights of the old town came into view as the tram grinded up the hill. The city's New Mosque, built 500 years ago, was, during this holy month of Ramadan, the site of a massive communal meal, served from steam tables, so that the faithful could break their day-long fast together.

As we powered deeper into the western suburbs of Istanbul, a computerized voice announced each successive stop. A gaggle of gaily head-scarved women alighted, taking seats proffered by mustachioed men in sweat-stained work shirts.

The transfer from the Zeytinburnu line to the Havalimani train took me up and down, over and under, all along a mile of traffic-choked streets. Descending a staircase, I encountered a monstrously fat Turk, perhaps drunk, who was attempting to kiss the hands of every woman in his path. He looked into my eyes, and a big purple tongue licked his lips.

Past a subterranean underpass, where men sold socks, shirts, and cheap laptops, I came across a brightly lit park where men and women sat in small groups, eating boiled corn and grilled meats. A stooped man in a cap distributed glasses of tea, each topped with a tiny metal disc holding two squares of sugar.

At the station, I waited next to a group of weathered men carrying fishing poles and buckets. Sweating in the still air, I attempted to finish reading the letter. My friend's dad had died, too, when he was even a younger man than I. Apologizing for rehashing what I might already know, he wrote that I would be okay, that a time would come when I would think of my dad in life and not in death; enjoy your daughter, he wrote; treasure your time so far away from home; get to know this strange new place; don't give up.

I had hiked thousands of miles; I had worked on fishing boats in Alaska; I had been an editor at magazines and newspapers; I had graduated from colleges. This night, my dad was dead, I was a dad myself, and I was buying a high chair for my daughter.

At Kartaltepe, I exited the station and heard the frenzied workings of traditional music. In a sleek, granite amphitheater beside a fancy new mall called The Forum, there were musicians playing wooden instruments I didn’t recognize—one of many concerts and celebrations, taking place all across town, honoring another night of holiday. Hundreds of families were set up, sipping yogurt drinks and fresh juices, the children up late and no one caring.

The glow of what I thought was Ikea beckoned, half a mile distant. At a smart cafe beside an acre of SUVs and upmarket sedans, I saw a couple eating cakes and sipping tea. Surrounding them were half a dozen Ikea bags. "You can't go wrong," the woman said, pointing in the direction I needed to go.

Entering the store, I could have been in any Ikea in the world. Following the serpentine pathway from entrance to exit, I was just as flustered as I've ever been: light fixtures, bed sets, entire bathrooms, colanders, coat hangers, candles, an ocean of rugs, live plants, and all the food. (A time will come—who can ever know—when none of us will need any of this.)

High chair at last in hand, I managed to choose the register with some kind of computer malfunction. The cashier was sweating, attempting to scan a candle, over and over. Finally, he gave up, and then he began manually entering numbers from the bar code. With some displeasure, I looked at the cart and noted how many items would require this process. In anticipation, perhaps, of all he was about to own, the well-dressed man behind the cart patted his slim leather wallet with affection.

I regarded my own small purchase: a simple high chair. Not much more. It had taken me an hour and a half to get to this spot. At the same time, it had taken me 31 years to arrive here, too.

Back at home—or what passed for it then—my kid slept and my mom—visiting for the next two months—drank red wine and waited for my return.

Any hour, any day, any minute now, I'll be back.

 

Nathan Deuel

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