street scene in Fatih's shoe district

Socks and Shoes

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After checking into my Istanbul hotel, I was ready to post that I was on the Socks Tour. It was comical: at my second stop this trip, Budapest, I’d found dirty socks on my hotel room floor, between an armchair and the window. I called reception and they sent housekeeping to collect them along with a clerk who handed me a voucher for a free drink. The bathroom seemed clean enough, but obviously they hadn’t vacuumed the bedroom. No other mishaps that stay.

Next stop, Istanbul, and as I was staying a week in one hotel, I began unpacking into the wardrobe. On the bottom shelf, there were two pairs of socks. I found housekeepers on my floor and while my no-Turkish, their no-English was a little obstacle, they did catch on that those were not my socks and shouldn’t be in my room.

So much for Covid-aware super housecleaning, you think?

I went out to explore my neighborhood, Karaköy. I was just a couple of short blocks from Galata Bridge. Directly to water’s edge, first, I found going left was impossible; to the right I got to the ferry docks, lots of fish restaurants, some people grilling fish at little stands, and then a neighborhood of paint. I happened to need nail polish remover, and found nowhere that had such a thing, but if I’d wanted to do home improvements I was in the right zone. I saw paint store after paint store as well as tools and building materials.

When I saw my friend Berke later (an Istanbul native), he commented how products of different types are concentrated in Istanbul neighborhoods, so that you go to one area for one type of thing, another for the next. My wanderings bore that out. I decided to stay longer in Istanbul, but changed hotels ( 3 more hotels, 4 nights each). The third hotel put me in the shoe neighborhood. I was on the south side of the second of Istanbul’s famed seven hills, and was amazed at the hundreds of shoe stores I passed. Men were wheeling cartons of shoes all about, and it seemed every door belonged to a shoe business. There were a few places selling buckles as well, but most were quite simply shoes, from running shoes to high heels.

With apologies for camera video that needs image stabilization – I used my phone rather than my gopro imitation – here is a 360-degree survey of an intersection in the district.

I’m not sure how much of Istanbul holds to that pattern. It’s a huge city, after all. And with my two Turkish friends, I explored Beyoğlu and Taksim and other more fashionable neighborhoods like the area around Galataport and Beşiktaş and on up the coast a bit on the European side, and Moda on the Asian side, that were quite removed from the wholesalers in the Fatih district my three last hotels were in. But in Fatih, the agglomerations were distinct. My third hotel was close to the handbag district. Purses galore, as overwhelming as the shoes had been – but I didn’t take photos on the cloudy late afternoons I wandered through there. And on my last day in town, urgently completing my gift shopping, I got directed to an area where the locals shop: on the north side of the Grand Bazaar, eastern corner, heading downhill towards Eminönü tram stop but not quite arriving there … where the shops were towels, pajamas and underwear. It was quite a dense, hilly maze of winding streets and narrow sidewalks. Fascinating. I had been looking for peştemals, the classic hammam towel, a flat-weave, quick-drying cotton towel typically 1 meter x 1.8 m, in other words, an ample beach towel size. It surprised me that I had only found two shops selling them, before this last day, and neither had inspired me to buy. Now I found a shop where the cotton towels were weighed and sold for a pittance: sorry I cannot remember the calculation, but I can say I bought 7 pure cotton peştemals for 200 TL, which was US$13.50. (The shop owner Yahya told me he ships a container of towels to NYC every 4 months.) The hammam I went to later that day sold some for 80 TL each, some for 110; the bazaar shop sold them for 300TL and up. World of difference. I am anxious to wash the towels I bought, and will do that before giving any to friends, to make sure they hold up! I think they are likely to have small flaws. Still, I’m hopeful they’ll turn out to be rather nice.

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