Monday, September 16, 2019

Sounds, scents and images of my childhood…

Corn vendor.

Corn vendor.

It is a wonderful autumn morning in Marco Island. The Cardinals are singing as loud as they can before they attack the feeders I put out for them in the back yard. The Eastern sky is turning brilliant red, signaling the sunrise over Barfield Bay.

But something seems to be missing. Other than the Cardinals’ morning songs I hear nothing else. It is very strange yet very normal in my neighborhood. The sun rises, it gets warmer and sometimes I hear the engines of a few cars in the distance. I sit back and listen carefully for familiar sounds, and all of a sudden I get transported back fifty years. I’m taken back to Istanbul where I grew up, living in the heart of the magnificent City, that was only a tenth of its present size then, when no one locked their doors and almost everyone knew everyone else in the neighborhood. I am sure many of my contemporaries who grew up in America during those years have similar memories of their own towns. However, I always think that growing up in Turkey in the ‘50s and the ‘60s was quite special and different. Those were different times in a

Renewing the mattresses.

Renewing the mattresses.

City which was experiencing a transition from being the Capital of a collapsed Empire into a bustling Western-style metropolis. Those wonderful days now live in my memory in the autumn of my life, as sounds, scents, and images coming to life on special mornings like this.

We lived in a second-floor apartment across from a public park on one of the seven hills of Istanbul. If we stood in our small front porch right over the cobblestone street, we could see, hear, and smell the city come alive as the sun rose above the mountains on the eastern side of the Bosphorus straits which separate the City into Europe and Asia. This morning, my memories bring me back to an early autumn morning in Istanbul before schools were in session. My sister and I were enjoying the last carefree days of summer in Istanbul before we donned our uniforms and grabbed our school bags to head to our schools.

Every morning, our wake-up call was the “muezzin” who went up to the minaret of the local mosque and called the faithful to their morning prayers. His baritone voice and the song-like call to prayer were better than any wake-up call or

Knife sharpener.

Knife sharpener.

an alarm clock I have experienced since. As we rose from our beds, blinking and yawning, we would hear the familiar chant of the local milkman who brought us milk from his farm in a large copper container. My mother would meet him at the front door with a special container in her hand which the milkman filled with one liter of fresh raw milk. My father would always ask him the same question, “How much water did you mix in it this morning?” and the milkman’s response would always be, “Of course, none.” The milk was immediately taken into our kitchen, boiled and allowed to cool down, developing a layer of fresh cream on the surface. I remember fighting my dad and my sister for this cream, which we devoured after sprinkling it with powder sugar or home-made jam from our pantry. After my dad left for work, we would hear the clatter of the metal-shoed hooves of the horse which pulled the wooden wagon of our fruit and vegetable vendor. He was a tall, well-built man who never rode the wagon but always walked next his horse, shouting “Fresh vegetables!” to get our attention. He always walked
Vegetable vendor.

Vegetable vendor.

up, rang our doorbell, and brought in samples of his vegetables loaded in his long black apron which he used as a basket. My sister and I always ran out to the street to feed his old horse who ate carrots and sugar cubes from our hands. My mother purchased her vegetables weekly and stored them in our large pantry which was out of bounds for the kids.

After the vegetable vendor’s wagon moved on to the next neighborhood, we would hear the unique chant of the yogurt vendor. He would belt out a high note, “Yogurt!” followed a few seconds later by a distinct “CU!” indicating that he is the man who sells yogurt. The yogurt was packed in two circular metal pans hanging down from a long, round stick which he supported on his shoulders. There were three ropes attached to the two pans on either side of him, keeping them flat and steady. My sister and I would go down to the street with a ceramic bowl in our hands, which the yogurt-man (as he was known in the neighborhood) would place on his two-sided metal scale; first, weighing the plate by using small metal bars and

Corn vendor.

Corn vendor.

then filling our bowl with the yogurt using a special scoop. He used round metal weights to measure one kilo of fresh yogurt made from sheep’s milk. The yogurt was not refrigerated until it got into our kitchen and it is only now I wonder how he kept it so fresh in the hot summer days! We were forced to take a one-hour dreaded nap after lunch until our trained ears heard the ice-cream man’s lovely voice announcing his arrival. He pushed a white, homemade three-wheeled cart in front of him with a metal container surrounded with ice and containing delicious home-made ice cream. There were usually two flavors: vanilla and cherries, or vanilla and strawberries. I do not recall ever seeing him sell chocolate-flavored ice cream. He would serve the ice cream right from the metal container in his cart, using a flattened spoon as a scoop onto small circular and edible cones with flat bottoms. This was certainly a treat on hot summer days. As the day progressed, we were visited by an Albanian vendor who sharpened our kitchen knives using a contraption which had a big wheel attached to a foot pedal and a grinding wheel.
Collecting old goods.

Collecting old goods.

Sparks would fly and fall onto the cobblestone street as the wheel turned faster and faster making unique and unforgettable sounds. We were a bit afraid of this guy (it may have been the size of his huge moustache), so we always kept our distance, even though we always wanted to get closer to see the sparks coming off the knives.

As the muezzin went up to the minaret to call the faithful to their afternoon prayers, the sun would be setting. This indicated that the corn-on-the cob vendor would be showing up soon, pushing his cart with steam coming out of the big pot, in the center of the cart, which was heated by bottled gas. He sold boiled, fresh corn on-the-cob which he served on corn-shucks after he generously sprinkled them with salt from a metal container.

Throughout the summer and autumn, our street would be visited by various people: There was the chubby old man who collected empty bottles and cans and loaded them onto two baskets hanging from each side of his faithful donkey. Also, the short white-haired man and his cheeky assistant came to take out the cotton from our worn and flattened cotton-filled mattresses and

Yogurt man.

Yogurt man.

fluff them up them using a unique method. Fortune-telling gypsies sold charcoal and hand-made tongs for the small grill we kept on our back balcony. The water vendor brought large bottles of drinking water from a spring outside of town on a horse-cart and dumped it into the earthen jug in our kitchen which contained a large chunk of ice from the ice vendor. It had a small spigot which provided us with glasses of cold water on hot summer days. Then there was the man who carried a large sack on his back and collected old clothes, towels and bed-sheets.

There were so many more of these local vendors and peddlers who went past our narrow street all summer long, entertaining us with their chants and filling the air with their unique scents. They left behind unforgettable images of a long and lazy summer and autumn spent in the City, living in a second-floor apartment, overlooking an ancient, cobblestone street across from a City park. I am not sure if any of these vendors exist any longer. They may all be gone but they will live in my memory and make their appearances on quiet summer and autumn Marco Island mornings for as long as I live.

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