This chapter appears (in detail) in my book THERE ARE NO GODS IN NORTH KOREA. The below incident is real. It happened in Istanbul, Turkey in December 2012. This incident changed the way I travel – forever. Thank You Safak Deniz for the life lessons!
In the dorm wardrobe I found a coat hanger. And on it was the most beautiful fawn coloured coat I had ever seen.
Some instinct urged me to touch it. The moment I did, I wanted it. A simple, yet insanely powerful desire for a stranger’s belonging.
“No,” I told myself. “What you are thinking of, is not an option. People don’t pinch stuff. Plus, I didn’t need another coat, do I? What the hell am I thinking?”
I continued a very moralistic conversation with myself.
“Shut the door. Forget the coat. You do not need another – of course not – most certainly NOT. Stop being ridiculous. You are being greedy. Let it go.”
I lost the argument with myself. I slipped it on.
There was no faulting it. The texture, the style, the colour, the fit – everything was perfect. It was soft. And warm. It was what one wished to have in Istanbul’s cold weather –stylish and warm. It carried a label.
It had been made with ME in mind.
Suddenly I was envious of the unknown owner. No, the feeling was deeper than mere envy. I hated her. Even as I chewed on an early dinner, I thought of the coat. It was beautiful.
I wanted it.
I don’t recall the time Tui and Nuntaporn returned, I think around midnight. They looked tired but relieved on seeing me.
“We thought you got lost. Are you alright?”
“Yes, oh yes, I am alright. You guys just vanished. I swear I looked. Everyone there looked the same – gosh, I hope you guys had a good time. Did you miss me at all?
“Yes and no. You should have been there; we got bored after a while. Not much drinking and definitely no flirting or anything. How boring.”
I was glad to hear they missed me. It flattered my ego. Unless they meant that it would have been easier to hook a guy with me around because I was sort of an expert at starting conversation with strangers, especially men.
“We will leave early in the morning. So we say goodbye now.”
We exchanged email addresses, phone numbers and hugs and sometime later when they went in to the shower, I slept again. I never saw them again. I woke up to their empty beds and felt a tinge of sadness. They were such great gals, really.
When I woke up, the memory of the coat had vanished and my mind had switched to the most important reason of my being in Istanbul.
My agenda for the day was of a literary kind. I was eager to visit a particular museum that was full of stuff a relentless hoarder or an obsessed lover would display as a mark of his obsession with a woman. The Museum of Innocence, a museum funded by Orhan Pamuk the Nobel Prize winner for literature who had sunk his prize money into a three storied museum that consisted entirely of artifacts he collected through all his life which eventually prominently featured in the book.
I had not the mindset or fine taste in literature to read through a five hundred page book that won him the big prize but I was a hoarder too, though not in the same scale as Orhan Pamuk’s creation. What he had created was a work of art and people paid good money to see that work of art.
That was what I wanted to see. The quest for the museum was threatened by the fact that no one I asked knew of its existence. There may have been another way to pronounce Cuckurcuma, but I didn’t know of that.
Thoughtfully, I looked outside the window wondering how, if ever I was going to get there in the cold and rain. Getting to the museum was going to present challenges I could not fathom – and under the circumstances, face up to. I was okay with the cold and the rain, but to leave the warmth of the dormitory was proving hard.
Then she walked in.
I mean, what kind of a coincidence was that that brought you face to face with the beautiful fawn-color coat gliding into the room with a woman concealed in it? What the night had done, the morning had undone. The desire came back.
In all honesty I thought that the coat didn’t belong to her. I mean, it simply could not have been hers. I don’t know what it was about that coat and my obsession with it, but it was there. I could not deny it. This coat was making me behave strangely.
My coat-obsessed mind continued to observe. The coat was definitely not hers. It was beautiful and sagged at her shoulders; the upturned collar covered her face, making her look much smaller and uncomfortable. She did not belong in it.
Had she pinched it?
“Hello” said she gathering up her coat before settling down on the bed.
“Uh – oh – oh – hi.”
I found it hard to look at her with the coat clouding my vision. At a mere five feet one inch frame she had no business to be in a coat that was obviously too big for her.
There wasn’t a lot I could say after this. We exchanged names.
Safak Deniz was a local. She was in the dorm because she had been too tired to travel home in the Asian side of Istanbul the previous night.
“What about you?”
“Oh, me – I am leaving tonight. But right now, I have to get to Taksim or thereabouts – but I can’t be sure. I have to visit the Museum of Innocence.”
My traveler’s mask was in place. But my mind continued to lust after the coat.
“Museum? Istanbul is full of it. Which one?”
Safak Deniz spoke a fair amount of English but her knowledge of the local attractions was lacking.
Museums are not in your league, I thought unkindly. Of course you wouldn’t know.
“Museum of Innocence, you know, the one built by Orhan Pamuk, the writer?”
If there was anyone who could help me it was her. She had shown certain eagerness when talking to me. I hadn’t planned on knocking all the doors in Taksim asking for directions, but I had to get to the museum. I held out the notebook with the address. She stared it uncertainly and silently.
“Perhaps we could call them first?” I suggested.
“Yes, we could, only it’s too early. But I might be able to help you find it. I am going to Taksim too. Come with me.”
I resented her logic but getting her help was important. We stepped out into the drizzle. Istanbul was gray and very cold. Safak walked ahead of me on the narrow sidewalk and I couldn’t help but stare at the way the coat almost reached her ankle. Her faded brown leather boots did not go well with the coat. I couldn’t imagine her walking into a Benetton store in those boots to buy a coat three sizes too large. It could not have happened that way. Something was not right.
All the way to the other side of the Bosphorus and up the funicular to Taksim, I held back the urge to ask her about the coat. I had to know. It bothered me.
The rain continued to fall and mercury dipped. That bothered me. I was afraid of ruining the new leather boots I purchased in Trabzon two weeks ago. Every time I stepped into a puddle, I hated the city and the rains. Safak was unmindful of the rain falling on her coat and that bothered me.
We walked and we talked. She was touching fifty, single and without a job. And the casual way in which she said that bothered me even more.
“Where is home?”
“Oh, I don’t have one. No job and no home. Rented out my father’s flat for the money. But otherwise, I have nothing.”
“What? Oh dear, where have you been staying all this while? Surely not at Cordial House?”
“Here and there. When I had a job, I had a room – now no job, no room. Dorm is cheap, only what I can afford right now.”
With that she pulled out a cigarette and lit up. A causal, elaborate shrug followed.
That bothered me too.
I had to stop myself from getting preachy about smoking. Save the darned money, I wanted to tell her although it was none of my business. Over the last cup of tea, I had begun to think of her as a desperate woman. Desperate, but quite foolish and I insisted on paying for every cup of tea we had together.
Had someone given her that coat? It was a possibility.
I put my arm around her as we walked, shielding her under the cheap umbrella bought from a street vendor. The coat was damp from the rain but she didn’t feel it. Or she would have said so. Safak did not believe in niceties.
We found the museum. She waited while I surveyed the interiors. I did not volunteer to pay the twenty five lira for her and she did not seem interested in any way. Nobel Prizes meant nothing to her, she preferred to chat up the receptionist and linger around the heater. Later, we pottered around looking for antique trinkets and beaten in coffee cups, the collection of which was my current hobby. Safak didn’t share my enthusiasm – she liked things ‘in the present, antiques were a thing of the past – old’ and puffed away on her cigarettes indifferently.
“Hey, let’s go shopping,’ I suggested breezily. “No way am I leaving Beyoglu without it. Ha. Come; everything is on sale too – indirim, isn’t that the word? Come let’s find a coat for me – like yours.”
But first, Safak wanted to call someone. We found a local telephone booth where she used a telephone card to make her call.
I didn’t ask her what it was about – but whatever it was, wasn’t good. Her face hardened – but it could have been the cold. I could not tell.
“Let’s go – it’s good to be with you. It’s a good change.”
She lit another cigarette. The grey smoke rings disappeared in the frozen gray of the old, cobbled city. Suddenly everything felt sinister. Odd. Unreal. And in the midst of it all was Safak – hard and uncaring.
I wanted a coat more than ever.
Every store on Beyoglu, Taksim was on sale. Safak chatted through my repeated attempts at finding the right coat – and I on my part, didn’t really care what she was talking about- so long as her chatter was just a constant hum in the background that didn’t break the line of my thoughts focused on finding the right coat. A coat better than the fawn-colour coat she had. Her coat was the benchmark of fine coats.
Safak devised a productive way to occupy her time every time I ran into a store on sale. She wandered into every store that advertised a vacancy – coffee shops, bakeries or shoe stores– nothing deterred her. She wanted a job -anything that could keep her financial machinery rolling. I never asked what transpired at the end of the walk-in interview– aging ex-baby sitters and bank clerks did not fit the description of the candidates people advertised for. Or so her expressions explained.
At some point after Safak’s expression permanently changed to depression, I lost every interest in coats. The moment of obsession had safely passed. It was getting colder and I wanted to be back in the dorm, eat roasted chestnuts and drink tea.
We stepped out of the last store onto the sidewalk. The rain had not stopped falling. It was cold.
Safak fixed me with a faraway look.
“I know how much you want a coat. I will give you mine. It is not even my size, if you’ve noticed. You can have it for a hundred. It’s a Benetton – very expensive, but you can take it for a hundred.”
The cold got worse. But this time I felt it in my knees, my heart, in my mind -in my tongue too, for I could not speak. I blurted out incoherently.
“No…I mean, of course NOT. It’s yours, I mean, you need it. I couldn’t take it – no, it’s very cold, freezing really…’ and as a last, desperate attempt to discourage her I finished with an “I wouldn’t fit into it…err, I…”
Lies. Lies. Lies. The coat was a perfect fit. I knew that.
I shivered. The lust bubble popped. I never wanted to see her coat again. Nor her.
Never. Never. Never.
Safak took off her coat and handed it to me.
I hoped it would not fit me. Somehow. It was the only way I could get out of buying a coat I no longer wanted. How could I tell her I didn’t want another as long as I lived? Would she think me snooty if I refused? Was there was way to convince her to change her mind?
I slipped it on without word.
Safak broke in confidently.
“It’s perfect. Made for you. I can buy a cheaper one. You know, I have no money but I need the money for cigarettes, for tea, for the dorm.” She patted my arm.
There was no regret in her voice. She had made a practical decision and when making that she had not taken the extreme weather into consideration. The cold could go to hell, but cigarettes and tea – she needed those – and a bed in the dorm.
“I could give you the money instead- keep the coat.”
“No. I am selling my coat Anjaly. Right now that is all I have.”
I remembered she had no mobile phone. Had she sold that to someone too?
In the back lanes of Beyoglu were small stores selling cheap coats. They didn’t match up to what she the quality of the branded ones, but people who could not afford the high price were content with these purchases.
Her thirty two lira coat barely reached her waist. But she was happy – and warm, she claimed.
She counted out the balance. “Sixty eight liras…three days in the dorm – and I will not have to starve either.”
She then handed over the coat. My coat. The deal had gone through easily. What lot money could do?
I grabbed the coat, eager to hold it, to touch it, to feel it – the pride of ownership, perhaps. I eagerly pressed it against my cheeks. It needed care, of course, but I would see to that at once.
Safak offered to carry it for me, but I refused. My mind had worked up a probable event – what if she disappeared in the crowd with it? The street was crowded. My logic was simple – if I could carry a backpack and an umbrella, I could carry my coat.
We returned to the dorm late in the evening. The mercury was hovering around zero but inside the dorm, one tended to forget the outside world. I slipped off my coat and stretched out on the bed.
It had been a good day, although wet and very cold – and I had two coats – both of which I would never wear once I left Istanbul a few hours later. I carefully packed them into my backpack while Safak continued to speak.
I watched her as she slipped out of her new coat. I had spent exactly eleven hours in her company and in another hour I would leave. Her name would go into my book as another stranger I met on one of my travels. What was she saying about a job? Something about an interview at the coffee shop? Or was she speaking about her sister who no more spoke to her? Safak had the habit of jumping from one topic to another rather quickly.
Her coat came off. She had a black and white sweater under it – pretty, I thought, pretty, but well used.
“It’s rather warm in here,” she said, more to herself than to me. “I am going to take off this sweater too.”
I continued to watch. Safak removed the sweater – the woolen cap came off with it. Her grey hair was cut very short. With the cap gone, the lines on her face and forehead were more pronounced. She looked every bit of her fifty years. She wore no earrings. No watch. Not even a chain.
She turned to her bed.
Through the large holes in her frayed thermals, I saw the old, white, wrinkled skin on her back – the outline of her underwear with its frayed edges, the skin sagging under the flimsy layer.
How had I missed being human?