“House Hunters International” is one of my favourite TV shows. Each episode features real people moving to a new country who must make a difficult decision on their future home. Will it be Ocean View, Beach Access or 17th Century Farmhouse? My choices so far seemed to be Dungeon, Drugs or Dirt.
I was waiting on my favourite street corner for the owner of the housesit. The cobblestoned street is nestled between busy Istiklal Caddesi and the Bosphorus, and it’s where I stayed when I visited in May. Filled with traditional Ottoman houses, workshops and up-and-coming boutiques, the street winds around a church built in honour of British soldiers lost in the Crimean War. As much as I enjoyed watching the parents walking their children home from school, I started to wonder if the housesit lady would ever show up.
After several phone calls between a helpful shop assistant and a local friend, a woman finally appeared and gestured for me to follow her. My suspicions that she wasn’t the flat owner were confirmed when we went into a tiny convenience store. She spoke to the store owner and mimed turning a key in a lock. The store owner looked on every shelf and even in the till but he couldn’t find the key. A child in a Balu jersey came in and started playing with the random watches and keys revealed by the search. A man came in who didn’t have the key, but he helped himself to a bottle of milk and left without paying. We all went back on the street and spoke to a man sitting on a step; he didn’t know where the key was either.
Apparently no one in the neighbourhood knew where the key was! We walked into the apartment building in case the key was in there. The steel basement door opened from the inside (by whom I never saw) and the real estate agent and store owner invited me to descend.
“No, no,” I said, shaking my head. I sliced my hand through the air to indicate flats above street level. The agent and store owner looked confused, and indicated again that I should go down the stairs.
A mini-landing housed a sink, with a toilet tucked back under the stairs. A full flight of stairs and ten degrees of temperature below, three cavernous rooms with soaring curved ceilings, unbroken by a kitchen or windows, opened into each other. I saw a light at the far end – by tilting my head up, I saw the sidewalk grate and people walking one storey above. Realising they’d confused me with a lady who wanted to open a wine tasting cave, I left without asking the price.
Craigslist took me to Şişli, a seemingly soulless neighbourhood conveniently located along the metro. I thought I was going to see a room in a flat shared by a local girl and an expat guy but I was mistaken again.
Both flatmates were expats, but the girl was moving and wanted to rent out her room. So I could share with the guy until he went back to his country, at which time another person would be found. Over coffee they asked if all types of smoke affected me. Although the guy didn’t smoke cigarettes, he enjoyed having smoking parties with lots of his friends, which might be a problem for my allergies.
I saw a sign for “Emlak” (real estate) back in my favourite neighbourhood and literally ducked into a subterranean office furnished with overstuffed black leather seating and at least twelve pictures and posters of the owner, Halil Bey.
“Welcome, sit,” he said with a big smile and offered me a business card. “Name?”
Over Nescafé, with his African assistant as translator, we established what I was looking for: a flat above ground with a kitchen. He took down the information on a scrap of paper and promised me he had just the place.
I returned less than 48 hours later.
“Welcome, sit,” said Halil Bey with a big smile and offered me a business card. “Name?”
“What?!?!” said his assistant. “This is Jill!” Halil Bey had completely forgotten about me! How this could happen was discussed for twenty minutes while I drank my Nescafé.
Finally he turned to me again, “Name?”
“I don’t have a phone number yet.”
This deviation from procedure could hardly be endured, but he reluctantly agreed to show me a flat that matched my wish list.
A short walk down the street and up to the top of a building revealed a verandah of uneven floorboards covered by stained carpet with an adjoining mouldy bathroom.
We returned to the office. “Dirty?” asked the assistant.
“Don’t worry,” she said. If I was interested, there was another flat I’d love for sure, 67% more, and farther away. Would I like to see it?
Why not? Halil Bey and I set off again. He greeted every shopkeeper and resident along the way. He bought me some hot pretzel-like bread, pointed out significant buildings, and made me repeat the names of fruit in Turkish: grapes – üzüm, watermelon – karpuz.
Finally we were… back at my favourite street! Except instead of turning right at the church, we turned left, down an even narrower lane. We found the building and walked up to a sparkling third floor flat. Halil Bey opened a window and we looked out.
“Very good,” said Halil Bey with a big smile. “Very good.”