It was Friday and I needed spices. Next week I’m planning on hosting a Christmas party for the other English teachers in my flat and will make the Howard family mulled wine recipe. I’ve been searching Istanbul for the various ingredients. Finding any red wine that wasn’t dry was difficult. Next up I needed to find my spices, which required a trip down to the Spice Bazaar.

I hadn’t gotten an early start to my day. This unit in school I’ve lucked out and don’t have Friday classes. The schedule changes every two months when the students take their exams and move on to the next level (or repeat the same level). I’m sure I won’t be so lucky next time around, but for the time being I’m really enjoying my leisurely schedule. The night before I’d been out with another teacher who had shown me to the “Dorock” bar, which is a meathead, headbanger metal bar with free live music every night of the week and decently priced beer. I foresee many more evenings out to the Dorock. We were out late (I’m learning that it’s often dangerous to be out drinking with the Irish) so I was glad I did not have to teach the next day. I still had to be up early, though, as I had an appointment with the police at 9:30 for my work permit application.

I very nearly missed my appointment. I was supposed to meet a driver at the school, so the driver could speak Turkish with the police to make sure everything went to plan. There was no way I’d make it to the school in time, though, so I hailed the first taxi I saw and told him to hurry to the Beşiktaş Emniyet. We got there in time, and I met with another teacher upstairs who was also there for his work permit. We figured it would be straightforward and didn’t need the driver along with us. It was indeed not a difficult process, we just gave him our application papers, he entered the information into the computer, and we went along on our merry way.

I knew I needed to go to the Spice Bazaar that day, and tried to motivate myself for my journey. First I needed to go home and have coffee or a snack, though. This was a foolish decision, however, as I hadn’t gotten much sleep the night before and wasn’t feeling spectacular, so I just went back to bed instead. I awoke around 2pm, kicking myself for wasting my day off lounging around doing nothing. I should go exploring or should read or do something productive!

I finally laced up my boots and headed out for the Spice Bazaar around 2:45, dictionary and backpack in tow. The grey morning had turned into a rainy afternoon, so I had to fight the umbrella traffic on the Galata bridge and in Eminonu, but I made it to the Spice Bazaar only slightly damp. I found a guy who looked like he had all of the spices I needed in his little shop, got out my list, and started to try using my Turkish skills. I listed the spices I needed in Turkish, and tried to answer his questions. Cloves, nutmeg and cinnamon sticks. Oh, you are making wine! He said. Evet, evet, sıcak şirap. He asked me where I was from and what I was doing in Istanbul (in English) and I responded in broken Turkish.

Yo, Sven? As I was paying my bill (jackass overcharged me…) I heard a Californian accent and looked around. Let’s see, shoulder length curly black hair… holy shit, it’s Jeremy from Georgia! He had just finished up his contract in Georgia, and was in Istanbul for a week-long layover before going home to California. I got my change and we headed back out in the rain in search for a cafe.

I don’t know the cafes in Sultanahmet very well, so we walked for a while before finding a suitable place. I hadn’t seen a lot of Jeremy when we were in Georgia. He was one of the Tbilisi teachers, whereas I was based in Kutaisi. I didn’t make it to Tbilisi often, and he never went to Kutaisi, so we only met a few times over the course of the few months I was there. We were in the same orientation group, though, so we spent the first week in the Bazaleti hotel together. We’d also been on the same plane from Chicago to Warsaw on the way over, and had explored Warsaw together for a few hours on our layover back at the end of February.

What a strange occurrence, I mused, as we sipped our Turkish coffee and caught up on what had been happening or laughed about various Georgian stories. I know I’ve written before here about Kundera and the “birds of fortuity.” I started thinking about them again. Kundera writes that for an encounter, a love, a friendship, etc. to be meaningful, those birds of fortuity must immediately begin to alight. I think that these birds constantly alight – every encounter we have is the result of numerous chance encounters or decisions. It is only with meaningful encounters, though, when we reflect upon what led us to a certain place at that fateful time. Here are a few excerpts from The Unbearable Lightness of Being on those birds:

But is not an event in fact more significant and noteworthy the greater number of fortuities necessary to bring it about? Chance and chance alone has a message for us. Everything that occurs out of necessity, everything expected, repeated day in and day out, is mute. Only chance can speak to us. We read its message much as gypsies read the images made by coffee grounds at the bottom of a cup.

Our day to day life is bombarded with fortuities, or, to be more precise, with the accidental meetings of people and events we call coincidences. “Co-incidence” means that two events unexpectedly happen at the same time, they meet… We do not even notice the great majority of such coincidences.

It is wrong, then, to chide the novel for being fascinated with mysterious coincidences (like the meeting of Anna, Vronsky, the railway station, and death or the meeting of Beethoven, Tomas, Tereza and the cognac), but it is right to chide man for being blind to such coincidences in his daily life. For he thereby deprives his life of a dimension of beauty.

I’ve been reflecting on Kundera’s birds of fortuity and this chance encounter I had on a rainy December Friday afternoon in the Spice Bazaar. Had I gone to bed at a decent hour the night before, I would have woken up on time, feeling well, and not needed to come home from the police station to sleep again. I would have gone to the Spice Bazaar much earlier in the day and would have finished my errand running quite a bit earlier, and would not have had my random encounter. In a similar vein, events of Jeremy’s day had fallen together leading to a random meeting in the spice bazaar.

As we finished our coffee, I wondered what Jeremy’s plans for the evening were. He was going to go to a restaurant in Sultanahmet where they had a whirling dervish show. Since he still had another night when he could do that, I invited him over to my flat and cooked him some dinner. I didn’t want to toss away this random chance encounter so early, I wanted to keep it going! Nothing fancy, just some fries, peppers, onions, garlic, tomatoes and shaved lamb in the fry pan. A nice caloric bomb.

As we sat in my little flat, sipping my blend of Turkish/mint tea, listening to Mercan Dede, sharing various stories of Georgia or Istanbul, we prepared to go back out into the night. I was planning on meeting some other teachers at a pub, and I’d show Jeremy out to a few places in Istanbul. I noted the look of dismay on his face as he contemplated putting his cold, wet socks on again. He asked if my heater was turned on, but no, it wasn’t. Not to worry though, I had a pair of socks he could have. It reminded me of a day last fall in Sarajevo, when I met Matt the Canadian, who only had three pairs of socks, so I traded him a pair of my big wooly socks for dinner.

Jeremy didn’t think I made a good decision, as he pulled the fresh socks on and discarded his soggy socks in my trash can. Not at all, I responded, I haven’t worn those socks once. Now whenever you wear those socks, you’ll remember a random chance encounter on a rainy December Friday in the Spice Bazaar in Istanbul, on your way home from Georgia, and you can tell your own story of those birds of fortuity, forever captured in those socks.


  1. I also like his discussion of Vertigo – “What is vertigo, fear of falling? No, it is the desire to fall, against which, terrified, we defend ourselves.”

  2. well written, Sven. I especially like that last line “…and you can tell your own story of those birds of fortuity, forever captured in those socks.”

    reminiscent of your writings/thoughts about memories captured in objects! Those socks will forever hold the memories of a chance encounter that December day in Istanbul!

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