(This article was first published on September 26, 2010 for the Study Abroad section at Global Post. View the original article here.)
KAYSERI, Turkey — Before dawn, dozens of dusty trucks roll into a vacant lot and bring it to life. It’s Saturday, the day when village merchants come to Kayseri’s Talas district to sell fresh fruit and whatever else they have.
“One Lira, one Lira! Over here, one kilogram, one Lira!” shouted 13-year-old Hasan Erol from behind his father’s fruit stand.
At the market, shoppers find an array of fresh fruit for sale laid out neatly in colorful rows on tables under patchy burlap tents or sometimes just exploding from trucks. Gargantuan cabbages and melons roll on the dusty ground while a cornucopia of seasonal fruit and veggies including fresh tomatoes, eggplants, carrots and bananas wait to be sold.
Turkey’s 13 percent unemployment rate coupled with its rural poor makes markets like this crucial to most merchants’ livelihood.
“The supermarkets are hurting us badly,” said Aydin Topbas as he shared a cup of Turkish tea. Major European chains including Migros, Kipa and Carrefour have moved into most large Turkish cities.
Topbas left high school 12 months ago to start work in the market. Topbas and his father work together selling spices in empty parking lots like this across the region. Topbas is pessimistic about his chances of continuing the family business, and he’s not alone.
“Some days are good, but others are really bad,” said Baki Kara, a 27-year-old merchant who started working with his father at the age of 16.
Kara works one of the many fruit stands in the market. He lives on a farm just outside
Kayseri with his family, including his 10-year-old son, Yunus, who now helps his father at the market. Yunus serves him tea while Dad grabs one of the blackened kilogram blocks to balance fruit on a scale.
Kara’s 62-year-old father, Omer, still visits the market although he’s technically retired. Turks used to retire and collect social security very early, some even retired as early as the age of 40 just 10 years ago.
Today, however, younger Turks have to wait until they’re at least 62 to retire, while some older Turks can still collect in their early 50s.
Omer and his wife watch their son and grandson carry on the family business while strolling around the crowded bazaar. Although development has drawn people away, the market continues to fill up every Saturday morning with older, more traditional-looking women from all over the city. At a market where two pounds of carrots can cost you less than 75 cents, the price is right for many Turkish families and penny-pinching students.
Towards the far end of the market, shoppers can find a treasure trove of random goodies. Factory rejects, knockoff shirts and sweatpants, cheap Chinese-made toys and household supplies, and even a vendor selling scarves and sewing supplies for the massive “Teyze” demographic. (“Teyze” is a word meaning maternal aunt, but is also traditionally used as a term of endearment for elder women.)
Whether or not this village tradition will survive the rapid pace of development that some economic experts foresee, for now these markets remain the only sources of income for hundreds of families. Moreover, Turkey needs all the jobs it can generate for such a young population eager to work.
At the end of my “bazaar day,” I left with a broom, a pound of carrots, a plastic dish-drying rack and a spatula. All bought for less than five Lira, or $3.50.
Oh, and, of course, two cups of tea. No charge.
As I mentioned when I first arrived, my friend Mehmet and his family have opened their home and their hearts to me for nearly two months now. Unfortunately, my time in their home is up. Today, I will be leaving to house-sit for a British diplomat living elsewhere in the city during the next month.
I’ve mentioned a few times already that being hospitable to guests is among the highest of virtues for many Turks. As a yabanci (yah-bahn-ji) or foreigner, many Turks have gone far out of their way to help me. I’ve had Turks take me to locations personally when I was lost, even if they were heading in the opposite direction. (See Map Quest post) In Antalya last week, a man and his wife asked me to sit down and have a drink with them after only a few minutes of conversation while standing on a ledge by the Mediterranean. Not only have my Turkish friends who studied in Boston brought me to dinner or invited me to see their homes or cities, but friends of those friends have called me, out of the blue, offering any help or assistance. In fact, I’ll be staying at one of those friends of friend’s apartments this weekend while in Istanbul.
However, none of the hospitality I’ve been given in the last two months can compare to the hospitality shown by Mehmet and his family. From the first day, Mehmet and Malek, along with their children Sezer and Zeynep, have done anything they could to help me adjust to living in Turkey. Mehmet has constantly looked out for me, and I really appreciated the numerous times he has gone out of his way to help me. For example, he went along with with me on the hour long dolmus ride on my first day and walked to my class building so I couldn’t get lost, even though this journey meant he would be late for work and have to come home later that day. Mehmet, the CFO for Turkish Radio and Television (TRT), already spends long hours at work, often leaving home at around 9:30am and not coming home until 7 or 8pm, and sometimes even later.
Moreover, I would not be so healthy and well off had it not been for Malek making sure my belly was always full. If you don’t believe me, check out some of the meals she prepared for me in the photo gallery under “Good Eats in Turkey.” Malek, an artist in the kitchen, went above and beyond the call of duty to make sure that I was always fed. One night, I came home very late around 10 or 11pm. I had a small dinner earlier, but of course, Malek said I needed to eat something, and after what only seemed like seconds, she came out with a piping hot dolma stuffed with rice and vegetables.
As for Sezer and Zeynep, they have been incredibly understanding of my “intrusion” into their space. I haven’t mentioned this, but I’m currently staying in Sezer’s usual room. Don’t worry, Sezer isn’t sleeping on the couch. There is a third room, a bit smaller, but still a room with a bed and all the other basic necessities. As for my adjustment to them, I grew up an only child so living with an 8 and a 4 year-old has been distracting occasionally, sometimes overwhelming, and on some days, made me want to pull my hair out. But more often than not, they made me smile and gave me plenty of good reasons to procrastinate from this blog including letting Sezer show me his Grand Theft Auto car collection or giving Zeynep a free ride on my shoulders.
I’ve grown incredibly fond of Mehmet and his family. They’ve done more than I would ever ask, including laundry. They’ve trusted me with their home, I’ve house-sitted for almost a combined two weeks when Mehmet and his family have been out of town. We’ve shared a lot of time together, from grilling in the park, to playing basketball, to sitting down and watching American movies like “Office Space,” “The Blues Brothers,” “Sgt. Bilko,” and “Hitch.” The only thing I’ve been asked in return is to help Sezer with his English, which I’ve been more than happy to do.
I’ll never forget the time I’ve spent on the seventh floor of 15 Zuhtu Tigrel, behind door #20. It’s reminded me of the importance of one of our greatest virtues, giving. In a world moving so fast and where so many of us are caught up in our individual wants and needs, we sometimes forget about how good it feels to help out our fellow man.