Texas Transplant Feels Right at Home Leading Tours of Istanbul's Grand Bazaar

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By Valentina Pasquali
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, August 9, 2009

Kathy Hamilton, a gregarious, 6-foot-tall, red-haired Texan, stands near the entrance to Osman's textile shop atop Istanbul's Grand Bazaar, listening to the owner complain about the sudden disappearance of customers. The air-conditioned shop is filled with richly decorated bedspreads, suzani (traditional Turkish wall hangings) and Ottoman caftans in silk, cotton and velvet. Osman is sitting on the carpet-covered floor and spouting a steady stream of Turkish.

Hamilton listens, nods sympathetically and fingers a length of finely decorated antique textile in shades of gold that she guesses was once used as trim on a coat. In fluent Turkish, she reassures the shopkeeper, telling him that it looks as though the U.S. economy is picking up, which will improve things for Turkish merchants as well.

Meanwhile, John Atwell is poking around the shop. He checks out dozens of handmade caftans hanging on a metal bar at the back of the store as his wife, Cerian, changes the diaper on the couple's 4-week-old baby, Geordan.

John and Cerian are Hamilton's clients on this recent trip to the Grand Bazaar, a maze of alleys and winding streets crowded with more than 4,000 shops and food stands that is one of Istanbul's most popular tourist destinations. Hamilton, a Texas transplant who lives in Istanbul, runs an occasional personal-shopping business for foreigners who want to visit the bazaar and buy traditional Turkish rugs, silver jewelry, ceramic ware and more, but are intimidated by the place's intricate geography and swarming passageways.

"It's too big for me," Cerian Atwell says as the trip gets underway in mid-morning. Cerian works for a British company that imports Turkish garments to the United Kingdom, while John manages a Web site on expatriate life in Istanbul. In their two years in the city, the couple have peeked into the bazaar only once, and hated it. "I didn't know where to go, and all the stores seemed to have the same stuff," Cerian says, summarizing the feeling of utter helplessness that overwhelms most tourists when they take their first steps into the market.

Cerian is hoping that this trip with Hamilton will help her navigate the bazaar more easily in the future. Mostly hidden from view, the bazaar neighborhood stretches from Eminonu, the city's commercial dock on the Golden Horn, and climbs up the northern side of the old town to Divan Yolu, the historic boulevard connecting the Blue Mosque to Istanbul University. At the very bottom is the Egyptian Bazaar, the colorful spice market with its Indian curry powders and its Turkish nuts. Just above that is a collection of warehouses and workshops known as hans. At the top of the hill is the Grand Bazaar, with its handicrafts and luxury jewelry.

Sultan Mehmed II built the Grand Bazaar after he conquered what was then Constantinople in 1453. It's also known as the covered bazaar, and its alleys unroll under a labyrinth of porches decorated with ceramic tiles. The Grand Bazaar's oldest core, however, displays elegant vaulted ceilings of exposed bricks.

Hamilton's shopping trip begins at the Nuruosmaniye Camii gate, one of the Grand Bazaar's less crowded entrances.

Before venturing in, she points to a long, two-story building on the right, home to several brass and copper warehouses where, she says, you can buy pieces at wholesale prices. This is precisely the secret to shopping here: knowing where, what and at what prices to buy.

"I first visited Turkey in the aftermath of the 1980 military coup," Hamilton says as the group walks through the bazaar. In spite of the tanks in the streets, something about Turkey drew her back again and again. In 1988, at age 40, she relocated to Istanbul and married a Turkish carpet merchant in what she calls "a very productive midlife crisis." By now, Hamilton has visited the bazaar more times than she can count and knows it like the back of her hand. "I kept wandering around, visiting shops, talking to different shopkeepers. I'm nosy; I approach people and ask what they're up to," she explains.

Hamilton shows the Atwells the shop of an artist who hand-paints golden motifs on dieffenbachia leaves imported from Florida. Another of her favorite merchants sells miniatures drawn on antique, progressively thinning paper. Down another alley, she takes the Atwells to a high-end thrift store packed with goods of every kind. John and Cerian are fascinated by some tiny brass scales once used by merchants to weigh coins to make sure that they were real. The Atwells recall that when Geordan was born, they received what they think is a gold coin from a colleague, in accordance with local traditions. Hamilton recommends a place where they can have the coin appraised.

The group also visits some of the more curious corners of the bazaar, such as the money market, a dark passage where illegal but tolerated currency trading takes place. Today, it looks sleepy, a sign that the Turkish lira is enjoying a stable day against foreign currencies. But Hamilton tells the Atwells that when the lira gets on a roller coaster, plenty of people come here to exchange it for dollars and euros.

"This place," Hamilton says of the Grand Bazaar, "is almost like its own separate city. It has its own police department, post office, mosques."

The final stop of the day is Osman's store, which is on a rooftop and somewhat off the bazaar's beaten path. Hamilton likes to take her clients there because of the quality of the merchandise -- and because the air conditioning offers some respite from Istanbul's summer heat. Some of the shopkeeper's pieces are affordable, but many of his goods are ancient textiles and quite expensive.

Getting the price right can be particularly frustrating for foreigners, since Turkish merchants expect you to bargain. "There are never any prices in these stores, and I don't know how much things are supposed to cost," Cerian complains. Thankfully, Hamilton bargains on behalf of her clients. "As soon as merchants realize I speak Turkish, prices drop," she promises.

The Atwells, though, are distracted by their baby and ultimately don't take advantage of Hamilton's bargaining abilities. Nancy Voye, on the other hand, makes full use of them. Only three days after the Atwells tour the Grand Bazaar, Voye, who's from Greenwich, Conn., purchases handbags, pottery, jewelry and a carpet, spending close to $1,600. (Hamilton says that the most any client has ever spent in one go is $20,000.)

Voye recently retired from her job on Wall Street and is in Istanbul with her daughter Emily, freshly graduated from college. "Friends recommended Kathy to us," she says. "As a tourist, I want to be able to see sights and not waste my whole time shopping. Her being able to navigate that immense place so easily made it all very efficient for us."

Since she doesn't generally take commissions from merchants, Hamilton is under no pressure to get her clients to spend money; she can easily accommodate both Voye's buying spree and the Atwells' window-shopping.

But even though she didn't buy a thing, Cerian Atwell thinks her trip with Hamilton was a success. "I definitely feel more comfortable now," she says. "I'd want to come back to the shops that Kathy pointed to . . . if I was ever able to find them again."

A shopping trip to the Grand Bazaar with Kathy Hamilton costs $225 for groups of up to four, plus transportation and food. Contact Hamilton via her Web site: http://www.istanbulpersonalshopper.com.


© 2009 The Washington Post Company


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