Joyce and I had just gotten into Istanbul that evening, the last stop of our guided tour through the Balkans. We spent half of the day just making our way through the Istanbul itself through a gridlocked Istanbul Highway complete with young men selling roses, bottled water, and headphones as they walked between the highway lanes. Being more adventurous than others in our tour group who might seek out the safety of the hotel restaurant, we went out into the dusk of a fall Istanbul evening to seek out our dinner.
We didn’t stray far from out hotel, but we did walk up and down nearby streets seeing what we could see since we would be staying in the area for three nights. It’s strange being in a foreign place, and Turkey was certainly the most foreign place I’d ever been. In shops and restaurants, people inside speak a smattering of English if any at all, and communication is frequently a multi-modal struggle, trying to find key words we both understand mixed with pointing and other gestures.
We settled on a place called Uğur Usta, and for only one reason; I’d recently started watching a man named Cenk Uygur on an internet news show. So we went in. We’d actually walked past it earlier and been put off at first by a man sitting on a motorcycle and smoking right outside the door, but we later figured out he was a delivery guy.
We happened to show up soon after four other people from our tour group, and when the man who was serving us understood that we knew each other, he began pushing tables together so we could all sit together. Joyce and I had been looking forward to a quiet dinner alone after spending so much time with our tour group, so with the heat inside the restaurant as our excuse, we extricated ourselves from the others as politely as we could and instead sat down at the table just outside. It was delightfully cool, and it gave us the opportunity to watch the world go by. We were on a narrow street, but only a few storefronts down there was a much more interesting larger street.
The man serving gave every appearance of being the owner, and I assumed he was the Uğur the restaurant was named after. He was a late middle aged man with typically swarthy Turkish skin and was bald on the top of his head. He seemed to be very friendly, but it was difficult to communicate with him. We all made assumptions, claiming to understand what each other were saying when we really didn’t. He seemed concerned that we were sitting outside, he kept looking up and holding his hand out as though he were concerned we would get dripped or rained on. The menu had an English section… sort of, and when he first came to serve us we just ordered a couple drinks.
After receiving our drinks, we had to negotiate the menu which was challenging, but not impossible since in addition to rough English translations it had pictures of the items. Wanting to sample various things when so far from home, we each picked two things we wanted to try. When Uğur came back we pointed out the items we wanted as we gave mangled pronunciation attempts. Uğur moved his hands around in a circle in a questioning way and asked “together?” in addition to some other words we couldn’t make out. Joyce and I looked at each other and simply agreeably at him together. We figured he was asking if we wanted everything at the same time as opposed to one after another.
After a short time, Uğur brought us some food which we definitely hadn’t ordered. It was something rather like a pita football; it was a large thin pita filled with hot air, complete with two kinds of what as a westerner I can only describe as salsa, one was some kind of red sauce with fine chunks, and the other was some kind of Turkish Greek salad. Joyce and I looked at each other somewhat confused. We didn’t know if this was something we were to eat with our meal when it came out, or if it was while you wait snack. Cautious at first, I ripped off a piece of pita, dipped it in the red sauce, and tried it. It was good!
Uğur then returned and mystified us. He brought out four small glasses, and after clearing a large central area on our table, he placed them upside down in a square, and put small wet napkins on top of each of them. We didn’t know what to make of that, but we were going to go along with it whatever came of it. We kept eating the pita and dip, and before we knew it we had eaten all of the pita. When he came back and asked if we could have another pair of drinks and another pita, he seemed to laugh at us, but before long he’d brought our drinks and another inflated pita which we tried to eat more slowly.
Then came our next surprise, but at least it answered our previous confusion. The glasses were a stand for the large platter he brought us and set upon them. We realized then that when he’d asked: “together?” he was asking if we wanted it all on one big platter to share. Happy for the revelation, we then investigated what we’d gotten. Some of the things we recognized as things we had ordered, others things not so much. In retrospect, I imagine some of the items were sides for the dishes we’d ordered.
On the platter was kafte, seasoned ground lamb meat on a skewer, more recognizable kebabs, an eggplant dish Joyce had ordered, and for some reason most memorable for me, some sort of onion salad which is hard to describe. It had sliced white onions in a light orangey-red sauce heaped in a pile on the platter. Whatever it was it was delicious. So, not sure how we had gotten everything we’d ordered, we nevertheless happily ate it, and I believe we wound up eating all of it, including a second pita. Not long after having brought our food out, Uğur then for some reason brought us fresh cutlery, and then proceeded to take one of the eggplants off of the platter with Joyce’s utensils, place it on her side plate, and ‘show’ her how to cut it and eat it. To this day we still can’t quite figure that one out.
Once we’d finished our meal, something happened that neither Joyce nor myself will ever be able to forget. After clearing our table and while we were still talking about our meal, he came back with a dust buster style hand vacuum and started vacuuming up off our table very thoroughly. It was the damndest thing, and Joyce and I just lifted our eyebrows and looked at each other in bewilderment. Was this a common thing for them to do here? Was it just a Uğur thing? Did he think we ourselves had just been particularly messy? He did it like it was the most natural thing in the world, grinning at us back and forth as though if not this, then what could a dust buster have possibly have been invented for?
After giving us a thorough dust busting, we believe he asked us if we wanted any dessert. We were pretty full so instead I did the best I could to ask him for the bill, and he seemed a little disappointed. After paying and leaving him what I thought was a reasonably generous tip, I watched as he went inside and had an exchange with a younger man working behind the counter inside. I believed I saw the younger man ask Uğur how the tip was, and he seemed to give a shoulder shrug and raise a hand palm up as if to say ‘enh, adequate I guess.’ I imagined him asking himself, ‘I vacuumed their table, what else could I have done?’
We soon left and spent much of the rest of the night revelling in our befuddlement. Over the rest of our stay in Istanbul we ate in several restaurants, and not one other time did we ever see anyone else break out the dust buster. I guess it was just a Uğur specific eccentricity… Our last night in Istanbul we went back there to have dinner again, but it was Sunday and the restaurant was all shuttered up. So we instead wound up having dinner at the restaurant in our hotel and although it was an excellent meal with a story all its own, there was no dust buster. Cenk Uygur has something he calls his Uygur Manoeuvre, but I’ll always remember the Uğur Manoeuvre to be pulling out a dust buster on unsuspecting Canadians.