It is always interesting to visit a city or a country for the first time. No matter how many guidebooks or travelogues you read, the reality is always different. The first day or so is spent recovering from jet lag and learning the rules. And it always takes a few marginal – hopefully not bad – experiences to really let you start to figure things out.
Wednesday was our third day in Istanbul and was the transition point when we went from bumbling foreigners to semi-confused tourists. The previous day was forecast to be the last sunny day so we had gone down to Princes’ Islands on the ferry. It was glorious but on the way back we misread a map and got off at the wrong ferry terminal. We were dropped in the middle of the busiest night life of the city – at a bus terminal in the dark. It was a wakeup call of sorts, a reminder that this is not home and we are strangers here.
The next day we decided to stay closer to ‘home’ and went up to see the Blue Mosque. On our way we were accosted by a friendly fellow who greeted us warmly. Being Canadians we responded politely and soon we had a boon companion. He was very clear – he would help us out and we would visit his shop later on. And, in fact, he was very helpful. He advised us that we had arrived too late for the Mosque –it closes at lunch – and suggested we go to the Hagia Sophia instead. He got us past several queues and gave us good advice as to what to look for. Ninety minutes later there he was waiting patiently by the exit in the rain.
What else could we do but follow him? We went to his shop – not his at all but his ‘family’s business’ – and then the hard sell began. We were given a fifteen minute history of the evolution of the Turkish carpet along with explanations of how much work went into them and all the rules governing the sale and export of heritage rugs. Then the display – carpets rolled out across hardwood floors and flipped artistically through the air to show off their colors. There was talk of government set anticipatory prices and discounts to be had. This one was $2000 and that one only $1200. Though we expressed a desire to see something smaller and more modest (we live in a small place, we explained), the hint was never taken. Oddly, if they had shown us something nice for $750 we might have bought, but I guess the margin wasn’t high enough. In any case no sale was made.
Our friend was waiting outside – disappointed no doubt that he would earn no commission. He gently asked for a small tip for his time. It wound up being 50 lira ($25), not bad given the show we had received. We made our escape before he could guide us to his favorite ‘family’ restaurant and spent the rest of the day in the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts but that’s another story.
Lesson learned in any case – don’t respond to friendly offers with anything more than a smile and shake of your head.
And that it ten minutes.