Monday, December 6, 2010

Why Did Constantinople Get The Works?

Day 1

Chris and I in front of the Blue Mosque
Turkey Day in Turkey, a concept that honestly did not occur to me until the day before flying out, but one that came to everyone else's mind immediately when I told them where we were headed for the long weekend.  Yes, this Thanksgiving we decided to go to Istanbul, which I learned years ago via They Might Be Giants, was Constantinople (Now it's Istanbul, not Constantinople), along with the fact that even old New York was once New Amsterdam.  Why'd they change it?  I can't say.  (People just liked it better that way.)  You gotta love history lessons through music.

So we were off to the farthest place east I've ever been, ready to brave the chaos of the bazaars and for me to step into Asia for the first time.  We were eager to search out certain street food and learn what it's like to walk around a city where many citizens drop prayer rugs in the streets for when the call to prayer rises up from nearby mosques.  And although not every aspect of this trip was spectacularly positive, it was an amazing experience we won't soon forget.

Thanks to the recommendation of a friend (thanks, Melody!), we stayed in great little pension right in Old Istanbul with views of the famous Blue Mosque and Aya Sofya from the roof terrace, called Side Hotel and Pension.  Clean, inexpensive, and perfectly located, our trip was off to a great start at 11pm Wednesday night upon check-in.  We planned out the next few days and settled in for a good night's rest...

...and then, Good morning, Istanbul!  The 5:45am call to prayer rising from the city and into our windows was a little startling coming out of a deep sleep.  Being my first time in a Muslim country I had no idea that I wouldn't have to worry about setting my alarm, for the amplified song-like prayers to start the day would do the job.  I opened my eyes and listened, unsure of what I was hearing, half-convinced I was still dreaming.  Chris, of course, slept right through it, but I listened to the whole thing before going back to sleep for a couple more hours.

We started the first day at the Blue Mosque, a grand and beautiful house of Muslim worship.  It wasn't required of visiting women to cover their hair, but they had covers available outside the doors where we took off our shoes, so I tried one out, out of respect, before entering this massive structure.  The ceilings were dizzying but the air very calm, despite the waves of tourists ever entering through the doors.  We chose not to visit during a time of prayer because I knew it would be too difficult for me not to photograph what I saw, something visitors are asked not to do.  So we wandered and took it in, appreciating the beauty of such a place, then went on our way to see the former mosque, Aya Sofya nearby.

This is where the stories and warnings truly begin for any future travelers to this great city, for we were and you will be pulled in to one of the many attempts to sucker you into considering buying a fine, Turkish carpet, what you would think must be the life blood of this place by the actions on its devoted vendors.

"Mr. Sarasota"

His English was perfect and he was wearing a Sarasota, Florida golf club jacket when he called out to us as we passed, making our way around other obvious salesmen to Sofya ahead.  "American?" he asked.  "Canadian," we replied without slowing down.  "I'm not selling anything, I was just curious.  I'm from Florida."  He smiled and we turned around, embarrassed of our rudeness.  "We are, too, actually" we said.  "I didn't think you sounded very Canadian," was his reply.

Aya Sofya, former mosque
And so the ruse began.  We were suckered into stopping to chat with a fellow Floridian, who turned out to be a Turkish man married to a South Carolina woman who has a house in Sarasota, or so the story goes.  We had no reason to question (strike that, we had yet to learn that we DID have reason to question), so we had a nice little conversation about Florida and Istanbul.  In the city to do some rug business (he sells in the States, you see), Mr. Sarasota was waiting for a friend in the square near Aya Sofya, enjoying the beautiful weather.  As we chatted (he even showed me his Florida driver's license), Mr. Sarasota asked if we planned on doing any rug shopping, and having stupidly not discussed this before leaving the hotel, we looked at each other for help, then answered honestly that we weren't sure.  Surely he was just curious, there are rug shops everywhere.  Well it turned out he's a manufacturer and seller of Turkish rugs (also a businessman in real estate, hotels, and restaurants), and offered to give us some hints on how to decipher between cheap and well-made, natural dyes versus chemical ones, a rip-off and a good deal.  "Do you have 15 minutes?  My office is just around the corner.  I sell wholesale so there's no sign out front advertising rug sales, but I do take clients by sometimes to take a look.  If you're going to buy a rug in this town, you need to know what to look out for."
Inside Aya Sofya
I know what you must be saying to yourself.  Just around the corner?  How convenient, of COURSE he's trying to make a sale!  But we had been pulled in, trusting him a little more because of his connection to our home state, wanting to believe he wasn't trying to lure us in to make money.  He's a successful businessman after all, he didn't need our money.  Bravo, Mr. Sarasota.

So against better judgement, we went for the lesson and the apple tea, both of which were great.  When fifteen minutes and a free lesson turned into nearly three hours and me really wanting to throw a few thousand dollars at him for a beautiful hand-woven, wool masterpiece of a carpet made with all natural dyes, it was clear we'd been had.  Luckily for us, Chris is more immune to such ploys than I, and we were able to escape without handing over a cent.  Mr. Sarasota had made excellent use of such sale tactics as authority (he was the owner and was the only one who could make us such an incredible deal), time sensitivity (we couldn't leave and think about it because he had an appointment and would have to call a guy with the credit card machine to run over since this office wasn't normally a shop for sales), and so on.  How could we walk away knowing we were throwing away such an amazing opportunity to own a beautiful piece of art which we could pass along to our children, paying just $3,000 instead of the $15,000 we would surely pay in the States?  He knew, KNEW we'd regret it once we got home and realized what a deal we let slip through our fingers.
Aya Sofya

So even though we lost a few hours on our first day in Istanbul to a sales ploy, we decided to call it a much needed lesson to start a trip that would surely be chock full of other opportunities to avoid.  (What was more interesting was upon scouring the internet that night at the hotel, Chris found descriptions of similar experiences with a Turkish man from Sarasota who had an office near Aya Sofya, with every weird detail lining up with our afternoon.  This man is skilled!)

Us in a few years?

Every line of children that passed was a long line of enthusiastic "Hello!"s
Inside the Basilica Cistern
Medusa Head One
Medusa Head Two
The rest of the day was more enjoyable, though slightly soured by the events of the morning as we lost a lot of time on one of the prettier days we'd have.  We made our way across Sultanahmet, the old section of Istanbul, walking through Aya Sofya and watching the fountain outside while groups of school children practiced their greetings in English on us.  We read about and visited the two Medusa heads down in the Basilica Cistern, and marveled at how many cats and dogs roam these streets.  The cats lounge on steps, window ledges, vendor tables, hanging rugs, and benches, while the dogs seemed to plop down just about anywhere for a snooze.  I was surprised at how well these strays seemed to be taken care of, as cats don't approach anyone who's wronged them and these cats were all over everybody.  The dogs, I noticed, had all been tagged in the ear and not one looked malnourished.  I guess Turkish hospitality doesn't stop with people.

And that was something that really stood out - the hospitality.  Having lived in Europe for nearly seven years thus far, Chris and I have grown accustomed to the world outside American customer service standards where wait staff live off tips and everybody's willing to go a little overboard for the sake of a happy customer.  In Istanbul, even though most of the time the warmth was likely motivated by the desire to lighten our wallets, it was still nice to be around.

Istanbul at night was just as beautiful as it was in the day, though we knew we had much more to explore in the coming days.  Our first day, Thanksgiving Day, concluded with some delicious Turkish cuisine at a restaurant called Amedros Bistro.  Excellent food, excellent service, and some nice tea at the end of the meal made for a memorable Thanksgiving in Turkey.

At the end of the evening that melodic question entered my mind... with how beautiful, friendly, and richly historic this place already was to us, why did Constantinople get the works?

That's nobody's business but the Turks.

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