Travel Bug in Istanbul

Istanbul, Turkey

I had the opportunity to go to Istanbul from March 17-22, 2002 as part of a mid-year conference for my teaching program. 

 

This travelogue is based on my personal experiences and impressions, which are heavily colored by being in Ukraine for several months before coming to Istanbul.  There is also a quick guide to Istanbul if you want more general travel information about the city, and a photo gallery.

 

Special thanks to Durmuş for helping me proofread this document.

 

Sunday, March 17

 

The plane pulled up to the gate, and I was pleased to get off the plane through a jetway that led directly into the terminal instead of getting off the plane onto a bus and driving 400 meters/yards to the terminal.  The Istanbul airport is spacious and clean.  I immediately felt like I was in the civilized world again when I entered this airport.  Even the houses near the airport have a Mediterranean style that shows some attention to exterior detail, unlike the drab blocks of Soviet-era apartments.  (Later I saw apartment buildings on the way to downtown that looked more basic.)  In the midst of this modernity were hordes of people pouring out the sliding doors including some women who had the traditional Muslim or Arab dress and head coverings.  The airport bus driver was yammering away in Turkish, and I felt surprised by the chaos.  I wasn’t sure which image of Istanbul would remain—a 21st century city, or an ancient and chaotic land. 

 

The airport bus to Taksim Square is run by Havaş and cost 4,500,000 Turkish Liras (TL), a little over 3 U.S. dollars.  Turkey has an inflation rate of 61 percent per year, and is trying to bring that number down to 35 percent.  Thus, the price in Turkish Liras is very likely to change (although the price in U.S. Dollars should remain constant).  The bus drove along the coast of the Marmara Sea. On the right hand side was a long park next to the water.  On the left there were many small restaurants, cafés, and tea gardens.  We drove through one of the entrances of the old city gate, a beautiful series of brown stone archways.

 

I went to the last stop, Taksim Square.  I had planned to go straight to my hotel, but I got distracted by the men on the street near the bus stop selling döner, a kind of sandwich made from meat sliced off a spit (very similar to a Greek gyro sandwich).  The difference is that in a Greek restaurant the gyro meat is put into a pita with yogurt.  In Istanbul the meat is put into a section of an Italian-like baguette with lettuce and tomatoes and herbs.  I hadn’t had a real sandwich in so long, and this looked so inviting.  Plus it was only 750,000 TL (about 50 cents).  I had to stop and eat one.  It was excellent.

 

My hotel was on Istiklal Caddesi (the C is pronounced like an American J), a pedestrian street off Taksim Square.  Walking down it I felt like I was in Europe.  The street is very narrow and full of cobblestones, and is closed to cars.  There is a trolley that runs on Istiklal from Taksim Square to another type of public transportation called the Tünel (which I’ll describe in more detail later). 

 

On Istiklal there were lots of clothing stores and music stores and bookshops. One bookshop had a large Harry Potter book display.  They had all the books in the series including the one I haven’t read yet (Goblet of Fire), but unfortunately for me the books were available only in Turkish.  It was like being in “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”—water, water, everywhere and not a drop to drink.  There were also many Turkish restaurants on this street.  Many of the restaurants were cafeteria-style, with very attractive looking, stylish (yes, stylish) meat and vegetable dishes in the window.  The dessert shops were even more impressive—not only baklava but also sweets drowned in dark chocolate and fancy cakes…I think I gained 5 pounds just from looking in the windows.  Other stores had nuts and dried fruits in bulk. 

 

I also have to say that there were more American fast food places than I’ve ever seen in Ukraine.  Burger King, Dunkin Donuts, and Schlotsky’s Deli all had space on Istiklal.  Pizza Hut was around the corner off Taksim.  If I had been coming from America I would have groaned at the sight of this fast food globalization.  Coming from Ukraine, though, I saw these as old friends whom I hadn’t seen in many months welcoming me home. 

 

I checked into the hotel, and saw some of my colleagues in the lobby who were preparing to go to dinner in about 10 minutes.  I wanted to go with them, but a higher priority for me was getting into the room and taking a long hot shower.  Not only because I hadn’t had a shower since Saturday night, but also because I hadn’t had a Western shower in three months. By the time I had showered and come back downstairs, my colleagues were gone.  I decided to take the trolley up Istiklal and try to find a place to eat.  I ended up choosing Hala, a Turkish restaurant that had two women in the window working to make yufka.  Yufka is a very thin bread, like a crepe, that is filled with potato, goat cheese, or other savory fillings.  The women were working very hard to roll out large pieces of the dough and then baking them on a flat round stove.  I had potato yufka, and something that in English was called “pan kebab” (probably called çoban kavurma in Turkish).  It was small squares of meat that were seasoned and served in a sizzling pan over a bed of rice, with a basket of sliced bread on the side.  It was really more food than I could eat but both dishes looked so good I couldn’t resist.  Plus the price was out of this world—1,000,000 TL for the yufka and 2,500,000 TL for the pan kebab.  The service was friendly and attentive, and the server and management spoke English.  The menu was also in English.  After dinner I had two glasses of çay (prounounced like “chai”), the Turkish word for tea.  Turkish çay is served in small glasses that have no handles and curve inwards on both sides near the top of the glass.  It’s not a handle, though, because you are supposed to hold the glass at the very top with your thumb and index finger.  I was not charged by the restaurant for either glass of tea, which surprised me. 

 

After dinner I started walking back to the hotel.  There is a mosque on Istiklal, and on the way back to my hotel I heard the sounds of the call to prayer.  Near the hotel I saw a series of telephone booths and a kiosk selling telephone cards.  I wanted to call some people to let them know I was alive.  I went to the woman at the kiosk and asked, “Do you speak English?”  She said in English, “No, what?”  Hoping she was joking with her answer, I tried to ask how much it costs to call the USA per minute from these phones.  She didn’t understand though, and I had forgotten how to say “How much?” in Turkish. 

 

Monday, March 18

 

I had breakfast in the hotel since it was included in the room price.  There was a variety of pastries, eggs, sausage, meats, fruits, juices, tea, and coffee.  I had turkey in Turkey. 

 

We left the hotel as a group at 8:30 a.m. and walked down a very steep, narrow hill to a downtown center for Sabanci University where our conference would be held.  I was impressed by the climate control in the meeting room (and I’m talking about an adjustable thermostat, not opening a window or putting on a coat).  I was also relieved (no pun intended) to see that the bathrooms had sit-down toilets.  Many of the bathrooms in my university in Ukraine are under remont (the Russian word for “repair”), but when completed these toilets just have nicer holes to squat over and I’ve just decided I’d rather risk kidney failure than learn to use them. 

 

Around 10:15 we had a tea-and-schmooze break (which one man who had worked for many years in Indonesia called “rama-tamah”).  Unlike in America, pastries served with tea in Turkey tend to be salty, not sweet.  Once I got past the initial shock of biting into something expecting it to be sweet and instead getting a salty flavor, I thought the pastries were quite good.

 

For lunch we walked through a pedestrian tunnel filled with cell phone and electronics dealers to a street on Karaköy.  Based on the location of two large ships on the map and in my mind, I’m presuming the street is Rihtim Caddesi.  There were many fish restaurants on this harborside street, and many people trying to invite us to come and eat in their restaurant.  A group of us decided to go into the restaurant Olympiat.  The table was on the second floor with large windows that had a view of the other side of the Golden Horn.  It was a lovely vista of water and mosques and other buildings. 

 

It was a multilingual lunch, as a few people knew Turkish from their previous assignments in Turkey, and some of us kept slipping into Russian (which the waiter spoke and understood in addition to English).  We had starters of either patlıcan salatası (eggplant salad) or green salad.  The vegetables for the green salad in Turkey are usually shredded or grated, not sliced or chopped.  I ordered the grilled sea bass (6,000,000 TL).  I was shocked when the fish came not as a fillet but whole--head, tail, eyes, fins, scales, and bones.  The works.  Once I calmed down and got my fork inside to the meat and took a bite though, I was happy.  It had a smoky flavor from the grill and seemed very fresh.  Like in Ukraine, the fish came with two vegetables (shredded lettuce and carrots; if I had been able to get the waiter to tell me the fish came with vegetables the first time I asked, I could have ordered a different starter salad) and a couple of potatoes.  After lunch we had the obligatory tea.

 

After the second half of the conference, I was invited to join a group of colleagues on a ferry ride along the Bosphorus.  I had wanted to cross the Bosphorus to stand on the Asian continent (Istanbul is divided between Europe and Asia by the Bosphorus), so I was eager to go.  I’m not exactly sure which ferry we took.  It might have been the Kasımpaşa line.  I am pretty sure that it departed from the northern side of the Golden Horn, and it went through the Golden Horn and stopped at Dolmabahçe Palace.  Then the ferry crossed to the Asian side, and went under the Boğaziçi Köprüsü (Bosphorus Bridge, which looks like a grey version of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge) before making its final stop.  Unfortunately, it was a one-way ferry ride.  We ended up taking a taxi back to Taksim Square. The ferry one way was 800,000 TL.  The taxi was 8,000,000 TL.  But with a group of 4 in the car it was only 2 million per person. 

 

Beata and I, who had shared a taxi, started walking down Istiklal to our hotel.  I wanted to eat; Beata wanted a snack.  We stopped at Hala again, and ordered a snack from the window on the other side of the entrance from the window where the women were making yufka.  I don’t know the name of the dessert, but it was fried pieces of dough covered in sweet sugary syrup.  I’m not sure I would eat that again.  Then we stopped in at a kebab restaurant.  Beata had a soup which looked very good, but I have no idea what it was.  I decided to try iskender kebab.  This kebab was slices of meat in a red sauce on a bed of small pieces of bread.  There was a serving of yoğurt (yogurt) on the side.  I usually don’t like plain yogurt, and I don’t usually eat meat with yogurt.  But this yogurt was different. Maybe it wasn’t as sweet or sour as the yogurt we eat in America. 

 

After dinner we stopped at a store and tried helva, a type of dessert made from peanuts.  It’s like a hard form of peanut butter.  I had tried it in Ukraine but it tasted like sawdust.  Here it was very fresh and relatively moist.  The pistachios (a staple of Turkish deserts) were a nice touch.  At another store I saw incir (dried figs). I had had them in Ukraine and liked them a lot. The ones in this store, however, did not have any sugar.  I asked if they had sugared incir, but they didn’t. I decided to try it anyway.  It was excellent, as good as if not better than what I had in Ukraine.  I realized that the ones I had bought in Ukraine were frozen, so they were probably covered with sugar or preservatives to make them taste better.

 

We walked down one alleyway with döner stands and small tables of goods.  It was here that I had my first bargaining experience.  I saw a set of 6 Turkish tea glasses and plates.  I saw a price of 9,900,000 TL.  I asked the man (in English) if that was the price for the whole set of 6.  He said it was. This surprised me; in Ukraine it would have been the price for one glass and plate.  I asked if it was possible to buy just 2 glasses and plates; he said it was.  He offered a price of 3 million; I suggested a price of 1.5 million.  He agreed and went to wrap up the gifts.  However, when he came back he claimed that the price was 1.5 million “each”.  I told him I thought he had said 1.5 for both.  We argued for a while and I almost started to leave because I thought that was really unfair.  I was able to bargain him down to 2.25 million, which is still a good price, but in the future I’m going to be firmer about being an ugly American and walking away from people who bargain like that.

 

One would think this would be the time to call it a day, but the evening was still young, and since I had heard from someone that the movies in Istanbul were shown in the original language with subtitles, I suggested to Beata that we go see “A Beautiful Mind”.  The cost on Istiklal Caddesi was 5 million TL.  The movie was beautiful, and the subtitles helped me learn some more Turkish.  The only surprise was that halfway through the movie there was an intermission.  The screen flashed a graphic and then the lights came on.  At first I wondered if something was wrong with the film.  But nobody was complaining.  Some people went out and came back with a cup of coffee. That is when I realized this is normal.

 

Tuesday, March 19

 

The morning started with the same routine—breakfast and meetings.  After the meeting Beata and I decided to walk across the bridge to the Spice Bazaar (Mısır Çarşısı).   I wanted to go at my own pace, so Beata and I split up once we got to the market.  I saw mounds of saffron, red pepper, curry powder, and herbs for tea.  If I were a better cook I’m sure I would have bought up these spices.  I also saw arts and crafts and amazing textiles like plush towels for a dollar and silk pillowcases and even belly dancing outfits.  I was trying to limit what I had to carry home to Ukraine and eventually to America so I didn’t buy any of these things.  I did end up going to a store that called itself a hypermarket but was actually smaller than the average American grocery store.  I bought some sausage for my Turkish friends, who can’t eat sausage in Ukraine because it might have pork in it.  

 

Near the Spice Bazaar is the Yeni Camii (“New” Mosque, built in the late 16th/early 17th century).  In the courtyard was a station where men were washing their feet and faces and hands before entering the mosque for prayer.   The courtyard was open and full of marble and Arabic signs and tile paintings.  I felt the presence of a higher power there.

 

I met Beata again and after getting a little turned around in and around the underground passageways, we walked back across the bridge.  I decided to take the Tünel, a kind of funicular that goes through a tunnel to one end of Istiklal Caddesi, steps away from the hotel.   The price was a mere 500,000 TL.  Beata preferred to walk so we split up again. 

 

After taking the Tünel I went walking again up Istiklal to find some fresh baklava.  Many of the stores, however, were already closed.  I realized later that everyone was home watching the big football/soccer game between Galatsaray and Roma. A little boy started following me and asking in English if he could shine my shoes.  I told him I wasn’t interested, but he kept persisting and saying that I had never had them shined before and that I could pay “what I wanted”.  That was mistake number one.  Never let anyone do anything for you until you have agreed upon the price.  He started shining my shoes and a group of his “colleagues” came over and started asking me questions—where are you from, what do you do, etc.  Here I probably made mistake number two, being honest (albeit cautiously) about the fact that I was an English teacher from America and only staying in Istanbul for a few days.  The shoe shine was good, and at the end I offered 1,000,000 TL, which I thought was more than fair.  This young 12 year old insisted, however, that it was “normal” to pay 5,000,000.  I finally agreed to give him 3,500,000 and an English lesson. He had been calling me “sir” the whole time, and I told him that he had to call a woman “ma’am”.  I’ve been told since then that 3,500,000 is way too much; he must have used the information about my being a foreigner in town for a few days as a means of setting his price.

 

Wednesday, March 20

 

After the same breakfast and meetings routine, I went to lunch on my own at a small café.  I thought it was strange that I was the only woman in this café. I wondered if I was in an industrial area, or if women don’t generally eat out.  (My Turkish friends tell me my assumptions were right, and that my appearance would have been even less normal in a smaller city.)  I wasn’t going to let it stop me, though.  I had a meal for 4,500,000 TL of chicken noodle soup (excellent), döner meat on a bed of rice with a few French fries, and a dessert whose name I don’t know.  It was a small square of a white, chewy, sweet, substance topped with cinnamon.  I would eat it again.

 

In the afternoon, a colleague was organizing a taxi ride to Migros, a large supermarket chain in Turkey.  There was reportedly a large Migros (indicated by the number of Ms; 3M is supposed to be pretty big) in the Maslak neighborhood of Istanbul.  But I ended up talking to someone after the conference ended and I missed the taxi ride.  I decided to take a taxi out there on my own.  I got in a waiting cab and said, “Migros Maslak, lütfen”.  He then asked if I wanted “çevre” or something else, but I couldn’t understand.  The cost of the taxi ride was 10 million liras.  By coincidence, I ran into one of my colleagues at Migros.  I told him I had taken a taxi by myself, and he felt bad because it was so expensive. When I agreed and said how much I paid, he was shocked.  He and his colleague had paid 26 million.  Apparently their taxi’s meter was “broken”.  And it sounded like they took side streets instead of the highway.  So if you take a cab in Turkey and the meter seems to be broken, get out as soon as possible.  Or learn some Turkish and maybe they won’t rip you off. Or, as my Turkish friends suggest, ask how much the taxi ride will cost, and bargain the price down to half that much. 

 

At this point you may be wondering why I paid over 7 dollars to go to a supermarket.  Because that’s where the food is.  There were Western delicacies I can’t get in Ukraine like Doritos, Ruffles, and hamburger buns.  I did buy some Turkish tea (to go with my tea glasses) and Turkish pudding mix since I hadn’t seen that in Ukraine.  Again, I wouldn’t have shopped like this coming from America.  I probably would have bought more incir and baklava and dried fruits and nuts.  I’m not even sure that Migros was that impressive as a supermarket. One colleague said he could have bought most of what he bought at a hypermarket near the hotel.  But at least I saw it.

 

We went back to the hotel in one taxi (less than 9 million TL). On the way one colleague told the story of buying a carpet for $130 even though she wasn’t planning on buying one.  I decided at that point not to look at carpets. They are heavy to take to and from Ukraine and America and too expensive for me. 

 

When we got back to the hotel, I freshened up and then we went as a big group to Doğa Fish restaurant.  When we walked in we saw different salads and appetizers, which we were supposed to pick before going upstairs.  The grand irony is that in Ukraine I feel I spend much of my time trying to encourage people to exercise their right to choose, and many ex-pats have talked about how Ukrainian and other ex-Soviet restaurants tend not to give us as much choice as we get in the States.  We’re also supposed to be open to multicultural experiences.  Yet here we were with this opportunity for choice and we felt uncomfortable standing in a line waiting and having to choose.  The woman organizing the dinner ended up asking the staff to make up plates of different appetizers to bring to our table as part of a fixed price menu of 25 million TL.

 

We went up to our table on the 8th floor, where there was an amazing night view of Topkapı (the Sultan’s palace), the mosques, and the general city lights.  I don’t remember all of the appetizers.  One was a stuffed grape leaf (dolma).  There was octopus and another cold fish salad.  There was a long green log-like food (?).  Most of the appetizers were delicious.  Unfortunately, there were many kinds of greens downstairs that were not included on our plate.  There was a second appetizer course of fried calamari and spiced shrimp.  Then there was a prolonged wait for the fish, which was either served grilled or fried.  Desert was marinated fruit. The tea took so long to arrive that some people went home before it arrived because it was after 11 and they were sleepy.  That meant I got a cup of someone else’s cherry tea as well as my own cup of regular tea.  The cherry tea was excellent; I see why fruit tea is so popular in Turkey.  Probably more important than the food, however, was the opportunity to chat socially with my American counterparts. 

 

Thursday, March 21

 

This was meant to be the one full day to enjoy Istanbul as a tourist.  However, in some ways I had less time and more stress than during the conference.  I spent more time than usual at breakfast.  By the time Beata and I left the hotel I think it was after 10 a.m.  We walked across the bridge again and I suggested that to save time and hassle we take the tramvay (650,000 TL).  We went two stops, from Eminönü to Gülhane, near the garden entrance to Topkapı.  Beata was more interested in Ayasofya, so we walked up the hill to Ayasofya.  She was walking fast again and I was having a hard time keeping up.  A man on the street asked, “can I help you find something?  Slow down, enjoy life.”  We ended up stopping and chatting politely for about 10 minutes as he asked about our lives and gave us advice on sights to see in the city.  He “happened” to mention that he had a carpet store, but assured us that business was business and friendship was friendship and he didn’t want to mix the two.  However, he asked if I had any carpets and, thinking of my poor colleague who bought the $130 carpet, I told him that a friend of mine had already bought a carpet for me and was taking it home for me.  The carpet salesman was shocked that I would let someone pick out a carpet for me, so I said, “I was with her, she bought the carpet, and she’ll take it home.” 

 

By now it was already after 12 pm.  Beata still wanted to see Ayasofya, but my top priority was Topkapı so once again I suggested we split up.  The carpet guide offered to walk me to the entrance of the palace.  I said I could see it was just down the hill but he pointed out that that entrance was closed for repairs. I could see a metal wall covering what looked like a gate so I thought he was telling the truth, but I was still wary about following him.  My travel agent had warned me that Turkish men can be come on strong with women, and the fact that we were walking down a quiet, empty neighborhood street didn’t make me feel any better. I probably walked a foot and half away from him to protect myself.  I wasn’t expecting the come on to be an economic or a business one.  When we go to the palace entrance, he spoke in Turkish to a man and said his friend was a tour guide and would be happy to give me a tour of the palace.  I sensed a setup and a kickback.  The tour guide tried to assure me that he barely knew the carpet salesman, that they just say hello to each other on the street.  Nevertheless, I didn’t want the expense of a tour guide especially under those circumstances.  I walked through the gates to the proper ticket entrance, but the main sight, the harem, was closed until 1:00.  I decided to walk towards Sultanahmet (the Blue Mosque) and see that instead.  On the way I stopped at a cart for simit (pronounced smit), a round bread with a large hole in it, like an untwisted soft pretzel.  It was pretty good for 300,000 TL.

 

When I got to Sultanahmet, I found it was also closed until 1:00.  On the street nearby, though, there was some kind of festival with music.  I’m not sure if it was related to Navruz (a New Year holiday observed in Turkey on the first day of spring, as is done in Azerbaijan, Iran, Turkmenistan, Kazakistan, Uzbekistan, and Afghanistan).  But I went to a restaurant and sat outside, eating Urfa kebab (ground lamb with spices over rice) and listening to the music. 

 

At 1:00 I followed the signs for the “tourist entrance” to the mosque.  When I got there, I saw a list of rules in English about wearing long skirts, covering your head, and not taking pictures.  As I looked at my jeans and realized I had forgotten my scarf, I didn’t think I would be able to get in.  But a “kind man” waiting at the entrance said, “oh, don’t worry about that. You can come in. You can take pictures.  I’ll help you.”  He instructed me to take off my shoes and put them in a special plastic bag.  He then gave me knit booties to put on my feet.  (Note: if someone does tries to do this to you, take your shoes and run like hell.)  We walked into the mosque and he said he could tell me some things about the mosque and I could pay “as I like” (another mistake of mine to accept those terms).  He told me how many tiles were on the walls and he did tell me an interesting story about the number of minarets (there are six).  The Sultan reportedly asked the architect for a gold (altın) minaret.  But the architect misunderstood and built six (altı) minarets instead.  Lucky for him, the sultan was pleased.

 

I took a few pictures and then at the end the man asked for 10 million TL—5 for the tour, and 5 for the socks.  I offered to give him the socks back; he said I’d already worn them. I thought his price was highway robbery, but I felt guilty (what a fool I was!) and felt I should pay him something, and I didn’t have any smaller bills.  So I gave it to him. Then on top of that he had the nerve to invite me out for tea (I assume as a date).  I declined.  I was so mad when I got outside that after I put on my shoes I decided to keep the plastic bag instead of putting it in the container because I felt for the price I had paid it should be included in the deal.  But another man in the mosque court stopped me and said in English, “Lady, you can’t take that bag. That not nice.”  I felt really bad about that and of course I apologized and went back and put the plastic bag in the container. 

 

As I was walking away from the palace, a man stopped me and said hello. He said, “don’t worry, I’m not a guide.”  Then he happened to mention that he had a little carpet store…I told him I had all the carpets I needed (which was zero), and quickly walked back towards Topkapı.  

 

I entered the palace gate again, paid the 7,000,000 TL entrance fee, and began walking around.  I saw the Imperial Court and a display of ancient robes.  Both were beautiful.  I then paid an extra 4,000,000 TL to get into the Sultan’s harem (as a visitor, not as a wife).  There was a tour guide who spoke in Turkish and in English with a heavy accent.  The Spanish tourists and the German tourists both complained in their native languages that they couldn’t understand a word.  I explained briefly in their native language what I could understand, but was not asked to continue translating by either party.  Perhaps I had overstepped my bounds.  The most impressive rooms were the entertaining rooms, with a series of long, low couches (Ottomans?) with fine red and gold fabric and a balcony for all the women who weren’t “favorite” wives. 

 

After the tour of the harem, I walked up the hill to the tramvay stop.  On the street I ran into carpet salesman number one again, who tried once more to convince me to look inside his store.  I declined again and went on the tram two stops to go to the Kapalı Çarşı (Covered or Grand Bazaar), which has been in Istanbul since the 15h century.  I got off and walked past stores (stopping and almost buying some shoes) and walked into a small city of leather, fabric, and jewelry kiosks.  There were even direction signs to point people to different street exits and possibly to different areas with different types of products.

 

I passed the men trying to convince me to come in their store to look at clothes and leather coats, and started looking at purses.  A man working in one shop started speaking Hebrew to me, thinking I was from Israel.  He soon switched to English.  He showed me a purse that seemed okay, and he showed me that it was genuine leather by showing me the cowhide in the lining.  I wasn’t impressed by that at all.  But I liked the purse so the haggling began.  His initial offer was 95 million TL reduced to 80 million (58 dollars).  Then I made my first bargaining mistake by continuing the bargaining in dollars and making my initial offer too high. I said I only wanted to pay 25 or 30 dollars.  We bargained for maybe 15 or 20 minutes until we agreed on the price of 45 dollars (60 million).  But I hesitated to buy it because I realized that if his initial offer was 95 million, I should have been able to bargain him down to 45 million TL, not 45 dollars.  I must have sat there for half an hour deciding whether or not to buy the purse or just walk away.  He brought me apple dea while I pondered.  I finally told him that I should have been able to get a lower price, and if I go home and tell my Turkish friends that I only bargained him down to 60 million TL, they’ll be disappointed.  He said I was crazy to expect a price like 45 million for the quality of leather I was buying.  Then he said he was getting ready to close soon.  I said, “aha, I’m the last customer of the day then!”  (In Turkey the last customer can easily get the lowest price because the last customer is supposed to be “destined” to buy something).  I finally begged him to lower the price to 55 million TL, and he relented.  I haven’t bargained that hard over anything since I bought my car.  The worst part is, I wasn’t even sure afterwards if I needed the purse. 

 

Feeling exhausted, I bought some smaller souvenirs for which I didn’t have to haggle, and got on the tram back to Eminönü.  I walked across the bridge and took the Tünel back to the hotel.  I didn’t want to remember Istanbul as one long line of salesman and rogue tour guides, so I decided to go to one place where I knew I would get a good reasonable meal and have a good memory of Istanbul—Hala restaurant.  This time I tried the “Hala soup”, which was a red broth with spices that I couldn’t identify.  I then had mantı, which is often compared with ravioli.  It is small pieces of meat in a dough (not square like ravioli, but small and round) covered in a spiced olive oil and yogurt sauce.  It was absolutely delicious, and only cost 1,000,000 TL.

 

I went back to the hotel and decided to unwind with a little Rakı, the national liqueur.  It is also known as “Lion’s Milk” because when you add water to it the drink becomes cloudy like milk.  It was expensive to drink it from the hotel, but it was comfortable and I could watch some Turkish TV and write postcards.  They have their version of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire”, but because of Turkish inflation the smallest award is 50 million TL and the largest award is 500 billion TL. 

 

In the final analysis then, I left with three images of Istanbul. The image of Istanbul as a modern, European city came through strongly in the hotel, the restaurants, and the other civilized amenties.  However, being in a city where a 400 year old mosque is “new” and the Covered Bazaar has been around since the 1400s, one cannot help but feel the sense of history in this place.  The third image is that of a city teeming with the equivalents of used car salesman/confidence man trying to make a buck off the hapless foreigner.  This last image, however, is not bad enough to take away the pleasure of being in this city, nor will it deter me from wanting to return.

Back to Ukraine Page

Home