The Grand Bazaar was very modern, attractive and organized.
“Hello, sir. I have very fine belts. I give you good deal as senior citizen.”
The pitch line was good for a laugh, if not for a sale of a fine belt. It was still early in the morning. The Bazaar was just a first stop up the steep, cobble-stoned pedestrian-only street from our hotel, and my short fingers were not yet able to dig into deep pockets. The delicious, all-you-can-eat breakfasts that were served up every morning always put me in a fine mood. Meditteranean cuisine is exquisite and very healthy. Pancakes and fried eggs are nowhere to be found and I always return to Canada several pounds lighter, ready to tuck back into burgers, fries and blueberry pie, until my girth has returned to normal.
The Ayasofya was the morning’s destination if you were speaking Turkish, or the Hagia Sophia if you knew Greek. Your intrepid tourist knows neither, not a word. Picking up French was easy, having had a French-speaking father and growing up in Montreal. I was so much younger then. I made a concerted effort to learn Spanish before leaving for Peru and Bolivia and later walking the Camino in Spain. Well, a concerted effort means I took two night courses through the Ottawa-Carleton Board of Education. I received a certificate, but so does everyone else, even if they miss most of the classes. I attended most of the classes, but never studied. At the end of the second course I could successfully order beer and ask for directions out of whatever locale in which I presently found myself to be lost. That’s it. Which is considerably better than how I mastered Turkish. By the end of three weeks I could express myself in exactly one word, and I soon even gave up on that. No one could make out what I was trying to say.
However, Brenda and Rachelle heard me as I was hauled out of the line to enter the Ayasofya, targeted as a terrorist. The only grim-faced Turk that I encountered throughout our stay had identified me as a security risk and insisted that I reveal the contents of a backpack sure to contain explosives.
“For crying out loud,” I protested, a little too loudly for my wife and daughter’s liking, as I was escorted back to the end of the line, eyed suspiciously by the mostly Turkish tourists who were happy that their security agent was on the job and apprehending blue-eyed terrorists. I decided to let my displeasure be fully heard, even if no one could understand me. “Jesus didn’t tell me to blow up this mosque,” I proclaimed, “and neither did George Bush.” I knew that was a little out there, but I was feeling a lot of self-righteous anger. It’s one of my many weaknesses, I am told.
I soon rejoined my wife and daughter, even if they were doing their best to avoid me. We even signed up with a tour guide who explained the mix of Christian and Muslim icons. “Next stop, the Topkapi Palace,” Brenda announce upon exiting. First, however, she wanted to figure out the Istanbul transportation system. “How the hell are we going to do that ?” It was getting hot and the pleasant effects of breakfast were beginning to wear off. Brenda has no trouble ignoring me. She hurried off to where a machine was distributing tram tickets. A few minutes later she returned with a young, friendly-looking man. My Spidey-senses immediately started tingling. This guy must be selling us something.
“This is Mehmet,” said my wife. “He’s going to show us how to use the transportation system. But first he’ll take us to a good restaurant.” You have to give the devil her due, I reflected. After twenty seven years she knows how to quiet me down.
The restaurant was excellent, off the beaten path and with Turkish, not tourist prices. Yes, his family was in the carpet business and that is how he continually improved his English. He grew testy only when the subject of politics was raised. “Yes, there were Canadians in Iraq,” he countered, when informed of our country’s purity. But buying a carpet was not a political encounter. “No pressure,” he promised. Yes, I thought. What was that story I read as a youngster, the one where the fox was able to convince the farmer that his chicken coop would be safely guarded by the fox that night ?
The carpet shop was a prosperous- looking outfit, I noted upon entering. Prices would probably reflect the upkeep. We were introduced to Mehmet’s uncle, the owner and chief pitchman. First came the Turkish tea. That’s too soften us up, I reflected. How could you refuse a $1000 Turkish carpet after being served $1.00 worth of tea all afternoon ? As Mehmet’s uncle explained the great value of each new rug, the shop’s assistants threw one carpet after another onto the floor until the place looked as untidy as my daughter Rachelle’s bedroom floor after an afternoon of shopping at the discount clothing establishments that she favoured. The prices were also being thrown out there…. 2700…1200…1950 Turkish lira, delivery included. (Two Turkish lira to the Canadian dollar.) Brenda is a savvy, experienced negotiator, and your correspondent is not as stupid as he looks. Our opening bid on one gorgeous floorcovering was a third of his asking price. He chuckled and said that the world of the Middle East was no different than anywhere else; young people could not be persuaded to take up the old crafts after being introduced to the wonders of new technology and the supply of such handiworks was becoming scarce. Turkish coffee was ordered in to speed up the process, as Monsieur Le Carpet was realizing that these two naïve -looking Canadians were keeping a firm hand on their purse strings. Our last offer left the man chuckling.
“You know, we have a tradition in the Middle- Eastern countries,” he began. “It’s called circumcision. You remind me of a doctor who promised only a circumcision, but left his young patient with only…” well, let’s not go there. We all had a chuckle, but out of the corner of my eye I noticed poor Mehmet looking slightly downcast, his afternoon’s commission having gone for nought. “My final price for that carpet…1500 Turkish lira,” the uncle offered. By now we were on the sidewalk, only a dash away from freedom. “We’ll be back on Thursday,” we promised.
The two Turks smiled resignedly. We did mean it… really. But the salesmen probably saw it differently.
Honour among thieves.