The Real Turkish Delight
I’m at Pasaport Kontrolü (Passport Control) in Ataturk Airport, Istanbul, patiently answering questions from the immigration officer…while also observing that said officer’s colleague, seated beside him in the very same kiosk, has already let two parties through to baggage claim. Finally, my interrogator searches for a blank page to stamp my passport.
“Where you stay,” he asks, still withholding my documents.
“Taksim,” I reply.
“See you tonight?” He asks.
Well that was unexpected. Here I thought he’d want proof of my accommodations. How does one respond politely in this situation? After a 13-hour flight, I’d prefer to be on my merry way.
“Maybe,” I reply with an innocent smile, and he slowly hands me back my documents. Hello Istanbul.
Little do I realize that this initial interaction is a precursor to my days in Istanbul – in fact, my entire stay in Turkey. In Istanbul: The Grand Bazaar & The Bosphorus, I describe this about the Grand Bazaar: “The vendors are young and old, well-groomed and scruffy, slim and stocky, eager and nonchalant.” Here’s the next sentence I wrote, but didn’t publish: The one thing they have in common? They’re predominantly male and unabashedly flirty.
Although friends frequently refer to me as a professional flirt (Insert vehement argument that I’m simply an engaged conversationalist. Since when was being genuinely interested in people a crime?), unanticipated exchanges with bold, shameless Turks makes me feel like an amateur. I never know how to react! Except to laugh at every turn, perhaps.
When I say about The Grand Bazaar that “one salesman hastily asks you to marry him while another patiently pursues you down the hall hoping you’ll agree to a date,” I’m not exaggerating. It seems that the Y chromosome in Turkey is DNA-encoded to make women blush for sport (or at least try to) – all in good fun, of course.
If you’ll indulge me, I’d like to share a few experiences that shape this opinion. Let me just preface these travel tales by saying I’m sure I’m not the first woman, foreign or local, to experience the flatteries of Turkish men; and I certainly won’t be the last.
In case you want to jump around anecdotes, here’s what’s in this post:
“Excuse me, lady…lady.”
We turn our heads, smile politely, and keep walking.
“Lady, you dropped something.”
This gets our attention. We stop to scan the floor all around us. Finding none of our personal belongings missing, we turn back to look at the shopkeeper.
“What?” I curiously ask.
“You dropped my heart,” he responds, clutching his chest above his heart.
We girls pause for a second, processing the interaction, and burst into raucous laughter, knowing we are not his first victims.
In our short time here, we’ve already come to terms with the now-expected behavior of the local male population. In fact, today alone Kamille is told Mahal Kita (“I love you” in Filipino) after a passing interaction, Missy is asked to become Facebook friends, Faye is asked if she is the number one wife of her sultan, and I receive a marriage proposal (which I unhesitatingly accept as I walk down the [shopping] aisle). There must be something in the water.
I Negotiate With Her
Missy and Faye are browsing a souvenir shop in the Grand Bazaar for trinkets to take home as Kamille contributes her opinions. I can hear their discussions with the shop owner, but I’m not really listening; my attention is focused on photographing the colorful merchandise. When I do eventually amble over to the girls, they appear to be mid-negotiation on pricing and quantity. (Bargaining is customary here.)
“10 Lira,” bargains Faye.
“If you buy 3, ok” says the shop owner.
Faye resumes looking over her souvenir options. At this point, the shop owner turns to me.
“For you, I give special price,” he says without pause.
“Me? I’m not buying anything,” I say politely.
“I have gift,” he then says, reaching for a miniature nazar boncuğu (pronounced na-zahr bon-jOO), an amulet to protect against the evil eye.
The amulet is attached to a safety pin…a pin that is subsequently attached to my shirt. Where a left breast pocket would be. Without preamble and without hesitation. Perhaps speech is not a strong suit of his. Hmm, odd for a salesman. I’m very aware that Europeans in general operate outside the American notion of personal space (i.e. speaking distance), but one would think personal boundaries are a slightly more universal…especially in a predominantly Muslim culture. That is, a certain level of familiarity must first be established before certain interactions or conversations can take place. Apparently, we’re familiar and there are few boundaries. As of the last 2 minutes.
“Um…evet…!” Yes, I exclaim. What else am I supposed to say? Especially about a gift that’s supposed to ward off ill intentions?
“I negotiate with her,” he then tells Faye while motioning to me.
Needless to say, we negotiate very agreeable pricing terms.
*If you’re curious about the evil eye, read more on Wikipedia.
I Have a Boat, Just a Little One
Walking into a leather shop in a far-off wing of the Grand Bazaar, I’m greeted very enthusiastically by the shop owner. Let’s call him Mert, which is a Turkish name that can be translated to mean “brave.” Mert exclaims that an angel has walked into his shop, extolling my virtues. He talks about how he loses money when a beautiful woman walks in because he only wants to adorn her in finery. This is his sales ploy, I think to myself; this must be how he interacts with all women. But with every new jacket he helps me try on, the bolder he gets and the closer he stands. Zero personal space.
“What are you doing tonight?” he casually asks, fixing the collar on a red leather jacket I’m trying on. He pushes the sleeves up to my elbows, adding “I have a boat. Just a little one. 25 meters. We’ll have our own party.”
“Oh, that sounds fun…but I don’t want to leave my friends” I respond calmly, although I’m really thinking Is this guy for real right now? And is 25 meters really”little”?
“It’s ok,” he says without pause. “Bring them. We’ll drink, we’ll dance in the moonlight…”
I nearly spit out the apple tea I’ve just accepted from a shop attendant. Seriously, is this guy for real?
“Serious. I’ll send a car and we’ll party on the boat, ok?” And as I nearly spit out my tea, again, he nonchalantly cautions: “Careful, don’t spill your apple tea. It’s an aphrodisiac.”
I’m certain he’s bluffing his way through a sale. At the mention of “aphrodisiac,” however, Kamille (who has come to explore the shop with me) puts her tea down and no longer wants to finish it.
“Maybe,” I shrug, not wanting to turn Mert down outrightly because I’ve already fallen in love with a green jacket..and a yellow one. Let’s test my bargaining skills. I throw him a number.
“Baby,” he starts, “Baby, you’re joking. I would lose money!”
“Then what’s your lowest price?” I question directly.
“Give me a kiss and you get it for free.”
“A kiss on the cheek and you give me half off.”
“Half off,” I say staunchly. If he can bluff through a sale, I can bluff through a bargain.
“Have you ever heard of a French kiss?” he suddenly asks.
At this point, I’m shaking my head, simultaneously laughing in disbelief and silently applauding his boldness. The man’s got guts, I’ll give him that. Mert the “brave,” true to his name. But he’s also got beautiful leather goods (and if I’m honest, he’s not bad to look at either, but that’s entirely beside the point). And so I walk out of the store with a small purchase – thankfully without having had to kiss him.
“You’ll call me tonight?” Mert asks with a confident smile as he catches my hand to kiss it. “You have my number on the business card.”
“Maybe,” I reply with a coy shrug, walking away only slightly curious about actually calling him.
Does This Make Me a Cougar?
For the record, younger men aren’t my style. But one can admire a handsome face.
“Do you like Istanbul?” a very dapper member of the hotel staff asks me. Tall, well dressed, and handsome, with eyes that gaze intensely at you in flecks of blue, green, and gray.
“I love it!” I exclaim, perhaps a little too excitedly.
“How much more time you are here?” he asks.
“I leave for the airport this afternoon.”
“Too fast! You will come back?”
“Definitely,” I say emphatically.
Here, the communication breaks down a bit as the staffer runs out of English. He is named Samet, it turns out – Sam for short. And Sam can at least ask “You have Facebook? Instagram?” What is it with the boys in this country wanting to be Facebook friends within 5 minutes of meeting you?
“In one month, I go to study English,” Sam finally says, “When you come back, we can talk more.”
“Oh, I don’t think I’ll be back that soon.” I chuckle.
“Is ok, I will waiting.”
“Aww! I’m flattered, but you’re a little young for me,” I say with a big cheesy grin.
“How old you are?”
I divulge my age, despite surmising he talks like this to all the girls. And when he realizes he is 6 years my junior, his response is a casual “So? Is not too young,” with a shrug of the shoulders. I’m sure he’ll forget me in a week, but today, it feels nice to be complimented by such a cutie.
Lionel Richie in a Turkish Beard
At an Onyx factory in Cappadocia, a group of us are lined up to watch a stone-carving demonstration. As I approach a factory representative welcoming the group, I hear hellos being exchanged ahead of me.
“Hello…. Hello! Hi,” our host says, greeting every individual in line as they enter the demonstration room. He never misses a beat: “Hi. Good morning. Merhaba. Hi.”
Before long, I find myself at the front of the line.
“Hello, is it me you’re looking for?” our host suddenly says to me, breaking his cadence.
He’s good-looking, I’ll admit. But no, he’s not what I’m looking for. Actually, I’m not looking. Although I might steal his tactic. I don’t use pick-up lines, but I think I’d actually be curious enough to try this on someone. Lionel Richie would be proud.
Photo Shoot on the Midnight Bus
On an overnight bus from Cappadocia to Pamukkale, I’m tossing and turning during the midnight hours. Despite having two seats and an aisle to myself, I’m still unable to sleep continuously. Curled up against the window and on the verge of slumber yet again, I feel a gentle tap on my shoulder. Thinking one of my friends is also unable to sleep, I groggily turn to face the aisle…and see a familiar face that does not belong to any of my travel companions.
It’s the bus attendant, Hassan. Granted I don’t often take public transportation, but I’m fairly certain it’s uncommon for a bus to have an attendant serving coffee, tea, and snacks. Yet this vehicle has one. And at an hour when it seems nearly all the passengers are lost in dreams, he is rousing me from drowsiness.
“Foto?” he asks, holding up his phone.
“You want me to take your photo?” I ask him in return.
“No,” he says, shaking his head. “Eh, you…me–”
“You want me to take a picture with you?” I ask, even more confused.
He nods his head this time. “Yes,” he responds,
I figure, why not oblige someone who’s very nicely served us refreshments during this trip? And so, I say yes…which is when he sidles into the seat beside me. I’m a little surprised, but I guess it makes sense because, well, how else do you take photos on a moving bus?
Despite a very large language barrier, the photo-taking ensues. A regular photo with us two side by side. A retake because it’s blurry. A photo with him leaning in like we’re close friends. A photo with his arm around my shoulder…now we’re starting to get cozier than I’d like. And now he’s putting my arm around his shoulder for another photo. Either I start charging for this photo shoot, or it’s time to end it. Now he’s asking if he can take a photo with a kiss. Ok, that’s enough.
“Hayır,” I say, shaking my head. No.
“Facebook?” he now asks, raising his phone as a visual cue.
I shake my head again, slightly more emphatically, now doubly glad I declined his request for a photo with a kiss. When I agreed to take a photo –just one, maybe two– I was being polite – not trying to find an in-bus romance! What’s most interesting/funny is that Hassan the attendant appears, at least outwardly, to be inherently shy, quiet, and reserved; I suspect the culture truly ingrains in men this very forward attitude. Call it what you will, I’m labeling it an unabashed form of flattery.
While some women might mistake the mostly harmless flirtations as aggressive, I think most find it amusing. My mentality is this: Why fight something I can’t change, especially if it’s not inconvenient? And in embracing what appears to be a cultural norm, I may as well enjoy the ego boost, right? Within a few days in Istanbul alone, I’m twice compared to Jennifer Lopez (far from the truth, but highly flattering), once asked to coffee by a stranger walking down the street beside me and striking up a conversation, and told I should be the favorite of the harem. So ladies, if you’re going through a breakup or need an ego boost, or just want to have a giggle with your girlfriends, try Istanbul for a change. (Anywhere in Turkey will do, but the men seem to be most brazen here.) Don’t take anything too seriously – whether it’s flattery, something potentially construed as offensive (it’s likely not), or a sweetly spoken promise. Do leave your men at home. ;) That was a joke, in case you missed the wink. Well, a partial joke. ;) And if you occasionally benefit from preferential treatment or are showered with presents, smile graciously and remind yourself to stay humble.
So why is this post titled “The Real Turkish Delight”? Although I do like the fig and honey, or the rose, or the pomegranate with pistachio and chocolate…the real Turkish Delight, for me, isn’t the colorful bits of flavored gelatin with nuts. It’s the feeling you walk away with when you leave Turkey. By taking in stride the seemingly cultural norm of unsubtly verbalized appreciations of your loveliness, you head to the airport with this experiential recipe: a scoop of surprise, a cup of laughter, a sprinkling of new friends (you can never predict the outcome from these interactions!), a dash of confidence, and a hint of local culture.