Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Istanbul (Not Constantinople)

Ok, I know that is perhaps the most obvious title I could have used for this post, but I couldn't resist. Who knows when I'll have another opportunity like this?

Dan and I recently returned from five and a half glorious days of exploring Istanbul. The weather was just about perfect, the sights were magnificent, I tangoed in my fourth country, and (unhappily) there were throngs of tourists. We saw eight of the top 10 recommended sights from our DK guidebook, and were brave enough to spend an afternoon in the hamam, instead of just peering through the door into the reception room. I highly recommend the hamam. It's very relaxing, a great break from the running around you do trying to fit in visits to all the Mosques and Ottoman palaces. And wow! Those Ottoman palaces.

Also, we had lunch in Asia, which is technically the fourth continent I've visited. Trying to settle on a restaurant is quite a challenge. Shopkeepers and restaurateurs compete ferociously for the business of tourists. Most stand in front of their shops to talk to people walking by, basically harrassing them into going inside. Being an American, and valuing personal space and the time to make a decision without feeling like I'm being hustled, this was more than a little off-putting. There were many times throughout the week when I felt like I was up for auction. But I have to say, some people really get inventive as they're trying to attract your attention. Here are some of the best pick-up lines we heard:
  • Pretty lady...
  • Hello, nice couple!
  • This is a government place. Our place is over here!
  • Where are you going? The Grand Bazaar is this way!
  • Vous ĂȘtes français, oui?
  • Muchas gracias! Are you Spanish?
  • Can I help you spend your money?
  • Try this, it's poison!
  • My moustache is better! (We think he was referring to the guy who owned the shop across from his, not Dan, but who knows?)
  • Your shoes, very dirty! (This from inumerable shoe-shiners, directed at Dan. And they were right, his shoes were very dirty.)
One thing I loved about Istanbul was the sense of entrepreneurship. All you need to start a business is a cart and something to sell. Here's a list of some of the great one-man roving shops we saw:
  • Fruit Juice - This one is obviously intended for tourists because you see these guys mostly in the park between the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia. Worth mentioning all the same, especially since I can link to a picture.
  • Cucumbers - Wheelbarrow, cucumbers, knife (for peeling), and salt. Voila, you're in business!
  • Instant Lollipops - Different colors of what I assume is liquefied sugar, carefully twisted around a lollipop stick. So pretty, so bad for your teeth.
  • Tea - The tea-sellers carry around trays loaded with glasses of hot tea. I assume they remember whom they sold it to and go back later to retrieve the cups. In touristy areas the tea-sellers have thermoses and plastic cups. Not nearly as fun.
  • Corn - Boiled or roasted. Salt but, sadly, no butter.
  • Shoe-Shiners - On almost every street corner. As I said above, they don't mind telling you how dirty you shoes are if it will bring them business.
We did visit two rug shops. Those of you who know us may be aware that we already fell prey to the rug salesman in Morocco, and we have three very beautiful carpets to show for it. We were wise this time, and we knew that we really weren't interested. So we were able to graciously accept the tea we were offered, look at the exquisite carpets, all the while being clear that we weren't interested in buying (of course, the salesman didn't believe us). Once they started talking numbers, we thanked them politely for showing us their beautiful merchandise and made a quick getaway. We are very proud of ourselves.

Of course, we did make a few purchases and we shipped them to my mom so we won't have to bring them home in June, when we're hauling all the stuff we brought for the entire year in Serbia. I never thought it would be so entertaining to watch two guys pack a box. They carefully packed our crate of "treasures from the Orient" and used an incredible liquid foam to fill the air pockets. There are two chemicals that mix when they shoot them out of the machine. When they mix, they expand and solidify, so it forms to the shape of our stuff. Wow!

Istanbul really is a stunning city, and there are many more things I could go on about. But I have to leave some things for Dan to write about, such as the Italian uniform, guidelines for tourists, Turkish hospitality, and our favorite moment of sightseeing.

No comments: