Monday, June 24, 2013

Istanbul, Turkey - Get your rug on

We went back and forth on the decision to go to Turkey at all. There was a good deal of social and political unrest and protests the week prior to our planned dates. I was much more bullish on the idea of going than Hannah, who was rightfully concerned about getting caught in the middle of a teargas bombing or flag burning. It was Hannah's desire to go to Turkey in the first place that put it on our itinerary, and we are both happy that it worked out. What we heard from most that we spoke to was that if we steered clear of the protest and demonstration areas, they would steer clear of us. That was our experience, aside from the occasional shopkeeper asking us about it, we had no idea there was turmoil in other parts of Istanbul.
We stayed in the aggressively quaint neighborhood of Sultanahmet which is where most tourists seem to gravitate to. There are many small hotels, restaurants and cafes, shops, and tourist attractions in this area. We really wanted to want to spend our days touring the mosques, the Aya Sofya, museums, etc, but we didn't really want to. Out of pure obligation we bought a 3 day museum pass and spent an hour or two wandering around the Blue Mosque and Aya Sofya, but often found ourselves looking for cool places to take funny panoramic photos or photo bombing family photos rather than reading about the history of these beautiful, centuries old structures. They are beautiful though and we enjoyed spending time around them rather than spending a lot of time walking around inside them.

Not much good can be said about our hotel selection in Istanbul. The Agora Hotel and Bistro had its share of issues while we were there, and the Bistro was no where to be found. The silver lining was that in our 3 nights we had the privilege of staying in 3 rooms. We moved once due to unbearable sewage fumes and again because of a faulty A/C. That being said, the staff was very nice and accomodated our requests to change rooms.

When moving rooms, always tip your bellhop.

We had our first lunch at a rooftop terrace restaurant called Doy Doy, which apparently means something like "full full". The food was quite simple, mostly meat and vegetable kebabs cooked on skewers. We had a great lunch with a great view of the Blue Mosque in the background.
I had my first Turkish coffee and realized its an acquired taste.

Neither of us had been to Istanbul or Turkey and there were many cultural aspects that we found fascinating. Some, we thought of as charming and interesting, others we found to be more aggressive. Here are a few....
  1. Every time you enter a shop, travel agency, etc and have a more than 5 minute interaction we were offered tea or coffee, and they really expect you to oblige. The typical was apple tea, which Hannah loved, or Turkish coffee which is so strong that it would normally leave my mouth full of coffee grounds and make me bounce off the wall for an hour. When rug shopping we probably had 6 tea and coffee sessions in 3 is viewed as a way to form a friendship.
  2. There were NO women working anywhere. Every restaurant, shop, rug store, travel agency, cafe, hotel, etc, etc, was staffed only by men. We never saw a woman working and we actually started to look for them just to disprove our theory.
  3. They love to put a single stair where completely unnecessary. I probably tripped 10 times. Hannah definitely laughed ten times.
  4. When discussing price or bargaining they would only address the man. Hannah could say the same thing over and over again during our rug negotiations and until I said it it was like it wasn't said...little did they know that Hannah is the far better negotiator and she was pulling my puppet strings.
  5. The afternoon our first day was a great time. We walked to the Galatan bridge which led across the sea into the Taksim area which we were avoiding due to the civil unrest and demonstrations. Under the bridge was an endless supply of small cafes and stands selling 5 Lira ($2.50) fish sandwiches, vendors selling corn on the cob for 1.50 Lira ($.75), delicious mussels cooked in the shell on a bed of brown rice for $.50. We sat at a restaurant and had a few beers, some fried sardines, and a fish sandwich. We then strolled around and picked up an impromptu corn on the cob and stood beside a mussel vendor while he fed us as many mussels as he could before we told him to stop.

Friendly game of backgammon. They're lucky we didn't challenge them.

We spent our entire second day shopping for a rug for our apartment in Brooklyn. We started at the Grand Bazaar outside the Sultanahmet area. This experience was a grand way to see the Bazaar and some of Istanbul and also a great education. The Bazaar was enormous with over 4000 stores and shops. Most carpet shops were small galleries and the owners would want you to go outside the bazaar with them to their showrooms. The showrooms were all very nicely kept rooms with large wooden floors and air conditioning. The rug store owners seemed to be the only population in Istanbul that spoke perfect english, it was actually astounding how speaking perfect english was a requirement for dealing rugs in Istanbul. We wandered around the markets and sampled sweets and fruits, buying some along the way to hoard in our hotel for later.

Carpet shopping was an exercise in futility. We went to about 5 showrooms through the course of the day, and the sequence of events was typically the same. It would start with them offering us tea and coffee and us telling them exactly what we were looking for, a 9x12 rug with turquoise, coral, and bright coloring. The shop owners would never lift a finger, they had several young guys pulling and tossing rugs around, carrying them up and down stairs, and rolling them out and rolling them up to show us. Nine times out of ten they would bring the right colors in a size too small or the right size in the wrong colors. When we did find the perfect size and coloring it was then all about price. They would tell us that these are 100% silk rugs and that the price would scare us...we said try us...and they did...and they scared us. The truth is we never got an honest answer on what these rugs are worth or where the silk came from or whether they were handmade. The conversations at this point in almost all cases turned quite aggressive. We knew what we wanted to pay and it was normally 1/4 of what their initial prices were. We met several characters and it seemed that in each showroom we'd go into that we were walking into the same showrooms we had just been in...and the worker bees seemed to be the same. We eventually stopped telling people we were from New York, we became a couple from rural Georgia looking for a rug for our barn rather than a couple from Brooklyn looking for a rug for our condo with a view of Manhattan. To make a long story even longer...we didn't find a rug that day. We got so frustrated that we sat in restaurants and cafes for the rest of the day and drank cold beers to combat the dusty heat.

That evening was our last in Istanbul. We did what most tourists in the Sultanahmet area do, which is wander aimlessly, dodging the men in the street shoving menus in our faces, over and over and over again. The restaurant we settled on was the only that we didn't feel pressured. The nice outdoor patio was seated with plenty of tourists like ourselves, but we felt immune from the ongoing pestering we felt elsewhere. Unfortunate that I can't recall the name of the restaurant, but we will always remember the surprise that we had at the end of our meal. Our server "invited" us to go see the cave under the restaurant. Neither of us had either been propositioned in such a way, so we assumed the invitiation legitimate...and it was. Under the restaurant was a cool, cavernous, cave which was left completely untouched by the development of the surrounding buildings. The ceiling was at least 30 feet high, and there were at least 5 or 6 rooms to meander through. The only additions made were a few lights to light the way as you walked through. This was a great way to end our meal, and as exhausted as we were from rug shopping, our evening had presumably come to an end.

It turns out, in true Hannah and Jonathan fashion, our night had just begun. Nothing could have been more enticing than when we walked by a hookah bar with couches set up right on the main drag of as we had been saying all along, "when in Rome". We puffed grape flavored tobacco for at least 2 hours, had a few beers, and finished off with baclava.

We loved the cast of characters working at this place, this guy was a hookah pro and loved to dance to my personal favorite, Beyonce, or whatever else came on:
He told us he thought I looked like this guy from a French movie, we were relieved it when it wasn't Adam Sandler:
The following morning we woke up inspired, and agreed to not let Istanbul get the better of us, and buy our dream carpet. We'd like to think that we succeeded in both. We managed to visit 3 showrooms in 2 hours, were very specific about our intentions, and eventually succeeded. Our final choice was our second favorite, but its going to go wonderfully in our place and we think talking down the price by 3/4 was worth the excitement. We also were further convinced in the validity of our purchase when the store's proprietor showed us a New York Times article from 1979 which mentioned his store.
We hightailed it back to our hotel, picked up our backpacks, and headed for Ataturk Airport for our onward adventure, the town of Goreme in Cappadocia.

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