For some insane reason, I’ve felt a bit unwelcome this month in Turkey, at least more than I’ve ever felt here. The number of times I’ve almost been swindled is rising dramatically over the past few weeks, and just the vibe I’ve been getting is more negative. Mind you it’s not all the time I feel this way, but there are days like today when I feel like screaming and punching random people in the face to relieve my anger.
As an aside, let me say that there have been many times where the hospitality in Istanbul is like none other. I mean this in a positive sense. I remember being welcomed kindly in Kabak when my pal Gareth and I went camping there. I must mention the people at this tiny hole-in-the-wall (that’s sadly not there any longer) in Kadıköy, where they served amazing food, were kind to us, and during our first few visits served us free künefe after our meals. Then there are Hüseyin and Bülent (the latter went on to greener pastures in the south) at Limon Café, and the people who always welcome me with a smile at Asya – a lokantası on Moda Caddesi – who make dolma and ezogelin çorba to die for. The tea garden in Moda always is active with people just relaxing from a long or short day, and the servers are always brisk and willing to cater to your needs; plus, you can bring your own food while you sip their çay. Lastly, I have been a regular at this one eatery in Moda called Dodo Café. Disregarding the name, it’s a pretty laid-back place that’s quite popular for weekend breakfasts. At the base price of 3TL you receive cucumbers, tomatoes, bread, and endless tea; you can add other things for a small fee, like olives, cheeses, eggs, honey, different deli meats, sausage, börek, menemen. The people there know me and always ask how I’m doing in the morning. They always make sure my tea glass is never empty. They have been recently putting more bread on my tray and giving me extra cucumber. In warmer weather, the patio fills up – but it’s still a great place for me to eat, then write for a bit over my fourth glass of tea before heading out to enjoy my Saturday.
Despite this welcoming attitude, I have felt a little off-put by the number of times police have stopped me in the evening on the way back to my apartment. Sure I’m a 20-something-year-old male, walking alone, wearing a big black coat, sporting a beard, and my hair normally slicked back – as it’s gotten a bit longer. But why have they this month stopped me twice asking me what I’m up to? The first time it happened was a time that was understandable: I had left a house party at around two in the morning, I was drunk, and I was walking by myself. The police drove alongside me and said, “Iyi akşamlar” or “Good evening”. I returned the gesture, and then they began to talk so fast I probably wouldn’t have understood them if I were sober. So I told them “Anlamıyorum, ben yabancı.” — which means “I don’t understand; I’m a foreigner.” They nodded and let me go.
A week later, whilst walking back from work at around 10pm, I get stopped again. This time I’m asked for identification, so I hand over my residency permit telling them I’m a yabancı. Then, they want to know what’s in my possession. Nothing evil of course, but I oblige to turn out my pockets. I also had the immense pleasure of being frisked on the sidewalk with people walking past in both directions. They were stopping all the men, but I really didn’t appreciate being held up for five minutes in the early evening on a busy street. In all my time in Istanbul, I’d never been stopped and searched by the police, so I guess I should feel lucky.
Not only that, but this month I had three incidences when I received the old Turkish lira. It’s an oxymoron, but the actual name of the currency was yeni türk lirası (or YTL): “new Turkish lira”. In 2009 they did away with the “new” part and nixed the Y. This past January, all stores and other places would not allow people to use the “old” currency as legal tender; it all was useless. There’s still “yeni” lira and koruş wandering around in tills and on the sidewalks. The thing is that I personally – and obviously – will not accept any YTL from anyone anymore; so when a merchant or the man at the register gives me YTL, I’ll say that I want TL not this garbage. You know, money I can actually USE! The three times when I had been given lira or koruş that was unusable, the merchants played dumb. “What? I don’t understand. It’s your change.” I would heatedly respond with “Istemiyorum!” or “I don’t want!” and show the Y in the YTL or the “yeni” next to koruş.
Just because I look like a foreigner (some Turks have red hair, but most have dark brown or black) doesn’t mean I want to be treated like one, especially one that’s stupid, oblivious, and easily fooled. Many tourists and others get the shaft at a lot of places – maybe if they can’t read Turkish or are clueless to the art of negotiating at a bazaar. I am not one of these people; I’ve learned how to deal with these situations.
Another incident – which happened today, and it happened TWICE – involved the purchase of oranges. I normally get the mandarins because they’re smaller, they’re sweeter, they peel easier and there are no seeds you have to spit out while eating. The mandarin season is nearing its end, so there are quite a few left but they’re in sorry shape. I had a hankering for large oranges, and they’re pretty cheap at this time of year. The label for orange in most small corner markets is “portakal sıkma“.
At the first place, I nabbed three oranges and placed them in a bag for the produce guy to weigh; I also bought a few of the large, skinny, green peppers (called çarlistan in Turkish). I noticed that the price of the peppers on the machine was not the price listed in ink by the barrel of peppers. By the barrel, it was 4.45TL a kilo; the scale read 4.99TL a kilo. I told the produce guy, who immediately wandered to the pepper barrel and ripped off the price tag. I tsk-ed him and walked into the store. I honestly did not want to deal with it, especially as the price difference wasn’t exorbitant. Because of the inaccuracy though, I became suspicious and peered at the price-tag of my oranges only to find that he had also charged me the mandarin price. For mandarins, it’s 3.99TL for a kilo (because they aren’t as large); for the portakal version, they were 1.99TL. I went back out and complained. They told me that what I had were mandarins. They were much larger than mandarins, plus I picked them in the portakal sıkma section! I was incensed. The produce men weren’t budging, so I tore open my bag and let the oranges I had chosen fall over the mandarins. Then, I went back inside and paid for my overpriced peppers and left.
I decided to try another store to get the rest of my goods. There’s a Tansaş not too far from my apartment, so I traversed there with a list in my head, one of the tics being those lovely oranges. I purchased some cheese, meat, juice, normal stuff for dinner for today and tomorrow. I found the orange section: portakal sıkma were even cheaper here at 1.39TL for a kilo. The mandarins were at the price of 3.99TL just like the last store. I went and bought a few of the oranges and noted how even more different both looked when comparing, more so than at my first stop. In line, everything went through; I paid and after looking at the receipt noticed that the idiot at the register charged me for the mandarins.
Again, I called him out on it and he looked at me, then at the oranges and said: “Bu mandalina vardır.” Those are mandarins.
What! Those are mandarins?
I literally began shaking. Twice in the span of an hour. Utterly ridiculous. I was spouting off, “Hayır ya, mandalina yok, portakal var!” But my attempts to get him to see that he overcharged me for oranges were in vain. I shouted an “ALLAHALLAH!” and went over to another Tansaş employee and told him to come with me. He followed me to the produce section, and I showed him the price right below the oranges and then the mandarins… and HOW THEY BLOODY LOOKED DIFFERENT. The man gazed for a while at my bag of oranges, considering that maybe these might be grapefruits, or melons, or kiwis. But he slowly nodded and brought my oranges back to the guy at the register who gave me the 1.39TL price, of course sulking all the while about it.
I honestly am flabbergasted here. I want to just believe that these people – at least at the stores today – were inept. However, there are times when they’re just playing dumb to wheedle money out of possible tourists. When my sister visited me in Istanbul in September of 2008, I went to this bar which served happy hour Efes 50cLs for 3YTL. We each had two, so the bill should have been 12YTL. At the end, we got a bill for 18YTL. I didn’t leave that place without getting my way; they kept telling me the sign was for the weekend, but NOWHERE on the sign did it say that. It said: 50cL : 3YTL.
True, some tourists are stupid enough to pay 40TL for a cheap dinner that you could get in Kadıköy for ten. What I find most offensive after living here for almost two years and knowing at least enough of the language to communicate with all these people without having to resort to English, is the fact that I’m still being treated as if I am the ignoramus, that I’m so simple-minded to stupidly accept the worthless money from 2008, or to gladly purchase oranges for double the price; that if I am looking at something at a store or shop, I really want workers to come over and say in English: “Yes, friend, you like? Lots money, you wish, I help?”. I don’t deserve that, and a lot of people here need to realize that if they want to prey off people and feign ignorance, they won’t be considered some of the most hospitable people in the future.
Again, there are many Turks who are incredibly nice, welcoming, and hospitable. I’ve befriended many. The bad eggs stand out, and I’m sick to death of being exposed to such skulduggery.