This is a story about two different visits to Istanbul, the utter pointlessness of posing as a Canadian when you're American, and the secret to experiencing Istanbul without being offered a carpet.
“Were you sold a carpet?”
“No, not even once.”
After our most recent visit to Istanbul, I'm surprised both by the number of times I've been asked that question and how pleased I am to offer my answer. When buying carpet is not your focus, but discovering the people and neighborhoods of Istanbul is, there’s an art to making it work and choosing strategically where and how you stay.
This time we did it. And we’ll tell you how, but not before we tell you about our first visit to Istanbul when Dan and I attempted, rather unsuccessfully, to pull off being Canadian.
“Don't Go!”: The First Visit to Istanbul That Almost Wasn’t
It was late 2000. Dan and I had been backpacking around Europe. We’d just poked around Romania and were hanging around Sofia, Bulgaria. Next up: Istanbul and three weeks in Turkey.
Then an email arrived from my mother. She was worried and she asked us to reconsider our visit. The second intifada had just begun in the Palestinian Territories and demonstrations were taking place outside the American Embassy in the Turkish capital of Ankara as the U.S. Congress considered a resolution officially recognizing the killing of Armenians in Turkey in 1915 as genocide.
Conventional wisdom said all of this did not bode well for Americans visiting the region. We hemmed and hawed. But on our final morning in Sofia, we picked up an International Herald Tribune to find news that Congress dropped the resolution.
It's a sign!!, we thought. In fact, it was just the excuse we needed.
We're going to Turkey!
I informed my mother of our decision and assured her we’d be careful. “Don’t worry,” I said. “We’ll pretend we’re Canadian.”
Staying in Sultanahmet
After arriving in Istanbul from Sofia via a wheezing 17-hour train, we followed the advice of our guidebook and bee-lined it over to Sultanahmet to find a hostel.
We settled down near the Hagia Sophia. Over the next several days, we’d wake at 5:00 A.M. to a howling call to prayer, struggle to fall back asleep, and head out early to consume Istanbul's must-see sights.
Our few days in Istanbul were consumed with the Hagia Sofia (or Aya Sofya if you like), Grand Bazaar, Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace, and the Egyptian spice market. We hung out with fishermen on the Galata bridge, rode along the Bosphorus, and visited Uskudar for a taste of the “Asian side” — and mixed it all with great bits of Turkish food and topped it off with a scrub-down at a Turkish bath. Dan insists to this day that his Turkish massage at the baths remains the most satisfying beating he's ever received.
Oh, and I almost forgot: the carpet salesmen.
We have nothing against carpets, really. They're often works of art, and for many they serve as mementos that last a lifetime. (Yes, I realize I just sounded like a carpet salesman right there. This shows how effective repetition can be.) But when walkabouts in and around the touristy areas of Sultanahmet become an endless echo of “My friend. Where are you from? Do you want to buy a carpet?”, it’s possible to begin bearing a grudge.
“Maybe later.” That was our mantra. Talk about empty promises.
Carpet salesmen can monopolize your visit if you let them. They are friendly enough, they’ll give you lots of tea, their stories can be great — they may even feed you — but their ultimate goal may just get in the way of your experiencing the real Istanbul.
How NOT to Pretend to Be Canadian
Speaking of carpet salesmen, a lesson. One day as we walked down the street minding our own business, a Turkish guy flanked by two westerners approached us.
The Turkish guy jabbed himself into our conversation: “Where are you from?”
“Canada,” Dan replied.
“Where in Canada?”
“Really?! I used to live there. Which part?” (At this point, the Turkish guy rattled off a bunch of Toronto neighborhoods.)
Shit. The one guy on the street we decide to lie to just happens to have lived in our Canadian cover city. Insult to injury, we weren’t even swift enough to do our research beforehand to come up with a viable answer.
Dan mumbled something lame like, “The eastern part.”
The Turkish guy pressed on with more questions, pulling our proverbial lying pants down to our ankles. Finally, he exploded, “You’re not from Canada, you’re American!! Why are you lying to me?!!”
“Americans! Liars!” he yelled at full lung capacity in the middle of the street.
In retrospect, we should have moved on as if he were loony. (He was.) But his display was mesmerizing; it paralyzed us. I considered the irony. Had we only been honest about being American, we could have avoided all this.
As we came to and began walking away — the Turkish guy was still ranting — one of the foreigners asked in a feeble voice, “Well, wait. Don’t you want to buy a carpet?”
The Turkish guy then broke stride and followed up: “I’ve got some great deals. I can even ship it home for you.”
Insane. So this whole display — a ranting Turkish guy and his two flunky backpacker sidekicks — was all about selling us a freakin’ carpet??
Next time, we’re from Labrador.
Since then, we never again suggested that we're from Canada. (Aside: A big shout out to our Canadian friends. We love you and your country and we are often mistaken as Canadian, but we learned early that faking Canuck-ery doesn’t suit us and that we should stick to being who we are. For those of you following our current journey around the world, you’ll know that we embrace being American and view our travels as a form of citizen diplomacy.)
Eleven years later, almost to the day, we returned to Istanbul.
We had changed as travelers. So had the goals of our visit. Instead of revisiting all the big sights, we were in Istanbul to apply for our Iranian visa, pick up some appropriate clothes for Iran, explore some different parts of town and discover more local foods.
Our accommodation this time was a 9 Flats apartment on a side street in Beyoğlu, just down the hill from Taksim Square and Istiklal Caddesi.
As we wandered our street and the surrounding neighborhood, we noticed very few foreigners, only a guest house or two, and absolutely no souvenir stands. People were friendly and life seemed very real. Not to take away from the beauty of Sultanahmet, but this was a different view of Istanbul. One that suggests: this is what life would be like if you lived here. It was immersive. We loved it.
Just up the hill, Istiklal Caddesi was flush with hip Turkish kids sporting the latest fashion trends and traditional women wearing the hijab (Islamic dress). Endless cafes, brands and shops, bustling and modern.
Is this where Istanbul is headed?
Perhaps, but turn off on any side street and you’ve found where Istanbul has come from, and in many ways remains. Local fish vendors and seafood restaurants, turn-of-the-century covered passageways, and simple family-run shops. The mix was eclectic and reflected all the fascinating layers of modern day Turkey.
Some mornings we would take the tram — just down the street — over to Sultanahmet to run errands (e.g., headscarf shopping) or to catch a few sights we'd missed last time (like the New Mosque).
But then we’d welcome a retreat to our neighborhood in the late afternoon, where the routines of ordinary people ruled the streets.
We began to feel at home. We knew the guy on the corner pressing fresh pomegranate juice, the sons who'd taken over their father’s kebab and Turkish pizza (lahmacun) shop, the friendly ciğ köfte master who knew just the right amount of spice and lemon to add to a mountain of raw meat, and the soft-spoken man around the corner who made sure to pile our plates with ample servings and fresh herbs.
We’d quickly developed our own routine, so much so that when we departed a week later, we made our rounds to say goodbye to our neighbors and the places where we’d become regulars.
We left Istanbul this time feeling like we had a better grasp of its living history as well as a hint of the direction its headed.
And to think, we were never once offered a carpet. Maybe next time.
What are your favorite neighborhoods to explore in Istanbul? And if you've visited Istanbul, did you buy a carpet?