One of the great Robin Williams lines in Aladdin is delivered with a cigar and a shoulder nudge…and gave us lots of laughter as we travelled through Turkey and its many bazaars.
In fact, before we left, Rebecca asked what I wanted to bring home, and I definitively DID want to buy a rug. We accidentally bought beautiful rugs at an auction in graduate school – squeezing several months of groceries out of the sky in the process – but they are wonderful things to live with, and after almost 30 years of love, they are really done…so I was in the mood to buy a rug.
Rebecca has a love of exploring bazaars and markets and we both enjoy the banter and conversation with vendors who build relationships as well as deals. Markets are a great place to practice a new language and to learn about a new country, so we wandered willingly and happily through the chaos and hawking – looking for the people we thought we could trust to have quality goods and find us exactly what we wanted. Ali – our rug man – and Omar – our scarf man – did not disappoint – but I am getting ahead of the story!
An enjoyable visit to the bazaar requires several skills. The first is the looking-not-looking saunter along the aisles. This is a way to evaluate what is on offer and what quality is available today. Once you pause, it is a sign that you have identified something you might wish to buy, and the vendors are now free to approach you to offer their wares, “Lady, you want to see my shirts? Best quality shirts! Good prices. I help you,” and this signals to the next 6 vendors that you are now shopping, so you are assailed with their offers of tea, spices, and scarves. We enjoy sharing a smile and a brief good morning, or “Thank you, they are lovely!” with the first vendor, and perhaps the second, but ignore the third and fourth – which is a signal that we are – sadly – moving on.
Sometimes, we stop longer to fondle a leather pouch, or consider a tea set. The vendor may ask where we are from, guessing English as a first language, but sometimes quickly changing to German or French – or even Russian. We discuss the merits of the bag, the quality of the leather (See lady – I hold a flame up to it to show you – real leather!). I ask if there is one without a zipper – I really wanted one without a zipper. Now we are both sad because this is the only bag this lovely gentleman has – he shakes his head – “Not today lady. I only have zippers today.” Again, I thank him for speaking with us and we move on. Another time, we dig through a whole stack of tea sets, looking for the blue one I wanted. No luck. This same vendor shows us 15 different towel designs – I am looking for the perfect one for my brother – “Perhaps this one” I say. “We will come back.” He is so pleased when we return 20 minutes later. We found a blue tea set around the corner, but this is the right towel. In France, we looked for the perfect cheese, in Africa, Rebecca found the perfect black blazer, in China, I needed the perfect black purse – and in Turkey, I am searching for towels and tea sets – but everywhere we go the vendors spend time finding us the perfect thing so that we will all be happy when the deal is closed.
Our hostess in Turkey is a fierce and beautiful professor and a former student. She is determined that I be treated well, and negotiates my first cab fare and several purchases in the old port of Antalya. She insists on “Turkish prices – not tourist prices!” for her friends. I laughingly explain to her that tourist prices are completely fair. First, we require people to work in a foreign language, second, we ask a lot of stupid questions, and third, we don’t always understand the rules of doing business! It is hard work to serve tourists! I know this because I grew up in a tourist destination. Hospitality is an art form which guests and visitors always appreciate. Tourists often run rough-shod over the grace and dignity and care which go into making their stay magical. They openly explain how they are shocked by the price of fruit (in a remote northern city) – or leave garbage on the beach – or want to visit a mosque in their shorts or kill a turtle for sport. These things make us sad in a very specific way – the french have a verb for it – gené – I am sad and ashamed which makes me hang my head and become quiet and shy. Tourist prices are a tax on these indignities. We try to be visitors wherever we go, and when we are tourists, we accept the protection of our hosts with gratitude.
Turkish rug merchants take hospitality to the next level. A rug is a serious deal. It is an investment, and will be an intimate room mate for many years – embracing your feet in the warmest rooms of your home. We select our rug men carefully, refusing to speak with the ones whose body language is less than open and honest, or whose shops and windows are not composed thoughtfully. The rugs have to be protected from the sun, but need to be touched as well so they do not feel sterile. Ali has just such a shop. We stop at his window on the first day, and he stops to chat and eventually invites us inside so that we can see. He might have a rug we would like. The lights and air conditioning are switched on and he offers us some apple tea. We are thirsty and jet lagged and gratefully accept. We discuss rugs and colors and I ask to see one of the tiny ones in the corner. These are Hereke rugs – hand knotted silk – and have 300+ knots to the square centimeter. It is a privilege to see them. They take over a year to make. Ali lets me sit with the rug beside me and I touch it gently. We don’t make a deal with Ali on the first day, but we have had a serious conversation. I tell him the first day of the trip is not an auspicious time to buy a rug. I must look and consider, but we will be back. He counters that we will not have to worry and think about it if we settle the deal now – he wants us to have a relaxing holiday and the rug I have picked will be difficult to find elsewhere! We are both right. When we return at the end of our trip, we tell him he has the best apple tea in all of Turkey, and we settle down to make a deal.
Ali and his assistants empty three shops and have buried his showroom floor several times with rugs by the end of our three visits to his shop. Almost all of them are beautiful. Many are completely unsuited to my house, or turn out to be slightly too big. When we tire of trying to pick out my rugs, I ask him about the designs and where they come from – some are tribal, some from Mesopotamia, some are Ottoman. In the end, Ali finds me the one perfect rug for my living room, and I bring home samples of all of the designs that I love. We close the deal on our last day in Istanbul, the third day of Bayram (the sweet festival, celebrating the end of Ramadan – the 30 days of fasting). We agree that this is a very auspicious day to buy a rug, and celebrate the deal with his boss over some chilled white wine.