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April 23, 2007

How I Dropped a Wad of Cash in Istanbul

The author settles down after a harrowing
experience with his credit card

The trip to Istanbul aboard the Yuzhnaya Palmyra costs something along the lines of $650 and is worth every penny, not because of the disco, the food or the magician--which I value collectively at $23--but thanks to a body of water called the Bosphorus. The Bosphorus is a narrow channel connecting the Black Sea with the Mediterranean Ocean, and when it comes to epic nautical moments, few can match the experience of sailing into the Bosphorus. It looks at first like shore--hilly, far-off shore. You stand on deck and see that your ship seems to have joined a fleet of container ships all headed, apparently, towards that same stretch of hilly, far-off shore. In the distance, your eyes come to make out an opening in the land. A town appears on your right, plunked ever so cutely on the rising shore, and you see a lighthouse that looks like it's been there a very long time. In front of you, the Bosphorus opens before you as though the earth had been torn in two just last week. It is not a river but a channel of true ocean, riven through the hills. On one side, Asia. On the other, Europe. A mighty bridge presents itself, then another, and it dawns on you that you've traveled into the throbbing, beeping heart of an enormous city, one that spans two continents, and all by boat.

The continental significance of Istanbul is easy to miss at first. After stepping off the Yuzhnaya Palmyra, I stood there gawking, stunned by the prettiness. Istanbul is as nice to look at as any city I've seen: hilly, blessed with winding streets, well vegetated, and dotted with ancient things. Minarets rise pointedly in every direction. There are so many mosques that the taxi drivers say things like "That one dates from the 18th century. It is one of our more modern mosques." Two blocks later, the taxi driver points at a bridge and says, "It's one of two bridges that connect go to the Asian side." Asia, you think to yourself. I suppose this must be Europe.

It is indeed Europe, and I wasted little time doing what I always do in Europe: I spent a fortune on something very nice that I don't really need.

Approaching the Bosphorus

Traffic jam...Black Sea style

It started out innocently enough. I met my guide--a beautiful half-Turkish, half-Dutch woman named Hatice--and we began our day by eating a Turkish ground-lamb dish called Kofte. Kofte are almost always translated as "meatballs," but they're not actually shaped like balls. This is of little matter, however, because they are delicious, and it wouldn't be fair to the tastiness of Kofte to refer to them as "meat lengths." The restaurant where we ate them, incidentally, translates roughly as "Sultan Ahmed's Place for Meatballs." They should really sell t-shirts.


Next, we saw the Hagia Sophia, a sixth century cathedral that was converted to a mosque and is now, officially, a museum. The Hagia Sophia was built using plundered materials from Roman temples, and so few of its columns match but the most astounding fact thing about it, however, is that it was built in a mere five years, which is the cathedral equivalent of being slapped together over a weekend. Apart from the unexpected caving in of the main dome in the early going, the place has held up remarkably well, considering. But there is one pretty serious problem. The Hagia Sophia is sliding, at the rate of one millimeter per year, towards the Blue Mosque, which sits across the street and is one of the most famous mosques in all of Islam. International experts have been called to the scene, but no one has found a way to stop it. No one, however, has considered pushing the Blue Mosque in the same direction. They would only have to push it one millimeter per year.

My financial undoing came after a short tour of the Blue Mosque. The seed had been laid hours earlier. Turkey, as even children know, is famous for its carpets. I had asked Hatice what I thought was a harmless question: Are any Turkish carpets made with modern designs, rather than the traditional Oriental ones?

You can surely see where this is going. But don't go thinking that I dropped a fortune after two hours of protracted haggling at some open air-bizarre or anything. These experiences are manufactured solely for tourists, Hatice told me, and she wouldn't take me near one. Instead, we visited the kind of place Turks themselves go when they have a stretch of damaged hardwood they need to cover up.

A very nice man brought us into a spacious room with towers of carpets stacked in each corner and served us Turkish coffee, which is like espresso, but un-filtered. From a pile against the far wall, he began pulling carpets out, unfolding them and laying them on the floor. The first one was stunning. So was the second one. The third, too.  They were hand-made out of wool and took something along the lines of seven months to weave. The fourth one was stunning, so was the fifth, and the sixth one, too. It could have gone on like this until dinner, but luckily for the carpet salesman, his carpets were extremely expensive. I couldn't even afford the cheapest one.

I got up to leave, and a strange thing happened. I was stricken with the following thought: It would be sad to leave this room without a carpet. You will recognize here the early warning signs of an impulse buy. But rather than lunge for my favorite carpet and head for the cash register, I opted instead for an impulse negotiation. I snapped a picture of a carpet on my Palm Treo, emailed it to my wife, then phoned her, rousted her out of bed and asked her to have a look. She also liked it.

The purchase.  What do you think? (Click to
view a larger version)

I told her the price, and her first reaction was to ask if I had mistakenly added an extra zero. I said that I had not. She said to me, "If I phoned you up early in the morning and told you I wanted to spend that much money on a carpet, what would you say?" I told her I would say no. My wife said, "Buy the carpet." She said, "When are you going to be in Istanbul again? And even if you come back next year, you're still not going to be able to find that carpet."

(By now you will have come to understand that my wife is a better, more generous, and more understanding person than I am. Either that or she bought something comparably huge and still hasn't told me about it.")

Minutes later, I was suffering through the second worst case of buyer's remorse I have ever heard of. The worst case was suffered by a friend of mine named Vitas. In the seventh grade, Vitas went to a sports store and dropped $130 on a skateboard. On the bus ride home, he became so shocked and frightened by what he'd done that he started crying and had to be consoled by the other passengers. The next day, his mother drove him back to the skateboard store and convinced them to let Vitas return the skateboard. He has never bought another one.

I managed to not cry, though doing so took considerable effort. I stumbled around Istanbul in a daze, stunned repeatedly by the memory of the credit card slip I had, that afternoon, signed. Hatice was pointing out a multitude of nooks and corners of Istanbul and sharing fascinating historical context, and I didn't take in a single word. We stopped at a cafe for another Turkish coffee. I had two cups of coffee at breakfast, one more at the carpet store, as well as a cup of Turkish tea. I am a one-coffee-a-day kind of guy. From the waiter, I ordered one of those Turkish water pipes filled with aromatic tobacco that tastes like Austrian coffee cake. If you know anything about the combined effects of nicotine and caffeine, you can imagine the amplifying effects it had on my anxiety.

I was approaching hyperventilation. Hatiše took me to another coffee shop. This time, she ordered me a Raki, the Turkish drink, similar to Greek ouzo, that's made from anis seed and turns white when poured over ice. The Raki calmed me. The Raki made me feel good inside. I started thinking about the carpet, but this time without embarrassment, regret or psychic turmoil. I thought about how it will look in our living room. "It will match the furniture," I said to myself, "and look good beneath the coffee table." I took another sip of Raki, stared into the distance and thought, "More than anything, it's going to be a fabulous match for my new robe."

What a view!

Istanbul street scene


I just saw that exact carpet in Ikea for $14.97!!

Just kidding, I'm sure it will look great in your house :-)

Good luck!

Brownie points for Laura...time to go shopping girl!!

Did you arrange to have your rug shipped to your home? I find it hard to picture you carrying such a bulky impulse purchase with you through Europe.

Hopefully your experience in Istanbul was easier than mine. Being blonde-haired and blue-eyed, blending in wasn't an option. Every walking block was filled with all sorts of people wanting you to visit their stores, literally grabbing my arm and trying to force me into their shops. You have more of a Turkish look about you so hopefully you weren't accosted as much. I backpacked through Turkey (alone - which I won't do again) and felt very safe everywhere else. The best thing I did was to hire a guide in Istanbul.

A guy staying in my hotel was approached by someone in the street and soon became "friends" after chatting for a few minutes. His "friend" invited him to a convenient local pub and bought him a beer. As tradition requires, he bought one for his "friend". The owner of the bar brought the bill for the two beers to the tune of several hundred US dollars. The guy caught on quickly and was able to scoot past the bouncer posted at the door and get lost in the crowd outside. I've heard it's a common scam.

And the Turkish apple tea is wonderful!



The carpet looks great, but it need improving. May I suggest yellow lab fur? It always brings out the best in an expensive carpet. Maybe you do look turkish??

Wow, that IS a beautiful picture! I'm still jealous of the cashmere robe, so I feel better now knowing you spend a fortune on the carpet. But really, that is a pretty carpet,
you'll be glad you got it later.

Ah it makes me remember my trip to Istanbul. It seems like it was just yesterday. OK, it was just in February. :-)

Chris Christensen
Amateur Traveler podcast

I loved your post on Istanbul and the carpet purchase. Having been to Turkey myself and experienced that same feeling of I can't leave here without a gorgeous carpet....I had to smile and laugh at your adventures. Several years later I am still enjoying my carpet and the memories of Turkey. Thank you for sharing your amazing experiences with us.

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