I picked up the tea and scanned the faces of the two men. Did they seem overly eager for me to take a sip? Was I going to wake up in a bathtub with no kidneys? I couldn’t quite imagine the first man turning out to be the villain from a Liam Neeson movie. I wasn’t so sure about the second guy. His face seemed to betray some bitter impatience with what life had offered him so far.
I raised the tiny cup to my lips. Both guys seemed fairly mellow, beyond their all consuming desire for me to buy a stupid fucking rug.
I’d been taking a photo of the Blue Mosque in the chilly early morning fog of Istanbul when the first guy walked by and asked me what I’d seen in town so far. We started talking about the tourist downturn in Turkey since the terrorist attacks and the attempted coup, and he reassured me that he wasn’t a tour guide. (Well thank God!) He didn’t seem to consider this declaration to be the random non sequitur I did.
He pointed out that I had 20 minutes to wait before Hagia Sophia opened, which was true. Did I want to warm up over a cup of tea in his nearby rug shop?
I shivered. Sure, whatever.
Ten minutes later I had met several of his relatives and found myself locked into this Turkish tea standoff.
I soldiered on in attempting to walk the almost impossible tightrope between not wanting to be a giant dick if these guys were just being nice and I was being ridiculous (“I can’t tell if you’re one of the ten worst people in the world so I’m not touching your goddamned apple tea,”) and making sure I could get out of that building if things went sideways.
Before I knew it, there were a dozen rugs spread out on the floor in front of me and I was being asked which kind I wanted to buy. Shit. What’s the polite way to say “I have absolutely no interest in the tacky nonsense you’ve made your life’s work”? Oh, I’ve got it! This shit is wool and silk! No es vegan. Sorry dudes, I’d love to help you out but them rugs is murder. Or something.
They looked at each other like I’d said I only buy rugs made of dead cats, which in retrospect I wish I had said. I slammed the tea and headed for the door, figuring I could make it to the street before I fainted like a Victorian debutante or my asshole fell out or whatever Turkish roofie tea does to you.
In spite of my near-sprint, somehow on the way out I was diverted into a maze of showrooms full of jewelry and scarves, and found myself having an awkward conversation with yet another family cousin. Fuuuck.
“How many girlfriends do you have back home, my friend? Bring them all something nice.”
This city was going to beat all the nice out of me.
I switched into nope nope nope mode in response to every question and clawed my way out of there, heading up the street to Haiga Sophia and getting in line.
Not 20 seconds later a middle aged Turkish guy approached me in line.
“My friend, where are you from?”
Fuuuuck. Am I wearing a sign?
“Don’t worry, I am not a tour guide. I have family store in the bazaar. After you are done here I show you.”
I noped him away as politely as I could and headed into Hagia Sophia.
When I came out an hour later, he was waiting for me at the exit.
“My friend hello! I take you to my shop now, make soup from your genitalia parts.” I may have added that last part.
“Let me get you some tea my friend, this is Turkish hospitality.”
“Noooope! Not interested,” I answered, demonstrating American hospitality.
And I still can’t quite believe I did this, but purely out of self preservation instinct I put a hand on his shoulder and pointed, directing his attention to something on the distant horizon, while simultaneously walking away in the opposite direction. Ghosting 101.
After visiting the Basilica Cistern, I was walking up the hill to the Topkapi Palace to fit in one more sight before my flight home. I noticed a 19-year-old Turkish kid with a boyish face walking next to me.
“Hello, where are you from?”
I looked at him incredulously.
“Oh don’t worry, I’m not a tour guide. I’m just learning English and like to practice it when I can.”
That made me feel kind of bad, so I took the bait and continued the conversation.
“What do you think of Istanbul?”
"It’s nice, except for all the goddamned non-tour guides who want to drag you back to their family shop so they can serve you tea and try to sell you shit," I should have said.
We talked about Turkey, his family and his studies, as it slowly dawned on me that the line for Topkapi stretched all the way back to Terra Haute. There was no way I was getting in there before my flight.
I took a few photos of the outside of the palace and told the kid I needed to get back to the tram to return to the airport.
“I’ll walk with you.”
“I can show you my family shop on the way.”
“We can have our car take you to the airport, Americans are like family to us.”
The kid was good, even if he was laying on the compliments a little thick.
You can’t believe I’m 41? So nice of you to say. What’s that? You think I look like a movie star? I think so too! You’re smart, we should hang out.
I still somehow had not yet learned anything and found myself walking down a back alley to yet another shop.
I was comforted by the sight of an old lady walking up the alley. I wasn’t alone. I then asked myself what this lady was going to do if I was unceremoniously shoved into a van with a bag over my head (nothing, possibly belch) and suddenly felt less better.
I’m meeting family cousins and look at these rugs and we have leather coats and come upstairs to see where we repair rugs-
GAAAH. NO. Dude, I’ve got to go. You’re very nice but clearly every shop in this town has some chickenhawk prowling the streets looking for tourists to rope in with this spiel.
"You won’t at least have tea with me?" he asked sadly.
Nope nope nope. Enough of this Istanbullshit. I’m going home.
Wow, I can’t believe I’m in Hungary. Turkey! Goddammit Sean stop calling it Hungary.
Maybe you’re Hungary for some Turkey.
Shut up shut up.
My entire previous experience with Turkey had been Turkish cinema, which consists entirely of hilarious low budget facsimiles of Hollywood films. For example, Turkish Star Wars brazenly bootlegs all of the actual special effects footage from the real Star Wars and intercuts it with the kind of dramatic scenes you’d get if you told your uncle he needed to make Star Wars by four o’clock, and you paid him in beer.
Getting off the plane in Istanbul I discovered, to my great surprise, that I can’t read Turkish. I blundered my way through the airport, exited the building accidentally, had to go through security again to get back inside, dropped my money and just generally acted like I’d never travelled before in my entire life.
I was staring dumbfounded at the automated machine that loads money onto a metro card for you so you can ride the subway. I didn’t have a metro card and the machine didn’t have an English option, so we were perfect for each other. Also, the ATM had given me all of my cash in 100 lira bills, which was about ten times what I needed for the metro, and the metro machine didn’t give change. The last time a mismatch this confusing had come up, my parents just said fuck it and got married, but I was hoping there was another way.
Suddenly, out of nowhere, a local swiped his card on the machine in front of me, pointed at some Turkish nonsense on the screen, and gestured for me to follow him down into the subway tunnel.
I shrugged and followed him, as I wasn’t busy at the moment. On the escalator headed down he explained via gestures that he was giving me his metro card, which had 20 lira on it, along with 80 lira in exchange for my 100 lira bill.
By brain strained to figure out his angle here. Was the money fake? I examined the bills with a jaundiced eye and determined that I had absolutely no idea at all what Turkish money was supposed to look like. Maybe it had a purple chicken on it.
I quickly decided that whatever was happening, at worst I was buying an interesting story for $16. I was pretty happy with this worst case scenario.
“I am Ahmed. Turkish. You are?”
Getting to know each other as well as his very limited English and my unlimited lack of Turkish would allow only took about fifteen seconds, and then we were staring at the subway system map. My mind went totally blank.
“You go where?”
All of the unfamiliar station names swam before my eyes. I had carefully mapped all of this out before my trip but it was all gone now. I hadn’t prepped for this level of weirdness. Next time I need to map out my route while playing ping pong with Univision turned up loud.
“You go here?” Ahmed asked, pointing at a spot on the map that I don’t even think was a station.
“Yeah sure dude, whatever, let’s bounce.” Why break the streak by having any idea what was going on at this point?
We hopped on a metro train that had just pulled into the station and sat down. I still wasn’t sure if Ahmed was trying to rob me.
Ahmed started talking to the pretty girl sitting across from us and I gradually realized from her blushing that he was trying to fix us up.
My entire end of the conversation with Ahmed was “What? Thanks. WHAT? Okay, sure.”
The subway car squealed eerily, like a giant bat.
Ahmed kept saying something to me, in English that was more utterly devastated than broken. I took his gist to mean he was quitting the trap game, but the pretty girl spoke a speck of English and translated his ramblings as meaning I needed to get off and take the tram in a few stops.
Then Ahmed stood up, somehow managed to shake my hand and give me a high five at the same time, and he was gone.
A few stops later the pretty girl sweetly reminded me that hey dumbass, this is your stop, and I was off.
I stepped off the subway expecting to run into the Turkish Bikini Team, a half dozen swarthy mustachioed men wearing speedos no mom I told you I’m not gay.
I somehow got on the right tram and there I was, taking in the sights Istanbul had provided just for my entertainment.
They have a store called SOK! that I would shop at no matter what they sell, even if it’s not 4,000 identical pairs of socks like I’ve been dreaming.
Istanbul also has stop signs that just say DUR on them! Come on, that was obviously just for me.
Hey, Turkey still has Little Caesars! So that’s where they went.
They call their light rail system hafifmetro (half metro?) which I found utterly adorable. As well as this:
They also have the world’s most colorful garbage trucks, which have a huge QR code on the side, in case you’ve heard good things about this garbage and want to learn more.
I found myself wandering through the Grand Bazaar before it was actually open, having mistaken Bazaar folk for morning people. A few random vendors were getting their fake jeans ready for sale, but the primary residents were Istanbul’s fantastic collection of cats. These cats are everywhere and they have no time at all for any of your bullshit.
Cats are often standoffish, but these cats were fuckoffish. I’d never had an animal stare right through me while yawning telepathically before.
Up on a hill overlooking Istanbul sits Galata Tower, where you can take in the 360-degree view from their tiny wraparound balcony with 400 of your closest friends, while the patrons in the restaurant inside attempt to eat with your ass cheeks pressed against the window six inches from their faces.
In spite of all of this, the view is quite great.
Istanbul looks a bit like San Francisco, if aliens dropped mosques all over San Francisco just to mess with the pleebs.
After taking the elevator up to the top of Galata Tower I opted to take the spiral staircase down. This choice was made before I learned that the stairwell ceiling is four feet tall all the way down, forever shattering my mental image of ancient Turks as big motherfuckers.
You walk through a series of charmingly crooked, steep alleyways past endless oddball shops to get to Galata, then suddenly you turn a corner and the tower is right there in your face, making it tough to fit the whole thing into any kind of decent photo.
Elsewhere, the interior of the Blue Mosque was closed for renovations, so I had to settle for wandering around outside in the fog and soaking up the mosqueyness of it all, imaging what the inside looked like. I hear it’s blue.
If you only have time to see one thing in Istanbul, go to Little Caesars. No, I’m kidding, go to Hagia Sophia. It’s a mosque, it’s a Christian cathedral, it’s a museum. It’s everything interesting about Istanbul and the city’s mashup of east and west, Europe and Asia, Islam and Christianity.
It’s huge, it’s beautiful, and it’s full of hilarious cats.
Why is there a giant owl with a woman’s face on the ceiling? Cuz Istanbul!
Sticking your thumb into the hole in this column is known to cure sneaker deformities:
My favorite thing in Turkey was this mosaic on the wall upstairs, of Mary and John the Baptist nagging Christ to do them a solid and intercede on behalf of humanity. Photos don’t quite capture the visceral pain in their faces or the way the tiny gold tiles sparkle in the sunlight.
Another treat was the unassuming marble hand rail overlooking the gallery that had been graffitied with HALFDAN WUZ HERE by a Viking invader in the 800s. I would share a picture of this but I just realized I took a photo of some entirely unrelated graffiti probably scratched into the railing by an Italian tourist last week.
Down the street, the underground Basilica Cistern turns out to be one of those rare places that looks better in photos than real life. Not my photos, mind you, that would be horrific. But the good ones.
Water dripped on my head from the ceiling as strange music and the sound of tourists mating echoed through the dank underground caverns. It struck me that this would be an amazing place to stumble into on accident, alone. Shuffling through it with the entire population of Muncie, Indiana, not so much.
The Medusa heads at the base of the columns seemed to have backfired and turned themselves into stone.
Walking through the Istanbul airport, I passed one gate that was clearly reserved for the damned. The entire gate was roped off with security barriers, corralling its overflowing mass of poor, trapped inhabitants far too tightly into a claustrophobic herd. At least a dozen children screamed in unison as the denizens of this inner circle of hell were sausage machined through four separate and apparently redundant security checks. I felt deeply sorry for these poor sons of bitches. I walked the full length of this carnival of pain out of pure morbid curiosity, wondering just how much worse this shitshow could get. Then I saw something that stopped me dead in my tracks.
Oh fuck this is my gate.
I cringed, twice. I considered just staying in Istanbul forever, painfully deciding that I really didn’t want to open a rug shop, and reluctantly waded into line. Cultures clashed as passengers from India, Pakistan and points unknown modeled their unique concepts of acceptable line behavior. I had my passport and boarding pass examined at four separate checkpoints, each one making it obvious I was not the droids they’re looking for. An airline employee at the third counter took one look at the outside cover of my American passport and waved me through with a dismissive “Hibye.”
On the plane, a family settled in behind me. Their toddler began kicking the back of my seat and singing off key before we even took off, as their baby settled into ten and a half hours of uninterrupted screaming. Travel is very glamorous!
I shoved my earbuds deeper into the soft sides of my brain and reflected on my experienced travel friends who invariably splurge for exit rows, business class, noise cancelling headphones, Ambien, and hiring a recently released convict to punch you in the face repeatedly until you wake up puffy and rested at your destination.
Instead, I was working on this flight, so I cracked open my laptop, cranked up my loudest playlist, and lost myself in getting things done. Five hours flew by. Wow. I think I just might have this thing beat! Before I know it I’ll be in-
My laptop screen went black, then crackled with static, then powered down. Reboot. Your computer has suffered a thermal event. Reboot. No boot drive found. No boot drive found. No boot drive found.