I almost got into a street fight with a Turkish guy, which really isn’t my style. It probably wouldn’t have gone particularly well for me, on account of the fact I was in Turkey at the time.
There were some communication issues, which ironically were made all the worse when my girlfriend, who did speak Turkish, began translating for me.
‘What is he shouting at me now then?’ I asked her, gesturing briefly for him to wait just a moment.
“He’s saying, ‘why is this woman speaking for you? Are you so weak you can’t speak for yourself?’”
‘What the hell is that supposed to mean?’ I yelled. ‘What century is this guy from?’ I was yelling in her direction now but he didn’t understand what I was saying, so he stopped yelling and just looked a bit confused, like might a man holding a gun whose hostages suddenly ignore him and start squabbling amongst themselves.
My girlfriend told me he was a conservative, “old school” Turkish man, as evidenced apparently by his moustache. Judging by this criterion, I deduced that approximately 100 percent of Turkish men over 40 are “conservative, old school Turkish men”.
My girlfriend explained again to the man that she was simply translating, but he just didn’t buy it. Apparently I looked Turkish, my girlfriend did not, all this translating nonsense was bullshit, and that was the end of it. To this man, there was simply no reason why she could speak his language and that I could not. Impressively, my girlfriend managed to keep a straight face during all of this.
The bizarre scene began when I declined his offer to shine my shoes. Having heard us speaking English he had determined our insurmountable wealth, and was rather taken aback by my refusal of his services.
Having appeared from nowhere, armed with some rags and a small bottle of alcohol, he had very politely offered to shine my cheap sneakers. I thanked him for his offer and tried (and failed) to explain that my ten-dollar shoes, with their matted cloth tops, were not actually a shine-able form of footwear and that I’d rather not have my shoes, socks and feet soaked for the rest of the day with whatever liquid he was attempting to rub into them. He (my girlfriend would later explain) told me that I was a rich westerner and a visitor to his country, and should therefore just be thankful and let him do his thing. I’d already had a few beers, no lunch and began to get irritated at his insistence.
I suggested kind of loudly that perhaps he might do better by just threatening tourists and demanding two Euros of them, lest he destroy their shoes (less overheads that way). He shouted something back at me which was not complementary, and another, older moustachioed man appeared silently from the shadows in support. At this point my girlfriend, who’d been standing there trying not to laugh, decided to step in and keep the peace, which surprised the hell out of both of them.
Eventually, nothing happened and everyone was fine. I gave the guy a couple of Lira for his time, and bowed slightly at him a couple of times (just instinctively, ‘cause that’s the done thing in Korea, where we lived). He took the money, grunted in thanks and looked at me like, ‘why is this idiot bowing at me?’
A few minutes later my girlfriend, still laughing, told me that I confuse Europeans, and others because, culturally speaking, I am apparently not assertive enough and then they can’t understand why I suddenly get angry. I told her I thought this was bullshit.
A minute later, a very friendly looking young man, yet to grow into his moustache, invited us into his very colourful carpet store to see some of his family’s hand-made Turkish carpets. My girlfriend decided to teach me a lesson. We went inside.
Suddenly I was sitting on the floor with the young man’s 130 year-old great, great (great?) grandmother, drinking tea and being heavily pressured into buying a carpet. 45 minutes later I was still politely trying to get out of there and the young man was less than friendly, as though it was my fault the old woman who once met Mozart had to be wheeled out of the back room for no good reason.
I took my smirking girlfriend’s point, and suggested we get the hell out of the tourist section of Istanbul.
For the record, this was one hour of what was a great week in Turkey. It’s an amazing country. If you’re ever in Istanbul and a super-friendly guy asks you to come into his store and see his carpets (and maybe meet his family), don’t do it… unless of course you want to buy a carpet.