A Winter Day in Istanbul

One thing that so much travel has taught me is that there are learning opportunities everywhere, whether in your own back yard or halfway around the world, and that sort of learning need not be like trying to stay awake in an overheated lecture hall too soon after lunch. In fact, it can even be entertaining. Of course, sometimes it can be disturbing, but almost always worthwhile, even if it takes you years - or decades - to grasp its significance. Here’s an example of belated understanding that illustrates the educational aspect of travel.

At the University of Connecticut (speaking of overheated lecture halls) I minored in French, and in one of my French classes there learned the term une dame d’un certain âge, a wonderful term for a woman over 40 who leads a chic and adventurous life, and whose youthful verve is balanced by the wisdom and experience of a mature person. This worldly woman is also likely to have a handsome young male escort on her arm as she attends parties, shops, travels, and otherwise enjoys life to the fullest.

At 19 years old, I couldn’t imagine why a young man would prefer the company of an older woman and assumed that this dame must pay her escort for his time with her, but I never could pin down my French instructor on that point. As the years passed and no handsome young man who was eager for my company rather than my money ever appeared at my elbow, I wondered if perhaps the payment part was true. It wasn’t until I visited Turkey on a business trip in my early 40’s that I learned the truth of the matter.

While in Istanbul, I spent a free afternoon on a cold, wet winter day shopping in the Grand Bazaar, a labyrinthine market filled with interesting, sometimes exotic products, from gorgeous Oriental rugs to shiny gold jewelry to evil eye talismans, all hawked by aggressive but friendly vendors who would do just about anything short of dragging you by the arm to get you into their shop. Plying you with hot, sweet Turkish tea poured out of ornate copper teapots into glass cups, they would display dozens of tempting items and vigorously (though politely) combat your every effort to leave without making a purchase. It was entertaining but tiring, and after a few hours I made my escape, stepping out of the Bazaar into a sea of mud that was nowhere near the entrance I had used. Lost again: the story of my life.

Lugging a rolled area rug destined for my living room and a heavy, bulky leather jacket for my husband (quite possibly the most foolish purchases one could make abroad, with the possible exception of the Muslim prayer mat I bought in Amsterdam at age 18 when I had only a backpack to carry all my worldly goods), I waded through the mud in search of a well-traveled street with taxis available. Such a street was oddly hard to find near a tourist attraction like the Grand Bazaar, but then again, it was January – not at all peak tourist season. (Which illustrates the sad truth about business travel—its timing is  rarely as felicitous as vacation travel.)

As I trudged along, I was surprised to suddenly find at my side a handsome young man who said, “Tünaydın [good afternoon]. My name is Davut. And you are?”

Unable to come up with a false name on such short notice*, I said, “I am Jean.”

With a slight bow, he held out his hands and said, “Here, Madam Jean. I will carry that for you.”

If you wonder why I’d lie about my name, the answer is my Northeast USA upbringing, during which a big social mantra was: Don’t talk to strangers. In truth, my travels have often made it necessary for me to talk to strangers (assuming we could find a common language), and rarely with a bad outcome (but some day I’ll tell the story of my visit to a South American country under chaotic military rule). And where I live now in the rural South, there is no such thing as a stranger—or not for long, anyway.

But Istanbul was (to me) an exotic mystery, a strange mixture of East and West, where one of the first sights I saw was a man walking a large bear on a leash down a city sidewalk. I was a woman alone in a country brand new to me, and right or wrong, I felt that caution would be wise.

My own safety was more important than (and not as heavy as) the rug I’d bought, so I allowed Davut to take the rolled-up rug while I kept my grip on the leather jacket, and we went on down the sidewalk side-by-side. As we walked, he told me about all the marvelous sights I must see in Istanbul. He pointed at the almost hallucinatory splendor of the Hagia Sophia, which I remembered from a college course in Byzantine architecture. Originally a Greek Orthodox church, then converted to a mosque when Ottoman forces conquered the city, it was then a marvelous museum that I would have loved to visit, business meetings permitting, but not necessarily on the arm of young Davut.

He went on to suggest a day of sightseeing tomorrow, and oh yes, at what time could he collect me for dinner that night, and at which hotel was I staying? Dinner at a Turkish restaurant sounded good to my inner gourmand, but coward that I am, I pretended that I hadn’t heard him. He went on to ask where did I live? To what address should he ship my rug, so I need not bother to carry it everywhere my travels took me? Did I need perhaps to convert some US dollars into Turkish lira? Because Davut knew of very interesting souvenirs I might wish to buy, if I would kindly allow him to escort me to….

Eventually he paused to take a breath, and during that pause I asked, “Why are you being so nice to me?”

Davut shrugged and said, “It is winter. Business is slow.”

Wanting to laugh, I realized that I had finally become une dame d’un certain âge in this exotic place far, far from home, while my stalwart husband worked and tended our dogs and cats and shoveled snow in a middle class New England suburb. Fortunately at this point I finally spotted a taxi ahead and made my escape after reclaiming my rug and thanking Davut for his help – dubious as that help might have been. Shopping had emptied my wallet of Turkish lira, so I left him without even a small tip (note: in some countries, offering a tip is considered bad manners). By no means a chic and adventurous dame intent on romance and adventure, to this day I smile when I think about my handsome young Turkish eskort on a slow Istanbul winter day so long ago.

The Grand Bazaar, Istanbul, Turkey 


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