Istanbul Blue Mosque Interior

Istanbul & the Tout Experience

Breakfast this morning at the hotel was pretty good, but for me, it’s hard to eat such rich food so early. The spread included bread with jam, sliced tomatoes, cucumbers, and peppers, black olives, yogurt, sigara böreği (fried dough with cheese inside that are rolled up and resemble mini cigars), fruit and Nescafe, a poor substitute for real coffee. Unfortunately, after eating, I was left with a sour stomach and not feeling so well. I hoped it wasn’t something I’d just ate.

I began to get a little worried as I headed out of the guesthouse, hoping that I would not find myself sick from eating anything sketchy while being here. Although it’s a concern of mine, I tried to put it out of my mind and focus on the fact that I was in Constantinople, a very old place …. I was in Istanbul!

However, I didn’t really come to this city for its history. My reason for coming to Turkey was to see an old friend, check out some ancient Roman ruins, and to experience a culture totally new to me.  I usually don’t prefer big cities because for me they are sometimes too impersonal but I couldn’t come to Turkey and NOT go to Istanbul! I mean, who does that?

So I was a little surprised that my first impression of Istanbul was not a positive one.

I knew from reading about it that I probably wouldn’t like it, because it’s very crowded (with 14 million people) and everywhere you turn there is some tout trying to rip you off. Being raised in New Jersey, I am used to having my bullshit detector up and running 24/7, but my first morning here it was going off like every five minutes.

Case in point: I planned my first morning to visit the Blue Mosque and the Hippodrome and get acquainted with where I was. Normally this is how I spend my first few hours in a new place – getting oriented. As I was walking, touts began talking to me as I passed them, offering me food, tours and visits to their shops.

“Hello, miss. Where are you from?” was the opening line. I just kept walking. No, I didn’t want to be sold anything, I had my own itinerary.

By the time the fifth person, in a time span of ten minutes, tried to stop me and sell me a tour, I got annoyed. “I’m not interested!!” I said, louder than I should have, at the man trying to hand me a flyer of his city tour. “Why don’t you smile?” he asked. Well, maybe I could if you people just left me alone. I mean, I just got here yesterday, am jet lagged, have killer PMS, am tired and trying to find my way around, I don’t need to be solicited on top of that!

After ten minutes of fending off this type of badgering, I finally made it to the front of the Blue Mosque. I stood in front of it staring, basking in the beauty and immensity of this building built in the 1600s as a testament to Ottoman power, when I was approached by a young Turkish guy who began talking to me.

He began telling me about the mosque and how it was a bit controversial when it was being built, since Sultan Ahmet built it upon the palace grounds of the Byzantine emperors, facing their basilica (the Hagia Sophia) as an in-your-face display of Ottoman power. I thought it great that I was getting a bit of history from a local who asked for nothing except for someone to listen to what he had to say. We chatted for a bit, but I was ready to get a move on; I had stuff to do. I told him I was going inside and that it was nice to meet him. He shook my hand and said, “Wait. When you come out, I will take you to my carpet shop so you can look around. I will wait for you to come out on the other side.”

Sigh.

I don’t want to go to a carpet shop. I’m definitely not in the market for a carpet, I don’t even have my own place! I shrugged him off at that point, saying, “Yeah, sure, OK” while mentally plotting ways to avoid him on my way out.

Istanbul, Outside of the Blue Mosque

Istanbul, Outside of the Blue Mosque

At the mosque’s entrance I removed my shoes, put on a headscarf and entered inside. The interior is immaculately beautiful, designed with turquoise and gold. But aside from the beautiful patterns on the walls and dome, it’s pretty much empty. With not much to see, I did a quick look around and I left after about ten minutes. Coming out of the mosque, there was no sign of the guy outside. I quickly slipped on my shoes and bounced out of there. Yes!! I thought. Home free!

I walked as fast as I could heading straight towards the Hagia Sophia when from my left another young guy selling postcards stopped me. “Excuse me, where are you from?” We spoke for a few minutes and then he asked me to meet him later that evening for tea at his jewelry shop. I was not interested in the slightest and to break myself away from the situation, I told him I’d meet him there in a few hours. “I will wait for you,” he said. Great. Why didn’t I just say no?

I was jet lagged and needed some coffee big time. Coming off a 2-4 cup of coffee habit back in New Jersey, the Nescafe at the hotel breakfast just didn’t do a thing for me. I needed some mental clarity. I sat down at a table outside the first café I saw and ordered a cappuccino. After I placed the order, I noticed the menu on the table and decided to give it a look. I knew I should have checked it out beforehand, but the mental fog had me off my game.

How much could a cappuccino cost? Five Turkish Lira? So what. Well, no, not in front of the Blue Mosque! It was nine Turkish Lira! That’s like almost five dollars!! For a three-sip cappuccino. As soon as I saw the price I wanted to leave, but I couldn’t because I’d already ordered it and the waiters were all standing outside. And so I downed my three-sip, 9TL cappuccino in a matter of two minutes and paid the bill.

Note to self #1: Always check prices first. And never sit in front of a tourist site to eat/drink/do anything unless you plan on paying multiple times over for that view.

I can’t help but feel like I’m missing something here. I’ve been told about the magic of this city, but I’m just not feeling it. I don’t think Istanbul and I have had a proper introduction. So far, my first impressions have left me wanting to just get the hell out of here and into the countryside. Is it the jet lag? Caffeine withdrawal? The cloudy and rainy weather? This was not how I imagined it at all.

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