I’m not sure about the rest of Turkey, but from what I can tell walking around the neighborhood in Beyoğlu is it is a country that still holds on to the tradition of specialized shops. If you want to buy meat you visit the butcher, if you want to buy a lamp then there’s several stores that only carry lamps, if you want keys made there are key cutters around every corner who may or may not offer to rent you an apartment, if you want soap of any variety you walk down to the soap store.
Jason and I needed laundry detergent today because the last time we used powdered detergent I broke out into hives for a week. The same friendly shop keeper was there who had sold us a bar of soap and loofah the day before. The shop is nothing but a small room no larger than a janitor’s closet packed with items chaotically organized on shelves by someone with a type B personality. We told the shop keeper that we needed detergent in English. He repeated the word “detergent” to signify that he understood and held up a plastic bag full of powder. We told him that we wanted liquid. He pointed to a medium-sized bottle on the shelf which cost seven lira ($2.60). I asked the clerk if he had anything smaller. He held up his finger indicating that we should we wait, he grabbed something behind the counter, and pulled out a small plastic water bottle. He held it up so that we could see, typed three numbers on a calculator and showed us the price. It read three lira ($1.10). When we approved of the price, he filled the container from a larger detergent bottle and made a few Sharpie markings on the side as an estimate of how much we should use for each load.
“So this is how they do it in Turkey,” I said laughing, “I like this guy’s style.”
As one might expect, there is certainly a negative side to this casual method of doing things. When the rules seem more or less made up as you go along, they also can change unexpectedly. While running errands, we stopped in a little shop to make copies of the keys to Joe’s apartment. Behind the counter sat two women, both of whom were watching the television and texting. To their left was a man operating the machine that cuts new keys. Gazing out over their shoulders was the omnipresent visage of Atatürk. With the exception of the first president of the republic, there were huge smiles all around once we walked in. It’s pretty obvious that we’re foreigners and with this undoubtedly in mind, one of the women thought to ask if we were looking for a flat.
“Maybe,” I said. “We’re not sure how long we’ll end up staying here.” This was one of those conversations in which half of the communication is handled through wild gestures and pointing but it was quite friendly and we all had a laugh each time we reached a mutual understanding. In a flash she had an English-speaking friend on speakerphone. Our keys had been taken care of for some time by this point. “We have a place for 2,500 lira per month, no bills included.” After this, the two had a conversation in Turkish while we stood awkwardly looking at our watches.
“Why don’t we come back with our friend who speaks Turkish?”
Suddenly her demeanor changed. Gone was the warm smile that suggested we might possibly be the most wonderful Americans to ever grace her key-making and apartment hunting business.
She said “OK” in a way that sounded suspiciously like “Please don’t.” I could only conclude that from her point of view, there are specific rules for renting to people who can’t understand you.
Turkey is the kind of country where charisma is its own currency. There’s many different shops that all sell much of the same thing and many different restaurants that serve the same menu, but the difference is the people working. The immigrants here tell us to frequent the same places because the staff will eventually cut you deals if you return often enough and are a sociable person. Striking up conversations at a bar or restaurant can give you the contacts you need to find a good job. Walking into a school and asking for a job can lead to two-hour interviews where you spend most of the time talking about your favorite comedians and telling jokes. Telling jokes can lead to academic directors offering you a job on the spot. Turkey is the kind of country where a silver tongue is better than a Buy One, Get One coupon and a Golden Ticket rolled up into one.