You may think, visiting a bazaar, in Turkey or anywhere else in the world where bazaars form a part of everyday life, shouldn’t be a problem and might hardly warrant giving instructions. Ok, you know the basics: watch your purse, be aware of pick pockets and otherwise just enjoy. Think again. Navigating a Turkish bazaar is an art form and you will only enjoy the experience if you are prepared.
What to expect.
Whether you step off a cruise ship in the picturesque port of Kusadasi on Turkey’s Aegean coast for a day’s sightseeing or have landed at Istanbul’s Atatürk airport for a prolonged stay, sooner or later you’ll want to buy one of the many fabulous products Turkey is so famous for. There are carpets, tiles, gold jewellery, copper ware, leather goods, lace, the list is endless and the appropriate place where to obtain them is of course the bazaar.
Be prepared for an assault on all of your senses: eyes, ears and nose. The best example to explain bazaar etiquette is the enormous covered Grand Bazaar in Istanbul’s Sultanahmed district. It’s the biggest and oldest covered bazaar in the world and was founded in 1461. The place sports 60 streets and alleys, over 3600 shops and stalls and covers no less than 30.600 sqm.
The bemused and stunned tourist preferably enters through the main gate which features a clock. Before being able to get one’s bearings however, the first vendor already jumps in your path and shouts at you: “Hallo, excuse me, where are you from?” Yes, as soon as a sandaled, camera touting tourist is spotted, he or she is addressed in English. Should there be a slight hesitation in the tourist’s reaction, the words are quickly changed to German and, particularly in Istanbul, Spanish.
“Come to my shop, see my carpets, gold..” whatever. Right from the beginning resign yourself to the fact, that the verbal assault will continue relentlessly throughout your visit.
How to react
Any visitor who enters a bazaar needs to realise, that trade runs in the Turkish blood. Don’t forget that you are visiting a country which historically is the cross roads between Asia and Europe. Silk Road, Spice Road, the carpet dealers of Smyrna, all have played an important role in Turkish history and trade. Turkish shop owners, traders and vendors just can’t help themselves. Praising their wares and attracting customers by directly addressing them, is their way of life.
Admittedly, the constant verbal assault is somewhat nerve-racking. You may already be carrying several packets and parcels, but that won’t deter anyone from trying to get your attention and wanting to sell you even more. All you want it just peacefully look at the displays and ask about an object if it really catches your interest. Fat chance. Turkish vendors seem to think that people can’t look for themselves, they must be made aware of all the marvels in their shops by loudly pointing them out. It goes without saying that absolutely everyone has “the best price”.
First rule of conduct for the visitor: plaster a big smile on your face and keep it there, until your jaws hurt. I’ve seen an elderly British tourist who had had enough and shouted back at yet another shop keeper : “Go away”. Big mistake. The Turkish trader took offence, turned outraged to his stuff and very nearly a big brawl erupted. The frightened Brit took to his heels and disappeared quickly into a side alley before matters could get out of hand.
So, you have a smile on your face. So far so good. You then tend to shake your head, meaning: ‘no, thanks, I’m not interested.’ In Turkey shaking your head means: ‘I don’t understand. Please say again’. Exactly what you don’t want. What you have to do, is lift your chin and briefly jerk your head upwards. That’s the proper body language for ‘no’. It also shows, that you aren’t an ignorant and totally innocent tourist but a visitor who is familiar with the customs and traditions of the country and will earn you respect.
Don’t talk back
If you aren’t interested in the wares that are offered to you and don’t want to enter the shop, don’t answer the question where you are from. It inevitably leads to the following reply: I love (whatever), followed by the statement that the vendor in question has actually been to Berlin, Miami, Madrid etc. No place in the world can be too far fetched, the vendor or at least a member of his close family has been there. Taken in the right spirit this is quite entertaining and I have invented places I was allegedly from just to see if the expected reaction was forthcoming. Believe me, it never failed. Even if this game is your private pastime or entertainment, never let on. Be aware, that Turks are a very proud people and for all their charm and friendliness, they are easily offended. Never ever make fun of the vendors and their methods.
Another big mistake I have heard a tourist make was to deride the wares, calling them ‘overprized junk’. He got a fist shook in his face and was another one of those who were unaware of bazaar etiquette and had to beat a hasty retreat.
The best course of action is to keep smiling, jerking up the head instead of shaking it, not answering any questions as to one’s origins and to walk on. Otherwise, you are trapped into a conversation and being tempted to enter the shop out of politeness although you really do not want a carpet at all. It’s much more difficult to extricate yourself from a situation like that. If you just keep smiling and walk on, the vendor loses interest very quickly. After all, the next potential customer is right behind you.
Bargaining skills are the next chapter in bazaar etiquette. Praising the merchandise and being prepared to enter into lengthy haggling over the prize is as natural as breathing for the Turkish bazaar merchant. Actually a buyer, accepting the asking price would be a great disappointment and taking the fun out of the whole transaction. Before even going to the bazaar with a view of buying a souvenir, big or small, get your head around the concept. You even bargain about a pair of socks!
Let’s say you have seen the carpet of your dreams or a wonderful piece of jewellery, want to inspect it further and eventually buy it. The vendor will ask your name and introduce himself. You’ll follow Murat into his shop and, inevitably, offered tea. For some reason Turks believe that foreigners are extremely fond of apple tea. I personally dislike it, I much prefer Turkish coffee or Turkish tea. In fact, if you ask for Turkish tea you are a notch up in the vendor’s esteem. He will send out his helper for tea, it will arrive in due course on the swinging silver tray and you get down to business.
If you happen to be a cruise passenger, gone ashore in the port of Kusasadi or Antalya be aware of the following: as soon as a cruise ship casts anchor in port, the prices go up. I have experienced that first hand when trying to buy a pair of shoes in the morning. I asked the price, but didn’t decide there and then. A cruise ship came in in the afternoon and the same pair in the same shop had gone up in price by 1/3! It may well be, that the piece of gold or the carpet you have in mind, seems cheap to you compared to what it would cost in your home town. Even so, as a rule, offer half. The vendor will throw up his hands in despair, and tell you that it cost him even more wholesale. Impossible! He would be ruined! And the backwards and forwards offers continue. If it is an important piece, don’t be afraid to actually walk out. Never forget, always be polite and smile, but also be firm. He is bound to call you back, because the recession has hit Turkey as well as any other part of the world and a sale is a sale.
Once you have come to an agreement make sure you get a certificate if you buy gold or a carpet and also make sure that the price for shipping is included if the piece is too big for you to take with you. Also bear in mind, that your bargaining powers are even greater if you pay cash. Every bazaar has money exchange places and it’s well worth handing over Turkish Lira.
Be also aware, that Turkish shop owners are very proud of their wares. They will drag out more and more just to show you how much they have and they won’t stop even if you have already decided on a piece. It’s a sort of overkill and somewhat trying on the buyer’s patience. I must admit, that I walked out of a jeweler’s once because the man wouldn’t stop although I had already selected a bracelet and my valet in hand. Don’t hesitate to firmly point out, that you have seen enough. They’ll get the message eventually.
Bargain happily concluded, you shake hands, and parcel in hand, leave the shop. What happens next is the following: the owner of the shop opposite, selling the same merchandise, has seen it all. He jumps out: “Hallo, excuse me please, what’s your name? Come to my shop, I have best prices!!” Oh well it’s all part of the fun. Smile firmly in place, you jerk up your head and walk on.
The bazaars are by far not the only places where Turkish traders try to sell their wares and address tourists. Particularly in Istanbul, you are outside the Blue Mosque or the Hagia Sofia. “Hallo, excuse me please, where are you from?” a Turkish gentleman comes up to you. You are confused and think he may be a tour guide, so you say: “Thanks I don’t want a guided tour.” “I’m not a tour guide,” he will reply. “I don’t want your money. I have carpet shop nearby, come to see!!” Just be prepared, commerce is lurking everywhere.
Where to stay in Istanbul
As you’d expect from a city the size of Istanbul you’ll have no shortage of great places to stay and accommodation options. Whether you’re here for a long weekend and looking for budget accommodation, or you’re in the market for an Istanbul property to settle in to, you’ll find this cosmopolitan city is easily accessible and has both European and Asian influenced architecture.