Expat lesson: the concern of Turks

I’m hardly the first to point out how nice, hospitable, and gracious Turkish people are, and beyond the typical tourist interactions of waiters, guides, and hotel staff, I’m finding out how deeply their concern runs for foreigners. Each Turk that I’ve met and asked for recommendations on restaurants or help on getting errands done has offered to make calls for me or accompany me to the cell phone store, which I often happily accept. In a few situations, I’ve found the concern of strangers to be a little much, albeit well-meaning and thoughtful.

Last week, I went to my local tekel (the Istanbul version of a bodega, a corner shop for your snack, sundry, and drink needs) which I frequent nearly every day and went through my usual transaction. This time, as I went to pay, one of the shopkeepers began pointing to my shoulder and telling me something in Turkish. We went through a long pantomime (does he want me to put the bag in my purse? Take something out of my purse? I had no idea) until finally the other man indicated that his friend wanted me to zip my purse shut. He called him “the policeman,” though I’m not sure if that was a real title, and once I closed my bag, everyone was happy. Since then, every time I go in, we have to go through the ritual of him warning me of potential street dangers and me elaborately closing my purse to thieves.

Later that day, after a failed look at an apartment, I was walking up Tarlabasi Boulevard to catch the metro home. Tarlabasi is a long street that stretches north from Taksim Square, parallel to Istiklal (previously mentioned shopping street) and very close to many great Beyoglu restaurants and bars. Every guidebook will warn you to stay away from this “pre-gentrified” (Frommers) neighborhood, especially at night, as it tends to be on the seedy side. I’ve been there a few times in the daytime, as there is nothing Husband likes more than an atmospheric neighborhood with crumbling buildings, laundry hanging above the streets, and graffiti galore (in fact, he thinks we should buy property there). I wouldn’t call it scary, but I’ve heard at night you can find a brisk drug and sex trade happening (see this NPR story). At any rate, the main boulevard is busy and perfectly safe during the day and I was a straight shot to Taksim. As I was walking along, a Turkish man came up next to me and asked me something about if I was lost. I said no thanks and kept going, but he continued to walk beside me and ask me questions while I shrugged and apologized for my lack of Turkish. He ended up walking me all the way to the metro station, standing in traffic to let me cross streets, and chattering on about who knows what. When we did get to Taksim, I said I was fine now and thanked him, and he finally walked on, looking over his shoulder to make sure I was alright. I’m sure he had the best of intentions, but it was all a little awkward.

When I arrived at the metro station, I went in through an entrance that only has elevator access, with one entrance door at the front and the opposite door for exit on the platform level. As it was crowded, I moved to the rear of the elevator, but ended up with my back to the door, as I could only turn around by rubbing up again several of my fellow passengers. As I stood facing the other people, who were clearly concerned that my back was to the door which would soon open, I heard some murmuring and someone indicated to me in Turkish that there was a door behind me. I nodded and said tamam, it’s okay, but they continued to look bothered. Finally a man mustered up in English, “Sorry…the door…Will open…Behind you.” Exasperated with the concern of Turks, I yelled, “I know!” quickly followed by a softer teşekkür ederim, and quickly swiveled around when the doors opened and got off the elevator.

I may be a foreigner, but I’m not a complete idiot. Unsolicited advice is just part of the Turkish friendliness but if I need help, I’ll ask in butchered Turkish, çok merci.

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