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By Henry A. Barrios / The Californian
By HERB BENHAM, Californian columnist firstname.lastname@example.org
Whatever expectations I had about Istanbul and Turkey were wrong.
If Turkey had been a stock, I would have shorted it and that stock would have been Google and paid wild dividends.
Water everywhere. The Bosphorus, the Golden Horn, the Black Sea. When you come from a place with a dry river, it's hard not to be thrilled by water.
What a people, a country and a sense of purpose. Those of us who may have forgotten how to work could take lessons from the Turks, who work as if their lives and after-lives depended on it.
This is what you need for Istanbul: a smile, an open heart, stamina and a good pair of shoes. Maybe that combination works everywhere.
We met Australians, New Zealanders, Chinese and Italians. You can gorge on sights like the Blue Mosque, get slapped around and doused with buckets of hot water in the Turkish baths, yet 50 percent of the pleasure in travel still comes from friends made in airports, buses and cafes -- from comparing notes and swapping numbers and addresses as if you have been lifelong friends.
Lunch or dinner is fertile ground. I am a fan of the dumb question to get things rolling. You hear Italian being spoken at the next table and so you ask the natural question: "Are you from Italy?"
Usually, people smile because the dumb question is disarming. Now you are their "special" friend. You've made them feel smart and lucky.
Doing business is a good way of meeting Turks; it's hard to imagine anybody enjoying the art of the deal as much as they do. Transactions, even with the haggling, have an almost sacred quality to them.
We visited the spice market, adjacent to the Grand Bazaar, the granddaddy of all markets in Istanbul. You get the sense that you could buy a Russian-made tank tucked away in the dank underground floors of the market, should there have been some, as easily as a lacy pair of gold earrings.
A dark-haired Russian in his 40s with tired eyes manned his stall, heaped with barrels of spices. I wanted to dive into a barrel and flip myself over like a rib-eye.
I bought bags of dry rub for fish and meat, dried pomegranate seeds for rice dishes, coarse lemon-flavored salt and a hunk of tamarind.
"Give me a deal," I said, when we finished.
He named a price which was 20 euros, or about $25 below where we started, and we shook hands.
"Would you like some tea?" he asked.
With that he snapped his fingers and a man from another stall brought over a silver tray stacked with tulip-shaped glasses and we drank apple tea for the next 20 minutes.
That's Turkey. Negotiate, do business and then drink tea and talk about life.
On a Sunday, we tried to take the Metro across the Galata Bridge in order to visit Topkapi Palace. We'd bought Metro cards, which give access to buses, subways and ferries.
We'd used all of the credit on our Metro cards and a woman in her 30s noticed that we were puzzled and unable to find an open subway office in order to put more money on the cards.
"Let me pay for you," she said. "I have money on my card."
Turkey is Thomas' friend, Ceren, a former intern at Chez Panisse, who met us at Kenan Usta on our last night in Istanbul. Kenan Usta is where the lamb kebabs cooked over an open fire and the chopped salad were so good, we had returned for a second meal.
"How do you like my home?" she asked.
She was sweet, proud and hopeful.
We like it. It's Google. With more history and a better deal on leather belts.
Even the call to prayer, something that is broadcast over loud speakers five times a day so Muslims know it's time to pray, was moving. Not threatening, but striking. For the non-believer, the call to prayer can act as a call to the present moment.
Istanbul is clean, the streets are washed, the trash picked up and the public bathrooms spotless.
Pack good shoes. Open your heart. How can you not smile?