Istanbul 2010: On Being American… and Blonde

Galata Bridge, March 8, 2010

I made one strategic error in preparing for my trip to Istanbul. I got my highlights done.

Istanbul’s a hard town for a white American girl to pretend to be a local. Even if I had kept my mouth shut, always hard for me to do, I stuck out like a sore American thumb. Or, as I learned with my hair freshly blonde, a Dutch, German or Australian thumb, all nationalities that restauranteurs shouted out at me as I passed them by.

One of the things I was really keen to do in Istanbul was stroll the Galata Bridge, which crosses the Golden Horn and is full of seafood restaurants. It looked so innocent… nice little stroll… the freshest of fresh fish…

Galata Bridge, March 8, 2010

But on the day that I visited, a rainy March afternoon, I was one of the few tourists on the bridge. And I was obviously from some exotic nation where the women speak English and their blonde locks wave in the breeze. Everyone but everyone wanted to have a chat with the American girl. I experienced this in Sultanahmet, the heart of the tourist district, as well, so had devised a new strategy. When the touts asked me if I was American and tried to get me to stop in for a çay (tea) and a chat, I replied, “¿Cómo? Soy española,” and smiled enigmatically, feigning confusion at these strange English words they were speaking. I figured I’d put that long lost Spanish major to use.

This strategy served me pretty well. My Spanish accent is convincing enough, and as anyone who’s visited Spain before knows, there are plenty of true españolas rubias. Though there are Turks in the tourism industry who speak Spanish, they are far outnumbered by those who speak English.  But, in a lovely turn of events, my language skills got put to the test. After dodging every man on the bridge and starting to feel a bit overwhelmed, a lovely young Turkish gentleman stepped up to me and handed me his card with a rare non-aggressive smile. “Listen, I know all those people are trying to get you to come spend your money. My family, we have a very good restaurant here. I will give you my card. If you come back another day, if you are hungry, you stop by. If you would like to come in now to get out of the cold, I will give you some çay. But no pressure. You are my guest.”

If it was just his routine, it worked. I happily settled into a table with my sweet (and free) cup of tea. When I confided to my new restauranteur friend how I had been pretending to be Spanish, I was treated to, “Estoy aprendido español. ¿Quizás practiquemos?” I prattled away happily in my rusty Spanish for nearly an hour to my new friend.

At this stage, you have probably assumed that the man I’m photographed with at the top of this post is my dear new Spanish-learning friend. Alas, no. This guy, like all the other touts on the bridge, was busy watching me inside his competitor’s restaurant while I sipped my tea. He just wanted a photo with the American girl who spoke Spanish. Normally, I would have looked away and picked up my pace. Warmed, though, by a cup of çay and some human kindness, I obliged.

Galata Bridge, March 8, 2010

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