Tuesdays are important in my Istanbul neighbourhood of Balat. It’s the day the housewives bring out their trolley bags and stroll down the streets to Mahkeme Altı Caddesi, appropriately dressed with, at least for most of them, the headscarf firmly in place. Because at Mahkeme Altı Caddesi, a seemingly never-ending line of stalls have set up, offering the freshest, juiciest and tastiest fruits, vegetables, cheese and olives imaginable. And nylon stockings, baby shoes and clothes pegs, if that’s what your after.
It’s market day.
And in the midst of all of these housewives, many coming down from the nearby conservative neighbourhoods, there’s me. Half the age, slightly blondish, with bright red trousers and a huge yellow scarf. The only appropriate part of me is probably my beard, though perhaps even that is a little on the short side. I hardly need to utter my still somewhat basic Turkish to reveal my foreignness.
To most traders, it makes no difference. A small number see an opportunity to inflate prices, at least for the goods for which more or less improvised cardboard signs do not already announce their prices. They are easy to spot, however: a little pause or flickering of the eyes, however short or little, before responding to my “ne kadar?” (“how much”) gives away that the price I am being offered is in all likelihood not the same as the 60-year-old lady with a headscarf and black dress who was here a few minutes ago. It won’t be dramatically different though, perhaps a lira or two per kilo, and still very cheap by any standards. Still others, a little more confident and outgoing, see a real opportunity to make money from this funny foreigner strolling down the market. –Good afternoon brother! Welcome! Where are you from?, they ask with a wide smile.
When I first started going to the market, I naturally had little idea of the prices, except everything being cheaper than London, where I had just come from. A lot cheaper. Prices may also fluctuate a lot, even from one week to the next, depending on changing demand and supply, making it even more confusing for a newcomer like me. Because it is the fruit and veg I have come for, not the nylon stockings or socks, the prices of which I presume do not change much from one week to the next. So when I was charged 12 Turkish liras for a decent bag of vegetables from one of those outgoing sellers in my first week, I didn’t think much of it. That is, from his attitude it was fairly obvious that the price might have been inflated and I did think I should probably have bargained a little bit. But, Norwegian as I am, I thought the difference would be very little and few, if any, other stalls were selling the goods I were after in any case. And since, at the time, I’d rather not bargain if it can be avoided, I convinced myself that it wasn’t necessary this time.
It wasn’t going to be long before I learned to put those sorts of thoughts away.
–Hello dear brother! How are you! What can I do for you today?
I can still see his shiny eyes as he let go of what he was doing and held out his hand to welcome me when I came back the following week. He was so overly happy to see me again that my first thought wasn’t “oh, that’s nice” but rather “Shit. How much did he overcharge last week?”.
–I’m fine thanks, how about you? How much is the red cabbage today?, I asked.
He wanted two liras for it, pretty much standard price across the market. I also asked for a bunch of coriander and a beautiful red chicory, neither of which are common in Turkey. How much? 12 liras this week too.
–Olmaz! Impossible! In that case I’ll only take the red cabbage, I said, shuffling the bunch of coriander and red chicory out of my bag. Even I knew that charging 10 liras for a small bunch of coriander and a single chicory was outrageous. So outrageous you don’t even bargain, just act offended.
The price immediately dropped to nine liras and after a bit of back and forth we agreed on seven for the lot, around half of his first price. It was probably still one of the better deals of the day for him, to be honest, though perhaps not as good as the prior week.
Next week, I’ll aim for five liras.
This text was written in December 2015, shortly after I moved to Istanbul.
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