Shopkeepers in Grand Bazaar, Istanbul

Istanbul is no doubt a great place for shopping. Have a walk in the Grand Bazaar, a virtual labyrinth of fascinating shops; it’s easy to be drawn by the carpets, copper and brassware, jewelry and all kinds of ceramics.

Hmm, no. My story is not titled ‘Shopping in Istanbul’. I’m more interested in people.

It didn’t take long for me to realize this special and interesting culture of Turkish shopkeepers: the ‘Where are you from?’ culture.

The day I arrived in Istanbul I was told that shopkeepers there like to ask that question (if not a little obsessed with it), and no matter what country you answer they will tell you they have a close relative living there, very close to you. I had no idea how true that piece of information was as I’d just arrived in the city. I started wandering around touristy places and reached the Grand Bazaar. I was fascinated by the nicely arranged shops and the colorful ceramics. I stopped at one or two of the atmospheric little shops, was asked where I was from, but didn’t pay much attention to that until I reached this carpet shop.

The shopkeeper started by quite an odd opening, ‘Your eyes are tired.’

Feeling a bit puzzled, I stopped.

‘You’ve seen too many carpets, your eyes are tired.’

‘Ah, yes, quite.’ I was just trying to give the desired answer; I hadn’t seen any carpet at all.

‘Where are you from?’

‘Canada,’ said my partner.

‘Oh, my wife is from Canada,’ he said with that look as if he’d just found a long lost friend. ‘What about you, lady?’

‘Hmm, Hong Kong.’

‘My wife’s sister is now living in Hong Kong!’ The way he responded gave me the impression that I was only given a standard response. If I said ‘Taiwan’ his wife’s sister would have been living in Taiwan; or if I said ‘Japan’, then the response would have been rephrased with Japan.

The rest of the conversation was all about his carpet shop, where the carpets were from, how they were made and such. I didn’t pay much attention, as I was still amused by his response, remembering what I was told when I arrived.

As we kept walking around the Bazaar, we saw so many more shopkeepers who asked just this very same question, ‘Where are you from?’ Quite predictably, a lot of them had some brothers, sisters, nephews, or uncles living very close to us. I couldn’t understand why, but instead of finding it annoying, we found it quite amusing. Each time we were asked that question by a new shopkeeper we exchanged smile as if we were saying, ‘Hee, another one!’ Sometimes we would even prepare a surprising answer to see how they would respond.

We didn’t count how many times we were asked that question, but we would definitely have failed and lost count if we had tried.

Things were pretty much the same in other parts of Turkey.

In Antalya, even the restaurants asked the same question. Each time we walked past an eating-place the friendly waiters would rush to us and show us each item on their menu. In the conversations, they never forgot to ask where we were from.

I remember this one restaurant just at the entrance of the old town. We were not interested in the place, but were stopped by a very talkative waiter. As expected he began by asking that question, we didn’t answer. He continued promoting his restaurant. Still, we were not interested, so we said ‘Thank you’ and walked away. As we walked, we heard the fading voice of the waiter, asking, ‘Where are you from? Hey, where are you from?’ I couldn’t help but feel really puzzled this time. Why was he so interested in asking that, even if we were walking away, obviously not interested in what he was selling?

If I was to write a list of fun memories of my trip to Turkey, ‘Where are you from?’ would no doubt be the top of it. I’d never answered that question so many times in my life, come to think of it.

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