Ann and I had a 48 hour layover in Istanbul last year. Newbies to the country, we decided to make the most of it. We visited the Aya Sofia, drooled over the colorful tile, and ate some kofta. Unbeknownst to Ann, I also had a secret mission. I wanted a rug.
I consider myself a good shopper. Furthermore, I am relentless, and I am frugal. Therefore (in my own mind anyway) I would return, victorious, the proud owner of a new (to me) kilim rug. It would be perfect, and it would be relatively inexpensive. I really don't know anything about rugs beyond the very basics. I couldn't tell you the difference between a Anatolian vs. a Sumak rug. I do, however, know what I like.
The first morning, Ann and I expertly wove past the standard hawkers and into the heart of the market. We found our destination, a booth recommended by a random blog. We were mentally prepared and we understood the custom. They would show us some rugs, we would drink a lot of tea, but there would be no pressure to buy.
No problem. We were there to play.
Our strategy? Don't react, or show any interest in the rugs. Smoothly sip our beverages and ask nonchalant questions. We even had a code phrase. The kind of phrase that gets you out of sticky situations, and sends a surreptitious message that only you and your haggling partner have the key to. In our case, the phrase signaled that we loved the rug in question, yet under no circumstances would we acknowledge that we were truly interested.
Yes, we thought we were crafty.
But then the actual rugs came. Hundreds of rugs. Hours of rugs. Rugs did a Disney Fantasia dance, just for us. It took a long time to find one that both of us (secretly) loved and was the right dimensions. By the time the magic phrase was uttered, we were both weary. We wanted sunlight. And, because of all the tea, we really, really needed to pee.
That's when the bargaining began.
We stayed strong, sticking to our price. And in turn, they tried everything to seal the deal. At some point, their salesman (who, more than once, was referred to as the Turkish George Clooney by his colleagues) put his head, with its luxurious locks, on my knee, batted his eyelashes and told me he was here only to make me happy. What else could he do to ensure I went home with a beautiful rug?
What felt like hours later, we reached an impasse in the negotiations and we left. Ann might have been a little bit mad at me for being so stubborn.
The next day, with our rug still in mind, and the clock ticking on our layover, we headed back to the market. Then we actually did the faux walk by. You know the one. Where you pretend you were just strolling by and "happened" upon their booth. It's straight from the Captain Obvious Handbook of Bargaining.
And thus began Round Two. After holding tough for what felt like eternity, they finally called a manager in. He was a business type in a suit, and somewhat like a disappointed uncle. He told us, with a stern face, that they had come down in price. Now, as a cultural courtesy, it was our turn to come up in price. It was the polite thing to do.
Boom. There it was. The next gun in their arsenal: guilt.
When we finally shook hands to seal the deal, the manager disappeared (after a meaningful look to his employees that said "and that's how you do it boys...") faster than I could say baklava.
So, what to take from all this? When buying a rug (or anything else for that matter) in a foreign country, know that they've been doing this a lot longer than you. And while you come prepped with a spine of steel, they also have their methods to get you to buy. Who knows when you'll buckle — when you're overwhelmed, or when they flatter — or guilt — you into the purchase. It's their job, and it's how they make their living. Chances are very good you'll never discover where that line is, and what the "right price" is for what you buy.
The end result is that we have a rug that we really like. It's a great souvenir of our trip, and we were comfortable enough with the price (about $375 if you're dying of curiosity). Beyond that, I have no idea whether it was a bargain, or even Turkish for that matter. Honestly, I no longer care.
(images: Dabney Frake)