Sunday, May 18, 2008

Mrs. Kleenex

I bought a pair of shoes last week. Meindl shoes, to be precise. Well, since we're being precise, Rolf bought them. He actually bargained for them. Bargained for Meindl shoes! You may have to see and possibly even try on a pair of Meindl shoes to understand just how remarkable that really is.

Let me digress for a moment: the steep cobblestone streets of Turkey have been getting harder and harder for me to navigate. I'm not steady on my feet at the best of times, but this was getting ridiculous. I had no trouble walking up the hills, but coming down was torture. In my thin-soled shoes I kept feeling that I'd topple over, or that my feet would slip right out from under me. Deeply embarrassed, I dropped way, way behind Rolf as I picked my way anxiously down hills. It didn't get any better as the days passed, either. The way I thought of it, every street I walked down brought me closer to the statistical inevitability of falling head over heels and breaking my spine, careening into an oncoming car, or, possibly even worse, becoming the laughing stock of all the agile children who seem to bound around on the cobbles as if they had little suction cups attached to their feet.

To make things worse, the angled streets here get even more treacherous in the rain or when someone is washing a car or a carpet (it happens often). Then the cobbles teem not only with water but with soap.

Enter Meindl shoes. This German company makes a specialized and very high-priced brand of hiking shoes. They're not available in Canada. I've never actually seen a pair; only heard of their reputation as the finest shoes money can buy. They're logical, problem-solving shoes. "Alles in ordnung" kind of shoes. When we first saw them in a dusty hunting store in Istanbul (among the knives, fishing tackle and, um, guns) we thought they must be knockoffs. Then we thought we must be reading the labels wrong. We revisited a number of times. Checked and cross checked the shoes on the Meindl web site. Finally, just before leaving on a week-long trip that promised even more hills and even more cobbles, I tried a pair on.

I walked up and down the aisles of the store and then ventured out onto the cobblestone street, getting a little teary, as we hard-to-fit people do when we find a good, really good pair of shoes. Well, to be precise: a perfect pair of shoes. When we find a perfect pair of shoes. On a street lined with carts selling adaptors, slippers, dinky toys, alarm clocks, socks, nail clippers and sundry plastic household goods I sank into the cesspool of inner conflict that comes along with having one's wishes come true:

Can I afford them?
What if there's some hidden thing wrong with them?
What if my feet are just swollen and they don't really fit as well as they seem to?
And lurking under it all: do I really deserve such a pair of shoes?

Such a pair of shoes! They direct each step securely along the best possible path for knee, hip and lower back. The laces are designed for snug fit but easy exit, the soles, for flexibility and support, the body, for warmth and breathability. Surely the price of these superbly engineered shoes must be standardized!

Well, here in Turkey, nothing is standardized, it seems, for -- taking advantage of my seeming indecision -- Rolf had begun to bargain with the salesman.

Another digression: bargaining. I know it's standard practice, here. Even the guidebooks provide you with directions on how to do it. Start with half the requested price and expect to pay between sixty and eighty percent. If you bargain, you'll be respected. If you pay the full price, you're being duped. Don't feel obliged to buy just because you've drunk a cup of tea at someone's expense, or had a taste of their wares. Don't feel guilty for just walking away.

When you buy anything from a scarf to a kebab, here, the vendor will extol the virtues of his or her product, tell you it's special, the only real, genuine kind. Not like all the others. That's why the price is high. Sometimes, it's been made by someone's mother or grown on a family farm.
And you have to look the seller in the eye and tell them it's not that good; that you could get it elsewhere, for less. Then you have to pretend you don't want it, and make as if to leave.

This little dance of self-interest seems specifically designed to torment me. Here, it's painfully clear to me how many of my interactions are based on pleasing others, trying hard never to give offense, never to cause anyone any extra trouble, never to make big demands. It's also clear to me how intolerant I am of ambiguity. I want everything spelled out, in advance, the contract signed, sealed and delivered. None of this loosey-goosey let's see what happens stuff.

Here, I don't possess what seems to be a necessary survival skill. And I feel ineffectual as a result. Most of the time, I've just been deferring to Rolf.

Now, I was raised on 1970s feminism. I don't like letting my husband speak for me, but he was doing such a good job of it! He explained to the salesman that we are Meindls -- just like the shoes. It's hard to spell the name Meindl out to people, here, since the particular combination of vowels is never found in Turkish; however, the Turkish for handkerchief is Mendil, and that's a good starting point. Meindl shoes. Meindl visitors. What a coincidence!

Then he offered half price for the shoes. For look at the way I was walking up and down and swaying back and forth in the shoes: clearly, they didn't fit properly. My agony of self-doubt was now overlayed with culture clash. Alles in Ordnung meets total free-market chaos.
What could one depend on, in the world, if the price of Meindl shoes was open for dispute?

The shoes were listed at 90 Euros or about 180 Lira. Rolf talked the salesman down to 155 Lira. Sweating and nearly hyperventilating I completely lost my ability to understand numbers: Turkish or otherwise. I handed the man 150 Lira, thinking it was 160 and hoping the extra money would make up for the terrible offense Rolf had given. The salesman shook his head and laughed, slipping my three, 50 lira bills into his cash register. I fairly ran from the store, sat down on a bench by the Bosphorus and began weeping uncontrollably. "I can't do it! I can't function in this country! I can't speak the language! I can't even walk! And I can't bargain!"

Rolf handed me Mendil after Mendil, pointing out that I had in fact carved an extra five Lira off the agreed price.

The next day, we traveled by taxi, boat, train and bus to the town of Selcuk, the starting point for seeing Ephasus and various other ancient ruins. I woke with a migraine, and spent much of the twelve-hour trip with my eyes half-closed, being shepherded passively from one vehicle to another, letting Rolf do all the talking, arranging and navigating, and giving myself a break from feeling bad about it.

In the stuffy but otherwise quite comfortable train I laid my head against the window and just listened to the sounds around me, the voices of people in their private seats talking to their families, the conductors announcing stops and requesting tickets, the tea and snack vendor listing his wares, the many, many cell phones ringing and being answered. I thought of how much effort it takes to be an outsider: to navigate a new language and culture, to figure out how to get from place to place. I can't say I enjoyed having a migraine on a twelve hour journey, but it did feel good to stop trying and just take things in, for a change.

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