Istanbul Shoe Shine

Walking through the crowded streets of the Fez Medina – streets in which it is easy to imagine the hapless foreigner falling prey to any number of small-time tricks and swindles – reminds me of one of our last days in Istanbul, when I was taken for what has to be one of the oldest tricks in the book.

The day before we left Istanbul for Fez, John, Amy, Christina, and I went on a morning hunt to find the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate that has existed in the old section of Istanbul since the city became the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire under the Emperor Constantine I.   After attending evening prayer at the famed Sultanahmet Mosque two nights earlier, the four of us thought that by subsequently attending a Christian service we would afford ourselves a wonderfully interreligious weekend, particularly fitting in a city that embodies the confluence of East and West.  However, a poorly sourced address, confused cab driver, and inflated confidence in our own navigational skills, combined with the layers of post-Byzantine urban development that successfully concealed the Patriarchate in a jungle of concrete apartment buildings and narrow, winding streets, kept the stunning Byzantine architecture of the Cathedral of St. George at arm’s length the entire morning.  By the time we called off the search at noon, well past the 10 AM service time, we had asked directions from four different people and received four different answers.  After the final session of confused pointing and fervent gesticulation, we knew that our search would be fruitless.  Yet, while we may have come up empty-handed, a certain Istanbul shoe shiner, one of the hundreds that rove the crowded areas of the city, made out fairly well.

A shoe shiner must constantly be looking down, I have since decided, reading people by staring at their feet.  He engages those around him not by looking for friendliness in their eyes, but for potential profit in their footwear, and this particular day I had dressed for church, which included wearing my leather loafers.

We were walking along a particularly busy section of sidewalk, walled in by parked coach buses and weaving our way amongst sidewalk sellers hawking all manner of items carefully arranged on outspread blankets.  In the midst of this confusion, I saw a particularly wizened shoe shiner lose one of the brushes hanging off of the stand that he carried slung over his shoulder.  Great! I thought, a chance to do something kind for someone.  I picked up the brush and caught up to the man.  Upon being handed the brush, his eyes lit up and he eagerly nodded his thank you’s before crouching down, lifting my one of my shoes onto his stand, and beginning to polish the cracked brown leather with what I hoped was mink oil or its Turkish facsimile.  Perfect, I thought, my random act of kindness has earned me a free shoeshine.  These are the kind of cultural encounters that the conscientious traveler dreams of.   As he worked, he asked me where I was from, I said America.  He proceeded to tell me, in very broken English, that he was from Ankara, and that he had four hungry children at home, though judging by his age they must have been hungry and in their mid-to-late 30’s.  By now, he was finished and he looked up at me and said what sounded like, “18 Lira”.  I immediately knew I’d been had, and since I only had a lira coin in my pocket I mouthed wordlessly and backed away, motioning for my friends who had been waiting for me a few feet away.  I looked back at the man, and showed him my one coin.  “5 lira” he now offered, rubbing his stomach to show that he was hungry.  I knew I was going to have to pay for a shoe shine that I didn’t want, and John passed me 4 coins that I hastily gave to the man, before retreating down the street.

In our post-shine analysis, the four of us couldn’t figure out if the man had simply taken advantage of a favorable situation, or whether his move to drop the brush had been calculated upon seeing my leather shoes.  Later in our walk, we found our answer as a different shoe shiner once again “dropped” his brush in front of me.  Jaded, I walked over it without so much as a backward glance.  Once we were well clear, I did look back in time to see the man circle back to pick up his brush before sitting down on the curb.

I was never bothered again, mostly because my Chacos are much more comfortable for walking.  But my loafers look great, though not as great as they looked right after the swindle.  By the time I get to Egypt, they might need a touch up.  If that’s the case, I’ll just find the nearest shoe shiner and walk behind him for a minute or two.


About stotime

14 young adults, two fearless leaders, a multitude of language barriers and a world worth exploring.
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