It’s hard to know how much to engage with strangers, here, especially strange men. This isn’t a culture where people say “Good morning! Beautiful day!” to people on the street, like I’m used to, and there are different rules for how men and women interract, rules I’m afraid I don’t yet fully understand. Lots of men want to chat me up on the ferry or in the coffee shop or on the street, but they always seem to WANT something from me with a kind of frightening intensity, or feel entitled to talk to me, or something. If I’m not making a lot of sense, I apologize; I am very tired. Suffice it to say, whenever I am out and a man catches my eye and says, “Where are you from?” I grow wary. Wary, and somewhat weary thinking about the next few minutes of brittley polite conversation, and followed by an excrutiatingly awkward moment where I try to break away without being rude.
Today I needed four passport photos and I needed them fast (story to follow). I left work, picked a likely direction, and began walking and two blocks later a man popped into my field of vision.
“Excuse me, can I help you find something?” he said politely.
Great, I thought.
“Um, Fotografia?” I asked. He looked (reasonably) puzzled.
“What do you need?”
“Passport photos,” I said.
“Ah, tamam. Follow me, please.”
I didn’t want to, but it was broad daylight and I had my phone and I did need to know where a photography studio was. He led me two building lengths the way I had come and stopped. In front of a photography studio I had walked right by, despite the prominent (red) sandwich board in front.
“Oh,” I said, stupidly. “Thanks for your help,” I prepared to leave him on the sidewalk, but he hopped up in front of my and held open the door.
“I will come with you,” he said. “I will make him understand.”
I was resentful and uneasy. I can say “passport foto, lutfen,” all by myself, thank you. And I’ve learned in my 32 years that gallantry generally comes with a price. But I followed him up.
The man inside took my picture, and then I sat in the office with the fellow from the street while we waited for them to develop. I took him in out of the corner of my eye. He was casually dressed, but his clothes were nice. He was nice looking. Not a stupid haircut. Warm brown eyes.
“So you want to stay in Istanbul?” he said.
“Yes,” I said shortly.
“Up the street.”
His phone rang and he pulled it out of his pocket. An i-phone.
“What do you do?” I asked.
He hesitated, and then said,
“I’ve learned English on my own, but I could use lessons.”
I nodded and wondered why he hadn’t answered me. His English was good, and I assumed he’d understood me. Perhaps he didn’t want to say, “I rip off American ladies for a living.” That’s understandable.
“Do you speak any other languages?” he inquired.
“A little French,” I said. He lit up.
“Salut!” I allowed myself a giggle.
“Ca va bien, merci. Ca va?”
“Ca va bien aussie.”
I smiled awkwardly.
“Tu es tres jolie,” he said.
I blushed and murmered, “merci.”
The photographer handed me the pictures and I tucked them into my purse. On the sidewalk outside I thanked the fellow again, politely but cooly, and walked away, hoping he would not follow.
“So you will get your permit today?”
“Yes,” I said firmly. “My friend is taking me in a few minutes.” A lie as a quick afterthought.
“I thought we could get some tea,” he said.
“I’m afraid I can’t.”
“Oh no, I didn’t mean now. I meant later, whenever you have some time.”
“I have a boyfriend,” I said abruptly.
“Ah. I see. I am sorry. Good luck today.” And then he melted into the crowd on the sidewalk. Just like that. No protest. No fight. No “I just need a friend to help me with my English.”
I paused on the steps of work and looked back down the street, feeling that I’d let something slip through my fingers. For a brief moment I imagined myself running back down the street and apologizing,
“You just never know why people want to talk to you, what they want from you. I would love to have tea with you. Let’s meet at Starbucks tomorrow.”
But I went back inside to gather my papers instead.