Friday, May 20, 2011

Mrs. Godbold on the Bosphorus


My mother does not like being cold. We have that in common. She especially does not like being cold on choppy water in the middle of a large estuary on what was advertised as a ‘river tour of Istanbul.’

“This is rubbish!” declares Mrs. Godbold. “The banks are so far away I can’t see anything. And the tour guide’s accent is so thick I can’t understand a word he says!”

Her American friend, Gloria, who is a dead ringer for Virginia Woolf and equals her intellectual courage when it comes to learning Cyrillic script or mastering the cornemuse, braces herself in anticipation of an International Incident.

“Ees everything okay, ladies?” inquires the ingratiating tour guide.

“No it isn’t!” replies Mrs. Godbold. “I want to get off!”

“But we don’t make any stops.”

“Too bad!” says Mrs. Godbold and stomps down to the lower, enclosed deck. A second of hesitation before she is joined by the entire viewing deck who eagerly drink Turkish coffee from the little snack bar, relieved finally of squinting at distant banks.

Mrs. Godbold and Gloria decide to penetrate the souk in search of bargains. Gloria has it in her mind to buy a Turkish coffee pot. Mrs. Godbold gives her the drill: “Look down, Gloria and keep your mouth shut.” The woman who speaks six languages fluently and is an expert in medieval music willingly acquiesces to Mrs. Godbold’s undisputed superiority when it comes to handling the natives. Being Deputy Head at a private school where students are still addressed by their surnames turns out to have been all the preparation Mrs. Godbold needed.

“44 lira,” says the young man when Gloria disobeys instructions and shows interest in the only Turkish coffee pot yet to be found.

“I beg your pardon!” says Mrs. Godbold, taking Gloria by the arm.

“44 lira,” repeats the young man.

“Yes, I heard you,” says Mrs. Godbold, “but I’m not paying that. Give me your best price.”

Gloria is casting covetous looks at the coffee pot from behind Mrs. Godbold’s body.

“That is the price,” says the young man smoothly, “44 lira.” And he smiles the knowing smile of someone who has faced down British tourists in the past. The guidebook instructions about bartering always crumble before the ingrained dislike of conflict… But then he has never met Mrs. Godbold.

“Come on, Gloria!” sings Mrs. Godbold, leading her away by the arm. “We’ll go to the stall down the street.”

“But I really wanted that one!” whispers Gloria, urgently.

“Okay!” calls the young man. “42.”

Mrs. Godbold strides back to the merchant.

“30.”

He is momentarily taken aback.

“35,” he counters.

She holds out her hand. “I’ll shake on 32.”

Gloria gets her coffee pot.


Flushed with success, Mrs. Godbold goes on to beat down a street urchin selling a headscarf and a surprised café owner who finds himself haggling over a can of Coca Cola.

After a truly profitable afternoon, the two ladies are growing weary of the maze-like streets and the constant calls from vendors standing in doorways.

“Ladies! Ladies! Come and see my carpets!” “Jewelry, good prices, ladies!”

One vendor makes the mistake of addressing my mother as “darling.”

Mrs. Godbold stops stock still in the middle of the narrow street. Gloria plucks nervously at her friend’s elbow.

“Oh no!” says Mrs. Godbold, wheeling on the unfortunate merchant. “You don’t call a British lady ‘darling.’”

“Ees good English, no?” says the man, confused.

“It’s too familiar!” reprimands Mrs. Godbold, walking on. Gloria shoots the man a sympathetic look and hurries after her.

Finally they burst out of the streets to an open space on the riverbank. One of the clamorous vendors has followed after them, importuning the ladies with a litany of items and prices and not-to-be-missed bargains.

“Do you want to buy a carpet?” demands Mrs. Godbold, rounding on him.

The man steps back in confusion. “No.”

“Some jewelry?”

“No.”

He spreads his hands in a nervous apology, backing away into the noise and confusion of the souk. Gloria laughs.

“I do love your sense of humor!”

“I wasn’t being funny.”