Shoeshine scam

Way back, many moons ago, in my first year at university, I came across two guys I knew from third-year Engineering debating which word best described me: innocent or naïve. Although I can’t remember what they decided, I was reminded of that conversation when I was in Istanbul.

Referring to a blog post I’d written earlier about indecent proposals and other first impressions, a Hungarian friend commented that we shouldn’t blame others for our own ignorance. It took me a while to assimilate and on reflection, yes, what I had experienced was culture shock and my ignorance of Turkey and its ways of life certainly contributed.

The lessons continued this week. Going back to the hotel one evening, we passed two shoeshines. One dropped a brush. I picked it up and ran after him to return it. He took it and smiled his thanks. I rejoined my colleagues. Then he came after us, offering to shine our shoes. I took it as a gesture of gratitude – those brushes cost money. My Romanian colleague was a little more sceptical; my Czech colleague was leaning that way, too, but wanted to believe.

I was wrong. Shoes shined, they asked for payment. Seven lira each (about €2.50/$3.20). Not exorbitant by any means but it was the principle that was at stake. I was quite upset by it and said as much but eventually passed over what coins I had. Even still, I refused to believe that the chap had dropped his brush on purpose.

The following morning, on the way to the conference with a fourth colleague (Serbian), we passed a shoeshine in transit. I saw him deliberately throw down his brush. When my colleague went to pick it up, I stopped him. That evening, I passed a couple embroiled in an argument with the same chap. They, too, had been taken in.

Shoeshine in Istanbul
Shoeshine stand in Istanbul

It is quite a clever scam and one that clearly plays to people’s humanity. The more I think about it, though, the more attached I get to my particular brand of innocence/naivety. Were I to live in Istanbul for any length of time, I would be afraid that I’d lose it. I’d like to think that I would be able to keep laughing at the good of it all, but deep down, I’m sure my idealism would fade and I’d become cynical.

While there’s room for cynicism in the world, that space might be better served, methinks, if complemented by an innate belief that people’s intentions are good.

At the end of what has been an energy-sapping week – both in terms of the level of people interaction endured and in terms of culture shock – I am grateful that I get to travel and to experience new places and different attitudes. I’m even more grateful for those people in my life who, in taking the time to challenge and comment, make me think. Socrates had something when he said ‘the unexamined life is not worth living.’



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