Did We Fall for a "Too Good to be True" Apartment Scam?
Plus, our fantastic new neighborhood and why I feel like James Baldwin in 1950s Paris.
Upon arriving in Istanbul, we spent ten days in a hotel in the Fatih District, which is the location of many of the city’s famous tourist sites. But then we wanted to move into an actual apartment for our longer stay in town.
We did what we always did: checked out Airbnbs and Booking.com. We also asked friends for suggestions and recommendations. As nomads, we always do our due diligence and usually end up with a decent apartment somewhere.
Then Brent started chatting with Duman, a local guy he’d met on Facebook. He said he had an apartment for us in Beyoglu for 600 euros a month — a trendy neighborhood we were already interested in. And that price was 500 euros less than anything we’d seen on Airbnb.
So we made plans to meet him and see the apartment. We ended up being late, because we hadn’t yet figured out Istanbul’s amazing subway system, and taking a cab across the Golden Horn estuary meant being stuck in a ridiculously bad traffic jam.
When we finally arrived, the situation seemed a bit sketchy.
Duman was friendly enough. Surprisingly well-dressed, but also coming across a bit desperate.
He introduced us to “the landlord,” who was…well, just a young guy. Twenty-five or so, and he only spoke Turkish. Not well-dressed. In fact, he was wearing a t-shirt and jeans. He smiled, friendly enough, but he could have been a friend Duman had just pulled in off the street.
Then Duman showed us the apartment, which was functional. And clean. It was an older building that had recently been renovated, but they’d kept a lot the original character.
Plus, it had a cute little balcony buried with twisty grape vines. And the apartment came with weekly housekeeping and laundry service.
The location was absolutely fantastic — close to Istanbul’s famous (and ever-bustling) Istiklal Street, but not close enough that it would be too loud. And just a short walk from the subway. Plus, there were at least fifty cafes and restaurants within a hundred meters of the place.
This was clearly Duman’s apartment: his things were all around. But he said if we took the apartment, he would move into one of the lower units.
He tried hard to sell us on the place, telling us what a great deal it was, and also fawning over us a bit, how interesting our lives sounded. He clearly wanted us to take the apartment.
Then he told us how it would work: if we left a 50 euro deposit, the apartment could be ours by the end of the week.
Brent and I looked at each other. We were both thinking the same thing: this might very well be a scam.
Who’s to say Duman wasn’t just showing us and others an apartment he’d rented for a couple of days — and when we returned at the end of the week, he’d be gone?
We looked at “the landlord” (who didn’t speak English). He grinned.
But in the end, we gave them the 50 euros. We figured there was a very real chance we’d never see Duman, or this apartment, again. On the other hand, it really was a good deal, and in the Worst Case Scenario, we’d only be out 50 euros.
So what happened?
We returned at the end of the week to find that the access code that Duman had given us to get inside the building didn’t work.
Okay, we got scammed, I thought. What the hell do we do now? We were carrying all our things!
Brent quickly messaged Duman, telling him we had arrived and asking where he was. Duman assured him he was standing in the lobby, waiting for us. Where were we?
But he wasn’t there!
That’s when we realized we’d gotten our directions screwed up and were trying to get into a building one street over. Hey, Beyoglu is confusing!
We found the right building and moved in, just like Duman had promised.
We’ve been here a week now, and Duman has turned out to be a very nice guy — with a fascinating life story.
Raised in poverty, he had no formal schooling. Instead, he sold bottled water on the streets at age eight. Eventually, he worked his way up to selling watches to tourists, and had built a nice life for himself.
Then the pandemic hit, destroying his business and forcing him to move out of his apartment and sell everything he owned. “Altogether, it cost fifteen thousand lira!” he told us. “I had to sell it for two thousand.”
Now he’s a wheeler-dealer, connecting tourists and locals alike with good deals around town. Need dental work? He knows a guy. How about some new electronics? He can hook us up. Naturally, he gets a commission on everything, just like he got a commission with the young landlord — whose family really does own the building! — for connecting us.
Duman is so well-dressed because he buys clothes with minor errors at a fraction of their full cost. He’s promised to take us to all the places with the great deals — and also a non-tourist-y hammam for a truly authentic Turkish bath experience.
“All of life is karma,” he says. “I help you, you help me back.”
And he really is living downstairs. If he orders takeaway from any of the local restaurants, he always asks to put in an order for us.
He recently invited us in for tea, and Brent said he really appreciated everything he’s done for us, that he’s exactly the sort of local connection you want in a city like Istanbul.
Duman just smiled and nodded. “We are all fishes swimming in the same sea.”
Anyway, if you need anything in Istanbul, let us know. We know a guy!
Except for the non-existent kitchen, we love our new apartment on the other side of the Golden Horn in the Kabataş quarter of the Beyoglu district.
Confession: I love writing that we live in quarters and districts. It sounds so romantic! I suddenly feel like an expat writer in the 1950s, like James Baldwin moving to a garret in Europe to write a novel but talking the night away in different sidewalk cafes.
Another confession: Fatih, where we first stayed, is a very “religious” district with lots of mosques, where most of the women wear abayas and head coverings. There were also many fewer women on the streets in general. We really try to reserve judgment about other cultures, especially when we’re visitors in a country, but this felt truly off-putting, like a large part of the population had just vanished.
The vibe over here in Beyoglu feels completely different: younger, hipper, and edgier, though you do still see women in traditional dress.
And while there are plenty of shops, the merchants don’t try to pressure you inside. That’s been a very nice change.
We fit in much better here.
Another reason we’re happier here is that we’re back to actually living somewhere, instead of playing tourists trying to see everything in a short period.
Honestly, after three days of visiting “world famous” sites, they all start to blur together and seem less special. Not to mention how much my feet wound up hurting! (Mine hurt more than Brent’s because I got up every morning and went out to take pictures, then went out again with him later in the day.)
We both much prefer working for three or four days, checking one or two things out, and then going back to work.
For instance, last weekend we visited Dolmabahçe Palace, which was where the last six sultans lived, along with Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founding father of the Republic of Turkey.
While Dolmabahçe is massive and has a couple of spectacular rooms, I liked it way less than Topkapi Palace, where the sultans previously lived. Topkapi reflected Turkey’s Islamic and Ottoman heritage with intricate tilework, soaring domes, delicate arches, and beautiful sunlit spaces.
Meanwhile, Dolmabahçe was built to emulate the palaces of European monarchs. Which it did! I found it dark, dreary, and pretty damned lifeless. (And you weren’t allowed to take pictures inside, which was pretty fricking annoying!)
The heart of Beyoglu is İstiklal Caddesi, which is Turkish for Independence Street.
It’s a 1.4 kilometer-long pedestrian boulevard lined with beautiful buildings built during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The architecture is very reminiscent of Paris, and is part of the reason why Istanbul has often been called the Paris of the East.
This section of the city definitely feels very bohemian.
The storefronts along the main street are filled with colorful piles of Turkish Delight, baklava, and other pastries; and restaurants selling kebabs, doners, and enormous baked potatoes.
Seriously, I’ve never seen such big potatoes.
There are also patisseries, chocolateries, and ice cream vendors; arcades filled with jewelry; and, of course, an infinite number of coffee shops.
Meanwhile, the side streets and alleys are filled with cafes playing live music, little flower shops, fruit and veg stands, and shops selling vintage clothing and antiques.
I especially love the “pasaji,” which is Turkish for “passage.” These are covered atriums inside buildings off the main boulevard, and many are now filled with shops.
The most famous of them all is “Çiçek Pasajı,” or the Flower Passage. Unfortunately, it’s no longer filled with flowers, just restaurants, which was a bit disappointment because it sounds like it used to be really colorful.
On weekdays, Istiklal is completely mobbed. Because of Covid restrictions, locals are not allowed outside on weekend, just tourists, so it’s considerably less crowded then. Either way, we’ve really enjoyed strolling it, exploring the twisty cobblestoned streets wending off in both directions.
And we’re lucky enough to get to live right off of Istiklal. A quick thirty second walk takes us from our charming little street over to this huge boulevard bustling with life and energy. It’s like living next to the Champs-Élysées.
At one end of Istiklal Avenue is the Tünel, the second oldest underground subway in the world. Technically, it’s a funicular that carries up the very steep hillside running down to the Golden Horn.
Needless to say, it absolutely blew everyone’s minds when it opened in 1875.
At the opposite end of Istiklal is Taksim Square, considered the heart of modern Istanbul. Here you’ll find more shops and restaurants, the central station of Istanbul’s Metro subway system, as well as Republic Monument, which commemorates the founding of the Turkish Republic in 1923.
We’ve still got tons of exploring to do, checking out more of the Asian side of Istanbul, taking a ferry trip up through the Bosporus Strait, and much more!
Before I sign off, check out our cool new map of our four-year “digital nomad” journey so far. These are all the destinations where we’ve lived at least a month, and it makes me dizzy just to look at it
Got any thoughts or questions? Leave in the comments and I’ll address them next week!
Goodbye until our next hello!
Michael (and Brent)