Getting past customs is child's play: Out of Turkey

ISTANBUL - Our relationship began over a few bars of Swiss chocolate, sent by my mother-in- law. It proved an apt introduction to a traditional field of battle, the Customs Protectorate.

The first I knew of what was about to happen was the arrival, by registered post, of a folded piece of sallow, disintegrating paper. There was not much explanation. But it was clearly a summons to be obeyed, urging me to action with a casual footnote that if I did not appear within a few days, my property, undefined, would be destroyed.

The address turned out to be a shabby customs house by a once- busy quayside on the Golden Horn. Through a gateway marked 'Small Packets Service' was a dimly lit warehouse, its walls lined with cages full of packages. Most had clearly been languishing there for as many years as had their warders, an unhappy breed of bureaucrat housed in glass-fronted compartments among the cells.

The progress of my piece of paper was a frustrating agony. About 15 declarations, stamps and receipts later, I came to a counter where a sour-looking woman produced a package addressed to me.

I reached out, but she ripped the paper open, spilling Swiss chocolates all over her table. No apology. Another piece of paper. 'Pay there,' she said. The sum amounted to a tax rate of more than 100 per cent. There was no appeal.

It was, however, an education in how not to approach Turkish customs. Since then I have preferred to pay inordinate sums to pleasant-mannered fixers to grease their way through all this trouble on my behalf.

But last week came a vital stage in another, even more expensive form of torture, our attempts to subscribe to the scrambled satellite signal of BBC World Service Television.

A 25 January change in the coding system involved buying and shipping in a new decoder from Sweden, which arrived at Istanbul airport customs two days before the change-over. With a family clamouring for Blue Peter and EastEnders, speed was of the essence.

At such times of trial in Turkey, we have one trump card. The Turks love children, and hearts melt at the sight of our blonde daughters. At 4.30pm on a Friday afternoon, a bad time to start what already looked like Mission Impossible, I set off with our curly haired three-year-old.

The airport customs intermediaries were doing good business, but I met only long faces at my chosen office. 'If you're not a registered company, there's no way you can get it out at all,' said an office boy. I began to lose hope, but not for long. A hyperactive youth swept up my documents and looked at them. 'What is it? An aerial? Can we say it's a present? OK, I see a way. We're still in time for the New Year's customs waiver for gifts,' he said.

The customs hall was a dull grey place of bustling intrigue, unspoken understandings and whispering in corners. With only 20 minutes to closing time, many officials already had their coats on. But at the sight of the little blonde girl, a chorus of coos, clucks and sighs arose. The hall warmed up with smiles. There was no stopping us now.

Within minutes we had yet more papers and stamps, and were on our way, shuttling between the grimy buildings through holes in fences. I understood nothing of the paperwork. But there was no problem a smile from my daughter could not fix.

'So this is a present? A gift antenna?' asked a large, powerful official who clearly knew a tall story when he heard one. 'Well, let it be for your daughter,' he said, keeping his store open for vital extra minutes.

After an hour, having only been asked for a nominal fee, I was out - and elated. I had been processed at least a dozen times, and my daughter's cheeks pinched twice that often. Thanks to my unknown and unpaid helpers, I felt only goodwill towards Turks in general and customs agents in particular.

Of course, the victory turned out to be a hollow one. The decoder's instruction leaflet was indecipherable, and our BBC screen has now become blank.

I called up our official BBC dealer in Istanbul for help. There was nothing he could do. He had not even seen the new machines. But I could still feel ahead of the game. After 10 days of efforts, the dealer was still trying to extricate his decoders from Istanbul airport customs.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
election 2015The 10 best quotes of the campaign
A caravan being used as a polling station in Ford near Salisbury, during the 2010 election
election 2015The Independent's guide to get you through polling day
David Blunkett joins the Labour candidate for Redcar Anna Turley on a campaigning visit last month
voicesWhat I learnt from my years in government, by the former Home Secretary David Blunkett
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA celebration of British elections
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (B2B) - Romford - £40,000 + car

£35000 - £40000 per annum + car and benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager...

Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000 ...

Ashdown Group: Data Scientist - London - £50,000 + bonus

£35000 - £50000 per annum + generous bonus: Ashdown Group: Business Analytics ...

Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Development) - Kingston

£45000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Dev...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
VE Day 70th anniversary: How ordinary Britons celebrated the end of war in Europe

How ordinary Britons celebrated VE Day

Our perception of VE Day usually involves crowds of giddy Britons casting off the shackles of war with gay abandon. The truth was more nuanced
They came in with William Caxton's printing press, but typefaces still matter in the digital age

Typefaces still matter in the digital age

A new typeface once took years to create, now thousands are available at the click of a drop-down menu. So why do most of us still rely on the old classics, asks Meg Carter?
Discovery of 'missing link' between the two main life-forms on Earth could explain evolution of animals, say scientists

'Missing link' between Earth's two life-forms found

New microbial species tells us something about our dark past, say scientists
The Pan Am Experience is a 'flight' back to the 1970s that never takes off - at least, not literally

Pan Am Experience: A 'flight' back to the 70s

Tim Walker checks in and checks out a four-hour journey with a difference
Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics - it's everywhere in the animal world

Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics

Voting, mutual back-scratching, coups and charismatic leaders - it's everywhere in the animal world
Crisp sales are in decline - but this tasty trivia might tempt back the turncoats

Crisp sales are in decline

As a nation we're filling up on popcorn and pitta chips and forsaking their potato-based predecessors
Ronald McDonald the muse? Why Banksy, Ron English and Keith Coventry are lovin' Maccy D's

Ronald McDonald the muse

A new wave of artists is taking inspiration from the fast food chain
13 best picnic blankets

13 best picnic blankets

Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
Barcelona 3 Bayern Munich 0 player ratings: Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?

Barcelona vs Bayern Munich player ratings

Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?
Martin Guptill: Explosive New Zealand batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

Explosive batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

Martin Guptill has smashed early runs for Derbyshire and tells Richard Edwards to expect more from the 'freakish' Brendon McCullum and his buoyant team during their tour of England
General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'