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.

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