Thursday, May 26, 2005

It was twenty years ago today ... and 48 hours to Istanbul

(These accounts of my 1985 trip to Europe will continue through the summer of 2005)

“Sprechen Sie Deutsche?”

Somewhere beyond the fuzzy perimeter, past the friendly confines of a feverish dream, smothered beneath a layer of fatigue, compounded by sweat and grit, but pleased to a certain degree by delectable salami and goat cheese sandwiches washed down with surprisingly cold Amstel lager in bottles …

“Bitte – Sprechen Sie Deutsche?”

Midday, lying on my back atop a wooden bench in a stuffy closet misidentified as the train station waiting room, the station itself hardly more than a two-room afterthought with a buffet counter and one solitary ticket window – all closed – and with flies buzzing in lazy acceptance of the languid pace of life in Pithion, Greece … the vaguely unsettling mass of Turkey only a few miles away across a perpetually tense border … exactly why was someone haranguing me in German?

“Bitte, bitte.”

Even worse, I’d heard the song “Careless Whisper” by Wham! playing on the radio back in Athens, and now the wretched George Michael springboard cut wouldn’t disengage from my brain’s cassette deck.

“Sprechen Sie Deutsche?”

Through narrow slits could be seen a middle-aged, olive-skinned man with neatly trimmed, pencil-thin mustache, outfitted in what seemed to me to be a stereotypical Middle-Eastern green khaki, desert-style suit, his brow furrowed, and absolutely determined to speak with me in a language I recognized but could not speak.

“No,” I replied, slowly regaining consciousness. “Do you speak English?”

The man, who shortly would introduce himself as Hassan, was transparently delighted.

“English?” He smiled broadly, showing rows of metallic teeth. “Of course, English – you are American, yes?”

A profoundly one-sided dialogue commenced as it became apparent that Hassan had no pressing questions to ask, but simply wished to talk to any available human being, having narrowed his options to me after observing the two Greek women napping listlessly nearby, heads resting against each other, feet atop big cardboard boxes bound with twine.

There were valuable lessons to be learned from the circumstances of my situation, finding myself engaged in conversation with a Syrian traveling salesman during the hot early afternoon hours of an aimless day like all the rest in a tiny border town with more rail sidings and goats than humans, where an unshaven man in raggedy pajamas soon emerged bleary-eyed from a nearby house, grabbed a Greek state railways cap from a metal gatepost, and stumbled down a dirt path to throw a switch that heralded the passage of a freight train.

The primary lesson: Only freight trains would be moving until eight-thirty that evening, when the regular Athens-Istanbul “express” would embark at its regular nightly time for the 10-hour overnight run to the Turkish capital.

The people on that train would have boarded in the Greek capital the previous evening, long after I’d begun the day by concluding that the official schedules couldn’t possibly be right, and that if I started from Athens in the morning and rode to Thessalonika (Saloniki), surely there would be some way to get to Istanbul without waiting.

This proved not to be the case, and not only were my choices in Pithion extremely limited, but now an invasive Syrian had ruled out the best of them, sleep.

Hassan’s English was rusty at first, and occasionally he lapsed back into German, but as the stories of his life and times accumulated, I began to become accustomed to the cadence of his multinational delivery.

He spoke emotionally of places he’d been or lived, places I’d probably never visit, and he found something good to say about each of them: Aleppo, Jordan, Cairo, Saudi Arabia, and Beirut. He spoke of lamb dishes, marketplaces, the Koran, and his wife and children back home in Damascus.

Soon it seemed that I’d stumbled upon the very best way to kill a long wait in Pithion.

The trip from Athens to Saloniki the day before had lasted until early afternoon. It had amused me that the uniforms worn by Greek conductors never seemed to be entirely matched; some would have crisp railway jackets and blue jeans, while others might be wearing their standard-issue pants with a civilian’s print shirt, untucked. The overall effect was pleasingly anarchic.

The baggage check at Saloniki’s train station was closed for the lunchtime break, and there were neither storage lockers nor city maps to be found. The taxi drivers were asleep in their cars, and as was so often the case during my early travel days, these erratic conditions constituted sufficient frustration to abruptly abandon the sensible prospect of spending the night in Greece’s second-largest city.

It’d be somewhere else, or bust. Eurailpass in hand, I caught the next train out of town.

An alternative plan was hastily devised as the express for Alexandropoulis left the station with me seated in second class hungrily craving the lunch I’d neglected to pack. The new scheme called for an exit at the Greek rail station closest to the Bulgarian border, then a hop up to Sofia for a taste of Balkan communism before regrouping and traveling east toward Istanbul.

A Bulgarian entry visa had been procured before leaving the States, and it would have been no problem to use it, but as the train looped first north, then east, dark and forbidding mountains arose on the horizon where the border lay, and my resolution crumbled in the face of uncertainty – no, better to keep going as originally planned.

Now it was Istanbul, or bust.

The train made only a few stops as it tore through the early evening hours across the under-populated region of Thrace, and the growing coolness of the scented breeze through the open windows as night began to fall, and towns and fields flew past, made a lasting impression on me.

Where had the day gone?

Alexandropoulis, a nondescript and pitch-black port city, was the final stop of the day. It was after midnight. A quick look at the posted schedule revealed that no trains of any habitable sort would be leaving until five the following morning, when the milk run would depart for Pithion, another step closer to the border, and one lying on the route taken by the international trains to Istanbul.

It seemed senseless to pay for a room at the flophouse across the avenue and then use it for less than five hours, so I napped on a bench in front of the station and the nearby docks, where waves lapped against the hulls of rusty trawlers. The rapidly aging Service Merchandise travel bag was a pillow, and my blue K & H Café vinyl softball jacket a blanket.

Note to beginners: You probably shouldn’t try this at home.

At eight the next morning, I peered through filthy glasses at the hand-lettered “departures” sign facing the Pithion station yard. It revealed the cold, hard truth: Almost 13 hours were yet to pass until departure, and then 10 more would be needed on the train to reach Istanbul.

Another whole day … in Pithion.

I looked around. There were no hostels, no showers, no baggage checks, nowhere except fields to walk even if the bag could be safely stashed, but there was abundant bread, salami, goat cheese, Amstel, and the ubiquitous gaggle of older Greek men sipping demitasses of terribly sweet espresso-style coffee between shots of Ouzo, the fiery liquor turned milky white by the addition of a dash of mineral water.

There are times when a purely liquid breakfast makes sense, but I was desperately in need of solid food.

Pockets bulging with drachmas during a halcyon summer noted for favorable rates of exchange between European currencies and the dollar, my examination of prices at the claustrophobic buffet counter led to a conversation conducted entirely in the international sign language of mutually agreeable commerce, an armful of sandwiches, several bottles of Amstel (brewed in Athens under license), and the powerful urge to collapse in a heap when the attendant closed up shop around noon and disappeared into the village.

Then came Hassan. Later in the afternoon, he grabbed a paper napkin and began sketching a map of Istanbul.

“Where will you stay? Have friend? Hotel?”

“Hostel,” I replied.

“Hostel? No hostel. Hotel. You need a reservation?” he asked, accenting the word like a Frenchman would.

“No, I’ll find something.”

“No? No problem!”

He began scribbling furiously.

“Galata bridge … hotel, hotel, hotel.”

Each “hotel” was punctuated with a stab into the napkin and a blotch of ink.

“Sultan Ahmet … hotel, hotel, hotel.”

Soon Hassan had rendered the napkin into a multi-layered tic-tac-toe sheet, and his point was clear. There should be no problem finding a room in Istanbul, where I’d previously targeted the Sultan Tourist Hostel near the ancient Hagia Sophia shrine as the budget traveler’s best option.

“You must ask for hotel price, but pay less. This is our custom. Understand?”

Yes -- the art of haggling, which terrified me.

Eventually even Hassan grew tired, sprawling expansively on an adjacent bench, and within minutes snoring deeply in a way that denoted peaceful satisfaction. The buffet had reopened, and I needed to visit the pit toilet outside. There was noise outside; probably another freight train. When I returned to the waiting room from my errands, Hassan was gone.

A bit later, as dusk began to fall and the reckoning of yet another goat cheese and salami sandwich was at hand, I strolled out onto the undersized platform and Hassan’s voice suddenly boomed out from above the tracks. He was leaning out the window of an Istanbul-bound railcar parked at the siding to await the rest of the train soon to come from Athens, and he’d found his seat for the forthcoming trip.

“You may come visit!”

On board, in the first class seating compartment, Hassan was heating a small tin of water for tea, using a gadget that resembled a camp stove with sterno. He offered a drink, and I accepted. It was fragrant and citrusy. My Syrian tour guide reviewed marching orders, adding a few more lines to the tattered napkin, and we parted with affection.

My second-class seat was aboard the incoming express cars from Athens, and all five seatmates were friendly Germans bound eventually for the beaches of Turkey’s Mediterranean coastline. Border formalities were excruciatingly formal and drawn-out; luggage was searched, passports scrutinized, and vague memories of “Midnight Express” conjured into full, stalking presence, except that the Germans yawned their way through it, and it became clear that I was over-reacting.

By morning’s light, the outer suburbs of Istanbul were daunting, yielding eventually to the usual urban railway tableau of factory back sides and limp laundry on the balconies of old, gritty housing blocks. At last, the rapidly slowing train halted inside Sirkeci station, undoubtedly the grandest I’d yet seen.

Alighting, I saw nattily uniformed porters and smelled tobacco, coffee and perfume. You’ll forgive me the conceit of romantic Orient Express daydreams to which I’d been prefigured after years of reading history, visions that dissolved back into reality when I heard the voice of Radio Damascus calling me one, final time:

“You okay? Good sleep?”

Yes, and no.

“You have map?” he asked, and without waiting for an answer, made a sweeping gesture with his arms: “Many hotels in this city. You have no problems here. Goodbye.”

“Goodbye, Hassan.”


Rick Carmickle said...

Very nice! Enjoyed the stories thus far.

bluegill said...

This, more than anything, may be how we ended up on anything resembling a similar plane.

I've since traveled with friends, family and my wonderful wife and enjoyed every minute of it. But, it was that first, months-long solo wander across the European continent that made me understand what it is to be human, rather than just Hoosier, American, or any other ridiculously stifling definition we choose to strangle ourselves with.

Waking up in a room full of strangers, unable to speak the language and totally dependent on your own wits and the kindness of others makes one quickly realize why so many cultures thrust their young out into the various types of wilderness as a rite of passage. Vision quest , indeed.

Upon returning home and no longer recognizing my place in the community, yet understanding it in the world, even those who thought I was crazy for going said they were glad I'd taken advantage of what would probably be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

With the exception of my grandmother, my answer was the same to all of them:

No f-ing way.