Geoff and Jules - Chapter 8

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There can be no better way to approach Istanbul than by water. Beating across the Bosphorus on a crowded ferryboat, one is at once seduced by the low domes and slender thrusting minarets of the mosques that stand out from the amorphous mass of buildings and towers crowding its seven hills.

Then, up behind the battlements of the old citadel, the great some of St Sophia merges with the towers of the Topkapi Museum, and their looming, half-hidden shapes draw you in toward the bustle of the old city and its teeming twisted streets. Just ahead in a confusing turmoil, the motley traffic of the Galata bridge merges with the bustling clamour of the waterfront quays, and one is totally consumed by the colours and smells that rush out through the hubbub.

Geoff had got into conversation with a chubby-faced young woman called Ayla, who promised to show us to the Y.M.C.A. where we planned to stay and rest a few days after the constant travelling of the last few weeks. They conversed haltingly in German, and she agreed to meet him later and show him some of the sights of her city.

There was some distance to walk up from the ferry wharves, and in spite of the damp cold of the city we were warm by the time we reached our destination. The Y.M.C.A. – or Amerikan Dersanesi as it was known – was a building of no particular character, but being located right opposite Santa Sophia, the fifteen-hundred-year-old monument to Byzantine splendour, it enjoyed a certain advantage not possessed by air-conditioned absurdities such as the Hilton Hotel, far away on the other side of the Golden Horn. It was the first accommodation we had paid for since leaving the Salvation Army Hostel in Calcutta months before, and we looked forward to the unaccustomed luxury of hot showers and proper beds.

We also had uninvited guests in the form of lice, which had invaded our clothes in the haystack at Khoi and caused us considerable discomfort ever since, so that our first priority was to devote ourselves wholeheartedly to their destruction. Having checked in and observed that, like the Hostel in Calcutta, the place was a stronghold of tramps, travellers and down-at-heel dropouts, we purchased a can of D.D.T. and retired with our belongings to the basement shower-rooms. It is not easy to rid yourself of lice when everything you possess is infested with them, particularly if there are no clean clothes to change into whilst the others are being deloused. So we found it necessary shower, dust ourselves all over with the powder and sit naked whilst everything else we possessed was bubbling away in a great laundry boiler. Then later, while the things were drying in the boiler room, we dusted them freely with D.D.T. and waited for something to become dry enough to wear.

Istanbul, we discovered, and the Y.M.C.A. in particular, acted as a funnel through which land travellers from Africa, Asia and the Middle East passed en route to Europe, and those from Europe went in the reverse direction. Nearly every nationality was represented there, and outrageous and extravagant travellers’ tales abounded. We listened with that anticipatory pleasure you enjoy when you know that one person’s yarn will undoubtedly be topped by the next.

In the middle of all this, while waiting for something to be dry enough to put on, a close-cropped, neat-suited American of middle age appeared and addressed us hesitantly.

"Say, you guys. I’re suffering, well....lice!" He looked embarrassed and shuffled about.

"Lice?" said Geoff, astonished.

"Yes. Well....they say there are two guys here from Australia with lice," he went on hurriedly.

"Lice?" said Geoff again.

"Yes....Well, that’s what they say." He was looking confused now. "I guess it’s not true, really, but we can’t be too careful, you know. Are you two guys Australians?"

"No. Not at all," I said indignantly. "I’m a New Zealander. Quite a different thing altogether."

"Oh. Yes....Yes," he exclaimed. "Of course....Anyway, I can see you guys haven’t got lice. Have you?"

"No! Certainly not!" we chorused. "What do you take us for?"

"Oh....Well....That’s all right." He went off, pink-cheeked. "I’m real sorry to have disturbed you."

Clean, refreshed and for the first time in weeks free from the interminable, aggravating itch, Geoff and I slept that night like just men, well satisfied with the day’s work. We emerged in high spirits the next morning, ready to absorb the wonders of this fine city. Ayla was there to meet Geoff, and they went off together to inspect Sancta Sofia and the splendours of the Topkapi Museum in the old Seraglio Palace. I wandered through the Covered Bazaar and then over to Sultanahmet Mosque. Islamic architecture and its different styles is fascinating and invariably satisfying to the eye. The Sultanahmet Mosque is no exception. Its dome is lower and flatter than those further east in Iran and Afghanistan, and the minarets are more numerous and slender. Although the geometric relationship of the structures appears more precise here, the whole nevertheless seems to have a more organic relationship with its surroundings. I took off my shoes and went inside. A mullah was instructing a class of children, and his voice echoed from the luminous blue of the tiled walls, reverberating up into the still vault of the great dome where the muffled sounds became faint and indistinct. I stood for a long time and absorbed the serenity of the place.

Later I met Geoff and Ayla, and we inspected a sunken palace built by Justinian in the sixth century and now used as a cistern for storing water. Ayla left us to return to her class at school, and Geoff and I wandered on.

"How did you go?" I asked.

"How’d I go? Well, I’ll bloody tell you! That museum is a trap for young players. It’s got about a hundred rooms, each one’s as full as a tick with every kind of little thing, and you need your strength to last the distance. I feel as though somebody’s got away with me eyeballs!" He shook his head with a dazed look. "She’s a nice girl, that Ayla, and she wanted me to see everything. But she didn’t miss a room. There’s a collection of portraits of all the sultans, a treasury of jewels, a section full of fabrics, one of brocades, another one full of thrones, and a room full of clocks. But the thing that finished me off was the Porcelain section. Do you know there’s ten thousand Ming vases in there? Ten thousand of the bastards! And we peered at the whole bloody lot. Ayla explained each one to me in German, which was very nice of her. But if you’re not a Ming vase man, the first hundred is enough. But ten thousand of the bloody things! And besides, it was freezing in there." He grinned ruefully. "But you can get a good view of the Bosphorus in between vases if you’re quick. That’s not too bad."

We took a meal of kebabs and cold beans in a back street cafe, where we were approached by a swarthy, thick-set man from a group at a nearby table. They were all dressed in the regular Turkish working-man’s outfit of dark baggy trousers and old double-breasted jacket.

"You are Norwegians?" he asked Geoff in English.

"No, I come from Australia," Geoff replied. "And this man here is from New Zealand."

"Oh." The man eyed us stonily for a moment. "I thought you were Norwegian." He turned to his companions. "Australia," he said, "Yeni Zelande."

They all stared at us with blank, slightly hostile faces and we continued our meal uncomfortably. The first man turned to us again.

"In the war," he said, "men from Australia and New Zealand were fighting against my country." It was a flat statement and he regarded us coldly.

"Well, yes," replied Geoff. "But that was a long time ago. It was nearly fifty years ago now, you know."

One of the man’s companions called out something that sounded hostile, and we made ready to run for it. Then he spoke again.

"You are right," he said solemnly. "It was a long time ago. The war is over now. We must be friends again. You must be friends with my country." He called his companions over and they regarded us gravely. One of them signalled the proprietor. "Now we will drink raki together and our countries will be friends."

The first drink burned its way to the pit of my stomach, the second was tolerable, and by the third we were all smiling in a serious kind of way. Before long the raki had accomplished an effective armistice and we were pledging our respective countries to eternal peace.

"Well, that beats the Dawn Parade on Anzac Day, Jules," remarked Geoff later as we made our way unsteadily back to the Y.M.C.A.

The hostel was warm, and we settled in to exchange yarns with the other tattered wayfarers until the early hours.

Some of our friends from the Erzerum-Ankara train were there, among them Bewildered Frank, looking more bewildered than ever.

"You know, I really should go out to India," he mumbled. "But you see, I’ve got this girl in Denmark." He could not make up his mind what to do. Another prospective overland traveller was the Edible Crud Man. A long-nosed, gangling American, he had questioned us closely about the perils and privations of the journey, and, having just arrived from Europe, he was fearfully concerned about the quality of the food he would be able to get along the route. We were talking with some others when he burst into the room excitedly, waving a green, plastic, string bag.

"Say, you guys! Look what I’ve got here!" He paused triumphantly while we gazed at his string bag. "Well, I got this today, right? And I’m going to fill it all up with good edible crud. Man, I’ll get me enough edible crud to take me clear through to Tehran!" We were speechless. His conception of a wasteland between Istanbul and Tehran, where the honest traveller could obtain no food, was certainly original. But his plans for the more distant future were even more original. "Well, you see, I’ve got this piece of land in the South of France, an’ I want to get a couple of guys round me to go into the smuggling game." He paused for dramatic effect. "We’ll get us a boat and go off to Algeria to dig up diamonds. I read about it in Time magazine – or was it life? Anyway, I read this article, see, an’ it said there was diamonds there just three feet deep in the ground. Man, you could dig ‘em up with a shovel." Nobody spoke, and he went on, eyes gleaming. "Trouble is, there’s cobras there too – that’s the rub, see. Man, they say those cobras are so rough they’ll spit right in your eye! Hell, I can rough it with the next guy, but I’m not all that rugged! Maybe we’d just stick to smuggling." Nobody was able to think of anything appropriate to say.

The next evening two young Scots lads prevailed on us to visit the red light district with them. "It’s a good ‘chip’ night’s entertainment," they assured us, and we wandered up and down some narrow streets on the other side of the Galata Bridge. There were ten-lira, fifteen-lira and twenty-lira streets, but as the canny Scots pointed out to us, "lookin’ is free." And so it was. Along with most of the locals we were spectators, for the doors on each house had eye-level grills through which a prospective client could observe the ladies sitting about inside in various degrees of undress. Almost without exception they were big women, fat and hefty. Whenever they caught a glimpse of a face peering through the open grille, some would beckon, some would perform an enticing little dance, while others sat bored and disinterested. On one occasion when Geoff’s bearded face was seen grinning through the grille, a great, heavy woman with enormous bouncing breasts came out and grabbed him by the ear to haul him inside, much to the raucous amusement of the other whores and the merriment of the promenading crowd in the street. "It’s cheaper than the pictures," observed our two Scots with satisfaction.

Geoff escaped and returned to us rubbing his ear. "Jeez, she was strong!" he muttered.

Next morning we took our leave of Istanbul and made for the Greek border some hundred and fifty miles away. It was evening when we crossed, but the contrast between the Turks and the Greeks seemed to us so marked that we felt we had emerged from a dark tunnel into the light. Even the air seemed somehow brighter, warmer, more luminous. To Geoff, entering the land of the marathon for the first time, it was something of an occasion, and he felt it appropriate to cross the border with a certain style. Completing his Turkish exit formalities, he handed me his rucksack and drew back up the road a short distance. Then, watched auspiciously by the Turkish officials, he ran triumphantly across the border, holding aloft a bottle of raki. Bowing to the Greek border officials, he saluted Greece with a short drink to its health. The Greeks positively beamed their appreciation and indicated that they clearly felt this a most appropriate way to leave Turkey and enter their country.

It was twilight when we reached the little village beyond the border, and the time of the promenade. This gracious custom of farewelling the day and greeting your neighbour charms the senses and relaxes the soul. There was a hint of the warm sun-stretched days to come in the fragrant spring air, and the strolling villagers smiled and called a greeting. With our spirits buoyant, we felt relaxed. Before we knew it we had slipped into the delectable rhythm of the Greek countryside, and it seemed that we had come home after a long journey.

Some young men beckoned from a nearby taverna, and we went inside to where the impassioned music of the bouzouki and the santouri accompanied the wild singing of a young woman. We looked about but there were only men to be seen, sitting at bare wooden tables staring at us as we entered. Some were playing cards, some talking, some sitting alone fingering worry-beads and tapping their feet. All were drinking, but there was no sign of an orchestra. Then we located it. A jukebox was the source of this splendid music. We sat down and were immediately addressed by a man slightly better dressed than the rest. He wore a suit and tie and looked by contrast rather prosperous.

"G’day! Where are you blokes coming from?" It was bizarre, this prosperous-looking citizen in a small Greek village speaking with a strong Australian accent.

"Australia," said Geoff.

"New Zealand," said I.

The man turned to the other patrons. "Aufstralia!" he called. "Nea Zelandia!"

"Aufstralia, Aufstralia!" The word ran from one to the other around the room. It held some magic, we could see, for they were clearly impressed.

"Hey, you blokes, it’s real great to see again somebody from Australia!" He was almost beside himself with excitement and called to the proprietor to bring us drinks. "I used to have a fruit shop in Melbourne a few years ago. Do you come from Melbourne, maybe?" he asked Geoff.

"Well, yes, I do."

"Is that right?" He jumped up, embraced Geoff warmly then turned again to the others. "Melvourné!" he announced proudly, holding Geoff by the arm.

"Melvourné! Melvourné!" Again the word was repeated around the room, with the patrons obviously impressed. In a moment they crowded around Geoff and plied him with questions translated by our prosperous friend. Did he know this one’s cousin Giorgio in Melvourné, this one’s brother Zaccharios in Sydney, or Nikos in Brisbane? It was an exhilarating clamour, and bemused with all the attention we accepted glass after glass of retsina, the slightly bitter resinous wine they were drinking. The music burst out again and away went some of the men dancing, leaping and slapping their heels in a surging swaying line, each with his arms outstretched and linked with his neighbour’s. It was a zestful exuberant dance, a celebration of life, and we banged our glasses on the table in time with the music.

The beaming proprietor, who claimed a cousin in Melbourne, brought us Ouzo, a fiery aniseed liquor, not unlike Turkish raki, which we began to drink with retsina chasers.

"By God, Jules," cried Geoff, "the Greeks have got the secret. This is the place! They know what it’s all about!" He roared his appreciation at the leaping, stamping dancers, and we began to sing loudly with the music that poured endlessly from the gaudy machine.

Soon singing and banging his glass was not enough, and he leaped to his feet to join the dancers. Arms outstretched we weaved about in an amazing ballet of jigs, reels and hops, his face shining and exultant. Before long I, too, found myself up and dancing in a way that I seemed unable to control.

The music swelled around us, and in a haze of wine and friendship we could feel the contagious spirit of these people flooding into us and overwhelming our minds. It was the primitive exuberance of the unconfined soul, and the unaccustomed freedom of our bodies made our heads reel. It did not matter that we were unable to follow the intricate measures of the Greek dance. It was sufficient that it freed our souls and allowed us the sensuous pleasure of unrestrained movement.

Geoff donned my red anorak, and with the hood pulled up over his head launched into a lively version of a Tibetan devil dance. It was a spirited performance which was only momentarily interrupted when he cracked his skull on a doorway. The Greeks danced on with us, and together we drank and cavorted jubilantly. Later, as Geoff and I spun wildly about, we collided violently. My nose bled and Geoff nursed a split lip, but the rollicking scarcely missed a beat.

It was late when we staggered off into the night, swearing eternal friendship with the partons of the taverna and promising to deliver incomprehensible messages to their unknown brothers and cousins in far-off Melbourne and Sydney.

The first uncomfortable light of dawn found us barely conscious after several hours of oblivion. I looked about through slitted lids, but the effort of moving my eyes proved too painful, and I closed them again. We seemed to be in somebody’s chicken yard, and a woman was standing over us, shouting from a long way away. It did not concern me, somehow, so I tried to get comfortable, but there was a kind of low moaning close at hand which I found disturbing. I forced my eyes open again long enough again long enough to observe that Geoff was bent double, retching. The woman was still there too, and still shouting. She sounded very angry. I sat up. My head was the size of a pumpkin and my stomach felt sea-sick. A man came up and spoke to the woman who fell silent. I noticed a gaggle of hens huddled apprehensively at the end of the yard. One stood a little apart and eyed me indignantly. Geoff continued to groan from time to time and sat on the ground holding his head. Other people came up to observe us, and one brought us some coffee, thick, black and very sweet. A little later someone brought us bread, and we began to move about cautiously, gathering odds and ends of our belongings which were scattered about the yard. The sun was shining now, but its warmth did nothing to help our tortured bodies; however, the bread and coffee had effected a small recovery. There were other women now and they regarded us impassively. The men were more sympathetic. Some of them had been at the taverna the night before and they smiled understandingly at our condition.

We struggled out of the village and sat suffering on a grassy verge by the road to Thessaloniki. As the day progressed we accepted short lifts and gradually accepted a delicate but normal equilibrium.

And in this way began a month-long interlude in Greece which for both of us took on the quality of a dream-like idyll. Old ladies dressed entirely in black would press bunches of grapes and figs into our hands as we trudged through small villages. Truck drivers would invariably share their lunch of fetta cheese, olives and bread. Even the buses in remote areas would pick us up and allow us to ride free in ‘paupers’’ seats at the front. There were, of course, many Greeks that we did not like and no doubt many more who did not like us, but the overwhelming impression remains of a land where the visitor is king, hospitality a joy and the ordinary man is remarkable in his natural warmth and generosity, which he seems to obtain from the magical air he breathes.

In Athens we discovered the house of Simos. Rumours had reached us of this strange abode from other travellers along the way. It was said that we could stay there as long as we needed and no charge would be made. It was said that it was a brothel and frequently raided by the police. It was said to be a refuge for artists, freaks and drop-outs. So it was with some curiosity that we made our way to Sarri Street, a narrow, nondescript street in a crowded quarter to the south of Syntagma Square.