Our books

I bought another book this morning. Nothing remarkable about that, especially not for me, but for some reason I started to think about how the contrast between the many books i have surrounded myself with as an adult and the few – the much cherished few – we had at home when i was a child.

We didn’t buy books but that’s not to say we didn’t have any at all. My dad had a few books on farming, a book about the minerals of the earth and a set of art encyclopaedias he must have bought in instalments, though I never saw him read them. I read them surreptitiously – we children weren’t supposed to touch them, discovering in their pages the wonders of prehistoric art and the women of Titian, both of which I still love. I also read the book about minerals but the farming textbooks were too much and so I never did learn how to raise cows for milk.

For her part, my mum had a beautiful leatherbound anthology of stories (“Alice in Wonderland”,”The Water Babies”, tales from the Mabinogion, etc) and poetry (mostly Tennyson, Kipling, Walter de la Mare & co). This book had a poignant history: it had originally been a present to one of my mother’s uncles from the German family who sheltered him after he was shot down during the Second World War. It was intended for his daughter Katherine who, having survived polio, was now bed-ridden with TB.

Sadly, she died and the book passed to my mum who was another quiet, sickly, careful child: when she passed it on to us, it was still in pristine condition. Not for long. The leather covers came off one by one and ink ‘annotations’ soon ‘decorated’ the pages. I didn’t mind. I read it from missing cover to missing cover over and over again. I’ve loved the smell of old paper ever since, as i have the weight of a book in my hands – two reasons why e-books have never tempted me.

The Victorian stories inside the anthology were as different as could be to the bland tales the teachers regaled us with at school: slightly macabre and supernaturally inventive. The language was richer but more formal. The sentences were longer and exotically punctuated: there and then i fell in love with the semi-colon. Then there were the pictures: Tenniel’s illustrations for Alice in Wonderland in particular. I was less keen on the poetry apart from the nonsense rhymes of Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear.

It was in this book that i first had my heart broken by a story. It was the Mabinogion tale about a knight who leaves his dog guarding his young son. A wolf comes in and attacks the baby. Although the dog is unable to save the child he does succeed in killing the wolf. But when the knight returns and sees the the dead infant he believes it is the dog who has killed him: he slays his faithful hound only to  discover, a little while later, the corpse of the true killer lying bloodied behind a curtain. I cried when i read that story and even now the injustice of the dog’s death fills me with sorrow. By contrast, i can scarcely recall what the books we read at school were about.

Finally, we had one other book in our house and it was the book from which we were taught to read: the Bible. Well, a children’s Bible. This contained all the best stories from the Bible with magnificent coloured drawings on each page (Cain, i recall, was clad in a strange tasselled coat of the kind a Country Music singer might wear). The language was simplified from the original but retained the tongue-twisting polysyllables that passed for names. How i struggled with those Babylonian kings! My dad used to record us reading: on the one fragment that still survives i can be heard stumbling repeatedly over “Nebuchadnezzar”  while he corrects me – quietly in the background – and gets me to try again.

The Bible was an even greater rollercoaster of a read than the “Great Anthology”. It was supposed to explain what was good and what was bad and indeed it did contain stories of beautiful wisdom: Solomon judging the women fighting over a baby, Jesus challenging the would-be executioners of an adulteress. Yet it also contained examples of terrifying carnage such as the destruction of Jericho.  Eve seemed to me to be more victim than transgressor while the Philistines were like the “Red Indians” in American cowboy movies: condemned merely because history had come to belong to their enemies. I began to think and haven’t stopped since.

Advertisements

Trip 2010: back to Turkey… and for longer than expected

The trip diary for the remainder of the days i spent in Turkey is a bit more basic than for the earlier part, mainly because i wasn’t expecting this part of the trip to last for quite as long as it did and was too busy dealing with the uncertainty of the situation to make notes each day. From memory…

Thursday 15 April

This time my cabinmate on the night train was a Greek although i didn’t find this out till the morning as he was asleep when i got on the train. I made my bunk up in no time; in fact i felt like a bit of an old pro to tell the truth! As was the case on the journey to Thessaloniki i found myself half-asleep half-awake, listening to the train moving over the railway track, for much of the journey. Not that i minded: i love the sound and the sensation of a chugging train, especially a sleeper train. On the one hand, the feeling of being sheltered and taken care of; on the other the feeling that we are hurtling towards some magical destination. By dawn we were nearing Istanbul and when my roommate got up and we put the bunks away i saw the very same towns and suburbs appear that i’d seen on the evening of my journey to Thessaloniki. Only the order of their appearance was reversed! Eventually, i realised we were nearing the end of the journey. We weren’t quite as close as i first thought however and there were some more areas of Istanbul to pass through (the city is huge!) before we did get to Sirkeci. At one point we travelled alongside a yard containing several stray dogs. A man came out of a building and threw a stone at one of them and laughed. Human beings, honestly.

At Sirkeci my cabinmate and I said our goodbyes. I was thrilled to be back in Istanbul. “Civilisation!” i said to myself. I had a day of book-buying ahead of me but first i needed my breakfast. I can’t remember now whether it was while i was eating breakfast or later on during the day that i received the first text (from my mum) about the eruption of an Icelandic volcano. Surely it was later – after i’d spent hours rushing round Istanbul, convinced that i had only one day left in the city. The warning about the volcano sounded ridiculous, surreal even: the very idea that an event in Iceland could have any relevance to me in Turkey! In fact, to be honest, it sounded like someone’s idea of a wind-up. About five minutes after the first text another arrived about the same subject. This one was from my son. In it he urged me to check whether or not my flight would be going.

Back at the hotel i tried to find out but couldn’t. I shrugged and decided i’d find out in the morning. I’d got my books anyhow including three books F had recommended to me. Two of these were novels: Dear Shameless Death by Latife Tekin and A Mind At Peace by Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar. The other was a memoir called My GrandmotherFethiye Çetin‘s book about her Armenian grandmother who lived most of her life ‘disguised’ as a Turk. I also bought a book of poetry by Nazım Hikmet. More of an extravagance was the book (two books as it turned out) that i bought at the Istanbul Modern about the work of the painter Erol Akyavaş. Oh well.

Friday 16 April

In the morning it quickly became evident that my flight would not be going. The news didn’t upset me nearly as much as it did some of the other guests who began to discuss flying to Madrid, where the airport was still open, and getting a train or more likely several trains home from there. Mind you, they were German. It was easier to decide to stay where you were if you were British. The idea of being stuck at Calais did not appeal.

I arranged to meet up with B but once she arrived we were at a loss to know where to go. I think we first headed back up to Beyoğlu and the bookshops where i bought yet more books of poetry: Oktay Rifat, Cevat Çapan and Ataol Behramoğlu this time. Then it occurred to me that she would really like the museum of modern art. In fact, when i’d been there the week before i kept thinking of her and wondering what she’d make of the paintings. Off we went, down the hill. It was much more fun going round the museum with B – even the paintings i didn’t like seemed more interesting when there was someone to discuss them with; plus, the fact that B (unlike me) is actually artistic meant that she noticed things that passed me by. I showed her ‘my painter’, the afore-mentioned Erol Akyavaş. Eventually, it was time for her to go to work however and i was forced to allow her to escape.

Saturday 17 April

Immediately after breakfast we were informed by the lady on the reception desk at the hotel that there would be no flights for at least another two days. Would we like to extend our reservations? My answer: yes, please. I had already been thinking about what i would do if – as had seemed likely the night before – i had to stay in Istanbul a bit longer. My favourite part of Istanbul – of those i’ve been to so far – is Kuzguncuk. I’d assumed i wouldn’t have time to visit it again during this trip but now i had the opportunity i was determined to do so. I took the ferry over and walked along the road to Icadiye Cadessi, just as i’d done the previous year. The only difference was that this year i knew where i was going. By the time i arrived it was lunchtime and i walked up the street looking for the cafe i’d been to last time. I couldn’t recall its name for the life of me but i was sure if i saw it…

Suddenly i recognised it: Pita Kuzguncuk. As i walked in the proprietor looked up and saw me. I was absurdly pleased to realise that she recognised me from my visit the year before. She greeted me and asked me how i was. Did i live in Istanbul? It was rather wonderful. Being in a strange city for any length of time does that to you though: you develop a craving for human contact – for another human being to greet you as an individual and for that moment to be transformed into a person, not just a body passing along streets full of millions of other bodies. I had quiche. I had lemon cake. I drank tea. Then i left and it was back to being anonymous again.

Kuzguncuk houses

Kuzguncuk street view

View from Kuzguncuk

Synagogue in Kuzguncuk

Church door in Kuzguncuk

Another house in Kuzguncuk

Another view of Kuzguncuk

Still at least i was in Kuzguncuk. I wandered about photographing the pretty houses, painted many different colours. I also photographed the tree-lined roads, the synagogue and a Greek Orthodox church (this was once an ethnically mixed neighbourhood). Running out of things to snap i followed the road up the hill, noticing how gradually the look and ambience of the area altered. By the time the road terminated at the top of the hill it was a lot less quaint and a lot less affluent. A man stopped me and asked me where i wanted to go. When i tried to explain that i didn’t want to go anywhere he looked at me like i was mad.

Afterwards i explored the nearby neighbourhood of Harem and then took the boat back across the Bosphorus.

Sunday 18 April

My great idea for Sunday morning had been that i would take a walk, heading west out of Sultanahmet. At first all went well but i very quickly got lost. In some streets there were no signs or plaques to tell you what they were called; in others i could see the names but couldn’t find them on the map. F told me later that street names are forever being altered, so perhaps it wasn’t just the fault of my lousy map-reading skills. Finally, i found myself outside the gates of Istanbul University. From there i was able to find my way back to Sultanahmet where i sat for a while in a cafe. I half-heartedly considered re-embarking on my walk westwards but couldn’t work up any enthusiasm for the idea; then i remembered that my friend Ö had recommended that i visit Kadıköy on the Asian side of the city.

Istanbul University gate

Haydarpasha

Parade on Istiklal Cadessi

Off i went on the ferry, a different one than i’d taken to Üsküdar the day before when i’d visited Kuzguncuk. Kadıköy is further south. The boat was chock-a-block, a fact which ought to have made me suspicious in itself. When we arrived at our destination i found it was a shopping district, snighing with people. No matter which way i turned, which street i went down, i couldn’t break free of them. I couldn’t work out what they were buying: none of the shops looked especially impressive or interesting; although admittedly few shops do look impressive or interesting to me other than bookshops. After about an hour of battling the crowds i gave up and returned to the dock. I made one last ditch attempt to explore the area, heading towards Haydarpaşa Railway Station which i could see in the distance but abandoned it when i found my route blocked by a bus station. Enough already! I returned to the European side of the city and trudged up the hill to Beyoğlu where i watched a mysterious procession of people wearing letters of the alphabet.

Monday 19 April

My extended holiday was extended even further on Monday when it became obvious that i wouldn’t be flying home that day and probably wouldn’t be able to fly the day after either. I’d arranged to meet up with B and F again if i was still in Istanbul on the Monday and at 10 am B arrived. I’d had the idea the evening before that i’d like to visit Balat and Fener, old neighbourhoods of Istanbul. According to the guidebook these were best accessed via the Golden Horn Ferry. We hit a snag however: it was by no means obvious where the Golden Horn Ferry sailed from. Eventually, we found the dock – or i should say B found it, mostly by asking everyone she met until we got there. We boarded a ferry we’d been assured would take us to Fener and take us to Fener it did; the only problem being that it didn’t stop but just sailed straight on! It was the same story at Balat (or was Balat before Fener, i can’t remember). We were stuck on the boat until it reached Eyüp, quite a bit further west along the Golden Horn than we’d wanted to go.

Cemetery in Eyüp

Old men in Fener - 2010 april 19

Fener
Once off the boat we tried to work out how we could get back to Fener. Again, it was B who sorted it out: apart from speaking Turkish she’s also charming. I stuck to my dumb tourist impression; i’m quite marvellous at it. The best solution seemed to be to take a taxi which we did. On arrival we set off in search of the seat of Ecumenical Patriarch of the Orthodox Church: the Ecumenical Patriarchate is still based in Istanbul although this is nowhere near as important as it was in the past; Greece, Russia and other predominately Orthodox countries have their own national patriarchates now.  I have to confess we never found this elusive location but we did walk up and down a fair few hills, peek at the ruins of a church through a locked gate and chat with the locals. This was the friendliest neighbourhood i have ever been to in Istanbul. From the man in a workshop who got B to bring me in so he could say hello to me, to the ladies sitting on chairs by the side of the road, to the young men who proudly recited the Muslim profession of faith (the Shahadah or, as we used to call it when i was a kid, the Kolyma) in English – everyone we met in this conservative, run-down neighbourhood was welcoming.

When we’d finally accepted that we were never going to find the church we took a taxi back to Taksim Square and found a cafe to recuperate in. Later F joined us and we sat chatting for a couple of hours. A wonderful day and, truth be told, i wasn’t all that bothered about the phantom church: it was just a destination to aim for; i didn’t care whether we ever arrived.

Tuesday 20 April

This was supposed to be my first day back at work! I’d emailed work on Monday to let them know i wouldn’t be there – although i suspected they would guess. As there was still no sign of flights resuming i headed off with the idea of – finally – visiting the Islands. I was unable to find the dock from which the ferry departs however. Stubbornly, i refused to ask anyone (i hate asking for directions!) for hours. By the time i gave in and found that the ferry now departs from Kabataş i’d lost all enthusiasm for the trip (and probably wasted too much time too). Instead, i headed up to Beyoğlu where i spent what turned out to be my last day in Istanbul (as opposed to the airport) making one last tour of the bookshops and exploring some of the back streets. I bought yet another book: a biography of Nazım Hikmet called Romantic Communist.

It was later this day that i realised i’d had just about as much of Istanbul as i could comfortably take in one trip. There were just too many people and too few places to go to get away from them. I couldn’t restore myself in my usual fashion, with a walk along the waterside, because in Istanbul main roads run right next to the Bosphorus and Golden Horn. There’s no equivalent of the Thames Path.

Wednesday 21 April

Finally, it seemed Heathrow had re-opened! Turkish Airlines’ website showed that a flight had departed for London but there was no other information – in particular no information about what those people whose flights had been cancelled earlier in the week should do; nor was anyone answering the phone at the airline. I came to the conclusion there was nothing else i could do but go to the airport. Once there i discovered crowds of other stranded passengers. It was hard to work out what to do as there were no signs, no members of staff giving out information. It was a Dutch couple who’d been trying to arrange a flight for the past two days who eventually explained the procedure to me. They pointed towards a row of counters at the far end of the departures hall and told me that the key thing was to get a ticket (from a dispenser hidden amidst the sea of would-be passengers). Once i’d got one it was just a matter of waiting for three or four hours to speak to a member of staff. I was one of the lucky ones: when i did reach the counter the lady was able to put me on a flight the next evening – once she’d managed to locate my original booking (which had been purged following the flight’s cancellation) anyhow.

I’d checked out of my hotel before leaving for the airport. I knew that once i got there that would be it and i was right. I couldn’t bring myself to leave for fear that something would happen while i was away from the airport: there would be an announcement of some kind; i’d get back to find all the flights had been re-allocated and i’d lost my place. It sounds crazy now but it’s an easy frame of mind to get into in that sort of situation. I spent the night sitting in a chair in a 24/7 Starbucks in the Arrivals hall. It was a comfortable chair and though i got no sleep i did at least get plenty of reading done; in fact by the time i got back to Britain i’d read most of the books i’d bought in Turkey and Greece.

Thursday 22 April

One week since i’d returned to Istanbul from Greece – and what a week! I stayed in the Starbucks till about 10 am, mainly because i couldn’t think of anywhere better to go. My flight wasn’t due to leave till 7 pm. I decided i’d better return to the Departures hall however… just in case; and when i got up there i noticed that Turkish Airlines had a check-in desk open. I forget what they were calling it: communal check-in or something like that, but it occurred to me that perhaps i might be able to check in for my flight already. That would move me one step closer to a secure seat on the plane! I approached the desk and my luck was in – i could indeed check in. The relief as the lady handed me my boarding card is something i can’t describe; but immediately i started to worry: perhaps this still wasn’t final, perhaps they could still turn me back. B had said she would come to see me off at the airport but in my paranoia i was unwilling to wait even a couple of hours on the ‘wrong side’ of Passport Control. I wanted to be ‘safely’ inside the main part of the airport. It was irrational of course and i regret it now, as it means we never got a chance to say our goodbyes.

In any case, even once i passed Passport Control i still worried. It wasn’t until i was actually on the plane and it had taken off that i relaxed. Only then did i start to feel sure that i was on my way home. Four hours later the British coastline appeared below us and i almost cried with relief. Finally. Home.

Trip 2010: Greece part 2 – Xanthi & Alexandroupoli

Monday 12 April

Woke up cold despite the extra blanket I’d put onto the bed and hungry. Again i would need to seek out breakfast for myself; unlike in Turkey it doesn’t seem to be routinely provided in Greek hotels. I could hear the sounds of city life from outside the window although when I checked my iPhone it wasn’t yet eight. Downstairs the relatively friendly lady who’d checked me in the night before was gone and had been replaced by a relatively unfriendly man. I think this is the man I’d spoken to on the phone from Istanbul; he has the knack of sounding offended by anything you ask of him.

“Do you speak English?”

[Offended tone] “Yes, a bit.”

“Is it possible to get a map of Xanthi?”

[Offended tone] “Yes, here.”

And so on.

A short walk from the hotel i found a nice cafe: chic yet comfortable and somehow very ‘continental’. They sold beautiful fruit tarts and… filter coffee! I was also surprised to discover the assistant spoke some English. Mind you, I notice the Greeks use English quite a bit in advertising: the babywear shop across the road has a sign on the door saying “HOME” for instance – although I suppose it could be a Greek word.

Looking out of the window as i breakfasted i noticed the many Muslims in the town. They’re mostly Turkish-speaking and identify as ethnic Turks, it seems, although some Muslims in this area speak Bulgarian (and are known as Pomaks). I say ‘it seems’ because the Muslims of Xanthi rarely speak any minority language loud enough for it to be heard; it’s only when you’re standing close to people that you hear snatches of conversations in Turkish. The women dress conservatively in headscarves and long coats, which are almost all black. One younger woman had opted for a slightly different style: super-elaborate headscarf plus the slinkiest skirt I’ve seen since I arrived in Greece. It just about reached her knees. Ah well, at least it was black. The men, on the other hand, dress in ordinary western fashion and are indistinguishable from the Greeks – at least to my untrained eye. Greek women, by the way, dress like women in any other part of Europe; the days of dark dresses for mature ladies and conservative hemlines all round are long since gone if the towns i visited are anything to go by.

Xanthi rooftops

After breakfast i had a good wander round the Old Town, which is wonderfully pretty. I was particularly taken with the doors of the houses: each seemed to be unique. It’s bizarre that I only saw two other tourists. None of the buildings are actually that old though – the ones I saw all dated from the mid-19th Century or a few decades later; yet sadly many of them are in a poor state of repair. Given their touristic value this struck me as odd. Despite an abundance of dark red plaques affixed to the walls, providing information in Greek and English, none of the buildings appeared to be open to the public either.

An old Muslim lady stopped me as i was sight-seeing (aka ‘getting lost’) and began asking me urgent questions about something. Of course I had no idea what that something was – although, bizarrely, the one word i could identify was ‘Papas’, which i believe is Greek for ‘Pope’! Eventually I got her to understand that I was foreign. She laughed and walked off.

Greek flag in old Xanthi

Around lunchtime i found that much longed for oasis… a bookshop selling books in English (albeit only a few) and with a helpful assistant to boot. I bought a book called Tormented by History* in which a pair of Turkish and a Greek historians compare the development of their respective nationalisms and a novel by a Greek writer called Vangelis Hatziyanndis**. It’s about a beekeeper’s son (of all things!) and won a Greek literary prize for best first novel in 2001. This turned out to be a great read, although its treatment of paedophilia was problematic to say the least.

In addition, I bought a map of Thrace. It covers both the Greek and Turkish portions. The Turkish place names are given according to their normal Turkish spelling but for many of them a Greek language name is also shown or/and a transliteration of the Greek pronunciation of the Turkish name into the Latin script – for example Çerkezköy is rendered ‘Tserkezkioe’. Who is this for? If it’s to help Greeks pronounce the Turkish name then why isn’t it written in the Greek alphabet?

The bookshop had a cafe upstairs, but it was deserted. The helpful shop assistant had followed me up however so i felt obliged to order some tea. It was strange sitting there all by myself but not unpleasant. What was unpleasant was the sofa on which i was sat; from a distance it looked like leather but it was actually made from plastic – white plastic. Plastic is like concrete: it quickly starts to look dirty as it wears; and these sofas are no exception. Alas, modernity!

A door in Xanthi

Xanthi door

Xanthi door

In the afternoon i did some shopping (as usual I had been overoptimistic about laundry facilities and was running out of clothes) and some more sight-seeing. The friendly lady who served me in the clothes shop had spent part of her childhood in Australia and was now regretting her decision to return to Greece, although she told me she preferred Xanthi to Athens where she’d been born. She advised me to go to the top of the hill above the Old Town if possible for a panoramic view of the town, which i did (it was a nice view and i saw a tortoise). I also fed some hungry cats; the moggies of Istanbul live lives of plenty compared to the scrawny creatures i encountered in Greece.

Tortoise near Xanthi

Back in the town, this time the newer section, i encountered the spectacle of two “American Indian musicians”, sporting the kind of costumes (feathered headdresses, etc) that you normally only see in movies and old sepia photographs. Amerindian these men may well have been (though not necessarily from the US), but musicians they most definitely were not. The music was ‘pre-recorded; occasionally they would inject a note from a wooden flute or bang a drum but it was almost at random. Behind them were hung two huge posters. One showed Jesus ascending to Heaven, the other two enormous bunny rabbits (each about three times as big as Jesus).

Eventually, tired out by my exertions and curious to know if i had any emails i took myself off to an internet cafe i’d seen opposite the bookstore i’d visited earlier. This was in fact the first internet cafe i’ve ever visited in my life. It was half full, mostly of teenage boys playing World of Warcraft and the like (with intense concentration – there was no conversation), and strangely dark. I wrote the first two instalments of my Trip 2010 saga there and savoured the feeling of connectivity, this being my first chance to use the internet since arriving in Greece – free internet access doesn’t seem to be a part of Greek hotel culture any more than breakfast is. An incidental discovery: Greek keyboards are even harder to get used to than Turkish ones!

And that, apart from another trip to the nice cafe for cake and tea, concluded my day in Xanthi.

Tuesday 13 April

Woke at eight – so much for my plan to out of the hotel by then. After repacking my rucksack (for some reason this gets harder, not easier, as a trip progresses) I went down to pay the bill. The evening before I’d been assured I could pay by card but the antiquated PIN terminal wouldn’t work; how can one of these already be antiquated? Chip & Pin has only been around for a few years. Ended up settling by cash and then took a taxi to the train station, where I bought my ticket to Alexandroupoli and discovered I had a two hour wait for the train.

It occurred to me that it might be possible to buy the ticket for the night train from Alexandroupoli to Istanbul at this station too. No harm in asking anyway. After a conversation with two members of staff, one of whom spoke quite good English, it transpired this was indeed possible. Only problem: payment is only possible by cash. At first I despaired as I’d handed over most of my cash at the hotel but then – miracle! – I found an extra 40 euros in one of my pockets. I felt relieved to have the ticket. Given how few tickets were left when I went with B to buy the ticket from Istanbul to Thessaloniki one day before travelling, it seemed entirely possible that there would be no tickets left when I got to Alexandroupoli. I was also given a piece of information which was to dominate my stay in the town: i was to go to the “Old Station” for the night train, and not the new one which all the other trains go to. The lady repeated this information several times.

Xanthi Railway Station

The train was like the one i’d travelled on from Thessaloniki but thankfully the journey was shorter. Indeed we only seemed to pass through one town of any size and this was Komotini, notable for the fact that it’s the only town in Greece where Turks form a majority of the population (although only just). I’ve read that Turkish communities in Greece tend if anything to be more conservative than those in Turkey; ironically, by remaining in Greece, they avoided the secularisation of the Turkish republic. As we drew into Komotini a lady in a seat not far from mine stood up and donned a long black coat and headscarf before disembarking. I wondered whether she’d taken the coat and headscarf off to avoid problems on the train or was putting them on to avoid problems in the town.

Soon i was in Alexandroupoli, which initially looked quite promising, not least because I could see the sea as the train drew in. I quickly realised my mistake however: this is one of those places which somehow lack a soul. It’s very short of decent cafes too, although I found one eventually called Elemento 41, situated, as these places often are, next to a bookshop (which alas had scarcely any English language books). After struggling for about a quarter of an hour to decipher the Greek characters on the menu i selected one of a handful of dishes on offer whose name was given in English: a Greco-Burger! I also drank lots of tea, as it turned out they had real Japanese sencha on offer (!) and not made from bags either – no, this was loose tea in a pot, served with complimentary biscuits and sweets. The complimentary biscuits and sweets were a feature of Greek cafes in general and one i really liked. You never knew what they’d give you but it was always good.

Apart from cafes just about everything in this town seems to shut at 3 pm at the latest so I’d missed the museums and ended up spending the afternoon wandering about at random. One of the things i noticed was the curious relationship the town has with the nearby Greco-Turkish border: the town is as Greek as Greek can be and there’s much less evidence of the Thracian Turkish minority; yet here for the first time i saw road signs pointing out how close Turkey is – just 44 km (27 miles) away. I never saw any soldiers but i did see photographic displays featuring images of the military in the windows of shops. It was quite odd.

The other thing i noticed was how beautiful the dogs were. There were lots down by the seafront. I couldn’t work out whether they were strays or just pets out for a wander (apart from the few who were wearing collars). Many of them appeared to have some Labrador or Golden Retriever ancestry. Thankfully, neither the Greeks nor the Turks have yet been afflicted by leash-mania and consequently their dogs are calm and self-contained, just as i remember dogs being in my childhood, and not neurotic or aggressive like so many dogs in Britain are these days.

For a while I sat on a wall near the sea reading my Greek novel (the only one it appears i’m going to be able to buy!), but the temperature started to drop and the seafront is not actually very pretty in Alexandroupoli: the water looks dirty and oddly dark. In the end I gave up and returned to my hotel.

Photos of soldiers in Alexandroupoli

Wednesday 14 April

Woke to the sound of drizzle. I made my way into town to look for something to eat, eventually (inevitably?) settling for coffee and and a piece of complimentary cake at Elemento 41. The search for breakfast was nothing in comparison to the quest for the Old Railway Station however. No-one seemed to be able to tell me where this was; when i did get directions they were invariably wrong. Even the stationmaster at the New Station couldn’t help me: he directed me to a grey building further along the track which turned out to be a row of shops! At one point I was stopped by a police car; they were obviously suspicious of the way i was wandering along the road, examining every yard and driveway for signs that a railway station that might be hidden away inside.

The policemen were actually very nice when they realised i was merely lost, but Alexandroupoli isn’t the friendliest place I’ve ever been to in my life and the endless grid pattern of the streets gives it a dreary feel which doesn’t help matters. I’ve also noticed that although there are even more English language signs here than in Xanthi, fewer people speak English (the Greek paradox?).

Music book at Alexandroupoli Ethnological Museum

Giving up (temporarily) the search for the Old Station, i decided to check out the town’s museums before they closed. I’d read about two but could only find one in the end: the Ethnological Museum, which collects together household items typical of the traditional culture of the region – a culture which seems to have survived into the first half of the Twentieth Century, but is now completely gone as far as i could see. There were women’s costumes featuring leaf patterns, aprons and coin decorations, and lots of different kinds of headgear. The men’s costumes were less spectacular apart from the footwear: clogs/slippers with great ‘bobbles’ at the end. Some of the costumes were not in fact Thracian but Cappadocian or Pontic, reflecting the influx of refugees in 1923. Other exhibits included tools used for farming and a music book, featuring a kind of notation i’d never seen before. Not many people seem to come to the museum; the caretaker had to switch the lights on for me.

Alexandroupoli's old railway station

Later that day the hotel manager (a lovely man who spoke very good English) gave me directions which enabled me to (finally!) find the old railway station***. The sense of relief! I really was starting to wonder if i’d ever see the place. It was a grey building (which explains the stationmaster’s mistake) but much further along the main road than any of the buildings people had directed me to. I celebrated with a Nutella-laden crepe pancake (Is there anywhere in the world Nutella has yet to reach!? Is there anywhere which has resisted it?) and some ariani, Greek ayran.

Afterwards it was just a matter of killing time until midnight (i tried to sleep but it was hopeless). Then i got my stuff together and walked along the dark street to the station – an eerie experience yet i felt completely safe. I found it deserted apart from a stationmaster, tucked away in his office, and an arthritic old dog trying to sleep on the platform. The dog woke up when i arrived and i fed him some treats, wondering if i was to be the only person to board the train and worrying vaguely that it might not stop. After about twenty minutes one other passenger arrived. He was followed, quite a bit later, by a whole group of people who seemed to be policemen and railway officials. At around 1 am (late as usual!) the train pulled in and we were off. Back to Turkey!

Signpost to Turkey in Alexandroupoli

* Tormented by History: Nationalism in Greece and Turkey; ISBN: 978-1-85065-899-3; Uzut Özkırımlı & Spyros A. Sofos; pub. Hurst & Co (London, 2008)
**Four Walls; ISBN: 978-0-7145-3122-9; Vangelis Hatziyannidis; pub. Marion Boyars (2006)
*** The easiest way to find the “Old Railway Station” is to proceed along Dimokratias Avenue (Leoforos Dimokratias/ΛΕΩΦΟΡΟΣ ΔΗΜΟΚΡΑΤΙΑΣ) eastwards from the centre of the town. You cross the railway line (it will henceforth be to your right although you quickly lose sight of it behind the shops which line the road) and continue on (remaining on the right side of the road) for about 300 metres till, just after a branch of Alpha Bank, you see a boat shop on the opposite side of the road. You should now see a sign (on your side of the road) for the railway station which is a grey building (see photo above) and is set back from the road down a short drive. These directions should get you there – at least as long as the Alpha Bank branch and boat shop stay open!

Polish poetry & me

I discovered the poetry of Poland via the work of Ewa Lipska. I remember reading her poem Instruction Manual, with its insistent refrain “The nation’s dead”, when i was twenty or so. At that time i was at home with a young son, trying to keep my mind alive by reaching out to a world beyond the small commuter town in which i was trapped. Poetry more than anything was my lifeline: language distilled to perfection. Lipska’s work spoke to me despite, rather than because of, its focus on politics; I sought out more and – naturally? inevitably? – discovered her compatriots Czesław Miłosz and Wisława Szymborska. For some reason lost in the mist of time however their work didn’t stick, at least not then.

Soon afterwards i came across another Polish poet whose work did stick: Anna Swir (or Świrszczyńska). I’ve long since forgotten the name of the anthology in which i found her poems and only remember that it was a book showcasing women poets. More frustrating is the fact that i have no idea who did the translations; they (and presumably the original poems) are marvellous – deft, sensual, acerbic, poignant. Three of them i copied out and cherish to this day: A Spring, She Doesn’t Remember and Her Hand. The third of those is short enough to quote in full:

When my mother was dying
I held her hand.
When she died i burnt everything
her hand had touched.
Only my own hands
I couldn’t burn.

A few more years passed and i found myself unemployed and back in my hometown. Up on the city walls there was a little second-hand bookshop and whenever i had a bit of money i’d go up there and spend it on poetry books. Actually, i went up there whenever i got the chance, not just when i had money; but the rest of the time i had to come away empty handed. One of the books i found there was by Tadeusz Różewicz: Poezje wybrane/Selected Poems*, a bilingual selection of his work translated by Adam Czerniawski. This is dark stuff. Forever marked, it seems, by his experience of the Second World War, Różewicz makes lists; he mistrusts beauty. The typewriter-like font (green for the Polish and black for the English) and the delicate paper only emphasises the feeling of austerity. One poem in particular haunts me. It’s called Beyond Words (in Polish: Nad Wyraz) and begins:

What are you doing
emerged from darkness
Why don’t you want
to live in full light

Its final words are even more powerful:

One tear
inexpressible
beyond words

After that – a long while after that – came Zbigniew Herbert, ‘a spiritual leader of the anticommunist movement in Poland’ according to the brief biography which prefaces his Collected Poems 1956-1998**. Herbert’s work is thrilling – comic and grave – yet curiously difficult to quote from; the poems work beautifully, yet if you try to pull out lines to show to people they fall apart. I do like this stanza from I Would Like To Describe, however:

I would like to describe courage
without dragging behind me a dusty lion
and also anxiety
without shaking a glass full of water

(Translation: Alissa Valles)

I too would like to be free of that dusty lion.

Finally, we come to a poet who arrived in my life just a month ago, courtesy of yet another anthology: Anna Piwkowska. The anthology is called Six Polish Poets*** and I found it in the same second-hand bookshop where many years previously i discovered Snow and Summers by Solveig von Schoultz. There is one poem in particular, about the sudden death of young woman as she is getting out the bath, which i think is incredible. It’s called Lament Of That Summer (or in Polish: Tren Tamtego Lata):

She stepped onto the side of death.
Here, one wet foot on the floor,
hair dryer, towel around her hips,
the other foot into the water,
into death, straight from the summer bath.
She managed just once more to run
the wet hand through her tangled hair.
The tea was cooling in the room;
she planned to hang the lingerie,
the light blue nothing, woven
out of fine silk threads.
Summer. Hot quivering morning.
The day had promised joy, and haste;
behind the wall her son called out
about the puppy’s nose in milk.
The dress hurriedly thrown
across the chair, cinnabar, absorbed
the drops of sunshine. The organ
music of Johann Sebastian
flowed across the room, a woman
or some strange furry animal.
The day brought joy. She managed
nothing. Not even a single shout.
Fear or a contraction
as if before a battle or
a trip. But why with no preparing
or good-byes did she let out
this tiny drop of oxygen
like laughter? A small wooden cross
above the mirror. Brief lapse
of attention. Behind the wall
The boy was playing with the dog.

(Translation: Elżbieta Wójcik-Leese).

There you have it: the story so far, spanning two decades, of Polish poetry and me.

* Poezje wybrane/Selected Poems: ISBN 83-08-01777-0;  Tadeusz Różewicz; trans. Adam Czerniawski; pub. Wydawnictwo Literackie (1991)
** Collected Poems 1956-1998: ISBN 978-1-84354-833-6; Zbigniew Herbert; trans. Alissa Valles; pub. Atlantic Books (2008)
*** Six Polish Poets: ISBN 978-1-904614-50-0; ed. Jacek Dehnel; pub. Arc Publications (2008)

We were a family of cagoules

“We were a family of umbrellas…”

The first line from a poem called Opened by Mario Petrucci, from his wonderful collection Flowers of Sulphur*. The poem is about a funeral but for some reason this sent my mind off in a completely different direction: to days out at the seaside – Rhyl or Prestatyn – as a child. Whatever the weather when we left home, whatever the weather when we arrived at the coast, you could almost guarantee that at some point during the day it would turn, and we would have to seek refuge from the inevitable wind and rain.

You would find us crouched beneath the sea wall, invisible beneath our cagoules. My dad would be pouring milky coffee from his flask (nobody was allowed to handle the thermos except him) and my mum would be doling out butties – cheese or jam or fish paste. These would quickly acquire a coating of fine sand but that didn’t stop us eating them. In fact, the quicker you ate them the better as Sally would have them off you in a second if you put them down. She would also have your Penguin biscuit**, although you’d get in trouble if she did because dogs and chocolate don’t go. Still we’d hesitate when it came to take it, trying to decide which colour wrapper to select. This was despite the fact that we knew full well that the biscuits inside were all exactly the same. Nevertheless: Red? Blue? Green?

Sally, being a dog, was the only one of us who didn’t have a cagoule, so my dad used to open up his and wrap it around both of them. For the rest of the family this was an impossibility as we had those old-style cagoules*** you have to put on over your head like a smock. No breathable linings in those days: you got wet from the rain or wet from your sweat. Your choice.

This is how I always picture us on those family days out: a tribe of blue and red plastic ghosts. This is the image i somehow associated with the line from Mario Petrucci’s poem (have i mentioned how good it is?). The sunshine – when we had any, the sea and the sand are much more vaguely remembered. But this is not, I think, down to negativity on my part. No, I cherish that image of us huddled together in our cagoules. It is the very essence of family.

Of course, it was also the performance of family – because we were in public after all, even if there were only seagulls to view us; and so in some ways it was as much about the family we wanted to be as the family we were. But perhaps that’s also part of what a family is in any case? Aspirations and memories and food and shelter.

* ISBN: 978-1904634379, published by Enitharmon Press. See here for a review.
** Ignore the photo. It shows the modern day wrapper. Google couldn’t locate any pictures of the coloured tin-foil packaging the biscuits came in during the 70s. You will have to use your imagination/consult your memory.
***See the section on the roll-up-able cagoule on Wikipedia’s page about cagoules. I don’t remember ours being roll-up-able though.

Back to the bloodthirsty stones

Continuing my theme of trying to keep January away from my brain – or alternatively trying to get my brain through January, i bought a Doctor Who box set a week or so back and have been happily working my way through it. It’s called The Key To Time. Naturally it stars Tom Baker aka the Fourth Doctor. He was my Doctor and apart from Eric Morecambe the great hero of my childhood; but what prompted me to buy this particular box set was discovering, via YouTube, a clip of the story which gave me nightmares – the most wonderful, beautiful nightmares! – after i watched it as a kid.

It was so long ago that i didn’t even recall the title, just that it involved a circle of standing stones which came to life in the night and smashed down people’s doors so they could drink the inhabitants’ blood. In my imagination the stones were huge and absolutely realistic. I would dream that the circle was on a hill just beyond our house and watch as one came to life. Paralysed with terror – indeed i would be literally unable to move, let alone cry out – i would lie in bed as the stone made its way down the hill. It would smash its way through the front door, glide up the stairs – it was always me it was coming for – and then, as it came crashing through my bedroom door i’d wake up, sweating with fear. Fantastic.

Other than the stones i could recall nothing about the story itself apart from a scene in which dear old K-9 is nearly killed trying to hold them off (How i cried!). Well, that’s not entirely true: i did remember the Doctor (of course). Romana though – this first incarnation of her played by Mary Tamm – i had no recollection of at all. Re-watching The Key To Time stories now i find this incredible, not least because she’s gorgeous. But then i was only about 8 or 9 i suppose. Sex appeal was lost on me.

The Stones of Blood is the third story in the Key To Time (16th series of Doctor Who). Perhaps i had always known that i could find it if i wanted to. In the age of the internet it’s almost too easy to find things. But at some level i’d always feared that the glory of that childhood memory would be diminished if i saw it all again through adult eyes – saw the dodgy props and the sets which were so clearly the interior of a studio. YouTube though gives you a way to peer back into a show without fully committing yourself to the experience. You watch a clip on a miniature screen, as though looking through a telescope at something in the distance.

Did it seem diminished? Well, obviously not or else i wouldn’t have bought the box set. Inevitably, the stones are quite laughably unreal, yet so strong is my recollection of my childhood terror that they still gave me a thrill when i saw them. More than that, i realised how much the show for me was always about enjoying the mixture of wit and loneliness that is Tom Baker. Him and plucky, clunky K-9 – my generation’s Lassie. This is still my impression now that i’m more than halfway through the six stories. Never mind the terrible editing or plots that don’t make sense (why does Romana walk backwards off a cliff?), it’s still magic.

What i’m loving most of all though are the commentaries with Tom Baker and Mary Tamm. My God are they hilarious together: Tom who can’t remember anything about the episode he’s watching and who greets each absurdity with a mixture of childlike glee and acerbic wit – in one scene where the druids are gathered in the stone circle to perform a sacrifice he suggests that they’re going to sacrifice Adric, one his less-loved Companions. And Mary who is a delicious flirt (why did she not flirt like that with him in the show?) and who has a wry humour all her own. I love the story she tells of flashing in the wings one night when she was appearing in panto with Sixth Doctor, Colin Baker. Someone should bring Tom and Mary back together in a Doctor Who audio play. Free of the ravages of time, the limitations of the BBC’s special effects department and the general awfulness of 70s television they would have the Universe saved in no time at all.

I want the dog

I want the dog to come back
running
across the wet grass –
wet tongue hanging from
her happy mouth,
her tail wagging and snagged with
brambles.

I want her to bark.
I want her to have dirty paws
and one ear
folded back on itself.

But most of all
I want her to smell
of dog
and feel like
a dog;
and not just to look like
a dog
sitting in a field in a photograph.