Paris… finally

Last month i realised a long time ambition to travel to Paris by Eurostar. What had took me so long? More than the cost it was the perception that Paris was far away. I couldn’t just nip over on the train for the day; yet that is exactly what i ended up doing. It was disorienting to find that this strange city, so different from London, wasn’t far away at all – at least not via high speed train: St Pancras International to the Gare du Nord took just over two hours. Not the most thrilling of journeys, mind: grass, concrete and barbed wire mostly.

I’m not sure what i expected Paris to be like but i know i approached it in a spirit of trepidation. Would it be too big, too busy to be enjoyable? Would the people be as unwelcoming as their reputation suggested? Would it be all Tourist Sights? Or would it feel just like anywhere – that is just like nowhere, just another city full of shops and streets?

In the event it was neither as overwhelming as i’d feared, nor as different as i’d expected… and yet in some ways more different. Walking down from the station i first passed a fifty-something man clad in slit-sided white pantaloons and a tight fitting gold lamé top and then found myself in a street full of Asian shops – that’s Asian in the British sense, i.e. South Asian. There were places with names like “Wembley Foods”. For a moment i felt as though i’d got on a train going the wrong way and ended up in Birmingham or Manchester instead!

But no, i truly was in Paris. Little Pakistan gave way to Middle Eastern shops and then i began to see signs to the Pompidou Centre. This houses the Museum of Modern Art and was on my list of probably-must-see sights. First though it was time to get coffee. When i’d visited France back in the 80s as a teenager cafe owners never seemed to speak English; but this time the proprietor switched to my language the instant he heard my accent. Nor did he seem particularly self-conscious or resentful about this (my other memory of communicating with the French in the 80s was that when they did speak English they gave the impression it was a great concession on their part).

On to the Museum which had some magnificent sculptures by Giacometti, Arp and Calder. The big discovery however was a sculptor i hadn’t heard of called Etienne-Martin: his work included strange sculpted ‘coats’ which reminded me of the armour that Samurai used to wear. In an immensely pretentious section celebrating porn as art i came across a poem i liked. I wrote down a fragment of it:

My image leaves the city… It crushes the fruit against its breasts / It spreads sand over its stomach / It slides fish in between its legs

Love the line about the fish. The artist (and poet?) was called Evelyn Axell.

After the museum i went to see the Seine. To my eyes it was a rather ordinary looking river for such a magnificent city but i did like the way the main road ran alongside it, much lower down than the city itself. The traffic seemed to flow by the city, rather than through it. And the bridges decorated with the heads of lions: wonderful. There were also pet shops – lots of them. I found that amazing, charming even. Think about it: can you imagine coming across streets of little neighbourhood style pet shops in a street right in the centre of London?

Notre Dame Cathedral is on one of the islands in the Seine. It was a disappointing place. From the salvation candles which were available at varying prices depending on the quality of the saint through to the priest waiting in a booth which resembled one of those cubicles you see at banks the whole thing felt like a money-making enterprise. There was nothing spiritual about the cathedral; it felt more like an IKEA store or garden centre, especially with the crowds snaking through the aisles.

The Louvre wasn’t disappointing, but it was bl**dy frustrating! I spent most of my time there lost. Still, i did get to see the Mona Lisa which isn’t as small as i’d been told. The bright colours of the Renaissance paintings in that part of the museum are wonderful but it was far too packed with tourists. I preferred the serenity of the Ancient World – even if, as with the British Museum, the wealth of exhibits is really a testament to colonial looting. Best of all were the turquoise tinted friezes in the Assyrian section. I also visited the special exhibition which traced the history of Saudi Arabia: from prehistoric stone tools through to early Islamic gravestones and beyond.

Then it was back to the Gare du Nord to catch the train home. So much remained unseen! Yet Paris did have one last surprise in store for me: the Gare du Nord has the most extraordinary installation – part sculpture, part machine, part dance, part dream. Impossible to describe, impossible not to watch.

Two more hours or so and i was back in London which felt like a much bigger, fiercer city than Paris despite being much more familiar to me. In fact, what struck me about the latter was that it felt less like a big city and more like a blend of small towns, most of which i never got to see. Next time though…

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The train

Man gets on train at country station seen off by old man & teenage boy. Sits down. Looks up at next station to find it’s identical to the one where he got on. A man identical to him is being seen off by an old man and a teenage boy.

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!

Trip 2010: Greece part 1 – Thessaloniki & the journey to Xanthi

Saturday 10 April

Arrived in Thessaloniki at around 11 am and was relieved to be able (finally!) to withdraw some euros and have something to eat and drink. Thirteen hours (the train ran slow) with just half a bottle of water – nightmare. Hotel: OK but grubby; still, beggars can’t be choosers. I’d paid a deposit when I booked, although neither I nor the hotel manager could remember how much this was and it took her ages to find out. When I took out my credit card to pay the outstanding balance she smiled and asked: “You don’t have cash?” This, i was to discover, would be a recurring experience in Greece: everywhere you go there is a reluctance, often even a refusal, to take card payments. According to an article i read (in The Economist i think) this is to avoid having to declare the income for tax purposes.

Walked up to the old city walls. There’s a platform where you can get a great view of the city. You don’t seem to be able to go up on the walls themselves though.

View of Thessaloniki from platform next to the old city walls

Walked back down via the Vlatadon Monastery where i saw a fenced off area containing graves (of monks?) and found a ‘bookshop’ which had very few books but was instead full of lots of disappointing icons (why does the Orthodox tradition depict Jesus and his mother looking as though they’re suffering from jaundice!?). The shop was presided over by a plump, worried looking woman who never stopped knitting as she listened to a radio programme that sounded suspiciously like a soap opera.

I was unsure whether to go into the church as (a) I don’t know the Orthodox etiquette (I was trying to watch the visitors to see what they did); and (b) I felt bit of a hypocrite since i’m not Orthodox. In the end I went as far as the vestibule and peered in from there. The church was quite full, despite there being no service in progress; and as people left, more would arrive. I don’t know if Greek people are always this religious or whether they’re visiting because it’s Holy Week (according to the Julian Calendar). The one thing I didn’t see, but had expected to, was monks.

Greek Orthodox roadside shrine in Thessaloniki

Next I visited the house where Atatürk, the founder of the Turkish republic, was born. This is in the grounds of the Turkish Consulate and isn’t accessible from the street; instead you use the intercom system at the Consulate’s main gate to request entry: a strange experience – like i was sneaking into some secret sanctuary. I half expected to be asked for a password! A smiling man came down and let me in. He took my passport, explaining he’d give it back when I left, and then told me to wait at the entrance to the house for his colleague who would unlock the door. I wondered at the emphasis on security. Are the Greeks hostile to the museum? Or is the caution just a product of the difficult history that Turkey and Greece share? Certainly, I never noticed a single local so much as glance at the place as they passed outside. In a way this is strange as the building stands out from those around it: apart from being pink it’s also the only old building in the street. In fact, there are very few Ottoman houses in Thessaloniki it seems. If the Turks hadn’t insisted on the house being retained as a museum there would be nothing to show the current generation of Thessalonians what this area of their city used to look like. Ironic in a way.

At first I was the only person in the House (except the official), which was unnerving as he followed me around, observing me the whole time. It was a relief when some Turkish tourists arrived half way through my visit (he watched the Turks too, which was interesting). The house had been nicely restored to look much as it must have done when Atatürk lived there – except for the many photographs, newspaper article reproductions and books about the Great Man (I assume he didn’t collect memorabilia about himself).

Most interesting was a bedroom in which some of Atatürk’s clothes were displayed in glass cabinets. They looked smaller than i’d expected. A few of the shirts were slightly stained with age, one pair of trousers was frayed. There was also a collection of household utensils such as spoons and tea glasses. It was touching to see these things; it’s when we see objects from someone’s everyday life that we realise they were real, a flesh and blood person like ourselves and not just a character in history. I liked the school report cards on one of the walls too: he seems to have struggled with his German and Russian studies a bit.

Rotonda

Later I walked along the road to see the Yeni Hamam (from the outside only) and the Orthodox church next to it. I walked into the latter by mistake, thinking it was somehow connected to the Hamam. This is a mistake that is easy to make as, unlike a Catholic (or Anglican) church, an Orthodox church doesn’t have a steeple and is topped with a domed roof not unlike that of a mosque – or at least this was the case in northern Greece. Another difference is that the church is decorated with paintings (icons), rather than statues, of saints. It must still have been Lent according to the Julian calendar, yet the images of the saints weren’t shrouded (is this only a Catholic tradition?). On two tables lay odd displays of pink things: flowers, toys, sweets.

Also had a look at the Rotunda, the Arch of Galerius and some very impressive ruins, before continuing down to the seafront where I saw horse-drawn traps and the famous White Tower.

If i’d had the energy i’d have liked to have explored the seafront area more as it was a very interesting, not to mention attractive, looking place. I didn’t have the energy however and i was extremely thirsty: it was time for a teahouse. Alas, unlike the Turks, the Greeks aren’t great tea-drinkers and take a ‘homeopathic’ approach to the beverage. Still the bar-cafe in which i ended up had attractions of its own, in particular a friendly cat who wandered about the place, acting for all the world as though he were the proprietor: leaping up onto bar stools, examining the customers, inserting himself into conversations. An equally friendly lady (who seemed to be the actual proprietor) brought me a little dish containing a few pieces of ‘Turkish delight’ (although I’m sure they don’t call it that here!) with each pot of tea. I didn’t recognise it at first. When i asked her it what it was she thought for a moment and said: “It’s like cheese”. Like cheese? Incidentally, the public presence of women is one of the big differences between Turkey and Greece. In Turkey you are largely served by men, apart from in governmental settings or very modern shops and cafes. Not so in Greece.

Thessaloniki seafront

All in all, Thessaloniki was actually a pleasanter experience than i’d expected (i’d been given the impression there was little to see there, which is definitely not true) and there was only one disappointment: my failure to find a bookshop selling contemporary Greek fiction in English translation. All i was offered was Homer!

Sunday 11 April

Woke relieved to find no creepy-crawlies had appeared in the night (yes, it was one of those hotels). Breakfast didn’t seem to be included so I washed, dressed, packed and left hoping that the Starbucks I’d spotted the previous night across the road would be open. It wasn’t: Greece observes Sunday closing, predictably I suppose. Shame: i was curious about what sort of food Starbucks serves in Greece. The stuff on offer at their coffeeshops in Turkey was much better than in the UK.

Arriving at the Railway Station i immediately hit a snag: the lady behind the counter curtly informed me that the next train to Xanthi was full; I would have to wait till 3.41 pm to travel which meant that i wouldn’t get there till nearly 8 pm (assuming the train got there on time which in Greece seems rarely to be the case). It was a good job i’d given myself two nights in the town.

On the plus side, the man at the cafe where I bought breakfast was thrilled when he discovered I was a Liverpool supporter. Good job he doesn’t realise how nominal that support is! There were about 6 cafes at the station, along with a mini-market and… an Orthodox chapel! I’ve never seen anything like it. As I was buying my ticket I noticed a service was underway: going to church in a railway station – how bizarre! Mind you, there are roadside chapels everywhere you go in Thessaloniki. Icons are even more ubiquitous; you see them displayed all over the place: hotels, shops, cafes. It’s like a Greek version of the photographs of Atatürk you see in Turkey. I wonder if the Kemalists got the idea of having people display those photos from the Orthodox tradition of venerating icons? Two definite parallels with Turkish culture: the love of worry beads/rosaries and the display of the big blue eye which is supposed to ward off evil.

So, this turned out to be a day spent sitting in railway station cafes, drinking (a memory of) tea and watching Greek television: a black and white documentary about the German invasion of Greece during WWII, a report on the Greek economic crisis (not that there’s any sense of crisis on the streets of Thessaloniki), a programme about Greek folk music and how the instruments used for it are made. Old problems, new problems, no problems.

Thessalonki-Xanthi train journey

When the time finally came to get the train to Xanthi i found that it had already been standing at the platform for ages. Everyone else evidently knew this would be the case and so most of the seats were taken. Mind you, i seemed to be the only foreigner on board. The train was quite comfortable: blue padded seats with metal footrests. I found it disconcerting that i couldn’t find the places we were passing through on a map but they were just villages. This is a sparsely populated part of the country: very green and very flat but with mountains in the distance. One thing i noticed for the first time was the amount of graffiti in Greece. Interestingly, this is often in the Latin alphabet. Also, on a hillside in the middle of nowhere: a shop with a big sign saying – in English – ‘Cash & Carry’. The Greeks tend not to transliterate English words, which makes them stand out more; i could never work out if there was more English used in signs than in Turkey or whether the English was just more noticeable.

Towards the end of my journey i got talking to the nice Greek girl sitting next to me (whose name was Yulia). She helped me decipher the station announcements which i found unintelligible; i dread to think where i’d have ended up without her assistance. I wish we’d got chatting earlier as she was very interesting to talk to. She’d visited England twice as her brother was a student at Cambridge and she’d also been twice to Istanbul. However, whereas she’d liked England (despite the rain) she wasn’t keen on Turkey at all. We were just getting to her reasons, which appeared to be mostly to do with the male-dominated nature of Turkish society, when we reached Xanthi and I had to depart (scrambling across the rail tracks). From the station I took a taxi. The driver spoke no English but barked at me in fragmentary German: “Aufsteigen!”, “Vier. Halb. Euro.” Still, he got me to my hotel: cleaner than its Thessaloniki counterpart but with all the charm of a multistory carpark.

Trip 2010: Last day in Istanbul (for now)… and the night train

Friday 9 April

My last day (for the time being) in Istanbul and i was lumbered with a backpack! Only afterwards did i realise i could have left it in a locker at the railway station. I started my day by trying to book my hotel rooms in Greece via the hotel computer. This was difficult as some sites wouldn’t work properly but i eventually got a room sorted out for Thessaloniki, which was the most important place to have accommodation, given that i would be arriving there sometime the next morning.

Afterwards i headed to Gülhane Park where i read for a while and then began the unpleasant business of phoning hotels in Xanthi and Alexandroupoli (having abandoned my hope of visiting Edirne as the journey looks too convoluted). A shame but i will get there one day. The first hotel i phoned was full but after that, to my relief, i had no problems and within a quarter of an hour i had all the necessary reservations made – and was feeling the usual embarrassment at the anxiety that making phone calls causes me.

Gülhane Park - 2010 April 9

I went to a cafe to recover – the same one i’d visited the day before with B. Alas, without her presence the waiters were nowhere near as attentive and left me to shiver. In the afternoon i decided to tackle the Archaeology Museum, which – thanks be to God! – had a cloakroom where i could leave my rucksack. The museum has three parts but i spent so much time wandering about the stelae and sarcophagi in the main building (assuming that the museum would stay open till six o’clock) that i ended up not seeing the other two (the museum in fact shut at quarter to five). Another time.

I found the information panels nearly as interesting as the exhibits themselves: a great emphasis seemed to placed on “the Anatolians” whilst the Greek contribution was subtly downplayed. I recalled reading last year, when i was preparing for the Lycian Way, that the Greeks claim the Lycians were a Greek civilisation while Turkish historians describe them simply as speaking an Indo-European language. The truth of the situation, whatever it is, seems to me less interesting than the way in which it’s contested – the way that past and present interact.

Istanbul Archaeology Museums (courtyard)

As i’ve said, i ran out of time. Of the things i got to see the clay tablets with their ancient inscriptions were among the most interesting. Unlike graves these felt personal; you could almost imagine the scribe marking the clay. I found the way in which proto-alphabetic and cuneiform writing systems seemed to co-exist fascinating. We tend to assume the former supplanted the other as it was introduced, being to our eyes so obviously superior, but it seems that wasn’t the case. Even more moving were the ‘door’ graves, gravestones which were decorated to resemble doors, which would provide entry into the next world for the deceased person. This type of grave marker was typical of poorer people, whose families couldn’t afford elaborate tombs and the inscriptions were usually simple statements of affection. Sometimes there was also a reference to the untimeliness of the death. No dates however as far as i could see – but how did people date events then except in reference to their ruler?

When i left the museum the old man in charge of the cloakroom insisted on helping with my backpack. Bless him. I tried to dissuade him, worrying that, given the weight of the thing, he’d put his back out but he smiled and ignored me. Once outside i was at a loss to know what to do with myself as there were still hours before my train departed and the streets were, if anything, even busier than they had been earlier in the day. The mere thought of boarding a tram brought on waves of claustrophobia.

Sirkeci Railway Station

In the end i hung about the area, buying myself a fish sandwich and a cup of tea. It was cold and when i went to Sirkeci (the railway station) the only place with any heating was the waiting room. I divided my time between trying to keep warm in there and taking photographs: the station is quaint and lovely; you feel as if you’ve stepped into an old novel. A mad Irishman arrived. He began to engage an invisible companion in a heated debate, although i couldn’t work out what he and ‘his friend’ were arguing about. Later, when we were boarding the train he turned up on the platform with his bags. I began to wonder if he was travelling with us but he stayed on the platform muttering and occasionally shouting. He was still there when we left. Perhaps he’s always there.

The train itself was small (just four carriages) but comfortable. I found myself sharing with a young Turkish man (the only Turk on the train as far as i could see). I never learnt his name but he politely explained that he worked for a trade union and had a business meeting in Thessaloniki. He spent the evening typing away on his laptop while i looked out of the window at the suburbs and small towns we were passing through and wondered what the border crossing would be like.

Plaque on the Istanbul to Thessaloniki night train

I was also trying very hard not to think about water as i had just half a bottle to last me more than 12 hours. All that time waiting for the train and only at the last minute had it occurred to me i would need something to drink – and of course i discovered i had nothing smaller than a 50 Lira note which none of the station’s stallholders would change.

Finally, my roommate finished his typing and we pulled down the bunks. These were surprisingly comfortable but i made the mistake of choosing the top one. Not only did the rungs of the ladder cut into my feet as i climbed it because they were angled, but being the cackhanded individual i am, i kept kicking the ladder over. I think the Turkish trade union official got very tired of me. He soon fell asleep however and i was left awake, listening to the train rattling its way to Greece. I was too excited to sleep.

Boarding the night train

At the border we first stopped on the Turkish side at a place called Uzunköprü where a man came on board and took our passports away to be checked. We didn’t even have to get out of bed! We just handed him them from our bunks. My roommate was the exception: he had to go across to one of the buildings on the opposite platform and get a visa. It seemed odd that it was the one person native to the country we were in who needed a visa, but the rest of us all seemed to be EU nationals. Later another man came and announced he was from ‘baggage control’ (all customs announcements were in English). We did need to get up for this as we were required to open our luggage ourselves. It was all over and done with quickly however.

Pythio Railway Station (from Wikipedia)

On the Greek side (Pythio*) a similar process involving Greek officials occurred, except this time instead of ‘baggage control’ we had ‘customs’ and, as no-one had anything to declare, this was even more of a non-event. The Greeks were in fact the most charming customs officials i’ve ever encountered. They were both young men – perhaps new to the job? – and apologised for disturbing our sleep. Customs officials – apologise!?

And then it was done and we were on our way again… through Greece!

* The photo of Pythio Railway Station shown above is from Wikipedia. It was the early hours of the morning when we passed through it so i couldn’t really take a photo.

Your mother’s face

We never really look at those we know and love, yet will gaze at other passengers on a train noticing all their little details. Take this carriage and the people sitting facing me. One woman has black-painted nails gnawed down to the quick. The man next to her – pink shirt, tiny cut on his throat where he presumably nicked himself while shaving – is beginning to lose his hair. It’s fine and blond, and a bit tousled. Perhaps he overslept? Had to get ready in a hurry? That would explain the cut too.

And so it goes on. I notice their clothes, their lips, the length and shape of their fingers (as they fidget, write a text, turn the pages of their book). I wonder where they’re going. All but two of the people are blue-eyed. The exceptions are both girls: they’re sitting together but I don’t think they know one another. The one nearest me has brown eyes – in fact they’re almost black – while her neighbour’s are green (i think). She has turned her face away and is staring into space.

‘What is she thinking about?’ I wonder.

Aeroplanes and television: how they change our world

I was thinking the other day about our internal geographies and the changing relationship these have with the world. In particular, i was musing on the effect of modern forms of transport – and to a lesser extent the effect of the modern media. A few centuries ago most people would have spent almost all their lives in one location which they’d have known very well indeed; their knowledge would have faded away gradually as they moved from this ‘centre of the universe’ until they reached the boundaries of the known.

Of course it wouldn’t have been quite that simple. There would be little irregularities – market towns they made a special journey to perhaps or pilgrimage sites – and there would have existed a vague map of other places too: lands mentioned in the Bible for example (i’m thinking of people in Britain as my example), cities from which luxury items came, the lands of myth and legend.

Still, it was a very different situation to today. Nowadays a person may live in one small district of a town, and know the way to and the location of a shopping complex on the edge of town and a few other locations but be otherwise ignorant of much of the place in which they live. They may commute by train every day passing from one small area of ‘known world’ to another, the one in which they work, through a desert of meaningless place names. How many of us have felt panic when our train breaks down en route and we’re turfed out at some station ‘in the middle of nowhere’? Even when the middle of nowhere is often the middle of somewhere, some district of the city we just don’t happen to know?

But trains have only a mild effect compared to aeroplanes. Consider for a moment those people with holiday homes in Spain or Portugal – or even Florida. Each year they migrate hundreds of miles to these places, even if only for a little while. At both ends of the journey they know precisely where they are. Those two small areas, so distant from one another, are next to one another in their internal geography. One goes from one to the other. The space in between, those miles of sea and land which they fly over, has no reality for them. Indeed, modern planes fly so high that for much of the trip travellers don’t even see the places over which they’re moving.

It’s very strange when you stop to think about it. I live maybe fifty or sixty miles from France. There are people just that distance from me living lives in towns i never see and can’t name. I never go there. Why? Well, in part – and quite a big part – because there’s no quick or easy way to get there. Far easier to get a plane to the other side of Europe or even beyond. The other reason i don’t go is because i imagine i’ve already seen these towns – or more accurately that being so close to me they can’t be sufficiently different from what i already know to make the journey worthwhile. Yet as a child even the south of England seemed like a foreign country. The first time i visited London (as a fourteen year old) i was awed and disoriented – far more so than when i later visited Istanbul or even Dhaka in fact.

It’s all about exposure. And that brings me to the other way in which places can come to feel too familiar to be worth bothering about: the constant exposure to images of them in the media. This is probably why i’ve never visited America. Why go to it and when it comes to me practically every time i turn on the telly? Of course that’s only a little sliver of America, but then, thinking about it, i’ve only ever seen a little sliver of my own country. Still, the illusion of familiarity takes root. The Internet only worsens this. You spend hours chatting to people on another continent, on the other side of the ocean. You live in your global village of far-flung contacts separated only by meaningless ‘uninhabited’ hyperspace.

One day i suppose we’ll be living in ‘virtual worlds’ spread across different planets, perhaps different galaxies. Imagine.