Monday, May 11, 2015

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 4 … With Hassan in Pithion.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 4 … With Hassan in Pithion.

A weekly column by Roger A. Baylor.

(Fourth in a series chronicling my travel year 1985)

“Sprechen Sie Deutsch?”

Somewhere beyond fatigue’s dull perimeter, compounded by sweat and grit, pleased by the delectable salami and goat cheese sandwiches washed down with surprisingly cold Amstel lager in bottles, there was a voice, but whose?

Was it still 1985, and was I really in Greece?

“Bitte – Sprechen Sie Deutsch?”

Sleeping atop a wooden bench in a stuffy hotbox misidentified as the train station waiting room, gym bag as pillow, the station itself hardly more than a two-room afterthought containing a buffet counter and one solitary ticket window – both closed – with flies buzzing in lazy acceptance of the languid pace of life in Pithion, only a few miles from Turkey across a perpetually tense border … so exactly why was someone haranguing me in German?

“Bitte, Sprechen Sie Deutsch?”


Consciousness gradually returned, and I could see it was a middle-aged, olive-skinned man with neatly trimmed, pencil-thin mustache, outfitted in stereotypical Middle-Eastern green khaki, desert-style suit, his brow furrowed, and absolutely determined to communicate in a language I could not speak.

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

The man was delighted. “English?” He smiled broadly, showing rows of metallic teeth. “You are American, yes? I am Hassan.”

A one-sided dialogue commenced. My new friend had no pressing questions to ask, but simply wished to talk to any available human being, settling on me after observing two Greek women napping listlessly nearby, heads resting against each other, their feet atop oversized cardboard boxes bound with twine.

As I was about to learn, there were valuable lessons to be learned from conversing with a Syrian traveling salesman during the hot morning hours of an aimless day in a tiny border town with more rail sidings and dogs than humans, where an unshaven man in raggedy pajamas soon emerged bleary-eyed from a nearby house, grabbed a Greek state railways cap from a metal gatepost, and stumbled down a dirt path to throw a switch that heralded the passage of a freight train.

Thus, the primary lesson: Freight trains were the only ones moving until eight-thirty that evening, when the regular Athens-Istanbul “express” would leave at its usual nightly time for the 10-hour overnight trip to the former Constantinople.

Most people on that train would have boarded the previous evening in the Greek capital, where I’d spent three days and nights, seated each evening at a modest tavern at the foot of the Acropolis, supping on tomatoes, cucumbers, olives, crusty bread and whatever main course of the day I’d pointed to with bewilderment, gazing in twilight at this sublime symbol of Western civilization perched up on the hilltop, then ordering another cheap bottle of Carlsberg (like the Amstel, brewed under license in Athens).

They’d have boarded the previous evening, not the previous morning, when I’d concluded with amateurish certainty that the official schedules at the station in Athens couldn’t possibly be correct. Surely in Europe there’d be more than one train a day traveling the Istanbul route, and if not, I’d debark at Thessalonika and switch to a more conveniently timed through train to Turkey.

It wasn’t true. In fact, I was completely and comprehensively wrong. Around midnight, the national Greek train network came to a shuddering halt in a port called Alexandropoulis in easternmost Thrace, where I dozed pitifully atop a waterfront stone wall for a few hours before hopping the first milk run of the day to Pithion. There, it became obvious that I'd hurried just to wait.

Now it was siesta time, and a chance to capture lost winks, but my invasive Syrian ruled out sleep. The buffet was closed, and there was no more beer. It was time to go with the flow. Hassan’s English was variable, and occasionally he lapsed back into German, yet as the stories of his life and times accumulated, I began to grasp the cadence of his multinational delivery.

He spoke emotionally of places he’d been or lived, places I’ll probably never visit: Aleppo, Cairo, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Beirut. He described magnificent lamb dishes, thriving marketplaces, the Koran’s beauty, and his wife and children in Damascus.

Soon, I reconsidered: Stuck inside of Pithion, with the Turkish blues again, I’d accidentally stumbled upon the very best way to pass the hours. At lunch, the tiny buffet reopened, and we joined the older Greek men sipping demitasses of terribly sweet espresso-style coffee between shots of Ouzo. Hassan refrained from alcohol, and I drank beer. He grabbed a paper napkin and began sketching a map of Istanbul.

“Where will you stay? Hotel? You need reservation?”

“No,” I said. “I’ll find something.”

He began scribbling furiously. “No problem with hotel! Galata bridge … hotel, hotel, hotel.”

Each “hotel” was punctuated with a stab into the napkin and a blotch of ink, as Hassan rendered it into a multi-layered tic-tac-toe sheet.

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

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


After lunch, mass napping began anew, and I awoke from mine to find Hassan had disappeared. On a siding, passenger rail cars bound for Istanbul had been pushed into place for eventual linking to the “express” from Athens. Suddenly Hassan’s voice boomed out. He was leaning out the window of one of them and waving.

“Come visit me!”

In his first class seating compartment, Hassan was using sterno to heat a tin of water for tea. He offered a drink -- it was sweet, fragrant and citrusy – then reviewed marching orders, adding a few more squiggles to the tattered napkin. My second-class seat was elsewhere, and when I went to look for it, we parted with affection. The train left roughly on time, stopped for two hours of rigorous border formalities, and entered Turkey before midnight.

At morning’s light, Istanbul’s outer suburbs yielded to the predictable urban railway tableau of factory back lots and limp laundry on the crooked balconies of old, gritty housing blocks. At last, the train halted inside Sirkeci station, undoubtedly the grandest I’d yet seen.

Alighting, I saw nattily uniformed porters and smelled tobacco, coffee and perfume; weary, I imagined the Orient Express, a vision that dissolved into reality when I heard the familiar voice of Radio Damascus hail me for a final time.

“You okay? Good sleep?”

Yes … and no.

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

“Goodbye, Hassan.”

Out the door and into a crowded street, I floated toward Sultan Ahmet, and an overdue appointment with the Hagia Sofia.



The PC: Euro ’85, Part 3 … Growing up in Greece.

The PC: Euro '85, Part 2 ... Hitting the ground crawling in Luxembourg.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 1 … where it all began.

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