One of my prime New Year’s resolutions for this year is to put together an anthology of selected pieces from my own writing career. With 30 years of narrative stories and reflective essays to sift through, I figure there must be enough material for at least a very slim volume.
As part of this process – or perhaps just as a very clever way of procrastinating the hard work of getting started on this process – I’ve been reading through old journals and letters recently. This can be a dangerously detouring pastime, of course, but sometimes it turns up one of those little seeds that blossom into a whole world I had forgotten.
So it is with a letter I have just come across, written in the winter of 1976 to my parents from a Greek border town called Pythion, where I was waiting for a train to Istanbul. Sometimes it is just such global synapses – way stations – that unencumber and inspire us.
Here is part of what I wrote:
I took the 10 p.m. train on Tuesday from Athens and arrived in Thessaloniki around 11 a.m. the next morning. In Thessaloniki I was informed that the Istanbul train had left earlier that morning, but that I was in luck – there was another, special Wednesday-only train leaving for Istanbul at 13:10. When that one arrived, I learned that it traveled only as far as the border.
Still, that seemed better than nothing, so I had a very pleasant ride through Thrace with a compartment all to myself, and arrived at the border – poetic Pythion – at 2:30 a.m. Pythion being off-limits to foreigners, I was invited by the sole stirring being to sleep in the station’s waiting room, which I did rather comfortably until 8:30, when I was awakened simultaneously by a policeman demanding who I was and someone shouting in German that the train for Istanbul was leaving in 5 minutes.
I scrambled down the platform to the train, the policeman chasing after me, only to discover that the train had come from Istanbul and was bound for Athens.
And so I sit in the Railroad Buffet at Pythion, eyed by a suspicious policeman who can’t imagine what a foreigner would be doing here if not trying to uncover state secrets, and contemplating 10 hours of warming my toes and fingers by an old pot-belly stove in one of the more obscure of the obscure corners of the world.
Situations like this make me question the nature of reality. I am sitting on a hard wooden bench at the end of a long, stained table in a dirty, cold, deserted Greek border town, scratching out letters under a layering of turtleneck, work shirt, sweater, raincoat and scarf, and eating peanuts and figs to keep warm.
This is certainly one kind of reality, but is it any more real than that envisioned for me by my friends in Athens, who imagine me right now walking under minarets through crowded streets from Hagia Sophia to the Blue Mosque, or than the picture you may have of me right now (discussing me halfway across the globe even as I write these words) walking through sunny Athenian streets to the gleaming pillars of the Acropolis: Is my here any more real than that there?
I am here, but in a few weeks I will be at the Acropolis, and in 24 hours I will be wandering Istanbul’s alleys. Maybe all three are concurrent realities?
At any rate, last night, when I was sleeping happily somewhere in northeastern Greece, I had a dream that all my traveling was just a dream, and that I was actually still living in Connecticut, and in my dream I woke up from my dream (of traveling) and felt this tremendous relief and joy to be home and still so young as not to have to worry about being out and alone in the world.
Then, a split second later, I woke up from that dream – and found myself sweaty and disheveled in a humid train compartment speeding somewhere through the Grecian night.
And so I wonder about this pithy waiting room in Pythion – is this too a dream from which I am about to awake? And who/what/where will I be then?
Now, three and a half decades later, I read these words, and life’s border towns and way stations come back to me: the raggedy, muddy-streets-and-strung-light-bulbs place where I spent an itchy night between India and Nepal; the misty, barbed-wire swamp where I once longingly looked out from Hong Kong toward then-forbidden China; the snow-locked sentry post between Pakistan and China; the dusty honky-tonk of Tijuana and Nogales.
I think of a one-cafe town in the middle of Malaysia where I was stranded between buses, and a patch-of-grass “taxi stand'” in Indonesia where cicadas serenaded me for hours while I waited for a ride; I think of a slumbering French railroad station where I passed an afternoon reading Proust and pondering the tall grasses that waved dreamily in a drowsy breeze, and a high Swiss village where I ran out of gas and francs, pitched a tent in a frosty field and watched the moon dance to the music of Van Morrison.
As I think back on all these places, one truth becomes clear: They were all way stations to adventure. They were the gathering of breath and coiling of muscle before the great leap into the unknown. They were the portals to wonders unimaginable and unforgettable.
And so, at the beginning of this new year, I find myself in the Pythion of time again. Just now the station master has come and checked my ticket, stamped my passport, waved me toward the platform. And here comes the train – I can see it now, all steam and gleam!
Already the pulse quickens, the mind races ahead once more: What lessons lie ahead, I think; what wonders are in store?
[Photo Credit: Grant Martin]