­­Waiting In The Pythion Of Time

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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]

Photo Of The Day: Man Who Could Walk Through Walls

Photo of the day: man who could walk through walls

You know you’ve found a popular tourist attraction when you see a statue with a shiny spot. From Ireland‘s Blarney Stone to Istanbul‘s “weeping” column in Hagia Sophia, visitors love any place that has brought luck to others. Today’s Photo of the Day, by Flickr user Kumukulanui, is from Paris‘ Montmartre, and of Jean Marais’ sculpture “The Man Who Could Walk Through Walls.” Based on a short story, it’s believed that if you touch his left hand, you might be able to pass through some walls yourself, or at least take some zany pictures giving him a high five.

Add your lucky travel photos to the Gadling Flickr Pool and we’ll choose the shiniest for a future Photo of the Day.

Photo Of The Day: Istanbul Balcony

Photo of the day - Istanbul's Nisantasi neighborhood
I’m getting ready to pack up and leave Istanbul tomorrow, after over two years and one baby, so you’ll have to indulge me in a bit of preemptive nostalgia. Amidst the photos of Hagia Sophia and kebab vendors in the Gadling photo pool of Istanbul images, I was surprised to see this photo by Flickr user BrettDresseur, of a view almost identical to my own a few doors down on Vali Konagi Avenue. Taken in Istanbul’s Nişantaşı neighborhood, she captured the beautiful architecture and European feel of the area. Similar to Manhattan‘s Upper East Side, Nişantaşı is where to find Turkey‘s priciest retail stores (more Chanel suit than carpet seller), Turkish and foreign ladies who lunch, and the childhood home of Turkish Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk. Visitors to Istanbul can now visit the innovative Museum of Innocence, based on his novel of the same name. The museum is near Taksim square in Çukurcuma, but the setting is pure Nişantaşı. I’ll miss this view and the feeling of living inside one of his novels; goodbye for now, Istanbul!

Add your favorite neighborhood shots to the Gadling Flickr pool for another Photo of the Day.

VIDEO: Istanbul in 1967


As an expat in Istanbul, I enjoy seeing anything Turkey-related, and this vintage video of the former Constantinople is especially fun to see. Narrated by a droll British commentator, you travel over and around Istanbul, checking out some of the big sights such as Hagia Sofia and the Blue Mosque, as well as life on the Bosphorus before the bridges were constructed to provide alternate access between the European and Asian sides of the city. Not too much has changed in 45 years, though the traffic seems lighter and the city less crowded than with today’s populate of 13 million (or perhaps more) people. I’d like to say that the Galata Bridge is no longer a “man’s world,” but fishing is still mostly men-only even if women are not only “veiled or hidden away”.

They do miss out on some correct terminology: the “different and delightful” bread ring is a simit, best accompanied by some Turkish cheese or with a full breakfast spread. The “hubble bubble pipe” is a nargile, found at many cafes and bars around the city and savored with a hot glass of çay (only tourists drink the apple stuff) or a cold Efes (if your nargile bar happens to serve alcohol). Barbeque remains a national pastime of the Turks and yes, “any old tin” will do. As in 1967, Istanbul is still the place to savor a fish sandwich fresh from the water, hop on a ferry between continents, and admire your newly shined shoes.