first published in Chronicles
BUSING TO BYZANTIUM
by Bruce Guernsey
A couple of springs ago, my daughter and I took a bus from Thessaloniki in northern Greece over the mountains to Istanbul. The trip was ghastly. In an effort to save some money, I'd found us seats on a local—a big mistake. Despite the promise from the ticket vendor that no smoking was allowed, everyone (including the driver) lit up as soon as we left the station. Twelve hours of unbreathable air, together with the bus stereo turned to its highest decibel with cheap bouzouki music, meant a long night. Fortunately, I'd brought along plenty to read, including a copy of William Butler Yeats' great poem about his longed-for journey to this same city, but even he could never have imagined the "Fish, flesh, or fowl" of that fumey bus. How my sixteen year old daughter slept through it all, I'll never know.
We arrived in dawn's early smog. My stomach hurt from tension, though hardly as much as it would a little later from the melting ice in a Coke I drank, try as I might not to drink the water those cubes were made of. I'd also never heard the prayer service from a minaret before, and when I did at 5:00 AM while trying to hail a cab, I thought we'd landed in the middle of a revolution. I was unnerved by the exotic cry. This was my first visit to a Muslim country, and though I'd read about what to expect, the abstract never matches the actual when traveling.
There was our taxi ride, for example. Coughing and inhaling at the same time, the driver squinted through the blue haze from his cigarette at our hotel voucher and nodded knowingly. "See, Dad, everything's going to be all right," said my yawning daughter, dismayed at my distress. She curled up in the back while I doubled up with belly cramps in the front, the authoritative male tourist's place next to the driver. I'd make sure he took us there directly, wherever there was. All I knew was that we were heading east, the rising sun a mock harvest moon through the opaque air.
The bus terminal was apparently well west of town, or so our driver made it seem as his beat-up Fiat banged along, hitting every pot-hole he could find, and there were plenty. "This is no cab ride for old men," I whispered to Yeats, especially if they wear dentures—or had, as I did, an immediate need for the bathroom. But off in the distance, there was hope (of an aesthetic kind at least): I could see a couple of ships on what must have been the Bosphorus, and, in front of them as we grew closer to the city, the silhouetted domes of the first mosques I'd ever seen.
"Look at how the light's behind them, Meg—how they look like they have halos." My poetry, however, went unheard—by my daughter anyway, who was out cold. The cabby, however, nodded once again as if I'd given him directions and squealed the wheels sharply left, which, for a moment, had to be north but soon became a thousand-and-one tiny streets and intricate alleys. A Topkapi's worth of Turkish lira later, we pulled in front of the third hotel with the same name as the one I had booked, but this time it was actually ours.
Over the next three days we received the usual attention a visitor attracts in Istanbul, especially one with a lovely young daughter along. Even small boys had their own business cards and tried to sell us everything from carpets and clothes to whirling-dervish spinning tops, the latter about how I felt by the end of each day. No matter where we went, youthful men would trail us around, offering to be our guides, but I suspect more interested in my dollars or my daughter than improving their English. "Hey, honey, remember me from Honolulu?" we'd hear, wandering the endless and famous bazaar, its maze of pathways glistening with trinkets, aglow with false gold.
It took Meg little time to realize she was outnumbered. Where are the women, she wanted to know, or the girls her own age. We saw very few as we wandered about, and when we did, their faces and hair were always covered. "Not a good place to buy lipstick," she concluded, half laughing but a little scared, too. Even with her long yellow locks tied in a bun and blue jeans changed for a shapeless skirt, I could have returned home with any number of camels in trade.
From both exhaustion and timidity, we didn't go out at night and spent the evenings in the hotel bar with the other tourists who gathered there for the same reasons. Mostly from Germany and
Japan, but from India and South Africa as well, everyone in varieties of English told much the same story: Istanbul is a fascinating city but quit trying to sell us something. It seemed that lipstick was about the only thing not for sale.
The bottle of Budweiser in front of me and the McDonald's just down the street led me to thinking that the ambitious people of this city were not the only capitalists around, ardent as they were. I was at the end of a year's appointment as a Fulbright professor in Greece and had seen plenty of evidence of aggressive sales there as well. It's hard to walk through the Plaka in Athens and not come out the other side with something shiny in your otherwise empty pocket.
The history of trade is as deep there as it is here in Turkey, a common bond for these ancient enemies. In fact, most of the Greeks on that awful bus trip had come to Istanbul to shop, and come to think of it, I'd also bargained our route east. Laying down your weapons to pick up your packages has become the contemporary way of making peace, as nations have given way to corporations. Maybe there are no nations anymore, and all we care about is buying and selling. The sovereign State of Nike. The independent Country of Coke. And here in Istanbul the kids start early, like that little boy this morning, that eight-year-old who spoke perfect English, the child we thought was so cute. He was hawking his small carpets right outside the Suliman Mosque, wasn't he? Right in its shadow.
Those evenings in the bar nursing a brew gave me the chance to ruminate and to skim over guidebooks and histories. No doubt, the kind of commercialism we'd all been experiencing was part of Istanbul's great past and had been since the Bosphorus first flowed between the Sea of Marmara and the Black, and that's a long time. But so, too, had the life of the spirit been the center of this crossroad of faiths, and I was beginning to wonder where the sense of worship had gone. Those timeless eyes in the gold mosaics of Hagia Sophia: could they be found anywhere outside that once-holy sphere, itself now neither cathedral nor mosque but a pay-as-you-enter museum? And the silent poetry of the Blue Mosque's lyrical designs? It was quickly gone when we stepped from that holy quiet into the honking of taxis and hoots of horny men. Where was the spirit of this eternal city? Where was its soul? The answer, my friend, was blowin' in the wind.
At the bar each night was a singer who came on for an hour or so, strumming a guitar and singing Bob Dylan songs but with a sweeter voice than Bobby Zimmerman ever had, once or now. A son of the sixties myself, I was at first amused, then gradually taken in; my daughter, part of the new Grateful Dead generation, was enthralled. No one else in the place paid any attention, chatting away the whole time he sang, but Meg and I knew the tunes and crooned along quietly. The young singer never looked our way, however, though with our obvious interest and our being the only Americans in the small crowd, I thought he might, the way we Americans manage to find one another wherever we go, like it or not. Apparently, he didn't like it, since he never made eye contact with us until our last night in Turkey.
Once again my daughter and I were the only ones who clapped, and after he'd set down his guitar and unleashed his harmonica, he took a small package from under his seat and headed our way. All kinds of thoughts went through my head. He looks like a college kid; I wonder where? Maybe he wants to share some carpet stories, talk American to American. Let me guess his name--he looks more like a Robert than a Bob; not quite as bubbly. But he didn't say a word, or sing one either. He barely looked at us as he handed me the package. I asked him if he'd like to have a beer—they even have Bud Light, I said—but he didn't respond. He hardly understood, in fact, and well he couldn't.
This Bob Dylan didn't speak English. Oh maybe a word or two—"geeft," he kept mumbling, "geeft"—but as we found out later, he'd memorized the lyrics of all the songs he sang so well and had no idea what they meant. Somehow, "The Times They Are A-Changin'" and "Blowing in the Wind" had a meaning that he sensed rather than actually understood, the way a child learns gesture and tone long before definition. And indeed, he stood before us like a child, the first shy one we'd seen in Istanbul.
He kept pointing towards the package wrapped in a paper bag. "I think he wants you to open it," Megan said, as bewildered by his silence as I and expecting what I did: yet another thing to buy. I opened it anyway, only to find one of the loveliest gifts I've ever been given: in pastel pinks and blues, before our eyes was a water-color of a mosque at sunrise, shimmering in the early light like a vision. And on the Bosphorus in the foreground, a delicate sailboat, silent through the lapping waves, its two stick-figure passengers on their quiet way to the Black Sea perhaps or, like my daughter and me, back to Greece, or wherever home happened to be. "Geeft," was all he said and wouldn't take a penny or even the actual lira I offered him, which made me ashamed of myself the moment I did.
He painted it himself, the fluent clerk explained as we were checking out. He had even framed it, and despite the horrible ride back to Thessaloniki—poor Megan had the melted ice cubes distress this direction—I felt a wholeness inside the many times I took it out in the sooty bus. He was aware of us the entire time, I realized. I guess he was grateful that someone heard his voice, had paid attention to the songs that must have taken so long for him to learn. But what a jerk I am, I kept thinking, trying to pay him. I'm as programmed as everyone else.
The painting hangs in my house as I write this, a treasure without a price—a moment, that is, but one that nonetheless sings "of what is past, or passing, or to come," as Yeats has sung about the city's "Monuments of unaging intellect." But the lyrics of this painted song are far more simple: no "gold enameling," just little watery lines of color. When my own check book and credit cards and those voices on the phone trying to sell me something make me feel like a cash machine, I look up at this paper mosaic and sail away, "To the holy city of Byzantium."
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