The Journey series
This week’s Mustard Seed finds us on the border not of two countries but of two continents. With our van running well but our funds running low we picked up a trio of travellers to share expenses — two Swedish men, a tall blonde and a taller redhead, and a shorter American girl with a guitar and a lovely voice.
We had a relatively uneventful time until we reached Istanbul. The city spans the Bosporus Strait, half in Europe and half in Asia. It has been a strategic military location for many empires. We seemed to be breathing history.
We saw the obelisk of Thutmose III, built in Egypt during the fifteenth century BC, then split in three, moved to Istanbul, and re-erected by Roman Emperor Theodosius I in the fourth century AD. We toured the sixth-century Hagia Sophia and Basilica Cistern, the fifteenth-century Topkapi Palace and Grand Bazaar, and the seventeenth-century Blue Mosque. The Topkapi Palace housed stupendous collections of diamonds, pearls, emeralds, gold, ivory etchings, enamels, tapestries, and other things. Such wealth is unimaginable, it left an indelible impression.
As amazing as those things were, we found the people even more fascinating. In those days many young westerners travelled east seeking enlightenment — a la The Beatles encounter with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Istanbul was the bottleneck through which travellers passed in both directions. It was easy to discern which direction they were headed. Young people heading east wore jeans, Polos, and hiking boots; were clean-shaven; and sported backpacks. Those returning wore kaftans, loose cotton pants, and sandals; sported henna tattoos; and carried Afghani bags.
With so much to absorb, we stayed much longer than we originally intended. Our travel companions decided to return to Munich by train so we broke bread a final time and bade our farewells. We opted to stay in a hotel that night to avail ourselves of the shower. The next morning as I walked to our usual café a young fellow we had just met came running out of his hotel wrapped in a blanket. “All my gear is gone! They stole everything, even my knickers with the skid marks."
I calmed him down and offered to buy him breakfast. At the café I persuaded other travellers to each contribute one article of clothing and a few dollars.” After breakfast he accompanied me to our van where I discovered we, too, had been robbed. I went back to inform my sister. I consoled her with the fact that we at least had our passports, travellers’ cheques, the clothes we wore, and the clothes we’d worn the previous day.
As we walked about discussing what to do next I spied some of our belongings in a pawn shop. The proprietor claimed he bought them from a two-metre-tall redhead accompanied by another fellow and a girl. He was not surprised to learn they’d been stolen. He returned them to us asking us not to involve the police.
There couldn't be more than one two-metre redhead in Istanbul. We knew which train they’d be on and went to confront them. I explained our situation to the station attendant; he allowed me to board the train. All three of them cowered in their seats as I approached. I asked how they could do such a thing. They squirmed but said nothing. I demanded the proceeds from their sale. They handed over a few US dollars and a few Deutschmarks, pennies on the dollar but at least it was something. I thanked them for the songs and the good times we had together, let them know how hurt I was, and prayed that they would amend their ways.
When I emerged from the train my sister and our friends asked why I hadn’t called the police. This was about two months prior to the release of Midnight Express so there was plenty of hype describing the horrors of Turkish prisons. I asked how I could condemn anyone to that. I reasoned that one can’t teach good by showing bad.
Next week: Cold Turkey.
This week’s Mustard Seeds finds a similar feeling in two very different times. We planned our one week stay in Corfu. We weren’t on our way to anywhere. We weren’t doing anything other than being there. We met with friends, lazed in the sun, and wandered about. We saw whatever sights we happened to see. We stayed longer or shorter in each place as the spirit moved us. The days were sunny and warm, the food was great, and the people were friendly.
On the night before we departed, as I strolled alone along the seawall, I noticed a golden aura emanating from below. I ventured down to its source. Light from hundreds of candles escaped through a glazed door to dance out to sea. Inside the cavern a multitude of icons and statues of Mother Mary shimmered in the flickering glow. I stood amid the images, deep in contemplation. I can't say how much time passed as I visited. The peace was profound.
The next morning my sister and I took final advantage of the shower in our friends’ hotel room. We had a quick breakfast and caught the ferry to Patras. We bid our friends adieu as we approached the dock. We disembarked and headed to Athens.
While making our rounds through Athens’ obligatory sights we happened to follow a rather heavy woman as she waddled down from the Acropolis. Everything about her was incongruous. She wore shiny black shoes with tall spike heals, a white polyester dress with large purple polka dots and broad-brimmed straw hat with a wide navy ribbon. She announced in her heavy Brooklyn accent, “I don’t like it here. Everything is broken. All you see is ruins, ruins, ruins.” Even her presence was odd.
After far too little time in Athens and late on a Thursday evening we continued our eastward trek. A little over an hour out of Athens our van slowed to barely a crawl. I pulled over at the next safe spot. “What are we going to do now?” my sister asked.
“Sleep.” There wasn’t much else to do. The next morning I tried starting the engine — not even a sputter. My sister waited with our van as I headed for help. We hadn’t passed any towns since leaving Athens so I decided to press forward. As I crested the first hill I saw a collection of buildings a short distance on. There, atop a pole, a familiar yellow scallop shell marked my destination.
Between the Shell station attendant’s broken English and an impromptu game of charades I conveyed our problem. He hopped in his tow truck, brought our van into the shop, and began tinkering. A few hours later he pushed our van out of the service bay and went back inside to work on another car. Another man drove up shortly. The mechanic came out, pointed to us, and the two approached. The stranger summarized the mechanic’s diagnosis and remedy in fairly good English.
The engine had been patched together from bits and pieces. The two cylinder heads didn't match, the four piston included three varieties, and some type of goop had been used to seal the engine rather than the proper gaskets.
The mechanic handed me a paper. I stared blankly at the Cyrillic scrawls. Our interpreter told us the address of a parts supplier headed the sheet and the long list below itemized necessary parts. I had to wait until Monday, take a bus to Thessaloniki, fill the list, and return. All costs, including labour, remained unknown.
There was nothing we could do through the weekend. What would be would be. We wandered about the town trusting all would be well. We almost despaired of finding anything interesting to do when things suddenly got quite lively. There was a wedding in town. The reception was in a field just across from where our van was stranded. A man came and bade us join the celebration. As we sat enjoying the food, listening to the music, and watching the dancing I felt very much at ease.
In Corfu things went as intended. There were no worries on our horizon. In Livanates things were definitely not going as intended. There were plenty of very immediate worries. In Corfu I found serenity in comfort. In Livanates I found serenity in surrender.
Next week: On to Istanbul.
This week’s Mustard Seed begins as we slip into Greece. A Europe on a Budget travel guide we picked up along our way suggested combining hotel and travel expenses by taking the night ferry from Italy to Greece, so our hasty trip south through Italy ended at the Brindisi ferry pier. It also highly recommended a stopover in Corfu. Once aboard we found our overnight accommodation consisted of wooden benches for a fortunate few but a few square feet of steel deck for most.
We wound our way through a patchwork of rolled-out sleeping bags to a perch atop a life-vest locker where we met a group of more experienced travelers. They also planned to stay a few days in Corfu and had booked rooms in Hotel Europa. They indicated we would be welcomed, as their guests, to use the hotel’s amenities. My sister was thrilled. One of the many things Italy’s toll highway bypassed was public swimming pools — with showers. Upon hearing my sister’s concern, one of the girls in the group jumped up. “Come on, there are showers on the ferry."
We docked in Corfu. I was still waiting for my sister to return from the showers. I waited. An announcement came over the loud speakers. “Would the owner of the Volkswagen van with license AS5252 please proceed to the car deck?”
My sister must be waiting for me there. I thought. There were two ferry workers peering through the windows and trying the doors of our van — but no sister. I tried explaining my situation to no avail. We were the first car on the ferry and needed to be the first car off. I didn’t need to speak Italian to understand any challenge to their demands would be futile, their tone was enough. I drove off and parked as much out of the way as possible. I went back on board to seek help finding my sister. I was hustled up to the captain. I don’t know how much he understood but he handed me a microphone. “Hilda! Would you please get off this boat?”
I was hustled back down and escorted off the ferry. I waited anxiously. The last car drove off. Still I waited. Cars began driving on — still no sister. All cars were boarded and mooring lines were being let loose — still no sister. I began to panic. Not only were we separated in a country where neither of us spoke the language, I was ashore with both passports and my sister was aboard with all the travelers’ cheques. The ship's horn blasted, water began to roil, and the ferry began to move. I waved my arms, jumped about, and shouted. No one seemed to care. My sister finally arrived barely in time to leap to shore.
Disaster narrowly averted, we went to find Hotel Europa. We parked our van outside the hotel and spent the next few days touring Corfu with our new friends. We showered daily in their room. I always greeted the hotel owner, “Good morning.” He always replied with a scowl.
Time came for some of our friends to continue on. Those who remained saw them off at the ferry dock. The hotel owner was there seeking new customers. Since he only spoke Greek, he was having little success. He saw us, grabbed my arm, and lead us to his prospective tenants. My recommendations in English and passable French enticed enough tourists to fill all of his vacancies.
As I headed to our friends’ room for my shower the next morning I was greeted by a beaming smile that I struck me dumb. The owner shook my hand and asked, “No Kaliméra?” Translation: "No good morning?"
Next week: More Greece.
This week’s Mustard Seed follows our trip down the east coast of Italy. As we travelled I pondered the parallels between highways and modern education.
We were in Bologna, more by chance than by desire. We knew we wanted to get to Greece. We looked at the map and found the right highway. We travelled the length of Italy but we didn’t really experience Italy. The toll way was efficient but it bypassed the rich history, culture, and natural beauty of Italy. The barricades lining both sides kept traffic clatter from escaping but also barred visual wonders from entering. We could have been anywhere.
Similarly, my college pre-admittance interest and aptitude test battery positioned me on a World of Work map. My counsellor suggested any profession plotted near me would be suitable. Once I selected a job, I need simply sign up for the appropriate program. That would be the freeway — the shortest, straightest path from high school graduation to chosen profession.
In my rebellious youth, I rejected my counsellor’s counsel. I believed those tests were designed more for employers than for students. College molded workers more than it formed people. I also surmised that I arrived where I was by circumstance, not choice. What I hadn’t done and didn’t know had just as much influence as what I had done and did know. I wanted a bit more experience before binding myself to a forty year career.
Looking back, my trip afforded a brush with European culture and history, but I never stayed in one place long enough to find any depth. All I remember of Italy is my frustration with the narrow, twisted streets of Bologna and a gorgeous sunset. I missed most of Italy by taking the toll road. But that also left more time to spend in Greece. Who’s to say whether that was better or worse?
When I counsel my sons about their education I suggest they choose a career and follow the program. They may have to jump through hoops that don’t seem productive. That’s the price for getting where they want to be. There may be other ways of getting there, but they’re longer and less certain.
I don’t regret my convoluted path; I had many great experiences because of my refusal to conform to the educational system. I don’t recommend my path either. Refusing the prescribed route narrowed my options. Can is not may; credentials open doors which remain locked to mere ability.
By God’s grace I have my faith, a wonderful wife, and two sons. Given a chance to do it all over again, I wouldn’t change anything for risk of losing them. If I was assured of still having them in a different life, I would choose differently. Would different be better? My stubborn youth closed more doors than it opened. Do as I say, not as I do, is hypocritical. Do as I say, not as I did, is benevolent.
Next week: On to Greece.
Peter T Elliott