Istanbul blurs by in a colourful soup of sensations – spicy smells, copious çay, glorious laughter, sugary sweets and the mad chatter of unfamiliar syllables. My blog is far behind. I scribble snatches of memory on metro trains and buses, while waiting for friends to use the toilet… there’s just so much to do in this giant sprawling city, and it takes such a very long time to get anywhere…
It’s the morning after the weekly Istanbul CS Gathering. My host Yücel’s Turkish breakfasts are the perfect thing for my hangover: Lots of salt, sugar and plenty of çay (tea). All I want to do is slob around, but I promised Yücel I would come to school with him and meet his “citizens”, so that’s what I do. Yücel’s scool is quite far into the suburbs on the Western part of town. It’s a secular school and there are two English classes, both mixed gender. Yücel is the school psychologist, which he says mostly entails holding seminars.
“Citizens, today I have brought a friend to meet you…” Both classes are very interesting and I’m asked a variety of questions about my life – where am I from? How old am I? What’s my job?, etc… before we get down to business and the students get up the courage to ask more interesting questions – what do I think about Turkey? What do I think of Islam?.. Yücel is keen that we talk about some controversial issues and brings up long-term travelling, vegetarianism and transexualism, since he will be hosting a transgender Couchsurfing guest soon. Interestingly, when asked if they would hire a transexual for their company – a completely arbitrary question since these people are all teenagers, still at school and without ever having had a full-time job, let alone thier own company – only one girl says she would not employ such a person. When asked why, she says because it’s unnatural – and a translation of a Turkish word brings out “perversion”. The most interesting thing to me, other than this result, is that she’s not afraid to say something different to the others, and they in turn do not try to argue her out of her choice. They all accept the difference of opinion.
During the second class, Yücel leaves me alone with the students during a break period and I get the opportunity to chat to two of the girls about their relationship issues. One of the girls had a much older boyfriend until recently when her parents found out. Now he’s in England and she’s not allowed to see him again. The other girl, Y_ reminds me of myself in my younger years – only not as stroppy! She’s a vegetarian, very rare in Turkey, and wants very much to travel, but is restrained by the conservative Turkish society she’s living in. Somebody mentions feminism and she tells me she isn’t a feminist, but when I ask what she means by that and offer my own interpretation of the word, she changes her mind and says she is a feminist after all. I give her my email address before I leave.
I have a lot of lovely couchsufing hosts in Istanbul, but none can compare to Pam. In fact, I feel so at home in her place, nestled in the super-modern glass-skyscraper maze area known as Levent, that I accidentally spend eight nights there, and then return a few days later for a few more nights.
My Couchsurfing reference for Pam says this (spoiler alert for my next post!):
“Pam is one of the most wonderfully huggalific people on this planet. She’s so great I just had to make up that word for her, because no already existing words are good enough. After knowing Pam for about 5 minutes I felt I had known her for months and we slid into being ‘proper’ friends in an effortless way. My favourite thing about Pam is that she’s so happy, and her joy is infectious, so that everyone around her beams and smiles. Yet she is still aware of others and their feelings and shows a lot of compassion, generosity and love. Travelling with Pam was *so much fun* from the crazy hamam dance party, to our hitchhiking rides in trucks, and all of the many amazing and delicious vegan meals we have shared (I have *a lot* of pictures of food – and I put on about half a stone in weight while I was with Pam!) all in all there is nobody I could better recommend as an excellent host and travel companion. I hope someday I get the opportunity to show her the hospitality she has shown me.”
Also staying at Pam’s place, along with her lovely Canadian-Bulgarian flatmate Orina, are Kanani and Gregor. At some point during the past year and eight months Kanani has spent travelling, mostly alone and by bicycle, she decided that she owed it to herself and the planet to get back home to Hawaii without using an aeroplane. Kanani noticed me on the “nearby travellers” section of Couchsurfing, messaged me, and I went to meet her with Pam. Now she lives on Pam’s sofa, a welcome rest before a long journey home.
Gregor is a snuffly old man of a dog. Pam is looking after him for another girl while she’s away on holiday. Gregor moved in a couple of days after Kanani and is really quite a character. He’s clumsy, almost blind and complains all of the time in little huffs; the Victor Meldrew of canines.
It’s a Tuesday and I’m in the weekly bazaar by Pam’s house. The call to prayer has just started from a nearby mosque. All around me people chatter, bustle and shout out their wares. There’s not such a pressure to buy as in the more touristic Grand Bazaar and Spice Market, where I found myself a few days ago. There, every stallholder has developed their own technique for luring in foreigners. Here, there are mostly locals – women of all ages in headscarves of every colour; or with Western clothes and free flowing brown, black or blonde hair. Men wander with giant kettles and urns of tea, a basket of plastic cups strapped to their backs. A bit of industry is going on to my left: two women sit rolling out dough for gözleme, while another fills them with herbs and cheese or spinach and passes them to the man, who frys them on a giant hotplate.
Journey to Asia
“I’m off to Asia now,” Pam’s flatmate Orina says, whenever she’s going round to her boyfriend’s house. Istanbul is famous for “straddling two continents”. I’ve never set foot off European soil before, and so the short ferryboat ride over the Bosphorous is an exciting journey for me. I sit on one of the wooden seats on the bow of the ship and snap pictures of the receding coast of Europe and the approaching one of Asia. It’s a fifteen minute journey in all.
“Birliraahbirliraahbirliraaiaaah!” beautiful headscarfed women in bright floral skirts sing their wares in Kadıköy on the other side – big bunches of yellow and red flowers for one lira (bir lira) each. On my subsequent journeys to Asia, this is the first sound I always hear off the boat and it always makes me smile.
A_, my anarchist friend, finds me Kadikoy, searching for their house-project. I was looking for the red and black flag you see – always the tell-tale clue. Unfortunately in Turkey it’s illegal, and so their place has no tell-tale sign at all. It’s just a door that I already walked past four or five times. Anyway, the place is nice – lots of red and black, a little office, a meeting room, a small kitchen, library lining the hallway and bikes hanging on the balcony and inside the shower – an ingenious use of space.
I met A_ in Kafe 26A, an anarchist-cafe-come-social-centre on a side street near to Taxim. It’s a welcome anti-capitlist respite in the heart of the shopping, bar and nightclub district. I found it quite by accident, along with the Feminist Library around the corner – another of my favourite hangouts.
It’s a Friday night. Pam and I are in the LGBTT Centre for the weekly queer movie night. This week it’s Dark Habits, a hilarious film about a strange convent with a strong, yet cleverly portrayed homoerotic undertone. Nuns on acid trips – need I say more? After the film there’s a concert in the Feminist Library and we’re all blown away by the girl who’s playing. She says this is her first ever gig, but nobody could have guessed. Pam is in her element. Despite her warmth and bubbliness, she’s apprently quite shy with strangers and at first can only gaze admiringly at the “queer-as-fuck” party fiends around us, but gradually we’re all dancing at yet another anarchist centre around the corner. Pam has found her people, and it only took seven months of living here to do it.
I have been invited to another school, an Islamic one this time. I journey back to the other continent early in the morning to meet my new Couchsurfing friend Neshe. We take tea together and then get the bus to the school. I have to admit, I’m quite nervous. I don’t know Neshe and I’m nervous of what the other teachers might think of me with my uncovered hair and tatty clothes. Waiting in the staffroom for class to begin, Neshe rolls back my sleeves for me to cover the holes. Ok, now I’m more nervous. But it’s ok. The first class, all girls, are very pleased to see me and excited to ask lots of questions. Again they start with the boring ones about age, job and country, then roll onto the more interesting political stuff. This time I’m asked what do I think about NATO’s involvement in Afghanistan? Why is Turkey not allowed in the EU? Is it to do with religion? What do I think about Islam? All of the girls are polite, but also warm and intelligent.
Not so much the boys class, who stick with asking me the boring questions the whole time. One boy is sent out of the class by an increasingly agitated Neshe for reading random lines from his coursebook without knowing what they say. “London is a big city.” “Is that a question??” she asks him. “What do you think you just said?!”
Sometime duing my third week in Istanbul, dashing to get the train to Taxim, fast-pace walking up the hill from Pam’s house, suddenly I become aware of the soft touch of moisture on my cheek. It’s a cold, damp, foggy day and the physical sensation, like a caress, slaps me from my thoughts-rushing-mad-dash into a relaxed amble the rest of the way. I look at the trees, the flower-ladies in their colourful skirts and headscarves, the glass skyscrapers and chickens pecking at the roadside, and think how lucky I am to lead a life such as this.
Getting out of the car by the highway exit and hugging my environmentalist drivers goodbye, I have to admit the way the sun throws it’s light at the white towerblocks that stagger down the mountain to the sparkling sea below is, indeed, beautiful.
I’m staying in the anarchist occupation in the centre of the city. It’s very punk and a far cry from the tranquility of the forest, but the people are friendly and welcoming. At the forest occupation and the squat in Thessaloniki there were more women than men. Here, it’s the reverse and I have a hard time adjusting to what I interpret as a macho energy. I ask one of the women how she finds living there, but she doesn’t understand what I mean and seems offended that I think her friends are macho. I try to reassure her that I like them, just find them a bit… well… macho. I can’t think of another word that expresses what I mean. Thesaurus anyone?
I spend a day exploring the old city by foot, walking the narrow steep and twisting streets. I pay the €2 entrance fee to the castle and make the most of my money by picnicing on the castle walls, looking down over the city and out into the Aegean.
My evenings are spent at the steki – an autonomous bar with a small bookshop, library and a couple of computers in the back room. It doesn’t really get busy until after my bedtime, but I manage occasional conversations – notably one with a Greek anarchist, who after hearing that the anarchist scene in the UK is a lot more environmentally oriented, tells me – “We don’t need environmentalism – we have anarchism!” Sigh.
Two full days and three nights in Kavala feel like enough. I say goodbye to the anarcho-punks and find a bus out of town to a good hitching spot.
This time my lifts don’t tell me I’m going to a beautiful city. In fact they suggest I go to Xanthi instead. But I’m not going to Komotini to look at the city, I’m going purely for the purpose of meeting a Couchsurfing host named Patrick.
I found Patrick’s profile way back when I was first in Athens and have been looking forward to meeting him. I’m not disappointed. As a long-term traveller I have grown to appreciate the beauty of feeling at home somewhere, and that is just how I feel with Patrick – right from the moment he greets me at the cafe in Komotini’s main square.
Komotini isn’t beautiful, but it has character. The city is half-Greek, half Turkish. There’s a mosque next to the church, elderly people mutter in Turkish together, and I notice nargiles and Turkish chai glasses in shop windows for the first time.
Unfortunately, I only get two days with Patrick, but he leaves me his key along with his good faith when he goes to Thessaloniki Film Festival for the weekend and I lock up carefully for him when I leave the following day. It’s time to leave Greece at last…
It’s an easy walk to the edge of the city and I raise my thumb to the passing cars. One stops and takes me to the edge of Alexandropouli. He’s half Greek, half Turkish. There’s something about him I don’t like, but it’s not that he’s threatening or a bad ride. I figure it out when he tells me his job – as well as the restaurant he owns, he makes a living by transporting cattle from Greece to Turkey for slaughter. Eighty cattle, three times per week and he also hunts rabbits with his dog. I ask if he loves his dog. He smiles and says yes, he loves his dog. I tell him I’m a vegetarian, but he doesn’t seem to hear me.
My next ride is a German man, who takes me up to the border. He’s not going across himself, so I walk to the window where the border guard is and ask what to do. He says I can’t walk across on foot or I’ll be shot, so I hang around until a car arrives. This man is Georgian and speaks no English, but I’m a dab hand at improvised sign language - walking fingers and mimed shooting explain that I need a lift over the border. We both get back in his car.
Driving over the infamous Evros River, I think of all the lives lost by desperate people attempting to cross in the opposite direction.
The Turkish border greets me with red flag waving. I wave goodbye to the Georgian and stand in line to get my visa. €15 buy me 90 days in Turkey and I wait for my host to collect me from the nearby small town where he lives.
I found my host on CS. I chose him because I wanted to stay somewhere smaller before going to Istanbul, and because he’s into cycling and environmentalism, so I figured we would get along. He’s nice enough. We eat together and talk a while. He’s organised some pojects around a lake nearby for cyclists and birdwatchers, which is nice. Unfortunately he later tells me what his “real” job is: he’s a border guard. What can I say? He might as well have told me he’s a Nazi. “It’s just a job,” he says. Yes, that’s what they all say.
I wake in the morning to the sight of my full-commando-military-attired host on his way out to work. He’ staying out all night, so I have the place to myself until I leave.
If Komotini isn’t beautiful, then Ipsala certainly isn’t. Anyway it’s raining and I have period cramps so I’m not tempted to exlore much. I manage a little walk around in the rain and buy a bit of food. It’s daunting being in a new country with zero language, zero cultural awareness and even zero currency until I manage to get directions to a bank by miming inserting my cash card into a bank machine (my hand) in a shop.
I also freak myself out a bit by reading the Safety Hitchhiking Guide to Turkey for girls and decide that it might be better to get a bus to Istanbul and learn a bit of Turkish before starting my hitchhiking adventures in this new country.
It takes three hours and two lifts to hitch from Volos to Thessaloniki – Greece’s second largest city. My second lift is two twenty-something girls who’ve clearly never considered picking up a hitchhiker before. I approach them at a service station and convince them to take me, despite their hesitation – “Wait… you’re backpacking Europe… alone?” They can hardly believe it. “But aren’t you afraid?” People always ask the same things.
I’m staying at Terra Incognita, a squat near the centre. I find my way there with the help of a map and call my contact D, who meets me at the door and helps me clamber over the dog barricade of wooden pallets halfway up the stairs. I’m sleeping in the guest room and have my pick of four large double bunk-beds. Everything is clean, neat and welcoming. I meet my other new squat-mates in the kitchen – M, ML, B and Yoyo, a German traveler who’s been staying a couple of months already, awaiting friends who went home for Christmas and never returned. Amazingly I’m not the only vegan in the house – Yoyo and D are too. In fact, B is the only meat-eater.
The “P.P.P.” (my nickname for him) arrives later that night. He’s a Punk from Poland, and he’s almost always Pissed. He’s my room-mate for the next three nights and he snores like a bulldozer. Our politics, although both “Anarchist” are extremely different. He’s from the “I’m an anarchist so I’ll do whatever I want” school of thinking, where I’m more of the “I’m an anarchist so I take responsibility for my own actions and how they affect others” school. Still, he’s a nice enough guy.
There’s also a dog and two cats, seperated by the aformentioned dog barricade, lest fighting begin. By far the most interesting furry character though is “The Frog”, a stray cat who spends literally all of his time outside the kitchen window making strange rrrreeeagh noises. He’s named for this and the way he leans around the corner and rotates his neck to look inside. A very creepy cat.
“Are you by any chance Couchsurfers?” I’ve rushed down to the White Tower after reading on the Thessaloniki CS Group that there’s a picnic happening. “Hey, aren’t you Jo?” asks a girl at the back of the circle. “Um… yes!?” “Do you want something to eat…wait, you’re vegan aren’t you – take one of these!” She hands me a beetroot and lettuce sandwich and I sit down next to her. It turns out this is Evgenia’s best friend. I stayed with Evgenia in Athens and it seems she’s been bigging me up to her friend in Thessaloniki. Thanks Evgenia!
Sebastien and Jon are two more travelers at the picnic, hitching their way to Egypt. When the picnic ends I take them and their sitar-playing Cypriot host to my favourite steki (social centre), the Migrant’s Place on Ermou, for 50c coffee and €1 beers. Here we discuss traveling, politics, spirituality and conspiracy theories until their eyelids are drooping – these guys have been traveling almost non-stop. Tomorrow they’re hitching to Istanbul.
It’s my first shift at the Hunger Strike, now on it’s 29th day. The shift is 2-8pm and involves sitting in the reception area of the Labour Centre with six other people – reading, chatting and playing backgammon. There are also three people upstairs attending to the hunger strikers, we are just the back-up. Within an hour a man has fainted and been hospitalised. They bring him down from the 7th floor in the elevator in a wheelchair. We stand to each side watching as he’s wheeled through us and out the door to the waiting ambulance, followed by a girl with a video camera. It’s upsetting to watch.
Half an hour later another ambulance arrives. I detected a change in atmosphere but couldn’t understand what people were saying. Now I understand. People make way to the side as before and the elevator reveals another gaunt unconscious man, strapped into a wheelchair. There’s trouble getting this one out and several people struggle with the wheelchair, which is lodged behind part of the lift. Tension is rising, but eventually he’s lifted into another chair and wheeled away. There are tears in several eyes this time.
4:30pm, another ambulance arrives. Again a man is brought down in the lift. I’ve been speaking to a friendly girl with good English, but now she goes with him to the hospital.
5pm. Another collapse. People aren’t speaking with me so much. Tension and tiredness perhaps? I read my “Learn Greek” book to keep myself occupied.
6:45pm. I’m talking to an Iraqi man who has come in to ask… what? For help? It’s unclear what he wants or thinks we can do. He asks to speak with the men upstairs and I try to explain the situation to him – these men have not eaten for 29 days. No – nothing. Yes, ok – water, some sugar and salt, but that’s it. They are risking their lives (killing themselves?) to get papers. What on earth makes you think they can give you papers? He eventually seems to understand and I’m told it’s ok to take him up, so we take the lift to the 7th floor where the hunger strikers are. A doctor is taking blood pressure in one room, men lie thin and exhausted in blankets in another with a television. A couple of men walk around slowly or sit with glasses of water. I want to speak with them myself, but questioning my own motives keep me from doing so. Why is it I really want to speak with these men? It seems somehow self-indulgent, like tourism.
We go back down and I buy the Iraqi man a coffee from the bar. He’s telling me he lives in a house with no water or electricity. I resist telling him he’s comparatively lucky. This man is suffering, that others suffer more doesn’t make him suffer less. He asks for my phone number and I give it to him. He never calls.
23rd February, another General Strike. I go to the demonstration with Yoyo. It’s good to be with someone else, looking out for one another. The demonstration is very large – it’s impossible to tell how large. We’re somewhere in the middle and neither end is in sight. We march down main streets, past shuttered banks and supermarkets, which people try to open with crowbars. A classic moment: marching past a supermarket with a cash point outside, a man in a mask with a sledgehammer waits patiently in line while a woman gets money out, then goes in and smashes it to the crowd’s applause. The woman walks off with her money as though nothing unusual has happened.
Despite elevated heart-rates, nerves on fire, some running and the faint whiff of teargas, we come out unscathed. Police attempt to break the demonstration a number of times, but it holds up until the end. I don’t even need to use my Mallox.
The hunger strike supporters are doing an awareness-raising action at Kamara. I arrive late to discover music playing and fliers on the floor, but only two people left. They point me down the road to the bus stop where I find the others fly-postering buses. It goes like this… the bus comes and a few people jump in front to stop it moving. One person gets on the bus and distributes flyers to those inside, while a girl sloshes glue onto the outside of the bus with a big broom and others run in with posters. There’s also a guy writing “solidarity with the hunger strikers” in marker pen on the back of the bus – apart from one bus, which leaves too quickly reading “solidarity with the hung”. Genius. Some of the bus drivers have evidently heard about this in advance of arriving and try to avoid us – but people run at the bus, stand in front of it, yell “MALAKA! MALAKA!” (Greece’s main swearword) and even move plastic barricades in the way of the bus. When everyone’s finished someone shouts “ENDAXI!” (ok) and everyone moves aside to allow the bus to pass. Few buses escape without posters and those that do have a liberal helping of glue sloshed over them anyway.
I arrive at the Rotonda after a hurried make-up session and some clothes grabbed from the ‘free shop’ outside my bedroom. Fortunately, my lateness and the general habit of Greeks to start everything 1-2 hours later than stated synchronise and I arrive just as the procession is beginning. I find the Zombie Geisha, Zombie Nurse and other general zombies from the squat amidst the zombie crowd, stick a plastic bone in my mouth and begin groaning. Tonight is ‘Zombie Riot’. Once again I find myself thinking, you couldn’t get away with this in England! as people fill the streets – moaning, screaming, rolling over cars, stopping all traffic and covering everything from ancient statues to banks, supermarkets and fast food restaurants with fake blood. The slo-mo rioting zombies march the streets for a good hour before retiring to the Polytechnic University, covering that in blood also and proceeding to drink their way through a hell of a lot of beer and spirits amidst live rockabilly bands.
Despite these few exciting sounding ventures, my time in Thessaloniki can mostly be remembered as a lot of time on the computer, an unshakeable feeling of tiredness, cold weather and a lot of coffee. Mostly I’ve been writing, reading blogs and only venturing out occasionlly – mostly to the Migrant’s Place steki, or just to the shops or a walk around.
One particularly epic and interesting walk takes me up into the small old streets that twist up the mountain. Here houses are older and shabbier, some almost shacks. I feel it has more character than the standard white blocks with balconies in the city centre. There’s a castle at the top where I find a party of tourists with a guide. We look at one another curiously, travellers from different worlds.
I’m intening to have “goodbye Thessaloniki” drinks with the few friends I’ve made on my last night. Jon, who never made it to Egypt and came back to Thessaloniki after being turned away at the Syrian border, texts to say he’s in hospital with a broken foot. I go to the Migrant’s Place, hoping to see my friend Iovanna – a slightly eccentric 50-something year old woman from Rhodes who lives in a storage room – but she’s not there. All the Terra people are preparing for a concert at Biologica, another steki on the East part of town. There are so many stekis I never visited and one is on the way home – Iskra. I decide to pay them a visit and have a nice political discussion with the guy behind the bar – until he hears I’m vegan and reels away from me as though I’ve shot him in the chest. We talk a while more and I feel it’s time to leave when his girlfriend comes and stands behind him with her hands firmly on his shoulders.
On my way home I pass by the Labour Centre and pop in for the end of the Hunger Strike Support Group’s nightly meeting. These tend to be epic and I find it best to just pop in at the end for a translated summary. Now I hear they’ve spent three hours discussing what to do next. Nobody seems to know and people are still throwing in suggestions. I teach my translator the phrase “clutching at straws”, bid her luck and leave. I’m going to the forest tomorrow and I may not have internet access for a couple of weeks, but she says I can text her for updates. Fingers crossed.
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