TREES WITH CROWNS Oh, it’s cold now in Istanbul. Days like diamonds: brilliant sunshine, icy in the shadows. The sun fools you into wearing a lighter coat, and then it sets. Such a fantasy, Istanbul, amid seas and waterways. But its magnificent trees, butchered for years now by misguided municipal pruning, look in winter like spindly desiccated fingers sprouting from wizened fists. All I can think about is how it feels to get off the train in Plovdiv and look up, up, up into the exquisite embroidery of those natural trees against the sky.
I found Plovdiv quite by accident. I just needed to go someplace in Bulgaria by train, because the bus had become impossible.
GRIM CROSSING Bulgarian/Turkish border, Winter 2007, 3AM. Turkish side. Dark and cold. Dogs and uniforms under guard towers. Leaping light from huge bonfires at the edge of a crowded parking lot piled with our opened suitcases. The ground glittered: sugar, slashed from people’s packages, littered with dark islands of flung spices. At the bonfires, yelling uniformed men hurled bottle after bottle of confiscated booze and watched them explode. People were crying. My seat-mate had lost all her sugar and spices, bought cheap in Bulgaria for her restaurant in Istanbul. Laughing, shouting customs agents had ripped them out of her luggage, shouting about drugs. Nobody seemed to know what was going on. We all kept our heads down, praying to be allowed to repack our belongings and get back on the bus to Istanbul.
THE VISA RUN Long ago before the laws changed, it was possible to live for years in Turkey on a tourist visa. One simply left the country for one day every three months. The bus was cheapest.
The border crossing could go into six hours at that time, what with all the queues and checkpoints.
DUTY FREE A friend had asked me to buy her four bottles of Johnny Walker and two cartons of cigarettes, advertised on the Internet as legal. Trudging along the row of duty-free border stores, my seat-mate and I saw 4-packs of whiskey, labelled “4 for the price of 3.” I bought the smokes, but the bus driver told us that the Turks were confiscating alcohol over one bottle per passenger, so I bought only two and asked my seat-mate to carry the other one.
THEIR PARTY We got back on the bus and crossed to Turkey, where we ran into that Inferno-like parking-lot luggage check. We were allowed to keep our one bottle each, but one of my cartons of cigarettes was confiscated by our friend the bus driver. Back on the bus, the air turned thick as the entire bus illegally smoked my swiped carton.
We were eventually told that sixty Turkish customs agents had been arrested for corruption, and their cohorts were taking it out on the rest of us. When I got back, sick from smoke and sleep deprivation, I gave my friend her two bottles and one carton. She said, “What? Why, I would never have put up with that, I know my rights. I’m an American.”
After that, I quit the bus for the train. I’d already quit smoking, and you can lie down on the train.
SNOW CAFE: Plovdiv in Winter NEXT: PORKED IN PLOVDIV