Today’s guest post is from Yankee Erin who lives the Bohemian dream (she would say hand to mouth) existence in Berlin with teacher hubby, Ian. Very Cabaret. I first ‘met’ Erin when she interviewed me for Blogexpat. Erin writes her own blog about their Teutonic expat adventures in Back to Berlin…And Beyond, a wonderfully intimate glimpse into their lives. Today, Erin gives us a delicious titbit of their grand train journey to Istanbul and their first experience of the city that crosses two continents. Not quite Murder on the Orient Express but…
We had done it! We had lived in Europe for one whole year, just as we said we were going to. Going vegetarian for days at a time (even in cheap Berlin) to make ends meet on a teacher and sometimes writer budget, we had done it. And now it was time…time for The Trip. We were doing the collegiate run-around-europe-with-backpacks-half-the-size-of-our-body for over a month. In that time, we planned to visit 10 countries. We were crazy.
A week in (having just visited Austria, Hungary, & Romania), we boarded the train for Istanbul. Scheduled to be 18 hours, we knew it was going to be a long haul. A Kiwi couple paired with us in a sleeper and we spent long hours talking about our adventures and watching fields of crispy sunflowers roll by. Along with us on the train were some hippies from Germany (there is no escaping the Germans, I swear they seek us out wherever we travel), and a woman from Cyprus with 3 passports. One of hers literally had handwritten documentation. I was fascinated.
Night met the train in Bulgaria where we were told we would wait ‘a little while’ for a train from Serbia to meet-up. Making conversation with some of our fellow train riders, a Turkish man and his wife told us ‘Istanbul, big danger!’ They then charaded out the gestures of drugs and pick- pocketing. Oh, thank you for the advice.
The hours ticked by and we realized our long train ride just got a lot longer. Finally, the two trains re-united and we were off again, struggling to sleep on the top bunks in the sweltering August heat. Screeech! Stopped again at around 4:30am, men with bug guns boarded the train, shouting at us in Turkish. The woman from Cyprus turned out to be a big aid as she spoke with the guards, and translated for us in German. ‘Kontrolle. Your passes…’ Oh- Passport Control. What a lovely welcome.
They took our passports and left the train. Don’t all the guidebooks tell you to never let that happen? We blearily followed, and forked over the money required for the visa. The Kiwi’s – those lucky bastards- got off without a fee. I see. As Americans, your country starts a bunch of wars- or wait excuse me – ‘conflicts’ and you don’t get very easy access to places.
A whole day had passed since we boarded the train. We eagerly disembarked, ready to see a new continent, the place once called Constantinople – Istanbul! Immediately, we fell in love with the smells & sights of the city. Aggressive salesmen chanted at us ‘Spend money here, please?’ and we just smiled, happy to be swept away in the ocean of color. We found our way to our hostel in Sultanahmet and happily gazed out into the water. A little of this happiness dampened as a sour couple also on the roof top told us
‘There’s no water, you know?’
‘The whole city. No water’
She seemed to take pleasure at the looks of panic on our face. We had just spent a full day on a train in August. We weren’t exactly feeling so fresh or so clean. Running to the lobby we asked at the desk and the clerk apologetically told us it was true. They were running on their water tanks, but expected them to run out soon as the water had already been off for several days. He smiled sadly, ‘Welcome to Istanbul.’
Whatever. We smelled. But we were in Istanbul! Pretzel vendors calling beneath our window, thousands of wild cats, a whole world of spices to discover…nothing mattered except that we were here for 3 magical days.
On the third day, we got sick. Call it Ataturk’s revenge (or possibly Vlad’s revenge as we had suspicion it might have come from Romania), but boy did we use those bathrooms. Struggling to maintain any ounce of dignity, we sweatily hung on as we continued to tour. It accompanied us to Kusadasi, Greek islands, all the way up Italy and through Southern France. By the time we got to Bruges we were almost recovered. A thoroughly effective weight loss program.
Maybe it’s us. Or maybe it was some tough love from Istanbul. Maybe it’s best we didn’t have an easy time in Istanbul, because we really loved it, all of it. We survived the trip, celebrated our second Oktoberfest, said good-byes to all of our friends in Berlin, and flew home to Seattle. We even got married and have since returned to Berlin (I said it already – we’re crazy). But the trip to Istanbul stands out in my mind. I hate to pick favorites, but I wonder how much tickets are to Istanbul. Or maybe we should take the train.