The lovely folks at Narratively are running a three part narrative from my recent trip to Istanbul and Athens. The first installment is live now.
If you’ve been reading the last couple of weeks there probably won’t be anything in it that you haven’t seen, but I hope you’ll take a look anyway if for nothing else than for their impressive array of work from some very talented people.
Special thanks to Rebecca White for the invitation to participate in this rad project and to Vinnie Rotondaro for his deft editing of the scrambled mess of words that I sent him.
Thanks guys and thank you for reading.
A man wheels a pink Barbie bicycle with sparkled tassles and white training wheels across the gray platform of the L train, heading back toward his apartment off Knickerbocker near the DeKalb stop. He leans over to hold it by one white handlebar, white like his hair, as if it were a toddler and not a toy. He wheels it between late-night commuters, drunks and shrieking gutterkids. Somewhere else on the platform buskers play accoustic guitars and conga drums while a woman slams poetry about mind expansion and positivity.
“Emil, you can’t leave that here. I don’t want her riding in the street.” His daughter had said before he left.
“But she loves it.”
“Take it with you when you go.”
Only two hours later he’d walked next to his peddling granddaughter, one hand on her back as she bounced over the uneven sidewalk, giggling as the cracks in the pavement of 32nd Street and 37th avenue rumbled under the wheels. Her mother had bought her the helmet, black and practical with a high rating for safety.
“Do you like it?” He asked as they took a break for ice cream.
“I love it, granpa. Can I keep it here?”
“We’ll see what your mother says.”
Near dusk he took her back home and read her a story by the yellow glow of a bedside lamp covered with bears. She fell asleep just as the fair maiden collapsed into the hero’s arms, the foul dragon already forgotten. Kissing her hair he stood up to leave.
“Don’t forget.” She sleep-mumbled from the coverlet.
“Good night, sweetheart.”
Before he turned out the light and left her room, he opened the closet to make sure there weren’t any monsters. Lifting one of the stuffed bears from her bed, he sat the plush creature between the door and her bed. “You keep watch now.” He told it.
Out in the living room he had coffee with his daughter and she made him promise to take the bike with him.
“I’m…” There was a weight on his chest, pushing his mouth closed and snuffing the words.
“Don’t, dad. It’s too late to get into all that alright.”
“I wish I could see you and her more.”
He nodded and finished his coffee. He tried to leave without the bike but his daughter caught him at the door.
“I mean it. Take it with you.”
He sighed and took the bicycle by one of its handles and wheeled it past the threshold.
“I love you.” He said before she closed the door.
His daughter sighed. “Goodnight, dad.”
He was halfway to the train station at 36th Avenue before he realized she’d called him dad. How long had it been since she’d done that? A warm smile carried him home.
Near the Karaköy Fish Market the Bosphorus is ruled by birds.
In the air above float the gulls, venturing on land to steal scraps of dropped fish guts, to shake the scales and road dirt from the scraps of skin and flesh, sharp beaks tearing at the meat not yet begun to rot in the head of day.
Cormorants dip below the glittering surface of the water, hunting for what has sunken below the surface. They look up at the gulls while the gulls look down, each perhaps jealous of the domain the other commands but neither venturing into it. The cormorants with their dark, oily feathers slicked and beaded with water, the dingy gulls crying into the noise of the market above the voices of sellers and buyers.
In a city where even the doves seem to speak a different language, the gulls sound no different than those haunting the Jersey shore that I played on as a child. But these cormorants, these slick, black birds that swim and fish as deep as the men on the bridge above with their rods and lines, these are new sights to me and I recognize them only from stories I was told as a child about how men harnessed them to their will. Fishermen in Asia would bind the birds’ necks with a loop of metal, constricting their throats and forcing them to bring their catch back to the boat to be fed scraps small enough to swallow.
Bondage, not symbiosis.
The cormorants here have broken free of that old arrangement, now fishing for what lives in the Bosphorus or what the gulls drop as they fly overhead. Theirs is the silent blue below, leaving the noisy blue above to their white, raucous cousins.
My travels draw to a close, tomorrow I board an early flight back to the States and say goodbye to Athens, hopefully not for good. That being said, I’m looking forward to coming home. I’m tired of being a tourist and have tried to set the bar high by seeing as much of what makes this city famous as possible, even knowing as well as I do that you do not know a city’s beating heart by its popular sights. Even in my own home of New York I’d never been to the top of the Empire State Building until a visiting friend dragged me along. I’ve never been to the Statue of Liberty and I try whenever possible to avoid places where the city teems even thicker than normal. I’ve met New York City in a junkie on a stoop scratching bloody the sores on his hand and a kiss shared, the bare bricks of the wall behind digging into my shoulders. A city shows its soul in the life you live while there and something short of bravery prevented me finding much of that in Athens or Istanbul or maybe it’s just the language barrier.
Even after all this time I’m still not sure how one knows a city, or even if it’s possible. It’s like claiming you know a person, a trifle insulting even at its tenderest possible meaning.
I had a plan for this trip, to go places utterly unfamiliar where I would be potentially stranded by lack of language. I wanted to submerge myself in the internal silence that creates. I haven’t had a single conversation during this trip that was not written before hitting send, and now I’m returning home back to the noise of understanding ambient conversation, screams and swears and a beast of a city that sweats itself out in fevered half-dreams.
I will miss Athens.
My last item of business was to visit the Temple of Zeus. It stands alone and fallen down in the middle of a field in the center of town, the largest temple in Athens. Zeus the great and jealous manipulator, the string-puller, the one who played favorites and set brother against brother for amusement and consolidation of power. The one who had a habit of turning himself into creatures with the aim of seducing young maidens.
Zeus, possibly the world’s first furry. Allow me a moment to sidestep possible thunderbolt.
As always we created dieties in our own image, it’s just that the Greeks and Romans were more honest about it than most.
The field has grown wild, only the square immediately around the temple is trampled flat, dust, dirt and gravel visible between the scraps of dying green worn down by so many curious steps. Everybody is looking up, but there are small bees with red in their jackets sipping from the tiny wildflowers that grow in the field.
I have had my fill of being a stranger, but I don’t miss home.
It’s a strange feeling.
I gave up on the map sometime after finding the Tower of the Wind locked away from me behind a rusted, flat-enamel painted fence leaned on by local, tourist and hustler alike with cigarettes and conversations gripped between teeth and fingers. I don’t do well with maps, guidance, direction and in searching for Fillipou Hill I had gotten turned around and found myself staring at the train tracks that run next to Ancient Agora twice. Twice I passed the same man selling sunglasses, twice he passed me over in favor of another tourist, twice I believed I was being followed and watched twice as another tourist as turned around as myself oriented off a piece of paper.
So I stowed mine and do what I always do, I wandered.
Wandering is something that should never be underestimated.
I know what it is to be truly lost. Three times in my life I have turned round and round in search of direction and have found only so much fog slipping between my grasp and the limits of my gaze, the more I strained the less I found and when I thought I had found true north what I found instead was something that tried to destroy me.
In wandering I find… Everything.
Today I found a steep cascade of stairs leading up, I found a nursery school playground next to a busy cafe, I found a brace of owls painted upon the wall of an alleyway, I found my last cigarette and I found the blaze of the evening sun in my eyes.
I also found Fillipou Hill. The hill is important because it is, I believe, the highest point in the city, higher even than the hill upon which the Akropolis sits ruined. On the slope of the hill is what’s left of Socrates’ prison. At the top is the monument to Fillipou, but chief among my reasons for visiting is the sanctuary of the muses.
What person afflicted with creativity could resist paying homage to that?
A hollowed out stone, a flat patch of ground and I could not even feel them in the air and so I climbed higher and found the stone monument at the top and a view of the spread of Athens whichever way I chose to turn and look and the Akropolis on a far hilltop.
In wandering I found what I had been looking for, in allowing myself to be lost without fear, I found what I needed on this drowsy day near the end of this particular journey. I sat in the cleft between two rocks and watched the sky.
I won’t say that the muses have fled from this place, what I’ll say instead is that they are more infinite than some stone, now covered, renamed and packaged with another’s name placed higher above than their own. I’ve hear their whisper in gutter, bottle and the echo chamber of my own soul for all the years during which I failed to listen.
Athens glitters from up there, the stone is warm from the sun.