Murdered on the Orient Express – Turkey

Murdered on the Orient Express
Istanbul, Turkey

I’ve Always Relied on the Kindness of Strangers
When I was a child, I saw the film Murder on the Orient Express, which portrayed a more glamorous age of train travel. Passengers sipped sherry in the dining car and smoked cigars in sumptuous compartments. After the train is stuck in the snow, an on-board murder must be solved.

My story bears little resemblance to the film, aside from a big heap o’snow.

The train commonly referred to as the Orient Express lumbers between Bucharest and Istanbul, passing through my town of Veliko Turnovo, Bulgaria in the evening. Having some time off for Christmas break, I decided to take the train to my favorite city in the world, Istanbul. Luckily, Istanbul offers many charms to compensate for my experience getting there.

The train only stops in Veliko Turnovo for two minutes, meaning I didn’t have time to find my wagon number from outside. I hopped on, then spent about 20 minutes being led from car to car from conductors speaking Romanian, Bulgarian, and Turkish (linguists out there might want to do a study on the pidgin they speak amongst themselves). The train is a bizarre string of cars catering to people from the different countries along the route. Finally, I found my place in the “Bulgarian” sleeping compartment. (My travel agent had warned me that the Turkish couchette “wasn’t good”.) I had a whole compartment to myself, which might sound like a good thing, but wasn’t, as it turned out.

The first foreshadowing that this journey was cursed occurred when someone stole my sole piece of reading material when I was in the W.C. This left me with nothing to read on the 17-hour trip. Luckily, this was the only thing stolen, but it did make me paranoid that something else would disappear during the inevitable next trip to the “loo” or that someone would attempt to get into my compartment later.

Much worse was yet to come. Through a series of events not worth recounting, I wound up without enough hard currency to buy my visa (the cost of which doubled to $45 for US citizens since my last trip to Turkey) at the border, leading to a panic where I thought I might wind up in a desperate situation – stuck in the middle of nowhere, forced to beg or sell sexual favors. There were absolutely no banking facilities at the border, no way to use travelers’ checks, an ATM, or “softer” currencies. Luckily, some young Italian gentlemen loaned me some US$ until I could pay them back at the Istanbul train station. (I take back anything bad I’ve ever said about Italian men!)

Of course, a certain carelessness led to this event, but this kind of thing can happen to anyone who has some misinformation. What it served to remind me is that anyone can find themselves in a situation where they have to appeal to the mercy of others, and in general, other people are happy to help you out. I thought of the time I went to a reading by the short story writer Grace Paley, who advised the audience to never be afraid to ask others for “the help you need in this world.”

At approximately the same time I underwent this, a friend of mine was traveling to Istanbul by train from Sofia. She described the same border crossing as being the closest she’d ever come to a “concentration camp experience.” (So far, she’s been lucky, I’d say.) First, one had to bundle up and get off the train, daring an icy, slippery platform and underpass, where one then has to figure out where to go to buy a visa, get a passport stamp, etc. Since she had to loan money to a British man for a visa, I obviously wasn’t the only one to run into trouble there.

Finally, at 6 a.m. (when I had still to get a moment’s sleep after the long ordeal at the border) there was a big commotion as someone tried to get into my compartment. I crawled out of my bunk and finally got the door open; a “conductor” came in, and in a mixture of Bulgarian and English (although he was NOT the Bulgarian conductor I’d been seeing previously; actually, he looked more Turkish), asked me if I wanted coffee or tea. I told him no, I didn’t have any money. He said I didn’t need any: “I’ll come back in 5 minutes and we’ll drink tea,” he said. He then seemed to be trying to hug me, so I pushed him out of the compartment, telling him I needed to sleep. “It’s ok, I’m the conductor!” he exclaimed, pointing at a pin on his jacket. From that point on, I only saw the Bulgarian conductor and a much more respectable-looking (and acting) Turkish conductor. Who knows who this guy really was.

After getting a small amount of sleep, I was discouraged to see that Turkey on the Balkan peninsula was much like Bulgaria – covered with snow and Soviet-style apartment blocks. Finally, about two hours north of Istanbul, grass began poking out from under the snow and the whole ordeal began to seem worth it (Bulgaria had been covered with snow for five weeks at that point).

Once I got to Istanbul, things went much more smoothly. I paid back the Italians, and being in a bit of a state, I called a friend-of-a-friend, an ex-pat who’s a DJ at Istanbul clubs. Taking mercy, he invited me over for tea. One of the walls of his apartment is one of the ancient walls of the city running from the Golden Horn to the Sea of Marmara. Unfortunately, a couple of nights before, a truck had hit the wall, causing some structural damage and waking up the neighborhood. Still, we were able to sit on the terrace while two adorable kittens ran in and out of the apartment via the ladder that connects it to the apartment.

After this, I went and checked into the hostel (which I won’t name, for reasons that will become obvious later). Since I’d been in Istanbul four years before, I didn’t feel a lot of pressure to do sightseeing, so I relaxed, shopped, and got my hair cut. There seems to be a district in Istanbul for everything; there is even a district for hair salons. (Those who are looking for an interesting photo op should head for the garment district, which one can find by trying to head directly from Suleymaniye mosque to Sultanahmet. In one section, one can find the mannequin district – here an odd collection of plastic body parts, often chained together, creates a surreal image.)

A “Rough” Guide to the Men of Istanbul
This leads to the next part of this story. I won’t explain here the many sights to see in Istanbul – so many people have described them on this site and others. However, there are some aspects of Istanbul that I feel have not been covered sufficiently, so I’ll try to shed some light on them.

While getting my hair cut, it took me a while to clue into the reason it was so dark in the salon – and why they had been pointing at the hairdryers – there was no electricity. Thus, I had to leave with damp hair. Luckily, the temperature was above freezing. Anything can serve as a segue for an Istanbul hassler to talk to a Western woman, and the one I encountered in a cemetery just off Divanyolu epitomized the worst of this. Asking me if I’d just been to a Turkish bath (no, I explained why my hair was wet) he launched into a negative tirade against everyone else in the vicinity. Unlike most of the men who hang out in the touristed areas of Istanbul speaking to Western women, he was neither attractive, charming, nor funny. I began to deliberately ignore him; he did not take the hint. Finally, he became abusive: “Only in your wildest dreams would a man as handsome as me talk to you in the United States!” he yelled. (Huh?) “You’ll live alone your whole life!”

I should give a certain amount of background that explains a certain fondness I have for Turkish men. Four years ago, I was living in a country where the men were about as attractive to me as Billy Bob Thornton in U-Turn and whose interest in women seemed to rank far below vodka, hockey, and ice-fishing. Therefore, although the hassling from some more aggressive and obnoxious touts could get on one’s nerves, the attention from healthy men with teeth was generally amusing rather than disgusting.

Once out of Sultanahmet in Istanbul or other touristed areas such as Selcuk, this attention ceases and men for the most part maintain a respectful distance. However, in these particular tourist areas, single women are likely to encounter plenty of attention (most of it benign – certainly nothing nasty like I’ve encountered in Santo Domingo or Bangkok).

Around Northern Central and Eastern Europe, there is a tendency for local women (who are generally more attractive than their male counterparts, either through genetic fluke or better care for their appearance) to flock around Western men, no matter how pathetic those men might be considered in their home country. Meanwhile, Western women are stuck with nothing but John Cusack films to remind them of how intelligent males act back home (their countrymen being reduced to drooling idiots after a few weeks in the lands of leggy, bleached-blonde women impressed by any man with a sense of dental hygiene). In circumstances like these, what can one do? Some of my friends and I have bemoaned the inability to switch sexual preference (more proof that it’s genetically determined!); therefore, one of the few options is to spend time in Turkey, where the tables are turned.

This time, I came to Turkey determined not to be swept away by the first pretty face I met. Some were clearly only interested in selling me something I didn’t need; others were flirting despite wearing wedding rings (is this supposed to give them an air of respectability or safe-ness, or do they simply not care?). Mr. A., a very attractive young travel agent, asked me out for a drink. This was very tempting, but simply too fast – a tactical error on his part. An important lesson for me: Get telephone numbers. The person you reject one day might be the one you want tomorrow.

By the second evening, I had met Mr. M., who ran the travel bureau at my hostel. Under the influence of the hostel bar’s hour of free beer, I told him he looked like Russell Crowe. (Lesson number 2: this can be a very effective pick-up line, although I’m not sure why). Luckily, not too much happened, since the next time I saw him, on a hunch, I asked his marital status. The answer began with “Well, the situation is…” (Funny, I used to think the options were single, married, divorced; but there seems to be plenty of people out there in the “situation is” category�I wish they’d seek each other out and leave the rest of us alone.) Lesson 3: Always ask marital status of anyone over 15 years old (in developing countries) you might be attracted to (adjust age accordingly for Western countries).

Well, by now the streets were lonesome (many of the hasslers taking shelter from cold weather or were recovering from New Year’s hangovers). Mr. A. was nowhere to be found. My other admirers had slowly dissipated as well. I said goodbye to the friends I’d made at the hostel, sorry to leave and go back to work while some others would continue traveling. The hostel was emptying out as others went back to work or school in Europe or the Middle East.

The Orient Express, Part II
I then headed back to Veliko Turnovo for the final week of the semester. I boarded the train in Istanbul, again not able to find my wagon because my particular car had been cancelled. Finally, I was taken to the “Turkish” compartment, which although rather run-down, was actually more comfortable to sleep in than the Bulgarian car. The conductor informed me that there was some problem with my ticket, but if I paid $10, that problem would go away. So now I was paying extra despite being in a “worse” compartment. (Perhaps the agents had sold me the compartment reservation but not the actual seat ticket.)

On this journey, there were no major mishaps, except the heat on the train conked out for a few hours. Everyone in my car (mostly Romanians, I believe) was complaining, but one man insisted we could take comfort by “thinking of the poor German soldiers who froze to death at Stalingrad.” Ice was forming on the windows and on the WC floor (just try using a squat toilet on a moving train when the floor is icy!). Through the mountains of Bulgaria, the snow accumulation was huge. In two separate places, I saw foxes running across the expanses of snow.

Finally, my 15-hour train journey was nearing its end. A Bulgarian conductor came to tell me my stop was coming up in 15 minutes. Then, through Bulgarian and sign language, he asked me if I was married and had children. No, I replied. He indicated this was a problem, and I tried to assure him this was not a problem for me – I didn’t need such things. No, it was a problem for HIM, that HE was married, now that he’d met me, he explained. Good thing for me I was getting off the train�

Veliko Turnovo was buried in snow, and looked different, but in a way, it was a relief to be back.