Correspondence

Busing to Byzantium

A couple of springs ago, my daughter and I took a bus from Thessaloniki in northern Greece over the mountains to Istanbul.  The trip was ghastly.  In an effort to save some money, I had found us seats on a local—a big mistake.  Despite the promise from the ticket vendor that no smoking was allowed, everyone (including the driver) lit up as soon as we left the station.  Twelve hours of unbreathable air, together with the bus stereo turned to its highest decibel with cheap bouzouki music, meant a long night.  Fortunately, I had brought along plenty to read, including a copy of William Butler Yeats’ great poem about his longed-for journey to this same city, but even he could never have imagined the “Fish, flesh, or fowl” of that fumey bus.  How my 16-year-old daughter slept through it all, I’ll never know.

We arrived in dawn’s early smog.  My stomach hurt from tension, though hardly as much as it would a little later from the melting ice in a Coke I drank, try as I might not to drink the water those cubes were made of.  I had never heard the prayer service from a minaret before, and when I did at 5:00 A.M. while trying to hail a cab, I thought we had landed in the middle of a revolution.  I was unnerved by the exotic cry.  This was my first visit to a Muslim country, and though I had read about what to expect, the abstract never matches the...

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