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June 26, 2014 Posted by Tahir in Travel

Sea Trunks and Sausages

photoIstanbul’s Sirkeci Station could not be more atmospheric if it tried.

Close your eyes, and you can smell the scent of billowing coal smoke, and hear the roar of the Orient Express charging in like an iron stallion from western climes. There’s still such a tremendous sense of anticipation there, the rawest thrill of travel.

But, with modern Istanbul raging all around it, Sirkeci Station is a backwater these days, one that flipped from grandeur to rack and ruin without anything in between. Patronised by a great many ginger tomcats, it’s yet another relic of the city’s past – a treasure trove of finished journeys and of memories.

We turned up early for the train to Bulgaria, only to be told by the glum station manager that trains were few and far between. In fact, he hinted darkly, there hadn’t been one in months.

‘They will close us down,’ he exclaimed in a voice haunted by melancholy, ‘it’s only a question of when.’

‘I’m sure they’ll see sense,’ I replied, optimistically.

The manager’s expression soured.

‘They will tear it to pieces, brick by brick,’ he said.

‘What will you do?’

‘I’ll have no choice but to take the cats and go.’

So our great European train journey began with a night bus instead.

Our fellow passengers included a pair of English girls, both with hair dyed electric blue. An octogenarian lady from Melbourne, dragging behind her a battered sea trunk weighing as much as a bull elephant calf. And a slim elderly Bulgarian man named Sascha. He had a pencil-line moustache, and was dressed from head to toe in a cowboy costume. It began in a ten-gallon hat and ended in boots fitted with spurs.

On the dot of ten, the bus ground out into the gridlock.

Endless shopping malls followed, and high-end car dealerships, glass office complexes and giant plasma screens – all of it suggesting the newest incarnation of an ancient city.

After jerking forward bumper-to-bumper for too long, we slipped onto a freeway and the bus slalomed west. Just as we seemed to be making real progress, the driver pulled in at an abhorrent truck stop.

There were cigarettes to be smoked and much apple tea to be drunk.

The girls with blue hair joined him.

And, while they did so, the woman with the ship’s trunk told me about her last trip across the approaching border.

‘They set their dogs on me,’ she said in an absent voice.

‘Who did?’

‘The Turkish guards.’

‘Why?’

‘Because they didn’t like my skirt.’

‘Huh?’

‘They thought it too short.’

‘When was that?’

‘Sixty-four. Might have been sixty-three.’

‘Did they bite?’

‘The guards?’

‘No, the dogs,’ I said.

The woman pressed a hand to her hair. It was silver-white.

‘No, no,’ they didn’t,’ she replied. ‘They just licked my legs. They wouldn’t stop.’

‘That was luck. You know, they may have attacked.’

The woman from Melbourne sniffed, her mind replaying the event.

‘It wasn’t chance,’ she said.

‘I don’t understand.’

‘Well, a friend of mine used to cross the border often,’ she said. ‘He’d told me a secret.

‘A secret?’

‘A secret to keep off the guard dogs.’

‘What is it.’

‘Promise not to tell?’

‘I crossed my heart and looked meek.

‘Sausages,’ the Australian woman said. ‘You rub your legs sausages.’

‘Did it work?’

‘Like a dream.’

A mile from the border, we were deposited in a little railway waiting room.

It was three in the morning, and even the blue-haired students were losing their teenage gusto. We sat there for an hour or so, each of us thinking of sleep, waiting for a replacement bus to arrive from Sofia, and scoop us up.

The woman from Melbourne opened up her ship’s trunk.

It seemed to contain a full set of leatherbound encyclopedias and a great deal of Turkish Delight. Removing a soggy packet wrapped in newspaper, she slunk into a back room for a while, then emerged smelling of sausages.

She gave me a wink.

The next thing we knew, we were in No Man’s Lane, our luggage being pored over by a guard with a flashlight.

There wasn’t a dog in sight.

A little later, after much checking of papers, sideways looks, and cunning questioning (such as: ‘Why do you travel with so many sausages, Madame?’), our group was waved through.

We trouped back onto the bus, and were driven a short distance to a station, where we were bundled aboard a train.

Then another.

By late morning, we reached the Sofia Railway Station, a great hulking monstrosity conjured from the grimmest concrete.

As so often happens, I felt a camaraderie with the others – as though friendships had been forged through adversity.

We sauntered over to the information counter to ask directions.

A few minutes later we went back to say our goodbyes, and to pledge an oath of friendship – the friendship of travellers.

But the cowboy, the blue-haired girls, and the woman with sausage-smelling legs, had all disappeared.

Where the great sea trunk had been standing was a one-eyed mongrel without a tail.

He was licking the ground, a glint of delight in his eye.

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