2009 TNT Travel Writing Awards entrant

Author: Craig Osland


After finally leaving Turkey after 2 unplanned weeks, I took the overnight train from Istanbul to Athens.  Upon embarking the carriage to find my compartment, which I had been advised was #14, I was greeted with 2 sets of numbers on each door, one of which proclaimed that this was the home of compartments #3 & #4, or, alternatively, of #12 & #14.  Further down I was greeted with another compartment purporting to contain #13 & #14, or perhaps #41 & #43.  I asked the guard about this & received the intriguing response that one set of numbers, which I should ignore, were “Turkish numbers”.  Now, I have been to a fair number of random countries now with many different languages, and even different alphabets, but never had I encountered a country which used western numbers but where 3 actually counted as 12, although as a guy I felt I could warm to the concept if it caught on among the ladies.  I briefly entertained the idea of finding the nearest Turkish lass & asking if she felt like 12 solid minutes, but as I had not been told which of the sets of numbers were the Turkish ones I thought if I got it wrong it could only end in disappointment for both of us.  Eventually I established which of the #14’s was actually my compartment and we all had a good laugh.

Upon reaching the border with Greece the train stopped on the Turkish side and I was presented with an exit survey asking me, among much else, whether I considered my income high for my home country, and to estimate my expenditure on carpets whilst in Turkey.  I am not making this up. After my carefully thought out answers were collected, the Turkish luggage control inspector came through and asked me to open my backpack.  He then proceeded to feel along the inside wall of perhaps the top 4 inches of my pack, completely ignoring the rest of the bag and my smaller daypack sitting right beside it.  Satisfied that nothing was amiss with this specific section of my luggage, or at least not finding what he was looking for, or perhaps finding it, or simply pleased that my luggage appeared to have moulded itself satisfactorily to the contours of my back – I really have no idea what he was checking for – he left and we continued through to the Greek checkpoint and on our way.  Some hours later as we neared our destination we suddenly stopped and began reversing with such speed and abruptness that I began to wonder whether the luggage inspector had finally remembered there were parts of my pack that he’d forgotten to check and we were being recalled all the way back to Istanbul for him to complete the job.  However after reversing for almost 45 minutes for no apparent reason, we then stopped and proceeded forward again for exactly the same amount of time, and, eventually arrived at the station.

Despite being the “cradle of modern civilisation” and having thousands of years of practice, things in Greece do not always work as we have come to expect in the west.  On one occasion I was informed that the internet at the hostel was not working because it was, apparently, “too windy”.  On another, I arrived at a hostel to discover pull cords in each of the showers.  Also present were signs advising that these cords were only to be used in case of an emergency.  Now, admittedly, the number of times I have had a shower emergency are limited, but it was not made clear by the signs exactly what sort of emergency would be solved by the arrival of a hostel desk clerk, or, indeed, by anyone else who was not already present to begin with.  I like to think that the signs were installed in response to a rash of unwary people pulling experimentally on the cord and being met seconds later with a fully clothed stranger crashing through the shower screen to save them from an as yet undetermined emergency, snorkel and flippers in hand, or perhaps a lifeguard-style rescue board, the better to deal with whatever crisis had arisen.

The Greeks do like their own way of doing things.  In Greece, the drivers reserve that special look of distaste for pedestrians who buck the trend and do *not* jump out in front of them as they are approaching on a busy road.  Greek traffic is noisy, fast, chaotic, extremely dangerous for pedestrians, and a lot of fun.  Greece is also the one place were I was specifically warned about pickpockets, complete with detailed instructions on how to notice one.  I always thought this one was relatively easy:  if someone has their hands in your pants, and you are not enjoying it, you should probably stop them.  However the Greek hostels feel that all manner of things require specific instruction, including, on one occasion, exactly what a hangover is.  Still, with all the international travellers visiting Greece and potential language difficulties, I’m sure they do not want some poor Guatemalan tourist being lectured about a bad hangover and simply thinking she needed a bigger bra.  Perhaps that would have been a reasonable example of what would constitute a shower emergency worthy of pulling the cord.

From mainland Greece, my route took me up to the famous Pink Palace hostel on the island of Corfu and through Albania before arriving in Italy, but this seems a good time to once again quote the great Jerry Springer and remind you ’til next time:  take care of yourselves…..and each other.