Travel Assistance: Some Tips For U.S. Citizens Trying to Procure a Visa for Travel to Turkey

1 Comment

slide-1.jpgNot So Easy Anymore, but Its Still Possible! Image Courtesy Of: https://www.evisa.gov.tr/en/


After having multiple Kafkaesque experiences at the Turkish consulate while trying to procure a Turkish visa for my father and brother during the bizarre visa spat between Turkey and the United States, I have decided to provide a few tips for U.S. citizens who want to travel to Turkey during these strange times. It is my hope that this information will be helpful not only to my fellow Americans, but also to the staff of Turkish consulates in the United States, since they have been working overtime to meet the demand of a new visa regime that hitherto has not existed between the two countries lucky (!) enough to call this marginal sociologist a citizen.

Before offering my tips, I will first offer my own analysis of this bizarre geopolitical spat. While waiting for my visas to be processed, one of the people waiting insinuated that this international issue could be blamed on the policies of U.S. President Donald Trump; given that this interpretation is frequently churned out by the mainstream media I was not entirely surprised to hear it. The only issue with this kind of surface level media analysis is that it has no bearing in reality. In fact, it is likely that the visa spat was created by the State Department without the direct knowledge of President Trump; the U.S. State Department—which Hillary Clinton used to head—is filled with holdovers from the previous presidency (regime?) of Barack Obama. As I have noted before, Hillary Clinton was also a known supporter of Fethullah Gulen, the shady Islamic cleric who the U.S. shelters and the Turkish government blames for the failed coup attempt of 15 July 2016.

Given these intrigues it is likely that this visa crisis was fabricated by a portion of the State Department, following the arrest of a Turkish national employed at the U.S. consulate in Istanbul who was suspected of having a role in the failed putsch, in order to create a roadblock for President Trump in international relations. Of course, the fact that the United States came out so strongly in support of a foreign national employed at a U.S. consulate amounts to a tacit admission that the Obama government may have had a hand in the events of 15 July 2016 (perhaps fomenting coups in democracies is part of what President Obama meant when he told his successor “American leadership in this world really is indispensable. It’s up to us, through action and example, to sustain the international order that’s expanded steadily since the end of the Cold War, and upon which our own wealth and safety depend”.  Meanwhile, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was all to willing to run with the visa spat in order to use it for his own gains: Mr. Erdogan is trying to re-fashion himself as a nationalist—not globalist—leader following the rise of populism and nationalism in both the United States and Great Britain. In responding to the United States’ halting of visa applications for Turkish citizens in kind, Mr. Erdogan is bolstering his nationalist credentials. There are, however, a few issues with this.

The first is that Turkey did not exactly respond to the United States’ move in kind; this was not a reciprocal move. Although the consulate stressed to me that the 160$ fee (the old e-visa on arrival was 20$, by contrast) is part of the reciprocity since that is the fee the U.S. charges Turks for visas, the visas offered are not in anyway similar. While the U.S. generally grants 10-year multiple-entry visas, the visas I got were single-entry, valid for just 15 days in a six-month period. In other words, in order for a U.S. citizen to get multiple-entry visas valid for 10 years they would have to pay 4,000$ (200$ x 2 for 12 months, x 10 for 10 years)! Additionally, the United States charges exorbitant fees because the visa process involves background checks and interviews; the Turkish process does not. Still—despite it all—Americans have to realize that citizens of most of the world’s countries need visas to enter the United States (or the European Union, for that matter).

The second issue is that President Erdogan is no less globalist than he was before. In fact, it is almost as if this visa spat was manufactured (by both the State Department and the Turkish state) in order to provide the world with an example of what the end of the “globalist” utopia—really a dystopia—would look like if bilateral visas were implemented worldwide. It is almost like Turkey is being used as an experimental “pilot” case, because this visa spat has been just that bizarre.

Despite all the oddities and diplomatic wrangling, the important thing to recognize from all of this is that draconian visa rules need not be the future in international relations; the only ones who will suffer from this game are normal citizens looking to travel and the consular employees who will have to work overtime to deliver visas. Therefore, it is essential that we separate “the government” from “the nation”. “Nationalism” as a concept does not mean agreeing with everything your government does; blind patriotism is not “nationalism”. It is our job to understand that and hold our leaders’ collective feet to the proverbial fire when they do things that do not reflect well on shared national values (like, for instance, fomenting a violent civil war in Syria without accomplishing anything, something both Turkey and the United States have been guilty of despite their anti-imperialist nationalist pasts). Government exists to provide a safe environment for all of its citizens with the least amount of regulation as possible. The government should not exist to provide handouts to all of its citizens, for instance, but it does exist to help those who are unable to help themselves—the disabled for instance who are not able to gain employment otherwise. Of course, this visa spat is not an example of less government regulation but, the way I see it, it is part of the effort to thwart the rising tide of nationalism against the globalist project.

Since I believe in nationalism as a global force—respect your country and others within a global system of equals and not the tiered system of unequals (divided into “first” world and the rest) that globalization has created—I will offer my advice to fellow travelers whose only goal is to see the world by helping them navigate the complicated Turkish visa process. Since Turkey was not prepared for this upsurge in visa applications from the United States, it is my hope that I can help both my fellow Americans looking to visit Turkey and my fellow Turks working hard in consulates across the United States. Although the visa spat is likely to be resolved soon since the U.S. finally ended funding to Kurdish forces in Syria—which had been a cynical attempt to further ethnic strife in the Middle East without decisively ending the ISIS/ISIL/DAESH threat—I still hope that whatever advice I can offer will be of help.

In order to combat the fake “tolerance” of different cultures and faux “diversity” pushed by progressive adherents of globalization, it is critical that we all travel (as I’ve written before, I believe that travel should be incorporated into all higher education in the United States). Travelling to cultures different from our own—and meeting those who speak languages different from our own—is a truly humbling experience. When one finds themselves pointing and grunting for food at local restaurants, from Abidjan to Vladivostok and everywhere in between, one will realize that we’re not all that different: we all have to eat, after all! And, whether one is sitting at a tea house in Istanbul, an ahwa in Cairo, a café in Vienna, a taverna in Thessaloniki, or a pub in London, one might get the opportunity to actually speak to someone—another human—and get a new perspective on life. For all of its technology and ability to “bring people together” digitally, globalized networks like Facebook and Instagram do little to actually bring people together on a human level. But travel does.

We are all human, we all have similar wants and desires no matter the language we speak, the culture we were raised in, or the country whose name is written on our passports. Travel allows us to see this first hand, it allows us to see our world for what it is for ourselves. What emerges through travel is a world much different than that which the globalist agenda tries to sell us: the image of the world as sold through globalization is one of rich countries and poor countries, a divided world where—for some reason—residents of richer countries are supposed to feel sorry for those in poorer countries while also being expected to feel guilt for their roles in the imperialism of the past. By this twisted logic, those in the richer countries are expected to open their borders to those from poorer countries, in order to provide them with “opportunity”. Of course, this structure is nothing more than a modern day “white man’s burden”; it is a modern justification for a modern imperialism no less exploitative and no less racist than that of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Just like in the imperialist world of the past, this modern day world is divided by “rich” and “poor” countries as globalization perpetuates the prosperity of the former and poverty of the latter.

In order to break away from this process it is first essential to travel. By traveling we will both be able to take a critical view of our own societies (in order to improve)—while America is a great place to live I have also learned that there are many positive aspects of Turkish society that I wish existed in the United States—while also understanding that, as people, we are not all that different. I can recall great experiences from my own travel laughing together with people whose languages I did not know about the absurdities of daily life—an angry shopper at a grocery store or the poor driving of a careless driver in traffic. That we share these similarities does not, however, meant that we are at all homogeneous. We have different cultures and nationalities which must be preserved as the resistance to a worldwide technocratic form of government which looks to make our shared values and morality no longer human, but tied to the consumerist logic of smartphones and shopping malls; it is a world where Cairo’s ahwas and Lisbon’s pastry shops would be replaced by Starbuck’s and its corporate logic. I shiver at the thought.

With that out of the way, here are my tips for procuring a Turkish visa. As I said, it is my hope that my advice will be helpful not only to Americans but also to Turks and any other travelers who wish to see the world for what it is: Not a homogeneous globalized world run by corporate interests but a heterogeneous world of many nations, cultures, and traditions.

  • The website where U.S. nationals can apply for a Turkish visa is: https://www.konsolosluk.gov.tr/Visa. Please make sure to complete the online application and upload all necessary documents that are requested because, otherwise, the application will not let you move onto the next page. If you do not have a digital version of any of the necessary documents, just take a picture of the hard copy with your smartphone (I’m assuming that most people have one in today’s world) and upload that. For instance, if you do not have a digital version of your passport photos you can just take a picture of the hard copy and upload that.
  • In the “name” section of the application, it has boxes for the “first name” and “surname”. While Americans may not be used to acknowledging their middle names, often times passports will include them since—like a birth certificate—a passport is a citizenship document. This is why applicants must write their name EXACTLY as it appears on the passport. This means including what ever is written in the “name” section of the passport in the “first name” box of the application and what ever is written in the “surname” section of the passport in the “surname” box of the application. This is crucial since the name on the visa must match the name on the passport.
  • The Turkish visa application requires travel insurance. While this may be purchased from third party companies, most insurance policies provided by U.S. employers will cover care abroad through reimbursement (Just remember to save the receipts of any care overseas). Therefore, a photocopy of your insurance card should be enough for the purposes of the visa application. Bring whatever documents you have to the consulate; upload a picture of the documents (that you can snap with your smart phone) to the application in the proper space.
  • Provide a bank statement or a document to prove direct deposit information from your financial institution with your application. Again, bring whatever documents you have to the consulate; upload a picture of the documents (that you can snap with your smart phone) to the application in the proper space.
  • Bring photocopies of your passport, specifically the photo page which carries your personal information.
  • Children under 18, who are not travelling with both parents, will need permission (from the parent who is not traveling) to travel internationally. This can be obtained by writing a statement like “I, (name), (relation to child—mother, father, etc), give permission for (child’s name) to travel to Turkey on (dates of travel) with (name of travel companion)”. Remember to get this document notarized by a notary public and the country clerk of your place of residence. Please do not forget to bring this document with you when you go to your appointment at the consulate.
  • Most importantly bring cash, since credit cards and personal checks are not accepted. The fee, at the time of writing, was 160$ for a single entry visa and 200$ for a multiple-entry visa. If at all possible, bring exact change because the consulate did not seem to have change the day that I visited.

Hopefully, everything works out and you have a safe trip to Turkey. As I have already elaborated, I believe that things will be relaxed in the near future but—just in case they do not relax—treat this post as a small “how-to” guide. I myself have benefited from certain blogs like “biz evde yokuz” (https://www.bizevdeyokuz.com , sweetsweden.com (http://www.sweetsweden.com/travel-tourism-holidays-in-stockholm-sweden/your-guide-to-public-transport-in-stockholm/#.WjqFrjN7HRg and dontstopliving.net (http://dontstopliving.net ; so here is my shout out to them.


Image Courtesy Of: http://www.turkishlibrary.us/abd-de-etkin-bir-toplum-ve-guc-olmak-icin-tum-turk-amerikalilara-birlesmek-amacli-acik-bir-cagridir/


***DISCLAIMER: This Blog (Thisisfootballislife) and author (John Konuk Blasing) do not guarantee the accuracy of this information and do not bear responsibility for any mishaps occurring from adherence to any of the advice given. Travelers should always check the website of the Turkish consulate for the most up to date information (Information from the US Department of State can be found here: https://tr.usembassy.gov/message-u-s-citizens-turkish-visa-guidance-update-u-s-citizens-november-20-2017/ . Since this is not a travel blog, and rather a sociology blog, any information on this blog is designed to help—if at all possible—fellow world travelers in their adventures. ***

Istanbul One June Later–A Short Walking Tour


Another Istanbul night slowly bleeds into morning. A night that started in Europe on the docks of Beşiktaş was lived in Asia in the bars of Kadiköy and will now end in Europe on Taksim Square. The circular feeling of it all reminds me somehow of our lives, and it makes me want to document it. It isn’t the glasses of Rakı and Istanblue vodka that have me feeling this way—they’re being erased by a delicious Kaşarlı Döner in the Bambi off Taksim Square. The muezzin’s morning call to prayer rings out over the city, providing a backdrop for the voices of the group that has just entered Bambi; they carry LGBT flags. I don’t care. I care about the food. I look around. It doesn’t seem like anyone else cares either. This is a changing Istanbul.

Having polished off our early morning snack and fortified our stomachs with a layer of grease my friends and I head off in search of a taxi and a ride home. The walk takes us across the vast barren wasteland that is the main square of the world’s 5th largest city: this is the state of Taksim Square in late spring 2014, the mark of the one year anniversary of “Gezi”. The change is half complete and the square has been pedestrianized. One would be forgiven for mistaking the place for a vacant lot.

A few kids are playing a pick-up game of football—sweaters serve for goal posts as the clock nears 5 am. Where are their families? Where are their homes? Such a thing used to be unthinkable in Turkey. Now, it is becoming common. Urban renewal can have its own collateral damage, as homes in the “Red Light District” of Tarlabaşı are rapidly being demolished to make way for new luxury lofts. Supposedly the families will be transplanted to newly-built housing projects in the outskirts—I guess that the kids just want to play in the neighborhood they were born in; that they grew up in. They don’t want to leave their home—who would?


My friend jokes that they’re making the best possible use of the vast concrete void. He’s probably right—football is healthy. But my mind is busy going back in time to an October night in 2012, when I took my nightly walk from Osmanbey to Istiklal Caddesi only to find the main street closed off in this very area—work had begun.

I go back further to a March afternoon in 2009, when I began work on a manuscript about Turkish soccer. I remarked on how amusing it was that the first thing many visitors would see upon arriving in one of the most storied cities in the world was . . . a McDonalds (the final stop for shuttles arriving from Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport used to be on a busy road in front of a row of shops lining the edge of Taksim’s Gezi Park—among them McDonald’s and the mysteriously named Jimmy’s Fried Chicken). Now they’re all long gone.

I’m too tired to think back to my first taste of Istanbul, back in the summer of 2005. My mother insisted I see the cıty and I did. I had been so taken by it all that I ended up studying at Bogazici University in the fall of 2006. No. This was not for tonight. But I knew that the next day I’d take a small walking tour of Istanbul, in order to see just what all had changed in the short time that I have known the city.

Heading up towards Harbiye and Halaskargazi Caddesi from where I used to live the graffiti is the first thing that hits you. Scars of a year ago. In more conspicuous places the municipality has white washed it, but on the back streets its still there, as clear as the day is sunny. “Yaşasin Devrim” (Long Live the Revolution) is legible beneath the posters advertising Woman’s rights, written in Cyrillic and Armenian script. The posters are for the HDP, the People’s Democratic Party, a Kurdish party claiming to support minority and feminist rights. This last development is refreshing; too many women from the former USSR are trafficked to Turkey and forced into prostitution, living out their nights in the seedy bars of Aksaray. But such new parties are just a faint hope in the changing Turkey, as faint as their posters faded by the sun.


Below the posters is written “Şamiyon Galalatasaray”[sic] and “Katil R.T.E.”—“Murderer R.T.E”, the initials of the Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Misspelled football graffiti mixes with political graffiti in the new Istanbul. I trudge up the hill to the branch of a local cafeteria-style restaurant for lunch. It’s tough to find a table at which to enjoy my kuru fasülye and pilav—beans and rice, the Turkish staple—since most of the tables are occupied by Turkish riot police on their lunch break. Who knows what they’re preparing for, I’m not sure I want to know. I find a seat on the balcony behind two tables full of police but the door is too narrow for me to fit my tray through. A cleaning lady takes it from me as I sit down and watch my tray pass from her hands to one policeman and to another before reaching me. “That will be fifty Liras”, says the cop, laughing. Everyone can be human at the right moments in life.

The food is good and I lean back digesting. Below the balcony is the wreckage of a building—urban renewal, again.


From the table in front of me I hear the police talking. They’re like children, the jokes they make and the tone of their voice. It’s because that’s what they are. Most of the riot police (“Çevik Kuvvet”— literally “agile strength”) are high school graduates sent in to be the government’s muscle—kids fighting someone else’s war. There are examples of it all over the world, just rarely is the war being fought against fellow citizens. One of the youngest looking of the cops is hunched over a bowl of chicken soup, dipping his bread into it between spoon-fulls. The soup costs 3 Liras. 1.50 USD. It reminds me of an article written during the Gezi protests and, for a moment, I feel sorry for him. Fighting your own citizens with only a stomach full of chicken soup? It’s hard for even me to stomach. This is a changing Turkey.

On Taksim Square it is another sunny late spring day as crowds meander through the no man’s land. On the newly-planted grass berm leading up to the infamous park “Istanbul” is written in flowers—two conspicuously foreign girls are sunbathing next to it. Meanwhile, paths have been formed where the grass has been worn-down by people taking short cuts into the park—normally, cops guard the entrance at the top of the steps. The fine sand that has appeared rips the façade of normalcy from the newly planted grass, exposing the area for what it is. A quick-fix beautification project meant to cover up the scars of a year ago. A few tourists take a picture of an Istanbul Municipality Tourist Support vehicle—a Smart Car. Another quick fix meant to paint over reality, a tactic used often in today’s Turkey. How many Municipalities in Turkey have Tourist Support Vehicles—that are Smart Cars, no less? I don’t spend too much time on it and the tourists took the picture so . . . I guess it worked.

20140522_143957 20140522_14405020140522_144201

I turn my attention to the streets. They look the same as they did when I lived here in 2012, 2009, 2006. The asphalt has the same familiar broken white lines marking the lanes, the sidewalks remain—even the traffic islands. All that has changed is that a curb has been installed, blocking access to the still existent asphalt. Megalomania, and the desire to leave a stamp on a country and a city, does not mean that it is easy to erase the history of a city square—think of Times Square, Piccadilly Circus, Tahrir Square, Red Square . . . I could go on. But I won’t, its enough that the roads have endured—for now. But it is still a change that cannot be reversed.

20140522_144324 20140522_144331 20140522_144413 20140522_144515

Walking down Istiklal I see a sight that worries me. A sight I’ve recently seen in other places; Levent, Beşiktaş, the central areas of Istanbul. Not to mention in every corner of the United States: A fast food chain. But this is not just any fast food chain, it’s a Turkish fast food chain. Their clean lines and minimalist design are so eerily similar to Chipotle that it gives me the chills.


Kasap Döner has invaded Istanbul with the backing of a very large investment. They’re seemingly unbeatable. But how is the food? Sure, it’s döner in the sense of the term but it can’t be anywhere near Bambi, the company that invented the term “National Fast Food” in Turkey, right? I decide I have to try it and choose the wrap—“Lavaş” as written on their admittedly clever menu (Its better in Turkish) and a water. The water is designer—in a glass bottle—while the döner itself comes poorly wrapped, and with just tomatoes and French fries in it. I’m disappointed as I’m personally of the belief that any “dönerci” worth its salt should offer onions but Kasap Döner has no such option. I guess the patrons don’t want to smell.

20140522_145747 20140522_150250

Before I leave I check out their upstairs—it is as sleek as the downstairs, complete with iPads at each table to expedite the ordering process. On the wall facing the stairs is a poster with the words “Chicken Wings, Onion Rings, Double Cheeseburger, Chicken Nuggets, Steak Wrap” written one on top of another with a clean slash through it and a döner knife below it. Above is the caption “Hamburger Çocuklarına Yedirmeye Geldik”—“We’re Coming to Feed the Hamburger Children”. The fact that “Hamburger Çocukları” is eerily close to the Turkish term for “Sons of Whores” (substitute “Hamburger” for a Turkish word your mother wouldn’t be happy to hear) should not come as a surprise to anyone. The Prime Minister’s often confrontational style of leadership comes from the fact that, sadly, such crudeness is often accepted in Turkey as a sign of strength.

20140522_150809 20140522_150835

This is change—A Turkish fast food chain taking on foreign fast food by collaterally pushing out existing local culture—the smaller dönercis that will not be able to compete. It’s a symptomatic of a new Turkey, where money is all that matters—big business rules. I feel like it’s the 1960s in America, at the advent of McDonald’s and Burger King, and I vow to not play a part in it in Turkey. I’ll never eat a Kasap Döner again.

I head down to the Galata Bridge and towards old Stamboul. On the hill leading away from Pera I see the traditional dönercis plying their trade in the shadows of the centuries old Galata Tower. Their shop is traditional but they might not be so—one takes a picture of the other with an iPhone. Another change.


At the bottom of the hill I take a stroll across the Galata Bridge. I’m almost blinded by the azure waters of the Golden Horn and imagine myself in another era. I’m five, fifty, two hundred and fifty years in the past. At least this will never change. Perhaps. On the steps leading to the lower level of the bridge the Dynamo Kiev graffiti I had photographed a few years ago has been painted over, replaced by “Çare Drogba”—“Drogba is the Solution”, red paint peaking out from beneath the grey paint the municipality hastily slapped on. It refers to a cheeky refrain born out of the Gezi Protests of a year ago, a nod to Galatasaray’s Ivorian striker Didier Drogba.

20140522_153522 20140522_153537

Later on, past the throngs of tourists outside the spice bazaar and Turkish shoppers clogging the narrow alleyways of Eminönü, I near Beyazit Square behind the Grand Bazaar. Here is, perhaps, one of Istanbul’s best dönercis. It is not really a restaurant, per se. In fact, one would be forgiven for missing the place entirely if not for the long line that seems to be present every time I walk by. The place is literally a hole in the wall with four employees: one dönerci, two men inside assembling the döners, and one man taking the money outside. In stark contrast to Kasap Döner’s menu with its modern graphics, here the menu is printed in black and white on plain printer paper.

20140522_155318 20140522_155431

The concept is simple—A quarter loaf, a half loaf, or a full loaf of bread filled with your choice of a single portion, 1.5 portion, or double portion of meat. Along with the meat comes tomatoes and a pepper—no onions here, either, but at least there are no French fries. The idea of carbs in carbs—fries in döner sandwiches—is an Istanbul thing. It isn’t hard to understand why—so many people struggle to get by in the metropolis that the fries provide a cheap and filling addition to sandwiches. Emphasis on the cheap. I choose a quarter loaf with a 1.5 portion of meat, and have them add some crushed red pepper. I’m not hungry at all but I need to erase the taste of Kasap Döner. I need something that hasn’t changed, and the local dönerci is just that. I’d be surprised if this place has changed at all since 1960s Istanbul.

20140522_155523 20140522_155913 20140522_155935

Walking off the food I find myself in the tourist quarter of Istanbul. Syrian children swarm around me and I bat them away like flies. They roam in packs, surrounding you, trying to reach their small hands into your pockets. You have to be alert, tell them no, they only need one stern “No” and they’re off to the next—there are a lot of easier targets on Sultanahmet square. But, most importantly, you can’t be mad at them. It’s not their fault that they are living on the streets of a city far from home. In an alley in Sirkeci, near the train station, I walk by a man and a woman. They speak Arabic, wrapped in a blanket huddling against a wall. It seems that all they own is with them at this point, strewn across the sidewalk. Their children—if they have any—are probably being swatted away in other corners of the city. Or maybe they’re making a living. And it’s not their fault either. They are just victims of larger polices, many of which are flawed. This is a changing Istanbul.


My heart feels heavy as I walk by the docks. More packs of Syrian children, boys and girls—some groups of up to fifteen strong. I dodge them as I walk, heading back towards the Galata bridge. I stand among the fishermen, and look to the green hills of Topkapi Palace, and on to the Bosphorus. “Yes”, I think. “This is a view that will never change”.


And then I slap myself. “Of course it will change. Everything changes.” It only becomes truer when making money—and not respecting humanity—is the only goal. I’m not the first person to write about it but living it—feeling it—is much different than reading about it, so I share my walking tour with you.

The Balkan Express – Summer 2008


This is a travel story about one of my passions, international train travel. It is from the summer of 2008, written during a trip I took via train from Istanbul to Sofia, Belgrade, Sarajevo, Mostar, and back to Istanbul. It is a bit of a “throw-back” so please excuse the less than stellar writing–I just thought it would be nice to post with minimal edits. I have also interspersed links, where applicable, to some of my more recent content throughout. I hope you enjoy it!

The Balkan Express

 “You blokes into each other?” The question came in a cockney accent. It was absurd, and my friend David realized this. “No, no, not at all! We’re on a graduation trip,” I was grateful for his negative response to an insane question. Why, I wondered to myself, would we have to be into each other? Can’t two heterosexual friends take a trip to the Balkans together? Perhaps the bottle of J&B scotch, which now stood almost empty on our table, had something to do with the absurdity of the question.

We were sitting in a cramped train compartment on the Balkan Express from Istanbul to Sofia with a motley crew. It included this British traveler who had just been around Turkey, self professed to be wasting his time, a couple from Michigan who had been traveling the world on some sort of “around-the-world ticket” (I still have not completely understood it), and two South Africans on route to the EXIT music festival in  Novi Sad, Serbia. David and I had lacked the foresight to realize that the trip would be a long one, and had bought only one bottle of scotch outside Istanbul’s Sirkeci station that was now nearing its end. Our fellow travelers, for their part, had failed to realize that the 12-hour overnight train to Sofia would require some alcohol. The Brit who had originally made a bad impression on us was eager to make amends, and as such pulled a 10 Euro note out of the crotch area of his pants. Upon seeing this, I immediately thought he was not the most qualified to be questioning anyone’s sexual orientation. Later, I realized he was just wearing a valuables belt under his shirt—the hallmark of paranoid travelers the world over. How hard is it, I wondered, to keep account of your pockets?

“Here, I’ll buy the next round. The conductor has some beers in his compartment,” Apparently, when the Brit had presented his tickets the Bulgarian conductor had displayed them, eager to cynically profit from the notorious British thirst for alcohol. I took his 10 Euros and headed to the front of the car.

“Drink?” asked the conductor, motioning the international sign for throwing one back by extending his thumb and pinkie finger, bringing it to his mouth and cocking his head back. He looked crazy, a spectacled, grey haired man who had the look of a mad scientist about him, but what would it matter? He was only selling alcohol. I nodded affirmatively. After presenting him with the money, he in turn gave me five dusty beers. My fingers made marks on the glass, not due to frost but due to a caked layer of dust. Upon seeing my skeptical expression the conductor reassured me.

“Good beer. Bulgarian beer!” I nodded unsure of him, and headed back towards our crowded compartment.


By this point we were getting rowdy, the effects of the warm beer on top of scotch kicked in, and the conversation was flowing.  We had already been reprimanded by the conductor twice, but he wasn’t good at being stern. Every time he tried to scold us, he ended up smiling, perhaps remembering his younger days of drunken revelry. Our “good” Bulgarian beers finished all too quickly, and once again the search was on for more libations. At this point I took it on myself to find more beers. I knew we had finished the Bulgarian’s stock, but I figured that the Turkish conductor would also have beers, and as I was the only one who knew Turkish I went in search.

I got up and headed towards the next car, staggering some from the liquor, but mostly from the train’s erratic rocking as it continued along Turkey’s aging rail network, which for the most part has not been renovated since the un-timely death of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk—the founder of the modern Turkish republic—in 1938. I pried open the door separating the two cars—a cold metal sliding door which was closed with magnets, like a refrigerator. It took all my strength, and after opening it I immediately felt the chilly night air on my face, the noises of the rails now deafening, no longer buffered by the walls of the train car. Between the cars, swaying, I then negotiated the second door taking me out of the inter-car buffer and straight into the Turkish car. It was relatively quiet, again.

I immediately walked to the conductor’s room and explained, in Turkish, that I was looking for beer. He was a short and stout man, in his forties with a few grey hairs and a jet-black moustache. Unfortunately, he explained, there were none available from him but that the Romanian the next car over had some available. I told him that, while I did know Turkish, I had no knowledge of Romanian. Apparently that was not a problem, he reassured me, but he did warn me that he might be sleeping. Before I could protest that I didn’t want to wake him, I was told that it was his job, and that it wouldn’t be an issue.

I thanked him, and continued on my quest. Again I followed the same ritual, using all my strength to pry open the doors, and then struggling to stay on two feet between the cars as the train rocked and bobbed on the tracks. Inside the CFR (Romania’s state railway company) car, it felt like I was back in a 19th century royal train car. The clean carpeting and wood panels comforted me, and it reminded me of the wooden floors of the New England home I grew up in. The conductor’s room was the first one in the car, and I knocked timidly. No response. At this point, I resigned myself to the Romanian’s wrath, and knocked harder. After a few seconds the conductor emerged, with blood-shot eyes, wearing the classic “this better be worth waking me up for” look on his young face. Obviously, it wasn’t.

“Bira?” I squeaked out, using the Turkish. All I got was a paroxysm of Romanian, as he blurted out what I could only assume to be profanity—lots of it. I slowly backed away, back towards the doors of the car as he continued yelling. The sounds of the train drowned him out as the doors opened. I went back to the Turkish car defeated, my tail between my legs.

“He wouldn’t give me any beer,” I explained to the conductor, who was folding sheets.

“Alright, I’ll show that Romanian . . .” he said, as he led me back to the sight of my initial failure. My new companion opened the train doors I had struggled with easily (he was a veteran of it), and coming to the Romanian’s cabin he knocked violently, flying into a string of fluent Romanian when the door opened. I was impressed. After discussing, he turned to me and said in Turkish, “Yes, he says he has six beers available.”

“How much does he want?”

The conductor turned and in Romanian asked the questions.

“Thirty Romanian Lei for six.”

“That’s great, but I only have twenty Turkish Liras, or  twenty American dollars,” I said in Turkish as I extended the money to the Romanian. He said something in Romanian, and he conductor turned to me and said, “The bastard will only take Romanian money, such a nationalist. Don’t worry, I have a friend who should have some Lei he can exchange for your Liras. He’ll give you a good rate, don’t worry.” I mused to myself that I hadn’t thought of being cheated, until it was just brought up. I decided to follow the conductor, as I was intrigued conducting a change operation on a train in the middle of the night. Immediately, all my fantasies of being “James Bondish” popped into my head. As quickly as the thoughts popped into my head, they began to dissipate. After all, I don’t think Bond ever traveled in seersucker shorts and flip-flops, and it was the safety of the free world—not the sobriety of three fellow travelers and a friend—that was resting on his nocturnal railway operations. At least, of course to my recollection!

I followed into the next car over, still fantasizing about being in an old world Bond film when I was introduced to the conductor’s friend, who was sitting gazing out the window, looking completely apathetic to the world. Apparently everything had been explained as I was daydreaming, and I gave my twenty Turkish Liras to the complete stranger. He presented me with two plastic Lei notes, one a ten and one a twenty. Twenty to thirty, it was a good exchange rate. I was satisfied, and I examined the strange money. It was completely plastic. I remembered it from a previous trip to Bucharest, where I had tried (unsuccessfully) to rip it.

We went back to the CFR car, and I wearily gave the money to the impatient Romanian, who was waiting with his door open. He informed me at this point—through my translator—that he could only give us five beers, and not the previously promised six. My Turkish conductor was incensed that the Romanian had re-neged on our previous agreement. After a heated exchange in Romanian, the conductor turned to me and said, “He says the beers are quality—they are Stella, from Belgium, and therefore more expensive.”

I laughed at him, and told him, “Look where we are—on the Balkan Express? What kind of quality is he talking about?” It was absurd, and my conductor friend realized it too. The Romanian was visibly puzzled, as his eyes darted back and forth from my face to the conductor’s trying to understand the alien—to him—language we were speaking. I knew the Romanian was looking to keep the last one for himself. There was no changing his mind, and we gave up, satisfied to at least have gotten the five out of the stingy conductor. “What an asshole . . . “, muttered my friend.

I thanked the Turkish conductor for his assistance and realized that I didn’t know his name.

“Its Güner, don’t worry, ill be seeing you,” he said cryptically. I gave him a beer, as thanks for his trouble, and headed back to my original cabin. I found everyone packed together—six bodies—like refugees escaping a war zone. They were surprised it took so long—all I could say was, “You could never believe what I went through to get these beers. Enjoy!” We continued our drinking, each of us telling different stories from our travels. The American Terry, who was with his girlfriend, took out his passport and showed us the stamps he had collected on his journeys. Apparently he was a city planner from San Francisco, and just wanted to travel the world before going back to work.

The South Africans in turn told us about their hopes for EXIT, and asked Dave and I whether or not we were scared to go to Serbia. We told them of course not, nothing could happen during EXIT as it is the peak of Serbia’s tourist season. Their apprehension said something for Serbia’s international reputation.

As we reached the end of our Stellas the train started to slow. I looked out the window to see a platform, and quickly took twenty Liras from Dave.

“I’m going to get more beers,” I quickly told the group.

“But what if the train leaves without you?” asked one of the South Africans.

“I don’t think it will,” I responded, the liquor having given me an irrational confidence. I jumped off the train, and saw Güner on the platform.

“What’s going on?” I asked.

“Stopped for a bit, checking the train before the border. It’s going to be another hour and a half ‘till we reach it.”

“Could I get some beers?’

“Of course John—just make it quick.” He used my name, and I took it as a sign that I could trust him to not let the train leave without me. I ran into the small shop on the side of the tracks, to find four old men sitting around in a dimly lit room playing cards. The building was a classic example of shoddy workmanship; thin plaster walls put up in a day just to sell a few things on the side of the rail line. Small buildings like this were to be a common sight along the rails all the way to Belgrade as we traveled through forgotten provincial outposts.

“I need beer, quickly!” I announced as the men looked up, bleary eyed from staring at cards all night, and bored out of their minds it seemed. It was around one thirty, and no trains would have passed by for at least three hours.

“How many beers?” asked the largest of the men.

“As many as this will buy me,” I said laughing as I presented the green bill. The man nodded and headed over to a refrigerator, which was unluckily locked. As he screamed for the key, I was getting antsy. Why would the refrigerator be locked? Is someone going to come in here and steal beer from under their noses as they play cards? I didn’t want to miss the train.

“Were are we?” I asked, as the man started opening the refrigerator having received the key from his friend.

Kirklareli.” He responded, giving the name of one of Turkey’s three Thracian provinces, this one bordering Bulgaria and the Black Sea. As I began to remember a friend from Kirklareli whom I had met during a study abroad semester, I heard the sound I dreaded to here. Metal was screeching, and gears were grinding, and the train was moving. I for a moment contemplated running out, leaving the beers and the money (which was now in the man’s pocket) and catching the train. Instead, and I attribute this to the alcohol, I figured I should stay, get the beers, and run on to the train in the classic James Bond fashion by catching the back of it as it pulled out.

Resigned to catching the train “James Bond style”, I just told the man, “Faster, faster!” as he quickly put the beers in the bag, grabbing them from the very front of the refrigerator, his hands fling in a fury of motion. Having put the eight beers in the bag, he handed it off to me as is if in a relay race, my eager hands pulling the bag away too fast, as the handles got caught in his hands. ‘Dammit,’ I thought, ‘now I’m really going to miss this train.’ Every second counted for me, as I thanked him running out. What I saw, however, was a scene I had not expected. The train was sitting on the tracks, stationary, with Güner standing in front of the stairs.

“I told you we wouldn’t leave without you,” he said, laughing at how worried I was. I felt relieved, and as I stepped past Güner onto the train he signaled with his hand to the engine, climbing back on as the wheels started moving.

Back in our crowded cabin everyone eagerly anticipated my arrival. The Brit had a bottle opener and swiftly opened the beers, passing them around the cabin. Terry’s girlfriend and one of the South Africans decided to join us in drinking (the other choosing sleep), and they stole sips from our beers—Terry giving some to his girlfriend, and Dave to the South African. As we labored through the warm beers—the refrigerator at the market had not been working—we all forged a common bond, the bond of travelers. We were all brought together by fate, connected my time and space, for this one train ride to Sofia; once we arrived we would all go our separate ways. Tonight though, we all looked out for one another and knew that, for the duration of this trip, we were not alone—not only physically, but also emotionally. It’s an interesting feeling—one that is central to the experience of train travel.

We kept drinking over the course of the next two hours (Güner’s prediction had been off) as we sped towards the international border. Dave tired and chose to retire to the cabin, telling me to wake him at the border. The South African went to join her friend in their sleeping compartment, while the Brit reluctantly went to his cabin. He was scared because apparently there were two “Czechoslovakian men” in his compartment. Clearly he had not been keeping up with the changes in European geopolitics—Czechoslovakia was now forever consigned to history.

Terry and I stayed up as he smoked cigarettes, now ignoring the  “No Smoking” signs all throughout the train. Initially he had been scared to smoke, cautiously lighting up in the back of the wagon. Now though, after Guner had joined us for a beer—sipping it between drags—Terry had been assured that smoking was allowed. He told me about his job as an urban planner, and I explained to him how rewarding I thought traveling with a girlfriend was (having done it before). He agreed, explaining that he was going to have sex that night. I had already assumed as such, and wondered why he felt it necessary to explain it to me—I figured it must have been due to the medley of alcohols we had consumed that night.


The train came screeching to a jolting halt, as the grind of metal on metal pierced through the silence of the Thracian summer night. We stepped out into the cold, silence slowly taking over again. Even though it was the middle of the July, at three in the morning it was biting cold. We stood shivering next to our now stationary train. It hissed as its engine cooled, the only sound in the silent night that blanketed our surroundings. We were at Kapikule, the land border between Bulgaria and Turkey listed as one of the busiest borders in the world after the famous San Ysidro crossing between San Diego and Tijuana. Outside the train I shook as the cold chilled me to the bone, waiting with Terry and Dave (who had woken of his own accord) with the rest of the travelers.

Once everyone had disembarked the train (we waited for one another, in our unspoken solidarity), we headed to an underpass that stank of festering urine, passing under the rail tracks and to the main platform where the passport control office was. There was a long line, as we were waiting for a train coming from Bucharest bound for Istanbul (the Bosphorus Express) to clear customs.

“Why is there this line?” I heard from the crowd.

“Because we aren’t on schedule—we’re late.” Was the response. I realized that we were supposed to have come before this train—I hoped it wasn’t due to my holding up the train in Kirklareli.

Dave was drunk, and audaciously kept trying to hit on Terry’s girlfriend. Her dark eyes darted away from Dave’s, as she nestled into the arms of her boyfriend.

“Girl, with such beautiful eyes and tanned skin you don’t even need to get your passport stamped—they should let you right on through!” he said, slurring his words in his Texan accent and rocking back and forth.

“Should I . . .” I stammered, embarrassed at my friend’s behavior.

“Don’t worry,” said Terry, “We have a relaxed relationship—this kind of stuff happens all the time. Do you want to get some more whiskey? I owe you guys, you have gotten everything so far!” We left Dave hitting on his girlfriend—I still don’t get their relationship to this day, but it seemed to make them happy so I wasn’t too concerned.

We headed away from the customs building and towards the duty free stand. It was a far cry from the posh duty free shops at international airports, with colorful lights and the latest styles from Milan and Paris. Instead, this was a small shop that skipped amenities like colognes and fragrances—here were the basic necessities, alcohol and cigarettes. Train travel wasn’t—evidently—for the faint of heart. The tall shopkeeper was visibly tired, sleep oozing from his bespectacled eyes. Because the international rail lines passed through Kapikule in the dead of night, this man most likely stayed up only for this, to sell tobacco and booze to travelers who aimed to escape the high prices put on them due to taxes within Turkey. Terry picked out a bottle of J&B scotch as we came full circle.

“Its best not to mix anymore,” he advised. I concurred, as my stomach was already hurting. Terry handed his passport over, a necessity when purchasing from duty free.

As the shopkeeper took down Terry’s passport number I asked if he had any cola. The shopkeeper shook his head.

“Nothing to mix with, at all?” I now sounded desperate. It was three in the morning, and my idea of fun was not drinking warm scotch in the dead of night.

“You don’t need anything to mix with. Drink it sek (straight) you guys are men!” said the shopkeeper laughing. I laughed too, realizing that Turkish machismo was part of the “rough around the edges” ethos of train travel.

Terry took the bottle and headed back to the group while I searched around, in vain, for any sort of vending machine on the forlorn platform. Less than twenty years ago, in my lifetime, this had been the last stop before the Iron Curtain—now it was the last stop before the European Union. ‘How things could change with one arbitrary line on a map,’ I thought to myself, before rejoining the group to find them filing through into the customs building, where a couple weary Turkish police officers were stamping passports. I handed both my passports to one of them, telling him to stamp the American one. With one swift hand motion, he slammed his stamp onto the middle of the page. The “BAM” echoed in the small room, before falling into the night.


Soon we were back aboard the train, sitting in the station at Kapitan Andreevo across the Bulgarian frontier. Named after a Bulgarian general this was the first station in Bulgaria on the way to Sofia. Terry and I drank our scotch—his straight, mine with a pinch of coke left over from Istanbul—on the platform under the early morning sun, which rose over the border we had just crossed. Bulgarian engineers were looking under the train, hitting pieces of metal with large mallets. I offered some scotch to one of them, which was declined with a laugh. I figured it was too early.

Eventually Güner came up to us, to ask how we were doing. I offered him some scotch, which he too took straight. He told me it’s the only way he likes it. I laughed uncomfortably, realizing I was the only one mixing it. Terry and I continued drinking as he talked about his experiences in graduate school and his hopes to marry his girlfriend. I told him it would happen, despite not knowing his girlfriend at all. I figured it was what any of us would want to hear—even if the border between married and unmarried life was getting more and more arbitrary with each passing day. After finishing what must have been a second—or was it third?—glass of scotch (these latter ones straight) Terry told me he was going to sleep. I knew what that meant. I wished him a pleasant night and went to Güner’s cabin to drink some Turkish tea he had been warming on a hot plate. We sat there on his bed, drinking tea and conversing as the sun shone through the windows, golden in the early morning.

“I had a woman in here earlier—don’t misunderstand, I’m married—I was giving her a massage. Her shoulders were so stiff, from carrying bags. She lives in Istanbul, but comes back to Bulgaria often to see her family—an immigrant. Life is hard, you know?”

“I know, I know,” I said, even if it seemed I didn’t. He understood.

Nine Hours in Sofia

I awoke to an unexpectedly loud knock, the sound of metal on my door. I opened the door to find Güner, proudly proclaiming that we would pull into Sofia station in five minutes. He had used a piece of lead to knock, and the loud clang of it meeting our metal door was startling. I thanked him for waking us, and got dressed quickly as I wanted to look out the window as we pulled into the city. It was five minutes of watching the Sofia cityscape slide by me, as if in a flipbook—small one story decrepit buildings gradually gave way to Soviet-style high-rises—before we finally came to a stop, the metal wheels screeching. As Dave and I gathered our bags, Güner came up to me.

“This train leaves for Belgrade tonight, at 9:30. If you would like to continue on, just find me, I’ll be in this car on the tracks. Walk around Sofia for nine hours, and come back. I’ll arrange everything. Just get the cheapest ticket you can in the station,” he advised. As our original plan had been to continue onto Belgrade, I thought it would be a good idea, and Dave agreed.

“But first the jersey, right?” he said.

“Of course!” I replied, and we headed out onto the streets of Sofia, looking for the CSKA Sofia Stadium.

 “Why You Go Beograd?”

Five hours later, we found ourselves back on the Balkan express, Güner having arranged a sleeping cabin for us on the way to Belgrade—despite, of course, the fact that we had purchased a seating berth for twenty dollars—sleepers weren’t available according to the woman at the counter. Little did she know we had friends in high places. As we settled in with the train gathering speed towards Serbia, Güner offered me a cup of Raki, the anise flavored Turkish national drink similar to the Greek ouzo and Lebanese Arak. The fact that it was made in Bulgaria made no difference, it was still as sharp as ever, fifty percent alcohol as it is. Immediately after pouring the drink into a plastic cup, Guner told me to get back to my cabin—we would soon be nearing Serbian customs, and he had to make final preparations.


We sat in the cabin, Dave and myself along with one of the South Africans whom we had originally met on this train after departing Istanbul, stopped in the border town of Dimitrovgrad (apparently, according to Güner this was not to be confused with the better Dimitrovgrad in Bulgaria). The Serbian customs official entered, a tall blonde lady who had a commanding presence in her official navy blue customs uniform, pants tucked in neatly to her combat boots.

“Why you go Beograd?” was her curt query.

“Jerseys,” I replied, while Dave simply told her, “Party!”

She accepted our responses, no doubt used to American college students traveling through her country. She stamped our passports and quickly passed them back to us, moving on through the train. No one checked our bags.


Once we were through customs and safely sailing through the Serbian countryside, we delved into a conversation about the intricacies of South African politics, as our new friend told us about the difficulties ahead for her traumatized country that was still reeling from the divisive policies of apartheid. She wasn’t optimistic about the future, telling us that the blacks were growing in power and influence, resenting the power of whites that had still not waned despite the end of apartheid. You can guess what color her skin was.

Güner also joined us and zealously explained (through my translations) the legacy of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey. Remembering Nelson Mandela’s criticism of Mustafa Kemal (I wasn’t aware of this), he told her of his ability to unite a country that had been scarred by an allied occupation post World War One, and was forged out of the ashes of the Ottoman Empire. He explained that he was an Atatürkist through and through, and he eagerly imparted the fact that as a government employee he was indebted to Atatürk. (The Turkish Republic State Railways, TCDD in Turkish, is one of the few government assets to have avoided coming under foreign ownership during the current government’s push towards privatization). He didn’t think Mandela had the right to judge.

After a couple more minutes Guner led me outside the cabin to talk, partially due to his frustrations at not being able to communicate without a translator, and partially due to his increased drunkenness. I also figured it was because the South African supported Mandela, voicing her reservations by asking “but wasn’t he [Atatürk] somewhat of a dictator?”

We stood looking out the window of the train at the darkened Serbian countryside, the wind whipping through my long hair, biting at my face. I decided to ask him about his history and how he knew Romanian and Bulgarian, and how he liked working on the train. He looked lost in thought as he chewed over the years of his past in his mind and began to explain. He had been working on the Istanbul-Sofia-Belgrade line for over twenty years, and had apparently seen the transformation of Turkey’s neighbors from totalitarian communist states to proud EU members. He told me about arriving in Bulgaria in the late 1980s when the windows of the train were blacked out, and no one was allowed out during the customs checks at the border. On the platform were armed soldiers; ready to shoot anyone who was unfortunate enough—or stupid enough I thought—to leave the train at the border. Slowly things changed though and now Bulgaria was a free country with a seat at the top table of Europe as the borders kept shifting—from Eastern Bloc to European Union.

Güner was born in the seven hilled city of Plovdiv, the Byzantine city of Philippopoulis named after Philip the second of Macedon, who conquered it.  Apparently, he had knocked on our door when we passed through it on the way to Sofia but I had been fast asleep. I told him I had been there a year and a half ago, and that I thought it was beautiful. I was serious (even if it now only had six hills, one having been bulldozed by the communist government). He had emigrated to Turkey at age eight and learned Turkish to supplement the Bulgarian language he had grown up with. Now, with his language skills, he was a staple on Turkey’s train routes through the Balkans.

After hearing of David and my travel plans, he advised us to go to Bosnia, and to not stay in Serbia longer than necessary—just get the jersey and go, he said. In Serbia they had an antipathy for Americans, as well as Turks—two strikes against me. He said it wouldn’t be safe and plus, he explained, Bosnians love Turks; and Mostar, the city whose destroyed bridge was the defining image of the Balkan war, was beautiful and relaxing—much better than the ugly metropolis of Belgrade. After we had finished a glass of vodka, which we had quickly moved onto after having finished the raki, he invited me to his cabin for some Nescafe—he needed to sober up, as he was, after all, the conductor of the train. “You never know when someone might need something,” he explained.

As we drank the Nescafe, Güner sat with his cigarette dangling out of the corner of his mouth, ash falling in my lap as he leaned over talking to me. He was clearly drunk, and had the need to vent. He told me how hard it was to support his family on the sate regulated salary afforded to railway workers. He had two sons, one of whom was in university in Turkish Thrace, and another who was in high school hoping to get accepted to a university this summer. I wished him luck, knowing how hard it was to get into a university in Turkey. With so many prospective students acceptance to a university is based on one test only, where that score is all that ranks students. It makes the senior year of high school in the United States seem like Club Med in comparison. After finishing my coffee, I told Güner that I was planning to go to sleep, but that my friend Dave needed some chips. “We’ll stop in Nis in a little bit, I’ll see what I can do there.” I thanked him, and headed to our cabin.

In twenty minutes, there was a knock on the door. I opened it, and there was Güner. “Here are the chips,” he said, handing me some paprika flavored Serbian potato chips. “We’ll arrive in Belgrade in four hours, at six o’clock in the morning. Get your rest.” He closed the door, I handed the chips to Dave, and looked out the window. There was a lonely platform, the entry to Nis—a town famous for its macabre landmark, a tower of skulls built by the Turks as a warning against any would be Serbian revolutionaries during Ottoman rule. I lay down, thinking of the scars left by Turkish rule and the all too real possibility that we could encounter hostility in Belgrade. I let these thoughts slip out of my mind, as I was lulled to sleep by the rhythmic sounds of metal on metal as our aging train headed towards its destination.

Return to Istanbul

Dave and I sat on the train in our cabin reading, hoping that we would be able to get off at Doboj and connect to the Belgrade line. I found the conductor, who was busy pacing through the cars of the train, and asked him about Doboj. “Doboj? Beograd?” I asked, motioning with my hands so as to explain a connection. He responded, “Doboj, off!”, and then he grabbed my Lonely Planet, immediately opening up to a page bearing the words, in bold lettering, “Train Theft Warning”. “No sleep, Doboj!” He warned, and stepped out. My mind immediately went to the Beastie Boys song, “No Sleep ‘Till Brooklyn”, but I thought the warning should be taken seriously all the same, after all he knew exactly where the theft warning was written. Keeping this cryptic warning in mind, I continued reading, occasionally gazing out the window into the dark of the Bosnian night.

A British woman with horrible teeth and a horse-like face entered our cabin, interrupting my thoughts.

“Mind if I join you guys? There are some men in my cabin playing instruments, they are too loud and I can’t read,” She said.

“Of course, we’re reading too,” I explained. The three of us sat reading in silence, as I occasionally stared out the window. At one stop, I saw the men she was talking about disembark, carrying instruments on their back. No doubt they were a band, going to a gig. I didn’t tell her that her cabin was now empty—sometimes, all travelers need to relax and read in peace.

At Doboj we disembarked to find a group of twenty or so backpackers milling around, all waiting for the Belgrade connection. It was much more obvious than I had expected, and we even found a group of three fellow Americans with whom we had spent the previous night in Sarajevo. We all decided to sit in the same cabin, so as to limit the chances of any thievery. When the train arrived, we filed in, looking for a cabin with five empty seats. Most of the cabins were filled, so we settled into one whose only occupant was a lone old man. He didn’t know any English, and was sitting in the corner next to the window sipping on some Serbian beer. He seemed old, his silver hair hanging over his face, etched with deep wrinkles. His ears were a forest of grey hairs. I took the seat next to him, and felt like I was in a scene from the movie Eurotrip. The man kept edging closer to me, touching my arm as he consumed more and more beer. He was getting progressively drunker, and eventually handed me the beer, encouraging me to drink. He didn’t have to ask twice, as the train ride was a long one.  As I sipped his beer, he looked at me and said “Srpski”—Serbian, and putting his fingers together he tried to explain how good it was—I didn’t necessarily agree.

Then he unwrapped a grilled animal carcass and began picking off stringy meat. He beckoned us to join the meal. When one of my companions asked him what it was, he just put two fingers on either side of his head and moved them around, indicating what I assumed to be rabbit. So as not to be rude, I hesitantly took a piece and threw it into my mouth, without looking. He watched me chew, eager for my reaction. I faked a smile as I chewed on the hard meat for what I felt was five minutes, trying to get it soft enough so as to swallow.

Soon, bread was added to the feast. It was edible and we asked where it was from. For this, our game of charades continued as the man took his hands and made mounds on his chest, indicating that his well-endowed wife had baked it for him—I immediately thought of a similarly proportioned girlfriend I had at the time. We all indulged in the bread, trying to partake in as little of the meat as we could. Soon after, the man took out a coke bottle with a faded label containing a clear liquid. He opened it, and without sipping from it gave it to me. I asked what it was, and he just motioned for me to throw it back. I sniffed it and my nostrils burned, as the scent of fiery plumb brandy flew into my nose, startling me. It took my mind back to an early summer morning in Bucharest a year earlier, where I wandered around nauseous after a night of indulging into too much of the Romanian Tuica, their version of the brandy.

I took a long gulp and felt my insides burning as I passed the bottle to my friend on the left. I tried to keep a straight face and the man sat up straight, indicating that I should take it like a man—machismo knows no borders.

“Rakija!” he said. Once again, we all asked where his liquor came from, and he proudly pointed to himself. Later, on the train back to Istanbul I learned from some Marijuana smoking Serbian kids that it was common practice all over the countryside of the former Yugoslavia for people to distill their own brandy. Apparently there were many flavors—plumb, apple, and cherry to name a few. I wished this had been something other than plumb, as the sweetness was a warning of the headache to follow in the morning. After having turned the bottle around many more times, the man started gesturing his displeasure at the current state of Serbia. He kept slamming his fist into his palm, mocking the stamping motion of customs officials. He threw up his hands occasionally, seemingly longing for the days when Yugoslavia was one entity, and the simple trip from Sarajevo to Belgrade didn’t include stopping for customs four times through three countries.

At the Croatian border, we took out our American passports and the old man took out his Republika Srpska identity card—he was a Serb caught on the wrong end of the Dayton Accords, essentially a foreigner in his own country now. It became clear to me why he was such a fan of Serbian beer, even though it wasn’t the most palatable of libations—he was slightly biased. After we were stamped, he looked at my passport. I took his identity card and saw the birth date: 1963. I was astonished—he was only 45. He had seemed ancient, but I supposed living through years of war would age a man prematurely. I handed the card back to him, receiving my passport in return. Eventually, we all tired from the drinking and the language barrier became too much to handle. We dozed off, as the brandy coursed through our veins.


We awoke as the train coasted into Belgrade, the old man gazing out the open window. He pointed at one of the bland communist-era housing blocks, and looked at me rubbing his thumb and middle and index fingers together, conveying the international sign of money. I knew though that our views of wealth were completely different. Coming out of the West, I couldn’t imagine anyone being happy confined in one of those housing blocks. I wished I could have told him that although it might be a better quality of living, he would be unable to hunt rabbits or distill brandy there. I wondered if that would have changed his mind? As we headed in different directions on the platform in Belgrade, I thought of what an experience we had just had. While most of my friends like to tease me for preferring Eastern Europe to Western Europe, I couldn’t have imagined an experience like that in France or Germany. What sad travel lives my friends in Western Europe must be living I mused, as Dave and I went to get tickets for the return trip to Istanbul.

A Balkan High

Belgrade’s train station was crowded and the commotion belied the fact that it was only six in the morning. We waited in line at the international ticket booth as a man in a Northern Irish soccer jersey drank beer in front of us.

“Is he drinking?” asked Dave.

“I think so.”

“Wow. He is my hero,” said Dave. After the Rakija the past night, drinking was the last thing on our minds. After a fifteen-minute wait, our turn finally came. Clearly, Serbian railways were polite (sense the sarcasm), as the overweight blonde in the window kept conversing with the man behind her, oblivious to our presence. When she finally tore herself away from her riveting conversation I said, “Two tickets to Istanbul, couchette.”

“No couchette,” I was astonished—how was that possible. How would we get home? She continued, “Only seating, third class.” I turned to Dave—it would mean sitting on hard wooden benches, six to a berth, for the twenty-six hours back to Istanbul.

“We don’t have a choice, do we?” asked Dave, and I agreed. We had to get back.

“Fine, two please,” I said, irritated, and handed over my credit card. At forty dollars each, it was too much. Yes, it was less than half price of the sleeper, but it was not going to be comfortable. Dejected, we headed outside to sit on the platform, waiting at Peron 1 for the Balkan express to reappear. I was nervous, contemplating how I was going to handle the long train ride back. It was going to be tedious, monotonous, and above all uncomfortable. I wasn’t looking forward to it.

I had to go for a walk to calm down, and I went outside the station to find a bakery. There I bought some pastries, sausages wrapped in Filo dough, and apple juice. I figured I might as well not be both hungry and uncomfortable. Arriving back at the platform to find Dave sitting alone dejectedly, we resigned ourselves to our fates. After an hour or so the train pulled in, the familiar star and crescent on the red, white, and blue Turkish State Railways car.

“Istanbul, Istanbul!” called the conductor, as passengers quickly gathered their bags.

“Istanbul?” asked the conductor.

“Yes, but unfortunately not in your car. No sleepers available.” I told him in Turkish.

“Wait—don’t I recognize you from somewhere?” He said, staring at me. Then he got it, “You came with Güner!” He exclaimed. Yes! I remembered, it was the conductor who had given me Romanian Lei for my Turkish Liras.

“I knew I remembered you, my name is Faik. Get on board, I’ll find you guys a sleeping cabin,” he boasted.

“Are you sure, the lady said none where available,” I asked anxiously.

“She doesn’t know anything, get on board and I’ll give you a cabin and blankets. You can lie down and go all the way to Istanbul in comfort.” I was overjoyed at our good fortune—we had, it seemed, come full circle. We went in and put down our bags, extending our legs on the soft beds. Soon more and more passengers got on. I worried that we would be kicked off for taking someone’s spot.

“John, John,” I heard, “Come translate for me, my English is not very good and I cant understand what’s going on”. I stepped out of the cabin, eager to help Faik and repay my debt. Apparently, a girl was promised a cabin all to herself, but due to the overcrowding of the train—no doubt due in part to our taking a cabin we hadn’t paid for—she could not be alone. Faik was trying to explain that he would let her be alone for as long as he could, but in the event of more passengers coming on he would only put female passengers with her, and no males. I explained it to the girl and her father. They were Americans living in Geneva, and the father was working in Belgrade. I reassured them that I would look after her, and that if she had any trouble she could come into my cabin with Dave. The father seemed assured, and thanked me. I answered that it was not a problem—isn’t one of the essences of travel assisting complete strangers? Faik too thanked me, and I was pleased that I had, albeit in a small way, started to pay Faik back for his assistance. I walked back to the cabin, pulled out my book and reclined. We would be in Sofia in twelve hours, at eight o’clock at night. After stopping there we would continue on to Istanbul, arriving at nine in the morning. It would be twenty-four hours. I drifted off to sleep, grateful that I had somewhere to lie down.


In Sofia, we got an influx of passengers from the second and third classes. Apparently, only one car—our car—was going to Istanbul. The others were either staying in Sofia or continuing to Bucharest in Romania. No one had been told about this in Belgrade however, and Faik was forced to find room. Into our room came three Serbian kids, all our age. One was huge, tall and wide with dark hair and a nasty rash on his neck. The other two were skinny, one blonde with a pockmarked face and the other with darker hair and childish face. Dave and I had been drinking vodka we had purchased in the station at Sofia, and didn’t know what the Serbians would think of us as Americans. Dave and I introduced ourselves to our new travel companions, and settled in for the journey to Istanbul. They were continuing to Thailand, having bought a cheap flight from Istanbul that was increasingly becoming a hub for world travel. They had never been to Istanbul, and I told them it was beautiful, describing a few bars they should check out. We offered them vodka. Two of them said they were giving up drinking, while the smaller one with darker hair gladly accepted.

Apparently, two of them—the ones not drinking—had escaped from the Bosnian wars and settled in Novi Sad—the site of the EXIT music festival. That also was the reason they were not drinking.

EXIT, too much,” said the larger one, laughing. Dave and I could imagine the debauchery during the festival, and didn’t blame them. The blonde with the pockmarked face told us how he had been uprooted from his home in Tuzla because of the wars—Dave and I wondered if the marks on his face had something to do with war—either the Bosnian war or the war that is adolescence.

After we all became comfortable with one another, the bigger one—Nikola—asked if we minded if they smoked. Obviously, we didn’t. Then again, we didn’t know what they would be smoking. The blonde motioned for Dave to close the curtains, then got up to get something from his bag. Opening it, he took out a sandwich. After carefully peeling the cellophane wrapping away, he took off the top piece of bread to reveal a small plastic bag of Marijuana.

“Weed—if the dogs smell anything, I just tell them it’s my dinner,” he said grinning. He then emptied the contents onto a piece of notebook paper and began rolling a joint.

“We heard that they are strict on drugs in Turkey, is that true?” asked Nikola.

“Yes, its very dangerous,” I told him, remembering that Turkish law stipulates that possession of any sort of drug can lead to life imprisonment, this due to the fact that much of Europe’s opium is illegally transported from the poppy fields of Afghanistan through Turkey and on to European centers such as Berlin and Amsterdam. I was strangely relieved that Nikola wasn’t aware though. Every American knew that drug trafficking through Turkey was dangerous from the xenophobic film Midnight Express, which had singlehandedly destroyed the Turkish tourism industry during the 1980s. So much so in fact that screenwriter Oliver Stone apologized to the Turkish people in 2004.

That was the least of anyone’s concerns at this point however, as the Serbians lit up and the marijuana smoke flowed out the half-open window of the train as we headed towards Turkey. They offered and I declined, explaining that alcohol was enough for me. They passed it around the car, each taking in long puffs, coughing intermittently. After the joint was spent and the vodka was finished we decided to go to sleep, as we would have to have our wits about us—again in the middle of the night—upon our return into Turkey.


I woke up, startled. One of the Serbians was shaking me. “Passport, passport!”

Apparently the Bulgarian officials were on the train, and had been trying to wake me for five minutes. I was groggy, but sprang awake, taking my passport out of my pocket to hand to the customs official. I half-wondered if I had been slipped something as I wasn’t so tired that I couldn’t wake up through all the commotion. The dark-haired Serbian who had been drinking vodka with us laughed at my inability to wake up. I was embarrassed to say the least. My passport was run through the portable machine hanging around the officer’s neck, and he handed it back to me, stamping the exit next to the entry on an over-crowded page.


On the Turkish side of the border, we all cleared out and filed in line at the customs building, as we had leaving the country. In line, Güner found me.

“John! How was Bosnia?”

“It was great—thanks for the good advice!” I said smiling a groggy smile.

“Here is fifteen euros—please buy me some whiskey—Johnny Walker, J&B, it doesn’t matter. I wouldn’t normally ask a favor, but it’s illegal for me because I work on the railway. I’ll find you after we leave the station, you can give it to me then,” he said slipping me the cash. I consented—no skin off my back. After getting my return stamped into my passport, the Serbian with the pock marked face came up to me.

“I can’t buy cigarettes, they say I need to be a Turkish citizen. Could you please buy me a carton of Marlboro reds?” he said giving me twenty Euros. I couldn’t understand why they wouldn’t let him buy cigarettes, after all it was international duty free. I didn’t care though, I could do it just as easily. I told him of course and headed over to the shop, buying what I was told to as well as a bottle of Jack Daniels as a present for a friend back in Istanbul. I headed back to the train, throwing the cigarettes on the Serbian’s bed and sat down. I would have to wait for the train to leave the station in order to give Güner his whiskey.

I stood up and looked outside, watching Faik wash his feet and arms in a small fountain. He had been on trains for the last forty-eight hours, Istanbul-Belgrade-Istanbul. I thought soon he’d be home—soon we’d be home—and it comforted me. I couldn’t imagine how he could spend his time on trains, bathing in water fountains. Then again, as Güner had told me earlier, life is hard, and you have to make a living somehow. I saw Faik walk back to the train, and I figured it wouldn’t be long until we pulled out. Fifteen minutes later I heard the familiar sounds of gears switching, and the slow acceleration of the train—slow at first then a gradual steady acceleration as if moving towards a climax. I sat down, waiting to go to Güner’s room.
After some minutes I stood up, whiskey in hand and walked through the cars towards Güner’s cabin. I looked inside and saw two railway officials. I quickly turned away and headed towards our car, not wanting to reveal that Güner had illegally purchased the alcohol.

“John, John, where are you going?” I heard him call. I headed back.

“Güner, I saw people with you and figured-“

“Don’t worry, these are customs officials, they are my friends. They don’t care if I get alcohol. Here, let me open it, we’ll drink together” he said, taking the bottle and pouring it into four cups. The customs men introduced themselves; one was bald with glasses, resembling George Costanza of Seinfeld fame, while the other was tall with a crew cut, like an Air Force pilot out of Top Gun. They asked what I had been doing, and I told them about my trip, and my Turkish mother and American father.

“Your Turkish is good, and you were educated in America. You should work in Turkey,” said George. I told him that I’d love to, but that I could not know what the future held.

Güner interrupted my negative thoughts with a toast to our safe arrival. We put our cups together—myself the traveler, Güner the railway worker, and the two government officials. We drank, the scotch burning my throat all the way down. Soon, our minds wet with the liquor, conversation inevitably turned to politics. The tall one looked at me, and said, “You studied international relations, what do we do with the road our country is headed on? How can we save ourselves?” Before I could answer, George interjected,

“We must first get out of Cyprus—we had to go in, the Greeks were slaughtering Turks. But now, it’s just a drain on us-“

“A parasite on our back!” added his co-worker.

“Look at the situation—the Greeks got their side in the EU, our side is nothing! And we haven’t even gotten ourselves into the EU, let alone Cyprus! We have to get out, no other choice. The money can be better spent elsewhere,” finished George. I nodded, taking in his position.

“Look, we all know that it can’t change. The government will never get out, it will make us look weak, as if we were giving in,” Güner weighed in on the subject. I had a feeling he would support the Cyprus cause. Being brought up as a minority Turk (he was, after all, part Bulgarian) has the strange effect of making one a more strident nationalist. I knew it from my own experiences. In the end though, we all knew that we were never going to fix any country at four in the morning in the middle of Thrace. The taller customs agent got up, he would be getting off at the next stop while the other would continue onto Istanbul.

“Are we going to sleep together?” the officer who would be staying joked to Güner.

“We can sleep together, why not?” jibed Güner back as he warmed some tea.

We sat together, all drinking before I got up to go to my cabin and finally to sleep. We would be getting into Istanbul at nine in the morning, and Dave and I had a long day ahead of us.


In the morning, everyone in the cabin was up, staring out the window as the train wound around the Sea of Marmara and the Bosphorus came into view. The breathtaking beauty of Istanbul was not lost on anyone. A Persian family in the compartment next to us was up, as was the missionary girl who complained to me about her cabin mate, a young Bulgarian girl who couldn’t stop talking about her boyfriend. I told her it was probably just her first love. What I didn’t tell her was that, as a missionary, she wouldn’t understand. The calmness of the city on the water was comforting, after the places we had been. The skyline was like that of any other major city in southern Europe, tall glass skyscrapers, red clay rooftops, and brown government buildings, except here the addition of minarets—piercing the blue sky—added a special aura to the city which had been the seat of Islamic power for over four hundred years.

As we pulled into the station a bust of Ataturk greeted us with the inscription “Ne Mutlu Türküm Diyene”—How happy one is to call oneself a Turk. I was happy to be home. As we landed on the platform, I thanked Faik for his help. Güner came over and gave me his number, telling me, “If you’re ever free, we should catch up. You’re a good kid John, a good kid. Don’t worry, things will work out for you.” I thanked him, and with Dave headed out of the station into the early morning sunlight onto the street, horns honking all around us, welcoming us back into the chaos that is Istanbul.