Sunday, March 21, 2010

Sailing through Byzantium...

That is no country for old man, Yeats says at the beginning of his famous poem whose title I have modified for my purposes. In case you are wondering where the Cohen brothers found the title to their very dark film. Or I might add this is also not a country for old women. Not that I am old, nor do I feel old, but Turkey is not for the faint hearted. And I've been sailing through it pretty much nonstop since we arrived. From the European side to the Asian, to the islands that dot the Sea of Marmara, from one part of town to another. Basically whenever I can, I'm in a boat.

The other day we took a cruise up the Bosphorus, then had lunch, perched above the Black Sea and I recalled Yeats whose great poem about about life and its waning pleasures, about death and sex and the thirst for the exotic I am echoing here. Because I am in Byztanium, which became Constantinople under Constantine, and Istanbul when Ataturk formed what we now know as modern Turkey.

I think perhaps this place has always been on my mind. My family comes from a place not far from here and I was raised on my grandmother;s stories of Cossacks and tzars and the Tatars to whom she claimed we were also related. I have always been drawn to Russia and at times longed for its vast vodka=drenched expanses and great storytellers.

We sailed on a boat that was not for tourists, but rather a local vessel that made stops along the way. It was a pristine, sunny day, cold, but glorious and we found a seat facing the Asian side of Turkey where we basked in the sun. As we sailed under the Bosphorus Bridge I recalled the class in Russian history that I took my sophomore year at college.

It was taught by a wonderful man named Mr. Marcapolos. His lecture on the death of Rasputin was reputed to be so detailed and entertaining that former students returned year after year to hear it again, even at eight o;clock in the morning. Which they did. But I was a bleary=eyed college student who dragged herself at 7:50 in the morning up the steep hill to the classroom.

Even in winter I trudged. I wanted to understand where my people came from. Now as we sailed, I could easily recall Mr. Marcapolus' lecturers on Peter the Great, on the fall of the tzars, but it was his endless lecturers on the Russo=Turkish wars that came to mind. At the time when he told us about them, the Bosphorus, for whose control many of these wars were fought, because whoever controls the Bosphorus controls everything that goes from the Black Sea into the Sea of Maramar, down the Dardanelles and into the Mediterranean. And now as we sailed, some do I dare say it, forty years later, history was starting to make sense.

After about an hour and half our boat docked and we were given three hours for lunch. There were two options. One was to eat in the town and another was to climb very high to the ruins of a castle with the hopes of a view of the Black Sea. It seemed I could not come this far and not gaze out across the waters and imagine Odessa and Kiev and Nezin, the area of my ancestors. And so I trudged up this hill as I had once trudged up the hill to hear Mr. Marcapolos teach me what he knew.

A few times I stopped and told Larry I couldn't keep going. I broke my ankle very badly a couple years ago and walking like that at a sharp angle is very very hard. But then I thought well maybe it is around the next bend. So we stopped at this restaurant near the castle and had a mediocre fried fish lunch. Then we climbed on up more steep stone steps. Just when I thought I couldn't go on I passed two American girls who told me I had only about a hundred yards left to go. Ahead of us was a crumbling old castle wall and as I walked towards it, there it was. Turqoise blue and crystal clear, the Black Sea.

Maybe my ancestors once came this way.

Maybe I should tell Mr. Marcapolus, wherever he is, that he was a good teacher and I learned a lot from him.

For a long time I sat perched on that wall. Then Larry said we'd better hurry or we'd miss the ferry home and there was only one boat back to Istanbul a day. It was hard to leave. A part of me just wanted to stay. Part of me would have been happy to miss the boat. Or, back to Yeats, to set upon a golden bough and sing...of what is past, or passing, or to come.


  1. What a great photo of you and Larry! And that water is the blue that always comes to mind when I think of you.

  2. Amazing blue, right! I never wanted to leave. So nice to hear that that is "my" blue. xo