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Vol. LXV, No. 32
Wednesday, August 10, 2011
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DVD Review

Love and Theft in Istanbul: A Summer Road Movie

Stuart Mitchner

A month later in Istanbul, a hustler named Ali Baba made off with my Olympia. But that’s another story, which I will tell as soon as I find a decent excuse.

The shameless teaser at the top appeared in my July 20 column about a long-ago summer in Mykonos. My excuse for telling “another story” arrived in the mail from Germany on July 29. Even as I was thinking back to the Istanbul adventure, the person with whom I shared it — someone I hadn’t heard from for four decades — sought me out, found me, sent me a letter. So, another teaser, another story.

Moonlight Miles

The German-born Turkish director Fatih Akin’s zany road movie In July (2000) contains a scene that never fails to rouse my 25-year-old inner hitchhiker. On a lush, full-moon summer night, the Istanbul-bound couple at the center of the action, Daniel (Moritz Bliebtreu) and Juli (Christiane Paul) are lying side by side on their backs sharing a joint on a barge going down the Danube. As they begin to get high, Akin makes it happen visually and you see them floating suspended above the boat in the blue-black night. Together they begin softly singing, all but whispering, “Blue Moon.” My story, like Akin’s, begins on the way to Istanbul. In the open back of a truck pounding through the night between Lamia and Thessaloniki, an American hitchhiker is holding an Italian girl in his arms, the moon-bright sky is flowing overhead, and when the Aegean Sea comes into view, the Greek driver shouts “Thalassa! Thalassa!” out the window. For the creation of this high, no joint was passed and none was needed.

Enter Ester

It was the typewriter that made Ester curious about me. Was I a writer? She’d just returned from a year in Ossining, New York, as an au pair in the household of an Italian novelist whose neighbor, John Cheever, was among the people on whom she’d practiced her English. She was excited to find that this skinny, unshaven American had just sent a novel to his agent. She also believed that America was humanity’s best hope. What can I say? This was many years ago.

Ester was probably the most unaffectedly good person I have ever known. She wanted to save the world, and she was doing her part by networking with people in other countries. Decades before the internet, she had pen pals on every continent. For her, the beauty of autostopping, as she called it, was meeting people, learning new languages and new songs. She’d only been in Greece a few days and she was already speaking the language and singing Greek songs.

Ester’s best friend and traveling companion was a very worldly French girl who was clearly accustomed to having her way. When it was decided that the pair split up for the rest of the journey to Istanbul, Michelle chose to go with the big strong ex-GI the writer was traveling with because she was sure he would do a better job of protecting her. As usual, her little friend got the short end of the deal, except in this case, that was what Ester wanted.

The only downside of our romantic night ride to Thessaloniki was the driver’s eventual insistence that Ester come up front in the cab and sing for him. He’d heard her singing to me, and after treating us to a midnight snack of indescribably delicious lamb chops and Greek salad at a taverna, he demanded to know, in effect, why I should have all the fun. Thus were we evicted from our cozy nest in the back so that Ester could sit next to him and sing, and so she did, song after song in four or five different languages. As her voice began giving out, we asked if we could go in the back so we could get a little sleep. Not a chance. It was a Greek Scheherazade. Either Ester kept singing or we would be dumped by the road in the middle of nowhere at two in the morning.

Save the Olympia

Our first full day together we spent almost four hours in the hot depths of the August afternoon, stuck somewhere between Alexandropolis and the Turkish border with no shade, no water, and no rides. We talked the whole time. Life stories were told and I heard about Ester’s hopes and dreams for world brotherhood, her problems with the Catholic Church, her job at Olivetti. Whatever corporate loyalty she felt hadn’t affected her fondness for my Olympia portable. The typewriter had already become for her an ornament of our romance so precious that she became upset when I spoke of possibly selling it in Istanbul.

After a late-afternoon lift in a Cafe Bravo van, we rode to the Turkish border in an ox cart, and entered the first town, Kesan, sharing the back of a truck with some Turkish soldiers. As it began getting dark we decided we’d had enough autostopping for a while. During the all-night ride on a second-rate bus to Istanbul we were treated to bottles of warm lemony soda called gazos by a man with a thin mustache (a sure sign of villainy if you grew up watching cowboy movies) who said he’d help us find a place to stay when we got to the big city.

The Fog Lifts

Describing his first sighting of Istanbul in December 1856, Herman Melville mentions the “Magic effect of the lifting up of the fog” from “about the skirts of the city, which being built upon a promontory, left the crown of it hidden wrapped in vapor.” He called the effect “a coy disclosure, a kind of coquetting,” as if the city were flirting with him. A few days later he was saying “beware of your pockets” and noted, “No place in the world fuller of knaves,” not to mention “swindlers, gamblers, cheats.”

When the bus deposited us in what we assumed was a suburb after a 200-km-long, stomach-jarring ride, it was still dark and everything was in a mist. The other passengers had disappeared. Our only human contact was the man with the mustache. We were worried that we’d never reach the city center at that hour. “Where’s Istanbul?” we kept asking. Our self-appointed guide said not to worry and suggested getting some tea and something to eat in a cafe he knew. Ester, who had been conversing with him in German, was becoming concerned because he kept saying he wanted to take her, just her, to “an island.”

We had no choice but to go with him. Ester’s faith in human nature being boundless, she thought we could trust him (“He has kind eyes”). On our way across a desolate-looking bridge, we were joined by, of all people, an American sailor, or so he said. The sailor was mildly drunk and seemed to think we might be in need of protection. The cafe was a murky dive, the tea tasted suspiciously bitter, and it soon became obvious that the mustachioed man with the “kind eyes” had designs on my Olympia as well as on Ester, whose only thought was for the typewriter. “You mustn’t sell it!” she told me. “How will you write?” When someone who had been lurking nearby reached to unzip the case, she grabbed it away from him, prompting the sailor to shout for us to get the hell out of there.

This we did, grabbing our packs, bumping into things and people, voices shouting behind us. Outside all was as Melville described it: the mist had lifted, the sun had risen, we were in the heart of Istanbul. Last night’s eerie nonentity was revealed to be Galata Bridge. Boats were all around us, piping and whistling, and up the hill on the other side of the Golden Horn the minarets of Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque were rising from what Melville rightly called the crown of the city,

In the few days that followed we slogged dazed and lovesick all around Istanbul, sleeping outdoors every night (a garden on the Bosphorus, a beach by the Sea of Marmara, under a tree on the island of Buyukada). Then we met up with Michelle, who had dumped the GI and found two French guys for them to hitch home with, and suddenly Ester was gone.

Goodbye Olympia

I was in Istanbul another week, thanks to Ali Baba and my decision to unsentimentally lighten my load before heading south to Izmir, Damascus, Jerusalem, Beirut, a boat to Alexandria, and a boat to Naples, and a visit with Ester’s family in a small town near Torino. Ali Baba claimed to be an ex pro-soccer player (he looked more like an amateur prize fighter), and he created a semblance of friendship between us, faking me out with several demonstrations of his trustworthiness before he disappeared with the 350 lire (about $30) he got for selling the talismanic typewriter. For several days, along with a detective who wore a gun, I explored the seamy side of the city looking for Ali Baba. In fact, I enjoyed the hunt, which turned into a tour of the underworld nooks and crannies of Istanbul.

The Letter

I tried to find Ester several times over the years, seeking out her family, contacting Olivetti, and, when the internet came along, googling as inventively as I could. Then, last week, 45 years after we were last in touch, the letter from Munich landed in my mailbox. The sight of her name above the return address chilled me through and choked me up, which happened again when I read the letter. After quitting Olivetti, she had moved to Munich, learned how to become a midwife, and had gone for three years as a volunteer to Rwanda, where, in her words, “I was responsible for Maternity and babies.” She came back to the same clinic in 1985 until “the genocide began and 1 million Tutsi died in 3 months, many friends of mine died too. So I adopted a Tutsi girl and now she is a Doctor in a hospital here and has a 9 year old boy. Her sister survive with 3 children the genocide and I did all I could to bring them also here. I am very happy to have done what I did.”

When I wrote back, she emailed me a photo of a Rwandan wedding party. Of the 13 men and women and children standing beside her in the picture, eight had survived to find a new life in Germany with her help.

Our most recent exchange was about the films of Fatih Akin, who she says is “very much accepted in Germany.” She had seen only Head On, which she liked very much; she called it Gegen die Wand. I told her to be sure to see In July. I didn’t mention the Blue Moon scene. I think she’ll understand the connection. At the beginning of that first, typed letter she had written, “I think you remember me.”

She signed her last message goodbye in Italian, French, Greek, German, and English.

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