“I love you guys!” I scream. “Some of you I just met tonight, but I love you guys!”
The quote is exactly accurate, and completely true. There are five of us, or six, depending on who I mean by ‘us’, and we’re dancing badly to the Arctic Monkeys on the mainstage at the Exit Festival. I’d come to Serbia alone on a train from Istanbul. Now a bald guy named Yanni (or something) was rubbing my bald head for luck and calling me his bald brother. It’s early, both relative to the festival itself and in absolute terms, only about 1am. The Monkeys took the stage around midnight. The last band will go on around 5:30am, at which point I will be hanging out with a different group, a bunch of Brits that want to meet for “Breckie” tomorrow afternoon. I assume “Breckie” to be some type of lawn game played with a sort of small bowling ball, and am quite confused when they say something about food. Mike, the one person I’d known before tonight, is pawing at one of the Brits. Good on ye, mate.
I’ve completely lost Yanni, our new Serbian friend, which is too bad, since Yanni is twice my size and looks like a good man to have at your side in a festival, particularly when tempers start to flare. I’ve also lost Peter, a Serbo-French Brit who works in London and is the only one of us to speak any Serbian. I’d been set up with him by my matchmaker hostel-hosts, two lovely girls named Jellica and Bljena (I think). They are VERY eager to set me up with people.
“You travel alone?” They ask when I checked in on Wednesday.
“Da,” I reply.
“Would you like to sleep with a Greek girl or a British girl?”
“Uh…do I have choose between them?”
They explain that they have two girls who are also rooming alone, which they do not consider to be a good thing. It is not good to be alone, you see. I suddenly agree with them wholeheartedly.
“Which one do you want?”
“Maybe if I could see their passport photos first?”
I sweart to god, I’m not making this up.
“Neh, we don’t have that technology. I think British girl is prettier, but Greek girl is nicer.”
“You’re quite eager to set me up with someone, aren’t you?”
“Neh, but is good to have company, yes?”
“Why don’t YOU keep me company,” I think but don’t say of the lovely Bljena (or something).
They end up giving me (ahem) the Greek girl. Who is very nice indeed, but travelling with about six other Greeks, who take me out for lunch the next day, and allow me to practice my shitty Greek with them. Despite their graciousness, they’re English isn’t the best, and they keep lapsing into Greek for long stretches, leaving me with no beter conversational gambit after awhile then “So…’portokali’ is the Greek word for ‘orange juice’, right?” I make my excuses and head back to the city center.
“You’re a fun guy,” Peter tells me as we look for the main stage that night.. “Now that you’ve got a few beers in you.”
“I had two in me already when we met.”
Note to self: start drinking earlier.
Note to self the following morning: never drink again.
I run into a trio of blond Serbian women. “Hello, where are you going?”
“We’re going to see the Arctic Monkeys.”
“Me too, which way to the main stage?”
“This way, you will come with us.”
Yes, I will. “Stay right there, let me grab my friends.”
Note to self: NO!
I run back twenty meters. No more than twenty meters. “Guys the main stage is this way, just follow me and-” I turn around. I run back. They have disappeared completely, if they ever truly existed in the first place. Like Eurydice, they’ve faded back into the underworld because I turned back. I am literally hopping mad, screaming for my hot Serbian women, to no avail, and to the amusement of the other festival-goers.
“You asshole,” Mike laughs. “You chose US over three blond girls? You don’t deserve to get laid again.”
Ray, if somebody asks you if you’re a god, you say YES!
If hot Serbian women want to take you someplace, you GO!
Mike pulls quite well for himself, and we’re still dancing with the Brits at 3:30 when I finally punk out. We’ve lost most of our original crew, and I am embarrasingly tired and somewhat disheartened from my Eurydice experience. I bug out, exchange numbers wit the brits, and stumble out of the medieval fortress that holds the festival. It is of course at this point, when I’ve written the evening off, that a drunk girl named Yohanna (or something) stumbles into me on the way out and introduces herself to me. And my mood improves.
I have no money, no resources, no hopes. I am the happiest man alive.
It’s 9am and my head feels like a jackhammer. That may partially be due to the fact that there is a very loud jackhammer tearing up the road in front of my hostel. The Sultan Hostel, a rat-hole of a place that’s charging me 35 euros a night (the tell me the 10% discount for Hostel International members only applies to online bookings). The hostel operates a bar downstairs that plays music at a shockingly high decibel level, making sleep for any of its guests impossible until about 3am. What follows is about four hours of relative peace and quiet, until the roadwork begins at 7am. I’m on the first floor. It has one shared bathroom, which has no door, and is right by the stairway, and is also the bathroom for the patrons of the bar downstairs. As I’m showering on my first night, one of the bar patrons in to take a shit, and I hear him grunting in his stall as I try to keep my beach towel on a hook and away from the spray of water from the showerhead.
The room I’ve taken is freakishly hot, obliging me to open the floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall windows to let some air in, which exposes me to everyone on the street. Not so much a room then as a little alcove above the street that has a mattress and an electrical supply. This is easily the worst and most expensive room I’ve rented on my trip. Exhausted, after my first night I resolve to pay an additional 15 euros a night to take a luxury room at a quieter hotel (any hotel is a quieter hotel). Today I am regretting that decision, as the lack of sleep and constant jackhammering as I type this seem in perfect harmony with the vagabond lifestyle. Also, this place is filled with backpackers, all of us clutching our identical Lonely Planet guidebooks at the complimentary breakfast.
Sidenote: The typical Turkish complimentary breakfast includes a hunk of white bread, a hard-boiled egg, tea, sliced cucumber and tomato, sometimes some olives.
In our shared misery we are eager to meet while smoking a nargile. Instant, temporary tour groups are formed as clutches of backpackers aglutinate for protection, for camraderie, for the sake of talking to someone who speaks your language.
My little clutch of tourists left last night at 1am, with promises that we would look each other up if we found ourselves in Amsterdam, London, New York, Australia. We’d spent the day together, three of us, at the Grand Bazaar, haggling for pashminas, at the Blue Mosque, the Hagia Sophia, Topkapi Palace.
The Hagia Sophia. I first see her from a lousy rooftop restaurant, galantly taking the seat that has me staring into the setting sun. It also has me staring at both the Blue Mosque and Sophia. Sophia sits to my right, a central dome over a square building surrounded by towers. She sits above us, we’re to her south, and with the various tombs and buttresses attached to her, the dome seems to be the pinnacle surrounded by foothills. She’s lit from be below by an amber light, which I can see through the smoke of my nargile pipe, through the haze of alcohol I’ve entered thanks to the raki.
We visit her that afternoon, the church that was the center of Christendom, the greatest church in all of Europe for so long. The interior is cavernous, gigantic, soaring…words fail. For all the Renaissance majesty of the Vatican’s frescoes, she has nothing on the sheer power and simple beauty created by this vast interior space. The effect is dulled somewhat by the presence of an enormous fuck-off scaffolding in the center that’s been put up to help with the renovations, and I struggle to imagine what she must look like without it. Enormous discs with Arabic writing are attached to the tops of the walls, where the dome begins curving toward the center, additions from the conquest of 1453, repurposing Christianity’s greatest architectural achievement as a mosque. Mehmet wasn’t too destructive though, all things considered, and must have had enough of an artist’s eye to appreciate the beauty of the Byzantine frescoes of his vanquished enemy to let them remain. And they are gorgeous. In a few spots you can see images of crosses painted over with abstract Islamic designs, but for the most part the original artwork, though damaged in places, remains.
Constantinople was considered Christianity’s last bastion against the threat of Muslim armies by medieval Europe, and the Sophia itself quite literally played that role during the conquest. Once the walls of the city were finally breached, thousands of civilians ran to the Sophia as their last hope for protection, barring the doors against the invading army, praying to God to deliver them from their enemies at the final hour. The doors, huge, massive wooden things, must have echoed like drumheads against the vast echo chamber of the domed interior, the sounds of battle still raging outside, a few thousand people waiting for the end to come.
Sophia is peaceful now, a site of layered meaning, Arabic writing covering over crosses, Viking runes carved into the banister in the upper gallery by a bored Varangian guardman, the church itself built on top of an earlier church that was destroyed during the Nika riots, with chunks of the older building sitting outside her. The Hagia Sophia, the church of Divine Wisdom, is almost fifteen hundred years old. She is not the oldest building I have seen, but I have never seen her equal.