Excerpts from the writings of Stephen Berer

Ottoman Beachcombings
A journal of my travels around the Eastern Mediterranean, April to August, 1983

This is a small book of 16 short essays and 4 poems, describing my travels in Yugoslavia, Greece, Turkey, Rhodes, Cypress, Israel, and Egypt. Joyous and full of curiosity, I documented my impressions of people, lifestyles, and landscapes on trails mostly very far from the tourist routes. Although I was writing less than 20 years ago, that part of the world has dramatically and irrevocably changed. Therefore, these beachcombings have become something of a time capsule as well. I think you’ll find them delightful reading.


Book 1

From Essay 1, Descent

While an hour passes I watch Turks, Serbs, Gypsies, orange-haired punks, fat women in black dresses and black babushkas, and stone-faced men wearing patched, limp, sport coats, as they bump and barge their way to their ever-departing buses.

During a second hour I discover no one speaks English or German here, though I was assured in the US that language would be no problem. I begin learning relevant Serbian phrases, like "What time is it?", "Where is the bus station?", "How many dinars?", and "Where is my bus?". About every five minutes I practice this last phrase on someone.

From Essay 2, Prizren:

Sometimes, moving fast is the only way to stop feeling lost. You outrun it.

I'm going as fast as I can go. As the scenery around me keeps changing, a delusive thought swirls: "I must be getting closer to where I want to be." But that place is always one town out of reach. There is a demon chasing me, or a siren singing, imploring. I have to keep running. The dirt road is shaking this bus to pieces, but it only lulls me. I must be losing that demon in the dust. I must be getting closer!

From Essay 5, A Typical Border in a Typical Daydream

It is impossible to recapture the atmosphere of real adventure. The events themselves are simple, but the emotional excitement, the exhilaration, the sense of utter freedom amplifies every word, every gesture, into worlds of meaning and pleasure. Every observation becomes a profound philosophical postulate; every tale of previous adventure a Homeric epic. If, from your comfortable armchair, I seem a little over-enthusiastic, I apologize. All I know is: the demons were at least a thousand miles away!

From Essay 7, Another Meeting with the Goddess:

I spent two days wandering outside the limits of Orestias, in the vast and newly sprouting wheatland. Poplars, willows, and cypresses turned the rich plain into a mosaic of wide fields.... At one point I was turned back by two farmers in baggy old pants and shirts. From their gesticulations I gathered I was near the river, the boundary between Greece and Turkey. There were soldiers up ahead and I would be very unwelcome. Almost in a trance, I turned off at a right angle and continued my drift. The silence was profound. A stork standing on one leg peered tirelessly in a flooded ditch for a trace of life. Another, gliding in the motionless air was the last vestige of a sense of time.

From Essay 9, Turkish Valleys and Yellow Brick Roads:

...The commuter train stations in Istanbul all have TV's hanging over the crowds, capturing first the eyes, then the souls. Still, I have to laugh sometimes. Yesterday a Popeye cartoon was blaring on the commuter train platform, and not long ago I saw The Wizard of Oz beaming into a little corner store. Strange to think of "Follow the yellow brick road" in subtitles, but there it was. And I laughed. It seemed like my theme song. Then I realized, it might be everyone's theme song, and the veiled women and unshaven men suddenly looked like neighbors.

From Essay 11, Come to Beirut!:

...Egypt destroyed us and made us grovel. It stunned us and led us into mosques of despair. Cairo is a city shaking in a constant earthquake, buildings collapsing around us, a state of panic prevailing. But only in the Soul of it, not in the Body. In the Body the collapse is much slower. The mud brick melts slowly, for there is no rain; the concrete crumbles slowly in the oven and pollution; there is no ice. In the scorch, we drank gallons, but did not urinate. Neither could we sleep. Mosquitos devoured us in the darkness. Malaria and hepatitis hovered at our bedside.
From Essay 16, Oases and Caravanserais:

From there to Tokat (toe KOT), and instantly we knew this place was better still, magnificent, untouched, prosperous but old. Sometimes it looked Alpine; other times smelled like Darjeeling. The stark stone mountain and kale (fort) behind, and the Afghani women begging (refugees from the Russian invasion), sitting on the street corners. Not Sivas, but Tokat was the place to come for a month or a year to do research. Tokat even surpassed Bergama in quaintness, beauty, livability. The children, who in groups, would call out "How are you?" as we passed, a chorus that crescendoed when we'd call back, slowly, clearly, "We are fine," repeated and repeated as we walked away. The children who'd giggle when we'd say "Merhaba" (MARE ha BAH; hello), and excitedly whisper "Merhaba sogledi" (SOY led eh; he said ‘hello'). The parading escort of children when we explored the back streets and saw the women spreading wheat on blankets in every open space. The friendly smiles; the curious "Merhaba's" when we'd say "Merhaba" or "Iyi gunler" (EE yee GOON ler; good day). Sometimes five or six would gather round, and we'd chat in Turkish awhile. The boys who held my hands as we walked and explored. Once they asked my age and I said "12 years old" and they laughed and laughed.

Poetry, Writing, and Art by Stephen Berer © 2010. All rights reserved.