“Are you smoking?” inquired my cabin-mate urgently, as we waited to pull out from salmon-pink Istanbul Gar, the city’s wonderful 19th century railway station on the banks of the Bosphorus.
“I don’t think so”, I replied, unsure as to what he was referring to.
“Don’t worry – I’ll open the window”.
I had never met a Stavros before – I didn’t even think such names existed outside of humorously tacky beach bars where fully-slicked waiters prey on 17 year-old British girls – but was delighted to discover that I was to be sharing a miniscule compartment with one on the night train to Thessaloniki.
“They laugh at me in England because of this name”, he confided. Stavros had just completed a masters’ degree in medical genetics in London, and had been visiting his Turkish girlfriend in Istanbul. “But the English are funny people. Where are you from?”.
Stavros produced an immense pouch of tobacco and spent the next four hours rolling cigarette after cigarette and drinking warm Amstel beer. “This is Turkish tobacco”, he explained, bright-eyed. “So cheap, and so good!”.
We spent a few hours planning my summer holidays for the next six or seven years – I needed to get to know the north of Greece, he insisted, as it was the most beautiful place on Earth – and I managed to extract a quick-fire lesson in Greek, ready for my arrival the next morning. After the fifth rolled cigarette, even the armies of mosquitoes decided they couldn’t take it any longer and buzzed off in search of juicier pastures down the corridor.
The rock of the train lulled us into sleep, from which we were dragged repeatedly once we reached the border.
“PASSPORT CONTROL!”, the guards bellowed from just outside the door, quickly followed by “BAGGAGE CONTROL!” – a precursory fumble inside my backpack. And exactly the same upon arrival in Greece.
“The Turkish still need a visa, you know”, Stavros mumbled, with a smirk. “Since we are in the EU, we can go anywhere”.
We were interrupted by a blue-shirted guide with a shock of black hair as he returned my passport. “Mr Lemon?”, he asked . “Welcome to Greece”.