Wiessbaden to Istanbul to Izmir

This is another autobiographical story with a familiar theme–Patrick and Mari’s journey to Izmir, Turkey. I’ve made only minor edits.

About nine o’clock in the morning, Mari and I stepped down from the train onto the platform in Istanbul.  Beside us were the two bulging suitcases I had wrestled from Luxemburg to Paris, from there to Wiesbaden, and changing trains in the Serbian capital.  I had one arm wrapped around the contrabass, bought in Wiesbaden for the job awaiting me in Izmir. 

It was all we could do to keep our luggage at our feet.  We were besieged by porters and taxi drivers, all jostling for the privilege of delivering us wherever we wanted to go.  They tried different languages on us – German, French, English.  I held tight to our possessions, and with my free arm drew Mari closer to me.  Her eyes looked a little wild, as if terrified by the sea of bustling activity in front of us.

The streets below the platform were literally jammed with traffic.  Taxis, vans, buses, horses pulling open carriages, a man with something resembling a gigantic teapot on his back, shouting Çay! Çay! and serving his customers in tin cups hanging from his neck.  Pedestrians wove in between the vehicles, some with bundles on their shoulders, one of them incredibly with a piano on his back, a thick strap around his forehead, forcing his way among the crowds which made way for him as he virtually trotted up the center of the road.

A short, stocky man with a wide smile revealing a gold tooth approached us and introduced himself as Billy Bielmeyer, the bandleader whose telegram had reached me in the pension in Wiesbaden two weeks ago.

We shook hands.  He beckoned one of the porters and we set off together into the multitude, Billy beside me, Mari in front behind the porter.

̈The bus leaves in half an hour for Izmir,́ Billy told me. ‘I booked three seats, and if we miss it the next one is tomorrow morning.’

Mari was wanting a bath and a bed after two nights on the train, but since we had arrived with twenty-five cents American, I raised no objection.  There was no reason to think that Billy would be paying our hotel b ills.

The driver would not permit the bass inside the bus, and to my dismay he tied it on top with crates of chickens and produce.  There was, however, a donkey in the rear of the bus.  ‘Looks like they could have made room for the bass,’ I objected.

Billy grinned. ‘They couldn’t very well put the donkey on top.’

A galvanized tub filled with ice and bottles of soft drinks was lifted by the driver and the steward and we set out in a cloud of dust and black exhaust.  After crossing over a long bridge, we headed south on a two-lane highway.  Within an hour the ice was water sloshing around in the tub, and the steward distributed luke-warm bottles of gaseuse as we wound up and down a mountainous road, sometimes descending into dry torrents. 

My concern for the bass increased as we  went along.  I had spent my last money on the instrument and its soft case.  It was years since I had played, for two weeks, in an operetta in Rollins College.  I had faked my way through that, believing that because I could play the sousaphone, I should be able to play the string bass.  So the whole trip from Wiesbaden had been spent learning a few scales on the instrument.  The fingers of my right hand were seeping blisters.  I hoped I could pick up the chord changes by ear when I started work.  If I stood by the pianist, I could always watch his left hand in a pinch.

After a rest stop in Borsa, where the the toilet was a hole in the floor  with nonslip platforms for your shoes, and the wall on the left was covered in stripes of shit, we continued south.

The land was barren of trees.  According to Billy, centuries of cutting pines for masts and other trees for ship building, first by the Greeks, later by the Turks, had stripped the forests all along the coast. 

Just about dusk, we passed over the crest of a mountain and there before us lay a marvelous array of lights spread around a huge bay:  Izmir, bristling with minarets like missiles scattered over the hills, our destination and destiny, spread out before us like a magic carpet.

‘If you go to Europe, don’t go to Turkey,’ Ted had told me back in Fort Pierce, Florida two years before.

‘And if you go to Turkey, don’t go to Adana,’ added his wife Anita.

‘They call it the City of Light,’ put in Ted. ‘But it’s the anus of the universe, if you ask me.’

Anita and I were both in the band at Florida State.  Soon after graduating and marrying Ted, they applied for teaching overseas and were shipped to the American Air Force school in Adana.  They hated it.

‘It’s full of cripples begging in the streets.’

‘The beggars amputate a hand or foot of their children, to make more money.’

‘Disease and poverty everywhere you look.’

‘The only decent food is on the base, where you can buy stuff shipped from the States.’                                                                                               

Mari and listened politely, more than dubious.  But, just in case, we registered the caveat.  We were dreaming of jumping the pond, but with a view to seeing the glories of Rome, the Louvre, the cathedrals of France, the bars which Hemingway and others of the the Lost Generation had immortalized between the two world wars.

Ted and Anita also told us that Frankfurt, Germany was the center of Army and Air Force offices for Europe.

‘It’s better to get signed up before you go, but some people we met were able to get jobs by going directly to the headquarters.’

After a month in Paris, our stash of cash was seriously dwindling.  We had a free apartment for a month in the home of a French family whose daughter we had met in New York.  But their vacation in the south of France came to an end.

So we headed to Frankfurt.  There we learned that the least  necessary fields in the military schools were our certification: art and music.  One of the music teachers on the base told us about a club in Wiesbaden where English and American musicians hung out for gigs on American bases.  They had jam sessions on weekends where you could sit in.

The Pension Reiss was on the fourth floor, under a slanted skylight, no window, the bath down the hall.  Lord Antoine was a drummer whose presence was made obvious by his hauling his equipment up the narrow steps in the middle of the night.  When Mari became ill and was bedridden, it was to Lord Antoine, or Tony as he was called by friends – only on the bass drum was he identified as Lord Antoine, that I went to for advice about a doctor who spoke English.

Tony was a short, wiry fellow  with a toothy smile, and very helpful.  While the doctor attended to Mari, prescribing pills for her condition, which seemed to be mainly nervous exhaustion, Tony informed me about the local musical scene.  He took me to the International Fellowship of Vagabond Artists and Musicians.  I sat in on bass, and fiddled around a little on piano, but my piano playing was not good enough to do me any good.

After a few days of hanging out, a guy named John told me about a gig in Baden Baden.  He had been the bass player there with a group, got involved with the singer, who happened to be the girl friend of the drummer, and was kicked out.  Mari stayed on in the pension recovering, while I drove to Baden Baden every night with the sax player.  I rented a bass for the duration.

Mari felt better after money started coming in.  Then I saw a notice on the bulletin board at the club announcing an opening for a bass player with a German band.  I wrote a letter to the bandleader telling him I also played flute, sang a little, and played some piano (I could read, but not improvise).  A week later a telegram arrived offering me the job, and a money order to buy a train ticket.

We checked into the Hotel Atlas while we looked around for an apartment.  Our room looked over a market street, and at five in the morning the tobacco workers, mostly women dressed in black, hustled up toward the factories.  Then came the bread men, baskets on their heads, and more workmen often to the construction sites.  By dawn I had not slept, making it about three days of wakefulness.  Mari woke up with welts all over her face and belly, and crippled by nausea.

Billy brought a doctor whose diagnosis was poison in the dye of the wine colored sweater she had bought somewhere in Austria, or maybe the grapes we ate in the train.  He also gave her sleeping pills the size of an after dinner mint.  I practiced the bass in my underwear.  I was due to start the next day and I didn’t yet have a callus on my plucking finger.

About three o’clock I dropped a couple of the sleeping pills myself: within an hour I was vomiting and weaving about the hotel room like a drunk.  Mari was gone to the world, and just as well.  She felt helpless enough as it was.

You reached the NCO club by climbing a flight of stairs over the PX.  Dim lights, a long bar against one wall, a bandstand under spots.

Billy introduced me to Nevzat the drummer, a guitarist named Wolf, and a blond kid with glasses at the piano, Hermann something, from Frankfurt.

At the bar there were two or three guys in levis and fatigues hunched over their beers.

            -Not too much happening on a Wednesday, Billy said.  He lifted his tenor sax from the stand and hung it from the neck strap.  – But we still play.  Satin Doll.

The drummer gave a little roll, the pianist gave an intro, and we went into d minor.  Billy had a mellow sound, and he knew plenty of standard riffs.  The pianist left plenty of room for the chords of the guitar, filling in with runs and an occasional bass accent.  Five minutes later, everybody had played a solo, including me, and we segued straight into Body and Soul, and Smoke gets in your Eyes.  I guess Billy want to check out my harmony, those being two of the trickier tunes.  By the first break, I felt pretty comfortable, and the pianist gave me a wink.  He could let go of the fundamentals if he wanted to, and build ninths and thirteenths to his heart’s content.

            -Dinner is about over in the dining room.  De Koster’s going to be here tonight.  Billy downed two quick Pabst beers straight from the can, and then we went back and did some uptime jamming.

A few couples came in and made a turn or two around the dime-sized dance floor before heading off to a dark corner with their mixed drinks.  Everyone seemed to know and like Billy, waving to him from the floor.  If he wasn’t blowing his sax, he gave them his gold-tooth grin.