An Inappropriate Life

Memoir by Stan Gotlieb

Sailing, Sailing

May 1, 1968. Haifa, Israel. It’s getting hot on this side of the Mediterranean, and it’s time to venture back north; back to the Europe we escaped in January when it was snowing. Our boat awaits us.

It is the first sailing of the year from Haifa for the M/S Samsun of the Turkish Maritime Lines, bound for Limasool, Cyprus, then Izmir and Istanbul, and the boat is jammed – with a ragtag band of students, non-students, gypsies, dopies and colorful characters of every stripe. Turns out that – though we didn’t know it – a good portion of the human circus that winters over down in Eilat, on the gulf of Aqaba, is anxious to return to the fleshpots of the old countries, and that this boat is the cheapest way for one to make the trip.

We are traveling in relative luxury, with a two-bunk cabin all to ourselves. Never mind that it is down, down, down below decks, with the driveshaft just below us and a none-too-well-functioning toilet down the hall. Since we have been until recently on kibbutz, and are generally wont to keep ourselves pretty square-looking, most of the back-and-forth dope sharing that is going around us pays us no never-mind. We, having a piece of Lebanese blonde hashish with us (see “Scoring in the Old City”), are content to keep to ourselves. Sex, drugs, and lurch-and-roll as the ship pounds the waves.

On the third day, the ship docks in Izmir for several hours, and we take the opportunity to stroll the old part of the town, which is incredibly white and very “colonial” looking. When we re-board, we notice that there is a certain tension between the deck crew and officers and some of the passengers, but not knowing what to make of it, we file it and forget it.

That night we return to our room from our first-sitting dinner to get high before we stroll the deck. Just as we’re toking up, we hear a resounding clump-clump coming down the hallway. The footsteps stop outside the door next to ours, which is loudly pounded upon. A loud, heavily accented voice says in English, “This is the captain speaking. I know you are in there. All this smoking of dope has made you late once again for dinner. I will not have this aboard my ship. The authorities will be informed when we reach Istanbul!”

All that evening, we debate whether or not to toss the hash overboard. Getting caught with it will mean serious and possibly lengthy jail time. I actually knew a woman who spent 18 months on the Midnight Express (a Turkish jail about which they made a movie), and then had to pay 100,000 dollars to get bailed out. On the other hand, it’s awfully good hash, and when we were in Europe in the fall, our straight appearance made it impossible for us to score on the street.

In the end, we decide to bluff it out. We debark in the dawn light in the middle of a long line of international hippie types. While we are standing there, a guy in a shiny suit and a huge handlebar moustache walks along, peering at the passengers in the queue. Every once in a while, he taps someone on the shoulder and points to a much shorter line. When he gets to us, he points. We join the other line.

Our appearance has saved us. After a perfunctory once-over, we are stamped in and invited to exit to the street. I ask what is going on, and the official says “oh, this boat is notorious for hashish smuggling. We will get many criminals today.” “But not all”, I say to myself.

After a few days in Istanbul (see “Is She or Isn’t She”), we head for Greece, to join old friends in Salonika. Not wishing to pay the three-times-second-class bus fare from here to there on the one international bus that leaves each day, we opt for a more circuitous and perhaps more arduous route. We have no idea, whatsoever, what is in store for us.

“Greece”, I say to the ticket agent at the bus station. “No go”, he replies. “Go west?”, I ask. “Ja”, he says: in those days, any cheapskate traveler was assumed to be German, and anyway if a Turk knew a foreign language, it was likely to be either German or Russian.

Our bus ground its way toward the Greek frontier. About twenty miles short, everyone left onboard got out. “Greece?” I asked the driver. He pointed across the square, where a very old and battered VW bus with lots of multicolored lights on top and sparkly bangles in the front window sat in the sun. The day was getting surprisingly hot. We shouldered our backpacks and walked over. “Greece?” I asked. No, said the index finger waved in my face. “West?” I enquired. A nearly toothless smile. We piled in, among the chickens and goats, and off we went, bouncing merrily toward the next town, ten miles away. When we arrived, everyone got out.

“Greece?” I asked a guy in uniform. “That way”, he pointed. We began to walk. “Can’t be far, now” I told my disbelieving and disillusioned (“Why did I let him talk me into this?”) wife. It had gotten hotter. Our packs were heavy.

A few yards down the road, a troop carrier passed us and stopped. A soldier in the back motioned us to get on. Off we drove, through nearly ten miles of no-man’s-land. Tank traps alternated with guard posts and gunnery ranges. Nothing of a civilian nature could be seen.

After a time, there was nothing but barbed wire fence on either side of the narrow road, and big arc lights in clusters like at a baseball stadium, which were meant to light up the roadway at night. Eventually, we arrived at a bridge across a dry river. By now, the sun was brutal. The truck dropped off some men, and picked up some others before turning around and heading back the way it had come. We were shown to a guard shack where our passports were duly stamped, and invited to cross the bridge. A kilometer long, it was an obstacle course of sandbags, riflemen, artillery and automatic weapons. We were required to stop every twenty yards and show our passports. When we got to the middle, the routine continued, only this time the control posts faced toward us, instead of away from us. Finally, dirty and sweating profusely, and aching all over, we achieved our goal: Greek passport control.

Ellen handed the Greek immigration officer her passport, and he looked it over carefully and handed it back to her, stamped for entry. I gave him mine, and in so doing I made a huge mistake: I handed it to him backside-up.

When he opened it, the first thing he saw was a notation that, in December of 1967, I had exchanged a fair amount of Greek Drachmae into U.S. dollars. He looked up at me, suspicion in his eyes. He turned the page (toward the front), and saw a full-page notation from Greek customs that I had, in the same month, given up a functioning – but woefully troublesome - car before exiting the country (see “The Old Country”). I could see it in his eyes: unheard of! Something in his attitude made the other officials in the little hut stand a bit more to attention.

Next, he discovered that I had been in and out of Greece a few times while there the previous year, once to Bulgaria and twice to Yugoslavia (both of which were technically at war with Greece since 1948). The glare in his eyes made a couple of the border guards un-snap the covers on their holsters. The piece of hashish in my watch pocket began to weigh a ton.

Finally, after examining all the entry and exit visas in my document, he reached the front cover. His eyebrows went up. His shoulders went down. He sighed a big sigh of relief. “Ah, Amerikani!” he exclaimed as if that explained everything, when he saw the big eagle on the front cover. “Welcome to Greece!” He got on the phone. In a few minutes, a taxi pulled up, and after some discussion, we were whisked off to the bus station in Alexandropoulos, and soon on our way to Salonika.

We hung on to that piece of hash until one night, a month later, on the beach of the Adriatic. We had been staying in a campground outside the resort city of Split, and I had washed my jeans in a particularly virulent brand of laundry soap with the hash still in the watch pocket. It had served us well, through several months and a few countries, and it was with a feeling of sadness mixed with relief that I consigned it to the sea.

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