It was early morning, and we had boarded a bus that was to take us on a guided tour of the Aegean coast of Turkey, a most remarkable part of the world that simply leaches ancient history, and was to provide us with a moving example of the utter stupidity of the modern variety, at a place called Gallipoli.
Our tour guide was a lovely young woman named Jen; she had fallen in love with Turkey several years ago, and was now working for a travel company with the singular name of "Fez", but never mind. The bus was a twenty-seat Mercedes driven by a young Turk (this is about my one and only chance in life to use that expression literally) called Ali. Ali's English was just slightly better than my Turkish, which is to say hopeless. (Although, by the end of the trip, I'd got him to nail "No worries, mate", accent and all.) From the moment we shook hands, I knew I was going to like him. You can tell with people, sometimes. Ali was friendly, funny, and a terrific driver. The Turks, generally, are very good drivers - they have to be, in a city as big (20 million or so) as Istanbul. They quite properly regard the road rules as advisory only, to the extent where even the police will happily ignore infractions that would have me locked in a police cell for several days in Australia. Anything to assist the flow of traffic is encouraged. And they are good enough to drive really fast, only inches from each other, all with good humour and a repertoire of horn blasts which are, by and large, courtesy calls.
Ali was one of these. As safe a driver in whose hands I've ever put my life, Ali wheeled the bus through the crowded, narrow, twisting streets of the old city, and onto the main highway out of town with nary a hint of imminent catastrophe. I was impressed, as he performed this entire operation with one hand, the other holding a mobile phone into which he poured a non-stop stream of Turkish. (I learnt later it was his mum on the other end.)
Now, there were three Americans on the bus, whose complement consisted of mainly Australians and our dowdy feathered friends the Kiwis. (Sorry, but it's sacreligious for an Aussie not to have a go at a New Zealander whenever the opportunity arises.) One of these Yanks was a 40-ish woman named Barbara - tall, slim, polite and quietly-spoken. She was on her way to Kusadasi, a southern port and resort town which was, coincidentally, our drop-off point too. Barbara and her partner were sailing their yacht around the world, and she'd just been to Prague for some shopping, and was on her way to rejoin the boat in Athens, via Turkey. She was a remarkably intelligent and warm woman with whom we, especially the Titanium Princess, became fast friends.
If Barbara epitomised all of the qualities I'd like to think are the talents of the best Americans, then, dear reader, just think what her opposite might look like. Because that's what clambered aboard the bus next.
A woman (and I use the word advisorily) of about sixty winters of discontent - large and ugly in a way only a lifetime of self-centredness and an inflamed ego can etch ugliness into a face that resembled a smashed crab - climbed up the stairs, huffing and puffing as if the exertion of not being carried onto the bus on a feathered golden bier supported by four eunuchs was too much ignominy for her station, and immediately demanded in a high, piercing voice that she be awarded the front seat, as she was "prone to travel-sickness." She had in tow a bizarre-looking man of about seventy, for whom the descriptor "gaunt" was probably flattering; it turned out he was her husband, and from the tiny squeaks he occasionally emitted I figured out that he must have done some fast-track evolving from the mouse species, as he was clearly terrified of the behemoth that had evidently been ruining his life for forty-odd years.
Barbara, who was sitting across the aisle from us, immediately offered her seat to Her Ugliness, who, without a word of thanks, bustled her hubby into the window seat, all the while whining that she must also have the aisle seat, being prone to panic attacks. Eventually, after going through a couple of volumes of Webster's Dictionary, she got herself settled, did a couple of Linda Blair-like pirouettes of the head to check out the assembled throng, and finally rested her gaze on me.
Now, if you're anything like me, you're probably adept at meeting people and breaking the ice. You smile, say hello, and offer a few inconsequentialities like "Where are you heading?", "Had a goood trip so far?", and "How could you have possibly voted for that idiotic, war-mongering Bush TWICE, you dumb American cunt?" (To be honest, I haven't exactly used that one myself...yet.)
The Thing gave me the once-over, and said "I'm a college professor, you know. Accountancy." I was about to say something innocuous like "Good for you", when I noticed her eyes. I could tell, right away, that she was stark, staring mad. One of her eyes betrayed her as delusional; the other had the steely glint of the psychopath. It was easy to see why the Mouse lived in terror. (Don't ask how I can be so certain of this diagnosis - suffice it to say, I've worked in gaols for twenty years, and one gets to know the look.) This one had a double dose. Oh boy, I thought, this trip is going to be fun - this lunatic probably thinks "ice-breaking" is best accomplished with the aid of an ice-pick; maybe the Titanium Princess should sit in the aisle seat - at least she's armoured.
Without taking a breath, she began to complain vociferously about the poor state of education in the world. Apparently (and I hadn't realised that this was still a thesis going around, what with trepanning being almost a lost art), the decline of general educational standards throughout the world has a lot to do with the appearance of black people at universities. She leant across the aisle and confidentially lowered her voice to about 140 decibels: "They're all dumb and lazy, the lot of 'em, you know."
"What," I replied, "as distinct from fat and ugly, you mean?" Fortunately, that one went straight through to the 'keeper, as she remained unfazed, replying "Well, that too, often enough, but I suppose the poor bastards can't help their genes. Their trouble is they've got no entrepreneurial flair. Just like the Turks. I had to have a word with my hotel manager yesterday. Told him to clean his hotel up. There was dirt in the corners of my room. They just don't realise that if they want to get more trade from the U.S. they'd better damn well clean up their act." I was comforted by the image of the Thing's hotel manager ordering a truckload of street sweepings to sprinkle around his rooms after her departure. Like garlic and vampires, perhaps.
"My husband's a professor, too, you know. Yale. Math." I looked at hubby, and he looked at me, and I saw a resigned helplessness, as if had he had the courage to take to the drink his liver would now be a prized specimen at the Museum of Medical Oddities in Denver, Colorado. He was a man shattered, and if he had once been a prized professor of mathematics, it was plain that he was now only three ticks above village idiot.
"My first husband died, you know," she continued. "I was twenty-eight, so what do you think was the first thing I did?" I remarked that I couldn't possibly imagine, although my mind was going through a list that included Watergate burglar, assassin, cannibal, etc., when she replied for me. "I got another one - this one!"
"Well," I said, "it looks like this one's lasted pretty well - you haven't managed to kill him yet." She gave me the look for a few seconds, then broke into an hysterical cackle.
"No, you silly boy," she slapped me on the knee, "I didn't kill the last one. He fell off a very tall building." No wonder, I mused - if I was married to you, madam, they couldn't build skyscrapers fast enough for me to climb up and throw myself off.
As we ran along the motorway, through vast suburbs of teeming and towering housing developments, and noticed hundreds and hundreds of people lining the road, perhaps to be picked up for work, perhaps hoping for work, the Thing kept up her manic autobiography. She wasn't the slightest bit interested in Turkey, she said (without realising the sheer, vapid stupidity of such a remark), and was only there because of a conference in Istanbul.
"What a coincidence," I remarked, "I, too, am attending a conference soon. In Dublin."
She needled me with the psychopathic eye. "What's it on? Accountancy?"
"No," I replied. "The psychopathology of economists."
"So you're a professor, too?" she said with an enlarged bonhomme that was starting to scare me just a bit. "I like associating with professors. Well, the white ones, at least. By the way, you speak remarkably good English."
"Why thank you, madam," I responded, "it's so nice to be complimented on one's proficiency in one's native language." I was beginning to realise that it didn't matter what I said to this drongo - she enjoyed nothing more than the sound of her own voice.
We arrived at Gallipoli, where lunch at a local restaurant was served. I was feeling slightly under the weather at this stage. No matter how careful you are, you'll always cop the wrong end of a microbe or two whilst travelling. It was nothing serious, I was just a bit queasy, and I forced a rather lovely meal of fish down before we set out for the battlefields.
We drove to Anzac Cove, and alighted from the bus. And here it was - this tiny strip of sand whereupon one of history's greatest military follies began. It was blindingly obvious, looking up at the towering cliffs and impenetrable canyons, and just the sheer exposure of the place, that storming the Gallipoli Peninsula was always going to be a mug's game. Our guide, a Turkish bloke called Bill, took us through the campaign step by step and month by hideous month. We saw the places where the major battles had been fought, where so many young men died, the front-line trenches only ten metres apart, where the soldiers of both sides would throw food to each other during lulls in the fighting. This epic series of battles lasted eight months and achieved precisely nothing. That's right, nothing at all - the Dardanelles remained in the hands of the Turks. The British and French had wanted to wrest control of the straits, and Istanbul itself, and the Black Sea ports - partly to take these mechanisms away from the Hun, and partly, of course, because they were insane, murdering, greedy bastards themselves whose objectives in Europe had less to do with peace, civilisation and development, and more with the insanity of weirdos like Winston Churchill and his coterie of alcoholic cut-throats.
The piece-de-resistance was a shrine at the Turkish memorial, upon which were inscribed these words, in Turkish and English:
In the name of Allah the compassionate, the merciful. The martyrs requested of Allah the following: For the sake of you, oh Allah, send us back to the world so that we may be martyred once more.
On reading this my gore began to rise. I was composing what I thought might be a more fitting epitaph to the dead children buried here, something along the lines of "Dear Allah, you ignorant, malicious, psychopathic prick - if you really exist, please raise us from the dead so that we can live in peace with our Anzac brothers, who killed us, and whom we killed, for no good reason at all, just the insanity of our deluded fathers who thought it was dulce et decorum, but who should have known better."
Her Ugliness was, at this stage, reading the inscription too. She looked at me and said "That's so lovely, so righteous, so noble, don't you think?"
I opened my mouth, and a stream of Gallipoli lunch cascaded onto her stupid purple trousers, gently dribbling into her shoes.
"I'm so sorry, ma'am," I managed to blurt out. "I had no idea travel-sickness was contagious."