They went to the Hagia Sophia first.
While Earl hadn’t been to as many places as Jon had to definitively say so, it was easy for him to see why his friend insisted that this was the most beautiful place in the world. They entered through the main gates, after the usual lax security checkpoints, and were greeted by the gigantic iconostasis, and the Virgin Mary with her child frescoed upon the dome looming above it, and hundreds of mosaics that glowed a yellow sheen as if all the pieces were different shades of solid gold. Hundreds of apostles in red and blue tunics, Christ in simple blue and red walking on the water, Christ in shimmering white and ascending to heaven, angels with wings as big as they were, some that seemed to be just six huge red-feathered wings surrounding a tiny haloed head. There were emperors of Byzantium alongside kings of even further antiquity, including the first Constantine alongside Justinian, presenting to the Mother of God (respectively) the entire city of Constantinople and the entire cathedral in their tiny hands. He heard somewhere that the ancient Egyptians believed the sky was held up by a row of pillars that surrounded the edge of the flat world, and the stars and planets hung like balls on a string from its ceiling; here, a dizzying array of Roman pillars supported a ceiling that depicted the entire vision of paradise, Jesus and his mother beside him, and every saint and apostle and holy person surrounded by a host of angels (Jon, of course, had already seen the Sistine chapel, and while Earl hadn’t he crossed it off his list anyway).
Earl had been about half his age since his mother last dragged him to the old Byzantine catholic church he grew up with, and back then he would have said the icons that covered the building from head to toe were the ugliest part of its body. But here he was struck by the level of detail the old Greeks achieved with multicolored pebbles, how there was a contemplative beauty to be found in the stock style and symbolism of iconography he once found, compared to the ecstatic beauty of the Renaissance painters, hopelessly staid. He couldn’t believe the invading Latin crusaders could have dared to paint over the frescoes and scrape off the mosaics, and equally unbelievable was seeing the results of modern restoration salvaging as much as they did.
It was the highlight of the whole trip, and it lasted just over an hour.
It started to sour right in the beginning, when they landed in Ioannis Kapodistrias International, as it did just about every time Jon invited Earl on a trip abroad. Earl had recently went through a tricky bout of lack of work and therefore hadn’t saved up for the trip as much as he would have liked, so he had assumed, as he did the year before on their last trip through the EU, that he could simply use his credit cards to pay for things, then repay the charges with his banking app, instead of getting a bunch of nomisma he wasn’t sure he’d use up by the end. Jon warned him that just about everything was cash-only in Constantinople, but only after he’d told him of his plan on the plane. Even before the Hagia Sophia he knew, as Jon grumbled at the ATM from some obscure Greek bank and swiped out a fistful of pink bills, that he wasn’t going to hear the end of it for at least a few days into the coming week and a half.
Jon asked Earl where he wanted to go eat, and Earl said he had no idea. They landed on a place, perhaps a half mile away from the Sophia but still in the Constantine XI district, that looked like it served authentic medieval Byzantine cuisine, called The Lazy Cook. Earl put the handwritten slogan of the place, spanning almost the whole back wall of the place in pretty good Greek calligraphy, through the translator app he had been using, and found out later it was a modern rendering of an old, apparently derisive saying about chefs in medieval Constantinople: the lazy cook prepares everything by boiling. Jon ordered some sort of fish with this pungent umami sauce that he later, after taking a snapshot of it and posting it on @bonjourneau of course, found out was made from fermented barley.
Earl had some pretty good moussaka.
Beside the large slogan was, like every place in the city, an equally large portrait of the current basileus, Constantine XXIII Palaiologos, impeccably dressed in a gray suit and flanked by large mustachioed adult sons and beaming daughters in-law, his arm around the dimpled and blond curly-locked crown prince Yorgi.
After the meal, Jon pointed to something on the drink menu called retsina, and discovered it was some sort of mulled wine mixed with pine resin; after posting it on @bonjourneau he grimaced and smacked his lips as he choked it down, and Earl had to pinch his nose from when the drink was served until there was not a drop left in the cup. Earl had a double Greek coffee, and he was served a whole briki along with a couple demitasses, which he offered to Jon to clean his palate of pine resin, who refused.
Jon asked Earl if he wanted to join him at a hot bath that night in the Basilica Cistern. It was an attraction on their list to be sure, and Earl probably wouldn’t have minded seeing other young Greek gentlemen sweating it out in various states of disrobement, but Jon knew very well the last time they tried a Russian bath back home Earl almost passed out and had a beatific vision of God to compete with the walls of Sophia itself, so he told him he’d stay back and catch up on a book. Jon left, and Earl, knowing well that if he didn’t check out the upside-down Medusa head now that Jon would never do a repeat of a site just for his sake, shrugged it off as not one of the worst things in the world that could happen to him.
There was a meal being served in the hostel they were staying at, consisting of basic grilled chicken and pita and served with cheap beer and ersatz coffee, that was meant to break the ice with the other young guests. A pub crawl was immediately to follow, but Earl politely declined the offer from the (admittedly attractive) concierge, mainly because Jon might be pissed if he went without him, and also because it appeared they planned to cart about twenty guests around in a single van and he’d might not even survive for Jon to even get a chance to be pissed at him.
He hummed along to the old novelty song when it came on through the dining room speaker.
Here I come, Constantinople,
Here I come, Constantinople,
I am coming, Constantinople,
Here I come!
Earl smiled as the tune came on. He made small talk with a blond Dutch tourist who was also alone with a few of his other friends, going on a backpacking crawl through Eastern Europe and ending in Anadolu. The guy was attractive enough, but the conversation was so sluggish he almost prayed that something would interrupt him, any sort of pretense to excuse himself and slink back to his room and his tablet, all while he nodded politely and told him he did the opposite with Jon, starting in the capital at Bursa and flying out to IKX and checking out its rival the two-millennium empire.
All the leaves are off of the oak and
All the sheep have followed the spoken
Word, I’m coming, Constantinople,
Here I come!
He must have dozed off in a spell of smiling and nodding along to the song, because when he looked up from his plate the Dutch man had left. It was hard not to lose yourself to “Constantinople”; it had an irresistible syncopated samba beat, like the song in Brazil, and the faster they knocked it out on the xylophone the better it always was.
So I stand out in the open
All my friends are with you I hope and
Pray I’m coming, Constantinople,
Here I come!
It never really meant anything, the words to it. Aside from the common theme of going to the city at all costs, the words were meant to be nonsense, like a lot of them were in the jazz age, words meant to be merely the pasta that gets the sauce of light breezy jazz into your mouth (a lot of other jazz musicians would write their own verses to the song, like a medieval engraver putting his own spin on the common memento mori motifs, and make the song go on for ten, even twenty minutes at a time. Earl tried his hand at it once, and it wasn’t great but it was a start: Hollywood guys are a-gropin/ girls, hashtag me-tooed and broken/ they’re all coming, Constantinople, here they come!).
His head became foggy all of a sudden, which confused him because he didn’t even finish his first beer. He looked up just in time to see a stranger grab his free right hand and bite the tips of his middle and ring fingers.
—Gaah, Jesus fuck! Why did you…
—Because I’m a Grey Wolf! And now, so are you!
The man flashed a sign in his face, which looked like a Ronnie James Dio devil horn sign, but with the middle two fingers and thumb sticking out forward. Earl, with his injured two fingers, was already splaying out his index and pinky fingers, so it didn’t take much effort to try it himself. He could see how it could have looked like a wolf’s head.
—There you go, you’re getting the hang of it! Come on, we’re going on the pub crawl in Taksim.
—Uh, no thanks, I thought I’d just… wait, where…
The man grabbed Earl by the wrist and dragged him all the way to the first floor if the hostel and out the door. He found the van parked and waiting, and twenty or so people climbing into it like a clown car. He also noticed something strange about them, they seemed to be… Turkish?
(And before you say anything, no, it wasn’t a racist thing on Earl’s part. They were speaking Turkish words peppered in with English, words which he recognized from the smattering he got from his two months on Duolingo. Not to mention, of course, the red flags with the white moon and star they all sported, which he could not help but have noticed all around him during his time with Jon back in Bursa).
By the time his kidnapper and the other, or so he assumed, Grey Wolves had stuffed everyone in the van, Earl found himself crammed all the way to the top of the car, underneath three sorority-girl types chattering away and somehow on their phones despite the cramped spaces. He wished he was enough of a nerd to wish for a Dr. Who-type bigger-on-the-inside situation, but no, this packing job was done well within the laws of physics. At least, he resigned himself, he wasn’t one of the unlucky tourists getting stepped all over on the bottom of the van.
When they spilled out of the van, Earl guessed he was in Pera, and confirmed the guess when he saw the faint silhouette of Galata tower above them. They went into the first pub for the night, and it looked like a lot of the college-age nightclubs Earl tended to avoid back when he lived in Brooklyn. The bar and dance floor was arguably just as crowded as the van, but then again Earl supposed at least he was standing up with both of his feet flat on the floor.
One of the Grey Wolves stood up on top of the bar and shouted something in Turkish to get everyone’s attention. Aside from the deafening IDM pumping through the speakers, it was dead silent. The bartender first squeezed a condiment bottle of oil that started a kitschy wall of fire across the bar, and then started to distribute shots to the Grey Wolves, who then handed them out to the others.
Earl could see the bartender pouring first a clear liquor into the glass, and then a bit of water, which clouded the drink into a milky white. He reached for a shot that was in someone’s hand, who looked like he was passing it to him, but then the young man shouted at him as if to say get your mitts off my shot. Earl backed away the best he could, not in the mood to get called however one does call someone a faggot in Constantinople. He finally received a shot from someone, and drank it down in one gulp. It tasted a lot like sambuca.
Earl hated sambuca.
The Grey Wolves corralled everyone out after maybe fifteen minutes and dragged them along the narrow cobbled streets of the old Venetian quarter of the city. He winced as turns into blocks seemed wrong, squirmed as shortcuts through alleyways made him think he bumped into something solid when he clearly wasn’t, and squinted at strange neon signs. They were in Turkish, but also not. You see, when before the trip Jon and Earl agreed that the latter would tackle as much Turkish as he could while the other learned Greek, it took Earl forever just to get the cursive Ottoman script down (and it turns out a free gamified app isn’t quite the best way to learn it, he found out too late). What he saw was Turkish, but in the Latin alphabet, rendered in exactly what Earl wished and grumbled somebody would have done while he was struggling to learn what he derisively called (to himself, of course) not-Arabic.
They came to a seedy music club next. What Earl saw next horrified him, but in hindsight made as much sense as anything that was to come: a band was already playing up on stage, and he only would have only called it Lynchian due to the red curtains and black-and-white checkered floors and walls that were prevalent about the stage; what he saw aside from that was stranger than certainly anything he’d ever seen any film, Lynch or not. There were four musicians on the stage, each wearing a black suit and top hat, and each with a single bulbous eyeball for a head. He assumed maybe they were Slipknot-style papier-mâché masks, but he swore he saw one of them move its iris about like the eye of Sauron.
Istanbul was Constantinople!
Now it’s Istanbul, not Constantinople!
Been a long time gone, old Constantinople
still has Turkish delight on a moonlit night!
The singer sounded like some wonky Butthole Surfers Gibbytronics (classic Butthole Surfers of course, Locust Abortion Technician and earlier, fuck outta here with that Electriclarryland) sung through a megaphone. He was also playing all the drums, and not, mind you, on a drum set, a big bass drum strapped to him like in a marching band, and snares and stuff around him like one of those eccentric one-man street performers. One guy had what Earl assumed was a synth, but looked like an old organ and also had mechanical antique dolls swaying to the beat. Someone else had, if he was under oath in a court of law, what he could only guess in his wildest dreams was something like a white duck that the musician was stabbing with a carving knife over and over again. The only instrument he recognized was the guitar player, but even he was playing sustained whole notes with a distorted tone even Sunn O))) would have rejected as a little over the top.
Every gal in Constantinople
Lives in Istanbul, not Constantinople!
So if you’ve gotta date in Constantinople
She’ll be waiting in Istanbul!
A Grey Wolf was blocking the only doorway out, and flashing the wolf’s head sign at his comrades. More shots of the white stuff were being passed around on the flaming bar, but Earl abstained this time. He saw that Efes was on tap, which was his go-to back in Bursa, and very much wanted to be confused that it was being served in Greece but gave that up and instead just kept on being confused at the hellband on stage.
So take me back to Constantinople!
No you can’t go back to Constantinople!
Been a long time gone, Constantinople!
Why did Constantinople get the works?!
That’s nobody’s business but the Turks!
He sucked down his cold frothy mug of Efes and went along with the Grey Wolves until he blacked out.
Miraculously, Earl somehow came to at the hostel dining room, having pita in olive oil and fruits and tomatoes over ersatz coffee for breakfast. He sort of remembered getting into an argument over offering to pay Jon a lump sum of what he had spent the day before (as he felt weird about Jon literally paying his way everywhere), and getting mad when Jon refused for what seemed like no reason at all. Over breakfast Earl massaged his head, and when Jon asked if he was okay Earl muttered something about jet lag. Since he wasn’t insane, or at least hoped he wasn’t yet, Earl of course kept the mad bar crawl to himself, and Jon didn’t seem to think anything untoward had happened anyway. A photo of Constantine XXIII, without his large family this time, hung on the wall and stared at him disapprovingly as he stuffed an oil-soaked pita in his mouth.
Istanbul. He heard the name before, it was the usual name given to the city by quite a few alternate history writers. It was arguably the second most popular theme after the perennial what-if-the-nazis-won fodder, speculating that, oh, maybe the Byzantine Empire threw in with the Central Powers during World War I and lost its monarchy along with the Ottomans, or maybe had no choice but to become a permanent vassal to the Vatican after the Fourth Crusade, or, most commonly, that Mehmet II, known to history as Mehmet the Failure, had maybe not failed, that when he pressed the attack on the thousand-year city, maybe Constantine XI hadn’t successfully pleaded his case for aid from their former subjugated states in Eastern Europe, and also from the strange bedfellows of the Western monarchies and the Italian states that only two hundred years ago sacked them in a disastrous crusade but now recognized a greater of two evils when they saw one, maybe, when the would-be conqueror sailed down the Bosporus from his base at Rumelihisarı, the great chain hadn’t blocked his fleet from entering the Golden Horn (WoW, jUst LIkE iN GamE oF ThRoNEs, Earl muttered to himself), and allowed the Italian powers, from their formerly neutral colony of Galata, to defend with Greek fire what was theirs, the chain that delayed the fleet at the foot of the Golden Horn and gave the Byzantines time for the promised aid to arrive, and drive the blasphemous Islamic hordes out of Constantinople and back to Bursa where they belonged. These authors posited that the great defending basileus didn’t have the fortitude to make the hard decision to heal the schism between the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches (though they never really did embrace all of the usual “catholic” trappings we’re all familiar with and to this day Greece is still quite de facto “orthodox”, this nonetheless left only Russia’s massive church, horrified by the blasphemous decision, remaining technically “orthodox” in the aftermath, as well as their bitter enemy until well into the twentieth century), that from then on the Ottoman Empire extended from Anadolu and sometimes into Arab, North African, and even some Eurasian territories, but never again into Hellas proper or Eastern Europe.
It was fun to imagine, of course, but patently absurd. If the Byzantine Empire was good at one thing, it was clinging with white knuckles to an era of long-past and faded glory at all costs. Even when it was founded in the fourth century CE, it was a shade of what the current and declining Roman Empire was at the time. Real expansion into outside territories by soldier-emperors happened few and far between in its time before the Ottoman attack, and even then gains were lost as soon as they were won. The Empire back then, just as they do now, paradoxically excelled when they made a conscious effort not to, by paying off would-be conquerors with huge sums of money, by negotiating advantageous deals for themselves between rival powers, who sometimes hated them even more than whichever nation they were quarreling with. The victory against Mehmet was arguably a Pyrrhic one, as it left them almost perpetually in debt to the Vatican and the Latin states, just as much diplomatically as well as financially. It was a miracle that the emperor eventually secured the rest of Greece to its borders and kept it as long as it did, and perhaps an even bigger one that, as the modern state of Anadolu deposed its last Ottoman sultan at the end of World War I, the modern Greek state was able to keep its basileus in Constantinople as a constitutional monarchy, much the same as they have now in the United Kingdom (it was hard to tell which traditional enemy they wanted to side with in the war, and it became a matter of heads the central powers and Ottomans, or tails the Allies and Russia. For better or worse, the basileus flipped a coin and it landed on tails).
If anything, the greatest achievement of the eternal Roman Empire, the famous two-thousand year Empire, was a preternatural ability to never recognize it was wearing out its welcome.
Jon told Earl he met an Australian tourist at the baths the night before, who was also a travel blogger. Christ, here we go, muttered Earl to himself. Among other things, this man told Jon about a lovely Turkish liquor he had in Bursa called raki. It looks clear at first, but traditionally you splash a bit of water in it and it clouds white. He missed it while they were there, and wanted to maybe find a place that had it in Constantinople.
—I’ve already had it. It tastes like sambuca.
—But you hate sambuca.