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A Voyage of Aegean Delights . . . and Then It Happened

November 13, 1995|JACK SMITH

Our cruise ship, Renaissance Six, sailed through the Aegean Sea, anchoring at such historic spots as Mykonos and Santorini and docking at Rhodes and at Kusadasi, where we made a shore excursion I have already described.

We sailed the last afternoon through the Dardanelles, a 40-mile strait that is the historic graveyard of armies, and finally docked at Istanbul.

Istanbul is probably the most exotic large city in the world. When you first see its many mosques and minarets, you know you are not in Europe; you are in Turkey.

Minarets are the slender towers from which the muezzins call the faithful to their prayers five times a day. Their singsong voices can be heard throughout the city. The Muslims are liberal about allowing infidels to enter the sacred mosques. One is required, however, to remove one's shoes, which I did.

Modern Turkey is largely the creation of Kemal Ataturk, who led a Turkish army in the War of Independence after World War I, defeating the land-ambitious Greeks. After that victory Ataturk threw the sultan out and tried to modernize and westernize the country.

Among other things, he liberalized conditions for women, banned the teaching of religion in schools and replaced the Arabic alphabet with the Latin. One result of the alphabet change is that written Turkish is full of long words that seem to be constructed mostly of consonants. It also has some easy ones such as telefon and taksi . And of course neon signs saying "Pepsi," "Coca-Cola," "Toyota," "Ford" and "Honda" are ubiquitous.

At Istanbul we stayed in the luxurious Bosphorus Hotel on that historic strait and visited several mosques and palaces, including the famous Blue Mosque and Topkapi Palace, home of the Ottoman sultans for five centuries. We went again with our new friends Frank and Clemencia Virgintino. This time Frank pushed me around, instead of our driver.

One evening Renaissance Cruises arranged for us, at a price, to dine and hear a concert at Ciragan Palace. We gathered first for wine in a large ornate room in which the sultans had entertained the heads of state. Then we went into a sumptuous dining room to partake copiously of wine and a Turkish dinner and to hear a Turkish concert.

Then, inevitably, came that paragon of Turkish performance art, the belly-dancer. The young woman who came out to entertain us was well-padded, an advantage in the kind of dance she did. Finally she began looking over the audience for a male partner. I avoided eye contact and was spared.

The next day we toured Topkapi Palace and were told that unfortunately the harem was not open to visitors at that hour. Other tourists who had seen it told us, however, that the quarters were surprisingly small. Well, a concubine does not need a lot of room to perform her services.

Earlier, before we passed through the Dardanelles, I suffered a downfall. We were invited to sit at the captain's table for that evening's gala dinner. This is quite an honor, though I did not know why we were among the eight guests. I wore a necktie and jacket, as required, and we arrived promptly.

The ship was rocking some. We were going through a little weather. I had thrown up after breakfast. Before dinner the ship's doctor paid me a visit, examined me and gave me a Dramamine.

I had been seasick only once before in my life, in my youth, when I was a scullion (the lowest form of marine life) aboard the SS Monterey in a true gale in the Tasman Sea.

The captain was an Italian, splendid in his dress blues. He told us he had a Dutch-Indonesian wife and lived in South Pasadena, which made him a neighbor of ours. I sat directly across from the captain, and did my best to appear soigne.

I took part in some charming conversation with the captain and then I turned my head to the right. I had had only a sip or two of wine, but suddenly I was violently ill. In a moment I threw up on the captain's table.

The captain said nothing, but he looked astonished. My wife rushed to my side with a napkin. A dining room steward rushed to the other side with another napkin. To say that I was embarrassed hardly does justice to the horror of my situation.

My wife and the steward led me out and down in the elevator to our deck. The receptionist called the doctor. He arrived shortly, ordered me to take my pants down, and gave me an enormous injection in the rump.

That seemed to do the trick, but I was not about to return to the scene of my disgrace. However, my wife went back to finish her dinner.

We flew home on an Air France jet. I had two splits of champagne with lunch, but suffered no ill effects.

* Jack Smith's column is published Mondays.

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