Between Odessa And Piraeus

*I intended to be concerned with literary form in this series of reportage. I can see I have done better than I expected. At the moment, my problem is preserving the chronological order of events.Our departure from Odessa was marked by a small, insignificant in fact, incident, but a most telling one regarding the continuity of the revolutionary spirit among the Soviet Russian population. The protagonists of this incident are a common woman and myself. On Pushkinskaia Street, swept by the wind and by whirls of snow, where we were both looking for a hard-to-find sledge, I happened to hail the same "izvozchik" at more or less the same time as her. I had however been the first, something the woman hadn't noticed, and I was too much in a hurry to afford being gallant. So, seeing that the driver too was giving me priority, I got on the sledge. "Intelligentsia," I could then hear in a shrill shout behind me.I turned: the woman was shaking her fist at me.Swallow that for your cold, my old bezprizonii ("vagabond child") of yore! This will serve you as a lesson if you might try again, by means of these izvovchiks, to make yourself accepted by those who have shed their blood to get rid of the rapacious intelligentsia.I'm still haunted by the image of that woman over whom I triumphed shamefully, abandoning her in the middle of that deserted street in Odessa on the 23rd of December last year. She might have been in all sorts of trouble."She may have been looking for a doctor for her sick child!" I said to Kazantzakis on the boat, when I told him about the sledge incident. And, looking around me, I felt that I indeed had the air of somebody belonging to the intelligentsia. We were travelling first class, having, like some Turkish commanders, a four bed cabin all to ourselves, due to the fact that we were guests, which entitled us to a fifty percent reduction, but also to the fact that the first class was basically empty. (Actually they owed us this favour: were we not "the Bolshevik agents sent by Moscow to Greece to start a revolution," as the royalist Greek press would write later?).Of course the first class on Soviet ships is modest, just as everything is modest in the land of the universal proletariat. However, given that I'd almost always been a fare dodger, that I should be able to look out through the porthole of "my room" (please!) was belittling me in my own eyes. The woman's shout was still resounding in my ears. I had been more sure on my feet before, when, shivering near the first class cabins, I could only look in through the porthole, and thought, full of respect, of those who always look from the outside at the comfort of everything that "first class" means: theirs is the duty to dispose of the social classes.Although it is the end of December, the weather is mild. Thick hoar-frost. The Black Sea and the Archipelago are nice to our brave Cicerin and do not rock our poor stomachs too hard, thus allowing us to write. Kazantzakis, his articles for Proïa, and me, the lecture I was supposed to give in Athens (something I will do if I'm really pushed, otherwise these lectures are a dreaded chore for me and I avoid them as much as possible). I've always found audiences, with their hundreds of eyes, "breathtaking." But there are moments when you have to resign yourself, though I could predict that the Athenian proletariat would be watching me closely for the whole duration of my speech about the Soviet Union.In order to be able to scribble down our impressions, we turned the beautiful dining room into a study, which I infest with the smoke of my cigarettes. We are allowed to do this because the comrades on duty are very nice. Polite and silent, they come and go with light steps, delicate like those of some maidens, prompt in their work and without any thought of reward, since the tip has been done away with in the USSR. One gloomy morning, I find myself in Constantinople, the Constantinople of Mustafa Kemal, which is totally unknown to me. And from "my berth," from "my cabin" – oh, whimsical Gods of vagabonds! – I can now feel the most voluptuous port of our Orient, with the breath of its slow life. In the stillness of the ship, I overhear, like in a dream, a leisurely conversation between two Turks and the water rippling against a boat right underneath my open porthole. A melodious sizzling reaches me, and then a tempting smell of fried fish tickles my nostrils. They come from floating kitchens, modest and prompt providers for the stevedores. I can imagine them with their eyes on the provisions distributed all around them, in exchange for a piastre, by their bony, hairy, energetic and good hands. I can see the olives cornet, the sliced bread and the sliced cheese. I think of the fine silhouette of the Saint Sophia minarets, of the Galata tower, of the dozens of fishermen rocking in their boats. That is my whole Istanbul, eternity. I immediately hear "aman," the wailing that is so similar to its breathing. And still, the new times have brought a change. The cooks no longer fry their fish at the bottom of the boat, on a small manganese oven, but on a "Primus" stove, whose monotonous, irritating sound bothers me.But alas!, this is not the only novelty Kemal Pasha has introduced in his country, for, when glancing thorough the porthole, my bewildered eyes are met by the sight of a fez-less Istanbul, an Istanbul with hats, ungraceful caps that my good Turkish friends – the cooks, fishermen, stevedores – bear, tolerate, with resigned looks on their faces, without remembering the picturesque turban that once brightened up the Bosphorus area.Resign yourselves, you who have never known that Istanbul, and content yourselves with guessing its charms by admiring the pictures that immortalised it!"Yes, but… If Kemal has taken away its charm, he's given it life instead. Look: we're during the Ramadan and I can drink and smoke in full daylight, just like you. Look at our women: they can show their faces, not a nun-like hood."This was an answer I got from an employee of the Soviet Legation in Constantinople when I returned from Athens at the end of February.And Kemal's admirer added: "Is it not worth giving up the turban for the sake of a beautiful woman's face and a full stomach?""Oh yes, just as a mass was not really worth giving up… Paris**!"And, to show my allegiance to Mr Kemal's reform, I buy from the fez-less Turkish cooks bread, cheese, fried fish, and I lick my fingers and my lips. Seeing me, Kazantzakis says:"You will never be a civilised man…"And here is a first aspect of today's Greece: Thessalonica. Short stop of the ship. Police come on board. They wear clean clothes and work calmly, without stress, following the example of their Turkish counterparts, which is new to me. The doctor, a young man with an intelligent look in his eyes, examines us courteously. None of them looks at us with hatred: we're just the poor "Muscovite" pilgrims. I'm happy to see that, especially as we shouldn't forget that we are in a country where chauvinism and bigotry feel at home, from the bottom to the top of the social ladder. We're going to take a short walk through the town, just to stretch our legs, buy some newspapers, and have a Turkish coffee. In front of a newsagent's I suddenly shout:"L'Humanité!""It's forbidden!""Oh!"Kazantzakis whispers in my ear:"You'll find it in Athens. Here, in this big working centre, communism is really giving the government a hard time."And I buy several Greek newspapers, among which Elefteron Vima, which shows us the sad list of those exiled for political reasons, indicating the islands where the Greek bourgeoisie allows them to relax.Excerpted from: The Man With No Allegiances, Istros Publishing House, 1996
* Published in Monde, July 7, 1928, No. 5, and dated by Panait Istrati: "Yalta (Crimea), March 1928."** Reference to Henry IV's words – "Paris vaut bien une messe!" – by which he was renouncing, in 1593, the Protestant faith in favour of the Catholic one, meeting thus one of the main conditions for his recognition as a king by the majority of the French population. 

by Panait Istrati (1884-1935)