Istanbul - Spy movie theme music begins to play in my head as I board the train at Sirkeci Terminal in Istanbul. My sleeper compartment is just like the one James Bond had in the movie From Russia With Love.
The distinctive red-and-cream-coloured arborite panelling on the compartment walls give it that swank 60s look. Black-and-white checkerboard vinyl floor tiles accentuate the atmosphere. And I’m on the exact same route: Istanbul to Zagreb.
What might be the best fight scene ever – Bond versus the evil Spectre agent – was filmed in this second and finest of all 007 movies. And here I am, perhaps in the very same compartment, looking out the very same window.
I climb into my bunk and soon fall into a deep sleep. In my dreams, blond Bond girl Tatiana smiles teasingly as she makes a pitcher of martinis.
But Tatiana disappears when a loud banging suddenly begins. I open the compartment door to investigate, and a blast of cold air hits. At the end of the car, the door of the train is swinging on its hinges and colliding with the door jam.
“These doors fasten tight,” I think. “You can’t open them while the train is moving, unless.... No, it can’t be. The Cold War has been over for more than 15 years.”
I edge back to my tiny room. Safely inside, I latch the door and pull the covers over my head.
At 4 am, there’s a loud knock at the door. A man in military attire barks some sort of order at me and points toward the door at the end of the car. Outside the window, I can see people, half-asleep, walking sombrely along the train platform.
I ask one of them, a young half-dressed, German woman, why we have to get off the train. Trembling, she shakes her head in silence and keeps walking.
As we march, shivering, along the ramp toward a darkened building on the other side of the tracks, I think of the movie Midnight Express. They must be looking for drugs. My heart pounding, I feel my pockets, check the locked zipper on my knapsack. Then I remember I don’t use drugs.
The entire trainload of perhaps 100 people parade into the dark building, where we’re told to form a line. Standing in the cold, I realize that the life of a secret agent isn’t all its cracked up to be.
Then a light comes on inside an adjoining area. A curtain is pulled aside, revealing a counter behind which a man with a cigarette dangling from his mouth is sitting. He wants to see our passports.
Sighs of relief fill the room. We won’t be shot, tortured or buggered. We’re at the Turkish frontier, the last stop before entering Bulgaria. Instead of getting on the train to check visas, like everywhere else in the world, the Turkish border police make everyone get off the train and come to them.
The smoke-puffing official pounds away with his rubber stamp. He doesn’t check entry visa stamps. He doesn’t compare passport photos with the faces of the travellers carrying them. He doesn’t bother to look at the fronts of the passports to see in what country they were issued.
If Midnight Express’s drug-packing Billy Hayes were on this train, he’d get through with no difficulty. Hell, we all could have gone through with bags filled with drugs, guns or anything else we’d chosen to smuggle out.
The fast-stamping border guard just wants to get us the hell back on the train and out of Turkey.
An hour later, as the sun begins to rise, my fantasy girl Tatiana at my side, we start westward toward Sofia, Bulgaria.
Sleepless but excited, the phantom blond and I look out the train window, watching for old missile silos the Russians may have forgotten to deactivate at the end of the Cold War.