Adults on Vacation
It’s dawn. My head is in the trash.
Semana Santa—Spain’s religion-flavored spring break—was supposed to be like finding land. I was going to faceplant there and press my lips to it, crying with relief. Santorini was the destination, with my friend from high school as my partner in solitude. We were going to lie on the beach and read and listen to the water, like adults on vacation.
I would toplessly inhabit a sparsely populated shore. Now, there are tears, but it’s the strangled-out, bewildered kind when you’re vomiting into your little plastic trashcan alone in your room alone in a country whose language you cannot speak alone because you probably ate some bad octopus last night when you bought dinner because you were trying to make everyone happy. Now, Andrew’s cold has gone colder and screwed up the pressure in his ears, so no flying, doctor’s orders.
It’s dawn. My body is a crime scene. Orifices loosing myriad liquids (a farce). The seven-hour bus ride to Madrid is not going to happen, though Andrew and I exchange Facebook-message wishes for miracles.
A seven-hour bus ride happens. The singular vomfest must have been the final cleansing necessary for my miraculous recovery. (Andrew’s never came.) A long-haired, sandalwood-scented Spaniard sits next to me on the bus. He opens a book titled TANTRA. As with any situation that involves sitting next to someone with whom I might share accidental erotic touching, I spend a good deal of time trying to gauge his level of attractiveness without looking directly at him. Finally, I fall asleep, my face wrapped like Tut in my musty jacket.
The alarm sounds and I only desire to skip the Greece thing and spend Semana Santa clinging to this comfortable bed that does not belong to me. I stayed up too late booking hostels for Athens and Santorini, then scouring dim cabinets for stain remover as I wondered if I would ever grow up. I tell Andrew that I bled on his navy blue couch cover. At first he stares blankly at me, then he catches on, mentioning that he’d been needing to wash the thing anyway.
I don’t think about money worries or a dwindling clothes supply or how I will safely get to my hostel upon my midnight arrival in Athens. I’d forgotten what it was like, flying with a real airline. A high-def infomercial of Swiss chocolate, wine, a little sandwich containing bright green lettuce and tongue-pink, peppered meat. Resting my head on the cushion behind, I watch an animated family. They stoically expand their life vests (which are located directly below the seat) and plunge into a random body of water.
He speaks fast, making his words piggyback between great intakes of breath. I swear he has an accent—Eastern European?—but he says he’s from Michigan.
This feels like the fifth time I’ve tried to explain, and I’m mixing up my own story. I was thankful for his eagerness to help; now I’m delirious and begin to wonder if I’m starring in a Taken sequel. Plot featuring an underground, hostel-managers-and-taxi-drivers-who-team-up-to-rip-off-young-women-traveling-alone band of thieves.
“Look,” I say. “Let me just…draw you a picture.” I use a blank corner of the scratch paper that we’ve been going back and forth on in sloppy, embarrassingly basic-but-fruitless math. “Let’s just take this back to the beginning, back to the fundamentals. Erase everything from your mind. Everything I’ve said.”
The hostel manager nods, “Okay, okay, yeah, do that.”
I wave my hand like I’m indicating a sunset or a peaceful greeting to aliens. “Pretend you know nothing. This is the first time I’m telling you this. These are the simple facts of the matter.” I draw an Amish-looking stick figure with a beard and a hat. “This is the taxi driver. Here’s me,” I say, and draw a stick girl with a 60s flip-out across from the Amish stickman, though my hair has never done this in real life except once in third grade at the hair salon. “See? Sweet, innocent girl.” I draw a big D smile on her circle face and Michigan Hostel Boy giggles. My account comes out like a mind-boggling textbook diagram with arrows and numbers, but it’s clear in my head:
When the plane landed, I withdrew 300 EUR from an ATM in 50 EUR bills and put it in my wallet; this was supposed to last me the remainder of my trip. Separate from this 300 EUR, there was a 20 EUR bill and some euro coins hanging out in the outside pocket of my purse, so that I could pay for transportation to my hostel without having to break into a wad of bigger bucks in the presence of other, possibly unsavory individuals. I took the X95 bus to Syntagma Square, to avoid the 50 EUR fee for a taxi from the airport at such an hour. At Syntagma Square, I caught the first taxi in line, making sure to ask him how much it would cost to get to my hostel. It sounded like he said, “14.71,” which, in retrospect, is a strange number to give and might’ve prompted me to ask for a clearer answer, but I rarely use taxis, and I was very tired, and, well, language barriers.
It was strange, staring out through the windshield. Fluorescent building signs, traffic lights, taxis. B.C. stone structures where I pictured toga-clad men once gathering in thong sandals and leafy crowns to cast the first votes. (It was also surprisingly taxing, as I was calling forth images from a very limited supply of historically inaccurate mental stock photos I’d labeled Ancient Greece and it had been a while since I’d seen Troy.)
“Why you go to Santorini by yourself? Tell me! It is [kissy noises]. It is for the honeymoon.”
It seemed like a rhetorical question, but I responded anyway. “I know, I’m going to the most romantic Greek island alone. That’s awesome.”
Some ruins glowed from a hilltop. The driver hummed to his radio, accelerating through a mosaic of lights. I felt how out of place I was. A vibrant, pleasing sense of being totally lost. Available to all possibilities.
We got to a quiet street and stopped, but I couldn’t see anything resembling a hostel. I craned my neck from the backseat. “Are you sure this is the right place?”
“This is the street and the address you give.”
I asked how much it was, and he pointed to a digital number on the dash that may have been a clock. “This much.” Nineteen something.
That felt unnecessarily vague, but I handed him the twenty.
This is when his English began to mysteriously deteriorate. His needy noises indicated that I was still short, and he held up the bill I had just given him.
I deflated. I could’ve sworn—“Wait…But, didn’t I just give you…?” It was a five euro bill in his hand.
Something was awry, but I couldn’t figure it out just now because he was mumbling something about “more” and “coins” and an s-word I didn’t recognize that I thought may have been Greek for “change.”
“Uh…how much more do I owe you?” I began gathering more euro coins from my outside pocket, shaking my head. “I don’t…” I knew this wouldn’t amount to nineteen, so I went into my wallet and pulled out the only other kind of bill I had: a fifty. But even as I brought it out, I had that sinking feeling, and I didn’t want to hand it over. “What do you want?” I said. “Just tell me how much I owe you.”
Still with the inhospitable mumbles, he handed me various bills.
I stared at the cash piled in my hands. “Uh,” I said.
“This good for you?” he said, rushed, like he couldn’t waste another second sitting in this taxi with me.
“I guess…” But I didn’t move.
He huffed, and swung his door open, walking fast around the back of the vehicle. I thought he might be coming around to toss me by the lapels onto the sidewalk, but he only yanked my door open. I stuffed the bills into my purse like used tissues while trying to exit quickly. He hopped to the trunk, spirited my bags to the doorstop, threw his palm out like “Here! See?,” then fast-motioned it back to his car. I was left, stunned, on the sidewalk.
I allowed myself a few still moments of bemused whatthefuckery before worrying about whether I’d just been hustled and dropped off in the middle of nowhere on an abandoned street in a not-quite-first-world country. I turned to the door behind me, the word “shit” forming colorfully in my mind. Then I saw it, the name of the hostel penned next to a button. I pressed it and Michigan Hostel Boy materialized.
“I was beginning to think this place wasn’t actually in existence,” I said, relieved.
About five minutes later, I was still with MHB in his room signing forms. An electronic bird-squawking indicated someone’s arrival, and he excused himself. He came back looking concerned. “My boss says a taxi driver is on the phone? He’s saying a girl who just came in didn’t pay him…?”
“Oh no,” I say. “This guy. I have no idea what happened with him.” I look in my purse and see that I still have my fifty, plus the other bills he gave me. “I may not have, but he just like, rushed me out before I could think straight. I don’t even know…He’s probably right.” Before I could finish my explanation, the taxi driver was buzzed in.
He came up to me looking sort of hostile and frantic. “You don’t pay me!”
I put my hands out like, “Dude, I don’t know,” then pulled out the fifty euro bill and held it as if it were a fish I was using to pacify an animal that I wasn’t sure ate fish.
He plucked it from my fingers and hurried off, and MHB was like, “Did he just rip you off?” and I was like, “I mean. I don’t know, how much should a taxi from Syntagma Square be?”
“No more than ten or fifteen euros.”
I jetted back onto the street and scribbled his license plate on the underside of my forearm just as he was driving away, having recently read an article about “Taxi Cowboys” in Greece and how you can report them if they screw you over.
Now I make a whiny noise and prayer-bend over Michigan Hostel Boy’s check-in table. “Why?” I demand, shaking my fist to the heavens. “Why are people such assholes?”
He attempts consolation by offering that he dislikes the Greeks and that this is one of their behavioral motifs. “They’re not allowed to stay at the hostel.”
“Really? Why not?” Is that even legal?
“A group stayed one time, but then a computer got stolen, so…the owner won’t allow them to stay anymore. He’s Greek.”
Past three in the morning. I’m using the Internet in the common room. I confirm my suspicions that the taxi driver did something tricky with his fingers when I find an article titled “SURVIVING TAXIS IN ATHENS, GREECE.” Under the subsection beginning “Here is an anthology of how Athens taxi drivers have tried to fraudulently take my money over the years. Their inventiveness never ceases to amaze me!” I find, a mere four bullet points down, “He may exploit your confusion about the look and feel of euro currency, and he will produce a 5-euro bill in place of the 20-euro bill you thought you gave him, and claim that you gave him a 5-euro bill.” I feel a sense of affirmation that I can trust my intuition, mixed with a hunger for retribution. Send my dad a brief e-mail update with the subject line “Greece, where justice was born (and then died)…or something like that.” He responds:
“Be careful…eyes in the back of your head…trust no one…you will be safer in the long haul…enough paranoia…sorry to hear about your situation…look forward to more insight regarding all that has been going on…miss you…
I plan on showering, but there’s the couple sleeping in my room, and I’m already being noisy rustling through my backpack in the half-dark, which distracts me and makes me feel rushed, causing me to forget the fifty cents for the water heater. I settle for flossing. I shut both of the sliding doors, but drunk people don’t take hints, and a guy comes to piss. He’s from Brazil. Jovial, apologetic, symmetrical. I continue to floss. He asks which island I’m going to, if I’ve already booked the ferry, and I say that no, I’m going to a travel agency tomorrow. He extends an invitation to visit Mykonos with him and his friends if Santorini doesn’t work out. I say sure, wanting nothing more than to be left alone after twenty-four years of having travel buddies.
He’s washing his hands, about to leave. “Which room are you staying in? Upstairs or downstairs?”
“Upstairs,” I lie, not entirely sure why, except that the events leading up to right now have made me acutely aware of being by myself in a hostel bathroom with a drunk guy, in a country where my sole human ally is the nineteen-year-old hostel manager from Michigan whose first response upon hearing I spoke some Spanish was to tell me he had a cat in his pants.
I lie down on the bottom bunk in the same clothes, pulling the wool blanket over my head. Halfway through the night I’m the kind of cold that makes you feel like you haven’t slept at all. I get up, wishing I hadn’t believed the sign that said, “Keep This Door Closed—Heater is On!” and so turned down Michigan Hostel Boy’s offer for a second blanket. I creep toward the female sleeping stranger, holding my breath as I lean nearer in the dark. From her unoccupied top bunk, I steal the blanket, then use it to try and make myself disappear.
When I wake up, the couple is gone. I’m thankful for this, and for MHB telling me not to worry about being gone by check-out time if I wanted to sleep in, then loaning me his soap, homemade by the hostel owner. I tiptoe, having also neglected to bring shower shoes, and try to wash the most important parts before the timed hot water supply runs out. The olive oil bar melts into a goo that I’m not sure cleans anything. When I increase the water pressure without holding the nozzle, it writhes free from its hook like a cobra and slaps me in the face. I implement a one-hand lather and finish rinsing just as the water turns icy, thinking this was a suspiciously short eight minutes.
Having surrendered my only clean outfit to a wastebasket in Andrew’s bathroom, I change into a dirty pair of jeans and brown tank top. My TOMS, which I’ve all but slept in during the past forty-eight hours, have taken on a smell of Rice Chex and human suffering. The only thing I can think of is that luxurious return flight, but I don’t realize how miserable I am until I grow nostalgic for the “comforts” of Huelva, where I often covered my body with dirty laundry piles in our unheated piso in order to bear the wet cold of winter nights and paid a monthly fee of fifty-seven euros so that I could enjoy hot showers at a public gym. (It’s purportedly the cancer capital of Spain, but the beaches in summertime are lovely!)
“It’s all Greek to me.” The adage is flavorless to me as processed cheese—until I try to navigate a Hellenic map. I’m not directionally gifted, and maps in general make me nervous, but this is absurd. I would be hopeless if it weren’t for Michigan Hostel Boy—or Howard, as I’ve learned his name to be—who schools me and then quizzes me on how to get to the travel agency. He also gives me a tip on how to avoid getting ripped off again. I follow his advice and pretend to be working for a hostel, looking for the cheapest ferry prices to promote to its patrons until, halfway through, pretending that the tickets are not for me becomes too confusing and, besides, the travel agency lady seems really nice. Since today’s only Santorini-bound ferry left at seven something this morning, and since there are no ferries Saturday early enough to get me back to Athens for my flight, I ask her about other islands, ones where I can stay for a solid four nights.
At the hostel, I research the small, nearby a-word island offered as an option, the ferry for which leaves at five-thirty this afternoon. When the “zero people have reviewed this” suggests that no one may actually inhabit the island or its pair of hostels, I resign myself to a vacation in Athens. At this point, rest and solitude are what appeal to me most, and I would rather be done with location switching and relax in one place, using the money I would’ve spent on ferries to stay in a real hotel.
“How would you say, ‘I have a cat in my pants and it’s homeless?’”
I repeat the phrase in Spanish for Howard from my spot on the couch.
“This is good,” he says, snickering as he types it into a text message.
I scribble it on a small piece of paper for future reference.
Tengo un gato en mis pantelones y es sin techo.
He seems delighted at seeing it written out, having been relying on a solely phonetic grasp of the words until now, and remarks on some of the spellings he hadn’t been aware of. He thanks me and returns to his room.
I research hotels most of the day, obsessively comparing prices and reviews from different booking websites. Howard’s reminded me that I can just stay here, but I’m determined to make my next four nights pleasant and comfortable and full of sweet solitude. For fifteen gleeful minutes, I consider blowing all my money on a four-star hotel that provides a bathrobe and slippers before laughing aloud and exing out of the window. Finally, a quaint-looking two-star hotel near the center, located on a big hill. Reviews report peaceful balcony views of the Acropolis and one makes it out to be a diamond-in-the-rough full of “the beautiful people.” Supposedly it’s where all the visiting models stay. But most importantly, peaceful.
Back from the police station, I’ve given up on justice and my thirty euros. I hear a couple arrive to check in. A French guy and his Mexican girlfriend. I take a moment, sitting alone in the common room, to remember French guys. French food. France! It almost hurts. But I’m in Athens; so I try to be in Athens.
When Howard learns the girl’s nationality, he says, “Oh!” and slowly iterates the earlier-learned phrase with nearly unrecognizable pronunciation. The girl laughs hollowly. I cringe and cover my face, secretly fearing the trio will enter the room and Howard will reveal me as the source of his knowledge, leaving me to guffaw in the sheepish panic of someone who has unknowingly taught the term “blow job” to her little cousin just in time for Thanksgiving brunch with his born-again parents.
Before leaving, I visit my buddy in his room.
“You know Charmed? The T.V. show Charmed?” he asks.
“Wow, I haven’t seen that show since, like, middle school! But…yes, actually.”
“You know that girl. The sister. Phoebe. You know Phoebe?”
“I can never remember which is which, did she play Tony Danza’s daughter on ‘Who’s The Boss?’?”
“Yeah, that one. Her. You look like that one. Just like her.”
“Thanks,” I say.
“You look exactly like her.” He’s beaming at me.
It reminds me of that one time in my small college town when a deaf Wal-Mart cashier wrote on the back of my receipt, “You look like an actress—Rachel McAdams,” in that it’s clearly disconnected from reality, and the most endearing thing I have ever heard.
He asks me what kind of music I like. “Britney Spears?” he offers.
“Uh…sure. I mean, some of her newer stuff. Britney’s got a certain charm to her.”
“Avril Lavigne?” “Yeah,” I say, drawing the word out uncertainly. “…Okay, yeah. ‘Complicated’ was like my favorite song back in sixth grade.”
“Yeah, she’s got that melody, you know? Like, other singers do good songs, but she’s got that different melody, you know?”
“Yeah,” I say. I have no idea.
He explains that he didn’t start listening to music as early as everyone else did, an apology.
“Are you from one of those crazy religious families?” I asked him earlier today after finding out he was from a family of eight children. Now I’m inclined to stay and inquire the age of his parents, if he was homeschooled, what he does for fun on Friday nights. To discuss the morality of legalized prostitution, about which he’s asked my opinion with sincere curiosity. But it’s getting late, so I hug him instead and walk out into the rain.
I’m buzzed in as if by a phantom. I stand in the personless hotel lobby for a few moments thinking I may be descending the hill and spending my night in one of the bars I saw from the taxi (this time, a quiet white-haired driver who asked me no questions, played oldies my dad probably has in his iTunes library, and shrugged good naturedly when I tried to advise him on a route using my map and borrowed street pronunciations; he did not overcharge me). Soon a round, bearded man with severe eyebrows who appears to have jogged here materializes with a key.
“Perhaps tomorrow we switch you to room with the view.”
He’s referring to what I wrote in the blank space for special requests in my online reservation, but there are curtains, wooden floors, rugs, teacups, rich red walls. “No, no, this is fine,” I say, waving him away.
When he leaves, I go to the balcony and look out at the lights emitted by the shoulder-to-shoulder buildings. I survey the bathroom, squeeze the pillows, and do a victory dance from one clean bed to the other.
By the time I’ve had my fill of sleep, showering, and lounging around in the nude, it’s afternoon, so I keep my goals simple. In a corner shop I buy toothpaste, Nivea cream, and a box of suspiciously miniature tampons. After locating a real grocery store, I realize I’m lost. It’s twilight and I haven’t yet decided if I’m comfortable enough here to be alone in the streets after dark, so I ask a woman with a child hanging all around her for directions and she refers me to Passing Guy from Ghana. He tries to follow me, won’t leave me alone, so I have to lose him, not sure if he’ll let me. “I just want to be your friend!” he says. I surprise myself by becoming so angry that I nearly burst into tears.
In my hotel room, it’s quiet. It’s always quiet here, except for the occasional impassioned yelling in Greek. I figured this was just a blockbuster stereotype, but it seems like I’ve encountered more letting-it-all-hang-out emotional ferocity here than in any other place. (At one point, I walk into a store just as a bitter spat is coming to a ceasefire and a man disappears downstairs. I try to browse the clothing rack while a hefty woman weeps into a handkerchief at the checkout desk, but it doesn’t feel right, so I leave.)
I make myself a desktop feast, tearing off hunks of sesame bread loaf and coating them with baba ghanouj or chocolate tahini. I drink a dark, sweet wine that burns and milk from the bottle. I take some of this outside and sit at my balcony table, turning it to face endless stacks of old, square apartment structures. (I will feel nostalgic about right now.) Air so mild I can lounge barefoot. The giant silence of the buildings, like I’ve wandered up to a cluster of abandoned ships. Still, I feel antsy, waiting for something more. Voices from the room next door sound American, male and female arguing. I imagine a boyfriend and girlfriend or a group of twenty-somethings and sordid backstories, then realize it’s just a mother and son. I play music videos on my laptop, songs with titles like “Heart’s a Mess” and “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go.” Will somebody hear this, recognize the music, and come out to the balcony? (Be present. Be present.) A conversation from below—two women having a money tiff. One of them has an accent I don’t recognize; the other might be American. The heavily accented woman is saying, You know me. Then, later, when it seems they’ve made up, This bread is from Israel, so it’s very expensive. More silence, I try to write. I think how purifying it is, this view and night, and immediately feel magnetically pulled to take a screen shot of it on my computer and post it to Facebook. Decide I’ll hate myself if I do that, wonder: Why can’t I just be alone, sans documentation of being alone, sharing my aloneness with an audience? Fight reflexes to sign onto Facebook. Search The Hairpin for new Edith C. Werdiger comic strips to make me feel at home and human…none. Sign onto Facebook, find everything unchanged, feel lonelier than before. Fantasize about moving to New York, post status about wanting to find a job in the big big city this summer while having no practical clue as to how. Try Facetiming home, regret it as soon as it begins to ring, get relieved when nobody answers. Buzz from the too-strong wine. Construct plans like castles in my mind, plans I will never execute.
I Google: odd spas+Athens.
It’s how I come to spend my day at the Athens Fish Spa, letting a very small Greek lady walk on my back and tiny, toothless sea creatures eat away the dead skin from my feet. I look down at the fish in their glass tanks, swarming my callouses, and wonder if this is horribly cruel. But they go about their work, generously nibbling away, like it’s not a job at all but a free-for-all buffet.
I sigh. “Yeah, I love these little guys.”
The Greek lady gestures to her lip and says brightly, “They have mustache!”
After finishing her vegetarian sandwich, she writes down all the dishes and places I must try. She’s fasting until the Greek Orthodox Easter and demonstrates how much she misses meat with a pouncing claw-motion before crying “I will eat [the cat, a white cartoon-star sasspuff whose name I forget as soon as I’m told it]!” I apologize to the pedicurist, explaining that the black toenail is from running. She smiles, and I sense that she has no idea what I am saying. The Filipino-Greek manager—who is younger than me and has the ability to transition gracefully between hospitable professional and slumber party gal pal—gives me the lowdown on Greek men (fine, but most of the well-dressed ones are gay?) and asks me if I met any boys over the holidays in Paris (one of her fantasy vacation destinations). I give my e-mail address in case anyone decides to visit the south of Spain and we all hug before I go. After buying a pair of gold, orthopedic sandals from the market to show off a coral polish that matches my dress almost perfectly, I dine. On the fluffiest, most heartwarming courgette meatballs, from the most visually dynamic plate of food, made by a Greek man who gives me free wine, makes casual reference to our future wedding, and says, “Here, sit down, love. Now I will cook for you.”
I’m fiddling with my camera after taking video footage of the square, near the market with its closing fruit stands and African men throwing glow-toys that zip up through the air like little spaceships above the crowd. I’ve barely made eye contact with him long enough after seeing him to have an impression. But brains and eyes work fast, so there is this: The register of a peer-age, possibly attractive male walking toward me, alone and so less threatening, eating and so more approachable. Though I don’t have enough time to approach him, even if I were planning on it.
“Let me take your picture,” he offers.
I stutter. Is he trying to steal my camera? He’s saying something, perhaps about my outfit and coordinating location being picture worthy. (I’ve given up trying to tell people that I always dress like this, that I happen to find maxi dresses incredibly versatile for their embodiment of elegance, comfort, and simplicity. That I genuinely enjoy gold headpieces. That I’ve never before worn a beret in France, I swear.)
He pulls out his iPhone.
“Oh, you want to take a picture of me? With your—um, okay, sure.” I grin a real grin.
He strikes me as familiar. Calming. I ask him if he knows the way to get into the A for Athens bar, then migrate to the usual list of questions. He apologizes for eating, saying he’d shake my hand otherwise; we shake elbows instead. He’s twenty-eight, a filmmaker. Am I meeting people at A for Athens?
“No, not really. No.”
“So you’re alone.”
“Yes,” I say. “Do you always get ripped off by taxis here?”
“Yes.” He’s about to get a beer if I want to.
“I’ll grab a beer,” I say, as if compromising, “but then I’m going to A for Athens.”
He says okay, like I’m not going to fight you on it.
We’re walking through one of those construction-pending sidewalks with walls that look like they’ve been made from old pipes and duct-taped monkey bars. “Where is this beer we’re getting?”
He laughs. “Don’t worry, I’m not going to attack you. I’m just getting some from the kiosk.”
Sorry, I say, and explain that when you’re traveling, everyone is a suspect.
“I’m a traveler, too, so I understand.”
I say something about sticking out.
“That’s why I had to take a picture of you,” he says. “Your—”
We show up at the little stand and he buys two cans. “It’s a welcome beer, you don’t have to pay.”
I hadn’t been planning on it, but I consider that him feeling the need to specify might be indicative of a more evolved socialization—that by him putting into the realm of possibility me paying for my own beer, he’s sort of saying we could be just buds, which both speaks well of his view of women and keeps him a pleasing distance from Creepy Greek Wooing Guy cliché.
He turns onto a side street. “If you don’t mind, we can go back here and sit down somewhere.”
I say as long as he promises not to murder me.
He laughs. “I’m normal!” he says, which I recognize as the likely defense of many serial killers throughout history, but I’m feeling upbeat.
“Where have you traveled to?” I ask.
“Most recently, the States and Brazil.”
I ask why he was in the States. He tells me for a film festival—Sundance—where a movie he worked on was showing. This makes him seem more trustworthy. While I don’t believe that someone’s degree of talent necessarily correlates to that of his professional success or critical acclaim, I’m comforted to hear that his artistic pursuits have been recognized by a well-known film festival, legitimizing his claim to being a filmmaker and letting me know that he hasn’t loosely defined himself as such because he spends his spare time shooting YouTube confessionals. I make a mental note to Google confirm his identity.
We talk about the first time he traveled—as a teenager, a cruise with his father and his father’s girlfriend. I ask about Greece’s divorce rate (a theme with me, as if knowing the shelf life of a country’s marriages is key to discovering its capacity for happiness). He says he thinks he’d be smart to never get married.
“So, is the girlfriend your father has now the same girlfriend he had on the cruise?”
“Of course not,” he says wryly. “Why you want to go to such a posh place as A for Athens?”
“Is it posh? I don’t know anything about this place. That’s what I’ve realized. I’m walking around, and I know nothing about the culture.”
“Tell me what you want to know about Greek culture.”
“What’s with this fascination with gothicism?” I’m referring to the anarchist/music posters I’ve seen posted up along the sidewalks near my hotel with blown-up pictures of raised fists or X-eyed dolls keeled over. I’m referring to my occasional sense of being an extra in a KORN video.
“Listen, there are different parts of Athens, and you’re in a part where the communist left settled down. In different areas, you get something different.” Like, he goes on, in A for Athens—silver spoons.
“I’d like to find a less touristy place,” I say, expecting him to invite me along, maybe introduce me to his friends. Greek peers. Artists! I ask if he’s fasting from meat.
“I just ate a beef kebab.” He keeps using his large, dark eyes in a deadpan way that disarms me.
“Oh. Yeah. So, do most people do it?”
“It just depends on how traditional you are.” He looks at a message on his phone. “Listen,” he says, “I have to go.”
Does he not realize that this is a rare opportunity? Or has the isolation of my vacation made me reek of overeager availability?
“Oh,” I say.
Maybe I look like a child who’s just been told it’s only a display dessert, because he adds, “But, tomorrow—well, tomorrow, I’m very busy. But, take my e-mail, or—”
“It’s fine, don’t worry about it. I’ll just give you my e-mail, and if you want to e-mail me, do. If not, that’s cool.”
He holds his iPhone at the ready to type in my info. I smirk and spell out my e-mail address, expecting him to never contact me.
“So,” he says, “may I say goodbye with a kiss?”
This shouldn’t surprise me, but it does. Few things are more disappointing than when a promising person ruins it by coming on too strong before there’s been ample time for me to weigh the attraction, analyze its properties. And twenty minutes is really cutting it close.
“I don’t know, I feel like maybe that would…cheapen everything we just did.” But it’s very hard for me to pass up new experiences, and I might not meet another Greek man on this trip who I would feel even slightly open to touching mouths with. I’m still attached to my impression of him leading up to this point. As far as humanity goes, he falls into that relatively rare category of people who I’m drawn to viscerally and instantaneously—people I get, or feel that I do, in a way that gives me a sense of ownership of or belonging to them—a category that is not easily added to in any place, but that is especially difficult to add to in cultural and linguistic isolation.
I exercise a bad habit of sifting through my indecisiveness aloud. “Then again, we will probably never see each other again, right?” (Exactly the carpe diem reasoning—on a Paris sidewalk, my only Christmas away from home, another familiar-feeling person in an unknown place—that preceded the first time I ever stayed the night with a guy in Europe.) “And it is just a kiss.”
He agrees. (They always do.)
Garlicky. Soft. I pull away. “Hmm.”
“Is that enough? Do you want more?”
I cock my head and look skyward, lips pursed, like I’ve just been asked if I want a large McFlurry for thirty cents more. “No,” I say finally, with cheer. “That’s good.”
He says he’d just like to taste my tongue a little.
I should tell him that it probably tastes just like his, as I’ve had no access to a toothbrush after many mouthfuls of hummus, but instead I shrug. A tongueless kiss does seem somehow incomplete, like you’re not giving it a fair shot.
We try again. It’s simply too soon for me to be into it, at least at this level of sobriety. While I’m sorting thoughts, his vigor is increasing, and, as unequal levels of enthusiasm are wont to do, his detracts from mine, begins to skeeve me out. I pull away and say, “Okay, that’s enough,” almost adding a good old American, “Thanks!”
He steals kisses on my neck, nibbles my ear. Maybe it won’t be enough for him, I think. There is dim lighting, graffiti, us. In my stomach, a tickle of panic that I have made some irreversible mistake. Then he hops up and strolls away suddenly. I feel ambivalent but distinctly abandoned, sitting on the windowsill of an empty side street, alone again, but with a half-drunk beer and very smooth feet.
A weird name shows up in my inbox. Probably the taxi driver from last night.
A for Athens was predictable: marvelous view from a sky-high, ritzy locale abuzz with crowds and good swingy songs and lonesomemaking. I nosed around with my camera for a quarter of an hour until I wandered downstairs onto an empty site, which I was then politely asked to leave by a cocktail waitress. I considered calling it a night, then paid too much for a beer and sat by myself eating bar nuts for another quarter of an hour. Back down at the tip of the taxi line, I found a twentysomething driver who didn’t look like he was from Greece. I refused to get in the vehicle until he agreed to a flat fee that sounded reasonable. Dropping me at my hotel, he told me he was doing it because he liked me, not for the money, and didn’t charge me, but suggested getting coffee the next day while tracing a finger down my shoulder. I was ninety-nine percent certain I wasn’t romantically interested in him, but he was a person, and people are generally interesting, so I thought, hey, anything’s possible, and surrendered my e-formation. It was also a bit of self-deception, to avoid feeling guilty about failing to express a more cut-and-dry disinterest that may have resulted in having to pay.
When I open the e-mail, though, I see my picture attached and know it’s not the taxi driver. I read the subject heading—“Beautiful girl”—and recall that Greek men were ranked among the world’s worst lovers for being overly mushy. The message poses a question: “Do you wanna see me before you leave?”
A Google search of his name yields an IMDb profile. But this could be an incredibly common name in Greece. I’m not content until I recognize a photo of him from the film festival with a matching name in the caption.
I respond, “Depends. What are your conditions?”
When I get out of the shower, he’s sent, “no conditions from my side. do you have any conditions..but i want to continue from the point i left..not in the street of course.”
I’m unsure of whether he’s saying that he wants to continue at the point of conversation where we left off, or he literally wants to continue from the point he left by meeting at that location. I respond—“I haven’t got any conditions at the moment, but that could always change.”—but, having seen firsthand the casualties that can result from attempting too much coyness with those who don’t share my native tongue, I keep the rest of the message straightforward, explaining my plans for the day and asking what time he wants to meet up.
He says he’ll get off work at 10pm “..and then we can drink something in my flat.”
I write, “22:00 works for me, but your flat does not.
I’d prefer to meet up in a public place. No offense to you, it’s just that you’re a relative stranger. How about we meet where you took my picture last night (across from A for Athens) and we can go somewhere from there?
Also, what time is it right now? I’m having trouble figuring out if my clock is synced with actual Greek time.”
Him: “the problem is that my day is already really hard. and at 22:00 i will be exhausted. in any case i would like to stay home cozy and cool..”
I scratch my chin at “cool,” since it actually feels quite chilly to me outside in the evenings, before moving onto more pressing considerations, like how he is failing this test. I send: “I’m sure there are plenty of cozy establishments with cheap drinks to help assuage your exhaustion…but, if you want to stay home, I won’t stop you. (I just won’t be joining you. )
Have a good night! Let me know if you ever come to Spain, and I’ll buy you a drink.”
Before I can decide if I’m justified in sending such closely-spaced emoticons to a mainly innocent bystander who has made not so much as a single emoticon-peep to deserve that kind of treatment, he responds.
“i am sorry but i can’t go out tonight. there is no reason to feel uncomfotable. i want to welcome you.” He gives his cell phone number (“if you change your mind later today or tonight”) and ends with, “i hope that you change your mind, it’s shame not to meet again.”
Me: “No worries, amigo. I don’t think I’ll change my mind, but even if I did, I can’t make calls from my cell here. If you change your mind, my number is (34)xxx.xxx.xxx. I think I can receive calls.
If not, thanks for the beer and the Greek culture lesson last night!”
I decide to leave it that way—our numbers playing chicken with each other—and sign out of my Gmail account.
I spend the rest of the day on Ermou, a shopping street. Go to a bakery and order a giant gooey brownie and a hunk of orange cake. Give most of orange cake to a pregnant gypsy who approaches for money. Watch an elderly gentleman wearing a headband dance with eerie, vacant-eyed passion in front of a clothes store while “Boom Boom Pow” blares from a nearby speaker. Film a passing group of protest marchers, who are headed by a loudspeaker-chanting old man and toting banners that mean nothing to me. Go to a touristy restaurant where the hostess cuts me a deal—fifteen euros for whatever I want. I consume a three-course meal and a pitcher of homemade wine. By candlelight glow I plan my final day and watch a Spanish family, eavesdropping (or pretending to).
My only time-related pressure since arriving here has been a self-imposed goal of not being in my room when housekeeping comes by. It’s a goal I have failed to achieve every time; and every time that I catch myself composing imaginary arguments against the cleaning lady’s silent judgments (What is she still doing in her room at 1pm naked and eating chocolate spread when all the other people are brushing off Acropolis dust from their 8AM tours? Not everyone gets to hop a plane to Athens on her vacation. What an ungrateful twat!) is another one pregnant with proof that I should not be passing the hours alone in my room, naked and eating chocolate spread. So, I decide to go to the National Museum this morning, and it makes me feel sincerely…bored. Bored, mainly, and tired. And relieved when I realize I’ve been to all the rooms and can walk outside now, satisfied to have pacified the cleaning lady.
I’m walking down Emmanuel Benaki for the last time, the artery of my Athens exploits, the reference point that always let me know I would find home. On the sidewalk, leaning back against a window ledge are two guys. They remind me of many people from my age bracket in that they’re sitting side-by-side, not talking, concentrated on something in their hands. But they aren’t texting. They’re holding syringes to their arms with calm concentration. I stop on this busy street, thinking—I don’t know, that they will look up, see me watching, and become appropriately startled that they are shooting up at noon on a busy street. But they just keep staring at their arms, silent, still. I look around for someone with whom I can share a “What the…?” glance. People pass me quickly, weaving by traffic-jammed cars, yelling over construction noises. I think, Perhaps they both have diabetes. Perhaps this is perfectly sound. Finally a senior citizen walks past and does a double take as he makes his way around the cars.
I continue walking, occasionally having to release my dress from being trapped in my luggage and hiked up into an obscene miniskirt. I’ve acquired more shit, and it’s weighing on me, the over-the-shoulder bag Andrew loaned me filled now and hanging across me like some diagonal suffocation device; a grocery sack filled with leftover eggplant dip, milk, bread loaf, and most of a bottle of wine that I have to hold upright by the neck because of my unreliable cork crafted from wadded up paper towel. (I like to give this kind of stuff to homeless people, because it appeals to my sense of efficiency while allowing me to entertain delusions of being charitable.) Midway through an intersection, my backpack unzips entirely, ejecting my papers-filled journal and tossing off my laptop cord to lie like innards in the street. The green running man has disappeared and I’m the last one crossing, frozen as I try to strategize the fastest way to gather everything with one free hand while avoiding the oncoming traffic. A man stops to collect my papers and picks up my water bottle, which is rolling away from the scene. I can only remember “yassas,” which, while conveniently multi-functioning as “hello” and “goodbye,” I don’t think I can hope to use as “thank you, what an oaf I feel like!” so I make meaningful eye contact and offer extravagant smile-nodding while ushering my armfuls to the sidewalk, where I regroup from a squatting position that minds my dress and a large gang of policemen situated directly across the street.
I’m reading on the metro to the airport. Beggars and performers hop off and on with regularity, so I don’t bother evaluating one man making his rounds until the woman sitting across from me makes an appalled tooth-sucking noise and searches her wallet for a coin. I don’t see anything exceptional about him until he turns around and reveals the source of his limp. Covering one engorged calf is a bright wound—a burn, by the looks—a pus-covered center layered with the colors of a fish sliced open, scabs and skin pieces that look stuck-on and in danger of bursting. My face tightens. I knew I wouldn’t give him money, but now I wonder. What I really want is to read my book and for him to go far away, where I don’t have to worry about his wound somehow brushing against my skin. I can’t stop looking at it, how ripe it is, how special-effects. I decide that he must keep the injury untreated as leverage and use the money for booze, because this isn’t a third-world country and surely they don’t just let people who want help stay that way. I stare into the leg, it repulses me, and I begin to direct a sense of disgust at the man for allowing himself to remain in such a state, a feeling not unlike the quiet outrage I experienced one Halloween during college, when a friend talked me into going to see the new Saw sequel. It was the only time I’d considered walking out of a theater on the grounds of moral repugnance. When the credits rolled, I was angry. Angry at its creation, angry that I’d paid to see it. The whole thing struck me as so unkind, the world being the way it was and all of us piling in to watch this for entertainment.
In the airport waiting room, the woman sitting across from me explains suicide to a little boy. I´ve been trying to figure out the relation—two women in their forties, English and Spanish respectively, and the kid. Are they a multicultural lesbian couple with their child? I don’t sense a romantic involvement, and, based on body language, the boy has a more intimate connection to the Spanish woman. Old friends? Or perhaps the English woman is a live-in tutor/nanny there for language exchange. She sounds like she’s still learning Spanish, but maybe it’s just the accent. Like a professor guiding student dialogue, she translates into English from a newspaper article she’s holding in her hands, reading from it slowly and offering straightforward replies to the child’s questions. A Greek man killed himself in the middle of a public square in Athens. How? Well, he shot himself through the head. With a gun. Why? Because he didn´t have money to pay for his food or house anymore. So he decided to end his life.
She mentions that a couple in the UK did the same thing when they could no longer pay their mortgage. “Money issues”—it sounds so mundane. I try to imagine the fear. How does one go about planning such an event? I picture a young couple. In debt, educated, jobless, turned social-activist extremists by circumstance. Did they approach death reasonably, calculatingly, with few tears and little melodrama? Had they set up a date and time for it, ordered takeout, held hands in their small apartment while watching How I Met Your Mother for the last time?
Boarding begins and I promptly forget the Greek man and the young couple. I return to the business of traveling away from Athens, the boys with syringes, the beggar with the rotting leg. Here’s the orange juice, the little sandwiches. Here’s the nice, stoic family, taking a dip.