An essay on choosing the right travel companion.
“Half a day is more than enough time to see Athens,” she says. “I’m glad I took the advice of friends who told me not to stay longer.”
“Did you at least go up to the Acropolis and see the Parthenon, the Propylaia, the Temple of Athena Nike, the Erechtheion, the Porch of the Caryatids, the Odeon of Herodes Atticus, and the Theater of Dionysos?” I ask.
“No,” she says.
“Did you go to the Agora — the ancient marketplace of Athens — and see the Temple of Hephaestus and the Church of the Holy Apostles?”
“No,” she says.
“Did you go one block south of the hotel and see the Temple of the Olympian Zeus or Hadrian’s Arch?”
“Did you see the Tower of the Winds, the Library of Hadrian, the Roman Agora, the Pnyx Hill, the Hill of the Muses, the Street of Tombs, or the Prison of Socrates?”
“No,” she says, “I love history, but I can only see so many ruins.”
She’s right; half a day is plenty of time for a quick tour of the Acropolis Museum.
I look over the ship’s railing and suddenly understand what Homer meant when he described the sea as wine-dark. The Aegean is a dark, rich, rolling blue. If wine were a blue color, it would be the Greek Sea. There’s a density to it, a sense of weight; I have to restrain myself from jumping overboard.
“Look at the sea,” I say. “Don’t you just want to jump in?”
“I have absolutely no desire to jump in,” she says.
I try to reassure myself – just because she doesn’t like ruins or the sea doesn’t mean she won’t love the beach. Everyone loves the beach.
“I love the beach,” she says as she sits uncomfortably on a rock along the shore.
I walk slowly into the water, hoping she’ll follow me. We could both use some cool water on our face.
According to an expert she consulted, there is a prescribed amount of time she must spend in the sun in order to get her required daily dose of Vitamin D.
I swim for an hour or more as she sits on the rock, obviously ill at ease, watching people enjoying themselves in the water. She has wandered so far from herself, she now needs degrees and coordinates to find her way to joy, or at the very least, a guidebook written by an expert.
Greece is merciless on the tightly wound, it can destroy entire world views in mere moments. I want to reassure her that everything’s going to be alright, but I have no idea where to start. My misguided attempts are a resounding failure.
After the regulated amount of time in the sun, she allows herself a short swim. I offer her my swim shoes because she’s worried about sea urchins, though they never rest on sandy bottoms. Since I cannot convince her of this, I hope the shoes will at least assuage her fear.
After the swim, I can feel the tension building up in her until it finally boils over. “We’ve been here for four hours. I can’t sit on a beach for four hours!”
“But we’ve only been here for two hours,” I say.
“Maybe you’re the type of person who can sit on a beach for hours, but I like to be active.
My lame reply: “But it’s the middle of the day, and really hot.”
This has nothing to do with the noonday sun and everything to do with control.
She gets in the car and spends the rest of the day driving around the island.
I spend hours swimming, snorkeling, searching for octopuses.
She’s right though, I’m the type of person who could spend hours sorting pebbles on a beach.
“You know,” she says, in that haughty tone people always use when they’re about to say something condescending, “these modern Greeks have nothing in common with the old Greeks.”
“You mean besides a shared history, race, culture, and bloodline? I suppose that’s true, but that doesn’t detract from the glory that was, and Greeks have every right to be proud of their lineage and the greatness that came before them.”
Advice for the world: If you’re going to disparage an ancient race and culture, please don’t do it in front of a Serb with a thousand years of rebel blood running through her veins.
She uses the same tired old line people always use when trying to bring the Greeks down a few pegs. But I feel as though it’s me she’s trying to bring down a few pegs.
Later that night, at dinner, she leaves a few pennies as a tip for the waiter. I hand the pennies back to her. “That’s insulting,” I say, though she already knows this.
I sit there, wondering how I ended up in Greece with a lousy tipper who doesn’t like the ruins, the sea, or the beach. Athena hears my silent plea and intercedes.
The Nine-Headed Hydra
She decides to leave the island. She books one of those tours that visit seven islands in four days — a consumption tour. She’ll file through the cave of John of the Apocalypse on the island of Patmos with 100 other tourists.
“You have so many stories about Greece,” she says to me, her voice dripping with… what?.. cynicism? I don’t know, but I feel so sorry for her. We’re mis-matched travel companions, it’s as simple as that.
She’s good at following rules. She carries around a plastic vitamin container, divided by days of the week. Each days portion snaps shut with a satisfying click.
She leaves nothing to chance. She has a back-up toothbrush just in case her electric toothbrush fails. I’ll write that again: she has a back-up toothbrush just in case her electric toothbrush fails.
Fear is the nine-headed Hydra in her life.
I see her off at the ferry, and like Agamemnon before me, I beg Artemis for a strong wind to carry her swiftly away. My reaction is visceral; I just want to take an easy, defenseless breath. I want to go back to sorting pebbles on the beach.
As the boat pulls away, I have so many hopes and wishes for her: I wish she would throw the vitamins overboard and gorge on cheese pies and souvlaki until she feels the grease drip down her chin. I wish she would get sloppy drunk on ouzo and dance on a taverna table. I wish she would laugh as loud as humanly possible — a wild cackle of an uncontrollable laugh that will shock onlookers. I wish she’d sleep with a different hairy-back Greek every night — men who’ll whisper sweet lies in her ear.
Maybe then she’ll be free of the Hydra.
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