Happy new year. Happy new year.
My US phone has not rung in four weeks which means that there might be some of you who still do not know that I’ve jumped ship. The last month has been divided between the Netherlands and Hellas, or Greece, and I have no plans on returning to the states. There have been a few snags, alterations to my plans or lack thereof, and nothing has gone quite as expected, but as I saw on a sign (literally!) propped in the window of a shop along a canal, “Today is the tomorrow you worried about yesterday and all is well.”
When in Amsterdam I usually allow myself to be my traveling companion’s “handbag.” I am taken frequently to a little vegetarian restaurant called “Olive and Cookie” where a Serbian and Croatian man and wife, respectively, run a cozy kitchen and produce delectable trays of things like tarts with pear and goat cheese, polenta, roasted fennel. More importantly they feel like home to Amanda, said traveling companion, and put huge heapings of love into their food. Another locale frequented by Amanda and handbag is the smoothie shop called “Frood.” Amanda is on a first name basis with most of the employees there and has her own variations on the set menu that they happily create for her. “Extra dates, add muesli, pineapple instead of apple (I don’t know why, I just can’t do apple...)”
And sometimes I insist on not drinking my meal out of a straw and so she obliges me, letting me stop into a doner place and eat a mouthful of “critter” slathered in garlic and pepper sauce while she enshrines her body that will likely outlive the rest of us, right into some idealistic society where they wear only purple and speak a global language that sounds like zen bells.
I apologize for concentrating on food, but Amanda and I have already remarked on how often food is the topic of conversation between us and then happily agreed that neither of us care. We like to talk about what we’re going to eat and where, and while we’re eating there we remember the fantastic meals we have created before or intend to create one day again. Food is a passion.
But it’s cold in the Netherlands this time of year. Cold and dreary and everyone will agree with you on that as they stuff you with cheese and chocolate to keep you warm. I hitched a ride to the Schipol International Airport with the Continental flight crew. I started getting a little cocky with all of the pesky questions about the specifics of my travel.
“What are you going to do in Europe?”
Amanda flew away and I caught a train to Rotterdam and then another to Niuwekerk an den Ijssel where I was picked up in the “mama wagon” by one petite spitfire named Laura Klaassen and her three adorable, flaxen-haired, rosy cheeked children. The original idea was to stay a few days and get to know the brood before departing for Spain to meet a “friend” of mine who would be working in Mallorca. Parma.
I arrived, appropriately enough, on Sinter Klaas day, a day that divides the responsibilities of Christmas into two seperate holidays: religious and all out commercial, kid spoiling fun. Sinter Klaas day is the latter. There was a big feast which was interrupted by a loud banging on the window and an explosion of spekulaas cookies through the door.
“SINTER KLAAS! SINTER KLAAS!!” screamed the children, Bjorn, Abigail, and Shannen as they tore into the mudroom to retrieve the bag of goodies that magically appeared.
Bas distributed the presents and do you know, Sinter Klaas even knew that I was going to be there? The Dutch are very, very good people.
There was some strangeness with getting out of Holland as my friend had mysteriously dropped all lines of communication and riots ensued in Athens. I learned later that the Christmas Tree in the city center was burned down three seperate times. Every Greek I’ve spoken with spews angrily about the whole affair, save for Katerina, a friend I’ve made at a whisky and coffee bar called “Low Profile.”
“I love it. The people are showing their hate for this fake crisis and they are revolting.”
She says this with an eerie smile, embracing anarchy as part of her Greek heritage.
Bas and Laura said, “We like you. Stay.”
And so I did, getting into the rhythm of suburban Dutch life what with daily trips to the supermarket, bicycle rides, "Up in the air, junior birdman..."nightly movies on the Klaassen’s giant screen television, pancakce dinners, and reaquainting myself with Disney home entertainment.
I learned an odd assortment of Dutch words from the Danglish speaking Klaassan children:
Pardon the spelling as I did not learn to write, but these words include:
Mucha geiger (check it out)
and my favorite...
My good friend from the coffee shop back in Houston kept peppering me with new contacts, friends of his. I had a few days of Netherlandian rail travel to Utrecht and Den Haague to drown in verbosity with Greeks, in Holland, and get a little more confidence that this trip was going to progress past becoming the new housemouse of Bas and Laura, in spite of how attached I was getting to the happy lot of them. (Thank you again, Klaassen's.)
Eventually the drama in Athens died down enough that when I heard from my host that he would be back in the city in time for Christmas, would I care to join him,I booked a ticket for the next day on Olympic Airlines. This was the second choice of travel. My first was to hitch a ride with one of the Romanian lorry drivers that worked for Bas’s shipping company, but according to Laura there are some levels of aromatic intensity that are best left unrealized.
Since being in Athens I’ve moved locations four seperate times, the most romantic of which, oddly enough, was not the home of my host who I certainly felt romantic about but the hotel I checked in immediately after leaving him. Here is where I wonder how much I should be guarding the details of my personal life but it’s just too good of a story, so here it is:
After an awkward morning I decided it was time to go.
An excellent question, and one to which I didn’t actually have an answer, so I improvised.
“I think I’ll just go back to that youth hostel that I stayed in last Summer. It sucks, what with the hippie backpackers and all, but it’s cheap. Even cheaper than taking a taxi from here to the center every day, so...”
“So, what, you want me to call you a taxi?”
And I don’t mean it to sound like we weren’t having a good time. We sat on the couch and drank hot chocolate and watched Greek TV which is as riddled with strange comedies that cut to porked out singers stuffed in black leather while the audience pelts them with flowers as if they were softballs. These guys are so engrossed in their mellow dramatic songs, carnations are hitting them square in the eyes and they don’t even flinch. Time was up and he helped me with my bag into the taxi and told me with sincerity that I was to call if I needed him, if I got into trouble, anything... and I said to myself “NEVVVVERRR!!!” And I said to him, “okay.”
And this taxi driver he says in English, “Hello.” And I think, “Score! An English speaking taxi driver.” And then he says in Greek, “Pou innes ......(a lot of Greek I haven’t learned yet coming at me fast as flowers on Greek National television.) And I said, “Then Xero.” (I don’t know.)
He looks at me like I’m about to take grand prize for stupid tourist award, ever, and I tell him the only neighborhood I know of in Athens which is Plaka. So he takes me there and it’s raining and sad and miserable, and I’m trying not to focus on these facts when he again tries to demand more details from me which I am not able to give so in my usual desperation to please I just say “Etho.” (Here.) He squeals to a stop and gets out while I fumble with counting out my Euros. I hear a “Thwap” which is my giant orange bag being tossed onto the wet sidewalk and he slides back into the front seat, throwing his hand back toward me for his money. I get out.
“Ef hari...” (Thank....)
This is where he squeals off and I am in the middle of Athens with my bag, in the rain, and no idea where I’m going.
I roll around for forty five minutes hoping to find this hostel that I spoke of earlier, but I don’t actually know where it is and people, it is no use to wonder why I didn’t just google that knowledge before I left the safety of the hot chocolate couch because I do not have any rational explanation. When the heart is this determined the mind acts like a passive aggressive mother. “Well then, I guess you don’t need any of MY help. I’ll just sit over here and watch you make a mess of things.”
At this point I have given up all hope of finding the hostel and with further evidence that my brain has gone out for a smoke break, I start wondering if maybe I deserve one of these really posh places with a big bathtub and full breakfast. I resolve to check into the very first place I see because my arm feels like it’s about to break from pulling my suitcase over cobblestone. I’m very cold and very wet. The universe steps in to prevent me from making a very unwise decision by removing all options of expensive hotels from my path because I clearly remember wondering how it was possible that hotel options went from being as as varied as are churches, banks and tanning salons in Texan strip malls to completely absent from sight. It was getting darker, colder, and finally in the distance, one of those vertical signs illuminated and flickering from the end of an alley. One of the lights was out so it looked like Te-pi hotel. I think I was delirious at this point and started laughing. “I’m going to go sleep in a tee pee.”
I had to turn myself sideways to get into the door. My suitcase made a lot of noise on the stairwell and finally I ascended to the top of the stairs to ask the smiling, bearded man at the front desk if there was a room available.
He hands me a key to room 22, a spiritual number so I take it as a sign. A Taiwanese guest that was hanging on the counter smiles at me and laughs. “Ah, that’s the top floor! I help you with your bag.”
Seven flights of stairs later I’m crawling on my hands and knees behind this skinny Taiwanese guy who has sprinted up the steps with my fifty pound bag on top of his head. I exhale “thank you.” and he nods and darts back down the stairs. I open the door to reveal a room that is roughly bowling lane width X bathroom stall length. There is a bed and a dresser the size of a shoebox underneath a window. Now I’m really laughing, and I say out loud, “BUT I BET THE VIEW IS AMAZING!!!” And I throw open the little brown dishcloth of a curtain fully expecting to see a brick wall or a guy pissing in an alley, but instead....
There is Acropolis hill. The Acropolis is lit up like a Japanese lantern, gold against indigo sky. The rooftops beneath me are all tumbling, crumbling tiles and rocks. Patios are lined with lush plants. I hear the echo of someone’s footsteps and this person is whistling. I take four steps back, clutching my chest, and cry from being overwhelmed with beauty and happiness.
I stayed in room 22 for two nights to hold onto this view, but even with the heater set to thirty degrees celsius I had to sleep with all of my clothes including shoes and hat. The second morning my voice was gone and I looked more like I was staying in an abandoned school bus in the middle of the Alaskan wilderness than in a hotel in the heart of Athens, most expensive city in Europe. With a heavy heart and without complaint, I checked out.
Now I am a resident of the Acropolis House where my view, oddly enough, is of the Canadian flag. It flaps “good morning, eh!” from it’s place on the wall of the hotel directly across the street. My drafty nights in room 22 gave me a terrible cold so I’ve been recovering. There is another guest here at the Acropolis house, who came to Greece as an improptu vacation after some emotional upset with his girlfriend. He had plans to go to Delphi, Crete, Meteora, but no sooner had he stepped off of the plane that became, similarily, sniffly and incapable of leaving the hotel. We swapped stories over oranges, olives and vitamins and you’ll be happy to hear that we’re both doing better. I told him, “Sometimes our body knows better than our mind. Sometimes we’re supposed to stay still.”
Now that I’m warm and disillusioned with love, I have not been staying still, not in the least. I have been kicking it up with perfect strangers, with new-found friends, and the staff of my new home here at Acropolis House. Panos is a silver-haired, square faced gentleman from Crete who is teaching me the language and making no attempt at hiding that he has designs on me. Jasmine is the daytime desk attendant. She’s Austrian and Greek which gives her an odd paradox. She is fire and ice. The weight of her eye make-up, cheekbones, and bulbous pearl earrings put together quite likely weigh more than all of her ninety-five pounds, but she throws everything she’s got into heavy gesticulation, speaking with iron confidence in whatever she says, no matter how often she contradicts herself. She laughs with her whole body.
I mentioned earlier Katerina, waitress at Low Profile. I went to visit her last night as we both were too sick to make our plans to have lunch earlier in the week. She was wearing all black: a bolero jacket, long skirt and dramatic, high boots. She’s a big woman, but more Mae West than Aretha Franklin. I sit on a stool next to the bar and she moves like an octopus, rolling cigarettes and sipping hot chocolate while she moves glasses from bar to patron and back, lighting her cigarette and taking a drag and repeating all of the earlier with complete fluidity, all the time streaming about how much she dislikes the family of her brother’s wife.
“They are shit.”
And I am reminded of a coment someone threw at me, once before, half bragging: Bitching is a national pastime of the Greeks.”
I tried it on George, sitting on his couch six days before, but he corrected me:
“No, the national pastime in Greece is misery.”
And for some I am sure it is true, but I am not miserable here. I love Athens in all of its absurdity, and I love the absurdity of my showing up here with nothing but butterfiies in my head and stars in my eyes, here to the city with ten percent unemployment and an imagined crisis that have people revolting in the streets, right next to the South Americans dressed up like Native Americans doing a rain dance to drippy new age music piped through a loud speaker while people rush past drinking iced coffees in forty degree weather.
Tonight I have plans with Manos, an Athenian with a smattering of piercings and tattoos and a gelled up pompadour hairdo. He’s a Goth Elvis Hellenas and the lead singer of the band, “Defile les Demmes” which I think is French for “Defile the ladies.” The style of music is, of course, heavy metal country. Manos and I like to talk about Tom Waits and Johnny Cash, and he invited me to hear his band rehearse in a little sound stage the other night so that I could get inspired to do some album artwork for their new cd. Four hours later I was sitting with the band enjoying a typical Greek meal of souvlaki, feta, giant beans, fried potatoes, bread and Greek salad at the typical Greek hour of midnight. The band is comprised of two guitars, clarinet, bass, drums and a cello babe. The best bands always have a cello babe, and this one could be the prototype. She stands about a foot taller than any of the boys and has lips that could make Keira Knightly cry with envy.
Manos and I are going for sushi at some hour that has been described as “five.” Katerina has told me, “If you don’t have any plans for New Year, I’ll call you.” Panos often says “Maybe if you’re here we will go for soup.” All of this is to say that getting Athenians to make plans is like using your hands as eating utensils: some of it’s going to get in your mouth, sure, but you can’t really be certain of which parts and with what level of satisfaction. It doesn’t seem to matter. For every time my plans have changed, a present has arrived for me in the form of a new stranger, a beautiful moment, an unexpected delight. But for this reason I cannot comfort you with news of what could be shaping up for me in the very near future, even though I am excited about it and would really like to fill the rest of this update with the details of the potential... but even in that statement you must surely see why this is not possible. The gods are listening, and they think it’s very amusing when you make your “plans.”
But the gods also like me, clearly. So thank you all, for your love and prayers and good wishes, because it is evident in each moment that I am riding on luck and love and there is nothing else that could fuel a voyage such as this one.
My apologies for keeping you in suspense for so long, but Jon Cage said in art, you cannot create and analyze at the same time as they use different parts of the brain. And art is life and life is art and I bet I’ve got a few of you rolling your eyes right about now, so I’ll sign off, wishing for all of you a new year full of grand happenings. Yiassou!
Mom, please mail my cowboy boots to the hotel!