"What are you doing in Greece?" asked my dad, when my parents called me on Christmas Eve. "Your Czech basketball team needs you."
In asking me that question, my father - a writer of short fiction, wilderness backpacker, and postal worker - had never been so right.
Winter days in my beloved small town of Rymarov, Czech Republic were as precious as gold.
The Rymarov Basketball League. Exchanging bounce passes with Ondra, the sharp shooter. Receiving defensive tips from Vit'a, our center. Competing against Long-Armed Ricky's team for the trophy. Wrestling the muscular Musil Twins for rebounds.
Elegant winter balls. Gentle-faced girls wearing shiny dresses. Guys in suits and ties, about to become sloppy drunk. Polka, waltz, and rock music.
Fields and pine forests buried in snow, perfect for meditating in. Outdoor ice skating. Bars full of smoke, where I knew everyone. The mechanical Czech language. Smiling and hugging Klara Sigmundova, and eating from her endless list of delicious recipes.
Aah. I wished to spend all my winters in Rymarov.
But, fate had chosen a different path for me this year. Following a wonderful stay in Turkey, I began a journey of ...
Expensive ferry rides. The expensive Euro. Difficulty connecting with Greeks. Gray weather. Humiliation. Corporate asshole ferry employees and televisions. Cold nights in tents. A mutual hatred between me, a hitchhiker, and the average Italian. Rage. Hitchhiking signs thrown and curses sworn. The "polizia" telling me six times to move from safe hitchhiking spots to dangerous ones.
"I cursed with vexation. A policeman! The reasoning of a policeman!" - J.M. Coetzee
"nature and reason were sufficient guides for a reasonable animal, as we pretended to be, in showing us what we ought to do, and what to avoid." - Jonathon Swift (questioning law)
My nature had told me, long ago, I should do three-month stays ("thrumps") in twenty-five countries while getting to know the world. Turkey was my twenty-third thrump. I could get to either of the remaining two countries, Ethiopia or Tunisia, from Italy by plane or boat.
And so, by deciding to travel directly from Turkey to Greece to Italy, I was speeding up the completion of my world travels. I might miss out on the positive energy of a visit to the Czech Republic. (A big mistake?) But soon, I'd be a "Retired Oddyseus", able to spend all my winters in Rymarov.
On the Greek island of Amorgos, I met a girl named Penelope. Like someone from Queens, New York, she carelessly flicked her words and gestures at you. She was cute and funny. She joked that she was my wife, as she shared her name with the wife of Homer's Odysseus. She said she'd been waiting for-ever for me in our home on Ithaca.
Hmm, I thought. Maybe I should visit the Greek island of Ithaca, after finishing my travels?
Penelope reminded me that after Homer's hero returned home, his dog Argos saw him and died. Oh, dear. I hoped Tucker the Corgy Dog wasn't going to die when I returned home to Michigan!
Of course, I still wasn't sure where I'd live after finishing my travels. I still hadn't forgiven Michigan for the last time I was home: girls ignoring me; many of its people self-absorbed, and unable to ask questions; its cities ugly and sprawling. Maybe I'd live in the Czech Republic, Turkey, Guinea-Bissau, or elsewhere?
Maybe I'd make peace with Michigan?
An old friend of mine - "little, silly Simona" from Romania - had recently moved to Amorgos to try to make her life here. The island pushed itself from the Aegean Sea abruptly up to mountainous heights. Seven villages and two thousand people lived, hidden in the fog and on the steep slopes of the angry sea monster's spine.
In the villages, round women led "gaidhuri" (donkeys) through a maze of chalk-white walls and bright blue doors and windows. White steps led up and down, and beneath arches; on the steps had been painted blue shells, dolphins, suns, snails, puppies, etc. The round women stopped to greet me, even though my Greek was bad, because they didn't get many visitors in winter.
Simona had moved here from a big city. She and her Greek boyfriend, Pantelis, were trying to: grow their own food, avoid shopping in supermarkets, reduce the amount of waste they produced, collect edible grasses and herbs from the mountains, etc. Pantelis said that, with Greece's economic crisis, life in Athens was difficult and sad. He predicted more people would move to the countryside.
Maybe I'd want to live somewhere where I could grow my own food?
For now, I was only visiting Amorgos.
I hiked through the mountains to a monastery one day, because people suggested I do that before leaving.
I walked on a trail of stones, between stone fences guarding fields of livestock, with dry tangly plants hanging over the trail. I came to an abandoned village of crumbling stone houses. Goats were everywhere. On houses. In houses. All over this stony, grassy plateau. The village itself seemed to bow in worship to a chalky white church with big, Greek bells - called "Theologos".
My trail continued from Theologos, until it led along the side of rocky mountains, which crumbled into the sea 1000 ft. below me. Massive mountains appeared like New York City apartment buildings, equally alive and interesting, when I turned corners. These mountains, and a small monastery, hung over the blue Aegean. I sat and watched the waves far below, wiggling around each other like maggots.
Amorgos was beautiful, peaceful.
But, I struggled to connect with the Greeks, just as I'd struggled while staying four months in Greece, eight years earlier. They and I had different tastes in music, different ideas of a "good time", different philosophies.
A few days after leaving Amorgos, I found myself on a bus going west from Athens. A pale, brown-skinned girl sat down beside me. I turned away. But, I thought to myself, if she were Brazilian or Russian, we'd no doubt have a great conversation.
She resembled Shauna, a girl from Michigan. Petite Shauna loved couples dancing, and she clung to her partners like a piece of wet clothing. I'd last danced with her at a pool party, and we were wearing a swimsuit and bikini. That was a great night. I wondered what Shauna was doing now?
"Milaes anglika?" I asked the Greek. (Do you speak English?) She replied in the affirmative, but said, "a little". We began talking, mostly in Greek.
I told her of the girl in my city who looked like her. I spoke slowly, remembering words I'd known eight years ago. She said she was a philosophy student. Oh, really? Great! I asked if she liked Athens. "Katholou!" (Not at all!) "Pos se lene?" (What's your name?) "Maria."
We got along well. She would send me an e-mail soon afterwards, inviting me for coffee.
But, I was on the other side of the Adriatic Sea at that time ...
In Italy. A.k.a. "The Modern Inferno".
After traveling in Turkey, where hitchhikers were loved, I found myself hitchhiking in a land where I was hated. Men drove past, with their shiny cars and immaculate sweaters and stupid sun-glasses and bland personalities. They probably weren't picking me up because my scarf was tied wrong. Women were buried in make-up, yet it was unusual to see a pretty one. The sneering people looked like they didn't like anyone.
I'd heard that Calabria - southern Italy - was poor. Yet, not only did all people have cars, but they drove them every-where in their small towns and seldom walked. There was a steady flow of traffic, a competition for parking spots beside ancient fountains and Colisseum arches, and hardly anyone who'd pick me up.
Rarely, people stopped for me. On these occasions, my drivers and I spoke happy Italian with its long and singing, penultimate syllables.
"even in hell itself there ought to be good people." - Sancho Panza
A warm-hearted, fifty-year-old man named Enzo picked me up. He offered to buy me a train ticket the rest of the way to Sicily. I accepted. I also accepted his offer of a place to stay for the night.
We went to his mother's home in Pizzo, Calabria - a town of seven thousand, with its old town built on narrow streets made of lava stone. For lunch, we ate: thick red spicy pepperoni on bread, olives, pasta with broccoli in a thick sauce of olive oil, and fat fillets of fish.
That evening, Enzo hosted a dinner party. Four men came. Drinking spumani and red wine, they discussed politics, corruption, the mafia. Enzo sounded smart. He calmly explained why the French maintained French words for terms the rest of the world said in English - like "match point". He said, losing "la bataglia de la lingua" (the language battle) meant losing a large economic battle.
We ate: pepperoni and bread; a gray paste from pork and black pepper balls, which Enzo had made in France; riscotto with chicken in a yellow creamy sauce; pasta and tender home-made meatballs in a red sauce with parmeggan; and lettuce and vinegar, and a chicken breast in alfredo sauce. Wow. It was much better to be at a dinner table, than on the road in Italy!
Enzo drove me to the train station in the morning. I really liked him.
Like me, he was happy to take things slowly. He'd enjoyed hitchhiking in his youth. Now, he drove - usually from the home of his wife and kids in France, to his native home of Calabria. He took five days to make the trip. He said, some people drove from A to B. He drove from A to Z, making stops at all letters in-between.
He gave me one of his mother's toy turtles, as a symbol of our meeting.
"Climb Mount Fuji
"But slowly, slowly!" - Issa
The previous night, I'd abstained from drinking alcohol. It hadn't been easy to do. Enzo had noticed this and was curious about my other philosophies. He recorded me speaking about my beliefs in French, as we awaited my train. Of course, I mentioned my "free love" and pro-celibacy ideals.
Hmmm. Maybe I should settle down in a place where I could make the "Romantic Revolution"?
I traveled that day by train and ferry to Palermo, Sicily. I checked out this beautiful city.
It was so dirty. Four-story buildings - coffee brown, sour yellow, orange, white, or pink - were covered in big, Sicilian window shutters and balconies. The shutters were darker brown, and the buildings themselves were dark due to dirt. Some tall buildings were only eight feet deep, meaning their apartments were nothing but balconies. Plants, laundry, or sheets hung from the balconies, so that walking down some streets felt like walking through a parade.
Churches were everywhere. Some opened to plazas, others were blocked by residencial buildings. The style of one church was nothing like the others'. There were Ionic pillars. Swirling pillars. Perfect human-sized statues of the Virgin Mary and St. Francis of Assisi. A color painting of Christ. Wavy-edged churches. Round wedding-cake tops. Single walls with fountains were remnants of ruined buildings. A bell-tower rose up where there was no church.
At street level, Italian girls wore zebra- or cheetah-colored pants that clung fiercely to their butts, showing them off. Bangladeshi and African immigrants walked through the dirty streets. On street market tables, people sold big leafy vegetables and cauliflower, oranges that were red inside, dried-out pomegranates and nuts of shells (for what?), and electronics.
Motorcycles sped through narrow alleys. Jewelry and the latest fashion were sold on main streets. There were many pizzerias. A stout, old gray-haired man yelled in a dialect that reminded me of a New York accent.
For a moment, I thought I might like to spend some time in Palermo. It was a little big for me, though.
But, for now, I had places to go.
I boarded a ferry headed for Tunisia.
See you there,
Thanks to Stelios; Archangelo; Francesco & Francesco; Dania & Giuseppe; Mario; Roberto Lupia; Pascuale; Alex; Antonio; Antonio; Pino; Angello the poet & Rosa the singer; Mauricio; and Enzo for rides!
Much thanks to Maria; Costas Gerardos; and Enzo & Ida for places to stay!