"I’d like to make a toast. To Justin, finishing his travels! And to us, traveling together as a family again.”
My mom, fifty-five years young and happy, sat beneath the Mediterranean sun outside a Greek restaurant. She ordered a “xoriatiki”, a Greek salad, and sat comfortably surrounded by blue: the white-and-turquoise tablecloths, the blue Mediterranean, the blue sky. My dad, an intelligent writer with black hair covering only the sides of his head, sat across from my mom and chinked his glass of wine against hers. I smiled, happy they’d joined me in traveling from Malta to Greece, grateful they had enough money so we could eat in restaurants and I could order delicious mussels with rice. Only my brother, Brandon, was home working in the States; he wished he could’ve come with us to visit Ithaka, Greece, where the original Odysseus had returned to following his lengthy travels.
After completing my lengthy travels, how did I now feel? How did it feel to achieve my dream?
It felt great. Like I’d be happy for the rest of my life. Easy-going, without worries or complaints. Like I’d be freely making jokes at all times. I felt gentle. I couldn’t even understand why other people weren’t, why they wanted money and power and business and sex.
But, I also felt too confident. I spoke about countries as if I knew everything about them, knew how they were, and I actually believed that. But maybe I was wrong a lot of the time?
I also felt worried to face a new life without my passion.
Two days before my parents had come to meet me in Malta, I’d been hanging out with an English guy named Cos. I told him how traveling and writing always made me happy but, when I wasn’t doing those things, my happiness often depended on whether or not I had a girlfriend. Young Cos said reflectively, “Yeah, that happens to me too. … I hate that about myself.” I felt the same way.
Cos and I took a trip to Malta’s second island, Gozo. We visited its beach at Ramla Bay, where a narrow valley eased into the sea with soft, limestone cliffs rising above it to both sides. The peach color of Ramla Bay’s sand eased into the pastelle green of the open sea’s waves.
Legend had it that Homer’s Odysseus had once arrived via those waves and set foot on this beautiful beach. A sea nymph named Calypso spotted him from her cave, which peaked out from the top of a limestone cliff. Cos and I climbed from the beach to this cave, the so-called “Calypso Cave”. I greatly enjoyed exploring this cave where, as legend had it, Calypso had kept Odysseus as her prisoner for several years.
In many ways, I felt that I was being kept prisoner in this country by a sea nymph.
The Hungarian free-diver had encouraged me to return to Malta after Ethiopia. Naturally, I’d wanted to return, hopeful that we’d resume the very joyful relationship we’d shared before I went to Ethiopia. I considered it very possible that my future life would involve her. Maybe we’d move to Hawaii together? The Caribbean? Polynesia? We’d share great conversations, and live beside the sea.
But when I returned to Malta on September 5th, she picked me up from the airport and told me I was no longer to refer to her as “my girlfriend”. I remained optimistic, though. We went to our favorite beach and swam and talked and kissed a little bit, then she left and I set up my tent nearby.
The following day, she broke our plans and went dancing on a yacht somewhere. It was difficult for me to stay optimistic after this, because I barely ever saw her again. Plus, I didn’t have a yacht.
I lived as a hermit amid the sweaty September heat in an abandoned resort village. My only friends were the chameleons I caught. And I didn’t even think they were really my friends. They just moved too slowly to get away from me.
My loneliness drove me crazy.
I sat in my village one evening, after sewing my broken tent for an hour while mosquitoes bit the hell out of me, and contemplated calling the Hungarian free-diver with the phone I’d somehow acquired. “If I could just talk to her for one minute … if I could just talk to her for five seconds, everything would be all right. ‘Hungarian free-diver, I just called to ask you one question. Last Monday, when we talked on the phone and you said … That sounded kind of sexy. Kind of suggestive. Do you think there’s an itsy bitsy chance we could get back together? One in a million? A glimmer of hope? Something for me to live on for the next two weeks until my parents come and I can get off this boiling hot rock!”
Days, weeks passed without her calling. And yet I carried my phone everywhere.
“Is that her? Ooh! An SMS. Maybe it’s the Hungarian free-diver! It’s definitely the Hungarian free-diver! Ooh! No. It’s just the telephone company asking me to take a survey.”
My return to Malta was a painful disaster. Clearly, I wasn’t going to be moving to Hawaii any time soon. Or, if I did, I would need to bring some chameleons along for companionship.
Cos, who was just beginning his world travels, said it was reassuring for him to see that even I – an experienced traveler – struggled and suffered sometimes. I didn’t find it so reassuring.
My parents finally arrived on September 28th. We smiled and hugged. Then … we tried to see as much of Europe as we could in six days!
The Hagar Qim temples, built six thousand years earlier out of Stonehenge rock slabs. The more modern “Three Cities” neighborhood, with its silent symphony of pointy Catholic architecture upon wavy peninsulas. St. John’s Cathedral, which housed a large, shadowy painting of the Beheading of St. John the Baptist. Ghajn Tuffieha Beach and my abandoned village full of pine trees and lizards. The medieval, walled neighborhood of Mdina, with its quiet blue alleys and colorful plaza.
And then, we left Malta. In the country’s airport, I spotted a piano which wore the words, “Play Me.” I sat down and composed a little symphony. I didn’t know how to touch the piano keys in a way that sounded very pleasant; but, it was fun nonetheless. I recalled how, twelve years earlier, I used to tell people that when I finished my travels I would buy a piano and move to Samoa. Hmmm … maybe, wherever I ended up, I would buy a piano? That could be my new passion!
For now, I flew with my parents to Rome. We had an overnight stop-over here. We ate pizza in a dirty, beautiful alley beside young, socializing Romans and an ancient theater. We visited the Spanish Steps, where crowds of people gathered on an outdoor stairway or in a plaza surrounded by colorful rows of buildings. Here, we visited the house where the English poet, John Keats, had died. My dad said of Keats: “He had one of the ten or twenty most creative years of any writer or artist of all time. That year, he wrote one masterpiece after another.”
And from Rome ...
my parents and I went to Greece.
The Acropolis. The National Archeological Museum, with its sculptures of naked men and women and bronze Zeuses.
The Greek island of Tinos. Here, we discovered Paxia Ammos Beach. Rocky rounded mounds rose above both sides of the remote beach, concealing it from the rest of the world. The tiny beach was a carpet of sand that led me and my dad into the clear, colorless green sea. It was a very pure swimming experience.
But, alas, my parents had to leave Greece before we could visit Odysseus’ homeland of Ithaka.
I stayed. And I began hitchhiking on my own towards Ithaka. Maybe I’d even buy myself a donkey once I got there.
Unfortunately, I was hitchhiking in a country which had probably belonged on my “WORST HITCHHIKING” list of countries. Expressway road-workers and policemen repeatedly told me I couldn’t hitchhike on their expressways. Not even on the entrance ramps, like we hitchhikers were allowed to do in the U.S.A. The policemen told me I had to stand a quarter of a mile away from the entrance ramp!
It seemed I wasn’t going to be able to hitchhike in Greece, at least not on the expressways.
Discouraged, I sat down outside a restaurant in the town of Korinthos. I asked the woman next to me, “Piges stin Ithaki?” (Have you ever been to Ithaka?)
I told her how the police were making it difficult for me to hitchhike there. She – a pretty, bronze-skinned woman with caramel hair – responded, “They probably just want you to buy a bus ticket and fit into their capitalistic world. If you asked them what law you’re breaking, they couldn’t even tell you. They just like bossing people around.”
She was very intelligent. Her name was Chrys. She disliked paying taxes. And she never paid for music or books. “Culture should be free. So, what, if someone doesn’t have money, he can’t read? Fifteen, twenty Euros for a book is ridiculous.” I agreed with her.
She told me about the best Greek writer of the last century: C.P. Cavafy. She had me read his poem, “Ithaka”. It included the lines:
“Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
“angry Poseidon—don’t be afraid of them:
“you’ll never find things like that on your way
“as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,
“as long as a rare excitement
“stirs your spirit and your body.”
The only way I could hitchhike to Ithaka was if I walked through Korinthos and then hitchhiked short rides on a small highway.
But, it was a long walk to town. An ugly walk, on a suburban “ring road” full of corporate shopping centers and smelly cars. I did this walk the following day so I could meet Chrys in town. After carrying my heavy bags all the way to town, I felt like my lower back was going to spasm. And I had apparently dropped a piece of my tent somewhere on the way.
Angry and tired, I began to feel that maybe policemen were the modern-day Cyclops? I spotted graffiti that read: “ALL COPS LICK MY BALLS.” One thing I liked about Greece was that it had a large communist/anarchist population who rebelled against Western pop culture.
Chrys didn't wear all black like the anarchists in Athens, but she was a rebel. She expressed admiration for Serbia, a country that rejected the European Union and NATO and had a revolutionary spirit.
She, a bisexual, told me about her seven-year relationship with another woman that had just ended. She said her partner had decided she'd move to a different city, for example, or that she'd begin to see other people, without consulting Chrys. With bitter feelings, Chrys now said, "Those aren't things for her to decide on her own. Those are things for us to decide as a couple!"
Being an individualist, I first thought Chrys' partner was right for making decisions on her own.
Seeing Chrys' emotions, I came to the realization that my own individualistic nature may've pushed the Hungarian free-diver away from me. She hadn't liked the fact that I'd decided on my own I'd visit her from September 5th to September 28th, and then leave her to go home for a month or two. Maybe our relationship would've gone better if I would've said we could make all future decisions together?
Chrys departed. Void of energy, I continued to lie on a beach gazing at the Gulf of Corinth and its blue haze clouding the dry green mountains opposite me. There was no way I could continue to Ithaka. I gave up.
Chrys - the last new character I'd meet as the Modern Oddyseus - texted me: "Don't feel sad .. Remember Ithaca is the trip, that's the true destination, not the place! maybe it's time for a home-cooked meal and a bed for you."
Maybe the right kind of excitement wasn't stirring my spirit? After all, my dream had been to do twenty-five thrumps in twenty-five countries. Going to Ithaka was Odysseus' dream.
I went to Athens' airport in the morning. But, I only had a stand-by ticket for the flight to New York, and there was no room on the plane for me.
Even so, I'd had to pass through airport security. When the security guard frisked me, his hand felt the inside line of my underwear. "I don't feel comfortable with you touching me like that," I said. This half-second of indignity - a half-second too long - came to its end. I proceeded to my flight's gate.
As I sat there, waiting to see if there'd be room for me on the flight, I began to think that maybe I didn't want to go home.
I looked around at all the dull, dull, docile, controlled people sitting at the gate. Western Europeans and Americans. They'd allowed themselves to be frisked. They'd thrown away their toothpastes and their water bottles, because they might've been bombs. Western Europe and America had so many rules and laws and regulations. I resented the people who accepted them, I resented the people who enforced them, I resented the people who believed it made for a better society when they themselves were controlled.
If I couldn't get on the plane today, I would move to a country with a weak government. A land with few corporations. A place where the people were stronger and less manipulated. The Czech Republic. Ukraine or Russia. Turkey? Georgia. Armenia? A remote Greek island?
The airline informed its stand-by ticket-holders that none of us would get a seat on the day's flight. I happily left the airport, breathed the fresh air, and took a bus to the nearest beach.
I felt distraught, betrayed by an ever-worsening globalized world which my own country was to blame for. I noticed some graffiti that read, "ANARCHY FOR A FREE HUMANITY". I wrote and sent a text message: "Chrys, do you want to move to Serbia with me?"
I camped on the beach that night, then moved to the suburban home of a friend of mine from college. Catherine.
Catherine worked in a corporate office. "I have no interest in the things I'm doing. I have to spend my time making calculations for all these hypothetical situations - like, if we were to take out a few washing detergent tablets from the boxes we sell. So, basically, we'd be 'tricking' the consumer. ... Today, we had a big conference call, and this American girl who we couldn't understand was showing us this spreadsheet she'd made, that went from AA to, I don't know, ZZ probably. 'Go to BC,' she told us. 'What! D?' we all said. 'No. B!' ... Last year, the company assigned me to raise $20,000 for the 'Save the Children' Fund. Our company is obligated to raise money for charity. It's not like they really care about doing good things. So, I had to run a race, and get everyone in the office to run with me, and explain to Greeks what 'giving to charity' means ..."
Chrys, meanwhile, was planning to return to London where she'd had a corporate job as a restaurant manager. She described her co-manager as "the most emotionless, heartless, least compassionate man" she'd ever met. An icy robot. It seemed to me that this personality type would be the likely result of a person who worked forty to eighty hours a week for an entity whose sole focus was efficiency and profit.
And the Hungarian free-diver worked for a corporation.
She'd once told me: "You're still innocent, you're free from all the ... shit in my world." She called the men she worked for, "wolves".
Corporations and governments squeezed people, abused them, choked them to get everything out of them they could. The people themselves naturally became selfish and cold. They bought Cosmo magazines and had sex, lots of sex, more sex than any society ever before, sex with condoms and birth control and diaphragms and Viagra, "What, you haven't had sex lately? - what's wrong with you!" Sex, because it was the only way they could get through their bland, white, colorless lives. They were like the pigs I'd seen in Zambia, beaten and piled on top of each other in pens - the only thing they could still do was have sex.
They wore cold corporate uniforms and insincere smiles ... preserving their privacy, their glorious privacy, all the sordid stories from their pathetic lives. They learned to lie to each other, lie to the people they were having sex with or to those they wanted to. Human relationships didn't matter! They had ten things to do before noon. They just needed to have sex with someone, someone with a good body, someone who went to the gym, someone who didn't give them too much shit. They needed to make money! They had bills and property taxes to pay.
(Calming down ...)
I felt that it was always a good idea to avoid supporting institutions that were too large and powerful. Facebook. Corporations. Governments. Organized religions. Mobile phone companies. Banks. Producers of new and unnecessary technology.
Otherwise, we were going to end up living like their slaves.
Or, more likely, maybe we already were?
Thanks to Dimitrios; Lefteri; and Alyona for rides!
Much thanks to Sergei Bychkov; Mom & Dad; and Catherine for places to stay!