Friday, September 5, 2008

Looking Up or Change The Scenery

At six a.m in Athens the sky is as black as the middle of night. Omania Square Metro Station is only a few blocks away from the hotel and is the easiest and cheapest way to travel to Pireaus Port for my ferry. The train from Omania Square to Pireaus takes a half an hour and costs .80 cents. The taxi would have been at least 15 Euro. The metro is also a great way to see pre-dawn Athens ;)

In Omania Square before daybreak there are dozens of men smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee in large congregations. I can’t tell why they are here and might wish to hang around watching to see what will happen but I do not. I am so obvious with my big rolling suitcase and the look of travel on my face but no one seems to notice or care as I descend into the metro station along with other travelers carrying large packs on their backs and the early morning Athenians headed to work. It is Wednesday.

The sky is still dark when I arrive in Pireaus the seedy port town where no one seems eager to help but the way to the port side ferry terminal is well marked up and down escalators over a busy roadway. I am grateful the concierge told me to head for Ventouris Sea Lines and I keep repeating the name in my head hoping to will the sign to appear like a friendly beacon against the still black sky.
Gate 9 is as far away from Pireaus Metro Station as you can get without being back in Athens, but because I am me, I am so early it doesn’t matter at all as I stroll along the curving path past all the fast ferries that will be heading everywhere from Croatia to Crete, Italy and the Ionian Islands.

The trick with the bag is lugging the thing up the four flights of stairs to the upper deck of the ferry while also carrying a coffee but I do it because though foolish to have bought it in the first place I am also too proud to drop either the bag or the coffee. The polite lady voice over the loudspeakers tells us first in Greek then in English that the ship is ready to leave port. The sun has just risen and now I get it. I am in Greece on the way to Milos, an island my finger picked when my eyes were closed. It is all just like I said I wanted and I feel the resistance taking leave of my body and vanishing along with the Port of Pireaus now slipping into the distance.
My body feels light, free and unrestrained.

Everyone loves to watch a boat push out to sea. Journeyers have lined the back of the boat deck with plastic chairs. They are drinking coffee and taking photos of each other with the mainland backdrop moving farther and farther away. The vibrations of the massive boat course through our bodies and I have a feeling about this and how the sharing of a physical sensation joins people in a unique way and I am into it. The movement is calming and there is a palpable sense of peace on the ship. Or maybe I romanticize too much, that is also probably true.
A pretty blond woman and her boyfriend are taking photos of themselves. They are young and in love. She has wild hair and rubs the back of his neck when she sits on his lap.
Later on she will pass closer to me and I will notice that she is older than I had thought and her features are less perfect though she is more beautiful and good in her body.
Happiness causes beauty.

I am on one of the upper outdoor decks under the plastic roof that shades me from the sun. The farther up you go on the ferry boat the quieter it gets. Most of the people on the upper decks do not seem Greek, they are foreigners, like me. They gather clustered chairs sitting in groups or stretch out on the long white benches. A whining dog with only three legs is tied to a railing in the sun. A woman in a sleeping bag cradles her puppy in her arms and they both sleep. An ultra-cool, Euro guy spends the first hour of the ride unfolding and refolding his clothes and repacking them in his camouflage patterned duffle bag. He has an enormous collection of carefully organized CDs catalogued in two large black binders that must weigh a ton but he doesn’t care because he is very handsome and so very cool.

I am still New York paranoid so I won’t go too far from my suitcase which means that I will starve or dehydrate because the cafés are all on lower decks. Never mind the fact that those people left their back packs on that bench over an hour ago and haven’t returned to check on them once, or not so that I’ve noticed. Never mind that thieves are not trolling around the ferry to Milos just looking to steal the shorts and bathing suits out of unsuspecting tourist bags. I am too careful in this life.

How does one know when they are being open? Do things happen differently actually or is that just a perception? Does it matter? Is there a physical reaction when one is open?

I have sometimes felt what I believe to be my heart opening. It is painful and feels like two hands gripping my ribs and then cracking them apart. It is painful but not unpleasant. It is painful but I like it.
I have been in Greece for one night only and already I worry that I am not open enough. I worry that I am not ready to be out in the world alone. It’s a good story but not very believable so I choose to leave it behind. The sure way to closing off is to worry about being open.

I look over the railing and onto the dock of Kythnos to see how people disembark from ferries. Kisses on both cheeks and motorcycles picking up girlfriends who hold onto too many bags and are quickly whisked away up the windy hill roads.
I’ve been on the same bench for three hours from Pireaus to Kythnos and it is time for a change of scenery. It occurs to me that staying in the same place is incredibly limiting. I have made this bench my home and I am comfortable here which is a sure sign I should move. I do and feel renewed. It is that easy to refresh.

Keep on opening - I tell myself. Open even when you think you cannot open any more. Feel the hands and let them bend your stretchable ribs to expose your heart. Open like you do when you are in love. Open wide, like love is wide. There isn’t anything in there, just space. It’s not filled yet, that’s why it seems so empty and frightening… only because it is unfamiliar, that’s all. Just open and see what shows up.

Step One - Lose The Game Face
Most of the time I don’t even know I am wearing it. It just comes that naturally. It is that don’t-come-near-me-I-know-what-I-am-doing face. Sometimes necessary in New York though it doesn’t serve much purpose in the Cyclades Islands of Greece. Turns out people are much more approachable when they smile.

Here is opening, watching the small islands break up the endless expansive sea and for those moments not thinking about anything but letting dreams take over and thoughts flow easily in and out of my mind. The waves churned up against the dock to push the ferry out of Sifnos and the color of the sea is a blue I have never seen before.

The more you open the easier it gets or the less it matters to be closed. Closed is about protection, fear, unfamiliarity. Opening is about not being unsafe, courageous, experimental. I’m in. I leave my bag on the top deck to wander levels down to the café and restroom and the suitcase was fine. No one is out to get me here, or anywhere.

The vision of Milos as the ferry pulls into the dock is nothing short of miraculous. Because of mineral deposits in the land the soil is red and white, mixes of dark greens and browns. Unusual rock formations dotted along the coast line welcome the ferry into the port.

There is a small area next to the Tourist Information Booth at the end of the quay that is cordoned off by an invisible line behind which a dozen or so men and women yell out “Rooms For Let” in an array of languages. Later I will laugh about it but now it is a little overwhelming to be assaulted by so many voices holding out laminated photographs of the rooms they are ready to take you to see and hopefully to book.

George tells me his room is in Adamas, where I want to stay and it will cost 25 Euro per night for a single with private bath and outdoor area. I just want to know that it’s safe and not far from the town center. George reminds me of Andreas from the flight, who was a man I think is worthy of profound trust, so I agree to get into his van and let him take me away from the competition.

George takes me to the Hotel Corali rooms which are just down a bit on the main road out of the port center. The rooms are clean and neat but the place is low down so there is no view. I have the definite sensation that I don’t know what I want but I remember reading somewhere that I don’t have to settle for the first room someone shows me so I ask to see something upstairs. George tells me to leave my bag (is he crazy?) and follow him as he dashes up the marble steps to the second floor. The rooms are similar but I am not satisfied.
George points out of a window to a hotel up the hill and says he owns that one too and can show me those rooms, so I grab my bag which I had left downstairs and we load back into his van to take the ride up the long winding hill. Inside it is up two long flights of marble stairs to a room which does indeed look out over the port center and all of Adamas but is way too far away for me to feel comfortable and I ask him to take me back to the first hotel where I settle on a charming room on a lower floor with a small private courtyard when an orange cat is asleep in the sun. It is a five minute walk to the center of town and could not be more perfect.

The feeling of not knowing what I want has dissipated and now I have the sense that I am not missing anything at all. I just think sometimes it is hard to choose.

Step two. I think I look down often. Down at the ground, at my feet, avoiding eyes and revealing that I am a stranger. As if looking down and my distinctive New York style doesn’t already give me away. Foolish Beth.

I pick Marianna’s Taverna on the port because it has the most people dining already and there is Greek music playing out of the loud speakers, six men are drinking beer at a round table and the waiter looks like Al Pacino and smiles at me when I look at him. (Yes, I am that easy.)
The restaurant overlooks the port and it is now dusk in Milos.
I have ordered moussaka and a Greek salad and apparently a whole liter of white wine.
This is what looking up looks like tonight.

Milos is breathtaking and dinner takes me two hours. The waiter is friendly and asks me my name and where I am from. In Italy my name was changed to Bettina. In Greece they like to call me Elizabeth which is easier to understand and to say. A sad cat sits by my table and stares at me while I eat. I know that look, I have seen it many times before. When a German couple takes a table nearby the cat loses interest in me to beg at them for awhile. I am practicing not taking it personally.

The wine is making me lightheaded. A a salty old sailor man sits down at the next table smoking a pipe and singing along with the music. He greets people as they stroll along the street. His voice is deep and luxurious and he is wearing a black sailing cap like one my mother used to have when I was a kid. The pipe reminds me of my grandfather and how I love the smell of pipe tobacco. He calls me Hemingway and asks if I am from Spain. I am flattered that he does not think I am American. He tells me his girlfriend is the sea and he will be meeting her to pick up his hooks tomorrow morning at six a.m. and see what she wants to give him. He tells me I can join him if I like.

I am almost finished with my bottle of wine when Al Pacino asks me if I want another.
“Ohi, efkharisto.” I decline.
He brings another full carafe to me anyway and asks that I drink it, “For him.”
I forcefully refuse the wine another dozen or so times along with his invitation to come back at midnight and that kind of ends our friendship.

Jenny was right, Greece is inspiring and full of everything that is delicious and beautiful.
There is nothing to be afraid of here or in life but I convince myself otherwise all the time by strapping my belongings to my body as if they are forever at risk and looking down when I could look up.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Time and Matter and The Diamonds of Life

Andreas has a kind smile that he shines on me when he excuses himself and settles in to the seat next to mine over by the window. He will shine that same smile the few more times before this flight is over and he will touch my hand gently and when he says, "Beth, I mean it, you will love Greece." I believe him. I would believe anything he tells me.

Andreas is Greek but he grew up in Africa and now lives in Maryland. He has just sent his third child off to college and he is going to meet his wife in Athens and then up to Volos where they will build a house and retire… someday. This is the first time he is away from his children and I can tell that he misses them. Andreas tells me about his family and how he loves to cook and how he treats his dog like a fourth child. He is charming and warm and I am happy.

Andreas tells me that the father of Zeus was Chronos - meaning time; and his mother was Dea - meaning matter. Time and Matter create Zeus, the god of all gods. This is where I am going.

Andreas says the last time he flew to Greece he sat next to a baby who cried for most of the trip and stole food off his tray. I assure him I won't take his food but I tell him I cannot guarantee that I won't cry. He laughs but I know I am serious, it's been an emotional journey so far.

Earlier Holly texted me a reminder to hold off on the Xanax until I got on the plane, which I do obediently and then I pop a whole and a half in my mouth and settle in to talk with Andreas until I pass out. I wake up in time for breakfast and descent into Athens, perfect.

Turns out I did manage to get everything done that I had hoped to get done on my first day in Athens. Bought temporary phone, wireless hotel in the internet but I completely forgot to bring a USB cable for my camera so I cannot load photos onto my computer or post them. I will have to get one tomorrow and hope they have a computer supply store in Milos.

I begin to fade in the hotel room in the afternoon so I take a walk to find the Omania Square metro station for the train to Pireaus which I intend to take early the next morning. It is only a few streets away and I investigate how to buy a ticket and where the escalator is to get my bag down the stairs and I live in an illusion that I have successfully gained control of a small bit of my future.

I've no idea what time it is but I am walking towards the Acropolis. Omania Square was as busy as Columbus Circle but the quiet, winding streets of Athens are peaceful. The stress of the last few days and weeks have melted away, just like Janet Gaynor said would happen. I still don't know what time it is or when I last ate food. There is something scary lying in the middle of the street and I just have a feeling it’s something I ought to avoid. Still I wander up the narrow deserted street towards what turns out to be a dead kitten lying in a pool of it's own blood. It’s eyes are open and it’s soul is gone. The kitten reminds me of my fear yesterday and the days and weeks before that.

I am taking a rest in the shade at an archeological site at the foot of the Acropolis that just happens to be here on my walk. I am feeling happy and thoughtful and finally here. Breathe. A Greek man sitting on a folding chair in the middle of this site tells me life is super beautiful. I must have been wearing my game face, frowning, trying to look like I belong, as usual, but I smile back at him and he says, "Smile forever!"

I thank him in Greek, "Efkaristho."

"Smile all the time!” He laughs.

Losing myself, or getting lost in Athens; I am not sure which one.

I pretend to mark my path repeating the names of stores in my head as I pass down the streets, and that odd sculpture in the middle of the fountain, and the old church with the broken window. Memorizing street signs is useless. Omonia Square is a landmark but I am forever away from that area now. The road to the hotel is down from the Acropolis, that's all I know so I keep moving down. I won't look at the map yet, it's folded a dozen times and safely tucked into my bag. The concierge drew a little circle around the hotel intersection. "In case you get lost" he said, "And a good person will show you the way."

I remember that I haven't eaten since the plane breakfast of croissant and coffee and now it must be near six in the evening. There are dozens of tavernas to pick from and the only difference I can figure is the view.. I don’t know how to choose so I just say, "Yes," when a man asks me if I am hungry. I wonder just how lost and unfamiliar I look here. Oh, how I dislike seeming unsure, I’ll have to add that to my list.

I order spinich pie and Greek salad. It is a long walk back to the hotel, wherever that is. There are lots of gypsies wandering around. A woman sitting on the ground pretending she doesn’t have any legs is begging for money, no one gives her any. I saw her legs when she folded them under her skirt. A young girl tries to sell me a fan, but I refuse. I'm keeping my bags between my legs while I eat; it's the New York still with me. I just have water and fantasize about rewarding myself with a glass of wine on the rooftop bar at the hotel when I find my way back.
In Athens some women wear high heels and take the cobblestone streets like pros. I like this city!

I am thinking about all the tension the last few weeks - excitement, anticipation, terror, anxiety, not all of it about traveling out of America, not all of it solely about me. Hours before I left New York Eric suggested I stop saying, "I'm a wreck." Which I did and amazingly stopped feeling like a wreck. I don’t know who is smarter, him because he had the idea or me because I listened.

Spinich pie is good. Dead kitten is sad. I am at the base of the Acropolis eating a lovely meal. There is a nice breeze and a sweet perfume smell which comes and goes for no apparent reason. I wish I could describe the smell of Athens but I cannot pinpoint it myself yet. The air is light and seems clean.

It's eight in the evening. I am back in the hotel slowing down on the rooftop bar with a glass of red wine. The sun is setting to my right and the Acropolis is straight ahead and seems farther than it felt to walk it earlier. On the way back to the hotel a man asked me directions as I approached Omania Square Everywhere I have even gone people ask me directions; even on my first day in Athens.

I was able to help him with my trusty map. I do get oriented pretty quickly; it's that desperate need for order and control. When I pulled out my map he identified me as a tourist and told me he came from Manchester, England. His accent had hints of Indian or Pakistani. I felt something unusual in his grip when he shook my hand but did not look down. After a few minutes I snuck a glance and noticed he was missing three important fingers on his right hand.
He says his name is Kuki (pronounced Cookie) and he launched into a long story which included the tale of how he lost his fingers as a child when he and his brother were playing ball. His brother accidentally pushed him, Kuki lost his balance and fell into some sort of machine and his fingers were mangled and then amputated. He touched my head several times when he wanted to make a point that a thirst for intelligence combined with the desire to create or make something are both diamonds which together form a third diamond. “And that is The Diamond of Life.”

Kuki seemed lonely and wanted very much to keep company with me. I politely agreed with him about his life diamond theories and after about twenty minutes on a corner in Omania Square with busses blowing exhaust fumes in my face and throngs of people swarming across the streets I finally excused myself. It was when I tried to make my leave that he asked what I was doing in Greece? For how long? And how big was my group? I evaded the questions and wished him well. I don't think he meant any harm but I was mindful of the turning atmosphere of the neighborhood as dusk began to roll in and how the man in the lobby of the hotel warned me to stick to the main streets at night because the area is filled with drug dealers in this part of town.

It if is eight o'clock in the evening on Tuesday in Athens then it must be three in the afternoon in New York City. The sun has set below the horizon and the sky is a greyish-pink. I am drowsy and do believe it's time for sleep, I have a seven thirty ferry from Pireaus to Milos in the morning.