“Wherever you go in Greece the people open up like flowers.” -Henry Miller
I agree with Mr. Miller. I’ve seen it. Greece provokes a fearless unfolding of human nature not just in Greeks, but in myself, in tourists, in unclassifiable, nameless faces. My time here was brief, but one with deep connections, and three weeks later I’m still thinking of these glimpses of fleeting flowers whom I happened to encounter.
On the morning of my flight to Greece, I sit next to a friendly Czech and fellow English teacher. Eventually we realize that we both live in Liberec, and that she knows nearly everyone I know. Small world, smaller town. Her son is Kuba, a student of one of my friends. Kuba’s a bad speller with a potty mouth who Ivana describes as, “the naughty one.” Like most Czechs, Ivana starts off reserved, but five minutes into our conversation, she is overflowing with stories and laughter. She is warm and intelligent and vulgar and blunt, with a raspy laugh and heavy, smudged eye makeup. We get along just fine. It’s 10 am and we’ve both ordered wine, so we toast each other and continue our laments about men and the flaws of the public school system. As it happens, Greece possesses a big part of Ivana’s heart. Her eyes light up when she learns I’m en route there, and she is excited to teach me my first Greek words.
“Kalimera (hello) and Efharisto (thank you) will get you a long way,” she coaches me. “Greece is the type of place where they appreciate foreigners speaking their language.”
In Serbia, we change planes and part ways. “I don’t have my glasses on, so if you pass me on the streets in Liberec, just say ‘Kalimera’ and I will know it’s you.” And with that, Ivana is off to Istanbul.
After mumbling under my breath and piecing together the sounds of Greek letters on tram signs, I find my hostel and meet a soulmate–a Honduran-born New Yorker and photojournalism student studying in England. Her name is Nora and my first image of her will stay with me forever: she is leaning against an alabaster stone balcony, dressed in all black, a leather jacket zipped up to her neck and a cigarette dangling from her fingertips. Instantly I feel a shared connection– a grungy, rough around the edges vibe, the antithesis of cobblestone streets and European perfection, that momentarily seems to bind Atlanta to New York City in my mind. We decide to walk to dinner and, without realizing it, take an extended detour in front of the Panathenaic Stadium–the arena of the first modern olympics, lit up before us like an IMAX movie theater screen. The Attic sites look epic at night.
The moment we realize we’ve been lingering for some time and should probably continue our quest for the restaurant, we are engulfed in a gust of swirling winds. We bury our heads, attempt to fold our bodies into barriers, trudging forward and stopping for shared expressions of disbelief. And then, the hail– cold, sharp little bullets falling from the sky like Zeus himself is wielding a rifle at a mortal shooting range. The sheer force of this spontaneous storm is otherworldly. I have an eerie suspicion of being watched, of being toyed with by the gods, like they know we’re here. We dodge the ice bullets as best we can, in between screeches and laughter, taking cover under a bus stop until a good-hearted stranger shows us which route to take to reach our destination, a little Greek taverna called Tzitzikas and Mermigas. As the bus pulls up, I notice a soaking wet silhouette running for his motorcycle. Just as I’m pondering how bold and fearless and utterly crazy this man must be, I look down and notice he is a she, and she’s wearing stiletto heels. She speeds off into the blinding hail shower with the grace and urgency of Hermes.
At the taverna, we wring out the water from our clothes and the baggage of our pasts. Before the waiter utters a word, it’s a welcome platter of raki, olives, and ice water. My kind of place. The ouzo is flowing and the conversation is snowballing from religion to the afterlife, what it means to be a good person and how our families’ values and choices have shaped us.
Hours later, we take to the streets, stopping at kitschy little kiosks and searching for shot glass mementos, the intoxication of ouzo warm in our bellies. In the process, Nora breaks one of these aptly placed tourist traps, and a worker who’s just finished his shift insists on cleaning it up for us. After paying for the broken glass, Nora asks the generous off-the-clock employee if he knows any decent places for nightlife. Instead of giving us a few suggestions, he introduces himself as Simos and gives his would-be cab a few thumps to send it on its way. He will take us to his favorite spot in town, he says. Books are People’s Best Friends is a bookstore, coffee shop, and low-key bar with a Latin music loving DJ. Nora takes the opportunity to teach me how to salsa dance and, like a snake charmer, has me entranced with the finesse, the certitude, the swaying of her hips.
Simos knows Greek, Spanish, Italian, French, Russian, English, and maybe more, he muses, all from talking with the international travelers who are drawn to his centrally located kiosk in between tram transfers or walks around the Syntagma Square. Despite his extensive knowledge of multiple languages, Simos has never once heard or spoken them in their native countries. He has never left Greece, in fact. He was born in Athens and has lived here all his life. When I attempt to inspire him to travel, he puts his beer down, and smiles, “No. Never.”
“Why not? You should go!” says the naive traveler in me.
Simos gives a disappointed shrug and says he can’t explain. He could tell me in Greek, but it’s impossible for him to explain in English.
“Try,” I say.
After a long pause, “Ok, I will try.”
His eyes are the color of brown sugar and when he starts speaking about his country, they turn to crystals. He speaks slowly, confidently, never taking his eyes off mine.
“Greek people, you know, have charisma. I don’t travel because I don’t want to leave my people or be away from this charisma. Here, I am free. We don’t have money, but we are free. In Greece, if you want to do something, you do it. And everyone knows this. We are alive. If I meet a Greek person, even if I don’t know him or like him, I know what’s in his head. I understand him. We are the same. And I cannot be away from this feeling.”
To this, we raise our glasses of beer and wine. “Stiagamos.”
Though Simos said he lacked the words to express his affection for his country, I think he explained it perfectly. The feeling that he clings to is the same one I search for when I travel; the search for solidarity with strangers, a rush of saturated culture, passion and understanding.
Now, Nora inches toward the table and ensorcels Simos, creating elegant infinity signs with her body, releasing tensions and effectively luring him to the dance floor. I order a Greek coffee and sip it slowly, taking care not to drink the sludge of coffee grinds that’s collected at the bottom of the cup. I’d read a warning against this on the flight over only hours before, thinking it was common sense: the dregs have an unpleasant taste, so one would do well to avoid drinking them. But I soon learn another reason for the preservation of these grounds.
When only a viscous paste remains, Simos turns over my cup and tells me to wait, to let the dark brown sludge slide down inside the porcelain. “Greek women can read your future from the patterns left in the cup.”
Ever-intrigued by sorcery, superstitions, and strange rituals, I am more than thrilled to participate. After a few minutes, I ask, “So what does it say?”
“I don’t know,” he confesses. “I’m not a Greek woman.”
Against my insistence on paying, Simos picks up the bill for all of us. I protest but he shushes me and, through a sly smile, says, “You are in Greece.”
The next morning I’m an hour late for the TBEX conference, the whole reason for my being in Greece. Later, I’ll blame the time change, but the ouzo and wine may tell the story differently. I scurry out of bed and into a cab, notebook and half of a pastry in hand.
The entire day, I attend workshops with the sole purpose of making myself a better travel writer. It feels good to be focused, interested, ambitious. It’s my first conference of this kind, and I’m comfortable in this massive auditorium of like-minded strangers. I finally meet Candace Rardon–a friend, fabulous blogger, and writing mentor–in person. We talk over lunch and catch up on our lives, filling in the gaps left by our digital distance and eternally intermittent email threads.
There are more than 800 travel bloggers at the conference and each one of us is invited to the closing party held in the middle of the streets of Athens. At Monistiraki Square, the celebration is lavish, chaotic, delightfully Dionysian in spirit. Shop owners stand in doorways tempting us with free gifts; vendors crowd the narrow streets proffering complimentary food, drinks, knick knacks, smiles. Giving, giving, giving. The people are consistent in their abundance of a generous nature, seeming to want nothing more that to fill us up with their joy. The Greeks, they are overflowing, effusive, proud, passionate, attempting to share their culture in every medium and expression possible.
A woman with bleached blonde hair waves me down and calls me over to her shop doorway, while her son runs inside to replenish the crystal clear liquid that’s disappeared from their table. He returns swiftly, arms loaded with liters of raki from their personal stash. Their offers are undeniable: the mother pours the shots and the son passes them out to any takers on the street. I clank glasses with the mother and accept my gift. The raki is strong and lights my throat afire, but even with the burning I cannot help but smile.
Every corner reveals another surprise–a glass of wine, a kofta kebab, a potter throwing clay amphorae, an opera signer belting out from a balcony, people expanding accordions and strumming bouzoukis, busy hands at work everywhere performing and creating. Everything is rich and live and loud and interconnected, and when you’re there, you’re indivisible from it all. Your body ceases to be a boundary; your skin is a diaphanous shield when your spirit wants to go everywhere at once.
There are few things I love more on this earth than the pulse of a heavy drum beat. Twice during the night, I am summoned by this sound, and twice I heed its call. Boom, boom, boom, and away I wander with a spring in my step, pulled by invisible magnets toward the anticipation of good times. At the impromptu African drum circle in the courtyard of the center square, the layers of drumming are complex and erratic, but there is always one constant–the rhythm. The rhythm, the rhythm! It underlies everything in Greece. Break dancers and bold acrobats imbued with the fiery feeling of the music let their bodies flail in every direction.
The second percussion-provoked wandering leads me to a tiny alleyway, where I race down the street to intersect the sound. I want to reach its origin, but I can’t pinpoint its exact location. The sound is moving. A BATALA drumline is roaring through the streets, demanding the attention and dropped jaws of everyone in their way. There are men with dredlocks and women with shaved heads, all of them fierce and banging into their drums like they are exorcising demons. It resonates off the windows of the shops and inside the hearts of everyone who is around. Soon a crowd is gathered behind them, dancing, jumping, smiling, feeling like a Greek, myself among them. It is something raw and savage and so satisfying. I fluctuate between feelings of ecstasy and anxiety at the possibility of this glorious parade ending. I am irreversibly synced with this feeling and think my heart will surely stop should the beating of the drum.
We are overtaking the streets now. No one can move and no one seems to mind. People are sweaty and shoulder-to-shoulder, flanking the streets: locals, tourists, TBEX bloggers, barefoot children and men in suits, musicians and old women. All of us are there together in this moment. Diligent journalists are taking photos and videos and briefly I feel like I should be one of them, preserving this sacred moment in time. But the dance, the drum, the collective feeling of pure carnal being held me captive in a trance. There is nowhere else I’ve been that has made me feel this way, and yet this place feels so familiar. I lock eyes with a stranger, a drummer in the crowd, and we exchange an understanding in the form of a smile and a synchronized dance breakdown.
When I think about living, I think about this–an entire city united in the center dancing, celebrating, freeing themselves of society, propriety, and every inhibition. It’s this drum parade that makes me understand what Simos was trying to convey to me, that thing that he can’t be away from. That grounding, corporeal experience that reminds you what it is to feel everything, and to be among a people who never forgets it–the Greeks.
I know that, in the future, whenever I find myself in the sticky muck of monotony, I will always have that place inside me where nothing matters but the dance and the drum beat and I will tell myself, “You are in Greece.”