“The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.”
For Whirl and me it was not the desert across which we fled. We fled across the ocean. For over two weeks we traveled the Cyclades. These strange, magnificent islands have transfixed me. I have wanted to visit them from the time I first learned of them years ago. My first attempt to do so, in the long summer of 1991, aborted in a catastrophe: physically thrown from a train by a conductor, wearing two heavy backpacks, and separated from my girlfriend. She had about thirty drachma to her name—at the time thirty drachma was roughly equivalent to three dollars. I was carrying everything else. All of that is a story for another time. Our triumphant return to Greece includes nothing quite so pernicious.
On this trip we traveled by airplane. We traveled by ferry. We traveled by bus and automobile. One day we did all of these things in the twenty-four hour span of time. Mostly we traveled on foot.
That is a clue.
Whirl has never been off of the North American continent. We have traveled together outside America a couple times. We spent our honeymoon on the Caribbean island of St. Lucia. The idea of traveling abroad is one we have entertained for a long time. That fed into the requirements for this trip. We wanted to go someplace foreign. We wanted explore and experience a new and strange place at a visceral level.
I believe there is a distinction to be made between tourism and traveling. I understand the terms tourism and travel are often used interchangeably. I—admittedly unkindly—use the terms tourism and tourist pejoratively. I use them to convey a sense of a superficiality or shallow interest in the visited cultures and locations. A traveler also passes through a place. He does not become part of it or adopt it as his own. That hurdle cannot be surmounted. Nor should it. What a traveler can do—and what I strive to do when traveling—is to experience and enjoy where I am and who I am with for who they are in themselves. I endeavor to avoid comparisons: Oh we do this so much better back home. I adapt to the customs. I try to wrap my tongue around the language—if only to state “I’m so sorry! I made a horrible mistake!” If you learn nothing else in a foreign language, learn how to say “thank you”. It is a little thing on the surface. If I can learn the intricacies of Internet jargon, memorize the best lines from The French Connection, and remember the batting averages for scores of ballplayers, I can afford to spend the time and energy it takes to learn and remember how to express gratitude in the local manner.
Travel is essentially about sharing. “Take nothing but pictures; leave nothing but footprints.” What is left is a shared moment in time, a very literal fork in the road taken with strangers—who if by the simple existence of that fork are no longer strange. They become friends.
My mother once told me she wished to live ten years of her life in ten different countries one year in each country.
I lived the entire year of 1991 in Germany. I landed in Berlin on New Year’s Day. While living in Germany, I had the opportunity to travel through several regions of that new, reunified country: Potsdam, Weimar, Dusseldorf, Cologne, Munich, Rothenburg ob der Tauber, Ulm, Stuttgart. I also branched outside of Germany. I traveled twice to Paris, to Salzburg and Vienna, Pisa, Florence, Geneva, Venice.
Before the two of us met, Whirl’s own journey took her to different places. In our time together we have shared bits of our paths with one another while at the same time forged new ones together.
The last year and a half has been very difficult terrain for both of us. It involved pain. It involved sacrifice. I liken it to climbing out of the depths of Hell. I do not want to dwell on those aspects. I have done that sufficiently already. But along with our interest in traveling—as opposed to being tourists—that dark storm cloud of the recent past hung over this trip. We set out on this adventure to Greece intent on getting out from under that black cloud of unfortunate history. We chose the sun-blasted islands of the Aegean.
Whirl is a biologist. Whirl is also an anthropologist. There was a time in my life when I counted myself a philosopher. (Some people still do. I am somewhat loathe to reflect on that particular question with too intense scrutiny. I am afraid of what I may find—or may not find.) These aspects of our personalities—who we were—added appeal to Greece as a destination. Greece satisfied all the qualifications. Greece sits on another continent. Greece is decidedly foreign—it even has its own alphabet. Greece has history: some have argued that Greece is the very source of history. Architecture, music, dance, mythology. And in our fifteen days we did not even scratch the surface of what the country has to offer.
We climbed to the tops of the islands: steep, mountainous peaks. We swam in the sea. We danced. We ate things we could not pronounce, or joined our hosts in the humor of our best-of-intentioned attempts to do so. How do you say that, again? Ρεβυδοκεφτέδες. One more time? Ρεβυδοκεφτέδες. Oh, of course!
The lesson devolved into gales of laughter.
We walked nearly everywhere. Even trips that we probably should have taken by bus, we ended up walking. You will remember that I mentioned the walking as a clue. Because the one frightful moment of the trip came when Whirl managed to fall and seriously injure her foot. We had heaped so much hope and expectation upon this trip. We wanted to explore. We wanted to travel. We wanted to relax. We wanted to reset ourselves and regain some of the confidence that the last year and a half had taken away. In a moment we wondered if that had all come crashing down. We wondered if we would be left to try and put a broken foot back together—in a foreign country.
I have written about it before, but it bears repeating: Whirl is my heroine. She was momentarily crestfallen about the circumstances of accidentally injuring herself. She feared she had ruined the entire trip. She had not, but I can understand that fear. After hardships and expectations there comes a time when you just want something, anything, to go right. If only for a short while. Just fifteen days. And it had not. She powered through it. For a day we treated it like a badly sprained ankle. And when it became obvious that her injury was more severe than a sprain, we traveled to the local hospital. She was in pain. She could not move very fast at all. She was unsteady on her feet. We were greeted at the hospital doorway by a kind, strapping man with a wheelchair. And in a matter of just a few minutes were whisked off for X-Rays, loaned a pair of crutches and set off on our way to enjoy the rest of our trip— ευχαριστώ, indeed! She laughed. She laughed and her laughter was infectious. I laughed. The doctors and nurses that were helping us laughed. We laughed and made even the typically unpleasant experience of going to the doctor part of the adventure. By laughing Whirl took away the injury’s power to spoil anything.
We met other setbacks. Some were caused by weather, others were caused by terrain. At every challenge Whirl championed her way through them. She demonstrated how to make the most of a situation to find enjoyment. Our last day in Greece, we spent in Athens. We briefly toured some of the sights. It was obvious the foot injury would prevent her from making the climb to the Acropolis. I set her up at a café at the bottom of the hill and went alone. When I returned—thrilled to have gotten to see the Parthenon and the Erechtheion—her bright enthusiasm for her own encounters with the people she had met at the café eclipsed my own. She amazes me every day.
The trip went a long way towards accomplishing what we hoped it would. Going back to work on Monday was busy. Hectic with two weeks’ worth of things upon which to catch up, a couple of new catastrophes were thrown in for good measure. But the thing was I came home not feeling disenchanted and distressed. I felt comfortable. I was able to leave the office at the office. I felt that if I had had this Monday three weeks ago I would have been muttering and complaining and fretting all evening. I did not do that. I felt better. That makes me happy.
I feel like the whole trip helped me to reset myself and get my feet underneath me a little more firmly. I credit Whirl and her dogged, optimistic determinism—borne out with the challenge of her bum foot—with a huge measure of that change in perspective.