One of the hardest things about keeping a blog is deciding what's worth posting. Ridiculous or not, one of my biggest frustrations has been the fact that so many of my entries are inspired by the kindness of others. Don't get me wrong. I will never get sick of friendly strangers, nor will I ever take their goodness for granted – not for a second. I consider myself incredibly lucky to have had one good experience after another during a thirteen-month path that was wide open for mishap. A smart traveler should recognize and acknowledge good fortune, lest Mama Nasty, Good Luck's nemesis, decides to visit, bringing any of her favorite reminders to the ungrateful or unsuspecting traveler: Theo the Thief, Bobby Bad Weather, Calamity Carl, Donny Danger, Sammy Sicko, or anyone else from the Crisis Crew. So again, ungrateful I am not.
Still, there comes a time when the trials and tribulations must be shared. So I'm going to put the bowl of cherries back in the fridge next to the peaches and cream, and tell you what has surprised me recently.
I spent last week on the island of Crete, a famous European vacation destination for who-knows-how-long. This is my first time in Greece, and prior to coming, I had always imagined it as a blue and white paradise where hairy donkeys and women quietly pass by white-washed walls and fat men chat and laugh loudly as they share olives and feta. I imagined striking up conversations with locals in restaurants and having a crush on the owner's son, who works all day long but smiles like he won the lottery when I walk in, and takes me out on his motorbike at night when he finishes his shift.
I didn't imagine that people could be so rude – or not that they could, but that they would be. I am shocked by the number of occasions on which I needed to ask a bus driver a simple question while boarding and was greeted with annoyance or impatience. In restaurants I sometimes found the staff to be unfriendly as well. The biggest shocker though, was how many fallen faces and lost smiles I was met with upon the moment I responded to the question “Where are you from?” It seemed that most of the times I admitted – because that feels like the right verb - being from the United States, I was received with disappointment or disgust. I became uncomfortable, intimidated, and when the dreaded question would resurface, as it often did, I was already prepared to hang my head and end what could have been a pleasant exchange.
One day I went for lunch with a Greek friend who I met earlier this year. We had a wonderful lunch. He was friends with the owner of the restaurant, who brought us plate after plate of specialties; stuffed aubergine, zucchini flowers, stewed vegetables and beans, rose wine and more. It was an incredible meal, and I was enjoying the company until the panna cotta came and my friend began to explain why he isn't sure he'd like to visit the U.S. I listened quietly for about five minutes as he described to me how the Jews are trying to control everything there and have too much power in large corporations. He explained that Greeks, especially in Crete, are well-aware of these and other things that the news doesn't show. I found myself wide-eyed and shaking my head, but somehow unable to find the right words. All I could say was that it wasn't true, and that it sounded like a very Nazi-like concern. (I also silently wondered if the word cretin is related to Crete...) So when I went to dinner alone the following evening and the waiter asked me, after ordering my food, if I was Jewish, I felt a surge of something heavy come over me like a lead blanket. It seemed that many of my conversations in Chania ended in me feeling sad. If American Jew wasn't a double-whammy before, it had certainly become one.
Needless to say, I felt that a physical move was necessary in order to achieve an emotional move. No matter how beautiful my surroundings, I was in a bad place and could feel Crete bringing me down. So on a bit of a whim, I decided to cut my time there short and head to another island. It could not have been a better move.
Because I arrived in Mykonos without having made any plans or doing any research, I did not have a place to stay or any idea what to do. Once again, Couch Surfing saved the day. Thanks to a few dedicated members of Mykonos' CS community, my arrival and transition to Mykonos were seamless. Arriving at the busy travel agency where my CS contact works, I had the most unexpected type of welcome. First Sakis told me to have a seat and he would find me a place to stay. So I sat down with one of his co-workers, Lefteris, a very friendly man with whom I then spent over an hour chatting. About ten or fifteen minutes into our conversation, he said, “Okay, you're from Boston and also live in Brasil, but what are your family's origins?” “Russian, I responded.” I could see that something registered as his eyes narrowed... “Wait – are you Jewish?” I paused, exhaling an audible sigh of defeat, and nodded my head. “Yeah.” He clapped his hands together and his face lit up. “I don't like to make generalizations because we're all individuals, you know. But I just love Jewish people! So smart! So logical!” He went on, and I listened, trying not to beam. He then proceeded to tell me how polite and pleasant American tourists were. In the time that I sat there and listened, this stranger restored something in my heart that I almost believed to be broken beyond repair.
Each day when I went into the center of Mykonos, I would visit them at the agency and we would sit and talk about many things. On my third day I needed to switch accommodation and it wasn't looking good. The weekend had arrived and all the hotels in the center were booked solid. I sat in the agency, concerned, trying to let go of the fact that on my second-to-last day in Mykonos, I would not be able to go make the most of the day because I needed to focus on finding a place to stay. Lefteris looked at my face and sympathized. “Come with me”, he said. I followed him as we crossed the square into a bakery. He told me about all the different desserts that were encased in the glass before us and told me to pick the one I wanted. I chose a piece of baklava, he ordered a piece of kadaifi, and we carried them back to the agency, sat and ate them and laughed.
That evening, Sakis told me I could stay at his home if I didn't mind being away from the center of town. He arranged a ride there for me since he had to stay at work, and I sat on the porch looking out at the sunset over the sea, wondering how I always manage to meet these guardian angels.
I wound up loving Mykonos so much that I changed the date of my departure from Greece. On the day that I did leave, I went to the agency to say goodbye to Sakis and Lefteris. They were the first people I met on the island, and I wanted them to be the last people I saw before leaving. After all, they played a key role in my positive state-of-mind since leaving Crete. I was planning to take the bus to the port, but Lefteris insisted on driving me to the ferry. Imagine such warmth and kindness from these two perfect strangers who so quickly became my friends!
On the ferry, I was lucky to find a cushioned bench that was long enough to lay down on in a curled-up position. The ride to Athens would be five hours long, and I was exhausted. Thirty or forty minutes into the ride and finally comfortable, the ferry made a stop at a small island and a surprisingly large mass of people boarded. Four older women, ranging from forty-five to near eighty appeared in the area where I lay and began squawking and fussing over the space I was occupying. I slowly sat up, asked them with a smile to just wait a moment for me to move my things, and watched as they all huffed in disapproval at my choice to lay on that bench. (I didn't realize the ferry would be making stops.) They didn't speak English, so all I could do was laugh off their admonishment as one by one, they put their things down and occupied every inch of the bench and its surroundings, leaving me squeezed tightly between them, journal in my lap.
They talked over me and I smiled. They passed things across my lap and I smiled. And then the eldest of the group with a raisin-like face, took out a box of food and put it on her lap. I motioned to the small piece of round table in front of me, offering her to switch seats. “Endaxi, endaxi” (that's okay) she replied. And then she cut up her crepe, and handed me a large piece in a napkin. I tried to thank her and decline, but she wouldn't have it. She pointed to her chest and said something I didn't understand, except for one word, which she repeated. “Mama”. I smiled and accepted her offering, and the woman on the other side of me patted my arm gently.
Two hours into the ride, the woman to my right moved over, insisting that I use the table to write instead of balancing my journal in my lap. Half an hour later she was offering me fresh bread. Three hours into the ride, I managed to understand that they were asking me if I'm married. When I said “No”, they all started clapping, patting me on the leg and saying “Bravo, bravo!” Smiling, the sun-dried woman pointed to her head, suggesting that I am smart, I think. Then she spoke to me again in Greek. The youngest woman translated. “Come and visit my home in Athens, she said.” and then the woman wrote down her name and phone number. Soon after, the ferry arrived at the port and they all hugged and kissed me goodbye and the elderly woman repeated her invitation.
These guardian angels...they're everywhere.