It’s hard to call it a problem, per se, not to be able to keep up with your inspiration.
Which is my way of saying I’ve been meaning to write for a while now and I’m sorry this is going to be long and probably disorganized. But every time I feel like I have a good moment to take a retrospective, the world opens up again and gives me something new and beautiful to feast on, and I can’t quite force myself to ignore it in favor of looking over my shoulder.
Case in point: This morning, I woke up thinking I would have a fairly low-key day, finishing up some work after taking a free walking tour of Athens to get oriented to my new surroundings. (Yes, I moved on to Greece — more on that in a moment.)
But as luck would have it, the Olympic Flame was in town today on its way to South Korea for the 2018 winter Games, having been run (literally) down from Olympia for the handover ceremony. When we met for the tour, our guides told us we were in for a special treat and walked us to Kallimarmaro, a stadium dating to 144 AD and built by freaking Herodes Atticus.
It was all a total surprise and totally free of charge: a moment of history I got to witness wholly on accident. I had no idea it was going on and had very nearly booked the tour for a different day.
This revelation — that I’m stumbling so quickly on new moments of total astonishment I can’t possibly catalogue them, and that this is the gift that travel gives us — is received in good time. Spending weeks away from home, alone, in countries where you don’t speak (or even read, here in Greece) the language, can make even the itchest of foot feel homesick. I found myself wondering if I can really do this — as in, man, I could use some familiarity, but also as in am I allowed to do this? Is this a “real” life or a way of avoiding one? It feels a little bit like living perpetually in an Easter egg in the video game of life, if that makes sense. Like I’ve fallen between the cracks, but in a good way.
And as lonely as it seems from time to time, it never is, really. I constantly meet new people whose generosity and kindness blow me away, and who are so clearly devoted to living authentically and entirely.
Víctor, my Spanish-English practice partner, who sat with me patiently for hours over coffee as I butchered his language and answered his astute questions about mine. Gerard, who runs Travel Priorat and who, when he couldn’t find a tour for me to tag along with, came out and spent the whole day driving *just* me around the region, showing me cellars that ranged from families who still ferment and bottle in their basements to Smart-House-level operations with stunning panoramic tasting rooms and whitewashed laboratories, letting me muddy up his passenger-side floorboards and jawdrop so often I’m fairly sure I was drooling. Eleni, my Airbnb host here in Athens, who said she’ll never be “great” at English after using it better than many natives, and who speaks Greek natively, Spanish fluently, some French and is learning Portuguese besides.
There’s so much more to say. I realize there’s no way for me to impart all of my stories. They have to be told naturally — coming up organically over the course of a lifetime, these moments I’m greedily hoarding, planting in myself like seeds. But it’s so hard not to play scribe and gush about everything, to simply exist and experience and not remark or explain.
My last two weeks in Spain were anything but unremarkable. I walked through the waves of Gaudí’s imagination at the Sagrada Família and Park Güell; I fell asleep on the beach under a Mediterranean sunset. I saw paintings Picasso had made of the same Barcelona streets I’d wandered through; I took a Spanish spin class so sweaty and frenetic we fogged up the room’s trilateral mirrors to nightclub levels of chic blurriness and filled the air with visible humidity. I heard the woman in the apartment upstairs from mine sing to her crying baby at bathtime and the weird Tuesday-night karaoke that echoed loud throughout the neighborhood, ranging from the “Electric Slide” to “Gangnam Style” and that Numa Numa song. I tasted tens of bottles of Priorat wine so hot they smelled like port and drank like liquor-soaked chocolate covered cherries, geeking out with the winemakers who chattered aimiably, in English, about exact pH levels and oak type percentages; I meandered through the ruins of the monastery the area is named for. (It was abandoned for years. Gerard used to play its rubble as a child.) I tasted press wine and an overripe carignan grape; I plucked and kept a leaf. I learned the secret of pouring fresh olive oil into a dark chocolate cup and sprinkling in a few shavings of sea salt, crunching the whole thing in one bite. I listened to the Catalan parliament read off sis and nos live on television as I washed my hair, toweling off as they declared their independence. I watched as girls posed in front of the Arc de Triomf or the panorama off the Bunkers of Carmel while their boyfriends dutifully took many, many Instagram-bound photos. I saw MIT and Key West T-shirts in countries so far from those places I couldn’t fit them both in the same Google Maps screenshot. I saw couples still out in costume after celebrating Halloween on Saturday night as I made my way to the airport in at 5:30 in the morning on Sunday. I learned that all people argue and whisper-speak to cats and yell at their children in the same language.
And now, I’m here in Greece, having abandoned the idea of staying in Spain to follow cheap lodging — although I very nearly ditched my flight for the next plane to America. It’s strange, to hold all those feelings together. There are times I feel completely lost and alone and invisible, but then I find myself surrounded by a new language and new street vendors hawking roasted nuts or necklaces and someone asks where I’m from and what I’m doing here and my heart breaks open with how goddamn lucky I am.
Already I’m growing long-winded, so I think I should save Greece for later. But just two days in, there’s already a lot I’d like not to forget: the strange seminal smell in the air here and how appropriate it seems for the “cradle of Western civilization;” the sour-faced accordionist’s sister who preceded him as he walked through the train, hold out her cup and making eye contact like we were somehow blameworthy. The €8.50 bottle of 2010 Macedonia I got, dusty from the back shelf of one of the few convenience stores open on Sunday; the shopkeep had tried his hardest to sell me a liter bottle filled from a box instead — “But this one is only €4.50,” he kept repeating, baffled at my decision. The way real Greek yogurt is from sheep’s milk and has this amazing skin of cream on the top and real feta cheese comes round from the barrel and floating in brine; how the South Korean dignitaries demurely clapped along to the rap opening at this morning’s ceremony. How twice now I have been asked, à propos of little, for my father’s name — once by a man trying to pick me up on a train and once while filling out the paperwork for my Greek gym membership. The men in the open-air meat market today who asked me if I was from America, who grabbed my arm — hard — and demanded I take a photo with them, who demanded to know why not when I ripped myself away and refused.
What do you need, beauty? They asked. I have everything.
I couldn’t have put it better myself.