Last Chance for Icons
I shed my everyday skin, an epidermis of to-do lists and brain-numbing minutia, to travel with my friend Karis. Destination: Greece, for an experience awash in mythology and olive groves.
Although I brought a list of Greek phrases, I rarely remembered them in time. In my defense, the word for “yes” sounded like “no” and a simple “thanks” involved four syllables.
I didn’t feel hampered because many of the Greeks communicated seamlessly in English. And while the people made themselves clear, some of the printed material was lost in translation. Take the belly dance CD I bought, not for the music but for the song titles: “My Bouzouki’s in High Spirits,” “You’ll Get Used to Me Little by Little,” “A Secret Gnawing,” “Off with Grieves and Sorrows,” and my favourite, “I Do Not Own Mansions or Have a Pot.”
I don’t own mansions either, but I do own a pot or two. All are from the Gordon Ramsay collection. As for the shape of my bouzouki, that’s something I’ll discuss with a partner. When I have a partner.
Guidebook: Sightseeing features the Acropolis and Parthenon, plus views of the Agora, Royal Palace, Temple of Zeus and Hadrian’s Arch.
My travel motivation wasn’t solely to experience the Grecian marvels I studied in Mr. Edmond’s twelfth grade history class. No, it was to forget about Petey, a man whose name always reminded me of a parrot’s. Petey was a heart-breaking partner, one who pulled disappearing acts on paydays. After gambling away his money on winking VLTs and come-hither blackjack tables, he’d fly back through my open window. When I finally heeded the sensible warnings from friends and family, I closed the shades on home and heart. Next, I tossed the millet treats (purple fleece-lined hand cuffs, bedroom side table) and threw away every belled mirror (framed pictures of Petey flashing his disarmingly crooked smile, disarming enough that I ignored my three-dates-before-sex rule that night after Earls . . . hell, I took that rule and lined the bottom of my bird cage).
Guidebook: In Mycenae, see the Treasury of Atreus, the Beehive Tombs, Lion Gate and Agamemnon’s Palace. Don’t miss the amphitheatre of Epidaurus before touring the Olympic Stadium.
The translation delights didn’t end with music. While ordering lunch at an outdoor tavern near Syntagma Square in Athens, Karis read aloud a typo-riddled blurb from the back of her menu: “This store is obliged to dispose ofprinted sheets, at a special place by the exit for the expression of any complaint whatsoever, with content fot the market police, the hygiene department or the fiscal department.”
Who am I to complain, lazy me, I thought in a mellow mid-afternoon wine buzz, my stomach stuffed drum-tight with succulent tomatoes, grape leaves, and olive oil. After ten days I couldn’t decide which greeting to use, kalimera or kalispera, depending on the time of day. When I paid the bill I took no chances and simply smiled in the direction of our server.
I wasn’t always lazy, and arrived on schedule for every tour and event. I climbed a thousand stone steps and rambled through so many temples – Athena, Zeus, Apollo – that I forgot the details, retaining only images of revered ruins where Karis and I held hands to our hearts.
For me, Greece was a land of discovery, past and present. Greece was also a land of icons, available at every street stand and corner store. With Petey off the radar, I focused on collecting the Holy Virgin Mary, weeping, black, or pensive, from tiny key chains to bulky triptychs.
And if a suitcase full of the Virgin Mary wasn’t enough, I added an assortment of Byzantine saints. Something about the word Byzantine sent an unexplainable frisson of pleasure up my vertebrae. (Weeks after I arrived home, my mental abacus added two plus two to equal a long-forgotten crush on that same grade twelve history teacher. Damn his woodsy cologne and boot-cut Levis as he soared the classroom aisles.)
Guidebook: We invite you to an evening excursion at a taverna in Plaka. Excellent food served in a lively atmosphere, and entertainment through dances and music.
I started to laugh again, feel lighthearted. In a restaurant and seated close to a troupe of Greek folk dancers, one of the dancers suddenly stopped in front of me and stuck his shoe under my nose. His toe sported a gigantic yellow pom pom. The man yelled something in Greek and pointed to that fuzzy pom pom. Was I supposed to stroke it? Kiss it? I did both and now could be married to a Greek man. I only hope he owns a pot.
I have no memory of what caused the sparrow-brown bruises on my shins that I saw when pulling up my socks the next morning. I blamed the anise-flavoured ouzo. I also blamed the Metaxa brandy that smelled like Old Spice and tasted like gasoline. Worse, it made me snore like a lawn mower in my hard twin bed.
“I dreamed a bunch of bikers were chasing us,” Karis said into the bathroom mirror, smearing concealer under her eyes, “but I woke up and the motorcycle noise was your snoring!”
“Sorry, but when in Greece . . .” I wasn’t completely sorry; my friend’s pillow-muffled sobs awakened me every second night. Karis had come to Greece to honour her recently deceased mother who’d planned to return to her homeland before the cancer whispered, then roared. I recall half a dozen blue-framed posters of Crete and Santorini in Karis’ family home.
Guidebook: Bask in a four-day Aegean cruise where you can spend time in the playground of the rich and famous on the island of Mykonos.
The usual destinations for travellers – Rhodes, Mykonos and Patmos – were picturesque, although it was the inconsequential moments that pushed deep roots into my psyche, especially the tan-furred dogs and one-eyed cats that coiled around my legs. These strays recognized the hopeful rustle of a plastic bag, one that promised leftovers. I gathered chunks of meat and cheese after each meal, enough to fill a few flea-scratched bellies. Each dog’s grinning pleasure from a gentle pat lingered in my memory, longer than any piece of antiquity I studied through nose-smudged glass at the National Archaeological Museum. All fascinating, these antiquities I read about since high school, and all forgettable. Excluding the conjured scent of Mr. Edmonds. That scent glided alongside as I circled the Grecian terrain in a bus filled with eager-eyed tourists in wrinkled washable cotton. All with their own agenda, their own baggage.
It was the cat and dog stories that I continued to mention, not the meandering map of my itinerary. It was those memories that occupied my dreams as I hugged my colossal pillow and for months murmured Petey’s name – fly home . . . fly away – into the dark night.
Guidebook: After breakfast, bid farewell to new friends as we transfer you to the airport for your return flight home.
When Karis and I rushed through the airport to find our homeward terminal, we passed a kiosk that brimmed with souvenirs. In addition to packages of freeze-dried olives in shades from green to black, the faces of a dozen Madonnas and her requisite halo broadcast from every shelf.
“Last chance for icons,” Karis called out. “You must have an empty corner inside that carry-on.”
“No, I’m good,” and I patted a bulging bag that slapped my thigh with each fast step.
My friend was teasing about my frenzied packing the previous evening and how I had to choose between scuffed Adidas and a carved wooden panel depicting the Holy Virgin. The sneakers landed noisily in the hotel trash can and I carefully swaddled the Virgin in my hoodie.
I could hardly wait to land; I flung apart my seatbelt before the plane came to a complete stop. Then I could hardly stand still as luggage tumbled from the carousel’s groaning maw. All I wanted was to hug my friend goodbye and hurry home, to lay out my treasures across the bedspread. Now that Petey no longer occupied one half of my nest, there was plenty of room to display my icons. And spread my wings.
“Opa!” Karis shouted for the tenth time when climbing into her cab.
“Opa to you, girlfriend!” I shouted back, my grin wide and idiotic, not caring who heard or watched.