On my birthday, June 22nd, I did something I’d never done before (always a good idea on your birthday). I got on a plane and went to Greece. Alone. I managed to fill an entire Moleskine journal with my scribblings. Said scribblings:
June 24, 2016
What a bad idea.
I’ve had a number of meltdowns in Europe - this morning I had another one.
I had spent the previous thirty-six hours (most of which comprised my birthday) traveling. As I checked my bag at SFO, I made the stomach-dropping realization that I had left the carefully apportioned bottle of meds (including the all-important antidepressants) tidily by the kitchen sink. I had left at home the only other vital element for travel besides my passport. Abrupt withdrawal of my particular medicine can result in suicide (wheeee!!).
Delayed flight from SFO to Amsterdam. Four hour delay in Amsterdam. Amsterdam to Athens. Once there, I discovered that not only had I missed my flight to Santorini, KLM had misplaced my bag.
I caught a later flight to Santorini (hello, 107 euros), got a shuttle to the little hotel I had booked (charming but in the middle of nowhere). Took a shower, rinsed out my underwear and socks and got into bed in the men’s XL t-shirt KLM had so kindly provided.
Woke to a text from my neighbor/friend/sister-wife, Josie, saying that the soonest she could get the meds to me would be a week hence (wtf, FedEx??). At which point I would have already taken all of my Ambien in one mouthful and would no longer be in needs of meds - or anything else.
Somehow I managed to incur a break-up in the days leading up to my departure. Someone I’ve loved for a long time - a star-crossed lover, as Lana would put it - someone who I thought had finally landed in my life for real. Turns out, no. Let’s call him the Dude.
Break-up is probably the wrong term for what went down. This relationship has been like an airplane. It’s spent years speeding down an endless runway, every once in a while lifting from the ground before touching back down again. This last time we finally took flight. But still on the ascent, moments after take-off, the most dangerous part of the flight, it plunged to the ground. Pilot error, mechanical failure, who can say? The investigation is still inconclusive.
Sitting on that bed this morning, in my KLM t-shirt, wickedly jet-lagged, the antidepressants draining from my system, I burst into tears. I cried for the most recent lost love and then I cried for every lost love, every loss. I cried because I was all alone again - macro and micro. Because I had put myself in a situation - traveling far from home, solo - that always pushes my buttons. I cried like I did in Paris at 20, in Prague at 26. I cried because I was so mad. Mad that I hadn’t grown out of being homesick. Mad that I had risked my heart with someone that couldn’t cradle it responsibly, irreverently - who couldn’t recognize it as the rare gift that it was, offered so seldomly.
Sitting there, sobbing, utterly panicked, the most surprising element was that the person I was missing most - of all the people I was missing - was Ben. He was the one who could comfort me when I felt so desolate. He, for so many years, was the one who made it better. He’s the one I wanted with me in that cheap Greek hotel room. Which made me cry even harder.
Ben was the last person with whom I felt at home (beyond my children but I’m their home, they're not mine). They say you can’t go home again. That home with Ben doesn’t exist anymore. I can’t go back there. Homesickness is nostalgia. I was missing what was.
In the hours since that terrible hour, I walked five miles roundtrip to the pharmacy, my head wrapped in the KLM t-shirt in place of my missing hat, where they gave me my meds easily and cheaply and without a prescription (wtf, US healthcare, wtf??), got a taxi to the airport to be reunited with my bag, took another taxi to the port and got on a ferry to Naxos (a less touristy island that I couldn’t get to by air the night before).
Once there, I left the charming port town and took yet another taxi to the hotel I had booked months ago. In the middle of nowhere. The taxi dropped me at reception but the door was locked. I dropped my newly claimed luggage somewhat reticently (did I really want to let it out of my sight again?) and walked into “town” (a restaurant and a mini-mart).
I saw a sign for the beach and started down a dirt road, in a daze of heat and exhaustion. Three miles later(!!!), I staggered to the water. I swam in the somewhat intimidating surf in my underwear, got chased out by a big set, put my tired 48-hour-old dress back on over my wet undergarments and trudged back to the hotel, the KLM t-shirt held over my head like a sail for shade.
Here I sit, on another bed, showered, anointed with all my lotions and creams, in clean clothes, under an air conditioner, somewhat calmer. Or maybe I just exhausted myself. Silly fucking girl - backwards and forwards.
June 25, 2016
In the year preceding this trip, I dreamt often of a solo journey to Europe, two weeks in length. The dream was a nightmare, the same every time. I have a ticket to Europe (usually, Paris) and I’m panicked. Who will take care of the kids? Where will I put my loneliness?
In the dream, the trip is a sentence, something I have to endure. Yesterday, anyway, the nightmare was real. So out of place, so lonely, a prisoner in my own head.
I think I brought myself here for a reason. Yesterday, walking miles in the mid-day heat, drinking copious amounts of water but losing it all in sweat and tears, I could feel myself boiling down to a precipitate, burning through my ancient patterns of need, of fear of being alone, the ache of feeling, at base, unloved and unlovable; revisiting each and every layer as it evaporated in the brutal Greek sun.
Midday I got a ride into Naxos Town, a bustling metropolis compared to Galini (home of the restaurant and the mini-mart). I checked into a small hotel housed in an ancient building - there’s a piece of sarcophagus behind glass in my room, found in the building, dating back to 400 BC. That shit is OLD.
I took a walk down the touristy promenade. Had an incredible lunch of calamari, cucumber, local wine and yogurt for dessert. Went swimming in the quay, took a walk around a ruined acropolis, walked to a beach, swam again.
I’ve always had my clearest moments in natural bodies of water. Today, in that first swim, weightless in the briny Aegean, I asked myself, “Can you let that shit go?” By “shit”, I meant heartbreak. The freshest one with the Dude, yes, but also the heartbreak of my marriage ending and, reaching back, the heartbreak of my parent’s deaths and, even further back, way back to the root of all heartbreak, my father’s slight insanity, ferocious anger, intermittent absence in physicality and, worse, in spirit. That is where little Liz Lavoie got her heart broken. Somewhere around seven, eight, nine. I’ve been trying to put the pieces back together ever since, mostly by reenacting that dynamic, trying to solve it with one Paul-Lavoie-like-man after another. Maybe this time I can figure out how to make him love me. Maybe this time I’ll crack the code.
So I floated on my back and I asked myself, “Can you let that shit go? Can you heal your heart? Can you move forward?” And the answer was, “Not yet”. That’s not what I wanted the answer to be but that’s what it was.
As I walked the acropolis, waves whooshing below me, I saw an older couple sitting on the ancient marble stairs, backs to me. They each had short white hair, new Greek Panama hats (I was wearing a similar one), Tevas, sensible khaki walking shorts and small backpacks. They were talking softly, clearly a long strong intimacy between them. I thought about how I had always pictured Ben and me that way - aging, adventuring, talking our way through this life. I looked out over the sea and swallowed a sob. Let that shit go. That’s the path I thought I was on but there was a fork in the road. Ben went left and I went right and now I’m on a path that’s all my own. Completely new territory.
Later, on my second swim, paddling into the deep, I flopped onto my back like an otter, floated, and asked, “How about now? You ready now?” I rolled over and laughed into the sea, bubbles rising in the crystalline water.
A quote from “SweetBitters”, the novel I’m reading. So good I wrote it on a paper towel because I couldn’t find a piece of paper:
“Sometimes my sadness felt so deep it must have been inherited. It had a refrain…it was guttural and illogical and I repeated it endlessly like a chant: Please don’t leave me, please don’t leave me, please don’t leave me.”
June 27, 2016
Yesterday I ferried from Naxos to a small group of islands called the Little Cyclades. I’m on Koufonissia, a small island with one cozy settlement around the port.
I negotiated a room with one of the inn owners that met the boat. The man is kind - he pressed on me not one business card but two so I could call him in any emergency (“I will come get you, where ever you are on the island.”) The room is clean with a balcony overlooking the sea. But it’s embellished with amateur nautical paintings - really, my daughters could do way better. Vinyl tiled floor, pink paint with one dark turquoise “accent wall”. The downside of being an aesthete: a room can lift or sink me.
I walked to a beautiful beach in the afternoon. Finally, the light aqua water I had been dreaming of. I was surrounded by families and couples - I have yet to see someone traveling alone - a melange of languages, none of them English. I swam out into the placid water, noticing that I like to be just past my depth - oh, yes, I do.
As the afternoon progressed, I realized I was nauseous. My digestive system has been off, maybe it’s all the milky cappuccinos, maybe the new food, maybe the ferries, maybe the jet lag, maybe the water, maybe the second-hand smoke. I wandered into town late, forced myself to eat anyway, probably a mistake.
A blister burst on the bottom of my foot and I hobbled home, breathing deep in an effort to keep the anchovies and octopus down.
I haven’t been sleeping much. That was one of the big ideas of this trip, to have an actual vacation. To eat, to read, to swim, to sleep. I’m a champion sleeper, I can pull down eleven hour nights, no problem. But, here, at least so far, it’s six, seven hours at best. Maybe it’s the jet lag, maybe it’s the responsibility of captaining my own ship in a foreign land.
Maybe I sleep so much at home because I talk so much, I spend so much energy engaging with other humans. Here, I’m quiet. I speak a handful of sentences a day, pared down and full of utility.
It struck me yesterday that I don’t know many people who would do a trip like this alone. I ran through my friends and as each face rose in my mind, I could hear them say, “No”, “Definitely not”, “No, fuck, no”, “No, are you crazy?” I could think of maybe three people , of everyone I know, who might be excited by the prospect of the journey, and I wasn’t even sure about them.
It’s kind of like adopting a kid from Ethiopia. Everyone is all “Oh, that’s cool!” But they’d never do it themselves in a million years.
On that first day, when I was so homesick, I looked around at the groups of travelers - twos, threes, fours - and ached with envy. I knew I was crazy for doing this alone. Now I’m realizing that just because you’re with someone doesn’t mean you’re having a good time. You’re navigating their needs and emotions, compromising your own. Sometimes it’s lonelier to be in company.
I’m pretty sure this isn’t a vacation. The word “vacation” connotes comfort. I’m far from comfortable. I’m not relaxed. But I am aware. Of what’s happening outside of me and, even more, what’s happening inside.
I think I knew when I booked this trip that it would be a trial. It’s been a full three years. I sat bedside at the death of a marriage, negotiated a divorce, learned the art of solo parenting, started a business, opened two stores, moved once, finagled the purchase of a house in we’ll-price-you-right-out-of-here-Marin, moved again, battled rats and termites and leaky roofs, experimented with love. This trip is about digesting all of that, synthesizing all that change, allowing all that input to finally, fully, transform me. Am I having fun? I wouldn’t call it fun. Will I returned to my life changed? I believe I will.
This isn’t a vacation. This is travel. This is a quest.
Usually, I write on my laptop. Here, now, I’m taking pen to paper. My friend, Evany (my sister, really, in all but blood), gave me and our other soul sister, Megan, matching green Moleskine journals for Christmas. “This is for you to write down the good things that happen this year. Only the good things.” Unfortunately, I’m not able to write about only the good things. But at least I’m writing.
Usually, when the urge strikes at home, I sit down for twenty minutes and vomit something onto the page. Another five to ten minutes of tweaking and shaping and I publish the motherfucker. No one can accuse me of letting moss grow - on anything, ever.
This process is different. I’m writing in my head all day as I walk and eat and swim. I’m even reading novels differently - weighing each word, turning them over like gems. This journal is full of cross-outs, of notes in margins. It’s messy, it’s dense. I come back to previous entires and elaborate, sharpen, edit. I’m shaping this piece as a whole, beginning to end. It’s the story of a journey, not a snapshot.
Writing with pen and paper makes me more thoughtful with my sentences as I compose them - I’m forced to slow down. This whole adventure, I think, is forcing me to slow down, which clearly is not my nature.
Just walked halfway around the island on a stone path that skirted the water (blister be damned). Beautiful beaches, secret coves and caves. The grand finale was probably the most spectacular beach I’ve ever seen. A giant three-quarter circle of a bay at the top of the island. Kind of like Hawaii on the moon - all turquoise water and stark arid land.
I just took a shower and caught my reflection in the mirror as I toweled off. I could hear my mother’s voice from Tahoe summers past, “Elizabeth, you’re getting brown as a berry.” It didn’t occur to me then that berries aren't brown but no matter.
There’s a certain breed of Northern European tourist in these parts that likes to tan to a crisp in the nude. I think there’s bonafide tanning oil involved (didn’t that go out with cigarettes? But, no, they like those, too). They end up resembling a native species of lobster-human, a deep red-brown from head to exposed tail, emerging heavily from the sea.
It struck me today that it would be hilarious to have a blind date at a nude beach. You’d look each other up and down and be like, okay, there you have it. No nasty surprises on Date Three.
I feel like I’ve lived about four years in as many days.
“Opa” is the sound you make when you come up for air while swimming.
Last night, as I walked through the labyrinthian village on the way to dinner, I passed an open-air bar blasting “American Woman (Stay Away From Me)”. As I’m almost definitely the only American woman on this island not to mention the entire Little Cyclades, I took it personally. That’s right, watch out, I’m super-duper dangerous.
June 28, 2016
Last night I ferried to Folegandros, a small island on the western edge of the Cyclades. I like my islands small like my men (omigod, just kidding!!!). I’m not, however, fond of the ferries. I get slightly seasick and claustrophobic. Yesterday’s boat was small and there wasn’t the option to go outside. The cabin was packed with tourists from Santorini. They cheered the soccer match on the TV and I gave up and slept, willing the three hour tour to be over.
Yesterday (god, was it only yesterday?), on my hobble back from the Most Gorgeous Beach Ever (MGBE), I stopped for a short swim at a rocky inlet. The stones were the size of young plums, smoothed by eons of lapping water. As I emerged from the sea, I stooped and chose four stones - one for each kid and one for me. Their’s had fossils embedded in the rock, mine was smooth like an egg. I decided that when I was feeling lonely or anxious or sick (heartsick, tummy-sick, whatever), I would place this morsel of Greece in my palm, where it nestles perfectly. My worry stone.
When I emerged from my boat nap to a raucous goal, I plucked my stone from my bag. I held it in my hand and thought of all the years it had been here - so long before I came along with my fear and heartbreak.
Disembarking the ferry at dusk, I spotted the red minivan from the hotel I had booked earlier in the day. A petite, pretty, young woman with a pixie cut and night-to-day pajama pants that I instantly coveted, stood shyly in front of it.
Her name is Kalliope and on the three kilometer trip uphill to Chora town, even with her halting English and my non-existent Greek, I conversed more than I had in a week. We established that I had never been to Greece, that I had three babies (Kalliope: “I want a baby!” Me: “You should have one!” Kalliope: “Give me one of yours!” Me (silently): Don’t tempt me!). I felt, for the first time since I’ve been here, that I had met a kindred spirit, one of my tribe.
Her counterpart at reception, Katarina, also young, also attractive, was delightfully nosy: “You travel alone? So scary! Why?” - her accented English turning the word into a plaintive two-syllabled plea: “Why-ee?” Good fucking question, Katarina.
The small hotel, the room, was spare and gorgeous. I exhaled.
My new girlfriends pointed me to a cafe on the cliffs and I sat in the deepening evening drinking local wine and nibbling on focaccia, the young hip waiter kind enough to flirt with me, refilling my wine glass for free.
I walked through the cobbled alleys of town, alive with twinkling lights, music and people, the whole scene decidedly chic. I have found my aesthete’s haven. I booked two nights at my girlfriends’ house but I already plan to stay longer.
Something else I feel like I’m gaining perspective on, besides my lifelong struggle with loneliness, is my babies.
While I was delighting in grilled octopus in an outdoor cafe on MGBE, the voice of Sinead O’Connor wafted towards me. “Each of these, my three babies, I am not willing to leave. For myself I want no one else to be mother to these three.” Ironic, perhaps, because I did leave those babies in the care of another woman (Ben’s girlfriend) and took off halfway across the world. But, in the larger view, they are my babies, forever, fiercely.
It feels like forever since I’ve been with them, thought it’s only been six days. I miss them - deeply - though I’m also grateful for the space, the distance, to really see them.
I just finished an excellent novel (I’m on a tear, reading a book a day). It’s called “The Girls” and it’s a fictionalization of the Manson murders, told from the perspective of a fourteen-year-old girl pulled into the cult.
This girl’s parents are newly divorced. Her dad is physically absent, her mother psychically. The mother is in her own crisis, her own world, tuned out of her daughter’s frequency, only hearing her own. The girl wanders, searching, and finds the Manson Family.
I have my own fourteen-year-old girl (not to mention the twelve-year-old girl and that rascal of a nine-year-old boy). I saw myself in that mother. I thought of how this last romantic relationship pulled my focus from my kids. I was present, at least in body, I was meeting their earthly needs, but as much as I assured them otherwise, my priorities shifted slightly. When the Dude was in the room, it was difficult for me to draw my attention away from him, like prying one strong magnet from another. I was distracted. In part, because I loved him (helplessly, hopelessly), because I had wanted him for so long. In part because somewhere deep, I knew I had chosen someone (certainly not for the first time) who would vanish. I was on alert for the fading sound of his footsteps.
Remember in E.T., at the end of the movie when Elliot has brought E.T. to the forest to meet the spaceship? His mom, searching for Elliot, pulls up alongside his brother and sister in her car, frantic. A six-year-old Drew Barrymore, shrugging her small shoulders in actorly confusion, says, apropos of nothing, “Why would Elliot go to the forest? Why would he do such a thing?” Mae and I have a running joke. When someone does something absolutely in character, we might say, for instance, “Why would Mihiretu pee off the deck? Why would he do such a thing?” or “Why would Lana slam her bedroom door? Why would she do such a thing?” In this case, it’s “Why would the Dude disappear? Why would he do such a thing?” We all saw it coming - me, him, the kids, our friends.
My kids will only be kids for a little while longer. They need me. It’s so hard at home, in the midst of work and bills, schedules and the off-kilter proportion of one adult to three kids, to remember that the very most important job I have - really the only thing I need to do well in this life - is to shepherd these children safely to adulthood, imbued with as much joy and confidence as possible.
Maybe that means I don’t indulge in romantic relationships while they’re young (a disheartening proposition). Or maybe there’s a man out there - or more accurately, a woman in me - that can rise to the occasion. A relationship that is steadying versus destabilizing. Maybe.
My lord, I’m halfway through the journal and only a third of the way through my trip. Who knew I had so much to say? Don’t answer that.
I’ve been thinking about the blister on the bottom of my foot. And my most recent romantic injury. The first day the blister popped, it hurt like hell. It was raw, oozing. I could barely walk. The next day I treated it with Neosporin, changed out the bandaid frequently, limped. The day after that, I graduated to an European foot plaster. Today I’m striding confidently, bare in my Birkenstocks. I can still feel the blister but I’m walking fine, I’m recovering.
Emotionally, I’m also scabbing over. This particular wound has been opened and reopened over the last couple years - it’s gonna scar for sure. But if on the first day I couldn’t bear the exquisite pain, now I’m limping along. Every once in a while something will snag the scab - a pair of broad shoulders, an Instagram post, the taste of the sea - but I think the patient will recover, Doctor. She is strong, her heart is young - it was born that way, it will die that way.
June 29, 2016
I’m getting an iota of distance from my life at home, my patterns. Everything is clearer from a remove. I catch myself looking back at particular romantic relationships and thinking, “Boy, that was bullshit.” There’s something about the arid Greek air that evaporates nonsense.
I was struck yesterday by my own confident inner voice saying matter-of-factly, “Having a crush on somebody else’s husband - how boring.” With some exceptions, I’ve been choosing men that have limited capability, limited availability. Maybe because I’m afraid to dive deep - I’ve wanted to play in the shallows. How boring, my dear, how boring.
I swam naked in the sea today.
I missed the bus to the beach (standing on the wrong side of the road - whoopsies) and so I hoofed it. I followed the main road and then found a footpath. The trail was lined with local marble, winding serenely to the sea. It was an hour’s walk in the midday heat but I was glad I missed the bus.
I ate lunch in a taverna on the main beach and then walked further north. I found a small inlet that suited me, waded past the mostly naked beach-goers and swam into the deep. Though I didn’t feel the need to lie naked on the rocks with strangers, once I was out in the water I wanted to be free. I pulled off my bikini and wound it around my wrist.
I paddled and floated, dove and surfaced for a good long time. I felt like a mermaid, at one with the sea, with the earth; a creature like any other. My body was aqua alabaster under the water, more marble to behold.
There’s been some body-hating going on around here. Not unusual post-break-up behavior. Yesterday, I pledged to drop fifteen pounds when I returned home. Somewhere deep in my animal brain, I believe that I just might be lovable at 121 pounds. At that weight, I feel invulnerable, invincible, bulletproof. That belief - and I’ll use a technical term here - is some fucked up shit. I know this, I’m a feminist, and yet I still feel it.
In true American girl fashion, I’ve turned on myself. I’ve internalized the Dude’s magical disappearing act, made it my fault. And the easiest target for blame? This beautiful body of mine. I sure am hard on the body that serves me so well, that rarely complains, that puts up with physical rigor and too much wine.
I floated naked today in the Aegean, buoyed by the salt. Ready to let that shit go yet, Liz? I’m working on it, I’m working on it.
June 30, 2016
This morning I got on the ferry. I planned to travel to Sifnos but, on a whim, I disembarked at Kimonos, a tiny island in the West Cyclades. I was the only passenger to do so.
I took the bus up the hill to the main town, clutching my worry stone. I dropped my bag at the little market by the bus stop and wandered, looking for a room. Turns out only one pension is open - it’s not yet high season and this island is far off the beaten path. Luckily, that inn is lovely - though I seem to be the only guest.
I parked my bag in my room, changed into my swim suit and went looking for the beach. The simple map I had cadged from the town travel agent was short on detail and - literally - in Greek. I wandered from terraced hilltop to hilltop until I finally found a path down to the sea. The beach I happened upon was tiny, lovely, and empty. I swam far out into the water - I’m no longer afraid to go past where I can touch the sea floor.
As I trudged back up the hill in search of lunch, I realized I had not only left my i-phone charger on the last island but - worse - the plug adapter. I’ll need to find another in the next couple days to charge my trusty kindle. My books have been my society, without them I’d be desolate. I seem to forget only the things I really need.
Now I sit on the generous balcony outside my room, gazing out at the sea, buffeted by warm wind. It’s too quiet here for me - turns out I need a little more bustle, a few more fellow travelers, even if I never talk to them - but it’s beautiful. Silent but for the wind, the church bell ringing the hour, the bray of a donkey, the crow of a rooster.
July 1, 2016
This morning I took the bus down to the port to meet my ferry. Kimolos is such a small island, I watched the bus driver park the bus at the stop at 9:25, take off on his motorcycle and then return at 9:50 for our supposed 9:45 departure. My ferry was scheduled to leave at 10:00 and I was nervous - it was the only boat of the day. I wanted - I needed - to get to a more populated island. As we lurched down the hill, I thought, “I’m a celebrity - get me out of here.” I love that one - it never fails to crack me up.
I caught my ferry and landed on Sifnos an hour later. Sifnos is a reasonably sized island. It’s like Folegandros - the mama bear portion - not too big, not too small. After a very hot walk through the main town in which I got ridiculously lost, I landed on a perfect accommodation; a roomy studio; bright, well-appointed, expansive views and a stone’s throw from the main drag (a pedestrian street winding up the hill called the Steno). Perfection.
At the moment, I’m on the terrace, drinking local rose, watching my newly washed garments sway on the line, listening to a medley of dove’s cries (actual birds, not the Prince variety) and my neighbor’s small speaker pumping out jazz standards. I’m relaxed, I’ll say it. I’m having a really good time, I’ll say it. I’m not talking much - I’ve said ten full sentences in as many days - but I’m seriously content.
I bought a phone charger, I fully unpacked, I’m staying for at least three days. Who knows, maybe I’ll even talk to someone.
July 2, 2016
Last night I had actual conversations with five different people. Lisa, another lone female traveler, who came to my pension looking for a room. Swiss and full of complaints (probably not related).
Next I met Schlomo from Tel Aviv, my neighbor, the jazz aficianado. Sixtyish, charmingish - think a solemn Al Franken. He invited me for a drink with his friends. I slithered by with a vague maybe.
After dinner, I strolled the Steno and happened into a sweet little store full of local handmade goods. I told the shopkeeper about our shops in the States and the next thing I knew I was chatting wholesale with Wanda (pronounced “Vanda”), the chic Athenian who owns the store and the brand. I’m going to visit their warehouse in Athens at the end of my trip and place an order. Suddenly this whole thing is a write-off.
Perusing the shop, finding small treasures that pleased me, that I knew would please others, I forgot everything else. I love my work. I love my work.
I was given strict instructions before I left home from a few different sources, that I must avail myself of ALL that Greece has to offer. I protested that casual sex wasn’t my thing but they insisted - INSISTED - that I give it a shot.
Today I happened to see a handsome man on the bus back from the beach, but I swear he’s the first one I’ve spotted.
Here’s the thing about me. Three quarters of my attraction to someone, probably more, isn’t physical - or doesn’t start that way - or doesn’t end there. For me, sex and love will always be coupled. I don’t find someone sexy unless I really like them. And I don’t really like them until there’s been a lot of talking.
I love language. I love to hear it, I love to speak it. Nothing is more of a turn on for me than a finely honed thought or an observation precisely conveyed. And nothing makes me happier - or feel closer to someone - than articulating exactly what goes on inside me.
Which means, that in a place like this, where I haven’t heard a native English speaker in days and days, there probably aren’t going to be romantic/sexual sparks. I can’t dumb down my vocabulary - or at least I don’t want to. I need to use every word at my disposal - to sift through the English language and find just the right word, exactly the right phrase. It is most of the dance for me. And if I can’t do that, I’ll sit this one out.
I fall in love - or lust - with someone because of who they are, because of what animates them. Only once they’ve won me with that do I delight in their walk, the shape of their hands, the musk of their sweat, their touch. Only then.
The hipsters here, with their full beards, I’m afraid to say, just end up looking like Zorba the Greek.
July 3, 2016
Just after I wrote last night’s entry, I told myself that if Schlomo asked me to join him and his friends in their evening’s activities, I would say yes. On cue, he emerged onto our shared patio and asked me if I wanted to go watch the sunset. I gulped audibly and said yes.
We met his friends at the port for a sunset drink and then went on to dinner in Apollonia. His friends are from Tel Aviv, interesting and attractive. I bonded with a woman about my age, with three almost grown kids. We talked kids and short hair (she wants to cut hers - she should) and the Dailey Method (“I should try it” said she, “You should” said me). It was so nice to talk with a contemporary - the first of this trip. She’s my new best friend - though this morning I can’t remember her name.
Schlomo was courtly. On the drive to and from the port, I learned that he grew up on a kibbutz. His mother emigrated from Germany at the age of seventeen, in 1939 - dodging a bullet, quite literally. His father, a Canadian Zionist, emigrated in the twenties.
He was raised in a separate children’s building, away from his parents. Which brought us to Mihiretu and my acquired theories on attachment disorder. Entirely fascinating.
There was some sort of chemical frission there but not something I - or probably he? - was up for exploring. I called it a night at 12:30, when he and his friends were still in full swing.
He left for Tel Aviv this morning but not before introducing me to the (very cute?!) local cafe owner, Pavro - making him promise to take care of me, this “famous actress from California” (I guess I did a lot of talking last night).
After polling Schlomo and Pavro and a few key friends at home, I decided I’d finish out my trip here. Three more nights on this gorgeous mama bear island before I head to Athens and home.
July 4, 2016
Fourth of July. Meh, not my favorite holiday to begin with. Totally ok to spend it in a place that doesn’t know the difference.
I’ve been inhaling books. Right now I’m reading “Wild”, Cheryl Strayed’s memoir of hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. She’s newly divorced, her mother has recently died, she’s feeling lost, spun out. She embarks on this undertaking completely alone.
The PCT and the Greek islands have very little in common, in terms of rigor, of isolation. But our reasons for our trips are similar. Heartbreak, that great desire to listen to oneself, to go where it’s scary to see what you’re made of.
She lost her mother to a rabid, fast-moving cancer at twenty-two. I lost my father the same way at twenty-three. I didn’t know it then but I was still a child. I was just learning how to be in the world when one of my main supports was kicked out from under me. And with him, really, went the whole family. My mother descended into depression and from there sunk deeper into dementia. From the moment that he died, we went from being a family of five to four separate entities trying to make our way in the world. I was on my own.
And here, post-divorce, I’m on my own again. I’m the captain of a small rowboat filled to capacity with children. I love each of them more than anything else in this realm or any other. And they are great company. But I alone make the decisions that might sink us. I alone am on the look out for icebergs, sharks and pirates.
The divorce, of course, different than death, was a choice. Though at the time, it didn’t feel that way. At the time, the only path I could see was wide enough for one (and an armful of children).
Loss is loss is loss. Every time you incur one, every time you lose a beloved in whatever capacity, you feel utterly alone. And with every loss, you feel all the losses that came before. The Dude plus Ben plus my mom plus my dad. Plus the lost pets, the failed relationships - of the friend or romantic variety. That’s a lot of fucking loss. But for me, anyway, I can’t hide from it. I’ve got to feel it deeply before I can contemplate another death-defying act of the heart. To be open to really love someone, even with the inevitable abyss at the other end. Nothing is quite as beautiful, as exquisite, as bitter-sweet, as loving someone new, someone else, when you know they will only be tagged on at the end of that roll call of heartbreak. Not that every relationship will fail but, Jesus, we’re all gonna die someday, our tether to this life and everyone in it severed.
Christ, I’m Suzie Sunshine this morning.
I’m happy I’m not a young woman anymore. Youth, dewey beauty, is a handicap - at least in some situations. From the age of eleven - when I had grown to my full height, was in possession of a woman’s body, a vehicle I had no idea how to drive - from that age, I felt hunted. I was prey. I was whistled at, shouted at, leered at, pressed up against on buses, hungry eyes always devouring me. After a night of babysitting, a drunken dad would drive me home, slurry inquiring about my “love life”. I was thirteen, I didn’t have a love life. A family friend, always, on every visit, telling me he’d marry me, he’d wait for me no matter how long it took. Eventually, I’d hide in my room when he came over. All of it was entirely terrifying, always a whiff of rape. I don’t miss it.
I’m an attractive woman in my forties. I don’t elicit that kind of reaction anymore, at least from the population at large. I walk through the world relatively safe. Part of it is the personal power that comes with age. Men can sense that I’m not to be fucked with. That in one capacity or another, I will kick their collective asses if they attempt to invade. And for some, delightfully, I’m invisible. Their gaze drifts past me to the twenty-two-year-old cowering behind me. Silly men don’t know what they’re missing but that’s just fine with me.
When I was twenty, I also came to Europe alone, and was chased. It made the trip mostly impossible to enjoy. I was always on guard, as I well I should have been.
I’ll take the wrinkles, the grey hair, the sense of self. More than worth the trade.
My pen is running out of ink and my journal is running out of pages. Shit.
I purchased a new pen and a fresh journal. Never did I dream I’d need them.
Usually I need to push myself to write, here I crave it. It’s the one sustained conversation I’ve had over the last couple weeks.
Speaking of conversation, Pavros is married. Too bad, so sad. I met his wife today; she’s lovely. I had to remind myself that bit about married men being boring.
I was full of shit, by the way, my previous spouting about needing to know someone to know if I’m attracted to them. All of that is true AND I know immediately, inexorably, if I’m attracted to someone. Let’s not forget we’re animals like any other, yeah?
Today I took the bus to the northern tip of the island. Sifnos is in the midst of a near windstorm. After two hours of being pelted by sand on the shore and pummeled by chop in the sea, I was ready to go. Unfortunately, the bus back wouldn’t arrive for three hours. I gathered my courage and requested sunscreen from my neighbors on the beach (days ago, I eschewed the chemical slathering for shade and cover-ups). I wound my pareo around me strategically, tucking it expertly into my bikini and hit the road. Only thirteen kilometers in midday heat, what? Within a half mile, the same young Greek couple that had offered up their sunscreen picked me up. As we drove for thirty minutes, I marveled at my naivety. I would have gotten heat stroke for sure. That’s what you get for reading “Wild”.
July 5, 2016
It’s my last day in the islands. Tomorrow I ferry to Athens, the following day I fly home.
My favorite TV show - by far - is Survivor. Not for the silly “challenges”, certainly not for the never ending product placements. I tune in for the transformations.
The players start the game pudgy and pale, self-conscious of the cameras and each other. Over days of near starvation, constant exposure to the elements, isolation from all they hold near and dear, they change. By the end, they are tan and lean, weathered and focussed.
I feel something similar happening to me here. That hotel room in Santorini, weepy and sweaty in my KLM t-shirt, wanting nothing more than to reverse course and go home - that feels like a million years ago. Here I sit, brown and calm, at my friend’s cafe, sipping the second freddo cappuccino of the morning. Hopefully ready to head home, to handle all that I’m responsible for there. Maybe with more grace, more gratitude, more depth.
I hope to move more from a place of composure; be less reactive. Easy to say from where I sit, I suppose.
I took a long, hot walk (I got lost, inevitably, which made it longer) to a beach Pavros had told me about. It was gorgeous but the wind was back today and the sea was too choppy for swimming. I walked along the windswept coast to Kastro, the ancient capital. I made my way to the water, and though the ocean was far from placid, I waded in, waves breaking on me. It was my last time in the Aegean, at least for this trip. I needed one more baptism.
I took the bus home, had a luxurious nap and now I’m in town at a cafe, drinking wine, getting chatted up in broken English by the owner.
I’ve texted a few friends today, figuring out plans for the weekend with the kids. I’m shifting gears. I’m excited for home; the kids, the cat, my friends, my house, my work, the English language. I’m a little worried about the Dude, hoping my habit for him has been broken. Hoping the magnet has lost some of it’s pull. Otherwise, I’m excited to reengage with my life, curious to see if it feels different, if I feel different.
July 6, 2016
Last morning on Sifnos. Just ordered my last magic freddo cappucino. That first sip, holy moly.
So if the transition here was difficult, I think the transition home will be as well. Travel (buses, ferries, taxis, planes, more planes, more buses, more taxis), reunion with the kids - which I’m so excited for - but they, too, will be jet-lagged, exhausted and hungry for me (also jet-lagged and exhausted).
I slept for a long time last night, so long that I had boring/terrifying dreams at the end. I dreamt I was in my parent’s garage in the house I grew up in (it stars in just about every nightmare). I was trying to sort through the stored objects - all of my childhood dolls in one box, tools in another, so I could clear the space to use as a workshop. As I sorted, the washing machine was talking to me snidely. “Oh, Mrs. M.,” it was saying, “You pretend you don’t hear me but you do.” And I was thinking, shit, am I suddenly schizophrenic, hearing voices? I was trying to sort through the old stuff to make way for the new stuff, trying to let that shit go, and possibly a prisoner of my own mind - familiar.
I woke and stared at the high white ceiling for a long time. I’m at my most vulnerable coming out of sleep; least able to defend myself against myself, most apt to feel the old loneliness. It takes me a long time to get my motor going, to transition from dreams to the flat light of day.
Oh my lord, this is the last page of this journal. Next stop, Athens.
July 25, 2016
I’ve been home almost three weeks.
My day in Athens was as expected, dirty and stressful, crowded and hot. I did visit the warehouse of that brand I was interested in and spent a delightful hour choosing garments to take home and try. I also found a famous sandal-maker on the same street and was fitted for a pair by his assistant while he snored on the couch.
The next day, at the airport, moments before boarding, my flight was cancelled due to mechanical problems. We were all bussed to a hotel for the night but not before I wept at the ticket counter, desperate to get home. “I’m a single mom,” I stuttered, “I have to get home - my b-b-b-babies!” They got me routed to San Francisco as soon as possible - either from kindness or fear of more tears - but I still was stuck for the night. Not surprisingly, I made friends; all of us stranded, out of our element. It was delightful to talk to Americans; long conversations about our lives, on a balcony overlooking the water, drinking KLM-sponsered wine. Not terrible.
Re-entry has been much like I thought it would be; exhausting, demanding, and lovely. Some things have shifted for me. I’m even more engaged with my kids. Mihiretu is kicking my ass - sometimes cheerfully, sometimes less so, what else is new - but the girls have been so delightful. We really missed each other - Mihiretu, too, but for him that emotion takes different forms - we’re really happy to be in each other’s company.
It’s been hard being back in the same town as the Dude, I won’t lie. It was easier in Greece, even though the hurt was fresher, because I was doing different things, things that didn’t bring him automatically to mind. I wasn’t looking for him there. Here, I’m in my old patterns, and he has been my habit for so long. It is not easy to be manning my shop in Fairfax and have friends, colleagues and even my children report that he’s just down the street. Watching him drive by as I walk to coffee, running into him at the beach, lifting my cheek silently for his proffered kiss, because what the hell else do I do? He ghosted, but there’s only so far you can vanish when you live in the same small community.
I downloaded a couple dating apps, if only for my mental health. I need to know there’s more than one man in the world. It’s distracting, which is helpful.
I feel like things might have shifted with Ben and me. More collaborative, less reactive. I know that I moved through some of my grief over the loss of him. My perspective changed. As I’m sure it will again in our long shared lives.
Am I glad I went to Greece? I’m glad I went to Greece. Am I ready to let that shit go? So fucking ready. As my friend Elizabeth put it, shifts happen.