Ode to a Grecian Journey

Martha Patterson

© Copyright 2020 by Martha Patterson


Photo by James Lee on Unsplash
Photo by James Lee on Unsplash

In remembering travel in Europe while young, I am sad to recall the callow indifference my American college-age companions had towards me, their insularity and coldness. Possibly I was more sophisticated than they were, possibly more well-read. In any case I was sorely taken aback by a lonely trip I took with these girls who seemed singularly lacking in politesse.

I was privileged to visit Paris and Greece my junior year in college, but even though I saw magnificent sights, I would rather have stayed at my flat in London with my jovial British flatmates, who joined me in the kitchen for tea bought at Harrod’s, over all-night talks about show business (I was going on to become an actress), their growing-up times in the British Isles - one of
them was from Pontefract, home of King Richard III’s Pomfret Castle; another was from the Isle of Man, origin of the tailless Manx cat - and my life in Massachusetts as a curious American who wanted to explore England at the tender age of 20.

Perhaps no one is as excited to learn about new places and customs as a college student who is finally free from her parents’ well-intentioned guidance and advice. I had found my London flat through an ad placed in The Guardian, and my new landlord was an actor whom I was later to see often on TV in our kitchen, usually playing unsavory villains on soap operas. My mother told me upon meeting him later that her sister would have “gone” for James Beckett - he had a dark, saturnine look and was rather romantically gloomy.

But these are merely asides. It was 1977 and a fellow student in our London exchange program asked me to accompany her to Paris and Greece on a break during our spring studies.

It is April or May - I’ve forgotten the month now - and I am travelling to the exotic island of Santorini, Greece, with a fellow student named Nan. We have stopped in Paris on the way, and, to my dismay, she wants to see nothing but museums and cathedrals. This is a bit much for me. I want to stop at a cafe on the Champs d’Elysees instead, and I think, shouldn’t part of the wonder of travel as a young person be seeing some of the local color also - talking to waiters and other pub patrons and residents of these foreign cities?

I say to her, in our hotel room, “You know, I don’t feel the need to visit every museum and cathedral in Paris. I’d like to stop for an espresso and watch the passersby. Can we just do that, please?” I am thinking of Ernest Hemingway, and “The Sun Also Rises.” She is furious with me.

I never said I had to see every museum and cathedral!”

But, really, she did. Surprised and depressed by her anger, I unpack my bag and

resolve not to make additional suggestions for the trip.

We go to the Louvre, which I am genuinely excited to visit, and I have a glimpse of the Mona Lisa. The Mona Lisa is behind glass and roped off, so no one can touch her. She is monumental in her fame, and I am thinking about Leonardo da Vinci and his admiration of a woman he painted centuries ago.

We go to the now-burned Notre Dame, which is grand and imposing, and I get my picture taken in front of a gargoyle. The cathedral is kind of spooky. It is also romantic. I am thinking about Victor Hugo and “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.”

Our second night in Paris, my companion and I have dinner at a restaurant, and I manage to have a conversation, in French, with the flirtatious waiter. I make a joke to him in French about how I don’t want to order escargots, “because snails always arrive too slowly!” (Snails are famous for their slow speed and we don’t want to spend all night at the restaurant.) My travelling companion is extremely irritated. She doesn’t speak French at all and seems annoyed that I do. We walk back to our hotel in silence.

We continue on our journey, on a flight to Athens, picking up two of her friends in Copenhagen along the way. By the time we get to Athens it is clear they will be friends with her, but not with me. It is clear she has told them I am a pain in the ass. I realize this will be a rather lonely trip, for me. For the next week, none of them give me the time of day.

Athens, I find, is a tourist trap. Most of the street signs are in English. And the men touch you on the street constantly if you are wearing jeans – they touch my breasts and rear – because wearing blue jeans means you must be American or English, and an easy “lay.” Possibly Athens has changed by now and men don’t accost women so quickly or rudely today, but in 1977 it was aggravating to be an American female in such a male chauvinist city.

At any rate, the four of us travelers go to visit the magnificent Parthenon, and they separate from me, and I spend the afternoon wandering around the site by myself. The Parthenon is expansive and looks just like the photos I have seen. I am thinking about ancient history. I sit on a rock by myself and watch other travelers explore the site on this sunny day.

My revenge for being left alone is that, while my three “friends” are touring the spot without me, an officer of the French Navy sits down, introduces himself, and invites me to a party at the French Embassy that night. I tell him I am travelling with other students, and he generously says I can bring my friends too. I am thinking about hospitality.

When we get back to our hostel, I tell the girls about the invitation, and they are a bit surprised, but they haven’t brought anything pretty to wear on our trip. I offer one of the girls an outfit of mine to wear so she can go with me. After an hour of deliberating, she declines, saying she does not want to leave her girlfriends in their casual blue jeans behind.

I go to the Embassy party anyway, alone, walking through Constitution Square, and have a glass of wine upon my arrival, and talk to some officers, who are very pleased to have a young lady to chat with. I feel that at last something good has happened to me on my trip. But I am told my officer acquaintance from the Parthenon has already left the party – it took too long for my companion to decide if she was coming with me to this elegant affair, and he has departed, and I do not see him again. I am a little disappointed not to be able to thank him for his hospitality. It gets late and I feel as if I should leave the Embassy. I walk back to the hostel and find that my co-travelers have already gone to bed.

The next day we wake early and take a 12-hour ferry ride to Santorini, because it is the cheapest way to get there. The boat trip is not fun. It is a nightmare – gypsies harass us the whole time, slapping our hands and begging for money, and I’m reminded once again of the irritation of not being left to one’s own devices by people who “want something from you” - either sex, or money. I keep wishing we had spent a little more cash on a faster boat, one without gypsies.

We arrive at Santorini close to midnight, and climb up a very long path up a cliff to the village, where we rent a room for the night. There are donkeys available to carry us up the path, but my fellow travelers think, being only students, we are too poor to take advantage of this authentic Santorini donkey ride, so instead we walk up to the heights of the cliff. I am carrying a watermelon one of my companions thoughtlessly bought earlier, which was unaccountably left for me to carry, and finally on our way up the cliff I balk, saying, “I’m not carrying this watermelon one step further.” I deposit it on the nearest rock. I am disgusted at myself for having agreed to carry it in the first place. I am thinking about what it means to be a slave. To my surprise, my companions do not object to me refusing the burden of the melon any further, and at the top of the cliff we are taken to a dwelling where we will spend the next few nights.

The next morning, when I awaken, my “friends” have disappeared. I get dressed and go out walking in the deserted town by myself, and meet a little dog who keeps me company while I explore the sights. The landscape is barren, with harsh white light emanating from the sun, but there are many white-washed villas spilling down the side of the cliffs that lead to the ocean. I take lots of photographs. I am thinking about loneliness.

Finally, I run into the other girls, and they tell me they have already had lunch. I realize the whole trip is going to be one of solitude, for me. I go by myself to a little outdoor café – I have a Greek salad with kalamata olives, which I eat because it is typical fare for the island. When I run into my companions later that evening, they tell me they want to go to the beach the next day.

The following morning we take a noisy – because all the passengers are playing radios – bus ride along the coast to a beach, famous for its black sand. I wonder at poor Greek citizens having no option for travel but on a very noisy bus with no opportunity for quiet. At the beach, my companions lie out in the hot sun all day, but I stay covered up. I burn easily.

We take the bus again, back to our room. The next morning they wake up, red as lobsters. I am cool as a cucumber. They are very unhappy with their sunburns. This is my second moment of revenge on their hostility. We have very little conversation together, and I can’t wait for our trip to end. I am thinking about – no, longing for – my flat in London.

One of our last nights in Santorini, we go to a little nightclub on the outskirts of the village. A pleasant European tourist spends a lot of the evening trying to make conversation with us, but my companions ignore him. I feel awkward trying to converse with someone my fellow travelers obviously have no use for; he just wants companionship for the evening. At the end of the night the man accompanies us out to the path overlooking the bay and says goodnight, and drifts off through the fog on his way back to his hotel. He seems hurt and disappointed that these women weren’t friendlier, and I feel sorry I didn’t get to know him better and offer more friendship. I am thinking about rudeness.

A couple of days later my companions tell me they will take a train through Turkey when we get back to Athens. I am not interested in going along. Why would I want to spend another week travelling with such cold and distant girls? When we get back to the mainland they depart on their Turkish adventure, and I spend two nights alone in Athens, because my flight back to London is delayed. I don’t dare go out alone into Constitution Square because the Greek men harass me so much and I am not looking for a fling with a Greek man. I am thinking about safety.

When I finally get on my plane to London two days later, I feel something like nirvana. This is my third moment of revenge. From the airplane the sunlit, billowy white clouds look like great, crouching camels in the sky, and I know that within a few hours I will be back in England with my kind-hearted English flatmates, preparing for my final exams.

Perhaps it's youth, or inexperience communicating with others, or having too-high expectations, that causes distress as a tourist with other young students. I have my enjoyment of solitude and love of literature and art to thank for whatever pleasure I've enjoyed on the trip. But at last, free from the misery of traveling with three other young women who have absolutely nothing to say to me, I am thinking about happiness.

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