By Cara Lopez Lee
In 1999, during my solo trek around the world, I was startled by the daily roar of fighter jets passing overhead in Athens. Like many backpackers at the time, I often lived in a news blackout. I had no idea what was up, until a man shouted at me on my way to Syntagma Square, “What does your president think he is doing bombing innocent people?!”
That was the year NATO forces, with the support of President Bill Clinton, spent 78 days bombing Serbia, to halt President Slobodan Milosevic’s massacre of ethnic Albanians. Greeks and Serbs have a long-standing friendship, so I was immersed in a world where Americans were the bad guys. I got used to the occasional Greek telling me off during my month there. I didn’t know enough information to respond then, and I know better than to try now. So why mention it? Writing for Peace has generously offered to post an excerpt from my memoir, and as I think about “peace,” I can’t help recalling that trip to Greece, and the caring people who took the sting out of all the shouting:
They Only Eat Their Husbands:
Love, Travel, and the Power of Running Away
When I arrived at a travel agency in Patras, a man informed me, rather rudely I thought, that I was two hours late for the last ferry to Italy. My eyes filled with tears. This might seem an overreaction, but my delay at the Olympic Ruins had already pushed my thirteen days with Sean down to twelve. Missing the ferry would knock that down to eleven.
“But I called ahead and they told me the ferry to Brindisi leaves at ten,” I said.
“That’s every second day,” the travel agent said with a pompous show of indifference. “Tomorrow there is a ferry at ten.”
“Is there no other ferry to Brindisi tonight?”
“No. There is one, but it’s leaving now.”
“Maybe I could still make it.”
“No. There are procedures. There is paperwork. You will never make it. That ferry leaves now, and it is never late.”
Dejected, I sank into the nearest chair. “Are there any other options?”
He shrugged in that now-familiar Greek way: shoulders near the ears, elbows akimbo, hands palms up, lips pressed into a grimace. The Greek shrug has dozens of meanings based on the shape of the grimace and how emphatic the gesture. It can be used to show indifference, acceptance, confusion, anger, disdain . . . This guy was giving me the disdainful one.
“Thank you,” I said stonily, and walked out.
After nine months of traveling, I’ve learned never to trust anyone who says, “It’s not possible.” I walked a few doors down to the next travel agency and straight toward the first person who smiled at me. A woman. I wiped all traces of desperation from my face, figuring the key was to calmly declare what I wanted as if it were the simplest of requests.
“May I help you?”
“Yes, I’d like to take the next ferry to Brindisi,” I said, smiling serenely.
“Tonight?” she asked.
“Tonight,” I echoed.
She made a quick phone call, hung up, and explained, rapid-fire, that I might be able to catch the last ferry if I hurried. “But you must buy your ticket quickly!”
“Ten thousand drachma.”
I slapped ten thousand drachma on the counter. She slapped down a form to fill out. I slapped down my passport. Then, with the speed of a stock show auctioneer, she gave me complicated directions to the ferry, which I rattled back verbatim: “Left out the front door, to the train station, through the gate to the dock, turn left, go just past the duty free shop to the port police, give them this ticket with the passport, then ask which way to the ferry?”
“Yes. And you must run!”
I flung on my hefty pack, rushed out the door, and started to run—possibly faster than I’ve ever run in my life—with a thirty-five-pound load bouncing up and down on my back. People gaped as I ran past. Sweat poured down my back and chest, my calves and lungs burned. I grew dizzy and spots jumped across my vision. This was no short sprint, and I was no Olympic athlete. I was surprised at the immensity of the ferry terminal. More than half a dozen mega-ferries and a number of other boats lined the long docks. Don’t slow down! I know it hurts, but don’t slow down! I thought. You’ll suffer even more if you miss the ferry. Sean’s waiting for you.
I flew through the port gate, darted left, wove in and out of people and port vehicles, shot past the “Duty Free” sign to the port police desk, where I waved my ticket and passport at . . . no one. The police weren’t there. I rushed across the building to a small bar and shouted hysterically at the two or three bewildered people standing there, “Port police? Where are the port police? I will miss my ferry!” My eyes were wide with panic and oxygen deprivation. The middle-aged bartender said, “Port police, six hundred meters, that way!” He pointed in the direction from which I’d run. I would have to backtrack. “Drop your pack here. You’ll kill yourself.”
Afraid to lose the time it would take to remove the pack, I simply turned tail and kept running. My ferry sat a tantalizing fifty meters away. Workers were loading trucks into the gaping aft-end, and the line of waiting trucks was rapidly shrinking. I pumped my legs harder.
Suddenly I realized I hadn’t asked the bartender what kind of sign to look for. I tried to run into the grocery store next door to ask directions again, but the glass doors wouldn’t open. It must have been the exit, but I couldn’t see any other doors, so I banged on the glass, startling a lineup of cashiers and customers. The closest cashier rushed toward me and opened the door.
“Port police?” I frantically waved my passport at her and pointed at the nearby ship. “I will miss my ferry!” She pointed at the building I’d just left, the building with the empty police desk and the bartender who’d told me to head the other way. “There’s no one there!” I moaned.
She shook her head insistently, took me by the elbow, and guided me back to the building, where the bartender heaved a sigh and said, “The police are not here. I told her to leave her pack! It’s six hundred meters that way.”
He then rushed past me, through the front door, and urged me to follow. He jumped on a motorbike parked just outside and started the engine. I unbuckled my pack and, without pausing, let it fall from my shoulders to the ground as I leapt onto the back of the scooter. I grabbed the bartender’s waist and we took off, speeding down the docks, dodging passengers and vehicles from another boat. “I’m afraid I’ll miss my ferry!” I shouted merrily and giggled, picturing how we must look.
We stopped at the little window of a small building, where a policeman started from his seat in surprise. The bartender shouted something in Greek as I handed the policeman my documents. He scribbled on them and handed them back. Then I jumped back on the bike, and we were off again at high speed. It was like a James Bond chase scene—no bad guys, but plenty of near misses, fleeing pedestrians, and brake-squealing trucks.
“What’s your name?” I shouted over the bartender’s shoulder.
The unfamiliar Greek syllables he shouted back got lost in the din of the motorbike’s engine.
“I’ll tell this story to my grandchildren!” I said.
“It is a good story,” he agreed.
“I guess I’ll either make my ferry or I won’t.”
“Don’t worry. You will make it for sure.”
“Efharisto (Thank you),” I told him as we approached a small group of people gathered around my backpack.
“Parakalo (You’re welcome),” he replied as I leapt off the bike.
I hauled on my pack with help from a couple of bystanders. I bowed deeply but quickly to the entire group, said another “Efharisto!” and started to run.
“Siga! Siga!” they shouted after me. “Slowly! Slowly!”
The cashier from the grocery store rushed forward and yelled, “I ran to the ferry to tell them you are coming. They will wait for you!”
I halted and turned an incredulous face on the small clutch of half a dozen Greek strangers on the dock. I smiled, pressed my hands together in a prayerful clasp, and shook my joined hands toward them, a supplicant thanking the saints who’ve interceded on her behalf: the bartender, the grocery clerk, the cop, and the dock workers. “Brava! Thank you.” I turned and walked away.
When the purser took my ticket, he said, “So you are the one they told me about.”
“Yes, that’s me!” I said, with a self-effacing grin.
It was 8:30 when I boarded the eight o’clock ferry, which the first agent had told me was “never late.” It left five minutes later.
Still dizzy, I made my unsteady way to the Pullman deck: this ship’s version of steerage, minus the partying and dancing promised by James Cameron’s Titanic. I was one of five backpackers flopped amid dozens of uncomfortable seats…exhausted from my much more than 200-yard dash through the obstacle course of the ferry terminal.
During the Ancient Olympic Games, the city-states of Ancient Greece—Athens, Sparta, Mycenae, and the rest—would declare a truce, setting aside war for peaceful competition. In the modern Olympics, that’s what people call “the spirit of the Games.” Some American travelers have told me they think Greeks are rude. Judging by the angry graffiti and shouts I’ve endured, many Greeks don’t think much of Americans, either. Not to mention the perverts, pick-up artists, and psychos who’ve had a go at me. Yet my last thought before drifting off to sleep last night was of the small group of Greeks who, although they had nothing to gain, pulled out all the stops to help a complete stranger, a foreigner, an American, make her boat on time.
Cara Lopez Lee is the author of They Only Eat Their Husbands(Conundrum Press, October 2014). Her stories have appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Denver Post, Rivet Journal, and Connotation Press. She’s a book editor and writing coach, and she teaches for the youth program at Lighthouse Writers Workshop. She has traveled throughout Asia, Europe, Africa, Latin America, and the United States. Cara and her husband live in Denver.
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