It’s strange. Last year when I was in London for my birthday, I learned a lot about myself, though I came to regret staying there as long as I did. While it didn’t do my relationship any favors, it did show me how I re-enact my mother’s rejection of me on my birthday, creating situations in which I feel somehow hurt or slighted, especially as it relates to food.
Funny, throughout my childhood, my parents would always make whatever sort of cake I wanted (they owned bakeries); I always had big slumber parties and lots of fun. My high school sweetheart and I kissed for the first time the morning after my 16th birthday party. I’ve had so many good birthdays. But last year was one of several I’ve had where I attempted to spend my birthday with a partner and things do not go well.
Once I flew to Sarasota for my birthday, to be with an artist I (thought I) was in love with, only to find it felt all wrong. He wanted the fantasy he’d built of me from a distance, and vice versa. In reality, he was shorter than I recalled, his voice more effeminate. I was not the submissive he’d imagined. I found out about his new gf on good ol’ fb.
Last summer, I went to a hypnotist for the first time, wondering about a fearfulness and lack of confidence I sometimes felt. Through the course of the session, I remembered that it was the moment of my birth when I was emotionally wounded. I don’t, of course, have any conscious memory of the moment, but I think the scar from such an early, elemental trauma, stayed hidden underneath all the happy birthdays that came later. I don’t blame my mother, because I know there are times in our lives when we simply cannot control our reactions – when we cannot reign in our sadness at a reality different from what we’d envisioned.
Since returning to the United States after my time volunteering with the refugees in Lesvos, I’ve been mostly obligated to get to work on the business of paying rent in New York City. I’ve also been able to pick up work on my memoir again, and I’ve made great strides since September, when the world turned and brought me back to this city, this sprawling metropolis of concrete and steel and human desire striving ever upward.
From pouring cups of “haleeb” for wet, frightened children, I went to pouring champagne for VIPs in the Lexus Lounge, for Fashion Week. I was too busy to reflect on how much has shifted in my life since last year’s fall fashion week, when the landscape of my life seemed new and magical – full of potentials that have since withered on the vine, disappeared altogether, like a mirage. I have a habit of confusing endings for beginnings.
While last years deaths (mostly figurative) were difficult veils to pass through, I can look back now and see what I might not have done, had things gone better for me, personally. Had I won my romantic dreams of love, I might have stayed contented in New York, wrapped up in relationship with one man, instead of going into the world and embracing the multitudes of desperate brothers and sisters, mothers and daughters, fathers and sons – whose needs are far greater than mine in this life.
I am fortunate to have been able to afford the time and airfare to go to Greece, as I am fortunate to have been born to a financially and otherwise secure family in a country where, at least historically, human life mattered, and no one was getting killed as a mater of course.
I speak in the past tense, because I am not so sure these things are true of our country anymore, but I digress.
My last few days in the Aegean were spent sightseeing in Athens – it was my first visit there, and time was short, so I scampered like my skirt was on fire to see the National Museum and the Parthenon before catching a bus into the mountains to the northwest of the city, to visit the ancient sanctuary of Gaia at Delphi, where the Oracles made pronouncements and predictions since time immemorial.
The forested mountains and picturesque towns reminded me of the Alps as the bus wound around the skinny roads till we arrived at Delphi.
The village was very small and I quickly found my hotel, despite my lack of a map, Google or otherwise.
I dropped off my things and set out to explore the city, in search of dinner and water. Lots of water, as I was still dry as a desert from dehydration. Before I’d gone far, I met a local man named Dimitri, who took me down the street on his motorcycle, where we had beer and I devoured half a pizza and drank endless carafes of water.
The restaurant overlooked the steep, impressive mountains, the deep alluvial gorge dove precipitously below us. Dimitri took me to the sacred Castalian Spring, which was below the temple site, spouting into a rock basin before draining elsewhere. I filled up my bottle with the cold, delicious water and drank deeply.
In the morning, I woke early and went to the UNESCO World Heritage Site – the remains of the temples and dedications built at Delphi over hundreds of years. A friendly local pooch walked with me down the road to refill my bottle at the Castalian Spring.A large rock marked the place where the priestesses used to speak their predictions. A dome-shaped rock, representing the omphalos or world navel, sat nearby. I spent an hour or so exploring the site and the site of the nearby Athena temple before refilling my water bottle at the Castalian Spring and going to the museum. It was full of incredible pediments and votive objects I was lucky to see.
I checked out of my hotel and got my things before shopping for lip balm for my lips, which were dry and chapped to the point of cracking. I ran into Dimitri on the main street and he bought me a Greek coffee – thick with the grounds. Then my bus came and I headed back to Athens, driving the winding roads down from Mount Parnassus.
I had hoped to visit Eleusis, the ancient site of the mystery ritual that was popular throughout the region until paganism was outlawed and the temples destroyed. However, I learned that it was closed on Mondays, so I was thwarted. I got my things from my hotel and got a text from some of my fellow volunteers, who were also in Athens.
I told them where to find me and waited for them outside the hotel. Maya and Kristof – a father and daughter from Berlin – found me and decided to take a room at my hotel, which was only $25 euros. We caught up and smoked a few cigarettes before I got the subway to my new neighborhood.
I was staying my final night near the Acropolis in a hostel, where I thought I might meet some interesting people, and I was right. As I was at the front desk to check in, a couple came in and got a room.
I found my dorm and encountered a French girl called Lea, who spoke perfectly unaccented English – or close enough. We decided to go out later, and in the meantime I figured I’d do some sightseeing in the area. It was late afternoon when I wandered along the base of the Acropolis, in search of the Agora.
I followed my nose (though I had a map, in case of emergency) and found the Agora, bordered by a large museum on one side and a train track running in front. I wandered through the museum and the grounds in the burning sun. I located the Eleusinian temple, which was only foundation stones, and visited the Hephaestus temple, which was beautifully preserved – even down to the colors!
Hunger pangs clanged in my empty belly and I headed back toward the hostel, stopping along the way for souvenirs for my family.
Once back at the hostel, I feasted on cashews and a tin of dolmas and drank a beer in the courtyard. The couple I’d seen at the reception came in and we began conversing. The man was Dutch and his companion was Belgian. I told them about my experiences volunteering in Lesvos, and they listened with great interest.
The man told me that he was ashamed that he, a European, had not done anything to help the refugees, when an American had. It inspired him to do something.
Lea and I went out for drinks to a place recommended by the front desk attendant. I had a feel for the neighborhood now and we walked back toward the Agora and found the rooftop bar, with a view of the Acropolis, where we talked for several hours about our pasts and our upbringings. Lea and I had a lot in common, though of course I was older than she by a decade, since I’m long in the tooth, I suppose, compared to your average backpacker. Nevertheless, it was one of those meetings that makes you glad to travel alone, so as to facilitate encountering strangers.
We went back to the hostel to find the room had filled with my fellow Americans. I packed my things and got ready for the next day’s flight to Istanbul. Someone in the room had set an alarm that went off in the wee hours, interrupting everyone’s sleep – except the culprit, who just kept snoring. There are definitely downfalls to hostel life.
In the morning, I checked out and walked to a nearby square where I got the metro to the airport. While exiting the train, I ran into Kristof and Maya one last time. We said our goodbyes and I changed some money into Turkish Lira before going through security.
I arrived in Istanbul in the late morning and took the train to the tram to get to my hostel. My Greek phone could no longer help me, but I remembered the directions to find the hostel and managed to make it there. I was out of sorts after the crowded tram, in which a man had inappropriately brushed against me, but there were a couple of fellows at the cafe/reception who shared their lunch with me and improved my mood.
One was a Turkish guy, Baran, who the same age as me, and the other was an English chap called Charley, a bit older. They wanted to see my guitar, so I showed it to them and we took turns playing songs for each other.
The two of them were going to the Asian side of the city that afternoon and invited me to come along. Despite my lack of sleep, I said yes. When in Istanbul. . .
We took the ferry across to this other half of the city and walked to the house of some friends, a couple who received us with hospitality. They had two small dogs and a cat running around their sunny apartment. I was allergic, but happy to be with these friendly people and animals.
We took the dogs for a walk to nearby Small Moda Beach, and I brought along my guitar. As the sun set, we sat on the rocks by the water and performed songs for each other. They were a good audience, and some other friends joined us, so we had a bit of a crowd, all drinking beers and eating chips, talking and smoking and singing.
It was after 10 when we headed back to our part of the city. Baran and I went back to the hostel, where the fellow in reception invited us for a drink before we called it a night.
The next day, I was on a mission to see what I could of Istanbul: I took the tram across the Bosphorus and walked up to the Hagia Sophia – the famous former church and mosque that is now a museum open to all.
However, the line was huge, so I decided I’d come back around lunch time, when I hoped fewer people would be there. I visited the famous underground Basilica Cistern, leftover from the time of Emperor Justinian (and a pleasant respite from the hot sun).
From there, I went to the archaeological museum, which had a great section on Cypriot and Syrian ancient history.
After that, it was time for the Hagia Sophia, which was finally relatively easy to get into. I wandered around the cavernous, domed building, exploring its nooks and crannies. From there, I got lunch in Sultanahmet before going to see the famous old bazaar. It was a beautiful sprawling network of hallways will high, vaulted ceilings, full of stalls and people buying and selling, bartering and bargaining.
I made my way back to the tram and back to my side of the Bosphorus. Baran was waiting for me, as he hoped to record me playing music in a nearby cafe. However, it was not to be: I discovered I’d lost my credit card and went into panic mode.
Once I’d settled things, we got dinner and took it up to the top of the hill, overlooking the water and the lights of the city. There, we sat playing music and talking till it was almost 2, and time to turn in.
In the morning, I went to the beautiful old Cemberlitas hammam, to get scrubbed clean of the dirt that had been building up since the archaeological dig in Cyprus, and no doubt increased exponentially while I was volunteering in Molyvos. The building was beautiful: a tall marble dome covered the bathing room, a large heated slab of marble was dappled with circles of sunlight, filtering down.
I rinsed off with soap and warm water from marble basins and went to lay on the slab, enjoying the serenity and silence. I had the place to myself, until a woman came in to scrub me. I recalled my visit to my first hammam, in Morocco in 2012. A visit to the hammam is many things: it is about cleanliness, of course, but it is also a ritual performed before praying or religious holidays.
She used soap and warm water to cover me in lather before commencing to scrub me with an exfoliating mitt. My favorite part of going to the hammam is watching the dead skin appear as if by magic.
When the scrub was finished, I rinsed off and returned to sprawl on the warm marble slab for a bit before showering and getting dressed. I tipped my scrubber and headed off toward the hostel on the tram. It was a beautiful blue-skied morning and the Bosphorus was full of boats.
I packed up my things and had one last breakfast with Baran at the cafe. Charley joined up and we walked down to the tram together. I said goodbye to my new friends and headed to the airport.
That afternoon, I flew to Zurich for a long layover and took the train into the city. I had a bed at a New Zealand-owned hostel in a nightlife district only about 15 minutes walk from the central station. The glowering sky let fall its cargo of gentle rain as I made my way across the bridge and past the military grounds.
The hostel had a bar/cafe downstairs and after I checked in, I sipped my glass of complementary rose and wrote about my experiences in Lesvos. A band set up to play a concert and I stepped outside to smoke and ended up talking with a couple of locals about my trip and the refugees. They told me about conservative political views in Switzerland, making it sound not unlike Texas in its stance toward guns and immigration.
I had a few more beers (and a falafel from a nearby Lebanese spot) and chatted with people who came for the concert. Finally, it was time to retire to my upper bunk and get some sleep before heading home to New York the next day.
I flew back to the city on the fourth anniversary of my sister Erika’s death. September 4th is a date that will always have significance for me, though this year the end of my journey had to suffice to mark it, where in previous years, I drank pink bubbles, at the very least. But I think my volunteering also was something I did to honor her, in a way. I try to honor her by living.
My return to the city has been both easy and odd. It is the same old city, but I don’t feel like the same old me. Lighter somehow. Happier with what I have and more grateful.
As my birthday nears (it’s tomorrow!), I’m reflecting on this year and what I’ve gone through. I feel in some ways that I’ve skimmed over the waters of loss without getting pulled in, which is a considerable feat for a Scorpio. I don’t love lightly, and letting go isn’t easy. But I have evolved through change and pain and my perspective is different now. I understand myself better through the difficulties I wouldn’t have chosen to face. The earth must be plowed before it is planted. I hope this next phase will be about that fertility – that loss is behind me for the time. But time will tell.
To quote Casablanca, the problems of two people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.
All for now –
Love and miss