Greece: A Memoir; Part 2: First Contact

(This is an excerpt of a memoir-in-progress of my life in Greece.)

I first entered Greece in the summer of 1976.  It was the culmination of a grand hitchhiking arc I had made through Belgium, Holland, Germany, Austria, and Yugoslavia.  I was a young writer with very little cash in pocket looking for life experience.  Still in the initial bursting joy of having liberated myself from the US and the rut in which I had been stuck, I was living one day at a time and making decisions moment to moment, with no itinerary and no ultimate physical goal.  My goal, if truth be told, was to set myself free as a writer.  I was emulating my literary idols:  Jack London, Jack Kerouac, Henry Miller, and so on.  I wanted to experience life robustly, and though I didn’t really know how, I wanted to learn.  I figured the only way was to get out there and do it.

So, as I say, I entered Greece with no real idea of where I would go and what I would do.  I had heard that the Greek people were hospitable, and, almost as a sign, on the side of one of the first roads I was let off at, an old man came out of nowhere and offered me a piece of fruit, smiled, and walked off.  I think it was a peach; peaches would have been in season then.  But the magnanimity of the gesture overwhelmed me.  Imagine:  to approach a total stranger and show such benevolence!  It was a very auspicious incident; it boded well for the future, I thought.

At that moment I felt at peace with myself and the world, standing there by the roadside, the trees shading me from the hot sun, the splendid deep blue sky a glimpse of eternity.

I was quickly disillusioned.

Nobody would stop for me.  As friendly as that old Greek farmer had been, the Greek drivers passing me did not share his openheartedness.  Driver after driver passed without so much as a glance in my direction.  It was if I did not exist.  Hitchhiking as a means of transport obviously was not an accepted part of their culture.  Hour after hour I stood there, incredulous, getting more and more miffed.  It didn’t synch with what had just happened with the farmer.  I had thought that Greece was greeting me with open arms; instead, I was getting the brush-off.  I didn’t realize at that point that Greeks are very complex and contradictory people, just like most people in point of fact, and they cannot be easily stereotyped or pigeonholed.

So there I stood for hours and hours.  At least the sun was warm and there was some shade, but I realized as I stood there that I was not entering some idyllic paradise but a country of the world and, just like any country, it would have its idiosyncrasies both positive and negative.

Finally, of course, I did get a ride.  It was with a Greek truck driver, and I would soon learn that apart from foreigners the truckers were almost the only people who would stop for hitchhikers on those roads.  I don’t know why they were the exception, as I couldn’t provide much company; they invariably spoke no English, and the few words of Greek I could manage to spit out were hideously mispronounced.  I suppose a silent companion is better than no companion, and they would often treat me to meals and bid me farewell like an old friend at our parting.

As I traveled I would stop and sleep wherever I could throw my sleeping bag.  One night in Greece I remember being directed to the concrete shell of an unfinished house near the edge of a village; I didn’t get much sleep there because mosquitoes plagued me relentlessly.

But I got by all right as I journeyed deeper and deeper into the country.

My first lengthy pause was at a beach near Volos, which is a city on the east coast about halfway between Thessaloniki and Athens.  It’s an attractive port city, not large enough to be oppressive.

As I remember I was in a bank checking on some money I was expecting; it hadn’t arrived, and I learned that it had been sent instead to Athens.  Because I was almost broke I decided to head for Athens as quickly as I could, but then I ran into a couple of Norwegian girls, one a tall buxom brunette, the other a petite blonde.  They told me they were on their way to a beautiful isolated beach up the coast, and they invited me to join them.  When I explained my financial situation they offered to pay for everything and in Athens I could pay them back.

Fine by me.

So we set out together, the Norwegian girls and I, they with their backpacks and I with the olive-green duffle bag I carried with me on my travels; we also had a supply of food to last us through a few days of isolation.  I don’t remember if we went by bus or taxi, but we ended up at an uncrowded beach, but the girls weren’t satisfied with that.  They wanted to find a pristine place unspoiled by tourists, so we hiked north up the coast until we found a beautiful cove with clear blue-green water and soft white sand, and that’s where we camped out for three nights.  In the heat of the day we would swim and sunbathe, and in the warm moon-lit night we would go skinny-dipping and then return to the shore to make out.  It was an idyllic interlude, one of those rare times when there is no stress, no hurry, nowhere to go and nothing to do that you don’t want to do.  It might have happened somewhere else I suppose, and I’m sure it has to other people, but because it happened to me in Greece it imbued Greece with a special magical aura that I carried with me for the next few weeks of my journey, almost until the end of this, my first stay.

When it came time to leave the girls accompanied me to Athens as we had agreed.  My pitiful little amount of money was there waiting at the bank, but when I offered the girls my share of the expenses they refused to take it.  They said it was their treat, kissed me goodbye, and went on their way.

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