Delphi, Greece: October 5, 1991...
et me begin by explaining how a respectable 64-year-old (that's me) got thrown out of the Delphi Hostel in the middle of the night.
Well, it wasn't quite the middle of the night. And I wasn't exactly thrown out. But for practical purposes it amounted to the same thing.
For that matter, I may not have been all that respectable, having just rambled through five months of a European summer season on nothing more substantial than a hundred dollars a week, like a footloose hippie of other times - an image hardly denied by the curly ponytail trailing from the crumpled brim of a blue cotton hat that had been through too many launderings. Still, age should be accorded some deference.
But never mind all that. The three of us were huddled that night on the small balcony outside my dorm, talking tactics in the sultry evening air. Far below, the lights of Itea, on the Corinthean coast, twinked on like faint first stars in the deepening dusk, while beyond them the soft serrate edge of a distant ridge was still visible against the last thin pastel of a brilliant scarlet sunset.
It was Matt who kept prodding us with his insistent emphasis on "...hostages, that's what we are. Hostages to a woman who won't get her damn butt out of bed before seven in the morning to let us out of here."
He was talking about the warden's wife - the warden of a youth hostel, not a prison, though it would seem to apply either way in our case. His anger was both real and mock. Just as this situation of being imprisoned in a Greek hostel, high on Mount Parnassus, was both absurd and serious to each of us: Matt, Dave and me.
We weren't yet prisoners, but in less than an hour the doors would be bolted for the night. We had just that long to decide whether to stay with this 'hospitality' that would deny us an early morning bus back to Athens, or to chance finding our night's shelter elsewhere in this already tucked-in town of Delphi.
"Dammit." Matt again, "Get the White House on the pipeline . . . have `em send in an air strike!"
From Seattle, like me, Matt was the quintessential Young American Abroad. His every movement radiated the cocky, 'don't mess with Americans' assurance proclaimed by his fantasies. In anyone older than his twenty-odd years, the rank jingoism would have appalled me. But below his shock of black hair was only Innocent Truth gazing from strong, clear blue eyes, and I recognized my own youthful patriotic pride of once-upon-a-time.
Dave was not much older, but of a background with a good deal more reserve. From Manchester, England, he was a rugby player, though his tall and lanky form seemed unlikely for the sport. An easy good humor tempered most of what he said and did, but Matt's heroics had been goading his competitive spirit. He countered, now, with an idea of his own: that we should draw the police into the dispute.
It made a bit of sense. Technically, our passports and not ourselves were being held hostage. Hostel practice is to hold passports under lock and key overnight, for simple safe-keeping. It effectively barred us from an early morning breakout, which had been Matt's first adventurous plan. Our passports were now in the warden's private quarters, taken there with a certain finality which even suggested that they'd had to deal with this issue before.
I had gone down to speak with him, as had the fellows before me, thinking that perhaps my grey-bearded maturity might pull a little more weight. But it was no use. The warden's resistance was impregnable. Referring to his wife, the T-shirted swarthy who stood inches short of my 5'11" in the doorway, shook his head sadly, "...she work a long and hard day..." - which may have been true, but I hadn't noticed that he gave her much help - "...and she need a big sleep."
His English carried the wrong suggestion, but his point came across. I pleaded with him that I'd never make the day's boat back to Lesbos unless I could get the early morning bus into Athens. It would mean another night's layover there for me.
He rose an inch, at least. "Hostel run by hostel time, not boat time!" And that was fairly well the end of it.
In this last narrowing hour before lock-up, Dave's idea that the passport issue would bring the police to intervene finally won Matt over. But I hung back, and let the pair of them tackle it on their own. I had some reservations about the whole business. After several weeks in Greece, I was already used to the casual way in which matters of seeming urgency are handled. But more than that, it wasn't my style to force issues and make things happen. It was very clear how the cards had fallen, here, and it made more sense to me to dampen my own agenda and let things develop as they would.
The three of us had separately arrived in Delphi on the day before to see the nearby site of Apollo's fabled temple, and the first night's imprisonment had been no problem for us. But we each intended to return on a 9:30 morning bus - only to learn that it didn't run on Sunday. Our only morning option was the 6:30 bus, now blocked by the intransigent warden, and we'd become instant compatriots in rebellion.
The easiest solution, of course, would be to check out and get lodging elsewhere. But we were all on tight budgets and the $5 hostel rate was the cheapest night's shelter to be found in this tourist town. We couldn't even be sure we'd get a refund if we left at this late hour. But it went beyond that, now. For both Matt and Dave, an issue of principle was at stake: whether they'd sit still for this high-handed, buckle-or-get-out choice the warden had laid down.
But would the police actually intervene in such a silly dispute? I didn't really think so, and was surprised a short while later when Dave suddenly popped into the dorm room wearing the smug grin of a winner.
"Get your stuff ready to leave at six in the morning!"
"You're kidding! What happened?"
"All it took was the sight of an officer, and they backed down."
Matt now crowded in behind and wouldn't let Dave tell his own tale. "Boy, she caved right in! Her husband didn't even show his face when the police came in with us. He let her do all the talking."
They were triumphant. Righteousness had won the day, and I had to admit I was impressed by their easy success. They went over every detail of the interaction and it certainly looked as though Dave had been the best tactician of the three of us. Until the warden appeared in the doorway, tight-lipped and visibly shaking with contained rage.
"The Englishman!" He hardly waited for Dave to acknowledge the call. "Get your bags. I'm checking you out."
A silence hung in the air as Matt and I, suddenly sober, waited to see what Dave's reaction would be. He met the thrust with the cool of a good rugby player, head-on and assertively. "Sir, your wife made an agreement with the police..."
"Police!" sputtered the warden, "...I am police in this hostel."
There was really nothing further Dave could say to that. He shrugged and grimly set to the task of pulling his effects together as the warden stood glowering. Matt, in a moment of uncommon prudence, uttered not a word and turned toward his own dorm room down the hall.
I don't know if the warden had picked Dave as the instigator or simply the easiest to deal with, but it looked as though he meant to limit the night's loss to a single paying guest. However, Matt was back in a few moments with his hastily collected gear and I realized that my own moment of truth had arrived. The flow of events had left me a clear choice: to stay with a cheap night's sleep and settle for a late bus, or cast my lot with these out-maneuvered mutineers.
It didn't take much thought. I couldn't resist the spirit of the happening, the gusto and camaraderie of it all.
So there we were, tramping together down a deserted late-night street in Delphi, packs on our backs: two incorrigibly independent young bucks and an old graybeard unwilling to close the book on the adventures of a summer. It somehow epitomized, in a single, exquisite mise en scene, all of what the summer had been for me. The perfect post-script to a journey of fantasy dimensions.
Fantasy certainly says it. A pocketful of dreams carried for a lifetime, finally traded-in for a backpack full of memories, all the sweeter for my age and the crazy, innocent kind of travel that can only be done by the financially forlorn.
We found a place to sleep that night, thanks to Matt's recollection of a pension he had stumbled across, and a landlady's willingness to get out of bed and rent us a tiny room for $20 - though it had only two beds. Dave and I tossed for the privilege of sleeping on the floor, and I won, earning as well the slightly cheaper portion of our three-way split.
Sleepy-eyed the next morning, munching a pick-up breakfast of pears plucked from Delphian trees - the last of the season - we got our bus on schedule and made the five-hour journey to Athens without a great deal of further excitement. Once arrived there, we clasped in a three-sided handshake, shared one last, knowing grin, and turned our separate ways - not vowing to stay in touch, for the life of the road is a very transient high that can only be renewed on the road itself.
Dave was headed for Cyprus and Matt wanted to see more of mainland Greece. I made my own way back to the fabled isle of Lesbos, an overnight boat ride on bucking waves in a washing rainstorm, to claim the sweet little apartment I'd already arranged to rent for the winter: a congenial place for a quiet season of writing, in an ambience of seaside leisure and minimal distraction.
The ways of life are unbelievably provident - if you let them take their course. I could no more have imagined myself footloose in Greece, after sixty years of unbroken fidelity to American soil, than I would have thought myself to the moon. Yes, I'd had my dreams of vagabonding, a lifetime ago when the future was a wide-open, endless horizon. I grew up under the spell of Richard Halliburton who made far-away places sing with mystery and rugged adventure. But then came the narrowing, the choices made, one by one, that foreclose dreams as we pursue our real lives. My own held no promise of the kind of money such adventuring is supposed to call for.
My last twenty years, in fact, could be called hard-scrabble. I dropped out of the career world before it had fully captured me, forsaking a dependable income in favor of living as I wished. That meant growth and self-discovery, and a life of stimulus and challenge . . . but it also meant a steady flirtation with insolvency that locked my hopes for foreign travel as tightly in the box of old fantasies as ever they'd once been dreams to live by.
Nothing had much changed, in that respect, by the time I reached my sixties. I had less than $3500 at my disposal when I left the States, more than a year before this end-of-summer adventure in Delphi; and my income - not enough to quite reach the poverty line - came entirely from Social Security. Somehow, from this shallow base of travel funds, I managed to weather the international tide of recession through eight months of residence in London and five more on the road; and I was yet to add another six months before finally returning to American soil.
There was no guidebook to follow in doing this, and none could be written. It had more to do with a way of living, a certain consciousness that had worked for me for many years at home. Frugality has been an accustomed part of it. But then there is the element of raw chance: learning to live with the hazard of never knowing what comes next, only the inner assurance that whatever it may be will be okay. This was an outlook I had honed to perfection. The wonder of it - which I could not know before I got to Europe - was that it would work for me in this utterly unfamiliar world where I was entirely on my own, everywhere a stranger to language and custom.
Part of the secret, certainly, is the realization, beyond any shred of doubt, that life is provident if you follow its lead. Without this perspective, I would never have even dared such a journey. I was drawn into it by a set of events that only a fool would consider auspicious . . . or someone who could see in such things the elements of a providential path.
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