Trump has followed us here, of course. He trailed us in Stockholm, bussed through the Baltic States, and into our Airbnbs, a wildly gesticulating shadow slipping in and out of our conversations with strangers, acquaintances, hosts, friends. They want to know where he came from, why he has such strong support, where it will all end. We have the same questions.
And then we move on. We discuss the past and present maternity leave in Vilnius (it used to be three years at 100% of salary), the historic sites in the States — our Serbian host had been an exchange student with an American family who took her to all 50 states — and the German knack for exporting nudity to off-the-map locales (at this point, Martin refers to all speedos and nudists as Germans). We chose to Airbnb partly because it was an inexpensive alternative to hotels (our rooms have ranged from $18 to $60 per night, averaging $40), and a step up from crowded party hostels (is this adulthood?). But also, we were excited about the social aspect — meeting locals, learning a bits of language, and sharing stories.
On Magganitis, we have a private loft studio, but it is one of several units in building, one of which houses our host, Stella, and her 28-year-old son who walks around with an acupuncture needle sticking out of his forehead like an underdeveloped unicorn horn and a 24-year-old daughter with long wavy hair and a perpetual smile. The kitchen is outside; a toaster oven with three burners that can be turned on a the same time but have to have the same heat setting, which means if you want to boil water and lightly sautee a sauce at the same time, you’re faced with sloooow water or scraping a crusty sauce layer off the bottom of the pan. There are four other self-contained units being rented, and we find ourselves sharing scraps of meals and conversation with them, which sometimes evolve into planned dinners and beach excursions and invitations to visit in the future. We have the privacy of our own space and the option of hermiting, but we enjoy the small, shifting community of travelers: teachers, writers, scientists, doctors, directors, retreaters.
“My dad says that Germany has changed from being a place people want to flee from to being a place they want to flee to. I think this is just about right,” our German neighbor tells us. He says that only 10% of the population is anti-refugee, and this sounds low to me. He is here with his girlfriend of 12 years; they are 28 and 29, high school sweethearts who researched the Greek islands, looking for something beautiful, non-touristy, relaxed.
Her name is Mira which is strange because the protagonist of the book I’m reading — my brother’s sci-fi automaton novel — is also called Mira. I am convinced it’s not her name, that I heard wrong and my brain has thrown the book character as a substitute. She has curly brown hair and a mediterranean hue to her skin. She has a quick, unrestrained, laugh and a ready smile. His name is Thiemo, pronounced Tee-mo, and for a while I think it is Tebow, like the football player. It is sometimes strange how the mind insists on contextualizing information.
They tell us about the national guilt in Germany, about how strongly the effects of the war are felt, about how in the 60’s, young people were being educated about the war and confronted their parents with their activity during that time. His grandfather was a prisoner of war in England when he was 17; mine was a prisoner of war in Germany when he was 18. We have long discussions about history and politics and economics and healthcare. He is a chemist, finishing his phD and researching a dissertation on oil alternatives. She calls herself a “peepee doctor” and laughs — she is a urologist, and does surgery on bladders and kidneys, and she says slicing into people doesn’t make her nervous (I ask, I have to ask.) She talks about reconstructing a bladder out of other body tissue (I forget which), and how she works 10 hour days and doesn’t always have time to eat, so she grabs candy from the candy bowl for energy. She doesn’t want her hands shaking while she is in surgery.
We meet Mira and Thiemo around the same day we meet another couple who also live in Germany. They are married, but don’t wear rings. He, Michael, is easygoing and thoughtful, quick to make a joke, but also quick to engage in serious conversation. His wife Anna is more reserved, but certain subjects flip a switch, and she enthusiastically tells us about the healing powers of the local hot springs which, among other things, flush out kidney stones. Mira, our resident urologist, mentions that drinking lots of water will do the same thing, and Anna smiles and vaguely accedes the point, jokingly accusing Mira of reducing the magic of Ikaria. But Anna is serious about healing and health and the Ikarian way of life — in her first few weeks here, alone, she learned to dance like a local, and wandered through the island, feeling out different villages.
Michael* is a director, and he tells us about meeting Andrea Bocelli for a commercial shoot he directed. He tells us how Bocelli doesn’t view his blindness as a handicap and gets frustrated at the question. He gallops on horses and drives a speed boat and embraces life. I tell him about the Deaf community and the controversy over implants and aids — why perform invasive surgery when there is nothing wrong with us? We are just different.
Anna recommends a restaurant on the beach with wonderful fresh seafood, and our group decides to make the hour drive to eat dinner and watch the Germany-Italy football match, played at every tavern and restaurant with a television. The trek is, of course, bumpy and wild, but we discuss our love stories and our happiness at being here, away from the robotic grind of civilization. We have invented youth and love and adventure, and it’s fine if this isn’t really so, because we are happy, and we have our music on the radio and time, all of the time, in our hands, coursing through our bodies, a non-renewable resource that feels renewable on Ikaria.
The hour ride it is worth it when we step out into the soft wind and walk down to one of the wooden tables outside the restaurant. The waitress clips a tablecloth to the table to keep it from blowing; our feet are on the sand, the ocean is teasing the beach with its waves, and the stars are winking out of a deep blue.
We decide to get lots of dishes to split, and all of the dishes look amazing, and Anna keeps recommending various seafood dishes even though she’s vegan, and the waitress thinks we are goofy, but she just smiles and writes and suggests more.
“Working with a great actor is amazing,” Michael says. “You tell him what you want, and he gives you three completely different takes, and they are all great.” He tells us about different dynamics with other actors, and how the most important part of directing actors is the prep ahead of time where he discusses the vision of the film and motivations of the actors.
His first Hollywood feature came out last year; he spent three years working on it (60 days of shooting), but wasn’t given full creative control.
“Hollywood doesn’t understand…they think that everyone just wants more action,” he says, and tells us that he wasn’t able to follow his vision, and had to pick his battles with the producers who were always at the shoot — and initially he wasn’t proud of how the movie turned out. He wanted it to be smart, contained, true to the story it was based on, but after an initial focus screening with pretty good results at 75%, the producers decided to pump up the action. After having the second unit director film extra footage, injecting superfluous action into the film, the next focus group gave it the same overall rating.
Now, a bit removed, he says he is proud of the film, of the experience, and he knows how to approach the next feature. But at the moment he is working on a personal project; an inspirational short — a drama about overcoming race and poverty based on a true story.
Our food arrives. And arrives. And arrives. We’ve ordered grilled cheese and breaded cheese and tzatiki and beetroot salad and regular salad and octopus and squid and fish and grilled meat and eggplant. And it all tastes fresh and newly invented, like every other version has been an attempt at recreating these. We eat and eat and are stuffed, but we need just one more Souvlaki plate and the meat is juicy and tender and it makes you want to close your eyes like a person singing “Killing me softly” and really, really meaning it.
“You are from a rich family,” Jerry, said downing his ouzo, and it wasn’t so much a question as an assertion.
“No, no. Just regular.” Martin and I both assured him. But he said it again, and kept boomeranging back to it throughout the night.
While we have been on holiday — five weeks now — unspeakable things have happened around the world. We have been in our holiday bubble — similar to our home bubble, but with less news and internet — and each time we read about a massacre, an attack, or a murder, we are silenced, saddened, and eventually we brush it off. It is a blessing and a curse, our age of information. Sometimes there are actions we can take, money we can donate, places we can volunteer, letters we can write. But some things we are up against: ideologies, poverty, economic disparities, insane people — we realistically cannot do much except talk and know that talk is often useless. That people are entrenched, and to an extent, so are we: think about your strong beliefs and how easily they would be changed; certainly not through one conversation or 10 internet posts.
So I walk around compartmentalized, grieving for those who grieve, while rejecting the heaviness of the mantle — because I can. Terrorism and shootings have not happened to me or my loved ones, but they brush the fringes of my life: Newtown is half an hour from my family’s home in Redding. My cousin knew the brother of a girl who was shot at the Batman premier. I grew up in the Middle East. I have black friends, black students.
And me? I am so happy. On a daily basis. I am in Greece with a man who I look at and am overwhelmed by how much I love him and his brown beard and searching eyes. I get to squint in the sunlight at the beach and meet charming people and dance until 3:00 and eat. And even back home: I love my job, I lived in a beautiful neighborhood, I have a supportive family, nobody makes crazy assumptions about me based on the color of my skin (except that maybe I glow in the dark because I am hella pale.)
Sometimes I avoid learning about the atrocities because I am tired of feeling helpless. Of carrying a weight that I cannot shift individually.
So when Jerry asked if we were rich, and he meant financially, we went the instant American favorite of: Middle class! Not rich!