Whether it’s for business or for pleasure, travel has always offered me the element of surprise and exploration of the unknown, while permitting me a below-the surface opportunity to grow. Traveling by myself is a great exercise for my maturing brain, whether that means renting a car and finding my way in an unfamiliar city or taking a plane to a foreign country and wondering what will come next.
One of my more challenging solo trips happened a few years back when I joined my brother on his cruise ship in Hong Kong. John spent 30 years between two cruise lines playing piano on elegant ships visiting many international ports 15-20 times each over the course of his tenure as an entertainer. That helped him develop a penchant for favorite restaurants and hangouts in places like Singapore, Rome, Rio de Janeiro and even Capetown, South Africa. Although the long flight to Hong Kong was excruciating, once I grabbed a taxi for the Hong Kong cruise ship terminal, I had a personal tour guide for 12 days through countries like Vietnam and Thailand – places I would NEVER have gone if he weren’t offering me a free place to sleep, eat and float the entire time.
Such was not the case on my trip to Greece this past September. While I was familiar with parts of Athens because of my stay there for a year of college some 40+ years ago and subsequent trips in between, I wasn’t familiar with ALL of Athens. I attribute my lack of desire to find places on my own more to laziness than to lack of intelligence, but I just always had someone else along for the ride to rely on. And while I speak the language like a 3rd grader and can make myself understood in conversation, older age has introduced new, disturbing and entirely unexpected demons to my once confident, younger persona.
As I mentioned in earlier blog posts, the purpose of this trip was to simply BE in the same place as my brothers and relatives for what might be one of the last times all these factions could come together in my adult life. The trip was planned only 6 weeks before departure, so I worked feverishly to arrange everything as best I could. Having experienced AirBnb accommodations in Paris, London and a host of American cities, I felt confident I could find just the right place to unpack my bag and rest my head. So I booked what I thought to be the perfect apartment not far from where my cousin lived. I was set. That is — until seven days before my departure, when the landlord cancelled my stay citing building maintenance problems. Suddenly my choice of apartments became limited to what was not already booked a week out. The place I chose was in a part of Athens I had never visited in this sprawling city. It was, however, within walking distance of central Athens, so that gave me some comfort, while Googling the location made the neighborhood sound like the next best thing to sliced bread.
Problem is, what Greeks consider urban gentrification is not my idea of contemporary beauty. I described parts of my apartment discovery process in one of my first in this series of blog posts, but I did not speak of how I feared being unable to locate my building again once I left my apartment. This was an entirely new and strange feeling. Picture a huge European city with thousands of apartment buildings, large and small, many of which look the same. Every neighborhood has tiny eateries and little neighborhood squares where businesses are located. Graffiti covers almost every square inch of neighborhood walls and building fronts (that’s an entirely other blog post), so very little of what you see seems like a signature sight or monument you can readily recognize during the first few outings from your cozy studio.
Another fly in the soup was my almost useless cell phone in an era of instant information. Before I left, my husband contacted our mobile carrier and arranged what he thought was comprehensive international cell coverage, whether calling, texting or using a GPS function online. My plan was to rely heavily on that to help me get my bearings. Unfortunately, it did NOT work, and I was left to scrounge for free wifi locations at restaurants or in hotel lobbies while being unable to actually CALL anyone on my phone.
So except for visits with relatives, here are what most of my days looked like, all due to my lack of female huevos and reliance on a technology I had only spotty access to:
- Wake around 7 am, grab my laptop (my apartment had excellent wifi except when I wanted to watch TV, when it stopped operating altogether) and sit up in bed with a pillow on my lap.
- Clock in and work my online customer service job, surf the web, and get caught up on social media until noon.
- Take a shower in hot water — unless I forget to flip the hot water switch on ahead of time. I suddenly recall what a cold shower feels like.
- Choose from among my many (black) summer outfits and dry my short hair using an electrical outlet ten feet from an available mirror or – wear a hat with the one of the 5 pair of sunglasses I schlepped along for extra glamour.
- Call up a car using a freshly loaded Uber-like app on my phone called “TaxiBeat” (Uber has not yet taken off in a country where half the population drives cabs for a living). Of course, I must stay inside my apartment to make sure I am still connected to wifi for this.
- Once the cabbie finds me (it’s usually the younger ones who are on this system, since older taxi drivers are not interested in tech-savvy changes to their livelihoods), I climb in, name my destination and ask for their taxi wifi password. Yes. There is free wifi in most of these cabs because they use GPS to find you and drop you off.
- Depart the vehicle at the general locale within which I want to explore Athens. Usually it’s in or near the Plaka, Monastiraki or Constitution Square in the heart of great shopping (my bad) and air-conditioned hotel lobbies with free wifi.
- Sit down for lunch at an elegant-looking outdoor restaurant or café with a great view of passers-by. I could sit there for hours, surfing the web on my phone while wistfully watching beautiful, dark-haired 20 -year old women strolling by with their equally gorgeous boyfriends. My brain relived my earlier days, when I sat in cafes with my girlfriends, flirting with strangers at the next table. But only my brain.
- Shop some more, not really buying anything, but having some fun conversations with shop owners, who always manage to tell me where their American relatives live.
- Call TaxiBeat to fetch me and dump me off at my little place around 5 pm. Keep in mind that I have not entirely grasped the geography of my apartment’s location so I am relying almost 100% on the driver to find it.
- Wait for my cousin Dimitri to text me asking me if I wanted to get dinner with him later on, to which I always agree.
That’s it. Throw in a trip to Hydra with my cousin and a visit to the Acropolis Museum one more time during the course of my 12 days in Athens, and you have just sampled much of my existence on this trip, which felt more like a month to me at the time.
There are, however three significant departures from this theme, all of which I am very proud and all of which make me believe I am not yet ready for a nursing home:
- A trip to my old college, when I braved the Athens Metro only to find the station nearest the school still required a trip by taxi.
- The morning my apartment wifi crapped out, forcing me to find a café where I could work on my laptop. This occurred during one of my last days there, making me realize what a lunatic I was for not doing this earlier even WITH operable wifi at my disposal back at my apartment. It felt downright adult-like.
- Meeting the cousin of friend of mine for coffee near the Acropolis. Lillian was cyber-introduced to me by my wild friend Frosene. “You gotta look her up!” she messaged me by Facebook. “She’s a hoot, speaks perfect English and loves to meet my friends who visit Athens!” I soon became fast friends with this native Athenian who learned English with a New York accent but had never visited the States. Lillian and I compared life stories and even celebrated my birthday together on the Piraeus waterfront. Other friends with whom I had hoped to visit simply did not materialize this time around, so I will forever be grateful to Frosene for getting Lillian and I together and to Lillian for being an entertaining, delightful new acquaintance.
So there you have it. I am not certain I will ever travel that far alone again, but I hope I never get too old to feel it’s not an option. I did, after all, miss my husband (and — oh God — it was great to see how much he missed me!). But I also got to know Athens from an unexpectedly new perspective – an entirely unstructured (sometimes desperate) one that was a bit scary at first.
Travel hope springs eternal.