It was the summer of 1979, and once again I found myself traveling with my Mata Hari sister and my sweet, middle-aged mother (who I now suspected of being a spy). We arrived in the port city of Brindisi, Italy which was alive with people celebrating the “Polish Pope,” Pope John Paul II. We planned to visit the most ancient lands of Greece and purchased our tickets for the crossing to Patros. The long wait was made enjoyable by visiting with the hordes around us. But we let down our guard and forgot: We were being watched. (Just because we are paranoid, doesn’t mean they aren’t watching us.)
As port personnel came around with forms for us to fill out, I did the unthinkable – I sat my purse down, turned to take the customs form from the port authority, and turned back to – no purse! My panic was evident to those around me. Sympathetic travelers gathered around me offering support and help. My purse, my passport, my Eurorail pass, my ticket to Greece, my traveler’s checks, my cash, my rings, even my LIPSTICK for heaven’s sake – were all gone. As the passengers began boarding, they wished me luck (knowing it was a lost cause) and thanked their gods that it wasn’t them. (Most of them were Greek after all.)
We were taken to the Carabineri’s* office where I began giving information and Mata Hari began flirting. As we were finishing up, someone came in with my purse – of course without my traveler’s checks, my cash, and my rings. However, the perpetrator had been kind enough to leave my passport and my Eurorail pass along with my other identification! Thank you thief, whoever you were. After a great delay, we were able to board and continue to Greece where our transportation to Athens was …..
ON STRIKE! It turned out that Greece and Italy are regularly on strike. We just had forgotten to check the strike schedule being silly Americans and such.
We finally found a local bus, complete with chickens and a goat, that took us to the coastal town of Kalamata. While Kalamata lacked the Pantheon of Athens, it had far more non-touristy attractions to enjoy. And believe me, Mata Hari was enjoying them and they were enjoying her, although I was trying to make sure it was from a distance.
One of our most amazing discoveries was that water around Greece is clear. Seriously, it is clear. I know that is hard to believe but standing in the Mediterranean Sea, I could see the separate grains of sand at the bottom as well as the fish that played around my legs. It was unbelievably glorious. The brilliant blue hid nothing, not even the jellyfish that floated away after having stung me. I stood there stupidly as the thought finally worked through my brain: “I’ve just been stung by a jellyfish in a foreign country where everything is all Greek to me!” Never having seen a Portuguese Man of War and knowing that it was poisonous enough to kill, I was certain that the flotsam of jellyfish floating away had to be that very harbinger of death. I finally came to my senses enough to realize that welts were swelling on my leg and that I probably needed medical attention. I left the water and wandered to the tent of the nearest merchant. They were a lot better at non-verbal communication than I was. The woman at the tent saw my leg, grunted, sat me down, cut open a lemon and squeezed it on my leg (which stung by the way). Then she poured salt on my leg. (Repeat – it stung!) I don’t remember her using anything but the lemon and salt, but then all I really remembered was that it stung. Then she wrapped my leg…amazing! It worked perfectly! I still have both legs and don’t remember which one got stung.
Having escaped death by lack of language skills, I was tricked into a night of cultural exchange by Mata Hari (who had been seducing the entire male Greek population of Kalamata). Actually, she arranged to meet some Greek guys and I became the designated chaperone by our mother. We ended up in a bouzoukia – a Greek nightclub. This place was not for tourists. I felt like I had a target painted on my forehead, but as soon as our dates were properly inebriated with ouzo, everyone seemed to accept us even though we weren’t drinking. A real Greek bar is interesting. Plates aren’t for eating on. They are for throwing at the dancers – I assume to get them to be livelier. As our dates explained, “I need the sound of the crashing plates to feel the dance.” I secretly think someone worked for the local podiatrist and got a cut out of surgeries removing glass splinters from feet. By the time the night was over, our dates were so drunk, we didn’t trust them to drive. I tried to take the keys away but they thought I was playing a game. They played keep away with the keys but eventually promised to let me drive. The next thing I knew, Mata Hari was wedged between two ouzo-soaked Greeks and my only hope of staying with my judgment-impaired younger sister was to get in the car. I prayed all the way back to the hotel. I learned something that night. Don’t mess with Mata Hari. The guys wouldn’t let us leave until we gave them our address and phone numbers. Mata Hari sweetly complied. Somewhere in America there are two Greeks, who may have sobered up by now, looking for the most screwed up address imaginable.
Eventually we made our way back to Italy. Leave it to Mata Hari to turn the crossing into an adventure. Wandering far from the tourists, she discovered the bowels of the ship where the sailors labored and entertained themselves. She reappeared in our cabin, eager to drag me down to the crew’s quarters with her where we whiled away the night listening to sailors’ music and eating pasta bianca. Dawn found us leaning against the bow of the ship enchanted by a pod of dolphins racing next to us through the Mediterranean Sea. In the dim morning light, I felt adrift. My depression began to descend and I became quiet. Mata Hari asked what was wrong. I was overwhelmed by my feelings of insignificance and told her that my life had amounted to nothing. I had accomplished nothing. I had finished nothing. I could feel the desperation dragging at my throat. Then Mata Hari laughed. I could see nothing funny, but there she was laughing. She said: “Jeannie, you are on a ship in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea on your way to Italy. How many people do you know that can say that?”
Now, when I start to get overwhelmed and think that my life has amounted to nothing, I think about her, laughing, in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea with dolphins following us and I realize that my life has really been pretty interesting after all.