On a plane from Athens to Barcelona, I struck up a conversation with a retired school teacher. It was delightful to have intelligent, worldly discourse in the air. We spoke of economics, world affairs, current and past leaders, health care, terrorism, life, love, and health. As we got deeper in, she thought I must’ve experienced something tragic. She said, “for you to leave the love of your life, even for a few weeks—to travel alone—you must’ve found meaning in your life?” I paused, and with a smirk replied, actually, I’m out here still looking for it. I have many things to be thankful for but they all, with the exception of love, seem so simple and insignificant. Like I’m an actor in a play I’ve written, directed, and acted out over and over again. Travel is the only thing that gives me a new purpose. It breathes life into this old soul. She just looked at me, smiled, and repeated, “like I said, you must’ve found meaning in your life.” We both shared a sweet, silent smile.
We read for a while, I wrote, and we both even napped a bit.
The moment I woke I began to ponder the irony of misfortune. Again. The unlucky draw of straws; how we never wish for the short one and what it can do to you. If you’re lucky enough to live through it, you’re bound to become clearer in what you want. And that, for me, has become travel.
Paris is everything, everyone has said and then some: the heartbeat of love, the candlelight of romance, the warm embrace, the first drop of wine in a glass. It radiates passion. The senses are all awake in this city. There are only two things that come to mind I have not read about Paris. First, the people are lovely. I’m not sure who is getting an uptight Parisian but they were all delightful to me. I find American’s can be so damn American that they can’t even understand why anyone else doesn’t act… American. Secondly, Paris is so remarkably regal. I’ve never been anywhere to date that felt so well-organized and precise in its plan. Methodical beauty, class, character, and resolve. Paris is the benchmark of refined taste and grace. I can’t imagine anywhere being more beautiful than Paris but I’m up to the task. And search on, I shall.
On the last night of my vacation and pass back through Paris there was a huge, violent protest. “Gilets jaunes” or yellow vests, numbering near a hundred thousand, are a leaderless grass-roots resistance against diesel tax hikes and the high cost of living. They take their name from the bright yellow safety vests all drivers in France must carry to wear in an emergency. And to think its the law to own them.
I have always wanted to travel to Berlin. As long as I can remember. It’s been a fantasy I’ve played out in my mind over and over again that’s only grown with time. What’s Berlin like? Is it modern? Vibrant and pretty? Or is it still unresponsive and dark from the war? Do people dance all night to techno? Are they sad? Do people even laugh? Is there anything funny or is everyone serious? Is everything still in black and white? Surprisingly, it’s all of that.
Berlin has such a crazy history that I don’t think they’ll ever be able to entirely shake it off. As with any generational divide, it gets easier with time. Kids felt completely oblivious of the war as they should, to some extent. Robbing children of their innocence is one of the worst things you can do—as long as they understand their history. But the elders, they had decades of pain in their eyes. Like they felt sorry for things, I’m assuming, they had no part of. Weathered paths with narrowing memories and timeless guilt. It was heavy.
Berlin was all but demolished after the Second World War so it’s essentially rebuilt from the ground up. Many parts of it are a prefabricated response to a lack of housing. Quick, and relatively inexpensive, grey, concrete structures to curb the country’s severe housing shortage of the times. Two and three-story apartment houses stretching miles. An ironic wall of refuge in a place that doesn’t need or want walls ever again.
Then there’s the new Berlin. A highly intelligent and innovative tech hub where most cities pale in comparison. It has vibrant art, film, TV and gaming industries, and a live-and-let-live mentality for artists and activists. It’s contemporary, family-friendly, extravagant and it’s covered in graffiti. Like, most of it. And no one seems to mind. Upon first glance, it appears like it’s owned by the street artists. Berlin is somehow the youngest and oldest city I visited this trip.
On my ride from the Athens airport to my Air BnB, I was picked up by a taxi driver named Nick. Once my “Geia sas” wore off, I surrendered to English. He chose “Nick” for my sake. He told me everything he could about the city in a short cab ride. He promised me the best chicken souvlaki in the world while cranking the Scorpions “Still Loving You.” I love unembarrassed people. I feel like it’s the sign of true awareness. Or innocence. I haven’t figured that one out yet.
My first 3 hours in Athens and what do I stumble upon? My first protest of the trip.
November 17 is observed as a holiday in Greece and the 45th anniversary of the 1973 Athens Polytechnic student uprising against the military dictatorship. The rebellion began on November 14, 1973, escalated to an open anti-junta revolt and ended in bloodshed in the early morning of November 17. Every year a demonstration begins at the gates of the Polytechnic School of Athens, where the authorities of the military junta had sent a tank to crush the entrance gate as it cracked down on rebellious students holed up inside and ends outside of the American embassy in Athens. Shouting mainly anti-American slogans, 10,000+ protesters, whose majority came from various leftist groups, are marching demanding the removal of American bases from Greece and blamed the US imperialism for the infliction of the military junta. And to think I came here to learn about history.
Athens, the capital and largest city in Greece is just as alive and hopeful as any modern capital I’ve been to. With endless miles of flea market hucksters, restaurants, and sprawling nightlife—all striving for tourist oxygen—it reads like an endless welcome mat where one could easily be seduced into a blissful sense of abundance and security. And that, I felt.
It was, though, interesting that one block off the forged trail and I found myself in a no man’s land. Like Kurt Russel in Escape from New York, it smelled lawless. Isolated. Remote. The scent of danger was convincing as if no one’s coming to help. Like no one had been there in days, years even. Graffiti-ridden streets with boarded-up shops; dark, listless energy weighing the cold air. Hundreds of people strewn about, lining the streets, waiting for something to happen. Anything. Self-starting traders selling trinkets, food, shoes, watches, phone cards, and used pants. Day drinking locals telling stories, laughing, and even shouting at times. An unrehearsed human symphony without melody. It was chaos. I had only felt this way once before in an open-air flea market in Bogota. It was wild then, and now. Like an old west movie I couldn’t get out of, I didn’t know the language and I wasn’t about to ask for directions. And, I couldn’t find Dolores Abernathy. But somehow I wasn’t afraid.
I can always tell when I’m in danger. It’s a general feeling of whether or not anyone is paying attention. Strangely, they didn’t seem to mind me being there. Some would even look me dead in the eye, then just look right through me as if I didn’t exist. And maybe, just maybe to them, I didn’t.
Then there’s Ancient Greece. The majestic memoir. Athens is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. The Acropolis, among many others here—breathtaking world heritage sites dating back to 429 BC are no exception. The records of Greece are remarkable. Astonishing.
I am constantly amazed at how humans can work together to achieve anything. Good and bad. Extraordinary stuff. Athens may just be the busiest place on earth to get lost.
I could easily live in Barcelona. Maybe it’s because I speak Spanish well enough to get by. Maybe it’s because of the people. The gracious, passionate, and powerful people. Maybe it’s their food. It’s as good as anywhere I’ve ever been, hands down. Maybe it’s because of the architecture. The colorful contrasts—the gothic art nouveau that make up the facade. Or maybe it’s the climate. Or, all of it. Barcelona is a place that felt more like home than anywhere I’ve been so far.
I was getting my hair cut and the gentleman asked me where I was from (as most everyone abroad has). I replied Las Vegas to which everyone responds about the same. They repeat it as if I don’t remember what I said and then say “ooh” like they want to go there, or “ahh” as they’ve read about it. In response: Barcelona is the only place so far I tried convincing people otherwise. Moreso than Vegas, anyway. I finally won the debate by saying, comparing Las Vegas to Barcelona is like comparing lust to love. Everyone, initially, thinks they prefer lust until it wears off. Now, love, it stays as long as you nurture it. It grows with you. It becomes a part of you. Barcelona is a living, breathing, organism capable of giving love back. Las Vegas was not built to do that and it’s not capable of loving in return.
Amsterdam is the place you don’t go often enough but every time you get there, you wonder why it took you so long to get back. It’s whimsical, ornate and it sometimes even smells like a holiday. That freshly baked oven smell, mixed with laughter and cheer. Festival songs recounting tales of innocence. Stories that have to be told the same way, every year. Amsterdam is a cartoon-like city where everyone is safe and nothing is ever going to go wrong. I know that’s not entirely true and I don’t care. As with most things in life, we prefer to remember them how they first felt, innocent, and free of judgment and that is exactly what Amsterdam is. As everywhere should be.
It’s becoming increasingly clear to me humans are on a path with destruction. Not that this is groundbreaking news but most everywhere I went we were in some kind of fight. A war of words, thoughts, ideals, taxes, civil liberties, health care, immigration, and so on. Half of everyone everywhere is pissed off at their government. You wanna know what the through-line is to all the uprisings? Money.
I have an inherent need to reconcile my behavior with results. An unshakable, critical passenger looking for purpose and accountability in everything I do. It never feels like a burden. Usually, it’s just a barometer of truth. A means of measuring what I’m doing, why I’m doing it, and does it feel good? So…what am I doing, why am I doing it and does it feel good? I find the answers to these questions become much more simple with age:
I don’t know.
I don’t know.
And, I feel great but even feelings change with time. Everything changes with time.
For now, I know I miss my home, my love, Rockie Brown, and my bed. I always miss my bed. But first, let’s see what the airline lottery has in store for me for the next 18 hours. I hope its Del Griffith trying to sell me shower curtain rings made from the finest Czechoslovakia ivory. At least that will make the time go by quicker. I think.
Until we meet again, Europe.