With sweaty thighs and the dust coming to rest on my toes, I throbbed on as the sun does, a slimy sense of my own flesh occupying every thought and preceding every step. There was no sophistication to the way my shirt (98% polyester, the other 2% a mystery I did not wish to solve) clung to my back, and there was certainly even less grace in the way I pressed myself onto a perch (100% marble) and crushed my plastic bottle (100% eco-unfriendly) into my mouth, bruising my lower lip with the force of eagerness and thirst.
The view was less than stunning, but it was not to blame — I was less than half way through my trek towards the intended, purportedly stunning view.
I had expected this land to swell with myth and magic, in a way that would compel me into being a better person, a person that was tidier and perhaps more narratively engaging than the one I had left in my rain-addled, degree-infused Britain, where the only story I belonged to was one about an academic whose main joy was furtive glances at that redhead who always sat at the same table in the library. And those kinds of stories were only written by other disengaged academics, usually ending in unfulfilling sexual encounters. Though frankly those stories were perhaps marginally preferable to my profoundly uneventful narrative, which ended with a rolled up diploma in hand (Classics, with a particular focus on classical Greek architecture and sculpture) and no sexual encounters of any sort.
At the time, my looming graduation was going to mark several achievements beyond the acquisition of a degree; most notably it would memorialise that I had gone my entire studies unfucked and unhappy, and though the latter was not an effect of the former it was nonetheless an unspeakable truth. The only genuine tremors of ecstasy I experienced where to be found in suppressing a smug smile at a good grade and occasionally picturing the caress of cold, white marble whilst attempting to transpose myself into the history I studied so vehemently. I truly adored my subject. I had already been accepted into my postgrad and I fully intended to progress to a PhD and spend the rest of my life conveying this love to other students. And yet, I knew with inexplicable certainty that this sadness stemmed from a lack of consummation. Not of the flesh, but rather of the place I studied, and the place itself. Three years confined by my unquenchable thirst for the antiquities, and yet I had never seen them in person.
And so it was in the week leading to my final exam that I sat in the library, flushed and aware that the redhead was watching me, only for her to catch me as I opened a book, inhaled a handful of dust and then coughed it out, straight back into the book, all accompanied by an uncomfortable amount of saliva. Within a few minutes I had managed to talk myself out of finding the nearest open window to fling myself out of and merely relocated to another floor, already looking up tickets to Athens.
This is how I came to find myself sweating profusely and covered in dirt, halfway up the acropolis, and distressingly aware of how woeful I was. The only respite was a distinct absence of redheads to witness this humiliation.
Though I had made a deliberate effort to appear as un-touristy as I could (an entire degree focused on this country!) it transpired I was as English and as dull as I had always feared. This was confirmed before I had even touched Greek soil — I had offered a nervous, garbled Greek ‘thank you’ to the air hostess and received a strained smile in response. The urge to proffer “but I have a degree in this” only confirmed my inadequacy. Thus I stepped off the plane, bleakly.
And so I sat, grimacing into the sunlight and pulling up the collar of my t-shirt to wipe the sweat from my brow. The agony of the affair was only compounded by a passing group of healthier tourists who walked past, allowing me to overhear the word ‘American’ said in their native language. The realisation that I was so unhealthy people assumed I was American was what my mother would have loved referring to as “a difficult pill to swallow” with that wry and barely concealed joy she had when she sensed you felt pathetic.
Bleak, overall. Profoundly bleak.
But there was joy to be found, a kind that lurched through my chest, all in response to a glimpse of white marble cresting over a patch of trees. In that instant, I was swept by a breath of wind and spared a thought for Aeolus who seemed to spur me on as he once did Odysseus.
Having reached the peak, happiness swelled within my very bones as I looked at the stones whose pictures and illustrations I had so lovingly poured over in the first term of my degree, almost as if they were an extension of me until, through the years, my research narrowed and settled into the niche terrains I mentally occupied. For a glorious moment I felt superior to every other insignificant person lingering around this beauty — none of them knew her as I did, it was almost as if the parthenon and I shared a secret they could only wish to partake in.
Then, just as suddenly as it had swelled within me, joy dissipated and was replaced by that familiar hollowness. I seeped back into my skin and felt a sense of mediocrity settle. There was no secret between us, I was just a sycophant, a toady tourist.
When I wrote about this structure it was electrified by a sense of infinite potential: my writing was a landscape within which there was no real parthenon but purely my idea of it, one that could be shifted and melded based on whim. Yet here it stood, obnoxiously solid. Not a potentiality, but a reality that predated me so impressively and violently that it was suddenly undeniably evident that I was, in fact, the inferior one here, not the other tourists. I had committed my life to the study of these indifferent structures, ones that would continue to exist without me and my interest.
I chose to spin away from it, unable to gaze at it any longer, only to be faced by the rest of the Athenian skyline, the expanse of a city dotted by other indifferent structures.
Later, after a taxi driver had sniffed out my naivety and eagerly overcharged me, I tried to order food, testing out my Greek once more. Whether the server was even aware of my attempts I do not know, he instantly responded in English and I felt myself sinking lower into my stomach. This permanent edge of nausea settled and accompanied me everywhere, until night had thoroughly fallen and I found myself sitting on the lip of a fountain.
I held a book open but only stared at the pages, my vision blurred by a haze of pathetic tears. Incidentally, my phone vibrated with a message from my mother, something I was entirely unable to face so simply ignored.
Someone else joined me on the fountain and from the edge of my vision I quickly discerned they were a fellow tourist. Something about the practicality of their clothing made it obvious: shoes with rubber soles that seemed a little too eager for a hike, a khaki shirt and a backpack adorned by an excessive amount of zips. All this indicated a preparation that was distant and unaware of this city as a contemporary metropolis. Once my scorn had dissipated I turned back to my book and glanced at my own shoes, shoes with rubber soles that were eager for a hike. As I unhappily undid one of the several zips on my backpack and forced my book back in, this other tourist spoke.
It is difficult to explain, but there is a surprising community found in occupying the margins of a vibrant city that happy to exist without you. This other tourist and I were able to understand each other faster than strangers should and although my sadness did not subside vastly, it was briefly clouded by something different.
By this I mean to say: reader, I fucked him.
The next day, sunshine poured upon Epidaurus’ theatre, but the temperature was tolerable and my shirt (100% linen) breathed with me. Two pairs of shoes with eager rubber soles trod the ground around the theatre. There wasn’t necessarily an overwhelming respite in having a companion to explore with (or “gallivant”, a word he used fervently and I ignored with equal fervour) but it was pleasant to watch him trek up the fifty-five rows of seats whilst I lingered on the stage.
Once he had reached the top, he turned to face me and swung his arms out, inviting whatever demonstration of acoustics I was going to provide. When his arms fell back they only hit against two of the seven pockets that adorned his sensible, bulky shorts. For a moment, I was speechless. I thought of my mother and the difficult pills she loved to watch me swallow. These pills were a heavy dose of regret and shame.
He was waiting for me to speak, so I blurted a line from Antigone, the first that came to mind: Ερως ανίκατε μάχαν, love conquers all.
He wasn’t a classicist and this was both a blessing and curse: a blessing because he could not understand what I had just inadvertently said, but a curse because he was not impressed by my ability to recite ancient Greek theatrical text.
Once he had descended to the stage he insisted we swap and I hike up to the summit of the seats so he got to play the actor and I the spectator. There was mild resistance on my behalf but eventually I conceded and so I found myself elevated, gently sticky and covered in dust once more.
From my perch I gazed down at the stage and unfocused my vision so there was nothing but a haze of people freckled across the auditorium. For a moment I was able to convince myself that time could fold like fabric, and briefly I inhabited every second this theatre had and ever would see. In that time I was without myself; blissful, with sunshine raining upon me.
Then the world came back into focus at the prompting of the words “testing… testing…” and I watched my companion mime holding a microphone and tapping it. “One, two, one, two, can you hear me?”
I shoved my hand into the air and gave a thumbs up, a gesture I swore I would never repeat.
But this couldn’t quite dampen the momentary peace I had grasped and so I lingered in it, a self-contained moment swallowed by itself. From within it, I sensed that my future as a classicist became worthwhile again, history’s indifference to me would be surmounted by my love for it.
Briefly, I lingered and gazed down, out, over the sea of seats with sweat percolating on my brow.
I pulled up the collar of my shirt to wipe my forehead and began my descent down fifty-five rows of seats. It was a reassuring movement, neither sitting nor standing, just moving downwards. It was equally reassuring to think that no one cared about my strange companion, nor the fact that I had just made peace with my own insignificance. There would be sunshine nonetheless, all I had to do was walk.
Photo courtesy of Barbora Krušpánová.
The rest of the stories in qmunicreate #11 can be found here.