The word “seedy” seems to have been created for a special kind of hotel, and the one in Athens definitely was one of them. For Raúl it was one more of a long series spanning many years, both before and after, and different countries, for his well-heeled cousin Ezequiel, a novelty, a concession to the spirit of the trip, an adventure of youth, a rite of passage like the European backpacking tour – “oh, I stayed in this very seedy hotel once, in Athens, with my crazy cousin Rulo”, a story for polite company at NYU or Harvard.
– So you’re not coming back then.
– Nah, Eze, I’m not.
– Classes start in March…
– Yeah, I know. I’ll take the year off.
– Wow… yeah, not saying it’s not great, it is, dude… you’re broke though. How are you going to…?
– I am, yeah. I’ll figure out something, no worries.
This is the time that Rulo should have asked his wealthy cousin for a loan, only he didn’t. He could never do that kind of thing, would rather live on oranges and bum cigarettes. Ezequiel didn’t offer, of course, even though he was the one with the nice collection of credit cards and the fat bank account, even at his young age, courtesy of Dad.
They were drinking Amstels at the hotel bar, which was as seedy as the hotel itself. It was their last night together. Ezequiel was flying to Paris tomorrow, and then back to South America. Rulo wasn’t sure what tomorrow would bring. A great feeling, that. They had just met this fellow, Xavier, at the seedy hotel the other night, and now he popped out of nowhere and sat at the bar, raising a finger for an Amstel.
– Oh hey, it’s the Venezuelan guys… Whassup…
– Close enough. How’s the rail line work?
– Sucks balls, dude. All these other hawkers, they let them get on the train one station down, so they have all this time to work the crowd, right…
Xavier at 22: hat facing the wrong way, wild blond hair poking out of it at odd angles, expressive and intense like a Latino despite his blue eyes and Canadian and Danish passports, Salvation Army shirt and cargo shorts despite the intense cold in Athens, he went into this wild rant about the hardships of trying to make a living getting fellow travelers to check into the roach hotel. A look was enough for Rulo, who was a couple of years older, to determine that the fellow was as broke as he was, and to decide that this guy was at the very least as wild as him, I mean you dived into his conversation and got out and then dived in again and the thing never stopped, never slowed down for a second, a gazillion new ideas were incorporated into it from one second to the next. X was on fire, and Rulo liked that.
So he listened to his train of thought, interjecting the odd ‘right’ and ‘yeah’ and ‘I see’, until at some point X was talking about hunting for mushrooms last summer. How he got there from talking about his work on the trains coming into Athens from the Pireas port is a mystery, but stops were made about the Christiania district in Copenhagen, native peoples of the West Coast of Canada, proper dugout canoe techniques, tribal tattoos, William Burroughs, altered states of mind in literature, “this older woman who wants me to spend the night with her in room 214”, the not-so-good retsina-and-souvlaki joints near Plaka and how the working-class ones around the train station are much better, how he hates to see a Wendy’s there, how he thought Athens would be warmer and he’s broke and hating it, how he enjoyed last summer looking for mushrooms with his now-lost girlfriend, “the ones that grow on cow dung, you know, on cow poop after the rains”.
– Psylocibe Cubensis, Rulo said.
X stopped in his tracks for a second, looking at Rulo. Ezequiel had become invisible, not having the slightest clue about most of the issues at hand, and he would soon be fading away from the story anyway, but Rulo, X thought, Rulo had potential, Rulo was a cool cat…
– Right on, dude, psylocibes is exactly right, now a lot of fools go looking for Amanitas, “blood of Thor” and they are the ones that end up in the news stories, poisoned, because those things are dangerous, I mean there’s all these other ‘shrooms that look just like them and will get you killed…
– Oh, I agree, stay away from Amanita Muscarias, too difficult to spot correctly…
– Well, I’ll better be packing now, Ezequiel said, and was totally ignored. He finished his beer and walked to his room, while Rulo and X continued their conversation. The night became interesting. Other travelers received visits from the newly acquainted friends. Conversations were had with Albanian immigrants in some rooms, faded prostitutes in others, American backpacker girls, blonde and wholesome, in yet a different floor. A visit was made to the roof of the hotel, with some forgotten characters, and a hash joint was done the honors there, amid much shivering, looking at the Parthenon, lighted at night and magnificent.
By the end of the night, Xavier and Rulo knew they would be friends for life, and they had further decided that they’d had enough of Europe, and that they would burn their very last travelers’ checks buying ferry tickets to go and sign up as volunteers in Israel: on to Christiansands!
(Many years later, Lily asked Rulo, why the hell do you call Israel Christiansands? Rulo went into a long and complicated explanation about Jerusalem, the Crusades, and whatnot, but finally had to admit that when he finished his sailor job in Patagonia, still very much struck by his experience in the Middle East, and came back to BA flush with cash, he went straight into a fancy record store that had all the newest records, imported, in Galeria Jardin off Florida St, and spent an insane amount of his newly earned money buying all the latest records just arrived from the UK, and one of them had this song in it that caused a deep impression in him. The album was ‘Pre-Millenium Tension’, by Tricky, and the song went something like “Wrote her a letter/ Asking questions/ Baby steps and sections/ I mean we’ll take it slow/ I really don’t know/ When you talk/ You make me cringe/ Silver me to the messenger/ Let her go don’t question her/ I met a Christian in Christiansands/ And a devil in Helsinki/ You and me, what does that mean?/ Always, what does that mean?/ Forever, what does that mean?/ It means we’ll manage/ I’ll master your language” – now, Rulo couldn’t point out exactly what in the song was so special to him, and every time Lily pressed him to explain to her if she was the Christian or the Devil, he would just half-close his eyes in his trademark expression, and cryptically say that, in his mind, Edinburgh and Helsinki were a lot alike, although he hadn’t been to either one).
The sun finally came out as X and Rulo were waiting to board the ferry. They pooled their few remaining drachmae to buy a bag of oranges, some olives and a couple loaves of bread from street vendors. They had the cheapest tickets, the trip would be three days, stopping at the islands of Rhodes and Cyprus, and then they would be in a different continent. When they were finally allowed to get on board, they found a suitable spot on the deck, and made their gypsy camp there. Sitting on their rucksacks and backpacks, rolling cigarettes and peeling oranges with their Swiss Army knives, they saw Greece, and Europe, fade from sight, sharing their stories of Vancouver and Nanaimo, Buenos Aires and Mexico DF, Copenhagen and Santiago de Chile.
There’s a name for that ferry leaving the Pireas port behind, for those young guys peeling oranges, laughing and looking at the Mediterranean, getting ready to bundle up for the night, as they were too broke to buy seats inside and had to make do with spots on the deck and their sleeping bags. It’s called happiness, and a lot of folks go through life without ever experiencing it.
The port of Haifa, blinding light, customs stamping their passports after a couple cursory questions, the Egged bus to Tel Aviv, the sun, the heat, finally no more snow and rain and misery like in Athens, laughs, flirting with some Danish backpacker girls, the falafel stands, the sullen Arabs, the Hasidim clad in black, the kibbutz placement office, a couple openings at the Young Pioneers, the bus station again, running on fumes, so tired, back on the bus as the first day in the Promised Land comes to a close, get there, sign up, this is your living quarters for the next few months, painted bright red outside with a sink and a couple beds, crash, crash, crash…