Updated: May 18, 2022
So we walked.
An hour in, Patrick veered toward a store-front, to avoid colliding with an older woman dressed in black. She plunged forward with no intention to make room on the sidewalk. And in trying not to crash into her, Patrick’s head impacted a stucco outcropping. He yelped, and soon I could see a trickle of blood meandering in front of his ear. He held his hand over the source.
“Oh no! Does it hurt bad?” I asked. His cloud of curly hair made the wound hard to see.
He nodded, then shook his head. “Not too much.” But there was blood, and his facial expression, both excellent communicators.
I said, “We need a regular green cross.”
“Right. I would feel better with a dab of alcohol on it.”
At the next pharmacy, staff greeted us warmly, if surprised to see the likes of us there in January. They said something in Greek. We all stood, blinking. Patrick stood, bleeding. I pointed at the blood.
“Palacolore, do you have alcohol? Antiseptic?” I asked. These were, what, Arabic- and Latinate- words?
The staff stood still. I could summon no fraternity Greek to translate alcohol or antiseptic. “Show them your cut,” I said to Patrick.
He lifted his hand and tried to spread his hair away from the wound.
The staff nodded, said a few words to each other, started to rummage. Bottles of various fluids of different colors landed on the countertop. One looked like what we understood to be antiseptic.
Why were the words so elusive? I only knew “al-” had Arabic origin (algebra, alchemy, alcohol). I tried, “Is one of these ‘hydrogen peroxide’?” Again, no reaction. I had not learned enough languages.
Patrick and I shrugged at each other, then pointed at the same bottle. I made a “little bit” sign with my thumb and forefinger.
Outside on a low wall down the street, I applied a soaked tissue from my pocket against the wound on Patrick’s head. He said he felt fine. I could see the cut was not very deep. (He told me later that my warm, full-frontal proximity had given him a chubby.)
En daxi, off again to sell our blood!
At one point we could see olive trees in a sizeable orchard. Maybe not ripe yet, but downright thrilling. (When we’d left London on the 3-day bus to Athens, snow covered the ground.) We walked past an orange grove, hunkered down until warmer months. On through endless town streets, gesturing with our hands, then pointing toward wherever a person pointed.
Finally, we arrived at a large building, clearly a hospital. With an obvious Emergency entrance and strobe-lit vehicle. Success!
“Makes it all worth it,” Patrick said, tapping his vaguely sanitized head. Inside, we found staff with open facial expressions, eyebrows curious, pupils scanning for our injuries.
We smiled and nodded. Then asked about the blood-selling.
They all stared at us.
“English, palacolore?” I added a vague gesture around the space, anybody ‘round these parts?
Someone ran away down a hall.
A minute later that person returned, a doctor in tow. I recognized his doctorly demeanor and status, from several years of work in a children’s hospital. Also from his long white coat.
He, too, scanned us from head to toe, walking wounded. “May I help you today?” he asked. His English had an accent, but not much of one.
Ahhh. Here we go. We had come so far, on foot! And (I thought to myself) Patrick and I had heard so little of our shared language, for many days.
The other night in the menu-kitchen, the cook held up a spoon of some wonderfully meaty stew near my mouth. I slurped, then pointed without hesitation. She nodded, happy, and said something like ‘kalmar’. Patrick and I had walked over from our hostel with a Canadian couple – also happy even for winter-Mediterranean temps -- and during dinner the guy asked me, “How’s your squid?”
My spoon stopped mid-air. “This isn’t squid.” (Ew, I thought.) “It’s kalmar.”
They all laughed, of course. You understand, already. The cook was saying calamari, octopus, in a way she thought I would understand. Yet, words with tentacles notwithstanding, that stew was delicious. At that point in my life, I had never eaten “calamari,” deep-fried or stew-chunked or anywise. (Now, I doubt I’ll ever want to eat this creature again, after watching “My Octopus Teacher.”)
Anyway, yes, good doctor, why were we standing there?
He understood us only after we repeated our English words a few times. The man’s face clouded and scudded, from curiosity to surprise to please-let-me-not-bust-out-laughing.
“No, I’m afraid we cannot buy your blood. You can give, if you like, but we cannot pay for this.”
Of course not. What a ridiculous notion. What a presumption, from what they used to call ‘first-world’ status.
I had donated pints of my blood during high-school and college. Maybe Patrick had, too.
But so many people had told us, “if you ever need money in Greece,” it was easy to do this very ridiculous thing.
Was it all some hitchhiking backpacker’s myth, so much half-man-half-bull-from-Mount-Olympus? Why would fellow travelers have told us that, earnestly?
Had this been a practice a generation before us – when hippies crowded Grecian isles -- but now become a repeated fiction? A mythical story like Icarus and his melting wings?
Had we, coming from rich white countries, just now, flown too close to the sun of ‘needing money’? As if going a week without a hot shower were a hardship. As if going a day or more without food were unusual. As if belonging to a community, and holding generous impulses, were ‘foreign’ to us.
I can still see the hospital staff surrounding us, after the doctor turned around and explained to them our quest. I can still hear the thoughts on their faces: Wow, greedy-ass Gringos, Yanks, Amerikanoi (poor Patrick presumed Yank and lumped in with me, per the voice in my head). Sell your blood to us?
(As I remember in Omicron-variant 2022, and still-mask-mandatory Canada, I’m briefly distracted by the visual: “No one’s wearing a mask -- in an Emergency Room.”)
We were beyond embarrassed. Patrick and I nodded. “Thanks.” I added, “eff harishto” from my napkin translations, wondering how badly I pronounced it.
We greedy-ass gringos felt too confused even to stay and donate a pint.
(Maybe a good thing. The American Red Cross has refused to take my donated blood ever since that long adventure. I’d stayed in the U.K. and continent for too long, in the 1980s. The fear? Mad Cow Disease, which has a very long incubation period in the blood. What would have made that Cretan adventure even worse? If I had donated a pint that turned out to give unsuspecting and untold Cretan patients an infectious disease that chewed holes in their brains.)
Patrick and I slunk outside past the ambulance, its roof still strobing. “Well that was peculiar,” he said.
“Very.” I realized then I’d been looking forward to sitting down, more than my blood’s racking up drachmas. We’d walked maybe 7-8 miles by then? Only to turn right around for the same, in reverse. “So all the people who said, ‘you can always sell y--?”
“I know.” Patrick shook his head.
I could tell he wanted a cigarette. Not having had a smoking habit to quit, I knew I couldn’t imagine the physiology of that craving. Plus, we were surely dehydrated.
Maybe we should have pivoted, back in the ER, saying “haha – joking! Sell our blood, of course not. But, busy, lifesaving people, could you spare a little paper cup of tap water, if you have a spare moment? Also, bum a cig, anyone?”
For a while, we just trudged along and listened to the sound of our worn shoes on gravel. We turned at each landmark we’d passed earlier. The way back, as usual, seemed so obvious, compared to the way toward anywhere new.
“I miss my guitar.”
“I miss surfing.”
I knew he did. He talked about surfing at his coastal home of Grahamstown, and a place called Port Elizabeth. I imagined that he and the ocean communicated, through the Rosetta Stone of a board.
As we plodded home, still alive after our waxed-wings failed, I thought about Apartheid. This was still an overt system where Patrick lived. Nelson Mandela was still imprisoned, for life.
Patrick told me he didn’t, personally, have the courage to fight the powers that be, in Jo’burg. Some of his friends (also White) were now jailed, or under house arrest with their phones tapped, for speaking out and taking action against that “obscene” system. Yet their restrictions were “easy” compared to what any “colored” person experienced.
He wasn’t sure he could stay and work in a place where just for showing up, with his fair skin? Meant a comfortable life, while so many others lived in dire poverty, in literal metal shacks, with no hope of basic comforts, decent education, healthcare, much less leisure. And P.M./President Botha was entrenched, unequivocal, uninterested in talking about change. Patrick thought a revolution would have to happen, for things ever to change in South Africa. He expected things to get very bloody at home, in the years ahead.
This all seemed ‘foreign’ to me, having been raised in a mythical land of freedom and opportunity. Where it was at least ‘okay’ to have a Black uncle, and boyfriend, and friends, classmates, coworkers, neighbors. Okay, even expected, to rail against the horrors of Apartheid. When I went to college, Apartheid and Nuclear Danger were the primary sources of campus protest.
Over 30 years later, I have only recently begun to appreciate how cloaked, how insidious, how tarred-and-feathered-and-waxed American systems of our same 20th-century have been, around racial inequity. My country’s discriminatory methods were just much less transparent than Patrick’s.
Only last year, I was reminded that Black GIs in World War II did NOT have access to the benefits of the “GI Bill.” Only a few years ago, I learned about the banking practice of “red-lining,” when U.S. mortgage-lenders denied loans to Black citizens of equivalent financial means – and how amazing to reach those means, with so much less opportunity – thus rendering their chances of any home-equity, of passing down generational wealth, a joke.
What country was I born into myself, those many decades ago, when I had felt part of a “free” and “fair” culture, compared to Patrick’s?
Looking back, both Patrick and I had taken a long walk in a single day with similar, privileged assumptions.
Like? Well, maybe ‘those Cretan folks are so, what, 2nd- or 3rd-world, they need to buy our blood?’ Something like that, if I’m honest enough, all these years later.
Just past the orange grove, my companion, a White South African of U.K. citizenship without student debt, and unearned, wealthy prospects asked, “Hungry?”
I, a White U.S.ian of invisible financial stress plus adverse-childhood-experiences yet still White with hopeful prospects, answered yes. “And thirsty.”
Many of the little groceries we’d passed on the way were now closed for the Greek equivalent of afternoon siesta. So maybe another day without food, as young travelers. Water would be lovely, but. We could tolerate much.
When we came upon the olive orchard again, we decided to cross right through it, even though the ground looked wettened with dew, or irrigation. We were just done with that failed-ass day.
The olive fruits were visible on the lovely silvery-green trees, but they were hard as rocks. (Patrick plucked a few down.) We tried to bite into them, but they would not be bitten. At that point, we noticed a human, who shouted at us and started running our way.
We booked our asses out of there. And we laughed out loud, grateful not to understand his Grecian cuss words. Come ‘n get us, we young and stupid people laughed, we who never had to worry about jail-time for ‘innocent’ or ‘curious’ shenanigans, with our Whiteness testifying.
The afternoon was aging. We could not deny that our adult selves beckoned from beyond (as responsible adults on our respective continents, hemispheres and seasons, with keen, sensory memories, but, without fully appreciating our innate advantages of genetic quirk).
The olives were not mature, and we were impatient, hungry and thirsty.
Not ten minutes later, Patrick pointed to a small grocery/cigarette store with an open door.
Jackpot. He found his Ritter Sport chocolate, did not glance at the cigarettes. We looked over bottled beverages on a shelf. Fanta (grape, orange), neither of us too keen. No water at all, strangely, to us.
Patrick seized a soda-sized glass bottle of something with both Greek letters and English. “Retsina,” he pronounced. I shrugged.
“It’s like their cheap wine,” he said. “Do we try it?”
I did not drink alcohol at all through high-school or college. Enough worrisome genetic history that I wasn’t sure I could drink at all. So, I didn’t drink at all.
In the year since I’d graduated from college, I had tried one mixed-drink, made for me by a bartender/friend Tom. He called it a “TKO. You’ll like it, tastes like chocolate-mint ice-cream.”
I hesitated. “Technical Knock-out? Sounds pretty strong.”
Tom laughed. “I didn’t think you’d know what that meant. Okay, just take a sip or two. I don’t wanna corrupt you.”
It was delish. And very strong. I took a sip or two while he watched out of one eye, serving others. He was a beautiful man. I trusted him, my most secretive crush, a primary caregiver for a fellow college gymnast, who’d become paralyzed in a freak training accident. Tom swam, irregularly, in the college aquatic center where I lifeguarded, and we chatted from time to time. Anyway, he was trustable. I couldn’t finish the TKO, and felt no pressure to finish.
I’d also had a glass of red wine in London, around my birthday in December. I’d met some Egyptians and the cousin had a small party for me in his flat in Sloane Square. His Filipino girlfriend, a flight attendant, made us “hamburger -- from Harrod’s,” he made a point of saying. No joke, this guy’s garage was his wine cave, and his driver parked somewhere else. The man’s apartment walls held original Pisarros and a small Monet, and fire-blankets mounted in-between. I sat there, a fish incredibly out-of-water, in my sweatshirt and sneakers and unmanicured nails. Let’s hope none of us acquired Mad Cow (so far, so good). Anyway, my tolerance for alcohol, weeks later, was almost zero.
Yet. We were so dehydrated, and they didn’t have water. And Patrick had sustained an injury, out of basic courtesy. And other travelers had sold us a bill of bloody goods. And a man had chased us away for being so hungry, our shoes now soggy from wettened orchard grass, which we’d never thought to capture in our fingers and lick, since we were fleeing.
We felt done, the pair of us.
“Why not,” I shrugged, to the Retsina.
We shared the chocolate bar and took turns drinking from the bottle. If you’ve never tried this beverage, the word comes from resin; it’s made from grapes and pine resin. That bottle in Crete held the classic tinge of solvent. “Smells like what I cleaned my paint-brushes with in art class,” I said.
After our first giddy sips, Patrick noticed a floating bit of mystery inside. I checked. A speck as wide as a pencil-eraser and of indeterminate composition. Like a single fluff blown away from a dandelion globe.
Patrick said, “Let’s see who ends up swallowing it. I bet it’ll be you.” He cackled, and took a careful swig. He checked. “Still there!”
I could see it. F&*k.
We walked and checked the bottle and walked and walked the rest of the way home, trying to make the drink last.
We got to talking, as usual, about music. One of Patrick’s Walkman cassettes was Stevie Wonder’s “Hotter Than July.” On the dusty road home, I started dancing and singing Master Blaster Jamming. “We’ll be jammin’ until the break of dawn ...” Patrick didn’t quite loosen up to dance with me, but he sang a bit, and laughed a lot.
He was quite reserved, physically and expressively (outside of our small room). I was, and am, not so reserved. Especially when it comes to music. My body moves, on my behalf. No choice, no worries, no shame, what is shame, dancing-wise?
Thinking back, I’d been humming Joni Mitchell’s song “Carey” since we’d stepped off the ferry from Piraeus. I had sung that song – and dozens of Joni songs -- dozens of times, in the acoustic backroom where I played during college. I knew Joni had written “Carey” about her time on Crete, 20 years earlier?
“The wind is in from Africa, last night, I couldn’t sleep …” with a bright strumming pace. Joni was the brightest star in my pantheon of female songwriter-singers. Oh I missed pressing my fingertips on Clarence’s strings, to sing out such a song and have someone at a back table fill in the “Carey get out your cane …” and someone almost always did.
Patrick, of British parents and raised in South Africa, had never heard of Joni Mitchell.
This shocked me. Even as I write, in 2022, I need to pause for a moment. Joni helped to make me me.
Patrick talked about a famous French folk singer from Joni’s era in the ‘60s, a singer/songwriter named Françoise Hardy. I, of American-mutt parents in the U.S.A., had never heard of Françoise Hardy.
This shocked Patrick. I felt cheated, somehow, not to be familiar with her. We promised each other to find the other’s goddess, whenever we parted ways and found a good music store, elsewhere.
Right. We knew we were soon to part ways. We were heading in different directions.
We never made it to any of the caves in Crete. The caves for which Crete is so famous, along with the Minos and Minotaur mythology. We failed as explorers as much as blood-sellers. For some reason we’d let our hours, days, weeks, protract into a kind of entropy.
Safe to say we'd settled into hunkering down, if we weren’t walking around the harbor or getting chased by oliviers. I think once, we stayed in our room for two days straight, skipping the $1 dinner. We had our reasons and pleasures. No apologies. Those times in life seem as short-lived as student-loan-payment grace periods.
Parting was always hard, after intense times with a traveler from another part of the world who becomes a true friend, even an intimate, in a matter of weeks. This intensity was, how to say, indescribable: without words or language, or within shared alphabets.
More a labyrinth of sensations, this intensity: from the surface, where breezes and salt air mean something, to the deepest, cellular levels, where the meaning of being human together, on a single, not-so-big planet, speaks to the whole and uncertain Universe, somehow.
In a tiny, tiny, yet altered, way, to the whole Universe.
We had already changed each other.
For any younger folks who might be reading? At that time, fellow travelers could only exchange mailing addresses. Meaning snail mail, across multiple continents, and likely the addresses of our parents, since our lives were so fluctuant. Paper mail on slow boats, with dicey delivery.
In other words, parting ways likely meant a hard-stop in communication, no matter how meaningful the connection had been. (International phone-calls were so exorbitantly expensive then, exchanging phone numbers didn’t even occur to us.)
So these hard-stops felt like deaths, in their ways. Deaths we could see and feel approaching.
We could not have imagined there would someday be “e-mail,” much less “texting” from a flat device we could carry around in a pocket – and/or! -- from which one of us could have pulled up a song by Joni or Françoise right there on a dirt road in Crete, while we tried not to swallow a speck in a small bottle of Retsina.
Patrick and I talked about meeting up in Paris, maybe in April. I think we both knew that would never happen, but we kept up the floating bubble of Paris, out of anticipatory grief, the shock of physical separation from each other’s warm-blooded bodies, and whatever we shared between them, or not.
I sang out Stevie’s, “You might have the cash, but you can’t, cash in your face,” from the song right after Master Blaster. We had only the sympathy, even if we didn’t know it, having faces to cash in.
After I took another small sip of Retsina, we could not find the speck. I stopped still and turned that bottle around so many times, but. Patrick found this the most hilarious part of our entire bloody day’s walk. “You got it! I knew you would get it.”
I tried not to be grossed-out. Okay so I ingested the speck. I told myself the mystery of it held some significance. Some consecrated gift from that exact time and place, that, once absorbed, I would always hold in the labyrinth of my body, along with all other fluids, stories, myths.
I was drunk, possibly, for the very first time.
Today I still feel that floating speck, in there somewhere. Its language, more like music, a swelling feeling. And, without alphabet or verbal intention, communication is so much easier. I hope, tonight, that Patrick has heard of, and heard, Leon Bridges, for starters.
Be right back. I want to try something.
She understood! Right away. Alexa heard me, and she’s playing songs by Françoise Hardy.
These songs were what, 20 years old already, when Patrick talked about them? And now, more than 30 years even older than our time together on a myth-laden Grecian island?
By the time I got to Paris in April, I was wrapped in an even more intense and life-changing and long-lasting relationship, with a man from Perth, Western Australia. Jamie and I wandered into what they used to call a record-store one day. A cassette of Françoise’s hits caught my eye. (I can recognize some of the ones Alexa is playing right now.)
This song here features a strong horn section, a sound like Herb Alpert’s, my parents’ albums of sounds. I can only make out some of Françoise’s words in French.
Not understanding some of the words makes a song much easier to understand.
Not understanding some– or most -- of the words makes for any calmer background. I am writing tonight from Montréal, Québec, where the French of my younger life is out of tune.
Like life itself, a freewheeling improv through a mysterious Universe. Moods, decisions, intentions, collisions, meditations, surprises – the sheer surprise of living in a body, through a life-span, however short or long.
Who can explain that? There are no words to explain that. Our ears are always adjusting, always reaching, always grasping for understanding. And words make those difficult.
Still, I’m one who tries to find words, obviously. But there aren’t any, usually. No words that truly mean the same to any pair of us, at any time. So. Like I try to tell myself? Just.
Feel your moods, Muffin, your decisions, intentions, collisions, meditations, surprises. Inhale. Notice. Feel the awe. The awe is everywhere - including every one of your invisible cells.
Finally a plea, if you can. Please donate your blood? And eff harishto, regardless, for wheeling along this mysterious ride of words with me.
And finally finally, thanks to Sonya D., whose open heart sparked these memories of being chased through an olive grove after trying to sell my blood. Adventure on, sweet friend, in whatever ways that might mean!
Muffin, none the wiser
[photo of sign on beach in South Africa: By Guinnog - Taken and donated by Guinnog., CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3655505]