My father returned to Greece when he retired from business at the age of sixty. Vasilia, the women he married twelve years earlier, never liked living in the US. She thought it was a barbaric country and convinced him to move abroad.
They spent summers on Ikaria, the island in the Eastern Aegean where both of them were born, and winters in their spacious one-bedroom condominium in Exarhia, a couple of blocks from the university, in the heart of Athens.
The living room windows at the front of the building overlooked Akadimia Panepistimio to the right, Agios Nikolaos church across the street and the Hilton Hotel in the distance. While I was visiting him in 1966 my father mentioned owning a small apartment near the hotel but it didn’t occur to me then that I would inherit it one day.
I left New York in the spring to live in Paris, hoping to find work and settle in France indefinitely. I initially found a room in a small hotel on Ile St-Louis before moving to another hotel on the left bank facing the front of Nôtre Dame. I turned down a low-paying temporary job I was offered in the warehouse of Hachette, the largest publisher in France, because my friend Dorothy invited me to be her partner in the American ice cream parlor she planned to open. When she left for New York to raise capital for the new venture, I decided to hitch to Athens to see my father, who I hadn’t seen since his retirement five years before.
I left some of my belongings with Dorothy’s roommate, Spooky, before taking the Metro to the edge of the city, hitching south toward Lyon and then east to the Italian border. I took a train through a tunnel in the Alps and walked past the unattended sentry post into Italy. Then hitched from Torino to Firenze, stopping for a day to see the wonderful Renaissance art at the Uffizi and the statue of Michelangelo’s David at the Academia before going on to Roma.
I arrived in the Italian capital late at night and found a room in a pensione near the train station. I had no appetite that first hot July day in Roma and took an afternoon nap before going out again to explore the city.
By evening I was famished, found a seat outside a ristorante, within view of an ancient column brought there from Northern Africa, and ordered tortellini en brodo as the first course of my dinner. I went to the Coliseum the next day, saw the nearby ruins and the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican before continuing south.
From Napoli I traveled east to Matera and then south to Bari to board the overnight ferry crossing the southern Adriatic to Greece. As the island of Kerkyra came to view in the shimmering morning light, I decided to stop over for a day before continuing to the mainland, curious to see the place where both Gerald and Lawrence Durrell lived and wrote about. I soon found a room in a private home and left my luggage there before setting out to explore the immediate area.
I walked past the royal garden, green and lush, obviously well taken care of, and a public park that was dry and dusty, the vegetation barely surviving the summer heat. It seemed unfair to me that a park for the entire population shouldn’t be as well maintained as a garden for the royal family.
Eventually I came to what I thought was a public swimming pool, but realized later was more likely a private club. As I lay in the sun, after taking a swim, I overheard the conversation of two young men nearby. To me they sounded like a couple of spoiled rich kids, not the kind of people I was interested in meeting.
I went back to where I was staying to take a shower before going out to eat. I found a large, busy taverna on the main square and sat at a table inside. The waiters and busboys rushed in and out. The men around me were impatient to be served. They vied for attention, demanded their orders be taken immediately, complained the food was not served quickly enough and were anxious to get the bill so they could leave. I wasn’t in a hurry and enjoyed observing what was happening around me.
During dinner I noticed I was being watched by a man at a table in a far corner of the taverna. Handsome, dark-haired, perhaps a bit older than I was. Maybe in his mid-thirties. He continued to stare at me and I stared back at him. I was definitely interested in meeting.
I was nearly finished with dinner but lingered so I could leave when he did. I remained seated even after the dishes were cleared from my table. He was still eating so I decided to wait for him outside.
It took longer than I expected for him to emerge from the taverna and he didn’t see me waiting a discreet distance from the entrance. He walked along a street of shops closed for the night and I followed behind him. When he stopped, I did the same. The space between us soon narrowed. He stopped again and looked into a store window. I stood next to him but he didn’t turn toward me or speak. He started walking again, taking his time and I walked behind him.
I began to have doubts. The most I expected was a one-night stand. It didn’t cross my mind that he might be afraid of compromising his reputation in the town if someone he knew realized what was going on. After about twenty minutes of aimless strolling I tired of the pursuit and returned to the place where I was staying.
The following morning I boarded the ferry to Igoumenitsa. As soon as the boat dropped anchor and the gate was open I hurried some distance ahead of the exiting vehicles and stood by the side of the road signaling I was interested in a ride. However, none of the cars, vans or trucks stopped for me.
Disappointed, I picked up my bag and began walking. I was determined to continue on foot if need be. I trudged along a quiet, dusty road in the hot sun. Another two or three vehicles passed by. My luggage was heavy. I stopped several times and changed hands. I’m not sure how long I walked or how much distance I covered.
My initial enthusiasm was waning and I was hungry. When I saw a small rustic structure ahead with a couple of tables and chairs outside, I asked what food was available and sat down to wait for my lunch to be served. It was a simple and satisfying meal.
Later that afternoon the driver of a truck stopped to pick me up. He drove me some distance before dropping me off at the doorstep of an economical hotel just before nightfall. The concrete walls of the room I was shown were dark blue. They glistened and were sticky. The odor of paint fumes lingered.
I got only one other ride during the two days I tried hitching across Greece. The driver of the car was a young man about my age, accompanied by his father in the passenger seat. The older man complained a lot. I was sure he wouldn’t have stopped to pick me up if he were behind the wheel.
I sat in the back seat looking out at the countryside. I responded to questions or remarks the driver directed to me but remained silent otherwise, not wanting to annoy his father.
On the third day I gave up hitching and boarded a bus to take me the rest of the way. I noticed a sign for Delphi but ignored it, eager to reach my final destination. I arrived in Athens late in the afternoon and headed immediately to my father’s apartment on Asklepiou.