When Athens isn’t in Greece

Unless you are one of the twenty four thousand students enrolled at Ohio University, in Athens, or you count as one of the twenty thousand inhabitants of the town which is built around the university, chances are you think, like I did, that Athens is in Greece, and not an hour and twenty minutes south-east of Columbus, Ohio. At first sight, the conference call for papers for the African Literature Association got me excited when I saw that it was being held in Athens, thinking I may finally walk in the footsteps of the fathers of western philosophy, and possibly be inspired by pure osmosis. Of course I was soon to realize that the Athens I was headed for was not in Europe but slightly more westward. I admit my knowledge of names and places in the U.S. is a bit limited, since I still have a hard time dealing with the fact that Paris and Norway are in Maine, and not just two places in Europe where I like to eat crêpes sucrées and herring.

Anyway, after I attended the conference, I learned a few lessons on the way.

Lesson number 1: Don’t assume the shuttle service from the airport will actually coordinate with your flights, but shop for flights that will coordinate with the twice-a-day shuttle service.

Lesson number 2: Don’t get too excited when the domestic ticket seems inexpensive, as America is a place (ok, continent) with huge distances, and so when you travel from A to B, there is usually a C involved, and it’s even further away from A than you had initially imagined, and thus B usually turns out not be your final destination. This I learned after packing at 1:15 am the morning of my 5am flight from Connecticut, as I started cold sweating while clicking my way around the web, searching for alternative ways of getting from the airport in Columbus (B) to my final destination at Ohio University (C). Athens Car Service would take me in what seemed like style, though I didn’t care much about the style part (pictures of limos and sleek sedans on their website) since I just wanted to get safely from A to B, which had now become C.

As I arrived in Columbus and emerged from the baggage claim looking hopefully at the various drivers standing around holding little signs with hand scribbled names on them, my cell phone rang. It was Tony the driver, telling me he was just pulling up to the terminal, did I want to go out to the curb and look for him? Sure, I said, and we stayed on the phone while I made my way outside. I’m the tall blond Norwegian woman with a red suitcase, I said, thinking I’d stick out like a sore thumb with my near six foot frame, forgetting that he couldn’t see the “Norwegian” part. He informed me that he was in a non-descript retired cop car, with the search lights still intact. Ah, I said, I’ve always wanted to ride in a cop car. Tony pulled up and came out to greet me, and immediately offered an excuse for the banged up, dirty and decidedly tired looking vehicle, slightly off from the glossy images on their web site.

Lesson number 3: Don’t believe everything you see on the web. While Tony was shoving junk aside in the trunk to make room for my bags, I thought to myself, ok, Miss Snooty, let it go, the guy’s nice, it’s a sunny day, and after all, your plane landed safely. Tony was a doll; a young, friendly, inquisitive fellow, with a fashionably scruffy, grunge-ascribed amount of facial hair, an overgrown goatee, a generous middle and a few tattoos. I wondered briefly about how he perceived me. Did I seem older, foreign; could he tell I was a mother by the way I spoke, that my heart was broken? We talked about a host of different things on the road from Columbus to Athens; family, love, travel, education, religion, to name a few. You can cover a lot in an hour and twenty minutes when you don’t shut down, and find your fellow humans in general a source of endless inspiration and wonder. Each and every one of us has a rich reservoir of thoughts, ideas, feelings, passions and aversions, in short, a walking story to be told. Tony never knew his dad, and told me he was born out of wedlock. Young people still use those terms?- I thought to myself and listened to his narrative of Scottish heritage, dropping out of college twice, girlfriend woes and dreams of one day traveling abroad.

Almost at our destination, he pulled over to a liquor store, for I had asked him to stop if we passed one so I could pick up a bottle of wine for the hotel. I felt like I had been on a road trip of sorts, and for some reason unknown to me, I bought a bottle of gin also, thinking for a brief, impulsive moment I might want to have some booze after my cop car ride. Perhaps the cultural undertones of Appalachia were calling out to me, since I was after all in the neighborhood, just barely west, and I felt happy and almost excited, as I had enjoyed my unpretentious conversation with Tony.

But alas, I never opened the gin bottle during my stay, and that was probably a wise thing, since drinking hard liquor alone in ones hotel room is not necessarily a good thing, generally speaking. So, I was planning on offering the bottle to Tony as a token of appreciation for our pleasant conversation, when he was picking me up at 4 am a few days later, for the airport run in reverse. This time he had talked about bringing the limo, so that the dame (that was me) could travel in style.

While it is not fun getting up before 4 am, I was soon to enjoy a few smiles when I saw the limo pulling up the morning of my departure. At first I thought my early riser’s vision was still adjusting to the darkness but I soon realized that the blurry image of a long, gray, amorphous structure on four wheels with a grating sounding engine and tinted windows was indeed the royal limo of Athens, the pride and joy of the company, the hip–mobile for special runs and special customers. I imagined Quentin Tarantino or the Cohen brothers getting excited about having this kind of prop for one of their films. To my disappointment Tony had overslept, and in his stead was the company dispatcher Terry. Since I felt a little weird offering a guy I didn’t know a bottle of gin before 6 am, I decided to hold on to it, and gave him some cash instead for tips. Whisking past the sleepy small towns of suburban Columbus, nodding off from time to time with Terry’s radio humming low in the background, I appreciated the quiet and the opportunity to check out, while being transported, perhaps not in grand style, but in total comfort and a certain je ne sais quoi of recyclable hipness, and I was just happy that I was going from C back to B, and then eventually to arrive at A, where my kids would be waiting for their mamma’s safe return.

Thinking about the things I learned as I journeyed, the experiences that never make it onto our CV or matter when we interview for a job, I imagined that this Athens too had inspired me by osmosis. This is the stuff of life that is simply called living, another few days filled with seemingly trivial events as we journey on, insignificant happenings perhaps, but that we may share with our children or friends as we create the stories of our lives.  Every day, different and new adventures, through the letters of the alphabet, from A via B to C, until one day we reach the end. Z.

Except in Norway there are three more letters at the end of the alphabet: Æ, Ø and Å, and I think that’s why I want to retire there, so perhaps I will continue to be inspired, by osmosis, meandering the distance of a few more letters, giving way to another story or two.


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