The Message T-Shirts Of Athens

I spend 36 hours getting to Athens, and that isn’t my final destination.

The first flight goes relatively well. I exit at London Gatwick at 6:25 AM, having had little sleep due to two chatty Aussie women behind me, young lovers who spent the whole night drinking vodka cocktails and talking and laughing, as if we wouldn’t arrive as we do, in the early morning. Even the earplugs don’t block them out. Dazed by lack of sleep, I struggle to get my bearings in Gatwick, to get online, to get phone service, to attend to some basic details. My flight to Athens isn’t going to arrive in time for the ferry to Sifnos. Frustrated, I arrange to spend the night at the Hotel Cecil, a beautiful small hotel on Athinas, in the Monastriki neighborhood. Then I settle in and have a breakfast, and wait to check in for my flight.

I notice vending machines full of novels and think of how at the Wesleyan conference, someone suggested the novel might be dead, again.

The Novel and God are always being declared dead. But they don’t seem to care. Also, vending machines for novels is kind of brilliant.

The flight to Athens, because boarding is delayed, seems to take a week. We land, I deboard, and head to the luggage claim, where I find what appears to be a regiment of Greek soldiers or more, all very young, shockingly handsome and shouting their conversations at each other, like some kind of happy argument. They emit a radiant force, and my group of passengers walks by shyly, a little in awe.

On the metro, everyone seems to have a message t-shirt. Some message t-shirts I see as I arrive in Athens on the subway from the airport:

  • I Fuck On The First Date
  • Got Milk
  • Will Work For Beer
  • Watch This Space

These are all worn by Greeks. By the time I get to Piraeus, where I’m to get on a ferry for Sifnos, I decide to try and find obscene Greek message tees.

I never do.

I’m not good at taking vacations, but I’m trying to get better at it. Partly it’s because as a writer the part of time when you don’t work is never very clear. I get ideas at 11PM as much as I do at 11AM, and if you ignore those ideas, they don’t come back. So you learn eventually to just go and write, even if it isn’t your “writing time”. It’s a little like being a doctor on call, but all the time. Add to that the teaching of writing, and it’s easy to just live in a blur of constant tasks. But I’m burned out, and I know it. I need to switch off.

In Piraeus, at the gate for my boat, a man walks by, his hands full of sunglasses. Are you selling those, I ask, as if he might just be walking by with thirty pairs of glasses. Yeah, he says, and fans them out at me. He has cheap Rayban knockoff black aviators, with insistent fake logos in all the wrong places. They make me think of something I heard recently about liars, about how one way to tell a lie is in the extensive detail. I buy the lying glasses and head off to get a good hat, which I find across the street. After, at the cash machine, an old woman stands ahead of me, seeming to struggle mightily with the machine. I set my bags down, as I wait, and as I do, see that she’s holding about ten cards, all clearly stolen, and her problem is that she’s trying to get in by guessing their pin numbers. She’s having no luck. I wonder if there was one time it ever worked, and if this is why she’s doing it this way, which seems like a kind of modern Greek Sisyphean task. She notices me noticing her, and runs off.

I need to email my friends, to tell them I’m coming, as I’m late by one day due to plane delays, and spend a half hour getting directions to an internet cafe from strangers that turn out to be not quite right. I get the email sent, and then run for the ferry. I install myself on the deck near the bar and decide it is time to just begin the vacation, een though I’m not there yet. So I buy beers in twos, so I don’t have to keep getting up, the first one cold and the second one, less so, with this method, but it works okay. I finish reading Brideshead Revisited, which becomes, at the end, one of my favorite novels, and then read the second volume of the graphic novel Ordinary Victories, just out in translation. All around me, tourists nap on deck, sun themselves, eat ham and cheese sandwiches and smoke copiously. Greeks smoke more than Koreans, it seems to me–which is to say, a lot. I meet a friendly Greek couple near me and we begin talking. They ask me where I’m from, and I tell them, and they laugh.

We thought you were Belgian, the young man says.

Why, I say.

Because you were quiet, drank beer and read comics the whole way.

This cheers me up incredibly.

He is a gardener, though it seems he can’t quite explain what he does–something to do with medicinal plants. She is a social worker, working with refugees seeking asylum in Greece. The sky gets dark, and we begin buying rounds of beers, and as we pass islands, they tell me about them, talking about them a little like the myths were real. That’s the island where the giants mined iron, they say. It looks big enough, I say. They are headed to the island Apollo made for Jason and the Argonauts to rest out a storm, after capturing the Golden Fleece. By the time I get to Sifnos, the sky is almost black, the water and sky indistinguishable.

Sifnos is not as famous, my friends say. The island had gold and silver mines, but sent plate tribute one year to the Temple of Apollo, and out of rage, the god flooded the mines.

I think of Apollo, biting the tribute to see if it is solid gold.

As the boat approaches the harbor of Kamares, the lights of the disco flash, like the burning mouth of the cliff, and I get off the boat, saying goodbye to my new friends. The friends waiting for me hug me, as I run off the boat, all of us shouting each other’s names.


  1. Envy ensues. The Greek bf I had (for 9 years) never quite got around to the promised trip to his parents’ homeland.

    Chill out, you hopped-up Belgian. But keep in touch.

  2. that’s awesome. I’m in belgium and people do drink a lot of beer and read a lot of comics. I’m not so sure they’re quiet, though.

    have a great vacation!

  3. Thanks, everybody. So far it’s been so much better and more fun than I imagined. I’ll be coming to Greece for a long time. Sifnos is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been, and everyone here is very friendly.

  4. Hallo Alexander!!!

    I am Dina from the “friendly Greek couple” you met on boat Romilda on your way to Sifnos. It was such a nice surprise reading about our meeting in your blog! We don’ t have blogs but we did almost the same thing, we talked to our friends about you and you allready have fans in Greece trying to locate your book in english bookstores.
    I hope you had a great time in Sifnos and good memories bring you back in Greece again. We had a great time in Anafi but time passed by very quickly.
    Back in my routine i try to keep the aegean rythme in my everyday life : walk slow, talk slow, think slow…or ever better don’ think at all…

    Lot of love from
    Dina from Athens
    Thanasi from Salonica

    p.s. Forgive me for breaking bones of your language..

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