Editor’s Note: Many of our attendees enjoy digging into the literature, stories, art, and music of our TBEX destinations. When Agata told me what a joyous read this book was, and how it made her excited for TBEX Athens, I knew others in our community might find it equally engaging. –Mary Jo
People often ask us travel bloggers how we prepare our journeys. Some of us advise, consult and suggest travel arrangements for a living. Our blogs provide information on how to buy a cheap plane ticket, book accommodation and purchase the equipment necessary to safely travel around the world.
Sure, the technical aspects of a trip are important, no doubt about it, but the real journey is something more than just going to a place and seeing things. It’s all about a life changing experience, isn’t it?
Out of the box
Leaving home early in the morning, catching a taxi, heading towards the airport. Being late, (as usual!) and asking yourself: ‘Why on earth I haven’t got up earlier?’. Check-in, the endless line to a security check, boarding, loooong flight, turbulence, the airport again, a shuttle bus to the city center, getting lost on the main square (oh my, what a shame!), and finally cramped in a 10 bed hostel dormitory.
How familiar are you with this process?
Just before you close your eyes that evening you promise to yourself: “Tomorrow I’ll start exploring the place just like a real traveler, having amazing adventures along the way, getting know a place thoroughly, making new friends…”. Too often the next day brings new technical challenges that gradually turn your travel into a well known sequence of low cost transportation and a hunt for cheap accommodation. It all turns into the chase for affordable places to eat and sleep. Too often, our ambitious attempt to escape banality turn into a blind run right into it.
Before you go
The journey starts long before you leave home and lasts much longer than a trip itself. The journey starts with inspiration and desire to cross unknown lands, to know the others, and to experience something extraordinary.
For me and many other travellers, the best and most rewarding way to start your journey and provide an endless source of inspiration, is to read the best travel books. One life is not enough to experience everything and reading books stretches our perception to the limits.
Past, present and future
The book I took in my hand right after I realized I’ll visit Greece for the first time in my life was 92 Acharnon Street: A Year in Athens by John Lucas, published by Eland.
What a blast! I knew I would love it from the very first page. Not that I share the political views of the author. Nor his excuses for laziness and incompetence of the local bureaucrats. On the contrary! But this book is precious because of its sincerity, integrity and poetry.
Yes, you’ve read it right: poetry! There are poems by the author himself and extensive references to contemporary Greek poets. Why do I consider this so precious? Because one thing that travel has taught me is that every country and every person has something for which you cannot find a proper word or name. Something inscrutable. Something that seems to be at your fingertips but is slipping away the moment you want to speak it out loud. Instead of neglecting it or pretending it does not exist, poetry is just perfect to fill the gap. And so even if I’m not a huge fan of poetry as such, the combination of poetry and prose in this book is just perfect.
The book tells a story of an English literature professor who took a visiting lectureship to Athens in early 1980s. Tough times to visit Greece. But there he was: a stranger among natives, newcomer among eternal statues, new recruit among men who knew what real life was all about. Fisherman, cooks, shopkeepers they were all deeply rooted in that special Greek attitude towards life, fate and politics. Not knowing their language, habits and social etiquette, the author succeeded in surviving the whole year in Athens. And made the year extraordinary.
Cultural shock is a proper description for what this English professor experienced in Athens but what I absolutely love about this book is its artistry in showing a slow but fruitful process of full embrace of the local culture by the author.
A paragraph starting with: “Every Greek wants to own his own shop” tells you a story of a peculiar habit: instead of removing the previous owner’s sign, let’s say ‘electrician’, the new owner simply adds his own, say ‘laundry’. And the story continues: ‘…the shop owner into whose place of business you’ve wrongly stepped sits you down on the chair which is a fixture of all shops, perhaps offers you a glass of ouzo, and then, when he’s sure you’re comfortably settled, goes to make the purchase for you’ (p. 193). And I assure you: when you start reading you will not leave this book until you read the very last page.
The book tells an amazing story derived from first hand experience, shares details of everyday life and draws from Greek literature and poetry. By covering such wide spectrum of issues it gives a profound and intimate knowledge about life in Athens.
When I go to Athens having read this book, I’ll have something precious with me: an insight of someone else who spend a considerable time there, a few of his thoughts that were a result of this journey he made and few pieces of ancient and modern history. I know I will need to open my mind for the food experiments. I will remember that people instead of giving precise information on ‘how and when’ prefer to tell whatever it was they assumed you wanted to hear. I’ll try not to get upset when the bus does not come on time. And above all, there will be “the light: a luminous blue and gold in which everything was held and clarified as though by some achieved alchemical process” (p. 152).
Perhaps there will be a morning rush to be on time at the airport, maybe I’ll get lost on the main square but I know that the moment I’ll step onto Greek soil with Lucas book in my hand my mind, soul and eyes will be ready for this endless delight with what I’ll see. And I am pretty sure that because of this pretravel meeting with Greece this journey will be experienced with all my senses and that the memories brought from there will last long. Having this mindset I’ll simply not allow this journey to turn into a frantic run all over the place.
The author eventually rented a flat on one of the Greek islands and would spend his summers every year there which proves that traveling is a dangerous business. Who knows where it leads you? If travel does not touch deeply your heart and soul there is no reason to even start the journey.
All quotes come from: Lucas, J. (2011). 92 Acharnon Street. A Year in Athens. Eland.
Author Bio: Agata Mleczko is a travel blogger (Null & Full), photographer and writer. She holds a PhD in social sciences with particular focus on migration studies. Her academic research was pursued in Italy and she finally moved there. A long term residency in Ferrara allowed her to familiarize herself with local habits, traditions and language. She established a new venture called “iloveFerrara.it” where she shares her expertise on Italy by organizing week stays in Ferrara – a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Agata loves travel literature and she often follows her favorite authors in her travels. This winter she will follow footsteps of her favorite travel author Nicolas Bouvier in an epic journey to Asia. Follow her on twitter at @NullNFull.