The first question many people ask when I excitedly announce I will be going global on yet another solo adventure is — “Aren’t you afraid of going someplace foreign all by yourself?”
The question always gives me pause.
My initial reaction is to respond concretely with a hardy denial. I do indeed, after all, possess a natural aversion to obvious risk-taking. I probably wouldn’t, for example, visit a battle zone, although being a journalist I’ll admit that does have its allure. But I definitely wouldn’t face a charging rhinoceros armed only with a slingshot. And I probably wouldn’t walk in a dark urban alley alone at night.
But then I’m struck with the actual intent behind this seemingly innocent question and it’s really more about the questioner than me. The speaker doesn’t expect an answer, the question only exists to make a point. If I’m not afraid of going someplace foreign by myself, perhaps I should reconsider.
I should be afraid. Very afraid.
Behind that warning, however, lurks a more personal implication: the fear imagined by the speaker if he or she were placed in my shoes treading a foreign land. To them, I believe, the thought of encountering someplace new alone is more nightmare than dream. The thought of being in a foreign land with people who don’t speak your language is so terrifying that it’s inconceivable.
The second thing that rolls off the tongue of the speaker is always the emphatic statement: You must be very brave. I guess that’s not an unreasonable response if people believe I am facing the same fear they’d feel.
I will accept that as a compliment, however unnecessary and ill founded. You see I’ve been traveling alone enough to know that enjoying difference has less to do with bravado and more to do with a suspension of all beliefs and stereotypes. Things that would be true in the United States don’t necessarily hold in other cultures and to automatically define them in American terms can create a dissonance that borders on fear and takes bravado to overcome.
How can I believe that? Well let me explain the very “brave” things I did today.
Today I decided I would visit the new Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center and gardens located fairly near here. My friendly rental agent, Marie, had told me it was stunningly beautiful, a place I was sure to enjoy. And since my three sons are arriving tomorrow I thought I would save the classic Grecian sights such as the Parthenon and Acropolis for when we could experience them together.
So, I took off down the street. At every corner I glanced behind me to visually memorize the colors of the buildings and content of the shops so I’d know where to turn on the way back. The Greek alphabet is totally inexplicable and so I couldn’t rely on signs to gauge my whereabouts.
I arrived as the bus stop where Marie had indicated I could catch a ride but soon realized I must have already purchased a ticket at some other location I couldn’t immediately identify. That’s when I turned to flag down a bright yellow taxi.
Behind the wheel was a nattily dressed man in his 60s, replete with a sports jacket and tie. In halting English he asked where I was going and I showed him the name of the spot. We took off careening down the narrow streets much too quickly for me to memorize visual cues.
Then I realized I had left my apartment’s address at home, something Marie had warned me never to do. I began to feel the sharp fingers of anxiety closing on my throat as I wondered how I would ever be able to tell another taxi driver where I wanted to go following my tour of the cultural center. But the twisting and turning streets had already confused me sufficiently that I threw caution to the wind and continued on my way.
As my taxi driver, who I later came to know as Jimmy, dropped me off, I asked in stilted English accompanied by a waving of my hands if he would be able to come and pick me up in two hours. Of course, he said, I’ll meet you right here. As I took a bill out of my purse to pay him, he waved me off. Pay when I come back, he said, and drove off.
I smiled a bit and shook my head. Now if this had been a large American city, a taxi driver would have never turned down a chance to get paid. Moreover, I wouldn’t have thoroughly trusted such an American driver to return to pick me up. What if he had a chance to get a bigger fare? You can bet I’d be left standing on the curb. Jimmy, I was quite confident, would return.
For two hours I explored the cultural center, gardens and nearby marina. Everywhere people were kind and accommodating. An older gentleman fixing a dilapidated boat in the marina paused to let me take his picture then smiled and nodded his head. On the dock, I engaged in “conversation” with a fisherman who spoke no English. He compliantly pulled his hand line out of the water to show me an enormous chicken foot he had attached to an equally enormous hook then flung his arms wide, laughing, to show me the size of the fish he planned to catch.
And in this experience was the beauty of solitary travel. I could explore what I wanted, when I wanted. If I desired to take the path to the right, I needn’t negotiate with other people about their desires. If I wanted to pause and take a photo, I took as long as I wanted. If I wanted to simply sit on a concrete step and contemplate my day, I could do precisely that. And that’s what I did.
As the sun set, the hills surrounding Athens and its white-washed buildings smoldered in a pink afterglow. In the distance, the Acropolis topped by the now-glimmering Parthenon poked out of downtown. Lights in apartments and cars began winking on and it was time to go.
As I walked to the appointed spot, ahead of me I spied a canary-yellow taxi with Jimmy waiting patiently on the sidewalk. He greeted me with a hearty hug and helped me into the cab. Although his English was halting and my Greek nonexistent, we carried on a lively dialogue all the way back to my street.
Jimmy told me that a decade ago he had been a manager in the Ministry of Labor here in Greece but when the economy began to fail he quit his job to help his son make ends meet by driving a taxi the 29-year-old had bought. Now, father and son split the driving duties and make enough to get by, although it is a struggle.
It’s very bad, Jimmy confided. He has another older son and a 14-year-old daughter he still must support at home. We shared the fact that we both had sons of similar ages and Jimmy said he was pleased that my sons would be joining me here soon.
I told him that I had yet to meet a Greek who wasn’t warm and hospitable. He looked confused by my choice of words but when I elaborated further, he finally understood. Jimmy smiled broadly and nodded. Thank you, he said, that is the way we try to be.
When Jimmy dropped me off he handed me a business card and told me to call him anytime I was in need of a ride. It will either be I or my son, Stephano, who answers the phone.
And what is your name, he asked.
Paula, I replied.
Paula, he repeated, smiling. It’s a nice name.
How much do I owe you?
Oh, I don’t know, you have been so nice. What do you want to pay?
I have no idea, Jimmy. What’s normal? Ten euros? Twenty euros? Forty euros?
We finally arrived at a price and it was probably too much. But how much is a friendly conversation, kindness and dependability worth? The whole encounter was one I won’t forget soon.
And fear? It wasn’t even a consideration.