Where’s Ricky?

Written in 2002 on Wednesday the 30th of October, three-months into a three-month stint in Europe.

In a room of sixteen beds, nine were occupied by Melburnians. And in my own room of six beds, I was one of four Aussies. I had travelled to the other side of the world and I could still complain about how boring Powderfinger and Something For Kate are, marvel at the resurgence of Shane Warne and watch people munch on Vegemite smeared on toast. Throngs of people were dancing to Kylie and Savage Garden in the clubs, dumb-arse tourists were pashing all over the place, and I had embarked on a club crawl searching for Madonna tunes with some Norwegians. I was staying at the pick-up joint otherwise known as the Hostel Kabul in Barcelona. It did not feel like Afghanistan, nor did it feel like Spain. It was the first time since London that I had spoken so much English and it seemed like the cleaners were the only authentic Spaniards I was going to meet. All I needed was some bland tourist-friendly Latin sounds that the sex bomb Ricky Martin so ably provides in spades, but Eminem was whining on the speakers instead. Thankfully, the sangria was cheap.

I am in my third and final month of travelling, and I wish to dub the tail end of my European escapades: The Search For Ricky Martin (Who Is To Be Found Preferably In Some Naff Club Here In Spain). The pain of not being near Ricky started on the island of Naxos about a month ago. The flyer said it was Latin night on Wednesday at the club down the road. The thought of a night dancing to the holy Latin trinity of Ricky, Jennifer and Shakira was inducing wildly uncontrollable hip shaking, and it was only Monday. Two days of weird and wild adventures in the bathroom was the result, but no matter for it was now the promised night of Wednesday, and I was making my way to the promised land to perform holy communion with the Gods of Latin rhythm and drink from the Cup of Life, Olé Olé Olé. I opened the pearly gates to what I thought was the entrance to heaven only to see before me the profane image of a dancefloor full of middle-aged women tightly dressed in barbaric white, dancing in formation to the macarena whilst gyrating their hips arhythmically, adding further salacious, lust-inducing fuel to the hellfire that was surely to engulf the room at any moment. I felt as if I had lain eyes on the God-forsaken land of Sodom, only to find Gomorrah magically appear when the devil in the guise of Lou Bega and Mambo Number 5 was heard inducing unashamedly sinful bodily contortions amongst the throngs on the dancefloor only a few moments later. Such immoral sights I could not bear any longer, and I had to walk back to the hotel dejectedly bemoaning yet another night without Jennifer, Shakira and, most importantly, Ricky. And so on that otherwise anonymous Wednesday night, my search for Ricky and the deities of Latin pop began…

More religious adventures were expected on the island my mother comes from, Kephallonia, when I went in search of Saint Gerasimos. His mummified corpse is kept in the monastery/church/holy set of buildings that bear his name, where he apparently continues to perform miracles for the masses that come to kneel before his highly-revered dead body. My mother baptised me at this church, taking me all the way to Greece with the rest of my family when I was five-months old, hoping that somehow I was to be looked after by Saint Gerry (I can call him that because we are on good terms, for I have been bathed naked before his well-decayed corpse.) So I decided to return to this church, check out the cave that lies underneath that he would retreat to of a night in his earthly years, and see how he was holding up these days.

Surprisingly, Saint Gerry still pulls a crowd. Another three people had come to pray to the man, such is his divine repute. A service was held at one o’clock and Gerry’s corpse was unsheathed. Rather comically in the middle of the service, my head decided to violently hit the lamp that was hung from the roof, which in my humble opinion was hung far too low for the general safety of the church-going public. The lamp swung wildly before I managed to calm it with my outstretched hands, which thankfully were not shaking convulsively from the laughter I was trying so desperately to hold back so as not to further disrupt the solemnity of the occasion.

Before the service took place, I had offered to take with me to the next town in the car I had hired a lady who had come to pray. I was a little worried about the topics of conversation after seeing her perform her prayers in front of Saint Gerry on her knees, but I was glad to take her with me, especially once I noticed her limp. She was going to the very first cave on the island that the patron saint of Kephallonia had retreated to, and seeing as Gerry is meant to be looking over me, I figured it would be worth my while to check it out as well.

After a few minutes of polite conversation driving along in the car, she shocked me by revealing the cause of her limp when removing her prosthetic lower right leg. She told me of the troubles she was having with her artificial leg, how it annoyed her, and how she hoped for a new and improved version. Her mother was also troubled, suffering from a sickness I could not decipher in Greek, and for both of these reasons, she was on a pilgrimage to Kephallonia to seek assistance from the divine Saint Gerasimos, who is said to perform miracles for those of pure heart who pray to him. After a drive along a very narrow road, we reached Gerry´s first cave that I inspected with the religious fervour of a disinterested secular tourist. My new-found friend on the other hand was on her knees devoutly praying, which I had initially interpreted as a problem with her prosthetic leg and thus asked her if she required any assistance. After that embarrassing interlude, I lighted a few candles and made a few perfunctory crosses to keep up appearances before whispering to my friend that I was to leave. She whispered her thanks in return, issued a fond farewell and stated in the process that she was going to stay longer to pray. And with that, I left her in the cave of Saint Gerasimos, solemnly praying on her knees for better days to come. I said a prayer to my own secular gods of luck and circumstance for her upon leaving, finding it a little ironic that the heathen religion of science that has done so much to destroy the foundation of people’s faith in Christ is her only real hope for eventual salvation and deliverance. Nonetheless, I could not help but be impressed by her fervour and sheer devotion to something intangible.

And in Kephallonia I visited my mother’s village, Tsakarisiano, to see the place she grew up in. The village could easily double as an open-air geriatric ward in a land the world has forgotten. Nonetheless, in this bizarre place where literally nothing happens, of the eleven people I met, most of whom simply asked who I was upon seeing an unfamiliar face in town, seven of them were relations of mine. I simply bumped into people, told them my basic family tree and it was discovered that they were related to me. For years I had been ridiculing the incestuous sexual practices of people from country towns only to discover at the age of twenty three, I had been ridiculing myself all along. Is this irony?

But it has been almost two weeks in Spain and still no Ricky. Furthermore, after over two months travelling, not a single Prince fan nor anyone who has even heard of Tom Waits have I found, but many, oh-so-very-many Bon Jovi worshippers abound. I did meet, however, someone who does not like Dali. She was from Canada and she was not interested in Dali because apparently she really understands dreams, so when faced with a Dali piece, they seemed mundane to her. But more importantly, I leave Europe on November 13 and I have only fifteen more days to find Ricky.

Wish me luck.

The Rejection of Greek Ways, Fashion and Wisdom

Written in 2002 on Tuesday the 8th of October, two months into my three-month stint in Europe

Upon stepping out of the Pelopennese train station and inhaling my first breath of Athenian air, the pretty young lady with the funky hair that my perving eye had instinctively caught sight of was returning my glance and had raised the wager with a cheeky smile. My travel-induced lethargy was soon forgotten as quickly as a Steven Seagal film and a chat quickly ensued. I smiled a lot, I impressed her with my knowledge of the Greek language and I made her laugh with my incomparable wit. In short, I laid on the charm and I was looking good.

Then she handed me the pamphlet for the Hostel Aphrodite.

With that, my sudden confidence was found to be nothing more than empty braggadoccio, for I had failed to see that she was the charmer and I the snake. It hurts me to admit it, but she had won me over, because if it wasn’t for my uncle’s apartment down the road, I would have most certainly stayed the night at the hostel fittingly named after the Greek goddess of love, Aphrodite.

Things improved the next day though when I had an impromptu chat with a Greek man on the street. The conversation was not thrilling, just the usual discourse related to my travelling and Greek roots. But the conversation took on a, some would say, Ancient Greek hue, for just as I was wrapping up our chat, this seemingly pleasant Greek man offered to take me to a hotel. I initially thought of the happenings of yesterday at the train station and I figured I was once again the dumb tourist that was fresh meat for the wares of a salesman, so I politely declined the invitation stating that I was staying at my uncle’s house. And that was when he offered to pay for the hotel. I realised then that my new Greek friend had ideas for the fresh meat that stood before him that were slightly different to those of the lady from the train station. My negative response was reiterated, although somewhat whimsically, for I knew I was avoiding an opportunity to really get in touch with my Greek roots, but relatives were coming over for dinner and I did not wish to be rude.

In the moon-like landscape of Meteora, where monasteries were built on the top of these giant oddly-shaped rocks in the 14th century some say so that the monks could avoid persecution by the Venetians, I came to meet the one-eyed priest named Pandelis. He was a friendly chap, offering me loukoumia (Greek sweets that are like Turkish delights) and plenty of water, so much so that he consistently poured far too much water into the glass he had provided me each time he refilled it, causing some exceptionally humorous spillage in light of his missing eye and excessively thick spectacles. Nevertheless, we had a good chat and he seemed genuinely interested in my personal history, having taken hold of my hands and looking attentively at me whilst I was speaking to him, although that could have been just because he was practically blind.

But soon my friend, Pandelis the priest, decided to rant in a kindly manner about the need for me to find a good Greek wife whilst I was in Greece. This was so that I could pass the Greek language and religion down to my children, and, most importantly, because a good Greek wife is less likely to want a divorce, which is most definitely a sin. He continued offering me his priestly wisdom by proceeding to advise me that upon travelling outside of Greece, I should most definitely not mix with the foreigners who will only lead me down the path of sin and misfortune. His solemn instructions for me when travelling to foreign lands, for he considered me a god-fearing Greek man, were to merely look at the sights each day and return to the hotel without mixing at all with the perfidious locals.

Upon deciding soon after that it was time for me to leave the monastery and say my farewell, my friend, the cyclopean priest named Pandelis, blessed me with kisses and odd gesticulations, informing me most sincerely that God was always by my side, protecting me from evil. I was most grateful after I left the monastery that I was in fact living in the 21st century, but only time will tell if this almost-blind priest has cursed my future travelling with his blessings and has somehow arranged for circumstance to greet me with a Spain and Italy of nothing more than lifeless buildings and hotels. Those who are supposed to know these things say the priests built the monasteries on these out of reach giant rocks to avoid persecution by the Venetians, but has anyone investigated the possibility that the Venetians built the monasteries on the rocks of Meteora to avoid their being persecution by the priests?

Many of you would know of my hatred for the colour white when worn, and knowing that most of you come from Melbourne where black always is this season’s black, I am assuming it is a shared distaste. Yet here in Greece, you can see whole families of people draped in white. I have been momentarily blinded on many occasions when the ever-present Greek sun has reflected from people’s completely white shirts, shoes, socks, jumpers, jackets, pants, scarves and knits into unsuspecting eyes. And that is not the only fashion crime the people of Greece have committed. I remember a maths teacher from my high school, Mr Richardon, who used to be ridiculed by the student populace quite appropriately for his love of bum bags. Yet he would feel completely at home here in Greece, for the bum bag is a much loved accessory in the land of backgammon and Socrates. The humble bum bag has won over the hearts and rear ends of the young and old here in Greece, and I have decided that my first million will be made manufacturing white bum bags for the people of Greece so that they will match the shade of cloth they love to wear so much.

And in other news:

  • I decided to shave off the moustache I had been cultivating for about a week after seeing the rather tragic photo of Daniel Johns from Silverchair sporting an embarrassing strand of facial hair on his upper lip and realising I must have looked much stupider than how stupid I already thought I looked.
  • Why has 23 years of my life passed without my having appreciated the vinegar-like flavours of the ultra-dry white wine of Greece, Retsina?
  • I broke a bed in Hania, Crete; I broke a bed on the island of Naxos; and I broke my uncle’s bed upon returning to Athens.
  • On the radio, I heard a song sung to the tune of John Farnham’s You’re The Voice, thus providing ample proof that even in Greece one cannot escape Whispering Jack.
  • My cousin played for me some bouzouki-laced traditional Greek music with a reggae rhythm, which most surprisingly, was kinda cool.
  • Nick Giannopoulos is starring in a television serial spoken in Greek and set in Melbourne that tells the story of a group of migrants in Australia and which has been a huge hit in Greece.
  • I saw an episode of the modern version of Skippy The Bush Kangaroo on Greek television, which has kids running around the outback speaking in overdubbed Greek, as one would naturally expect when travelling through Australia.
  • I rode on the back of a motorbike for the first time helmetless as my cousin took me on a journey around Athens, dodging and weaving fearlessly through the traffic whilst often turning his head to speak to a face that was trying ever-so-desperately not to betray the fear of its owner.

Czech (and Slovakian) Death Metal along with the Smiling Face of Evil

Written in 2002 on Monday the 2nd of September, one month into my overseas trip to Europe.

Walking out of the plane, heading towards customs through the long corridor with the travelator beside me, and up above me the smiling face of George Bush welcomes me to the USA, the home of the brave, the land of the free. The scene brings back the frightening memories of Jeff Kennett’s face plastered on that billboard on the Tullamarine Freeway welcoming visitors to Victoria back in the days of his reign of terror. Macbeth was told by the prophetic witches to beware the Ides of March. Call me a witch if you must, but I tell you now, beware the smiling face of a politician welcoming you into their realm!

Within the first hour of my stay in LA, I encountered the stereotypical badass jive-talking take-no-shit female African-American that we all know and love. This particular lady happened to be a bus driver, and she so incredibly impressed me with her attitude that I wanted to stay on her bus for the entire day and just listen to her bad mouth anyone and anything that gave her the shits. My favourite line, in what was an admittedly very crowded bus: “I ain’t movin’ this bus until y’all move your arses to the back and gimme some room.”

My first impressions of LA was of a place that had just survived a nuclear armageddon. Everything had a murky feel to it and the footpaths and roads were full of cracks with most things around me looking as if they were about to fall apart. The air was smoggy and the LA police department seemed to be everywhere. I even saw one cop on a footpath of a main road flash a torch into the eyes of some emaciated white dude and then pull up his pants looking for puncture wounds from heroin injections whilst the victim of this over-policing was proclaiming his innocence, proclaiming in full voice that he never shot up in his life.

But before the day was through, I could not resist the temptation to play some basketball on the hallowed public courts of Venice Beach. I had been eyeing off the basketballers for a good thirty minutes before I was confident enough to actually play against the Americans who take the game a little more seriously than those of us in Australia. Playing basketball on the courts of Venice Beach against smart-mouth Americans was quite a thrill for me after having grown up with the game. I felt I let Australia down with my poor shooting, which has always been the bane of my basketballing career, but I did not do too badly overall, even though I did nothing to counter the white-men-can’t-jump cliche. And happily, I am now proudly sporting the slightly scarred remnants of a cut to my upper lip that was inflicted upon me by an overzealous defender as I was driving to the ring to score during my time on court. It is the only injury I can ever say I was happy to endure. I could bore you all with many more details about the way they play their basketball on Venice Beach, but I doubt many of you would be interested. In fact this whole paragraph has probably been a disappointment for many of you, so I might have to pull something out with the next.

From LA, I went to London. In London there is a train station that is part of the underground called Cockfosters. It made me laugh. A lot.

After London I went to Vienna. In German, Vienna is spelt Wien, and Viennese becomes Wiener. So naturally enough, many of the shops were prefixed with the title Wiener, and there was even a store called Wienerwald. That made me laugh too. And out loud. Is finding such puerile humour hilarious wrong for a man of twenty-three years?

Whilst playing basketball on the courts of Venice Beach may be the highlight of my trip, being entertained by two Slovakians and a Czech playing their own brand of death metal with a classical guitar as accompaniment on an overnight train ride from Vienna to Bologna is most certainly in my top-five European moments. I was thinking that my first train journey through Europe would be incredibly underwhelming, but the three dudes from the former Czechoslavakian republic who I shared my cabin with managed to turn the situation into a night of much mirth.

My cabin compatriots began with traditional Slovakian songs sung out of key, which was quite amusing in its own right, but when they switched to acoustic death metal, laughter could not be held back. The Czechs and the Slovakian even did the sweet chordal verses that segue into the heavy, throaty and oh-so-incredibly-hilarious chorus of angst, pain and catharsis. Death metal done Balkan style won me over that night, and I can say most certainly that never before had I entertained the possibility of experiencing it.

They handed the guitar to me after their very fine performances and I got them singing the “aah-aah-aah” backing vocal snippets to the chorus of Like Wow Wipeout by the Hoodoo Gurus. Like Wow was the best example of a traditional Australian song that I could think of at the time. The magical chords of Khe Sanh have thus far eluded me (does that make me any less an Australian?), so the Gurus had to suffice that night. Nonetheless, my new Balkan friends seemed to be happy with the choice of song and much international bridge building was done on the way to Bologna.

I am in Greece at the moment, in the urban wasteland that is the port town of Patras. The scenery of forrested mountains and islands in the distance emerging from the sea is magnificent, but the city itself is a little third-world in terms of urban planning. Much like the backyard of a good Greek suburban home, the city is nothing but concrete. Nonetheless, it has a chaotic charm to it that I am sure I would soon get tired of if I stayed here much longer, but right now, I am enjoying its dilapidatedness.

And I strongly recommend listening to Etta James sing the songs of Billie Holiday as the sun emerges from a fiery orange horizon that colours the skyline over the mountainous Greek isles that pepper the azure-blue Ionian sea. With the wind blowing through your bones on the overnight ferry ride from the Italian port of Brindisi to Patras on the north west coast of the Peloponnese, not even the malodorous scent of burnt ferry fuel can debase the beauty.

Awaiting Take-Off

Written in 2002 on Tuesday the 20th of August, just before heading off on a three-month trip to Europe.

Discounting any further impromptu strikes by disgruntled QANTAS employees, less than 12 hours need pass before I am to fly the friendly skies on my journey to Europe. Many of you will have heard me talk incessantly about my upcoming trip and now finally the time has come for me to farewell Melbourne for the next three months. But with the talk of travel coming to an abrupt halt, you will all be granted the pleasure of having your inboxes clogged with irregularly timed updates of my journey from shitty internet cafes with dodgy keyboards and faulty mouses.

I inadvertantly timed my departure from Melbourne to coincide with the first week of the summer shoulder season (which is travel-consultant talk for, I think, the time when prices drop from their previously vertiginous highs), and in my thrifty smugness, I failed to foresee the problems that would arise from the multitude of tight-arsed travellers wanting to get that cheap flight overseas. So without a seat available on a flight that lands somewhere in Europe via Asia, I have had to take the scenic route and purchase a round-the-world ticket that gets me to mainland Europe via the USA and the UK. And to make things even messier, my round-the-world ticket cannot get me to Greece, so the now rather damp and, some would say, flooded city of Vienna is to be my very first mainland European destination. From there, however, I am free to explore the delights of Europe and let whim and the flight of youthful fancy be my guide. Ten bucks says my whim and youthful fancy takes me straight to Greece via Italy.

So after 23 years of feta cheese and souvlaki in the land of the kangaroo, I am to finally visit the land of my wog forebears and stand proudly next to my hairy-chested and virile grecian brethren whose culture has been fused with that of my land of birth to make me the complex and multifaceted first generation migrant child that I am today. I will soon be performing the rite of passage that so many youths of Australia feel the compulsion to do living so far away from anything foreign, but in my particular case with a Greek twist. Instead of traipsing around London in a drunken stupor, I will be running around Athens dodging the puckered hairy lips of my relatives as I am presented to each and every distant relation who my extended family think I will offend if I happen to not visit their over-furnished homes.

And once I disentangle myself from the overzealous embraces of my many relatives in Greece, I plan to visit more countries whose family ties can be just as suffocating as I head west through Italy to Spain (just what is it about the southern Mediterranean and the familial bond?) whilst trying to avoid the dexterous fingers of pick-pocketers whose slick work I begrudgingly admire for its exquisite skill. I hope to improve on the rudimentary Spanish I picked up in Mexico on my last trip and sound even more convincing on my return as I fumble my way through malformed sentences trying to impress the ladies with my, unbeknownst to them, lousy knowledge of what is arguably the language that most strongly races the hearts of fine young maidens the world over.

I suppose I will get drunk and fall over a lot too. But most importantly, when I get back I can crap on about how culturally enriching the whole experience was despite the overall lack of sobriety.

But the time is now past midnight and my flight is at ten in the morning. My bag has yet to be completely packed, so now I must do what I cannot avoid any longer and actually bother to get everything ready.