I’m sitting in a puddle of lukewarm bathwater at my Airbnb in Athens. A friend of the host, Giorgos toured me around the 1950s flat, told me there were quirks to it. The hot water runs cold after filling an inch or so of the old tub — that’s one. I turn it off. I stink.
It’s March 11 2020 and I’ve been travelling almost 30 hours. I left Sydney for Athens the night before, and had beaten my record of most panic attacks and Valium intake in a 24-hour period. This trip had been planned for months, but was years in the making. I was going to travel to my Grandmotherland, and experience the culture and history of my family firsthand. I wanted to learn about the people I’d been holding at arm’s length for most of my life. I was going for two months; I was going to write, and experience life in a way that I didn’t when I was 18 or 20, or 25. Never mind that for the last few years, I hadn’t been able to leave my house alone. Here I was going half way across the world by myself.
My coming-of-age into womanhood has mostly occurred in my doctors’ offices: GP, endocrinologist, psychologist, psychiatrist, or alone in my bedroom. It’s a blur of harsh lighting and one-sided conversations. Memories of my adult years are lost to me, through insomnia, the trial and error of psychotropics and mood stabilisers, a sensitive disposition to medication and to life in general has meant that I live among gaps.
When I landed in Athens and fell into the arms of Chryssa, the complete stranger who was taking me to my Airbnb, she hugged me fully
When I landed in Athens and fell into the arms of Chryssa, the complete stranger who was taking me to my Airbnb, she hugged me fully. I needed it. She told me everything would be alright, and for as long as it took for me to hear the words, I believed her. Eighteen hours later, she’d be picking me up again. She worked for the Airbnb host, and in the 45-minute trip to and from the airport, she’d talk to me about her own mental health issues and what it was like being unemployed during the financial crisis. After Giorgos closed the door behind him, I was on the phone to Dad, then Mum, crying to them, telling them I wanted to come home immediately. Mum told me to have a bath and sleep on it, so I did.
After my bath, I got into bed and put on Marc Maron’s stand up special End Times Fun that had come out while I was in the sky. I knocked out to the sound of his introduction. Around 2:30am, I woke myself up crying. I was nauseous, feverish, and weak; I couldn’t muster the strength to get out of bed. My mind and body fed off of each other’s fear and I was imploding at double speed. I have a vague memory of speaking to my sister on the phone. She asked me to go to the window and tell me what I could see. I cried. I couldn’t do it. I didn’t want to face the reality that I dreaded.
I was fatigued with fear. The only thought that gave me strength was that of going home. I chased it. It was Thursday afternoon in Sydney. I called Dad and told him I wanted to come home immediately. In what felt like a blink, a Bewitched nose twitch, and $700 later, I had a flight booked back home that was taking off in a few hours. The confirmation email I received from Eliot, my travel agent, a god to a woman who didn’t believe in any of them, was euphoria displacing despair in an instant. Packing my suitcase involved putting my adaptor plug and my pajamas away.
I saw Athens through the window of the car Chryssa picked me up in, and then drove me back to the airport in.
I saw Athens through the window of the car Chryssa picked me up in, and then drove me back to the airport in. Instead of the Acropolis, I had a photo I’d taken of the light fixture in the bedroom. I was patted down in a private room at the Abu Dhabi airport, and spent my flight back to Sydney blocking out the amorous moans coming from the attractive young Indian couple sitting next to me — and on top of each other. The only thing I wrote in those three days was an invocation of Schopenhauer that I wasn’t sure I even understood.
Dad picked me up from the airport on the March 13. He told me that I’d eventually find this whiplash trip I went on to be a funny story. He was right. On the one level it’s hilarious in its absurdity, but if I think about it for too long, the laughter turns maniacal. I’d gone to Athens for one night, to sleep in a Queen size bed alone for the first time. I didn’t eat anything while I was there, much to the chagrin of my dad. By 9pm, I was home. I immediately unpacked my 30.4kg suitcase – desperate to get rid of any evidence. I shoved my carry-on out of sight, and got ready for bed without even the suggestion of jetlag.
A few days later, Covid-19 travel restrictions were being put into place, and the world was changing in unknown ways. I was lucky, people have since told me, that I got home before sh*t really hit the fan. Before I had to sell an organ to pay for my ticket home. In a very obvious way, I understood what they meant.
I could’ve lied and said I’d come back because of Covid-19, an external scapegoat, universally understood. The truth was: I wasn’t ready. Sometimes the future you envision for yourself isn’t yours. It’s one that’s tied to societal, familial, or idealistic fantasies of what it ought to be. It was when I blocked out all the noise that buzzed around me, and followed my gut, that I knew what I had to do. You can’t have it all. Ironically, it turned out that I thrived under the most stringent lockdown conditions, I read more, wrote more, and enjoyed life more, while many were flailing about like a fish washed ashore, I adapted instantly and already look back to April and May with a sense of wistful nostalgia.
I often find myself forgetting of my daytrip to Athens, but then I remember. I placed an undue burden on this holiday. I wanted to prove it to myself and to everyone around me that I was independent and self-reliant, but it turned out I didn’t need two months to do that. By going, and making the decision to leave when every fiber of my being was telling me to, something so subconscious that I can’t really explain it, I think I did just that.
This story has been published in partnership with The Writing Zone, a mentoring program for young writers from Western Sydney, hosted by Western Sydney University’s Writing & Society Research Centre.
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