Birthday in Perdika

This is an essay I wrote a few birthdays ago about our Greek island adventure on Aegina. With my mom, it is always an adventure!

Birthday in Perdika 

It is late and blazing hot in August on the Island of Aegina. It is my birthday. My husband Sacha, my daughter Zoe (then age 13), her friend Mason (age 13) my mom and I are on a journey from Agia Marina to the fishing village of Perdika at the southern-most tip of the island, bound for a freshly grilled lunch. Zoe, Mom and I have been driving a rented four-wheeler for an hour or so already, and the pain Mom feels in her hip from being in one position too long is too excruciating for her to continue. Mom needs a hip replacement and has been dealing with constant pain for a few years now. We have no idea how far we are from our destination. “Just leave me here by the side of the road up there in the shade and send Sacha back for me on the motorcycle,” she says. “I have my backpack with my water, my coffee and my spray bottles, I’ll be fine.”

Mom’s cavernous black backpack goes with her wherever she goes. No one knows its full contents, perhaps not even Mom. I have seen a great number of things emerge from the backpack, or disappear into it: tambourines, Turkish wooden spoons, finger cymbals, bottles of wine, greasy napkins wrapped around bones, gluey peaches, meat for the cats, and teeth. Right now, the backpack contains a jumble of plastic bottles, some empty, some partially filled with fluids: coffee in one, water in another, and spray bottles filled with home-made concoctions of chamomile and bay leaf. If there are liquid leftovers at a cafe or lunch, like wine, ouzo, ice or a side bowl of olive oil, in they go to the empty bottles, or they are siphoned into the filled ones to add new layers of natural medicinal depth. The spray bottles are used to cool Mom down in the heat and to moisturize her skin. Mom is a master multi-tasker. She can be occupied for hours talking on the phone while nourishing her skin, rubbing on one potion after another, from her little toe on up to her black hair, which she often coats with egg, honey and oil before going out into the sun. I sometimes check her head to see if the egg has cooked and turned into a scramble.

Calmly, I pull over. (At least, I like to think I’m calm. Sacha later tells me that when he saw me, I looked very worried). To tell the truth, I’m not driving, its my long-legged 13-year old daughter who is at the helm, and I lean into her red helmet to tell her her grandmother’s command. The four-wheeler comes to an elegant stop outside the white fence of the pink house. For my birthday, I let Zoe drive, mostly to keep her from complaining about the fact that we have to squish three generations of bodies onto a vehicle designed for two. Zoe was sitting half-way up on the engine, I was squished in the middle clutching my bellypalooza bag that contained my money purse and the kids’ swim goggles, and Mom was perched behind me so that her legs could be as stretched out as possible to minimize her hip discomfort. The famous backpack was stored in the tiny “trunk” of our vehicle. We had been making frequent stops under various sources of shade by the side of the road since setting off from the Hotel Anatoli, so Mom could get off and yelp or groan in pain and stretch her legs, then get back on. We have been making wrong turns as well, but since it is a small island, you always find your way back to the main roads, and there is no real worry about being permanently lost. I don’t believe there ever is this worry. You will always find your way, if you proceed in peace.

Somewhere up ahead of us, Sacha is driving the moped with Zoe’s school friend perched behind. A relatively worthless map of the island is in Sacha’s pocket. In the beginning the guys would stop and wait for us here and there, and we would slowly chug up from behind. This time, at the top of the mountain we were driving over, by the pink house and yellow car, there was only one road -- that isn’t named or even featured on many maps we looked at later -- and this road stretched and twisted on for many more kilometers before us. Sacha would no doubt be waiting for us at the next major crossroads, but we had no idea how long it would be before he would start his journey to retrieve Mom on the motorbike and come back down the mountain. We had no choice but to have faith in the plan and continue on.

Behind the fence of the pink house and yellow car was a barking dog. Mom is a friend to all dogs, and I knew that if necessary, she could tame the dog, explain her situation to the pink home owners, get more water if she needed it, make phone calls from a stranger’s cell phone, hitch a ride to Perdika on some old guy’s bike, order a ride back to Agia Marina on a taxi I’d pay for later....anything was possible. But if we were going to have my birthday lunch -- all of us together -- in Perdika, Mom would have to stay put so Sacha could find her. This, I wasn’t so sure of. In addition to multi-tasking, Mom is a master of perpetual motion. If she moved from the pink house yellow car spot and Sacha never found her, I would be having my birthday lunch in a charming fishing village overlooking the sea in silence between two teenagers glued to their electronic devices. Wait a minute - that doesn’t sound half bad!

“We just abandoned Dancing Ami by the side of the road in the middle of nowhere!” Zoe exclaimed in wonder as we drove off, just the two of us. “She’ll be fine,” I say, “And we’re not in the middle of nowhere, we’re on Aegina, a small island full of nice Greek people who would always take care of Dancing Ami. She could hitchhike home with one of those old gents on a motor bike or visit with the pink house people and make friends. She’ll make it somehow. Anyway, its not like she never abandoned me by the side of the road when I was a kid.” “She did?” Zoe was fully ready to accept that her grandma would do this to me. “Well, not literally by the side of the road, but if she wanted to do something and I didn’t, like go out to the airport bar with a boyfriend after we had danced together at the Athens by Night or keep socializing into the wee hours when I didn’t want to, I would either have to put my head down on a table and nod off, drooling on the taverna table cloth, or walk home alone through the Plaka at 2 a.m.” Zoe knows these streets well, having traversed them many times during our multiple visits to Athens since she was a baby.

In the 70s, the streets of the old city were safe for a kid -- or anyone -- at any hour, but it still wasn’t anxiety-free for me, and I learned to scuttle quickly like a cockroach home, sidling along buildings, summoning invisibility like the goddess Aphaia who is worshipped on Aegina. According to legend, Aphaia managed to escape the lust of both King Midas on Crete and a fisherman from Aegina who caught her in his nets by literally disappearing into the trees at the crest of an Aegina mountain with the assistance of Artemis. A beautiful temple was erected in her honor. The name Aphaia means invisibility. A re-enactment of this myth takes place every year on Aegina, on my birthday as it so happens. We were no doubt missing the re-enactment at that very moment, and I was hoping that Mom would do the opposite of Aphaia: that she would appear, larger than life, to Sacha as he whizzed back to find her on his bike.

Assisted by my own patron goddess Athena, I always made it home safe on my journeys home from the Athens by Night, walking past the discos, I was seemingly invisible to the transvestites that teetered by on their high heels as I walked quickly by. I was always OK, and Mom, as I do now after having abandoned her by the side of the road, had complete faith in the cultural mores of her chosen country. Greeks would always look out and take care of you. You would always be O.K.

“I could never have done that.” Zoe said. “Yes, you could have, if you had to. You could do anything you set your mind to. That’s one of the gifts Dancing Ami gave me with this way of thinking. Nothing cannot be navigated, with a little determination. And people will always help you, if you ask.”

The island scenery passes us by as we progress slowly on the four-wheeler. It has all the power of a senile golf-cart. Fields, overflowing dumpsters, roadside shrines and the Aegean sea view accompany our ride. I keep an eye on the time. Mom has been abandoned for 20 minutes and counting. “Where is Sacha?” Zoe and I ask each other out loud, as now the road winds in descent toward the other side of Aegina. We have no map. We have no cell phone. We carry on. Now we have been on the same road for over 30 minutes, slowly and carefully keeping to the right side, getting passed by Kias and Fiats and motorbikes carrying summer lovers. We reached a point at which we had to make a right or a left turn. There is no other choice. We peer both ways -- and there are Sacha and Mason, off to the left, waiting for us! We turn in kind, and I wait a few beats for Sacha to look into his rearview mirror again and ask himself what is different about our passenger load? He finally does....he slows....he stops. We pull up alongside.

“We abandoned Dancing Ami by the side of the road!” Zoe says. “You’ll have to go on the bike and pick her up.” I say. “We’ll meet you in Perdika. Mason, hop on the back here.” More words are not needed. Sacha nods. He is ready for the new adventure. I add more words: “Sacha: Mom is at least 15 minutes back, if you go fast on the bike. Look for Pink House, Yellow Car. She’ll be there on your left. We’ll meet you in Perdika.” Sacha is nodding, ready to take off. “Wait: Sacha -- what color house? What color Car?” I often do a check to see if Sacha has retained any details of my explanations. He is prone to mishearing information and filling in any gaps he has not understood with his own, completely unrelated, material. He smiles “I don’t know.” “PINK HOUSE, YELLOW CAR.” I am now being completely annoying. “Repeat after me: Pink house, yellow car, on the left” “Pink, yellow, left. GOT IT!” He says, peeling off in the opposite direction.

Especially since the road we left Mom on has no name, I have a feeling this will work out. Because if the road did have a name, Sacha would for sure get it wrong and morph it into a fruit. This has happened before. Many years earlier, in Missouri, Sacha once explained to me how to reach his circus school location outside of St Louis from the site of Circus Flora where I was performing. “Get off Strawberry Avenue,” he said. I drove for miles, looking for the Strawberry Avenue exit....until I realized there was no such place. He had meant Shrewsbury Avenue, but you know, what’s the difference? I did somehow make it there. Now that we live in the Boston area, we often visit Blueberry Street. You know, the one that sounds like Newbury? Luckily I like fruit and enjoy the linguistic twilight zone that I live in with Sacha. And now I feel that Sacha looking for Mom on a nameless road in Aegina will produce successful results.

Sacha later told me that Mom had moved to the right side of the road from the left, that he found her opposite the pink house, which he claims was white, not pink, but that he did notice the yellow car. Mom yelled out his name as he slowed to look at the yellow car and that’s how he found her. Mom said she moved from the left side of the road to escape the bees, who were swarming her since she was slurping on the dented peach she had extracted from her backpack. She left a piece of the peach in front of the pink/white house for the bees, and ran to the other side of the road to eat the rest of the fruit, watching for Sacha with a keen and ready eye. So though the road had no name, there is still fruit involved in this story.

Meanwhile, the kids and I motor along toward the seaside. Mason has said little so far, mute perhaps from the culture shock of traveling from Newton, Massachusetts to Greece with a Bohemian family of circus artists and belly dancers for nearly two weeks. Then again, he is an intelligent young man of well-chosen words. When his skin flared up in a mild allergic reaction during the first days of our visit and my mother drew him up a bath with calendula, honey, Noxema blended with Greek mountain chamomile, athlete’s foot cream, a squirt of Dermagen with Arabic writing on it that she had brought back from Cairo, and freshly minced garlic, Mason asked, all deadpan: “Are you going to eat me?” Then shut the bathroom door behind him and carefully locked it. You couldn’t have scripted the small daily adventures we have had so far, what with finding a cockroach in Mason’s sneaker in Mom’s basement apartment, rats lurking behind the fridge, a gekko ejecting its tail on Naxos (the tail kept wriggling while the gekko made its get away), and well-moisturized, egg-coated grandmothers abandoned by the side of the road. His father told him to “come back dirty” and boy, I could guarantee that one! I haven’t checked whether Mason took a real shower where he washed his hair; I haven’t made him change his shirt or checked if he brushed his teeth for days. I let him have as many cokes and gummy cherries and breads dipped in olive oil and gyros and shrimp and ice cream as he wanted. He jumped off cliffs, swam into a cave, and drove a four-wheeler all alone. This is his first time riding on the back of a motorbike, which his dad did approve during a Skype conversation, given that a Flying Wallenda wire-walker circus guy was the driver. So Mason was coming back dirty and then some! And he never lost his glasses!

Though I am concerned for Mom, I have complete faith that Sacha will find her by the side of the road and that we will all meet in Perdika for my birthday lunch. I also have a parallel complete faith that if he doesn’t find her, she will find her way either to Perdika or back to Agia Marina, and Sacha will do the same, and we will meet eventually at the motorbike rental place as the vehicles are due at 4 p.m. Either way everything is fine, it is my birthday, and I will eat grilled octopus by the sea today.

The kids and I drive on past beaches shaded by pine trees, nestled tavernas with their crisp white table clothes. Achingly simple pleasures abound, lovely sea views, near naked men and women whizzing about on motorbikes, families enjoying the summer. We briefly park under some trees, tiptoe through a stony shore into the cool salty sea, then run out again in search of a place that offers bottled water and a W.C. We are parched. Once on the road again, the coast line curving, then curving some more, and still no Perdika, we resume our “old” joke from last week: “Its just around the next bend!” This is a leftover mantra from when we were back in Athens driving down the coast in Lykis’ borrowed car to show Mason Cape Sounion, site of Poseidon’s Temple. “Its just around the next bend!” We kept that up for each curve for at least a half hour, until we finally made it to the majestic marble structure that rises from the cliff where King Aegis tragically flung himself into the sea, mistakingly thinking his son Theseus was dead, thereby giving the Aegean its mythic name.

We have been on the road to Perdika for over three hours now, a journey that, uninterrupted, should have taken 45 minutes tops, or 25 minutes by car. We have abandoned a passenger at her request and lost her rescuer and his vehicle, and still we chug towards the fishing village where our sights are set. A large square sign “Welcome to Perdika” finally springs into view, and we drive down the final crescent into the cove. I recognize it at once by its charming row of fish taverns lined up one against the other, small boats moored nearby. The first time I saw how they beat octopus against a rock again and again to tenderize the tentacles before hanging them out on a line was here in Perdika, when I was 7 or 8 years old.

This kids and I check out the cove coastline -- many urchins to watch out for! many hungry little fish darting about! -- and sit at a cafe to wait for Sacha and Mom. We order a Nescafe frappe for me and Zoe to share and a coke for Mason. I am just about to calculate how long we can probably expect to wait for our lagging group when the drinks get delivered and a familiar pair zip into town. Sacha, shirtless with his head wrapped turban style in a colorful Turkish scarf, and Mom, with her black one piece swim suit, broad-brimmed black hat and back pack zoom cheerily down the last hill. We see each other and wave. Mom comes over and immediately orders an ouzo with a bucket of ice on the side, and Sacha wanders off alone to gaze at the water. The kids get the wi-fi code. I have abandoned plans of returning the bikes on time, I will just pay over-time and point out, since the guy has kept my license with the proof, that it is my birthday and we were having lunch in Perdika. There is no way to make it from point A to point B in a linear fashion while together with my mom in Greece -- and since we have all ended up together at point C, then who cares how we got there. We walk over to Antonis’ Fish tavern and I get my birthday octopus grilled with a side blend of olive oil and lemon. It was a blessed day.