Friday, April 28, 2017

A Week on Crete - Anxiety & Seeing Moments for What They Are

Of all the traveling I’ve done in my life, I’ve only really gone on one serious solo-trip. That was two summers ago, to the Greek Isle of Crete.

Looking back, the whole pretext for the “vacation” was fairly absurd, as I was living in Lebanon at the time. As with most expats in Lebanon not fortunate enough to have deep-pocketed corporate or UN sponsors, this necessitated leaving the country every 60 days (or 90, if you were feeling really ballsy), and since Lebanon for the last several years has had water on one side, a fence on another and an increasingly atrocious war raging on the other two, this essentially meant taking a flight somewhere every couple months. I personally had to leave even more frequently than that because of projects in other places.

Going to Crete had nothing to do with any of those reasons. It was, rather, because of the (in retrospect absurd) fact that I had five unused vacation days, and felt obligated to use them on a vacation.

So it was that—just back from 10 days in South Sudan, emotionally exhausted, on the precipice of a minor health crisis, and above all else, sick to death of flying out of Beirut’s Rafic Hariri International Airport—I went to Rafic Hariri International Airport and boarded an Aegean Air flight to Crete.

Reflecting back on the trip a couple months later, I was convinced it was a disastrous mistake.

On the 30 minute red-eye flight from Beirut to Cyprus, I started having what I think of as a panic attack (I’m sure people who actually do suffer from panic attacks and anxiety disorders would tell me that it was, in fact, not, but anyhow), in which I oscillated between being sure I’d chipped a tooth on the complimentary Aegean Air mint (I hadn’t); and convinced that I was an apostate and God wanted to kill me (He’s held off for around 19 months at the time of this publication).

Then ensued the 17 hour layover on Cyprus that I’d thought would be like a fun pre vacation (it wasn’t—don’t ever do it) that I spent first trying to sleep on a bench surrounded by Syrian asylum seekers and then sitting at one cafĂ© after another along the one street in Larnaca trying to pretend the legion of overweight Russian seniors that appeared to have washed up on the otherwise pristine beach wasn’t there. All the while I continued to cycle through the above two panicked thoughts about my tooth and Divine displeasure, but with the addition of one about the fact I hadn’t figured out very well how I was going to find my way from the car rental place at Heraklion International to my hotel that night because my phone wouldn’t have a local SIM card yet. It turns out I didn’t face that challenge till early the next morning, as 17 hours turned into 21 that evening when my flight from Cyprus was delayed.

Leaving Heraklion after a chill—if somewhat boring stay—two days later, I headed south. And so did everything. I discovered that while I’d been amazed to rent my car for only $150 for the week, 1. Gas prices in the EU meant a tank pretty much cost more than the car and 2. When you rent a $150 car on Crete, they give you a $150 car. There was really no AC, and at some point on the beautiful but steep and twisting mountain roads between the northern coastal motorway and the tiny village of Plakias on the windswept southern shore, the clutch—which had already seen better days (and years)—burned out to the point that the only way to get the miserable thing moving without a stall was basically to burn rubber. I no doubt improved the island’s view of Americans immensely.

The car’s value was denigrated further when, on a cliff village just above Plakias, my phone started to go haywire and led me down a steep tapering alleyway of death that turned out to be too narrow even for the Peugeot hatchback and left a four foot long multi-clawed scar across its right side (if you’ve ever heard me say I have a perfect driving record, I mean in the United States; there have been a number of incidents abroad [that could go for some of my other records as well {but we won’t go there right now}]).

How much of my 1000€ car deposit was going to stay on the Island of Crete after I left added to the loop of panic-stricken thoughts already running in my head, I parked in the grass outside Youth Hostel Plakias and walked through the grove of hammock strewn olive trees to the common room.

Now, I’d read about this place online as being famous among backpackers, not so much for its location as for the warm, fun-loving if slightly (or perhaps very) hedonistic community of internationals that flock to it. After a couple of rather stuffy days at a five star hotel in Heraklion that was advertised as "family friendly" and at which the only words I spoke to another human being were “Iced latte, if you would,” I figured some warm, fun-loving if slightly (or perhaps very) hedonistic community was just what I needed. Arriving at the common room (which was really a porch) I was greeted by a kind young man who looked as if he’d just been in a really vicious street fight (he had, I learned later). He informed me that I’d have to wait a while to check in because the manager of the establishment was still passed out from the wild toga party (stereotypes are real, kids) the night before, but it didn’t really matter anyway, because everyone really just slept wherever they wanted.   

I started to worry then that—in addition to everything else—I might have got more than I bargained for. I had. But we’ll get to that in a minute.

Driving north back into the mountains above Plakias two days later in my disintegrating Peugeot, my phone completely died, leaving me stranded in a mountain village somewhere in the very middle of Crete with nothing but Greek alphabet street signs, and the slightly cartoonish looking road atlas the rental company had given me. And when had they ever let me down?

I eventually did make it to my final destination, Chania, where I’d booked another even stuffier five star hotel (I should clarify at this point, five star hotels on Crete cost about $80/night, just in case you were concerned). I’d just barely got back to the business of “Iced latte, if you would” and connected to the free wifi when I got an email that I needed to be in Cairo in 72 hours. Alone.

So, I ended the trip feeling that it had been miserable and misguided. A big mistake full of smaller mistakes not to be repeated. And that was much the view of it that I continued to have for almost a year afterword.

As time passed by, though, a funny thing started to happen. I’d remember one single experience from that week, divorced from any of the context that I’d initially framed it in and all of the associated anxiety:

Driving fast along the north coastal highway between breathtaking cliffs on one side and a sheer drop leading down to the insanely blue Mediterranean on the other with the windows rolled down

Going for early morning runs through the Old City and out onto the sea walls in Heraklion and Chania

Walking around the Minoan ruins that were the first chapter in my first history book

Sitting in a circle of plastic chairs early in the afternoon outside the hostel in Plakias with a bunch of people I’d just met drinking beer and talking about life as if we’d somehow known each other for years

Going out to eat dinner with a bunch of people from all over the US who, for some reason had ended up there, at that time and learning from their perspectives on the world

Staying up at night playing card games and then drinking games until they turned out the lights at which point we had no choice but to go to the single night club in the whole village until we finally came back and collapsed, pretty much wherever we wanted to

Rallying the next day and going for a five mile hike up the steep river gorge that ran up from near the hostel into the mountains with a guy from England I’d just met, and then randomly meeting two Irish girls halfway up and finishing it with them

Pulling off the road and exploring little Orthodox chapels hidden in the mountains just because I could

Having to actually get out of my car and ask a Cretan for directions, and then the triumph when I finally saw the sea on the north side again after what seemed like days of being lost in the mountains

The moment the people at the rental counter winked at me and declared the scratches on the car had clearly been there before it was in my custody, and refunded my full 1000€ deposit

All those things were good. Some of them were great. As I continue to recall them as individual experiences now, almost two years on, I’ve started to think of those six days I spent in Crete as what they really were: An outstanding success—in terms of the people I met, in terms of the experiences I had, in terms of what I learned about myself. It was great.

And yet, I really was miserable, too. How can both of those things have been true simultaneously? I was plagued with anxiety about so many different things, yet paradoxically, when I reflect back on the individual events while I was so miserable, the miserableness doesn’t detract from them even if it seemed to at the time.

I don’t know the answer to that at all. But it really causes me to think hard about my life now. The week I spent in Crete was possibly an extreme example, but I think there have been few times in my life that I wasn’t plagued by some level of anxiety about something. That didn’t mean those moments weren’t good, or even part of something great. And it’s possible that any moment could be. My goal now is just to recognize those moments when they’re happening and not interpret them all as part of whatever dark narrative my mind is running on repeat this week.

Of course, that may be impossible. It may also not matter, so long as I see correctly in hindsight. But my hope is that I can get better at seeing the moment for what it is.  



Thursday, April 13, 2017

The hero I never believed in

I once heard in a communication class that the test of a truly educated mind was to be able to hold two opposing ideas at once without losing the ability to function. Much later, in trying to look up the origin of the quote, I read that it was actually a common misquotation of something different that someone said. But I now forget who that someone was, as well as what that someone really said. Part of that might be because I prefer to believe the misquotation.

I think I once heard in a literature class that internal conflict is what makes characters interesting. I like that one too.

In intro to psychology I can remember learning about "cognitive dissonance," which—if I remember rightly—is really the same as the above two ideas. Only where the rhetors and writers see it as a mark of education and character, respectively; psychologists see it as a form of neurosis. I don't like the psychological perspective as much.

That's because I sometimes think I'm the most internally conflicted and cognitively dissonant person to have existed outside the pages of a Dostoevsky novel. Except when I disagree with that appraisal of the situation.

In all seriousness, though. There have been few times in the past decade that I haven't awakened every other morning and been absolutely horrified at where I was and what I was doing. And yet, the other set of consecutive odd mornings, I wake up and pursue those things with a grim sense of inevitability only attributable to my staunchly Calvinist upbringing.

I've had thoroughly thought-through objections to very much of what I believe since I was 12 or 13—many of which I've never been able to fully reconcile. But while most people I know had no trouble either changing their beliefs—or at least not acting on them—I've never been able to do anything but follow them to their rational ends (often thoroughly objecting the whole way, naturally).

This has sometimes been to the horror of authority figures in my life who—I later realized—only invited foreign missionaries to my youth groups because they thought it would help give me a reasonably global perspective of Christianity; only made me read stacks of books about the evils of casual sex because they wanted me to make reasonably conservative relationship choices and only made me listen to countless hours of conservative talk radio because they thought it would make me reasonably involved in politics. Well, as it turns out, the joke was on them. Despite having strong objections to very much of it, I proceeded to pursue all of it to its linear conclusion with an abandon that surprised all parties involved.   

You see, I have this amazing tendency of becoming the hero I never really believed in—and in some cases even disdained. And usually my opinion of him doesn't change much for the better when I become him.

So, you see, I'm conflicted.

I hope that makes me interesting. I would like if it makes me educated. But it probably just makes me crazy.