Under a Cloud of Ash
23 Jan, 2013
The Acropolis was locked. It hadn’t occurred to either of us that the seat of Western culture would operate under loosely the same hours as a museum over Thanksgiving weekend. It was hot and we were both wearing backpacks. Dani had her “Greek travel” hat on—a straw farmer’s-style with a circular brim and blue ribbon around the base—and Drew and Kate were supposed to recognize us by it. For a few dumb minutes we had stood outside the locked wrought-iron black gates of the Acropolis entrance, where a security guard in a tan uniform stared out at us from a box that wasn’t even big enough for him to sit down in. Huge birds smashed into the trees above us and bent their branches.
Eventually we fled and walked to the end of a street that seemed to consist entirely of gelato shops, where sweaty tourists crammed in families of six around short circular tables, trying to scrape out huge mouthfuls of ice with tiny spoons, past thin, mottled trees whose trunks were painted chalk white to about the height of a passing Vespa, and found a square, just as beautiful as the rest, tiled with sandy flagstone, but abandoned, with nothing in it but two dumpsters and two dozen pigeons. They wouldn’t move, though we actually brushed them aside with our feet and threatened to put our backpacks down on them. Dani finally threw her Greek hat at them, and in a dusty rush they flapped up into the trees. It was a hot afternoon in April, our phone was charging us a pound and a half for every text we sent or received, and Drew and Kate were the only ones who knew how to get to our hostel. We sat on the warm flagstone and watched the sun set.
We had thought we would be in Athens alone. In Iceland, a pimple of a volcano called Eyjafjallajökull had been erupting since April. We had tracked its ever-shifting high-atmosphere ash cloud through an interactive map on the BBC website. Though composed of fragments so tiny they were invisible to the human eye (even Scotland had stayed sardonically sunny the entire month), clouds of ash affect jet engines the same way flocks of geese do and had consequently grounded every flight in Europe. It was now a British bank holiday, and as Dani and I packed up in our flat in Edinburgh, heroic news stories had emerged of travelers who had given up camping in the airport to cross thousands of miles by alternate means.
One of them, in fact the best I have heard, is the story of how Drew got from Chattanooga, Tennessee, to Paris, where he met his girlfriend Kate under the Eiffel Tower, and finally to Athens, where the both of them were now supposed to meet us under the pillared shadow of the Parthenon. Drew, who had watched Hindus burning the dead under towers that looked like cracked sand sculptures. Drew, who once nearly died from a parasite he’d eaten in a Himalayan fish called “The Special.”
A week before, Dani, on the phone with Drew: “So, the boat from Iceland is a no” (there was a part of southern Iceland where, for a window of about two days, Eyjafjallajökull’s goose-cloud hadn’t flown. It had been proposed that Drew fly there from Chattanooga and take a boat to Spain). “No, we did know someone in Morocco. He’s moved now. And it wasn’t a nice part of Morocco.”
Five days before, Dani, on the phone with Kate: “What airport in Spain? No, there are disposable phones you can buy when you get there. He doesn’t believe in them. Right.”
Four days before, Dani to Kate again: “Well, what’s an obvious place in Paris?”
While we had slept on the floor of the Amsterdam airport, to which we’d been able to sneak through a miracle-window in the atmosphere, and watched the Netherlands refine the soccer team that just barely lost them the World Cup later that July, Drew had flown to southern Spain, and begun to hitchhike, train hop, and jog his way to Paris, for a rendezvous with Kate, who had taken the Chunnel there from Oxford. He had slept in a hammock strung between trees in public gardens and had been woken up, he told us later, by automatic sprinklers more often than security personnel. He had no phone, one pair of shoes, no money and was unable to shave for the entire journey.
In the end, Kate waited for two days under the Eiffel tower, which, as everyone knows who’s been there, is a dusty, trash-strewn parking lot where sad people of every kind attempt to sell you key chains and cold gyros. It would be impossible to say who had had the worse time of it. When Drew finally arrived, Kate hardly recognized him: A skinny Lawrence of Arabia in boat shoes. Euphoria ensued. Drew triumphantly showered. We were never told how they spent their time together in Paris (one assumes the top of the tower didn’t feature) apart from a single incident involving a lost train ticket on the metro. Two Parisian underground operators attempted to extract sixty euros from Kate, at which they both exploded into decadent profanity in both French and Spanish, and sustained it until the train was stopped, the operators hastily moving on, and Kate both laughing and crying. “I had no idea how much French I knew!” Drew told us. Kate wasn’t sure that what he’d spoken had been French.
The sun was behind the Acropolis. A delicate kind of fly, which seemed more attracted to pigeons than garbage, had begun to collect in the little square. Dani and I risked a three-dollar text. Before long, out of the gelato crush, came Drew, his beard washed electric-blond with the sun, wearing an aluminum cooking pot on his head. Kate was walking beside him with her hands in the pockets of airy seersucker shorts. We scared up the pigeons again hooping, hollering, making dinner plans. Smells of kebabs and coriander had started filling the streets, salt-tangy and intoxicating.
Around us, the Athenians were preparing to celebrate May Day, a communist-flavored holiday passed down to Europe by the dying Soviet Union, and which among the Greeks was marked by organized protest, widespread transportation boycotts, and leftist demonstrations that sometimes descended into isolated pockets of violence. Between the four of us, we knew nothing about this. Our plans had been made months in advance and dictated by considerations such as available time off and comfortable weather. May Day was something you shouted in imaginary games, when the plane was about to crash.
We were heading for the Cyclades, a system of islands in the Aegean famous for their friendliness, beauty, blue-domed churches and whitewashed fishing towns. Our scheduled departure for home was Sunday, May the 2nd. We were to fly out of Athens.