It is no doubt an odd situation where we find ourselves wandering around a foreign city with a variety of possibilities in our mind but no certainty that any of our hypotheses are true. There I was in Athens only a month after the people had voted no to austerity, and where a week later the leftist government contradicted its own voters and started to implement the very measures the majority had voted against. I knew Angela (whom I had started seeing in Glasgow only a few weeks before the vote) was ecstatic at the result, and devastated by the government's capitulation. Or rather I assumed she was, because though we talked the day before the referendum on Skype, once more after it, for the following four weeks before I went to Greece we had only exchanged emails. We had tried to make contact through Skype on several occasions, but whether it was the weakness of her connection, or the weakness of mine when I tried her a couple of times while travelling along the west coast of Scotland, no verbal contact had been made.
Yet I got a call a couple of weeks before going from a long-term Greek friend who lived along the road from me in Glasgow, and he insisted I come over. He'd found a cheap flight. I should book it. I told him that Angela hadn't called, that we only had elliptical email exchanges where she referred to her mood being very low and her internet connection very poor. Was the latter an excuse for the former, or was I to take her explanation at face value, even though I hadn't seen her visage even in a video call for a month? Over the weeks, before arriving in Greece, four hypotheses had come to me. One was that she was given to extreme insecurity and anxiety; she announced to me after only a couple of nights together that she was given to feelings so frightening that she could barely speak. Another was that she was scared: she said after a week that she was falling in love with me and believed this was dangerous. I asked why and she said because it might make her reliant on me. The third was that she had returned to her ex. She hadn't long split up with her ex-boyfriend after a relationship that had lasted a year, long distance. He wanted her back, she said, even though he seemed to have treated her cruelly in the relationship, and ended it with malice. She was in hospital after a minor operation to her foot and he insisted he never wanted to see her again; didn't even want her to contact him. The fourth was that she was quite mad, but I will say more about that later.
After saying I had booked a flight and arranged to see Anestis in Athens, before hoping to carry on up to the town on the north west of Greece to see her, I had only received two further emails. The first said that she was feeling terrible, the second that she was hoping to see me. Hope seemed an odd word: hadn't I already arranged the flight? But perhaps what she meant by hope was that her mood would have lightened enough for us to enjoy each other's company. Yet when I asked her for more detailed plans; how long I should stay in Athens, how soon should I go up to see her, no response at all was forthcoming. I sent her one more email the day I arrived in Athens detailing my travel itinerary, saying I would be spending most of my time up and around Thessaloniki. Why? Because this was on the other side of the country from where Angela lived, and it would make clear that I had no interest in following her, trying to see her or force myself upon her. When girlfriends had left me in the past, and I was devastated by the break-up, friends would sometimes say pursue her, tell her how much you love and need her. Make a scene; make a fool of yourself. I always refused, remembering a well-know phrase: let go of your pride but hold on to your dignity.
Anestis had met Angela only once, and strangely not in my company. A few days before I had met her at a book launch in the city centre, Anestis had talked with her at a conference organized by a friend of his. When I told him I had started seeing someone, and described her, he said he had met her not long before. I asked him at the time what he thought of her, but my question had no urgency in the asking, and he wasn't too specific in his answer. He simply said she was very attractive and seemed to know her subject. She had given a paper on the present state of the Greek economy: she was finishing a PhD on political theory; her undergraduate degree had been in economics.
Meeting her several days after Anestis, my opinion was similar, though I would have less to say on her paper, since I hadn't been at the conference, but more to say on her looks: she was someone to whom I had been immediately attracted, someone I had actually seen around the university a year before, and where I had been instantly intrigued. Attractive seemed too weak a word, and beautiful too strongly objective. Stunning was the appropriate adjective, and stunned I had been. As I took her number at the book shop I noticed the phone clumsy in my hand, a bar of soap determined to slip from my fingers. She took it off me and put her name and number in herself. She then insisted I give her a missed call straight away so that she had my number too. The deed was done.
We arranged to meet a couple of days later. Where she was casually attired the day we met, in jeans with high turn ups and a hippie jacket multi-coloured and woollen, the evening we saw each other for a drink she was wearing make-up and a dress high on the thigh and sleeveless. This was a dull Scottish summer's day: it looked like it was worn to please rather than to suit the weather. And pleased me it did, as did her oak-filled eyes, her smoke-smooth voice and her smile that was vivid and immediately warm. The impression she made in the book shop was impressed upon me in the bar. After a couple of hours talking about politics (her subject) and philosophy and aesthetics (my area), I asked if she wanted anything to eat. She wasn't really hungry she said, but if I wanted to eat she would happily join me.
We went to a nearby cafe and sat on a raised platform surrounded by cushions that lent the situation an intimacy we were both more than pleased to meet. As I started saying a few things about my childhood she moved closer towards me, put her hand in mine, saying that I seemed so open as she told me several details about her own. Her father had abandoned her at six; my mother had died in an accident when I was seven. It was perhaps odd to talk about these moments of devastation on what I suppose we would call a first date, but I'm not so sure if the inappropriateness as I write this rests on calling it a first date, rather than believing what we discussed was inappropriate. When I kissed Angela outside her flat several hours later, as I moved my hand along her waist and caressed her thigh, there was no hint of the impertinence I would often feel after a first date where little was revealed conversationally, but a sexual desire generated and demanded. Indeed, as she pulled away reiterating what she had told me earlier (that she had a paper to give in Athens in a couple of weeks' time and really needed to do some work on it, and as I concurred, saying I had the first of a three day summer class to teach the next morning) it was more like long-familiar lovers parting at an airport than a couple of people just acquainted.
We spoke a little on the phone over the next couple of days, and we both agreed we shouldn't meet again until I had finished my course; she in that time could finish her paper. I enjoyed the period apart, thinking that in a few days I would have access to that body, and day-dreamed during my lunch break and while preparing the classes in the evening, what it would be like making love with Angela. The three day course was on philosophy. Day one was Kierkegaard and the notion of choice. Day two was Nietzche's ideas on eternal recurrence. Day three was Foucault's use of the Ancients to explore what was called a Technology of Self. I used Kierkegaard's story of Abraham willing to kill his only begotten son from Fear and Trembling, and some passages from The Seducer's Diary. What is it to choose, I asked the students, and what would they be willing to sacrifice for a higher good? And what about seduction, I wondered: is the seducer someone who chooses or is their behaviour compulsive?
Day one went well, but day two was harder. I don't think I've ever managed to explain Nietzsche's eternal recurrence satisfactorily. I read various passages from his work, referenced several other philosophers who invoked the idea, and tried to create examples from life that might pass for something we might want time immemorial. I even used Milan Kundera's early passages from The Unbearable Lightness of Being, but felt that the Czech writer was using the idea so much for his own ends that I wasn't sure if it was useful. Day three went well: students seemed easily to grasp the notion that with certain techniques we can feel mastery over ourselves. Whether the decisions were political, romantic or those of friendship, they were sympathetic to Marcus Aurelias's manner of detailing his day, Epictetus wandering through the streets musing over what he could claim as his concern and what wasn't, and Pliny and Seneca's belief that we should live our life as if from our own deaths: what decisions should we make based not on our immediate present, but as if we were to look back on the life we have lived.
Each evening I would talk to Angela on the phone about what I had taught in class that day, and she would tell me a little about her paper. She joked saying after I told her about Epictetus and co that we were ourselves, she supposed, practising a technology of self: hadn't we resisted seeing each other for several days? Perhaps especially so since we only lived fifteen minutes away from each other. During one of these evening chats she did wonder whether we were such strong characters or did it suggest weak passions. Yet she said it not as though to indicate her own feelings were weak, but as if fretfully worrying about the strength of mine.
I would later explain to Angela that weekend, as we lay in bed together having made love for about the tenth time in the three days we had been having sex, that my capacity for absence appeared stronger than most people's, but did not at all reflect a weakness of feeling. I could bring somebody into my heart and let the feeling sit there until the person was beside me once again. I said that those three days where I taught and looked forward to seeing her were very happy ones for me. She replied that they were tortuous for her. I turned to her and tangled myself in the sheets that our lovemaking had turned into a tornique and said I was surprised. She could have seen me any time. I would have been happy to have met her each evening; that most of the work for the course had been completed long in advance, and that I had gone over the notes I'd written for want of anything better to do. She said her situation was the opposite: she needed to work but could hardly concentrate at certain moments, as she missed my company.
I wouldn't say this discussion we had created a breach in our burgeoning affair, but I could see in her eyes the fear of abandonment, the sense she might have felt that if I could so comfortably enjoy my own company in her absence, how important was she going to be for me, and how much more would she be inclined to need me than I would need her? I caressed her back into a calm that led to sleep, and watched her resting body, allowing my hand to hover over her face, tracing the nose, the lips, the eyes, the eyebrows. Sometimes when I looked at her as we made love I would notice her searching my face; that she wanted to see in me a loyalty of feeling that would show I wished to extend this moment of sweet pleasure and quiet passion into a commitment much greater than the present. 'Love me' she would say as I moved inside her. I wasn't sure whether she meant by this simply 'make love to me', or whether she was conveying a need far greater than the sexual experience. Sometimes when we would speak she would slip into Greek, saying that she didn't feel she could always express herself in English, or rather that by expressing a few words in Greek she was conveying a sincerity that by speaking in English created a slight distance.
I would sometimes wish that her English had been perfect during that month before I arrived in Greece, with the emails well-enough written, but where I would sometimes fret over the meaning of phrases she used, wondering whether she quite meant one thing or another. It was during this period, as well as during my stay in Greece, that I found myself working through the four hypotheses I earlier introduced. The first, that she had become anxious and lost was the most valid. The initial emails that she sent after getting back to Greece were exuberant and sexual: she talked of wanting my body as soon as possible; wished to see my eyes and to hear my voice. During our Skype exchange we moved between tender expressions of longing intermingled with explicit words of desire. But not long after the Skype chat, when she returned from Athens after the conference, the tone was more distant, the emails less affectionate, the tone increasingly despondent. It was also as though she wasn't quite replying to my emails. I would speak about a book I had read or a film I had seen; the response was as if she hadn't received the email at all. She e-mailed back saying she wasn't feeling so good, things were difficult in Greece, and then in one email that her uncle was very ill. After a few more brief email exchanges, another arrived where she said the friend with whom she was staying next to the coast at a village about forty miles from her home town had an accident: she was cycling down a very steep hill and a car pulled out and luckily she landed on the bonnet before hitting the pavement. Nevertheless, the friend's face was bruised and swollen, she needed several stitches, and along with her uncle's illness, the Greek vote, the fact that only a certain amount of money could be taken out of a Greek account each day, meant that this wasn't turning out to be much of a summer.
I had remembered in Glasgow how she had described the onset of this extreme anxiety. Usually it would consist of a trigger, and her fear was that the funding she sought for the fourth year of her PhD wouldn't be forthcoming. The first three years were guaranteed, but the fourth was dependent on various factors, and before meeting me Angela said she had considered finishing it in Greece if the money didn't arrive. She could live at home, she said, and just concentrate on writing it up. Meeting me was not very convenient, she insisted, smiling and kissing me as she said it: adding what a wonderful inconvenience I happened to be as we started to make love yet again.
Afterwards Angela said she didn't want to invite me over in case she received bad news after I had booked the flight, and I would arrive to find someone barely able to talk and unwilling to do anything but fear for the next panic attack. Yet while her worries about the PhD funding may or may not have been valid (she never mentioned in any of the emails whether she had received the money or not), I suppose that the failure of the no vote, the uncle's illness and the friend's accident, could have taken her already to the anxious place she so feared.
So there I was arriving in Athens to see a lover I might not meet and a friend who insisted I come and stay with him. He was at his father's house in a small city called Chalkida; his father was away in Crete and his girlfriend was over from Slovenia. It was August and Greeks tend to holiday a little like the French: very little would get done during this vacationing month. Each night we would go out to a couple of bars in the town, by the sea, and we would rarely leave the house before midnight, usually staying out till around five, and where we would talk in the chairs away from the bar initially, and then later dance to the DJs choice of tunes; before eating Suvlaki on the way home. I asked Anestis if he had been going out every night (it was now well into August) and he said he had one night in: the evening before he picked his girlfriend up from the airport. That was over two weeks earlier, and I wondered after five evenings at the bar whether I could stand another one. I said I would have an early night: the next day I wanted to travel north to Thessaloniki. I remember in that email I'd sent to Angela from Athens that I mentioned I would be going on that date, and perhaps she could meet me there.
I took an afternoon bus and arrived around six hours later. I found a hotel on a street full of them called Hotel Vergina, dropped off my rucksack, took a shower and with a few hours of light left went for a walk up to the back of the city. The place reminded me a bit of Barcelona, a city that also centred on its port and then backed up for several miles up hill. Yet I never quite managed to find a vantage point in which to see the whole town, even clambering upon the ancient walls that signified the city's limits left the view limited. Yet I found the houses fascinating, with the general shape similar and box-like as one would often find in Greece, but the colours varied, the doors and windows surprising and distinctive, as though the sort of personality often reflected in interior design had been given outer form. One house had a red porch with three pillars. Another house had wide, rectangular windows, a third narrow ones, almost like the gaps in a castle's walls where arrows could be fired. No two houses next to each were the same colour: you would move from a house in blue and white, to blue and yellow, to burgundy and white, to green and red. I wondered what Angela's house was like. I recalled the room in which she had video messaged me was simple; nothing on the walls, and apparently all but empty of furniture: there was an echo to our conversation that was more than just the technology. I had the feeling that she lived at home in a state of emotional and aesthetic austerity, where good taste and ornamentation were without importance. Her flat in Glasgow lacked posters on the walls, and if someone had asked me how long she had been staying in the apartment I would have guessed a couple of months, though she announced she had been living there since the start of her PhD. From what she had said about her childhood, there were few luxuries: after her father left her mother's purpose was to survive with three children. I sensed that ever since survival had been her purpose too.
Yet while there wouldn't have been much that passed for the aesthetic in her family life, Angela herself was of course very aesthetic indeed: she was beautiful, a remark I can make not only because I saw her a year before we started seeing each other and remembered her vividly thereafter, but also in the admiring glances she would often receive as we walked together in the streets of Glasgow. I could be both objective and subjective. She was beautiful and stunning. But it was as though she never saw these glances, and certainly didn't want to acknowledge them. It wasn't that she wouldn't sometimes put on make-up, or a dress for a party we went to one evening; more that she did it for me, she said, as though unwilling to prettify her looks for herself. Even when we ate in her flat she said she had some candles somewhere, making clear that she would never use them when on her own. The dark places that she would often go to inside herself were matched by the arid apartment she would live in and the simple clothes she would wear unless instigated by the desire of the other person, be it friend or lover.
One friend she was close to would constantly ask her to make more of an effort: there she was a lovely looking woman and she didn't make the most of herself. I met him once when Angela was back in Greece and sure enough I could see he was a man given to the pep talk. A fellow Greek whose English was fluent, his manner polite and his dress sense flamboyant, I suspected he came from a different social class than Angela, and this gave him a feeling not at all of superiority, but perspective. Meeting him I realised this is what Angela lacked: a sense of the world and her place within it. She could argue well on politics and on her subject, but she seemed to react to the world otherwise as if it were a blur, and I wasn't surprised to hear that on days she wouldn't feel very well she would go out without her glasses on or without putting in her contact lenses. She didn't want to see the world she would say, and said that once it almost got her killed. She was crossing the road and the combination of absent-minded feelings and poor vision meant she almost got run over. On a couple of other occasions she annoyed friends. They thought she was ignoring them.
I wondered if I had become another person she literally did not want to see. I thought I would stay mainly in Thessaloniki, taking short bus rides out of the city to nearby beaches, but after a couple of days I got a bus further along the coast in the direction of Turkey, yet didn't know where I would stop. I first got out at a town at the top of the first finger, but the smell of stale fish at the port and a mild oil spillage that turned the water rainbow coloured, had me returning to the bus station and travelling on to the second finger, getting off at Marmaras. As I enquired about accommodation at various hotels I could see this was a popular destination. It took me two hours to find somewhere to stay. With its dripping tap, its semi-blocked toilet, the room's damp smell and its toothless landlady, I knew that any other available accommodation was going to be not much better than that. After dropping off my rucksack I wandered through this undulating coastal town and understood its popularity. It wasn't simply a resort like others I had passed along the coast, nor a town that was a transit place for going to nearby beaches, it was an integrated resort that had numerous shops, restaurants, cafes and mini-markets. There was a main beach about a mile and a half away from the apartment, and a couple of smaller ones nearby. But I would usually walk a minute from the place I was staying in, move down the steps and onto the rocks where I would dive into the water, drying myself in the sun afterwards with a hard surface beneath me. Any discomfort in drying under a rock rather than sand was more than compensated for by swimming in water fresh and far away from the co-existent orgy of numerous bodies strewn on the busy beaches and no doubt urinating in the sea. I swam on the main sandy beach once, and noticed along a stretch of sand for half a mile there was no public toilet.
I stayed for four nights, each day adding lightly to the tan I had already picked up while staying with Anestis in his hometown. Returning to Thessaloniki after Marmaras I was a shade of brown that didn't look out of place in a country where many had been by the sea and in the sun, but would probably seem slightly ridiculous back in Scotland. Anyway, I stayed in Thessaloniki for another three nights, drawn to this town that had a population density a tenth that of Athens, and looking even less dense than usual I assumed, with most of the locals having left to sun themselves at resorts like the one I had just come from.
Of course Angela had been on my mind throughout the trip even if I had made no effort to see her and, apart from one email I sent not long after arriving in Greece, had made no contact and received no news. All I could do was think through my four hypotheses. The most probable resided in her feeling anxious, and wishing to avoid contact with people generally. We had talked during that brief time together in Glasgow about her capacity to sink into a dark thought and stay in it, with a feeling of worthlessness for example leading to a series of thoughts that would make her feel more and more alienated from herself and subsequently from others. She said that some people she supposed had the capacity to think a negative thought and swat it swiftly away. Imagine a situation from a few years ago; one where you humiliated yourself in front of others. How did you feel then, and how present is it to you now? She gave as an example appearing at her first conference while in the final year of her undergraduate degree in Athens. She gave a paper that she announced was speculative and needed more work, but hoped the various people would be sympathetic to the talk she was giving as it was a paper in progress. Most of those in attendance asked questions that would help to make her article stronger, but one professor from the US said it was clear that the work wasn't only speculative, it also showed scant reading as she listed several important papers that Angela hadn't read. Afterwards, at the reception, she overheard the professor saying to a post-graduate student Angela half-knew that the only reason the paper was allowed at all was because someone in the department clearly had a soft-spot for the young woman and couldn't see beyond the inadequacies of her article.
Angela said this memory would come back to her often, and whenever she worked on a paper for a conference, let alone when she actually had to read one. I asked her how old the woman who attacked her paper happened to be, what she looked like, how valid did she believe her comments were? She said that few people would have found her beautiful; she was in her mid-fifties and it looked like the effort of staying thin created a shape that looked shrunken. But when Angela later looked her up on the internet, she saw that when she was younger she would have been described as stunning. What happened she wondered: was it the strain of her career, a difficult love life, bad habits? Anyway, this attack was one of a number of moments that Angela couldn't easily forget, and she supposed anxiety resides often in us constantly fighting with memories of ourselves that displease us. Maybe with enough of them she would look like this woman by the time she reached her mid-fifties. Thoughts like this were depressive.
The second most likely reason was that she had become afraid; to see that a relationship with me would lead to complications later that she might not wish to deal with. All her previous boyfriends had been Greek: she always assumed however long she would be away from her country that she would eventually return. But by seeing me was that now less likely? Even though we had known each other only for ten days, she talked about looking for a future with someone; she wasn't interested in casual affairs. Had her silence been out of fear?
The third was that she still had feelings for her ex-boyfriend; had perhaps started seeing him again. I knew though she was a town on the north west of Greece, she had been in Athens for a few days after the no vote. Perhaps she had seen him there. He was a well-known TV personality with his own talk show; yet she said it wasn't his fame that had drawn her to him; more his well-known father, who was probably the best actor of his generation. He mainly worked in theatre, but I had actually seen him in a couple of well-respected Greek films. Her ex had supported the austerity measures, she said, and if there had been any feelings left for him that would have dissolved them. But had it?
The fourth possibility was that Angela was quite mad. In Glasgow I had taken numerous photos of her and after I felt she had become aloof I looked more closely at them and in three or four I saw a gaze that was halfway between anxiety and insanity. If looks could kill I wondered whether that look could be murderous or suicidal: there was a danger in her expression. I also wondered whether her show of feeling, her declaration that she wanted to spend the future with me, that she said she loved me within a week, that she was going to miss me painfully when she was back in Greece and that I must visit her, reflected less upon me and more back at her. What thoughts really went through that mind?
It was with such thoughts on my mind that I had been wandering around Thessaloniki and passed through some of the same streets I had walked up and around before visiting Marmaris. Only this time I found walking along them Angela. I of course initially wondered whether my constant thoughts about her had conjured up nothing less than an image of her from my mind, and I wouldn't blame the reader here for assuming that this is either a figment of the character's imagination or a writer's failure of imagination: that Angela walking the very streets I happened to be winding my way along indicates either contrivance or clumsy coincidence. But if it happened to be the former it was not of my making, but of Angela's own.
Initially I merely watched her from about fifty yards away, and then followed her for the next couple of hours as she made her way up to the city's walls, and then turned back, walking across Eptapirgiou, and then down the steep Arganofton, and into the town centre, walking along past the White Tower and by the sea front. I kept tracking her until she arrived at the Vergina, not far from the Rex where this time I happened to be staying. As she was about to enter I rushed forward and held the door open for her. She looked round, thanked me, and then, her eyes wide with amazement, immediately hugged me, holding me for a minute as if she hadn't spent most of the trip avoiding my presence. I held her but couldn't avoid a quizzical look on my own face as she pulled away from the hug to kiss me on the lips. I apologised for the expression and said, with as amused a tone as I could manage, that we needed to talk.
Talking wasn't the first thing we did on returning to her hotel room, but as we lay in bed I asked her what she happened to be doing floating around Thessaloniki: her home town was hundreds of miles away. Hadn't I said I would be devoting much of my stay to Thessaloniki she said. Sure, I replied, saying partly because I wanted to make it clear that she needn't fear I was following her around; partly because people had told me there were some nice beaches and villages along the coast in the direction of Turkey. A sincere yet bashful look appeared on her face, and she said that after the no vote a melancholy came over her, then when the cousin became very ill it exacerbated the feeling, and then there was the friend's accident. Out of all this she missed a chapter deadline for her PhD, aware that if she missed another her funding would be unlikely to be renewed, and she became anxious, and then unsure of everything. For about five days she didn't contact anyone, deactived her Facebook account, and lay in bed sleeping for many hours. Then she started planning how she could meet the next deadline, and worked for a week on it, sleeping as little as she had slept lots the previous few days. Once she had finished, she thought about how little attention she had given to me, how much she wanted still to be with me, and was overcome with a new anxiety.
Why had I decided to devote so much of my time to staying in the north of Greece, she wondered. She recalled that just as she had told me about her ex-boyfriend, as well as an earlier, happier relationship when she was in her early twenties, so I had talked about ex-girlfriends, one of whom was a German girl teaching in a university in Istanbul. Had she, Angela, wondered, decided to join me in Thessaloniki? She didn't give the idea much thought, but, emailing her supervisor the PhD chapter, she booked a train from her home town a few days earlier, and had actually followed me around for one of them: the day before I went off to Marmaras. For the last few days she kept looking all over the city, somehow sure that she would find me walking hand in hand with my ex-girlfriend, certain that her own unreliability might have led her to losing me to someone else. I asked as we talked if she had given this much thought, or when she felt it she immediately got on the train and went off to Thessaloniki. The latter she said: she had a habit of acting on instinct. I replied that I had the habit of constantly questioning my intuitions, looking at the various hypotheses to any situation. I wouldn't have gone to her home city to follow her around, to see what she was doing; but that didn't mean I hadn't spent most of the last fortnight wondering in my mind, just as over the last week she had wandered around Thessaloniki.
Wandering and wondering: we both proved ourselves capable of obsession, whether in thought or action. It was an odd end to a holiday, and yet I am not so sure if we had met up at the beginning of it, stayed for two weeks together, seeing sites, eating at restaurants, taking walks, whether we would quite have revealed to ourselves and to each other so much about our personalities, and certain fundamental differences. Whether any long-term relationship could come out of our quirky personalities, we would find out, I supposed, when returning to Glasgow. When I said this, another strange look of anxiety came over her beautiful, stunning and stunned face.
© Tony McKibbin