I didn’t leave the borders of Canada, or my even my home province, until I was nineteen. I was in my second year of college, working two jobs and generally bored with life. Everything changed when, during one of my classical studies lectures, my teacher announced a three-week field study course through Greece. There was space for just over twenty students.
I don’t remember the end of that lecture. I do remember going home and telling my parents about it. They didn’t take me very seriously at that point. I had never been more sure of myself. Greece had fascinated me since I received “Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Greek Myths” for Christmas. Then when Disney’s “Hercules” came out I was the eight-year-old child who, instead of laughing at the antics of Pain and Panic, was lamenting the fact that they completely screwed up the story. Didn’t everyone know that Hera was not Hercules’ mother but his arch enemy? Apparently not. Also, nobody else seemed to really care that Disney had changed the plot to yet another classic.
My desire to visit the country only increased as I heard more about the field study. Athens, Delphi, Mycene, all of these places of myth and legend, and I was going to see them for myself. I started working more and studying less, trying to save every penny I could. With some help from my parents I booked the airplane ticket. I was both overjoyed and terrified. Not only was I about to leave Canada for the first time, but I was going to be traveling alone until I reached Athens and met up with my classmates and teachers.
For someone who had been suffering from agoraphobia and social anxiety for more than five years the entire plan was a bit overwhelming. Luckily my enthusiasm for learning and my desire to GTFO over-powered my anxiety. Six months after I first heard about the trip I was getting a ride to the airport.
Three plane transfers later, one that I almost missed due to reading the gate incorrectly, and I was stepping off the plane into the Athens airport. One deep breath of hot, dry air was all it took for my brain to explode in a hundred different directions. After more than half a day stuck in the purgatory that is an airplane seat I was there: a continent, an ocean, and another continent away from home. Moving through customs and the baggage collection is a blur of hazy recollections. I don’t remember much past that first breathe I took until I walked into the arrivals gate and saw one of my teacher chaperones. She was standing with my school-friend who I had all but black-mailed to come on the trip with me. Tears rolled down my cheeks as I ran to him, such was the relief of seeing a face I recognized.
We waited as a group for the last student to arrive and then we moved en masse. A bus took us to the centre of the city of Athens. We disembarked and moved as a convoy; a chattering, excitable group of students led by our teacher through streets that have cobblestones more than four times the age of Canada itself. Smoothly worn marble gave way to modern pavement and back again. It was late afternoon but the heat was oppressive, blanketing the ancient metropolis. I felt like the dust was coating my lungs but it didn’t bother me, there was too much to see and and smell and take in.
Due to the expense of staying in a capital city our hotel was in one of the less friendly areas of town. It was a beautiful place with a white marble staircase and large lounge and bar for us to congregate in. That night we gathered as a full group for the first time since arriving in Athens and we all made our way out into the streets to a find a restaurant for dinner. The sun was down but it was warm enough to leave the sweater at home. I remember being uncharacteristically quiet, overwhelmed by the city around us.
Walking through the market, watching the stalls begin to close just as the restaurants grew busy, I couldn’t help but compare everything to home. Rows upon rows of sofas and chairs and low set tables dominated the space outside of restaurants. Groups of friends and families were gathering, sharing wine and food. Turning a last corner we found the restaurant and there in front of me was best view I had had yet. The Acropolis, the ancient heart of Athens, high above the rest of the sprawling urban streets. It was spot lit for the evening, dominating the skyline. In the dusky twilight the pillars gleamed, and for a heartbeat it was as if 3,000 years of history fell away. I was a short walk from one of the most recognizable wonders of the ancient world, the seat of democracy and heart of the Greek Pantheon.
It was in that heartbeat that the next few years of my life were sealed. I didn’t know at the time but I got bitten that night. The travel bug had found me, its incisors plunged into my flesh, forever dosing me with a severe case of travel fever. Any home-sickness was cured instantly, my anxiety all but vanished behind the haze of excitement for the journeys awaiting me. This was it, my chance to step away from the pages of my favourite stories and start my own adventure. To claim a new life for myself.
That is not to say that my anxiety was cured or gone in any way. It was just dwarfed by my greater desire to discover. “The road goes ever on and on, down from the door where it began…” and I will follow that road wherever it may take me.
*Photo’s courtesy of my friend and fellow traveler Biljana Tepic. Thank you!