CHAPTER 1 - Introduction

THE idea first entered my head in the summer of 2001. I was staying at my grandparents’ house in Greece and had just met Marie and Catherine. They were Canadian and teaching English in Δερβένι (Derveni) – the next village over from where I was staying. First impressions told me they were insane for what they were doing. They were in their late-twenties and had traveled halfway across the world to take a low-paying job that would do absolutely nothing for their future. It was dangerous. They didn’t know anyone or anything in Δερβένι. It was confusing. They didn’t speak Greek (Marie didn’t, Catherine knew some from her father). It was pointless. They would gain nothing from it except for the experience. It was an adventure. It was something new. It was exactly what I needed.
I had graduated from college in the winter and, frankly, unsure of what to do with my life. Get some crappy office job? No way. Continue with my studies? Boring. But what else was there? I had to choose something. In the meantime, I decided to wait for Mike. He had said he would go to Europe with me but he couldn’t for another few months so I moved back home to Philadelphia and began twiddling my thumbs there. My parents started complaining about the entire situation after only a week. Wasn’t I going to get a job? Wasn’t I going to go to Graduate School? What was I going to do with my future? Or was I just going to "bum around" until spring waiting for Mike? So I did what any Cum Laude graduate with an Honors Degree in History and a Minor in Philosophy would have done. I got a job as a cashier at the local pharmacy across the street.
That lasted until May. Once Mike took his end of the semester exams, we agreed that it was time to leave for our destination overseas, Amsterdam. He would only stay for a couple of weeks and, afterwards, I would eventually work my way down to Greece alone. Then... I didn’t even know myself. So I said goodbye to everyone in the States – friends, lovers, relatives – and assured them I would return by Thanksgiving the latest. I figured that, by then, my savings account would be bone dry.
Mike and I took our courier flights across the Atlantic and for the next two weeks stumbled through the streets of Amsterdam while drunk, stoned, or both. We normally smoked cigarettes (I always roll mine) but never really smoked marijuana that much back home. I, personally, can’t handle the stuff. Beer is my drug. But hell, it was Holland and we were smoking joints all day and every day. After that fourteen-day daze had run its course, I said goodbye to Mike and told him that I’d definitely see him back again in Philly by Thanksgiving time. But first I had to work my way down to Greece for my cousin Anna’s wedding. He got on a courier flight home and I, after a few days, got on a train to a town in the south of the Netherlands where an Australian backpacker I had met told me that he had an uncle that would have a free bed for me.
He didn’t. For the next few weeks, I found myself going from one city to the next, haphazardly working my way southeastwards through Europe towards Greece. Some nights were spent drinking beer in youth hostels. Others, like in Cologne, were spent sleeping in the train station while vying for a bench with the homeless because I had missed the last train of the evening. Spontaneity eventually helped me make my way to the Czech Republic. I figured I had seen enough of Western Europe so why not give the former Eastern Bloc a try for the next few days.
Prague is a beautiful city. Unlike the many Dutch, Belgian, French, German, and Austrian cities I had seen – completely rebuilt after the war – this one had survived untouched since the golden days of the Habsburg Empire. The tall Baroque towers. The vast copper domes. The cobblestone winding alleys. The statues that adorned every building and street corner. Prague seemed more like "golden Vienna" than Vienna itself. And not only were its buildings aesthetically pleasing, but so were its women. I was in a country with the highest per capita alcohol consumption in the world, where the famed Czech beer was cheaper than water, surrounded by some of the most beautiful girls in Europe. I had no choice other than to spend two weeks in Prague alone.
That stay in Bohemia was cut short as Anna’s wedding day fast approached. Anna is my first cousin from my mother’s side. She was the first out of all the cousins – out of the ten of us – to tie the knot. We all expected her to get married soon so it didn’t come as much of a surprise when she announced it. It was going to be a time for the whole family to get together and celebrate. It was going to be a time for joy. It was also going to be strange – to think about the fact that we were all grown up now. All ten of us used to play together as little children. It seemed like yesterday when we didn’t have a care in our imaginary world. But now, there was the real world. Decisions, life decisions, had to be made. I think that reality was finally ingrained within my consciousness as I pictured Anna walking down the church aisle in her white gown. One of us was getting married. Starting a family. Starting a new life. Taking on more responsibilities than I could ever imagine.
I flew down to Greece in late June and went to Ιωάννινα (Ioannina). It's a city in the northwest of Greece with great feta cheese. My uncle lives there and it’s about an hour from the remote mountain village where he and my mom grew up, where my grandparents lived. Anna was getting married in Ιωάννινα and her husband was from there too. She said, "I do," had a fantastic reception, and went back to Philadelphia a couple of weeks later. I stayed behind, went with friends and cousins on drunken excursions to a few islands and, by the middle of August, eventually settled down in my grandparents’ beach house in the tiny fishing village of Λυγιά (Lygia).
The days flew by as I sat on the balcony overlooking the clear blue waters of the Gulf of Corinth and the imposing mountains that encircle it. My life there consisted of thinking, writing, reading, going for coffee in Δερβένι, and entertaining the occasional visitor. Then, sometime in October, after nearly three months of isolation from the English language, I overheard two girls I had never seen before in the village café.
"Excuse me. Do you speak English?"
"Oh my God," replied the brunette as her blue eyes lit up. "Yeah. Of course we do!"
"Do you mind if I sit with you guys?"
"No problem at all! This is crazy, eh?" said the blonde with a look of surprise that wouldn’t leave her face.
I introduced myself. The brunette’s name was Marie and the blonde’s was Catherine.
"Wow man. Like, what are you doing here?" was the next thing that came out of Marie’s mouth.
"No, no, no. What are you guys doing here? I speak Greek. My grandparents own a house here and I’ve been coming here since I was a little kid."
"No way. We’re teaching English here. We just started maybe two weeks ago. I haven’t seen you before though. Where are you from?"
"U.S. Philadelphia. But my parents are from Greece. Well, they were born here."
"My dad too," interrupted Catherine. "We’re both Canadian. I’m from Toronto."
"I’m from Niagara Falls. This is crazy, eh?"
"Yeah. But it’s good to hear English again though. So, you guys are teaching here? Can you do that? I mean, how?" I asked as my hand slowly reached for my goatee.
"The Internet. There are plenty of websites that post teaching positions all over the world. You just log on and, like, boom, you’re there! It’s amazing, eh?"
Then they gave me all the details. All you really needed was a degree from an anglophonic university. The postings on the Internet were for a number of countries but the most numerous were in Europe and East Asia. It was nearly impossible to get a job in the European Union, legally at least, without a valid EU passport. Marie had both a Canadian and an Italian passport because she was born in Canada but her father was born in Italy. The same for Catherine except her father was born in Greece. I figured I would have no problem getting my Greek passport seeing as both of my parents were born in Greece. The entire prospect was beginning to excite me. I could hardly sleep for the next few days.
Living in Greece, by the beach, and getting paid to speak a language I had known since birth. My parents already had started complaining again about how much longer I would continue to "bum around" at their expense. By the time I met Marie and Catherine, the matter was being brought up routinely each time we talked on the telephone. I had figured it was about time to go back to Philadelphia and get that crappy office job or go to Graduate School, because I didn't know what else to do, and dig myself further into a daily rut. I knew that it was like willingly shackling the chains on myself, but what other option did I have? Then that idea appeared like a halcyon from above. And it continued to infect my brain more and more each day.
Marie and I eventually became a couple. The fact that I would see my girlfriend getting up to teach English every morning and hear from her how enjoyable the job was didn’t exactly help to diminish my desire to do the same thing. Her boss at the language school told me that a teaching position was as good as mine. All I needed was a passport. So I called some bureaucratic government offices and after a dozen transfers and referrals to other departments, I received all the information I needed. They required my parents’ birth certificates, mine as well, a declaration of residence in the United States, and a few other papers. There was only one problem – mandatory military conscription. Whereas any male born and raised in Greece had to do a compulsory eighteen months, I only needed to serve for six seeing as I had never technically resided in Greece. Regardless of that fact, the military was still the military. At that point in my life, I knew that I couldn’t handle any kind of disciplinary service, whether it was for two weeks or two years. I was – and am – an irresponsible loafer. Brainwashing me to kill didn’t sound too appealing either. I didn’t even want to kill animals (I was a vegetarian at the time) let alone other humans. Also, I had heard too many horror stories from other Greeks about their military nightmare. So, that was it. No EU passport meant I couldn’t work in any EU country. Back to the U.S. of A. in time for Thanksgiving, just as I had promised.
Then it dawned on me. Who needed the European Union when there was a perfectly good Czech Republic next to it? It wasn’t part of the Union yet so that meant I could work there as an American using my good ol’ US passport. Prague. The beauty. The beer. The babes. I made up my mind without even giving it a second thought.
"You’re moving where!?" she yelled in Greek. We always speak in Greek.
"Prague, mom. The Czech Republic."
"What are you crazy? What on Earth are you going to do there? You don’t even speak the damn language! Enough with this bullshit! We let you go around Europe after you graduated and stay in Greece all these months. Now it’s time to come home and get serious! There is no way that..."
"Listen mom," I calmly interrupted, "there’s no way that you’re stopping me. I’m not asking you for anything: money or permission. I’m just telling you what I’m going to do."
"Dimitri!" she hollered. "We’ll see what your father has to say about this."
My dad gently picked up the telephone, "Where are you going?"
"Prague. In the Czech Republic."
"Oh, former Czechoslovakia. And what about your future? After that?"
"I’ll go on to Graduate School. Get a Master’s or a Ph.D. eventually. But not now."
"I see... And money? You need any money?"
"No. I’ll be working there."
"Okay then. Sounds great. Have a good time," as he calmly hung up the phone. All the while I could hear my mother growing more and more furious in the background.
And so, everything was decided. By the beginning of November, I knew it was time. I bought an airplane ticket to Prague with the last of my money. I said goodbye to Marie and Λυγιά. I said goodbye to everything I had ever been sure of in the past and everything I had ever assumed about my future. I was going to live in a country that I knew nothing about.