On Longing for a Better Ending

If there’s a lesson in the cautionary tale I’m about to tell, perhaps it’s this: beware of happy absorption.

This isn’t the post I want to write, but something’s been blocking me from writing to you about the productive and pleasurable experiences of my last month teaching abroad in Greece. The students were my best batch yet, full of all the best traits: they were curious, industrious, good writers, agreeable travelers. Greece, even under economic distress, showed its legendary creative resilience: volunteers were running free medical clinics and chefs tiny neighborhood tavernas, and tucked away in corners of Athens were cafes overflowing with conversation. I have the loveliest memories of all of these things, but I can’t show them to you because my phone was stolen.

I have hesitated to tell anyone this, however, because well, I find it humiliating that it happened to me, the savvy professor, after I so carefully groomed my young charges in the art of avoiding pickpockets, and I also don’t want to  perpetuate fears that Athens is a dangerous place to which one shouldn’t travel.

But try as I might to write to you about other adventures, I keep coming back to this. So bear with me, please, as I put into practice a bit of my preaching and write this out of my system.

It was on the last day of the course. The day was perfect Athens in January: sunny, bright, about 60 degrees, beckoning all of us to walk about and enjoy it before boarding the plane back to the frozen tundra. I spent the morning walking around the ancient Agora with one of the students who’d alienated herself a bit. I wanted to help her have a good ending to the course and offered to show her one of my special places, a tiny Byzantine church within the agora that has some kind of amazing acoustic set-up; when you stand in front of the altar, right under the dome with the Pantocrator (the picture of Christ on the ceiling), and hum or sing, the sound swirls through the chapel—and through you; you feel the vibration in your cheekbones and down your spine—in the most otherworldly, sublime way.

I think she liked it.

Then, after some gift-shopping, we went our separate ways. With the students’ final essays in my bag, I headed to my favorite pub. (I’m not going to mention its name here for fear that this story will turn up during a Google search for the pub and dissuade people from going there.) I ventured into the cozy interior, settled onto a bench, ordered a haloumi and roasted vegetable salad, spread the essays out in front of me, and placed the phone on the table to serve as a timekeeper and to take advantage of the pub’s free Wifi to text my beau. This part is crucial: yes, the phone was on the table, but it was right in front of me, brushing my sweater.

It was mid-day. The pub was quiet, the only other patron an Englishwoman sitting several tables away. The bartender/server, also a woman, was busy. I was enjoying the essays, underlining the most delightfully precise images, and didn’t even notice when the thief entered the room; I just knew that all of a sudden this young man was standing over me, much too close, aggressively thrusting a piece of paper in my face. I pushed him away with an “Oxi!” (No!) and he left. For a split- second I felt embarrassed at my reaction; I assumed he was a beggar and I’d pushed him away and I was the rude one. Then I realized my phone was gone. I ran out of the pub and saw him turning the corner, yelled, “Stop that man! He stole my phone!” (In English; couldn’t think quickly enough in Greek.) Two men helped me pursue him but he melted into the crowd at the next corner. I hadn’t even really seen his face.

Such a classic scenario, to be caught unawares, vulnerable because happily absorbed in a place I consider safe.

(Let me defend again the utter safety of Athens in general. The only other time I was pickpocketed—seems to be the closest word for this kind of burglary—I was also happily absorbed in a safe place: the University of Minnesota library!)

I would have preferred a better ending to my visit.

Well, I think this post was for me, folks. Thanks for reading, if you’ve gotten this far. And let me treat you to a few photos, for I know the pleasures of our blogs are in the photographs, and thanks to my friend Isabella at the Athens Centre, I’ve got some to share.

Gorgeous shot of ancient Corinth. Thanks, Isabella!
Gorgeous shot of ancient Corinth. Thanks, Isabella!
Wouldn't you love to be a dog living at an ancient ruin? Sweet dog at Corinth.
Wouldn’t you love to be a dog living at an ancient ruin? Sweet dog at Corinth.
Sublime day at Mycenae.
Sublime day at Mycenae.
And here we all are--my good group--at the ancient theatre of Epidauros.
And here we all are–my good group–at the ancient theatre of Epidauros.

6 thoughts on “On Longing for a Better Ending

  1. Pick-pockets are a funny thing. You really can never relax in a place where pick-pockets are common. Someone who has been raised with that can probably do this without any conscious attention, but if your baseline reality does not have pickpockets in it, then happy absorption puts you in a world where you don’t need to be on guard against them.

    I think protecting against pickpockets comes down to a learned paranoia. My purse is always attached to me. I am always conscious of its weight and its location on my body. I don’t usually travel with a phone or a camera–more things to lose–but if I did, they would never be out or in reach of someone else unless I am actually touching them. If I set a bag down, I place it so that I am touching it, so that I will sense if someone is tampering with it before I see it happening. I am always conscious of where my belongings are. And no matter how relaxed I am, that remains the case.

    It really can’t be entirely prevented–the only thing I’ve ever properly had stolen was a packet of biscuits right out of my hands, and that was from a rhesus macaque.

    I’m sorry that happened to you.

    1. Thanks for your response. Being pickpocketed by a rhesus macaque would certainly be more amusing! I agree with you on the “learned paranoia” and generally practice it myself; all the more reason to be frustrated with being taken. I appreciate your sympathy.

  2. Sorry about your phone and especially for the intrusion of your peaceful reflection in a special place. When these things happen in unexpected ways, a scar of being violated remains and experience is gained. Your sharing what happened is helpful to both those that have scars and those that lack the experience!

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