As I get older, I find more and more that my mind tends to categorize new experiences according to the memories they unearth or past experiences they resemble. You know: This reminds me of that time we …. or I feel like I’ve been here before but know I haven’t … and so forth. It’s a form of manufactured deja vu, I guess you could say.
When Wendy and I set out from our former house in Sofia, Bulgaria, at 2 a.m. in a borrowed mini-van following a hired-van filled with all of our stuff headed toward the Greek border, my memory-categorization thing went all haywire. This, at last, was a totally new experience. We were leaving old deja vu on another continent, or so it seemed, headed into the unknown.
As we approached the border-crossing station anxiety swelled in my stomach and chest: What if they had to search the moving van? What if they tried to charge us some sort of customs fees? What if they didn’t let me in because I’m a stinking American?
I think I was shaking when I approached the window and handed the Bulgarian guard my documents, including the handwritten note saying we had permission to drive our friend’s car.
“This is no good,” the man said, holding up the note. “It needs a stamp. This? This is nothing.”
“Uhhh, but I …”
“It’s no problem,” he said, chuckling a bit at my nervousness. I exhaled with relief, prompting another laugh. At the next window, the Greek guard was even more laid back. Maybe it was the early hour, or the subsidence of COVID, or just summer. The moving van, meanwhile, sailed right on through without a second look.
Holy shit, I thought, we made it.
A couple of hours later, the sun rose over the quiet waters of the Aegean Sea off to our left, casting alpenglow on the ragged peak of Mount Olympus—yes, that Mount Olympus, home of the gods. Pink, purple, red, and white oleander flowers popped along the roadside.
And there it was, the memory: Of riding in the backseat of the family car as a child on a road trip to Phoenix or Tucson and the way everything changed the moment we dropped off of the Mogollon Rim. How we could go from winter to spring in a matter of minutes. The way my brother and I hung our heads out the backseat window, both staring hard at the passing landscape in hopes of being the first to see a saguaro and reveling in the warmth and the light and the life of the desert.
Driving from Bulgaria to Greece is like that, almost. Only instead of saguaros we search for the first olive tree, which, thanks to the vagaries of history, appears shortly after crossing into Greece.
Even the border crossing jibes with the memories of those old Arizona trips, since back then we had to stop at the border, where a guard peered into our old car and asked suspiciously if we had any fruit. We were always taught not to lie, but this was an exception.
I had never seen our new house except in pictures. It’s a humble abode to be sure, maybe 500 square feet, plaster with the paint peeling off, rodents in the ceiling.
Memories of Wendy’s and my first house: a straw bale, wattle and daub, off-the-grid place in Arboles, Colorado, with a view of Navajo Reservoir. Not quite the Aegean, but it would do. Wendy was pregnant with Lydia when we went there, just to visit, we thought. And then we bought it, co-existing for a year and a half with snakes, mice, ants, and a neighbor’s herd of cattle which knocked down the fence and strolled into our yard. The garden was a virtual jungle. I commuted all the way to Durango at a god-awful hour to work at the bakery while Wendy stayed home with Lydia, walking her through the sage.
There are no cattle near the house in Greece, but wild boars apparently will try to break onto the plot and wreak havoc.
The house, which we rent for $200 a month, comes with ten olive trees, two pomegranate trees, a lemon tree, and four fig trees. The olive trees are ancient and ragged. Wendy named the biggest, oldest one Circe.
With each passing day, my memory-categorization system breaks down. There is no mental cognate for this: morning walks through an olive grove, gathering wild thyme and fennel to season fresh fish we bought from Orestes, sitting on the porch of our little house, writing this.
I’ve never been drawn to the sea. I’m a landlocked Colorado guy by birth, and the world’s worst swimmer for reasons I can’t ascertain. Give me sandstone and sagebrush any day of the week, give me a shallow silty river or a desert pothole filled with August monsoon water. But as I lie on my back in the cool water, reminding myself that I would soon walk home and sit and write and make enough to pay the rent and live a simple existence, just like I always dreamed of, I think: I could get used to this.
I never could have imagined it would come to this.
Wendy could only dream it would come to this.
And yet. Here we are.
I have my moments of doubt, such as when I’m sealing up the ceiling crack so that rodent turds don’t sprinkle out into our food, or when I remember that I don’t speak Greek—yet, or when we’re on the phone with the internet people trying to get service to our house, or when I think about how I’ll have to leave soon to go back to the States for work, or when I realize that I’m going to have to go through the bureaucracy to get residency.
But then we head out on our little loop, climb the steep hill past ancient olive trees, descend through the field of thyme, go into the little village of Koukouleika and down to the beach where the water is as placid as a lake’s. And Wendy looks at me as if to ask, Is this real? And then she steps into the cool water and wades out a little ways and she looks back and smiles that electric smile of hers as she realizes, Yes, yes, it is real, and her eyes light up and send a jolt into mine and the current runs down to my belly and into my thighs which grow weak with love and gratitude, admiration and desire, because goddamn she pulled it off, she really pulled it off, and whether we’re here for a month or a year or a lifetime, we’re living the dream, at least for a little while.
There is no container or method of categorization big enough to hold this feeling.
And then she turns and, like a mythical sea creature, dives in, disappears for a brief moment, then pops back up, glistening.