Junior Jeffrey Parker, a history major from Winston-Salem, N.C., is spending the spring semester in Oxford, England, after also spending the fall term there. Twice a month, he will share his experiences and observations from England as one of GW’s many expats. God save the Queen.
I am very white. And I don’t mean in the cultural sense.
Well, I guess I do like indie rock a lot, but “Friends” annoyed the hell out of me. No, I mean that my skin is quite literally very white. I’m not albino, but I wasn’t blessed by much in the melanin department.
I mention this because it has occurred to me that people who are very white should not lie in the sun, no matter what Neutral Milk Hotel might tell you. I am in Santorini, a tiny island off the coast of Greece, and I lounged on the beach for the better part of the day. Natural light is not my friend, I’ve discovered, and I plan on retreating to the halogen lamps of libraries and dimly lit stages of rat-nest rock clubs as soon as I can.
For now, I am burned all over my body, except the parts covered by my bathing suit, and the _10 sunglasses I bought from a hustler in Athens. Because said sunglasses were fake Ray-Ban aviators, my face is crimson, excepting relatively large circles of white emanating from my eyes. I look like a cherry-flavored panda.
I’m not sure I’ve ever been this blissful, though. I mean, sure, I can’t walk very comfortably right now, and I’ll probably start to shed my skin like an insect sheds its exoskeleton pretty soon. This is OK, though, because I spent today listening to Bruce Springsteen and the Kings of Leon and Sufjan Stevens and Wilco on the beach, staring at the bluest water I’ve ever seen. I read Dave Eggers and Chuck Klosterman instead of Edward Gibbon and Jacques Derrida, but only when I wanted to. Because if I didn’t, I just went to sleep. I exclusively drank emasculating drinks, as if my self-worth was entirely dependent on the number of tiny umbrellas I could accumulate.
As I basked in this sublime laziness, I found myself wondering, often out loud to my friends, why I should ever leave. What’s to stop me from doing this for the rest of my life? Besides the first-degree burns, I mean, because a little sun block and aloe can take care of those.
The obvious answer is money, but I’m not sure it’s valid. The hostel we’re staying at is insanely cheap, and I’m sure I could get a mindless job here that would allow me to not starve to death. I wouldn’t be rich, but I have a feeling that I’m not going to be rich anyway, unless people start paying handsomely for musical misanthropy.
So really, what’s stopping me? Why shouldn’t I ditch my last term at Oxford, put off my return to Foggy Bottom indefinitely and spend the rest of my life in this Mediterranean Never-Never Land?
I though hard about this, and couldn’t really come up with an answer for a while. I put off my contemplation long enough to go grab some gyros down the street. As a rule, my hunger pangs demand more serious consideration than my life crisis moments, as they happen less often and at least go away when fed.
I ordered my food and stood idly at the counter, waiting for the cashier to accumulate enough currency from the other customers to give me back _4 from the _10 I gave him. Suddenly, a man barreled through the open door frame. This man was maybe 60, but his unkempt beard and glassy eyes made him look at least 10 years older. After courteously throwing some change on the counter and slurring something incomprehensible both to me (because I do not speak Greek) and the other patrons (because they do not speak wino), the man grabbed a beer from the refrigerator and was on his way.
“That’s the town drunk,” the woman beside me said. “You’ll probably find him on your way out in the square outside, talking to himself.”
Suddenly it hit me: I had to get out of here.
Don’t get me wrong. I realize that there are alcoholic homeless people in America, too, and in every country. Moreover, I know that, if Greece is anything like America, there’s a decent shot that this man suffered from untreated mental illness, was maybe even a shell-shocked veteran. No, I’ll witness scenes like this for the rest of my life, probably, wherever I am.
What makes this different, at least for me, is that the man was doing exactly what I was doing, only in a more accelerated form. The nothingness that I valued so highly while I roasted on the black sand was the meaning of this man’s life. If I stayed in Santorini, literally or mentally, I’d ultimately end up the same way. I might not become an alcoholic homeless mean, but I’d be cursed with the same mindset. If I embraced the attitude I found so alluring, I’d forever be stumbling through figurative doorways.
In Homer’s “The Odyssey,” Odysseus and his crew land on the Island of the Lotus Eaters. The homeward-bound Achaeans are drawn in, and the fruit makes them lazy and listless. Those who partake wish to remain on the island forever, content to give up home and love and self-actualization for this fruit, for this feeling, for this moment.
And no matter what they tell you in shitty movies, the fleeting moments aren’t enough. That’s a philosophy that embraces little more than oblivion. A pretty wise man said “living is easy with eyes closed, misunderstanding all you see,” and it absolutely is. It’s easy to keep eating the lotus, but you have to remember what happened to those Greek heroes those many years ago if you do.
Their leader, Odysseus, dragged them away. A paternalistic decision, sure, but in Greek mythology the assumption is that it was the right one. He pulled them away from those sirens by another name, and is celebrated for doing so. I’ve got no captain to make my decision for me, though. I have to break away on my own.
Odysseus was going to Greece for his peace. I need to flee it for mine.
This article appeared in the April 24, 2006 issue of the Hatchet.