“Why are you smoking so fast? Enjoy it,” Katerina said. She took the hand-rolled cigarette from me and took a drag. The tip glowed briefly as she inhaled. I watched the orange flecks of light circulate between the tufts of tobacco. She lifted her chin, closed her eyes, and gracefully exhaled a slender train of smoke. She smiled and handed the cigarette back to me.
The bass pounded in my ears and I could conjure no response. Lauren’s hands twisted in the air next to me, snapping to the drums. Katerina turned and joined her. They disappeared into the neon-lit crowd. I stood alone on the balcony, overlooking Gazi, a nightlife district in Athens. The city glowed purple and blue, light reflecting on the glass guard. I took another drag and practiced exhaling slowly. I’m still not sure whether I enjoyed it. Standing alone left me sticking out like a sore thumb. Greeks are social people. Everyone else talked in groups of four or more. So, I ordered another gin and tonic. It was almost 3 a.m. I wondered why no one else was drunk, yet people were still pouring in. Katerina and Lauren returned as I pounded the end of my third drink.
“I can’t dance if I’m not drunk” I argued while Lauren pulled at my hands to drag me onto the dance floor. Back home, everyone would be drunk by now, making messes and making out. Here, they all just stood and talked over the music. Sober. Katerina talked with the group of men next to us, too quickly for me to understand. They handed us three sparklers.
“What are these for?” I asked.
“We are gonna light them. Everyone at the same time, and it’s gonna be beautiful,” she said. A few minutes later, I overheard the DJ yell out something that sounded like a countdown. We put the tips of our sparklers together and lit them. I pulled out my phone to take a picture, but it froze. I shook it twice as if that would get the camera working. When I looked up, it was over. The warm glow and hiss of the sparklers had turned to fizzle and smoke. I cursed my phone and tucked it back into my pocket. I rejoined the tight crowd to try and dance. We left soon after. I felt tipsy and unsatisfied as we walked back to our hotel.
“I’ve never left a place so fast!” Katerina said. “You asked if we were ready, and then we just went outside!”
She laughed. I asked what she meant.
“Usually it takes a while, we say our goodbyes, talk a little more, but you guys just left!” Lauren and I laughed.
“Well yeah,” she said. “If we wanna go, we go!”
The three of us joked loudly and unapologetically in the street. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I should be scared to walk alone at night, but Katerina showed no fear. I glanced over my shoulder the rest of the way back to our hotel. The staircase was of pristine white and cold, daunting marble. I drunkenly imagined what it would feel like to fall on them, then I gripped the handrail tighter. Marble is cheap in Greece, so everything was made of it. It looked so beautifully dangerous underneath my chapped sandals. Luckily, we made it into the room without trauma. We agreed to go to the beach the next day.
Katerina’s friend, Nefeli, picked us up in a small powder blue convertible.
“I bought this only for the roof!” she explained. “I am stupid because I knew nothing else about the car.”
“It’s okay,” I said. “I love it. What else do you need? As long as it drives.”
We rolled down a winding road to a small beach outside the town of Megara.
“This is Barthari,” Katerina told us. “It’s a small beach. Only the people who live here will come, so it’s not very organized. But I hope you like it.”
We walked down the side of a small cliff accented with thorny bushes. I only stabbed my toes twice and pretended they weren’t bleeding. I thought having trouble with the terrain would make me look like a tourist as if my billowing sunhat and round glasses weren’t doing that already. There were maybe three other families there, and a group of boys taking turns jumping off of the cliff into the water. It was a small cove, consisting of around six yards of rocky beach.
“It is rocks now, but after you walk into the water, it turns to sand,” Our friend Demetri explained. I took his word for it, and waded out, watching for sea urchins and slimy rocks. Getting past them was not an easy feat, but he was right. The rocks turned to sand, and my feet sank into the soft ground. The water glowed a surreal blue-green, flecks of sunlight dancing off of the surface, disappearing between the tender ripples of the waves.
Gently treading the shallow water, we talked about the differences between Greece and the U.S., which of course, led us to talk about the economy. Greece’s longstanding economic crisis casually weighed on everyone’s mind. Demetri lamented about the condition of the streets and buildings, and how difficult it is to find work.
“We are all poor,” he said. “But there is no point in complaining because everyone around you is poor also!”
I waited for everyone else to laugh before I did, feeling uneasy around the truth of the joke. Demetri continued,
“But we have this,” he pointed to the sandy cliffs, and the water around us, “so we can only care so much.”
I wondered how much geography can play into a person’s perception of happiness. The weather, the water, and the sunshine seemed to have an effect on my new friends. They moved at a slower pace, they planned less and played more. I briefly entertained the idea of living there; perhaps I could live simply. Perhaps I could be content.
People were content, even in the face of the financial crisis. They took naps in the afternoon; they stayed out until after midnight—even during the week. The concept of “the weekend warrior” meant nothing to them. Every night was an open agenda. They relished in the tasks I found cumbersome, like rolling their own cigarettes, sipping a coffee for two hours, or even fishing just to peddle fish to those who had no money to buy it.
The country and the people don’t seem meant to consume, but they seem meant to exist. They live from the land and pour their souls into it. Yet some cultures pave over the land instead, sacrificing the beauty of the present in order to plan for tomorrow. We want convenience, but how can we enjoy it when we are looking for the next best thing?
I returned to the U.S. on a Sunday night. I woke up Monday and began living out the week I had planned on the plane. The pace exhausted me, along with the list of things to do I kept in my head. Mental checkmarks burned into my brain and I fell into a deep depression.
“It’s just being back from vacation,” friends told me. “It will go away soon.” But I had to ask why that feeling of content must be temporary. Raised in a mindset that we can do anything, I silently begged for permission to do nothing. I wished someone would tell me that it’s okay to do nothing sometimes. It’s okay to sit outside and enjoy the weather. It’s okay to be unproductive for a while. It’s okay to sit and appreciate what we have, and to stop scraping for more—for an unconscious promise that the next thing is better. Vacation is coming, just keep working.