Mediterranean Exile

My name is John Scheck but these days most people call me Juan. This is the second time in my life that I have been lucky enough to live on the Mediterranean coast.

johnscheck at gmail dot com

Preface

Preface

Although I had years to think about what would become my self-imposed exile, in the end I didn’t really put much planning into it. I would rate my preparation for the move somewhere between a panic-stricken escape from a burning building in the dead of night and the care most people put into making arrangements for a three day weekend. Packing and preparation for an extended trip aren’t my strong points. Just what my strong points are have yet to be revealed to me, but I think that I’m pretty good at dropping everything and moving across the country or across an ocean; I think I’d make a great fugitive.

Who among us hasn’t flirted with the idea of uprooting yourself from the security of a comfortable life in a beautiful American city; moving to a country whose language you speak badly and where you don’t know a single person; plopping down at random in a city you visited only briefly long, long ago; moving into an apartment with total strangers who look at you as something along the lines of an exotic pet; changing absolutely as much about yourself, from your name to the food you eat so as to fit in better—you pray—in your new surroundings? Me neither, at least that’s not the way I looked at this move before I left. I was either too naïve, foolhardy, or ill-informed to give the possible downside of moving much in the way of consideration. I suppose that I had reached a time in my life when all of the risk of this move was completely outweighed by what I thought I would gain.

Of course, before leaving I had no way of knowing just what those gains would be, or even what sort of stuff I was going to learn, other than a new language. Even what language I would be required to speak was a matter up for a bit of discussion. One thing that I can say now is that if I were going to do this all over again from the start, this book would be one of the things I would put in my suitcase. Think of this book as more of a user's manual for beginners than a travel guide.  You may be able to learn a few things about life in the corner of the Mediterranean where I chose to live, a place where trial and error were my constant escorts. As most of you already know, those two make lousy travel companions and I wish that I would have left them behind (preferably in a shallow grave). I’ll try to do that the next time I move 5,500 miles from home.

The First Step




The First Step
The story of most journeys starts off with something about taking the first step—which to me is a cliché within a cliché. Magellan was on a “journey,” I'd say the same about Columbus, ditto that for Lewis and Clark; most of us now just book our travel online which doesn't leave a lot of room for high adventure. No, I don't really like that word “journey.” For starters I can’t even tell you how long a “journey” is—either in miles or kilometers. Most of the time the journey being discussed is of metaphoric length; you can check for yourself—the self-help sections of bookstores are packed with this sort of memoir. There are countless recollections of journeys of self-discovery; journeys of drug or alcohol rehabilitation; there are journeys of discovery, weight loss, sexual orientation, spiritual awakening, personal salvation, moral enlightenment, and many other things that are probably a lot more important than what I was going to do. I just wanted to pack my bags and get on a plane. I was moving to Spain.

The truth is, I'm not even very good at traveling. I don't really like being a tourist, at least not nearly as much as a lot of people. I get tired just looking at a travel guide—too many hotels to book, too many restaurants to decide on, and humping around some museum pretending that I care about 17th century ceramics is pretty far from my idea of a perfect way to spend an afternoon. I'm not against museums. I've actually been to several, but don't ask me anything too specific because I was probably paying closer attention to the other museum goers than to the stuff hanging on the walls or crammed into glass cases. I'm certainly not anti-travel but I'm not the check-list variety of tourist that insists on seeing everything you are supposed to visit during your limited stay here on earth. I just like to go to a place and hang out and try to observe how the local people do things. Like Dian Fossey and her gorillas. Call it the chimpy-misty style of travel, although I’m sure that I am a lower form of primate than most of the people I have studied in my many moves. To do this sort of study correctly you need to spend a lot of time in one place. Hanging out in one place is something that I think that I do pretty well.

If I had to put a finger on when this trip began, if I had to retrace my steps and find the first step, I’d have to go way back. If I had to describe the moment, I would say that it wasn’t a step at all, or I would say that my first step was the act of sitting down in a French café.

My introduction to European café etiquette started when I was a 19 year old summer school student in France—my first time in Europe. I would go to a café for a cup of coffee or a glass of wine, drink it, pay the check, and leave. I quickly noticed that everyone who was there when I arrived was still there when I stood up to go. I became self-conscious of my haste. I quickly began to see cafés as a sort of game, a waiting game.

I began to take note of the other patrons when I first took a seat in a café. I would nurse my coffee or beer to make it last while I waited for other people to call it quits. If I was alone I would write letters to pass the time, or read, or simply people watch. I quickly learned that there are worse ways to spend time than sitting on the terrace of a Parisian café. I have since come to believe that there are few better ways to spend an hour or two or three.

I got pretty good at the waiting game my first summer in Europe, but I never won. It didn’t matter how patient I was; I could have been in the middle of the best book I had ever read; I could have been engaged in the most interesting conversation of my young life (that wouldn’t have been saying much at 19); it didn’t matter. There would always be some grizzled old French guy in a beret and a seemingly bottomless glass of red wine who wasn’t about to be hurried out of his spot by some hyperactive American kid raised on too much sugar and way too much television. I would tip my imaginary beret to him as I left. “Today you win, but tomorrow is another day, yes monsieur?” I always said this to myself in an exaggerated, Pink Panther French accent. For all I know that old French guy never left that table, ever. Maybe they buried him at that table. All I know is that I liked his style.

Back in the United States this sort of behavior would be called loitering. Loiter: to spend time idly. In America we have equated loitering with not spending money, or not spending enough money, or not spending money fast enough, and we have actually made that illegal. After several years of living and traveling around the Mediterranean, the most café-influenced culture on the planet, I learned that if loitering were against the law there you’d have to build a pretty big fence to contain the guilty. In the Mediterranean they have a different word for what we would call loitering. The closest English equivalent to this word would be “living.”

It is almost impossible to exaggerate the importance of the café in the quotidian life of many Europeans. Cafés are a meeting spot for friends, or a place where you won’t feel out of place sitting by yourself. You can read the morning paper, or write a letter. They are a place to be among people, or a refuge from the crowded street. A café is a good spot to begin an evening out with friends, or the last stop on the way home. A café terrace is like your living room with better coffee and a view.

I had been brought up to believe that consumption was the purpose of going to a bar or restaurant. I soon learned during that first summer in Europe that what you bought at the café was definitely not the main point of the whole exercise. That glass of wine was merely the rent you paid for the wonderful piece of café real estate that you had chosen or had chosen you. The food and drink aspect is a secondary concern; service—good or bad—hardly matters at all, at least in the grand scheme which in this world is the only scheme worth considering.

When I go to Europe the first thing I do is head for a café. When I come back home cafés are what I miss the most. The explosive growth of coffee shops in America is a response to this basic human need for community. Coffee shops aren’t quite the same thing, they aren’t as utilitarian, they are a lot more casual, but they are a good start.

The primary function of a café is to offer a shared public space. The spot you are sharing may be next to some movie star at an ultra-chic Parisian café, or next to a shepherd in a remote Greek mountain village, but the idea is still the same. It doesn’t matter what language you use to order—maybe all that you can manage are hand gestures—the same rules of the café apply. Sit back, slowly sip your wine, and try not to think of loitering as a bad thing.

The real beginning to this story was a few years after my first trip to Europe when I sat down in a restaurant on a small Greek island. It was already about two in the afternoon, a little late for lunch, especially if you only had a cup of coffee for breakfast.

I was living in Greece at the time and had been for almost two years during my brief career in the United States Air Force. I loved going to restaurants when I lived in Greece because every time that I did I felt like I was in the middle of an exotic vacation. That's a nice feeling to have every time you go out, for several years. I suppose the afternoon in question was a vacation within a vacation because I was traveling with a couple of good friends. We took a passenger ferry from where we lived in Athens to Paros—an island in the Kyklades archipelago. We set out on this trip as we always did: without plans, or expectations, or credit cards, definitely without guide books, and with very little money. Our backpacks were as light as our wallets back in that time when I wasn’t averse to sleeping on a bench in a train station or on the deck of a ship if it meant saving a couple dollars, or drachmas, or francs.

It was our second day on the island and we had already gone our separate ways but we had agreed to meet up and have lunch. I’ve always been an early riser so I spent the first part of the day snorkeling along a section of the shore. My friends, definitely not early risers, probably spent their time sleeping, but you’ll have to verify that with them.

We sat ourselves at a table in a taverna overlooking the public beach in Paros. The café was split by the main street. Half of the tables were in the restaurant itself and the others, where we sat, were across the street on a tree-shaded stone patio pressed against a sea wall. Like every taverna in every small village in Greece, the place had small tables with the tablecloths clothes-pinned down to keep them from being swept away when strong winds blow across the Mediterranean from Africa; the salt and pepper shakers were clogged from the wet, salty air; the chairs were made of wood with straw webbing on the seats; and it was also inevitable that you would have to wedge a matchbook under one of the table legs to keep it level. Fishermen’s nets were drying in the afternoon sun on the sidewalk adjacent to our table. I’m not making that part up; Greece is almost embarrassingly quaint that way, as if the entire country is a prop for tourist photos.

We were hungry but we didn't know what we wanted. I knew what was on the menu because almost every taverna in Greece offers the same wonderful fare with a few variations. I had studied Greek quite extensively before I even arrived in Greece, but my vocabulary had a few glaring holes in it as I was soon to discover upon arrival. On my first foray into the heart of Athens I stopped for lunch at a way out-of-the-way taverna. This was my first meal in a Greek restaurant and immediately upon taking the menu from the server I realized that I hadn’t learned any vocabulary for food. I had to go into the kitchen and point at what I wanted. I took a copy of the taverna’s menu home with me and quickly memorized every item. That was the most important vocabulary lesson I learned in Greece and it served me well for the rest of my stay.

Back on Paros the waiter walked across the street and asked us what we were having. We began the meal at the beginning, the way to start any meal on the Mediterranean, or any meal emulating life on that great sea that is the center of life, food, and culture for everything around it. Our beginning was a cold bottle of beer and a bowl of olives. Olives are the perfect appetizer, almost a pre-appetizer. They stimulate the appetite without filling you up in the least and they go well with beer or wine. Kind of like when people say that you shouldn’t go grocery shopping when you are hungry, olives provide just enough substance to let you think clearly about the next course.

We ordered a bottle of a Greek wine that we knew wasn't half bad and was fairly consistent from bottle to bottle. Greek wine making was extremely unsophisticated back then but has improved greatly in recent years. We drank a lot of bad wine when I lived there but our philosophy was as simple as it was hedonistic: drinking bad wine was better than the unthinkable alternative of doing without this essential. The wine came with a basket of bread. Greek bread, depending on a host of constantly varying factors, is either good or bad, which is why we always ordered tzatziki—a yogurt, garlic, and cucumber dip—which was always cool and delicious. We toasted to our health (Υ Γίεια Μάς) and enjoyed the view of the beach from our table in the shade.

The next logical, if not inevitable course when dining in a Greek taverna is a Greek salad. This is probably as good a time as any to set the record straight on this staple of Greek cuisine. It is called a horiatiki salad in Greece, a peasant or country salad. I had one the very first time I ate in a restaurant in Greece and it immediately became my favorite dish—and it still is. I never cared for salads before because I don't care for lettuce. In all of the time I lived in Greece I never saw a Greek salad that contained a single shred of lettuce, and that was fine with me. I suppose there is a little room for improvisation when it comes to this dish but not much. There's never room for lettuce. Here is my recipe:

Greek Salad (Ηοριάτικι Σαλάτα)
1 cucumber
1 onion
1 green bell pepper
2 tomatoes
several Greek olives
feta cheese
pepperoncini peppers (A classy option)
anchovies (A very classy option)
Olive Oil and Vinegar.

Chop the cucumber, onion, tomatoes, and green pepper into same-size bits. Most tavernas prefer a larger, rougher cut, but I think a smaller dice helps the vegetables absorb the dressing. Portion out the vegetables on plates along with a couple olives, pepperoncinis, and anchovies. Top the salad with a piece of feta and drizzle with oil and vinegar. That's it. I would use the lettuce to line the bottom of my bird cage but I don't have a bird.

As you finish up a horiatiki salad there is a nice pool of rich olive oil on the plate that is the Mediterranean culture's answer to butter. Often the simplest of dishes are the most flavorful. Try this one.

Mediterranean Oil
1 cup of good Greek olive oil
2 tablespoons of red wine vinegar
a couple cloves of minced garlic
salt and pepper
2 tablespoons of grated Parmesan cheese (I know it’s not Greek but so what)
a pinch of red pepper flakes
a pinch of chopped parsley
a pinch of oregano

Mix these ingredients together and let steep. Serve with bread.

At about this point in the meal we began to realize that we were in the middle of something out of the ordinary. It is important that you are aware of such moments as they are happening. This was becoming the quintessential Greek lunch. The three of us had spent dozens of afternoons in tavernas at dozens of places in Greece but this was like a pitcher during the late innings of a perfect game. Everything was exactly as it should be: The food was excellent, it was a perfect summer day, we were just beginning a week of travels among these islands, and we didn't have another care in the world beyond what was happening at this small table.

The most difficult thing to explain about this afternoon is that we were exactly where we wanted to be. Our enjoyment of the moment wasn't clouded by anxiety about the future or regret of the past. Nothing could have made this time better for me. I used to read the French magazine Paris Match back then to practice my language skills. I remember sitting in a Greek cafe looking at pictures of French celebrities summering somewhere on the Riviera. I remember thinking that those glamorous people had nothing on my life. I was spending my summers in the most beautiful place in the world. The rich and famous would have envied my knowledge of and access to secluded Greek beaches and beautiful villages few tourists ever visited.

I had become used to sitting around in restaurants and cafes for hours and hours simply talking. We would bring someone into our group who hadn't reached this level of saturation in café life, a newcomer. They still hadn't accepted the pace of Greek living. These people would complain when a waiter didn't approach the table quickly enough. We knew that the waiter would get to us eventually, and we were there more for the companionship than whatever the restaurant had on the menu. The newcomers would want to plow through a meal with drive-thru-window speed. We wanted to stretch the meal out as long as possible. Invariably the new person would say something like, "Let's go do something." What they didn't realize, and perhaps never would if they didn't stay in Greece long enough, was that we were doing something.

Although that particular afternoon seemed to go on forever, it did eventually end, and I eventually had to get on an airplane and return to the United States where I have lived ever since—not counting vacations. As much as I missed living there, I gained consolation by bringing how I lived in Greece back home with me.

Maybe that day was just a false start, or a misstep, or a bit of a dead end, but I definitely remember that as that particular afternoon unfolded I knew that I was experiencing some sort of defining moment in my life. I had no idea exactly what was being defined, or for what purpose. That has never been entirely revealed to me and I doubt that it ever will, even after this book is finished. What I do understand is that I felt like I was learning something of incredible value through the simple act of living my life. These have always been the most exciting times for me, the times when I learn by living, and these times are not the result of just traveling, but of stopping to learn how to copy how the people around me are living, to take the best aspects of their lives and try to incorporate these into how I live.

Some of the places where I have lived had more to teach me than others, but I like to think that my present lifestyle is the sum total of everywhere I’ve been. There isn’t anywhere on earth where people have a perfect lifestyle. I’m sure that everyone, everywhere strives for perfection wherever they call home. I am equally certain that we all have a lot to learn about how to go about this pursuit.

I’m having a bit of a problem coming up with the right word to describe whatever it is I am beginning. Is it a journey, a pursuit, a mission, a quest, a life? These words all sound pompous or pretentious which completely undervalues the subject. I need to find the right word, or tip-toe around the subject, or find something a little more concrete to write about. The problem is that I don’t know enough about anything else to write about it—not that I’m any sort of authority on life, or living, or whatever this book is about, and you can forget about journeys. It seems unlikely that I’ll be able to pull off a book about such a serious concern if I can’t even find the right word for it. How about if I just say that I’m going away for a long time? As I said, I’m going to live in Valencia, Spain.

Going away for a long time means giving up my apartment and almost everything that is contained within its walls, only one of which I got around to painting a color other than the battle ship gray, standard-issue in my building. The entire time that I lived in Seattle I was fairly conscious that I would be moving at some point, so I tried to keep down on the accumulation of stuff, but stuff, like an unwanted house guest, has a habit of moving in, inviting friends over, and never leaving.

Everything material in this world is fleeting. Even the pyramids will be gone some day. A moving truck was parked in front of an apartment building near mine a few weeks before I was scheduled to leave. I watched as the movers hauled off a house-full of stuff. Someone’s life was being boxed up and placed on the truck. It made me stop and think of everything that I have left behind in my many, many moves. I seem to become less and less sentimental about my belongings every time I move to another time zone or another hemisphere. I learned the hard way that being sentimental can get really expensive.

There isn’t anything among my possessions that I can’t live without. For the most part, anything that can be bought can be replaced. Is there anything I am leaving behind that I will miss? Not really. For the most part it is a relief handing stuff off to the new owners. It makes me feel lighter, more mobile.

There is a wonderful freedom in not being burdened by stuff. I suppose that this is mostly true if you are by nature a traveler. When I go away anywhere, whether it’s a short trip or a journey, I pack a single, medium-sized backpack that fits in the airline overhead. What I leave behind in the way of creature comforts I more than make up for in ease of movement. Once, on a trip leaving Los Angeles, the cab dropped me off at the wrong terminal at LAX and I had to run about a half a mile to make my flight. Had I been encumbered with luggage I would have missed it. I think about that modest little metaphor just about every time I buy something that isn’t made for instant consumption. I consider that someday I may have to either carry it with me or give it away. More often than not, this sobering thought sabotages the sale and I leave the item on the shelf.

I understand people who don’t feel the need to get up and move every so often—I’m just not one of those people. Seattle is as beautiful a place as you’ll ever see, I certainly can understand why people feel no urge to leave. But I was just visiting. I always knew that sooner or later I would move on to visit some other city. That time had come. Seattle will be one of the few places I have lived in my life that I will desperately miss. I hoped that where I was going would measure up to Seattle’s high standards.

Back in the days of the ancient Egyptians I guess that they didn't have yard sales or internet bulletin boards so they stuffed all of their junk into a pyramid. They also didn't have the option of giving most of their stuff away to their Haitian immigrant neighbors like I did when I left south Florida a few years ago. That was when I moved from the lower right hand corner to the upper left hand corner of the United States—try making that move while hanging on to a collection of thousands of books. The best thing is to resist accumulating so much junk in the first place. Having less stuff means not needing such a big pyramid. I picked up so much junk since I’ve lived in Seattle that it was either time to find a bigger pyramid or pull up stakes and move again. I chose plan B.

As the day of my departure grew near, I was frantically trying to part with most of the material world I had accumulated while living in Seattle: three bicycles, a car, furniture, appliances, and books—lots of books. With every bookshelf and table that people hauled out of my apartment I felt like someone in a hot air balloon dropping ballast before takeoff.

I felt absolutely no regrets in leaving behind a city I had loved at first sight, and I certainly didn’t feel any sadness as I jettisoned almost eight years’ worth of material accumulation. In fact, instead of a sense of loss I felt rejuvenated, I felt like those people must feel in the “after” photos in “before and after” weight loss pictures. And as those dieters vow to keep the weight off, I vowed to keep down the clutter in my next life because I’m certain that moving day will come once again. Moving day will come again because I am not searching for one thing, I’m not looking for the perfect place. If I had I would have stayed in Seattle.

Maybe Just One More Skillet?

Maybe Just One More Skillet?

The first leg of my trip to Spain began with a flight from Seattle to Chicago where I would be spending some time with my brother and his family. I had already shipped a few vital things to Chicago. For the flight I would be limited by the airline baggage constraints: two checked bags, a carry-on, and another small personal bag. I was planning on this being a rather lengthy trip so I had to push the boundaries of these restrictions. Unfortunately, the boundaries are rather strict. Who would have thought that baggage weight limits would be enforced with a scale? Would their Draconian rules include actually counting the bags?

I spent the last couple months that I lived in Seattle sorting through what I owned and making decisions on what to keep, what to sell, what to give away, what to throw away, and what to flush. As the date of my departure neared, when push came to shove, I pushed and shoved most of what I used to own into the hands of friends and strangers and tossed the rest into the dumpster of my apartment building.

A day before I was scheduled to leave I was in a panic to clear out my apartment and get everything I now owned to fit into the bags that I’d carry on to the plane. I was frantically packing, cleaning, and taking stuff out of my apartment and throwing it into the dumpster. The analogy of sand pouring out of the top bulb of an hour glass suited my lack of time and my possessions flowing out of my apartment.

At one point in this chaos I lost track of where I had put my passport. I did a cursory search of places where passports logically should be and came up empty-handed. I had already packed the two huge bags that I was going to check at the airport. I didn’t think that my passport was in either of them but I tore them apart and searched them anyway. Nothing. Now I was beginning to worry. If there was one damn thing that I would definitely need in a move to Spain it would be my passport.

I looked through everything as I repacked the bags. When I had finished I was in a full blown panic. The only thing that I could think of was that I had thrown it out in one of the many loads I had delivered to the dumpster. I had no choice but to climb inside and root through everything. What added insult to injury was the group of Hispanic kitchen workers from the restaurant below my apartment who witnessed my dumpster diving while they took a cigarette break in the alley. They probably laughed to themselves as they thought about what a bourgeois affectation it was to have a passport. A little later I finally found my passport inside of my computer bag and I took some comfort in knowing that the almost everything that I had thrown out was now being recycled by the kitchen workers who had witnessed my ignominious search.

I have always been fascinated with the quantity and quality of stuff that we Americans simply boot to the curb. I have something bordering on a fetish for thrift stores. I visit thrift stores like some people cruise seedy bars and night clubs. They are looking for Mr. Goodbar while I am looking for…well, I can’t really say but I always know it when I see it. I find books, clothes, sports gear, furniture, rugs, pots, and pans. It was one of these last items that pushed me over the airline baggage guidelines.

I planned on doing a lot of cooking in Spain so I wanted to take some of my favorite pieces of cookware along for the ride. Unfortunately, one of my favorite items was a really heavy cast iron skillet with a lid that was almost as heavy as the pan. Hauling this thing to another continent probably didn’t make a lot of sense but I’d really grown fond of it over the years. I knew that my two bags to be checked were heavy but I didn’t have a scale and I didn’t bother to find out the airline’s exact weight limit.

When I got to the airport my friend suggested that I use the curb-side check in with the hope that perhaps they wouldn’t be such sticklers on this whole weight issue. As soon as I saw how they strained to lift my bags I knew that I was busted. Both bags were well over the 50 pound limit. They told me that I could transfer contents from one bag into the other so I would only have to pay the fine on one bag no matter how much it was over the limit. I left one bag on the scale and started taking stuff out of it to bring it down to 50 pounds. The two Punjabi bag handlers watched in bemused amazement as I took the huge, cast iron skillet out of the bag and packed it into the other. I’m sure that they have witnessed a lot of weird baggage in their day but they probably haven’t seen anyone dumb enough to travel with a cast iron skillet. I was within about five pounds of the bag being legal and was searching for anything inside that might put me under when one of the handlers said in his sing-song accent, “Maybe just one more skillet?”

Maybe it had to do with the fact that I was completely stressed out and exhausted from the move but I thought this was the funniest thing I had heard all week—and it was only Thursday.