The note at our Greek lodgings was written in red Sharpie on the back of a steno pad. “Miriam Wellcome,” it began. “Something happened and I am out of apartments.” The writer instructed us to go around to the front to number five.
How could they be out of apartments? We wondered. Miriam had reserved accommodations for three at the Chios Panorama Studios and Apartments more than a month before. It was part of our fervent anticipation of a trip from Washington, D.C. to a friend’s wedding on an Aegean island. Had a Greek celebrity swooped into this tiny city and snatched our accommodations right out from under us? Would we be stuck sleeping, eating, and primping in a broom closet?
Our confusion only deepened when we reached number five. There, we found not a hotel office or a proprietor but a perfect, empty studio. It had the kitchenette promised in the website, a key in the door, and an impossibly clear view of the Aegean all the way to the coast of Turkey. The three of us opened our backpacks and hung up our party dresses. If this was what we got when all of the apartments ran out, we could have done a lot worse.
By the next day, we knew we were wrong. Konstantinos Travlos, shaved head shining and earring glinting, clinched it. The owner of the Panorama and author of the wellcome note, Konstantinos worked out of an office the size of a tool shed. Once I sat down among the frame packs, crabbing crates, a scruffy golden lab, and a dorm room-style mini fridge, he explained that he simply had to be away (out) from the Chios Panorama when we arrived. The note was to explain his inability to present his sardonic smile in person.
We were wrong indeed. Not just for misreading the note, but because we had violated the most important rule of travel: Expand your perception.
As someone who teaches writing to American Sign Language users from around the country, I should have known better. Entering liminal linguistic space requires dropping firm notions of words and phrases. ASL varies so much by region and individual backgrounds that one person’s word for “cheat” is another’s sign for “punish.” And no matter where you go, the flourish of a hand with three fingers extended can depict a whole road trip.
I retain this soft consciousness sometimes, like the moment on a bus near Puerto Vallarta, Mexico when I heard something clank. I looked up. A woman a few seats ahead of me unleashed a lightning-fast stream of Spanish, directing her eyes right at me and then down under my seat. I gathered that she had lost some change and it was rolling my way. Only after I had started rooting around below my seat did I realize that I hadn’t understood a word she said. The message lay in the clinking of the coins followed by the woman’s caliber of urgency, her gaze, the tone of her voice.
I had seen just the opposite in action when we stayed in Istanbul just days before the Panorama incident. At a booth in the city’s famous Spice Bazaar, a shop owner explained that, in addition to everyone in his employ being able to chat with Americans and Brits, he had a guy for Russians, another for Germans, and he himself could converse and bargain as if he were born in Tokyo. The vendor puffed out his chest and introduced each staff member by his languages as if calling forth the Captain Planet team.
Then I saw it in action. Customers came in, murmured a few word to one another, and immediately the appropriate guy was on them, chattering away in their native tongue. Instead of looking up to find the face of the Turk who could talk like a St. Petersburgian, they kept their heads down. “I’ll give you twenty for it,” they would mutter. The familiar words snapped them into logical mode, and they stayed there.
Every time I travel, I see some reminder that letting go of language lights up parts of my control board that otherwise would remain dark. I unfurl my understanding and melt my expectations.
Then, inevitably, I find myself staring at the ground and quibbling over a hand-painted Ottoman-style bowl. Back home, I agonize once again over the opening in an email or a single phrase in an article.
A week after our comeuppance at the Chios Panorama, I would make a routine visit to the Gallaudet bookstore run by a staff that is all deaf. I would see a familiar flinch out of the corner of my eye, and take notice. A woman flailed non-ASL gestures at the cashier as she overenunciated her spoken request. Here was another traveler trying to communicate. I did not stop or try to step in, but I dropped a passing prayer that she would ease up and let communication flow.
On the last mid-morning of my visit to Chios, I went to see Konstantinos to reserve a taxi to the ferry port. I had dined and danced the night away at the wedding, drinking more ouzo and white wine than I could begin to quantify, and didn’t get to sleep until the sun unraveled an orange ribbon at the edge of our ocean view.
A mop in one hand, Konstantinos waved from the door of one of the apartments. I had picked up enough Greek to notice that he used the familiar “ya su” now, rather than the formal greeting. I followed him into the packed office, grateful to be out of the sun that was a bit too much after the night I’d had, and found a seat. Then I explained that I could use his help with calling a cab for a few hours hence.
Konstantinos picked up the phone, then paused, hand poised to dial but not dialing. “Would you like something to drink?” he asked. He put down the phone, opened the fridge, and pulled out a square bottle with a narrow neck. From my place on the narrow couch a foot from his desk, I quickly recognized the Jose Cuervo label. Konstantinos tilted the half cup of golden liquid until it slid from one side to the other, frozen to the consistency of honey.
Though my stomach was asking for breakfast and my common sense told me that Cuervo might not be the best of friends with the liqueur and wine, I accepted.
“Good. So do you see how it is very, uh…what is the word?”
“Thick?” I offered. “Or,” I added, “you could say ‘viscous.’”
Konstantinos nodded, not even attempting to pronounce the alien term. Then he poured us each about a finger full in water glasses and explained that another guest had showed him how to really enjoy tequila. Freezing it was just the first step. “Then when you drink, don’t drink all at once,” he advised. “Drink it slowly. You will taste sweet and lemon and a little spicy. Hold it in the back of your… what do you call it?”
“Palate?” I ventured.
“Yes, sure. Your palate,” Konstantinos said.
I shrugged and took the glass, and inhaled the scent of bitter citrus and metal. The sun shone at full force now as it warmed the quiet grounds of the Panorama and the carless street and the sea to its midday August peek. I remember a feeling of comfort on the couch, which held a perfect space below for a napping dog. Konstantinos and I toasted, sipped, and sat there for a moment, letting the drink rest in our mouths.
Rhea Yablon Kennedy has eaten and drank her way through 17 countries and flubbed conversations in at least as many languages. Her writing on food and culture has appeared on Grist.org, The Washington City Paper’s Arts Desk and Young and Hungry blogs, and in Bitch and Edible Chesapeake magazines. Rhea currently teaches English and general studies at Gallaudet University.