Sunday, January 27, 2013

Of Pitbull, Presley, and Pascal’s Wager

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"I'm not trying to pick you up," she began, and from long experience I knew what was coming next. It was an older woman, so she was going to comment on my hair.

"But you have very nice hair." I looked up and smiled. "And eyes."

Three hours later I staggered out of Starbucks, the weight of seven decades piggybacking me out onto the snowdrifted sidewalk. Jackson Heights shone bright after a marathon session in the dim cafe, and my head resounded with tales of earthquakes, murder and Mick Jagger.

Ellen was from a Greek island, one of the Ionians—the "Seven Islands," she called them, though there are many more than seven. Aristotle Onassis had owned one of them, Skorpios, in Greece's better days, though by the time he and Jackie O had tied their knot Ellen was long gone, riding the trade winds (and a convenient family marriage) to the States.

Her family had owned a beautiful house in Greece—her eyes glinted with memories as she described it to me—which they'd abandoned after an earthquake, Ellen claimed, had split the earth open as she watched.

She recalled the foreshocks, her mother collecting Ellen and her siblings and herding them outside.

"The neighbors said 'You're crazy,'" she said, smirking at the recollection. She sat back in her chair, staring back in time and across the Atlantic. Her mother was justified: in the orchard where they took refuge, they were free from the cascading dangers of that family manse.

There was a definite nostalgia to her Greek memories, but she hasn't returned since 1995. "I don't have any family anymore. I don't know anybody"—and besides, the country isn't exactly the most appealing destination at the moment. Greece's recent economic troubles have dried up the tourist faucet and her professorial sister, who takes a group of students for a month in Greece every January, faced an empty signup sheet this year.

There weren't any terrorists. Greece wasn't a dangerous place. But to the well-heeled traveler a poor place, like a poor person, is usually suspect.