Tuesday, August 26, 2008

One month to go… (25Aug -30 days)

All right, I admit it I screwed up on the dates – sorry but today is actually 1 month to go for my trip…
The travel agent screwed up my ticket – I thought I would be paying 5,100 CHF for this flight and suddenly she realized she forgot to add Africa (hello, I am going there for New Year’s with mommy and bro) and that’s another 800CHF. Anyway – still cheaper than getting one single flight on X-Mas to South Africa – there are so many South Africans returning home for the holiday season from everywhere around the world. Good news: I am back in Geneva on the 9th of Jan and back to work on the 12th… Let’s see if I can make that happen. Let’s see if after a 106 days of travel I can actually connect to the world I’ve know the past 5 years...

Can’t wait! But haven’t realized the implication of being far (really far) away from everything for so long. Friends will move on, fall in love, split, get promoted, change work location, graduate, get pregnant and so on… And I will be moving West, all west against the Earth’s rotation, trying to catch up on the Sun wherever I go. How many things will change while I am away, I wonder. Will people miss me, will I miss them, will they forget, change, evolve, move on? Who knows? Who can predict anything anyway. I’ll try and keep in touch. By all means. This blog being the first medium, I feel so excited I want to make this thing work. I am not imagining a large group of friends logging in every day to check what Kostas wrote – on the contrary – I expect a few good close friends to check up on me from time to time – and write a few comments on what they think. How beautiful would that be…

Habit is something that’s difficult to overcome but this trip is just about that – to see if I can actually make it alone (for most of the time) during my trip. Someone told me you might travel alone but never be lonely – can’t wait to meet people, ask them things, go on discovering places with them. It takes a bit of courage – at least for me – to move out of my comfort zone and I’ve realized that this trip is exactly that, a “safe” (well let’s see about that) way to do this.

Let’s see – sitting at my desk looking out towards Geneva and the Mont Blanc, this place seems so familiar, so close to me but still, can’t wait to see something new… Soon.

PS: Check out the trip facts on the right... 1.7 times around the Earth!?!

Friday, August 22, 2008

Welcome back, how was your holiday? and some ”Quality time” (Aug21, -29days)

The image is so common. At least for me, completing now in Geneva my 5th summer… The first years we weren’t so many so you didn’t really notice or realize it but now you can tell. Most of us are back. Some tanned and most with very good stories of white and blue moments, served with generous portions of great food, impure alcohol, sea and sand. The Greeks are back in Geneva, back from their annual pilgrimage to the Greek islands and seaside mainland. Mykonos, Sifnos, Crete, Paros, Halkidiki, Kalamata, it’s not really important – the theme is consistent, always something to look forward to and surely something to talk about.

After an admittedly unsuccessful Geneva summer (try 2 months of only 5 days of consecutive real sunshine and you’ll easily agree with me on the word “unsuccessful”) we’re all back, welcoming each other with the same question: “Welcome back, how was your holiday?”. Most of us actually mean it: we want to hear what the others did, where they went, did they have a goodtime? It’s so easy to describe these holidays: only the names of places and faces change – the core, the essence is really the same. Sea, sun and lots of fun. Some family moments, catching up with friends and the occasional boy/girl story. And then back “home” (well my home at least…)

I wouldn’t say he was delighted to be back - you could tell that much. Despite the messing about and jokes from the rest of us, he wasn’t thrilled. Either because he had a fantastic time back “home” or just because the perspective of another Swiss winter (his 3rd) simply seems too daunting. Tanned, slightly slimmer, although he’ll always be a big guy, he matter-of-factly told us where he had been. It all sounded wonderful. You could see something was still missing. Well it wasn’t the duration of the break: almost 3 weeks if you include the “work from home” concept that we’ve invented. We’re so many Greeks now in Geneva that ask for this: try to work a few days (he had a whole week) from the “home office”. It makes sense after all. Not all your friends are on holiday, some are still Athens working, so you might as well do the same and see them at night. Also to remember what it was like working there. It seems so long for me, the location of the office has even changed in the meantime…

Back to my friend and that nostalgic look on his face. He spent good time back home, no debate. But did he spend enough time? For some of us it seems it is never be enough… For some of us it’s not about the days away from home but about the days we spend in this place. Not because we might not speak perfect French or because some things in Geneva are really weird by Greek standards (yes we can be the champions of weird but there are things in Geneva that even the kings/queens of weird find difficult to understand). It’s not about integration, it’s about belonging somewhere. For some of us no matter how long we spend away from that place and despite the fact that we could probably name 10 negatives for each positive if we were asked, we still love it. We long for it. I have been unable to answer the question: do I miss the place or the people that I keep really close to my heart that connect me to that place? For those that haven’t understood what “that place is”, start reading from the beginning, I am referring to Greece…

As I said, I haven’t managed to answer the question. I know I sure miss the people, my friends, and my family. It’s probably the biggest sacrifice one has to make when living abroad. And it’s a price you have to pay. Not only in money (flights and phone calls are one thing) but in real physical and psyche effort: you need to make time to see them all, to catch up with them. It’s hard. They move on so fast and things change so quickly. Sometimes I’ve felt I am in a speed-dating game. Limited time, basic information. The only difference is that I’ve known these people for a long time, with some we go back many years, familiar faces from the past & present but still it always feels that you can’t penetrate the surface of their stories and day-to-day life over a quick coffee or dinner.

It would also be unfair to do this. To get to that you need to spend time together. Quality time. How do you define that? I define it as time where you do absolutely nothing with the other person. Do nothing. Just be with them. No fancy trips, dinners, spas and outdoor activities. All wonderful, no debate but all these are ways to be with someone. These are the glue and color of the memories you build together and no-one really likes black-and-white TV so we all desire them. But they’re still the method, not the objective. They are the means not the end. I really believe this and I got to realize it more and more as the years go by and things seem to move a lot faster than before. At the end you don’t need much, you don’t need “surroundings” to be with someone. You need the person. This is the biggest reality I have to face being away from the people I love and miss: friends, family, the girl that’s on my mind but not close enough…I’ve had the most wonderful of times in the most simple surrounding and tough situations. From the shitty military base with my army buddies to the dark run-down bar in Athens where I went as a uni-student, to the old shabby Citroen my dad had and I used for my first outings, up at Imitos mountain. Just sitting there, radio crackling, friend in the passenger seat and a can of beer in my hand. That's when time slowed down and other things started to matter, the real things...

So what is it at the end? Do I miss my childhood memories & friends or do I really miss “that place”. I guess the answer is not the same for everyone…

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

17 years later and a person you’ve never seen before (Aug19, -31days)

Which of you people believe in the positive power of mankind? Who thinks that people are inherently good and that bad behaviors are a product of their environment or training/upbringing? Which of you can have enough confidence on the above to open your door to a complete stranger and let them in, cook them dinner and let them sleep for a night in your place (even if it’s on your couch)?

Not many eh? Well I did it for the first time this weekend. I had a Couchsurfer (if you don’t know what that is check out http://www.couchsurfing.com/­­) staying over at my place. Miss Lena Park, a 23year old girl, from Calgary Canada, originally from Korea, working as an intern at Merck Pharmaceuticals in Darmstadt, Germany… Leap of faith? Uncalculated risk? Adventurous spirit? I am not sure but I admit at the beginning I wasn’t feeling at ease. Who knows how this could have turned out – and why would she trust me to stay at my place? There are plenty of crazy people to go around in this world, why take the risk and have one in your place?

Well, I am here writing, and actually not only survived the experience but even enjoyed it. (now now don’t get any funny ideas about what happened) I enjoyed the fact that from worried and fearful, I managed to relax (even if it was near the end) and feel comfortable with the idea and the person. I stretched myself…

My old school-mates helped: Yiannis and Dimosthenis who by coincidence were “driving by” from Greece on their way to INSEAD France. Now, I am talking about people I hadn’t seen since middle high school, so I guess that’s about 17 years ago. They rang me on the phone – I was expecting them - I ran down the stairs to see a car with Athens number plates stopped on the pavement on Rue de Lausanne. Out come two familiar figures, 17 years later not much has changed between the 3 of us: more kilos, less hair (at least on the head) since Yannis has shaved his and Dimos has grown a beard…. Familiar faces: remember what I wrote on the Close & Real, about that “fuzzy place”? That comfortable place where we keep our childhood memories? Well, two people from that fuzzy place popped out and jumped into my current crystal-clear Swiss reality. Strangely enough, 17 years later, after years of working, studying and living in different cities, I still felt there’s something that connected us. Something that transcends the fabric of time and is probably glued together with the adolescent, unrefined paste of our childhood school years…

So how does this work now? 4 people, one host, 3 travelers, 1 person I don’t even know under the same roof. Pasta with ready made sauce and a bag of cold beers seemed to do the trick. And despite differences in race, age, language and background we all just felt at ease, comfortable and without any worries. No need to impress, no need to pretend or fake. Just be there. Don’t discount what I am saying here: You can spend days, months, years to finally feel relaxed and secure with people you know and see often and we managed to do this in one late afternoon…

All I am trying to say is that I just got a glimpse of what I am expecting to experience in the next 3 months of travel. I am travelling alone and that makes me slightly nervous. I’ve always been surrounded by people I know and even if I am always open to meeting people it’s so different to do it on your own. I can’t wait to feel again that nervousness, that slight not-at-ease feeling. I’ve spent too much time lately feeling comfortable. Too much time protected behind “calculated risks”, it’s actually time to see something really new. And as one of you said (Christina) “you’ll never reach a new shore unless you are brave enough to loose sight of the one you left from” I can’t wait to loose sight. I can’t wait to see the new shore.

I guess a 12-hour flight to Buenos Aires as a starter will do just fine...

Monday, August 18, 2008

Which way to Evian? Aug 16. (-41 days)

The big silver Peugeot with the French number-plate slows down, the passenger window comes down and the male driver leans over this woman and says: “Excusez-moi, pour aller au Evian?”

Now, how many of you have been in the situation where you are asked to give directions to someone and just because you are not from that country or because it’s not your neighborhood you raise your hands and answer: “sorry I am not from this place”? Well it used to happen to me quite often before. Geneva is a “transit place” anyway (more on this one some other time) both figuratively but also literally. You see the cars with the different number plates, expats, diplomats, tourists, whatever. You can notice early in the morning when you go running the Japanese with their little hats and big cameras and tripods chasing that perfect shot, you can notice it in the group of people walking by with the bags full of designer goods and the occasional "rouge Suisse" t-shirt… So yes I was also asked, it happened to me as well, and I answered back, either in English, French, Spanish or mime language that I am not from here, I am a tourist/visitor as well…

Well that’s not the case anymore… There are still tourists in the city and you still get the occasional question. What has changed is the fact that I can answer. And most of the times accurately. It’s something you realize only when you’ve been in a place long enough. It’s been 5 years this month. All right, you can argue that you can get to know a place in a couple of years but given the complete lack of orientation or memory skills I have, I think I am doing pretty well. You don't believe me? Try going on a hike with me as platoon leader in the forest when you do your military service and you'll understand what I mean…

So gradually you realize that this starts being “your place”. You can feel uneasy about it or actually enjoy it. And I think I’m more in the second category. Not because I was ever aspiring to call Geneva “home” but it actually happened. It did. After a long flight (or night) you just say, “I want to go home” and I mean my apartment in Geneva not Athens. Even on the occasional holiday break to Greece, it’s more “Athina RE” not Spiti RE” that I would shout in the middle of the office floor (RE being an exclamation of joy, pain, excitement whatever, for the non-Greeks that are reading this).

So what is “home”? One of you said: “Home is the place where you create your childhood memories”. I like that. That’s nice. It places you in a comfortable, fuzzy environment, full of people and places that you might not entirely remember or even liked at that time but they are all “safe”. Or at least that’s what you remember. For me home is now something slightly different. Home is where I also fell comfortable now. And I know that it might not include too many familiar faces or places from the past but it is still like that. If this is a place where you are happy to return to, if it’s a place you enjoy being in then why shouldn’t you call it home? Let me know what you think… I am curious.

There are nights when I take the 20minute walk back home from La SIP (yes, that one out of two decent [?] clubs that exist in this city...) and as I walk back, even if it’s August and it's 18 degrees and drizzling and I know that the car windows in Athens would be down, the girls would be wearing light dresses and Capri trousers, I still stop on that "emerald green-lit" bridge and look. I look both sides: once towards the brightly lit, yellowish Batiment de Force Motrices and once towards the north east across the immense dark water volume of Lac Leman and I think: “I like this place. I really do”. Maybe it’s the alcohol impairing my judgment, maybe it’s because I like anything surrounded by water but it is not important. What really matters is how I feel being here.

And if you are not feeling as well where you are, well maybe it’s time to change that as well.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Close and Real… Aug 16. (-41 days)

(From a facebook note...)

Technology is great you have to at least admit that. Who could dream 15 years ago that one would have the possibility to reach 45 of his friends, scattered in different places around the world at the same time and actually have them read all this stuff and comment on it? A writer’s/ traveler’s/ journal keeper’s dream come true. I don’t think I like Facebook that much. Ultimately it’s a “peek in someone’s life” machine. Proponents would say, ‘well you are free to use it, so it’s up to you to define what people see of you”. Almost true because I still can’t control my friends uploading my photos. You know the ones that are inappropriate where I am thinking that nobody is watching me… Anyway, as with any thing that Man has ever invented, it’s not about what it does, it’s about how you use it.

So amid all this “lack of privacy and abundant information” I decided to use the Group function. I don’t need all 410 of “friends” (latest count…my God how PTL – Pointless Ti Lathos, or Pointless Time Loss, as one of you likes to say) to read what I am thinking and writing. It’s not for everyone. It’s for the few and special. It’s for the Close and Real. I was asked to name the Group and it just came naturally, I didn’t even think of it. Look at this, both words are adjectives not objects. How cool, you people can be anything you want as long as you are Close or Real or both… The adjectives only describe proximity (Close) and materiality (Real) to myself (well it is MY blog now, isn’t it?). And it’s not about physical proximity or materiality. Some of you don’t live in the same country as me, some not even in the same continent. Some I get to see every day, some once a year. One of you I haven’t even met yet. No difference.

There’s a reason you are on this list. For some of you it might be obvious (or you think it is…) for some the reason might not be that straight forward but I promise you there is one. If you don’t know why you are on this list don’t worry, you probably somehow play(ed) an important role in my life and you haven’t realized it. That makes you Real because you’ve made an impact.
I will write about some of you in this blog – don’t get offended or nervous. All my stories will be Real and apologies if you don’t like others reading about you but that’s the “price” you pay for being Close. And Close is different to near. If you don’t get it, think of your family and then your local gas station and you should get the difference. There are definitely a few more people to add but they are not here because they are not on facebook –and I can’t force them, although the should. Even my mom is using it J (hi mommy!)

So how do I define the people in this group? Let’s say that if there was a phone-booth and I had a limited number of coins, you would be the first people that would be invited to the party (yes you can invite a few more as long as they bring drinks or help clean-up) or if there was a limited number of life jackets on a ship and I was distributing them you would be the first to get one even if you were in 3rd class. (you can still play Jack and Kate if you want on the bridge of the Titanic) or if this was the last roller-coaster ride in the amusement park you would get that set of tickets (no, I don’t care if you get dizzy, sick or afraid) or… ok I expect you get it by now.

There’s not much you need to do here. Just read and write back a couple of thoughts from time to time. I know I will be writing a lot.

What else would I do in 4.2 days of flight time anyway?

Anticipation… Aug 15. (-42 days)

Sometimes travelers say that the destination is ultimately the purpose in a voyage. To get there, to be there, and to do things is important. Others say the destination is unimportant, it is not the real objective, but the voyage itself is what really counts...
I would take it a step further (or before actually) and say that anticipating is probably equally thrilling.

I’ve been thinking of this trip for more than 2 years, it’s one of those things that you say once and you think it’s a good idea, then you repeat to yourself because you like the idea or to your friends because it sounds cool – until at some point you actually believe that it is part of a greater plan that you have. It wasn’t like this till recently. Actually it wasn’t like this till they told me that I can’t have it the first time I asked for it in January. You see, the plan was that I would now be back from my planned 3 month trip. I would have embarked on that journey already in April, left everything behind and come back a new person. Back in Geneva, new job, new ideas, all still the same but seeing things differently. Well it didn’t quite play out like that. So only when you are confronted with a reality, even if it is a negative one do you realize what you had coming.

Careful what you ask for because you might really get it at the end. And then you better be prepared to do something with it.
Slight delay I thought to myself, I will try later, and October-December is not that bad anyway if your plan is to travel to the southern hemisphere… “Perpetual summer” is the title of this trip. Leaving a cooling Europe is September and visiting places where summer will rule in the next few months. But destinations and the trip itself are not up for discussion today.

Our subject is anticipation. Anticipation and the sweetness it involves when what is coming up is the “trip of a lifetime”, “the best thing you can do now”, “the right choice- when you will have the time to do it again, after you’re married with kids?” That’s what some people said. Maybe they are right. Anticipating something is not the same as doing it. It is like reading the book vs. watching the film. Anticipation is dreaming, a playful game you mind where you put yourself in a situation full of what ifs, how to’s and when’s. It might have nothing to do with really doing it, not even close. Better or worse than doing? Depends on who you are: some people spend their whole life anticipating, waiting for something that never comes. Is that really so bad? Hardcore realists would say yes but that’s not always the case: Reality is what we perceive as the truth and living a dream might be better or worse than living reality. The debate here is not on living a dream vs. living reality. The previous sentence had 3 big words: reality, dream and living but only one really important one: It’s about living and living something to the fullest (whether it’s a dream or reality) And everyone does that in their own way. So don’t be judgmental now.

I decided to do both. Dream it but also see it in reality. I am still in phase 1 and even that I don’t think I’ve realized yet, although today I booked my ticket. It’s final. But that is part of reality and I am still anticipating. I am anticipating renting out my place, saying goodbye to my friends, getting their wishes, packing my blue backpack and roll in my 10 T-shirts and socks & underwear and actually believe that for the coming 109 days I will be living out of a bag that I will carry on my back. I am anticipating traveling 30,000 kilometers over sea and land, crossing the equator 3 times, spending a hundred hours on airplanes (even if it is in Economy class), and visiting 4 continents, 7 countries and 14 cities. I am anticipating seeing sunsets and sunrises, forests and beaches, meeting new people and really understanding what they do, who they are and how the live. But most of all I am anticipating the day I come back. The day I come back and look myself in the mirror and hope to see a different person. A slightly better person in every way possible.

And now, that is something worth anticipating.