Saturday, 3 September 2016

how Marie Kondo changed my life, a little bit

I have always loved stuff. I use the word “stuff” here in the most specific sense, not in the vague sense that a conversationally awkward thirteen-year-old boy might use it, accompanied by a noncommittal shrug, when asked by their mother’s overly friendly, talkative friend Aunt Clare what they like to do in their free time outside of school: “Uhh... you know, stuff.”

When I say that I love stuff I mean that I love stuff. Material things, worldly goods. I exult in possession. For most of my life I have trodden a fine line between “collecting” (respectable, as in, “Oh, you collect porcelain teddy bears, how delightful!”) and “hoarding” (concerning/faintly repulsive, as in, “Why do you have so many ancient tubes of solidified lip gloss in your drawer?”). This also means that I’m generally reluctant to get rid of or give away things that belong to me. Actually, reluctant paints a flatteringly gentle picture. “Stubbornly resistant to the point of being hostile” come to mind as traditionally more accurate words. This extends to just about everything: clothes, books, stuffed animals, homework assignments from second grade, decorative knick knacks, and the innumerable blank journals I continue to buy under the pleasing delusion that I will someday actually fill them (I will, just watch, haters).

The earliest instance that I can recall of this possessive materialistic instinct manifesting itself was when I was about six. My friend Nicole had come over to our house for a playdate, and we had amused ourselves with the standard games that suburban British children played in the 90s (I don’t actually remember what these were. Bop It? Snakes and Ladders?), but by the late afternoon we had reached a lull. Bored, we sat cross-legged on my bedroom floor, racking our brains for a new diversion, when Nicole had a flash of inspiration, and proposed that we dress up in all my clothes and put on a fashion show. Not having any better ideas of my own, I agreed to this proposal.

The next half an hour or so was spent rifling through my wardrobe and putting together several outfits each -- with more energy than taste, it has to be said. When we were satisfied with our work, we dragged my mother out of the kitchen and into the living room to patiently watch us parade down the world’s shortest imaginary runway wearing various items of exceedingly ordinary clothing. The whole thing went about as well as you could expect for a fashion show conspicuously lacking in fashion, though we had a highly enthusiastic -- if very small -- audience.

Once it was over, I started to take Nicole upstairs to my room again so she could change back into her own clothes. I was halfway to the hallway when my mother called out to me, “Yurie, why don’t we give those trousers to Nicole?”

I turned and looked at her, my little six-year-old heart dismayed. She was cheerfully saying something about how they didn’t fit me all that well anymore (lies!) and how they looked great on Nicole (more lies!) and how I had too many pants anyway (that one was maybe fair), but I barely comprehended any of this because I was too busy being distressed at what was happening. My mother, whom I loved with all my heart on most days but not on this particular day, was asking me to give away my favourite pair of uber-cool khaki combat pants under the baseless pretence that they no longer served a purpose for me. And I did not want to do it. Fine, they may have been getting close to becoming a little too snug on me, but that was hardly relevant. What was relevant was that those were MY pants. Mine! While I stood there in stunned silence, my mother went ahead and made up my mind for me. “Let’s give these to Nicole, Yurie. Nicole, would you like to keep those trousers?” She smiled benevolently as Nicole’s face lit up.

I still have questions for my mother about this particular afternoon, seventeen years later. These include the following:
  1. In what alternate reality did you think it would be a good idea to give away my favourite trousers without even giving me any warning?
  2. Were you temporarily blinded when you had this idea because those trousers definitely looked better on me than they did on Nicole?!!

Nicole, on the other hand, had no questions, and jumped at the offer gleefully. (Traitor.) Her mum arrived shortly after to pick her up, Nicole drove away happily in my trousers, and I had my first significant experience of having to give away something that belonged to me, and decided I didn’t like it that much.

After that episode, I clung to my material goods with a stubbornness bordering on obsession, and often accompanied by a sentimentality that conflated sentimental associations with intrinsic value. Over the years, I filled my drawers with endless amounts of stationery, accumulated enough decorative pillows to furnish the display room floor of an IKEA, and, of course, refused to give away clothes that weren’t either riddled with holes or physically impossible to fit my body into. With every cry of “declutter!” that came from my long-suffering mother I immediately went on the defensive. In response to every surprise attack, I provided her with a hundred elaborate reasons, both practical and sentimental, for why I could not throw out my toy bunnies or get rid of just one of my hoodies, until she eventually became overwhelmed by the torrent of words I unleashed and had to go lie down.

When I moved into my first apartment in sophomore year of college, I was in materialistic heaven. A whole apartment all to myself (and three other roommates, but I dismissed this as an unimportant detail) that I could fill with as much stuff as I wanted? And that I could keep? Without having to battle my mother for the right to not declutter as I pleased? I was free at last. To say I got a little carried away when I went on my first apartment-furnishing Target trip would be an understatement. The items I returned with that day that I did not need (a polar bear pattern blanket, a miniature whiteboard, a bowl made expressly to hold popcorn, and a scented candle) far outnumbered those I came back with that I did actually need (a kitchen trash can). The days of having to give away my clothes just because I had “too many” were long behind me.

Fast forward to January of this year, and to the apartment I’ve been living in with Emily since we graduated college two years ago. We had just returned from our respective Christmas vacations at home with family in Taiwan and Korea and were in the process of unpacking. As was customary, we had both brought back from our pilgrimages several mountains of Asian snacks, Asian pens, and Asian socks. Emily had also brought back a few new books. One of these was the famed tidying-up guru Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, which she pulled out of her suitcase and plonked down onto the coffee table. I reached over from the couch and picked it up curiously.

I had heard of Marie Kondo and read a few articles about her supposedly magical life-changing philosophy on organizing and decluttering, but chalked it mostly up to hype. Having always been a naturally very neat person despite owning a lot of things, I was inclined to be skeptical of this tiny Japanese lady with perfect bangs who had apparently built an entire business and earned worldwide fame for being an expert at something I regarded as an easy skill.

I opened the book, ready to make fun of whatever I found inside, and started to skim the chapter titles. Not the chapters themselves, just the titles. And then, much against my will, I felt it happening: Marie Kondo working her magic. My life was indeed being changed, before my very eyes.

The best way I can explain the unexpectedly profound impact these chapter titles had on me is just to list out some of the ones that I felt resonate on a deep personal level, so you can see for yourself the startling truths I found myself faced with:

  • Selection criterion: does it spark joy?
  • Unread books: “sometime” means “never”
  • Sorting papers: rule of thumb -- discard everything
  • Komono (miscellaneous items): keep things because you love them -- not “just because”
  • Sentimental items: your parents’ home is not a haven for mementos

It is a disarming experience to be impressed where you had been prepared to ridicule. With each chapter title I read that struck me, I let out an involuntary “whoa” like some kind of awe reflex and read it out loud to Emily, who was still unpacking. “Whoa, Emily, listen. ‘Unread books: sometime means never.’ Damn. Wait, whoa. ‘Keep things because you love them -- not just because.’ Whoa, no, this one: ‘Your parents’ home is not a haven for mementos.’ Fudge, dude!” I went on like this for a while, probably irritating the hell out of Emily, and then flipped to page 89 to read the full chapter on organizing books, but by that point, I didn’t need to. The chapter titles had been enough.

The rest of that afternoon saw me cheerfully emptying a third of the clothes in my wardrobe into garbage bags to donate to Goodwill; removing all the books from my bookcase which had sat there since freshman year and which I’d always said I would read “sometime” but never did (it felt incredibly liberating to finally acknowledge that I would just never read The Last of the Mohicans in this lifetime. Goodbye, James Fenimore Cooper! See ya never!); and eliminating my desk, drawers, and closets of all the komono which I knew deep down I didn’t need and which didn’t “spark joy” when I picked them up.

The whole process took me a few hours, and once I decided I was done, I curled up on the couch and looked over at the bulging garbage bags lined up by the door and the stack of unread books piled next to them, feeling light. And fresh. Like I had just washed my face with a lemony face wash. And then I vaguely remember reaching for my laptop and buying some new stuff online, but that part’s a bit hazy in my memory. Rome wasn’t decluttered in a day, you know. Although if it were up to Marie Kondo, it probably would have been.

It’s now been eight months since Emily brought it back with her, and I still haven’t read the whole book (then again, neither has she). I think I was afraid that actually reading the chapters themselves would force me to take even more drastic measures, and I wasn’t prepared for that. Nor have I undertaken another such comprehensive materials cleanse. Because I still love my stuff. I like owning lots of blankets (every single one of them brings me joy in a unique way!), my bookshelf continues to expand despite my ruthless purge in January, and I’ve come to accept that I’ll just always own more earrings than is strictly necessary.

But all that being said, Marie Kondo really did change my life that afternoon. Not drastically, because I wouldn’t let her go that far. But enough that I maybe don’t attach quite so much importance to my things just because they’re my things anymore. Enough that I now actually comprehend that things are just things. Yes, it only took me twenty-three years to realize this very basic truth. Not all of us are sage ascetics from birth, okay?

And my zealous one-day decluttering session really was freeing, in more ways than one. Giving away all the books that had stayed unread on my shelf for so many years allowed me to turn my energies to ones I was genuinely excited about. Whittling down my wardrobe was a healthy reminder of how much I live in excess. Throwing out all the random objects and unimportant keepsakes stored away for so long and serving no real purpose showed me just how much I had let myself, unknowingly, be controlled by my possessions and by the fear of what I would be saying if I threw certain things away. And, amazingly, it did not kill me to give up any of those things! I made it to the other side alive! Truly, Marie Kondo is so magical that her chapter titles alone will urge you to this kind of action, and have this kind of impact.

So thank you, Marie Kondo, for changing my life just a little bit. You did what my mother could not: make me feel okay about giving away a pair of pants that don’t fit just right anymore. After all, pants, even the most awesome khaki, combat kind, are just pants.

Thursday, 30 June 2016

when someone asks you why your face is so flat, ask them why their brain is so small, or then again, maybe don’t

One of the more unpleasant memories that sticks out vividly from my childhood growing up in suburban England is of a little girl I did not know coming up to me in a local park where I was playing with my best friends and bluntly asking, “Why is your so face so flat?”

She asked me this without even so much as a hello! No preamble whatsoever! Did your parents not teach you to properly greet and introduce yourself to strange people before you fling insulting questions in their faces, flat or otherwise?

I was highly affronted. Partially by the fact that she hadn’t even tried to preface this outrageous question with some sort of greeting or conversation (and our age was no excuse; eight-year-olds are perfectly capable of making comfortable small talk just as well as adults, damn it!), but mainly because it was straight-up racist and rude.

I was only eight, but I had already faced down my fair share of insulting remarks about my flat nose, small eyes, and nonexistent eyelashes at school from classmates, and I needed another unoriginal jibe about my very Asian face like I needed a well-sharpened HB graphite pencil shoved up my nose. Which is to say: not at all. And beyond just the indignation of the racist question, there was also the fact that I had by this point in my life accumulated a too-large collection of Insults I Wish I’d Come Up With Better Comebacks to on the Spot, and I was not in the market for any new ones to add to it.

Because herein lay the unfortunate truth of the thing, the sting of the thing: I never found myself quite able to retaliate whenever I was on the receiving end of insults from sassy little brats like this girl in the playground. I had a passably good eye roll reserved for such occasions, but beyond that and an elegant, all-purpose, “shut up stupid” (which over years of receiving the same idiotic questions evolved into an increasingly incredulous “oh my God you can’t actually be that stupid”) I was none too quick to fire back scathing insults of my own - largely because I just didn’t want to.

Attribute it to what you will - a cultural heritage that valued meekness, or an upbringing in a home that emphasized the virtue of politeness, or a deeply ingrained moral code acquired from reading too many Enid Blyton books in which the girls who were sharp and brash and confrontational had a harder time making close friends, or maybe, just maybe, and this is the explanation that I still don’t really like to consider, that it’s just my personality - the fact remains that from a young age I did not give as good as I got.

By the way, this isn’t going to be a race thing. You thought this was going to be a race thing, didn’t you? I guess I did create that impression with that lead. If you have read this far because you were expecting a poignant essay on How I Learned to Embrace My Flat Korean Face Growing Up in South Woodford, England, I am sorry to disappoint. Maybe that will be my next piece, and I’ll post it on Medium and all ten of my Asian-American friends who follow me on Twitter will share it and it’ll go viral, and then BuzzFeed will publish a post called This Girl’s Essay About What It’s Like Growing Up Asian in a White Suburb Is So Real and Gives Us All the Feels containing screenshots of entire chunks of the whole essay, and then I’ll receive a phone call from a Random House editor and sign a book deal for a memoir expanding on my original essay and then spend the next year of my life sitting in coffee shops with my laptop and a London Fog trying to figure out how to make my very boring childhood spent in an actual London fog sound more harrowing than it was.

Anyway. The point I was trying to make before I got distracted following my wildly imaginative ego down a rabbit hole was that if you were here for the poignant race essay, now would be a good time to stop reading. Because this isn’t a race essay. No no, this is far more self-centered and far less profound. This is an essay (well really it’s a blog post but I’m going to call it an essay because “essay” sounds intellectual and high-brow while “blog post” calls to mind your Xanga from when you were thirteen) about my inability, or reluctance, or whatever it is, to convincingly stand up for myself, to give what I get, to be, in short, confrontational. It is an affliction that has plagued me for years.

So back to the park in South Woodford, England, circa 2001.

I stood there on the jungle gym as this four feet of brashness looked at me, unblinking, with a smirk on her face, and waiting for an answer. But it didn’t come from me. Instead it came from my two very angry best friends, Anna and Jess, who had appeared out of nowhere and now flanked me as we all stared down my offender.

I don’t remember what they said, exactly, but it was something to the effect of, “That’s so racist, she’s Korean, stupid, but I bet you don’t even know where Korea is because you’re soooo stupid.”

Whatever it was that they said, the girl turned and fled, intimidated by my loudmouthed friends, and the three of us ran to Jess’s mum, Tracey, to tell her what had just transpired at the jungle gym and shamelessly point out the guilty party from across the park, so Tracey could go and have A Word with her.

This was a recurring scene from my childhood. If someone was mean to me (not that this happened all that frequently at all, in case you are starting to feel too sorry for me) I would at worst tell them to shut up, and then try and move on with the rest of my day. More often than not, however, my friends Anna and Jess and Zak would chime in to stick up for me, regaling the opposition with barbed insults that could have flayed the skin off a crocodile.

I don’t think I was a pushover by any means, but I didn’t exactly spit flames either.

And it didn’t really change as I got older. There was, maybe, a brief spark of fiery-ness in middle school, after I had moved to Korea, when I discovered that sarcasm was a free weapon for anyone to wield, and that I was in fact more adept at brandishing it than some of my more slow-witted classmates, but this spark quickly died out, as sparks do. The fact that I found myself perpetually getting in trouble around this time for being snarky probably contributed to its fizzling out. (I’m sorry, Mr. Baker! I didn’t mean to sass you, honestly!)

It was in high school that I really learned how non-confrontational I was. Because people were actually mean in high school. (Yes, news flash! High school is full of jerks.) One person in particular. I won’t say the name, given that this is all in the distant past but also given that I have now amassed a loyal following of about four readers on this blog, who I am sure would hunt this person down on Facebook and spam them with indignant messages on my behalf - no, really, friends, there’s no need. I appreciate your righteous anger, but it is unnecessary, because I am such a magnanimous person. And if you’re still patiently reading at this point, please imagine me saying this while draped in a queenly robe with a scepter in one hand and the other hand extended gracefully, because this is always the image that comes into my head whenever I hear or read the word “magnanimous.”

Anyway, people-slash-person were jerks to me in high school for various reasons and non-reasons, and I learned many new Korean curse words during this time from being on the receiving end of a dazzling variety over the years. And in the face of these sporadic verbal attacks I for the most part sat quietly and just tried to ignore them. Because, as I was learning about myself at this time, whether it’s nature or nurture (psychologists, please email me when you’ve figured that one out) or just too many Enid Blyton books, it is just not hardwired in me to be able to slam my hand down on my rickety front-heavy desk when I’m being cussed out and tell someone exactly where to get off, or to tell a girl on a jungle gym that I’d rather have a flat face like mine than a small brain like hers without missing a beat.

I sometimes look back at my eight-year-old self and my sixteen-year-old self and fault them for being too meek and taking crap from other people without giving any back. Most of the time, I like to distance my twenty-three-year-old self from these selves and think that I’m a little fiercer now, a little less likely to take crap from people. But I don’t know if this is actually true. It’s hard to accurately measure that now that I’m not daily facing jerks who are actively trying to insult me or annoy me every hour. Which is a good thing, in case that wasn’t clear.

And realistically, if you were to ask someone who knew me to describe me today, it’s a safe ten dollar bet that the first thing out of their mouth wouldn’t be, “Yurie? Ooh, she’s so fierce. She doesn’t take crap from NOBODY.” (Yes, I’m aware that’s a double negative. It was for effect.) It would probably be, “Yurie? Uhh… well she’s weirdly obsessed with Anne of Green Gables, and she hums like all the time, and it can get really annoying. What was the question again?”

So a big part of me wishfully thinks that I’m a little less passive now, but there is also a small part of me that tells the big part to stop whining and trying to be something it’s not and just get over the fact that this is who you are already, and why can’t you accept that, jeez. It’s this small part that reminds me that I don’t have to know how to be brash and confrontational to get on in the world, contrary to what, well, the world might say. The small part that says maybe there is something to be said for not retaliating.

Again, I don’t know. If someone were to walk up to me tomorrow and curse in my face or mock my lack of a nasal bridge, I’m not sure what I would do. Maybe I would actually tell them to go screw themselves. More likely, though, I would give them a scornful stare and just walk away without saying anything, and they would probably think that was the most incredibly lame response they’d ever met with. I think I would be okay with that.

This is not at all a satisfactory conclusion, I know. Is it a cop-out to say that the early twenties aren’t exactly all about satisfactory conclusions anyway?

One thing I am pretty comfortably sure of at twenty-three that I was not sure of at sixteen and at eight: not firing back does not mean you are weak.

Also: my face isn’t that flat.

Monday, 13 June 2016

europe 2016, day 13: santorini (may 10) - part 2

[continued from Day 13 - Part 1 after a cliffhanger ending which had critics and fans alike clamouring for a speedy release of the second, and final, installment]

In quest of our frozen yoghurt we hit the road again, back down the way we had come along the coast, and twenty minutes later we arrived in Fira. Once we were in Fira Center we suddenly encountered a completely different driving experience to that which we had known so far, with pedestrians and stray cats and other vehicles everywhere and absolutely no space. Madness, madness. Average happiness levels dipped slightly, while anxiety and stress slowly increased.

We drove around looking for some likely parking spots, Judy leading, me right behind, and Tiff in the back, but on one right turn into a side street we lost Tiff, who'd been too far behind us to see us veer right. After peering over our shoulders hoping she'd appear in our sightline for a few minutes to no avail, Judy and I pulled over to reconvene and figure out what to do. And also to note how getting separated from Tiff seemed to be emerging as yet another theme of our trip.

Eventually we decided it would be best for us to go and look for her rather than sit and hope she would somehow find us, so we got on our ATVs and turned back to the road where we'd lost her. And as soon as we rounded the corner we saw her serenely driving toward us from the opposite direction, exactly in accordance with the other aspect of the losing-Tiff theme, namely, the finding-Tiff with minimal effort.

Having reunited and worked out a response plan for any other such separation crises, we finally found suitable parking and got our frozen yoghurt and some other snacks, and then got back onto our ATVs to go back to Oia to watch the sunset one last time. We were about a third of the way there, and had stopped at our scenic turnout again, when someone proposed the idea of going back to our b&b in Firostefani to change into warmer clothes before going all the way to Oia. I'm not sure who was the initiator and who the galvanizer, but the upshot of the discussion was that five minutes later saw us turning around and going away from Oia, back the way we had come, to change. A good decision, as it turned out, since we would have frozen on the drive back after the sunset at night (so yeah, you're welcome, Judy).

After we'd changed into warmer clothes, we made it - really, truly - all the way to Oia without stopping, parked in our earlier parking spot (so yes, thank you, Judy), and headed west to find a good spot for sunset viewing. None were available, however, all the empty spaces in the streets having been filled up with people lined shoulder to shoulder to watch, so we settled for a little ledge that afforded a decent if not spectacular view, and quietly watched the sun slip down.

We could see the building atop which perched probably all the tourists currently visiting the island, where we had sat two days ago, as well as everyone else lining the streets, and even the boats on the water that had stopped and remained perfectly still to watch, with only the water moving in ripples underneath them like some kind of surreal optical illusion. And it was all just as beautiful as the first evening we had watched it, if not more so. We lingered a little while longer afterward; the sky after the sun had set was even lovelier than while it was setting, and it was comparatively quieter. Also because that was what all the tourist guide books and websites said you should do, and if you don't listen to all the tourist guide books and websites, what kind of tourist are you.

I took a head start back out of Oia, ahead of Judy and Tiff, so I could stop by Atlantis Books one last time. By the time they came to meet me, I was sitting on the floor in a corner reading about Greek heroes and very content. But even beautiful independent bookshops with sleeping cats and wooden ladders have to be left, so I tore myself away for the third time that day and we finally, finally left Oia, for the last time, no backsies.

We drove through the dark back to Firostefani - an exhilarating experience, once you got over the terror of it - and returned our keys to Louis-Elias (I'll never think of him any other way now). Thanked him for everything - he really was the most gentlemanly and accommodating host - and headed toward Fira, weighed down by our backpacks once again, to pick up some quick eats for dinner and then get on the bus to the airport.

The bus journey itself was another perfect experience of the utter madness that is Santorini's bus system, aptly enough. Just trying to figure out which bus to take was a headache, thanks to the information services folks who apparently preferred playing mind games with would-be passengers to actually giving them any information. I went up to the little window to ask what number bus we needed to take to get to the airport, but the lady inside waved me away, saying, "10:30. It comes at 10:30. I will tell you later."

"Yes, 10:30. But do you know what number the bus itself is?" I asked patiently.

"I will tell you later," she repeated firmly, and shooed me away with a well-manicured hand.

Several buses rolled in, and the station was soon a chaos of people milling around trying to figure out which bus to board, in the face of a complete lack of useful signage or announcements. (See previous post re: lack of audio visual technology on Santorini's buses.) We finally figured it out, thanks to some other confused and harried travelers, and found ourselves cramming into the front of a fully stuffed bus.

The seats were full and the aisle was jammed with people standing, and no room to swing a gerbil, let alone a cat. I wondered how and if the bus fare collector was going to make his way down the bus to collect everyone's money, but it seemed he was determined to make it happen or die trying in the attempt, as he presently squeezed his ample belly past Tiff and me, reaching over our heads to the people behind us. This left me, Judy, and Tiff right next to the driver, who, as soon as we had maneuvered our way into the space on his right, opened his mouth and asked where we were from. To nobody's surprise, he wasn't satisfied with the California answer, and asked if we were Chinese or Japanese? When Tiff reluctantly said yes, Chinese, he excitedly pulled up his sleeve to reveal a tattoo of Chinese characters on his arm, signaling to Tiff to read them, which she was unfortunately unable to do, on account of her being from California, not China.

I suppose it was the only adequate way to go. We'd come a pleasing, full, racist circle from our aggravatingly idiotic Uber driver in Stockholm on day 1, to this clearly well-meaning but equally aggravating bus driver with the Chinese tattoo that probably said "lobster" or "teapot" in Santorini on day 13. I can imagine no other final public transit experience that would have been as fitting.

The airport itself, once we arrived, was no better bus than the bus stop at Fira; I believe the phrase "hot mess" has been used to describe similar situations. Once we were finally able to line up to go through to our gate, we had a spot of bother with the security lady, who insisted that we needed to check our backpacks because they were too big and wouldn't fit in the bag size measuring box. When she said as much to Judy I practically saw the gleam in Judy's eye that plainly said hey lady you wanna bet, and sure enough, she immediately went to work stuffing her backpack into the size measuring container, while the security lady half-heartedly rolled her eyes and turned her attention to Tiff and me. She - Judy - was about 80% there but I was dubious of her success, given that her bag looked ready to burst and scatter Belgian chocolates everywhere, but she remained defiant, and the security lady, who clearly could not be bothered to deal with her anymore, waved her through with a sigh. Judy pranced past her, triumphant.

Tiff's and my backpacks were blatantly overweight, so we didn't protest when she stuck the check-in stickers on our backpacks, and walked through peacefully enough to join Judy on the other side. We were complaining about the extra wait time this would add once we landed, when Judy suggested we just remove the stickers and carry the bags on with us since no one else knew our bags were supposed to be checked. The security lady hadn't told anyone, after all, just given us the stickers.

It is a sign of what pathetic, goody-two-shoes existences that Tiff and I have led so far that we both initially balked at this suggestion as breaking the rules. But neither of us wanted to deal with the hassle of checking our bags, so I am sorry to report that laziness won out over integrity in this particular matter, and both of us ripped off our "checked bags" stickers and stuffed them out of sight. The adrenaline rush of such blatant rule-breaking was both thrilling and terrifying. Judy is a terrible influence on us.

The flight into Athens was about half an hour, a half hour which passed smoothly enough (and no, neither Tiff nor I were apprehended by anyone for carrying on our too-large backpacks instead of checking them). Once we landed (at around midnight), we set off to the other gates in search of some comfy couches to sleep on for the night, only to be stopped in our cheerful tracks by airport staff who told us we couldn't go that way as the gates were all closed. We had to settle instead for the less comfy seats at baggage claim, but we were comforted to see that there were several other airport slumber parties happening there as well.

We made ourselves as comfortable as we could be given the circumstances, and Judy and I put on the moisturizing face masks she'd brought with her from California. Might as well go all out as not, if you're already at a point where you're spending the night in an airport. Judy then put on a long sleeve shirt over her t-shirt, looked down at herself, and, turning to me, asked, "Do I look incredibly weird like this?"

"Judy, I think you passed 'incredibly weird' already with the face mask," I told her.

"Right," she said, and carried on getting ready for bed.

We slept decently enough, though the airport was cold, the seats were uncomfortable, and it is rather disorienting to wake up to dozens of strangers milling around you picking up suitcases, but I suppose that was all part of the experience. We got ready and left at around 9:30am to check in, made it safely onto our flight to Stockholm, transferred, and now we are on our transatlantic flight back to Oakland, with 6.5 hours to go, and several hundred thoughts running around my head, such as, wow I'm hungry and the guy behind me really needs to stop kicking the back of my seat and I can't believe it's over and how am I going to go to work tomorrow?

It has been, in every regard, a perfect holiday. Yes, food poisoning and bug bites and annoying public transit drivers notwithstanding. I don't have any words to sum it all up - but then, that's exactly why I wrote such excessively long posts to recap every single day. Because some experiences simply can't be summed up, so why bother trying at all?

Wednesday, 8 June 2016

europe 2016, day 13: santorini (may 10) - part 1

On our final day in Santorini and the last of our trip, we woke up to the best weather we'd had yet, and took it easy with a slow breakfast out on the balcony overlooking the sea. After we finished eating we spent a good while lying lazily on the sun chairs, deliberating whether to finally, actually have the "chill" day in Santorini we'd come for but somehow still not had, or go along with our original plan to rent ATVs - or quad bikes, as they call them here - and ride around the island.

Tiff, surprisingly, appeared to be the primary champion for Yes ATVs, despite her nervousness about, you know, crashing and dying, because, as she said, it was a bucket list item for her. Judy, surprisingly, had changed sides overnight to now emerge as chief supporter of No ATVs, in favour of having a lazy last day on the island instead. I was indecisive - torn between the appeal of the excitement and the apprehension of crashing and dying. While I was thus teetering Judy changed her vote back to Yes ATVs, clinching it for us, and sparing me the stress of having to make a decision.

This decided, we promptly got up to find Elias, who made a phone call from the reception to order the ATVs. Almost immediately after he hung up the phone - and I mean "immediately" as in within-three-seconds immediately, as in WHOA-where-did-he-how-did-he-do-that immediately - a man appeared from around the corner and beckoned us to come with him to look at the ATVs. The rapidity of the progression from Yes ATVs to Elias's phone call to the ATV guy's appearance astonished us, but we followed him docilely to the ATV garage (which it turned out was just next door), where we looked at the vehicles and looked at each other and thought oh dear are we actually doing this yes well yes yes it's too late to back out now okay yes. I also decided that right then would be a good time to recall that I'd only been licensed for about a month and a half and hadn't been on the road in any sort of vehicle since I passed my test, a fact which did not reassure Judy that much.

The ATV guy finished filling out the forms and then directed us outside to practice with another ATV guy, telling us to call his brother Louis when we returned at night with the bikes and that Louis would call him to pick them up. Judy and Tiff and I looked at each other blankly, none of us having any idea who this Louis person was. Something like comprehension dawned on Judy's face and was rapidly replaced by a comical look of dismay.

"Is Louis... Elias? Have I been saying his name wrong this whole time?!"

ATV Guy looked confused, until something like comprehension dawned on his face.

"Elias...? Yes, Elias. Louis. My brother." He nodded several times to confirm that Louis and Elias were indeed one and the same person.

"OH NO" Judy wailed. (There's no other verb for it; she actually wailed this.) "I've been saying 'hi Elias' this whole time!" She seemed disproportionately distraught about this very understandable error. I mean, the guy's name was spelled E-L-I-A-S, so how was she to know it wasn't pronounced like that.

"It's okay, both are okay, Louis, Elias," ATV Guy reassured her. Other ATV Guy led us outside then, smirk-smiling as he called after us, "Don't forget to call Louis-Elias when you come back!"

Practicing on the bikes on the road was terrifying enough to almost make me reconsider what now seemed like a hasty decision to cut my lifespan short by several decades - almost, but not quite. Other ATV Guy showed us how to turn it on, shift from forward to neutral to reverse, turn on lights, accelerate, signal, and lock the parking brake; tested us briefly on all this; and then sent us on our merry way. Tiff led the way to start, having been chiefly responsible for signing us all up for this, and we started on the coastal road to Oia, which we wanted to spend more time exploring at a nice slow pace on our last day.

It pretty much took us all of five minutes on the road to adopt a radically different attitude toward ATVing. Unanimous agreement that this was the best decision we'd made on the trip. Foolish grins all around, the panic of five minutes before utterly forgotten. Once we reached the end of the town roads and hit the coast, we became so giddy it was kind of disgusting. It's an indescribable feeling to be zooming along the Santorini coast at 40 km/h (it's really not that fast once you convert it to miles though; we checked, and 40 km/h definitely sounds much more impressive) with an endless blue ocean to your right and no one to hear you belting out Frozen songs at the top of your lungs as you keep your thumb on the accelerator and let the wind keep hitting you in the face. You feel as if you own the earth.

It took us only about twenty to twenty-five minutes to arrive in Oia. Once we got there, we found a paid parking lot that was charging two euros for five hours' ATV parking, which was decent, but we didn't necessarily plan to be in Oia for the next five hours straight, so it didn't seem worth it. Judy, ever the resourceful one in our group and always trying to see if exceptions can be made, asked the owner if we could park there for a few hours, leave, and come back and re-park for the remaining time of the five hours. It fascinates me how different we are - such an option literally would never even have occurred to me to ask for. It only took the man a few seconds to think it over and say yes, but on the condition that Judy give his friend/coworker a kiss on the cheek. Fortunately for her he was mostly joking, but more fortunately for him he didn't press it, or he would have presently felt the full force of Judy's wrathful indignation.

Parking situation resolved, we took off on a leisurely stroll through the town, first and foremost in search of gyros (again) for lunch. As it turns out though, dirty, cheap gyros stands are apparently too plebeian for the more pristine and classy Oia, so it took us a while and some hunting through streets more removed from the pretty tourist part before we could find any options. We did find a gyros shop eventually, and ate our fifth (count 'em) consecutive gyros meal outside happily. While eating Judy and I also noticed that there were free ATV parking spots aplenty, but signaled to each other with our eyebrows that we wouldn't mention this to Tiff, as she would likely take the discovery that we had just collectively spent six euros for nothing much harder than Judy and I, neither of us caring too much. As I mentioned, we have gotten to know each other very well over the past two weeks.

After our satisfyingly cheap gyros lunch, we headed back into the main part of town. We had made our way maybe five minutes in and that's about when I fell in love. Head over heels. Goner from the start, never stood a chance. A bookshop. Name of Atlantis Books, with a handpainted sign by the door that said "RENT-A-CAT: 5 EUROS." Handpainted everything, actually. There were wooden blue steps descending into the little shop from the main street, which I promptly hurried down, Judy and Tiff following behind me.

The inside was just as perfect as the exterior would cause one to expect. One of those wonderful little bookshops with hidden nooks and crannies everywhere. Whimsical, funny, pithy, and most importantly, personal notes sticking out of many of the books on display. A gasp-inducing collection of first editions ranging from Hemingway to A.A. Milne to Beatrix Potter to the Beats. I turned and asked the guy behind the counter where they got all of them from.

"The founder goes around the world in the winter collecting them. They come from literally all over the world," he informed me, and a happy thrill ran through me. The sheer delight of finding something so unexpected and beautiful as this bookshop right in the middle of Oia - I'm surprised I didn't pee my pants then and there.

They had their founding story and notable milestones of the shop painted on the high rounded white ceiling - it was started in 2004, after a group of friends from the UK, US, and Cyprus came to Santorini, found that there were no bookshops in Oia, and decided to build one. There were several cats and dogs and marriages and babies involved along the way, as befitting any respectable founding story. Twelve years! I was captivated. Judy and I had so many questions for the guy working there, the unfortunate soul, and initiated an interrogation the likes of which he'd probably never had to undergo from a customer before.

"How did you start working here?"

"I won a bet." (Knowing smile.)

"What was the bet?"

"That I would beat the founder at a chess match. He was a chess master - so, I challenged him: if I beat you, I get to work here. And I won." (Small triumphant smile.)

"So you are the Edwin painted on the timeline on the ceiling?"


It would seem I just can't get away from Edwins. We'd already met another Edwin in Brussels just the week before.

"Where are you from originally?"


Judy and I - okay, so it was mostly me - kept quizzing him like this for a while, as if we were about to take an end-of-term exam on the history of Atlantis Books, and then after I'd killed him with my curiosity, I spent my energy on exploring every bit of the little shop. Tucked away in the children's corner, I found a beautiful little illustrated book, titled simply "Eric," by a one Shaun Tan, whom I had never heard of. Sat on the floor to read and loved it instantly, but it was the last few pages that locked it in for me permanently. I asked Edwin if they had any more by this Shaun Tan, and he said "yes, in the children's section, which I'm not sure I agree with" - and I could understand the sentiment. Like putting "The Little Prince" in the children's section and only the children's section, I would think.

What I kept coming back to were the old books. The ones that I had not a prayer of being able to afford, the ones with price tags that were double, triple, a month's rent. They had a copy of "Pride and Prejudice" from the 19th century, which had the very book cover that I have a t-shirt and a journal printed of, by the company Out of Print, and which I lusted after.

"How much? Just out of curiosity."

"That one is I think fifteen hundred euros."

"...I'll come back in ten years."

"If you want to come back in ten years," and here he started typing numbers into a calculator on the computer, "you only need to save 12.50 euros a month. That's like, nothing. That's like two pizzas."

It took us - me - forever to get up the will to leave, but I finally narrowed down my book choices as did Judy and Tiff and we paid and left. We weren't gone for long though as Judy decided she wanted to change her rolled up poster for a folded one, so back in we went, I only too glad of an excuse to look around again. Poster successfully changed, we all decided the next important step for this agenda-less afternoon was to hunt down some frozen Greek yoghurt, but not finding any hope of it in Oia, we decided to ATV back to Fira to get some. In other words, we decided to drive halfway down the island because we wanted to get some yoghurt.

[will be continued in a Part 2 post, because Hollywood has taught me that the last installment of a series, if too long, must be split into two]

Monday, 6 June 2016

europe 2016, day 12: santorini (may 9)

Currently writing this on the plane flying from Athens to Stockholm while Judy and Tiff are asleep on either side of me - I think I win for fewest hours of sleep on this trip, no contest - and trying not to think about the fact that our beautiful two weeks are over by focusing on recapping the last two days of Santorini in my journal.

On our second morning in Santorini I woke up and mumbled to Judy that I had been up until 2:30am throwing up into the toilet and that I wouldn't be joining them for breakfast but could you and Tiff please bring me something light to eat and some water? Even I had to laugh at how horribly deja vu this felt, an echo of our second day in Amsterdam, which saw me collapsed on Judy's bed with cramps while the other two enjoyed a nice relaxing breakfast outside. Tiff accordingly brought me a couple of pieces of bread, and after sleeping in til almost 11, I gamely got up and ready to go out.

We walked to Fira Center again, grabbed lunch (this was the gyros that got Tiff to say she had had enough gyros - in other words, the unthinkable happened) - just pita and tzatziki for me - and then made our way down the cliffs to the port to get on a boat for the hot springs and volcano, Nea Kameni.

In yet another instance of fantastically underestimating the degree of physical activity we were getting ourselves into, we soon found ourselves slipping down 600 large pebbly steps covered with donkey excrement of varying degrees of freshness. The descent would not have been so difficult in itself, but with the combined factors of flimsy flip flops unfit for walking on slippery smooth stones and poop landmines everywhere, it became a much trickier affair. Judy soon disappeared from our sight at lightning speed, of course, while Tiff and I marveled from an increasing distance at her agility and poop-navigating ability. We had expected Santorini to be the most relaxing part of our holiday, but in a bizarre turn of events it was quickly shaping up to be the most physically demanding.

After what felt like an eternity and then another few years, we met Judy at the bottom, and clambered onto our pretty little boat, the Hermes, with a bunch of other hot springs-bound tourists. Our boat group included a large party of Brits hailing from Blackpool, who were all there for a wedding and evidently having the time of their lives, as well as a few families with small children. The boat took us out to the coast off the Nea Kameni, where the guide informed us that we would have to first swim through a stretch of cold water in order to actually reach the hot springs, which, surprise! was more physical activity than I had bargained for.

One by one everyone who wanted to go swimming in the hot springs climbed down the ladder - some more adventurous folks dived or jumped - and with the first dip (or plunge) everyone invariably yelled or shrieked. After about five minutes of swimming we made it to the brownish-orange water where the springs were, and upon arrival everyone mildly complain-y that the water was not, in fact, hot, only warm, and even then only in some spots, which then became cold again just as you'd got settled. Not hot springs so much as sporadically warm springs.

That was all part of the fun, though, I suppose. Kind of an unbeatable way to spend a hot afternoon. And Judy did manage to find a nice little alcove which stayed reasonably warm without changing, and which we floated in happily until the horn from our boat sounded, calling us back.

Going from boat to cold water to warm water was bad enough, but going from warm water to cold water to boat was far worse. But I'd do it again in a heartbeat. When am I next going to get the chance to swim in a hot spring off the coast of a volcano in warm brown water which stained my skin a flattering orange? I don't know, is the depressing answer.

Back on the boat, and then we were taken to the volcano itself - an active volcano, as we were constantly reminded by our guide - and started on the hiking trail to the top of the crater. After yesterday's two and a half hour trek from Fira to Oia, this one was a breeze, and we were rewarded at the top with more stunning views of the main island and the water on all sides, as well as into the crater. We drank it all in thirstily. What a lovely thing that views and fresh air are free.

After we'd walked around and taken it all in - by which I mean we had taken pictures of every possible landscape - we started heading back down, making conversation with some of the other tourists on the way. We've had a lot of opportunities these past two weeks to interact with other travelers which has been pleasant in a different way from interacting with locals. There's a shared newness and novelty of the places and sights, and an openness and friendliness that comes from the general happiness of being on holiday that makes such exchanges delightful.

Once we got back to the main island, we hopped into the cable cars back up the cliffs (no 600 donkey poop steps uphill, thank you), stopped for a snack (for Tiff and Judy, as I was still feeling queasy at this point), and then made our way to the main bus stop to go to one of the beaches on the southern coast of Santorini.

Now is probably a good time to explain the bizarreness that is Santorini's bus system. First of all, all the buses on this tiny island are giant coach/tour buses, which look disproportionately large and obnoxious on the narrow roads. Secondly, the buses are sorely lacking in basic audio visual technology, which means that the only way you can tell where to get off is by listening to a dude who sits somewhere at the front of the bus with the driver and yells out the stop names as you approach them. Finally, bus schedules seem to be more a vague concept than an actual, established system. A few of the buses that we've taken arrived and departed from the bus stop way earlier than the appointed times, and we only caught them due to sheer dumb luck. All of which makes busing in Santorini something of an adventure, to say the least.

Once we got to Perivolas Beach, we stepped onto the sand and stopped short in a mix of wonder and confusion. The beach was completely, almost eerily, empty. It seemed that everyone on the island was all the way at the opposite end, watching the sunset in Oia as we had done the previous evening. It was still decently warm enough for us to strip down to our swimsuits and lie down to sunbathe, which we did, but after about an hour or so we got chilly and decided to make our way back to our b&b for a shower and then dinner. Caught our bus again by sheer luck, stopped at Ersi Villa for the most heavenly shower imaginable, and then headed out again to Fira Center to grab a late night bite to eat.

Once we arrived in Fira we sat down at a hip-looking little Greek place with outdoor seating that involved swing seats and looked out onto the lively nighttime central part of Fira. Judy and Tiff finally had their Greek salad (whereat Judy learned with some disappointment that Greek salad is "basically just vegetables tossed in olive oil") and the three of us had what I can only describe as a last-night-of-summer-camp reminiscing session. I blame Judy entirely for initiating this cheesefest. We were all swinging happily in our swing seats (well, Tiff and I were, since Judy was stuck with a normal chair), enjoying the balmy Greek evening and talking about, I don't know, yoghurt or something, when she launched her attack out of nowhere.

"What have you guys learned on this trip?"

There were a few minutes of silence as Tiff and I were forced to rapidly shift gears in our brains from yoghurt to more profound things.

"Okay, I've got one." Tiff's brain had evidently adjusted faster than mine, as she was first to say something. "I've learned to be more trusting of other people. Like, strangers." She speared a cucumber on her fork. "Less cynical than before I came on this trip, I think."

This amused me greatly, as I realized immediately after she said this that I'd learned the opposite. Characteristic of Tiff's and my opposing outlooks on life. We had apparently rubbed off on each other the past two weeks.

"I've learned to be less naive," I said, maybe somewhat glumly. I was thinking of a particular little old woman in Athens. "I think - a little less immediately trusting of strangers."

Judy laughed at this exchange for about five minutes straight. She is always tickled by any evidences of how Tiff and I are so completely different. All of our minds went to our dinner in Athens and how Tiff and I had reacted to the host telling us he knew our tour guide Jimmy even though his was not the restaurant Jimmy had pointed us to. (I still hold that he actually did know Jimmy, and I think Tiff eventually came around too.)

We've learned a lot about each other as well, what we like and don't like, how we see the world and other people - inevitable, when we've been in each other's constant company for two weeks straight. Tiff and I have learned that Judy is the kind of person who puts herself out there - isn't hesitant to ask questions, approach people, challenge things I see as fixed rules that must not be broken - more on that last one to come later. Judy and I have learned that Tiff is an exceedingly paranoid person - well, "responsible" and "cautious" are the words I'm supposed to use, though Tiff complained that those are incredibly boring. But really, as much as I like to think that I'm a responsible person myself, it's consistently been Tiff who's saved our butts with her caution and preparedness. She's the one who packed Benadryl, which I came in dire need of, made sure we carefully weighed all the pros and cons of every option for public transport for every trip, and said we should wait for the rain to stop instead of just running through it and getting soaked, which the two impatient Koreans in our group had wanted to do at Keukenhof. And Judy and Tiff have apparently learned that I am a constantly happy person, which I would say is fairly true, but I would also point out that it's not hard to be constantly happy when you are having the time of your life in Europe on two straight weeks of fun and freedom with friends. But I'll take it.

There are other miscellaneous things we've learned and experienced on this trip as well, about the places we went and about each other. In no particular order:
  1. There is tremendous value in engaging with locals in every new country you visit; it enriches the experience of traveling tenfold.
  2. There is just as much value in engaging with other travelers, though in a different way. Also, no one is unhappy on vacation.
  3. The obvious, "no, you don't say?" one which we all knew but were point-blank reminded of every day: there are other cultures in the world besides our own. Different values, different worldviews, different norms. Not better or worse, but all starkly beautiful and endlessly fascinating. 
  4. Greek hospitality is a real thing. 
  5. Walking tours are not helpful for Tiff because she is not an auditory learner. 
  6. Walking tours get Judy super jazzed. 
  7. Walking tours get me super sunburnt. 
  8. Seeing history up close, outside of the textbooks, is not only eye-opening but heart-opening, and a privilege.
  9. The same goes for art.
  10. And probably architecture.
  11. Judy is as much a junk food junkie as I am.
  12. Judy can also match me for nonstop singing and humming - the only person I've met to do so. 
  13. Navigating foreign cities is not as hard as one might expect. Then again, we had Judy and also Google Maps.
  14. Swedes really are all tall, blond, and the kind of attractive that makes you wonder anew why our world is such an unfair place. Why, God?
  15. Racism is alive and well all the world over, but so is kindness and hospitality and self-sacrifice. 
There are a thousand more things, but that's a fairly representative sample.

The last thing that happened that night was that a group of tourists sat down at the table next to us and upon one of them asking us where we were from, we discovered that we all hailed from the SF Bay Area - the first Californians we'd met on the whole trip. We ended up talking with them for a good while, making us way outstay our previously agreed upon curfew of 9:30pm, but it was nice to connect with people from home, so I think we all thought it was worth it. The whole way home we dragged our feet. Last - night - in - Santorini, and Europe - please no, no no no. It's too soon to go back. Reality? How horrifying. Just three more weeks here. Maybe a couple of months. That'll do it.

Saturday, 4 June 2016

europe 2016, day 11: santorini (may 8)

Too tired last night to finish writing (or rather, to actually start writing) about our first day in Santorini, so here we begin another catchup entry and we'll see if I make it through all of yesterday as well as today. It probably won't happen.

Yesterday we woke up in our little bed-and-breakfast in Ersi Villa, Santorini, and immediately headed downstairs for the breakfast half of the bed-and-breakfast. What a spread. There were, pleasingly laid out on the table before us, poached eggs, apple pie, lemon bundt cake, Greek salad, ham, cheese, Greek yoghurt and honey, cereal, bread rolls, tea, coffee, and orange juice. And all made right in the b&b by the little old lady who had greeted us last night at that ungodly hour. She put plates and trays in our hand and we made a delicious meal of it, sitting in a white-walled room with the characteristic rounded ceiling, looking out to the pool and other Santorini-esque buildings just beyond the door.

After breakfast we walked to the nearby town of Fira, one of two major towns on the island along with sunset-famous Oia. Oia is the one everyone knows about when you bring up Santorini; it's located right at the northwestern tip of the island (Santorini is shaped like a crescent moon facing left). Fira, which is about a five minutes' walk from our b&b in Firostefani, is smack dab in the center of the island, on the western coast.

We had no agenda for Santorini at all - while all the other days and cities on our trip had been meticulously planned out almost to the half-hour in an extensive google spreadsheet, the Santorini tab simply had a few lazy notes like "sunset in Oia every day" (Judy) and "CHILL SO HARD" (Tiff). The loose plan for the day that emerged came entirely out of that morning's conversation with Elias, the b&b host, who gave us some helpful recommendations, and was as follows: explore Fira, eat lunch, then hike up the coast from Fira to Oia, a trek that was supposed to take us about 2.5 hours.

Accordingly, we explored. Fira is a little town, geared solely toward tourists, which makes sense. Santorini's economy is built primarily on agriculture and tourism, and you can tell as soon as you reach the edge of Fira. There's one main road, lined on either side with restaurants, yoghurt places, shops, grocery shops, and other miscellaneous stores. Lots of foot traffic - the whole place was bustling in a little town kind of way. We wandered this central area for a bit, and then made our way up - whether by accident or intention I'm not quite sure, but somehow we ended up heading this way - to the coastal paths so we could slowly start making our way toward Oia.

The coast was where it got even more touristy, with an explosion of little shops and sea-view restaurants in a seemingly neverending series of twists and turns. And all beautiful white buildings, of course, such as you see on the postcards, with friendly owners standing outside and enticing in passersby for a visit.


Nothing too eventful, and I mean that in the best, most relaxing way. I guess the most notable event from this pleasantly aimless wandering was Judy ducking into a shop that sold only a million different styles of white linen tops and dresses, and all of us consequently spending about an hour in there while she browsed. One more thing to add to my list of things learned on this trip: Judy really really really likes white linen tops. The owner was a good salesperson, too, which didn't help matters for me and Tiff. She kept bringing Judy new tops to try, and unfortunately all of them looked great on her, making the decision process progressively harder, while Tiff and I became progressively hungrier. Judy finally decided on a shirt (which Tiff and I both approved and voted as our favourites), and we eventually went and ate our third lunch of gyros since arriving in Greece.

On our way out of the gyros place, Tiff popped into the bathroom and told us she'd catch up with us up the street, so Judy and I went window shopping in the area while we waited. Five minutes passed, then ten, then fifteen, and we were just beginning to wonder what kind of immense operation her digestive system was carrying out, when she finally caught up to us, with a relieved look on her face. It turned out she'd locked herself into the stall and couldn't unstick the lock and get out. So while Judy and I were examining handpainted canvases of Santorini houses, Tiff had been hanging out in a bathroom stall alternately googling "how to say 'help' in Greek" and yelling for help in her best approximation of Greek, before she was finally able to wrench the door open.

"Well good thing you got out; we were just about to come and look for you," I told her. This may have been a bit of a stretch claim, as it had taken us longer than it should have even to realize that she had been gone much longer than it takes the normal adult to pee.

"Oh, good, that makes me feel better," she exclaimed, sounding reassured that we had planned to turn back for her. I decided not to press the point in case something closer to the truth came out.

We explored the shops in the area some more, and eventually made our way out of the town part and onto the path up the coast, and the rest of our afternoon was pretty much the scenic coastal hike to Oia. Also the strenuous hike to Oia. We were all wearing flip flops, not having done any research on the terrain of this hike, and realized soon enough that this was not a "hike" but a hike, which actually, yes, involved steep hilly terrain and a lot of dirt paths and rocky roads. I was especially ill-suited for this trek in my $6 Old Navy flip flops that had no support for the sole whatsoever. But the views! The views made every painful step worth it.

It was all just coastline and water as far as you could see, a deep, rich, endless blue, blending into the sky like a giant chalk drawing by a giant chalk artist who had taken his thumb and neatly smeared the line between sea and sky. Every so often we would stop between huffs and puffs and 'ow my feet's for long enough for one of us to make an original remark about how beautiful it all was and for the other two to echo it.

We made good progress up the coast (although our sense of distance traveled was fantastically skewed and way overshot actual distance traveled), but about an hour and a half into the hike, Tiff announced that she was going to bus the rest of the way to Oia, since the hike was doing nothing to lessen her fear of heights (we had just scaled and climbed down a particularly high hill/mountain) and her back problems were unfortunately getting in the way. And also because she didn't like hiking. A minor factor which Judy and I had either been unaware of or forgotten.

Consequently, with some uncertainty and several misgivings, Judy and I parted ways with Tiff, with me wondering even as we waved bye to her how exactly we were to find one small Tiff in a decently sized town with 2/3 of the group lacking phone data. (We had arranged to meet at the bus stop where Tiff would get off, but who was to say how easy that would be for Judy and me to find?)

Down one member, Judy and I picked back up on the hiking trail, where we encountered a young couple saddling up on a pair of donkeys to go up the trail. We passed them, and somewhat bemusedly found ourselves keeping a steady pace ahead of the donkeys for a while. Wondered briefly should we have put Tiff on a donkey? Decided no, the bus was probably a better option. But at least if she was on a donkey we could have walked with her. Eventually we decided that the pressure of keeping pace ahead of the donkeys was too much so we let them pass in front of us, a decision we immediately regretted when we found ourselves walking directly behind three very large and smelly donkey posteriors for the next several minutes.

I would say more about this last hour of the hike with Judy to Oia, but it was largely uneventful, though consistently gorgeous. I think there was a lot of singing and faint humming. Vaguely remember Judy playing some kpop from her phone. Also met a nice middle aged couple from Canada or somewhere who had met when they were in high school. Admired us for doing the hike in flip flops; we told them we were just stupid and unprepared.

We got very excited once we emerged from around a turn and finally saw the welcome sight of the white roofs of Oia for the first time. Once they were in sight it was a short hike down to reach the edge of the town, a short hike that involved more singing - the Wicked musical songs this time, I believe - and some more spurts of kpop.

It was on this last stretch that we also consulted each other on the plan of action for once we arrived in town. We had three priorities upon arrival: 1) find a bathroom 2) find Tiff and 3) find Greek yoghurt, as I presented the case to Judy. Why can't 1) and 2) go together, she wanted to know. Good point, I agreed, and we continued to approach town, while I continued to wonder aloud whether we hadn't hugely underestimated how difficult it would be to find Tiff in this town with no means of communication.

Not five minutes after I'd uttered this pessimistic thought, we rounded another corner and there was Tiff standing about ten feet away from us, in the doorway of a - wouldn't you know it - Greek yoghurt shop, with a bathroom to boot.

Once the rapturous reunion was over, the three of us set off deeper into Oia to find a good spot for watching the sunset. As we walked, Judy dismissed every likely looking location, insisting that none of these places offered the view she was thinking of but then later admitting that she didn't actually know what she was looking for. Regardless, we soon found what it was that we had unknowingly been looking for: a huge old abandoned building (or was it just a part of the cliff/rock?) crowded over with a goodly mob of other sunset-watchers, which afforded a gorgeous view of Oia's famous white buildings hewn into the cliffside, with the sun just beyond floating down to touch the top of another little island in the distance.

We scrambled over a wall and onto a ledge that jutted out farther, where we sat and did what one does in Oia: watch the sun go down. Never a commonplace occurrence, but in Oia, Santorini, really something spectacular. The three of us sat in silence while everyone around us chattered. Judy listened to music. I wrote yesterday's journal entry. Tiff pondered complex existential questions and did math proofs in her head.

When the last bit of the sun disappeared, cheers and applause erupted, as if everyone had just finished watching a great movie or play. "Good job, nature!" someone beside me called out. It sounded more whimsical than idiotic.

Last stop of the day was dinner at a restaurant called Lotza, which gave us a nice opportunity to eat on an outdoor terrace with views of the water. Delicious mussels and shrimp saganaki, and more tzatziki, which I think we've eaten with every meal in Greece so far. Then a quick stop to pick up some baklava, and then we boarded a bus which was supposed to take us to Firostefani, where our b&b is, but which skipped it and let us off at Fira Center instead, about a ten minute walk away. Judy asked the driver if the bus usually stopped at Firostefani and why we had skipped it but the driver shooed her off with a surly "bye bye goodnight" which rudeness had her steaming for a while. There were a lot of loud 'urrrghhhh's and 'hella rude's coming in a steady stream from her general direction for the first half of the walk back, until she decided she was over it.

Got home and ready for bed by about midnight, with Judy and Tiff both dropping off about an hour before I was prepared to sleep. I was finally just about to lie down myself, when I felt a horribly familiar nausea come over me that I couldn't ignore. I knew what was coming - my dinner - and dashed to the bathroom. Here is the unglamorous part of traveling that you don't see on Instagram: kneeling on the bathroom floor at 2am with your head in the toilet for an hour and a half, trying to distract yourself in between heaves by going back and forth between reading "Anne of Green Gables" on your phone and googling "how do you know when you've finished vomiting?"

I was evidently the unlucky one, physically, on this trip, and I reflected that between my crippling cramps in Amsterdam; the nasty swollen pus-filled bug bites on my legs (oh yes! That happened) from Athens; the mysterious, also pus-filled heat blisters that appeared out of nowhere on my ankle; my painful sunburn which might have made a family of lobsters mistake me for one of their own; and now my food poisoning/indigestion/apparent newfound intolerance for seafood; it seemed I had been designated the sacrifice to the gods to take on all of the physical pains and discomforts possible on our trip. No blisters, bug bites, cramps, sunburn or puking for Tiff and Judy, for which I am convinced they can thank me, seeing as I clearly took their portion.

Two am with bits of undigested shrimp floating in the toilet and a mouth full of vomit taste was not exactly what I'd been expecting for Santorini, but I figured there had to be a price to pay for such a perfect vacation, and this somehow must be it. And with that thought in mind, and Emily's admonitions via Facebook Messenger not to sleep on my back lest I choke on my vomit in my sleep, I finally crawled into bed exhausted and thoroughly grossed out at 3:30am.

It was all worth it to live a day like this one, I reckon.