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The Tourist

Athens in black and white
Abstract image of Theseio

Past the knick knack vendors with their makeshift kiosks outside the Theseio metro stop. Past the old junk sellers who spill across the sidewalk with their usual clientele blending into the landscape of broken chairs, broken kitchenware, broken tools, de-framed pictures. Across the street and through the tight alley, past the junky curled up on an unused stoop. Again a long alley, threading the graffiti, the endless graffiti, to the holy land of disney kitsch, the Little Kook, with its dragon who watches endless tourists hold out their phones at arms distance and pose. Further still, through the labyrinth to Omonia where the sex shops give way to the traffickers give way to the pickpockets give way to the tourists give way to… and onwards, onwards to the National Archaeological Museum.

Here The Tourist turns in for a rest from the ceaseless movement. In the Museum’s marble halls The Tourist sees objects that remain. Objects that have taken thousands of years to degrade, to lose their paint, an arm, a nose, a penis, but still they stand there on the pedestal. The marble of Poseidon stoically opposes the jetliner The Tourist took to Athens. The god, the stone man, watches unmoved, implacable; even incapable of movement. The Tourist rests there on a bench and watches the slow progression of people pass through the museum.

At seven The Tourist feeds. He searches google maps for a restaurant and is pleased by the fact that many thousands of his kin have visited O Thanasis for souvlaki. Down the stone walking road, past the knick knack vendors, along the train tracks that cut through ancient ruins unknown to The Tourist, through the tunnel like alleys lined with tee-shirt vendors and shoe shops, slowly slowly behind an elderly couple, a family of eight, slowly slowly past an African man with handmade bracelets, a heavy church and finally to the restaurant of choice.

At home, before The Tourist was a tourist, he worried openly about the crowds. He complained in a post that was liked and his complaint was met with positive messages of reinforcement, “I won’t even travel anymore, it’s not worth it…” “I would go off the beaten path if there was such a thing anymore!” The Tourist, before he was a tourist, felt alive with reinforcement. Everyone hates the crowds. But now, in Athens, The Tourist seeks them out; these crowds. He finds O Thanasis, he finds Monastiraki, he finds the alleys of Psiri, the paths of Plaka, the monuments, the cafes; all filled with people. The Tourist waits for a seat at O Thanasis and happily eats the reasonably priced food and is satisfied with the tens of thousands of reviewers that came before him; he’s satisfied they were not misleading.

Then The Tourist wanders up the fashionable pedestrian boulevard he knows from his feeds. It’s called Ermou. He knows this too from his algorithmic map that constantly updates itself with information his fellows volunteer. Around the donut vendor, and up past the portly Tarapossos with his Laterna (his barrel piano) beyond the Pull & Bear, the Funky Buddha, the Mango to Syntagma square. The Tourist pauses here to see the teens on their skateboards, the sputtering central fountain, and the lovers sitting close with their ice cream cones held out away from their knees to avoid the drip.

The Tourist could continue past the National Garden and the War Museum and the Byzantine and Christian Museum, away from the crowds into the… places beyond, but The Tourist turns back for his hotel. It’s nearing sunset, the jet lag pulls at his feet as though here, in Athens, the Earth’s gravity is stronger. He turns for home and follows new streets, parallel to Ermou, slightly darker, but full of foreigners like himself. Now he goes gently downhill. His meal warms his belly. He muses how different he is from the other tourists. Until now he hasn’t taken a single picture of what he’s seen. He hasn’t posted a single ‘hot take.’ The Tourist is ‘living in the moment,’ is ‘being present,’ is on a ‘social media fast,’ is ‘really experiencing’ Athens, is, in fact, not a tourist at all but instead a lone ‘explorer,’ a silent observer. With this thought in mind he goes past the Agia Dynami Chapel, covered by the Electra Metropolis Hotel, surrounded by the taxis that will take The Tourist to the airport if he so chooses. But he continues downhill past the now familiar O Thanasis, the Flea Market of Monastiraki, the tunnel like side alleys, the cafes along the train tracks.

He is almost back to the knick knack vendors when he sees a crowd gathered by a fence. Broken flow, an eddy in the stream, nervous glances, phones held close, focused away, The Tourist is drawn to this organized attention. He too peers through the old, iron fence.

Below him a line of train tracks cuts through the ruin of Stoa Basileios but the ancient pile of stones is not what has drawn the attention of the tourists here. Just visible across a low wall and between a platform and a bridge, men and women wearing white hazmat suits walk slowly, deliberately back and forth on the tracks. They walk in pairs. One of a pair carries a clear plastic bag while the other has a long, aluminum grabber. They intently look at the ground. They remind The Tourist of detectorists with their metal detectors.

Then he sees the body. Once a man with dark, tan skin and matted gray hair, now a shirtless lump of body parts. The head of the once-a-man hangs back from the neck and the eyes stare at a space a few meters above The Tourist’s own eye line. One arm is missing. One arm is flung over the chest. A hazmat suit finds something small near the body and their partner holds out their bag, open to receive.

The Tourist thinks nothing at first. Nothing at all. He looks sideways, casually, to see how the others are reacting. He knows it’s the scene of a death on the tracks, maybe a suicide, maybe not, but it doesn’t feel real. It blends with the ruins. The piles of stones that represent a once great structure, but now require more imagination than vision to understand. So to does this once-a-man; this abstraction of life; it requires more imagination than vision. The Tourist watches the silent body for some seconds more and then turns away. He feels almost nothing as he continues along the row of bustling cafes and…

But, he doesn’t feel nothing. No, something in him leans sideways like a sailboat in a heavy wind. It pulls him away from his path home. Suddenly his eyes struggle to make sense of the knick knack vendors. He veers left into a young couple holding hands and they trip over themselves to avoid a crash. He pulls himself into a seat on a knee high, stone partition. The low sun feels hotter than it did a few minutes ago. He pulls at the neck of his shirt and wipes the hair from his forehead. The Tourist breathes heavily. He leans over his knees and tries to focus on the flag stones beneath his feet. Flanked by a jeweler and a grilled corn seller, he stays this way for some time.

Then, The Tourist pulls the phone from his pocket and googles - “Athens death train tracks news.” Many results populate his browser’s feed, but none refer to what he saw. He searches again, “suicide metro athens greece last 24 hours” but still nothing looks relevant.

The Tourist notices a dog across the thoroughfare. It watches him. It senses his imbalance. It knows him. Not through comprehension; it empathizes. Its simple gaze holds The Tourist until he can’t sit under that stare any longer. He stands, and as he does so, he realizes he’s been crying. He hadn’t noticed until the movement shook the tears free. But now he’s embarrassed by his tears, now that he’s aware of them, just out of sight on his cheeks; yes, he’s embarrassed. He tries to wipe them away but they continue to run, thin rivulets across his face. He tries to wipe them away as he walks heavily back. Back to the hotel. Back into the crowds. But he knows they can’t be wiped away until he has none left and the forgetfulness of time carries him home, true home, where the blood on the tracks is his own.

The Tourist folds his arms across his chest, and he walks away.

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