5 Things Greece Taught Me About Being a Human Being

It’s taking me even more time in between posts nowadays, which is something of a surprise. After I didn’t manage to write about the whole trip on the trip, I figured when we arrived back in the states it’d be sort of “bam bam bam, here they are folks, no need for me to go out and sight-see the city where I’ve lived for the past six years, so, may as well stay in and write.” Silly assumption on my part: although it’s true that we aren’t exactly sightseeing Philly, there has been plenty to do around here to get our feet back under us. But those things (thankfully) are a post for another day.

Today I have the pleasure of sending my mind back about 5 months (wow time flies), to late August, and the week that Aaron and I spent in Corfu, Greece.

This part of our trip felt different to the rest, mostly because it was the longest period of time we’d spent in one place without moving. And, by the time we made it to Greece, we had successfully booked out the remainder of our trip, which meant our week on the beaches of Corfu was pure, unadulterated vacation time.42ea7aca-865d-4324-a62a-186f1c5ab66a

We still had a handful of our usual challenges to contend with. Our classic low-budget campsite living, cooking in the summer heat, and navigating public transit in a language where even the letters were largely unfamiliar were a few. We also had a bit more trouble with drinking water than we had in the past. All of the water from the taps in Corfu was potable, so we were still safe and healthy for the better part of the week while we filled our reusable bottles, as we’d been doing for the whole trip. But the water was extremely calcified–it always tasted somehow thick, and left a white crust on our bottles’ rims–and was also very warm as the pipes baked in the August sun. So although we could keep hydrated, we never felt hydrated. Thankfully, just about every shop in Corfu (and there were very many of them, as tourism is clearly a massive industry there, and for good reason) sells cold liter water bottles at a decent price. And not just for the tourists–all of the locals bought their water as well, because it was simply that much better. We tried to save the plastic and reuse it to not be too damaging to the planet, but man oh man, after four days of feeling constantly thirsty, that first sip of cold, clear water was pretty much the best thing we’d ever tasted.

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Not sure what “Cellar Water” is, though…

We had a wonderful time on this chunk of the trip. Even our two-hour walk from the Corfu Port to the Karda Beach campsite was pleasant, despite the ever-encroaching heat as sunrise turned to true-blue day, and despite the large periods when views of the calm sea and early-morning fisherman on tiny rowboats were replaced by strip malls and a literal sea of rats skittering out from beneath a dumpster. Even this was oddly charming (although perhaps that could be put down to mild delirium after a night spent under the fluorescent lights of an overnight ferry).5ffa4325-6106-4ee6-872b-422bf9603f90

And when we finally made it to our campsite, the perfect balance was somehow achieved: the campsite was accessible directly from the main road, packed with shops and dining, but the moment you walked beyond the campsite’s office, there was open space, dirt roads, brushy grass, creeping grape vines, and so many olive trees with their woven gnarled trunks. And through the back of the campsite, just down a small walkway, the beach awaited, peeking through the ivy that clung to the fences on either side like a vision from a dream.

It was all of this–the spirit of vacation, of getaway, of relax and have a cocktail and sit in the sun–that made me realize I wasn’t exactly practiced at being carefree. I hadn’t really learned how to be on vacation. And along with this opportunity to reflect came the realization that I had plenty to reflect on. This time allowed me to take a look at myself, and to learn not just the how-to’s of travel and adventure, but of being a person, wherever you are.

1. Learning to Turn Off

It’s hard to remember that productivity and “success” do not equal self-worth. I (and most working artists, freelancers, and self-employed people I know) have a lot of difficulty taking any time off without descending immediately into guilt. Think of all the things you should be doing right now, I tell myself. You’re so lazy. And as I’ve mentioned in previous posts, this doesn’t only apply to work (bookings, rehearsals, performances, etc.), but also to “leisure”—if I’m not spending every waking moment being busy with something (seeing the sights, taking a tour, writing, and on and on and on…), then I must be just a waste of space.

Greece was where I finally found some success in letting that mindset go. We allowed our vacation to be a vacation for a little while. I spent a whole day lying on the beach, and managed not to hate myself for it. Because time spent doing “nothing” can still be time well spent. The only person telling me that I’m not worthwhile whenever I’m not being productive is me. And as soon as I realized how much I was gaining from that time on the beach—drinking in the sun and the waves, or even not effortfully focusing on my surroundings and just letting myself exist amongst them, with no obligation to think or feel or be any which way—I found I really could believe that my former mindset of “productivity=worth” was not the whole story. That it was actually limiting me from ever feeling good enough (because how much productivity is enough productivity? how much success is enough success?). And while I was busy getting lost in never being busy enough, I was choosing anxiety and discontent over appreciating (or even noticing) the life I have. Which seems a terrible waste, doesn’t it?

Obviously I’m not advocating spending every day doing nothing in order to appreciate your own existence. But I am reminding myself that I can spend a day doing nothing but appreciating that I’m alive—a day without producing something that will somehow prove I’m alive—and not feel guilty about it. And in fact, even if two days in a row happen to look like that, it still doesn’t mean I’m unworthy.

For instance, in Corfu, we ended up having many days that largely looked alike. There were exceptions: a day of journeying into Old Town, taking a look at sculptures and architecture.

A day of crossing the island to a new beach, where we took a boat tour of the caves along that patch of coast, and where we scaled the hill above the beach to see the monastery.

But apart from that, nearly every other day that week, we passed the time on the beach across from our campsite. Some days were more active than others: some involved more swimming, or playing on the inflatable water park, or having a traditional Greek dinner accompanied by traditional Greek music and dancing. But much like the notion that productivity is not the be-all-end-all, it turns out that variety (though I’ll agree it is the spice of life) does not have the final word either. On a trip like this, with limited time to spend seeing so much of a world we didn’t know before, knowing that we were seeing only a tiny glimpse of it, I’d anticipated that I would feel guilty if a day passed when we didn’t do or see anything new. I discovered, though, that if what I was doing made me happy, it was more than okay to spend two days doing it.IMG_4479

Learning to turn off and take a vacation had another benefit, as well. It forced me to be patient with myself, to make peace with the self that starts nervously blathering when I’m in silence with my own thoughts as my primary company. I couldn’t have asked for a more tranquil place to learn to find peace within myself. And I’m so grateful our timing worked out the way it did. After we left Greece, the next three weeks were some of the most challenging, grueling, and rewarding of my life. But I’m not sure how well I would have handled those less placid times, had I not practiced patience and peace in the restful times, and figured out where to access patience and peace within me.

2. Releasing Vanity

It’s easy to make excuses for my preoccupation with how I look: society tells women we’re only worthwhile if we’re beautiful; as an actor I need to be pretty to get cast because the roles I’m “typed” into are meant to be good-looking; if I like the way I look I’ll feel more confident and be a stronger, better person. All half-truths. Sure, there’s plenty of pressure (and not only on women) to look your best, and that pressure is largely a toxic tool for money-making. Yes, acting (and many other careers) require a type of self-promotion where looks can have a direct bearing on jobs. Absolutely, having the opportunity to manifest the image in my head of “who I want to be” into my outward appearance, joining it with the idea of “who I am”, is extremely powerful. But to let any of those things lead me to believe that how I look defines who I am is a huge mistake (and sometimes, as my eating disorder has attested to, a dangerous one).

On this trip—and especially the beach part of this trip—I was forced to reckon with this because I simply did not have the same tools as before to dress myself up. My vanity had convinced me to bring some concealer, eyeliner, and mascara on our journey, but I had no options to achieve the bright lips or smoky eyes of many of the women around me. I had nothing akin to a sundress for the beach weather; I only had my T-shirts and hiking pants that zipped off just above the knee. I didn’t even have a swimsuit, just my quick-dry sports bra and underwear. Especially next to the beautiful ladies of Greece, with their smooth olive legs surrounded by flowing floral dresses that rippled in the breeze over their bikinis and their sunkissed glowing faces, I felt like a total schlub (and a pasty-red one at that; but that’s one unalterable aspect of my looks that I had to accept and embrace long ago, because there’s just no help for it).

There was definitely a part of me that was tempted to lean in to the sense of inadequacy (and some bitterness too). But a bigger part of me was not about to allow dark thoughts like that to take over this sunny and peaceful vacation, at least not without a fight.

The thing is, sometimes those murky feelings gain control before you even notice it, and then there’s no stopping them. Other times you try and pretend they aren’t there, so they come in on the sly and take over anyway while you’re willfully not looking. Still other times, it’s as simple as fighting them but losing. This time, though, I took a kind of savage pleasure in going out to meet those thoughts, to keep them out of the driver’s seat. It wasn’t an option to quell them by wearing my best swimsuit and my most fun sundress and hoping it would be enough to make me feel like I compared. It wasn’t an option to pretend those bad feelings weren’t there, either: I had too much time to spend with my thoughts, not to mention too much experience reminding me that never works anyway. And although in a way it’s always an “option” to invite those self-inflicted and -inflicting wounds to consume me (because sometimes there’s a strange type of pleasure in feeling low), I knew I did not want to choose that option. Facing it and trying to get to the root of the problem was the only alternative left.

And I was glad for that. During those days of rest and peace, this was a challenge I could rise to: engaging with myself so that I could engage with the rest and the peace. Every time I caught myself fixating on my looks (or on the looks of the people I was comparing myself to), instead of berating myself for it, I tried to see it as an opportunity to meet my challenge head-on. Fine, no, I didn’t look or feel like a lovely beach goddess, didn’t even feel pretty. But Leah, why don’t you have tan skin and a bikini and eyeshadow and a sundress? Because you’re too busy adventuring, because you prioritized a practical packing list to enable you to see eleven countries in three months and experience countless things you never have before, because you focused on taking a journey with your husband and not just trying to appeal to him (which has strengthened your bond and your attraction). These were the reasons I didn’t feel pretty right now. They were also the actual things making me who I was, and I was incredibly proud of that. Suddenly I understood in an emotional sense, not just in a logical one, that not only am I not defined by looking pretty, but that I can continue loving who I am because I don’t feel pretty. Appearance doesn’t have to be a factor at all in my self-worth; but when I am having strong feelings about appearance in one way or another, I can use those feelings as a window to see other, truer things that make me, me.IMG_4477

I’ll also add that Aaron’s support made it MUCH easier to meet this vanity challenge, as he helped remind me of all of these things we were doing, all these reasons I was worthy.  And (sometimes I still needed this), that he did see me as beautiful, whether or not did in that moment.

This also knocked a bit more sense into my head: just because the people around me were wildly attractive did not somehow make me uglier (except perhaps if I let unwarranted bitterness get the best of me). Compare and despair. Here’s the thing: you can dedicate hours upon hours to creating some sort of system of comparison, spending heaps of mental energy assessing whether you’re as pretty or intriguing or mysterious or fun or charismatic or exotic or whatever as the next person, even at first glance. And there will never be an objective truth to that comparison. Literally the only thing you can achieve with that is making yourself sad, and overlooking your own strengths and beauties, even to the point that you forget about them completely, and your loved ones who do remember them have to watch you neglect those things, while you hardly even notice the change. I’ve definitely been there. And the best way to never go there again is to remind myself not to compare in the first place. It’s always just apples to oranges anyway.IMG_4454

3. Being a Kid (No Matter Your Age)

Relaxation and rest is very important. But there’s another very important part of rejuvenating yourself and your spirit, one that I think we overlook all too often. Play.

Part of what was amazing about our time in Greece was how many different ways we found to just be silly. We had splash fights and wrestled in the ocean. We had handstand competitions and “who can keep their feet above the water the longest” competitions and “who can hold their breath the longest” competitions. The definition of good, old fashioned fun. (One thing we didn’t get to do that we really wanted to was rent an electric scooter or moped to get around. Turns out, you need an international driver’s license to do that, and you can only get one from your home country. All of Europe—except the UK for some reason—requires this in order to rent any vehicle. Good to know for next time.)

But I did participate in some traditional Greek dancing. Our campsite’s restaurant hosted a band every Thursday night, playing traditional Greek music paired with a traditional Greek three course meal, and the owner of the restaurant (whose name was Athena but who everybody called Na-Na) got me up and dancing with her and the other server. I loved it. And I didn’t care that none of the other patrons would get up and dance. Normally I hate being stared at by strangers if I’m not actually performing. In true performance environments, I’m prepared to be watched: there’s an unspoken contract between performers and audience where everyone knows what to expect and is fulfilling their roles. It’s different when I’m just a random person happening to garner attention from other members of a crowd; when I’m myself, and not a character.

But when little kids break out into dancing, or singing, or some silly game—when kids do anything that brings them joy—they don’t stop because they’re the only ones. Sometimes they even demand, “Watch this! Watch me!” and demonstrate their joy, even in front of strangers. I want to be like that. It isn’t so easy to recapture; but even the choice to try to listen to the music and feel my feet move, instead of only feeling the eyes on me, felt good.

Another part of keeping childhood alive—perhaps my personal favorite part—is allowing space for wonder. So many nights in Greece were spent on the beach under the stars. In the darkness over the water, the sky was filled with them—probably four times the amount we can see in the night sky over Philadelphia. And there was silence but for the lapping of the waves. We watched for shooting stars (and spotted multiple, along with a handful of satellites, some of which moved at strange, inconsistent paces only to suddenly blot themselves out of the sky entirely, like they’d evaporated or burnt out in a blink, apropos of nothing). And we wondered. We wondered about the vast infinity spread out before us, about the possibility of intelligent life out there, about possible futures for our own planet and species (I gotta say that those parts of the conversation tended to get a bit grim). And Aaron and I let our imaginations carry us away as we spoke about it. What if time travel is already possible in some not-so-distant future, and in order to preserve the integrity of the continuum, people don’t travel in time but machines do, microscopic cameras and microphones sent back inside a raindrop, sending signals to the future so the people there can witness (but not change) the actual past in virtual reality without ever leaving their own present, while we have no idea that the rain falling around us contains a tiny mechanical pilgrim in every third drop? What if simulation theory is true, and our reality is a re-creation of the past, an ancestor simulation indistinguishable from “basement reality” for those of us inside it? And how many of the stars we are gazing at right now burnt out long ago, but their light still reaches us, time travelers in their own right? Sure, maybe none of that is an especially original idea. But spending time speculating and imagining out under the stars has a way of making you feel simultaneously special and connected, and utterly inconsequential and tiny. You can feel the weight of the unknown all around you. And it feels good not to know things. There are still these great mysteries all around us; it’s nice to remember that when the daily grind gets boring.

And then, of course, that returns us to the other great antidote for boredom: again, we’re back to play. And happily for us, there was an inflatable water park on the very beach where we spent most of our week—an inflatable water park with no age restrictions, moreover. So what if we were some of the only adults there without the excuse of a child to supervise? We were not about to let some misplaced sense of shame or false prudence get in the way of our joy.c9cda3ed-35fe-4206-bc86-f3ecfdea6e38

We created an obstacle course out of all the different aspects of the inflatables (a slide, a rope swing, a tube that rotated with your movements like an oblong hamster ball, and all different varieties of climb-ups and jump-overs and jump-betweens and jump-offs), and we raced each other (Aaron was the victor, but it turned out that just finishing the entire course was a challenge in itself, and we both succeeded there). We played tag as well, until we had plastic-burn and water up our noses, and even then we were still having fun.

As puppeteers and storytellers, it’s pretty clear from the get-go that we’re the type of grown-ups that never really grew up. We revere play. And there’s a good reason for that. Play is engaging with the world around you, connecting with the people around you, learning and creating new ways of being, and, most importantly, it’s fun, and humans need fun. It’s so easy to forget that, with all of the responsibilities we have to ourselves and to each other, and all of the seriousness that surrounds us in the world. But we have no chance of dealing with all of that stuff if we don’t allow ourselves a dose of fun or curiosity or joy every now and again, to reinvigorate us and to remember what it’s all for.

4. Being an Adult When You Have to Be (i.e. Doctor’s Visits in a Foreign Country)

Of course, some adulting will still be required. In the epic tale of Leah and Aaron Take On the Inflatable Water Park, this came to pass after we were reminded that though you may have the spirit of a five year old, your body is still in its 30s. One jump from inflatable cliff to inflatable water catapult (you know, those things where somebody sits on the end so they’ll be flung off into the water when the other person jumps on) resulted in the reawakening of Aaron’s old neck injury from years ago.

He was okay, after 3 days of hardly being able to move and 3 different kinds of pain meds. The folks at our campsite’s office advised us on walk-in clinics we could get to on foot, one of which was apparently half the price of the other. So we waited at that one, even though the door was locked right in the middle of opening hours, and calling the number posted on the door informed us only that we should continue to wait (in the rather unforgiving sun and heat) for the single doctor on duty to return from whatever other medical issue he’d gone offsite to deal with. Ultimately I’d say the wait was worth it: he checked Aaron out, and when we explained that we couldn’t afford the out-of-pocket expense of transport to a hospital and an x-ray (which our travelers insurance, World Nomads, would cover, but only as a reimbursement down the line), he tried Aaron on pain meds first (starting with an injection from a very large needle). The pharmacy was just down the block, so we picked up the prescriptions on the walk back to the campsite. All told, the whole thing came out to a bit over €125. And mostly, the meds worked. It took the better part of a week for Aaron’s movements to be back to normal, but we did still manage to hike the Alps just after Greece. Lots to be grateful for—it could have been so much worse. Main steps I learned for scenarios like this: ask at the place where you’re staying to find a doctor if you need one, remember to bring your passport and insurance info so that they can legally help you, and always budget extra money to use in an emergency. We may be young at heart, but we certainly aren’t invincible.IMG_4473

5. Generosity

Sounds familiar from my previous blog posts, I know. I may be a broken record on this point, but I’ll stand by it because it bears repeating: even on a budget, generosity is almost always possible, and is always rewarding.

Again I’m back to sharing wine; I guess it became kind of our MO. And it didn’t only happen in hostels: one evening when Aaron and I were sitting on the beach sharing a bottle after dinner, we noticed another couple about 10 yards away, also sitting by the water in the quiet, enjoying a dusk dip. We apologized for interrupting, and we’d be happy to leave them in privacy, but would they like to join us in a glass? They did, and some more new friends were made.

She was born and raised on this island; he was visiting her here, and he did most of the talking because he was more confident in English (she understood more than she spoke). They were the ones who recommended we check out the beach across the island, with the caves and the monastery. They also invited us out dancing that night, although we didn’t take them up on it (both Aaron and I need a bit more mental and emotional prep to be ready to face a club atmosphere). Before they left for their night out, though, the four of us had a lovely time stargazing.

We made another friend while we were in Greece: Squeaker. She was a stray kitten who came and went from the campsite, named for her raspy little squeak of a meow. Aaron and I both fell in love a little. Most mornings we went to the little market on the campsite to pick up yogurt, fruit, and nuts for breakfast, and we ate it sitting on the cool stone stairs outside, sheltered from the sun under an open-air roof. Almost every morning, Squeaker joined us. I think she came back because we shared our yogurt with her, letting her lick the tops after we peeled them off and adding little scoops when she was finished, and giving her pets and company. Well, really, she was giving us company, too. I guess generosity is a two-way street. When you share what you have, even if you don’t think it’s much, sharing begets sharing.30e893ce-0630-4896-a28e-bb530f69da6c

There are also other forms of generosity that, even if they’re maybe inconsequential in the grand scheme of things, still feel valuable to enact. But maybe generosity is the wrong word for it. Maybe it’s simply humanity. One of these things was trying to clear up some of the trash on the beach. There were garbage cans on the beach, and most people didn’t litter, but they did throw their trash into wildly overflowing receptacles, until garbage was puddled around the cans like so many fallen leaves around an autumn tree. This wasn’t everywhere, though. In general, the beaches were clean and beautiful. But there one other glaring exception to that: cigarette butts. Everybody stubbed out their cigarettes on the sand or on the pebbles or in the water and then left the butts and filters there. I cannot emphasize enough the extent to which they were all over the beaches—you couldn’t lay a towel down without being on top of them, and you couldn’t swim in the water without catching the bloated butts floating around you or beneath you, marring that clear clear blue.

Now, I have no right to get all high and mighty. I do my best never to litter and to pick up stray trash that I pass on the street. But I’m no saint. Sometimes it’s overwhelming. Many times I’ve walked the streets of my own neighborhood in Philly on trash day, and there’s just been so much garbage that I step over all of it, because it’s too much for me to handle. I am certain that I could be doing SO much more to diminish my carbon footprint, to be sure I’m recycling correctly, not to waste so much perfectly good food, to fight for this dying planet. And it’s easy to watch other people, who live in this totally different world from mine, and to deride them for their habits, to say indignantly: I would never do that! If I lived in this beautiful place, I would never dream of dropping cigarette butts on the beach and in the water, like it doesn’t matter, like it doesn’t have the potential to kill this incredible place. Yes, easy to say that. I’m certain I did say that. But surely they could watch some of the things I don’t think twice about here in America, and be just as derisive, and rightfully. The fact is, it is NOT helpful for me to ride my high horse. But maybe it was helpful, even just a tiny bit, for me to do what little I could when the opportunity was right in front of me, when it cost me nothing: when filters floated around us, Aaron and I picked them out of the water and threw them away. I’m sure it didn’t even make a dent in their number. But honestly, that’s no reason not to do itEven if the only good it did was to remind me of my humanity, and of course for there to be one or two fewer bits of trash in that gorgeous water, it’s still worth it. Not so I can pat myself on the back, not even so that I can say I’m not part of the problem, because the problem is way too complex for that to be the case. Just so that I remind myself to do what I can when I can. And yeah, that helps me live with myself.IMG_4471

My time in Greece was really wonderful for that kind of thing: understanding how I live with myself. Perhaps the most incredible part of our time in Greece was how it offered that opportunity—to glimpse these truths about my own life—without my time there becoming some sort of demanding mission of self-deconstruction. There was rest and peace and beauty, and inside those things the bits of truth could rise to the surface. Maybe that’s what allowed me to accept them, even at the times when I felt I was falling short of them. They simply existed, shiny treasures I could pick up from the water, not bombarding or demanding. Just there. Asking of me only what I was able to give. And I often found I was able to give more than I’d expected, and easily. Happily. I guess I even felt sort of cleansed afterwards. Like seeing myself more clearly also cleared out my eyes and my whole head and I was seeing the world, maybe not fresh, but at least unfiltered by my own murk. And what a beautiful place to see clear.e842c50e-4b74-4edf-bf6e-9851ef60af0e

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