Love Story–Bronze Winner: The Australian

By Michelle McAlister

Don’t get me wrong. I can appreciate backpackers’ zealous appetite-for-fun, and even their raucous pranks, but I did not fly across the Atlantic to wear a Grecian toga and pound shots of pink-hued booze in a 10:00am contest. So when my taxi driver shows up to rescue me from the Pink Palace, a self-described ‘World Famous Backpackers Paradise’ on Corfu, I promptly scuttle into the broiling taxi and snarl, “Take me anywhere where there aren’t any tourists.”

Disgusted and admittedly resigned, I freely submit to my taxi driver’s whims. A leathery man, Kostas unwittingly becomes my new, albeit odorous, living guidebook.

Kostas lurches down a highway lined with kumquat groves, eyes me in the mirror and declares, “I have a place where my family has a room. You stay there.”

I don’t know what I’m in for, or if it’s even on the map that I nervously unfold in the backseat of the rumbling taxi. But I resign myself to fate, realizing that fundamentally, I have asked for thisknowing that the gifts of travel are often those that are unplanned, borderline dangerous, and unorthodox. I start to get excited as we spiral into a hilltop town. Homes wearing stains of passion fruit pink, saffron yellow, stucco white are wedged against one another like citizens-on-the guard, backed by an army of dense emerald vegetation.

Draped by a twin-trunked olive tree, I squint out the window to read the city-limit sign: ΠΕΛΕΚΑΣ. After four years of college Russian, I not only muddled my way around the Cyrillic alphabet, but I also learned that the Greek alphabet is similar.

As we whoosh past the sign, I break it down, “ΠΕΛ-Ε-ΚΑΣ, Pel-e-kas.”

I couldn’t believe this was coming in handy.

Kostas turns back and flashes a mouth of gold in a prideful smile, “Yes! Pelekas, it is my home!”

We wind down a steep hill and park in front of an unassuming pension. The proprietor of the pension toddles up to the taxi and waits in the sunshine for her new arrival.

Eleni is compact and chunky. Her breasts buoy and sway in her top. Black stockings cover her legs, but her smile is wide, full of silver teeth. Still boarded up, I surmise she hasn’t hosted a traveler yet. Through chop-chop dialog, I understand Eleni will make do with whatever Kostas-the-cat has dragged inme.

Having relinquished myself to Kostas, it dawns on me that I have strayed from mapped highways, far from the recommended pages of guidebooks and even farther from the scattered wood signs nailed to Cyprus trees that promise, “English is spoken here.”

Pelekas is an unscheduled detour in my journey across Greece’s scattered islands. But as an adventurer by heart, my feet coerce me down the pension stairwell and propel me out into my new town.

I strut my non-native stuff around dusty roads. I take salt-water showers at the beach in delirious states of euphoria, drink the local tangy wine, and consume mass quantities of dry thick yogurt, earthy tomatoes and crumbling salty feta so fresh, it dissolves on my foreign tongue.

But unlike the Pink Palace, deluged with garrulous Americans, my arrival in Pelekas sends home the awkward feeling of walking in on a stranger’s family dinner. It appears I am the only tourist in Pelekas so I feel compelled to respond with respect, hoping to hasten acceptance as an outsider. By this point, all the locals know there is an American in town, and I try my best to stave off the raucous reputation that tends to precede many of my compatriots. Whether or not they will accept me, I don’t know. But I feel lucky because I realize that Pelekas is the type of place you can only end up when you leave your travels to absolute chance.

Soon, parched days wax and wane, and looks and stares fade into nods and nods ebb into greetings of ‘Yassou!’ I am one of them, almost.

But on one particular evening, an outsider invades Pelekas. I spy the fair-haired newcomer lithely lounging in the doorway of the Zanzibar pub. He has a deliberate, languid lean that tells me he’s got nowhere to be. Who could this be and how did he get here? I wonder. With confidence and protected by a sense of ownership, I intentionally set out to cross paths with the foreigner.

“Excuse me,” I say. “Didn’t I just see you in Poland?”

My question to the disheveled vagabond is a liesort of. The intruder looks similar to a man I had passed on a crowded bus in Krakow. We had exchanged a prolonged glance laden with regrettwo smitten travelers traveling in opposite directions.

The intruder spins around and doesn’t speak, he beams.

“Hello darling! What are you going on about?”

He is Australian.

“I’ve only just arrived in taxi,” he smiles.

The Australian lights a cigarette and adds, “Darling, I just needed to get away from my nasty life. My mate Kostas set me up,” he caps off with a broad smile.

It seems that Kostas, my Kostas, is in the habit of swooping up lone stragglers and carting them off to his hometown. A pang of jealousy pinches me.

There is nothing subtle about the Australian. His voice booms and twangs with sarcasm and unabashed observations. He is without couth and is opposed to modifying himself to his surroundingsperpetually unapologetic at all times and in all places. Hailing from Adelaide, on the southern lip of his country, he arrives in Greece tall, lanky and with sandy un-kempt hair. Penniless, the Australian has somehow landed in Greece without a dime, possessing nothing of value except the drink in his hand that he conned from my bartender.

And as I begin to discount the vagabond, I realize that he is grounded, and ungrounded at the same time. I watch him stoke the locals, instigating a bar-wide laughing fit. And when he’s done with the crowd that has gathered around him, he struts over to me and that’s when I suddenly can’t recall the life I lived before that night. Our eyes lock. A glimmer in his eye sparks powerfully familiaran invisible lure draws us together.

I immediately consider a truce with the invading Aussie.

With both of us transported into a Kostas-induced vacation, we band together by common language and mutual fiery appetites. We link arms with lemon popsicles in one hand, Recital ice cream cones in the other. We rent a moped and ramble recklessly to red sand beaches smelling of melted sticky lemons. The Australian runs into the sea fully clothed, hurling himself atop a giant wave, losing the moped key on the ocean floor. We wade around in the clear water holding hands, laughing, drawing the Grecian sea’s sand between our toes, searching for the big golden key, fruitlessly. We push the wet salty slippery-handled moped up the beach cliffs back to Pelekas where I pay a fine for our carefree abandon.

The next day we frolic on the beach and the Australian bargains bananas from a passing fruit vendor.

“How much for two of those bananas, mate?” The Australian slyly questions, preparing for a round of negotiations.

But that’s all I hear. The two men huddle, laughing, slapping each other on the back, working out a bi-cultural secret deal over the price of two bananas. With no money to offer the Greek, the Australian manages to wager some kind of moneyless transaction made with faith and charm. He seals the deal with a “No worries” and saunters back over to me, the rewards of his labor swinging from his hand.

Throughout the days, the Australian swindles more such deals: meals, drinks, gas. His charms know no limits; the locals only smile and nod when he leaves them, somehow satisfied and captivatedjust like me.

At night, a massive, low-slung orange moon watches over Pelekas while donkeys, goats, horses, dogs and roosters swoon and sing tunes. We too swoon, sitting on the balcony of my hotel, drinking wine from the bottle under the eerie orange glow.

“I had a dream last night,” the Australian says. “I was locked in a room, totally afraid. The devil was coming to get me.”

“Were you trapped?” I ask, taken aback by the serious turn the Australian has taken. Normally upbeat and fearless, the Australian seems vulnerable for the first time.

“No, I wasn’t trapped. I was just waiting. I knew he was coming, and I was scared, right.”

“Then what happened?” I push.

“You came through the door instead. You saved me,” he says.

“What, am I the devil?” I grimace.

“No, not you, darling. You beat him to me.”

The Australian’s candor takes me to another place, his confession having forced me there. I had taken him lightly and had chalked up our days to nothing more than a summer of Grecian romance. The Australian leaves me speechless, and I rearrange everything I’d held true.

That night, as the Australian sleeps, penniless, far from the home that he fled, and never out-of-place, I think back to the moment that I hopped into Kostas’ taxi, willingly transported to an unknown place, trusting in fate. And I thought of the Australian back at the docks, seeking an escape from his own life, trusting in Kostas to deliver it to him. I sit on the edge of the bed, before the sun has risen and the orange moon still hangs outside the window, bewitched by the gifts of travel.

I think of the promises we made, wondering if he’ll be able to charm his way across the Atlantic, back to me. Yes. Yes, I thought. I kiss the Australian on the cheek, brush aside his sandy hair from his warm face and whisper, “I’ll see you in America”.

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