Who are you? That’s the question on everyone’s mind, isn’t it? That’s the question on yours. You think about it every day. What does your coffee order say about you? Cappucino, dry, double-shot? Worldly. No frills. Shit to do. What does the book you read on the subway say about you? Dostoevsky? Deep, but kinda cliched. T.S. Eliot’s out these days. You’re not homophobic, obviously, you’re just not a huge Walt Whitman fan. Maybe somebody black and female, preferably non-American. That one lady you keep meaning to read, if you could only remember how to pronounce her name. That’d look good on Twitter.
You’ve got a schedule, because like your coffee says, you’ve got shit to do. You get up early, but not, you know, too early. You’re not a fanatic. You have a coffee. You have a job, even though secretly sometimes you wonder if you’re just faking it. You hang out with friends and you post all of your drinks on Facebook because your parents were against that shit and fuck them and their narrow worldview. You used to swear because it made you edgy but now it’s a habit. You’ve got a nice body because you schedule a workout in right after work, but you don’t have any scars.
You’re one in a million. One of a million, at least. Disenchanted, disenfranchised, member of a million fractured little communities, but only like two that you actually care about. Mostly they’re online, but sometimes you go out for drinks. More tweeting. More Facebook photos. Take that, mom. For some reason knowing how to take the bus into town without checking the schedules or freaking out at the bus stop fills you with a quiet satisfaction. See? You think. I am an adult.
But then one day something comes along and jogs your schedule just a bit out of line. You have a couple weeks off so you decide to go to Europe. Boarding your flight, you scheme about which monument you’re going to have behind you in your Facebook cover photo. Or maybe a trendy sidewalk cafe, because the Parthenon is for middle-aged white people with cameras and loud accents. You plan a visit to the Archaeological Museum, because you studied Greek in high school and what else are you going to do with that?
You studied Greek, you explain to your seatmate as the plane taxis onto the runway, because you were raised in this super weird (you say, with an only slightly artificial chuckle) evangelical family that believes that the world is only six thousand years old and God pretty much flipped from genocide to universal love and back again a few times over the course of that, and that that was a totally reasonable thing for Him to do. You’ve told this story a million times, always in that half-embarrassed tone of voice, and somehow you’re still so convinced that it’s interesting that you’re once again put off by the fact that he makes some excuse about needing to go over some business plans before putting in his earphones. Goddammit. At least your friends understand you. The ones who aren’t still religious, anyway.
You transfer in Atlanta, then Amsterdam, following signs like a goddamn veteran, and that fills you with the same kind of pride that the bus does. Even though you know it’s gauche, you stare at the Parthenon out your window as you circle into Athens, and god if it isn’t just gorgeous. Maybe you’ll go up there, you know, because history and culture or whatever. You’ll figure out the tweet to go with the photo later.
There’s a hostel waiting for you, reserved months in advance, and you’ve got your directions printed out in your day bag, along with instructions for the taxi driver meticulously Google translated into Greek, which you’re somewhat gratified to find that you can somewhat kind of read. Maybe this’ll be easier than you thought.
Customs like a pro and bam first foreign entry in your passport since that missions trip to Mexico six years ago that you tell people was a “school trip” if they ask about the stamp. You step out of the airport and the sun is hot and the city smells like hot cement and exhaust fumes. There’s a taxi at the front of the rank and you toss in your pack, then rummage in your bag for the translation. The driver’s wearing aviators and holds a lit cigarette between two hairy knuckles. He’s shouting into a cellphone and the language he’s speaking is fast and greasy and unlike anything you’ve ever heard, let alone learned. So much for easy. You clear your throat and hold out the paper. He waves it away, flips the phone shut and says, “Where you want to go?”
You start trying to read the address and he shakes his head impatiently and grabs the directions. Nods sharply, pulls out with a screech of rubber and a blare of horns. Dives into traffic with gusto and a disconcerting habit of maintaining eye contact with you in the rear view mirror while he asks you increasingly personal questions and tells you about his uncle in New Jersey, all the while swerving around pedestrians, mopeds, and more timid vehicles, horn blaring the whole way.
“You like Greek girls?” he says, then curses and jerks on the wheel to avoid a cluster of women wearing headscarves and ankle-length brown dresses. He flips up his fingers at them and snaps out something you’re pretty sure isn’t a compliment. “Immigrants, eh?” he says, and shrugs, the way you’d shrug about an epidemic of influenza.
You get out of the car at the hostel and mumble something and you’re pretty sure you overpay him which you feel bad about because you’re also pretty sure he’s racist, and he flashes you a white grin, lights another cigarette, and roars off in a cloud of exhaust. You stand there for a second. The city is gray and blocky, all concrete and asphalt and rust. This is not the Greece you had in mind.
So you head into the hostel. But there’s been some kind of error and they didn’t get your reservation or canceled it or something, and they’re full for the night. You feel like your world is slipping out of your fingers. But then these two girls sitting in front of a laptop call you over.
They had the same problem, so they found a homestay online, a student with a flat close to the Archaeological Museum, who says she can host three people. If that’s not a blog post right there, you don’t know what is.
This girl’s place is actually pretty big by the standards of the cities you’re used to, with two giant glass doors that open onto a balcony overlooking a theater. She’s pretty cool too, with a razor wit and a pretty sexy Greek accent. And when you tell her your story, for the millionth and first time, she listens, laughs, and tells you that religion is a tool the government uses to oppress its people, and just one of many.
Her name’s Maria. She’s an honest-to-god Marxist, anarchist, whatever. Her grandma carried underground newspapers under the Nazi occupation and her father protested against the fascists when the tanks crashed through the gates of the Athens university in the seventies. And when you’re talking to her, you forget for a second to think about your blog, Tumblr, Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, or fucking Instagram.
The two girls you showed up with leave to hit the islands but you hang around because you’re kind of into Maria and you think maybe she’s kind of into you. She has this sort of unassuming bohemian quality about her that you and your friends back home only wish you could emulate. She sleeps till noon, drinks wine till late in the warm Greek nights, and all her friends have dreadlocks. One guy, Nico, has a crooked nose because, no shit, a cop tried to bash his face in with a riot stick at an anti-fascist rally last November.
The first night, after hours of wine and dancing, you get back at six in the morning and check Facebook. You stare at witty statuses and photos of friends for a long time, then turn off your phone. It’ll wait, you think, you’re tired.
The next day, you forget, and the day after that. You take pictures, but haven’t had time to go through them. You’ll get around to it sooner or later, you think, but tonight an anarchist band is playing in Exarchia. It’s your first time there. The parks have pretty much been given up on by the city, so the local students and hippies have turned them into huge communal gardens. The walls of every building are covered in street art. Maria points out the corner where the cops shot that kid a few years back. There are still portraits tacked to the bricks.
Her friends show up, Nico and his girlfriend, a few others. Over wine, you talk about yourself, your story, but you’re not telling the same story anymore. You’re not giving excuses; you’re not apologizing. You’re just talking. Halting and slow. Digging maybe at the truth under the front you maintain, because for the first time you can remember it hurts a little. Hurts like maybe you lost something after all, even if you’re not sure what it is, and this time, this time they listen. When you’re done your hands are shaking and you bum a cigarette and for once, you’re just smoking, not showing off or being edgy or whatever. It idly crosses your mind that this’d be the kind of thing you’d normally take a photo of, but you forgot your camera at home.
The second pitcher of wine is dwindling when from up the street comes a crack-SNAP like one of those big firecrackers that are illegal now, and a rising wave of shouting follows. Seconds later, a mass of people pound past, running the other direction. Nico jumps to his feet, his whole face just lighting up, his body suddenly lithe with energy, and the others scramble up after him, peering down the street. He shouts something in Greek. Maria turns to you, eyes a little wide. “Riot,” she says.
Nico forges into the crowd, moving against the flow, and the rest of you follow. Most of those retreating are families and older people, just trying to get out of the way, but the students sitting at the cafes along the street are standing up and joining the press the other way, towards the noise. The street bends and your heart flutters because up ahead is a sea of signs and raised fists, and beyond that, a solid line of cops in black, riot shields held in front of them in a wall, and behind that is a tank of a vehicle, with tiny windows covered in steel grates and, on top, a massive water cannon mounted on a swiveling turret. The roar from the crowd is a threat, a declaration of power.
As you watch, it trains on one of the closest protesters and lets loose in a jet that knocks the kid back on his ass, to a wave of anger from the crowd. Your eyes start to burn, like you just walked into a room where somebody cut twenty pounds of onions, and your throat catches. You start coughing, then notice that your friends have pulled up their shirts and scarves to cover their mouths. You gape for a second, then realize that Nico is watching you with a grin that’s visible even through his mask. He pulls a checkered headscarf out of a pocket and ties it snugly over your face, and it becomes a little easier to breathe.
Which is good, because a moment later, there’s a crack and a flash and a blossom of grey mist just overhead and your eyes start watering uncontrollably. The crowd scatters in a sudden wave, pushing back away from the line of cops, who are now moving forward and firing what look like paintball guns into the front lines. Maria grabs you by the hand and pulls you back and then you’re running, ducking as more of the tear gas grenades explode overhead. Nico is whooping like a madman.
The crowd amasses again two blocks later, behind a barricade cobbled together out of blocks of concrete, pieces of lumber, and three steel trash cans doused with gasoline and set on fire. Someone starts to chant, and in the glare of the streetlights a thousand fists are raised in unison, and down the street, the cops march on, gas masks and black uniforms making them all look the same.
Maria tells you in a breathless voice what the riot is about and you think, Jesus, really? They can do that here? And you wish for one longing instant that your government did shit like that so you could start a riot there — and then the cops are firing again. Not paintballs, but little plastic pellets full of tear gas that rip into the crowd and knock people down in wracking eye-watering spasms. Then one of them hits Nico’s girlfriend right in the face and she just drops, clutching her eyes and cursing and gasping and coughing while Nico crouches by her side.
Then the gas grenades are arcing overhead and the water canon opens up on the barricade and the big truck roars forward and line of cops just charges. The crowd breaks, running for all they’re worth. But Nico’s girl is still lying on the ground. Nico turns to glare at you, eyes fierce in the light of the burning bins, and cuts his hand at the cops the way a general might at an enemy line, and without a word, Maria picks up a chunk of concrete and hurls it with all of her might at the oncoming line, screaming a curse in Greek. A knot of people cluster around as Nico helps the wounded girl to her feet, holding her scarf over her mouth as more tear gas grenades crash in around you. She’s limping, barely able to walk, and the cops are coming closer, raising their riot guns as they do, shooting over the low cover of the barricade.
You just stand there, quivering, wide-eyed, coughing, like a goddamn rabbit in the goddamn headlights. Then your toe strikes something on the ground. You bend down to pick it up. It’s a chunk of cobblestone.
Suddenly your world spins. This isn’t Facebook. This isn’t a pithy tweet. This isn’t a goddamn travel shot on Instagram. You are no longer an onlooker. That is a fucking line of cops, and this is a fucking rock.
Nico’s girlfriend stumbles and he almost goes down with her, and the cops train their weapons on him.
Maria throws again, screaming defiance at the oncoming line and you’re just standing there like an idiot because you don’t know what’s happening and you’re just a fucking tourist. But then Maria’s looking for another rock and she sees the one you’re holding and flashes you a fierce little smile, takes it, throws it in a vicious low arc that clips one of the cops right across the mask and then they’re shouting back, close enough to hear now, firing at you in a thuk-thuk-thuk-thuk of gas pellets.
“Run!” Maria shouts, and grabs your hand and you retreat, block by block, and then the surge is back, the rioters charging en masse back down the street with glass bottles and rocks in hand, rolling two steel barrels before them gouting out flames from the end. They pour around you and then you’re free of the front. Maria gets under the girl’s other arm and Nico leads you all off to the side and into the labyrinthine backstreets of Exarchia.
The night is full of alcohol and dancing, raucous adrenaline-drenched toasts with every round, laughter and triumph and life. You’re kind of quiet, feeling like an outsider, but they’re not treating you like one, and at the end of it, it’s just you and Maria. What happens with her? You tell me. It’s your own fucking story.
You fly back two weeks later. You skip the gym for a couple days, because jet lag. You put off posting your photos to Facebook. Your Instagram followers probably think you’re dead by this point. You log in to Twitter one day to find that you’re not in anyone’s mentions; Twitter, it seems, gets on just fine without you.
Sometimes you still go out with your friends, but you don’t post pictures of your drinks anymore, and sometimes when they talk about how nobody really understands them or about whatever the latest intellectual or political thing of the day is, you find your mind drifting and you catch just the faintest hint of a sharp bite in your nostrils, and a stinging in your eyes.
One night a few months later you’re pretty drunk as you’re walking home with them and your toe hits something and you stop, peering down unsteadily. Your friends walk on a bit before they turn to see what you’ve found. You bend down to pick it up. It’s a rock.
They just stare at you, then start laughing. Come on, they say. You’re drunk. Let’s get you to bed.
You are drunk. You’ve got to give them that. But there’s something else, too. The world isn’t Facebook. It isn’t a pithy tweet, or a goddamn travel shot on Instagram. The world is out there. Beyond these million little fractured communities. The world is behind the power button on your computer and the switch on your phone, beyond your million-and-one carefully constructed stories you keep telling yourself about yourself while you’re standing next to people who don’t give a shit. The world is a fucking rock.
You wake up the next day maybe a bit later than you’re used to. Maybe you go to the gym. Maybe you don’t. But the world is off-kilter now. Something’s changed. Something serious. Maybe they’re right when they say that you can’t go home again.
What happens next, you ask? You tell me. It’s your own fucking story.
Tim Raveling grew up homeschooled, in a small town in rural Montana. He’s now traveling the world and learning, slowly, how to tell his own story, and how to make it true.