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Atlantic Abroad
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Previously in Atlantic Abroad

  • The Car as Social Barometer (Gregg Easterbrook, Belgium, May 14, 1997).

  • Of Bird Songs and Buddhas (Matthew Gurewitsch, China, April 30, 1997).

  • The Discreet Charm of the (Chilean) Bourgeoisie (William Langewiesche, Chile, April 16, 1997).

  • Beware the Eighth of March (Jeffrey Tayler, Russia, April 2, 1997).

    Share your tales of life abroad in the Global Views forum of Post & Riposte.

  • doozerhd picture
    May 29, 1997

    Recently I was standing in a bookstore on Niki street in Athens, browsing through the Graham Greene selection, when I was bumped chin-first into the shelves by a shuffling, nylon-and-Gore-Tex behemoth.

    "Sorry, dude. Trying to get at the guidebooks," a voice intoned from behind synthetic flaps.

    I stepped aside. The backpacker passing me bore rucksacks fore and aft, and the trick of balancing them rendered his gait a sort of plodding Neil Armstrong moonwalk. I browsed on, but soon pairs of tanned feet in Teva sandals loped into my downcast field of vision: the shop had filled with college-age beings jostling at the guidebook section. They were outfitted in a sort of crampon-and-Velcro couture that signaled readiness for survival should Greece slide into apocalypse: water-bottle belts held up rip-stop khaki shorts, fanny packs hid hazelnut caches, Swiss army knives dangled on cords looped around necks, and safety-buckle black straps swayed tentacle-like from all protuberances. One fellow had topped himself off with a pith helmet and was puffing a pipe, an original (and aromatic) touch out of sync with what looked to be attire bought at a single campus trekking outfitter.

    A goateed youth, pensively flipping through the pages of India, tore open his Velcro-sealed hip pocket and began feeding on the nuts therein. His female partner, sipping fluid through the stem of her fluorescent-orange water bottle, navigated the display tables and sidled up to him.

    "So it's either Bombay or Bangkok, right?" she asked.

    "Can't find a Thailand guide. But here's Kenya. There must be cheap tickets to Kenya from here."

    "Must be, but I saw flights to Rio, and here's Brazil."

    "Oh, wow. Let's tell the Doozer. He had a semester of Portuguese last year."

    The Doozer was too encumbered with survival gear, nut packs, and personal-hydration systems -- not to mention adipose tissue -- to get past the front door, where he stood peeling an orange, so they communicated with him by a pantomime involving the raising of guidebooks and the hunching of shoulders. He eagerly nodded approval of everything. As I was stepping around him on my way out, he turned to let me pass and entangled his pack in the doorside display stand, knocking a slew of Brontë "Wordsworth Editions" onto the peel-scattered sidewalk.

    There is nothing inherently wrong with disporting oneself in Gore-Tex and nylon; maybe someday, somewhere, nut-truck drivers will go on strike and the only survivors will be those with their own pistachio stashes. But undeniably, backpacker fashion contributes through its flippant uniformity to a few rather ignominious beliefs held by locals -- including, in this case, Greek men who ply the crowds in search of available foreign females and those who sell plastic Satyr statuettes and similar bibelots. A kamaki ("harpoon," or pickup artist) in the nearby Plaka neighborhood told me, "You see, tourist women come here for sex. To meet guys like me." When I answered that it looked like the women he was hissing and whistling at from his café seat had other things on their minds, he exclaimed, "Look at the way they dress. It's not serious! It's just not serious!"

    "Satyr, anyone?" said a shopkeeper across the walkway, snickering and waving a priapic statuette in the faces of those shouldering rucksacks but letting the "seriously" dressed pass by unmolested. The kamaki looked at me as if to say, "See!", but there were no takers in either camp.

    "Serious" or not, such dress does present an immediate impression of gullibility. But more poignantly it also signals the promise of youth, when the world seems fresh and malleable and mysterious, as though it might be Doozer's oyster, accessible with Day-Glo nylon rucksacks and crisp guidebooks. Gifted with such promise, the besandaled legions can afford to saunter unriled past the hissers, or even pardon the satyr seller. And they usually do.

    Jeffrey Tayler is a freelance writer and traveler based in Moscow. He has recently written on Transylvania, Siberia, and Zaire for The Atlantic Monthly.

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    Copyright © 1997 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.

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