Adrianne Kalfopoulou is a poet and essayist who lives in Athens, Greece. She teaches at the American College of Greece, and is a faculty mentor in Regis University’s MFA program. She is the author of three poetry collections, most recently A History of Too Much (2018), and two books of prose, including Ruin, Essays in Exilic Living. She has collaborated on translations of her work with the Greek poet Katerina Illiopoulou, published by Melani Press. Essays and poems have appeared in venues such as Poetry Daily, Hotel Amerika, the Harvard Review online, The Common, Superstition Review, Inverted Syntax, and Dancing Girl Press.
The Journey Where
“Continent, city, country, society: the choice is never wide and never free.”
Elizabeth Bishop, “Questions of Travel”
I woke up with the word “lettuce” in my mind and remembered my daughter eating a head of it for her dinner on a plate in the living room. There was also the word “ferociously” in the dream. I was eating ferociously. As in travel everything felt not quite where it ought to be. My love said to me, “traveling alone you find yourself in an existentialist space. But with someone, you’re more enclosed”, in the “us”, I wanted to say, that domesticates the journey. A sense of “us” gives reference, we’re aware of the other listening. This was what terrified me most. No one seemed to be listening as I traveled. Despite the frequency of nouns like “connections” and adjectives like “shared” in my movement through airport terminals and security checkpoints where ads and PA announcements tried to reassure me of my future and my safety, I felt disconnected from “us.” A script was at work that made listening difficult. So I took notes, and recorded words. Some like the lettuce in my dream added color. I was also reading Susan Stewart’s The Poet’s Freedom, A Notebook on Making. She had this to say: “Freedom lies thereby in giving one’s self one’s own law out of one’s own essence.” I understood essence to mean a vitality that contains its own laws. A word like “organic” for example suggests that volition is innate to the essence of living.
“Your DNA Is Your Data” an HSBC ad notes at Heathrow. According to HSBC in the “emerging future” essence will equal information, “Nature and Technology will work as one” – will this include volition, the choice of “giving one’s self”? Stewart’s sense of “one’s own law” will then become a quantifiable essence according to HSBC – I was traveling across the Atlantic to my love as well as for work, but couldn’t always keep up with the shifting time zones, let alone the changing laws of security. I was traveling to keep connected to “us”.
L.A.-LAX. NYC -JFK. London-Heathrow. Chicago-O’Hare. These were ports of connection more than destination. I often felt I was going to miss a flight. And as in a dream where water grows heavier or air thicker, my body slowed and sometimes struggled to keep up. Someone was generally there at my arrival but the language, though English, was foreign: “If you’re pre-checked you don’t have to take off your shoes” I’m told going through the security check on a domestic flight to L.A. How does having pre-checked my ticket make me less of a security risk, I never asked. Once arrived I put my bag quickly into the trunk of a friend’s car at LAX as he tersely said he would be ticketed if I wasn’t quick enough, adding “If I was black I’d have a ticket right now.” He was looking at the whistling policemen, who are black. We spend most of the drive into the city speaking of how anyone black seems to have become a potential target. This is 2014 after Ferguson, but before the grand jury’s decision not to indict the police officer who murdered Eric Garner; the assumptions of white supremacy still supremely assumed. My friend had a string of stories, blacks shot dead without so much as a provocation. He said a teenaged boy lined up some MONSTER drink cans, and waved down the police saying “Here I am here I am… you’re probably going to shoot me now.” And they did.
I was traveling away from the known – gripped by a vague dread and vertigo, a sense of life’s end station where there would be no us – yet I carried wine with me in a communion between countries, and the body of the beloved to whom I was bringing it. I was not Mahmoud Darwish, the ecstatic Palestinian writer of exile and love, but the wine was hard to carry and almost confiscated. At Heathrow I had forgotten to mention it was in my carryon, sealed in its special plastic by the airport Duty Free shop. It was also a metaphor of a certain kind of feeling, a love I wasn’t sure would land me anywhere familiar. I knew though I wanted to arrive with the gift. “Freedom lies thereby in giving one’s self one’s own law …” (Stewart again), but my freedom came up against other laws too, and other essences, not least of which was the desire to arrive with wine. Doesn’t desire create its own essence, volition not always reflected in law, (i.e. anarchy, desire that exceeds law)? I was transporting so much desire in the wine I carried, and the law was going to trip me up.
“You’ll be put on the next plane out,” I was told when the plane was delayed leaving the Athens’ Eleftherios Venizelos airport. Interspersed with “Everything will be all right,” the general graciousness of the uniformed cabin attendees made for a recurring tenuousness, and paralysis – would I really make the connection? The wine slowed me down; the wine would delay me in the interminable terminal in the midst of the officious and indifferent.
There was 50 minutes to departure when we landed in London. I was given the red EXPRESS CONNECTION card and ran and ran and tried to still the panic as I ran through winding empty spaces of glossy ads and the lingering aromas of colognes and perfumes. The airline personnel were coolly professional. “Will I make the flight?” I say to one woman at a check-in point for Transit. “We’ll see,” she says looking at the screen, and then “I think so.” I notice the blank resignation on the faces of those in a hurry, sometimes of focused panic. The more impatient sometimes speak to themselves; a woman from Brussels in front of me and someone from Slovenia next to me had just come from Chicago where I was heading; I would make it if I was quick; I would make it if I didn’t think too much about not making it. Breathing loudly and visibly out of sorts I get on the airport bus to the gate when an Indian woman smiles my way. A man with a Scots accent is dismissive when I tell him of my EXPRESS CONNECTION. “That has nothing to do with Security” he says, it is a word in so many of the refrains I hear. I will hear it frequently: “We want to secure your passage…” “…to make your comfort and security our priority…” “Please secure your seat belts and make sure your seats are in their upright positions.”
It was two Africans, the one who said to his friend, “Let her go ahead” and a southern couple who nodded and smiled as they saw the beginning-to-break expression on my face that made it possible for me to make the connection. I’d forgotten to say there was a bottle of wine in the carryon that went through the X-ray band – it was quickly slipped off into the “To be Checked for Security” row, and sat there as the minutes ticked past when I waved over a woman with her plastic-gloved hands saying in barely controlled anxiety that I needed to have the bag checked as quickly as possible. The same man with the Scots accent who had dismissed my earlier plea was now listening to the woman with her plastic-gloved hands. He nodded and pulled my bag from the group, taking it to another section where more women with plastic-gloved hands briskly opened it and pulled out the sealed bag with the packaged wine. “Keep it” I say, convinced this is the only chance I have to make the flight. “Really, keep it. I need to get this plane.” And as I speak I can’t control the tears.
How melodramatic I think, looking back at my scrawled notes in a calendar book I kept on the trip; it was probably melodramatic then too. I went to pull out the bottle with the intention of leaving it there when I was crisply told by one of the young women doing her job “You’re not supposed to touch anything.” I nodded mechanically and the director with the Scots accent said he would call the gate, and let them know I was on my way. I asked one of the two women who checked the bag to tell me where the gate was. She repeated that I needed to take an airport shuttle. Looking at me intently, she said, “listen carefully now” as the tears were quietly running down my face. “If you don’t listen you’ll get lost and miss the plane,” she spoke as if she was talking to an under-aged child. “Yes,” I said, numb, yes, I thought as I ran and ran again through the crowded corridors of perfumes and airbrushed images of fashion models, numb and wanting with so much of myself to make the flight, as if this were the high seas of Africa, the bordered coastlines of Sri Lanka, Syria, or the Aegean. Instead in this near emptied airport space (after I make it through the Duty Free Shopping and up the escalators to GATE 32 (was it 32?), I asked (as if in a dream) a young woman next to me “Are you on the flight to Chicago?” She nodded yes. “I lost track of time,” she said hardly flustered. I looked at her with my now sweat-glazed face, and kept going, and then again after the escalator I ran some more. At the end of a long hallway of gate numbers and wide spaces there is a clutch of men who as I approached say my name as they take my boarding pass and let me board.
At night a light falls from two stories above the room we are staying in. The city is drenched in sounds. The room is an Airbnb rental in New York. The girls who are renting it to us are young yoga instructors and accommodating. We keep the window slightly open because they burn incense and it bothers us but we don’t want to bother them. Outside the window there’s a clatter of passing trucks. We talk of our excesses, of wanting to enter and leave the rooms we stay in with the least amount of luggage. The wine I carried across the Atlantic had made it, though I could so easily have dropped the bag, and broken the bottle. I’m on a budget, so I carry my bag up and down the subway steps. A New Yorker friend wants to know why I don’t “just pay for a cab.” It’s not a daily expense after all. But even the smallest expenses are an expense -- flavored water for example, or unflavored water, anywhere from $2-something to $5, depending on the flavor, or combination of flavors.
The expenses of travel astonish me; it’s a lucrative business. From adaptor plugs to the tiny side dish of salad cheerily served to me at Heathrow for £8. “You need it, you have it” the waiters and waitresses and shop assistants smile and nod as they promise fulfillment and happily take orders, while I watch those who seem to travel the lightest (the most expensively?) float through the Departure and Arrival halls, elegant in their bearable lightness of being. I wanted to know where the restrooms were at Heathrow. “Are you traveling Business or First Class?” one of the airport personnel had asked me. I blurted “Second Class” and quickly corrected myself, “I mean Economy.” But in fact I was traveling second class, my excesses were a burden and my desires exceeded me.
I read more of Stewart who writes of freedom as “bound to the fact of our status as living beings;” it is “the open decision to act in one way rather than another” that ensures the continuity of our living, she says. How nearly unbearable that decision can be. A headline in The Guardian announces Britain’s decision to let refugee boats to their uncertain fates. Lady Anelay of the British Foreign Office believes there is an “unintended ‘pull factor’ in such rescue operations.” That over time the withdrawal of search and rescue support would mean “word would get around the war-torn communities of Syria and Libya and other unstable nations of the region that we are indeed leaving innocent children, women and men to drown.” According to Lady Anelay this will provoke refugees to “think twice about making the journey.” I wonder what she means by thinking twice as refugees risk their lives to flee their tragedies. “Mare Nostrum” the Italian operation for search and rescue had also been declared “unsustainable”; that language seems more honest, unsustainable isn’t suggesting refugees might “think twice” about desperate journeys.
Streetlights flooded the rain-slicked air outside our room. That first night I felt impoverished. My bag was with me; my love was with me, the young yoga instructors had left us a bowl of fruit. An ambulance’s red light briefly painted the long wall. The color was gone as fast as it appeared. The wine didn’t break or spill. The undocumented travel the choppy seas for their thin freedoms, and I found myself overwhelmed in a room with conveniences, the wine drunk, and my love asleep.
“That will be $25 for checking in your bag,” says the United Airlines attendant.
“Anything to make money,” I say rather flatly. Her smile doesn’t slip but it wavers. The shampoo and conditioner I am carrying is in a 150ml bottle so I will have to check it. Liquids over 50ml are still a threat. There are holes in the foot of my stockings. I forgot to pack a belt, or lost it. H&M had the cheapest and skinniest belt I’ve ever seen. It’s plastic but looks like leather, and it’s $1.99. I need, too, to get a better soap. These aren’t necessities but the small choices in a large outside freedom. Probably nothing someone fleeing a country being devastated would think about.
I am comfortable. And I am not undocumented. I also need a razor, and ask my love if I can use his. There seems to be no such thing as buying a single razor (the store I walk into has the cheapest in packs of 6 and 10). He gives me an extra that he has with him. He’s had a nightmare. I say it’s from reading all the news, the news that some like him chooses not to ignore. “Everyone was killed,” he says, including the girlfriend with him, and he could do nothing to stop it.
We leave the room to get some air and I buy stockings and the $1.99 H&M belt. People are quick to help. “Service,” is a refrain, like “security” – “to be of service” or “to provide a service” – but the desire to serve will sometimes exceed the rules of compliance. The security women at Heathrow for example took the time to usher me through, repeating more than once where I had to go for my gate. The FT Weekend Magazine I read on the plane featured artificial intelligence and its role in changing the rules of our living; I took the issue with me. Our desires, in the way Stewart explains it, will no longer be “bound to the fact of our status as living beings” but to what one article called “a trans-humanist future”; the check-points and long corridors of our surveillanced worlds will begin to shape our desires. Kurt Vonnegut in Player Piano knew machines would change the world, and this was long before people began talking of the post-human.
People like Ann Miura-Ko a young venture capitalist says her biggest extravagance is “spending time with those I love.” I kept the article for the word “extravagance” and made another note to myself. It is not a need but an extravagance for Ms. Miura-Ko to spend time with her family, something in excess of what she can afford in her busy work life. What will become the driving values of a world where love is an extravagance? It is an extravagance for me to cross the Atlantic to visit my love, to carry wine. But the excess gives me purpose, or volition, as Stewart might put it. Ms. Miura-Ko’s mother for example, according to what Ann Miura-Ko tells us, helped her succeed through her excessive demonstration of Ann’s potential. When Ann didn’t get the scores she needed on her IQ tests to enter into an elementary school for the gifted and talented, she “would march in and tell them they’d got it wrong.” Not anything a machine would do unless it was programmed for extravagant devotions, then again who would the programmer be? Not mothers necessarily, or lovers carrying wine.
We buy pizza for very little money, read in bed, and talk of biometric technology. Or I talk of this since I’m reading an article in The New Yorker by Raffi Khatchadourian who explains our inner worlds will become quantifiable. Detecting human emotion with cameras and other kinds of surveillance technologies will mean “attention will soon be as quantifiably valuable as money and time.” There is something called “deep learning” that will give neural maps of information. I pause and write it down, and this sentence too: “Your face may also be your next wallet.” Not good news for those whose wallets can only afford cheap H&M belts and pizza – will the neural maps of the undocumented show the seabed of their tragedies? My love tells me the next big leap in innovation will be holograms. A presence will move around (be beamed into?) rooms “as if I was there” he smiles, and says we’ll find each other in the virtual and intangible to make ourselves virtually tangible.
That night my dreams are terrible. I am taken by two of my closest friends in Athens to find my parked car. A self-satisfied man is telling me I need to fill in a document. I’ve forgotten what needs to be put into the spaces on the document, the ink is purple and I have to identify two pictures. I write “Daskale” which is the nickname of an anarchist friend. It means “teacher” in Greek. There’s another picture too, though I don’t recall if it was erotic, of a man I might be in love with. My love is speaking to me when I wake up. He tells me I was murmuring and crying. The worst part of the dream is when my two friends who helped me find my car, tell me to follow their smaller car. I am relieved they will show me the way but almost immediately I hear a terrible sound. I’ve run them over. They’re lying on the street, stunned, with the strewn parts of their car around them. They look at me as if still concerned for how I am. D’s fingers are bent inside a piece of broken fender, two of her fingers cut in the middle like opened tubes. C’s foot is mangled inside another metal part. I am calling out “Oh God… Oh my God…”
“What does any of that tell you?” my love asks, listening.
“I’m losing my way…” I say, weeping, “and the violence… I can’t control it.” There is nothing outside that can’t enter when you think about it.
You never know how what you are carrying will arrive. The fragility of travel is in its uncertainties. I watched anxiously for my luggage as bags toppled out of the funnel onto the revolving belt strap at O’Hare. A second bottle of wine labeled “King of Hearts” was wrapped carefully in clothing and bubble wrap, it could have bled its red through my clothing and suitcase while bags were tossed and piled on top of one another. Another extravagance, but when I saw the “King of Hearts” on a supermarket shelf in Athens I couldn’t resist bringing it with me.
Adam Phillips says “Freud, as we know, was made anxious by traveling; and in the Introductory Lectures he associates journeys with death.” So I pulled my bag off the luggage belt with relish, relieved to find “The King of Hearts” had made it intact, though in the fragility is the foreboding. “Dying,” continues Phillips, quoting Freud, “is replaced in dreams by departure, by a train journey,” so “Travellers, whether they acknowledge it or not, are travelling toward death.” Which makes connections all the more precious. I almost wrote “sacred”-- maybe I mean that too. Preciousness, like the precarious, invites the sacred, a wine of both communion and death. When someone dies in Greece we wish them “Kalo taxidi”, a “good trip”, as if our words might embody absence and insure their good arrivals.
So much depends upon the wish if not the arrival, like William Carlos Williams’ red wheelbarrow in its rain-glazed glow, so much depends upon the changed perspective where the line breaks the “wheel” from the “barrow” so we can look into ever more generous space – “upon” or onwards. It was a struggle to see beyond the rain-glazed glow of a difficult season. And the news was not good.
The wine label said “Canaan”; “Galilee” was where it was from, a biblical land of strife, precious and precarious, the wine offered to us by a neighbor in Chicago. A Palestinian youth named Kheir Hamdan had recently been killed in the village of Kufr Kana in Galilee, and the Adalah Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights called it murder. He had approached an Israeli police van, knocked on the windows with a knife. Police opened fire then “dragged Hamdan’s body … while he was bleeding and threw him into the van …instead of calling on rescue teams to save him.” Hamdan did not travel far but the news of the killing did. As I drank the wine from Galilee there was a taste of death in the red. There is always a taste of death in the red. Stewart might call this a negative freedom; the taste of mortality, not a new way to experience the red of the wheelbarrow for example. Negative freedoms speak of “inherent tensions between ‘external’ forces and ‘internal’ desires.” Stewart says it best herself:
…negative freedoms grant from the outset that power is something
that must be wrested away from what is outside of our bodies and the
limits of our bodily extension. Positive freedoms, however, involve
acts of affirmation—they are experienced not as away from but as toward.
The prevailing theme of negative freedom is our mortality; that of positive
freedom, our decision to live.
A movement toward is a movement of volition. Though someone like Lady Anelay of the British Foreign Office believes this freedom is futile, and the open sea a detriment if no rescue ships appear. Yet so much depends upon the open sea. So much depends upon the extravagance of “… our decision to live.” Its excessiveness. Listen. It all started ferociously. I was dreaming of lettuce. I wanted to carry wine.
Beaumont, Peter. “Violence spreads across Israel after shooting in Galilee.” The Guardian, November 9, 2014.
Burgis, Tom, Monieb Lobna, Politi, James. “Threat of watery grave rises sharply.” FT Weekend, November 1-2, 2014.
HSBC brand campaign. “In the Future.” www.hsbc.com. Accessed, February 4, 2015.
Khatchadourian, Raffi. “We Know How You Feel.” The New Yorker, January 19, 2014.
Lacey, Hester. “The Inventory: Ann Miura-Ko.” FT Magazine, November 1, 2014.
Phillips, Adam. On Kissing Ticking and Being Bored. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1993.
Stewart, Susan. The Poet’s Freedom, A Notebook on Making. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2011.
Travis, Alan. “UK axes support for Mediterranean migrant rescue operation.” The Guardian, October 27, 2014.