I was hitchhiking through Europe as a young man in the 70s. After six months on the road, I ended up in Athens in the dead of winter, passing from Italy to Yugoslavia. In Athens, I bumped into the most bizarre Christmas of my life.
(Excerpt from the book WINGS AND WANDERLUST – DISCOVERING YOUR INNER SELF.)
eastwind journals, November 28, 2021 (archive tr52)
Athens was my first Christmas away from home. Weeks before, I knew I would get homesick. I was preparing myself mentally for it. I could look for Filipino seamen in Piraeus. I decided instead, in my panic, to get drunk with the Arabs to forget my loneliness. I stayed in a cheap hostel where Arabs from North Africa were on the way to Scandinavia to look for jobs. They were a noisy bunch. There was a lone silent Jewish girl.
So, I collected money from the Arabs, announcing a midnight drinking party right on Christmas eve. Everyone agreed, including the Jewish girl. The Greeks had this cheap wine called retsina, which smelled like aviation gas. On top of retsina, I also bought some vodka and gin and mixed them all up for a nuclear bash. Arabs and Jews normally did not celebrate Christmas but the holiday feeling was in the air in Athens, so we had this grand party at the hostel. Arabs also normally did not drink alcohol. Not this bunch.
At eleven o’clock in the evening, we were all pretty drunk. I was depressed and homesick and the Arabs and the lone Jewish girl could see it. They were trying to comfort me. After all, I was the only Christian in the group. I was surrounded by Islamism and Judaism. At half past eleven, I stood up, wobbled a bit, and quietly sneaked out, thinking they would not notice my short absence.
I secretly quietly went to a nearby church alone for the midnight Mass, something I had done my entire life on Christmas. I felt guilty that I was going to church drunk but I thought it was better than not going at all. It was my refuge from my loneliness, the warmth of church with many people singing carols. The momentary silence of the late evening in the streets after leaving the noise of the party and the cold breeze stabilized me. All of a sudden, there was solemnity.
The church was crowded. I stayed outside the church behind the crowd which was spilling over . I wanted to receive communion but decide against it, not in my state of inebriation. It would be irreverent. I just prayed and the song ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem’ jolted me. Bethlehem was just a stone’s throw away. I felt better.
Almost at the end of the mass, someone elbowed me. It was the whole gang. They followed me to church. They wrapped the vodka and gin in paper bags to hide it. They giggled when I saw them. Instinctively, I felt embarrassed as church-goers started staring at this bunch of drunken Arabs and a Jew. But then again, I was touched. Friends who did not believe in Christmas believed in friendship. They came to Mass to share themselves with me on this precious day. I was almost in tears. That was the greatest Christmas gift on the road. After Mass, we left and were rowdy in the streets, shouting and singing, as we went back to the hostel. They sang strange Arab songs. My loneliness disappeared.
I asked for an attendance report. Everyone shouted his/her origin – Tel Aviv, Khartoum, Sudan, Marrekesh, Manila (me), Cairo, Dakar, Tunis, I forget the others. Come to think of it, they were more Muslim North Africans rather than Arabs, descendants of Bedouins and Berbers perhaps, converted to Islam. They were mostly escaping from the physical poverty of their homelands, looking for jobs not in Athens, but up north in Paris or London or Copenhagen. I and the Jewish girl were escaping the spiritual poverty of affluent societies.
We slept at about 3 a.m. only because there was no more to drink and the stores were closed, just about the time baby Jesus struggled in a crib meant for sheep. Everybody filed back to their rooms. My first Christmas away from home was not bad, only because of friends who were not even Christians. I would never forget that Christmas, and the melting pot of religions and cultures that saved me. Remembering that in today’s pandemic darkness, we must share the Light, I include here a verse I wrote on that Christmas day.
Linger, Oh sun, and intensify against the forces of darkness, for you nourish a hungry malignant spirit that seeks escape from the haunting wails of loneliness. eastwind
AUTHOR’S BOOK – Wings and Wanderlust – Discovering your Inner Self. At age 26, the author hitchhiked 25,000 kilometers in Europe and North Africa for three straight years. In this book of his wild adventures, he learned deep insights that changed him totally, which he wants to share with readers. It also a guidebook on how to plan your own adventure.
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