Elspeth by Andrew Klein
Sometimes, when we least expect it, the Universe tosses us a glimpse of the destiny we will face. There are things that happen in life that allow us to share experiences with those who we had no idea we would meet. I actually believe that people are here to help each other get through certain trials. I'm not sure if I was helping her, or she was aiding me, but I know that we got past a rough time together and that this story still touches me in ways I can never disremember.
Geno and I had recently returned to Israel from Egypt, and he decided to stay there to be close to his girl, who worked on a kibbutz not far from Tel Aviv. We had spent the last six months traveling together, and this being my first time overseas, I couldn't help but feel a bit apprehensive to split up and go on without him. We said goodbye, and I took a ferry from Haifa to Athens. I had only $60.00 in my pocket but enjoyed the knowledge that $500.00 more sat in an account waiting in the Greek capital at the American Express office. The trip was cold, rainy and somewhat lonely. I took the days to reflect on the past six months and wonder what the near future had in hand for me.
I arrived in Athens on a Sunday morning and took the train into town to book a small room in a pensione just off Omonia square. Early the next day I set out for the American express office whistling a tune of happiness, but that tune turned quite gloomy as I found my money had been there over 30 days and so it was sent back to Los Angeles. My mother, knowing I was on my way up north, then shipped the $500 to Oslo, Norway. I was stuck, as the office in Oslo reported that the money would not be available until the following Monday.
Grief-stricken, I wandered off to have a coffee and ponder my next move. I had, in my possession, about $48 and a one-way ticket from London to New York. I knew that a flight was double what I had, and found that the train was even more including the ferry over the Channel. I was wary of hitchhiking and thought it might take forever to go the 1600 miles. I visited a bus company that had the trip for $52.00, and when they heard me moan they recommended the 'Magic Bus'. The Magic Bus was a budget mode of transportation used by the traveling youth of Europe. I found the place and inquired about the price. It was $45 to Oslo and took four days with many stops. Including food, that would be impossible for me. I settled on a $27 three-day trip to Amsterdam and decided I could hitch the rest of the way in a day or two. I purchased the ticket, went outside, and sat on a bench near a cafe.
As fate would have it, at that very moment, I looked over to see a young girl sitting at a table at the cafe and literally' crying over spilled milk.' She was frustrated with something and it was affecting her judgment as she poured cream into her coffee. I walked over and gently took the creamer from her and said, 'let me help you' and poured it into the cup. She smiled and looked down, obviously embarrassed not only by her ineptness but also her currently unbalanced mental state, as she wiped away her tears. She was very polite and invited me to sit. She had a lovely British accent which I incorrectly pegged as Cornish. She was, instead, from a small town near Brighton. Her hair was cut short and she had a distinctly unkempt look about her. She wore shorts, sandals and a tank top that read,'Ouzo-12 me- 0'. She was braless and I could not help but notice her ample sidewalls. She was not a true beauty, but there was something quite attractive about her.
I ordered a Fanta blue (non-carbonated) and we began to tell our individual stories. I told her about Geno, and our recent split, and how I was now on my own with very little resources to speak of. I explained that I needed to get to Norway to receive the monies needed to continue my trip and then get me back home. I also told her that I intended to take the cheapest way there which I understood to be on the Magic Bus (later jokingly called the 'Tragic Bus'), and that's why I was at the travel agent next door. She, on the other hand, was shy at first, nodding in understanding of my travails, and saying very little.
When I finished and took a sip of my drink, she took the opportunity to begin opening up and sharing her own story. She started her trip alone, but quickly met up with some other Brits and headed south to the Riviera. In France, she met a man whom she fell in love with. She stayed in Nice while the others went off to Italy. After a week she found out the man was married and took off for Rimini, on the Italian Adriatic Sea. There, she drowned her grief in Peroni and met a Scottish girl she traveled with, all the way to Crete. In Crete, her friend fell for a local winemaker and she left for a week in Santorini, where she began to run low on money and decided it was time to start home. A ferry strike, which lasted only a week, kept her a bit longer on Mykonos, and she just made it back to Athens with a mere 35 pounds in her fanny pack. We laughed as we realized we were pretty much in the same boat. I paid the bill and we went next door to get her a seat on the bus with me to Amsterdam, only hers went on to Bruges and included a ferry to England and a bus to Brighton. The problem was it cost 22 pounds and she was now virtually penniless.
She was staying at a cheap place off Syntagma square, and it was decided that I would fetch my things and move to her location. The owner of the pensione was really nice and gave us a deal to stay on the roof. We dined that night on tomato and feta sandwiches and afterward walked up to the Acropolis. It was quite lovely, all lit up that evening. As we walked back, through Plaka, we came across a 'busker' playing songs on his guitar and singing. He was quite good and we stayed to listen for a while. We went back to our rooftop and laid out our sleeping bags. We talked for hours, and I realized why I was so strangely attracted to her. She told me she loved sports, travel, academics and dreamed of one day having a family. As she went on I concluded that she was a lot like me. We finally fell asleep, feeling safe and content in our friendship.
The next day we shopped for our trip north. We were leaving at 9 am the following morning. We bought pita bread, tomatoes, water, and fruit. We were nearly broke, but somehow happy. That night we stayed on the roof eating giant spanikopita and washing them down with cokes. I had purchased a bottle of ouzo for the trip, but it never made it that far, as the stars were so bright, and we so excited, it seemed only natural that we should celebrate our last night in Athens.
The next morning we climbed aboard the Magic Bus North and took two seats in the back. The bus filled up quickly and by 9:15 we pulled away. I thought of Geno, my friends in Norway, and our current situation. I held just $19.00 in my pocket. I watched as Elspeth stared out the window. We were so much alike that I knew she was thinking similar things, only she had but 2 pounds to her name. Still, we turned and smiled at each other, happy to be on our way. At lunch, we ate from our supplies, and dinner we bought at an overpriced roadside joint. Some of the travelers complained that the places the driver stopped at were too expensive. We were sure the driver got a kickback from the restaurant owners. That night we talked with others on the bus and had drinks with our seat neighbors. We slept a few hours and awoke in Yugoslavia.
The Adriatic coastline is rugged but beautiful. The rocks and cliffs form a sharp contrast to the blue of the sea. By the time we got to northern Italy, we were nearly out of food. We drove slowly through the mountains and by evening, were in Switzerland. It was so expensive there, and I commented that we should have bought more food in Greece where it was cheaper. Elspeth used her last money to buy water, and I got us a sandwich to share. Late that night the bus stopped for a break just outside of Bern. We went into the rest stop just to stretch our legs. We looked at the menu prices and they were outrageous. $4 for a coffee, it made us laugh. We sat down on a bench to wait for the others to eat. We were hungry and Elspeth said she could go for a nice cup of Swiss hot chocolate and a biscuit. We sat there dreaming of food when I looked over to see a strange man walking by. The moment I saw him all time seemed to slow. I could hear his shoes clicking on the floor, and Elspeth breathing a sigh. He wore a wide-brimmed dark hat, sunglasses at night, a full length, black Aussie Dry-as-a-bone drover and carried a cane. He glanced over at us, and glided by, without a word. As he passed he dropped a piece of paper, no, it was money! I watched as it slowly fell to earth, like a feather. It moved through the air back and forth, effortlessly, until it settled softly on the ground nearby.
Time switched back to normal and I grabbed the bill and looked up to see no sign of the strange man in the Drover. I looked all over for him but could not find him. He had disappeared, vanished, Poof, gone. I returned to Elspeth and showed her the note. It was ten Swiss francs, enough to buy her a hot cocoa and a box of cookies. On the bus, as we traveled on, we joked that the man was an angel, or maybe a member of some secret society who helps broke travelers. In any case, we were content sharing our lucky bonanza. Elspeth happily fell asleep on my shoulder as we passed into France.
In the morning we stopped for coffee and finished our cookies. We drove on to Belgium and by noon we were at the docks near Bruges. The bus stopped to let Elspeth off. She acted as if it was no big deal. A peck on my cheek, and off she went. I had slipped a couple of dollars into her pocket the night before, and as she walked away I knew she would make it home. She never did look back as the bus pulled away. Later that afternoon I arrived in Amsterdam. How I got to Oslo, retrieved my money, saw my friends and made it back home is a story for another day, but I will not ever forget Elspeth, my kindred spirit.