Categories
Greece (Athens, Delphi)

The strange situation I saw two days ago in Athens

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Photo: Marilyn Yung

An unsettling episode on our otherwise comfortable journey through Greece

I guess nothing came of the strange situation I saw two days ago in Athens.  Here’s what happened somewhere between the Omonoia and Ministiraki stations.

So, okay. I’m sitting on this gray metal bench waiting for a train to whisk my husband and I to our AirBnB in Paiania. As I stared at the departure sign’s red digital numbers, I noticed two security guards casually saunter up, talking between themselves. One, pale and tall, walked with his hands in his pockets, eyes on the ground as he spoke to his partner who, with his salt and pepper hair, appeared to be nearing retirement age.

I took note: two security guards.  Together.

Now I come from a small town in Kansas and have lived in rural Missouri for thirty years. I know next to nothing about public transit, let alone public transit in downtown Athens. Do security guards often travel in twos? Or just when a situation warrants it?

Whatever, I thought, my eyes moving from the guards back to the digital sign. It indicated our airport-bound train should arrive in about six minutes.

To the right, toward my bench on the platform, a man approached.

Here’s what I noticed:

  1. He was wearing a straw hat, a wide-brimmed style,
  2. and a too-small faded blue suit jacket,
  3. and black sunglasses,
  4. and a canvas hat under the straw one (yes, two hats),
  5. and long, wavy black hair stuffed under the neck flap of the canvas hat,
  6. plus, a drab white-and-blue plaid shirt under the ill-fitting suit jacket.

Here’s what I wish I had noticed: his shoes. They say shoes can say a lot about a person, but I didn’t look at his shoes. I couldn’t get past the straw hat.

Neither could the security guards. Once Straw Hat walked up, they took note. They had been standing silently, but when Straw Hat entered the scene, the taller guard whispered to the other.

The two guards passed by me and walked to the platform edge. They watched the man approach my bench, stop two feet short next to a garbage can, and stand quietly.

I turned away from Straw Hat to my husband sitting to my left. “Do you see this guy?” I whispered.

“If he gets on the train, we’re staying behind for the next one,” he mumbled quietly.

I watched the security guards. The taller one occasionally glanced over at Straw Hat. He made eye contact with the strange dresser. It reassured me to see that the guard wanted Straw Hat to know that he was being watched.

Good, I thought. They’re on to him. And Straw Hat knows it.

I shifted back on the bench and returned my gaze to the digital sign.

Five minutes.

More passengers wandered to the platform. One camera-toting man, a tourist obviously, noticed Straw Hat. His eyes snagged on the hat, and then dropped to scan the rest of the ensemble. He turned away.

Three girls wearing summer tans and sundresses walked up, chatting away, oblivious to Straw Hat. A mother pushing a stroller rolled onto the scene, her eyes never raising from her precious cargo. Two more men walked up. Both glanced at the hat, one’s eyes resting for an uncomfortable three seconds on the costume.

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Photo: Marilyn Yung

Four minutes.

The taller guard glanced again at the costumed man and made a call on his cell phone. The other tugged on his belt, straightening his gray shirt that read “Private Security” in all capitals.

Three minutes.

The crowd had grown. The sounds had changed: wheeled luggage rumbled by, shoes and flip flops shuffled through.

Several old men gathered. Two were in a heated conversation. One repeatedly pressed and raised his index finger up and down into his palm, counting off some reasons he was fired up about. At one point, his eyes caught the Straw Hat. He stopped for a split-second, wrinkled his brow in curiosity, and turned away to continue his reasoning.

Two minutes.

I turned to my husband. “Still watching him?”

“Just hang back when the train gets here,” he said, looking straight ahead, keeping the man in his peripheral vision.

In the corner of my eye, I watched, too. Straw Hat gingerly tugged at the cuffs of his sleeves to lower them. They already hung too low, I thought, nearly an inch beyond the hem of his jacket. He then inspected his fingertips. Pale hands, I noticed. Dirty nails. The few tendrils of black hair that I could see were so black they shone blue under the overhead LED lighting. He spent time tucking his hair under the neck flap.

One minute.

From down the tunnel, we heard a dull, deep roar of an oncoming train. Its front sign showed that it was bound for another central Athens station… not the airport. It slowed to a stop at the platform and the doors slid open.

A rush of passengers disembarked, displacing the chatting girls, the camera-toting tourist, the old men, the doting mother. As the train emptied, those waiting flowed toward it, including Straw Hat.

Suddenly, another man appeared wearing a sophisticated, double-breasted gray suit and carrying a clear plastic bag.  Two packages were inside wrapped in white paper. He approached Straw Hat, paused, and turned to face the train.

Straw Hat leaned forward and muttered words into the space between them. Then he turned toward the second train car and boarded. Gray Suit boarded the first car. So did the security guards. The taller one kept his eye on Straw Hat in the next car. Had they seen the comment exchanged with Gray Suit? Were they aware that they needed to watch him, too?

More passengers boarded. A few last-minute riders scurried to the platform, scooting inside the train at the final second before the doors slid shut. A bell sounded and the train sped away.

We wondered.

What was about to happen? Anything? Why would anyone dress so conspicuously? Was Straw Hat planning to peel off the layers of his costume as his crime progressed? Was he the distraction to entice watchful eyes off Gray Suit, the truly dangerous one?

We still wonder. What exactly did we witness? We heard nothing about the incident, but then again we probably wouldn’t. Beyond the most basic phrases, we don’t speak Greek, so asking someone or watching the TV for news is futile.

Our Athens transit experience is one of those curious travel stories. A peculiar memory. A shared inexplicable moment that we trust resulted in nothing more than an eyebrow-raising incident to retell over the years. This one story is thankfully the only unsettling episode on our otherwise comfortable journey through Greece.

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Photo: Marilyn Yung

Thanks for reading! This happened two days ago in downtown Athens. It was very unnerving at the time. The two men could have merely been out pick-pocketing. About ten minutes prior to this story, a station employee had warned my husband to wear his backpack on his chest. “The pickpockets are out today,” he had said. Maybe that’s all it was.

Leave a comment if you’ve had a similar puzzling encounter. Feel free to follow my blog for more travel stories.

 

 

Categories
US (NYC) US Travel

Five questions not to ask New Yorkers when you’re building a travel writing portfolio

If travel writing is all about storytelling, then I’m in big trouble

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This guy didn’t want to answer any of my deep questions. Photo: M. Yung

As a Midwesterner and an aspiring travel writer visiting the Big Apple over spring break, I wanted to use a trip to New York City to build my portfolio. Sounds easy enough, right?

However, good travel writing is all about storytelling, or so the big-time travel bloggers tell me. And in order to tell a story, one must fully immerse oneself in a new culture. One must talk with the natives, learn the local customs, and ask the hard questions. Y’know, the questions that reveal fresh cultural perspectives and which way is north.

Watch out world, my travel storytelling is gonna take off any minute based on the slew of revelatory conversations I generated with New Yorkers by asking them these five riveting questions:

Number 1: Where am I?

I asked this question of a 60-something man standing against a concrete column at LaGuardia Airport. I was trying to find the pick-up spot for the Uber I had reserved. “D Terminal. The lower,” he informed me before shifting his feet and looking away.

See what I mean? There’s good fodder for a story.

Number 2: How do we get to the ferry?

The 20-something construction worker rose from the barrel he was leaning against and walked toward us. I think I had interrupted the break he had been taking at the far west end of Huron Street in Greenpoint. He pointed one block down, toward India Street, just south of where we stood. “Go through all the construction, keep to the right, and you’ll get there,” he offered.

Can’t wait to build a ten-minute read off that one, I told myself.

Number 3: Why do you think I need a fork?

Just as I uttered this profound query,  a rice noodle slinked off my chopsticks, splashing a drop of broth onto my glasses. The young waiter at Lao Ma Spicy in Greenwich Village had just walked by our table and offered me an alternative utensil. Apparently, I seemed to be struggling.

I mulled over his offer. My stomach rumbled. “Yes, that would be fine,” I said. I set down my chopsticks, blotted my glasses with the corner of my napkin, and waited for a fork to appear.

A travel tale for the ages, folks.

Number 4: Is this train headed south?

When I asked this head-scratcher, I had just become separated from my daughter as we headed back to our flat one evening. She had boarded the train; I missed it. Man, those doors move fast. So I hopped on another train on the opposite side of the platform. After finding a seat, I wanted to verify that I was indeed on the right bullet to Brooklyn. I asked an Orthodox Jewish man next to me; he looked up from his scriptures and confirmed that yes, the G train would take me south.

A novel will come from that encounter. I just know it.

Number 5: How do we get out of here?

After wandering around the subway maze that exists below Times Square, I posed this question to a man striding by in a navy blue uniform. He looked to the ceiling, waved his finger back and forth as if tracing some imaginary constellation and replied, pointing off in the distance, “Take that train to Court Square.”

Yet another meaningful exchange.

All right, maybe my conversations weren’t the kind to evoke rich and meaningful dialogues upon which to build fascinating tales of travel and intrigue. Oh, well. Maybe next time I’ll be able to focus on the people and places I’m experiencing instead of merely focusing on how to navigate public transit.

So, thank you, New Yorkers, for exploring my existential wanderings on street corners and in subway stations, and for not ducking away too quickly when you realized that I was just another tourist, confused, bewildered, and amazed at the city you know and love so well.


My daughter and I visited NYC for a week in mid-March. We asked questions when we needed to, just not ones that will give my travel writing the shot in the arm that it needs. It was a great trip, nevertheless. Feel free to leave a comment or follow my blog for more. And thanks for reading!

Categories
Art & Architecture US (NYC) US Travel

Stop, Gawk, and Drool

The NYC subway’s newest mosaic stunner: Funktional Vibrations

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The outside wall of Funktional Vibrations above the escalator at the main part of the station. | Photo: M. Yung

You’re a lost cause.

When you push against the turnstile to exit the subway at 34th St.-Hudson Yards in New York, you can’t help it. The brilliant cobalt of Funktional Vibrations snags your attention and stops you in your tracks. That’s okay. In an hour or so, this last stop on the 7 line will be bustling and you’ll have to get out of the way. But for now, go ahead and gawk.

After all, you came all the way over here, one day before parts of the Hudson Yards complex even officially open, to see the latest and one of the largest additions to the public art collection of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA). Funktional Vibrations is a mammoth mosaic (2,788 square feet, according to artnet news) that fills the ceiling of the station’s mezzanine and then oozes outside onto the wall surfaces above escalators.

Created and designed by fiber artist Xenobia Bailey, Funktional Vibrations riots on a field of cobalt blue within its dome.

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Funktional Vibrations in the mezzanine. | Photo: M. Yung

It’s colorful. Abstract. Lava lampy. Kaleidoscopic in color and pattern. And you notice there’s an Atlantic vinyl record, too, tucked into the design. (It’s the black dot on the left side of the photo below.)

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A closer shot. | Photo: M. Yung

To your eye, Funktional Vibrations pulsates with life. “Bailey sees the work as speaking to the universal idea of creation and has created artwork that vibrates with energy,” according to an MTA website article. “(Bailey) refers to her accumulation of materials as in the tradition of African-American art—reflected in the music of the 60’s she grew up with—and its material culture and design, where one made do with what was available and made it into something new and wonderful.”

So that explains the Atlantic record, you think… an earlier era’s musical relic retrofitted for contemporary times. It fits perfectly—seamlessly even—into the mandala-like charms and spheres that vibrate all shape-shifty and cloud-like across the glass mosaic cosmos.

Bailey, originally an ethnomusicologist (here’s what that means!), worked in costume design before transitioning to fibers, specifically crochet, as noted by Manhattan’s Museum of Arts and Design. She is known best for her colorful crocheted hats and mandala design. Funktional Vibrations evokes that aesthetic, which observes African, Native American, and 70’s funk motifs.

So how does an artist who specializes in fibers transform her designs onto glass tile? With the assistance of mosaicist Stephen Miotto of Miotto Mosaic Studio in Carmel, NY. In fact, Miotto’s team have helped many artists selected by MTA’s Arts and Design Program craft and install their mosaic interpretations.

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A detail shot of the outer wall surface. | Photo: M. Yung

You learn later that Funktional Vibrations includes a total of three—not two—mosaic installations by Bailey. You vow to return another time to photograph the third. For now, you revel in the vibrancy, the touch of the human hand, and the simple rush of this subway stunner.

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Funktional Vibrations was worth the search. | Photo: K. Yung

I went to New York City with my daughter for spring break. I’m still tripping out over the mosaics (and the tile work in general) that adorn the entire subway system. How did I not know about this underground art museum? Follow my blog for more posts on subway artworks.