Just got back from a week in Greece and Italy. The whirlwind included Athens and its ruins, both ancient and modern, the Peloponnesian peninsula, a day trip to the motorless island of Hydra, then to Rome and its omnipotent wonders, Vatican City and St. Peter’s Basilica, the Colosseum, out to a beach on the Tyrrhenian Sea, then down to Mt. Vesuvius and poor Pompeii. It is only now in the wake of this whirlwind that I’m beginning to appreciate my unlikely traveling partner, an economist who doubles as my brother.
The trip was an incredible longshot. Our spring breaks aligned on the same week, our wives were supportive if not envious, our kids’ beloved Busia (Polish for grandma) took a week off work to tend to them, and the dollars were there in my professional high season. It was such a longshot that the Economist, who would regret not availing himself of an expense-paid work opportunity to his adopted city, didn’t think to ask me until our sister suggested it. He’d been to Italy two years prior with his wife for their anniversary. Our sister had been to Italy two decades prior with our mom as a college graduation gift. Mom promised the trip abroad to each of us upon graduation, but the heavens had other plans. (It’s hard not to speak in such lofty idioms after visiting the ancients and steeping in their mythologies. Blame Zues; everyone else did.) So we were cashing in on a promise owed by the gods, longshot be damned!
It was packaged—to our loved ones and by our loved ones—as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. With everything it took to get there, I didn’t think about my company until another couple in our group remarked how we were a litmus test to see if they could travel with their siblings. Were they expecting reality tv-type drama?
We slept on twin beds that were closer together than in the room we shared as kids. One night I woke up sheetless; another night, as I was shutting off the light, the Economist said, “On your side, asshole.” On the bus, we shared an aisle; on trains, boats, taxis, tables, and sidewalks, we shared the same space. The only time we were situated apart was on the plane. Despite adulthood, this spatial arrangement was more familiar than what we drank and how we spoke.
Immersing ourselves in new languages and customs, we relied on a lifetime of communicating to express what we could not say. When a proud tour guide barbed her monologue with anti-immigrant slurs, we could raise an eyebrow at each other. When a dish of stinky steamy cheese was brought forth, we knew how nasty it was to the person subjected to eat it. Me. And when the Economist ordered lamb, still shuddering from the chicken parts airplane food, I got to savor each fatty brown hunk that was loaded on his plate, and though he only finished three bites, I got to enjoy his entire meal hours later as he searched for antacids, for gum, for grain alcohol, for anything that would lessen the burping of the lamb. When an American acted American, or a string of Athenian cab drivers opted not to drive us because it was inconvenient, or when an Italian had to neck crook her cell phone to use her hands to talk, it only took a glance to share the amusement.
Our quirks, by contrast, were all in the family.
Walking dozens of miles together, our conversation was optional, not obligatory. When one wanted to venture on his own, there was no self-doubt or insecurity. We bellied up, we befriended, we didn’t bicker. The Economist, engaged in the European crisis and insatiable for the local perspective, opted for experience over sleep.
Who better to travel with? It was indeed a unique opportunity.