by Abraham Lucas '05
May 17, 2005
At first it means next to nothing staring at you in the halls of the
costume shop, but then comes the awareness that you have changed to the
Kay came straight to Athens from Norway after a semester in Oslo. She
was a blonde. She had a carefree nature, a striking figure, and what I
would come to understand as a provocative indifference toward the
feelings of others.
She was more than real. She loved carrying our 70-pound pack all
weekend, and when I insisted on carrying it for a while, she was
disappointed-not some feigned disappointment that quickly fades into
acquiescence, but a real, push-you-in-the-dirt-and-yell "that's what you
get for taking the pack" disappointed. She was undeniable. I was in real
danger of losing myself in this girl.
Most of our compatibility as a couple came from the fact that neither of
us ever held the other back. Each of us was a catalyst for the other.
And a good thing, too, for Carnival was to be 72 hours of revelry that
would put to shame the stamina of even the most memorable of my past
fraternity festivities. The frat party is a thousand mayflies beating
their dying bodies against the lethal burn of a porch light to the beat
of a bass drum; Carnival was pure motion, and for a moment we were
fooled into thinking that it might outlive us all.
The character of the five-day weekend became readily apparent when we
got turned away from the doors of Club Medusa right around sunrise due
to lack of space. It was Kay's element. When she quickly disappeared
into a corner store, remerging with a bottle of Ursus Russian vodka,
there was no debate, no hesitation. There was only drinking. When we
stopped by the costume shop to get our masks and capes, there was no
discussion, no trepidation.
Again, she was undeniable.
For that weekend, garish hats were in high fashion and the idea of a
curfew was as foreign as the two white faces strolling side-by-side down
the streets well-cluttered with beaming faces and hasty footsteps. It
was to be a mutual indulgence of two very ambitious natures.
Interrupted only by a few scattered hours of dreamless sleep at a
ten-euro hostel, there were long stretches of shameless, costumed
parading through the streets, watching furious masked dancing on
corners, in alleys, on bar tops and beachfronts. And then came the vans,
gaudy vehicles which made meandering circuits about the city, bearing a
makeshift stage and speakers slapped on their roofs, as if to make it
official: Now had come the time for dancing atop moving vans. Even in my
most reckless states I have never felt the urge to dance atop a moving
vehicle, and yet there we were, like orchestra conductors towering above
this endless crowd.
And then there was the mall courtyard converted into a dance floor,
tables cast aside like winter coats in springtime to make room for
bodies, encompassed by four stories of balconies brimming with dancers
and revelers, all bound up in a time and place where you sweat and
everything you touch sweats and there is sweat on sweat so thick and so
careless it might as well have been raining.
And everyone must wear a mask. That thin layer of glittering paper
weighs a few ounces and at first means next to nothing staring at you in
the halls of the costume shop. It means little more once it's found its
way onto your face, for though things get hotter and you lose a little
in the way of peripheral vision, the person inside remains essentially
the same. But then, ever so gradually, there comes the awareness that
you have changed to the world. You first detect it in the lingering
stares of a few passers-by, in the coy, improbable smile of a pretty
face casting glistening white eyes in your direction from beneath the
shroud of a colorful paper mask. Then comes the physical closeness,
contact becomes more careless; for once hips are swaying toward you
instead of away.
Something is different.
And there it is—the awareness of your pure and blessed anonymity, not
just freedom from recognition, freedom from every external judgment
constantly weighed upon your appearance since the day you were born.
Suddenly you're free from the blonde hair, the brown eyes, the fair
skin, and the bad Greek accent, all those things that collectively damn
you every time you turn the street corner and have a face-to-face
collision with those shining black lashes, those terrifying black lashes
that inadvertently reveal some portion of a secretive gaze, allowing you
to savor the image—smooth, olive cheeks veiled by wispy, black
strands—for just a moment before the inevitable and immediate turning of
the features which, in an unabashed abortion of your fleeting eye
contact, now gaze blankly at some distant and insignificant object.
I had never really hated the color of MY skin. For the first time in my
life, I had a reason to. And I did. Every white American needs to
experience some situation where the color of their skin, their money,
their last name, and the size of car they drive get them a grand total
of jack and shit-no special treatment, no prompt service, no valet, no
exact change, and, sorry, no complimentary mint upon their pillow. Maybe
then we can start to imagine what it's like to be on the wrong side of
Putting on that mask did for me what all the drinking of local wines,
frail attempts at learning the language, cheering at soccer games,
wearing of slick euro-style shirts, and other acquired behaviors could
not. For at least one moment, I was passing for a Greek, moving on equal
footing with the masses around me, part of a single, pulsating organism
of masked faces and sweating bodies. I'm not making this shit up. I was
If you get the opportunity to live in someone else's country, consider
yourself lucky. And if you get the opportunity to stay there for five
months, again, consider yourself lucky.
And if in those five months you manage to transcend for just a moment
all those things that had kept you from seeing through the eyes of a
native, consider yourself supremely lucky. Kay and I fooled a country
full of people; for just a moment, we were something other than
Excerpted from Cigarettes, Please: a journal of transition,
completed for Professor Joy Castro's Narrative Theory and Contemporary
Photo by Reiters/CORBIS