In mid November, I left for Athens, Greece, to study abroad in the neighborhood of Pangrati until May. due to Covid-19, I was sent home in late March. I decided to depict my relationship and goodbye to the city through this series of poems.
Maybe I Will Realize I Am Unknowable in This City
This city was more than I had inside of me.
At first, I thought it was just a giant womb turned
inside out, the product of plasma,
but it was so much more.
It was only a few short weeks before
I told myself I knew the hills,
those slipping pink sunsets
or the sweet carrots from the morning
market that we would eat,
whole, in the calm clamoring
of Friday mornings.
Maybe I even told myself
I knew the man who slept
in the doorways and steps
of our street. Sometimes at night
as I stood on the balcony
I could see the orange and white cats
circling around him in the dark,
and only then knew it was impossible.
Baudelaire said the city swarms
With innocent monsters. Sometimes
I would look down at my hand
on the leather seat
as the taxi sped through the boundless city,
and I swore it looked so foreign
I sometimes thought it was not
What the City Said It Was
Sometimes, the city was just the man
who sold blood oranges on the corner,
his Έχεις όμορφα μάτια! exists like quicksilver,
but then flickers and is gone.
In the early mornings, it was an old priest
waving through the net of vines
on the yellow church windows.
Here, it smells like salt and potatoes,
sweet pipe smoke and cats.
It takes me awhile to love Syntagma Square
and its quick ignition like the start of a star
in the same way I loved the pink sea
dissolving into sequins at sunset,
or the quiet turns of the big garden,
but in the end everything gives me
some strange ache.
At night, green birds chanted in the holes
of the sour orange trees.
I would grab the hand of whoever was beside me-
it never seemed to matter there- and say
I’m staying forever with my eyes
refracting the purple hills
as they melted into gold.
February 8, 2020
The first call came through on the balcony
outside our apartment. Here it was a day of blues,
the dark mountains lying quietly
under the indigo sky that I knew would melt
into navy and stay that way until
sunrise. In China, the 63rd person died
since morning. I’m glad you are happy there, Mom said
through the phone, while my fingers flicked on my thigh,
I am I am I am! There was something new in her
beautiful phone voice.
We wanted to sunbathe but
were told it was too American
so we sat in our clothes,
revelling in the tick tick of dripping
sweat. Are you being safe I asked,
Are people beginning to worry?
Church bells began somewhere in the city below,
then stopped and echoed into the loud
silence of the streets, the bells
last murmur chanting with her,
I am I am I am.
A Week Before
The heat wave began before I left for Venice,
but it was there too. I felt it
curled up in the alleyways,
hanging low in the canals. I saw a cruise ship
pull up to the docks from the top of Saint Marks,
harsh and white and huge in the flush of dusk.
When I got back
I was sick with fever, but
the oily hit of pigeon wings as they slapped
together, the thick stench of urine and marijuana,
the sticky musk of the city cats didn’t help.
A doctor was sent to my room. There was suddenly
a hundred of him in the mirrored walls of the elevator,
two hundred small eyes staring
above the blue mask. I lay on my bed, the springs
digging into my back as he fingered
each rib, Your last name sounds German. Are you
German? and my flatline response.
He says you don’t have it but
washes his hands, anyways, until
they are raw.
As the elevator doors shut on a hundred grinning
doctors, I was alone in the dark.
The shadows from the AC vent split my skin
into lines. Through it I could hear the couple
that began fighting at 9 pm each night
starting early, the men on the bottom floor catcalling
the refugee girls from their balcony, a baby crying
into an empty room below.
My fever sputtered, then petered out
on the day the government said
we wouldn’t go to class again.
The dark streets called us out,
pulsing, and we let them take us
into the salty midnight. I know you
as a reckless city, a fuck-me city,
a caring city, a big golden puddle city.
The Polish woman that owned the bar
knew this was the last night for a while.
The old man who was a famous artist
sat under the awning, watching us
like we were flames. I guess it was
obvious that we thought we were invincible.
I heard he might close the borders tomorrow morning,
and we’ll be stuck here but we didn’t believe
- Then the calls from the US came before 3 am.
The boys down the street were wild
in the denial of leaving, but they
would be on planes in 2 days.
As we walked back from the bars,
the palm trees lining the streets
caught in their hair. I saw the
slow shimmer of every sunset they had ever seen
settled in their eyes; a never-leaving sediment.
I wondered if I looked in the mirror
I would see it there, too.
Syntagma Square was empty as we walked home.
The street dogs were stretched out on the road
sleeping and I went from dog to dog to make sure
they were breathing.
The stars moved as they always did.
The First Time I Cried
The first time I cried was on the hill with the small white church.
It was covered in cactus. People carved their names
into the thick palms, and I tried but my fingers bled, so
I stopped. I let my legs swing over the hill’s edge
and watched the low-hung orange moon fall
towards the sea. The white church turned
pink and everyone went quiet, except for
the rogue voice of a woman on her phone
predicting a lockdown. From here,
it was obvious how the empty
purple mountains squeezed
the city together, and how easily
the city gave in. My fingers throbbed
as I cried for the first time into the colored
silence, and I wondered how something
so perfect could make my heart bend
and almost break.
What the City Is
I walked out to greet the 3 am taxi,
oranges catching under the wheels
of my luggage. The drivers voice
was muffled behind a mask-
I’ve been going back and forth from the airport
all night, you Americans really are trying
to get out. As car began to move
through the black, the panic
stirred low inside me. I tried to catch
one last look at our top floor balcony,
but it was too high. I swore I saw the homeless man
shining against the marble stairs in the moonlight.
I felt ashamed I never
looked him in the eyes.
I cried as I watched the empty city flicker by-
the pockets of pine and cypress,
the orange trees below the white city blocks,
some windows thrown open in the early morning. I wanted to
catch the curtains and hold on. I wanted to drive until the sky turned pink.
We passed the stadium and I cried because it was empty,
I cried because I couldn’t see the mountains in the dark, I
cried because I wanted to say thank you, thank you,
The highway was deserted except for
a single blue car. The driver still managed to
give us the finger while weaving wildly
across lanes- maybe once
I would have been scared but now I clinged
to his recklessness, the last extension of the daring
city. I am not ready to face the whiteness of the airport
after three months in blue,
but my hand sits steady
on the seat of the taxi.
Copyrighted by Lillie Schmidt. Editorial assistance provided by Ari Basche. This work is part of the “Telling Our Covid Stories” project by the Center for Hartford Engagement and Research (CHER) at Trinity College.
As the creator of “Poetry in Athens, Greece During Covid,” Iagree that this is my original work, and that I retain the copyright.
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