In earlier essays on eating foreign food I concentrated on my personal tastes and distastes. This second part of a “taste for travel” recounts my experience as a tour leader, one that included a member with a diet for disaster.
Amphetia is not her real name; but it is a sobriquet that is as apt as it is necessary. Never did I think that I would find myself using the clause in the tour contract that permitted me to “send someone home.” Actually, when my British booking agent had mentioned this in reviewing the contract he had used the term “sent down,” as though we were talking about how students at Oxford and Cambridge were expelled by being “sent down” to London. I wasn’t at all sure I could make this expulsion stick. What if she just flat out refused to budge?
But she didn’t refuse. She was here in the cab with me, rolling down Vouliagmenis Avenue toward Athens’ Ellinikon airport, apparently willing to be “sent down” without a tussle.
It could have gone either way with her. Fight or flight. I know that much now, but at the beginning I had no idea what to expect. The first indication that Amphetia might be a problem came six days earlier when we hit cruising altitude out of LA. We were bound for Athens, with a change of planes at JFK. It’s a long ride, and problem people only make it seem longer.
At that point I had never met Amphetia, and spoken with her only once on the phone after she signed up for the tour. She first came up on my “radar screen” when one of the other people on the tour, a former student, came over to my side of the plane to comment on the woman who was sitting in the seat ahead of them. She was making a bit of a scene, she said, complaining to the flight attendant about the food.
That was a curiosity, because we were nowhere near the dinner service. The complaint that Amphetia was making was that the flight attendant had informed her they couldn’t comply with her request for watermelon. They did manage to find her a Diet Pepsi, but they couldn’t substitute watermelon for the regular dinner menu. Amphetia showed her appreciation for getting half of her order by calling the flight attendant a “bitch.”
At the time I didn’t even know what Amphetia looked like. I also didn’t know that she had decided to combine our three-week tour with her exclusively “watermelon and Diet Pepsi” diet. Furthermore I didn’t know that Amphetia was supplementing the lack of nutrition in this diet with a pharmacopoeia of “uppers” that might have powered our 747 non-stop to Athens.
I was curious, but decided to stay on my side of the plane as long as possible. I could just see the back of her head from my seat: sandy-blond and graying hair piled high, with purposeful straggling strands descending to her shoulders. I also noticed that she continued to harass the flight attendant, and at one point the supervising flight attendant had some admonitory words for her after she nearly threw the meal tray back at the other one.
I introduced myself to “my problem” when I went around the cabin to inform all the members of my group that they should wait to deplane last when we arrived at JFK for our connecting flight to Athens. We had a three-hour wait and I wanted to collect them at the end of the jetway and make sure we had a pre-arranged rendezvous point prior to boarding the next flight.
Amphetia nodded to me in agreement. Now in her middle fifties I judged, Amphetia must have once been a rather stunning woman. In Greece she might even be mistaken for Melina Mercouri, the Greek actress whom she resembled in coloring, facial features, and stature. Long-legged and full-breasted, Amphetia was still an attractive woman, but it is not uncharitable to say, well past her best years. The weird diet was only the first indication that the ravages of time and gravity that spare few of us did not sit well with Amphetia. She wore her hair, make up, and clothing in styles more appropriate for a woman much junior to her.
When we arrived at JFK I noticed that Amphetia not only did not wait in her seat, she bolted down the aisle toward the exit door before most everyone else. I had to hope she would wait at the bottom of the jetway.
She didn’t. She was nowhere to be seen as my group of a dozen others collected around me in front of the monitor displays of arrivals and departures for our airline. Somebody joked about her going into New York City to stock up on watermelon. That could have been more than a joke, because it would be a long time before we would see Amphetia again.
I tried to find her, had her paged, and sent out scouts through the TWA terminal. When I checked a third time at the desk of our airline, the agent asked me if I was one of the “group of twelve going to Athens.” I said “yes, in about two and a half hours.” Then he asked if we could like to “go earlier”; in about twenty minutes there was another flight leaving for Athens, and unlike our scheduled flight which was to have another stop in Milan, this one was non-stop. We could leave earlier and arrive earlier. It was a very tempting offer.
I almost forget to ask him to page Amphetia again as I rushed back to our rendezvous point to poll the group on the matter. They all enthusiastically agreed that we should take the earlier departure. But there was the matter of the whereabouts of Amphetia. Wouldn’t she be left behind if she didn’t show up soon? Could we leave without her? We discussed the issues, but in the end all concurred that she had agreed to wait at the jetway but left without a word or even a message at the airline desk. She’d not tried to contact us, and we had made every reasonable effort to locate her.
I couldn’t blame the group. It was a good piece of luck and why should they surrender it for an inconsiderate person? Still, I wondered if Amphetia might be ill in a restroom somewhere. Maybe she was guzzling down pills with her Diet Pepsi, or there was some justifiable reason for her behavior.
In a few minutes the agent came by with our new boarding passes. It was then that I realized that he had really meant another, different “ group of twelve” when he had asked me earlier. We were only twelve because Amphetia, our thirteenth member, was missing. I mentioned this to him, thinking that if he pulled us off this new flight I wouldn’t have to worry about Amphetia. But he said that the other group of twelve had been delayed in the Midwest, the flight was leaving and, if we wanted to go, we had better get aboard. I scanned the lounge one last time for Amphetia and boarded at the last moment.
I was a hero to the group. We were not only leaving and arriving earlier than planned, we were flying to Athens in Business Class on the upper deck of a 747! The Olympian pantheon was already smiling on us.
But not on Amphetia. It would be two and a half days before I would know what became of her.
Amphetia, as I learned to my dismay, is one of those persons who, selfish in the extreme, must always be first, always get what she wants. She looked ten years older when she came to the breakfast room the third morning the group had been in Athens. While the waitress went off to try to find watermelon after a protracted description of the fruit, I listened patiently to her bizarre tale.
Due to circumstances that will never be fully understood, when Amphetia arrived first at the bottom of the jetway well ahead of the rest of us she looked at the departures monitor and, confusing the flight number with the departure time (they both were 800 something), she thought our flight was about to depart immediately. The plane on which she thought we were to leave in a matter of minutes was only two gates away. We had been issued all of our boarding passes back in LA. She immediately ran to this gate and, because her boarding pass was not checked, was admitted boarding on the wrong plane.
As things turned out she was sitting there in that aircraft all the time we were paging and searching for her, because that plane’s departure was delayed. That it did not occur to her to look about and see if others in her group were aboard the plane in all the time she sat there could, if one were charitable, be attributed to her lack of good nutrition or the fact that she never bothered to find out who was in her group..
The rest of us were over the Atlantic when Amphetia was still waiting out the delay at JFK. It was discovered that she was on the wrong plane when she complained about the delay. As her luck had it, the proper flight, our original flight, was also delayed, apparently caused by departure delays in other flights. The delays continued like falling dominoes, causing a missed connection in Milan, necessitating an overnight stay there, and a subsequent re-routing through Rome. The sum total of these delays was about forty-two hours. Since she went to bed for ten hours or so on arriving at our hotel, it was nearly two and a half days from our last sighting of Amphetia. All this she related to me without the slightest self-reproach, while wolfing downs chunks of watermelon in the hotel breakfast room.
Despite her selfish manner, three of the women on the tour offered sympathy and companionship to Amphetia, taking her along with them on little excursions to different sights in Athens. This they soon regretted. One of them reported to me that each time their group hired a taxi Amphetia immediately commandeered the front passenger seat, leaving the other three to squeeze into the back. It wouldn’t have occurred to her to rotate the seating.
Amphetia soon provided the women an excuse to withdraw their kindness and indulgence. At ataverna , after not receiving her watermelon the waiter committed the unpardonable offence of serving Amphetia a Coke instead of the requested and required Pepsi. In a sudden rage she rose up and threw the bottle at his back as he walked away, to teach him a lesson in distinctions of American colas. The three women promptly served notice that she was no longer welcome in their company, paid the bill and left her there.
Had I been present at this breach of tourist etiquette I might have at that point invoked my right to repatriate her to the land of abundant watermelon and proper respect for cola allegiances. But I didn’t have to wait long for a suitable offence. The following day, when I booked a local tour for the group to visit Del phi, Amphetia promptly appropriated the front seat of the tour coach opposite the driver. Being the seat with the best view, it is the place of choice on a tour coach. She took up both of the seats, folding her legs up onto the other seat. It was an unnecessary stratagem, since by this time she was so ostracized that no one would have cared to be her seatmate.
She did, however, provoke an argument with the local guide on the tour, a plump and pleasant women who provided us with an informative lecture on classical Greek mythology and history. The guide asked her several times to remove her feet from the seat as a consideration for future passengers. Amphetia would briefly comply, and then return her feet to the seat.
At the archeological museum at Dephi, Amphetia had a fainting spell and broke out in a cold sweat, probably because she was running almost entirely on drugs. She reluctantly took some cheese and fruit juice at the museum, but these did little to improve her temperament. She made enough of a recovery to make sure that she was first back at the bus before the return trip, to reclaim the front seat. As we disembarked from the coach back in Athens, each of us thanked and tipped our guide who had been as pleasant and helpful as she had been informative. Amphetia took that opportunity to kick the woman in the ankle!
When we arrived back at the hotel, I told her to pack her things. I was surprised at her docility. She entered the taxi without comment. Perhaps she was so exhausted, or felt so ostracized, that she was relieved to be out of the tour.
Whatever possessed me to offer her another chance to complete the tour I don’t know, but I said that if she quit her ridiculous diet, had decent meals, and adopted a civil manner I would give her one more chance. Perhaps I was momentarily afflicted with that psychological rationalizing that argues that a serial killer is really expressing a “cry for help”. While Amphetia didn’t sound particularly contrite as the taxi made its way through the smoggy streets there was something, perhaps just curiosity, spiced with some pity, that moved me to proffer another chance. For all of her selfishness and fits of nastiness, there was something pathetic, something of the Norma Desmond about her. What desperation of fleeting beauty and declining male attention drove her to a diet of watermelon, Pepsi and drugs? She seemed like one of those women who marry men who are on death row.
There’s nothing like Greece, with its eternal statues of Athena and Aphrodite, to instill a little humility in us mere mortals.
©2006, James A. Clapp (UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 4.17.2006)