After breezing through Customs and Immigration, maybe 15 minutes after our flight from New York landed in Athens, my significant other and I stood on the alternate side of a car rental counter from a kind and apologetic man who clarified a single piece of information that would disrupt the entirety of our trip to Greece: no international driver’s permit, no rental car.
For our two-week journey, I had carefully crafted an itinerary of far-flung island villas, off-the-beaten-path archaeological sites, and lesser-known beaches. About half of these destinations would prove too remote (or too expensive) to reach without our own vehicle. As my significant other and I are seasoned travelers across five continents, my pride bruised that despite our well-worn passports, we had failed to register this fundamental piece of logistical information. My mind raced to the numerous countries where we had rented cars and scooters without issue—as if the local traffic regulations in Thailand had any bearing on our mobility in Greece. “What about a different car rental company?,” I pleaded with the Enterprise representative. The smaller companies may grant us a car, the man explained, but should there be any issue with law enforcement or any accident on the road, we could face tens of thousands of euros in fines and jail time. And, with that, we took the bus.
I’m ashamed to admit that despite my partner’s unwavering attitude of “What an adventure!”, I was sulky and disappointed for the first portion (okay, half) of our journey. I could not let go of the embarrassing feeling of failure at missing this logistical linchpin; I could not let go of the hundreds of dollars we were losing in non-refundable Airbnb rentals; I could not let go of the beautiful visions of Delphi’s ruins, the island cliffs of Zakynthos, and the pink sand at Elafonisi beach in Crete—places we would travel near but not see for sheer lack of mobility. In my mind, this recent mistake aligned perfectly with past romantic and professional failures as evidence that I really didn’t deserve a nice vacation anyway.
For the first few days (okay, week), this focus on the things I was “missing” and how I had ruined the trip with my incompetence almost eclipsed what was actually happening day-to-day. On an overcast morning on the Ionian island of Lefkada, we began wandering from our Airbnb in pursuit of what appeared on Google maps to be a small beach. Avoiding steep switchbacks on the road, we decided to cut across a sloping olive grove, bristles and briers biting our ankles as we trekked. A rouge fig tree amid the gnarly olive trunks interrupted our walk. Its neglected fruits, over-ripening on the branch and warm from growth, presented themselves like a generous, pre-destined offering for lunch. We arrived on the beach a mile or so later to find a few locals in speedos and a little food shack set amidst the rocks. After enjoying the waters, we sipped ouzo on ice and munched on a Greek salad watching the waves and eavesdropping on the murmurs of happy conversations in romantic syllables we couldn’t understand. Halfway up the hill, hiking back to our little village, an elderly man in a lime green Fiat pulled to the side of the road, honking and waving at us with happy exasperation. This would not be the last time in Greece we hitchhiked with an exasperated, elderly man, perplexed and entertained by our predicament. In the face of such kindness and trust in foreign strangers, my better angels finally evicted the last cranky holdouts in my brain: come on, gurl—you’re in Greece.
Wine tasting in Santorini at Gavalas, a cozy, 300-year-old winery in the village of Megalochori, my partner and I shared a table with an Australian couple celebrating the wife’s 60th birthday. Her wallet had been pick-pocketed on a subway train upon arriving in Athens and a tumble down a cobblestone step in Santorini prompted a brief hospital visit. The couple shared this story with almost unbelievable good-humor, throwing back more vino and munching on goat cheese and olives, the woman smiling wide and laughing below her bandaged nose. Their joyful and gracious demeanor said what they didn’t have to—“What an adventure.”
I’ve been thinking about that cliché, that it’s not the destination but the journey that’s important. But saying “the journey” in this context still implies that you reached the destination you planned on. So instead, I’m finding truth in words from J.R.R. Tolkien, who said, “There is nothing like looking, if you want to find something. You certainly usually find something, if you look, but it is not always quite the something you were after.” So, a note for myself, for my next excursion abroad or maybe just for life in general when fate laughs at my plans—find the something you weren’t looking for.
A note on International Driver’s Permits:
An International Driver’s Permit (or IDP) translates your US driver’s license into 10 different languages. Though there are several non-official online sites claiming to provide this documentation, the only legitimate providers of the IDP are The American Automobile Association (AAA) and the American Automobile Touring Alliance (AATA). Procuring the small booklet costs around $20 and takes upwards of three weeks to process. While many countries don’t require this documentation (and many that technically do require it don’t actually enforce the requirement), it’s important to research the regulations of your specific destinations before renting a car abroad. Additionally, the car rental site you’re using may not advertise this necessity.