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Magic Carpet

This is about a rug I bought at the Goodwill. It was 12 bucks. Very clean. But the story is worth way more.

In 1988, Susan Begley and I traveled to Greece the way most college students travel abroad: that is to say, very scruffily. We'd boarded the train in Budapest with an apple struedel under each arm and a bottle each of something dreadful that we picked up at the local Cheerless-Eastern European-Booze Booth. We rationed the alcohol by getting on already buzzed and slept with our heads resting on the struedels.

"Wake up, Americans! Wake up, Canada!" the train conductor slapped our heads with his billets. He cheerfully hustled us onto the platforms with 12 or 13 other staggering passengers: Australians, Canadians, two really pissed off-looking German girls and us. They took our passports and disappeared into the warm station house while we stood there, lined up execution style, bleary-eyed, scuzzy mouthed, and shivering without the presence of mind to think there was anything else to do but just that. The German girls spat disgusted comments to each other about stupidity and fucking hillbillies (my translation), but when they were given their passports back, they thanked the fucking hillbillies and climbed back into their nice, warm cochette without hesitation. When the train started moving again, they hustled us back on at a trot. We hugged our struedels and fell into the dull, swaying sleep of never quite getting your neck straight or your feet warm; the sleep of college students on a budget. We wondered for a while if the whole passport thing had just been part of the uncomfortable dream. But it was 1987 and it was still Yugoslavia.

We changed trains in Beograd, a frantic hustling through a bright, cold train yard--neglected-looking Soviet-era cars going to Russia and mustached women in black babushkas actually carrying massive bundles of actual sticks on their actual hunched backs. Wasn't that enough--so why do I remember cattle?

We were helped onto the right train through a window. There were no available seats in the compartments, so we huddled on our bags in the aisle with the wiry men and shared their acrid cigarettes and passing out apple strudel and swigs from bottles. It was stifling in a matter of hours, even the smoke had nowhere else to go. I started to open a window but a man beside me indicated that this would be a bad idea. He absolutely insisted. A few moments later, a thin stream of liquid slashed the panes. Further up the car, a man was pissing through an open window. By that time, however, I was past disgustable. I was sure I didn't smell that great myself and if I could have, I would have pissed out the window than squat over that rickety hole of a toilet. Somebody passed another bottle around. The sure-fire international language and social lubricant: cheap cigarettes and rotgut booze.

Passing that border, the train's passengers got younger, blonder, drunker. Young Scandinavian holidaymakers, and the Aussies, Canadians, and the American walkabouts heading into Athens made a sort of slow, giddy boil of 20-something indestructibility and pheromone-ridden b.o.

Oh, we did all the things young architecture students are supposed to do: climb the Acropolis, visit the Agora, buy souvlaki and rough leather goods. I bought a pair of gladiator sandals and a greasy wool rug, a brilliant blue with a Greek key design that smelled of sheep and the heat of midday. It cost maybe the equivalent of 35 bucks, which was a lot at the time. I justified the Drachmas by thinking I'd give it to my boyfriend when I got back to the States.

We took the ferry to the islands, allotting two or three days each for Mykonos, San Turini and somewhere else, though I can't remember which one. We never left Mykonos. I slept under that rug in our spare hotel room, and sat on it on the cold, gray, deserted beach on the other side of the island.

We almost didn't leave Mykonos at all. Scandinavian tourists took us for coffee, beautiful blond lesbians bought us drinks, restaurant owners fed us like stray cats. We fell in with some handsome Greek boys who promised us jobs and lodging and dancing and very hot sex. On the beach on a blue rug, probably. A veritable tourist trap.

But we did leave. Lots of backward glances and second thoughts. We huddled under the rug on the deck of the ferry to Brindisi; ate picnic lunch on it on our watercolor tour of Tuscany. I left it in the rental car in Rome with my camera and within minutes, both were gone. It was a second-hand camera that my mother had given me--a crap, 35 mm Brownie basically. I hadn't taken many pictures anyway. I didn't miss it. But the rug! Boy, was I PISSED about the rug!

So, last week, I found this rug in a pile of grubby pastel dhurries and stained acrylic area rugs--brilliant Mediterranean blue with a Greek key design. No price tag. The apathetic clerk waved her hand and said "eh...12 bucks."

I wondered, as I carried it through the store, if it was worth the 12 bucks.

"Remember that rug I said I bought you in Athens, and then it got stolen in Rome?" I asked my husband before I took it out of the back of the car.

"Sort of," he answered.

"Well, I found it."

"Huh. This is what it looked like?"

I unrolled it on my sons' bedroom floor. The older one is 10 now and has rejected the little wool tufted one that looks like a little island that I bought new at Pottery barn when he was a baby. I like to go in there to play Legos with them. I prop myself up on my elbows on the itchy wool in the sunny spot and smell the sheep grease and heat.


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