A while ago, my husband and I were staying in an antique-filled small hotel in Chania, Crete, which had, in the parlor, a wall of books in many languages discarded by previous guests. (This is one of the delights of staying in small hotels.)
I picked up a paperback by Doris Lessing called "The Summer Before the Dark", published in 1973, and I finished it as we arrived in Athens on Sunday night.
Briefly, it's the story of a 48-year-old British housewife and mother, Catherine (or Kate) Brown, married to a doctor, who takes a summer off from domestic life, because her husband is at a medical conference in Boston and her three teen-aged children are traveling with friends in different countries. She lets their house for the summer and begins working at a job as a translator at conferences around the world. (Luckily, she's fluent in four languages.)
When her well-paying work is over, Kate takes an American lover who is much younger -- in his early 20s. They travel in Spain, he becomes very ill from some never-specified disease, then she becomes ill and returns to London alone, staying anonymously in a hotel.
By the time she's well enough to get out of bed, Kate has lost 15 pounds, her clothes hang on her, her dyed red hair is coming out gray at the roots and her face has aged dramatically. As she weakly walks around London, even passing her own house, where her best friend doesn't recognize her, Kate realizes that, by suddenly aging from an attractive, stylish, curvy redhead into a skeletal old hag in baggy clothes, she has become invisible.
Several times she plays this game: she walks past a group of men who ignore her or goes into a restaurant where the waiters scorn her, then she goes back to the hotel, puts on a stylish dress and ties her hair back, adds lipstick and returns to the same places, where she is coddled and admired.
I admit that it's plausible for a 48-year-old woman to transform herself at will from an invisible hag into a noticed and admired woman, but when you're 60, or 70 (as I am), you're permanently in the "invisible" category, unless you're, say, Joan Collins or Jane Fonda.
I've been noticing this "invisible woman" phenomenon with both amusement and consternation over the years. Haven't you had the experience of walking into a coffee shop or a department store or a cocktail party where everyone looks right through you and you start searching for a mirror to make sure you're actually visible?
Leaving Crete, we checked into the Grande Bretagne Hotel in Athens, one of the grand old luxury hotels of the world. We arrived a bit out of breath because there was a taxi strike and we came via subway, dragging our suitcases up stairwells when there was no escalator.
My husband walked in first and I was greeted on all sides: "Welcome back Mrs. Gage!" My suitcases disappeared. Cold water was provided.
A couple of hours later, I came down to the lobby to ask a question at the concierge desk. There were three concierges and no other guests waiting. The white-haired concierge was on the phone confirming someone's dinner reservations. The middle one was explaining to the youngest one about the book where must be recorded all cars and busses and pick-up times. I learned a lot about the hotel business, standing there 18 inches in front of them, until finally one of them noticed me and said "Oh hi! How can I help you?"
A more fraught episode occurred while we were in Crete at the magnificent wedding reception of a very prominent family. Nick and I passed through security and into the estate, up some stairs where we were greeted by waiters with glasses of champagne and a world-class view of the sea below. Lit by the full moon was a football-field- sized clearing by the seaside, filled with flower-laden tables and lighted by candles and lanterns. I stopped to admire the view, then turned toward the swimming pool area where the family was greeting guests, but my husband had vanished into thin air.
For half an hour I walked around the pool area, even wandering into the nearby yard where I thought Nick might have gone to escape the crush. As I circled, I kept looking for a familiar face, but the only ones I recognized were from TV and the newspapers. The predominant languages were French and Greek, which I know (far better Greek than French), but I couldn't imagine plunging into one of the groups surrounding a prime minister and blurting out in any language: "Hi, I'm the wife of Nicholas Gage".
At the far end of the swimming pool, on a white banquette, was a young woman in a long brown dress completely absorbed in her cell phone. I decided to take the other banquette and watch the parade of Parisian fashions pass by. Unfortunately, I had left my phone at the hotel.
Eventually my husband re-appeared. He had gone with friends to find the lists for our table seating. After we clambered down to the sea and found our table, I had no trouble talking to the Greek jewelry designer on my right and the elegant Frenchman across the table, but that first half hour of invisibility wasn't fun.
But sometimes I delight in being invisible. Not long ago, I repeated an Athens summer ritual. I walked from Constitution Square down Hermou to a tourist shop just below the Cathedral on Mitropouleas Street to deliver another batch of my Greek Cat books for them to sell. Then I went to a small restaurant called "Ithaki" where every summer I get a really good gyro and some chilled white wine. I sit at the same table every time and watch the owner charm the passing tourists into sitting down to eat. I'm fascinated by the man's ability to know each person's language. He's way more skilled than the usual restaurant shills who try to lure you in with the two or three sentences they know.
This time he charmed two pretty girls from South Africa into sitting at the table at my left, treating them to a piece of his "famous spinach pie" as an appetizer. Then he gathered a rollicking table of Italians and told them which beer to order. Directly in front of me were two American boys who had befriended two girls whose accents suggested that they came from someplace once in the USSR. "Oh, I've always wanted to see America," I heard one of them say.
Wrapped in my cloak of invisibility I could hear the South African girls complaining about their parents: "If my mother ever found out!" I could watch the American boys rather awkwardly courting the much more sophisticated Slavic girls. I reflected that every young person should be required to take a year off before the age of 30, to tour the world with a backpack and sit in a taverna like this one, listening to the owner speak a medley of languages and learning about the world.
When he brought me the (very modest) bill, I tried to tell the owner that I come back every year because I enjoy watching him speak so many languages so well, but he just shrugged and rushed off to greet some Japanese tourists. I think he didn't hear me.
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