Dinner Party Tales

First, let’s just get the obvious out of the way. Dinner parties are among the most needlessly draining experiences of adult life. I have this persistent nightmare: I’m at a table for 20, seated elbow-to-elbow between two people I do not know well enough, and they are both turned away from me, engaged in loud conversations to which I have nothing to contribute. I spend the whole evening silently melting down and picking at my salad because I forgot to ask the server for no onions. It’s one of my more specifically upsetting dreams. (Side note: Dreams are never, under any circumstances, an acceptable topic for Dinner Party Tales.)

Anyway, for someone who loves storytelling, I don’t have a single go-to for parties, and that’s weird to me. I can’t handle the off-the-cuff pressure of the entire room in this setting. I feel someone’s attention waning and it throws me off my rhythm. Sometimes my own mind wanders and I realize I’ve lost the thread, which is especially bad because I tend to over-hype events. I’ll say things like “This was by far the funniest thing that ever happened to me” or “Let me tell you why that was a terrible idea”, and then people are looking at me expectantly and I have no follow-through for the setup. I’m a Vaudevillian yanked off stage by a hook.

My dad, conversely, is a lover of the Dinner Party Tale. He has several go-tos, including The Time I Went on Student Exchange to Mexico, Lived in a Cartel Boss’s House, and Survived a Home Invasion (I’m very suspicious of this one); The Grapefruit Cannon; and The Lake District Tour Group Incident. Those are all entertaining and era-appropriate stories, but the one I want to share with you today is my version of the story I like to call Donkey Day Afternoon. Now, when I say ‘my version’, it’s because everyone seems to find the story hilarious, while for me, it was the stuff of absolute nightmares. Hopefully you’ll see it for what it truly is: A horror story.

In childhood I was fortunate to travel often and far. So keep in mind that I’m going to sound very ungrateful in this story. However, I am no peach on a plane, so my parents were brave for schlepping 12-year-old me along with the family on a three-month sabbatical. Part of this journey was a Mediterranean cruise, which was lovely for the most part, since you get to spend your time in an enormous floating hotel. The problem is, that hotel stops and you have to get out.

On the day of reckoning the ship docked at Santorini, Greece, and we went out on an “excursion” to the shore, joined by the other family with whom we were travelling, the Sullivans. As you can see from the visual aid below, there are two options for getting up the mountain to the town: A steep, perilous donkey trail, or a smooth cable gondola operated by machinery, not by notoriously cantankerous animals. Guess which one those pesky adults chose. No, guess.

The ‘zig-zag of death’; photo taken by someone who obviously knew how far away they should be

Here’s something you might not know about Greece in summer: It’s hot. You know which odour worsens in heat? A horde of donkeys. We lined up – yes, there was a line for this wretched event – and smelled them before we saw them. My dad, somehow squinting despite his sunglasses and the rim of the Tilly hat dipping low across his forehead, did his best to pretend he smelled nothing. I watched the handlers as they hauled the people in front of me unceremoniously onto the donkeys, and then I looked up up up to the ridge of the mountain. I thought, well, this is it. I am going to die.

One by one tourists were picked off until it was our turn. My mom overpaid and got no change back. One of the guys grabbed my little brother by the underarms, hoisted him in the air, and tossed him onto one of the beasts. My brother ragdolled and accepted it. The man slapped the donkey’s backside and it trotted off. Really, donkeys aren’t speed demons, but I began to get that awful dread of the inescapable, like when the rollercoaster is clicking its way up to the drop and you wish you hadn’t been born.

So when the man did the same thing to me, I started screaming.

This must have been a common enough occurrence, because no locals reacted at all. I could hear my dad yelling something about staying calm, but it was water on a grease fire. The thing is, I’ve never been the sort of person to just scream incoherently. When I raise my voice, the goal is to project my feelings as far and as viciously as possible. The donkey I rode was unpleasantly warm and somehow less solid than I was expecting; its bones rolled underneath its coat, lurching me this way and that. The path up the mountain was narrow and steep, and as we made our slow way up to Helm’s Deep, I maintained a nonstop onslaught of verbal protest.

Oh my god we’re gonna die why did we do this this is the worst I’m gonna fall oh god it’s too far down don’t look down stop taking pictures this isn’t funny I wish I was dead stop stop make the donkey stop he won’t let me off I don’t want to do this –

And so on. My parents sometimes tried letting me scream myself out, but on this day I was a runaway train, only gaining steam when I saw a bleeding gouge in Mr. Sullivan’s leg; his donkey had wandered too close to the cliff wall. My own steed was thoroughly unhelpful, choosing to amble as near to the edge as possible, so that I might see my death in higher definition.

At the top of the mountain there is a town. What makes this town different from any other in the world, and worth the terror trek? Nothing. Nothing different. The people there were welcoming and free-spirited and they all wore flowing white clothing. We took the bus to a black sand beach where my feet got burned just walking. Not a whole lot to it.

By the time we returned to the little town, I’d nearly moved past the trauma of the morning. But you look down that endless drop and you think about Dante’s descent into Hell. And then my father landed one hand on my shoulder and the other on my brother’s, and said, “Ready to go again, kids?” Since it was so much fun last time.

I don’t know how my mom managed to swing a gondola ride back down with the Sullivans. She has magical persuasive powers. (More on that later.) She vanished, and it turned out there were no donkeys at the top of the hill, so back down we went, wading through mud and feces in our stupid floppy sandals. Mom greeted us at the bottom with, “Well, don’t you look chipper!”

Back on the boat, after a two-hour bath to detoxify myself, a staff member cheerfully informed us that people had suffered severe injuries and paralysis at the hands of the donkey ride. My mom paled and said, “Well, if we’d known that, we’d never have taken the kids!” I scowled and in my head imagined breaking my back on those rocks. That would have lent credence to my complaints.

Apparently this donkey climb has since been decried as abusive to the animals, but I don’t think anyone is talking about the human rights violations I and others like me suffered. When my dad tells this story, people laugh. I become a character like Fran Drescher. He usually digresses to mention that I was born screaming and my face was 95% mouth. But I challenge you, the naysayers, to climb upon a donkey’s back and trust them not to kill you. Donkeys know no loyalty. Donkeys know no fear. And Greek donkeys? Well, what else is there to say?

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