Trip to Greece

©Dean Torges/The Bowyer's Edge™

Newly returned from a two week tour of Greece [1998] with Mary, two of my sisters and a brother-in-law, which included most of the must-see areas of the mainland, and a visit to the island of Crete, the birthplace of my mother and father.

All went well, despite a few missed airplane connections and the fact that I lost a damned nice pocket folding knife to customs in Zurich, an alarm clock in Kavala, and my reading glasses in Athens, and that my brother-in-law broke in his suitcase a two litre jar of primo olive oil made and presented to us by a second cousin who lives in the province of Rethemnon in the mountain village of Mariou, just doors from where my mother was born and reared.

We tried to do too much in too short a time, really. Probably a common mistake. Except for three lost days while we flew from Athens to Crete, and then from Crete to Kavala via Athens, and then from Kavala back to Athens, we filled up the days and nights with archeological museums and sites in Athens, Nauplia, Olympia, Delphi, Mystras, Mycenea, Argos, Corinth, Epidauris, Kalamata, Sparta, Tripoli, Phillipi, Kavala and Heraklion. Maybe a few other places, too.

I was impressed with the palace at Knossos, and with the archeological museum in Heraklion dedicated primarily to Minoan treasures. What's to say when you lay an eyeball on the beginnings of Western civilization? And I thrilled to the sense of history I felt at Delphi when I stood near what the ancients considered the navel of the universe, below the mountain ridge that Zeus cleft in half, beside the temple of Apollo and thought about the priestess Pythia in her trance mumbling to Oedipus or Agamemnon, or tried to imagine what the treasuries from all the city states must have looked like there, jammed full of sculpture such as the world had never seen before. Shook my head in wonder when I experienced the acoustics at the ampitheatre in Epidaurus and walked about in the hospital area where Aescalupius wrested illness from magic, bringing empirical investigation and the scientific method of cause and effect to medicine. I stood in Agamemnon's beehive tomb, carved out of rock, filled with treasure and then purposefully buried and hid to the outside world, and everywhere I wondered about the logistics of quarrying and moving and placing and fitting large chunks of marble into everything spectacular.

Nothing hit me like Olympia, though, and the site of the Games. Sure, I'd read of their history, but it's a kick in the gut to actually be there, to see the incredible sculpture from the pediments of Zeus's temple, and to realize just what a religious experience this pure devotion to human excellence must have been. For the first time in the history of the world, human beings departed from magic and supersition and fearlessly celebrated being human, exploring the wonders and the possibilities. Can you imagine what it must have been like for a whole civilization to quest after just how god-like we could be in mind and body, and for each participant to devote himself to virtue and goodness and excellence, to make it a life's goal, and for Olympia and the Olympic Games to exist for the purpose of erecting monuments to goodness and excellence. They even publicly humiliated those who cheated against these ideals and the oaths they had sworn before competing in the games. They erected statues of the miscreants, carved out a public catalogue in marble of their offense, and conspicuously mentioned the shamed city they had traveled there to represent.

Much of Delphi, it seemed to me, was commercial, concerned with collecting fees from visitors for access to a priestess (who was believed to be nymphomaniacal) and her ambiguous ramblings. By most accounts she was drugged up from chewing laurel leaves and from breathing the fumes which came from the cracks over the crevasse where she perched (thus the ramblings and the mystical ravings). She kept the money flowing. Olympia, on the other hand, was pure. It was there because men genuinely wondered about human possibilities as they never had before (and maybe not since) and quested after excellence to the extent that whole treasuries and creative talents were bent toward its magnification. If I could wish for something and have it come true, I would wish to travel back to Olympia during the games and see the colossal statue to Zeus in gold and ivory in all its grandeur, to watch the spectacle, sure, but to see all the monuments and all the temples in all their glory, and mostly to thrill in the new and brave and intoxicating quest to explore possibilities. That's where Greece was her best. That's where we are.

My regret is that we did not spend enough time in Crete with family. I have relatives there. First cousins. Because of some botch-ups, I got only to spend one evening actually visiting relatives in my mother's village.

My mother and father both came from tiny backwoods isolated villages, blocked off from the outside world by gorges and mountains like I never imagined existed on an island. These small Cretan villages are typically full of clustered houses on the sides of mountains, like swallows' nests grouped together, side by side. Clean white stuccoed houses with red clay roofs, one against another, neighbor leaning upon neighbor. And not a level step anywhere, while on the gentler slopes below grow olive, fig, citrus and fruit trees of every description, and below them, on even gentler land, at almost sea level, are cultivated gardens full of squash and melons, tomatoes, corn, beans of many varieties, potatoes, okra, cucumbers, onions—in short, God's plenty. Shepherds still tend flocks of sheep or goats. The area below my mother's house seemed to drop almost straight down into a bay in the clear, dark blue Aegean Sea, and I could see across it to craggy mountains that in our country could be mistaken for reaches of goat or sheep country sans snow, desolate and forbidding and therefore attractive beyond measure, full of scrub growth and rock outcroppings and the 5,000 year beginnings that pointed out the direction western civilization would take.

A saying in Greece has it that there is blood under every rock. Greeks have an immediate sense of history. It lies at their feet. Everywhere. Even a cab driver on my first night in Athens pointed out where Diogenes lived in an amphora and told Alexander the Great to stand from between him and the sun when Alexander sought his counsel and offered to grant him any wish. Two thousand five hundred years later and it makes a cab driver chuckle. Imagine. Here, Bill Clinton summons Jesse Jackson, Ronald Reagan listens to Billy Graham and Richard Nixon questions Bebe Rebozo. Oh, well.

There's much more to tell. Much more. About my family and why they came to this country. About Greek pedestrians and motorcycles and automobiles. About a country whose future seems to be its past. About the cuisine and the agora in Athens. About the profound differences in attitude between Roman and Turkish occupation of Greece, and how the latter, in a reign characterized by exploitation and destruction, from 1400 to 1900, robbed Greece of any contribution it might have made to the European Renaissance. About my facility with the language, and how I grew brave and made up sentences such as I had never heard before, making people laugh, sometimes even intentionally. Maybe later.

When things get bad for me, I will forever more try to remember Brutus at Phillipi who thought the battle against Octavius and Marc Antony lost, so he took his own life. We visited this site. Poor bastard was in actuality winning and would have defeated Caesar's followers had his own troops not learned of his death. So, take heart in the virtuous path always. Brutus wondered aloud at the end what profits living such a life, always turning to the good. While we have blood yet to spare and victories yet to claim, let us all thrill to this good life, and to its possibilities.