My trip began in Athens, just two short hours from Kiev, but also a world away. I then took the ferry to Lesvos, where I spent two weeks in a little house on the edge of the town where Sappho was born. Sound interesting? Read on...
Athens was nothing like what I expected. From the plane you see a white city with red roofs, spread over many hills. The airport was lovely: clean, marble floored, and nearly empty. And once we drove into the center, I saw that Athens is just the kind of town I like: little streets, courtyards and trees, balconies and cafes. A walking city, and you see the Parthenon from everywhere you go.
I hadn't expected to fall in love, but I did so immediately - not so much with Athens of today as with the Athens of 2400 years ago. I found those places which still recall Golden Age Athens, parked myself there, and simply ignored the rest of the city. I sat in the Agora for hours. It’s just open space, floored by broken marble ruins, shaded by olive trees and oaks. There are a few temples standing, and the Acropolis rises up behind you. It was so beautiful. I felt the way I used to feel as a child, running around in the woods. Back when time was elastic, my brain didn’t need anything to occupy it, and I could simply sit on the ground and look at ants or something, and never get bored.
The next day, despite the heat, I walked all over the Acropolis, trying to see the temples as they were before neglect and pillage brought them down. Then I walked across town to the Archeological Museum, and found the few works by Phidias and Polykleitas which have survived, and stood in front of them for hours, completely awestruck. This is holy work, and no copy even begins to express what one feels in the presence of the original.
Later I discovered a bust of Alexander the Great (always dear to me), and felt first-hand what I had already read about: the strange power and pathos that rests in the statues of Alexander. I stayed with that bust for so long that the museum guard wandered over to see what I was up to.
I didn’t take any pictures of these works while I was in the museum…I felt somehow that it would be disrespectful. The one picture I did take was the portrait of a regular man (not a God), but it shows the amazing level of the work from that time. And to think the Greeks considered painting (not sculpture) to be their greatest achievement, and not one of their paintings survives!
There was plenty of new art in Athens as well. Tremendous graffiti. Cool clothes and shoes and buildings. Even the Starbucks (which became my headquarters) was wonderful - marble floors, soft music, the view of a tree-lined square, and a thousand art books in the bookstore downstairs.
Piraeus is a working port, full of tall warehouses and tall ships, the water surprisingly clean (although I wasn't temped to swim in it). The ferry was wonderful: a big metal many-decked monster. I stood at the bow as we pulled out of the harbor, and found myself staying long after, watching the hills turn purple and drop beneath the horizon as the sun went down and the stars came up. It was a poetic ending to a poetic few days, and I almost felt I couldn't stand any more beauty.
Once out to sea, I roamed all over the ferry, from the roof (where you hear and smell the smokestack and feel about a mile high over the ocean) to the upper decks (where students bed down on the deck and the coffee comes in paper cups) to the strangely cheerful pink-upholstered lower decks, where the families and better-dressed set hang out.
In the dining room, I ate a juicy, yummy moussaka (I was starved...does appreciating beauty burn calories?), drank a nice Macedonian red (Greek wines are good), and watched my fellow passengers. The Greeks seem to have a sense of harmony, of fitness, which makes them pleasant companions. The sports-watching, beer drinking men hung out in one corner of the cafe, not bothering the mothers with children who occupied the other corner. In the dining cabin, waiters and guests alike seemed bent on showing everyone else as nice a time as possible. After dinner, back up on the `steerage` decks, the dance floor was packed with young, cute Greek teenagers with their backpacks and nose rings. All on one boat, a miniature polis, with not a quarrel in sight.
In the morning I got up early to watch Lesvos come into sight. It was exciting -we actually saw several islands on the horizon before we arrived at our destination - and a little scary. What was waiting for me there? The first sighting gave me no clues - it was just another piney mediterranean coast, just another friendly coastal village. I got off the ferry and had a coffee at the port, then found my taxi and drove off towards…whatever awaited me.
I don't know what I expected from Skala Eressos. I felt sure that something – something big – was going to happen. Something did, but not at all what I had imagined.
Skala is nice – about equal parts hippy beach town and Greek village. There are galleries, discos, coffeeshops, nice restaurants and great street food. There is an outdoor movie theatre. There are beaches for every taste: family beaches, conveniently located, with changing rooms and showers; umbrella-decked, hotel-owned, posh beaches; and one long stretch of beach where clothes are optional and most people don’t bother. Each beach has its cantina, and each cantina has at least one hammock. There is a big rock you can swim out to (we called it the hero rock). It’s enough for one day to do a tour of the beaches and their cafes, swimming a bit in each place, perhaps joining a beach party around a campfire as the sun goes down.
The crowd was international, friendly, and cosmopolitan. The food was excellent and cheap, and the nights ended around dawn. I met an Israeli rock star, a Yalie playwright, a chemical engineer, a business consultant, and at least three artists. For a while I hung out with a group of a dozen women, all friends, all beautiful, who had come together from Milan. It was a little like being in a movie – the one where the shy girl from out of town finally gets the courage to go into the big city, and miraculously is adopted by a groovy gang, who delight the camera with their beauty and mischievous antics. Only it was actually happening, and every day someone new would show up, and some new adventure would take place.
When I wasn’t hanging out, I read voraciously anything I could find from the Golden Age of Athens: Plato's Republic, wikipedia entries (I love wikipedia), Oxford essays, even a historical novel. After two weeks this (and swimming, and eating olives and fish and figs, and using olive oil on my skin, hair, even my sandals), it's no wonder that I felt relaxed and alive, entirely rested, ready to get back into the world and do something heroic.
I did not have a `Year in Provence` moment on Lesvos. I did not impulsively buy a house, marry a local, or quit my job to grow olives. But something inside me changed: I came home to myself. I remembered the Greece I had read about and loved as a child – the Golden Age ideal where excellence, not luxury, was the goal, beauty was the unity of strong mind and strong body, and the gods were present every day. An ideal which, I believe, has never been bettered as the basis for a human life.
The books which made me love Greece:
My Family and Other Animals Gerald Durrell
The Last of the Wine Mary Renault
The Mask of Apollo Mary Renault
Greek Myths any good edition
The Symposium Plato
The Death of Socrates Plato