Ruined

  • Author: Jim Toner
  • Date: Oct 8, 2013
  • Location: Crete

 

For the past three days we’ve been bopping around in our hot little rent-a-car through the Peloponnese Peninsula, the area to the north and west of Athens. To capture it all in a phrase, Dolora said at one point, “I’m digging the Pelopennese.”

 

This is the land of ruins, of astonishing ruins that are the stuff of our entire Western Civilization: Corinth, Sparta, Agamemnon’s tomb, Temple of Apollo, a Greek theater where plays from Sophocles and Aeschylus were performed. To touch a column is to touch Homer, is to touch the stories of Oedipus killing his father and marrying his mother. (Liam, don’t get any ideas.) In America we feel moved on the battlefield of Gettysburg, all of 150 years ago; here in Greece, I’m sitting on a wall that human hands constructed in the region of 3800 years ago.

 

I’ll say more about the specific ruins in a bit. But throughout these three days, as we’ve pulled into towns at 6pm without any reservation, there have been all sorts of other highlights:

 

+ The Greeks. We’re loving the Greeks. They have a unique brand of kindness, of a calmness, sincerity, and patience that we’ve encountered at every turn: the woman washing spinach to put into tomorrow’s pastries; the young men at the gas station; George and Thanosis who just wave away the need to pay for our rooms now; the merchants where we buy fruit at one shop, water in another, cheese in another. Italians are lovely but if this small sample of Greeks is any indication, there is a greater sweetness over here.

 

+ This kindness is also reflected in the ease of our traveling. The roads are well made and well marked; getting gas is a snap; finding a room for the night at 40-50 euros is no problem.

 

+ I’m loving my family. This is such a rare experience to spend all this time with one’s wife and child, and though there are moments and even days when Liam is too much to take, this existence is luscious. A few examples:

 

  1. Two nights ago we stayed in a small fishing village named Epidavros. At dusk we walked along the sea and then turned inland on a cobbled path. Pomegranate trees surrounded us, their red fruit hanging like Christmas ornaments. I jumped up and pulled down a branch laden with the globes, and plucked a pair. We split them open, and while returning to the path along the sea we ate the fruit inside.

 

  1.  The next morning we awoke to brilliant sunshine and a comfortable temperature in the low 70’s. Before pulling out of Epidavros and driving far to Sparta in the south, we walked to the ruins of a smaller theater that few tourists see. On the path to this theater we walked through a grove of citrus trees—of oranges and pomegranates and olives—and blackberry bushes full of ripe fruit. We pinched off handfuls of blackberries. I reached up high for clusters of berries that seemed more precious because they were hard to get. I handed them to Liam and Dolora, and we closed our eyes and sighed at the explosion of taste. And as we ate these berries I thought, Here we are on a Monday in early October on the coast of Greece, eating blackberries, on our way to an ancient theater over 3500 years old. This life is sweet and good. Vita est dulce et decorum.

 

  1. Last night we ate our dinner in the room of our pension. Dolora had gathered a picnic meal for us that we never ate during the day, so here we were at night gathered around a small table, tearing off pieces of rough bread and picking at the olives and two cheeses and tomatoes that were all products of this land that surrounded us.

 

  1. During the drive Dolora looked out the window and said, “This is now what I imagined Greece to look like. This is more like Indonesia.” Liam and I stared at what she was seeing—scruffy landscape, random trees, power lines—and ridiculed her for the next few hours. We’d see a pine tree and say, “That’s what I imagine Indonesia will look like.” Or a vacant parking lot: “I feel like I’m in Indonesia already.”

 

I only have about thirty minutes before we pack up and head north three hours to the ancient Olympic stadium, where we’ll stage our own events—maybe get into it fully and lather up our naked bodies in olive oil and wrestle in the middle of the stadium. I need a full day and not just 30 minutes to relate all the rich experiences of these past 3 days. Ok, with the time I have, here is whatever pops into my head:

 

+ The ancient theater at Epidavros: astonishing on so many levels. Here is an outdoor theater in a semi-circle of about fifty rows, able to seat 15000 Greeks. Here is the exact spot where all those plays I’ve read my whole life were performed for the first time. The view was so fabulous, looking out onto a vast landscape of olive trees in the foreground that spread out to vast mountains that had turned the color of copper in the light of the setting sun.

 

Most astonishing of all, however, is the acoustics. Liam ran to the top row and from that distance he heard me in the center of the stage drop a one-euro coin. Later I went to the top and a woman demonstrated to her tour group the clarity of these acoustics. She crumpled up a sheet of paper and we heard it like it was next to our ears. She ripped it in shreds—loud!—and then tried the more astonishing tricks of lighting a match and simply taking deep breaths. Yes, the striking of a match could be heard from two hundred feet. And then something lovely began to happen. One by one people went to the center of the stage and began to perform. One man whistled. Another young lad recited lines of poetry. A family of Greeks sang in harmony. An older man sang opera. I encouraged Dolora to sing “Over the rainbow,” and she did! She overcame her dose of stage fright and walked onto the marble circle that represented the dead center of the stage. She sang, and while she sang I beamed such pride and such love, and when she finished there was a burst of “Bravo! Bravo!” from the tourists in the seats.

 

+ In Corinth we walked around the grounds of an ancient city, centered with the remains of a temple to Apollo. Six columns still stood. Liam reminded me of the Greek gods yet again because I have a truly terrible memory when it comes to them. Who is Apollo? Which god sprang from Zeus’s brain? Tell me who Poseidon was again? In Liam’s account of Apollo—that he is the god of theater and logic, that he is the bringer of light, that he is not a partier—I said, “Hey, that’s me. I’m Apollo—a lover of the arts and especially theater but I’ve got this strong logic part of my brain, and I have this need to see what’s going on all around me. Yeah, I’m Apollo. It’s time you worshiped me.”

 

After our visit to those ruins we climbed up to the top of the mountain that overlooked the whole region. There were the remains of a fortress that looked down on different seas to our right and to our left. We sat on a rock and ate our lunch which a man in the town below had prepared for us, a young man who had lived in Worcester, Massachusetts. “There are many people in this town,” he said, “who have lived in Worcester.”

 

Really?

 

+I just need to say that in the center of the next table is a pumpkin. A pumpkin, in Greece, in early October. This makes me think of Halloween and home and though I’m ecstatic about this trip I still have pangs of longing for our sweet home in Columbia.

 

+I’ve heard different views from a handful of Greeks about their economic crisis. The young man who made our sandwiches says that it’s overblown, that the entirety of Greece is the population of Los Angeles and so this crisis can be corrected easily and quickly. But elsewhere I heard of corruption and incompetence. George, the owner of our seaside pension, said, “Here’s an example. On October 1st I receive a notice from the government to pay a tax of 500 euros. It says that if I do not pay it by September 30th, a penalty will be added on. Do you see? They do not respect us. It’s not just that they are incompetent, it’s that they disrespect us.”

 

Another man said that the problem is that too many Greeks work for the government. “Over 850,000 work for the state, that is 10% of the entire population. Half of those need to start their own business, work in the private sector, but this is not in the mindset of the Greek.”

 

And in a front page story in the Times that I heard repeated from some Greeks comes this angle: The Greeks owe the Germans a lot of money, something like 400 billion euros, and yet the Germans have never repaid the Greeks for their devastation of this country in World War II. As one example, the Germans killed 1500 villagers in Crete as payback for their resistance. Today’s Germany wants no part of reparation talk because that would lead to similar claims from all other European countries, but Greece doesn’t care. Wipe clean our current debt, they say.

 

+ Okay, I’m running out of time. Yesterday we drove through Sparta and Dolora read to us about the Spartan life: about taking babies at birth and training them to become uber warriors; about Spartan meals and Spartan lifestyle, about no shoes and no warm clothes; about the women training just as hard as the men because of the belief that their babies would be born hardy and ready for battle. They had no care for ornamentation, so few ruins remain. Our stop in Sparta, then, was not at any ruins but at a museum for olives. Dolora was in heaven.

 

+ A few miles from Sparta is the town of Mistros. Up in the hills is the remains of a village from the Byzantine era, just 500 years ago. A working monastery sits among the ruins, and it was there that an old woman in black bent in half at the waist invited us into her room. There she offered us a sweet coated in sugar with the hope that we’d buy one of her lace doilies on display. We wanted neither the doilies or the sweets now in our mouths, so we backed out of her room and found the nearest plant to be nourished by the sweets.

 

To be continued…

 

2 Comments

  1. Susan Day

    I would love to have been there to hear Dolora’s sweet clear voice sing Somewhere Over the Rainbow in that ancient sacred space.

Write a Reply or Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


*