#23 ~ the great love
the great love – η μεγάλη αγάπη
We’re almost there – winter. We’ve been visited a few times, the rains and winds touched in and the woodlands’ colorful halo is fading. Oak trees have shed their brightly burnished crown and though the tenacious few still cling, the now browned leaves waiting for the next big blow to strip them away and thrust the trees into their dormant state. I have felt as though I am caught between the heavens and the underworld–my words have been, too. Like those pine seeds that need to go through fire in order to germinate, I have a need to pass through my own fire, the holy ‘within’, the clutch of winter driving me there and in that place the words incubate, emerging to spring to life.
I need the winter.
I’ve been asked by several people to write about my grand love affair with Greece. No better time for me to call that up than now, when nightly freezes betray the warm days and the light shortens, promising not only winter but also my yearning for the great peace that place provides! However, I am not known to be brief, so if it is a quick read you need, well, you will want to leave this page now!
The affair started tentatively, as many great loves do. In 1986 Paul and I embarked upon our first trip to Europe together, and with 6 weeks to travel we explored England and then headed down through the continent where finally, in Brindisi at Italy’s heel, we met the ferry that carried us to Greece. I thought that I would recognize England as my magic place because of my deep connection to the people who worshiped the earth, and the grand mysteries found there–but it didn’t dig in deep enough, it didn’t call loudly to me though it was engaging and beautiful and very familiar, and we had great fun exploring Berkshire, where Paul had lived as a young teen. London was a grand adventure down historic halls and streets, through museums and art galleries and was my first experience touching the walls of buildings many hundreds of years old, walls I’d wished could speak to me. In the countryside we hiked heathered hill and dale and in the West Country, in Dartmoor, bundled against the bitter winds we sprawled in the center of prehistoric stone circles, and ran with the dartmoor ponies. I was drawn to all of the Goddess sites and stone circles that called me to a time beyond memory, and where the Tor and Chalice Well in Glastonbury drove me mysteriously to gentle tears, I fell ill in all of the magnificent Cathedrals and Churches we visited (I am allergic to Organized Religion.). All the while, my Peaceful Paul ran like an excitable child over battle sites with ground steeped in blood of the ancestors and through museums that housed and honored the tools of war! Though gorgeous and generous, I found England haunting, with a reserve both dark and fragile.
Of course, France was beautiful as well–haughty, well turned out, and though waiting for spring to arrive with its gift of greens and colorful blossoms, it was fresh and romantic. In Paris we lodged in the Latin Quarter, on the left Bank, and walked the parks and the maze of Parisian streets, viewed paintings of the Masters at the Jeu de Paume and the Louvre and sat in the street-side literary cafes sipping café crème and listening for the cries and whispers of Sartre, Anais Nin and other wordy ghosts. We also, as fairly ignorant and untouched Americans, were a bit unnerved by the sight of an armed soldier at almost every corner–nothing new for Europeans, but new to us. There had been threats to Embassies there, and just earlier in the month a bomb had exploded aboard a TWA flight en route from Rome to Athens, and Libyans bombed a disco frequented by American service folk in Berlin. In retaliation, the US bombed Tripoli and Benghazi. Things were a little hot. Welcome to the real world. “Don’t go!” friends and family pleaded. This was only the first of many journeys we’ve undertaken that found that part of the world disrupted by terrors and wars and sometimes-violent protest. We’ve found them all to be experiences that only served to further educate and enrich us.
In the countryside we slowed down for a moment. People were generous and friendly, delightful after our experiences of the brusque Parisians. Tired, we easily hitchhiked from the train to Giverny where we sat in Monet’s garden, by the pond in front of his home, an experience not unlike my first trip to Disneyland as a child in the ‘50s–or that extra dollop of fresh crème atop a cranberry apple crumb pie. Unsurpassable. (even though I sat just imagining a vivid wash of color, as the water lilies and garden flowers were still yet to erupt with the coming spring.)
Italy only got a quick pass-through via the super-fast TGV to Torino, and from there via the ‘mail train’ that rattled and hummed and stopped in EVERY small village along its way through the long night to Rome. Outside Roma Termini, with only time enough for coffee and picnic supplies, we were met by big, red block letters written on an old wall in the piazza that read, in English, ‘Americans You Die Here’. Yet another important reminder that the world is much bigger than our sheltered lives had led us to know. The Colosseum, viewed briefly from the window of our train, was all else of Rome we were able to glimpse as we headed towards Brindisi to meet our ferry.
The ferry, via Corfu on to Patras, afforded us our first real rest in 3 weeks. Sailing the Ionian blue, creeping silently past small islands and the mainland hooded in morning mist, we began to strip off layers of tension and were able to sense that we were soon coming to the experience we had set upon this journey to find. We made it to Athens just as the sun was crowning and, dumped from a bus in Omonia Square, we were surrounded by nothing at all that was familiar; unfamiliar language, unfamiliar street culture, men on burros traversing busy streets, at dawn already teeming with cars spewing unmetered pollution, but somehow we found our way to a small hotel on the edge of Plaka, the pedestrianized tourist quarter of old Athens, where that night from our humble balcony we would watch the full moon rise over the majestic, ancient Parthenon perched atop the Acropolis. For several days we feasted upon offerings of modern and ancient Athens … walking the smooth stone paths that Socrates and Plato had tread, finding the ancient civilization palpable, staring at us from every corner in the museums and statuary and in the monuments made of marble that had stood strong in their various guises through the millennia, but now, with the advent of cars and the touch of modern man were just beginning to crumble. We sat in open tavernas, eating, drinking, watching the tides of tourists, feeding the street dogs and eventually feeling the world fall away, leaving us, only us. And we fell in love. Again and again.
After several days in the city we were ready for some softer island culture. What we hadn’t yet realized is that we’d arrived in Greece at the advent of the Greek Orthodox Easter week, and people were filling ferries to head home to their families on the islands of their birth for the big celebrations. Like most American 1st time visitors to Greece, we’d wanted to visit Santorini, or Mykonos – or anywhere within the sugar cube whitewashed archipelago of the Cyclades. But all of those ferries were full! Being near the end of April it was still too cold to travel overnight in deck class for 9 or more hours on the then very slow boat. (in other words, I wouldn’t do it.) What was available to us was passage via bus and ferry to the small island of Skiathos, in the NW Aegean chain known as the Sporades. We’d read of the islands, and while not the Cyclades, the call of a verdant beauty and sun-bleached beaches drew us on.
A 4 hour bus trip, up the mainland from Athens and through agricultural lands growing wheat, grapes and olives, took us to the port town of Agios Konstantinos where we caught an old ferry out to the Sporades–Skiathos, Skopelos, Alonissos and the more distant Skyros. Sitting in warm spring sun we were gently ushered from city chaos and by the time the island of Skiathos came to view we’d been transported to another world. With first sight of the cozy fishing harbor, tranquil and filled with local fishermen’s colorful caiques … and the white, bougainvillea-draped houses spilling from the hills to the sea … Skiathos caught us up and reeled us in. Met immediately by a crowd of folks touting rooms to rent, rather than smartly sitting over retsina or ouzo in a waterfront Ouzerie to contemplate our next move, we went for the easy bait and dragged our exhausted selves behind our new host, walking the town’s narrow and very busy main street, dodging ponies trotting by with full loads of brick or wine on old carts, and un-muffled scooters competing with the rush of delivery trucks, on to an even busier road, dusty and flanked by gas stations and hulks of unfinished buildings, walking on and on ‘til we came to our room–sweet, with a view of the sea, but sterile and isolated. We were sequestered away from village life.
And then … the rain began to fall. In buckets, pushed by a very cold wind that reminded us it was still only April, the rains came and came and came.
WTF? This was Greece, not Iceland! I hated it! I was pre-menstrual. I missed my daughter Breelyn and hadn’t been able to call home to talk with her for many days, as all Greek Telephone operators (OTE) were on strike. (Various strikes, we came to find and experience many more times, were a common occurrence.) The rain was cold and driving and any clothing fit for colder climes we’d left back in our hotel in Athens. I was miserable. I became a whiny bitch. My lovely Paul–either wanting to save us from where my PMS misery was leading, or just because he loved me–found a room closer to the pulse, a dark, damp cubby with only one thin blanket on the bed, but at least we were in the village. I hunkered down through that first bitter night wallowing in self-pity. I curled up fetal, fell into fitful sleep and dreamed that the white wall behind me was all aglow (a fantastical orange halo emanated from my miserable, damp head, reflecting the neon unease symbolic of terrible news we’d heard on the ferry from Italy of the nuclear tragedy in Chernobyl) while Paul went out after midnight to observe the local spectacle of the Easter procession, winding through the town, the flower draped effigy of Christ born by pallbearers from the town’s main church, the rest of the village following in a trail of candle light.
I missed it.
I just wanted to go home, or at the least, head back to Athens and down to Crete where the weather ––and less radiated atmosphere––held more promise.
And then the sun came. Imagine drum rolls and heralds of trumpets, an angelic choir…
As it dried the spring damp, the sun lit us on fire. We found yet another room, one in an empty pension in the old neighborhood, Plakes, with a small balcony hovering above a shallow cliff to the sea. (cost then … 1,700 drachmae or $11.00.) From Matoula’s pensione we explored the quiet harbor–in 1986 still only dotted here and there by a few tavernas, an ouzerie and one kafenion populated by old guys singing and drinking coffee (or ouzo?) and playing backgammon; and shops, not tatty tourist traps, but places that locals could visit for real goods. We watched fishermen patiently mend their nets and then set out for another day of work; we walked and walked and then sat, for hours, over a bottle of retsina watching the town come alive at dusk, the people spilling out to socialize and embark upon the traditional evening ‘volta’, the walk along the quay with family and friends. Renting funky scooters–one with no brakes, the other unable to carry both of us together up many of the hills–we explored dirt tracks in the far reaches of the green and stunningly beautiful island, scooting through farmland past newly planted gardens and herds of goats to the old monasteries and then back to town though pine and cypress forests along the edge of the sea. Raised alongside the Pacific, I knew the sea to be angry, dark, cold and dangerous. Here, it was welcoming, soft and sensual, hosting the colors of some otherworld’s palette. Beaches, history, olive groves filled with wildflowers, people with the gift of an amazing candor and warm hospitality, warm sun, it all touched us with a marvelous fever.
Skiathos had infected us.
We have returned almost every year since, each visit giving us more insight into, and an ongoing education in Greek history and culture. We began to learn to speak and write Greek–something I likely won’t master to any real degree until I’m about 90. And the music–oh, the music! Such passion and poetry echoing the peoples’ many struggles, and their many triumphs, with notes and sounds and voices one can’t help but be moved by. Then there’s that Mediterranean diet, and the constant hiking here and there, steps to climb, moving one’s body from sunup to the wee hours, all contributing to wellness within and without. These visits offered us lasting friendships, and over time unveiled not only more of the beauties but also some if the island’s darker secrets–the plight of the dogs and cats of the streets. But were it not for the darkness, we would not know the light, so we embraced it all and fell hopelessly in love with the island and its people.
I venture there now for a month each year in springtime to call upon inspiration and tend to my own secret garden. It is the place where I easily access my most authentic self, and can fill up on calm enough to last me the rest of the year. Magic gets conjured in the perfect meeting of all of the elements there; the sun, the warm waters, balmy breezes and solid earth and under their spell I can sit for hours on a secluded beach, taking shade from a favorite tree while I read and write and doze and dream, and can float for hours on healing waters, and eventually become that water, the earth beneath me, the gulls and falcon soaring above me and the wind dancing through the trees. Priceless.
Paul and I have visited several times in the winter as well, opportunity to explore a more authentic Athens and delve into the mysteries of Delphi and Meteora, to visit friends living on the mainland in Karditsa and then moving on to Skiathos, where the island shows us its natural beauty stripped of tourists and busy-ness, in a season when the hard working locals have time to sit and chat. The small, wooden boats are ‘resting’ for the winter, out of the water and awaiting repairs or new paint. Empty beaches, empty alleyways, the local cultural events and Holy Day celebrations, wood smoke curling through quiet streets, bundled up against the chill north wind watching snow start to scatter through the clouds … it all brings us to a different intimacy with the island.
Now, I feel like Skiathos and I are old lovers. She welcomes me with open arms, we bicker and become dissatisfied with one another on occasion but she knows that I take nothing from her but inspiration (and a few rocks and shells) and give my undying loyalty–and feed and medicate her street kitties–in return. It is a bright light and peace in the midst of the cacophony of a world at war with itself. She gifts me with words in the first rays of sunrise as I sit on the veranda with my coffee and pen, gazing over the morning sea disturbed only by the rhythm of feeding dolphins or the wake of a small caique heading out for an early catch.
I do begin to long for this place when the dry summer starts it’s collision with the coming winter–there’s the knowing that I have a long journey ahead through the underworld before surfacing in the spring with its promise of respite. I catch my breath sometimes as I find the need to push her away so that I can stay present here, to be productive, and carry on with my work.
I am at work on my second novel–another set on a Greek island, but of a different tenor. It is a journey through change, the telling of a very successful but dispirited middle aged woman’s coming to terms with aging, her move away from sadness and fear, and into knowing and loving herself. Her companion–a gentle dog, a pit bull she’d pulled from US streets and the brutal life of a ‘bait dog’–not only helps her find her way, but also touches and changes the lives of islanders with an extraordinary exuberance in his ability to forgive, and to give.
While welcoming and relishing the next foray into the rich dark of winter … the words that come in the dark of the morn, dear friends and family, nights by the wood-fire, the rhythms of life here on the farm with Paul and Lovie, the cats and horses … I will just have to wait to see what the next series of Skiathos sunrises holds for me!
Maybe you have the desire to see if Greece holds ‘it’ for you? I am hoping to take a small group of independent travelers on a ’non-tour Tour’ to Athens and Skiathos in September 2014. If you would like to find out more about this ‘Journey To The Muse’ email me at eleanoremacdonald at gmail.com and I will send initial info on to you. You can also find ‘Journey To The Muse’ on Facebook.
A friend of ours, a happily transplanted Brit who now lives on Skiathos, took the photo below … he has a great blog, ‘The Skiathian – Life on a green island in the Aegean’, where one will find almost daily posts that will give you an insiders view.
all photos ©Eleanore MacDonald except the photo above by Skiathian.