Her hair smelled of olives and as she embraced me in front of the hotel, I breathed in deeply. The softly wrinkled olive-smelling woman then waved to us before turning to walk away into the darkness. Earlier that day we boarded a ferry and had spent the afternoon crossing the Mediterranean ocean with a group of elderly Greek musicians. Between the napping and the snacking our new friends happily tuned their instruments and played folk songs to accompany the endless blue of sea and sky that surrounded us.
In the morning we rented a-very-little car, bought a map and started out, ready to explore the unknown island. A fantastic element of island travel is the lack of anxiety over being lost. No matter what happens, you can only drive so far until you hit ocean. Our first target was Knossos; the ancient home of a king who defied the gods. Minos was a king that defied Poseidon’s request for sacrifice and consequently was forced to hide the Minotaur born to his cursed wife and a white bull which had appeared from the sea. In modern times, Knossos, like so many other historical sites, has fallen victim to new kinds of madness. Crazed archaeologists busied themselves repainting the ruins and the unfortunate results are somewhere between a tacky theme park and the prostitution of our human ancestry. After watching some of the workers retouch a fresco, I decided to take a nap and stretched out on the warm stone steps, watching the clouds for a few minutes before falling asleep. I dreamt of women dancing in circles at the bottom of the steps which were filled with people laughing and singing in the sunlight. When I woke up my friend was sitting next to me, the sun had started to go down and we were both hungry. Driving along the coast we found a delicious local restaurant on the water in one of the small fishing ports and watched the stars come out as we had dinner.
There was said to be a beautiful central plateau, hiding the cave in which Zeus was said to have been born. Our first attempt to navigate the more “local” route led us down a one lane, bolder-studded dirt road for 4 hours before arriving at the front doorstep of a small wooden house. There was an old woman sitting outside cleaning some vegetables and she stared at us suspiciously for a few minutes before smiling at our enthusiastic efforts to mime-out apologies and excuses for our rudeness at having scared her livestock. Miming requests for directions proved less humorous and after ten minutes we turned the car around and left her in peace. Another several hours down even smaller dirt roads, the car atmosphere in the car was getting tense. With every horrifying scraping noise, the long walk to find a tow truck became increasingly vivid. Our second attempt had brought us to a clearing in the olive trees which was filled with small wooden boxes, evenly spaced and unattended… beehives. What a nice place to be a bee, I thought as we turned the car around again made our way back out to the main highway. It was getting late and the sun was starting to go down on our second day in Crete when we finally crested a hill and saw the plateau below us.
A few donkeys walking with local farmers and some stray goats meandered along the road. An occasional windmill dotted the landscape and further ahead mountains framed by a warm glow. As we pulled up to the cave’s main entrance we discovered that the metal gates were shut and padlocked. A shepherd and his flock were grazing nearby and he confirmed that the gates had been locked at five – it was 5:20. I waited until the sound of his sheep slowly faded away and I jumped the fence. My friend followed suit and we started running up the trail towards the mouth of the cave. There were small piles of snow at the edge of the trail and the ground was soft enough that when we arrived at the inner gate our shoes were muddy – making the second fence slightly more difficult to scale than the first. At this point the sun had set completely and it was very dark. At the mouth of the cave we could hear a symphony of echoes as hundreds of tiny water droplets fell from the ceilings and walls of the cave. Everything was wet and covered with moss and our lack of light made moving down the wet metal stairs an intensely sensory experience. It was becoming obvious that it was going to either be very dangerous or ridiculously slow, when I remembered my digital camera. For a fraction of a second the path was illuminated by a flash and we were able to walk confidently for a few steps, and so we progressed through the entire cave system in this manner. Humbled by our underdeveloped senses and our lack of instinctual prowess it was easy to imagine why this place, before technology could light the way, was considered the origins of a god.
The woman at the ticket window rolled her eyes slightly as she slid two of the cheapest ferry tickets under the window. A friend from my painting class was waiting by the dock and walking over to her I ran fingers through my hair, trying to smooth out my blonde pony tail. I was tired – and it showed. We left Florence the night before and took the overnight train to Brindisi a small port town facing the Ionian Sea. In an effort to save money we decided to cross over to Greece on the upper deck of the boat. We spent several hours of windswept contemplation watching the landscape disappear and then reappear again as we arrived in the Corfu harbor. According to Greek mythology Corfu was the refuge of Poseidon and a beautiful river nymph he kidnapped. Soon after Phaiax was born and became the namesake for later populations; the Phaeacian.
Our hotel was empty so the front desk staff had plenty of time to explain how to walk down to the beach. The sun had already set and it was dark. At first I thought we had misunderstood their directions. The path they described was leading us through a series of abandoned clubs all perfectly situated for spectacular ocean views. Curious I pushed on one of the back doors, it was open. Stepping inside we discovered it had not been abandoned but instead was only hibernating – apparently we were very late to the party. So, as a couple of delinquent raccoons we embraced the chance to prowl around while no one was looking. It was like a spaghetti western movie had turned spring breaker and was about to wake up with a horrible hangover on a distant Mediterranean beach – bizarre and somewhat disorienting.
The next day we decided to rent a car and explore the part of the island that was more familiar with Poseidon than it was Smirnoff jello shots. Immediately leaving the mega hostel complex we were surrounded by olive trees. They were so beautiful, twisted and crouching low-crowned with pale and silvery leaves. In the afternoon we stopped in front of an overgrown and disintegrating archway. Getting out of the car, we climbing over large, obviously hand-cut blocks of stone. The lichen was already spreading like ink blots across their exposed surfaces. After a few minutes the crumbling stone walls opened up onto a meadow of tall grasses and wild plants. The sun was warm and there was no one around, it was quiet and intensely peaceful.
Anxious to see more of ancient Greece we booked overnight transit to Athens; by ferry and then by bus arriving early before sunrise the next day. The lights inside the bus came on as the engine cut off and before I opened my eyes I realized it was cold, really cold. Pushing back the dark polyester curtain I saw snow… the tiny crystals falling and innocently crushing my dreams of a bare-shouldered Greek vacation. The hostel was not accepting our pleas for an early check in so we waited in the entrance sipping watered down coffee from plastic cups until the regulated check in time; 9am. Once inside our room we desperately tore open our bags, assembling new combinations of clothing – flowing skirts over linen pants… the one long sleeve shirt I had brought last-minute suddenly rose to imperial levels of importance. Eccentrically bundled up. we left the hostel and found our way to the Acropolis. The scaffolding being used to repair the Parthenon was dusted with snow, the toga-clad Caryatids took on an unexpected surreality…we were two of only a handful of hardy visitors that day. Almost alone at a site that welcomes more than seven million tourists per year, we were able to enjoy moments of solitude and I found myself reflecting on the immensity of time, of history. It is said that the Acropolis was the climax of the first successful rebellion led by the “common people” against a violent and tyrannous aristocracy. Shortly after this a political system new to the early world of Kings and blood lines was devised. With one black stone or one white stone the people decided everything together, everyone could speak, everyone could take part. A progressive idea for any era and one which had been exported and copied thousands of times leading up to the day I stood looking out over a snow-coated Athens.
There was a different kind of movement in the streets that day, or maybe it was the same… As we descended back into the downtown area we could hear shouting and turning a corner we came onto a wide street. It looked like a street leading to governmental buildings and it was filled with people, banners and tanks. A group of men passed us yelling “MURDERERS” in our faces and someone else whispered “Killers” … then I saw the walls of a building across from us. It had been spray-painted with a giant swastika symbol and on either side framing it were the letters U and A. It was the first moment in my life I realized that the world viewed me as a citizen of the United States and that I was therefore perceived as accountable for its actions. Gazing over the tanks, I watched the snow fall onto the ancient Acropolis and wondered where my stones were.