A Window in Time (Part 5): Greece, The Arrival

There is a purpose to this exercise. It is an exploration of that interior space where imagination and memory meld their etheric essence. It is a practice, a meditation.

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We were gliding. It was a big boat, full of people but, although they must have rocked us gently, the waves meant nothing. Once we were away from the busy harbor with its sandstone and buff-painted buildings shining along the shores, it was only the presence of dark blue sea and islands, first in a kind of mist on the horizon and then in the bright glare of the full day’s southern sun, gliding past like mythic backdrops. Lovers leaned against each other on the benches on deck. Children ran with a parent in their wake. I was already entranced.

The four of us claimed two benches linked back to back by spreading out our meager gear, sitting near a young man carrying a guitar without a case. We sat together or walked when we felt the urge, our Greek friend chatting with other passengers from time to time, interpreting for the rest of us in mixtures of French and English. As the sun set and the night sky thick with stars emerged, the sea around us became infinite, pricks of pure white light in swaths poking through the black ink.

All the other visions of that journey are lost in that spreading well of night. When consciousness returns, we have made our way from Patras to Athens, most likely on a bus that went for hours through the night. My fresh, sharp senses were filled with the incredibly sweet fragrances of the countryside of Greece—the smell of grapes and jasmine mingled with the scents of roasting lamb and garlic and rosemary. It was a revelation that awakened something deeply joyful in the middle of my chest and spread a wash of light in my head. And then we were there, in Athens, Syntagma Square in August of 1969.

We naively had waltzed, as young Americans could, into a country that, with the tacit approval of the CIA and the American government, had been under the rule of a right-wing military junta since 1967. The huge photos of its appointed Prime Minister, Papadopoulos, dominated the square and were present everywhere. Back at home,  concentrated on the war in Vietnam, finishing our high-school years, we had no awareness of the iron rule of military law in this country rarely discussed in the news, the torture going on its jails, the exile of countless journalists and politicians and the repression of civil rights. Now it was jarring, somehow inexplicable in the context of this city both modern and ancient.

In Athens itself, what evidence existed of this horror was behind closed doors. The atmosphere in the streets seemed flowing and free. It was not until we travelled with our Greek friend to his hometown south of Athens that we began to feel the palpable pressure of repression.

In the heat of the full day, our friend led us through the huge square to one of the spreading streets leading away from the vast open space into the wide avenues of the city. On the ferry, he had told us of his plan to stay a couple of nights at–of all places–the YMCA of Athens. the safest and cleanest cheap place to stay. He asked us to join him. He had stayed there many times before on his way from the ferry to his family home in Glyfada.

He navigated us down the sidewalks of Stadiou Avenue, lined with tall white business buildings, and into another street that began to feel more contained–first-floor shop doors opening one after another into small groceries, restaurants, clothing shops, cafes partially filled with people. It was not a city of crowds, but yet had a sense of a vibrant humming of human life. We were tired and hungry. It was almost unbearably hot, well over a hundred degrees. The pavement oozed with the smells of concrete and asphalt and piss, the beautiful smell of roasting meat and garlic wafting from somewhere on the sides on every block.

One more turn and down the street. In front of us gleamed, in the hot sun of the late afternoon, a three or four story building with many windows, modern, lined at street level with white pillars–the Y. We checked in at a desk on the first floor and paid for four beds, two in a women’s room and two in a men’s.

My blond friend and I climbed the white wide stairs up to the big room where several beds were made up with simple coverlets and pillows. We seemed to have the place to ourselves. It was stifling hot, with a ceiling fan turning slowly and big windows facing out onto the air above the street, open on their sashes as far as they could go. Everything seemed to be white and spacious, the heat, the walls, the beds, the sounds of traffic and occasional shouting voices in the streets, horns, the pulsing ambulance sound of European cities. It felt like swimming in waves of heat, wanting badly to come up for air. We lay down on two of the small beds near a window in this sauna of white light and sweated into a drowsy state and then sleep.

We may have slept on and off until a hot morning light seeped into our confused washed-out heat dreams. We dressed and went downstairs to the cavernous cafeteria. Our two friends were already sitting at a table with bowls and plates of food spread in front of them. Our curly headed Greek/English friend, Ion, playing host in this country of half of his DNA, came over to show us how to order. There were ceramic pots of white yogurt with a skim of yellowish cream on top, figs, grapes, white bread in hefty slices, pats of butter, honey in a pot to drizzle by the spoonful on the warm bread, and cups of hot Turkish coffee. The yogurt was the creamiest, smoothest, most deliciously tangy sweetness I have tasted in this life. We ate well, enjoying the bounty of cheap fresh food, chatting about plans.

We were only there for a day and another night. We chose to go directly to the Parthenon.

As we walked out the front door onto the street, the force of the heat hit with all its weight. Though still fairly early in the day, the newspaper vendor where Ion stopped for a copy of the English language newspaper told him that the thermometer had already hit 43 degrees Celsius. As we had travelled across Southern France and then Italy, I had begun to shift my sense of the relative temperature scale and now could gage that anything over 32 was really uncomfortable. This was already orders of magnitude above that tipping point.

We walked along wide avenues and then down more winding streets, older, more packed-in, the huge rock of the Acropolis topped by the graceful columns of the Parthenon always within view, always a presence, the orientation point of the universe of this strange jumble of a city, messier and more complex as it approached that nexus.

We wandered, stopping to look at vendors’ stalls, talking as we walked about our trip to Ion’s hometown on the coast the next day. I was young. I remember little of the heat’s oppression, but I do see the steps up the side of the huge rock cliffs as we began our climb to the Acropolis, the height stretching upwards, Ion translating the remarks of a Greek family, also climbing, that the thermometer had reached 120 degrees Fahrenheit.  On another day, a climb that would have meant little to bodies still unaccustomed to limits now felt almost insurmountable under the burden of the sun’s fire.

But here we were at last at the feet of the Parthenon. Breathless with the climb, we stopped for long moments to adjust our senses to the vastness of this spreading plaza, seemingly littered with huge boulders, broken columns and monumental marble buildings, partially in ruins. The sense of ancient beauty, ancient poetry, was like a fragrance of light incense over everything, wafting up and disappearing in a miasma in the burning heat. The etheric beauty of yesterday’s trip over the deep blues of the sea, the islands purple as we watched them glide by, still present like a refreshing taste on the tongue, offset the heat and the enormity of the climb upwards, even in its subtlety. 

It seems to me that the same self that I can touch now was stirring deep inside, gathering itself still, soaking in through skin dripping with sweat the experiences swirling around it, rather astonished as always to be there, as to be anywhere on earth.

As we had climbed, the image of the Parthenon floating somewhere behind my eyes was a presence well before we emerged at the top of the hill, a plane of rocks, columns and carved human forms. As we took the last steps, it felt as if we were emerging from a dark sea into the air above. That climb, that emerging from a place of rough, heated rocks and sweaty effort to a level place with stretching vista has echoed in my dreams, transforming over time.

And then there it was, huge, spreading in the near distance before us, a perfect rectangle somehow still despite what had fallen or crumbled from its remains. A symmetry of suggested space, looming there against the bright blue sky, it existed in a place in time and space that was mysteriously part of a continuity of the universe within, vast, containing now the turquoise sea, the fragrances of jasmine and grape, the sounds of waves, the smells of a classroom now in some time past, the call of the voices of strangers, the pricks of light in the ink of night.

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