i started this blog in part as a way to publish excerpts from a book i'm writing about returning (like odysseus) to the greek island of ithaka over 20 years (as well as other parts of Greece) ...this is the latest chapter. some are short and some are a bit longer, like this one.
thanks so much for reading --- and if you're interested, links to previous excerpts appear in a sidebar.
excerpt from a memoir in progress: Travels with Persephone: An Archaeologist's Life in the Land of Odysseus
Hanging over the ferry railing with my teammates, I watched the drawbridge drop and scrape along a concrete pier: the grandeur of arriving on Odysseus’ island was quickly diminished when it came time to disembark. A convoy of trucks, taxis, cars and motorcycles disgorged from the opening, and a cloud of carbon monoxide filled the atmosphere with a thick, oily smoke. The ferry arrived only once a day, and it was the main show in town – the source of all food, supplies and the number one commodity on the island – tourism. Hawkers clotted around the backpackers strolling off the ramp, hoping to entice them to rent a room in their house.
A young man, handsome and tanned, approached the boat with a rose clenched between his teeth. The locals call him The Surgeon, I was to later learn, because he wore all white. In a matter of minutes he was engaging a group of young women in conversation, Swedish, by their looks. Giggling like schoolgirls, they followed him down the single paved road that wound along the shore towards the main square. From far away, Ithaka looked like it should: pristine, ancient and important. But from here it just looked like another Greek island in the height of the summer tourist season.
I found myself thinking how Odysseus’ return would have been different, stealing onto the island under cover of dark to hide from the slovenly princes who occupied his palace during his long absence. Surely he didn’t sail into the harbor with a boatload of motorcycles and locals carrying plastic bags full of cigarettes from the mainland. But this was the Ithaka of today, and somehow I would have to accommodate my preconceived notions of this legendary place – formed from a three thousand year old story – to the concrete reality of ferryboats, tourists and diesel fuel.
In the evening we dined at the Two Brothers. It was to become our favorite eatery, and we shored up against the outside wall of the restaurant, several tables pulled together on the sidewalk. The waiter spread butcher paper on the surface and snapped it down against the evening winds with rubber bands. Plastic napkin holders and ashtrays were assembled in the middle of the table with saltshakers filled with rice to counter the heat and humidity of summer. Like the few restaurants in town, this was a family owned establishment. Mom and Pop labored in the kitchen while children ferried the food to the tables and dishes to the sink. Looking inside, I could see bare bulbs hanging from the ceiling and a fan revolving sluggishly in the growing summer heat. Greek tourism posters adorned the walls advertising other Ionian islands, along with vases of plastic roses and shiny wallpaper, reflecting the yellow light in oily tones. Patrons, mostly tourists, filled the tables, but some locals were drawn in by the aroma of roast meat and fried potatoes. Mothers with chubby arms in flowered housedresses lifted children to stand on chairs with sturdy legs and rush-woven seats.
Later on in life I would come to adore the Greek taverna chair. An iconic symbol of the Mediterranean, it adorns many a postcard, and a mere look at one conjured up images of the conviviality of Hellenic culture. The more of them the merrier, and I had come to use them the way a Greek does. As Alexandra Fiala says in The Xenophobe’s Guide to the Greeks, “A Greek needs at least four straight-legged chairs in order to lounge properly: sitting on one, he places one foot on the rungs of two more, directly in front of him; then, tilting back the chair he is sitting upon, he supports himself by draping his arm across the back of another chair, strategically placed at his side. He may even need a fifth chair on which to park his coat.” I found at any given time while dining in Greece that I ultimately drew at least three of these lovely objects around me in a nest-like formation, and felt protected, safe and grounded.
The owner unloaded a parade of dishes on the table with a clatter, including roast pork, butter beans called giants, and salads with Technicolor red tomatoes and green peppers topped with slabs of thick salty feta cheese. The men dove in unabashedly, while some female team members, who as I later learned had food issues, leaned forward to peer into the bowls, seemingly measuring how much olive oil their thighs would allow them to ingest. Not known for daintiness, and hungry from the long trip, I assaulted the food like the men and piled my plate high with the smoky meat and the world’s best French fries. A few swigs of pine scented retsina, and I could feel myself sinking into the arms of the Greek kitchen.
The town gripped the harbor like a pastel horseshoe. Its name, Vathy meant deep, and it lay astride one of the largest natural harbors in Greece; the most massive of ships could glide into its water without fear of scraping its hull against the bottom. Mountains rose up behind like bruised aubergines, dark and looming against the fading light, and the place felt like a magic cauldron. The wind picked up at sunset, whipping down from behind Mount Naion and whistling through the yachts, the halyards snapping against a forest of masts. The village beat like a heart, humming in this great, dark place I couldn’t wait to explore. After dinner we moved to the village square, or plateia. Children were racing up and down, screaming; tiny white lights were laced crisscross, from building to building, blinking like contrails of fireflies in a Midwestern July cornfield.
The Director took off to start interviewing local men to work at the site, while the rest of the team settled in to a table to share a bottle of ouzo. No one knew one another in this group just yet, and I found myself thinking I had an entire summer to be someone of my choosing. Did I want to be the self-assured scholar, the absent minded hippie chick, or would I show my shy, nervous side, afraid to reveal myself to people? Very little time went by before I defaulted to the Silly Girl who gets Trashed on One Ouzo, laughing hysterically at the jokes of a cool, forty-something woman in the group named Lou. A divorced mother of two teenage sons, she had recently decided she wanted to start over and become an archaeologist. She was saucy, sassy and self confident, and I decided when I grew up and I wanted to be her. As she regaled the group with stories about her ex-husband, she lit a menthol cigarette and inhaled deeply, the smoke releasing from her nostrils in an elegant stream.
Later on that evening, we were so tired we were getting punch drunk. Our “villa” we were told we would be staying in, actually ended up being a shack across the road from a beach and a vast expanse of water. Rheitron, the Director called it. The bay that resembled a river in Homer’s text. I looked at it, and saw an old Greek navy ship sitting dead center, an abandoned hunk of gray metal spoiling the view. The beautiful bays of many Greek islands were used as parking lots for military leftovers, and over the coming weeks, we would often hear the voices of men aboard ship, calling to each other, telling jokes and passing the time.
We were ushered into our room and it once again became clear that I’d be bunking with Lou and another teammate, sharing a space as we had for the past few days in an Athens hotel. I took one look at the flimsy cot and announced that I wasn’t about to sleep on it. Lou snorted and sat heavily down on the best bed, announcing that neither would she. She zipped open her make up bag and pill bottles spilled out onto the sheet. She lit a menthol cigarette and I watched as she parsed out her evening dose of Valium. I was afraid of medication, but I wondered if it would take the edge off the panic that I knew was waiting to rise if I gave it a chance.
The room was painted a whorehouse shade of red and as I leaned back, I stuck to the wall. Marine paint, I was told. Used on the decks of ships to withstand weathering. Lou and I were feeling slaphappy and started to tell dirty jokes. As our laughter rose to a peak, we heard a pounding on the wall.
“Go to sleep!” the Director boomed angrily from the next room through paper-thin walls. It took a couple more poundings to silence us, but I stayed awake for a long time, listening to rats scrambling over the roof and the water lapping against the shore. I was about to start digging in this ancient earth and somehow, I wasn’t sure I had gained the permission of the gods to trespass on their turf.
“Five minutes,” the voice of the Director bellowed. The night passed in an instant, and we were moving about the room in the morning chill, toothbrushes in mouths and suitcase contents spilling out over the floor. Giggling at our previous night’s antics, we gathered our gear together for our first day at the site. Feeling like a female Indiana Jones, I imagined myself in a fedora, carrying a bullwhip up to the site; instead, I pulled on army surplus khakis, thick-soled work shoes and a white oxford.
“Wear a hat,” the Director’s wife had warned us repeatedly before our arrival, “and above all cover your neck. To protect against the powerful Greek sun,” she pleaded.
After covering my neck for about 45 minutes on our first day in the field and then, feeling silly for adhering, child-like, to this directive, I abandoned the scarf and reveled in the heat of the sun. I wasn’t about to remain pale and pink, like Agatha Christie, swaddled in protective gauze all summer. After all, I may have been a scientist doing important work here, but the meta-story was that I was only in my 20s and here for an entire summer on Greek island in the Greek sun. I was not going to come away without a fucking tan.
I gathered some items into a small backpack – toilet tissue for bathroom visits to the bramble bush, gum, sunglasses, mechanical pencils and my field notebook. We assembled around a meager breakfast of dry rusks, olives, yogurt as thick as butter and bitter coffee served in tiny ceramic cups, before filing out into the van. The sun was not yet over Mount Neriton, but the rising light threatened to ignite the diorite colored bay, lapping silently like cat’s paws on the shore. Packed against one another like sardines, sitting on each other’s legs, the Director fired up the engine and we began the long climb to the site.
The earth that appeared bluish from the ferry now was the color of suede, pockmarked by rock, broom and bramble. The solitary road snaked through the saddle where we were about to begin working, between Mount Neriton and Aetos, a 500-meter conical rise of balding rock whose name means The Eagle. It was as though we were entering another time period.
I saw a small shack in a valley off the road, smoke rising from a makeshift chimney. The domain of the Bad Shepherd, as I later learned, a surly misfit who was said to drink Sterno and beat his wife. He and his brother, the Good Shepherd, were the only humans who trespassed this land we would inhabit over the coming months; craggy leftovers of Odysseus’ compatriots. Otherwise our only company would be the goat and sheep whose bells rang, sad and mystical, in distant clefts, the animals never visible but always heard. And the bees, who hung insistently around our flotation tanks.
When we arrived at the apex of the curve of the road, before it headed back down to Piso Aetos, we pulled off the road over boulders, brambles and balls of sage the size of washing machines. We got out and realized we were surrounded in a white mist.
“Listen and see if Athena is speaking to us,” the Director mused, and I recalled the passages in The Odyssey when the goddess of War and Wisdom appeared to Odysseus as a mist. I had seen them before, hanging low over the valley of the ancient site of Olympia. The Greeks believed in the art of geomancy, and they commiserated with the environment and landscape as gods. Seeing this spectral fog here, now, it wasn’t hard to understand. The word, I would later learn, was from the ancient Greek; mio; ‘to close the lips and the eyes’, or ‘the one who keeps the silence,’ and was the root of the word mystery.
We got out and listened to the silence, feeling the cold, moist air and seeing the morning sun trying to break through in honeyed rays. I walked around, kicking at rocks and feeling the brambles pull at my khakis. An errant branch scraped the naked skin above my sock and left a thin line of blood, smearing over my ankle. Wiping it off, I heard a strange buzzing noise in the distance. As it got closer, I looked in the direction of the road and suddenly saw motorcycles roll out of the fog like ghost riders. I had imagined they might look like Eumaeus or Elpinor, Odysseus’ compatriots, but these men were modern versions of Odysseus’ crew.
They pulled off the road one by one, and dismounted, brutishly kicking the stands on their motorcycles. I examined them as they ambled towards us, dressed in beat up blue jeans, dirty t shirts and one, wearing a classic Greek fisherman’s cap. With black hair curling around their ears and necks, and skin darkened from a combination of sun and dirt, they had a tentative swagger that said, “Look at this crew. I wasn’t expecting to take orders from a woman all summer.” They gathered with the Director in a clique of smoke and discussed what we will be doing, stealing glances at us from time to time. With my rudimentary Greek, I understood every other word that wafted my way in the wind. The rest of us continued to wander about, locating ourselves in this ancient earth and when the mist started to rise, I could see the see the water appearing below me in the distance. Homer described the place where Odysseus’ palace would lie as amphykifillon, or between two seas. The mist rose just a little higher and I realized I was standing on a slender spit of land that straddled Homer’s wine dark sea for as far as the eye could see.
This was an environment of uncertainty, of possibility. What we would find here could shape history, an always shifting premise - and our job was to uncover things and place them into some sort of neat pattern. Somehow, I felt that this landscape would do the same for me, and the approach I took to the earth I would also take to myself. This was a place where I could dwell not only in the uncertainty of what we might find in the soil, but the uncertainty of what I might find in my own soul. A place where I could test my identity, try on new selves. Archaeology is an inexact science, and the same could be said for humans. As a young woman in her 20s, I really didn’t yet know who I was. I could identify myself by any number of roles, uncertain of them all: a professional trying to find myself in a career, a young wife trying to find herself in a marriage, and a woman trying – still – to find her courage.
Did I come because of science or because of some deeper longing? Is archaeology the reason I’m here or the excuse? Somehow I felt the latter was closer to the truth, because being in this place released a part of me I didn’t recognize, a part of me I had’t seen for a long time, and a part of me I wasn’t sure was OK to come out. Would the scientist in me prevail, with all its proper calculations, exert myself on the landscape and come away with a predictable treasure? Or would I let the landscape take me over with its spell?
At last, I was letting myself be pulled into a hole in the earth. Where does the dream lead, what does the girl find when she opens her eyes underground? I was hoping, as I faced this imminent descent into the earth, that it would teach me something of myself, and like Persephone, I would eventually learn to see in the dark. Until now, I had been too afraid to open my eyes.......to see what happened next. All I knew now was that I was going down, and something about that felt right.