Each site has its own significance, we were often reminded, and the savagery of the Peloponnesian wars is a sad counterpoint to Athenian ideas of a civilized and democratic polis. One can turn the soil to plant tomatoes and cucumbers and dig up a pottery fragment, coin, or arrowhead. Whether I contemplated the battle plains of Plataea or Marathon, or the walked agora of Messene, or ferried to the islands of Salamis and Sphacteria, or examined the archaeological digs of Lerna (site of the oldest building in Greece, which is saying much), or that of Nemea, once known for its games, and a herculean feat with a lion, now for its wine, or gathered impressions from Messene, Argos, and elsewhere, the sun remains constant. My awareness of the passage of time and the ending of things increased exponentially as my sense of self-importance shrank. At Mycenae (another climb) we passed through the ancient Lion Gate, and then stood around the first circle of royal tombs, stone-lined circular graves like fathomless cisterns. Snippets of verse about mortality and the vanity of human wishes competed in my mind with a student’s presentation of such facts as she was able to gather in her research, interwoven with archaeological suppositions.
At Delphi, known for the riddle-speaking oracle, one can view Omphalos, the navel of the universe, which is an actual stone and which reinforces the notion of classical Greek ethnocentricity. All along I have been led to believe that New York or Toronto or Montreal or Paris is the centre of the known universe, when it is really this egg-shaped boulder on a mountainside in Greece surrounded by ruins and over-trodden these days by tourists, myself included. It is a strenuous uphill hike all the way to the arena on the very top where breathless athletes ran races or threw javelins. The view astonishes, but that is true of much of the Peloponnese, for we were often high, so to speak.
I drank a lot of water: all the walking in the heat takes its toll. In the town of Nafpaktos, I went for a stroll at dawn. Pots of red geraniums and bougainvillea vines decorated the balconies up and down side streets, and a woman sang as she clipped a sheet on a clothesline strung from her balcony on a third floor to her neighbour’s across the road. I could have been a bit player in a movie, perhaps hankering after Melina Mercouri. In a bakery open early for business, redolent with the scent of cinnamon and yeast, I purchased a litre of water and a freshly baked pretzel. The question does arise: where do the millions of empty plastic bottles go, millions upon millions consumed by seventeen million tourists last year alone? I did not investigate recycling programs or their effectiveness, knowing that the problem of plastic water bottles is not peculiar to Greece. In the days of enchantment, of course, one supposedly drank pure water from the springs and took one’s chances with a passing deity.
At Epidauros, a name familiar since my university days, I mounted the steps to the top row of seats of the spectacular amphitheatre. Winded and thirsty, I sat on a stone bench and experienced a frisson of exaltation as if I had come to Greece without realizing it, just to experiencer this utterly true moment. Well separated from the students and their professors, I rested in the shade of an overhanging olive tree. There are hills in the distance. Below me the great Grecian tragedies had been enacted, tragedies performed to this day in the still-living theatre, a semi-circular arena that has survived the predations and earthquakes over the centuries, unlike so much of the Grecian past.
I visualized that excruciating scene when Oedipus discovered the inescapable and horrific truth about himself and his wife Jocasta. I imagined myself an Athenian, enraptured by figures wearing masks in the semi-circle below as they declaimed the passions and horrors of human existence. But then I remembered that even Sophocles had written comedies, now lost. If we judge by Aristophanes, the ancient Greeks enjoyed the ability to laugh at themselves. The Spartans, however, may well have lacked a comic spirit.
My flight of literary fancy was broken by a brouhaha involving a guard and a group of students who for a group picture had unfurled a McGill flag where once a Greek chorus had lamented the fate of blinded Oedipus. Policy dictates that no flags be flown except the Greek, and it did not matter that the university flag carried no political significance. Demanding but denied the camera, the guard became more and more angry and obstreperous, the offending visitors condescending and resistant. Professor and a Greek-speaking student accompanied the guard to the authorities. The rest of us descended from the theatre and wandered about the local ruins while waiting for a happy outcome. Such political sensitivity may be the result of national tensions and economic anxieties in Greece, for many of the sites closed at three as a result of cost-cutting measures, and workers were extra vigilant and punctilious in carrying out the rules. In less troubled times, they might have turned a blind eye or smiled at the natural and unsophisticated rambunctiousness of students. As it turned out, aside from ruffled feathers and injured egos, the contretemps ended peacefully.
Before ending our journey in the sprawling and much-visited ruins of Corinth, we stopped at the Isthmos, the strip of land connecting the Peloponnese to the mainland, and stood high above the canal that allows boats to pass through. I was relieved that I didn’t have to negotiate a rugged path up a hill, and kindly discouraged a vendor who wanted to sell me cones of ice cream or pita chips. The heat had become almost unbearable, although the temperature had not yet reached the level it would later in June. A hat shielding my head, dark glasses protecting my eyes, and sunscreen liberally applied to exposed flesh, I retrieved a plastic bottle of water from my sack. Stay hydrated.
© 2014, Kenneth Radu
The author in Argos
Kenneth Radu is the author of several books (fiction, poetry, and a memoir), the most recent being the novel Butterfly in Amber (DC Books). He is currently working on new stories, and now and then enjoys writing something else. He lives near Montreal.